Bring Out Your Dead, Part 1

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on October 4th, 2020. The text is John 11.22-34. Sermons are meant to be heard: listen along here!

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

Intro riff: Michael and I have been going back and forth about getting this giant Home Depot skeleton. We found out it’s $300. We haven’t sunk the money into it yet, but… it’s dangerously tempting, because we know we could make some solid content with it.

Death is bigger than ever this year, literally. We have to laugh at it. Because if we don’t laugh at it, it overwhelms us, stunning us into fear, and silence, and grief. Death is one of those Big Mysteries around which it’s impossible to say anything even approaching coherence. But at least humor is honest.

It is one of my core convictions that we, as a society, as a people, whatever, need to re-learn how to encounter death as we would any other force of nature. Not as something to master, but as something sacred, something to reverence. I think that our relationship to it is dangerously out of balance, as evidenced by the way we treat end of life care, embalming, burial, and other facets of mystery as something unpleasant to out-source to professionals. 

It’s more critical than ever to encounter death and to come back into relationship with it because, when it comes down to it, Death is the one thing that every single human being in history has in common with each other. 

Since that’s the case, Death, as well as how we relate to it through our experiences of grief and our connection with those who have died and live on, can be fertile ground for beginning to enter into a posture of compassion toward those special humans we love to hate. Hang onto this.

I.

Death is perhaps the one topic in all of theology with which I’ve engaged the most. It fascinates me. But I’m afraid to talk about it. I’m afraid to preach this series. One reason I’m antsy is that this topic is so emotionally fraught. But the bigger reason is the sense I have of pressure to say something definite about which any information can only be taken in faith, at least from this vantage point. That pressure comes from my upbringing, from the ways we were socialized in church, from the ghosts of evangelicalism past that continue to haunt me. So it’s a strange place to speak from, and very uncomfortable.

The fact is that there is nothing about death as it was talked about to me by my upbringing that I verify with actual experience. Nearly all of it has to be taken on faith. But I do have actual experience with death, and with the Dead, but the things I do have experience of are generally not within the “acceptable range of experiences,” as delineated by my Christian upbringing, or from polite materialist neo-liberal culture. Both my own experiences, and the experiences of those who have undergone near-death experiences, are legitimate. 

Some of those experiences are so strange, so uncanny, so outside-the-lines that they make me reconsider my own sanity, and they’ve required me to look outside the containers of our various orthodoxies to find language to describe them.

So I will do my best to speak from what I know, while also doing my best to invite us to interrogate deeply what it is we’ve been taught about death, the afterlife, and so on. At least a little bit. I think the reason that some of these beliefs become calcified is because, well, it’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about them! It’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about something so vast, so mysterious, so poignant, so personal as the great mystery of death. 

But vulnerability, as Saint Brene Brown tells us, is the sine qua non of real relationship. And relationships are what we need most of all in these difficult times, ripe as they are with occasion for grief, with death seeming to lurk just around the corner, if Twitter and the news are reliable sources.

II.

The traditional view of the afterlife that I was given is this: you get one shot to get it right and accept Jesus as your lord and savior sometime between womb and tomb. Immediately upon your death, you either met Jesus at the gates of heaven for a big bro hug, or you’d meet Jesus at the gates of hell and he would full-on Hulk Hogan bodyslam you into the lake of eternal fire. Or, if you were lucky, you would get raptured before you ever had to taste death.

Lots of people think that’s what Christians have always believed. I’m sure that some of us have at some point believed something like that. I do not believe that any more. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever did.

It’s important to know that that’s not even actually the primary classical Christian teaching about the afterlife. What I’m about to tell you is probably the most important reason that knowing our own tradition as Christians is vitally important.

The classical belief was that after death, you went into some kind of purgative state: if you weren’t turned toward God, you’d kind of get stuck there, hell, and if you were, you were fast tracked through it, purgatory. That purgative power is known not just as fire: that purgative power was known to be nothing other than the experience of the unfiltered love of God. And those of us who have been changed by love in this lifetime know just how powerful of a force love can be in creating lasting change.

Now, there was some disagreement over this, but that disagreement was primarily over whether you could get stuck in that love-fire permanently or if love could eventually, after long enough in the oven, finally sway you. Some believed that some people just got stuck and were too evil to be made whole again. But some believed that ultimately everyone actually ended up on the other side of it. Some believed the most vile person could have their heart opened to love again, through Love’s insistent pursuit. 

That was actually what Christians believed: our end is love. Not all of them believed that love could eventually sway someone into healing; it wasn’t a majority opinion. But it’s there, and it’s much more complicated than what I was given growing up.

III.

Why might that simpler view be so prevalent? Well, one, it’s simpler. But moreover I think it’s because of the snare that we all get trapped in: us-versus-them thinking. Self-justification. “We’re the good guys. We’re going to heaven. They’re the bad guys. They’re going to hell.” When an empire takes over the religion as it’s brand, that kind of thing is bound to happen.

And if we watch the way that early Christians began to talk about death, we see this pattern: Even death itself became the bad guy, the enemy, the great “not-us” of religious experience around 2500 to 1700 years ago as the largest empires the world had ever seen roared into existence. 

St. Paul writes, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Christianity’s oldest songs of triumph emerged from the height of the Roman Empire’s sprawl. And one of them sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”

That said, consider too that Christians for those early centuries were marginalized and persecuted, put to death with capricious malevolence. Death was real, present, and potent in their world. But they were people for whom Death became a non-issue: that’s because their view of reality, afterlife included, made them people who could not be controlled by the empire. 

When you’ve robbed a tyrant of their last resort, you’ve become very dangerous to tyranny everywhere. And when death itself has lost its sting, no power on Earth could stop you from living life to its fullest, its richest, its most just and thriving, even in the midst of incalculable suffering.

IV.

So I want us to consider our beliefs about the afterlife as a tool for liberation. They are not simply fodder for theological speculation by people with too much time on their hands. Because here’s the deal: we have the ability to imagine a world that is based around the idea that even the most vile person can be made whole again through loving, insistent devotion, over the course of a lifetime, or the course of countless lifetimes. 

Imagine how that view of people might change the way we think about who we are in society. Imagine how that view of people might completely revolutionize who we understand ourselves to be as a church. Imagine who we might be able to become if we take such a simple but joyous position that erases all arbitrary boundaries of separation. 

That when it comes to death, love indeed wins. And when love wins, there is no need to fear death at all, but instead, the presence of death seasons our lives like salt and makes them all the richer, more poignant, more personal, and more eternal than anything else we could imagine.

We need that kind of vision to face the challenges of the coming decade and beyond. That’s something else that the gift of death has to offer: perspective. Because we will not enjoy the fruits of our labor in this lifetime; all we can do is to ease the suffering of whoever is to come after us.

V.

So here’s where I want to land, a common encounter we can all hold together: Jesus facing death through tears. Jesus’ humanity really shines through here. Encountering death and reckoning with it is part of what it means to live a fully human experience.

Here’s something else to rely on: Jesus shows us that grief is good, that tears are a gift. That gift is something that modern society has robbed many of us of, especially men, who from a young age were taught not to cry. Sometimes only death is strong enough a force to break open our armour and sever the seals on our hearts that were beaten into us by the patriarchy. Sometimes only death is strong enough to break us open to love.

And the final thing that we can rely on is that we will die, and knowing that should shape how we live. Lazarus died once, and he died again; yet it is his story that is at the heart of the gospel bearing John’s name. Lazarus, I believe, was the disciple Jesus loved. And, as Lazarus’ witness shows, of all the forces that hold our life and our universe together, only love is stronger than death.

Whether you accept the gospel accounts as reliable or not, the story suggests something that I think deep down, each one of us knows on a soul level, even if every other voice in the world is shouting over it, calling it a lie. Love is stronger than death. And that’s the core of the entire Christian message. Love is stronger than death. 

And even then, death is no evil on its own. The Christian story tells us that God redeems every part of the human experience. The story tells us that even such a great terror as Death has been redeemed as the gate into which everything, from stars and planets to plants and animals to you and me, enters into resurrection. When it comes to looking at death, “You will see the glory of God if you believe.” Amen.

Troubling the Water, Part 5: Extinction of the Heart

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on September 13th, 2020.
Text: Exodus 6.28-7.3, 7.14-24

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

The river Nile had already run red once, with the blood of Hebrew infants, victims of a cold and calculating power focused only on The Greater Good. But then the river Nile ran red for the second time at Moses’ word. Thousands, tens of thousands of fish, died and floated to the top, pooling into clumps of sour-stinking fish flesh in the tide pools, where children once played and mothers gossipped as they gathered water. 

Before long, the frogs fled the river. Climate refugees themselves, they tried to hide out on land but found it a harsh habitat. The plague took them out too, in great heaps. Flies swept in to clean up the mess—flies and gnats who needed blood meals to be able to lay their eggs, which they found in the ready flesh of Egyptian and Hebrew alike, spreading diseases to humans and animals. Then the storms came, and then darkness, and then death. 

And still Pharaoh would not let Moses’ people go. Despite having a front-row seat to the ecological disaster unfolding in his land, Pharaoh’s heart remained stone-cold.

The writer Charles Eisenstein tells the following story of how he first broke open to the world’s great sickness and became an environmentalist. He writes:

“I was seven or eight years old, standing outside with my father watching a large flock of starlings fly past. “That’s a big flock of birds,” I said.

My father told me then about the passenger pigeon, whose flocks once filled the skies, so vast that they stretched from horizon to horizon for hours on end. “They are extinct now,” he told me. “People would just point their guns to the sky and shoot randomly, and the pigeons would fall. Now there aren’t any left.” I’d known about the dinosaurs before then, but that was the first time I really understood the meaning of the word “extinct.”

I cried in my bed that night, and many nights thereafter. That was when I still knew how to cry—a capacity that, once extinguished through the brutality of teenage boyhood in the 1980s, was nearly as hard to resuscitate as it would be to bring the passenger pigeon back to earth.[1]

These two kinds of extinction are related. From what state of being do we extinguish other species, ruin earth and sea, and treat nature as a collection of resources to be allocated for maximum short-term benefit? It can come only from the constriction, numbing, and diversion of our capacity to feel empathy and love. No mere personal failing, this numbing is inseparable from the deep narratives that run our civilization, and the social systems that those narratives support.” (Climate: A New Story)

From what state of being does Pharaoh look to the Nile river, this entity that was holy to the Egyptian people, which was also holy for the Hebrews too as a gift of God’s creation, and refuse to let the Hebrews go? 

Instead of seeing the unfolding climate catastrophe as a symptom of a much larger issue, instead of recognizing his role in the disaster, as the storytellers of Exodus hand it to us, we can imagine him shrugging it off and passing an ordinance to fund the digging of wells along the banks of the Nile, putting a state-sponsored band-aid on the problem that the state caused in the first place.

Pharaoh was living in the narrative of “too big to fail.” In his view, the world depended on his running it. It’s the same narrative that so many of those in power occupy today: that no matter what problem they might face, they have the power, privileges, and resources to engineer their way around it. Meanwhile, those without those powers and privileges take the hit. Bloody river? Not his problem. Go dig a well.

A nagging thought continues to catch my attention as we plunge further into the chaos of our election season. What if the real challenge we’re facing as a species isn’t primarily an ecological one? What if the actual challenge we’re facing is a human one? What if the crisis is actually our assumption that “someone must be stopped,” that this is someone else’s fault, full stop?

The problem is the same problem that Pharaoh faced, and for which both Egyptian and Hebrew alike, animal and plant and human alike all suffered. It’s the same story that drives us into the comforting arms of our favorite addictions, whether that addiction is an addiction to alcohol, or consumption of resources, or an ideology, whatever we can get our hands on to ease the pain.

I believe the story we’re actually living is the false narrative that we are separate from the world. That we are separate from each other. That our actions have no impact on others, or on the planet, and that our suffering is not intertwined. I’ve made this point before, and I believe it stands. The storytellers of Exodus say that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Charles Eisenstein had tenderness beaten and bullied out of him as a teenager in the 1980s. And I know as someone socialized as a man, that harshness and hardness is still there: other folks don’t matter. Compassion doesn’t matter. You have to win at all costs.

I believe that that is the story that allowed our country to bungle its response to COVID-19 so disastrously. That’s the story that has us constantly treating the symptoms of our addiction to energy and growth and fossil fuels and progress instead of actually looking at the underlying cause. 

I believe that’s the story that is rearing its ugly head in white supremacist violence, in sexism and homphobia, in ecological catastrophe, and in our culture’s inability to deal with conflict in any way besides blowing up or shutting down. It’s the story of our own hardness of heart, and our inability—or unwillingness—to see that we are not separate from each other, from the other-than-human world, or from God. 

Last summer, youth from around the world led a rallying cry meant to agitate a real response to our current climate crisis:  “we have to do something before it’s too late!” As glad as I am to see young people leading the charge, I despair that there will never be a “too late” for the Pharaohs of this world. There will never be a “too late” for those who can afford a way out, those who can call up Elon Musk and go live on the Moon. Too late never came for Pharaoh, even after the death of Egypt’s firstborn. Not even that grief was enough to break his heart open.

The higher up we are on the food chain, the later that “too late” comes: for the ultra-rich it may never come; for us it may only come only when we reach our maximum tolerance for inconvenience. (Perhaps that’s why Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”) But for those on the margins of society, for the poorest of the poor, for those whose land and whose livelihood are still the closest to the earth, “too late” may have already come.  The climate displacement has already begun. The extinctions have already begun.

But instead of addressing why the Nile is bloody in the first place, we just dig more wells. 

We put band-aids on bullet wounds. We outsource service to our neighbors to nonprofits. We pay a little more for police officers to have body cams instead of asking hard questions about whether policing is the right model of law enforcement. We indiscriminately build more wind farms and dams, heedless of the ecological cost of our hunger for energy. We make the Other the enemy, whether that Other is a person or group of people, or an ideology itself. 

The reality is that no ideology can save us. No corporation can save us. No technology can save us, nor can any Pharaoh save us. The only thing that can save us is a great breaking-open of our hearts. And I’m afraid that’s not something that we can do solely on our own. (That’s not a popular opinion.)

The cry of the planet in Exodus is that call to a better story. And not just a better story, but a true story: that the Hebrew people, and the Egyptians along with them, are made in the image of God, and each has a right to flourish and be free as one whole system, not as people versus people versus the world. There is no other human enemy. There is only our sickness. And that’s also not a popular opinion.

So what then? I wonder if we can’t begin to see this moment in history as something on the scale of the plagues that slammed Egypt, a cosmic call for us to soften our hearts, an initiation into the reality that we are all connected.  I wonder whether we can’t hear this as a call to a better story. I wonder whether we can’t begin to see in the broken body of the Planet and in the suffering of other humans and life-ways the broken and suffering body of Christ. I wonder whether we can’t begin to hear those cries as our own.

All of this together—COVID, the fires in the Pacific Coast, the hurricanes that slam the Carribean and the Gulf Coast with deeper severity every year, the polar vortices, climate change, all of it—might just be the planet conspiring with God for our liberation, calling out in “groans too deep for words,” to use St. Paul’s phrase, for us to wake up, to be set free. 

Set free from slavery to our ideologies. Set free from our addiction to being right. Set free from the intoxicating myth that the sickness is out there, that the problem is out there, that the pain in the world can be blamed on someone else. 

If Christ has made us free, then we are free indeed: free to love! And if we are free to love, to see that the only way to bring about the change we so desperately see in the world is to be cracked open to love, able to see the richness of God in Every Thing. And that is a much firmer footing on which to stand and say, “let my people and my planet go!”
Even if the hearts of this world’s Pharaohs are never softened, a revolution of love is still possible if a critical mass of ordinary folks, you and I, are so broken open. So St. Paul says, “all of creation cries out as in the pangs of childbirth” as it “waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Let any with ears to hear, listen. Amen.

Troubling the Water, Part 1

Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on August 16th, 2020.

Text: Exodus 1.1-2.10

This is the first sermon in a seven-week series whose goal is to explore the intersections of justice and ecology.

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon many years ago, a man was walking downstream alongside the bank of a wide, deep river in his hometown with a few of his friends. This river had a reputation for growing wild during the rainy season, always ready to overflow its banks with the slightest provocation by the weather. It was well known that this was not a river whose waters you could trust. But on this day, the air was clear, the sky limpid, and the surface of the river was smooth and unassuming. As the party continued down the bank of the river at a leisurely pace, they fell into a peaceful daydream as the perfect conditions beckoned them to relax further and further into the beauty of their surroundings.

All was well until, an hour or so into the walk, from upstream of them, a commotion rang out: splashing, hollering, yelling. The man thought it was just some kids playing in the water at first, and paid it no mind. But the yelling and splashing grew more and more insistent: between gushes and sloshes of limbs hitting water, the man could make out a cry for help: a person was in the river, caught in the strong but invisible current, and was about to drown. The person in the river was clearly not from around here and probably didn’t know not to go swimming in the river, but it didn’t matter.

Without thinking, the man on the riverbank stripped off his shirt and trousers and leapt into the river. He swam as hard as he could while his companions on the bank watched in horror. The man caught up to the person in the water: “don’t struggle!” he yelled as he hooked them around the waist. “Don’t struggle!” he yelled, again and again, until the stranger eased their thrashing for a moment. Then the man began floating them back to the shore. 

With a little help from his friends on the riverbank, the man and the person who had been caught in the river flopped up onto the riverbank much like a pair of drunk walruses flopping onto an iceberg, coughing and panting. The person whom the man pulled from the river caught their breath, thanked their rescuer deeply, and continued on their way.

And so the party continued on their way down the river as their adrenaline slowly subsided from the incident. But as soon as they had calmed down a bit, another commotion came into earshot from upstream: splashing, thrashing, screaming, just as before. And so the man, who had just finished drip drying, jumped into the water again, pulled the victim out of the river’s current, and got them safely to shore before continuing their journey once again.

And then this happened a third time. As this third grateful person began to walk away, the man stepped away from his party and began to jog upstream. His friends called out to him: “where are you going?” He replied, “upstream!” They said, “why?” He said, “to find out why people keep falling into this river!”

When the water is troubled, go upstream.

Walk with me as we go upstream from that mythic moment where Pharaoh’s daughter draws a rogue basket out of the water and names its infant occupant “I drew him out.” Of course, Moses is one of the lucky ones: other Hebrew babies have been seen floating down the Nile, too, with no one to draw them out of the water. Upstream of Pharaoh’s act of genocide is Pharaoh’s fear of difference, of these strangers who have immigrated from parts unknown centuries before, these sojourners who threatened the fabric of Egyptian society and identity by their very presence, well, we can’t have that, can we? 

Yet do we stop there? We can land on Pharaoh’s xenophobia as a character fault and simply peg it on that. I could pontificate for the next ten minutes about the dangers of xenophobia, and I can decry it, and we can make social media posts and agitate our friends at happy hour and beat our families over the head with it at Thanksgiving but ultimately we’re just pulling people out of the water. 

That’s to say, xenophobes do not emerge in isolation. They don’t emerge from the womb that way. I’ve met a lot of babies and I have yet to meet a baby who is a white supremacist. 

So how did Pharaoh get like that? How did Egypt get like that? And how did the Hebrews get into this situation in the first place? Because it’s quite a tone change from Joseph and his brothers being in Pharaoh’s pocket in verse 1 and the new Pharaoh who comes round in verse 8.

That’s what I want to offer us today, and that’s what the project of the next few weeks is: when the water is troubled, go upstream. 

So what is upstream of xenophobia? What is upstream of white supremacy? What’s upstream of homophobia? What’s upstream of climate denial or or anti-vaxxing or of ableism? What’s upstream of our inability to, I don’t know, wear a mask and wash our hands? What’s upstream of the ways that people who claim to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth have not only been silently complicit but have actively endorsed and participated in these acts of violence, whether small or great?

Let’s follow the course of the Exodus story upstream: how did the Hebrews end up in Egypt in the first place? It all began with a famine, the very famine that Joseph predicted through interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. That same famine allowed Joseph to rise to prominence in Pharaoh’s household, and that same famine drove Joseph’s estranged brothers into the arms of reconciliation with one another. That’s how the Israelites ended up in Egypt. We could follow that upstream to the jealousy Joseph’s brothers had for him, we could follow that to the conflicts between Joseph’s father Israel and his brother Esau, and on backward, all the way to Eden, if we wish.

At each turn of the story of Joseph and his ancestors, which in turn becomes the story of Moses, his people, and their descendants, we see that there’s this kind of division, this kind of rift, that’s not actually a rift at all. And yet this rift is something that we cannot ignore if we want to look to the troubles of today and address them. 

Somewhere along the way, we forgot that we are not separate from what we call “nature,” and we forgot that we are not separate from each other, and we forgot that we are not actually separate from “God.” God doesn’t just create humans and drop them into the universe: through the universe God generates humans, and all conscious life, like a seed that becomes a plant that then puts out leaf and flower and fruit. 

If you think I’m being weird and New Age-y, I refer you to Acts 16, where St Paul quotes the philosopher Aratus of Cilicia when he’s giving his TED Talk in Athens: “In God we live and move and have our very being.” Everything that exists exists in God, for the sake of love.

We are caught in the stupefying dream that we are somehow set apart and special among all the orders of creation. And this fiction suggests that such a rift extends to the space between us and other kinds of humans, and between us and the natural world. Accordingly, we think that, because we’re separate from nature and from God and from each other, that the only way to make it is to have enough of something that’s not us—whether it’s food or shelter or the love of God or other people—to ensure our security. And to do that, we have to win: life ceases to be play and becomes work and toil and striving.

I’d venture a guess that a good word for this illusion of separation between us and God and nature is “hell.” That’s how “hell” is defined by numerous red-faced hypertensive perspiring preachers as they waggle a Bible over our heads like a threat. But I actually think they’re right in a way. Because, when we behave as though “hell,” as though the illusion of separation from God and nature and each other, is a real thing, that we’re all separate from one another and we’re competing with one another over a single slice of the pie of existence, well, that’s when we create hell on earth, isn’t it?

The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes, “Every single creature—the teen mother nursing her child, every one of the twenty thousand species of butterflies, an immigrant living in fear, a blade of grass, you reading this book—” and you hearing this sermon, and me preaching it, I might add— “all are ‘in Christ’ and ‘chosen from the beginning.’ What else could they be?”

Friends, because there is no separation between us and the world of nature, between us and God, between us and one another, there is also no separation between our troubles and the troubles that other people face, whether those people are human or not. To forget this is to die, in a way. To forget this is a real hell. 

The illusion of separation continues to flood the Western psyche even today. So when the cool and still bodies of drowned Hebrew infants began to trouble the waters of the Nile in Egypt, when the cool and still bodies of those who have died of COVID or those who have been murdered by police cry out to God, they cry out for us to remember that we are not separate from them.

Is their cry a call to be outraged? Perhaps. But is it a call to perform our outrage on social media or in sermons for the sake of ensuring that we’ve secured our position as a member among the moral elite? Probably not. “And the cries of the Israelites reached God, and he remembered their plight,” say the storytellers of Exodus.

The cry of the suffering is a call to remember. To remember that anything that separates me from you is a falsehood. To remember that anything that separates us from the rest of the created world with all of its manifold diversity is a lie. To remember that anything we believe separates us from the loving presence of God is baloney.

It is for good reason then that all of the Hebrew Bible’s commands to show hospitality are underpinned with the command to “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” And it is for good reason that we follow Jesus’ instructions to his friends: “do this in remembrance of me.” Amen.

Becoming Fully Human: Diversity

Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on July 19th, 2020.

Text: Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

One of the things I’m enjoying about living in Battle Creek is the fact that I have a yard of my own for the first time in… eight years. Some of you have seen it, some of you have been in it. I’ve become stupendously proud of the little patch of earth that I’ve been put in charge of. Yesterday I picked the largest zucchini I’ve ever seen off of one of my zucchini plants, nurtured by the earth that I’ve been given charge over. The thing was bigger than my head (and though my head probably appears small on screen, I assure you, it’s a whopper.)

All that said, having something to tend to is good medicine for the soul. Having a patch of earth that I have the privilege to care for connects me with my origins: after all, the words human and humus are closely related.

The problem is that my yard is not about to win any lawn awards for landscape design, for homogeneity of grass, for purity of my fescue, because my yard is weedy. Incredibly weedy, especially around the fenceline where forgotten logs and fallen limbs make it impossible to mow or even navigate with a weed eater. 

Even in the areas I’ve intentionally tried to cultivate a little, the weed situation is utterly insane. In spite of my best efforts to mulch my hostas and keep the weeds pulled, my yard continues to put out a crop of weeds that can very quickly take over the entire landscape if I don’t stay on top of them. (Thankfully there’s no HOA in my neighborhood, but still.)

What you all may not know about the history of lawns such as the ones that surround most of our homes is that they are an artifact of 18th century French aristocratic culture. The ideal aristocratic lawn is a monoculture, with only one species of grass occupying the majority of the space. A colossal amount of time, effort, land, and water goes into the maintenance of the palatial lawns that have become the default landscaping option for the suburbs in the West. 

Consider the dizzying array of powders and sprays and pellets and lotions and potions and creams and unguents and elixirs that one can buy at Lowe’s for the treatment of one’s lawn, one’s personal grass monoculture, where biodiversity and variety are things we actively resist and attempt to get rid of through, uh, let me check my notes here, oh yes SPRAYING POISON ON THE GROUND.

You may be at home, thinking to yourselves, “Pastor Nate is on a weird soapbox this morning,” and you would be right. Because I am. Stay with me.

American lawn culture treats land on the small scale in the same way that our colonizing ancestors treated this continent. American lawn culture insists that the right way to tend the patches of earth under our care are to weed out the undesirable species, fill in all the land with a nice, respectable, homogeneous fescue, and siphon water out of the local rivers and ponds and wetlands to maintain the a perfect green lawn that suffers no disruption from undesirables such as dandelions or clover or milkweed or violet or or mugwort or stinging nettle or wild strawberry or bittersweet nightshade or chickweed or poke sallet or four o’clocks or you get my point.

Nevermind the fact that each one of those plants is both ecologically important and has medicinal properties. Even the ones we consider “invasive” have their roles in the ecology, like kudzu, that holds the sides of strip-mined mountains in the South together long enough for the land to heal from its trauma, or like Japanese Paulownia, which grows so fast in one growing season that it is one of the most effective carbon capture technologies known to humanity. And never mind the fact that a homogenous green lawn, uh, does not occur on its own.

Have you considered what might happen if we apply the principles of lawn culture to, uh, say, people? I daresay the results might look quite a bit like the history of the United States. The issue is that we have a tendency to apply our standards for our lawns to people. Actually, that’s not quite correct: we apply our faulty people standards to the natural world, a world which resists such standards at all turns.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel, who was writing to a people in the midst of change as the Jesus movement was reorienting itself following the collapse of Jerusalem, very likely had in mind this common human situation when they chose to include Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat in this portion of their work. 

When we get caught up in a cause, when we get caught up in a movement, it is very, very common that we begin to look around at those who stand by us with an increasingly skeptical lens. When we see someone who doesn’t meet our expectations for how someone in our community should look or act or think or behave, we have a tendency to snap to judgment: “well, this person isn’t growing the way I expect them to be growing, therefore they must be a weed.” And so we run, panicked, to our authority figures: “there’s a weed growing in the wheat! There’s clover in the bluegrass! There’s milkweed in your fescue! Do something about it!”

Bold of us to assume that we’re in the appropriate position to make that call. 

But it’s understandable: in the way groups of humans work, those little surprises that pop up here and there—folks who fall outside the lines of our expectations, people who don’t match our expectations, people who are insistent on their right to be here, or queer, or neurodivergent, or non-English speaking, or who have a mental health thing going on, or who are simply just a pain in the butt (like we all are sometimes, let’s be honest)—those folks often threaten our sense of group cohesion. They threaten our security, our safety, our feeling of control. God forbid our lawn get out of hand.

But hear the master’s words from the parable again: “ln gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” 

The master’s words are stunning, because they speak of a long-lived patience that is subtle and supple enough to let the “offending species” live out their life. (The weeds didn’t choose to be there, after all; they got tossed there by circumstance.) So he says, Let both of them grow together, for their roots are so intertwined that removing the offending parties would damage the integrity of the wheat. Let both of them grow together, for we are not even sure which of the rogue seeds are indeed weeds or not. Let both of them grow together, for those weeds might be the source of medicines we didn’t know we needed. 

For even something as simple, as ubiquitous, and as hated as the dandelion can be food and medicine when allowed to flourish.

We all have that one weed, don’t we? That one person or group of people or situation in our life whom we absolutely cannot stand. That one influence that we would love nothing more than to see bundled up and tossed in a fire. For Matthew’s author, it was those people who had ended up as part of the Jesus movement but who weren’t invested in it or intent on seeing Jesus’ teachings flourish. For most of us, it’s usually those people we see something of ourselves in that we don’t want to admit. 

As an example, consider the increasingly common trope of some conservative, homophobic, bible-thumping preacher being caught soliciting men on a gay dating app after hours. That thing we like the least in someone else is often a clear view into the things we like least about ourselves. 

Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but if we learn to begin to ask ourselves the question, “why does xyz person or situation bother me so bad,” we might be surprised at what we learn about ourselves. I wonder if that’s not why Matthew’s author is also the writer who relays Jesus’ famous dictum, “judge not, lest you be judged.”

To say this another way, the weeds in our field often give us a taste of our own medicine.

But I don’t want to get too far lost in the weeds. I want to dial it back a little bit to Jesus’ first line of the story: “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” If we catch this line, the story can really knock us off our chair. 

The emerging reality of the kingdom of heaven, this thing that Jesus proclaimed was already within us and ready to burst through the soil at every turn, and the very thing that Matthew’s author was upset about not being pure enough, is the very idea that invites the kind of patient acceptance of diversity that allows everything in the field to flourish in its own way.

Friends, if we would embody the kingdom of heaven (or the “reign” of heaven, if the word “kingdom” bugs you), we would do well to look around us at the things that demand the largest investments of patience, of energy, and of loving attention to be okay with: a child’s behavior problems. That one person in the PTA who tries way too hard. A problematic relative. An obnoxious ex. A group of people or an idea that we look at with skepticism or fear.

Those challenging people in our life, diverse and manifold as they are, carry within them the same image of God that you and I both do. And it may be that we wound up in the same field due to circumstances quite beyond our control but now that we’ve been growing together long enough our roots are so entangled that to rip someone out of our lives might uproot us, too. 

If we welcome the gift of diversity, instead of fighting against it, we might find it a little easier to allow ourselves to grow together. If we allow ourselves to grow together, we might just discover that what we’ve called weeds, Christ calls food. What we’ve called noxious, Christ calls medicine. What we’re ready to bundle up and throw into the furnace, Christ lets shine with the righteous in the reign of heaven. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen. Amen.

Becoming Fully Human: Learning

Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on July 12th, 2020.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 2016 science fiction film Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. If you’ve not seen it, do yourself a favor and go watch it: it will be time well spent. The plot of the movie follows the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life; twelve alien spacecraft appear hovering ominously over various spots all over the surface of the earth. 

The main character, Louise, is a professor of linguistics at a California university. She also happens to be grieving tremendous personal losses at the time of the arrival. She ends up drafted by the United States military to serve as one of the team of scientists and researchers who must learn the aliens’ language from ground zero and serve as interpreters between humanity and our visitors. The aliens don’t speak in sounds that the human voice can replicate, so they resort to using a written language that looks like giant, floating coffee rings.

One of the reasons I love this movie is that, far from being a standard alien action popcorn flick, Arrival is much more a meditation on the nature of thought, of language, and of history. As Louise deciphers the aliens’ language, she learns it, such that she can begin to generate their writing, with the aid of a computer at first, but eventually on her own. And something very curious happens, which is the main plot beat of the movie: learning the visitors’ language changes the way that Louise thinks. Not just in a simple, oh, I thought this about the aliens before, now I think differently; no, it literally changes the way that Louise’s psyche conceives of thought, of time, and of the unfolding of history.

Anyone who has ever taken the time to learn a second (or a third, or a fourth) language can attest that the process of learning a language can, and will, change how you think. It forces your brain to make connections that weren’t there before, to re-wire old pathways that had gone long unused, to stimulate new growth; it’s why learning languages is, anecdotally, a solid strategy to fend off dementia and Alzheimers.

But even more importantly, acquiring a new language enables us to make connections to communities of people with whom we’ve never before interacted. It enables us to bridge the divides in our society in uncanny ways. And when the world is in a season of unprecedented change and conflict, those connections are, perhaps, our most valuable resource.

To say it another way, when we encounter change, one of the most important things we can do is learn to think differently. 

Remember, then, the rag-tag community of people in the throes of change to whom Matthew’s author wrote this account of Jesus’ life and teaching. For these people, it was clear: their old ways of thinking no longer served their present reality. Such was the case for Jesus’ own audience as well.

See, many in the early Church assumed that Jesus was going to return, like, presently, like in the next year or so, to finally punt Rome out of Judaea and to bring history to its grand culmination under a reign of peace, with the glorious temple of Jerusalem at its center and Jesus sitting on the throne of David. But following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, this vision of hope was rapidly dying off. We can hear Matthew’s audience whispering to themselves furtively in the night as they steal away to the catacombs to worship their crucified and risen outsider god: “it wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? How long is it going to take for him to come back? What if he doesn’t?”

The challenge which Matthew’s audience faced was the challenge of learning to think differently. They faced the challenge of reinterpreting the teachings they had received from Jesus via his disciples for the reality of their situation. So what did Jesus teach, anyway? And how did he teach? What did they have to work with? What could the Holy Spirit use in that moment to open up new avenues of realization and understanding for this community?

Any of us who grew up going to Sunday School probably have the word “parable” rolling around in the back of our memory, collecting dust. And what we have in today’s reading is precisely that: a parable. That word, “parable,” means a story that takes a couple of different, disparate elements and “throws them together.” A parable is a thrown-together story, literally, meant to awaken the hearer to new connections and new possibilities. The situations they present are sometimes impossible, sometimes improbable, but always wondrous, and the problems they present aren’t meant to teach us a fact or a figure, or a static chunk of knowledge. Rather, the struggle to understand a parable, to get our minds around it, is the point of a parable. 

To say that differently, a parable doesn’t teach us what to think so much as it teaches us how to think. In this, they’re much like a Zen koan, a “riddle” that doesn’t have a solution per se, but seeks to lead you into thinking differently. Yet we don’t even need to look to Japan or India for this kind of wisdom: Judaism had its own tradition of this kind of story, known as a mashal, of which there are plenty of examples in the Hebrew bible. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been a master of the mashal. 

Because of the nature of a parable, or a mashal, or a koan, there’s usually not one correct interpretation, either: each encounter with the story presents an opportunity to make a connection that wasn’t there, to find something new, or to have our well-worn ways of thinking diverted into uncharted territory.

I personally can’t think of a better medicine for our current situation where we stand in 2020. 

But thinking is hard, isn’t it? So Matthew’s author has included for our benefit one interpretation of the parable of the sower to get us started, but the rule of parables is that you don’t start with the interpretation, you start with the challenge of the story itself and let it speak to you in the moment. And you let the story do its work on you.

Which brings us to the parable of the sower. How might this story work on us?

As I was marinating in it, as well as in the interpretation Matthew’s author provided for us, I had this thought: just as parables change the way we think, so does the process of learning languages. And the interpretation Matthew gives here suggests that what is sown in the world is something that needs to be understood by its hearers in order for it to take root, right? For a message to be understood, it has to be communicated in a language that the receiver understands.

Our congregation’s native culture is the culture of liberal, educated, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. With that culture comes a language of sorts: the way we think about and communicate what Church is and what Church is for. It comes with expectations—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant expectations, specifically—about what effective ministry looks like. And White Anglo-Saxon Protestant language and culture is what so many of us know and expect. We have certain cultural expectations for how we carry ourselves in worship. We have certain expectations for music. We have certain expectations of our visitors, and we have certain expectations for how people should participate in the life of the Church.

The issue though now is that, by and large, the neighborhood around this church is not, in general, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. 

Which makes me wonder: what if we are broadcasting our message as a congregation in the wrong language? What if the way that we’re attempting to go about embodying God’s love is in a language that the folks in our backyard don’t speak or understand, or worse, have no desire to engage with because it’s entrenched in colonizer ideals? What if the most important thing we can do right now as a congregation who is not gathering on Sundays for worship is to spend time learning the vernacular? The vernacular of working class, non-white, unchurched people.

I wonder how many of us immediately thought that I was drawing a parallel to us as the sower, and the neighborhood as the soil. That very assumption, that we, the insiders, somehow have something to offer them, the outsiders, is one of the most dangerous assumptions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.

One of the gifts of parables is that you can turn them around on yourself. 

In fact, it might not be that the neighborhood needs our message at all. It might just be that we are the hard, packed down soil, unable to receive what God wants to teach us through our neighbors, who don’t look or act or think like us. It might just be that we are the rocky ground, where new ideas spring up but because of our entrenched patterns can’t take root as wither as soon as they sprout.  It might just be that we are the thorns choking the life out of people who are searching for God in the community because they don’t meet our expectations. 

I wonder how God continues to throw seed at us in the form of people who are different from us, who have different priorities or ways of viewing the world, yet that seed gets eaten up by birds and withered by the sun and choked out by the tangling brambles of “we’ve never done it that way.” I wonder how God might be able to turn and till and fertilize us to make us good soil once again.

If we can learn a new melody, we can learn a few words in a new language. If we can learn a few words in a new language, we can learn a lot of words in a new language. And if we can do that, we can learn new ways of thinking, no matter how old or world-weary we are. And if we can do that, we can change our thinking. Even now, I’m consistently stunned by the people whom I never in a million years would have expected to be taking up the cause of racial justice and reparations loudly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. People in their 60s, 70s, 80s! People who learned, who grew.

Remember: learning a language changes the way we think. It’s not just about being able to translate our message for advertising purposes. If we take time to learn the vernacular of our neighborhood—the music, the culture, the concerns, the hopes, the challenges, all of it—we won’t just be able to communicate our message clearly. We’ll be able to build real relationships across the artificial, arbitrary lines of redlining, of white supremacy culture, of socio-economic disparity, and of race and ethnicity that so often prevent us from understanding one another. We will be the ones who end up changed. And I daresay, if we have any desire at all for our church to continue to exist, we must allow God to turn, to till, and to enrich us so that we can become good soil once again. Pleasant? Absolutely not. Crucial? Without question.

If do so, if we sit at the feet of Christ in our neighbor and learn the language that Christ wants to speak to us in, we will end up turning into the good soil, where those who hear and understand the message of God’s love can take root, and flourish, and end up yielding a harvest bigger than we could ever have imagined. Amen.

Don’t Look Away

A sermon on Matthew 10.24-39 for part of our series on worship, Becoming Fully Human.

I recently discovered the setting on my phone that tracks the amount of screen time I’m using every day with various apps. There’s nothing quite like your phone telling you, “hey, you need to chill out a little bit.” I think I clocked seven hours on Twitter back over the last weekend of May. Accordingly, these same settings also allow me to set limits with myself so that I can put my phone down if I’m spending too much time scrolling down the ever-running stream of Tweets and Facebook posts and YouTube videos that companies have engineered to be as addictive as possible.

I of course don’t need to tell you that we live in a society where our constant digital companions, our phones, or as I like to call them, our “nightmare rectangles,” are bringing up-to-the-minute reports of the world’s joys and woes to the palm of our hands at every moment of every day, waiting for us to look at them again. I don’t need to tell you about the addictive patterns that app designers have engineered into their products to play on human psychology, such as the sense of gratification we get when folks acknowledge something we say or do by “liking” our social media post.

But I am not about to preach the sermon on disconnecting that you think I’m about to preach. No indeed.

Because it is through the gift of hand-held supercomputers that we as a country are finally being forced to look at what has been happening under our noses for four hundred years and then some. On an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016, actor Will Smith made this observation: “We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country,” said Smith. “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”

Which is why several weeks ago many of us watched a nine minute and forty eight second video of a former police officer murdering George Floyd by pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck until he died. Which is why many of us now know the name Breonna Taylor, why many of us now know the name of Ahmaud Arbery, and the names of countless others who have been murdered by scared men huddled under the unimpeachable aegis of a silver shield pinned to their shirt. 

Before I continue: this is a sermon for fellow white folks.

Racist violence and police brutality shock us white folks. And rightly so: it is shocking. But it is not a surprise to those African-American and indigenous people who have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence for four centuries and change. 

But what do we do when we encounter these troubling events? It’s exhausting, and we can only take so much. Before you email me, let me affirm that it’s okay to take a break from news and to put our phone down to rally ourselves; that’s not what I mean when I say “don’t look away.” 

But it is not okay to look away and continue as though you had never seen it to begin with. It is not okay to ignore. It is not okay to forget. And it is not okay to excuse ourselves from the ways in which we, as white people, have been complicit in white supremacy’s imperial reign of terror, least of all us white people who gather under the shadow of a Roman cross and who proclaim the nonviolent revolution of the heart sparked by mighty acts of God in history, the crucifixion and resurrection of a homeless Afro-Semitic Jewish teacher with dark skin and curly black hair.

Indeed: the ability to look away is the height of privilege. Friends: don’t look away.

Hear again what Jesus says to his hearers in the passage from Matthew’s gospel: “…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

Remember again Matthew’s audience: ethnically Jewish Jesus-followers, folks who were most likely to fall into the cracks in society that opened up following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Enemies of the state, enemies of the religious authorities as well. These were people who were shaking with fear of what was to come next in the midst of titanic changes that had disconnected them from their ancestry, their land, and their people. Everywhere they looked, reminders of Roman imperial might and the violence necessary to maintain Rome’s iron grip over the Mediterranean basin reminded them that they were nobody. 

And on the roadside, strange crops of fruit hung from felled trees: crucified bodies hung from crosses as a public service announcement from Roman overlords. “Don’t look away from this, lest you forget what Rome will do to you if you fall out of line.”

Yet Jesus’ message to his followers, to those nobodies over whom he sang his tremendous blessings—blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are the meek! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness!—those are the very same people whom Jesus calls to take up their crosses and follow him. These are the very same people whom Jesus urges not to fear those who can only kill the body, but to fear losing both body and soul, losing one’s entire identity, by losing their view of who they are in spite of who Rome called them.

Don’t look away.

Two millennia later, far removed from Emperor Vespasian’s reign of terror, we white Christians wear the cross as jewelry, we tattoo it on ourselves as a sort of tribal affiliation, we decorate our house with it, we gather around it in our houses of worship, having all but forgotten that the central symbol of our faith is a state-sponsored lynching tree. Under the shadow of the cross, our European ancestors crucified Christ all over again in the treatment of African and indigenous peoples during the age of imperialism. 

We also cannot forget the many and manifold ways that White Protestantism in the United States became a safe haven for not just the overt wickedness of the Klan, but so often it fertilized the insipid apathy of good-hearted people like you and me who for generations have viewed white supremacy and racism as either a “them” problem, or worse, a non-existent problem.

Exempting ourselves by looking away from white supremacy in the Church is the pinnacle of willful ignorance and irresponsibility. It is nothing more than gleefully perpetuating a culture of white supremacy from a position of privileged innocence, a position of privilege that those suffering under the boot of systemic racism do not have. Talk about sacrilege.

Don’t look away.

Lutheran theologian Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus in Matthew knows that human nature is wont to remain comfortable in our denial so as to avoid exposure. And that we are also quite adept at dodging disclosure, making up excuses for sidestepping the truth. What is getting exposed, of course, is not just racism, but our complicity. Not just how deeply systemic racism is, but how the church as an institution expertly harbors racism. Not just how the church has relied on white privilege, but how it has kept silent in preaching the truth of the Gospel.”

Before the message of the Cross of Christ becomes good news for those of us in need of liberation, it first stands as bad news. It stands as an indictment of any system that wields terror and perverts death into means of conformity and control. It stands as an indictment of the complicity of religious and state leadership in creating a culture that trains us to watch the life drain out of those whose voice in defense of the powerless might incite resistance or a riot. It stands as an indictment of the inability of “law and order” to “protect and serve” anyone except the interests of those at the top of the pyramid scheme. And the cross of Christ sure as heck stands as bad news for any kind of status quo that we’ve constructed on a shaky foundation of comfort and denial.

Think about that the next time you see someone make the sign of the cross or get squirmy when you see one in public.

African-American writer Ibram X. Kendi argues that the very heartbeat of racism is denial, whereas the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession. Being an antiracist, says Kendi, requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.

It requires that those of us in Church who have long enjoyed the fruits of privilege be able to look at our reality through the lens of the cross so that what has been covered up may be uncovered. It means that those of us who make up this community of First Congregational Church have to keep our eyes open. It means we have to keep looking through that cross-shaped lens, even though we have been doing so much to come to terms with, and make amends for, the ways we have been complicit in or benefitted from white supremacy.

I mean, gosh, what might it say about our congregation that we’ve moved away from regularly including the gifts of confession and absolution in our worshipping life? What might it say about our congregation that our choices in how we gather, when we gather, what we gather around, and what kind of worshipping expressions we prioritize don’t speak the vernacular of the people right here in our neighborhood? What might it mean if we start to come to worship only in order to take our minds off of things sometimes, and we start to believe that’s all worship is supposed to be about?

Don’t look away.

Y’all, I get that these questions are hard and they are deeply, deeply uncomfortable for us to deal with. I mentioned this to the book study group on Wednesday night this past week, but this work is not unlike trying to pull honeysuckle or morning glories out of a shrubbery: you can pull and pull and pull but if you miss even one piece, that’s enough for it to start growing back. Such is the nature of racism and white supremacy. That’s why we need a critical eye, the kind of searching judgment that the cross of Christ proclaims.

To wit, we need the good news that only the cross can reveal.

For the cross of Christ proclaims that God is finally, absolutely, undeniably on the side of the oppressed. The cross of Christ proclaims that neither cross nor lynching tree can separate God from God’s beloved ones. The cross of Christ proclaims that no tyrant, no emperor, no president, no politician, no police union, no power in heaven or earth or under the earth can prevent God from raising up those who have been cast down, or prevent the captive from being set free, or prevent the dead from living again. The cross of Christ proclaims that nothing finite can destroy the Infinite. 

And for us white folks, for those of us whose roots run down the side of the oppressor rather than the oppressed, that same cross of Christ proclaims that you and I get to tell a different story, that we can be set free from our ancestors’ sins, and that we can be made Fully Human again.

“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Don’t look away! Amen.

Root & Branch

This is a sermon I preached in Union City, Michigan on the second Sunday of Advent. See if you can count the number of Ursula Le Guin references.

Back in 2014 I made a pilgrimage to Scotland. (I was ordained while I was there.) One of the places we saw was Glasgow Cathedral, in the center of the city, now a Presbyterian church: full of richly ornamented stained glass, of altar cloths and incense, of intricate woodwork and heraldry and portraits and symbols of worldly power.

But another place we traveled as our gang of misfit Christians was a small cave.

En route to that cave, we snaked down a single lane road and rounded a bend before our route took us through acres of Scottish timber plantations after a recent logging harvest. The whole area looked as though it were a Christmas tree farm after the December rush: nothing but stumps and short scrubby bushes of heather as far as you could see.

When we finally stopped the car and got out, we trudged through a thicket of heather and nameless weeds, down a nearly invisible rock path, and through an ancient wooden fence, we made it to the cave, where innumerable pilgrims before our group had left candles, rosaries, crosses, and flowers, caking the damp cave walls with prayers. Above the entrance to the cave, roots from the trees growing above had grown deep into the granite cliff face and seemed to be holding together the whole thing. This small cave at the end of a deep inlet from the sea was the place where an ancient saint, Columba, was said to wait and pray while awaiting permission from the local king to establish the now-famous monastery on the island of Iona.

The story of Christianity in Scotland (which we as the United Church of Christ are inheritors of) has as much to do with this forgotten, nearly impossible-to-find cave as it does with the cathedral in the city center—perhaps even more so. And it has as much to do with the gentle roots that hold that cave entrance together as it does with the gentle strength of roots that hold us together.

I imagine the seemingly barren hills of the timber plantations as I read this passage from the prophet Isaiah: he sees, as I saw, the hillsides barren, the forest felled. He sings of such devastation to a people weary of despair, of uncertainty, a people whose land has become a waste of stumps as far as the eye can see after wars and conquests and exchanges of power and the failed promises of politicians and kings.

Isaiah sang to an Israel who was continually caught in this boom or bust cycle that no king or governor or head of state could break. A king gets it right for a while. Then they start getting it wrong, then things get bad. It goes completely off the rails before a new king steps to the throne and does a better job. And then their successor screws it up again. And it happens again, and again, and again.

Such is the pattern of Israelite kings, such is the pattern of rulers and politicians throughout time and space, even today: they talk big talk, they falter, and they fail to keep their end of the deal. They fail to be what they are supposed to be. To Israel, kings were supposed to be champions of the people, defenders of the poor and widowed, protectors of those without other recourse. They rarely were.

To an exhausted audience, Isaiah sings of a coming ruler who will finally, put an end to this unending wheel of boom and bust. Someone who will finally make justice and equity manifest for everyone. Someone who will bring about a reign of peace that will completely change how the world works, turning enemies into friends, drawing us back to right relationship with the natural world, and healing the planet.

I don’t know about you but I’m not aware of any head of state who has successfully brokered a peace treaty between lions and lambs, between foxes and hens, between predators and prey.

Yet, we Christians have traditionally understood Isaiah’s dream as being fulfilled in Jesus… but we look around and see, gosh, extortion, predatory behavior, state-sanctioned violence that continues to push people to the margins for being the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong sexuality or the wrong tax bracket. If Jesus was supposed to fix all of this, it seems like he did kind of a bad job. So interpreters sometimes post-date the healing of the world: “well, Jesus will actually fix it all when he comes back, no big deal, right?”

What’s happening here?

Nothing is as it seems when we’re talking about God. Those of us who have been around church long enough should know that by now. And before we focus all of our attention and energy on may or may not yet happen, perhaps we should look down at the ground we’re standing on now to understand more deeply what it is that’s happening right beneath our feet. What has happened. For the God that Jesus shows us is a God who moves silently and sideways, springing new life upon us when we least expect it.

For though the Israelite vineyard, and the Assyrian forest that replaced it, have been brought down to the ground, felled and razed, Isaiah sings that there yet remains a shred of life in the roots of Jesse. Those roots survived the chaos, the war, the fire, the felling; out of the seemingly dead stump, a new shoot emerges when the spirit of God calls it forth.

There are, of course, plants in nature that do this naturally. It’s not that shocking when it happens. But what we overlook is that plants that do this aren’t desirable, pretty, useful ones. Pines, maples, birches, cherries, those trees don’t just grow back when you chop them down. Yet there are some that do: plants like kudzu, like paulownia, like Bradford pears—species that we consider “invasive.”

These plants carry the bulk of their growing power not in their trunks or branches, but in their roots. In their rhizomes, which spread out and gather strength until the growing season dawns again. They grow with such vigor that botanists call them invasive when it might just be that their wild ways are the wisdom we need in a burnt-over world. A Paulownia tree’s dumbfounding growth—40 feet tall in the course of one growing season—makes it one of the most efficient carbon capture technologies on the planet. And kudzu, the vine that ate the south and wiggled its way into my own heart, now holds together hillsides and mountains with vast networks of entangled roots that are nearly impossible to cut out entirely.

These plants, ones which we’d rather forget about—or worse, eradicate—are simply doing what God has called them to do: to grow, to flourish, despite what we humans expect good plants to do. So it is with the branch shooting upward, 40 feet in a year, from Jesse’s buried roots: this branch does not rule according to human expectations, but attends to matters unseen. So Isaiah says, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

Where is the strength of the branch to do all of this? It’s in the roots, which put out branches when the spirit of God calls them forward. And it is not the branch alone that does the work of healing the world, but indeed, the root system is what holds the soil together, that binds it, that purifies it, entangling all the other roots in the burned-over hillside in its grasp to heal the soil, to make it whole again.

Friends, we must remember our roots. The Church—you and I, ordinary folk—find ourselves entangled wholly in this holy root system called Christ. Because of that, we cannot judge by eye or ear alone. We can only judge by the heart.

So long as the roots of Jesse spread outward through all the soil of the world and send up shoots wherever they will, those roots will entangle ours too, connecting us to the wisdom of God that taught roots to grow in the first place. And because of that, the Branch might show up in the wildest places imaginable, breaking through the burned-over earth, the wreckage of war, barren thickets of hatred and addiction and scarcity. Places where only the heart, not the eye or the ear, can see as good.

Though the era of the institutional Church has died off, there remains yet life in the roots underneath the ground. Churches are closing. Religion is becoming an increasingly forgotten part of society. And still we find ourselves as a society in the boom and bust cycle of powerful men seeking power for its own sake at the expense of those at the margins.

Indeed, I have yet to see the wild promises of which Isaiah sings. I ask, we ask, “how long, Lord?”

To which God says: look around, kid. So let me tell you about the wild branches I have seen shooting up from the earth.

I’ve not seen a lion lie down with a lamb in peace, but I have seen enemies become friends, and I have seen estranged family relationships come back together in spite of all odds and quite in spite of individual egos. I have seen Churches say “no more” to unchecked voices of hatred and take a stand with those at the margins.

I’ve not seen children playing safely in the den of an adder, but I have seen children wounded by the world turn deadly poison into medicine for healing others who have suffered trauma or loss. I have seen Church communities throw open their doors to create safe, enriching spaces for children that the powerful would rather forget about.

I’ve not seen cows and bears out to pasture together, but I have seen strangers welcomed at a table where all are fed and there’s more than enough to go around. I have seen, through regular folks coming together, the land defended from capitalism run amok, and nature healed; new life sprouts up in pockets where God’s peaceable reign has spread its wild roots.

And just like real roots in nature do, the Root of Jesse, the power that we Christians call “Christ,” never forces, it never coerces: simply by growing does a root rend boulders. Simply by growing into our hearts does Christ rend the walls of fear and scarcity that keep us locked in a perpetual cycle of violence and exclusion against one another.

It’s not big and sexy, but it’s deeper magic, a more mind-bending miracle than all of the world’s weirdness.

Our celebration of Advent reminds us that the Root of Jesse and its Righteous Branches are too big to be contained to the confines of human government, as those who first heard Isaiah’s song expected them to be. They will, and have, so spread that they’ve worked subtle tendrils into the soil of our own hearts, of human hearts—we whose True Name means soil.

As we prepare once again for the flourishing Root of Jesse to sunder the rocky soil of our souls in this perpetual dance of growth, decay, and growth again, let us look to where righteous branches towering out of long-forgotten stumps signal the arrival of God’s reign of implausible peace. Amen.

A sermon about kudzu and capitalism

This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday as part of our Be the Church series, the UCC’s initiative to get congregations thinking about what it means to be a church on the move.

My family is from southwestern Virginia, near the border of North Carolina and a short drive from the town that Mayberry was based on. Whenever we would drive down from the DC Metro to visit our relatives (which, after a certain point, was primarily for funerals), I remember seeing entire patches of fields or hillsides covered in this tremendous, verdant green vine with purple spikes of flowers. If you’ve ever traveled through this part of the country, you know very well what I’m talking about. It was growing everywhere and it seemed that if you stood still too long it would cover you, too.

This plant is, of course, kudzu. The government has deemed kudzu a noxious weed, an invasive species, an ecological moral evil. But the funny thing is that we’re the ones who put kudzu there. It was originally imported from Japan and planted by private citizens and federal landscape engineers as a means of preventing the erosion of hillsides that road construction, development, and industrial activity created as trees were plowed to make way for coal slag and farm land.

But because kudzu no longer serves that purpose, we’ve written it off. Yet it might be that kudzu has a grace all on its own, far apart from what we think of it. Nevermind its natural beauty, kudzu is an important land reclaimer and stabilizer. It compacts disturbed soil. It serves as a source of natural fiber, of material for basketweaving and other handicrafts. It is completely edible. It can be used as cattle feed. But because it didn’t stay in the box we wanted it to stay in, we simply judged it to be evil.

[NOTE: I didn’t include this on Sunday, but I realized it as I was driving home—there’s a troubling racial undertone to the way we label species “invasive” that we imported to the American mainland from distant lands to do a specific job that they stopped doing. I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks.]

The Bible tells a story about creation that stands in stark contrast to the capitalist utilitarian whims of a human society that thinks it knows what’s best for the planet. The Bible tells the story of community, and it is not a community that consists exclusively of humans; the Bible tells the story of a community whose starting place the interconnectedness of all of creation. The Bible would tell us that kudzu, for all the problems it causes, is good.

From the very first page of the story where God looks at everything that has been called into being and calls it “very good,” to the prophetic vision of the end of all things where “the lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them,” from the Psalms where we learn that “the heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth God’s handiwork,” to what we have heard today—

From Job, that “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” to our Gospel passage where Jesus tells us that not even Solomon with all his riches was clothed with splendor comparable to the lilies of the field—

There is no honest way to read our Scriptures and not be hit over the head with the fact that God has a particular interest in everything God has made, not just in humans, and not just in what we believe about God up here in our heads. That’s to say, I think God is concerned with how we interact with the environment, because our story tells us that the environment was made for God’s delight and our use.

I say all that to say to make it plain that “protect the environment” is not some kind of ~liberal agenda~ that I’m trying to import into our worship this morning! In fact I don’t think you can even use the word “liberal” to describe what God instructs Israel to make happen in the first passage that we heard this morning, from Leviticus 25: “every seven years the land shall observe a sabbath.” That’s not liberal. That’s revolutionary.

I want to suggest that the way we treat creation itself what it is that we believe about God, and what we believe about our neighbors.

Let me say this a different way: none of us disagrees that we have a responsibility to care for the poor, but I wonder to what extent we consider how our relationship with the environment necessarily impacts the poor for whom we are caring. And that’s where we pick up with the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel today: “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” With that black-and-white warning still ringing in our ears, Jesus then turns our attention to nature. “Nature doesn’t worry about paychecks and bottom lines.”

In his teaching about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, Jesus is raising a point that should rattle us, but it’s hardly something he’s making up on the spot. In fact, what he’s doing is masterful: he’s plunging all the way back into the story of the Hebrew Bible to dredge up an incredible notion that we see all throughout the writings of the Old Testament, a treasure that only a people who had been freed from slavery in Egypt could really get.

God has a particular intention for the environment: the rocks, the grass, the fields, the animals, all life. God holds it all together. The poet writing the story of Job tells us, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” God’s loving-kindness is programmed into every single atom of matter that exists in this universe, meaning that everything—from the stars and galaxies all the way down to the bacteria crawling around our intestines—has a direct connection to the divine. On the first page of the Bible we hear, again, “God called it very good.”

And Jesus knows this deeply. Yes, there are some birds who get sick and die, or who get eaten by predators. Yes, there are some flowers that never get to bloom because drought gets to them. But left to its own devices, Nature has an inherent wisdom about these sorts of things, and returning to a right relationship with nature is one of the signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

That’s why we have this revolutionary idea in Leviticus 25: the sabbath of the land. The land shall observe the sabbath every seven years. How do we buy into the myth that the land exists only for our use and not as part of God’s beloved community? The Land doesn’t have the ability to consent to how we use it and yet we have been charged with taking care of it.

But where does the revolutionary power of God’s intention for our relationship with nature go off the rails? I think it happens precisely in that problem I’ve already identified this morning: we believe in the myth of the unique individual ego who is more important than anyone else.

The wisdom of Jesus’ teaching is that he understands we are way too anxious about having enough to ever let the wisdom of the land take over for us, to let the wisdom of God in the wilderness tell us that allowing ourselves to live in harmony with natural cycles—even just a little bit!—can be a way for us to rest and recover as well as for the land to rest and recover.

Jesus understood that humans are given to project our individual worries onto nature. Our fear of not having enough and our desire for more, for more than we need, is a major reason that we have generated an environmental and an ecological crisis that is impacting our day-to-day life perhaps only a little, but this same crisis has significant impact on the people who are most at risk. We need only to look at history: not letting the land rest, not working in harmony with the wisdom of creation, creates situations that generate suffering for a lot of people. That’s precisely what happened with the Dust Bowl. And even today we are still dealing with the ramifications of the multi-year drought and famine that contributed in no small way to the current political instability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, that has created an untold amount of suffering.

That is why I say this is not simply a liberal agenda point, and it’s so tragic that we have let it become that in the first place. Misuse of natural resources generates suffering for people who don’t have the opportunity or the money to get out of harm’s way. Everything is connected. What if, instead of to a crowd of poor people, Jesus preached this to a conference room full of millionaires and oil execs?

The point here being: a church on the move as a community of people understands where it falls within the great scheme of nature’s interconnected web. Just as no human exists in isolation, neither does any church exist in isolation. Nothing is made new without that newness having ramifications for all aspects of that person’s life, of that community’s life, and how they relate to other persons and communities and nature itself.

So today is about the Gospel being good news for all of creation. To see that if the good news means that God is healing the world, and if I am called to love my neighbor, and if I am supposed to be made new, then that necessarily changes my relationship with the earth, its resources, etc. That all the cosmos is held together by the love of God.

I’m not speaking poetically; I’m speaking plainly. Look at John 3.17: “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world would be made whole through him.” It does not just mean you, individually, as an atomized unit. That has never meant “you get right with God while everything else burns.” No; the grace that we receive as humans made in God’s image, the grace upon grace that we have received out of all the fullness of God, is the very power that we as Christians have in our back pockets that can set us free from the striving after security that causes us to pillage the land of every possible resource and get upset when nature doesn’t bend to our whim.

I wonder if we can hear Jesus saying: “consider the kudzu of the holler…”

So what do we do? There are an infinite number of things we can do, from simple changes on our own to huge systemic changes, but in order for us to survive as a species we have to do something. That’s why our task as a church is to let our practices of thanksgiving and care and sharing extend to all of creation too. Our task as a church is to take the very grace that gives us a sense of belonging and newness in our individual lives and look for the ways that grace might move us away from fear and grasping to being able to see, once again, the fragile abundance of the planet that is the only planet we’ve got. Amen.