Storylines: God of the Impossible

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on November 20th, 2022. The text is Isaiah 36 and 37, as well as Isaiah 2.1-4, per the Narrative Lectionary. Click here to listen along—sermons are meant to be heard!

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

Twitter is tanking. Sackcloth and ashes. Seems serious and people are treating it almost like the end of the world. “Perhaps Elon Musk will be merciful upon a remnant of us.” I was kind of taken aback by this at first. It seems kind of silly on first blush: it’s just a social media site. But as I sat with it, and as I thought about the impact that a place like Twitter has made on my life, it started to make more sense. And before too long, I felt myself growing tender about Twitter, too.

For all of its toxicity and nonsense, Twitter is also a place where I have cultivated friendships and made connections that have changed my life. I was able to find, through Twitter, a Christian community that affirmed my call to ministry and ordained me. So, if the strength of my emotional reaction to the potential demise of a web app feels a little weird, I hope you’ll forgive me. Twitter is home, community, friendship, growth; it’s a marketplace of sharing and truth telling for a lot of people. In that way, I guess, it’s kind of been like church for a lot of us. And millions of people have come face to face with the possibility of that place, that community, evaporating.

What do we do when we are staring death in the face?

Our story this morning finds us in just this moment. Jerusalem is the last bastion standing against the invading armies of Sennacherib, the king of the Assyrians. We heard about this a little two weeks ago. They have razed the entire countryside and now the Assyrian forces are camped outside Jerusalem, preparing to lay siege to the city. They have already cut off food and supply lines so the people of the city, though safe within their walls, are running out of rations. And they’re running out of hope. Their spirits are breaking.

So we hear the field commander come to deliver the final blow, not a weapon but with words. And he tells them a story. He tells them a story about the other cities that have resisted. He tells Jerusalem and her people, in her own language, so that no one might misunderstand, that her time is up, that her Holy One has failed her, and that the only chance of survival was surrender to occupation and deportation. No matter the fact that the field commander promises all the same things that Israel’s Holy One promised her: each person on their own land with their own vine and cistern, living peaceably with all. (Has that ever happened for occupied people?)

Not a great situation. Hezekiah is now fully losing it. He tears his clothes, puts ashes on his head, and wraps himself in sackcloth—the things you do when you are mourning a death. He is mourning his city, his home, his people. Jerusalem’s future looks all but certain. As tragedy compounds, he sends messengers to Isaiah the prophet, asking him to beg Jerusalem’s Holy One to intervene—perhaps there’s a way in the face of our certain annihilation that God might save a handful for the future to carry on the promises of God. “Please, remember the remnant and have mercy.”

Hear what Isaiah says to Hezekiah in the midst of his grief and dread, despairing at the future which seems all to certain. The Holy One says, “Do not be afraid because of the words with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” Do not be afraid because of these words which seem so certain of how this will turn out. Do not be afraid because of the intimidation and threats you’ve experienced. Do not be afraid in thinking that I have abandoned you. I have gone nowhere, Oh Jerusalem, God says, and I am with you. 

And then God says, “Now get a load of this.”

I spent last weekend in Chicago with a cohort of other young, early-career clergy from the United Church of Christ with the Next Generation Leadership Initiative. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in; I only knew that the trip was billed as a “church vitality trek.” I’ve been to a lot of church meetings in my life, and I feel like I had a sense of how this would go. After all, the Pew Research Survey says. The New York Times says. We know the numbers. Church is in decline.

Because of that word “vitality,” and because this was a church meeting, I was expecting four days of sackcloth and ashes. I was expecting four days of reminiscing about the way church used to be and lamenting that those days would never come back. I was expecting four days of hearing about how the church is dying and how we can work harder to defibrillate it. Perhaps the Lord will be merciful and we’ll get a few more years out of these crusty old institutions that seem to be crumbling around us. As though that’s the best we could hope for.

Yes, we can’t have any conversation about church vitality without being aware of the situation we’re in. The first step in dealing with the fact that something hard is happening is acknowledging that something hard is happening. But that was the starting point, not the finish line. I want to share with you just a handful of moments.

On Friday night, we were guests for Shabbat at Mishkan, a progressive Jewish community that absolutely packed the sanctuary of the Unitarian church where they worship. Rabbi Lizzi and Rabbi Steven led this faithful crowd of folks from all different generations in the prayers their tradition has held faithfully for thousands of years. The music, the singing, the spirit of the place was defiantly joyful.

Saturday found us at the campuses of the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary, where we sat down with Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindner and Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton to dig into some of the weeds of being pastors in this strange time in the world. Cynthia taught us the incredible importance of allowing for multiplicity and difference in our lives as pastors and showing up as our whole selves to ministry. In the afternoon, Brad took us to church with a Spirit-filled sharing on the importance of keeping the Spirit at the center of everything we do as pastors—both of which are pretty good words for the church, too.

On Sunday we worshipped in the morning with U Church in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago and heard from Rev. Julian DeShazier how he grew into his ministry with the people of U Church, and how by building intentional friendships in the community, together they were able to press the University of Chicago Hospital to re-open their level one trauma center to serve the needs of south side residents. Because U Church knows why they are in that place.

That evening, we worshipped with Gilead, a queer storytelling church that gathers at Chicago bars and spends the evening telling true stories that save lives. Between beers and Rhianna songs as calls to worship, different voices—real voices, not just paid clergy—take the mic to tell a story. No matter how disgusting or silly or heartfelt the story is, the response is always, “the word of God for the people of God: thanks be to God.” Because Gilead knows that God is still speaking in every story.

Every single one of these communities and everyone we spoke to had their finger on the pulse of vitality. They were able to see it. And they were able to see it not because they believed hard enough but because they had actually seen God act in this world. They had first-hand experience of how, just as Isaiah promised Hezekiah, something impossible would happen, and Jerusalem would be saved. They all had first-hand experience of the Holy One bringing newness and life out of their spectacular failures. They know how to see. It’s not that they have “a vision,” it’s that they have vision. And all the same, they are rooted in their tradition, they know why they’re they’re, they’re ready to hear God speak in every story, and more than anything, they are led by the Spirit. God is real for them.

And this was made abundantly clear from the outset by every single person we spoke to: if all we can see is “our church is dying!” we do not have vision. “Save our dying church!” is not a vision. We were not there to learn how to save dying churches. We were there to learn to see anew, to see through the eyes of vitality. We were there to see that impossible things are, in fact, possible. And in the worship and the learning, in the friendships and conversations, in the blossoming of heart that unfolded through the weekend, I find that I, too, have tasted that impossible things are, in fact, possible. 

The Church is a community of people who proclaim that impossible things are possible. Our ancestors in faith knew a God of impossible things, a God who frees the enslaved, who routs invading powers, who makes banquets in the wilderness, who breathes new life into dry bones. Our tradition knows a God who forgives the wretched, who makes peace between neighbors, who turns the tables over on death itself. And for centuries, even in the midst of all of our spectacular failures as a faith tradition, we have continued to turn toward the Holy One who raises new life out of the dust.

This is the God who has brought me back to life, the God who has composted all the spectacular failures of my own life into a seedbed for resurrection. This is the God who became real to me in a new way this weekend, in ways I am only beginning to be able to get words around. This is the God who makes Herself known in relationships of authenticity, truth-telling, and empowerment, who breathes her Spirit into us anew when we are floundering in our call. This is the God who is living and active in vital communities of faith. This is the God of the impossible. 

If it is possible for faith communities in the 21st century to be vibrant and vital, what else is possible? Perhaps even that our life together might actually bring more goodness, truth, and beauty to the world. Perhaps even that we might learn to forget war. Perhaps that we might even fire up the coals and set about beating our swords into ploughshares.

In a way, the whole trip was one big, “do not be afraid because of what you have heard.” What Isaiah has to say to Hezekiah is the word that I needed to hear this week. And that is the word I want to pick up for you this morning: “do not be afraid because of what you have heard.” Just as God was not done with Jerusalem and Her People (and still isn’t done with them!), just so is God not done with the tradition that bears the name of Christ. God is not done with the Church. God is not done with churches. God is not done with us.

I believe God is calling us to become a community of defiant joy, extravagant hospitality, a people of gladness and singleness of heart. A community where the Spirit that undoes death blows through our being in every prayer, every candle, every brunch, every community partnership, every arts event, every preschool class. Not so that our church becomes great again. Not so that FCC flourishes in a way any of us can imagine. But rather, that the neighborhood and city around us spring up green, renewed, made whole and beautiful because of what is already happening here. 

And I believe God is calling us, FCC, to become once again a community that believes the impossible is possible, a community whose presence materially and spiritually changes the world around us for the better, a community where everyone finds space to be their fullest, most authentic selves, a place where we can let our light shine. A house of prayer for all people. A community of courage. A living Church. If you’re on board with that, let’s do this. Amen.

How Sweet the Sound: All Loves Excelling

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on September 4th, 2022. The text is 1st Corinthians 13. Click here to listen along: sermons are meant to be heard!

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

The passage that Roger just read for us is a piece of scripture that many of us are first introduced to at weddings, where we sometimes hear it sheepishly read by a groomsman who has not set foot in a church since his great aunt Clarice’s funeral when he was in middle school and has never taken a public speaking class. 

Sweating behind the pulpit, his bow tie feeling tighter and tighter as he fidgets with his cummerbund (for this is also the first time in his life he has ever worn a tuxedo), our hapless reader stands before the audience. He clears his throat, takes the folded up piece of paper from inside his jacket pocket, unfolds it and begins to speak, nervously, haltingly: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels…” The gathered crowd listens along politely; hearing aids are adjusted, someone coughs in the back, the pastor is idly mouthing along with the words because she has heard this passage so many times she can’t help it. 

The words spin around in the air like a perfume, and everyone smells something different in them. For some these words sound sentimental and nostalgic, a tribute to the power of the newlyweds’ romantic love for one another to see them through all obstacles. For some they sound like the worst kind of pious claptrap, the kind of thing they put on chintzy mass-produced wall signs and sell at Hobby Lobby. And for no small part of the audience, the words fall on stopped ears: they’re just counting down the seconds until the ceremony is over and the party starts.

Without too much consternation, the groomsman finishes his reading, wipes his brow, adjusts his trousers before getting out from behind the pulpit, and resumes his place next to the groom. Done. Now he just has to stand there for photos, and then it’ll be time to party. Maybe he’ll get the number of that one bridesmaid, who knows? He has no idea what has just happened. Our friend has no idea that he has been duped into reading one of the greatest passages of mystical poetry a human mind has ever produced. 

Suffice to say, Roger did a much better job reading this than I have ever heard this passage read at a wedding. Roger, did you know what you were getting yourself into?

But back to the story: our groomsman has no idea that he has read the words that have led countless spiritual seekers into an encounter with a love so supreme and all-consuming, so nuclear in its heat and power, so tender and radiant and transformative that the only metaphor that works to even begin to describe what that love is and does within us is the metaphor of romantic love, with all its heat, intensity, drama, and delight. Father forgive him, he knows not what he is reading. 

But the fault is not his; he was probably assigned this task without being asked whether he would like to offer a reading or not. (I know how weddings work.) But he did it anyway. Even though he knows he’s not a good public speaker. Even though he has always felt weird about religion after his uncle got kicked out of their family’s church a decade back when he moved in to share a life with the man he loved. Even though he knows the statistics for marriages lasting and knows that it’s basically a coin flip as to whether his friend and his beloved will remain so even five years down the line. Even though he has no idea whether there’s even a God out there listening to us, to say nothing of loving us.

All of these things are true. And he does it anyway. Why? 

In the final accounting, he does it because of the only thing in the world that is able to make a person jettison all reason, all rationality, all pretense: he does it for love. 

The bond that the groom and his friend have built through their life of working and playing and hoping and weeping alongside one another is love, pure and simple, love taking shape as friendship. His friend the groom is celebrating the promise of a new life with a beloved, full of hope, full of possibility. And because of the bond of love that unites the groom and his friend, that joy flows from one heart seamlessly into another: the groom’s joy is his joy. 

So when the couple asked him (or volunteered him) to read this passage, he said “yes,” knowing full well that he could make a fool of himself and end up as the illustration in the pastor’s sermon the following Sunday. This is one meaning of my favorite snippet of the passage that our friend read without knowing what he was getting himself into: when Paul says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

Endures all things, indeed.

But what is Paul actually getting at with this passage? What is the hidden treasure that longs to be known lying buried within these words, so trite, so familiar, these words which so many of us have never heard as the treasure it is because of the context in which we’ve heard it? I will spare you the extensive biblical studies lecture, and simply say this: the Christians in the city of Corinth were arguing with one another about who was greater, who was holier, who was more mature, who was a better Kuh-risht-chun. There is nothing new under the sun, after all.

And indeed, they were doing great things: speaking in tongues, uttering prophecies, performing miracles; they were showing up for worship and offering their time and treasure to serve others; they were organizing for direct action to combat food insecurity in underserved neighborhoods; they were offering their homes and buildings and businesses to meet the needs of the community; they were meeting and marching and voting and consulting and striving and struggling and doing all the work that people of conscience and faith must be doing. 

But their efforts kept getting mangled and tangled as the crosswinds of competing priorities—desire for security, esteem, control, belonging, all the usual suspects—spun up into a raging whirlwind of power moves, politics, and pedantry that divided their hearts and ruptured the community, making it utterly impossible to embody God’s love for their neighbor without strings attached. 

And because of the Corinthian community’s failure to hold their post, folks were getting caught in the crossfire, left adrift without connection to community or belonging, getting lost in the crowd, lost in the world, lost to the lies of unworthiness and insignificance upon which so many of the systems of this world run, systems of money and power and law and economy which grind person and planet alike to pulp in their gaping maw, insatiable, ever hungry for more.

Paul himself had once been an instrument of those systems. Paul had benefited from his privilege both as a Pharisee and as a citizen of the Roman Empire. Paul knew that he had security, esteem, control, and belonging as long as he played the role that was prescribed for him. But Paul had cast all of that away for the sake of love after his living encounter with the Love who moves the Sun and other stars. 

That experience of a loving Presence breaking in after hounding him, stealing upon him, waiting for him to turn and notice and be changed by its intimacy and fire has utterly changed him into a lover of God and of God in all of humanity. And that love drives him to let go of his understanding of the world and the game this world’s systems had forced him to play. 

That great Sufi mystic and lover of God, Jalaluddin Rumi, offers these stupendous words that are a close rival to Paul’s own:

“Love is recklessness; not reason.

Reason seeks a profit.

Love comes on strong,

consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,

Love proceeds like a millstone,

hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died of self-interest,

she risks everything and asks for nothing.

Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

Without cause God gave us Being;

without cause, give it back again.”

Jalaluddin Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks

Paul, as did Jesus and Rumi and so many of the other great lovers of God that have graced this planet in history, was chosen to make the wager, to place it all on the truth and power of the living presence of Love that suffuses the entire universe and sustains it in being, holding all its splendor and all its agony. He has chosen not to count the cost of this love, and in so doing, has gambled away every gift that God bestowed on him for the sake of his love for that Presence which he knew by the name “Christ.” 

And Paul knew, as all the mystics know, that when the heart has been opened to the reality of this loving Presence, the love that courses through cannot help but catch everything else in its wake, in its fiery heat, transforming everything it touches. As that loving Presence courses through the lover of God, it will lead the soul who has been cracked open to love through unknown places and possibilities, perilous and promising alike, just like the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel in desert night on their march of liberation, on through to the dawn, where in their freedom they were now able to create a new vision of the world, one of justice and equity and release from debt, one where the foreigner was treated as a sibling. 

In that land of promise they were able to imagine a world that knows nothing of the profitability and efficiency of those systems which raised temples and towers on the backs of enslaved people. A world where there is no need to jockey for power or status or security or, even, love itself, a world where there is no need for the contortions we put ourselves through to do good and be good and prove to ourselves that we are actually good people and worthy of love and belonging just as we are. 

But a world like that only works if its denizens are able to get the cornerstone right: love of God, and love of neighbor. Love that flows from deep wellsprings within, from depths that only God can fathom, love that flows out into this world and carries us into action and service and sharing of our gifts without any expectation of return. Love for friend and love for stranger. Love for planet and love for person, love for goat and horse and human alike. Love is the thing that holds it all together.

And so Paul says, we can do all these incredible things, we can have all these gifts, we can do such tremendous work in the world. But without love as the anchor, the rudder, the rising star, that homing beacon shining within our heart that keeps us in alignment with our calling to embody God’s love, all of our efforts will be worthless. We’ll fumble the pass. We’ll cause harm to each other and to ourselves as we get caught in the world’s games of mastery and might. All our preaching and prophecy and speaking-truth-to-power will fall on stopped ears just like Paul’s own words at a June wedding. 

And so Paul beckons to them, chides them, eggs them on to pursue the one force in this world strong enough to get our heads out of our rear ends long enough to see clearly and act precisely, with body and mind and emotions all as one, for bring into being the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, the kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem, heaven on earth, a just world for all. For that is our calling as people of conscience and faith. Love is the meaning of it all.

If our groomsman had had a little more familiarity with the text, he might have been keen to add the line that Paul offers immediately after this hymn to love. He says, “pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.” Prioritize love. Let that be the prime motivation in all that we do, and let everything else flow from there. And pursue love by practicing it, by turning towards it day by day, moment by moment, by betting our being on the wager that love offers: we call that “devotion.” 

And everyone has somewhere they can practice devotion. All of us have a place where we can say “yes” to love and day by day tap into the living experience of love and make it more and more a part of our entire being. The gate is there, in the love of bride and bridegroom as they gamble on marriage, or of a groomsman for the groom, or of the pastor for the newlyweds, or even Great Aunt Clarice for her family, whom she loved enough to invite into the tenderness and intimacy of her faith journey, or even the love her family had for her, who loved her enough to endure going to church with her every once in a while. Friends, that is the royal road. To say “yes” to love is to say “yes” to God is to say “yes” to our neighbor. 

And in the final accounting, when all is said and done, love is the meaning of it all. Amen.

A sermon about greenness (a manifesto of sorts)

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on Sunday, August 15th, 2021. The text is Mark 6.30-44. Listen along here, starting at 33:00.

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

Unlike last week’s text, with its salacious intrigues and revenge plots and beheadings, this text is a much more familiar one. In fact today’s story is one of those archetypal Gospel stories that has become so familiar to those of us who grew up in the Church that it just blends into the wallpaper nowadays. “Five loaves, two fish, five thousand people eat, and the message is we should offer up whatever we have feed people.” I mean, yeah, that’s not a bad sermon. But it’s an easy sermon. It’s one that we’ve learned to expect, and so it doesn’t hook us as easily anymore (although, who among us has actually done what the text suggests we do in order to participate in Jesus’ miracle as it continues happening today?) 

At any rate, this text or its parallel in one of the other three gospels comes up at least one Sunday out of every year, so it swings through our consciousness like a comet swinging through the inner solar system and lighting up the night sky every so often. Every time we sit down with the text, there is something new to be discovered, experienced, and astonished by. This is one of the benefits of reading scripture over and over from a quiet, open-hearted place: the more you ruminate on it, like sheep chewing on fresh green fescue, the more new things begin to emerge from the humus of the text, things that you haven’t noticed before.

So this time around, I noticed three things:

First, when Jesus has compassion on the crowd “because they are like sheep without a shepherd,” his first response is not immediately to begin healing and feeding them. His first response is to teach them (and to teach them many things, specifically). There’s a lot that I could say about that as someone whose job is to teach you, you know. But I’m not sure I want to preach about that.

Second, in the middle of this desert place, in the middle of the wilderness, there is still green grass. Soft, tender fescue, the kind of grass that shepherds will lead their flocks over mountains and through shadowy valleys to allow their flocks to get to. (Please do not imagine here a fairway or a putting green or an HOA-approved landscape, though; that kind of manicured lawn does not exist in nature.) In the middle of the wilderness, life insists on itself.

Third, and this is what really got me this time around: this use of the word “green” is the only time in the New Testament that anything is described as “green” (with the exception of three references to “green grass” in that trip diary to end all trip diaries, Revelation). The only time! In fact when I started to dig into this little nugget of information I realized how rarely the writers of the New Testament make any reference to the color of things—which suggests to me that this is not something that we should miss here, especially if we’re holding in mind that other interpretive principle I brought up last week, namely, gospel writers don’t waste papyrus. What seems like a small, insignificant, even irrelevant detail to us was important enough to be written down and meticulously copied by hand over centuries, and the holding of this minute or insignificant of a detail by a sacred text can open us to a new world of small wonder.

So why does it matter that Mark tells us that the grass is green? Consider what we know about the color “green” these days:

A plant is green because within its cells are structures that look very similar to human blood cells and which are filled with a green pigment called chlorophyll, a molecule that is eerily similar to the pigment that makes our blood red. We all remember this from high school biology, I suspect. But think about it: that greenness is one of our planet’s native ways of harnessing the virtually unlimited power of the Sun. Photosynthesis makes life as we know it on Earth possible, including our fossil-fuel addicted contemporary society—oil and coal are nothing more than the infinite power of the sun, tinctured into darkness. Nature is stupendously generous.

The Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard writes: “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”

Substitute “Nature” with “God” in these lines and you begin to grab at the contours of a different kind of theology, a different way of seeing just who this “God” character is and what she might be up to in our world. God is, above all, profligate (in other words, extravagant, wasteful, gracious); Don’t believe them when they say God doesn’t speak new things into being anymore. God will try anything once. 

The reality is that existence is abundance. And it is in the heat and light of this core of abundance that miracles happen: when you have learned to see the greenness of the grass under your feet, when we have recognized that particular miracle, we begin to perceive, bit by bit, that every pulsation of our heart in our chest is itself a miracle that it has taken the wisdom of this Universe nearly 14 billion years to perfect, four billion of which were especially interested in cultivating a small, watery planet circling a nondescript star out of billions of stars in this single galaxy, one sea of stars among a universe filled with a trillion others. 

The Wisdom of God, the Universe, whatever you want to call this huge Thing in which we live and move and have our being, is the same power that shines forth in the Sun, the same power that churns the oceans of this planet through wind and tide and gravity and makes life possible, the very power that greens the grass, and it binds everything and everyone together in a web of relationship.  

The 11th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen perceived this with all the clarity of a contemporary theoretical physicist when she composed her masterpiece of medieval poetry and music, “O Nobilissima Viriditas.” Let me read this to you.

Hildegard of Bingen, by Tracy Councill

“O most noble Greening Power, rooted in the sun,
And who shines in bright serenity upon the wheel,
Nothing on earth can comprehend you,
You are encircled in the arms of divine mysteries.
You are radiant as the dawn and burn as the flame of the sun.”

And here’s where today’s well-worn story of Jesus feeding this crowd of shepherdless people in the wilderness taps into this deeper vein of nature mysticism: For a universe that can produce the shining of the sun, the greening of the grass, and creatures that can actually perceive these stupendous and profligate gifts in all their beauty and majesty and respond with acts of beauty in return, well, if that’s the universe we live in (which it is), producing a few extra loaves of bread and some fish out of seemingly nowhere seems, well, not so miraculous after all. 

Don’t get stuck on the strangeness of the miracle here, even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. This miracle (which I do believe happened literally, but that’s beside the point) is recorded in this story to inspire us to wonder. Wonder is our gateway to an experience of God. And fortunately for us, Mark included a little tiny detail that can inspire us to wonder even after we’ve ceased to believe in miracles. He has given us a handhold to a cosmic watercourse of wisdom in a single, short word: “green,” a word that even today connotes the thriving of all living beings.

And where does this green grass grow? In the wilderness, in the deserted place. Divine abundance, “greening power,” has a tendency to emerge most dramatically in spaces where that have, in our limited human perspectives, very little to commend them to our refined, self-conscious sensibilities. But greenness is everywhere. And yet we are starved for greenness. But we don’t see the miracle of greenness because we have forgotten how to see it, even when it is right in front of our noses. And when we have forgotten how to see, instead of greenness, we see only desert. 

We cannot see the way that the ever-present miracle of simply being here is enough to hold, to give supportive context to, even the most painful, complicated, and uncertain turns in our human dramas. We can scarcely see our way out of a wet paper bag because of the way that contemporary society has so atomized and isolated our experiences into seven billion different perspectives on the world. (Being stuck inside a pandemic hasn’t helped this either—we’re starved for greenness literally, too). So how do we learn to see?

Well, one way to start is by ruminating on such stories as this one, chewing on them like sheep, such that they become part of us (or, if you insist on being a carnivore about it, cracking the bone and sucking out the marrow of the stories!) After all, before any talk of feeding anyone occurs in this story, Jesus teaches them many things, and we know that Jesus always taught in stories. A story has a lot more than a bare recital of facts—Jesus’ stories were training in seeing reality in a new way. And what Jesus was principally concerned with teaching us in his embodied life was teaching us a new way of seeing—a new way of knowing. A seeing, a knowing, an experiencing, not more, but seeing, knowing, and experiencing with more of us. This is known as “Wisdom.”

When we see and know with more of us, our consciousness slowly expands, and we begin to see beyond the world as our rational, binary mind perceives it. As our consciousness expands, we begin to see unity within diversity, and we begin to see over the dividing walls of hostility that separate us humans into “us-versus-them.” As that consciousness continues to expand through practice of the way that Jesus taught us, namely, a way of whole-hearted surrender, as humans, once again perceive ourselves as being interconnected with, and interdependent upon, and both impacting and being impacted by, not just every other human being, but every other species on this planet, and this planet itself and every other planet in this solar system, and every other corner of the universe as one great, living, wholeness, and from that perspective, begin to live in this world, in this very moment, in this sanctuary in this city, with the only possible response to such an expansive view of where we stand in this world: gratitude, awe, and compassion for our fellow creatures. Mysticism and social justice are two sides of the same coin; they are the in-breath and out-breath of any path towards truth. 

And what can we see once we have learned to see with more of us? What do we do with it? Well, we can see the greenness of the grass. And life begins to look a lot more simple, because we are more and more satisfied with the minute miracles that, when taken in sum, make up a human life well-lived: friendship, conversation, pleasure, depth, satisfying work, simple gifts, conscious love. We hold our possessions with a looser grip. We begin to let go of things that once we clung to for dear life as we begin to recognize the ways that each moment, each blade of grass in our lawn, each hair on our head, each turning of the planet from dusk to dawn and back again, is nothing short of an absolute miracle.

And this is what I believe Christianity has to offer this world today. I believe that this is what this congregation can offer the world today: to become a place where the in-breath and the out-breath, the vertical dimension of spirituality and the horizontal dimension of social justice, can make themselves manifest and work in synchrony with one another, like the pistons of an engine, to turn us into the kind of place that generates fully conscious humans who are actually able, more or less, to love their neighbors as themselves, to love their enemies, to take up the ministry of reconciliation that Christ entrusted to us as his students and, I don’t know, actually do it!

And I believe that can be true, and I believe that it is already beginning to happen, because I have the privilege of getting to watch you. I have seen the way that you have surrounded one another with compassion in the chaos of these last eighteen months. I have seen the way that you enfold and support one another even in the midst of difficult conflict when emotions are running high. I have heard the shouts and laughs and songs of kids in our preschool filling the halls. I could go on.

This church is not a desert place. Do not let anything about exterior appearances fool you. There is still Greenness here, and I believe we are poised to become, in our own way, a patch of green grass in the wilderness place of the world-as-it-is in 2021. For people are hungry, not just for physical food, but for wisdom, for connectedness, for belonging, for the Greening power that our tradition knows by the name of “Christ.” And Jesus says, “you give them something to eat!” Amen.

Being “Christian”: Baptism

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI, on January 24th, 2021. The text is Luke 3.1-22, as rendered in The Message. Sermons are meant to be heard, so listen along here, starting at the 30 minute mark.

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

First of all, this is going to be a little longer than usual because as I was writing this I felt myself being pressed by the spirit of my godfather, who was an evangelical United Methodist preacher and a revivalist, to bring forward some of that Methodist spirit that is part of my ancestry, a real gift for which I’m grateful, a revivalist spirit. (And me, being as Catholic as I am? This’ll be fun.) I’ll be breaking quite a few of my rules of sermons, too: it’ll be a little too long, it’ll be a little too self-reflective, a little too tender, just a little too much.

But, I’ve been breaking rules for a long time. 

I’m in a bit of an awkward situation as a Christian who believes in the practice of infant baptism, you know, baptizing people when they’re still babies, because I was actually baptized twice. Ooh! There’s one rule, right off the bat, that I broke: you don’t get baptized twice. 

Well, I did. Once as a baby, which I talk about often. But then there was the second time, as a young adult. I was 19 at the time, and I had fallen in with a particular brand of evangelical theology that promised real, deep community, a sense of cultural belonging, and a particular type of cultural identity that was something I sorely desired. 

But more than that, I wanted the same thing that so many of those who made their way to the riverside to be baptized by John wanted: I wanted to know that I was okay. I wanted to be okay. Because somewhere along the way I had picked up the cultural message that I wasn’t okay. And being not okay was dangerous.

For some reason, I never felt like I fit in growing up—of course, we know why now—but I think that in some ways I knew why then. My parents weren’t super Reaganite right wing Republicans, they were good centrist Methodists who voted on issues. But they also had some formation in the evangelical tradition, and so, among other things, the reading of Harry Potter was banned in our household. We didn’t celebrate Halloween. That’s the environment I’m growing up in. Bless my parents, I love them, they are saints, and I hope they’re watching this. 

But, I was, uh, really interested in Harry Potter, like, really, reeeeally into Harry Potter, as well as some other things that I had kind of realized, oof, maybe… weren’t going to fly in this family, nor would they fly in the prevailing culture. But I also had trouble fitting in in general, because, well, I was a large, loud kid with a big mouth and an exhaustive knowledge of… more than a normal amount of esoteric subjects, for one, and who was really, really good at being a “Christian.” You can imagine how that went for me in middle school.

Once I arrived at my alma mater, an Evangelical Methodist school, it wasn’t long before I received this delicious invitation from a more intense shade of Evangelical culture: you’re welcome! You belong! But that cultural identity and belonging was bolstered by the shadow side of Evangelicalism: knowledge that, deep down, we were right. We were special children of God. Which meant that our view of the world was the right one. And you belong only so long as you fit within those cultural rules and behave like a good Evangelical.

Now, the problem was, that in order for me to truly feel welcome within that evangelical culture, I had to lay aside the very thing that I knew would prevent me from being able to fully participate in evangelical culture: I had to lay aside the deep strangeness I felt in myself, the sense of disconnection from the way that I was told that men should behave and act and be interested in. Being an Evangelical meant being surrounded by a community that gave me gold stars for actively hating a fundamental part of myself. But gosh, that deep strangeness just got louder and louder the more I tried to ignore it.

And that’s why I decided to get baptized a second time: I thought it would finally make me okay, at least according to my definition of what “okay” was supposed to mean. But it didn’t actually have the effect I wanted. I thought it would literally “wash the gay away.” I can’t believe I actually thought that, but I did, and it made sense in my head. But when I got back to my dorm room later that night, I laid on the floor and wept, because I realized I still felt the same way, and nothing had changed. And yet, the pastor who had rebaptized me had hugged me and said, “welcome, child of God!” 

How could I be a “child of God?” So, of course, I pressed it even harder away, pushing myself to be the best that I could be, checking off all of the Good Christian Boy boxes, even going (ulp) to seminary, to show God how much I loved him! To bring healing and safety to me! And yes, I did end up getting married because of this, and, I’m thankful to God that that happened because I have the gift of being able to be a father as a result of it.

But eventually the dam broke. The Hogwarts Letter arrived.  “I am who I am,” I said aloud, and my life as I knew it imploded overnight. The text messages and the Facebook messages started pouring in. There were the usual suspects: people feigning concern, people telling me “I’m praying for you,” people just straight up telling me I’m going to hell, there was a death threat or two mixed in there, of course from people who were “Good Christians,” whatever. But then there were the people whom I hadn’t talked to in years reaching out to say how grateful they were that I could finally be who I was supposed to be.

Liberating this child of God meant some radical re-configuration of my life following the end of my marriage and the shattering of that false identity. That resulted in, among other things, the way my family is shaped right now, my return to seminary after flunking out of it, my recovering of a sense of a call to ministry that emerged from my own experience of resurrection. It is thanks to the compassionate loving care of many people that I am standing here today. Some were Christians, some baptized people. And some weren’t Christians at all, through them, the Divine moved to call me out of darkness and into light, who chose to stand by me.

Many of those people who had been baptized into the living tradition of Christianity had views that at the time probably would have gotten them cancelled, either by the liberal left or by the conservative right. But those people, people like my parents, like several of my seminary professors, like my clergy friends, and others too, friends who have come into my life through strange happenings and criss-crossing journeys, have all in some small way helped me not just to continue living as I was, but rather, to be raised from the dead, literally and figuratively. Whether they were baptized or not. Whether they were “the right kind of person” or not. They loved me back into life. They helped me know that I am okay.

So my testimony is not as much today about me, but it is about what God has done for me through the community of some incredible, ordinary, holy, and messy people who made the choice to love me without condition. I am privileged to be in communion with these people in one way as a baptized person, one, but more importantly, as another human being, as another person for whom God has said, “you are my child, in whom I am well pleased” by saying “yes” to humanity through the incarnation of figures like Jesus Christ.

(Now I’m going to stop telling my story because I’m even tired of hearing myself talk about myself, and I’m the preacher. Also I think I’ve used up all my “personal story” points and won’t be able to use a personal story as a sermon illustration for the next six months.)

Baptism is one of those cornerstone practices that identify Christians. And yes, I do believe that something incredible happens through baptism. Baptism surrounds us with a covenanted community that comes together out of all people, languages, nations, and races through this shared experience, way back in our cultural memory, of unconditional love pouring itself out toward us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

But here’s the deal: I’ve never physically met Jesus of Nazareth. I only have the imaginal version of Jesus that I developed from hearing so many different stories, so many different ways of telling the story. Hymns, songs, stories, images, VBS, Sunday School, all of that. That is the cultural identity that I inherited from my parents, from my environment, from my upbringing (just like I also inherited the cultural identity of an American, to which I will return presently.) That is the cultural identity that it’s also my responsibility to critique and challenge, because it came bundled with racism and the cultural construct of “whiteness.”.

But beyond this cultural identity within the container “Christian,” with the ways that the Jesus story was told to me, for good or for ill, I also have met God elsewhere. I have recognized God in the lived testimony of people who have shown me unconditional lovingkindness, regardless of their own limitations, and regardless of what it was that they believed. Every person who chose to love me helped me to recognize the presence of this living Spirit, something bigger than them that I was swept up in. They didn’t just tell me I was a child of God; they showed me I was a child of God, and they showed me how to live as one. Christian or not, baptized or not.

The Bible is clear (I can’t believe I said that, yikes) that God will use whatever means necessary to get our attention to remind us that we belong, that we are okay, that we are “children of God.” And that good news, that Word of God, comes not just to hairy fellas out in the Jordanian desert! It also comes to vagabond princes who leave behind their birthright and sit under a tree until they wake up or to wandering fugitives who make a wrong turn in the desert and find themselves face to face with the Supreme Reality hanging out in a shrubbery. It also comes to young women and queer folk and even stranger voices that we’ve yet to meet. But then God’s love grows even weirder: God also reaches out to us through the love of ordinary people, ordinary acts, everyday folk like you and me. 

Which is to say, God will probably try to reach out to love someone through you. 

And there are many ways to say “yes” to that, and baptism is one way. Being a Christian is one way.

And what God is trying to tell us, whether that message comes through in the language of Christianity or another one of the languages we use to describe reality, is that we are, each one of us, a child of God.

If the God language isn’t working for you, take it out of there. You are human. You are of this Earth, you are born of this humus, you are a child of this planet. As am I. Let’s imagine a future of life coming together out of the rubble of what happens just as a result of us being fragile, messy, humans. We are, after all, children of God, a God who was willing to become just as fragile and messy as the rest of us, a God whose omnipotence is to be found chiefly in letting go of omnipotence, if you’d believe it. A God who is a human.

In the end, that’s what strikes me about Luke’s version of this story, the story of the baptism of Jesus: There’s no grand entrance of Jesus onto the scene, there’s no weird conversation with John about, “I must be baptized,” and so on. It’s just…. Jesus is there. He just shows up. He’s just one more face in the crowd. Nobody knew who he was, I bet, but there he was. And God showed up. God got hold of him. As he was baptized.

And when we’re baptized, either as children or as adults, we are saying to ourselves and to the world, “I’m one of the ordinary people. I belong here. I’m okay. I know I am a child of God. I know you are too. And I know we can be at peace with one another because of that, no matter our differences in will, no matter our differences in ideology or the way our bodies are wired for love or the amount of melanin in our skin or who our momma was or who our daddy was or any of that. And we have nothing to prove. Which means that we have nothing to fear, and that we can be truly just, truly equitable.”

As St. Paul also said, “there is neither male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman stunned us all this week with her winning words at the inaugural ceremony. But there was one line that caught me especially: “being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” I think her prophetic voice has, as well, a word for us: being Christian is more than this life we inherit. It’s also a past that we step into, and how we repair it. And if we inherit Christianity, if we are baptized people, we need to inherit it, to step into it, and repair it.

As John’s fiery words on the Jordan riverside challenge us: “bear fruit worthy of a transformed mind!” If we know that we are children of God, we know that everyone else is a Child of God too, and yeah, that means we’re content with our wages, we don’t extort people, we don’t exploit or use or despoil other people or other lifeways on this planet. And living into a fully-inhabited, baptized Christian identity can allow us to live in that reality all the time.

Have I achieved that? Oh hell no, absolutely not. But I’d like to get there. I’d love to get there. Because what a joyful, free place to live life from. I’m sure I’ll disappoint y’all a couple of times on the way, too. But I believe we can help each other get there; the work of love is ever-deepening. But whether we do or not in this lifetime, well, we know that deep down, below all our striving, below all our imperfection, all our messiness, below all our ill-conceived plans to secure ourselves in the face of our impending mortality and our false sense of separation from Reality itself, that, we are, each one of us, children of God. And that makes us okay.Amen.

A Thrill of Hope: Mary

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on December 20th, 2020. Listen along here, starting around the 24:00 mark:

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

So, although 2020 has been a challenging year for many, if not all of us, it is not the year that, for me, holds the dubious title of “worst year of my life.” For me, that was 2010.

At the time I was caught up in a culture of hyper-masculine, edgy, Reformed Christianity that had very little room for gentleness, grace, or femininity. If you haven’t been an evangelical at all, you might have successfully avoided a lot of this, but for those of you who know what I’m talking about know that stripe of Christianity to be deeply troubling.

I fell into that particular brand of Christianity because I wanted safety. I wanted certainty. I wanted to know that I was okay. I wanted to feel protected, to feel at peace with my own masculinity, to belong, to check all the boxes of “good father” and a good partner. Of course, throughout this time there was a bass-note desire to turn off those troubling feelings, which told me that I was not okay, that something was wrong with me. 

But it happened that the further I got into this hyper-masculine brand of Christianity, the worse my life got. Circumstance showed me how very little I knew about the way God’s love works in the world and in my own soul. (By the way, I was already in my second year of seminary at this point.)

I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice to say that it was not a peak time for me, and 2010 Nate would definitely have been cancelled on all the social media platforms. And yet, as always, there was grace to be found.

In the fall of 2010, I began listening to some new music by one of my favorite composers, John Adams, and one of the pieces of music was the song Mel just sang, from Adams’ Christmas oratorio, El Niño. That was the first encounter I had with Mary. 

As 2010 was drawing to a close, the church I was working at (a job which was not going well in the least) had a Christmas craft bazaar. One of the vendors was a dealer of olive wood souvenirs, made by a family in Bethlehem. They had the usual spread: various figurines, crosses, Nativity scenes, and so on… and they also had rosaries. Just a few, since this was a Methodist church, after all, but nevertheless, there were a couple of olive wood and cord rosaries. 

Something in me said that I needed to buy one. 

I snuck it into my office and kept it in my desk drawer. Every so often, I’d steal a few moments away from work to try to pray with it. Fear, salaciousness, even shame… keeping it hidden from anyone who knew me at the time. Fumbling over the prayers, feeling weird, feeling different, but also feeling right. 

Two years later: I felt the same feelings, the salaciousness, the shame, the undeniable rightness of it, as I learned how to move through the world in my first faltering steps as an out gay man, fumbling over the dynamics of faith and friendship and family as my world was upended in the strangeness and rightness of that time. 

And, as it happened, the last crumbling pillars of the hyper-masculine faith I had been constructing for myself finally collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I lost my faith; I simply discovered that it was hardly a “faith” at all. I needed to re-learn how to pray, and I needed the feminine to teach me. So I learned to pray again with a rosary, with Mary as my guide.

The personalities we encounter in Scripture are not just characters in a story; these are real personalities with whom we can be in a relationship, from the perspective of consciousness. And one of the reasons I love Mary, this particular personality, is that I don’t believe I would be able to follow the Jesus Way in good faith without her.


One of the reasons Mary became such a cultural phenomenon, especially in patriarchal cultures, is that she can become a container for all of the feminine aspects of God that Catholics and Orthodox Christians aren’t comfortable ascribing to the God whom they can only imagine as male (despite the clear feminine imagery used for God throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but, that’s another sermon). Such is the wreckage of the patriarchy.

So she becomes this container for many of the features that men (because of patriarchy) are unwilling to integrate within themselves: the instinct to nurture, to gather, to soothe, to be endlessly self-sacrificing… it’s all Mom stuff. All of us have a biological mother, and so all of us have some kind of Mom stuff. It’s all of the stuff that the hyper-masculine, ‘roided up Christianity of my adolescence rejected and pushed to the side. 

As the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung would argue, if we do not integrate our Mom stuff, and those of us who are male, if we do not integrate and allow our feminine side to find full expression, we invariably project it outward onto others: sometimes through obsession, sometimes through violence, sometimes through simple dismissal of women and female-bodied people. Ask me where the word “hysterical” comes from sometime.


As if that wasn’t bad enough, in other ways, we reacted against Mary’s stupefying ordinariness, just like we reacted against the ordinariness of her son. She did something special, so she couldn’t possibly be ordinary. 

We can imagine how it offends patriarchal and imperial sensibilities that God would choose, not just a woman, but an ordinary woman at the fringes to be a vehicle for something so tremendous as giving birth to the promised Messiah. So of course Mary had to be immaculately conceived. Of course Mary had to be a supreme example of holiness before God could admit having found favor in her.

I beg to differ.

In Luke’s telling of the Advent story—well, really, all of them, but especially Luke’s—the main voices are given not to men, but to women. Zechariah, the priestly father of John the Baptist, is literally dumb-stricken and can’t offer any commentary on the situation from his position of privilege. Instead, the people we hear speaking, for the most part, are the women: Mary, and her relative Elizabeth.

But consider the broader context, too: the Advent story, as told by the four witnesses, gives voice to the Other. Luke gives voice to the women, Matthew gives voice to a wild man shouting in the desert, Matthew gives voice to to curious astrologers greeting a strange star, to shepherds quaking with fright, to divine messengers hollering over the fields, to a menagerie of random people at the margins of society. 

The light of the world seeps in through any crack it can find in our carefully constructed realities.

And what’s remarkable about Mary is that she is not only given voice in Luke’s gospel, but she’s given voice critically in, one, being offered the opportunity to consent: “let it be to me according to your word,” and two, as a visionary prophetess of what God is doing in the world: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.”

Mary is divine in the same way that you and I are divine. In that, she’s nothing special, but she’s actually incredibly special because, if you allow her story to resonate long enough in your heart, you realize that you actually have the same capacity to say “yes” that she did. You can say “yes” to love. You can consent to being a doorway for love to enter into this world anew, and you too can be a visionary prophet, telling the world in word and song and deed that Love triumphs finally.


But for those of us at the comfortable center of society, there’s an inherent risk here. The risk is that we end up  fetishising the marginality of these individuals and turning them into something we can hold up as a banner to baptize our own comfort. “Well, Mary did it, so I don’t have to.” To excuse ourselves is to miss the point entirely.

No; as much as Mary shows us that God is most readily found at the margins of society, that’s where God becomes manifest, even more than that, Mary shows us the posture of how each of us can receive the gift when troubling messengers inevitably show up on our doorstep. Saying “yes” to Love means saying “yes” to hard things.

What makes Mary truly remarkable is her willingness to go along with this. She’s not stupid. She knows what it will cost. She knows that she will be slut-shamed by her family and community. She knows that her partner Joseph will be a laughingstock. She knows that her son will be, for all intents and purposes, a bastard. “Yeshua bin Miryam,” they’ll call him, “Mary’s boy.” 

But nevertheless, she has been given a child, which in and of itself is a call to love.

As our faith tradition proclaims, it is through Mary that God finally and decisively says “yes” to humanity by becoming one of us. And here’s an important reality: God becoming one of us wasn’t a back-up plan to deal with human sinfulness: becoming one with creation was God’s plan all along.

Mary’s way is the way of saying “yes” to Love despite what it will cost us. Saying “yes” to God is what takes us to the margins. It’s what marginalizes us. How can that be?

To say “yes” to love is to say “yes” to seeing our enemies not as a problem to solve but as people, divinely human just as we are, with whom we are called to be in right relationship. It means letting go of what our vision for our own future is and allowing Love Supreme to be the director of an unfolding drama that causes the fruit of love to spring up in every footprint we leave on the way to the bottom of society. It means allowing our own stories to be caught up in the greater story that a Love Supreme has been weaving out of the knit and purl of love acting in history. 

Yes, it means allowing Christ to be born in this world anew through us today.


I didn’t realize it at the time, but the entirety of 2010 was, for me, an angelic visitation. A distressing visitor, interrupting my reality, and challenging me to say “yes” to a broader, deeper way of loving, one that makes space for a grand “yes” to God in all of God’s distressing disguises.

I wonder if we can look at 2020 like I looked at 2010: a sudden visitor with distressing news and a divine calling. I wonder what the calling might actually be for us as individuals and for this congregation. For, as it happens most of the time in scripture, whenever an angel shows up, they usually have a big ask to make. 

But with that request is always a reminder: “do not be afraid, for God is with us.” God is with us even in the difficulties of embodied life. God is with us as we are immersed in and weighed down by the social realities of our own time. Love has been with us throughout this year, and I think we would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

So perhaps we might begin to hear the voice of 2020 anew, now that this year is passing into memory, now that the heavens have turned ever so slightly toward the light: “hey, you! You gracious, divine, ordinary, messy people, trying to live out love in the ways you know best, trying to live a life full of grace: God is with you.
And your “yes” to God is never in vain. Amen.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.