Sunday, July 15, 2018

Out of Whack

July 15, 2018
Amos 7:7-15

And the Lord said to Amos, “What do you see?”  I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A while back my husband Holden spent his free time for a few months finishing part of our basement.  With a lot of hard work, he turned it from a dark and dingy place full of pipes and insulation and wires
 to a relatively light and comfortable place for the kids to play. 
It was an amazing accomplishment.
The problem is that you have to go down a set of stairs to get there.  And it turns out that when Holden framed the stairs, something didn’t work out quite as planned, and the 5th stair from the bottom ended up about a 1/2 inch taller than it ought to be.  
It seems like such a small difference – you can barely even tell by looking at the stairs that that one step is a touch different.  But just about every person – child or adult – who goes up our basement stairs trips on that one step.  Even when we point it out and prepare people, they still trip on it.  Even now, a decade later, it still catches me. 
Apparently, the correct height of a stair is so ingrained in us that our body’s muscle memory tells our legs the height the stair ought to be.  And overcoming that norm is really difficult.
Turns out there’s a reason for all those codes and regulations that builders have to follow.  They aren’t just there to get us in trouble and make money for contractors.  At least I can vouch for the ones about stairs – they are there to protect us, to save us from injury and frustration, and to keep us from inadvertently teaching curse words to our children.  Sometimes it’s important to have a standard to measure things against.
That’s pretty much what the prophet Amos is announcing in our Old Testament reading as he recounts his vision of the Lord standing in the midst of Israel with a plumb line.

Now, in this basement project, Holden actually used a plumb line, so I know what it is (and our walls are pretty straight).  The plumb line is a simple tool – just a line with a weight at the end (called the “plumb bob”).  You drop the plumb line from a certain spot and gravity will place the bob exactly in line below that spot.  So if you build according to that line, you’ll end up with whatever it is you’re building perfectly straight.  This is a tool that helps you build something strong and safe and long-lasting.
So there stands God in Amos’ vision, holding this simple tool in the midst of the people. 
Interestingly, I find that, depending on my mood, Amos’ vision can sound like either a foreboding judgment or like a hopeful promise.
The judgment part is maybe easier to hear.  The Lord makes clear to Amos that measured against the plumb line, Israel is wildly out of whack.  
Amos’ story is set in the Northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC.  It was a time of power and prosperity and peace under the king, Jeroboam II. 
It was all that a country could hope for, then or now.  But the people and their rulers and priests had forgotten their center, their plumb line.  They thought of themselves as chosen people, but they forgot who had chosen them.  They thought of their nation as exceptional, blessed by great wealth and power, but the rich and powerful refused to share their blessings with the poor and weak. And their religion had become corrupt and meaningless, ritual for the sake of ritual. 
So the prophet Amos had his work cut out for him. His job was to confront the king and the religious leaders and the powerful people with the Lord’s sovereignty and justice.  To persuade the rich and powerful to act on behalf of the poor and weak.  To insist they remember the stranger, the widow, the orphan among them.  To reclaim God at the center of their religion.  To show the people how off the mark they had become.  
They had been judged, and the judgment was not in their favor.  And because of far they had turned from God, Amos prophesies that their high places would be made desolate, their sanctuaries would be laid waste, and their kingdom would fall. 
Which all sounds pretty dreadful.
But this idea of a plumb line in their midst was more than a judgment - it was also a promise.  Even though they were already completely out of whack, even though there would be repercussions for their failures, in Amos’ vision God still calls them “my people.” Even though they had rejected and forgotten God, God hadn’t and wouldn’t forget or give up on them.  
It isn’t entirely clear what the plumb line was meant to represent in this reading.  It might be the prophet Amos himself; it might be the 10 commandments; it might be the covenant God made with Israel’s ancestors.  Some Christian commentators read into this a promise of Jesus Christ, the ultimate plumbline — our standard of how to live and be as people of God. But whatever the plumb line was meant to represent, the people needed it — desperately.  
They needed a sign of the love of a God who ached for relationship with them.  They needed to remember that they had had been imprinted with the likeness of God from the beginning and that they could still become the people they were created to be.  They needed to be reminded of their high calling to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.  They needed God at their center.
And I wonder if our setting almost 3000 years later is all that different from Amos’.  We still need a plumb line to be both judgment of how far we have strayed from our calling as God’s people, and a present hope and promise for our world, for this country, and for each of us individually.
God’s question for Amos — “What do you see?” — is an equally good question for us.
What do you see that out of plumb in your life?  What is the stair that is tripping you up?  
Or maybe, how do you see our community, our nation, and our world out of whack?  In what ways are we living like the Northern Kingdom of Israel even now as we receive this vision secondhand from Amos today?
And where is our plumb line?  How do we know where our center is, and how do we return to it?  How do we become more completely the beloved people of God we are created to be?  Where do we catch glimpses of what might be possible, if only…?  

What do you see?


Sunday, July 1, 2018

A (Holy) Interruption Sandwich

July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43

I’ve now been working here at St. Paul’s for exactly a month, and — I cannot tell a lie — it has been something of a whirlwind.  You all have been so welcoming and friendly, but there are a lot of you and your names are awfully slippery!  The staff is helpful and funny, and I’m starting to catch on to who does what.  I’m learning how lots of machines work (though it’s possible that Greg Milliken’s name may always live on my internal voicemail).  I’m beginning to get a sense of the systems — everything from how documents are shared in the Google Drive to the process of bulletin creation.  I’ve been getting immersed in wedding preparation and baptisms, pastoral care and outreach, liturgy formation, and the workings of your amazingly dedicated vestry.  But I’m fairly certain I’ve only begun to do what lies at the heart of this job.  Meanwhile, my family is still very much in the process of figuring how things will work with me being away from home more.  So it has been a bit of a balancing act.
But as I got a sense for the context of our Gospel story today, I felt some relief.  Because the things keeping me busy these days are nothing compared to what Jesus has been up to!
In the week leading up to the story we just heard, Jesus healed someone of a withered hand on the Sabbath, 
escaped an angry crowd that was plotting against him, 
preached and taught and appointed a couple disciples, 
took several boating trips — one of which required him to calm both his frightened disciples and a raging storm, 
and exorcized a demon-possessed person (killing a herd of pigs in the process).  
It sounds to me like Jesus needs a summer vacation!
But of course there’s no vacation on the horizon for Jesus.  Before he knows it he’s once again surrounded by a crowd — touching him, hanging on his every word, asking questions.  But then the crowd sees Jairus, one of the synagogue officials.  And quickly, like the waves parting at the exodus, the crowd moves to make way for this important figure.  They watch as Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come heal his daughter.  
And this is interesting.  We don’t know specifically whether Jairus and Jesus have met before this moment, but here’s what we do know….  The synagogue leaders have caused a good deal of trouble for Jesus, making accusations against him and asking him questions to trap him.  To them, Jesus is a threat to religious order, a challenge to their holy practices and customs.  And so they have done everything they can to make Jesus’ ministry more difficult and dangerous.
I wonder who might be a sort of Jairus to you?  Someone that causes you trouble or seems to oppose you at every turn.  Someone, or maybe even a whole class of people, that you disagree with so strongly that you can barely have a civil conversation.  That isn’t so hard to do in our current political climate. 
Now imagine the possible responses Jesus might have made to this person coming to him for help.  There is the revenge possibility: “Why would I ever help you after the way you’ve treated me?”  There is the tit-for-tat option:  “Let’s make a deal.  You get the religious leaders off my back and I’ll help with your kid.”  And there is the response from inadequacy, “I don’t know anything about what you are going through.  I’m sure there’s someone more experienced that you can find to help.”  Or maybe the response from fear: “I can’t help you because if it goes badly, things will be even worse for me than they already are.”
But Jesus doesn’t opt for any of those responses.  He looks past all that Jairus has done and all that he represents and sees him instead as the desperate, grief-stricken parent that he is.  Jesus looks at Jairus — whom the world might classify as his opposition, his enemy even — with love.  Jesus listens to him, and changes course to go with him to see his little daughter who is at the point of death.  The God of heaven and earth comes to a grinding halt for Jairus.  Not because Jairus is powerful and important, but because Jairus is a child of God in pain.

Seeing what happened, the crowd around Jesus also changes direction, wanting to see what new and unexpected story Jesus will give them today to share with their friends.  But Jesus and Jairus have no sooner set off, when along comes a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  
For twelve years, this woman has been bleeding, and neither the doctors nor the religious leaders have been able to help.  We are not told her name, which seems fitting, because to the world around her, this woman is a ritually-unclean nobody.  The purity codes of the Torah are explicit — from Leviticus Chapter 15: “If a woman has a discharge of blood …, she is unclean.  Anyone who touches [her or anything she has touched] becomes unclean….”  This is someone that people cross the other side of the street to avoid.
I wonder who might be like this woman to you?  Who do you consciously or unconsciously consider other, unclean, untouchable?  Who lives on the margins of your world, disapproved by your friends or your tradition or your politics or your understanding of holiness? What group of people make you uncomfortable?
Now more than ever, you could imagine Jesus’ possible responses.  He could have claimed busyness: “Sorry, ma’am, I’m very busy and don’t have time to stop.”  He could have weighed other responsibilities as more important: “I’m sorry, but I’m off to help a dying child of a Very Important Person – I’m sure you understand that I have to protect my reputation.”  Or he could have refused to let her off the hook: “I’m sorry but you got yourself into this situation, so you’ll have to get yourself out of it.”  Or he could have done what everyone else did — just looked right through her and walked away.  
But of course Jesus doesn’t ignore her desperate pleas.  He doesn’t worry about her status, or her purity, or her reputation.  Or his own.  And he doesn’t even just physically heal her and move on to his next task.  Jesus stops.  He listens.  He lovingly calls her daughter.  The God of heaven and earth comes to a grinding halt for this woman.  She is worthy of his time.  She is a member of the family, a child of God, just as surely as Jairus is.
And only once Jesus has given all she needs — all she longs for, physical and spiritual, does Jesus turn back to Jairus and start walking with him again.
Oddly, the Gospel of Mark includes a number of stories written this way - with one story inserted in the middle of another.  Over and over in Mark, Jesus starts to do one thing, and then changes course and does something else, before finally returning to whatever he started with.  Jesus seems to be all over the place, easily distracted.  But it turns out that these frenetic interruptions are actually a consistent literary technique, called “sandwiching”.   The writer of Mark puts these two stories together, intentionally interrupting Jesus, in order to make a point.
These stories make clear that Jesus’ mission isn’t to travel efficiently from Point A to Point B.  Jesus’ mission is to spread the love of God to the world.  Which means that is isn’t possible to be an interruption to Jesus.  Jairus and his daughter, the unnamed woman who comes up behind him, every single person Jesus meets.  None of them, none of their needs, are distractions from his mission.  They are his mission.  And so are we.  The God of heaven and earth willingly comes to a grinding halt for each one of us, whether we are falling at Jesus’ feet in our tears and fears and pain, or just tugging uncertainly at the hem of his robe.  
And Jesus invites us into his mission of sharing God’s love in the world.  And often opportunities come through events and people that might feel like distractions.  But what if instead we can learn to see them as Holy Interruptions?  What if God is intentionally interrupting our best-laid plans and our busyness and our certainties?  Inviting us to see with eyes of love, hear with ears of understanding, and stretch our our arms in welcome.  Sometimes even to come to a grinding halt for the other beloved children of God that break into our stories.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For Bear - In gratitude and sorrow.

For Bear
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Jefferson Funeral Chapel

Today is the hardest of days.  We gather here to grieve for Bear -- husband, father, brother, son, friend and coach and so much more -- gone much too soon and suddenly.  We gather in sorrow, struggling to find some sense of hope.  We gather in pain, hoping to find some sense of comfort.  We gather with questions and regrets, needing so badly to find a sense of peace.
Barb, you’ve lost your husband, your best friend, your confidante.  Audrey and Rachel, you’ve lost your funny, proud, loving dad.  And there are no words to make that better, nothing that can fill that hole.  I know Bear still loves you, he is still proud of you, he will never be far from you.  And yet all of us know that isn’t the same as his being here with you.  Please know that this room today is full of people who want to offer you our prayers, our love, and our support as you begin to reshape your lives.  Know that today, but maybe more importantly, remember it next month, and next year, and whenever you feel overwhelmed or alone.  
Bear mattered to a lot of people — that much is obvious just by looking around this room.  One of the best ways you can remember and honor him is to share the pieces you have of him.  The stories that begin with, “Remember when …?” and lead to big grins, new understandings, and sometimes sadness.
So I’ll start.  Bear's family was attending St. Aidan’s when I first started there as a new priest 12 years ago.  A beautiful family, as you all know, so loving, so kind and giving, so much fun.  But what always stood out for me about Bear from the start was his searching, his interest in going deeper, his questions.  He had questions about God, about the church, about scripture.  Deep, seeking, life-long questions that generally felt impossible to answer with any certainty.  Bear's questions would challenge me even now, but certainly back then, fresh out of seminary and most definitely not sure yet how to fake it, when I saw Bear in church I would sometimes nervously wait for the new challenging thought he might have for me.  But I loved it.  Sometimes people think in church they have to pretend to believe everything, to understand it all, to have faith without questions, to have their lives together, to be proper and super holy.  Bear knew better, and that was wonderfully refreshing.
My favorite memory of him came during an adult ed Sunday school class.  I don’t think he came to many of them, so maybe that is why this memory stands out.  I love imaginative prayer - using our senses to imagine ourselves into the stories of scripture, to see what new discovery or encounter might await us.  And so that morning I passed out to small groups of adults different passages from scripture.  Their assignment was to read the story several times, and then to take on a role and act out their story in their small group and see how it felt to become that character.  And then to switch parts until everyone had tried on all of roles.  To one group, I gave the story of the Samaritan woman, challenging and being challenged by Jesus.  To another group, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.  And to another group, Bear’s group, the story of the Prodigal Son that we just heard.  
The story of the Prodigal Son has always been one of my favorites.  The characters are so rich and true.  They present such a broad range of human and spiritual experience.  They present (or confront) us with some of the family dynamics that we all probably experience in our own families at some point or another.  And they challenge how we think of God and our relationships with God and with each other.
There is, of course, the so-called Prodigal Son himself.  The one who doesn’t feel satisfied where he is; wonders what else is out there; feels compelled to find out.  He lives life to what he thinks is the fullest before realizing that the depth and fullness of life is actually better found inside himself and in the love of family.  And then he returns home — eyes open, but full of shame and expecting disapproval.
And then there is the older brother.  He isn’t in the reading we just heard, but he’s an interesting part of the story.  He lives his life doing exactly what is expected, comparing himself to others.  He can’t seem to figure out how to get beyond the version of himself that others see.  Like his younger brother, he also has trouble seeing or accepting the love and openness and welcome that is right before him and within him.
And then there is the father.  The father that at first you feel sorry for because it looks as if he is being taken advantage of.  He gives his beloved youngest son whatever he asks and blesses him on his way, even though he knows that the road ahead for will be full of heartbreak and sadness and disappointment.  But when from far off he sees his son coming towards home, looking apologetic and forlorn, he rushes out to embrace him.  Pouring out nothing but love and welcome and forgiveness.  
This is a story of us with one another, it’s a story of us with God, and it is, I think most importantly, a story of God with us.
I remember watching Bear putting his full self into this story.  Some people you could tell felt silly and self-conscious, but not Bear.  I remember thinking Bear would enjoy most the role of younger brother - going out into the world seeking adventure with anticipation and questions.  Full of the good humor and intensity that he had.  But I was wrong.  It was the father role that clearly drew Bear’s imagination.  I’ll never forget Bear rushing out with wide arms ready to give a big “bear” hug to the person playing the Prodigal Son in one round of their acting, much to surprise of the person playing that role.  (And, at least in my memory, I’m fairly certain Bear was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.)  That piece of the story seemed to feel right and true and holy to him.  I’m guessing that was partly due to his own experience of fatherhood, and the deep love he had for his family.  But I also think it had to do with his understanding of God.  
Bear had questions and uncertainties and deep wondering.  But I think even in the midst of all that, he could imagine himself being embraced and welcomed by a loving God — no matter what.  The One who would finally have the answers and the assurances he sought.

Bear’s death hurts.  It leaves us reeling and overwhelmed.  But we have a God that runs with outstretched arms to greet us in our pain and confusion and tragedy.  Even when we feel far off, God is right here with us, weeping right alongside us.  So when you feel that pain, that hurt, maybe even that anger or regret, know that our God can take it.  With God, you don’t have to be strong, and you don’t have to be proper, and you don’t have to be particularly holy.  I think Bear’s questions showed he knew that about God.  And now he is experiencing God’s loving, welcoming, open arms for himself.  May Bear's soul rest in peace, and may all of you find that peace as well.  Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pilgrims in a Thin Space

May 20, 2018
Last Sermon at St. Aidan’s

I love the humanness of the start of our story from Acts today.  There the disciples gather, huddled together in sadness over the loss of their beloved leader and friend.  Fearful that the authorities may be coming for them next.  Unsure what to do or where to go.  They can’t imagine carrying on Jesus’ ministry on their own — who were they after all?  Just ordinary people — fisherman and tax collectors, brothers and friends.  There was nothing particularly holy about them other than their association with Jesus.  And so there they were, all clamped shut in that room, with their broken hearts and their tense shoulders and their befuddled minds.  Sheep without a shepherd. 
I picture another group feeling a lot like that.  A group of pilgrims to Iona, after our beloved Ian Roberts collapsed in our midst.
Someone once said that “[t]o journey without being changed is to be a nomad, to change without journeying is to be a chameleon, to journey and be transformed by the journeying is to be a pilgrim.”  I do think our group lived into the word pilgrim. 
We certainly journeyed.  We spent about 24 hours getting to our first hotel.  Planes, trains, and buses finally got us to Oban, Scotland, our overnight stop on the way to Iona.  We had just a few hours in the evening and a few more in the morning for exploring the little fishing town - climbing the tower on the hill, sampling our first native beer, indulging in fish and chips.  Then the next day we were to ferry to a bus to another ferry to get to Iona.  
And we definitely were transformed.  Until the moment Ian collapsed, anyone who knows him will not be surprised to hear that he was our enthusiastic tour guide and spotter of beautiful and interesting things hidden in plain sight every waking moment.  He was back in his native land and so glad to have brought us all with him to share a place he loved so much.
Even after his heart attack, there was something about Ian that continued to create community, even among the countless incredible EMTs, doctors, and hospitality staff from the rest stop that attended to Ian and to our stricken group.  These strangers were honored to be with him, willing to do anything for him.  Ian was just that kind of person.
And so when we finally reached Iona — described as “an island off an island in the middle of nowhere,” a place held dear for almost two millennia by pilgrims who have found it to be a “thin space” between earth and heaven — when we finally arrived we were bereft.  Heartbroken and afraid for Ian, worried for Kathy, unsure about what to do next.
But maybe we were also ready to be pilgrims.  
When we arrived, we were, or so we thought, ordinary people.  People with jobs, people retired; people married and people widowed; husbands and wives; mothers and daughters; strangers and friends; seekers and explorers.
But as we traipsed around the magnificent island, we began to sense the sacredness of every inch of it.  The abbey that St. Columba founded, the crumbling remains of the nunnery across the green field, the wide-open blue sky, the clear teal waters, the marbled rocks on the shore, the craggy outcrops where purple flowers made their surprising homes, the mama sheep grazing with their skittish lambs, the shaggy shetland cows, the wind blowing our hair into messes, even the bogs that sucked our boots off and brought us to our knees.  And as we interacted with the people, we began to sense their sacredness as well.  The shopkeepers who wanted to hear about our experiences, the bartenders with stories to share, the members of the Iona community who prayed for Ian and Kathy.  The entire island seemed to have heard about what had happened.  To them, we were “Ian’s group.”  

We helped each other with our suitcases and we shared our special rocks.  We prayed and hugged each other through hurt and hardship and we shared bottles of wine and tastes of ginger cookies and toffee pudding.  We listened to each other as we spoke of uncertain futures and losses and decisions to be made and we handed out bandaids.  We laughed.  A lot.   And sometimes we cried. 
And it wasn’t long before we began to wonder if maybe the sacredness that we could so easily identify here in this mystical place and in these kind local people, wasn’t confined to Iona.  Maybe it included us, and every place in which we found ourselves, and every interaction we had.  Maybe we were holy people, all of us.  Maybe the thin space could be found everywhere.
As Mary Jane Guffey, one of our pilgrims, wrote in her journal on our silent morning towards the end of our stay, “We go through our day doing things, meeting people, but you can hear a hymn or read a prayer and suddenly you are crying as if a great gate to your hearts has been lifted.  But why the great rush of emotion?  Do we have our hearts clamped shut most of the time?  And if so, why is it shut?  Are we trying to keep out all the things we can’t control - the fear of loss or uncertainty, the fear of rejection or vulnerability?  I wonder.  And if we do keep our hearts clamped shut most of that time, how then do we live?  And what would a life less clamped look like?” 
There were the disciples.  An ordinary bunch, not particularly holy, not particularly wise.  They were sad and scared and unsure.  And, I bet,  somehow also hopeful and brave and wondering.  I’m guessing they were a lot like all of us.
And then the Holy Spirit came whooshing into that room, the wind messing up their hair and the flames of fire burning their hearts.  Or maybe that wind and fire had been there all along and somehow their sadness, their fear, their uncertainty, unclamped their eyes and their hearts just enough to see and hear and feel anew.  And suddenly they were so full of God’s abundance that they were opened up to share what burned in their hearts.  Suddenly they were so certain of Jesus’ love for them that they were freed to rush out into the streets to love the people around them.  Suddenly they became the Body of Christ, the Church.  
Pentecost wasn’t just something that happened in an ancient story in a far-off place to people long-dead.  It happens in our stories, right here, to us. The Holy Spirit is the wind that makes every space thin.  The Holy Spirit is the spark that makes every person holy.  We can’t catch it, contain it, control it, or confine it.  But we can be changed by it.  We can live as pilgrims, transformed on our journey with God.  

Normally I would say “Amen” and stop there.  But since this is my last sermon in this place, I want you all to know that St. Aidan’s has been a thin space for me, and I know all of you to be holy people, even though I know many of you wouldn’t describe yourselves that way.  I felt it the first time I wandered in with my family twelve years ago, and I have continued to feel it, whether we are celebrating or mourning, praying or gardening, planning or studying.  The laughter and the tears and the truth and the openness and the welcome and the depth of this parish have been like wind and flame in my heart.  My family and I have been so blessed to have been on this pilgrim journey with you all.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Mysterious Third Character

April 29
Acts 8:26-40

As I’ve continued recovering from my broken arm, I’ve found myself saying no to fun things that I would ordinarily say yes to.  Some things just haven’t been possible, like basketball and bike riding.  But other things I think I just said no to because I’ve gotten used to that being the only realistic response.  In the past couple weeks, my daughter Maya at various times wanted to make slime, and rock crystals, and plant a garden.  And each time, something about the mess and gathering the materials made the projects seem like too much.  And lately it hit me that I’ve missed out on a lot of fun moments over the past three months.  Moments that I can't get back.  Somehow that realization combined with our reading from Acts this morning to bring me back to a piece of a book that caught my attention a while back.
A few months ago I read Between the World and Me, a book written by Ta-Nahesi Coates to his teenage son as an account of his experience living as an African American man in the United States. 
It was fascinating for a lot of reasons — definitely an awakening and a call to action for someone like me whose experience of the world has been so different from Coates’ experience.  But one piece of the book really hit me.
Coates, who grew up poor and feeling besieged in Baltimore City, spent some time living in Paris, but had brought his natural wariness from his Baltimore days with him.  As he writes, “Even in Paris, I could not shake the old ways, the instinct to watch my back at every pass…”  A  few weeks in, he became acquainted with a French man who wanted to improve his english and so they met one day to walk and talk.  They ended up sharing a bottle of wine and a meal together.  But all the time Coates was wondering: 
“Was this all some elaborate ritual to get an angle on me?  My friend paid and I thanked him.  But when we left I made sure he walked out first.  He wanted to show me one of those old buildings that seem to be around every corner in that city.  And the entire time he was leading me, I was sure he was going to make a quick turn into an alley, where some dudes would be waiting to strip me of … what exactly?  But my new friend simply showed me the building, shook my hand, gave me a fine bonne soiree, and walked off into the wide open night.  And watching him walk away, I felt that I had missed some part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear.”
Coates had missed the full experience of joy and friendship and adventure being offered because he was concentrating on the what ifs.
I do that all the time.  I bet we all do.  Not usually because of fear, necessarily. We miss moments of connection with people around us because we’re caught up on our smartphones.  We miss being awed by the beauty of the world because we’re in a hurry to get to the next place.  We miss deepening friendships because we’ve already decided what we think that person is like, or what they must think of us.  We miss experiencing forgiveness because we’re defensively holding on to old wrongs, or stubbornly holding fast to our rightness.  We miss opportunities for joy because we’re afraid of the pain or loss that might eventually accompany it.
We are losing so many moments.
What I love most about our reading from Acts is how Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch make the most of every moment.  And I think it’s because they somehow manage to remain open to the third character in this story.
The first two characters are interesting enough.
First, we have Philip.  Philip was introduced in the 6th chapter of Acts, when the early church was busting at the seams — and forgetting to take care of some of its widows and orphans — and so the disciples chose 7 men to be deacons.  Among them were two names more familiar than the rest — Stephen and Philip.  In Acts Chapter 7, pretty new into this deacon work, Stephen was stoned to death and became the first martyr of the church.  So here we are, one chapter later, following surviving Deacon Phillip, who remains bravely working for the church and speaking out for Jesus despite his colleague’s recent and fairly horrific death. 
And then, of course, our second character is the Ethiopian eunuch.  He is not named, but we know a lot about him.  He is very powerful — a court official of the queen of Ethiopia, in charge of her entire treasury.  He is very rich — he rides a chariot and has in his possession a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a treasure in those days.  He is very educated — handling finances for an important African nation and able to read.  And, perhaps most importantly for our story, he is very much a eunuch — he has been castrated so that he would be fit to attend female royalty.  And so, despite his power, wealth and education, due to his castration, he is an outsider, both in his country and in the Jewish tradition.  He is just returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he would not have been allowed into worship in the temple because as Deuteronomy states, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  
(You never know what you might find in the Bible.)
And then there is the mysterious third character, who is easy to gloss over in this reading, and also very easy to miss in our own lives, but without whom we wouldn’t have a story.  Depending on the translation, the third character is called “an angel of the Lord”, “the Spirit”, “a messenger of the Lord”, “the Holy Spirit”, “the Spirit of God”, “Ruach" (which means breath of God).  Whatever we call it, this character is involved in the story every step of the way.
This is who originally told Philip to head south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  A wilderness road to nowhere-worth-going.  Philip must have wondered what possible reason there could be to start walking that dusty and dangerous path.  And you can easily imagine how this story might have gone differently if Philip had pushed aside that voice that told him to get up and go, and instead, more reasonably and comfortably, stayed in the city with the rest of the disciples, doing the work of feeding widows as assigned.  But that isn’t what happened.  Instead, as we are succinctly told, Philip “got up and went.”  
And so Philip just happens to be in the right place at the right time, because who should come rolling along but the eunuch, who seems to have been following his own stirring from God to visit Jerusalem.  And again Philip hears that voice, as the Spirit instructs him to “go over to this chariot and join it.”  A strange request — at best embarrassing and presumptuous, and at worst dangerous.  And again, you can easily imagine lots of possible responses from Philip that would have changed the course of this story.  Philip could have said, “I don’t know him.”  Or “I don’t want to know him.”  Or “I don’t know what to say to that person who is richer/smarter/more powerful than me.”  Or “I’d rather go talk to this person over here that is my religion/sexuality/race.”
But instead of any of that, without question, Philip runs up to the chariot.  
And that is where the relationship starts between the two of them, as Philip hears the eunuch reading those familiar words from the prophet Isaiah and their conversation begins.  Philip shares his good news.  And maybe because of what Philip says, or maybe because of Philip’s openness to him, or maybe because the eunuch also feels the stirrings of the spirit, the eunuch points to a puddle of water and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  
Now, talk about a leading question.  I’m guessing all kinds of things must have flashed through Philip’s mind.  All kinds of reasons why this man - this foreigner - this African - this sexually unclean eunuch - this newcomer to the faith - should not be included in the baptism of Jesus.  But none of these thoughts cross Philip’s mouth.  I’ve got to believe that even though that third character isn’t mentioned in this little piece, Philip’s familiarity with the Spirit, his prior discernment and following that inner voice, is what allows Philip to act now without any hesitation or excuse.  Philip commands the chariot to stop, and almost before we know it, the eunuch is baptized and becomes the first African Christian, and is perhaps responsible for the spread of Christianity to that part of the globe.  Off he goes on his way rejoicing, feeling more included, more seen, more loved than ever before.
I wonder how often that third character of the Spirit calls us?  Maybe to a place we never expected - some wilderness road of our own.  Or to some piece of work that we didn’t know we had gifts or passion for.  Or to some person that might need our companionship or our help.  How often are we asked to enlarge our vision of the world, or our acceptance of the people around us?  How often are we invited to share our own good news, or to be open to the good news of another? 
And how often do we miss that voice, that stirring, that third character?  How often does our blindness or our hard heart or our fear or our assumptions stop us from listening, acting and rejoicing?
Philip and the eunuch both took God up in each moment before them and it changed everything.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a theologian and civil rights icon, said once, “In every moment something sacred is at stake.”  I wonder how we can be more open to the sacred possibility of every moment?  Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Gospel as Stand-Up Comedy

April 8, 2018
Easter 2
John 20:19-31

Today in the church world is often called Low Sunday because of the generally low attendance.  After all, everyone came last week and heard the biggest story of all! So church can be crossed off the to-do list for a while.

Have you heard the joke about the man who came out of church on Easter and the minister pulled him aside and said, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" The man replied, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord."  The minister questioned, “Then how come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?" The man whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."  

I recently heard a name for today that I much prefer to Low Sunday - Holy Humor Sunday.  Apparently, the early church had a tradition of observing the week following Easter Sunday as "days of joy and laughter" with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus' resurrection.  And so there is a (small but growing) groundswell calling for a return to this fun tradition. 
What a great idea!  (Especially since John isn’t here so I didn't have to sell it to anyone!)
Easter Sunday always feels magical - the room is full, triumphant hymns are sung loudly, everyone is hyped up on sugar — you can feel the joy.  But Easter season lasts 50 days.  So how can we get that joy to last?  A little humor cant hurt!

How do you like John Stewart’s take on Easter:  A guy comes down to earth, takes your sins, dies, and comes back three days later. If you believe in him you go to heaven forever. How do you get from that to Hide-The-Eggs? Did Jesus have a problem with eggs? Did he go, “When I come back, if I see any eggs, the whole salvation thing is off.”  

It seems especially appropriate this year to bring some humor to church.  After all, Lent began with Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day and ended with Easter on April Fool’s Day.  A ridiculous and rare occurrence that hasn't happened since 1956.
So this year you could make Ash Wednesday a date night, and the choir could trick everyone on Easter by starting with a Christmas hymn.  (That happened last week at the 10:30 service, if you haven't heard.  They definitely fooled me.)
But the truth is, Easter probably belongs on April Fool’s Day.  Easter’s resurrection stories are like crazy jokes and we barely understand the punchline.  

So - a girl and her mother ran into their priest at the store.  The girl told the priest they were getting ready for Easter.  Seeing a teaching opportunity, the priest replied ,“Oh really? Do you know what Easter’s all about?” The girl looked a little offended. “Of course I do. It’s when Jesus went to Jerusalem on a donkey and he got in trouble and they nailed him on a cross and then he died.  They put him in a tomb with a big rock in front of it.  But three days later the rock was rolled away.” “That’s great!” said the priest, pleased to know the Sunday School program worked so well. “But that’s not all,” said the girl.“When the rock gets rolled back, Jesus steps out and looks around, and so on Easter if he sees his shadow there’s six more weeks of winter.”  

Early church theologians described Easter as a practical joke that God played on the devil.  They saw the resurrection as mocking the powers that killed Jesus.

Some of those church fathers were jokesters themselves.  Like St. Augustine of Hippo, who in the 4th century prayed, “Lord, give me chastity ... but not yet.”  

The disciples were sure thankful to be let in on the joke in our story today.  Jesus shows up in the room - a room locked with fearful people whose leader has just been executed - and fills them with joy. 

Have you seen the cartoon that shows Jesus looking at his Twitter account:  ”Hey, look!  I’ve got 12 followers!” 
Unfortunately, one of the 12, Thomas, was missing from the locked room that night.  And so he thought the whole “Jesus is risen” thing was a practical joke.  He didn't believe it for a minute.  We get this same reading every year this first Sunday after Easter.  Every year we feel sorry for poor doubting Thomas, whose name lives on in infamy.  Thomas was missing from that locked room that fateful day.  He completely missed the punchline.  And so poor Thomas became the butt of the joke.

A disciple excitedly runs up to Thomas to share the good news: “He is risen!” the disciple cries. “I don’t know,” Thomas says. “Sounds like fake news to me.”  
Thankfully, Thomas was there the next week, and this time he got the joke. 
So all is well that ends well.  He never loses the unfortunate nickname, but Doubting Thomas goes on to a distinguished career of spreading the Gospel to India.  
One version of his story even has him as the only witness to the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven, where she apparently dropped her girdle for him to show the other disciples as evidence.  
(Believe it or not, that girdle part isn't even a joke, though it was denounced as heresy by some ancient church council.)
Sometimes proper religious people can be awfully serious.  We assume that God can’t have a sense of humor, that the Bible is a respectable document, that Christians are supposed to be somber.  But look closer!
All kinds ridiculous situations take place in the Bible.  Ancient women have babies constantly.  People turn into salt and get swallowed by giant fish.  And did you know that in the first book of Samuel God afflicts the Philistines with hemorrhoids when they steal the Ark of the Covenant?  And in 1 Kings Elijah suggests that the reason the pagan gods aren't showing up to take care of the people is because the pagan gods are defecating?  
And then there are all those camels!

Three camels try to board Noah´s Ark.  Noah stops them: “Hey, only two of each animal allowed.  One of you will have to stay ashore.”  The 1st camel says: “Not me. I’m the camel so many people swallow while straining the gnat from their soup.”  The 2nd camel says: “And I´m the camel whose back is broken by the last straw.”  The 3rd camel says: “And I´m the camel who shall pass through the eye of a needle sooner than the rich man shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  So Noah, deciding the Bible wouldn’t make any sense without them, lets them all come aboard.  

God’s gotta have a great sense of humor to put up with us.  

As Anne Lamott jokes, If you want to make God laugh, just tell her your plans. 

But God doesn't just put up with us, God delights in us!  And laughter is front and center of some of God’s most beautiful promises for us.  In Isaiah the people are promised “a place full of exuberance and laughter.”  And Jeremiah promises a time when “laughter will spill through the doors” and God will “turn their weeping into laughter.”

Joe asked God, "How much is a penny worth in heaven?"
God replied, "$1 million dollars."
Joe asked, "How long is a minute in heaven?"
God said, "One million years."
Joe asked for a penny.
God said, “Oh, sure.  Just give me a minute.”  

Stephen Colbert says he sees getting people to laugh as his ministry because if you are laughing, you can’t be fearful. Fear can make our options seem more limited than they really are.  If you are laughing, you can rise above whatever overwhelming, frightening, painful thing confronts you.  
A good joke can help us to see the difference between the world as it is and as it could be.  It can help us see the gap between who we are and who we want to be.  And maybe laughter can help us to bridge the distance.

So you’ve seen those bracelets with the letters “WWJD” inscribed on them - meaning: What would Jesus do?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to have a bracelets inscribed “JWPNHGHITSITFP” -  meaning: Jesus would probably not have gotten himself into this situation in the first place.  

Thankfully, we can laugh and be filled with joy not because life is without struggle, but because Easter assures us that God has the final say.
As Frederick Beuchner says, ”Blessed are those that get the joke."  

May we all get the joke, this Easter and beyond.  Amen.