Sacred Soil


What the creator can do with dust
February 15, 2018, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Sermons

FromAsh2Like you, I was raised to understand that insulting people is bad. You don’t call people names or talk about folks behind their backs. If you can’t say anything nice… And that includes the insistence that it would be bad to call people dirt, or dust.

But there are days, those days when people don’t listen to their mothers. Days when people call us names, treat us like dirt. Tell us we are nothing but dust. Act as if our very presence would make the whole world unclean. That even our breath might sully things.

Like the day I was spit at as I held hands with my wife.
Like my friend who gets followed around at the grocery store.
Like my neighbor who’s been here forever who gets told to go back where she came from.

And then there are those days, where the small things, the personal things can’t seem to move right. That our wheels are clogged with grief, pain, or the simple desire for meaningful work. To feel like we matter.

And it’s tempting, tempting to believe it. Tempting to believe that we are dirt. That we are bound by the ick and the muck of this world, and that we might just wither and float away on a gusty wind. Days where we are bound in the mud, unable to see ahead of ourselves, so covered in it that we unable to find our own skin.

Which is why we gather tonight. Why in a few moments I will trace a cross of ash on your forehead and tell you, O mortal you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

These most hopeful words: O Mortal, you are dust. Beautiful dust.

The power of dust is so beautifully captured in this poem Jan Richardson wrote for Ash Wednesday—My favorite line is this: “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

Oh what the Holy One can do with dust.

From our very beginnings we were formed of the dust of this ground. Even the name Adam, Adamah, means earth. Dirt. Dust. Our God formed us from the sacred dust of the ground, breathing life into our being. Breathing hope. Breathing possibility. Not in spite of the dirt. But because of it.

We are dust. We are a people who know what it is to be the ground, to float on the wind. We are a people who know what it is to be parched, dried out. Sifted. Refined.

We are dust—the mud of our ancestors, the earth of possibility. The seed bed of new life. The sacred soil of hope. We are beautiful dirt. God’s own beloved and mortal beings.

But O what the Holy one can do with dust.

And so today as we mark the cross, we do so with our feet rooted deep. Nourished by the waters of life. We claim the dust, the beautiful dust of our being. Not with shame—as if we had something to hide. Or fear. For we will meet all the name callers with our heads held high, with the dignity of the stars. For they are dust too.

And we will claim the dust, not with pompous righteousness, as if our dirt doesn’t stink. We will claim the dust knowing that we will fail, that will die. And nothing we claim as our own makes us better than anything else, that nothing will protect us from our mortality.

But O what the holy one can do with dust. For we know, washed in the fountain of life, death will never have the final word.

Which is why we stand here today, marked with the cross of Christ. For we do know what God can do with dust. With us. With these hands. These hearts. These hopes. Mortal though we are.

Amen.

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Wait for it…
November 5, 2017, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Misty ForestWinter was a very different thing where I grew up, out in Oregon. Out there, the months would linger on with misty skies, while the temps hovered at a damp 40 degrees. The burnt grass of summer would turn green, as would the moss, while everything else lay dormant and bare, waiting for the light to return as the sun hibernated.

As a child winter always seemed like a time of waiting. Enduring the endless nights, hunting for the first signs of spring. On my walks to school, I would challenge myself to notice the first shoots of crocus leaves peeking through the soil. The promise of return. The buds swelling on the trees. But through those gray days, there were certainly times where it seemed winter would last forever.

We are no strangers to the reality of waiting. Sitting in these in-between moments, knowing too well the now and not yet.

As Jesus stood among the crowds in our text today, he knew that they were also waiting. Most, waiting without much hope. In this society, shaped by honor and shame, the poor were defined by their failures, the widows defined by their loss, the meek by their weakness. As the people gathered at his feet, Jesus looked out at a hopeless people, who were merely waiting for an endless winter to end. Unsure that spring would ever come.

But Jesus knew another way—another world. A hope that turns the everything we thought we knew upside down. All of it on its head. And so, he speaks, offering a radically different way. Instead of suffering bringing shame and hopelessness, endless waiting—Jesus names these ones as honored. As beloved. Blessed.

Blessed are the heartbroken. You will receive the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who miss your loved ones so dearly. You will be comforted.

Blessed are you who are humble. You will receive far more than all the braggarts of this world.

As Jesus spoke, the people looked at him, wondering if they heard him right. Blessed? Honored? For being heartbroken, poor? Didn’t he understand? These were things to be ashamed of, to hide. To endure in silence.

On this All Saints Sunday, we gather in a space in between time. In the now and not yet. We remember, especially, those who have died. Those who have inspired us to live. Indeed, those who have blessed us. This is also a day when we call to mind the saints who are yet to come—those who will remember us on some All Saints day in the future. And these things can cause our hearts to break, as we sit in the waiting, as we long for those who have left us. Or as we worry for the future our children will inherit. Waiting in an uneasy space. Mourning, and longing for peace. Wondering if the crocus will ever emerge from the ground?

It is in these moments that I engage in a bit of wishful thinking, wishing that my very strong will were strong enough to pull those flowers through the ground. That I could make the doctors do the right thing. That I could grant even just a moment of relief from fear. That I could make the bullies stop. That by the strength of my own desire, we would know blessing. That I could by the sheer force of my will, end the shame and the suffering.

But my desire won’t do that. As strong as my will is, I cannot by my own force much of anything. And so, I am much tempted to sit with the crowds at Jesus’ feet and wonder, what? Blessed?

But here’s the thing about Jesus, the son of God—Jesus also lives in the now and not yet. Knowing the heartbreak and shame we endure now, while calling us to live in the not yet. But this isn’t a future defined by our hopelessness, or endless waiting. This is a future defined by God. Jesus invites us to live in the kingdom of heaven, as if it were here now.

To live in a way that cherishes mercy now.

To live in a way that honors peace now.

To live in a way of justice now.

Not to wait for some far-off spring, merely enduring the time, but even as winter approaches, to live as if life were flourishing now. Not to wait for people to treat us right, but to live in the full knowledge that we are God’s own beloved, worthy of peace, and justice. Now.

In Revelation, this beautiful and confusing text, John of Patmos’ vision pulls the curtain away, this curtain that divides the now and not yet, revealing that the kingdom of heaven is among us now. Right now. That right now God is wiping away every tear from our eyes; right now, the lamb is leading us to the water of life. Not in some heaven far away, but now.

It is important for us to remember, this text is not suggesting that you are honored because your heart breaks, as if you should go and seek out heartbreak to earn God’s blessing. Rather, Jesus knows that we are already heartbroken, already mourning. Already hungering for justice. But instead of endlessly enduring this in shame, Jesus calls us to live in the kingdom of heaven now.

To live in a world that comforts the mourning, feeds the hungry, that cherishes mercy.

For ours is the kingdom of God. The crocus blooms now.



The story
June 19, 2017, 8:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

20710763135_5197b1effd_oIn our story this week comes after a long run of healing stories. Jesus has healed a paralyzed man, a man’s daughter, a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage, two blind men, a man unable to speak, and more. Somewhat breathless, Jesus looks up at the crowds, those so desperate for healing. The text describes them as harassed and helpless.

And so, Jesus looks to the disciples (and by extension us), and says, you’ve got work to do.

But first, there are at least two things to know about how Jesus does this healing work. It’s tempting to believe that the disciples went out, armed with some kind of super power and zapped people into health. As if they donned their capes and went around: Pew, pew, your leg is healed; zap, you’re alive again!

But Jesus’ healing is far different:

  • The first thing to know is that Jesus sees us in a dramatically different way. It’s easy to miss this, because we tend to be results oriented people, looking for the end game. But every time Jesus heals someone, the encounter begins with Jesus seeing. Truly seeing the other person, with eyes that know the full story. This sort of penetrating soul piercing sight that reaches well beyond the pretty picture we try to present to the world, to the true story. A vision that sees the stories of heartbreak, the harassment, helplessness.
  • The second, is the way Jesus heals. When Jesus heals, he is about making the person whole, and returning them to the community. It is not that the ailment itself is evil (though sometimes it is embodied evil), but that Jesus sees the job of healing as building up the community of the faithful. Healing so that we can be there for each other. So that we (together) might be whole.

So when Jesus looks out at the crowd, the heartbroken, harassed, and helpless crowd, he is inviting the disciples to go out and see (really see the full story), and then to bring the community to wholeness.

And we too—all these years later, we are also called to go out, to the heartbroken. The harassed and helpless. To see the full story, to bring wholeness. Your work is needed– Even if you think you have nothing to give—your work is needed.

And it all starts with a story.

We’ve found this to be very true with the work of Awake. We’ve been at it about three years now—reaching out into this community, listening closely for the heartbreak, the harassment, the helplessness. Collecting the stories.

Before Awake, Unity housed a summer reading program run by outside folks, serving kids largely from other neighborhoods. It was good. But not great.

When Awake began, we decided that this sort of thing didn’t really fit with our mission. So instead, we began to listen, truly listen to the stories of our neighbors. And we heard a frustration that there really aren’t quality programs for kids to keep up with their reading over the summer. We heard the heartbreak of parents, unsure how to help their kids grow. We heard the longing of teens, who wanted opportunities for real leadership.

And so, working together, hearing the stories, seeking wholeness, we built a program together that is bringing wholeness to our community. That is seeking healing. A program that builds leadership, and justice, because of the gift of relationship.

And that’s just one story. Right now, Awake is working with a group of people who are heartbroken—and feeling harassed and helpless, because our city doesn’t have a real newspaper to speak of. It’s hard to know what the stories even are. In response, we brought folks together to discuss, and imagine, to try to see a way forward to some kind of wholeness. A way for our community to come to know its own stories, to know itself. And we might be more whole. It is a healing thing to be a part of.

And I’m just picking on Awake today. There are the stories of Unity, washing firetrucks, Comunidad Unida, creating a place for different cultures to come together. There are the stories in your own life, where inspired by your faith, you have truly seen your neighbor, heartbroken and harassed, and worked together toward healing.

This is indeed, God at work in us.

But, we don’t do it perfectly.

Too often we are tempted to think we know what the story is—that we know what’s going on and why. Sometimes with deadly consequences. (Is he reaching for his wallet, or a gun?). So often, we are tempted try to fit someone into our own story, crushing them into our plot line. Molding them into the characters we understand, rather than truly seeing the other. We see what we want to see. We tell the same old story about others—even if it is riddled with lies and half-truths.

But Christ is the one who enters into our story—fully. Knowing us, as we are. Completely. Even the parts we don’t like about ourselves. The parts we’re supposed to be ashamed of. But Jesus, doesn’t assume—instead, he really understands. He was not confused about the life of the tax collector, the prostitute. The leper. And he’s not confused about the ways we are broken—the ways we are heartbroken, harassed, and helpless. We can’t hide that from him. But, then Jesus didn’t need us to be good to come and take on our flesh and love us completely. Jesus doesn’t need our perfection. Rather, to be a part of our story. To love us completely.

So it is from this love that Christ sends us out to learn this story from others—to know the heartbreak, and pain. The harassment and helplessness. The hope. And to tell that story, the story of a loving God who truly sees—sees us as we are, so that we might know wholeness, love and healing.

And this, this is the story we tell. The story of Jesus. The story of our own lives. The story of God at work in this community, and in our whole-selves.

Amen.



Gross
September 11, 2016, 10:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

OperationGratitude2016.jpgFifteen years ago today, Jeanie and I were listening to the radio as we drove into our job at a retreat center outside of Lansing, Michigan. The morning was bright and crisp, much like this one. The summer heat had just let go, and we were looking forward to a day outside, mowing and weeding. As we drove, we listened carefully as the BBC reporter attempted to make sense of the earliest news: the unbelievable news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, right in the heart of New York City.

The news had become more clear when we arrived at work. And all the air seemed sucked out of the world, as we sat breathlessly in front of the small television, trying to make sense out of that awful day.

Fifteen years, and we’re still trying to make sense of it.

In our text today, Jesus describes the love of God as the one who will abandon 99 sheep, to search for that lost one. He describes the love of God as the one who will sweep and search, constantly, tirelessly, until that single lost coin has been found.

And so it was with our first responders, doing, as we say, God’s work with their hands. They swept and searched and hoped, digging through the rubble of that day, until each one was found. Each one precious, and worth finding.

Today, following worship, we will walk down the street, with watermelon and buckets in tow, to go and wash emergency vehicles, and give thanks for these ones who live daily with the promise that they will risk their lives for the sake of the lost sheep.

And we say, thanks be to God, for all those who are willing to take such risks –the risk to see the beauty and value and hope in the other, especially when they are buried beneath the ruble of hopelessness.

Thanks be to God, because this is not always our impulse. Not always the way we do it.

Listen again to that first part of the text: …the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The tone matters. He welcomes sinners. There is no awe here, not a hint of heroism. Just disgust, utter disgust that Jesus would dare to welcome sinners, that he would dare to eat with them.

Disgust.

It is a powerful emotion, one that boils up in us almost unbidden. Its power is unparalleled. I could, with a single word, one word, I could make your stomach churn.

…I’ll refrain, because I’m kind like that. And because Jeanie warned me not to.

Now, disgust is useful–it keeps us from getting into trouble with parasites and germs. And I’m good with that. But it also has this tremendous way of infecting how we view other people. Many of us feel disgusted as we consider our politicians today. You’ll hear the language of disgust as folks describe liberals or conservatives. Perhaps you feel a tinge of disgust toward the Houston Texans, as they prepare to play against the Chicago Bears today.

Disgust is a full body response—which at its worst, leads us to seeing others as less than human. “They” become disposable, a mere waste product.

To the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners and tax collectors was just that kind of disgusting. And it made him disgusting too. Which turned out to be deadly for him. The power of disgust helped pave the way toward the cross. It made him into something that needed to be removed, disposed of.

And to be sure, it wasn’t just deadly for him. Disgust led the terrorists to see American lives as expendable. Disgust led Stalin to remove anyone he saw as an enemy. In every war, it is the fuel that allows us to destroy each other. It is the power of bullies, and discrimination.

And if that weren’t enough, we also have this uncanny knack for turning disgust inward—treating ourselves as if we were mere worthless garbage.

Which is all the more incredible as we consider what Jesus is doing in this story. He does not even give a second’s thought to the idea that sinners are gross. He doesn’t believe that for one minute. Indeed, the very people the Scribes call disgusting, Jesus calls beloved. He tells a story of precious and sacred beauty in each one of us. He tells the story of seeking each one, and celebrating when we are found.

Indeed, Jesus did not look for the found, for the worthy, for the good and upright, those who can appear to have their stuff together at all times, or for those who have somehow managed to get through life without making any mistakes—Jesus sought the lost. The forsaken. The sinners. He sought you, and me. Just as we are.

And not only that, he seeks us, over and over again, rejoicing each time, each moment that we are found. Rejoicing whenever we come home.

Because that thing in you that you name as gross, disgusting, Jesus names as beloved. Because that thing in others we find disturbing, Jesus still finds beloved.

Because truth is, we’re all kinda gross. And the amazing thing is that Jesus loves us anyway. Each one of us. Loves us, searches for each one of us through the rubble of our lives, and says “come home.”

You who are weary, come home.

May it be so. Amen.



Snakes in the Grass
December 13, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Nativit

Luke 3:7-18

As I was preparing to preach this week, I read a commentary that complained about how hard it is for the preacher to read the Gospel lesson at church—to stand up there and repeat John’s words: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!?

I thought to myself—well, um… maybe not. Actually, that’s kind of fun. Not that I think of you all as vipers. I really don’t. But, I appreciate John’s colorful use of language, and the excuse to call people names, under the guise of—well, you know—I’m just reading the bible folks…

And really, one doesn’t need to stop there with John. My sick sense of humor has always wondered why we don’t hold up signs that say Deuteronomy 28:19 at sporting events. That’d be a lot more fun than something so hopeful as John 3:16…

I’ll let you look those up.

Thing is, if you want to condemn someone, judge them, get snarky, this ancient book has plenty of fodder.

Though I also know that several of you have experienced that in some rough ways, as bible verses have been used as arrows and rocks, thrown to pierce and to judge and to make it clear that you’re not good enough; that you haven’t done it right; that you’ve disappointed the family. I’ve got plenty of stories of my own in this vein. And in this season of family gatherings, as the presidential hopefuls offer up their own venomous points of view… well it’s only going to get worse. Judgement seems to fly around with such stinging force—it’s like standing on the beach in a windstorm. Turns out that none of us ever seem to be able to measure up, at least not for very long.

Which makes me feel a bit sheepish now about that viper line…

Truth is though, if I’m honest, I’d rather be dishing up the judgment, putting myself in John’s shoes. I’d rather imagine myself calling people names, than actually hearing and taking to heart what John has to say about welcoming the reign of God.

Hey, as a side-note, I want to tell you something that may be useful in those judgment windstorms, those bible battles. Martin Luther taught that the Bible is the Manger that holds Christ. The Bible is not Christ himself. This beautiful book points to God—but is not itself God. Which means that it’s always God’s love that matters—not some obscure passage your Uncle George decided pull out of context. Now, this may not actually help you in your conversation with Uncle George, but at least you can go home knowing that if that weird bible quote doesn’t point to the transforming love of God—then there’s deeper digging to do.

Dig deeper, until the transforming love of God is revealed… it’s there. I promise.

It’s there, even in what John has to say about repenting, turning around, preparing for God…  Here’s the part that helps me with that:

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?” “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.” Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?” He told them, “No more extortion – collect only what is required by law.” Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail – and be content with your rations.”

I boil that down to: Share. Be honest. Be kind.

I don’t know about you, but on my snarky days—those days when I enjoy calling people vipers—it’s pretty hard to think so well of other people that I want to share, be honest, or be kind.

And I wonder if our passages from Philippians might just be the help we need.

It calls to us reminding us to rejoice in the Lord always. And again, I say rejoice. When we see snakes—find a reason to rejoice. When Uncle George comes barreling at you, find a way to rejoice. When everyone seems to be messing up at work—find a way to rejoice. When the car in front of you cuts you off—rejoice.

Even if it’s the small sort of rejoicing that thanks God for the memories, the vast creativity of God, the fact that you made it through. (Please note, this isn’t the sort of rejoicing that denies that things sometimes suck. It’s the kind of rejoicing that says, God’s love is still bigger.)

Rejoice. Again and again. Because if we look at the world through the lens of snarkiness, we will indeed find plenty of snakes all around. They are lurking everywhere. But, if we look at the world through the lens of rejoicing, with fondness and admiration for the gifts of God that are also everywhere – despite our snakely nature—then, I wonder if something else becomes possible.

I wonder if it then becomes possible to really hear what John had to say to us: Repent. Share with each other. Be honest. Be kind. Even if—even if—they don’t deserve it.

With a heart full of the love of God; with eyes that see the world with fondness and admiration for the beauty that seems to appear, even though, we are so often like snakes in the grass. Philippians calls us to rejoice in God’s gifts with wonder, and celebrate them. Celebrate them with such a heart that we cannot help but respond with the desire to share, be honest, and be kind. To turn toward God—instead of snarkiness, snakey-ness.

And then maybe—despite ourselves, we might see, we just might glimpse, the stunning beauty of the reign of God.

I worked one summer as a teacher in a kid’s camp. Most the kids were awesome—but we had this one. You know, “that kid.” He’d grown up the son of missionaries, and was used to being able to roam around anywhere he wanted. He didn’t much like authority either. But, in kid’s camp, we couldn’t let him do that. Wandering wasn’t allowed. So one day, as this little boy started toward the door, I found a special sort of anger rising up in me. I wanted to use some John-like language. And so I did what I felt I had to do, and picked him up, wrapping my arms around him, barring him from the door. And then suddenly, despite my own intentions, this little child leaned into me, relaxing into a hug. In that surprising moment—something came over me and melted my heart—something came over me and called me to rejoice in the beauty of this kid. Even though I didn’t feel he deserved it. Truth is, I didn’t deserve that tender moment either.

Love transformed. In this unplanned hug God’s love was able to come through what could have been an awful moment—and we were able to share, be honest, be kind. To each other. And everything changed. Beauty came from our brokenness. And we were both able to turn around and live differently.

Christ came to love each one of us, to transform us by that love. Christ came because he knew that calling us names would never really change our hearts—but that revealing to us that the love of God is even more powerful than death—that by trusting this we just may see the reign of God revealed.

In sharing. Honesty and kindness. Even when we don’t deserve it. Especially when we don’t deserve it.

 

 

 



Bind us Together
October 4, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

wedding-ringsI love a good rite of passage, like graduations. Though I find them dreadfully boring, I still feel my heart catch and my eyes well up when a young person receives that diploma, and an important hand is shaken. My breathing stutters at weddings on television, in those sentimental moments where the couple, in perfect lighting, makes promises to each other, and the sound mixer adds in a gentle, “Ahhh.” I’m not much of a sap in most things, but this is my kryptonite.

So yesterday, as Rachel, stood at the top of the aisle in her gorgeous white dress, arm locked with her father’s, I looked down to see Carlos at my left, full of wonder as she came toward him. Desperate, I repeated in my head a steady mantra- get it together Julie, get it together. Breathe, breathe.

I’m grateful she walked slowly—giving me a moment to remember that I had a job to do. And so, by a small miracle, my eyes dried and we moved about the business of making promises, and cherishing the gift they share. And it was good.

So, to be honest with you, when I learned that this day’s texts would be Jesus’ teachings on divorce, I was a bit incredulous. Really? Really? Couldn’t we just wait a week? One week? A month…

These are tough texts. They’re categorized under Jesus’ hard teachings. That’s the official title. A title well earned.

But I’ve got this compulsion to be obedient to the lectionary, the agreed upon set of texts that was formed by a committee quite a while back. My reason for not preaching the text would have to be better than: I don’t want to.

And the truth is, divorce is a real thing that we wrestle with. And I keep saying, church shouldn’t be something abstract and odd. It should matter.

So, alright then, what is Jesus getting at?

Let’s remember the story. Now, once again the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. They enjoy this game That’s just what they do. This time they ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce. And Jesus tells them what the law of Moses was. It actually allowed a man to, for whatever reason, divorce his wife. In Jewish law, there was no provision for a woman to do the same. It was a one-way street.

To which Jesus says, no. To do this is to hurt the person you’re married to, in a most horrible way. And gender doesn’t matter. At all.

I know it’s hard to hear in our day, but when Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;” I’m sure the disciples’ jaws dropped. Because in that day, the sin of adultery was not a sin against the woman, but against her father. Because she would have been considered property. And there is this question about whether one could sin against property?

Jesus does what he is always doing, moving away from heartless adherence to the law and toward relationship. Indeed, the law should protect the vulnerable—not make it okay to hurt them.

We see this as he demands that the disciples welcome the children too—for welcoming them is as welcoming the kingdom of heaven. Children had no status at the time. There would be no such thing as a child’s birthday party—no celebrating the child within. He is saying once again that God’s reign is centered on our weakness, on our need for one another, on the fact that we are vulnerable. Not on our human power, our rigid rules.

Yet, we are taught to be embarrassed by our need. That is something that translates well across time and culture. We hate our need because it makes us weak. It is too revealing. We are compelled to be like the Pharisees, and look for simple laws and rules that will allow our hearts to turn hard, and protect us from the fact that we are fragile. We can and do hurt each other.

I have sometimes wondered if I’m such a sap for rites of passage because I am a child of divorce. I have wondered: perhaps it is those moments of transition, those moments of beginning and promise and hope, that have a special power for me, because I know well how sacred and fragile they are.

Putting all matters of legality, and permissibility aside. Divorce is simply awful. And I do believe that anytime a marriage ends God grieves, not because of any law that is broken, but because human relationships are broken. This text is a hard teaching, because we know that the fact that we fail is devastating.

And that is the truth of this text. It is a hard teaching. Worried over this hardness, we once again try to be as the Pharisees, using even this to make more rules.

A few weeks ago, a woman called me, inquiring about getting her children baptized. Breathlessly, she began the conversation, listing out her many sins. “I’ve been divorced. And I am not married to the children’s father,” she began. She wanted to make sure I knew all the reasons why I might reject her request before her question was fully aired. I don’t think she fully believed me when I told her I wasn’t concerned about that. My concern was about whether they intended to come to church, and be a part of the family of God. My concern was about relationship…

Which makes me wonder, how did the church, this place where we come to welcome the brokenhearted, the wounded, the vulnerable, how did this become a place where people feel excluded and rejected by their own brokenness? How did this become a place where we magnify the embarrassment caused by our own neediness, rather than attending to each other and to the relationship we are called to? Rather than heal each other, hold each other, be as Christ to one another?

Perhaps instead of all these rules, and even instead of really teaching on divorce or marriage, Jesus was trying to do something else. I think instead he was reminding us that we are blessed by the ties that bind us, the ties that hold us together and tight. We are blessed by honoring the most vulnerable, those who are considered weak. We who are considered weak.

Because it is in our weakness, that God’s love is made perfect.

May we be so bound to one another.

Amen.



Formed from Dirt
September 20, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

clayI have this great picture of Jeanie (that she has forbidden me to post, so I’ve chosen another), taken on a day spent with our friend Barbara. Barbara is a potter, and on the day of the photo, Jeanie had decided to give it a try.

Pottery is fundamentally a tactile experience–folding and kneading the wet clay, working in just enough moisture that it becomes pliable, distributing the water so that it is spread evenly throughout. It’s good exercise after a day of frustration. Once the clay is ready, it takes a steady and patient hand to coax the clay into formation.

At Barbara’s direction, Jeanie held the ball of clay steady in her hand and tossed it onto the wheel, firm and hopeful. Then she turned the wheel on with her foot and began to shape the clay–desperately seeking its center.

Turns out this is one of the most difficult aspects of pottery–finding the center. To begin, you have to move the mound of clay to that perfect spot in the middle where it can be pulled and teased into other shapes. If you’re even a little off, as you pull up on the clay, the slightest wobble will send shards of wet sloppy clay flying across the room.

As any new potter would, Jeanie struggled to find the center–and as a result, that ball of clay kept getting smaller and smaller, slipping through her fingers, splattering across the room, her clothes, her glasses. Till finally the adventure descended into a mud fight. That’s when I grabbed my camera.

In our texts for today, the disciples were also struggling to find their center. After a long day of hearing Jesus talk about how he was going to die, the disciples, tired of being confused and disoriented, they decided to talk about something they were pretty sure they understood: who was the greatest.

Though, it’s clear from our text that they disagreed about the particulars of the answer, as each placed himself squarely in the middle of that wheel.

But, Jesus knew that kind of center wasn’t going to hold. It couldn’t. Imagining the disciples jockeying for their role as the greatest… well… seems to me that that mostly a bunch of mud flinging, splattering. I think Jesus knew, we’re not going to be able to form anything out of that…

And so, he sits down, calls the twelve to him, and then places a child in the center. A kid. Right in the middle.

Now this is unexpected. Perhaps even odd. I get that these disciples (who are always messing up) shouldn’t be at the center. I get that their desires for greatness are merely egomaniacal dreams. That makes sense to me. But, what’s odd is that Jesus didn’t put himself there at the center, you know, as the son of God. Rather it is a child, right there in the middle.

Now, I think it’s tempting to view this image much as we view pictures of Santa Claus. Sweet Jesus, holding a small child in his lap for all of us to admire and adore. Cue the sappy music; find the soft-focus lens.

But I don’t think that Jesus did this to be cute or sentimental. For one thing, this doesn’t fit with any other picture we have of him. He’s not a sappy guy. Especially as Mark portrays him. Just ask that withered fig tree, or the money changers in the temple.

Instead, I think Jesus was putting vulnerability in the center. Our very own fragile nature. Our capacity for heartbreak and hope, all that makes us small. I think he was telling us that our vulnerability is the clay of greatness, the mixture of sand and dirt and water that can form beauty and possibility. All those things that leave us utterly defenseless.

This is something that parents know especially well. To love someone small and fragile, someone who needs our protection—it is as if that little one walks around with your own heart beating outside your chest, exposed, naked. Their bruises are your own, their cries for help pierce through you, as your own body echoes with their pain. To love a child means to take on their vulnerability as if it were your own. Because it is.

This is what Jesus was placing in their center. Not a cute baby. No, Jesus placed there the very thing the disciples would call “least.” The reminder that we are all as children, all fragile, all in need of loving care.

He was clear; this center is held by our brokenness, not our capacity to earn money, not our skills in time management. Certainly not our college degrees. No, Jesus places in their center, our center, our shared capacity for heartbreak and hope, all that makes us small and fragile.

And then he tells them, tells us, welcome this little one, for in so doing, you welcome me. In welcoming this vulnerable, fragile one, you welcome God.

And if you think about it, we’ve known that for a while. God is found in brokenness.

We find our God among

  • those who come here for PADS, our emergency shelter;
  • Syrian refugees who desperately hope to escape the cruelty of war,
  • those who fear their homes,
  • those whose work feels meaningless.
  • Those who rely on others for their daily care.
  • With all of the vulnerable, all of the least,

Our God is there, calling us to re-center, to refocus, to turn from our own self-serving need to be the “greatest,” and seek God among the least.

Turns out, this is why our God came to dwell with us in the first place–because God’s own heart broke in our vulnerability. God’s own self ached with our pain. The echoes of our cries piercing God’s very own body. And knowing this, God wanted us to know there is hope and possibility far beyond our capacity to imagine. Indeed, God came to us, experienced our vulnerability even to death, God’s very own death. And in so doing showed us life and beauty beyond measure.

Throwing pots is messy. Dirty. To make a pot means embracing the dirt–that which we might call the least. To make a pot means tending to its form, nudging and shaping, nourishing with water. It requires patience– prayer. It means knowing when to pull, when to push, when to rest the clay. But first, it requires a center, a grounding, a place from which to move and grow, a place from which to form.

And this is what our God has done for us, for all of us. We who are small, we who are more fragile than we would ever like to name. God has gone to the heart of our own brokenness, our own vulnerability, taking it on with God’s own self. And this is a free gift– nothing we asked for and nothing we earn. And yet, we are invited to see, to tend to the heartbreak of the world, to our own heartbreak and seek God’s very self at the center.

For we are formed from this clay. From this dirt and sand and water that God has breathed life into us that we too may go and love what God has loved.

Amen.