What’s the deal . . . with The Church these days?

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
Sept. 18, 2022

I Timothy 2:1-7

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable before God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth; I am not lying), a teacher of the gentiles in faith and truth.

Let us pray: Good and gracious God, we pray for all people. We desire to live peaceful lives. Uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

The glossy newsletter had just announced a new pastor at a big church in Durham NC. In the newsletter photos, I’m sure the new pastor looked competent and relaxed, but back home in Greensboro, facing a challenge like this, my friend Chris was daunted. Daunted by following in the footsteps of a pastor who had served that church for decades and was known by everyone to be “larger than life.” Daunted by the strange clunking noise coming from under the hood of every church that was not going to fix itself. Daunted by the enormity of suffering in the world and the needs of his young family. Now, self-help books might have told him, “Daunted means preparation for excellence!” But his gut probably said, “what have I just agreed to?” Two days later, he received a letter in his actual mailbox. It was from the former pastor.

“Mary and I just returned home from the weekend away and have read a copy of what was given to the congregation. We have already heard many of the celebrations about your call to Westminster and read the brochure you wrote.” He then went on the detail a few specific things he noted, ending with the key detail that he learned from their friend Johnny Atkins that Chris also didn’t like mayonnaise, surely a sign from the Lord. He then wrote this: “I want to insure you that I will be the chairperson of your fan club. Nobody wants you to succeed and prosper in this call more than I do. I am including a copy of the promise I made to the Session in 2006 and I intend to continue to honor it.”

You may be glad to know that I received notes of encouragement from seven former pastors of this church when I started here at BPC (from Revs. David Ensign, Meg and Jarrett McLaughlin, Jay Click, Beth Braxton, Mary Ann McKibben Dana, and Emily Berman D’Andrea).

Now, let’s turn to young Pastor Timothy who was just starting out in ministry in Ephesus. He had been an intern of sorts to Paul during his second tour in church planting and was on his maiden voyage of leadership at a time when things were rugged for the church. No doubt he was daunted. Daunted by the narcissistic leaders of the Empire who required you to worship them or face their wrath. Daunted by the needs of widows, young and old, and by what was generating so many widows to begin with. Daunted by the onslaught of preachers whose messages sounded nothing like Jesus but turned quite a profit. Daunted by preachers who kept restricting access to marriage and certain foods in ways that sounded more like legalism than love. Daunted by folks who were leaving in droves because of the hypocrisy they saw. And daunted by the normal running of the church among leaders who sometimes squabbled with each other or showed up with wine on their breath or repeatedly called him kiddo.

And around that time, I imagine a courier or mutual friend passed him this encouraging papyrus letter, that we call 1st Timothy, that spoke to his ache for encouragement.

Timothy, you’re like a son in the faith to me. Yes, prayers, intercessions, petitions, thanksgivings are for all people…. Leaders and kings included. And yes, Jesus is for all people… He gave his life for everyone. I am not lying… ” (1 Tim. 2:7). That is what I have been heralding all over this world. He commiserated with Timothy about how hard it is to compete with the peddlers of theological short-cuts by saying, “Without a doubt, the mystery of godliness is great” (1 Tim. 3:16). “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). And he took time to coach Timothy on what made for good elders and deacons. Unfortunately, Paul’s words about women’s leadership and slavery in this letter have historically caused a ton of the strife Paul was trying to avoid when he hoped for quiet peaceful quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. But Paul never set out to be Christ himself, which he also said in this letter, full disclosure, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” In this letter most of all we hear Paul, chairperson of the Timothy fan club, say, “Do not neglect the gift that is in you (1 Tim. 4:14). Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. Grace be with you (1 Tim. 6:12). ”

What a blessing to read that. What a blessing to receive this message especially when the wind is in your face, especially when people leave the church, especially when kings and leaders and influencers sell people on the myth that there are short-cuts to a life of peace and flourishing. Short cuts like: This diet will give you the life you want. A better job and more money and a better house will calm the churn within you. A new relationship or a different church or strict set of laws will quell your loneliness. A new political leader will fix things.

Paul wanted Timothy to know that ministry was not hard because Timothy was young or in the wrong town or lacking the proper gifts or just a few centuries too early to see big church numbers. It was hard because it was hard. And you know what is even stronger than all that seems to conspire against you? The grace and love and eternal life that dwells within you.

What a blessing Paul gives to us now when we may feel daunted. According to the new data from the Pew Forum, Christian affiliation in the US dropped from 78 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2020. This change highlights the rise of the “nones,” those whose religious affiliation is ‘none’ or nothing in particular, and the research details what we already know, that ages 15-29 are when religious switching most often happens. It notes an uptick in disaffiliation among older adults and says that disaffiliation is concentrated among Protestants, both evangelicals and non, more so than Catholics. We might also feel daunted by the climate crisis or the long shadow of Covid or racism or the blinding speed of technological change and mass migration. And more than likely, we are daunted by our workload or how our loved one sounded the other day on the phone.

So how are things going in this church? Here are some numbers you might feel: 225 of you were here for worship in person and online last week, up from 123 on January 9th. In 2017, around the peak at BPC, worship attendance was 395. It’s easy to let those numbers define us. But, how about these numbers: 58 calls or visits by the deacons last week. Half a ton of food collected for the ECHO food pantry on Saturday. 42 hot dinners shared at Community Table. 58 preschoolers walking finger on the wall in the hall. 31 youth throwing colorful chalk straight into Adam’s beard at their kick-off event and 16 confirmands.

How do you account for the thousands of tears the flowed at funerals that were consoled with hugs and cookies and the promise of resurrection? How do you account for the widow who gets a ride to church and a smile that declares her pricelessness before God? And how do you account for the quiet prayer in the meditation room that lightened the 10,000 pound load on a mother’s heart? And how do you assess the intrinsic beauty of memorial stones and trees or a perfect anthem or a youth who experiences true belonging or words from scripture that feel like a telephone line through time? How do you measure the weight of a hymn sung full blast by the bedside of a woman with just a few dozen breaths left in her body or the lump in the throat of a parent as their child is baptized or says “I do”? And back to the story I shared at the beginning, how do you measure the impact of a former pastor like Rev. Holderness? By the church he helped build or the non-profits he started in Durham? By his son who won the Amazing Race and talks about church as part of his life to his millions of followers on YouTube? Or, by my friend Chris, now seasoned in ministry there, some 14 years later, who at Rev. Holderness’ memorial service, in a sanctuary swollen with sorrow and love, stepped into the pulpit and read that letter one more time?
How do you measure a year in the life? Cue all my music lovers out there.

The truth is… on the balance sheet of grace… all of it comes from God. All of it comes as a gift. All of it flows from the heart of our God mediated through Jesus quivering through in our hearts through the Spirit. It is daunting in the best way to stand on promises that have echoed over millennia, daunting in the best way to stand on the shoulders of giants who lived and died in the faith, sinners and saints, misfits and mystics, who made love visible in this world in pulpits and pews but also in peace efforts and protests, in public schools and libraries, Presbyterian hospitals and universities, and of course the pastor of public television, Fred Rogers. Seen that way, our lives become prayers. Our jobs become praise. Our church becomes a pallet in the hand of the divine painter. A packet of yeast to leaven an overbaked world. A pinch of salt in world starving on bland mass-produced food. A pop of light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who not coincidentally also helped draft the Episcopalian book of common prayer, famously said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Amen.

 

No Regrets: Bent Out of Shape

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

August 28, 2022

 

Today we continue our sermon series, No Regrets.

====[photo of young person with “No Ragrets” tattoo is shown]

This picture tells me that sometimes, you really should have a regret. You should.

I was inspired by research coming from the World Regret Survey, where people all over the world, over 19,000 people from 105 countries, shared what they regretted in life. Researcher Daniel Pink studied the data and noted that regardless of the person’s age or geography, regrets tended to fall into four categories. You may recognize them in yourself.

There are Foundation regrets, such as the ones Adam mentioned last week, failing to save money or study in school, regrets like the famous grasshopper who fiddled around all summer instead of storing corn like the ant, with his sensible shoes and IRA.

Then there are Boldness regrets, when you didn’t go on that coffee date or follow that dream or speak up and your life ends up looking like the agendas of other people.

There are Connection regrets, a rift or a drift in a relationship. We’ll talk about that next week.

But even though they were less frequent, the regrets that were the most powerful in people’s lives were Moral regrets. Moral regrets are failures in kindness, breaches of integrity, lapses in loyalty. The research made this point very clearly: That the clouds of cruelty in our past tend to linger the longest. Carried shame has this power to bend people, to bend whole communities, out of shape.

I invite you to listen for how that dynamic might be taking place in today’s Gospel.

 

Luke 13:10-17 

10 Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water?16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.

 Let us pray. Lord, may your Spirit move such that in my words your people might hear your eternal word. Amen.

 

A normal service had begun. Jesus was teaching on various topics. And suddenly, there she was, a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. Scripture doesn’t tell us she had a spine injury or birth defect, though we can imagine that being physically different in an upright world could wound your spirit. Scripture doesn’t tell us if she had a grueling job, probably not hours bent over a laptop, but maybe her shoulders and neck had been warped by carrying heavy crops or water jugs or children or all three. Like these people I saw in Guatemala.

====[photo of Guatemalan woman carrying crops, water, and children is shown]

But Scripture does say she had a crippled spirit, and that sounds a whole lot deeper. The Greek word here conveys that she is doubled over. That sounds like the kind of hurt that is very hard to get over. Perhaps she had been carrying enormous worry, shoulders practically up at her ears, back tight as a drum. Maybe she was loaded with debt and she had to keep her head down or someone might harass her about what she owed. Maybe it was a combination many people in the world face at once: exhaustion, isolation, trauma, shame, all this grief accumulating and compounding over 18 years. The word grief comes from the French word greve, meaning a heavy burden. Truthfully, we don’t know her story in particular, but we probably know people who duck into the sanctuary with a heavy anvil upon their spirit, a weight upon their life, a secret encumbrance on their soul and they can’t even think straight.

At a church I served a long time ago, there was a man in his 50s who started showing up week after week to work around the property. He would be bent over for hours, ripping weeds out from corners of  the church property, some that were barely visible to begin with. I was locking up one evening and saw him out there again on his knees and said, “Hey friend, do you just love this kind of weeding – like an extreme sport or prayer practice – or is something going on?” The man chatted affably for a while then gulped and said, “I did something stupid on a business trip.” He seemed to be daring himself to say more. “I guess I was trying to be a hot shot or teenager again, but I had an affair. Not sure my wife or my kids will ever forgive me but maybe God will. I’m trying to do the right thing, now.” Suddenly the dark mulch felt like a confessional. The silence was thick, save for a distant leaf blower that droned like a Gregorian chant. He ripped out another weed. We talked for a while, and finally, I asked him, “Do you want me to say it again? The assurance of pardon words you hear every week? About being forgiven by God, completely and totally?” He straightened up, wiped his cheek with his glove, “Yes, I really do. You have no idea how much I need to hear that. The hard part will be believing it.” Over time, I noticed he started opening up to people. They opened up to him. His family changed a lot, some of it painfully, but some for the better. But that great rejection he expected never came. Not from the community, not from God, and eventually it seemed like he started pulling the weeds of self-rejection from his mind whenever they sprang up. I’ll never forget this: He’d come up for communion and pluck that bread and say intensely “thanks be to God.” Today’s story makes me think of him.

Boldness regrets, connection regrets, foundation regrets are pretty easy to talk about. Someone says, “Take it from me, kid, stay in school!” or “I shoulda quit that job years ago!” But moral regrets, the shame stories we carry around, those are some of the hardest things to talk about in life. That is part of their power to bend us out of shape. Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” One of the best things a church can be is a place where someone can say out loud “this is what has me doubled over” and a place where a chorus of other people get their back. A place where being upright is more a posture of grace and wholeness and freedom before God and in the community, more than a kind of strained ashamed pretense.

So, meanwhile, back in the synagogue, a woman begins holding her head up, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. She begins praising God. Everyone around her is happy. They start hugging her and taking pictures and someone starts singing Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.” There is cake in the Fellowship Hall. The end.

Wait, no. That is not how it went. When this woman is relieved of suffering, the people in her faith community become indignant. They are the ones who are now bent out of shape. The healing was not done appropriately. And suddenly in this story, we see a faith leader shouldering this rigid interpretation of Sabbath, we see other people hell-bent on things staying the same even if someone is visibly hurting. And from them, Jesus calls forth a flexibility in them that they didn’t know they had. Certainly, Jesus said, you care for animals on the Sabbath, so of course you would care for this woman. And, by the end of the story, an amazing thing happens: we see a faith community finally noticing its alignment problems, noticing its shame culture, an uptightness that had been confused with uprightness. And the result was a communal rejoicing. In a beautiful Kingdom of God way, this woman helped their posture too.

In the healings in the Gospels, and Luke in particular, Jesus always attends to the whole spiritual ecosystem. He speaks about grace for the prodigal son and his older brother. The tax collector and the Pharisee. He bestows honor not just on one person at the banquet; he rearranges the entire guest list. In Gospel healing, restoration is an individual and a collective responsibility. It creates a holy uprising for everyone, without zero-sum shame and blame games.

I think of that scene in The Mission, nominated for Best Picture back in 1987. Whether you’ve seen it or not, just imagine Robert De Niro’s character hauling all this weight up a mountain, this huge cargo net of weapons and gear.

=====[photo of man straining to climb a mountain is shown]

He’s straining, trying to do some kind of penance. A priest friend of his unties the weight from him, but he picks it back up again, just loaded down by all this guilt in his life.

=====[photo of man hauling a load across a river is shown]

Killing his brother, a career of cruelty. He finally gets to the top of the mountain, and in this thick suspense, one of the tribal leaders rushes up and puts a knife to his neck

=====[photo of man with a knife at his neck is shown]

and everyone thinks De Niro is going to be killed, including De Niro. The kind of punishment he deserves. Then, the man cuts the rope instead.

=====[photo of man being released from the rope is shown]

And then in just a few seconds, the expressions on his face cover about every human emotion. You see the exact second he finally forgives himself. This beautiful and cathartic and contagious moment when he lifts his head and the relief and joy of the people around him, rushing in,

=====[two photos of man being comforted are shown]

hostility melting away into a celebration all set to that beautiful score by Ennio Morricone. It’s an absolutely gorgeous scene.

When I think of my weeding friend standing there with communion bread in his hand and a smile on his face, or De Niro cathartically laughing, or hunched people and hunched churches finally letting go of their heavy old shame stories, whenever that happens, it always feels like Easter. Every time. It feels like this great exhale of grace, the great uprising of the spirit, the whole purpose of the Sabbath. You may know that Sundays are supposed to be a mini-Easter.

People who are doubled-over with shame, people who feel like they belong at a kind of spiritual scratch and dent sale, realize that Christ’s grace is actually for them. And those same people become deeply empathetic and generous and very often doubled-over in laughter. Karl Barth said that laughter is the closest we get to the grace of God.

And, the people who are straining under the weight of responsibility and rigidity, buckling under other people’s expectations, shouldering a thousand pounds of shoulds, they realize that Christ’s grace is for them too. And those same people become more flexible. They start to lift up their heads enough to notice where and to whom Christ is sending them. Anne Lamott says, “I live for Sundays. It’s like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors.  I typically show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am.”

And that is when the whole congregation sings together and plucks that bread of grace and with heads finally raised again in gratitude and freedom and service and holy laughter at all the ways we tried to save ourselves and didn’t, say those words, “Thanks be to God.”

Amen.

 

Encounter: Brother Saul

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

August 7, 2022

Acts 9:1-19

Acts 9  Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

 

Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Many of us know about Paul’s dramatic life change on the Damascus Road. How he was struck blind and knocked clean off his horse and then became the most famous Christian ever. However, we might not remember that before this story, Saul had been hate-breathing, religious-persecuting murderer who would have worn jack boots if they had been available to him in those days. We might be blurry about the fact that Paul came to find his way again, came to the way of Christ, came to his new path, not on his own in a kind of solo laser light show, but through the critical help of several other people, through their conversions that get far less press.

The Bible mentions that Paul’s traveling companions also heard the voice of Christ. They stood there speechless and then leaned into a miracle. They were the ones to lead him by the hand to where he needed to go. They were the ones to stay by him for 3 days, that holiest number of days, to see what happened.

Then there was a Christian named Ananias who also heard the voice of Christ. To say he was hesitant to help Paul was an understatement. Saying yes to this call meant risking the lives of his entire family because Paul was known for persecuting Christians and Ananias was a Christian. But had Ananias refused to let Brother Saul change, had he insisted on remaining in the safety of his tribe alone, had he refused to lay hands on a real enemy, scripture suggests Paul would have remained blind and who knows what that would have meant for the world.

For the conversion to happen, it was not just Paul. It took them all.

The way of Christ insists that this world does not change simply by people seeing the light on their own or blasting out their best argument with no further involvement. The way of Christ relies on the feet of people who don’t have the full story but are willing to hang in there together far longer than is convenient, like those traveling with Paul. And the way of Christ needs the hands of people who are willing to let change happen even if that change feels extremely risky.

A preaching professor of mine said, “You know, I’d rather see a sermon than listen to one any day.”  In our world, people can listen to sermons anywhere. On a podcast, case and point, I heard a church leader say, “Words are more portable and affordable than ever.” And as people stare into the light of a billion phones, as we are discovering that sometimes our words can bring more heat than light, more reeling than healing.

Today’s story teaches us that, yes, sometimes God knocks people right off their horse, a sudden change overtakes them and there is no going back. One day, a man marched up to me after a sermon where I had spoken about God’s mysteries and good ole doubting Thomas, he said, “I appreciate those words, I do. But I have survived a near death experience. I have been enfolded in a loving light that made me happier than anything and ever since that happened, I don’t doubt or fear death anymore. I am a different person.” That happens. I have met people who had epiphanies, in AA or the hospital or when they became a parent or at the end of their rope at work. Indeed, there are those people. And, there are other conversions, far more frequently, that involve a change of the direction of the feet and openness of the hands more so than the blinding of the eyes. People willing to go where they’d rather not go, like the companions of Paul. People willing to open their hands in compassion to the very ones they have every reason in the world to fear, like Ananias.

It was not just Paul. It took them all.

Maya Angelou said, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

One thing I haven’t seen very often at all is someone who experienced an enormous life change that sounded like: “It was a comment on Facebook that told me how foolish I was, that made me stop and think.” “It was that guy who yelled at me during the meeting, and those who wouldn’t look me in the eye, they really opened my eyes.” No, most will say something like, “I can’t believe she sat by my bedside for that many hours.” “I was expecting him to chew me out and call me a fool, but instead, he forgave me.” “I deserved an angry rant and instead she went out of her way to be generous to me. Who does that?”

“I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.” Those are the words of a former white supremacist skin head named Christian Piccolini, who left a life of racial hatred and violence not because someone told him how wrong he was. His eyes were closed to that truth. He changed because he received undeserved love and compassion from the very ones he’d been antagonizing. Once it was an African American teenager who wept with him about what it is like to see your mother suffer from breast cancer. Then it was Mr. Johnny Holmes, the African American custodian of his former high school, whom Christian had menaced with his rants. Mr. Homles saw Christian later in life and initially jumped back in concern at the sight of him. But then he listened as Christian apologized, told Mr. Holmes how he had changed. And Mr. Holmes embraced him and said, “I forgive you. Now you go out and tell everyone else about your change.” And that is what Christian has done for 18 years. His TED talk has been viewed 4.5 million times.

In my own life, I think of Professor Fenn in seminary. He was often late to his own class and rarely noticed when his tie was curled over his shoulder. Hardly an arresting presence. But in seminary, there was a moment when I was knocked to the ground by the death of a friend, blinded by grief. Up until that season in my life, I had been an insufferable overachiever. And that loss made it impossible for me to get my work in on time – especially the 20 page paper for Fenn’s course that was the sole determinate of my grade. One day, I begged Dr. Fenn for an extension. He looked into my red stinging eyes and said, “Don’t turn it in. At all. I want you to write. Write it all down until what is inside is out. Let the grief come out in words. And don’t worry, I’ll give you an A- anyway.” In his gift of deep listening and compassion, he taught me grace, more than any lecture ever did.

The way of Christ looks like shocking life change, unbidden, breaking in, breaking through, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, as Paul would go on to write to the Ephesians. But it also looks like putting yourself in a place where such encounters might happen, outside of bubbles and comfort zones. In the visit with that cousin or sibling or part of the country you don’t really understand. It also looks like opening your hands in compassion and service and forgiveness, for those who don’t really deserve it, including yourself. It looks like extending grace one more time, being generous one more time, breaking the bread one more time, because that is how Christ has treated you.

For conversion to stick, it was not just Paul, it took them all.

Amen

 

 

 

Encounter: Feeling the Burn

Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 31, 2022

 

 Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 I got the news of my grandfather’s death on a day that was already overcast. I zipped off a quick, stiff lipped email letting a few people know. Though I barely let myself know this, it became clear in my disappointment, that I had hoped… I had hoped this 92 year old man would pull through, even live forever. As soon as I could change clothes, I broke into a sprint. I hit the trail, the bike path that is at the bottom of our hill where I have pounded out joys and frustrations countless times over the years. Others were on the trail, but I couldn’t see their faces. I may have cried or just let my heart burn for a while. A text popped up on my phone, “Sorry friend.” I took a deep breath, feeling cared for. And then I stepped into a giant puddle of water, which soaked my shoe. Shaking it off, I squished along, accepting a physical annoyance to mark the aggravation of my soul, and then another text popped up, “Love you. Want a casserole?” I laughed. My spirit perked up! Not a second later, my dry shoe stepped into a huge pile of dog poop. My rage turned against an entire world of dog people, “Who does that? Seriously!” My run was over. I gave up, turned around, and trailing behind me was a set of footprints. One faint but stained with poop, and the other stark and wet. I envisioned a lovely photograph of those footprints, and in cursive lettering, the quote, “Why, Lord, during the most trying chapters of my life are there these two pathetic footprints? Isn’t that when you were supposed to be carrying me? And then I imagined my Lord responding, ‘What, and step in the poop too?’”

Laughter, that carbonated holiness as Ann Lamott calls it, inevitably overtook me. And I walked home, weeping and laughing and limping the rest of the way like a lunatic.

Maybe for you it wasn’t sodden shoes and sad news. But I suspect everyone here knows thudding disappointment. Disappointment with a job or a loved one or a political reality or a trusted leader or your own body. Even disappointment with God. You know the ramped-up expectations, the time invested, the anticipation, and the crushing let down. Sometimes hope followed by disappointment invades us, unbidden, when we were doing just fine in our lives. Other times it seems to follow us, that little dark cloud, making us paranoid that this is a pattern for us.

It’s that disappointment that Cleopas and the other felt on the road to Emmaus, seven miles away from Jerusalem, even though scholars have no geographical record of the place. I suppose Emmaus might be the name for “anywhere but Jerusalem.” Where we go when we have to go but have nowhere in particular to go. It reminds me of the sullen masses of Nats fans flooding the exits after a Drew Storen meltdown, if you remember those. The disciples were crestfallen. Defeated. Heartbroken.

And of course in their rehashing of it all, someone else was walking along with them but heartbreak is blinding, and “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” That makes sense to me. A grieving mom told me that a few weeks after her son died, she got utterly lost in Target, a place she had been almost weekly for the past 10 years. Suddenly, it was like a foreign land.

This stranger inquires what is going on, and the text says, “They stood still, looking sad.” It’s that wordless pause, where they take a breath in as if it might hold in the tears too. They may feel exhausted by this stranger’s intrusion, but they feel catharsis coming.

Fine, if you don’t know, you must know. There it is, the sarcasm, the edge of rage. They spoke of a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God, whom they had followed. And now, it was over. Brutally, totally. But they finally said it out loud… “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We fell for it. We were in. Hook line and sinker. But we must have been wrong.

Now, if a team wants to make their supervisor feel awful, they simply have to say, “We had heard such great things about you, Jim, thought you could really turn things around here. But we won’t make that mistake again.” And there is nothing worse than hearing a parent say, “I’m not mad at you… I’m just disappointed.” The disciples had trusted him. They had staked their lives on him. And now, they were adrift on a sea of loss, three days gone and the hard reality sinking in.

And they felt singed even more by the bright light of false hope. “And our women, well, they astounded us with this crazy notion that he was alive again.” Cleopas and his friend were too exhausted for this head fake. After all, when you are going through Hell, you’re supposed to keep on going. It’s like John Cleese said, “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t take (John Cleese, Clockwise. And profound gratitude to Sam Wells, “We Had Hoped,” May 4, 2014). His words were an inspiration for this sermon. They had already lost their future. They could not spare their sanity. They had seen too much already to burn energy on more empty things, even empty tombs. So they walked on, towards God knows where.

This story is my favorite in the Bible for many reasons, but mostly because of what happens next. To be sure, Jesus shows himself to be no kind of grief counselor, with his lengthy Bible exercise and the way he scolds them for their dim faith. If any of us did that to a grieving person, we might get the bird, and I don’t mean the bird of peace. But we are not Jesus, and this is not a story about grief counseling. This is a story about resurrection, Jesus revealed to people who were in no way expecting that to happen.  People, perhaps, like us.

First, Jesus is revealed to people when they realize that the sad story they are telling themselves is not the right story, not the full story. The actual story is one of God’s presence and power and constant surprising grace, something complete and marvelous even as it completely messes with us.

Second, this is a story about Jesus revealed to people in the breaking of the bread, something we do month after month because disappointment can be so blinding that we have to rely upon other senses, taste, touch, smell, to notice the risen Christ.

Third, this is a story about heart burn, and what I mean is the way the disciples move from sullen despair into a smoldering sense of their purpose. When you realize that perhaps loss is where the key teaching was to be found. They start asking, “Did our heart not burn inside our chests when he opened the scriptures to us?” They run to Jerusalem, and they meet up with others who also have powerful stories to tell.

So if you notice there are three key movements in this story: there is a revelation of Jesus in the long love story of God, there is communion, and there is mission. Sounds like church, right?

And the best news is that this still happens. For those of you who have been disappointed that God hasn’t followed the script with you, remember, resurrection is always a gift, always a surprise. It’s never something we could manufacture through devotion. The Pharisees tried to manufacture grace through devote then too, and they were unsuccessful. But that also means resurrection is not something that could be stomped out by policy or deepest doubt or the strongest armies. The Romans tried to stomp it out then too and were unsuccessful.

As we walk this road together, we ask, did our hearts not burn inside our chests when we sang together at our loved one’s funeral? When we realized the sad story we were telling ourselves wasn’t the only story? When we went from feeling useless and lost to repurposed and called upon with more meaningful work to do?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when tears popped out as we sang a hymn that seemed tuned to our lives? when we saw tables full of food for ECHO where days before they had been bare? When a Godly Play child told us some truth about God that seemed given from above?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when our child was baptized, when the prayer seemed to be speaking directly to us, when someone showed up at the hospital to visit us just when loneliness was seeping up our limbs?

God is present to us still, feeds us still, startles us with purpose still, so our main job is to walk this path together, this messy sloppy trail of life together, and pay attention to the ones walking beside us, because they just might be the way resurrection is made known to us today.

Amen.

 

 

 

Encounter: Hold Nothing Back

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 24, 2022

John 1:35-42

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Let us pray: Lord, we want to see you. Amen.

 

The first words from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of John are: “What are you looking for?” After the beautiful cosmic beginning of John, “in the beginning was the word, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” the text cuts to Jesus walking by on a normal afternoon. He asks the disciples who are standing there, “What are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?” It’s a beautiful question Jesus asks, free of judgment and assumptions. Genuine curiosity on the soul level rather than a set of pre-packaged answers on a pamphlet. This seems to be how Jesus operated. He asked 307 questions in the Bible, from “Why do you worry?” to “Who do you say that I am?” to “Do you want to be made well?” to perhaps our favorite, “Do you have anything to eat?”

Sometimes when people engage me in conversations about faith, often on the sidelines of a soccer game, or when people say they want more information about the church after a quick visit, or when someone on a plane starts to treat me like a church suggestion box, I have made it a practice to ask this same question: “What are you looking for?”

This would be a good question to ask in our country, where the fastest growing religious categories are the ‘nones and dones,’ the 29% of Americans who describe their religion as “none” and those who are exiting faith communities, mostly Christianity. “Done” with the church. I’ve just learned about others who might constitute a new category. One magazine cleverly calls them the “Umms” – those whose relationship with God is, umm… complicated. Those who long for spiritual belonging and at the same time, feel disillusioned by the behavior of the church and disembodied from community of kindred spirits and discouraged by the hard news of the world. What might they be looking for?

Well, that afternoon at least, the disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question. Who knows why. They could have said “We are searching for closeness with God.” Or, “we want out of this backwater fishing town.” Or, “we want a decent dinner, but it’s just 4 pm.” But I suspect that they didn’t simply know the answer to his question. There wasn’t a fully baked answer in them as to what they sought. It was more of a restlessness, a yearning that bounced around from inspiration to frustration and back again on any given day, an itch that a lot of us feel inside a lot of the time, a stirring of the spirit. A stirring deep within them, as my wise friend Rev. Andrew Connors describes as, to know something or feel something or be something that is beyond what they can know or feel or do on their own. Something, someone, somewhere, somehow worthy of this cathedral of devotion inside them and also capable of steering it in the right direction.

“What are you looking for?” In response, they muttered, lamb of God, rabbi, teacher, messiah, anointed one, so many names from their different angles, but all words pointed to that same stirring, same yearning, same ineffable hope.

The church could learn from what Jesus does here, his appreciative inquiry. Sometimes we the church set ourselves up to be the answer to all the questions. To deliver the answers ourselves rather than to equip people to look for God in the afternoons of their own lives. To imagine the church as the destination itself rather than a mighty ship rigged for discovery of God’s future. To treat the scriptures, hymns and confessions as an old treasure chest that we control rather than powerful navigational tools and guides from other theological wayfarers to take people farther on their journey than we have been. To tell people the questions they should be asking rather than listen to them describe the grief, the call, the beauty and pain that has broken them open to search in the first place. Sometimes the church sits people down in a pew rather than hike with them as a community up to the holy ground places even beyond their initial questions.

Gary Haugen is the CEO of International Justice Mission, a non-profit that works to combat trafficking and poverty around the world. A few years ago, he spoke to a group of Presbyterians about how safe the church has become, to its own detriment. He said, we speak of things that are so safe that in general they could be handled without involving God at all. But, what people are really longing for is something deeply meaningful and dangerously adventurous because it risks changing the world around us and within us. Then, he shared the story of when he was 10 years old, visiting Mount Rainier with his father. There they were at the visitor’s center at the bottom of Mount Rainier, looking up at all these trails winding their way up into the cloud cover, a patch of bright red warning signs from lawyers at the trailhead telling of potential hazards for travelers.

At ten years old, Gary told his father, “You know, I think I’ll just go back down to the visitors’ center.”  His father tried to persuade him, “I know it will be hard, but I think you’ll be glad you came.”  “No, no,” insisted Gary “I’d really rather spend the day at the visitors’ center.”  And he went back down.  He spent hours in the visitors’ center watching films about other people hiking the mountain loop again and again.  He began to feel sleepy, bored and small, no more so than when his family returned red-faced, clear-eyed and smiling. Haugen asked, “What if the church decided to no longer be simply people who come to the visitors center to hear about other people going off to do interesting, adventurous, and important things in pursuit of God’s vision? What if the church were those who dared to go up that mountain?”

As the disciples let Jesus’ big question marinate for a minute, they asked him a soft ball one. “Where are you staying?” Were they really wondering about his accommodations or buying time to think? Was it like, “Before I speak to the animating purpose of my life, let me say that the Holiday Inn Express is really nice.” Was it like, “Regarding the horizon of my deepest hopes, I wonder if you have checked the reviews of that establishment yet.”  Or was it more like the first bid of those who are gathering their courage? Was it a wild guess that where this man puts his body and where he spends his time might tell them more about the living God than anything else – the time he spends healing the sick, crossing boundaries to welcome the outcasts, retreating from the constant claims upon his time to make space for silence and prayer, entering conflict without fear, giving his life for the sake of the world.  Where Jesus locates himself teaches us more than words about him.

And that is where their journey begins. Jesus responds: “Come and see.” Over and over again in the Book of John, Jesus responds this way, “Come and see,” unwilling to give them the brochure or let them watch the film. He invites them to get involved. To hold nothing back.

C. S. Lewis said it this way, “”It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

An inner city pastor friend of mine told me a story about a woman who set up a meeting with him. Her son Oscar continued to ask to go to church. It all started when they were on a trip to Italy and toured an old cathedral. Oscar had gone all the way to the front where the candles flickered red. He was drawn to the kneelers, and then he said, “Mom, teach me to pray.” She was not a church person. This was way out of her comfort zone and kind of freaked her out, but nevertheless, she knelt next to him and whispered, “God, thank you for Oscar and this beautiful church and for our family and … amen.” She told my friend that one thing led to another, and even though I told him we weren’t church goers and he’d probably find church boring, he insisted. We wound up here on Sundays and now he comes up for the children’s message. I am a secularist. I don’t know what’s going on.” My friend smiled, “It sounds like Jesus is messing with you.”

But then she asked him this beautiful question. “I don’t really know what I am searching for here, sorry, this is awkward, but what does it mean to have Jesus in your life?” Then my friend thought about it and responded, “Sometimes it is hard. Jesus has a way of making you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – like forgiving some of the biggest jerks in your life, or associating with outcasts and folks who stand for everything you disagree with. But it is exhilarating. Sometimes,” he said, “It is the only thing that gives me courage.” He told stories of how even though people had shouted in his face, he had seen the city change, really change. New housing. Kinder laws. People who had been on the streets now serving as deacons. He told stories of how even when he felt lame as a father or terrified of disappointing people at work or thoroughly burned out, a prayer like the one Oscar had prayed in the cathedral could still fill him with hope again for no rational reason.  “Jesus helps me realize the way to do what Arundati Roy wrote a few years ago – ‘to live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.’” And even then, he’s not afraid of death because of this stubborn resurrection hope that promises the best is yet to come. But eventually he said to her, “You really shouldn’t take my word for it. You’ll have to see for yourself.” (With gratitude to Rev. Andrew Connors for his brilliant Well (lectionary preaching group) paper on this text.)

Maybe for you that means going along with these folks whose eyes sparkle when they talk about Kibwezi. Maybe for you that means taking a risky step to visit a person in a hospital or in hospice or in prison even though you have to check your pre-printed responses at the door.  Maybe you help with this brave project called Community Table, where BPC is really trying to share a meal with our neighbors even though we have no idea who will come. Maybe for you it means kneeling in the silence of prayer for six minutes when yesterday you could only tolerate four.

Either way, you wind up red-faced and smiling as if you’ve seen the face of God, because … you have.

Annie Dillard, “I cannot cause light –  the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

Encounter: Collateral Beauty

By Rebecca Messman

July 17, 2022

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

 

Exodus 33:18-23

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord,’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us pray. Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

I think I would love stargazing more if it didn’t happen so late at night. I am better at star grazing or star lazing, which is the rigorous practice of seeing a few stars just before dozing off. Despite my “morning” orientation, several years ago, our family visited Joshua Tree National Park because it has some of the best stargazing in the country. And the whole place was breathtaking. Giant yucca plants with arms outstretched in praise stand stunned on sandy plains, adorned with granite monoliths and yellow rock piles. People and lizards climb all over the rocks that are set up like a life-sized Godly play scene. The sun rolls over the rocks by day heating the surface to 180 degrees at times, a punishing fireball, and by night, you can actually see clouds from the Milky Way. Dave and the kids scaled massive rocks and waved down at me, safe on the sand, like a shrub, taking pictures of their daring. I call myself the Momarazzi.

One morning, we went into the park extremely early, and from the cleft of a rock, we saw the stars fade and the sun rise, and we just sat there in awe as if God were passing by in the flaming royal procession of dawn. We probably would have stayed there for hours teary at the beauty of it, maybe saying quite Biblical things like “Who are humans that you are mindful of them?” or singing with voices echoing off the rocks, but that was not possible. Tears would soon become sweat and that safe rock, a pizza oven.

I think of that morning when I imagine Moses in today’s text. Moses wants to see God, face to face. He wants some proof, some certainty, that God is there. “Please show me your glory,” he begs. He is pretty desperate at this moment. His people had just melted all their jewelry into a golden calf, and in this usually overlooked conversation in Exodus, Moses wants something tangible of his own from God. We probably recognize his plea. He’s lonely and disappointed in other people. He’s tired after a journey that went on way longer than he thought it would. He’s doubting himself at this point, that he has enough charisma or vision to lead the people anymore. He’s doubting humanity in general, that his community would talk so much about freedom and faith and then as soon as they were free, they resumed their complaining and found some new shiny version of God to follow. And with all those clouds of doubt rolling in, the gleaming faith he once had started to fade too.

So, from the cleft of the rock, he said something like, Lord, show me some kind of sign that this is all going somewhere. Give me something undeniable, something certifiable, something tangible so I don’t have to rely on hope or faith anymore.

As a pastor, I have heard this plea more times than I can count. The person with cancer who says, “I just wish I had more faith, maybe then I wouldn’t feel so scared or angry or disappointed.” The Mom whose beloved son is somewhere in Florida on a bender again, probably safer in jail than wherever he is, who says: “I just wish he knew how loved he is. I wish God would scare some sense into him so he might have a chance at living his life.” And, I have probably said a version of Moses’ plea myself, “Show us your glory, God. Show us your realness. Everyone is upset. One on extreme, people are making craven images as if you are an American God of war. On the other extreme, people mock the idea of you completely, as if you are a security blanket of weak-minded people. Show yourself.”

Have you ever been in the cleft of a rock like that? Longing for a nod from God, a bowl of certainty in the morning so that the hunger of doubt goes away?

God tells Moses it would actually be impossible to see God face to face. So here in Exodus we get this image of God placing Moses in the cleft of a rock, shielding him from all that he could never comprehend and survive, then blasting Moses with the infernal beauty of God’s back. As ancient as this story is, some 4,000 years old, I find this remarkable. It reminds me that God gives us something better than bite-sized certainty and tiny trinkets of temptation. It promises me that in the wake of every place God has been, which is every place, there is ineffable astounding beauty. And it invites me to consider that, like Moses, we are often shielded from what we simply cannot take in.

I was a doozy of a kid in Presbyterian Churches. I was that dreaded hand that went up during the children’s message asking, “So how do you know that?” The one who made the minister clear his throat. My confirmation mentor was a man named Bob Knowles. Bob was an ordained pastor whose ministry was serving the poorest of the poor in Danville, and it was clear he was not daunted by my questions. One church night supper, I was absolutely grilling him on God and Jesus and the sticky societal problems I knew about in 1990 over a plate of turkey, green beans a perfect scoop of mashed potatoes, and he finally said, “You’re trying to see God through the windshield. But I have to say – I see God clearest through the rearview mirror.” I’ll never forget that.

Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard said it this way, “Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.”

The poet Emily Dickinson said it this way, “Tell the truth but tell it slant. The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”

I think this is different than saying everything in life will make sense. Different than saying we’ve seen the spreadsheets, and the Year To Date accounting of God’s receipts is to our liking. Different than answers to our pleas for signs and certainties. It is more like taking a break from control for a minute to gaze at the collateral beauty in the rearview mirror. It’s like watching a sunset so red on the clouds that it hushes your frantic questions and gives you whole new ones.

My friend Janet had been a widow for 2 years when we started going to breakfast. Then one day, over grits, I asked a newbie question, “Do you ever get over it? Grief, I mean.”  She said, “Believe me, I don’t plan to get over George. But there was a day when dinner rolled around, and I realized had been too busy that day to be sad. I’d played cards, gone to lunch, and worked in the garden. All these little shoots of life sprouted up without my knowing it and I said, “well, would you look at that?” I tell people, God’s healing sneaks up on you like that.”

The term collateral beauty was a gift from a woman from my former church. Her beautiful, creative, deeply attentive son struggled so much. She wished he felt the warm wash of welcome that other kids did but as a gay kid, some of his light was on a spectrum that other people couldn’t see, including himself. But, over 15 years, she would send me these beautiful text messages, like snapshots from the cleft in the rock where God had brushed past. Something their family built together. #collateral beauty. His beautiful faith statement in confirmation that brought everyone to tears. #collateral beauty. A note from one of her ESL students saying “You helped me get better and in other classes I did not get better. You made me feel welcome. I hope God blesses you.” #Collateral beauty. Those texts were her view from the cleft of the rock where she couldn’t see everything but saw enough to know beauty was there and beauty is God’s handwriting.

Today’s Gospel reading wonders if maybe the reason we don’t experience God’s beauty is not doubt actually, but distraction and worry. There is Martha, upset at those who seem to be enjoying life rather than trying to fix it. She works so hard because she truly wants the itinerary of God on her clipboard to work out. Truth be told, I am firmly in her camp most of the time. So are most Presbyterians. We would like for God to stand at a certain point in the bulletin, and ideally, notify us of any holy plans a few weeks in advance. And we exhaust ourselves doing so. New York times writer Tim Krieder calls this the “Busy Trap,” where “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness” (https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/)

And then there is Mary, Martha’s sister, just sitting there at Jesus’ feet. She is not building an institution. She is not answering to the crowds. She is just experiencing a kind of incarnate grace that for a moment is in her living room. And, in the kindest way possible, Jesus says Mary is on the right path. Mary is experiencing God in the here and now rather than bookkeeping for the past or the future. Mary, like Moses long before her, sat in the cleft of the rock with the light of the world. She couldn’t control it anyway so she let herself enjoy it.

When I saw the images from the James Webb telescope this week, it took my breath away. There it was: the red tail of an expanding universe captured on film. The glory of God shown to us, on the front of the Washington Post. The reminder of how much is there that we cannot see, yet it is as true as anything, and beautiful as a billion sunsets. It is infrared so our eyes can’t register it. It travels over billenia and our bodies are briefer than that. But nevertheless, it is undeniable. Certifiable. Tangible. Granted, seeing those images didn’t make my day all of a sudden easier. I still had to make lunch and drive a child to camp and take out the trash. I still experienced waves of grief for the dying stars in my own life. I still had to bring this little light of mine to bear on the issues facing the here and now. But I let myself sit in the cleft of the rock and enjoy the beauty, a universe 13+ billion years old and somehow still benevolently bringing forth tomatoes in the neighbor’s yard. The Mary part of me quieted the Martha part of me, and I delighted in the eternal and ever new light of God right there in my living room.

Maybe there are some here today who feel anxious, who have been making urgent and reasonable pleas for God to show up, who feel tired and distracted. Today invites you to look with intention to the rearview mirror of your life for collateral beauty. Share it. Let it fuel your hope as you serve in the here and now. Today invites you to trust that the light of Christ is with you even if it is at a register your eyes can’t receive yet. Trust that it might just sneak up on you. And finally, if that kind of joy is in your living room, for heaven sake, don’t rush it away.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it this way, “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God but only the one who sees takes off their shoes.”

 

 

Encounter: The Struggle is Real

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 10, 2022

 

Genesis 32:23-32

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Let us pray. O Lord, like all Israel, we wrestle with you. By sunrise, we come away with a blessing not of the triumphant fist pumpers, but of those who are limping and beloved. Open our hearts to where this story writhes in our lives. Amen.

 

Do you know this story? In the dead of night, by the Jabbok River, a cheek to jowl struggle rages between Jacob and this unknown other. The wrangling battle only ends when Jacob chokes out a blessing from the stranger just before daybreak. Jacob limps away, forever changed right down to his name. Israel, which translates to the God-wrestler.

This story is ‘epic’ – a word that is pretty overused these days. A hamburger or a playing Minecraft could be really great, but not really epic. An epic is the hero’s journey. And kind of like hero movies in our cynical age and the Marvel universe, the Jacob hero has major flaws that are the main things getting in his way.

This story was already old by the time of Abraham, some 4,000 years ago, and may be as old as humanity itself. If you don’t know this version in particular, I suspect you know a very personal version of it. The night you barely slept at all and confronted what might have been your biggest fear. How all your classic moves were bested, and all that remained was your white-knuckling need and a kind of muscular hope that you clung to like a drowning person. Struggle is too generic a word for this kind of wrestling match. It goes way beyond “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Maybe it’s more like what Kate Bowler said with a chuckle after many cancer treatments, “What doesn’t kill you diminishes you significantly.”

To understand the brilliant depth of this story, we have to know what led up to it. We have to go way upstream from the Jabbok, I guess, to when it was Jacob and Esau and a sibling rivalry for the ages. Jacob, the famous second born, was apparently grabbing on to his brother’s heel from birth trying to get ahead. The name, Jacob, actually means heel-grabber. Which is hilarious, until you think about the power of names, of reputations, how being labeled in your family affects you long term.

Regardless, we are to know that from the first, Jacob was a go-getter. The Bible said he life was in tents, meaning he literally stayed in the tent while his brother, Esau, who was outdoorsy, impulsive, and always sort of red, spent his days in the fields hunting. Esau’s name, get this, meant hairy. Esau was once was so hungry he traded his birthright for red lentil soup. Here are the mental images of opposites. I picture Jacob listening to indie rock and having strong opinions about coffee. I picture Esau with Cabela stickers on his truck and wearing camo. Can you see them? Are you one of them?

Their father, Isaac, had them when he was older. And one day, when Isaac’s skin was paper thin and his eyes were milky blind with cataracts, there was something important he couldn’t put off any longer. We might call it talking through the will, or handing over the family business, but in those days, that transaction required a special blessing. Once it was given, it couldn’t be undone. It was no secret that Isaac loved his big burly son, Esau, more, which always makes me sad to know, and probably Jacob too, but feelings aside, the time came to make things official. And Jacob sensed that moment coming before his brother did.

Jacob wasn’t a liar, per se. An opportunist? Probably. He was someone who had done the moral acrobatics and probably convinced himself that Esau wasn’t up to the responsibility of leadership, such a simpleton, so reckless. And his mother, Rebecca, agreed with him. That might have been rationale enough for him to do what he did, to answer to a name that wasn’t his. What harm was there in that? he wondered. Granted, donning fake arm hair, like he did, to make sure his blind father couldn’t tell the difference was completely shady, but it was strategic. It worked.

And somewhere in a hot tent that smelled of stew, Isaac passed along the blessing to the wrong son, to the trickster, the heel, the go-getter. There are no elevating, obvious and boring morals to be found here. Only two parents who don’t seem nearly as upset about this as their oldest son, Esau, was, who becomes murderously angry when he found out what has happened. I imagine barstools knocked over and the yell of someone who felt both hurt and foolish. And, that’s what led Jacob’s mom to tell him to go hide out for a while until Esau cooled off.

At this point, those who expect the Bible to be just a nice boring fable, assume Jacob will get what’s coming to him. Maybe Esau knocks his lights out or maybe someone in the hill country robs him blind. But no, that was when Jacob dreamt of the famous ladder stretching all the way to heaven, with angels descending. And rather than bellow down a warning, God offered another blessing. “I will be with you.” Up to this point, we see in Jacob a man who is type A, a cool-headed competitor in a cynical world who nevertheless wins. The one who has all the resources and quietly assumes he deserves them. The entitled one who starts to confuse wealth for wisdom. The one who mostly believes God’s presence with him is intended to bring him material and existential comfort.

When people throughout the centuries talk about the “God of Jacob,” we have to wonder… is that what they assume too? God as mascot of the winning team? Or even God as the trophy, hoisted by those who are doing great, and a big vacant place on the shelf when you lose. Many people passively believe this.

Well, wait for it. Many years passed, and life eventually did swindle the swindler, but that was not the interesting part. The interesting part was that eventually this cynical dog-eat-dog world forced Jacob to go back home. To face Esau. A kind of prodigal son 1.0, Jacob was forced live up to these blessings he had taken for granted and cross rivers now without the bridges he burned. And that was when this wrestling match happens. At the ford of the Jabbok river. After he had sent everyone else across, when there were no credit cards or higher ups around to vouch for him.

The questions that pound in Jacob’s brain on a dreamless night are the same big questions we all have: Can this old fight raging in every heart, every family, every country, every faith ever be fixed? If so, how? With an inspiring speech or lots of money? Will it come down intellectual maneuvering that Jacob would probably win or physical violence that he wouldn’t? And the answer is as surprising to Israel as it still is to us. The answer springs out in a dirt and sweat, dead of night, cheek-to-jowl battle. At first, the adversary lets Jacob think he is going to win this, lets him spend all his energy, lets him believe his own press, and then, with a touch to his hip, renders Jacob powerless in the dust, clinging to the adversary like a life preserver in the waves, demanding to know who this is, demanding a blessing because that’s all Jacob knows to do.

And of course, Jacob thinks he is going to see the face of someone awful, the punisher, some sweaty angry retaliator that he can loathe, but instead he sees the face not of death but of love, clear-eyed and fierce, scarred and yet slightly smiling, and it humbled him like love always does. And as he spit the dirt out of his mouth and wiped his lip, a blessing came that could not be grabbed by cunning nor wrenched by force but could only be received as a gift. It was the gift of a new name, a new identity, a new start. It was the evaporation of this big lie at the root of all his struggles, the idea that we could ever find peace through intellectual maneuvering or violence or money or pretending to be someone we’re not or hustling for our worth or blaming our enemies or blaming our past… A muscular kind of love squeezed him out of a breakdown and handed him a breakthrough.

Just before daybreak, the man said, “You are no longer the heel grabber. You are Israel, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.”

The God we encounter here is not boring or moralistic or interested in doling out rewards on one tribe. The God we encounter here is clear-eyed and fierce, older than the rivers and yet with us as we really are right now. God meets us in the struggle, pries open our hands, and gives us all these good things that never come through cunning or force… things like peace, joy, and love. And we greet the dawn limping and winded and yet grateful somehow.

It reminds me of something the poet Mary Oliver said, “Someone I once loved gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to realize that this too was a gift.”

This story pounces on me so often. When I realize I’m up to my old tricks again, Jacobing my way through the week, this story asks if I would even know what grace is if it grabbed me by the shoulders. When I see the hot conflict on the news, this story asks if perhaps we – our church, our country, our world – might be at a moment of a new identity, something more mature than the entitled lonely path we have been on for a long time. When I hear about someone I love who is really struggling, in dreamless nights of thudding disappointment and anxiety, this story stubbornly insists that God is there, real and loving whether we can choke out some creed or not.

The last we see of Jacob, now Israel, he is limping home against the red sunrise. It reminds me of Jesus who staggered out of the tomb, on broken feet[1] and wounded hip, toward Easter morning, with hard-won love on his face and resurrection coursing through his veins. They lost and yet they won…. and that blessing has made its way all the way to us. Not a trophy for the shelf, but love itself that will not let us go.

Amen.

 

[1] The frame of this sermon is deeply influenced by a sermon written by Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, May 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Magnificent-Defeat-Frederick-Buechner/dp/006061174X

 

Pieces to Peace: A Cultivated Life

By Becca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

June 26, 2022

 

This sermon series is called “Pieces to Peace: How God Puts us Back Together.” Adam preached about how God gives us a better story than the one we have been telling ourselves. I shared last week about how God puts an arm around those who have been demonized and heals the whole community. And this week, in a conversation about freedom and bodies and laws, Paul calls people away from reactivity to long-haul love of neighbor and other virtues called the “fruits” of the Spirit.

 

From Galatians 5:1,13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Let us pray: Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

When we moved into our house, it was 103 degrees, the hottest day of the year. We learned immediately a few key facts about our new home: that the air conditioning worked and the ice maker did not. Hauling all the contents of your life into a house when the heat index is about 110 degrees can make you reevaluate everything…. I started to think, we probably don’t need a bed. I am not sure our dog actually conveys. Hour by hour, more than a few of those fleshly vices Paul mentions in Galatians start to rear their head… anger, strife, dissensions, jealousy, sorcery or at least a lot of curses…. Even idolatry as you are confronted by what you will and won’t throw huge amounts of money at in the withering heat.

But eventually we moved in, and before too long, the novelty wore off. We weren’t new anymore. We kept learning things, but the learning was slower… By fall, we learned how enthusiastic our street was about Halloween décor and by spring, we learned what was growing in the yard that we didn’t plant. … That azalea is pink, those are leggy chrysanthemums, and here is a volunteer magnolia with hardly any space to grow. And then after about two or three years, the learning shifted once again, to the opportunity to cultivate something ourselves. We faced the fact that the retaining wall wasn’t going to fix itself and the magnolia as attached as I was to it was going to wreak havoc right next to the fence. We, mostly Dave, planted dahlias and tulips, hung bird feeders, and watched in awe as fists of flowers we had planted pushed through the mulch and bloomed.

I think about that because those cycles apply to many seasons of life. There are times of intense heated change or crisis. We’ll call that season reaction. After that, there is a window of adaptation to all that has changed. Then what emerges are the slow rhythms that go deeper than just reaction or adaptation. This is the terrain of cultivation, the terrain of disciplines, systems, habits, and values. Christians have words for all these seasons. But today, Paul is teaching about old-school, no-short cuts, purposeful cultivation. How do you know if you’re really following the Spirit? You know because its fruit and flower always look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It might seem here like Paul is against the body or against the flesh, as if it were just some vehicle prone to all sorts of break downs that is just there to tote our spirit around. But remember, Paul considers the body a temple, this example of unity and diversity that the church could really learn from, and God’s new home in the incarnation. So, the way I read it, Paul is pushing hard against the abuse of the body, abuses upon the community itself, and all the lazy life-hacks that bear no fruit and only yield a feeling of imprisonment.

And then, Paul paints a picture of something beautiful and different: a cultivated life marked by fruitfulness, primarily love of neighbor. And it is important to remember that love, in the Biblical idiom, is something you do, not just something you feel. Freedom is for the love of neighbor, a baton to be passed, not a prize to be won as others lose. A fruitful faith requires the slow cultivation of commitments that remain long after the flash of impulsivity and fatigue of adaptation fade off. We are called to show up and embody an alternative to the reactivity and non-love around us.

That is precisely what Paul was asking the churches he founded in the Roman province of Galatia to do: Be a cell of relational resistance to the prevailing social divisions of the Empire. As much as the deck seems stacked against you, be something different than conquered, defeated people. If you consider how loud the Roman imperial project was in Paul’s writings, the Galatians would have been inundated by a culture of domination and fear, daily enforced social hierarchies meant to sow distrust among people. They would have been surrounded by a brutal entertainment industry of gladiators where political and cultural enemies battled each other to the death for sport. That was the prevailing Roman religion, the “other Gospel” to which Paul objects earlier in Galatians (words greatly influenced by Rev. Roger Gench, “Love: The Foundational Fruit of the Spirit,” Presbyterian Outlook, April 20, 2021. https://pres-outlook.org/2021/04/love-the-foundational-fruit-of-the-spirit/).

And that is the stage where Paul makes a bold claim in his letter to the Galatians… that all the “us versus them” distinctions of the culture, slave, free, Jew, Greek, female, male, are washed away at baptism. The waters of baptism are meant to irrigate whole communities with the politics of love that stand in stark contrast to the politics of death around them. In a world of sweltering conflict and conquest, imagine if all people knew about the church was love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Imagine that. Imagine no hateful comment section. Imagine belly laughs and spontaneous singing. Imagine a room where everyone belongs and people smile from their eyes and give from their depths so that no one is impoverished. Imagine if leaders held as John O’Donohue wrote, “the springtime edge of the bleak question.” Imagine a community where people appreciate each other and work on themselves. Reminds me of what Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And yet, that is exactly what we are called to cultivate. It is not quick. It is not easy. But it is delicious and the world is starving for it.

Walter Brueggemann said, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

This is still our call, as individuals and as a church.

Every once in a while, Arlene writes down what children say in Godly Play. Last week, they talked about freedom, in the Bible and also in the life of Harriet Tubman. The children wondered out loud. They shared how brave Tubman was to rescue all those people. They imagined how important it was that she was guided by the stories of the Bible and her faith. And around that little sand table, these children participated in an alternative vision of this world. The same Spirit that guided Moses and Jesus and Harriet Tubman and countless others toward freedom was budding in their minds. For freedom, Christ has set us free.

The pandemic caused a mass sense of disorientation around us and we felt like exiles from all we had known. For some of you, a death or a divorce or a diagnosis did that. You entered a time of forced reaction. I know that for many of you, the overturning of Roe v Wade feels like that. It is very fresh. It is painful. Perhaps it makes you very concerned in the ‘love of neighbor’ part of your heart when you think of women with few resources in heartbreaking situations. And some of you may feel differently, and even so, today’s text invites us all to be radically other-focused, exceedingly generous and kind.

And no matter what, as the cycle continues, we do adapt. We adjust our expectations with every new learning that comes. But there comes a point where reactivity and adaptation are not sufficient to God’s call. We need to cultivate. We have to put down roots and fix what is broken and see what we can grow here. In this church. In this new reality in our family and our community. And in those times, it is helpful to have a guide. We need guardrails of the soul, to keep us safe from the ditch of despair or ravine of rage or sinkhole of self-righteousness. I invite you to use the fruits of the Spirit as a trellis to support your growth. May they be like lattice, a framework, a check on our actions so that everything we say and do might look and taste and feel like holy produce from the true vine of Christ.

We need to shift out of reaction and adaptation mode into cultivation. And on days when I don’t have a clue where to start with that, it helps me to think about a man who adopted a similar meditation on the fruits of the Spirit some 900 years ago. About 12 people joined him. And over time, Francis of Assisi cultivated an order of juicy joyful Christians called the Franciscans who have nourished the centuries with a bold witness of Christian community, with the reminder that small acts of love over time, small groups of dedicated people, make all the difference in the world. In fact, they are the only things that really do.

I’ll end with his prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

 

From Pieces to Peace: Dispossessed

By Rebecca Messman

Luke 8:26-39

 

26 Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Let us pray. Lord, in my words, may your people hear your timeless word. Amen.

 

My grandmother would frequently and proudly tell people about her three boys. Listing off their birth order, she’d say, “It goes Don, Tom, Korea, Carter.” My Dad, Tom, was born in 1950, and then there was a gap for a few years when my grandfather fought in the Korean War. During those long years when he was gone, she would show her little boys these big shoes in the closet to remind them they had a father. And then she would gleefully recall the day when they went to the airport to welcome him home. “Now little Tommy was very concerned about why I was kissing some man and gave this mean toddler scowl … until he saw those shoes. And he made the connection. That must be my Dad!”

That is the sunny paper plate family reunion version of this story.

And if we prefer sunny Bible stories for Father’s Day, we’d probably pick a different one than today’s from the Gospel of Luke. Maybe we’d prefer the resurrected Jesus grilling on the beach with his friends. Or an old chestnut about how good Joseph was as a carpenter and all-around fix it guy. Or how about Jesus gone fishin’ again? But the Bible doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in Hallmark territory. Neither does life for that matter. So, today the Bible gives us a story of identity and healing from brokenness and wonderful, costly restoration.

In today’s story, Jesus gets out of the boat in the land of the Gerasenes, described as opposite Galilee. That doesn’t just mean geographically opposite, it also means culturally and ethnically opposite. Other. In other words, brace yourself for all the contrasts that are about to come.

Jesus gets out of the boat already windswept from calming the storm on the sea, during which storm his own disciples had said, “Who is this guy that the wind and waves obey him?” Then, he meets this man with a storm inside him, a man who immediately identifies him, “Jesus, son of the Most High God.”

The contrasts continue. The Bible says that the man was possessed by demons, thousands of them. His very self was occupied by a brutal destructive army that had laid waste to his life, but it is also clear that the man was dis-possessed in every other way. He had no home and was living among the tombs. He had no clothes except for shackles on his ankles and lots of bruises. And the most heartbreaking fact of all was that this man had no name, no identity, no personhood. “Call me Legion, for we are many.” How heartbreaking it is to be identified only as the devastating thing that has happened to you.

Another sad detail is that the town couldn’t even ignore him as much as they wanted to – someone guarded him there, not to clothe him or befriend him, but to keep him from disrupting their tenuous calm.

So there he was – naked as a jaybird, completely exposed in every way, and yet mostly invisible to the town. He was possessed and yet dis-possessed. He was tormented by demons and also demonized because of it. That is what happens when suffering is combined with stigma.

And what follows is absolutely stunning. The demons seek permission from Jesus to depart from the man. Then, they rush headlong into the helpless pigs nearby, who rush into the sea and drown. And after the storm inside the man is calmed, there he sits, clothed and in his right mind. And instead of bringing the man along with him as a motivational speaker or show and tell, Jesus tells the man, “It’s time to go home. Tell your story there.”

Now, those in town who knew this guy and those who needed those pigs, they have mixed emotions about this. Of course they do. They were scared. When what was at a distance, dispossessed, disinherited, and disaffected, comes home, or when the shadow side of your life that had been causing years of quiet grief finally steps into the light, it can be terrifying. But having known a lot of families who have been through something like this on a smaller scale, I imagine there comes a point when you realize there is a steep cost either way. Sure, his restoration cost that town a lot, but so did the compounding cost of maintaining the tenuous calm for all those years before the healing came. But for the first time in a long time, their fear is in the direction of wholeness not alienation. It is in the direction of the being able to possess the whole naked truth, not just the easy sunshine part of it. I am reminded of that famous MLK quote, “True peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice.”

So, let me go back to that nice family story. When I was in my 20s and starting seminary, I asked my uncle why we were all so Presbyterian. My grandmother was on every committee until her late 80s and my grandfather was a fixture in that church as much as the organ and sang nearly as loud. And yet my uncle’s answer totally surprised me. Sure, we had ancestors from Scotland and cried at the sound of bagpipes and all that. But our church connection went way deeper. And I still gulp at the depth of it.

Don, Tom, Korea, Carter. My grandfather, Papa, had been in the First Marine Division in Korea. As a former pilot, he was sent to be a forward air controller, the lonely guy ahead of the troops with a radio who called in close air support. At night, sometimes my grandfather was able to hear the chatter of the Chinese army. They were that close by. And then there was the battle of Chosin reservoir, where his division earned the name “The Chosin Few.” All I can say it that it was a place of horrific casualties and bitter cold. My grandfather hardly ever talked about it. But I have read about it. Maybe you have too. I’ll never fully understand what he and others went through, though I can appreciate why he never liked fireworks and why his feet gave him troubles decades after the frostbite abated and why he always struggled to sleep. And that’s where the deeper story steps into the light. Because apparently when he landed in California after leaving Korea, he wasn’t ok. He was a man living in the tombs. His spirit was tormented by the armies in his mind and by losses that he could not bear. He was Legion. And even though my grandmother was eagerly awaiting his return to Virginia, caring for two sons, one of them my three-year-old Dad whom he hadn’t met yet, somehow he couldn’t get on that plane. Now we have language for it, PTSD. But then they called it shell shocked or hitting the bottle.

After two weeks like this, the minister from the Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg flew out to California and put his arm around my grandfather and said, “Buddy, it’s time to come on home.” And that is when the safe family story picks up again, with the famous greeting at the airport and the man with big shoes to fill and the kiss with my grandmother and the awareness that my Dad had a father.

My uncle said, “If you wanna know what heals a broken man and what makes a woman an elder in the Presbyterian Church for life, that’ll do it.”

That story is part of me. Maybe that story or one like it is part of all us in one way or another. It is a story of identity and healing from brokenness and wonderful, albeit costly, restoration.

I’ll never know the whispered conversations that caused that Presbyterian from Lynchburg to hop on a plane in 1953, but I imagine his faith compelled him. He must have remembered how Jesus summoned new life out of tombs all the time. He must have remembered how Jesus commissioned the church to be his body into the future, willing to go to all the places that are opposite of our personal Galilee to put an arm around those who are dispossessed and assure them they are claimed by God.

Pastor and Professor Willie Francois said, “A stigma can make human beings invisible. And it takes an “ap­pearing act” to make seeable the unseen—the dispossessed, disinherited, and disaffected. This is holy work for people of faith.”  Or to say it another way, the opposite of stigma is community. Community that is willing to go the distance and hold what is hard and not run away even if the pigs do. We can be that person, that church, who goes toward not away.

Now, maybe you and your family do not have the luxury of being at the end of this story yet. Maybe you don’t have the space yet to tell your story with grainy black and white photos and decades of good memories to buffer the hard stuff. Maybe you feel like you are mostly identified with affliction or maybe you love someone who is out there hurting and truly an act of God is what it would take to bring them around. Or maybe you are the one feeling left out and exposed. Maybe you feel shunned and bruised.

Know this: God will continue to show up for you. In all the storms and the tombs of dead dreams. Love will shrink the distance between the shores. The extravagant boundary-breaking, stigma-erasing, wound-tending, community-mending, church-sending, cross-defeating, name-giving, other-claiming, world-reconciling eternal-life love of God is here and will never let us go. God’s refrain is always the same: You are seen. You are named. You are loved. You are accepted. It’s time to come home.

Amen.

 

Slow Burn Pentecost

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

June 5, 2022

 

John 14:8-17

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church:

 

John 14: Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

 

Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen

For most of my life, I was taught that Pentecost was the day that the Holy Spirit arrived. And the way you know it arrived is this: There is a giant wind. Fire comes. Tongues of fire dance on the first Apostles’s heads. And it makes everyone get along and understand each other. On Pentecost, we light candles and sing Happy Birthday to the church and eat Costco cake with loopy red icing. Today at Burke feels powerful like that. New members are added to our number. Communion will be shared. There is a whole Mission Fair! Well done, Holy Spirit!

But sometimes, Presbyterians, we leave it there. That one day of red. I’ll confess, sometimes, Presbyterians, we sort of neglect the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we start to believe, well, that Pentecost fire… was mostly for other people. (Growing up, I assumed that was for liability reasons.) That fire… must be done now. Presbyterians often leave the speaking in tongues to the Pentecostals, because that’s not really…. our style. For us, it’s one day of wearing red hats and red shoes and a ministry of small candles.

So much red. There was a moment in the Fall of 2019 when I slumped back into my car. That day George had died. He was not the first man to die that month, not even the first George. That morning been spent providing pastoral care to a bad-tempered HVAC system. My phone was dead. All the maintenance lights in my car glowed red. And Pentecost was far off. I couldn’t seem to get the staff to understand each other, much less share everything in common like the Elamites, whoever the heck they were. And, I heard my voice say, “I am burned out.” Around me, leaves were quitting their trees and flinging themselves to the ground. And I thought, “I don’t feel anything.”

Have you ever had seasons like that? When the Spirit feels far away? When the spark in your heart seems to have been doused by a season of one thing after another? When alarm bells in your soul are sounding? Or when it’s been a while since you felt anything? Well, if so, I have good news for you today.

There is actually another Pentecost narrative waiting for us, one that needs oxygen apart from the Spontaneous Combustion Pentecost of Acts. I’ll call it Slow Burn Pentecost. It’s the one teed up here in John 14 and eventually breathed out by Jesus in John 20.

In the long farewell with Jesus that John describes, Phillip wants to stare into the fiery eyes of God. “Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied!” If I had a nickel for every time I said that. And Jesus says, “what do you think you’ve been doing this whole time?”

The disciples probably want Jesus to provide Holy Ghost power to defeat their enemies and fill the pews and ignite their hearts with passion. But Jesus says, “you’ve seen the work we’ve done already. You’ll do greater works than these.” If I were them, I would want a divine leader calling the shots so I could gladly fall in line and be on the winning team. But Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth… the Advocate will come… and will abide in you.”

Then, Jesus follows through with all of this. He does come to them. He gives them the Spirit in a slow breath. It doesn’t set their hair on fire. In fact, those disciples in John 20 stayed in the same room that whole week, trying to bring Thomas up to speed, and Jesus had to do the whole meeting over again. Not exactly inspiring ministry. But this was enough Pentecost for John.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to profess that a holy spirit abides at the center of things. Abides in me. Abides in you. Abides.

About 10 years ago, Dave and I took a trip to Guatemala. I wanted to introduce him to my host family, Juan and Josefa Estrada Sam. I wanted him to see the places where a burning bush of God’s call ignited my life as a Young Adult Volunteer. And he thought, “Cool. I want to do this night time volcano tour.” I reminded him that Guatemala doesn’t have the same safety and oversight protocols as the US. And he said, “Cool! You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” Wrong answer. I am a helper! I will help you until it kills us both.

As we trekked up the side of a volcano by night, it was more terrifying than I thought it would be. We could no longer see our leaders, who were poorly organized anyway. 80 mph winds meant we could not hear them either. We could see clearly by the glowing red LAVA straight ahead. Someone, not one of the leaders, gave me a stick, and they made the universal sign for “use this stick to bang the ground.” I could make out what he was yelling: “So you know the ground is solid! Don’t want your SHOE to go in the LAVA!” We reached the high point of the volcano, also perhaps a low point in our marriage. I clung to a rock and shouted, “The earth does not want us here!” Finally, we stared into the pot of fire, proof that the cool ground we always stand on has a molten heart. Then, we headed back. People walked slowly. Some people’s shoes had melted. The stars on the way back were brighter, perhaps because I saw them through the eyes of someone glad to be alive. Dave said, once the wind died down enough for us to hear anything, straight out of that movie Tommy Boy, “That. Was. Awesome.”

That day gave me some nice scars, but also an idea that I carry with me. There is an igneous love at the center of this earth and also at the center of everything that God has made. The spirit can warm lakes and it can move nations. It makes a way where there was no way. And, thanks be to God, it can still be there without burning visibly all the time. That does not make it less powerful. That makes it patient. That makes it kind. It has all the time in the world because it made and continues to remake the world.

Sure, it’s a flash of fire and a roaring wind when it needs to be. But it also that gentle breath Jesus exhaled on the disciples. I’m thinking of that in a new way, thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor.

She wrote, “Opening his mouth and pouring what was inside of him into them so that their bangs blew and their eyelashes fluttered and they could smell where he had come from – not just Golgotha and Galilee, but way before that – back when the world itself was being born. Anyone standing there that evening with any memory at all could smell Eden on his breath: salt brine, river mud, calla lilies. They could feel their own lungs fill as they breathed in what he breathed out. What their fear had killed in them, his breath brought back to life. It was Genesis Redux, as they were created all over again by the power of the spirit that was coming out of his mouth” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2003, p. 38).

If you sit still long enough, that spirit will well up. It might scare you with unwept tears flowing down the mountain of you that has been neglected. It might freak you out with laughter that feels seismic. It might finally spit out that pent-up grief. You might see, when the froth of anxiety finally settles, that the spirit birthed an island of new opportunity.

I saw that happen on one Good Friday. The organist at the church I was serving was new. She whispered to me, “Hey – After people extinguish their candles, how long should I wait before starting the next hymn?” There were seven candles to blow out, so in my usual obedience to the God of time I breathed on her, “15 seconds.” She nodded. But as silence lengthened and engulfed us over and over again in that service, 7 times, it dawned on me. Apparently, she heard “50 seconds.” But, it turned out to be a useful misunderstanding. There was quiet and space enough for the depth of our souls to well up. There was quiet and space enough for us to hear the roll of thunder over our heads at the very second someone read, “Jesus breathed his last” …  that would have been drowned out by an eager organ. There was quiet and space enough for tears to fall onto our laps as we heard rain cover the roof, a peace from creation herself that we received, thanks mostly to a useful misunderstanding.

Maybe that’s what John Wesley felt when he said his heart felt “strangely warmed.” Maybe that’s what Frederick Buechner experienced when he described “deep gladness.” Maybe that’s what Mother Teresa described as the “call within a call.” Not gale force winds, but the deep breath that stokes the fireplace of the soul. Not the phone that rings and says, “Your dreams have come true.” But the slow work of letting pain and shame and anger become the fuel for what we need to do next.

Jesus did not say I will send the lightning bolt. He said, “I will send you the Advocate.” I will send the calls and texts from your friends that keep your quivering heart from feeling alone. I will send you a room of people and shared breaths and shared wounds that remind you you are not crazy.

Deep breath, slow burn Pentecost. Let it come. Let it go. Let it bring shocking understanding. Let it work through misunderstandings that last longer than we prefer. Let us experience holy-ground shoes-off moments and let us experience moments when our shoes melt beneath us and we look backwards upon a beautiful path that was made beyond our knowing. And then, maybe after 15 seconds of holy fire or after 50 years of ministry or being a father or public leadership or marriage or friendship, may our words be simply, that was awesome.