Self-Evident Truth

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 21, 2021

Christ the King Sunday

 

John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

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

 

Do you remember the court room scene in the 90s movie A Few Good Men? Tom Cruise is young unmotivated Naval officer and lawyer named Lt. Daniel Kaffee. Jack Nicholson is Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup, a hard-jawed marine. It is a court martial case of two marines charged with murdering fellow marine, William Santiago, and also truth and justice in a messy world. In the tensest moment of the court room scene, Jessup says, “You want answers?” “I think I am entitled to it,” Kaffee says, “You want answers?” Jessup asks again. Kaffee yells back, “I want the truth!” and Col. Jessup fires back (say it with me if you know it) “You can’t handle the truth!”

In today’s text, it is Jesus who is brought in for questioning. So are you the King of the Jews? Pilate asked, feigning interest, sipping coffee I imagine. The Pilate administration routinely had to deal with various extremist groups and their leaders. This was generally a paperwork thing. Someone says yes, he is convicted, “dispositioned” as an enemy of the state, and the rest of the breakfast meeting continued. But in this case, curiously, the leader did not give a straight answer. Which was problematic. Granted, there was no fear here for Pilate, just a need to avoid a potential parochial PR nightmare with the Jews, the largest group of his particular region. Pilate knew that the more these subgroups fought each other, the better for the administration, honestly. When they fight each other, you see, they do your work for you. They wound themselves and they tarnish their peaceful holy messaging and what’s more, they are easily controlled. That these faith leaders would adopt a world view based on revenge and capital punishment suited Pilate just fine. But, this Jesus would not take the bait.

What is truth? Pilate asked, maybe with a Col. Jessup edge in his voice by now. The Pilate administration had an answer they were listening for. Let’s be clear: this was not a philosophy class. This was a loyalty litmus test. It’s likely that Pilate already agreed with Jesus on what truth does: Truth shapes people. Truth affects their actions. Their identities. Their allegiance. If you want to know what a person believes is true, just watch their feet. Gravity, for example, is a powerful force on our planet. That is true whether someone assents or not. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, walk most carefully around cliffs. Oxygen is essential for human life. There is no need to poll on this truth to gauge its popularity. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, always move toward fresh air. People, no matter how dogmatic, do not hold their breath for very long.

And the only other truth that mattered was that Caesar was King. Like a good middle-manager, Pilate spent a great deal of time controlling the truth narrative. And his tools were the normal ones. Ask a question like “What is truth” enough and people get confused about what they know is true. A little fear was often enough to make people behave irrationally even around cliffs. A little smoke was often enough to make people run the wrong direction away from the oxygen they need to survive. With enough fear, smoke, and confusion in the air, Pilate and therefore Caesar would remain the voice of truth. Those tools were as effective as any cross or travelled faster than any chariot.

Scholar and preacher Fred Craddock said,  “Like many moderns, Pilate assumes truth is a ‘what,’ that truth has a definite objective content that can be clearly stated.  This is not the understanding of truth in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is never said to teach truth.  He does not deliver the truth to his disciples, who are never said to ‘have’ the truth.  Truth is not an object, a body of material that can be possessed.  Jesus is not a great teacher who gives disciples ‘great truths’ to live by.  He gives himself; he himself is God’s truth.  Truth is a ‘who,’ not a ‘what.’”9

Our world is full of Pilates Pro Tem who still ask “What is truth?” A shelf of recently published books suggest that Western societies are becoming hostile to expertise, increasingly susceptible to bias and vulnerable to superstition. They suspect we are drowning in a flood of information. That we are now post-Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment gave us we hold these truths to be self-evident, the post-Enlightenment might say, “What is truth? Why those truths? Your truth might be self-evident to you but not to me.” In 1966, Time Magazine ran its first cover without art. The cover said, “Is God dead?” It was a discussion about the health of churches and the beliefs they taught. Then, 50 years late, in 2017, using the same font, Time’s cover was “Is truth dead?”

Maybe our human nature truly can’t handle the truth very well. Research shows that when new technologies arise, whether it’s the Roman road system long ago, the printing press or the internet, human nature is pretty predictable no matter what century you’re discussing. The fastest things to spread are the same: confusion, smoke and fear.

Pilate reminds Jesus that his nation has turned on him and wasn’t that significant a nation to begin with. If someone feels weak and alone, they usually flip. What is Truth? In Caesar’s world it was power and pressure and pandering and policing and politics and pretense and privilege and posturing and popularity and eventually severe punishment. In Caesar’s world it was performative and pecking orders and prison and predation. In Caesar’s world, that truth is self-evident.

And there is the world of Jesus. The world where truth is as personal as it is general. The world where truth is not a kind of accounting. Counting heads. Counting rights and wrongs. It is an encounter. It is not a rule. That allows us to feel right and stand in judgment over others. It is a relationship. Where we are vulnerable because we know how wrong we can be and we are loved anyway.

Those who belong to that truth, who believe it, feel God’s love grounding them like gravity and feel the Spirit breathing them through every fear. Christ the King Sunday is when we practice de-throning ourselves as the Kings of our lives. We take off our little paper ego crowns and slide off our shoes and remember we stand on holy ground. On Christ the King Sunday we stand in awe before God who chose to be truth among us, the kind of truth we could follow but never possess, love but never limit, trust but never trap. A real relationship.

When Dave and I were going through premarital counseling, we met with a wonderful Episcopalian Priest named Frank, though he had a fancy title in the diocese The Very Right Reverend. He laughed and said, “You know that doesn’t get me very far when I use it at home with my wife.” He wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Being Together, and as we talked, Frank said perhaps the most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. He said it twice. The most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. Suppose someone gets a new job or a child is born or someone wants to move. Someone becomes a vegetarian or is plunged into grief or is suddenly home all the time or gains 25 pounds. All of these are new truths, and the marriage needs to learn how to adapt. He said it is often not effective to tell the other person to deal with it. Nor does it go well to keep plodding along as if the change has not happened, avoiding the new truth. You have to renegotiate.

And how do you do that? When a new truth comes, healthy marriages become very articulate. They speak what they need, plainly without manipulation. Sometimes there isn’t an easy agreement. She loves going to parties. He does not. She wants to be more social. He wants to relax. When it is clear there isn’t an easy way for both parties to get what they want, he said our faith tells us to rely on the truth of grace, and to speak the language of gift-giving. For example, if he decides to go along to the party, she makes point to say “Thank you. I know you that wasn’t your favorite but it meant a lot to me.” If she stays home, he makes a point of saying, “Tonight has been a gift. I see what you gave me. Thank you.”

This is true for any relationship. Friend groups, families, churches, communities. We all renegotiate around a new truth. Whether that new truth is a new family member at Thanksgiving or a community dealing with a new phase of the pandemic. There might be a Thanksgiving where not everyone agrees. Or a season at church where not everyone agrees. Or even a time in the country when not everyone agrees. I know, it is hard to imagine, but think on that with me. Instead of Caesar’s truth, governed by pandering and pressuring and punishment, imagine that people could be articulate about what they need and that we could use the language of grace with each other, of gift-giving. Not the Black Friday gifts kind. But the gift of relationship. The gift of listening with absolutely no agenda. The gift of saying, “I might be wrong.” The gift of laughter so that conversations have oxygen enough to breathe. The gift of trying their suggestion. The gift of saying thank you when someone goes along with your plan when it is not their preference. Truth within real relationship.

There is a church I know that even before the pandemic was realizing that being a multi-cultural church was important to them but that meant not everyone was getting what they wanted. What felt beautiful to some, extended silence for example, was uncomfortable to others who preferred an extended passing of the peace. So, they started using something called the 75% rule. They realized when they gather for worship everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of the service otherwise it was likely that one cultural preference was being dominantly expressed. That meant that the 25% of the time or more when something was unfamiliar or even uncomfortable, and others felt joy and comfort, they learned to see this as a gift to God and from God, a gift found in relationship.

The Kingdom that Jesus describes so often throughout Scripture is unlikely community and unexpected welcome and strength found in weakness and wisdom that looks like old school foolishness. It’s bread multiplied and death defeated and life rich and abundant. The gifts of God for the people of God.

Indeed, this is a hard time for churches, for all communities. It is a time of renegotiation around a new truth of pandemic and polarization and such deep pain. I wish it were not so. I wish I had started with you when the truth we were facing was simply which coffee brand we preferred.

Recently we watched Lord of the Rings as a family. I identified so deeply with Frodo who looked at Gandalf and said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I suspect we are here today because we want to be reminded again about what is true. So here it is: The truth is not a what but a who. Jesus who gave his life for you not because you were very right but because you are very loved. Jesus who turned Caesar’s tools…. a cross, pain, punishment, into the sign of God’s truth… forgiveness, eternal life and world-changing communion. Jesus who prepares you and prays through you and prods you to serve your neighbor and promises you that you will not be alone to face this and provides others who while different from you are essential to you so together you become the people of peace and patience and purpose. A people of proclamation that Jesus is Lord.  Amen.

 

There Were Rumblings

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 14, 2021

Mark 13:1-8

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Let us pray. Beautiful Savior, when life is a peaceful sanctuary and when the load bearing walls of our lives feel like they are shaking, we come to you. We trust you. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

I’ll never forget the 2011 Earthquake in Virginia. Hearing the glasses clink in cabinets. Planting myself in a doorway because I had heard that was the sturdiest place to be. Eventually bolting outside to ask if others had felt it, only to find two very rattled painters who had been touching up the second-floor exterior walls of my neighbor’s home, atop 30 ft ladders, during the quake.

Later that night came images of the National Cathedral. The pinnacles, parapets, finials, and the apse, the masonry of our sacred ideals, were twisted or cracked or lying on the sidewalk. And you know what, most people responded, “What in the world is a finial?”

“Teacher, what large stones! What a magnificent everlasting sanctuary!” the disciples remarked to Jesus. And he responded, “Not one stone will be left on another. This building is going down. There will be wars and rumors of more wars. Nations clashing. Famines. Also, you know what always arises with upheaval? All kinds of false saviors.” Then, he said these are “but the birth pangs.” Just the birth pangs. Isn’t that the mother of all understatements? “Oh, it’s just labor starting. It’s just the water breaking upon a new world order.”

This was Jesus’ longest sermon in the Gospel of Mark, and it huddled his disciples around a bracing truth. This Temple that you want so badly to be permanent and eternal is not. Gazing down from the Mount of Olives, the sun setting on the dazzling Temple, Jesus starts to talk about apocalyptic endings.

And now here we are, 2021 is nearly over. Perhaps you are in a November state of mind. It’s that feeling of fragility that sets in, as the leaves, once florescent, turn brown and scratch along the ground like animals finding a place to take cover. It’s that “I am only temporary” feeling that catches you when chimney smoke curls out a warning into the cold air.

Will Willimon, former Dean of the Duke Chapel, another grand building, said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present. This temple, this world, is not as stable, eternal as it appears.”

Most mainline Christians prefer moral wisdom from Jesus to cataclysmic talk. More Sermon on the Mount than this apocalyptic sermon from the Mount of Olives. Model for us compassion for the poor. Give us a holy pep talk. We prefer our saviors to save us from falling apart and death, not offer redemption and eternity through it. More alpha, less omega, please.

But we are experiencing a season of great rumbling. I would wager a bet that historians will consider our time one of great tearing down, an era of deconstruction. Institutions are not as sturdy as we thought. In most towns, the greatest buildings used to be the Bank, the Post Office and the Catholic Church. And maybe Sears. And in the last decade, we’ve seen cracks in the walls of all of them.

There have been wars and rumors of wars. This Veterans Day was the first in 20 years where the US was not at war. Wars in Ethiopia and Yemen and Mexico brush by our news like rumors. Famines barely make the news maybe because we are living through a slow-rolling plague, which along with the climate crisis, means many of us are running on spiritual fumes. And of course Jesus was right. Like clockwork, false saviors arrive, promising health and wealth if you pray the correct prayer, or vote the right way, or eat the right proteins, or are lucky enough to land the second Amazon headquarters, HQ2, a shiny Helix building that will soon arise in Arlington.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, was once asked his opinion of Sears, that went bankrupt in 2018. Imagine the thud when he said, “Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years. If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end … We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible” (November 16th, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-says-amazon-will-fail-one-day-2018-11).

This second Temple, T2, the one Jesus and the disciples were discussing, it was a marvel, 40 years in the making. 1st century Jewish historian Josephus described the Temple this way: Now the outward face of the temple… was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars, Book V, Chapter 5). Archeologists say that stones of the Temple weighed 50 – 300 tons, that its walls were anywhere from 8 to 17 stories high.

I don’t think Jesus was talking about cataclysmic endings simply because he was feeling wistful or deconstructive. I think he actually saw something that day that let him know the Temple, while beautiful, was off its center. It had lost its mission. He saw priests with long robes and longer prayers feeding their hunger for recognition. He saw a poor widow clink her last two copper coins into the treasury, noticed by no one. As the disciples gazed down on the shiny Temple, Jesus was saying that if you claim to magnify God and yet you ignore or even exploit the vulnerable, eventually you will be upended by the Kingdom of God. It will not last. It will fall. Injustice and ego and vainglory will give way as God births a new creation.

Here is some word trivia for you: Apocalypse actually means revealing. It means unveiling. An apocalypse reveals the world as it actually is. The veil is pulled back. We see life in all its fragility. And that means that injustice and cancer, wars and pandemics, global powers and even curated Instagram feeds and walls full of diplomas, none of it lasts. What does last is the love of God, who in this story is a laboring woman who has zero patience for a world that harms people.

Kate Bowler is a Duke Divinity School professor who was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer when she was 35. She spoke at Burke a few years ago, and wrote a magnificent book about about how sometimes Christians get it wrong. When we build these cathedrals of certainty, when we construct all these formulas to keep decay and suffering at a distance, when we blindly follow people who claim they know how to control the future, we are off base. It’s normal, natural, but delusional. She primarily argues with prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen who have somehow made the Christian faith into self-help, into health and wealth for adherents instead of love for others and courage in the face of hard things. She didn’t stop there. She noticed all the ways her own faith had become a way of dodging misfortune, a kind of holy health insurance, and how that is hard to square with the life of Jesus.

Bowler wrote, “If I were to invent a sin to describe what that was—for how I lived—I would not say it was simply that I didn’t stop to smell the roses. It was the sin of arrogance, of becoming impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead.”

During her treatments, she would grill her doctors for numbers… all the numbers and statistics and mathematics they might be able to stack up to give her assurances that her treatment would work and her young son would have a mother. And finally one of them said, look, “we are all terminal.” All the timelines and certainty that she thought would help her live her life were actually blocking her vision for the life she had, the one she was living, the two year old rolling about in front of her like a polar bear cub.

So, one day she stopped. Stopped writing bucket lists and building castles in the future and learned to live in ordinary time. “How to do that?” She wrote. “You come to the end of yourself. And then you take a deep breath. And say a prayer. And get back to work” (Bowler, Kate, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House, New York: 2018, 159).

She wrote, “My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes, are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so whichever way the path turns, all they will find is love. It’s another beautiful morning, and it’s time to yell with the pitch of the coffee grinder and make him French toast. I will die, yes, but not today.”

That sounds remarkably like how Jesus lived.  Have you noticed that Jesus preferred to work with fluid things like water? Which must have been odd for the son of a carpenter. He preferred baptisms and boats to buildings. He preferred wells to walls. Have you noticed that the only thing he wrote down was a word in the sand? No political party label or even family name seemed to stick to him. Paul described it as an eternal dwelling, one not built with hands. He made his home with God and made everyone feel at home, wherever he went.

I know many of you know what it is like to come to the end of yourselves. You’ve had load bearing walls in your life crash down. Maybe cancer landed you there. Or the divorce. Or infertility. Or the loss of your job. Or disappointment with fellow Americans. Or an empty nest. That probably felt apocalyptic to you. Revealing. Scary. But that is when you find the deeper joy, deeper joy that comes in serving someone else. The lasting joy of being a real friend. The nourishing joy of the CROP Walk that prevents the suffering of modern-day famines.

Churches are realizing that if they focus on themselves, on their survival and comfort, they actually speed their own decline. When churches come to the end of themselves and devote themselves to midwifing God’s love into being in their community, they are buoyant. They experience the joy of a trunk full of sweaters so that no one faces the cold of winter alone. They experience the joy of tutoring a child who then believes that this world is on their side and grows up to make it so. I love that we have a wall of water here. The load bearing walls in this place are the promises made at baptism, that you are loved and you belong and you are worthy of everything we can give and that is enough. According to today’s text, church should not be a building focused on its own beauty. It should be a maternity ward where God’s love is born.

I’ll end with what Martin Luther considered to be his greatest comfort. He knew rumblings in his institution. But he knew even more what God was birthing in the world. He believed it was unstoppable. And, he kept these words ever before him, carved into his desk so he could see them every day. “Remember your Baptism.” He wrote, “a truly Christian life is nothing more than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.” It is a doorway place where we learn to see beyond ourselves.

Take a deep breath, even if it feels like Lamaze, say a prayer, and let’s get back to work.

All Things New

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

November 7, 2021

All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 21:1-6b

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

 

When I was a child in church, I would often pass the time by taking my mom’s rings and putting them on the tops of my thumbs so that they looked a king and queen wearing a crown. So I think I was almost as distraught as she was when, about 15 years ago, her engagement ring went missing. She told me over the phone that she’d looked everywhere in the house, from obvious places like next to her bed to the places one looks only when they have not only lost something precious but also lost trust in themselves. Maybe it would be in the fridge? Could I have put it in a sock drawer? She told me that she worried maybe someone had taken it. When you’re desperate, you can easily imagine how desperate other people might be. So, she contacted the local pawn shops. They hadn’t seen anything like it. Eventually, she told herself that it was fine. The wedding memories were as clear as any diamond, she said, and she took comfort in trying to care less, to minimize the loss in her heart. Shock, Anger, Denial. That is the grief cycle for you.

And, I also remember when, on a whim, my Dad went back to the same jeweler he’d visited as a young man with sweaty palms decades before, with a slightly thinner wallet and midsection. He called me to say, “You’re not gonna believe this. Your mom’s ring. The original jeweler was still there and had one almost identical. So, hot dog, I got it and I just proposed again.” “And I said yes,” I heard her yell out in the background. Every phone conversation was kind of a free for all like that. And I was glad for a time to be in a world where all things could be made new. A bride adorned for her husband. Every tear wiped away. Mourning and crying no more. Once lost, now replaced. Alpha. Omega. Done.

The book of Revelation ends with this gleaming vision of God unrolling a new heaven and a new earth. At the end of one of the most difficult and frightening books of the Bible, there is this opening of hope, this vista of possibility, as Professor Brian Blount calls it. And, I for one absolutely love the notion of a shiny new world as it should be with no crying and no death and only God’s gentle thumb on our cheek wiping away any tear. I love to imagine God as a generous groom proposing to all of humanity that we start over again. I love to daydream about the world God desires free of baggage and injustice. Behold, I am making all things new! In this new earth, cereal boxes will now have Ziploc bags and our communities will nurture everyone well and the wolf and the lamb will play in Fall leaves together that rake themselves and our loved ones will never leave us.

But, Revelation according to John of Patmos proclaims that God dwells with us, not just somewhere else. Revelation declares that this making new is happening in the present tense, now, already, as we speak. For those of us obsessed with HGTV, Revelation declares that theologically, the renovation has started and this text is God’s permit taped to the window. And I have come to believe that that is even more hopeful than some kind of religious reboot. It gets at a truth our hearts know. That our lives aren’t some linear chain rolled out to a certain length and then cut, but that we are part of everyone we have known and they are part of us and we are all being breathed alive by God in an ecosystem of love. We are being made and remade all the time by the grace of God.

All Saints’ Day might be the day when we practice that truth in the most personal way. In our tradition, saint means holy. So that means all of us, not just the heroes and martyrs of old. We whisper or type or chant or scribble or sniffle through the names of those people who are holy to us and have joined the “church triumphant” as we might call it, and as we do that, we expand our souls to better imagine eternal life. On All Saints Sunday, we practice that part of the Apostle’s Creed that often is just rattled off, “I believe in the communion of saints” or that part of the communion liturgy that rolls toward the singing part, “joining our voices with the choirs of heaven and with all the faithful of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name.”

All Saints’ Day began around the 6th century. In those days, death was much closer to home than it now, and much more normal. Death happened at home, not in hospitals. And often church happened at home too. The bitter persecutions of Christians had abated by then but normal courage was still required. So, the early church practiced remembering the Saints. Like Peter, how he denied his Lord and then went on to be the boldest disciple and the rock of the church. And I imagine remembering him well kept them from perfectionism. The early church practiced remembering Paul, who persecuted Christians mightily and then quite literally fell blindly in love with the Gospel. And I imagine that kept them hopeful that people could change. For us, maybe today we remember the grandparent who showed us what unconditional love looks like at a dinner table. Maybe we remember the husband who hiked us up the mountain trail of life where we beheld life’s splendor. We remember Fred Rogers and Fred Craddock. We rest in the truth that none of us is self-made. If anything, we are recycled, made new out of all those God made before. And even though grief is no picnic, we wouldn’t be who we are without those we have lost. Which reframes the idea of loss toward a more Christian one. Remember the verses we say at all the weddings? The one thing that never passes away is love.

As I have shared with some of you, my mom passed away on March 20, 2020. Cancer is a terrible foe. Since then, I haven’t really been able to sing For All the Saints all the way through without blubbering or going mute like Ariel the Mermaid. I kind of go dead-eyed when someone offers me platitudes like “she was so nice God just wanted to have her sooner.” Or “she’s in a better place now.” Or “she had done what she needed to do and God needed her back.” Maybe you’ve been on the business end of those words that are meant to comfort the hearer but often just comfort the one saying them. Those words also do no service to the God we know. What God is saying in today’s text sounds more like, “I am here for you.” It sounds more like, here are flowers from my garden. Here is bread from my oven. Here is a hug with no words at all. I’ll just stay for a few days – I brought my stuff. And, drink this water, honey, it’s a gift from the spring of life.” That is what today’s text sounds like.

I was talking with one of you the other day when it dawned on me, losing someone really does make all things new, though not necessarily in the ways you want. You get new routines, new work to do, new roles. Suddenly you are the one who figures out the taxes or the Christmas lights. Losing as much as we have in this pandemic makes our world feel new to the degree it is almost unrecognizable. The ongoing racial reckoning in our country gives us a sense of how deep the grief goes. I learned that the word bereaved actually means robbed. We feel robbed of time, events, people, and a sense of our place in the world. Rather than speed through toward a reboot, we need to acknowledge the grief. Not to become stuck there. But to learn to carry it. And learn from it. And let it teach us.

I hope we as a congregation can use grief language to speak about what has changed here and from there continue to comfort each other and trust God is still doing a new thing among us, in this place, even now.

It’s not all Eeyore either. Grief slashes the veil between this life and eternity in ways that can be exquisite. When you are in grief, a single yellow flower can feel like an answer to a prayer only you know about. A cardinal or a hummingbird or a rainbow can feel like a visitation from a loved one. You start to see the soft contours of humanity in all its grief and beauty all around you and want to offer a tissue to a complete stranger. Ordinary things are crowned with meaning like a ring on a thumb.

I’ll tell you this story that I wouldn’t believe if it were written in a novel except that it truly happened. In late February of 2020, we knew mom only had a few weeks with us, tops. There was such an intensity about those days that we would sometimes find a silly errand or task just to breathe. To let our brains rest. Grief… it comes from gravare, the Latin word for heavy. It was a heavy time. And one of those tasks was organizing mom’s jewelry. Mom and Dad started telling stories about each piece. “Ah, this one was from when you were born. These were our 20th anniversary. And these earrings were from our trip to Texas. I think it goes with a bracelet, check in that bowl in the cabinet near the sink,” Mom said. My sister brought over a ramekin with a couple of safety pins and a bracelet and also, under that Texas bracelet, the missing engagement ring. There was a lot of whooping and weeping about that, and then Mom said, “How about that, now there’s one for each of you.” And we held it in our hands, something that wasn’t new, in fact, it had always been there, we just hadn’t known where to look for it.

God makes a home with mortals. For my family, it was like finding a lost ring and believing even without mom’s presence that we’d have what we needed. Maybe for you it is the friend who shows up at just the right time with candles and wine and you know you are not alone. Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid the treasure again and bought the whole field. It wasn’t a different glamorous field somewhere else but this same old field was precious to him all the more because he knew the treasure it held. The kingdom of Heaven is like that.

The English poet David Whyte describes grief as a deep well.

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

 

The kingdom of heaven is like that. Field of treasure. A wishing well. A communion table where we are surrounded. Whatever metaphor we go to, this is the not the kiddie pool of church. It’s not the shallow part where most of the noise comes from. This is the deep end, where there is peace even though we can’t touch bottom. Even though it doesn’t fit into tidy slogans. Even though it might leave us cold sometimes. We know in some ineffable way those loved ones join us at this table. We feel it. Sometimes we see it. Maybe you have her smile. Maybe you have his ring on your necklace. Maybe you say “fantastic” the exact same way he did.

The kingdom of heaven is like that. You love and it breaks your heart and by God’s chivalrous grace you wind up with more love that you started with.

Amen.

Church 101

Rev. Rebecca Messman

October 31, 2021

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘”he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’-this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

 

I like getting to church early. Maybe its prayerful prep time or an antidote to anxiety. So, last Sunday, my first Sunday, I was the first one here with the exception of some charismatic squirrels. I opened the door to the church with my brand new key that was shiny and still sharp on the edges and stepped in with a mug full of glee and anticipation that comes with every new key. The motion sensor lights snapped on and it felt like the Book of Genesis. Let there be light.

I placed my sermon on my new desk, straightened a pile of folders full of operating manuals that promised to tell me exactly how this church operates, and crowned my sermon with a fresh bulletin, which for Presbyterians functions as a safety harness so no one falls out of any chairs unexpectedly.

With everything decent and in order, I moved to the hallway, for a reason that soon seemed not worth it, because my office door then closed behind me, with my sermon, keys, purse, and phone locked safely inside. Alone in the church, I heard myself say “Well, God, I guess you’re stuck with just me now.” I could feel the quiet embracing me, a love that was old and unconcerned by doors and locks. It raised the hair on my arms. Then, I heard a car door slam. “Oh, it’s not just me. Hallelujah!” You better believe I felt a love of neighbor in that moment. A surge of interdependence. The thrumming need for community. I flung open the door, startling two deacons like a tame Halloween gag, and eventually was let back into my office. Thank you Charlie.

I didn’t plan it to go that way, but it was Church 101. There have always been just two keys to the church: The first, love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second, love your neighbor as yourself. We call this the Great Commandment. In modern lingo we might say, receive love, give love, repeat. That has a nice ring to it.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all feature some version of the Great Commandment. But Mark is unique in his Jewishness. A scribe asks Jesus to rank the commandments, and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. That is called the Shema. The Hebrew word for hear. You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and your soul and your strength… Jesus adds to it, “And all your mind.” Every teacher delights in that. My grandmother would say, God gave us minds and wants us to use them. Then Jesus links that ancient, very familiar command with another one from Leviticus like a bonus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe repeats it back like a model student, and then says something like, “And that is more important than the offerings and the financials.” And Jesus responds, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God.” And whether he meant that to say “yep, basically that” or “look, this is way bigger than you,” either way, the Bible considers this a Jesus mic drop moment because the text ends with “After that no one dared ask him any questions.”

The famous preacher Barbara Brown Taylor was speaking about the great world religions and highlighted how all of them have a version of the Great Commandment. She said, “We are all fingers pointing to the moon, at something so luminous, so numinous, the light that shines on each and all, casting the same reflection in every eye, even a basketball sized whale eye, though never the same reflection two nights in a row… “ Then she zeroed in on Jesus here in Mark, “The Great Commandment does an odd thing to those who think the sacred is up there. It takes the finger pointing to the moon and turns it to point at something much closer, at a neighbor or a stranger or a grey whale or a Japanese bush warbler, and then it bends it again to point to the self’s own heart… Near or far, coming or going, it is all one love, one love, one love, one.”

The Christian faith always points beyond itself. Any time we think we own the moon or can lock up the light, you can bet God will call forth the un-lockers to free us from that illusion. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus presented Peter with the keys to the Kingdom, the very first church keys that ever there were, though they were probably only words, these words. Throughout art history, if you see a guy with a halo and a key, you know it’s Peter. I often feel smart knowing that. Apparently that began in the 5th century, and appeared in sculpture and paintings and then came to symbolize the papacy.

Along the way, though, the church started locking up the light. Empires do that when they are nervous. And instead of devoting itself to the Kingdom of God and the poor, it started charging people, primarily poor people, for forgiveness. And so, God called forth an un-locker. That’s why today we celebrate the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. He protested the way the church had commodified grace and made itself the grifting hand of the government. Grace can never be purchased. It can only be given, and as such, we give to God not as a way to stave off damnation or acquire worthiness or avert budget short-falls or even get what we want, but we give out the depth of our gratitude for this one love, one love, one love.

After the Reformation, of course, the faith continued to point beyond itself, and it continued rattling some old doors. You see, for a while the church thought that women ought not have all the keys to the church. They could have keys to the kitchen, maybe, or the Sunday School wing, but not the Pastorate. They were welcomed to open their wallets for the plate but not their mouths in the pulpit. And, again, God called forth un-lockers. Though she was not alone in hearing that call, on October 24, 1956, 65 years ago last Sunday, God called forth Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. From then on, many girls started to notice that their keys opened doors that no one had knocked on before.

That was the case for a woman named Rev. Roxana Atwood and a group of Christians in the Burke area who met in homes and a community center. They knocked on doors in this area and grew a new church. In 1980, the Washington Post quoted Atwood, “ ‘The children of our church will have to think of the church as people, because their building keeps moving around!’ said Atwood, one of only a few organizing women pastors of a Presbyterian Church.”

What a fortunate thing, to know the church as the people and to imagine from the start  that buildings can move and change, if those same two keys are used. Those keys helped you open preschools and trade schools and churches in Kibwezi, Kenya. More than 300 children a week go to those schools who might not have. Those keys unlock housing for those who might have been sleeping in their cars. They unlock a place to laugh and cry and laugh again for the bereaved. Quiet for the stressed. Incomparable belonging for the LGTQ neighbors. A handbell for a 9 year old to ring and a place in the choir for those who need weekly reminders that human beings still can learn how to harmonize. And of course, those keys lead us to a big table, to feed the church on Christ’s grace so we can keep moving.

What a fortunate thing that the children of the church knew the church was the people and that the building could move around when a pandemic hit and the building needed to expand yet again. So of course, you learned how to point to God on screens and pray while typing on computer keys. Of course you figured out a drive-through Christmas Eve nativity and delivered a healthy lasagna to a neighbor who had lost her spouse so she would not have face an empty fridge too.

Someone told me this week, “gosh, kind of stinks to start ministry at a church during October, you know, Stewardship season. You get your key and then pass the plate, huh?” And I said, “I honestly love it.” The person looked at me as if I was an alien or an undercover church consultant. Both are rather scary. But I said, “Giving works on me. I know I can put a check in an envelope, or bake something for a neighbor, or give my kid an extended hug, or make a caring call or this week, vote, and it’s like the ignition of holy kind of engine. I start to think about all the ways people have cared for me and loved me and shaped the world for me, whew,” I fan my face, “suddenly I get weepy with gratitude and I can run on that energy for a long time.”

The bottom line is, giving to God always gets me out of my own way. It unlocks me from fear and consumerism and selfishness and sends me blinking in hope. That’s the core teaching of the Reformation. Of course, there is brokenness in the world. Marriages fail. We lose people we think we can’t live without. Racism and greed stomp on the fragile. But because God so loved the world, God did not dodge that brokenness in us or detach from it or commodify it or tweet about it. God sent Christ to free us from all that harms and divides us. To give his life for us that we might have even more life through him, and then God made of us Christ’s body so that we might spent all our days becoming un-lockers ourselves.

The other night, I was on my first BPC Women’s Bible Study Zoom. We were studying the story of Tamar. Spoiler alert: Tamar’s love story is no Hallmark movie. But being good Reformed Christians, these women studied those words with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength and all their beautiful minds. One of the prompts from the curriculum asked participants to share their wedding photos. Women pressed their wedding pictures onto the Zoom screen, some of them grainy with age, others with sleeves that foretold they were from the ‘80s. Some women shared that they not married, or well, not anymore. And then came the deep stories that needed a tissue or a few minutes with the camera off. And you could almost hear the clink as people unlocked some stories that had been sealed off, locked up, pushed down for a long long time. And around the Zoom, they shared honestly. They gave each other luminous grace. They helped each other see beyond the white hot pain of now to something hard to grasp but still very good. Not the promise that everything would be fixed. But the promise that it could be shared and that is liberating. Light from God’s heart reflected from face to face, one love, one love, one love.

The 14th century poet Hafiz wrote this poem:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

 

Here’s what I know. When we give to the church, we unlock all sorts of things. Those keys might have rather mundane labels like Sunday School supplies or Christ House or Kibwezi partnership or personnel or choir. But in the hands of Christ, they break chains of poverty and unlock music from the mouths of children. They bind up the brokenhearted and set the captive free, including us.

Amen.

Throw Off the Cloak

Rev. Rebecca Messman

October 24, 2021

Mark 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Let us pray. Lord, startle us again with your truth so that we might not only see you but see ourselves and each other as you see us. And in my words, may your people hear your word. Amen.

An interesting thing happens to a child in a robe at the front of a church. They begin to feel … like the Holy Spirit, I guess. And I don’t mean peaceful and serene. Oh no. I mean they believe because people don’t really react to them that they must be invisible. And they can move in powerful, uncontrollable ways.

That’s how it was for me anyway, sitting in the regal pew at the front of the chancel at First Presbyterian Church Danville, my parents socked away in the pews and the choir loft. One Sunday, I had earned an entire box of Andes candies during Sunday School for saying all the beatitudes. And at some point during the sermon, stricken with hunger, I took the box out of my acolyte robe and began to eat the candy. Now, even though she was about 12 feet away on the other side of the chancel, the other acolyte, my friend Kelly must have seen the gleam of the green wrappers. Since she probably felt invisible and powerful too, naturally she motioned for me to throw her one. Throwing candy in a robe is harder than it looks, it turns out. On the third try, likely around when the Pastor was landing his third point in the sermon, I landed a mint right onto her lap.

As I think back on it, I would hazard a guess that my parents along with half the choir and the Sunday School teacher saw the whole ordeal. An elegant older woman named Lib Cuttle, who lived up to her last name, hurried over to us after the service, and said “I saw you tossing those candies… And I want to say,” I blanched, “when God gives you something good, share it like you mean it!” Then, she put her hand out and I slapped a mint into her soft hand.

As I recall, not a single person threatened to expel us from the acolyte gild, if there was such a thing. The result was a budding sense in me that I was accepted there. That I could be seen as I truly was and still bear the light of Christ. That there is a wild delicious love out there and it was worth throwing your whole life at. And, well, here I am. Still at the front of a church, still taking risks for candy and Jesus, still amazed by the generosity of God.

Today, I think of Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on his cloak, shouting out to Jesus from his normal spot on the Jericho road. I imagine he felt invisible but in a more desperate way. He was part of the landscape that many people chose to ignore, hoping the stoplight turns green. His name wasn’t even about him. It means son of Timaeus. What’s interesting there is that, depending on what translation one uses, his name could either mean Son of the Unclean or Son of Esteem. Maybe like all of us, he was a little of both.

Bartimaeus could not see and probably believed no one saw him, and yet he becomes one of the most significant people in the New Testament. The Bartimaeus story is short, just six verses, but in many ways, this story is a hinge on which swings the whole Gospel of Mark. The first half of Mark is set in Galilee. There, Jesus teaches in parables and tangles with the authorities. Jesus heals a bunch of people, like the woman who grabs his cloak.  And yet most people remain blind to who Jesus is. Blinded by wealth, the rich young ruler goes away sad. Blinded by their ambitions, the disciples jockey for status around Jesus. Blinded by tradition, professional holy people take great offense at Jesus. And then, in the second half of Mark, right after this story, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly with cloaks thrown before him. Even as his identity is uncloaked, Jesus is mocked, draped with a purple cloak as he faces the cross for all of us. And in the heart of the book of Mark, Bartimaeus sits on his cloak and makes the first public declaration that Jesus is the Messiah: “Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Even before his vision is restored, the blind man sees clearly. The invisible one, the last in line, he is the one who sees and follows first. That is a core Gospel message.

Another thing moves me deeply about this story. Bartimaeus had just one thing, one possession in the world, his cloak. That was it. That was all he had to shield himself from the sun and rain, from the dust and disgust of others. His cloak was his source of income, like a street guitarist leaving his case open to collect loose change. It was a security blanket and then some. And after so many years of being ignored, all of a sudden, he heard these lovely words from a formerly irritated crowd, “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” And that was enough. That and a wild hope hanging on this guy Jesus. That was what caused him to throw off his cloak and leap forward.

Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” I love that Jesus didn’t assume a particular answer. There is such dignity in that. And Bartimaeus responded, “Teacher, let me see again.” I love that Bartimaeus knew the answer. It takes spiritual maturity to know what you really want. So many people don’t. And it takes vulnerability to actually speak the words. That requires you to open yourself to hope. Bartimaeus threw off his cloak in hope, and it seemed like, at least according to Jesus, the healing was done at that point. “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And with his feet already on the move and his cloak in the rearview mirror, his vision came back and he joined Jesus on the way.

Today, here we are, the pandemic still draped over the globe like a cloak, making it darn near impossible for us to see much of anything down the road and harder for us to see each other. Some of you might have felt invisible during this stretch. Unwitnessed during one of the best or worst times of your life that would have ordinarily been deeply shared. There is ample data that shows that a basic human need is connection, to see and be seen, by other human beings. So, to feel unnoticed at work or invisible at school or ignored in your family, that is often a greater ache than conflict or illness. Sometimes people who feel unseen create conflict or become ill when what they desperately want is connection. And when the church faces so much uncertainty, hardly able to see Advent, much less the five year plan, and when the church feels invisible in the social landscape, it is hard indeed. So, maybe we understand Bartimaeus on the road better than we thought.

And we all have our cloaks, I suspect, those things to which we cling so that we are not exposed, so that people know how to treat us, so that we can manage all that we can’t see. We all have our cloaks. Maybe it’s wealth and influence enough to shield us from as many risks as possible. Maybe it’s credentials and personality and beauty enough to keep us from loneliness. For me, I love a good routine. I love to know what I am doing. I eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch. I love to throw on my cloak, head out into the world, and assure myself that the future will be more or less the same. There is nothing inherently bad about a cloak. And with the popularity of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Halloween coming, they seem to be popular. Thanks to Zoom, you can wear a cloak over your work-out clothes and all seems normal.

However, the cloak can get heavy, can’t it? When we end a day feeling like all we did was amass or organize stuff. When we feel like our vision has grown dim and it’s been a long time since we felt childlike delight before God. When our routines and pandemic fears cover us like listless weather, the cloak can get heavy. The cloaks we keep around us can trip us up and make it very cumbersome to follow Jesus with the fresh vision of Bartimaeus. That is when our souls cry out from the roadside of our lives.

And when that happens, you can be sure Jesus will take notice. You can be sure people around you or friends you trust will start to say, “Take heart… Get up… he is calling you.” You can be sure Jesus will ask at some point, “What do you want?” And maybe you surprise yourself with the answer. Maybe you hear an answer from your own lips that you didn’t expect.

Maybe you leap up off that cloak and find yourself in a new ministry, like a church whose signature Bible quote is “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” That is how it is going for me. Apparently I am not alone. The Fall of 2021 saw the largest number of Americans starting new jobs in decades. It’s time to throw off the cloaks of how we have always done it and know that God meets us there with a new thing.

Maybe you throw off the cloak, committed to giving in ways that feel new and exuberant. When we give, we get to feel like kids again, marveling at what God has dropped into our laps, unwrapping the gleam of purpose, and tasting the sweetness of generosity that comes back to us when we pitch it to others. Do you know what the medical term is for inability to see what is close to you? Presbyopia. It means old eyes.

So, if that is you, you are invited to throw off the cloak and see your life and your church and the world in a new way. Maybe you call that neighbor who has been a real challenge for you politically. Maybe you put your phone away for an entire day so that your eyes awaken to your neighborhood. Maybe you read a poem or join the choir or spent an afternoon with a 3 year old as a way to bring color back to your vision. Maybe throwing off the cloak means noticing where the film of despair or the fog of anxiety or the scales of grief have clouded your vision and you let yourself be seen just as you are. Throw off the cloak. See your lift as a gift that has been dropped in your life and then share it like you mean it.

I learned recently that Lib Cuttle entered the church triumphant at age 101. She threw off the cloak of this mortal life and now walks with her God. She never had biological children but she mentored at-risk children and taught Sunday School for 80 years and she made people like me feel seen. My life is evidence that she changed the way the world looked through her bold discipleship.

I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes, a poet in the lineage of Bartimaeus.

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

“Songs Matter” (9:00 am worship)

Rev. Dr. David Ensign

“Mountain Stories”

Rev. Dr. David Ensign

“You Have Heard Said”

Rev. Dr. David Ensign