This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Joshua 3.7-17, Psalm 107.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13, Matthew 23.1-12). Sara serves as the lead pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Overstory, connected characters, divine deliverance, All Saints all the time, the God who gathers, theological wandering, rules and regulations, and sitting at the reject table. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Isn’t Public Speaking
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I love to read. I love reading fiction in order to jump into a world I could never imagine. I love reading theology to help open my mind to all that God has done, is doing, and will do. And I love reading out loud to others.
I’ve often joked that if the whole “being a pastor thing” didn’t work out, I would love to be paid to make audio recordings of books. Between making up voices for particular characters, and adjusting my pitch to reflect the tone of a sentence, I just love reading out loud.
So when I was invited to read to a few classes at Featherstone Elementary School this week (to celebrate Dr. Seuss), I jumped on the opportunity.
My first class was filled with excited four and five year olds who mistook their teacher when she informed them that I was there to read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham; they thought I was Dr. Seuss.
So I went along. And, for what it’s worth, they really liked my book.
My second class included those throughout the school who are autistic. I sat on the floor, and began reading The Cat in The Hat, when the teacher asked me to say something about the characters in the story. I tried to unpack the concept of character as best I could and then I resigned myself to just ask the question, “What is a character?”
Each of the students gave it a whirl, some of them getting closer to a definition than others, but then the last student spoke and this is what she said: “Character is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
I know that I froze for a few seconds as her theological wisdom percolated in my mind.
Of course, she was referring to one’s character and not the character of a story, but her answer was so profound that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
In church I, or any leader, might say something like, “let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord” and though we specifically mention being in the sight of God, what we really mean is that we hope we say and do the right thing in front of everybody else!
How often do we do what we do so that we might be seen doing what we are doing? Do we do the right thing even when no one is watching? Or, perhaps it’s better to put it this way: Do we do the right thing even when God is watching?
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
I love asking that question. Whether in the middle of painting a house surrounded by middle-schoolers on a mission trip, or in the midst of a counseling session with a member from the community, identifying with people from the bible can be eye-opening. For instance: Middle-school age boys almost always say they identify with David (during the fight with Goliath) probably because of their current physical changes and the pressures of school and social developments. Middle-school girls often identify with Esther probably because they want to establish their independence and unique responsibilities for taking care of others.
The question was first asked of me during a Clinical Pastoral Education session. Our group leader wanted us to begin understanding our own limitations and strengths when it came to meeting people in the midst of suffering, so we began with acknowledging our perceived biblical counterparts. At the time I was getting used to seeing the world through a scripturally shaped imagination and had already paired up my group members with people from the bible. I was therefore thrilled when some of them identified with the characters I had imagined for them. When it came time for me to answer, I responded without hesitation: “Peter”
Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the stories involving Peter from the New Testament. I loved imagining Peter mending the nets on the boats to then being brought to his knees in humble reverence for the Lord in his midst. I loved picturing him jumping off the boat to meet Jesus walking on the water. I loved his willingness to speak up and act first while the other disciples remained quiet in the background.
As I have grown older my identification with Peter has taken truer form when I spent time with the more embarrassing stories of his life. I truly fear that if I was placed under the same kind of pressure I would deny Jesus three times. I wonder how similarly I would have responded if I had been on top of the mountain during the transfiguration. And I am ashamed knowing that if Jesus had explained the need for his death prior to resurrection, I probably would have pulled him aside to rebuke him for making such claims.
I identify most with Peter. I see myself in him when I read from the New Testament and therefore have learned how to respond to God’s grace in my life in a way so as to not make the same mistakes that Peter once did.
Who do you identify with in scripture? Are you going through something in your life right now that aligns with a particular story from the bible? How can you use the living Word to help shape and mold the direction your life is heading?
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I love asking questions. Whether I’m sitting around the dining room table with family and friends or I am holding a ladder so that a middle-school student can paint a ceiling in West Virginia; asking questions is something that brings me joy. Of course there are the standard and typical “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What was the last good book that you read?” and even “If you could go on vacation anywhere, where would you go?” I love asking these types of questions because they afford an opportunity for everyone to respond and it often sparks a much longer and deeper conversation.
For as much as I love to ask questions, there is one in particular that I enjoy asking more than any other: “Who from the Bible do you most identify with?” I last asked this question of a handful of middle school students on our recent mission trip and it was so exciting to see them ponder over the question and eventually offer their response. However, when some of them were unable to answer the question I made it my mission to learn enough about each of them to tell them who I thought they reminded me of from the Bible by the end of the week.
In my life I identify most with the apostle Peter. I was not called out of a simple career to leave everything and follow Christ, I have not had a defining moment where I denied Christ three times, but when it comes to Peter’s personality I line up completely. Like Peter, I always have an answer to every question, I often volunteer for leadership positions, and I regularly speak on behalf of many others. Moreover I see the connections between myself and Peter most vibrantly in the story of Peter getting off the boat to walk with his Lord. When I feel that God is asking me to do something I usually do whatever it takes to jump right in, yet sometimes when I have already left the boat I notice the strong winds of life that make me doubt what I have done. I, like Peter, need to hear Jesus’ question over and over: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
As we prepare to take steps into a new week I encourage you to reflect on who you identify with from the Bible. Do you feel like David, small but able to accomplish great things? Do you feel like Martha, always busy and working hard to take care of all the chores? Or do you feel like me, which is to say, do you feel like Peter, ready and willing to rush into anything for God? Who from the Bible do you most identify with?