Let the Revolution Begin!

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and other spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

While growing up in the church there were few Sundays as exciting as Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday we, as children, always arrived a little bit earlier to church with joyful hope and anticipation for the parade of palms that would mark the beginning of worship.

Like shepherds guiding the sheep, we were herded into a single-file line down the hallway by the narthex, we were each handed a single palm frond, and were given these detailed and explicit instructions: “You will march down the center aisle, you will wave your palms, and you WILL NOT HIT EACH OTHER.”

And so the hymn would begin in the sanctuary, and we would quickly file into the house of worship waving palm branches above our heads while all the adults shouted “Hosanna!”

That was the routine every year. Regardless of whatever was going on in the world, or even in the church, on Palm Sunday the kids got to participate in, and frankly lead, worship.

At least, that used to be the routine.

Sometime among the years, we decided that we could march down the center, we could wave our palms, but it would be far more fun if we did so while we were hitting each other with the palm branches.

It started subtlety, one young boy raised the palm branch higher than usual, and instead of waving it back and forth, he brought it down with passion on the head of the girl in front of him. To which she turned around and smacked him across the chest. And as if the message shot throughout the aisle, we all began pummeling each other until the formerly apathetic adults jumped into the pile and broke up the fight.

The was the last time they let the kids lead the parade.

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And, to be clear, I am not advocating for brawls to break out between the pews. However, that palm branch debacle was probably more faithful to the truth of Palm Sunday than any peaceful and cherubic portrayal.

This world of ours revolves around, and is perpetuated by, violence, war, and aggression. Therefore, the question remains: what does it mean to wage peace?

When we open our eyes to the brokenness of the world, we cannot ignore the immense pain, conflict, and destruction around us. On Thursday night we had a bible study here at the church and I challenged those in attendance to fill the white board with examples of problems just in our local community, and in a few minutes we completely ran out of space.

We are broken people living in a broken world.

The people in Jerusalem were crying out of deep fear, pain, and grief, when Jesus rolled into town. Like the scores of young people who marched on major cities this weekend, they saw the world around them as imperfect and they were looking for a change.

Jesus came proclaiming and promising that the kingdom of God was near, and everyone assumed they knew what that meant. Even the disciples had their own ideas about who this Messiah of theirs was. All were eager to make sure their understanding and expectations of a new beginning were met in the person of Jesus.

And so they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom!”

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We might hear those words and picture perfect children singing in 4 part harmony, we might even imagine the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar when a bunch of hippies surrounded a white Jesus in color coordinated liturgical dance moves. But those imagined scenes do a disservice to the truth: the crowds were looking for a revolution.

It’s hard to translate the word “Hosanna” but the closest connection might be the expression “Save us!” It is an emphatic demand, a desire for the status quo to be disrupted; it is a call of desperation.

That same phrase of “Hosanna!” was shouted in those same streets of Jerusalem 150 years before Jesus rode into town. There was a Hebrew family named the Maccabees who stirred up a violent political revolution that somehow drove the mighty Roman Empire out of their city. That family ruled after the bloody battle until, inevitably, the empire returned and reasserted their violent power.

When the crowds during that Palm Sunday shouted “Hosanna!” they were doing so with the memory of what happened the last time a revolutionary paraded into town. Their cries to be saved and delivered came with the expectation that blood would roll through the streets of Jerusalem as they took their city back.

            But, of course, by the end of the week, only Jesus’ blood would be rolling through the streets.

If this sounds difficult to process, or if your mind is having a difficult time rationalizing the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus appeared more like Che Guevara than Mother Teresa, it’s because we’ve watered down the frightening truth of the beginning of Jesus’ final earthly week.

Parading into Jerusalem with the crowds screaming and waving was a seditious act; it was a street demonstration, one in which the Romans were probably waiting in their riot gear for the first sign of violence. It was a rally that teetered on the verse of a riot.

Jesus rode straight into the heart of the empire’s kingdom in Jerusalem, into the realm in which violence and destruction ruled the day. The people gathered and shouted and cheered him on with hopes that a revolution would begin.

And he did it all on the back of a colt, with no weapon but the Word.

Jesus was, and is, a revolutionary. But his revolution is one that begins in the heart, and transforms the world. His way is a new way, a new kingdom, a deeper covenant, in which strength is found in simplicity, wealth in generosity, and power in humility.

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No one’s blood would be spilled except for the revolutionary on the colt, who heard the crowds shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

And all the while, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. When we think about Palm Sunday we are mostly consumed by the images of the road, and the crowds, and the branches. But in the actual scripture, most of the passage is about the plan. Go to the village, find a colt, tell them the Lord needs it, bring it to me. The preparation is part of the plan.

And all of these elements are important because they point to the greater political ramifications of this poor Jewish rabbi upending the world.

Jesus begins at the Mount of Olives, which was the traditional location from which people expected the final battle for Jerusalem to begin. It was there that Jesus began his final campaign in the holy city. Jesus sends out the disciples for provisions, all of the items necessary for the revolution. However, the items and the situation become rather weird. The Lord does not require weapons of warfare and conflict, but a small colt (not even a full grown donkey). Jesus parades into the heart of the empire’s imperial stronghold unarmed and on the back of a small animal.

It is a parody of power.

The whole scene, from the Mount of Olives, to the crowds screaming, to arriving late in Bethany, they all show how Jesus is turning worldly notions of power upside down. It is in these things that Jesus proclaims, through his actions, that the last will be first and the first will be last. It is explosive in scope because here, in this scene, Jesus is at his most wild and political self.

It truly was the beginning of the revolution.

And yet, we portray this frightening and pivotal moment with a levity that should leave us reeling. This decisive event cannot, and should not, be limited to an opening processional where children, or even a whole congregation, are waving palm branches, with cute smiles and contentment.

We have the benefit of knowing the whole story, we know what happens at the end of the week, and still we, like the crowds and the disciples, assume we know what’s best for Jesus. We make Palm Sunday all about us and the ways we celebrate and we remember. But this day is really not about us. Save for the fact that we just as easily vacillate between asking for God to save us and shouting for God’s destruction.

Palm Sunday is focused on Jesus, on his willingness to upset that status quo, on his subverting the powers and principalities with a new revolution.

On the other side of Easter, when the earliest disciples began spreading the news of the resurrection, when the birth of church took place, rumors began to spread about these Christ people. They were strange and subversive, not because they plotted to overthrow the empire with violent means, but because they gathered together for meals and prayer, they shared all that they had, and they made sure that no one was in need.

At first they were simply called people of “The Way.” A way that seemed very strange to the world. But very quickly, as they began to grow and spread throughout the greater Mediterranean area, they we given a new name. They were called world turners, because they were charged with trying to turn the world upside down.

They believed that power, true power, was found in sacrifice and not in violence. They believed that love would always be more powerful than hate. And they believed that Jesus, the one they followed, made the impossible possible.

If any of you turned your televisions on yesterday, you saw millions of young people in this country, millions of young people all over the world marching toward the places of power. They were marching for their lives, because they believe a change needs to come.

I saw a video of one of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which he was asked, “What are you hoping to accomplish? What needs to change?” And he said, “I don’t care if Congress is with us or against us, change is coming.” (That sounds pretty seditious right?) He ended by finally stating, “Today the revolution begins!”

Frankly, I agree with him, and the church should be allied with those who are seeking peace in the world. However, there was one thing he said that was wrong: the revolution didn’t begin yesterday – it began on Palm Sunday. Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Depending on where you grow up in church, there are some hymns that are so familiar you just know them deep down in your bones. All you need to hear is the first note, or the first word, and before you know it the rest of the hymn comes floating out. And, more often than not, you get the hymn stuck in your head all day long after worship.

However, for as many hymns as we know deep in our bones, there are an equal number of hymns that are so unfamiliar, that if we were to hear the entire song, we’d wonder if it was in our hymn book at all.

Throughout my life I went to church on Sunday; I prayed when I was supposed to, I listened when I was supposed to, and I stood up to sing when I was supposed to. There are hymns in our hymnal that immediately draw me to a particular time and place when I can remember it being used in worship. But prior to becoming a pastor, I had never heard the hymn “This Is The Day.”

I’m not sure how’s it possible, but I can remember being at one of my first clergy events having just been assigned to my first church, and everyone started singing it together and I had no idea what was going on. Embarrassed, I started opening and closing my mouth as if I knew the song, and spent most of the rest of the session looking for it in the hymnal and pondering how I could’ve missed it.

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Fast forward to Sunday, when our choir both began and ended worship with “This Is The Day.” After half a decade of ministry I’ve used “This Is The Day” to start more worship services than I can count, but yesterday was the first time I ever heard the hymn at the end of a service.

And it was perfect.

This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! What a wonderful way to be sent out into the world to be God’s people. The words are not meant for our orientation to worship alone. They can be a tremendous blessing and reminder that God has made each day, that we can rejoice and be glad in it.

Can you imagine how differently we would live if we started and ended every day with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of life every morning, and express gratitude for the joyful day every evening?

As we take steps closer to the end of Lent, as we prepare to enter into the darkness made manifest in the shadow of the cross, as we wait for the promised joy of the first Easter morning, let us give thanks to the Lord our God for each and every day, knowing we can rejoice and be glad.

An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the The Liturgy of the Passion [Year B] (Isaiah 50.4-9a, Psalm 31.9-16, Philippians 2.5-11, Mark 14.1-15.47). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including talking about ourselves as little as possible, the freedom to fail, memorizing scriptures and prayers, an accursed way to die, shame, the gospels as television channels, the nude dude, and disappearing from the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

WEIRD

If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.

They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.

They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”

So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.

Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.

And look where that got me.

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Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.

Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.

And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”

We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.

But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.

And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

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The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.

Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.

They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.

This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.

In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.

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Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.

I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.

My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.

A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.

Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.

So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.

Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.

The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.

God is calling us by our names.

The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.

Hoping Against Hope

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Dr. Emily Hunter McGowin about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Emily is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She has a book on evangelical family practices titled “Quivering Families” coming out in May. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the recent school shooting in Florida, the covenant, name changes, mutual suffering, professional Christians, the difference between trust and witness, and the obsession with safety. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hoping Against Hope

EM

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

ashes

If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.