For The Someday Book

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I haven’t written much in awhile, due to a flurry of other writing and speaking engagements that have demanded my attention. One of them occurred last week, when I was invited to present at Distilled Spirit, a conversation about God and life modeled after Theology on Tap. The event was sponsored by a neighboring UCC congregation and held at Epicenter’s Moonshine University, the nation’s only institution dedicated to teaching the art of distilling spirits.

I had a great time presenting about “How My Mind Has Changed about the Bible,” while people sipped bourbon and giant distilling equipment sparkled in the background. Talk about a cool venue! It’s not every pastor who can say that she spoke at Moonshine University. Like the geek I am, I pulled out my camera and took pictures of the whole experience. Explaining myself to the gathered audience, I said, “I have to have proof I did this. Nothing is real until it’s up on Facebook.”

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The distillery at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

The words came lightly at the time, but I have been contemplating them ever since.  Where did that idea come from? Did I really mean to suggest that my experience didn’t count unless it had been shared on Facebook? What does that imply about reality and our relationships through social media?

I traced the root of my comment back to something I had heard (and believed) about the church’s presence in social media. I heard someone remark that the world of the next generation existed online, and if the church wasn’t there, it was as if we didn’t actually exist. Just as the physical building of the church makes its presence real in a neighborhood, its web and social media presence make it real in the online world.

I also remembered hearing an expert in the Millenial Generation, most well known for being digital natives, talk about the way the presence of smartphones in our lives had changed social reality. Through the device, one’s entire network of friends and family and schoolmates and extended acquaintances travels with you everywhere you go. You can share life’s experiences with them in real time, even if they are a continent away. You expect them to be present with you everywhere, and to share in everything.

That’s what I was feeling with my compulsion to share pictures from Distilled Spirit. Through Facebook, I have an extended network of family, friends, and clergy colleagues with whom I share my life. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of speaking at Moonshine University was incomplete until I was able to share it with them.

This is an essential part of the human experience, with a new technological twist. We have always sought new and creative experiences, and we have always turned those experiences into stories and memories to be shared with others. Whether it’s swapping hunting and fishing tales around a campfire, writing letters home, or posting on Facebook, our best experiences are incomplete until they have been transformed from experience into story and shared with others.

News–whether it’s good news, bad news, or Gospel–doesn’t become real until it is shared with others, no matter the means of communication. A soldier at war is alive until the telegram arrives at his or her parents’ home. A relationship is real when it becomes “Facebook official” and you change your online profile. A marriage appears intact until you announce to friends and family that you’re separating.  A pregnancy takes on new dimensions when you start to share the ultrasound pictures. A new job is finally certain when you’re allowed to tell your friends–and your current boss–that you start next week. Even the reality of a loved one’s death only begins to sink in when we have to tell others he or she is gone.

Social media just adds new dimensions to that same reality. You experience something in the world, and then you re-experience it when you share it with others. Just like we can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when we tell them about a terrific experience, we can’t wait to read our friends comments and replies online.

That’s why I have begun encouraging my congregation to make use of their smartphones in worship. Rather than seeing their desire to take pictures, tweet my sermon or check Facebook during worship as a distraction, I see it as a way of making the experience real and memorable, owning it as a part of their life story. I see it as part of spreading the Gospel good news. Borrowing an idea from Michael Piazza at the Center for Progressive Renewal, I now invite the congregation to “check in on Facebook and then check in with God” as they listen to the opening prelude. Sharing the experience of worship at our church with their online community–even if it means looking down at their smartphone during my sermon–makes it more real, not less. It’s not a blanket call for people to be playing with their smartphones during church, but it is a recognition that reaching over to grab the iPhone might be a way to go deeper with the message, not to ignore it.

Even more, it can be a great opportunity for evangelism. If an experience is only memorable and meaningful when we tell the story to others, by all means, we should be using every means at our disposal to facilitate that telling about God. Let us cement the Gospel story in the story of our lives by placing the church’s events alongside the first day of school, lunch at a fancy restaurant, feet at the beach, family at the holidays and funny cat photos in our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feed. While there are limits to be sure, perhaps we should encourage our gathered congregations to integrate their spiritual and social lives by “checking in” at church and tweeting lines from songs and sermons. Our online lives enhance and expand our real-life experiences because we can share them with friends.

So, look everybody! Here’s me talking about the Bible at Moonshine University. How cool is that? You never know where Jesus is going to send you.

Here's me at Moonshine University!

Here’s me at Moonshine University!

I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here  for them to see.

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The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.               –-Jeremiah 33:14-16

This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.

And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.

Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!

As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.

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Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.

Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”

If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.

The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.

Ours is the hope of the prophets.

Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.

To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.

It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”

What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.

And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.

You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.

First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.

The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.

The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.

Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”

That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all

With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.

But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.

Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.

Another difference is in time

Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.

Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.

Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end.  God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.

In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

What it is we are hoping for is different too.

A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)

My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)

Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”

One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.

I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.

But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.

As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”

With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.

The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.

In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”

That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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