For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘sermon

David J. Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World–and Our Preaching–is Changing, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 112 pp.

Preaching-at-the-CrossroadsI have been a huge fan of David Lose’s regular column, Dear Working Preacher, for many years. It feels like he is writing a personalized letter to me, as a preacher sitting with the text in my community, urging me on and starting a productive conversation about how to bring the good news to my congregation. (Karoline Lewis has been writing for the last several months, perhaps due to a sabbatical, and she is also excellent.)

I was hoping for that same conversational style and collaborative tone in his reflections about the craft of preaching itself, and I found it. I have been pondering for the last several years (with many others) whether preaching itself is in danger, or how preaching must change and adapt to changing circumstances. I was eager to engage Lose as a wise conversation partner on that topic, and this book did just that.

Lose identifies three primary forces at work in our context that have major implications for preaching: postmodernism, secularism and pluralism. He devotes two chapters to each–one explaining how that epistemological reality impacts preachers and listeners, and another exploring strategies to respond in our sermon writing and delivery. One of the things I appreciated most, from the start, was his commentary on the last 50 years of “fixes” for preaching. There has been movement after movement that labels preaching as “broken,” and proposes a way to fix it–moving from lecture to narrative, moving from pulpit authority to conversational style, moving from verbal communication only to the use of images on a screen. He quotes theologian Joseph Sittler in his insistence that preaching can’t be fixed: “‘Of course preaching is in trouble. Whence did we ever manufacture the assumption it was ever to be anything but trouble’ if it is to be relevant to a changing world and faithful to the troubling gospel of Jesus Christ?” (3)

In the section on postmodernism, he identifies the core problem of preaching in a postmodern context as the constant skepticism and crisis of legitimacy. How can we claim to speak truth in a world that doubts all claims of truth? He replaces the modern equation of truth with provability with a faithful claim of truth modeled on confession. Legitimacy then proceeds not from provability, but from the integrity of the confession itself–from the confessor’s honesty and from the confession’s connection to lived experience. In practice, he proposes reinvigorating Sachkritik, or “content criticism,” where interpreters “understand discrete passages of Scripture in relation to the core testimony of the biblical witness.” (36) This makes room for both an hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of trust, and invites engagement from listeners in a conversation.

Our primary question when approaching a passage is not “Where did it come from?” or “What did it mean?” but rather “What might it do to the community that gathers around it when next heard?” This postmodern focus on the ability of language not just to say something but to do something has important implications for preaching. (42)

Preaching, from this point of view, is meant to be provocative, eliciting conversation and questions, faith or disbelief, but always striving to make a claim worth responding to. (45)

Moving on to the reality of secularism, Lose identifies the primary problem with our secular culture as a crisis of hope. With the death of transcendence, “we, both inside the church and out, have lost hope–hope that there is something more than meets the eye, hope that some values exist beyond those we can construct, hope that our actions and lives are rooted in a larger framework of meaning.” (52) Our response as preachers, Lose argues, must be to draw people into the Christian story of resurrection hope, helping them to see their lives and vocations as part of a larger and more meaningful narrative.

If we can imagine the purpose of Sunday is not simply to have an encounter with God, but rather to have the encounter clarify our vision and increase our ability to see God in all dimensions of our lives, then we may also experience the centrifugal force of being propelled from worship on Sunday to lives of meaning, purpose, and faith in the world throughout the week. (77)

That is a tall order, to be sure, but it is indeed what we ought to strive for in our preaching and worship experiences.

The final theme Lose identifies is pluralism, specifically “digital pluralism,” a world in which multiple and competing realities are immediately available for easy access via digital means. (87) Our congregations no longer dwell securely in the biblical narrative worldview. They may get a glimpse of it for an hour on Sundays, but the rest of their lives is dominated by other metanarratives, like consumer capitalism or fearful nationalism.

Increasingly, if often unconsciously, we find ourselves offering interpretations of a narrative that few in the congregation know well enough to be able even to appreciate our interpretations, let alone apply them to life outside the congregation’s walls. Such effort can feel like swimming upstream: it is cold and exhausting, and it yields little progress. (101)

This gives voice to one of my deep apprehensions and frustrations with preaching these days. I get people to step into this worldview for one hour every week. Even if they are convinced and convicted by it, Fox News and CNN and the world of advertisement gets them for the other 167 hours of every week. I can be persuasive that the biblical narrative matters, that it impacts their persons and politics, but I can’t do it in isolation.

Lose urges us to move our congregations toward not just biblical literacy, but biblical fluency, “the ability to think–without thinking–in the target language.” In order to do this, we need to not just teach the biblical narrative, but engage people in a participatory way in contemplating how the story impacts their lives, so that they can do what we preachers do–interpret scripture for themselves. He urges participatory practices, visitation to parishioner’s workplaces, and online conversations to this end.

Preaching at the Crossroads sets forth a high standard and an enormous amount of work to do. Yet I end the book feeling both challenged and encouraged, as I always do when I read Lose’s work. I also feel much less alone. It is not just me and my preaching that are struggling with these issues–it is all of us who weekly strive to deliver the good news to those who come into our sanctuaries. I recommend this book to all who care about that endeavor.

I usually reserve sermons for my church blog, but I actually had a manuscript, and several friends asked to see it, so here it is. What I actually delivered was slightly different, to be sure. This Easter sermon, both in its writing and its delivery, felt very personal and pastoral–the coming together of my love for folks as their pastor, and what testimony I wanted to share with them. It’s not fancy or creative or clever, just honest.

 

Our Easter altar

Our Easter altar

I’m always struck by the vast differences between our Easter celebrations today and that first Easter in the garden.

Neva and Becky and I—along with the choir and the liturgist and the bells and everyone else leading today’s service—we’ve been planning and organizing and working for weeks toward this morning’s service, so that we know where everything goes in the Order of Worship, what words to say, what songs to sing, with the music in the right order and the props in the right places. But that first Easter was confusing and disorganized from beginning to end. Mary and Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb and back, frantic, panic. Where have they laid him? We don’t know where they put him. Sir, if you know where he is please tell me so I can go and get him. Where is he? No one knew what was going on. It was a mess.

And look at all of you here in your Easter finery. We’ve got ourselves and our children looking their best, our sanctuary decked out in all its splendor. But that first Easter had everyone dressed in mourning clothes, bleak, tear-stained faces, carrying the spices to tend to the body, buried in fear and bereft of hope.

Today, we sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” with the radiant Christ before us. That first Easter, though, there was none of that—there was Mary, silently standing before the empty tomb, weeping into her hands. Jesus did not appear radiant or majestic or powerful—he was so humble, so earthly, she mistook him for the gardener.

Today, we started with a shout of Alleluia—but that first Easter moment began with a whisper: “Mary.”

And in that moment, everything changed—and Mary went from asking “Where is God?” to testifying to everyone: “I have seen the Lord.”

On the surface, all those contrasts seem so dramatic—our Easter experience and the experience of Mary and the disciples seem so out of sync and disconnected. And yet. And yet I’d wager that more than a few of us came to church this morning—even with our Easter finery on the outside—more than a few of us are still wrestling with Mary’s question, with Peter’s despair, with the unnamed disciple’s doubt.

We may look pretty today, we may have our family together, starched and ironed—but the grief and the pain of day to day living are not far from the surface, are they? Death, illness, loss, financial woes, addiction, family tensions—all this and so much more may have been put aside for Easter Sunday, but they will find us again soon enough—come tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon.

We are hopeful that showing up to this church service will lead us to joy and beauty this day, that it will make Jesus alive for us somehow—because much of the time we cast about from day to day wondering, like Mary, where he is. Can you tell me where they have taken him? Please, someone tell us how to get back in touch with Jesus again, because he is lost and we are lost without him.

We go along with the Alleluias and the shining glory this morning, because we want it to be true, we want it to be real—but many of us are still wondering if the empty tomb is just, well, empty—if this whole thing isn’t just plain empty, if it all just amounts to nothing.

empty tomb

I believe we all come here this Easter day looking for the same thing Mary was looking for in that garden that morning, the same thing that she sought inside the empty tomb. We come here looking for Jesus. We are here not because we are convinced of the resurrection, confident and assured in all things—we are here in this place of worship because we need to be convinced of it again. We come not because we’ve found Jesus, but because we are still looking for him. We want to hear, even if just a whisper, our Savior call our name, so that our panicked and doubt-filled “where is God?” might be transformed into “I have seen the Lord.”

My friends, as your pastor, as one who cares for you and loves you, as one who wants nothing more than to provide a splendid Easter service that sends you all out proclaiming “I have seen the Lord,” the reality is that there is only one thing that I can do before you this day.

It is the only thing that Mary could do, the only thing that has kept this Christianity thing going, year after year, Easter after Easter, resurrection after resurrection for two thousand years. I can testify. I can tell you that I too find myself asking “where is Jesus?” Where have they put him? Why have they taken him away? I may stand up before you looking starched and ironed and put together, but I bear the same burdens of doubt and despair that you do. I too wonder sometimes if the empty tomb is just plain empty, and there’s nothing there, nothing here at all.

But when I sit here in this empty sanctuary, late at night or early in the morning, praying at nothing, wringing my hands with despair, every now and then I hear it—quietly, silently, coming from the back of my mind yet somehow beyond me—I hear the Savior whisper my name.

And then I remember—I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord. I stand before you today and proclaim to you that I have seen the Lord, that I believe in the resurrection. I don’t believe in the resurrection because of something that happened 2,000 years ago—I believe in the resurrection because I have seen Jesus today, and he is alive among us.

I have seen lives I thought were over—people whose addiction was so severe that I thought they were lost forever. But Jesus appears to them, calls their name, and they find a way to let go of their addiction and live again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen relationships so estranged, marriages so pain-filled, parents and children so filled with anger and hurt that I thought they were dead—but somehow Jesus shows up, calls out names, and people find a way back to love again, back to life again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen people who have been victims of violence and hate and abuse, people who have every reason to be bitter at God and bitter at the world, hear Jesus call their name and stand strong to proclaim instead that “love wins,” because nothing else but love will set them free to heal. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen tornado survivors, in this congregation and beyond, whose lives have been torn to shreds and scattered across the fields in destruction. Survivors like Louella Akers, who lost all four of her limbs due to a tornado-borne bacteria, then lost her home to foreclosure while she was hospitalized for more than year. She believed her life was over, that she would spend the rest of her days lying in bed, helpless—but Jesus called her name and told her there was more to do. New technology has given her four new robotic limbs, and March2Recovery and New Hope Services gave her a new apartment equipped with everything she needs to adapt and live independently. She started out walking everywhere, but now she can even drive again. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen my former congregation, the Old South Church in Boston, just feet from the finish line of the Boston marathon and last year’s terrible bomb blast, transform an occasion of terror and catastrophe into a witness of hope and new life. They requested people knit scarves in the blue and yellow marathon colors, to be delivered to runners at their annual Blessing of the Athletes service held this morning, the day before the race. Hoping for a few hundred, they received more than 7,000—and they have been out on the street every day since Tuesday passing them out to athletes, to first responders, to survivors, with prayer and tears and so much love, transforming a scene of blood and death into a place of triumph and love. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen St. Luke’s, once left for dead after conflict and betrayal, hear Jesus call our name, challenging us and reminding us that God still has need of us in this place, serving this community—and watched a miracle unfold here, as we let God remake us in a new way—new people, new worship, new ministry, new building—so that now we are alive and we have been resurrected. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

None of these resurrections are simple, or instant, or magical, or easy, or pain-free—coming back from the dead is not for the faint of heart. It demands faith, and trust, and hope, and often a great deal of hard work. But resurrection is possible. The question of “where is God?,” the doubt-filled emptiness of the tomb, the despair of death—those things are real, as real as the cross on which Jesus died. But resurrection is real too. I have seen the Lord, not 2,000 years ago, but right here in our midst, and he is indeed alive, and he is whispering your name, and he is inviting you to be resurrected with him. Because Jesus is alive, you can be too. Whatever it is that is afflicting you and killing you, Jesus can call your name and set you free. Whatever it is that is burying you and entombing you, Jesus can roll away the stone. Whatever keeps you in the darkness of death, Jesus is the light of resurrection. I have seen the Lord, and he is alive. And that means we can be too. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

This is a first draft of my sermon for this Sunday, December 16. I don’t usually post things early, but I thought it might help other colleagues who are also seeking a path to speak of Advent’s promised joy in the face of such tragedy. Please feel free to borrow, quote and adapt, just please credit where appropriate. It still needs editing, and I will probably tinker with it throughout the day. I will post a final revised version on my sermon blog on Sunday. 

The scripture reading for the day is Zephaniah 3:14-20.

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This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.

“Rejoice, daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” proclaims the scripture from the prophet Zephaniah.

And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the slaughter of children, a national tragedy. How dare we rejoice in the face of such horror? How dare we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time. How dare we?

And yet, it wasn’t the time for Zephaniah either. But he does. How dare he?

Zephaniah, or whoever wrote the book in his name that comes at the end of the Hebrew Bible, mostly likely lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the king Manasseh. Manasseh was a client king for the conquering Assyrians, and widely regarded as one of the most wicked and evil rulers Israel ever knew. According to the book of 2 Kings, Manasseh defiled the holy temple with false gods, trusted wizards and fortune tellers instead of priests and prophets, persecuted those who followed Yahweh’s law. In a bit of history hauntingly parallel to our own, he even practiced of child sacrifice, including the murder of his own son. 2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.” (2 Kings 21:16) Evil. Violent. Tragic. Appalling.

How could Zephaniah preach joy in the face of such evil?

Well, he didn’t start out with joy, for one thing. We only read the joy part today—the last six verses of this tiny little scroll. Zephaniah begins at the beginning—decrying the tragedy, death and destruction that he sees all around him. Speaking as God’s voice, Zephaniah declares punishment for all the evildoers. He describes “a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm.” (2:15) I don’t know about you, but that describes my day on Friday with startling accuracy.

Zephaniah doesn’t try to make sense of it all, or explain it, or even figure out who to blame for it—he just names the situation for what it is—horror and suffering and tragedy. A world where children die violently—in ancient Jerusalem and modern Palestine; in Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon; in Chenpeng Village in Central China and the town of Aleppo in Syria. A world in which violence has become commonplace and lawlessness the law of the land. A world where it’s easier for a troubled young man to acquire a gun and a fake id than it is to find the mental health assistance he needs. Zephaniah names it all. And he names the feelings it provokes—anger and pain and sorrow and desolation and despair. Then he tells us that God is angry and hurt and mourning along with us. That work—calling out the suffering and telling us God shares it—takes up almost the entire tiny book of Zephaniah.

In just the last few verses, slowly, gently, Zephaniah dares invoke joy. The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.

How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.

God speaks to us through Zephaniah: “The day is coming when you will no longer fear evil. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love. I will deliver the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise. I will bring all of you back, and you can see them before your eyes.”

3rd Advent

These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. Otherwise, how could we ever go on?

And so, I join with Zephaniah and dare speak to you this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn.  “Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love.” “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008, 384 pp.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2009, 391 pp.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pp.

I needed escape reading during the last month’s intensity of Holy Week, tornado recovery and moving into our newly renovated church building. I wanted a distraction from the daily stresses, a world I could escape into at the end of a long day or long week. These books were perfect for that. As young adult literature, they were easy and fast to read. The twists and turns of the intense, unfolding story hooked me in fairly quickly.

The books are all narrated in the voice of their protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. I must confess that I never learned to love Katniss. I loved many things about the character that Suzanne Collins created—a young woman who is not defined by her love interests, who acts with courage and bravery and grit, who must contend with gender stereotypes and manipulate them in order to preserve her life, who has a strong voice of her own. I love that young women have such a great character to relate to. I just didn’t like her, and couldn’t imagine joining her company. That made for an interesting experience of reading the books, because I wanted to know the outcome of the story, even as I didn’t care much what Katniss (the narrator) thought or felt about it.

The world that Collins created was so compelling because it was so believable as a post-apocalyptic version of North America. Panem is like American society through a fun house mirror. Certain aspects (usually the good ones, like equality, opportunity and freedom) shrunken into nothing, and other aspects (usually the bad ones like inequality, greed, consumerism and spectacle) enlarged and engorged beyond their normal proportions. When you see Panem, you see American society. Even though it looks so different, you still know it’s the same thing.

That makes the books an interesting critique of political and economic systems. I read the first book, The Hunger Games, about a week before Palm Sunday, and I was captivated by the parallels between it and the story of Jesus contesting the Roman empire. It became the start of my Palm Sunday sermon, which you can listen to here. Catching Fire and Mockingjay turn more explicitly revolutionary, and provide interesting insights about how we might subvert the seemlingly indomitable powers-that-be in our own society. Love triumphs over death, collaboration over competition. There are ways that the game can be played that destroy the game itself.

The trilogy is a great read. It has lots of theological themes, even if there is no mention of God or religious life in Panem. I recommend it for some fun summer reading, or an interesting conversation starter with so many others who are reading it—especially young people.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from crabbyhousewife.com.

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”

This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.

Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.

‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.

Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.

Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.

Photo by Inger Ekrem, Riksförbundet Svensk Trädgård.

But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.

Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.

Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.

As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?

We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.


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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