Make Sanctuary

(Here’s the audio – it includes some silence at the beginning for lectio divina practice – a meditative way of reading Scripture.)

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections. In return—I speak to you as to children—open wide your hearts also.
_

So, you decided to come to church this morning. We came to church this morning. We sang, and prayed, and have just heard scripture together.

We did this despite what happened on Wednesday, in a church, to people who sang, and prayed, and heard scripture together.

Maybe you thought it would be ok because here is not there. Because Kansas is not South Carolina. Because a twenty-four-year-old suburban church is not a hundred-and-ninety-nine-year-old southern church. Because most of these people are white, and all of those people were black. And so we are not like them.

Except that doesn’t hold up. Especially here. Because the story we tell every Sunday at church is our intentional effort to break down those boundaries. The story we tell says that in this place or in that place, new or old, white or black, all who gather around the story of Jesus are one. When we sing, our folk songs blend with their gospel choruses. And when we pray, our celebrations and our sadnesses mingle with theirs, because our hearts carry all the same stuff.

And when we break bread and drink from the cup, we remember brokenness and love, bodies and blood. Some of the earliest church fathers used to say that the bread we share is the body of Jesus and it is our own. This morning it is that of Jesus, and it is ours, and it is Clementa’s, and Cynthia’s, and Sharonda’s, and Tywanza’s, and Ethel’s, and Susie’s, and Depayne’s, and Daniel’s, and Myra’s. We are none of us, really, separate from each other.

candles on stand pic

We do not come to church to be reassured that we are unaffected. We come to church to be reminded that we are bound. We come to church because the songs remind us that we belong to God and to each other and the prayers acknowledge that there are some things we cannot do alone and the scriptures make clear that justice is hard and it has always been the call of God and the work of people of faith.

We come to worship because the sanctuary has historically been a safe space. People who were persecuted could come seeking refuge. They would run into the building and collapse on the floor beneath the cross and know that inside those walls they would find amnesty. That’s the definition of the term. Even though much of that old meaning has slipped away, still, when people find themselves afraid or unsure, they often find their way to a sanctuary. And when that very principle is violated, when people are not safe in their holy places, it is up to other people to create sanctuary outside of those walls once thought to contain it.
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Two Thursdays ago the high schoolers and I served dinner in a church basement to about a hundred and twenty neighbors. I grabbed a used tray from a man who was trying to balance too much and was on my way to dump the scraps in the trash can when another man, maybe just twenty years old, fell in step beside me. As soon as I met his eyes he told me, “My dream is to go to England.”

I said, “Oh?” and he told me about a friend of his who had gone and come back with some great stories, and about an athlete he follows who was born in England. And I was so struck by that – not that his dream was so striking, just that he offered it so quickly – before any “hellos” or “how are yous” – almost as if he was saying, “Listen, our time here might be short, so I just want to tell you: my dream is to go to England.”

Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, before you notice my empty glass and offer me a refill, or take in my ragged pants and point me towards the donated piles of clothing near the entryway, let me say this: my dream is to go to England.”

Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, I know you’re already telling yourself a story about me – about my hard life, my bad choices, my unfortunate circumstances, about how I ended up needing to come to a church basement for a free dinner tonight. But what I want you to know is: this is how human I am. I have a dream.”

And here’s my confession – if he hadn’t opened his heart like that, if he hadn’t offered up his dream… I wouldn’t have thought to ask. I might have asked how he was feeling, or if he’d grabbed an apple to take with him, or if he’d grown up nearby. But not if he had a dream. And I sure wouldn’t have thought to tell him mine, or to start a conversation that way.

But he did. He was vulnerable, and he was brave. He began to build a sanctuary, right there in line for the trash can. For no reason at all, he welcomed me into his world, and trusted me with his dream.

And now I think maybe he had to. Because if he was going to convince me that his story was more than a sad one, that he was more than someone to be pitied, he didn’t really have the luxury of time to work through all the proper introductions. I was about to dump that tray and turn away to my next task.

This convincing each other that we are human is urgent business. And it has consequences.
_

The people of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened their hearts. They did not withhold their affections or their faith. They prayed and sang and studied scripture with a stranger, and they acknowledged him as fully human. They made themselves vulnerable.

But what else could they have done? Deny him? Allow within their walls only people that they already knew and trusted? They are a congregation named Emmanuel – a people named God-with-us – so that really wasn’t ever an option. Maybe they knew that invulnerability was impossible. They surely knew it was anti-gospel.

What Paul is asking in these scriptures – open your hearts – takes on a strange and sad and scary new resonance today. What does it mean to open our hearts in a world where welcoming strangers means risking our lives?

But that’s not really a question for our context, is it? Or it’s only one of them. Our questions are: how brave, and how vulnerable, will we be? How many difficult conversations will we have with our friends and relatives? How hard will we work so that Grandmothers Against Gun Violence will have a voice that can be heard over the NRA’s? How will we tell our kids the hard and horrifying stories of our racist past, a history that stretches from centuries ago to just last week? How much rearranging of our lives will we do to make sure we have chances to learn more, to stand with, to speak up, to reach out? And how will we treat all our neighbors as fully human, not just as people with sad stories but also as people with dreams? How will we learn to trust and celebrate one another?

How will we open our hearts?

We were never those people that believed racism was over with the Civil Rights Act or the election of Barack Obama. We have always been those people who have believed that white privilege is real and that most of us benefit from it and that something is fundamentally unjust about that. And believing those truths is the tiniest beginning. Knowing the truth does not change it. Sitting down with it – confessing our gain from it – sharing our fears connected to it – speaking our dreams to strangers, and hearing theirs – that’s movement towards real change.

…I mean, I hope it is.

I hope we’ll at least try. And when we fail, I hope we will try again, and not be afraid to fail again, and then try again, and fail some more, and keep trying. I hope we won’t get tired. I hope we won’t get lazy. I know that’s easy to do, and it’s easy for white people, for privileged people, to turn away. I do it all the time. I like to think of myself as an ally but that can be exhausting and some days I’m unwilling to be exhausted by anything other than my own children. But we turn away at the risk of coming right back around to here, to this place of mourning and horror, and despite all the ways I will mess up I want to commit to doing what I can to create sanctuary outside of these walls. If you want to also, here’s a small way we can start:

Write this address down: Emmanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401. And sometime this week, send a card. Write a note of sympathy and solidarity, and drop it in the mail.

Paper may be flimsy. But even walls are no protection to people committed to welcoming neighbors, strangers. And if these cards carry our love, maybe they can help to create a sanctuary, and a space for dreams to be shared again, for those who are mourning now.

at the table Easter Morning

Have you ever been afraid, and amazed? At the same time?

Those are the emotions of the resurrection. Mark is our earliest gospel and most scholars will say our most honest, our most bare, our least re-touched account of these events. The women here do not look faithful; they do not “go and tell” their news – they aren’t even quite sure what it is, or that it’s good. They are amazed, and they are afraid. And of course they are. What else could they be?

A seminary professor of mine, Don Juel, was fascinated by the end of Mark – and so frustrated by our tendency to try to make it all ok. By our desperately saying, “Eventually the women must have told the story – how else would we have it today?”

He said the move Mark always makes is to set the divine free. Earlier in this gospel, the curtain in the temple rips – the holy of holies that it protected, the most sacred place of all, where God was thought to dwell – the curtain around it rips. My classmates said, “It’s to let people in. So now people can approach God. Now there’s no barrier.” My professor said, “Oh, no. It’s not to let people in. It’s to let God out.”

And here, the stone is rolled away. The women come and it’s gone and they are terrified and say nothing to anyone. But here’s what else this means – Jesus is out. Maybe the followers find their voices; maybe they don’t. This doesn’t depend on them. People even more afraid than these women tried to contain the love that Jesus gave away to the least likely among them; they tried to silence the challenge he posed to the powerful; they tried to suppress the stories he told about a reign of God that directly contradicted the rule of their day. But the stone is gone, and that love and that challenge and those stories – they’re all out again.

That’s the story we step into now. Even afraid and amazed, we take our places around the table, and know that the end of Mark’s story – unfinished as it is – is the beginning of ours.

Communion elements

On Eden, and exceptions…

On this mountain, the Lord All-Powerful
will prepare for all nations
a feast of the finest foods.
Choice wines and the best meats will be served.
Here the Lord will strip away
the burial clothes that cover the nations.
The Lord will destroy the power of death
and wipe away all tears…

At that time, people will say,
“The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate.
We waited and hoped—now our God is here.”
The powerful arm of the Lord will protect this mountain.

The Moabites will be put down
and trampled on like straw in a pit of manure.
They will struggle to get out, but God will humiliate them
no matter how hard they try.
The walls of their fortresses will be knocked down
and scattered in the dirt.

(Isaiah 25:6-12)

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Maybe on your drive West across this state, you’ve seen signs for the Garden of Eden. If you detour less than twenty miles, just north of I-70 to a town called Lucas, you will come across this cement-sculpted paradise, what’s been called the most unique home for the living or the dead, on earth.

The giant trees, the creatures captured in mid-crawl or -swim or -flight, the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the all-seeing eye that peers down from the highest point on the property – it all took twenty-eight years to construct. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor began the project when he was 64 years old. He’d been a teacher, and a politician. He’d been raised in a deeply religious home, and those stories, that frame, that was how he knew to make sense of the world. And then he’d served as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. And after that, like so many soldiers from so many wars, he didn’t really know, anymore, how to make sense of the world.

So he began this project of concrete, and wire, and native Kansas stone, and vision. He bought a lot in the middle of his small town and even when his neighbors tried to run him out he persisted, adding on to his creation until he became blind. On the west side of the property, he built the Garden of Eden, and on the north, he constructed his understanding of modern civilization. He said if anything is wrong about the north, he’s to blame. But if anything about the garden is wrong, visitors should blame Moses. “He wrote it all out,” Dinsmoor said. “I just built it.”

What does your Eden look like? How would you bring that scene to life, or fix it in stone? If you were to imagine a world without a hint of destruction, a reality in which God might say about every corner, every detail, “it is good,” and “it is very good” – what would that be?

I think it’s worth noting that our ancestors – their prophets, even, the poets, the ones charged with visioning a new way – they couldn’t do it. Our passage for today, that really is a grand, sweeping story of the fullness of redemption, some future day when sadness and sorrow and death will be no more – it’s a movement of beauty and rejoicing for all the world that comes to this screeching halt when they stop to remember, ‘Oh yeah – we hate our neighbors. So they can’t be invited. Let’s edit that original vision: all the world, except for Moab. Because, sure, we all trace our roots to Abraham. And yeah, their language is related to ours, and they have a patriarchal clan-deity, just like we do. But we hate them.’

‘Yes, of course we remember that it was in Moab that Moses climbed the mountain to show his people – our ancestors – the land of promise, the place they would call home. And we know that he died and is buried somewhere in Moab. Even still – even with that shared essential story – we cannot, today, imagine a day when we will not hate them.’

And if that’s the best the prophet can do, the people are in trouble.

Who are the exceptions to your Eden? Who can you not imagine sitting next to at a feast like that?

*

Some of you read the devotional I wrote a few weeks ago, about my neighbor. He’s alone in his house now, after his wife and their kid moved a few states away. They moved because he’s an addict, and she, and the kid, grew scared when he got a hold of substances, and when they got a hold of him. The person he became was not one they could share a home with safely. They came to tell us, my boys said goodbye to their good friend, and now only he remains, alone, in that house so close to us.

And I am torn between being angry at him for running off my boys’ playmate, and being a good neighbor to him, because surely he needs one. I’ve been trying to figure out how to invite him over for dinner. It seems like that should be simple enough but it’s taken on these monumental proportions in my mind. I haven’t summoned the courage yet.

And then this week things started to change at that house. By which I mean, a lot of traffic started coming by. Every afternoon, the driveway had a new rotation of cars in it. People would pull in, go around to the back of the house, come back usually just a few minutes later, and drive away. Some stayed longer. In my mind, they looked kind of nervous when they first arrived, kind of relieved, or more relaxed, as they were heading back out. And I imagined….

And one afternoon, a mom pulls up. She’s got a kid in her car. I know this because I’m at my mailbox, and I see her get out of her car, totally frazzled, and open the door to the backseat, but walk away without her kid. He’s still strapped there in the carseat. He starts kicking and screaming. I’m torn, because I don’t want her to leave her kid, and yet, I’m not sure I want him to witness whatever it is she’s sneaking around to the back of my neighbor’s house for, either. …

But she hears, and comes back for him, and as she’s unbuckling him she looks over and sees me. She says, “Oh, hi! What do you think of what your neighborhood has become?” And I thought, “Is she really asking me this?” And then she said, “It’s so nice of him to offer this… I mean, we didn’t really know where to go… Before, we’ve had to go so far…” And I must have looked confused, or, more likely disapproving, when I said, “Oh – I didn’t know he was – offering – uh….”

And she said, “Oh, do you not know? The monarchs are here! They’re right here!” And she told me that, for some reason, those majestic butterflies on their migration had chosen my neighbor’s tree to gather in. And he had been talking about it around town. So every afternoon, photographers and butterfly enthusiasts were coming over, to witness this beauty. And he was leaving his fence gate wide open, so people could come right in.

And in my wildest imaginings, I would not have come up with that.

*

But why not? Isaiah 25 is wild imagining, too. It is situated in a series of prophecies, of verses called the “little apocalypse.” That title means it is full of dreaming, full of the fantastic. And even still, it is limited by what the people think they know; their imaginations are captive to the worst of their suspicions, the hatreds they inherit, the prejudices they don’t even hear weaving their way in, poisoning the feast they propose.

What they said was, “We imagine a world where all people come together to celebrate who God is and what God has done – all people, that is, except this neighboring tribe we have a complicated history with. We’ll just assume that in the end, we’re right, and they’re forever punished.”

And what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people live together in a secure and sustainable peace – all people that is, except the ones we’ll have to kill to achieve that peace. Because while their violence is abhorrent and untenable, ours is qualitatively different – it is necessary, and honorable.”

Hear that difference? Oh, wait – you don’t, do you?

Try this: what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people have access to the same freedoms, rights, benefits, and justice – all people, that is, except the ones for whom securing those rights would mean rethinking some of our own privilege, of course.”

Now do you hear it? Still no, huh?

Isaiah is our prophet, and we don’t do any better than him. We can imagine an idyllic beginning. Maybe not think that’s where we come from, exactly, but in our mythology, in our dreaming, we can get back to an Eden in which there was no violence, no harm, no disease – just life abundant, shared and celebrated. But we cannot get to there from here in our present-day. We have fallen prey to the criticism that says that kind of vision is nothing more than naivete, that kind of imagining could never take root in the real world. We have let cynicism about what is curb our dreaming about what might be, and in so doing we have limited ourselves and our world and our God.

*

Just a few years ago, a team of five moved to Lucas temporarily, and they lived in two small houses across the street from the concrete Garden of Eden. They came because some roots had started to push through the stone, some of the sculptures had seen better days. They came because the Garden of Eden is famous – because even though their permanent homes were scattered as far away as Minnesota and California, they knew who Dinsmoor was. They knew he spent two and a half decades shaping stone into a representation of humanity – naked and unashamed. Blessed and good. On the west, an original vision and on the north, a current reality.

Maybe they each knew something of his struggle – maybe each of them had tried, also, to understand the current reality through the original vision. Maybe the reason volunteers were willing to spend their time shaping a new set of antlers or ears for the deer in the garden is because they were hoping to hear something new, also, from setting these two scenes side by side.

Because – forgive me for how obvious this is, but – Dinsmoor did not invent the Garden of Eden. He just saw a world so distorted from that original story that he tried to build what it might have once been like. In the war, he saw such horror that the only response that made sense to him was to offer his imagination and energy to the crafting of an age-old vision where life was abundant.

And maybe this is our role, too. It’s not that our prophets from long-ago failed us – it’s that they only got us most of the way there. We don’t need a brand-new vision because really, you can’t get much better than an enormous feast with wine freely flowing and food enough to satisfy all who hunger and the whole crowd joined in celebration of a world in which death has had its last day.

We don’t need to start over. We just need to start cooking. We just need to set the table. And we need to head on over to wherever or whoever our own Moabs are, to hand-deliver a sincere invitation to join the feast.

7-21 Presentation from Christianity 21 Conference

82797896_2d35aee187There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.

What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this, all of it from about twenty years ago. I have more than redeemed those early disasters.

Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always be … a terrible cook. There’s no getting out of that identity for me. The story makes it stick.

There are stories we tell in the church that do much worse damage than this.

There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Some of us, every week. Scripture readings change and music changes and our own lives change but regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in a worship service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed.

Body broken; blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not. Whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not.

Maybe he didn’t. Mark gives us just a few words about the betrayal – it’s a story interrupted, even, by another, a story about anointing…

We ritually tell the betrayal story. Some youth I work with were preparing to serve one another communion and trying to remember the words of institution, and it was so telling: of this ritual they participate in every week, all they knew for sure was that it began, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

But the other story is gorgeous, filled with luxurious detail: Jesus is reclining; he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she lovingly pours this expensive perfume on his head.

The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached, this is the story to tell: her courageous generosity. Wherever the good news goes, he says, say also that there was this woman, who offered what she had, who did what she could, and it was beautiful.

But we don’t tell the story that way. We tell it like whatever else there was –  whatever beauty, whatever faithfulness – whatever other details help fill it out, the center of the story is betrayal, and brokenness, and blood. That’s what churches tell, ritually, when we gather for communion.

We took a rebuke from the apostle Paul, and made it liturgy. When he offers the language we still use as sacred, he’s telling the church at Corinth they’re doing this ritual wrong – they bring private meals, and at the end of what should be communion, one person goes home hungry and another leaves drunk. He’s chastising them for this when he says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” I’ve tried to imagine how that language might have come about. I wonder if there’s some conversation the disciples have about the meal. They’re mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe one says, “How does this go?” And another answers, “Well, there was bread, wine. Like always.”

And another asks, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What’d he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was … that night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” Others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”

I can imagine that happening. But the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. Broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal.

Ephrem would say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”

How did we lose that? Why do we use Paul’s context of betrayal every week?  What if we came to communion and said, “When a hungry crowd followed Jesus, he told them, ‘I am the bread of life. Come to me – never hunger; believe in me – never thirst.”

Or we said, “When people gathered around Jesus, to hear him teach, he promised, ‘Blessed are you who are hungry; you’ll be satisfied.’”

Ritual language matters because rituals are acts of re-creation. What is it we speak into being when we share story and bread and wine?

*

There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Thirty-one times since the year 2000, we’ve told a new story about mass murder. They’re each unique – a movie theatre, a workplace, an elementary school, a temple – but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly.

We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We try to understand, and explain. We collectively deny that these stories shape who we are. We buy more weapons. And we defend them more fiercely. We argue whether violence will save us from violence.

And I wonder how much all of that is connected to our practice of ritually telling a story of redemptive violence. I wonder if repeating a story of betrayal and horror – even one that ends in awe – might breathe more of that into the world.

As it is, there’s a terrible disconnect between the abundant life we preach and the violent liturgy of our sacred moments. It’s as if because the table ritual is ancient, we can’t touch it. Banners, hymns, prayers can reflect liturgical seasons, or congregational concerns, or world news, but we can’t imagine another way to share bread and wine.

But this story, of betrayal and blood, is not really what connects us to Christians across all time and space. … We know now earlier Christians used life-giving images, spoke of sacred identity – Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord…”

Early Christians did not deny the realities of violence and suffering and sin, but they did tell more than just one story.

And if we did, too – if we loosened the hold the story of betrayal has, and began to ritualize stories about abundance, and care — what else might we do?

It may sound far-fetched – this idea that the words we say become the worlds we inhabit, that if we make sacred stories if courage and beauty and generosity we’d breathe more of all of that into the world, but… we are people of faith. The story about us is that we believe impossible things. Do we?

(This is excerpted and re-worked a bit from a longer sermon, The Stories We Tell, that you can find here.)

slogan and sacrament

My family spent last week in the mountains, in Colorado, and we made the long drive back across Kansas on I-70 yesterday. I always try to pay attention to the signs on that road – the details change but the home-cooked Christianity remains the same: now, there’s one of Jesus holding up a few fingers, with the line, “Jesus, I trust you” across it… There’s one that just proclaims, stark, italicized capital letters on a plain backdrop, that “JESUS IS REAL”… There’s one with no words at all, just a long-haired Jesus head peeking out over a golden field of wheat, and holding a few stalks of it in his hand…

I was playing this game in my head, wondering about what a suburban equivalent of these rural highway signs might be, thinking about what Saint Andrew’s message, boiled down to billboard-slogan style, might be…

And then we came upon another. Not as polished as the others; it wasn’t professionally done. Just some hand-painted block letters on a big white sign posted in some central Kansas farmland. And it said, “I Need a Kidney.” And across the bottom, the phone number.

I looked it up when we got home – James Nelson, who used to paint murals, rented the sign after he got the idea from a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. He drug a ladder out into the field where it stands and and hiked his 70-year-old self up to paint the message for his wife, Sharon. They’ve had lots of calls, but so far none of the offers have worked out. They’re still hopeful that some kind soul, with the right blood type and enough time to slow down and copy the phone number, will find them.

I’ve never felt like those other signs are particularly loving – those theological arguments posted along I-70. I’ve thought they were sometimes clever… sometimes threatening… but this one, that just spoke of the woman’s need – something about it reached off the painted wood and into my spirit as we drove by. Her acknowledgment of her need forges a connection between her and all who see that sign. And in that way, I think, it says more about God, about faith, about love, than any of the others out there. It says, honestly, this is who I am. I am, literally, broken. I need you. For healing. And it opens up the possibility that maybe, we need each other.

It’s the same thing a communion table says, right? This table is not clever, or threatening. It is not a theological argument. It simply invites us to be who we are. To acknowledge where we are broken. And maybe when we do, and we come — broken selves to broken bread — we begin to find wholeness.

what happens at the table

This past week, eleven middle-schoolers – five boys, six girls – traveled from Saint Andrew to St. Louis to help out at a day shelter for the homeless, a place called The Bridge. One morning, after the boys and I had peeled bags and bags of sweet potatoes, then helped to make and serve breakfast, we went and sat down with the shelter’s guests, to eat our meal.

The Bridge had laid out chess boards on one table, and our boys usually went right there – other guests of the Bridge would invite them to play, and our boys were able to connect, over those games, with these men who have had such difficult lives. Sometimes the men would share those stories, sometimes they’d share strategy, sometimes they’d barely speak. So I think I probably looked a little proud, and a little sad, on that morning as I sat just to the side and watched them play, these men and our boys.

And then this woman came up to me and introduced herself as Kim, from the Crisis Nursery. I had called them the week before to see if we could volunteer there, so when she came over I figured she was responding to my call, maybe she had work for us to do. She knelt down by my chair, talked me through the services offered by the Crisis Nursery, and I listened, nodded. Then she encouraged me that if I ever need a place for my boys, or just some time to get some help, they were open any hour, day or night – and that’s when I realized she wasn’t speaking to me as the leader of a volunteer group. She didn’t know who I was, of course. She came to me because I came to The Bridge to eat breakfast with these five middle-school boys. And so she came to offer me respite, and care, and the services of the Crisis Nursery, for these boys she assumed were mine, for this family she assumed was homeless.

And that’s when I realized: around a table, everyone is the same. Whatever boundaries I thought existed, to separate volunteers from guests, privileged from homeless – once you all sit down around a table to share a meal, they just don’t. Not in the same way. Because we all gather, in need of nourishment and community, and we are fed, and offered care. And the same thing happens here. We are invited, and given these elements, whoever we are, whatever our story. Whether we come from a place of lack, or a place of abundance, or somewhere in the middle, this feast makes us one.

Telling Good News…

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written…

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. To release the oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee, the year of God’s favor.”

Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4)

*

So it took me a while before I could figure out what this man was really getting at. We were sitting just over there, in the Pastors’ Office, for one of those Muffins with the Minister gatherings. People who were new to the church or just wanted a better sense of who we are, or what our denomination is, they were all gathered together, to talk and to listen and to ask questions. And this man, attending with his partner, also male, had asked about our open and affirming stance toward gay and lesbian people. He said, “What do you mean when you say we are welcome?” And I gave the sort of standard, “Well, we mean that we accept and celebrate all people, for who they are; we believe that God does, too.” And he wasn’t satisfied, he said, “Sure, but – what can we do?”

And I must have looked blank, like I didn’t understand the question, because he said, “I mean, I’ve been in worship – I know we can take communion… But could we, could we have a part in the worship service?” And I said, “Of course.” He said, “Could we sing in the choir?” I said, “Sure.”  He said, “Could we help collect the offering?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Could we volunteer with the children’s program? Like, could we teach Sunday School?” I said, “Yes. We’re always looking for new Sunday School teachers!” He said, “But could we serve communion?”

And I was starting to grow impatient. I just wanted to say, “Yes; yes – whatever you ask, the answer is always going to be yes.” But I stopped myself, because it hit me that this litany we were doing, this list of questions he had for me, was because this was how it had happened for him before.

He was told he was welcome. He was at a church that genuinely cared about him. And the deeper he got connected – the more he wanted to offer his own gifts back to that community. And that’s when he was told no. He was welcome as long as he was being ministered to but for him to be a vessel through which God’s grace came to other people – that was too much. Too far.

And as I kept saying yes to him – as this room full of people now had turned to listen to this conversation – his line, over and over, really was just – how far does this welcome extend? How long will it be before you tell me no? Where’s the line? – And I realized it was my role, my part in this litany, to bring good news. I could just say, “Yes. You are welcome. There is no line. There is no break. There is no place you cannot serve, no ministry you cannot be a part of, no sacred bread and wine you cannot offer to any other person here.” And when I slowed down long enough to say that, this tremendous gratitude washed over me. What a privilege, to speak on behalf of this congregation, and say, “As far as this welcome extends to any one of us, it extends to all of us.”

See, Jesus, was a better preacher, a better pastor, than I am. He knew when he had good news. He knew when people needed to hear it. He did not grow impatient; he took his time.

We meet him here in a synagogue in Nazareth – the place he would have grown up hearing the Scriptures and teachings – he’s been away and people are excited for his return. But his presence is a counter to their frenzy. Luke, as he’s telling the story, makes us slow down. The tiniest actions on Jesus’ part are detailed so that we have to pay attention. Here’s how it happens – Jesus goes to the synagogue. He stands up to read. He’s handed the scroll. He unrolls the scroll. He finds his place. And after all of this slow-motion plays out, when their eyes are fixed on him, their ears are pricked, he tells them, “Listen up: By God, for the poor, I have good news. For the blind, sight; for the captive, release; for the oppressed, liberty; for the world, a Jubilee – a celebration, a setting right of all things.”

He’s speaking for himself, but he’s speaking for God. Jesus is God’s way of being in the world. So when we hear these first words of his in Luke, we are promised that God’s being in the world, is good news.

And Jesus tells it. And then he says, “Did you hear? Then it’s done.” He says, “This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He says, “As I speak these words and they enter your ears, they come true.”

This is the part that’s so difficult for me. How is that possible? How can he even say that, when any brief glance around confronts us with evidence that poverty, and blindness, and captivity, and oppression are terrible realities – in the world as he spoke to it and still in the world we inhabit?

war-is-over

And then I think of John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, in 1969 – how they took over public space – billboards in Times Square, in London, in Tokyo, around the world, just huge black letters on a stark white backdrop: War Is Over! And then, in smaller font, If You Want It. And then, even smaller, Happy Christmas from John & Yoko. They passed out littler versions of the poster for people to hang in the windows of their homes, even littler versions for people to mail as postcards. And John Sinclair, a prominent anti-war activist, said, “That’s got to sound awfully stupid to people in Vietnam – war is over, if you want it – as they are being burned and bombed –”

And John Lennon said the campaign is not for people in Vietnam. It’s for people who live in places that are waging war, that they might come to understand the power of their own voices. …See we can only live in tension with the truth for so long. If we sing peace and we see it declared in our public spaces and we send it as greeting to our friends and we say that war is over then soon enough we will not be able to abide that war rages on. What do we want, friends? When do we want it?

And there are connections between this grand-scale violence of war and the small violences we inflict on one another every day. Long ago this congregation knew that. And so this church’s earliest members dedicated this place to peacemaking and declared it open and affirming for just such a time as that Mufffins meeting, so that when a man came, with a litany of doubts and questions, we could just answer, each one, “Yes. Welcome.” For as long as it takes him to be convinced. Because like peace begins to happen in the declaring of it, welcome happens in the speaking of it.  It goes beyond that, of course. But to begin, as we say it, we make it true.

We need to say it louder.

It is one thing to be a sanctuary. Right? – to be a safe space, a place of welcome. But is quite another thing to be a prophetic community. Sanctuaries, by their very nature, are quiet. And when people find their way to a sanctuary, then they can rest in it. And we all have days when we desperately need that rest.

But you and I know, from listening to the news of our world over the last six months, or the last six weeks, that there are those who never find their way to these quiet spaces of refuge and welcome. And we do them a terrible disservice if we sit smugly in our good news and do not speak it loudly.

If we decry the violence that has for so long plagued our world and defined our faith, but make no movement to tell a different story, this culture that lives and breathes violence will continue to search for its redemption in that bad, bad news.

But if we can say that war is over – our wars against those we share soil with and our wars against those half a world away – all of that, over – if we can say that God’s holiness is not determined by how many are excluded but by open embrace of all – if we can offer a creative vision of redemption to a yearning world, then we are faithful to our call to bring good news. And good news is meant for sharing. Loudly, and widely.

Now we are God’s way of being in the world. And God’s being in the world is good news.

How will we tell it?

The Stories We Tell…

So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as Scripture says: ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

So Jesus said to them, “The truth of the matter is, Moses hasn’t given you bread from heaven; But God gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him, “Teacher, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them,”I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6)

*

There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.

What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one of them is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s lots of supporting evidence for this, but all of it is from about twenty years ago. Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always, always be … a terrible cook. The stories are sort of funny, and they also make me feel sort of … stuck. There’s no getting out of that identity for me.

For a friend of mine, the story his family told about him – and to him – was much more damaging. They told him he would be healed. They told everyone who met him that he would be healed. They took him to church every Sunday, marched him down the center aisle during the hymn of invitation every Sunday, and as he knelt, the church passionately told stories of Jesus healing those whose bodies, like his, didn’t work quite right. And then eventually – when he was eleven, and it became clear that his cerebral palsy was going to stick around, that no amount of elders hands could anoint it away – eventually they started telling him that he didn’t believe strongly enough, that he didn’t pray fervently enough, that he didn’t hope faithfully enough. He left the church for fifteen years. Then he went to seminary to learn to tell different stories about Jesus. Or to tell the same stories, but differently. To try to make the healing stories not so harmful. To be able to hear them, in his own body, in all its glory and with all its limits.

There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Every week. The Scriptures change and the music changes and our own lives change but every week, regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in this service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed. That his body was broken and his blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not.

And maybe, more importantly, whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not. I would propose that he didn’t. The story about the betrayal, the first time it’s told, is in the Gospel of Mark. There are a few verses at the beginning of chapter 14 that warn that something bad will happen – they were looking for a way to arrest him, but to be sneaky about it. And then there’s a story about a meal, and a woman who brings Jesus a gift. And that story is followed by a couple of verses that return to the earlier concern, and tell us that a disciple agreed to turn Jesus over to the authorities.

And every week we tell the outside story. The shorter one. The one about Judas. About betrayal. On the high school mission trip to Joplin, when the kids who were leading worship were trying to remember the words of institution, whatever else they couldn’t remember about what came after, they all knew, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” They knew that the ritual began with those words.

But the story that comes in between – the story about the woman – do you know it? It’s longer than the other – there are these gorgeous, these, these luxurious details. It tells us that Jesus is reclining, he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room – she wouldn’t have been allowed, you know, her being there would have been problematic – but she comes in and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she pours this expense perfume on his head. The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that what she did was what she could, and that it was beautiful. And he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached in all the world, what she did was the story to tell. Her extravagant generosity, her pouring out of gratitude and honor and beauty – that’s the story, he says, that should go with the gospel. Where good news is preached, say also that there was this woman, who disregarded the rules that tried to keep her in a particular place, or in a particular role, and instead she came forward, offered what she had to her neighbor, to her God, and it was beautiful.

But we don’t tell it that way. We tell it as though we believe that whatever else happens, whatever else about Jesus’ teaching or Jesus’ embrace or peoples’ faithfulness, whatever other details help to fill out the story, the center of it is that he was betrayed, and his body broken, and his blood spilled. That is the story we tell, ritually, every time we gather.

We’ve taken language from the apostle Paul, meant to be a story, and we’ve turned it into our liturgy. The words come to us in the middle of other instruction, in the first letter to the Corinthians, and he’s telling them that women ought to wear head coverings when they pray. And then he’s telling them about all the ways their community is doing this sacred meal wrong – like they bring their own private meals, he writes, and at the end of the feast, one person goes home still hungry and another goes home drunk. They bring divisions with them to the table and at the table, they intensify those divisions. He’s trying to correct those practices, and in doing that, he offers the language that we still use today. He says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

And I’ve been trying to imagine how that language might have come about. The disciples are the first ones to share the communion meal together, to say that it’s symbolic of Jesus and his life among them. And I wonder if there’s some conversation they have about it. They’re in mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe someone says, “How does this go?” And someone else answers, “Well, there was bread, and wine. Like every meal.” And another says, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What did he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was that same night, there at the end. That night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” And others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”

I can imagine that happening. The first time, maybe the first few times that they gathered. But we know that the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. We know that broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal. Sometimes, our ancestors talked about it as fire, and spirit. Ephrem, an early church leader, used to say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal font; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”

Sometimes the cup was not understood as blood or as spirit, but as oil, like for anointing… Another early church leader, Cyril, in Jerusalem, invited those who came to take communion, after they drank, to touch their wet lips with their fingers, and moisten their foreheads. He taught that this kind of anointing would help restore right perception, so that all who feasted at the communion table might then recognize the whole created world as filled with the spirit of God.

We’ve lost those images. Somewhere along the way, we’ve turned Paul’s story into liturgy, and we repeat it every week as if it’s the only way. We’ve done this with some other parts of our tradition, too – the Lord’s prayer. Clearly, the words that we choose to do this with matter. So I’ve been testing out some other scriptures in my head – not the words of Paul, but the words of Jesus. Like today’s scripture. What if we gathered around this table and we said, “On the day that a hungry crowd followed Jesus to the other side of a lake, Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” How would that change what we do here? Or what if we thought back to earlier in his ministry, and we said, “On the day that many people gathered around Jesus on a hill, to hear him teach, he said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.’” We are partway there. We already speak of this table as open, as abundant, as celebratory. But there is this disconnect, then, sometimes, when we follow that with the stories of betrayal and violence that we’ve enshrined.

*

There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Too often. Twenty-one times since the year 2000, we have told a new story about a mass murder, like the one that happened in Aurora at the movie theatre. The stories are all different but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly. We collectively deny that those stories shape who we are. We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We respond by looking into the mind of the perpetrator, as far and as deep as we can, to find that place where he is different from the rest of us, that thing that makes him and only him capable of acting in ways we would never dream of. We try to understand, and explain. And, on the whole – maybe not us here, but statistics show, we, Americans – buy more weapons. After attacks like this, gun sales go up. Predictably. As a people, we have come to believe that violence will save us from violence. And I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between that belief and our practice, as Christians, of telling and retelling the story that violence – submission to violence, violence done by people, violence willed by God – is what saved us.

Here at Saint Andrew, we don’t talk a lot about it. We don’t preach the power of the blood, or that the crucifixion called us back from certain condemnation. We are careful about that, actually, having seen the damage that theology can do – how it historically has been used to sanction abuse, and torture, and worse. But we still use it – the language of betrayal and death – we still use it around this table. We say it as if because it’s the tradition, it’s untouchable. As if because people around the world gather around a table using this formula, there is something about it that is sacred, something that must remain. We can change the liturgy at any point to reflect the season, or the character of the congregation, or the news of the world, but when it comes to the Words of Institution, it’s as if our hands are tied. As if that’s where our power ends, and only the ritual remains.

That’s how ritual works. That’s why it has such hold on us. Because it is this connection to what came before; it invites us into a world not of our own making. This story, of betrayal and body and blood, is what connects us, across time and space, to all other Christians, around this table. Except now we know, from the early church, that that’s not true. We know that other Christians were creative in their coming to the table. We know that they used more life-giving images, also found in scripture. And they held a tension – they spoke of beauty and mystery – early church father Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord, and it is your own mystery you receive.” And Ephrem said, “Christ’s body has been newly mingled with our bodies, his blood too has been poured into our veins. His voice is in our ears, his brightness in our eyes, In his compassion, the whole of him has been mingled with the whole of us.” Early Christians did not deny the reality of violence in the world, or the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did tell more than just one story.

*

Once upon a time there lived a holy rabbi. He was a good man, and he was brilliant. He knew the answer to every question, to anything anyone could ask of him. He traveled from town to town, telling stories and answering questions. And in one of these towns, after he had taught for hours and answered every question the crowd had posed to him, a young girl cried out, “Rabbi! I have a question I’m sure you can’t answer.” And he smiled at her, and he encouraged her to ask. She said to him, “I have a bird, hidden behind my back, held carefully in my hands. Is the bird dead or alive?” She figured she could make the rabbi wrong, regardless of what he said. If he said the bird was dead, she could set it free, and it would fly away. If he said the bird was alive, she could crush it in her hands; she could kill it.

The rabbi knew that the girl wanted to trick him. To do it publicly, to bring him shame. He considered how he could answer without shaming her. He stayed silent for a moment. And then the answer came to him – how he could respond, and still give her some dignity, too. He had trouble getting the words out, but he told her, “My dear child, you hold the bird in your hands. The answer all depends on you. You can let it live, or you can take its life. The answer is in your hands.”

We can tell stories about betrayal or we can tell stories about beauty. We have tried for a long, long time to tell both. And it is true that both are real, and both deserve our attention. But which stories we tell often enough that they have the power to shape who we are – that is up to us. It is in our hands.