a sermon on Luke 8, jail, camps, and possibility

I’ve been going to the Hamilton County Jail on Thursday mornings for several months now. My friend and colleague Daniel Hughes invited me to come and see what God was doing in the jail and in the specific exit program he volunteers with. This small group of men in one part of the jail are part of a program to actually rehabilitate them rather than just punish them. They have regular access to advocates and 12-step programs and folks like Daniel and myself. He and I are offering a spiritual component—Daniel preaches good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor, I lead them in mindfulness practices like meditation and singing. These men, they’re bound behind heavy doors and guards, some of whom are compassionate, many of whom are really not, they’re bound by their mistakes, bound by finances, bound by addiction or family history, bound by mental illness. There are men in that room who got speeding tickets they couldn’t pay and men who’ve assaulted people. I talked to a guy this week who at first I thought was only struggling with anger, but it turns out he was abused as a child and, the more I talked to him, the more it was obvious, his anger is both completely understandable and entirely pathological. I don’t know that he can come back from what was done to him. They’re stuck, imprisoned physically and spiritually. We hide them away, keep them bound to make the rest of us feel safe.

In a way, they are the living dead, like the man in the gospel today—ostracized from society, locked away, treading water, living among the tombstones of our society. Even when they get out sometimes the stink of the jail and their imprisonment stays on them, because it’s not just a criminal record that holds them bound. It’s all that other stuff. Way back in the day, a theologian called Pelagius was convicted of being a heretic because he said that humans weren’t born sinful, we’re born beautiful, a delight in God’s eyes—heaven forbid, I guess—and that sin is like an occupying army in our souls, that we long for freedom. These men long for freedom, both from the jail itself and it’s insufferably cold air conditioning and terrible food and distance from their kids and brothers, and from their own demons.

They are not the only ones bound up. Children of immigrants are in camps—call them what you will, they’re being tortured and they’re dying. Literally dying. Literally small children caring for each other because the adults responsible for their care can’t or won’t.

They are the living dead. Separated, marking time, staring into space, living among the tombstones of our society, waiting. Waiting.

But y’all know this. You read the newspaper or social media, you have a grasp of history, you know these aren’t the only places we are destroying each other and God’s creation like occupying armies. You know humans are horrible to each other for all kinds of reasons that, in retrospect, make no sense at all. We look at this story of the Gerasene demoniac and we think, “Shoot, y’all, he was just mentally ill, why’d they do that to him?” Or we might even believe it was demons, but still be a bit horrified by the man’s condition—naked, chained, living in a graveyard—how could it come to this?

How could it come to this?

See, it’s true that the story is showing us Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal people, to take away their suffering, to help them let go of their pain, but Jesus is also showing us something deeper. He’s like that, you know. Jesus is showing the people this man’s humanity—whether or not he literally had demons, he was a human being, the word the Greek actually uses here. The human being comes and sits with Jesus, at his feet like Mary Magdalene or the beloved disciple. This human being is all the people who are bound or imprisoned. Every man languishing in a cell in a Chechnyan camp because he’s gay, every woman trafficked for her body. Every child at the border. And remembering that Jesus is always telling us like 7 different things with every word and action--this human being from the town of Gerasa is every one of us addicted to alcohol or sex or anger, every one of us held down by depression or racism or nationalism.

And even more, this Jesus doesn’t just heal this human being from Gerasa because he’s happened to run across him on the road. Jesus took a boat across the sea, away from the Jewish area of Galilee into a Gentile-heavy area, described in Greek even as the opposite of Galilee, geographically as well as sort of sociologically. He takes a boat far away from home, heals this guy, and then takes yet another boat all the way back. It is a long and seemingly unplanned and pointless journey. David Lose says, “There is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.” And that’s it, isn’t it? God goes wherever any of us are broken and despairing, wherever any of us are imprisoned. God comes to find us. There is nowhere God is not willing to go. We may put up all kinds of barriers against our own healing, clinging to our demons because we have to be right, but God comes and finds us and loosens our fingers. We may build walls around the people we think are not in God’s image, people we think are threatening or gross, but God comes around with a sledge hammer and a picnic lunch to share with everyone.

Just a few chapters before today’s reading, Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll in the temple:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor.

One of my students at the Edge House is starting her third year at UC and is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, truly blossoming. She has been throwing off the chains of her oppressive childhood and coming into her adult transwoman self—she’s more self-aware, more compassionate, and more able to ask for what she needs. The difference from two years ago is astonishing. And another student has been reading the mystic Meister Eckhart and came across the line, “nothing can interrupt God when he is having fun creating!” She looked at me with shining eyes and said, “God had fun making me.” Yes! Yes. Things are still hard, we need to respond to the atrocities we create. And also, child mortality the world over is continuing to fall significantly and teen pregnancies in America are less frequent, global income inequality is falling, the Great Barrier Reef is showing significant signs of recovery.

We do not have to be the living dead, we are the living, breathing in and out the breath of God.

We may be dying, we may be ill or resentful or addicted, but we are not dead. We may be groaning along with all creation, but new life is coming and is now here.

I want to teach you a song we’ve been singing at the Edge House, written by Andrew Petersen.

Do you feel the world is broken? We do.

Do you feel the shadows deepen? We do.

But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through? We do.

Do you wish that you could see it all made new? We do.

Is all creation groaning? It is.

Is a new creation coming? It is.

Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst? It is.

Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? It is.

we made the road by walking it

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I took a group of 8 students to Spain to walk the English Way of el Camino de Santiago. It was, perhaps as you’d expect, both transformative and deeply exhausting. We’ve been talking for months about how the Camino (“way” or “road”) isn’t just a line on a map and there’s no right way to walk it. The way you walk it—aches and pains, joy and misery, connection with or absence of God—is the Camino. Each of us has our own Camino, just as we all have our own burdens and our own revelations. In the words of Brian McLaren, “we make the road by walking.” Wherever your feet fall as you walk, whatever you do in your daily life that creates your metaphorical road, that is the road you’re on. Neither good nor bad, necessarily, just your road.

Now, I struggle with traveling. A lifetime of motion-sickness on most forms of transportation plus being something of a homebody makes it difficult. I like being in a place far from home, but the transition to get there is rough. Mercifully the plane flights were uneventful; the worst of the first leg was jet lag and Reeve losing his glasses. Irritating, but not insurmountable.

We spent a couple days in Madrid eating paella and touring the Palace and the Prado museum. This was my first kairos moment along the Camino, even though we weren’t yet hiking. One of the Prado’s most prized pieces is Heironynous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Go ahead and Google it if you don’t recognize the name. Weird, right? It’s one of my most favorite paintings and one Leighton and I have had on our wall and then in the Edge House library for two decades. I know what it looks like inside and out; I’ve spent literal hours of my life staring at it in wonder. I was not prepared for seeing it with my own eyes. It was all there, everything I expected, but the texture, the detail, the sheer presence of it was overwhelming. Reader, I wept there in the gallery. God was present to me as God has been present in places like Dachau and the Rocky Mountains.

Once we began hiking, we had five days of the presence of God. It wasn’t constant—much of the hike was prosaic thinking about blisters or rain or what song to sing next—but all of it was tinged with the Holy Spirit. We were vulnerable in the walk to share our innermost fears and ponderings. We couldn’t go on at times, but we must go on. We arrived at the halfway point on our journey to great celebration (singing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”—perfection). We ate ridiculously delicious rustic sandwiches of bread and meat. We shared each other’s literal weight when it got to be too much. We cared for each other and received the care of our Spanish hosts who found us towels and tomatoes.

And then we arrived in the square in front of the church in Santiago de Compostela, inexplicably accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. I wept again, this time in joy and relief. We had made it. All of us. Ankles and fear and hunger and exhaustion and rain had not held us back. We, all of us, made it. We collapsed on the ground with smiles on our faces. For a thousand years, pilgrims have been walking to this place which may or may not house St James’ bones. It almost doesn’t matter if they’re real, because it’s the road we walk to get there and God’s presence with us as we do that matters.

I could write so many more stories about this journey, but I will stop here. May you feel God’s presence as you walk through your life, both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

antisemitism, the gospel of John, and clean drinking water

We laid Brian Brady to rest yesterday. It was beautiful and emotional and I can’t help but appreciate the parallel with today’s gospel. The disciples had just buried their friend Jesus. He was dead before his time. Their hope was dead. Grief is necessary and healthy but thank God the story doesn’t end there. And I believe it doesn’t end here for Brian either. We are in the season of resurrection where all death is temporary and we are being invited to step out of the boat onto stormy seas.

We are also mourning, yet again, deaths brought about by a man armed both with an assault weapon and with white supremacy. I had already planned to speak a bit today about the church’s history of antisemitism, and here we are living it. There is good news waiting at the end of this little history lesson, there always, always is good news and possibility and God’s reckless, mysterious love, but we need to name our sins before we can be redeemed from them.

Did you notice just now and a couple times during Holy Week when I read from the Gospel of John and changed the words “the Jews” to “the religious authority” or “the people”? I do that because of our history with this book. Let’s go back to around 90 Common Era. Jesus of Nazareth had died and been resurrected something like 60 years before, and John the Beloved Disciple, like the others, had gone out into the world and told his story if this impossible man. A group of Jews from one Synagogue heard him, took him in, and came to love Jesus as he did. They wrote down John’s memories and their experiences of the living God. They wrote their understanding of the events of Jesus’ life as they saw them, through their own experience of grief and persecution. This one small group of Jews wrote one of the most cosmically beautiful and painfully physical stories in the Bible—it’s glorious. The problem was, belief in Jesus as the messiah was a heretical belief in first century Judaism. Because of their heresy, it seems likely, this little community was kicked out of their synagogue. And so now they, too, are grieving. They’ve lost their community, their livelihoods and relationships, even the trust and vulnerability they shared with the larger community. They wrote out the good news of Jesus Christ but they also wrote out the bad news of their frustration and anger and suspicion.

This might have remained as a familial dispute—people from the same family who, at bottom, love each other deeply, no matter how upset they are with each others’ politics—but Christianity took off. Followers of Jesus cropped up all over the place and John’s words were spread around like, well, like viral tweets, really. People were hungry for good news and for this Jesus and so they got the good news wrapped up with words that became weapons.

The Gospel of John is not the only thing to blame for centuries of antisemitism, but it’s a big part of it. That the Jews here voluntarily take all the blame for the death of Jesus, that the Jews are presented as people to be feared, people who lie and cheat and manipulate to destroy a good man, even the subtle “for fear of the Jews” at the beginning of this passage is enough to open the door to much more dangerous ideology. I understand if you don’t read it this way, if you think people are being too sensitive, only we have 2000 years of Christians writing out their justifications for blaming, shunning, disenfranchising, and killing Jews. Jesus says in the gospel today “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” We have, accidentally or on purpose, retained the sins of a few as the sins of a whole people and allowed them to be ground underfoot for generations.

I’m telling you all this because it needs to be said out loud. Because people are still going into synagogues with guns. And because we can change it, because this is what the good news is about: healing wounds by naming our sins. Pastor Alex always says Resurrection happens to dead things. Let’s look at all the death around us and name our part in it, let’s stand like Ezekiel at the valley of dry bones so we can bear witness to their coming back to life! Transformation is what God’s about, what we’re about.

Now listen. The story of “doubting Thomas” might seem to be a strange place to find some sort of new life to connect to antisemitism—it always seems to be about the question of doubt and belief, about choosing to have faith though you have no proof. As usual, it’s about so much more than that.

Thomas isn’t there that first night when Jesus shows up in the locked room with the disciples. I imagine they’ve all told the story over and over all week from each of their different perspectives, parsing out what happened, falling over themselves in their delight that he’s back and Thomas thinks it’s just an elaborate and cruel joke. And then Jesus shows up again, this time it seems, just for Thomas. He gives him what he needs—proof—and also a reproof, “Do not doubt but believe” which of course we have used as a weapon ever since.

This is the strange good news I want to offer after yesterday’s shooting and Brian’s funeral and whatever other bad news you’re strugging with yourselves. It’s a single word: pistos. It’s an odd grammatical moment that we don’t translate well, surprise surprise. It means believe and Jesus says it twice in the sentence, pistos and apistos. “Do not be faithless but be faithful” or “Do not be unbelieving but believing”—do you see? It’s the same word pistos, believe. You’ll note, it’s not really about doubt. The Latin form of pistos is credo from which we get creed. You’ve heard me say this before, but it’s about giving your heart to something, not agreeing with a checklist of statements.

Anyway, another more literal definition of this word Jesus uses to Thomas is so fascinating. It’s used elsewhere in scripture and literally means “potable”, like, water that is drinkable. I did say this was a strange way to find good news, but hear me out. Jesus wasn’t talking about Thomas as a tall drink of water, but he is known for his subtlety and complexity: he chose this particular word with care. Do not be brakish water, Thomas. Do not be the lead-poisoned water of Flint or the cholera-infested water of Haiti. Thomas, be clear, cool, refreshing, living water. Be the award-winning municipal water in Cincinnati. Be the water that comes from mountain streams of melted snowfall. Do not poison the well, Thomas, clean it so all can drink. Or even, do not be trash, be treasure, like these beautiful mosaics on our sanctuary walls.

This word pistos brings something new into a history of antisemitism, a history of human self-interest, a history of creating messes and not cleaning them up because it’s not our problem. Do not condemn our Jewish siblings for things they didn’t do, do not ascribe guilt and filthiness and blame where there is none. Instead, believe in the image of God present in all people, let the clean water of clarity and knowledge and compassion wash away the sludge of racism. Be drinkable, my friends! May your soul find movement away from brackishness into potability! Can we get that on a tshirt?

See it’s about movement—God moving us from feeling rejected and dejected to being welcomed and welcoming. It’s less about the extremes and more about moving slowly from one end to the other. God is about movement, living water not stagnant. God is about shifting our perspectives and about going deeper into the love we already have for each other.

And it doesn’t have to happen suddenly—online there’s a lot of posts on social media about body positivity, which I think is so wonderful. Our bodies are God’s creations, so we should work towards positivity. Lately I’ve seen folks offer up their posts about body neutrality—that is, they don’t feel good enough to say positive things, but they can say, “my body got me to class today, that’s good,” or “I don’t hate my body today.” It’s a transition, a process. The spirit is moving here and new life is happening!

At Brian’s funeral this morning, Pastor Pat said, “We have a God who stands with us” and described God’s love for us as stubborn. This is the good news of this story about Thomas: Jesus shows up for Thomas, the one lost sheep out of a hundred, the one who can’t dare to hope that his friend has returned. We have a God who stands with us, a God who shows up for us in unlikely places, who gives us what we need, who loves us—all of us—with a stubborn love. A God who washes us clean in baptism and then continuously pours that cool, clear water over us, soaking us to the skin, washing away our old assumptions, our wounds, our violence.

I will leave you with the words at the very beginning of the Episcopal rite for the burial of the dead, much of which you’ll recognize from scripture:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

Whoever has faith in me shall have life,

even though he die.

And everyone who has life,

and has committed himself to me in faith,

shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives

and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

After my awaking, he will raise me up;

and in my body I shall see God.

I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him

who is my friend and not a stranger.

Good Friday 2019

I know I make a lot of jokes about spoilers this time of year—do we know what’s going to happen on Friday afternoon? Do we know what’s going to happen early Sunday morning? Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, let them be surprised! It’s silly because we all know. New life is coming, resurrection and alleluias and plants bursting into flower and gosh if we don’t need it. It’s dark in the corners of our lives, the fire and cruelty of the world is getting to us. And even with all the tree pollen, we want that beauty and possibility springing forth, of course we do. And it’s still here, even in the darkness of Gethsemane, even in Jesus’ own doubt that this is the next good thing, even in our senses of abandonment and betrayal—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

But

It is Good Friday. It is the day of death and darkness and gloom and suffering. This is the day that you will hear sermons about how God needed and wanted Jesus’ suffering, about how the blood of the crucifixion somehow washes us clean. About how our sin makes God so very angry and it’s only Jesus, who is like God, who can stand between us and the wrath to come.

I know this is scripture. I know it’s in the book. But I’m not sure this is what God’s like. “It was God’s will to crush him with pain,” says Isaiah. Was it? or was he crushed with pain and our way of understanding it is to say God wanted it. And then if God wants it, if God needs sacrifice and blood, then it makes sense that we would keep doing it. As much as Jesus was sacrificing himself for others—selfless, beautifully tragic—it’s still a sacrifice, still about a bloodthirsty God. 

The reading from Isaiah is one of many readings which say flat out that God desires suffering. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” and “Through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.” Now, I am troubled by this. Troubled doesn’t even cover it. Disgusted. Mostly because humans have used lines like this forever to justify the cruelties we inflict on each other and as excuses not to be compassionate. It’s God’s will. I’m not even talking about the platitudes we offer when someone’s in the hospital. Literally, the good Christian men who came from Europe to America in those early days saw it as a sign of divine favor and of God’s glory that the native peoples succumbed to disease so quickly and that the Europeans were able to kill the rest and take control of the land so quickly. I’m not making this up—we have countless primary sources in their own hands and with the blessing of the Church attesting to it. Pain and suffering were justified by a God who desires them.

This reading and the other Suffering Servant passages from Isaiah are part of the Christian story about Jesus the Christ—we say that they’re foreshadowing him. Obviously he is the lamb led to the slaughter, obviously it is by Jesus’ bruises we are healed. There are a year’s worth of sermons on the complexity of Isaiah, but let me just say this: it’s not necessarily bad that we see Jesus here, but it wasn’t written about him. It’s most likely the suffering servant is the people of Israel as a whole. Their history is one of suffering and crying out to God, Isaiah was writing to the people who were just returned from Exile in Babylon. The temple was destroyed, the exiles were returning, and the whole culture and landscape was in shambles. What to make of the last 75 years? Why, why had God allowed this? Why were their children and parents dead and the house of Adonai a rubble? Where was God?

Isaiah says, “We the people of Israel have not suffered pointlessly—there is meaning here. Our suffering will create new life. We will not suffer forever.” This is beautiful and this is necessary. We need meaning-making to survive and this is the job of religion. This is what Isaiah is doing for Israel and partly what we’re doing gathered here to bear witness to the death of an innocent man. We are trying to answer the question “why”: why did Jesus have to die? Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening to my son or my neighbor? Why?

Suffering…exists. Sometimes it’s because of one person’s actions, sometimes its institutionalized, sometimes it just is and seeing it is enough. It’s just…a part of existence.

But we are adept at not seeing suffering, of scrolling past, of justifying our own pain as not worth paying attention to or justifying another’s pain as their fault or they should have known better or they’re not as human as we are. This kind of scapegoating and even willful ignorance is not confined to the distant past, it’s not confined to Jesus’ sacrifice. 

It’s children in cages at the border, miserable, sick, and even dying literally of thirst. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering. 

It’s young people bullied for their looks or gender or ability who can’t stand to face another day. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.

It’s a whole generation of gay men wiped out of existence because our politicians and indeed the whole country ignored the HIV epidemic. We even mocked them publicly, like those who mocked Jesus on the cross. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.

I’ve started going weekly to the Hamilton County Jail with my colleague Daniel Hughes. He’s pastor of Incline Missional Church in Price Hill. We’re part of a group working to help incarcerated men be less likely to reoffend, but more than that, we’re trying to help them thrive, to have life abundant. Some of these guys have done really hurtful things. Others have been dumb or have trusted the wrong people. Some just can’t pay a speeding ticket, but also can’t pay bail, so they’re in jail for months until their hearing. And some, some are there because the justice system has to have somebody. Daniel said that thing yesterday as we were talking about the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus, he said it about Jesus, but he also said it about the guys in the room. The system needed a victim. All the guys in that room nodded sadly. They know. It’s not just Jesus, it wasn’t just that once.

Don’t get me wrong, It’s true that we have within us the power to destroy ourselves and each other and all of Creation, it’s true we need to turn from these ways. It’s even true that God gets angry. And there’s something powerful and transformative and unnameable that happened on Good Friday, and there is something powerful and transformative and unnameable about Jesus. But he didn’t stop suffering with his own. And I don’t think he meant to. He showed us what our self-interest does to people. He showed us how all our systems are built on violence, every one of them. He showed us what our lust and greed and sloth do to the whole of Creation—he was mirroring back to us the way we find someone to blame, someone to mock, someone to drive to despair so that we will see them as he does. All of them. In the crucifixion narratives, the crowd is asked what to do with this Jesus of Nazareth, and they shout back “crucify him, crucify him!” Friends, sometimes we are the crucified, punished by our sins or for no reason at all, but just as often, we are the ones doing the crucifying.

For now, the light is departing this world. Jesus, our brother, is betrayed into the hands of us poor sinners.

Footwashing: yay or nay?

All may, some should, none must.

We say this before NOSH every week at the Edge House as an invitation for the assembly to participate as is helpful to them. Everyone is invited to participate regardless of who they are and what they’re carrying. Some of us perhaps shouldengage with certain parts, but that awareness is up to the individual to be honest with yourself. And no one is required to participate. This invitation at NOSH applies equally to the traditional footwashing service on Maundy Thursday.

“Footwashing?” you might be saying to yourself. “Really? We don’t do that here, it’s too uncomfortable.” Or maybe some of you are saying to yourself, “Finally! I’m so excited!” Two of Good Shepherd’s pastors represent each end of this scale.

Footwashing makes Pastor Alex’s skin crawl: it’s far too intimate, it requires far too much vulnerability, and to be perfectly honest, it’s gross. When Jesus wrapped that towel around his waist and started washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, they were weirded out, too. Peter, appalled by what Jesus was doing, said, “No, man, you can’t wash my feet!” As much as Alex can agree that vulnerability, intimacy, and getting to the real nitty-gritty of service is what Jesus had in mind for his disciples to help them grow in faith, he sides with Peter’s first reaction to this challenge. Even more than that, he would say, “No, absolutely not. Not only will you NOT wash my feet, I will make certain guarantees that if you touch my feet, we are never making eye contact again.” He hastens to add that he understands how helpful the practice is to others and he’s happy to be in the room.

Meanwhile, Pastor Alice loves everything about footwashing. The vulnerability, the spaciousness around waiting for the next person to approach, the gift both of having your own feet washed as well as of washing someone else’s, even the deep awkwardness of it. And don’t get us wrong, it isawkward. But that’s actually part of the point. It was awkward back then, it’s awkward now. When something’s awkward, it means there’s something real and vulnerable happening, and God is in the midst of it. As someone who thinks of herself as self-sufficient, Alice finds receiving care from someone else humbling and spiritually-filling. Like being in the woods or looking up to a startlingly-blue sky, she feels like she can breathe clearly again. 

Where are you on the scale of Pastor “absolutely not” Alex to Pastor “yes, please” Alice? Are you somewhere in the middle? Do you find yourself leaning towards the “none must” end of things or seeing within yourself a sense of “some should” and a need to try it out? Wherever you find yourself, please come to the Edge House’s Maundy Thursday observance on April 11 at 7:30pm including a light “Agape” dinner. All are invited to eat, to pray or meditate, to have your feet washed, or just to observe. Perhaps some of you should engage with it. And no one must.

thoughts on pilgrimage

Some students and I are planning a pilgrimage to the church at Santiago de Compostela via “el Camino,” “the Way.” It’s an ancient series of footpaths for medieval pilgrims to walk towards the church. It occurs to me that many people, including a lot of us going on the trip, don’t really know what pilgrimage is, and in particular, how it’s different from a vacation.

1

There are definitely overlaps between pilgrimage and other kinds of travel. You might find yourself on a pilgrimage for a day while ostensibly on a business trip because you suddenly saw something that put you in that space. Or you might have the best of intentions for a pilgrimage you’ve planned and find spiritual transformation around every corner, yet still have touristy moments.

2

It’s a question of your purpose, or your intention. A pilgrimage is a journey to a place of special spiritual significance. The journey part implies some distance from home. Certainly, it is also spiritual distance from one’s home headspace, but you get the idea. The place might be one of suffering and disaster like Ground Zero or a concentration camp, it might be a place where an historical event that’s deeply relevant to you happened (Montgomery, Alabama or The Stonewall bar in New York City). It might be a place of natural wonder where the physical world seems to butt up against the spiritual one (a thin place, our Irish brothers and sisters call it), or a more obviously religious place like Chartres Cathedral or Mecca. One’s coop experience might even be a pilgrimage if approached from that intentional perspective and the location is somehow specially spiritual.

3

We go on pilgrimage, not to say we’ve been there but to be transformed. This doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about it afterwards or that we won’t take photos while we’re there, but it does mean that we consider our intention and our openness to what the place will show us. See, again, the first point about overlap.

4

The primary intention is to be in the presence of the divine in a way we don’t see every day. Simply being in that presence changes how we interact with the people around us and with our life at home. It is meant to be transformative.

5

Let me share quickly about the pilgrimage the Edge House took to Denver, Colorado a few years ago. We slept on the floor of a church there in Denver and volunteered with the Boulder parks department for three days. At the beginning of the week, we attended worship at House for All Sinners and Saints, a small Lutheran congregation with a hugely diverse congregation, semi-famous/infamous pastor (Nadia Bola-Weber), delightful a cappella singing, and a major influence on how we do things at the Edge House. The space itself wasn’t super-fancy, but being in community with the people, singing in parts and praying surprisingly specifically for some of their members was a wonderful start for the week. One of our work days was cancelled because of a blizzard, so we ended up looking around for a labyrinth to walk (google it—I’ll blog another time about those, but they’re meant to be mini-pilgrimages!). We found one at the local Children’s Hospital in their quiet, well-designed interfaith chapel. We found another labyrinth in the lobby of a huge office building with an amazing art gallery just off the lobby. We walked that one, too. After work the next day, we drove up in to the Rockies to stay in a cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies. Nat, one of the students who went that year, upon looking out our windows at the stupidly-beautiful mountains, said, “How is this even in our country?” Those mountains are so much bigger, colder, harder, more colorful, and more beautiful than we could have imagined. God’s fingerprints were all over them.

Additionally, we had several difficult conversations while on the journey, some related to being in close-quarters for a week, others related to our ongoing relationships, and we cared for each other the whole time. Each moment of this trip (well, maybe not every one) served to open us up to something bigger than ourselves. And we chose to go on this journey so that that would happen. We went on this pilgrimage with the intention to be changed by it, and we were.

sermon on sabbatical, weeding, and love (also Ephesians)

It’s good to be back here with y’all. 

I feel like I should ask you how your summers have been? 

[really chat this one up] 

And how have you changed since the beginning of summer? 

[answers, probably way fewer]

Interesting how summer isn’t the same season of infinite possibility 

it was when many of us were kids—

it’s got pockets of rest and possibility, 

but for a lot of us summer is the same as not-summer. 

It’s been a bit different for me this year, 

since I’m returning from three months of sabbatical.

A whole bunch of people have asked me what I’ve been up to and what’s different after some time apart. I’ll tell you: rest and recalibration. I also feel like I should lay my cards on the table and say I’m excited for the next years of ministry at UC and with you—I love this job and I’m not leaving any time soon.

This summer, I’ve been weeding. All of the things. I haven’t really focused on my garden for a couple of years so, even though the structure is there and there are a ton of beautiful flowers, the weeds have settled in for the long-haul. You know those ones you try to pull up but only get the top, and you know the root is lurking down there, biding its time and getting even bigger and harder to get out? Those ones. I weeded my back-yard flower beds, re-dug and planted my vegetable garden, removed five overgrown bushes from the front, pulled out piles of poison ivy and English ivy, turned my compost, and was attacked by rose bushes—did you know they’re carnivorous? It’s true! It’s all hot, sweaty work. I imagine there are some of you who think that sounds like torture or the opposite of what a restful season should be. I love it.When the soil is just moist enough that you can pull things up by the roots easily, or that moment when you’ve been struggling with a particularly difficult root and it suddenly releases and you’ve got this massive root in your hands? Makes me feel like I could do anything! I also find weeding to be extraordinarily meditative. It’s just me and the dirt, my thoughts slowing down and lingering. Y’all know I’m an intense and immediate kind of person, so taking the time to breathe and just be out there in Creation is a gift. One of my favorite things to do was just to sit on a bench out there and appreciate the garden for itself, partially weeded, blooming, shady, a work in progress.

You know I’m not just talking about plants here in church, I’m talking about souls. There are plants in my garden that never should have been planted and which, once rooted, are almost impossible to remove. English ivy and xenophobia, wild violets and greed, false indigo and lust—we could all do with a little weeding and pruning.

This summer, I worked in my interior garden, reshaping the edges, pulling out things that take up resources but don’t give back, fertilizing things that bear fruit and flowers. Did you do any of that work this summer? I said back in the spring that sabbatical isn’t just for the one taking it—it’s for the whole community. We all need to rest and look at our lives from a wider angle. Resting from our labors for a season—fallow time farmers call it—is also about discernment. It’s the “so what” moment—this is what our lives look like, this is what the world looks like, so what? What is the next good thing God is calling us to? What are we doing with this one wild and precious life?

Three days in to the sabbatical, Leighton and I were laughing in the kitchen about something and he said to me, “Oh, there she is,” like I’d been living in the shadow of a huge branch that had just been pruned. It wasn’t an accusation from my loving husband, not a finger-wagging judgment, just an awareness. I wondered, “Where haveI been?” Friends, where have youbeen? What branches are shading you from the light of community and connection and God? What’s keeping Good Shepherd as a whole in the shadows?

This reading from the letter to the Ephesians seems to be a laundry list of things to do to make our garden flourish. The writer is intent less on an accusation to the church in Ephesus and more on reminding them that they’re part of the same body, if you want to continue the metaphor, part of the same garden. They won’t be perfect, they and we don’t live up to the standards there—be angry but do not sin, do not grieve the Holy Spirit, forgive one another. I mean, sometimes, yeah. But not always, not as much as we want. Not even in the very moment when we want, sometimes. But it’s not a demand or an ultimatum, it’s a plea, or, maybe more accurately, an invitation. “Walk in love,” the writer says, “as Christ loved us.” Some translate it “live in love,”—it’s about your motivation, your ground of being. For ancient Jews, walking with God meant faithfulness, attention, intention. And not in the “road to hell is paved with them” kind of way, not the surface, “Bless her heart.” Walking in love is a way of being that doesn’t rule out mistakes or hurting each other. Walking in love is about the art of attention and the art of the possible. What is good in your inner garden for building up rather than tearing down? What couldbe?

I came back briefly this summer for Judy Herman’s funeral. I sat up in the corner of the balcony and sang and listened and wept. I had a moment during that service—maybe because I’d come directly from my garden, maybe because I hadn’t seen y’all for a while, maybe because God just knew I needed a little push—when I saw the transcendent. Perhaps it was a vision. It’s something I’ve experienced before, but rarely. I looked around at all the beautiful people there—all the people who’ve come to my classes, who’ve cooked for NOSH, who’ve been grumpy with me for a sermon or with each other for whatever sins we commit, who’ve struggled with addiction or self-righteousness or depression, all of you beautiful people tall or short or dark or light—it was the briefest of moments that felt like deep water, a moment of sudden love and connection for everyone in this room, whether you were in that room or not, if you follow me. And it expanded beyond this room for just the briefest of moments, a span of time I couldn’t really define, to include all of the church—traditional and progressive and evangelical and Pentecostal and American and African and the past and the future—I saw for just a moment the great cloud of witnesses and the created, physical bodies of us, the church, and indeed it was very good. It was unapologetically a “kumbaya” moment.

We will sin against each other again. We will deny our own needs and the needs of others. We will allow our vision to be clouded with partisanship and fears of scarcity. We are not perfect, but we are perfectly-suited to love.

I am aware of the trite endings of things like Harry Potter where the big twist is that love saved the day. Spoilers. It doesn’t always. The absolute love of God protects us from nothing—the bad things still happen to presumably good people. BUT, but. Love is what allows us to live with those things, what encourages us in the middle of them to keep going, what invites us in the face of deplorable situations to look for possibilities. Love, the love that is God and the love that comes from God, is about curiosity, welcome, spaciousness. There is no border for that love. 

The letter to the Ephesians could be read as a checklist of who’s in and who’s out, but that is such a narrow, unChristlike way to read it. Just as the flowers in my garden unfurl themselves towards the sun, opening up to receive, so Ephesians invites us to unfurl our selves, our souls and bodies towards God.

Theologian and mystic Jim Finley writes, “Let’s say you are sitting in prayer and using your breath as the prayer. As you inhale you listen to God saying I love you. When you breathe out you exhale I love you: you give yourself to the love that gives itself to you.”

“This is not saying that you are not in pain, that you are not sad or confused; nor is it saying that you don’t need to deal with these things.” Instead, “we are grounded in the courage that empowers us to touch the hurting places.”

We are part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than what we can see, whose architecture and purpose is love and connection. We will perpetrate violence of all kinds against each other, and yet we are members of one another, leaning like plants towards the light of the sun. 

I’ll leave you with a poem by Dame Julian of Norwich, a mystic and woman of great wisdom and faith who died in 1416:

“Be a gardener. 
Dig a ditch
toil and sweat, 
and turn the earth upside down
and see the deepness
and water the plants in time. 
Continue this labor
and make sweet floods to run
and noble and abundant fruits to spring. 
Take this food and drink
and carry it to God
as your true worship.”

 

May it be so.