Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

So a sport that I’ve recently picked up is Sanda- Chinese kickboxing. If you’re not familiar with martial arts, it’s a full contact martial art that lets us use our hands, our legs, grappling, and to use throws.

My background is in fencing- I did it for a while and hope to get back into it once my gear fits again, and as a child and teenager I did some Karate, so the punching, kicking, and the footwork is familiar to me- this doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but it is familiar. What is new is the takedowns and the throws. If you’ve never had the experience of throwing someone or being thrown, oh boy, it’s wild. Throwing and being thrown is very different from the way we normally encounter the world. There are a lot of choices to be made when throwing someone, and some of those choices have some particularly nasty consequences. But there’s also things that you can do, especially when training or sparring, to make the fall easier and safer.

I will note for safety’s sake, kids, don’t try this at home, and no we did not go straight into this- we trained extensively on how to fall and how to roll- no i’m not going to do one right now, but trust me, I can. Key tips for everyone is to tuck your chin, don’t try to break your fall with outstretched arms, and engage your core muscles, and try not to let your head hit the ground.

I say this because a couple of weeks ago we had an exercise where everyone had to throw everyone else in the class. I was waiting in line when one of my fellow students was in the process of being thrown over someone’s shoulder and for a split second, he was on his back, parallel to the ground over this other guy’s shoulder. His eyes got wide for a second and he made a short gasp sound. The throw ended a split second later and he fell safely. Afterwards I went up to him and joked, “Nick, it looks like you saw God there for a second.” He replied, “Just wait until it’s your turn.”

And so I did. I think I understood; when you’re in the process of being thrown, there is very little you can do to change where you are. Of course, you can do work before it to not get thrown, and you can recover in different ways, including falling properly or rolling correctly, but in that moment, that split second, you are, at the mercy of your thrower. In a violent situation this can get very bad very quickly. It’s why the best means of self-defense is often to run away. Seriously.

Yet, thankfully, the folks in my class have a good rapport, and we work to not injure each other while training. Even if as a beginner I screw something up, my classmates won’t take it out on me. This is a profoundly Christian message.

So much of what we are called to do and show as Christians- forgiveness, grace, and yes, mercy, are a reflection of what God has already done for us. They are a recognition of our own powerlessness in the face of forces beyond our control; cosmic ones, yes, but also social ones, such as ignorance. In addition, I believe this is a calling for us to end cycles of retribution, violence, and exclusion as we can, following the example of Jesus. We are called to gather each other in, not drive each other out.

This is what drives the heart of our first reading. This letter, known as First Timothy, was traditionally understood to be a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy giving some advice. Now we believe that this letter was probably not written by Paul, for many of the same reasons we don’t believe that Hebrews was not- the language used in this letter is different, than a letter like Galatians, Romans, or first Corinthians, and the church situations described in it are not the ones that Paul would have known of.

Instead scholars now believe it was someone else who wrote this letter- who we don’t know- probably around the year 150, although possibly as early as the year 100. They aren’t the theological masterworks of some of the other letters of the New Testament, and as letters of specific advice, this letter contains some things that are quite useful and some that aren’t.

Our section today is one of the nicer parts. It contains a phrase that is sometimes used as part of church services- I believe we have used it in our assurance of pardons after our prayer of confession on Communion Sunday- “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”

It also contains the phrase that you might recognize from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible”.

But the main thrust of this passage is not literary references, but mercy. That is, our author did not receive the punishment that perhaps he “should” have. As someone who was, in his words “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”, he was not condemned by God or the fledgling Christian community, but rather, after he had turned away from his violence, accepted and eventually became a leader in it.

The story from Acts about Paul’s conversion, tells us that after Paul was knocked down from the heavenly light, he was blinded for a number of days, and left completely in the care of Damascus’ Christian community. Paul, once powerful, was rendered powerless. Yes, Paul had that same moment of helplessness that I had in the middle of being thrown. Yet his landing was made gentle. The community did not exact the justice that was rightly theirs to seek. They showed mercy instead.

Mercy happens when we pull back from retaliation, when we recognize that cycles of violence and exclusion do little more in the end then have us commit more violence and exclude more people. Just as God gathers us in, we are called to call each other into community, not call each other out, forcing each other out of community.

Perhaps Jesus’ parables are, for once, more straightforward. Jesus tells two stories in our Gospel reading; the first is a famous one for liberal and progressive Christians. Jesus tells the story of a sheep who wanders away. Instead of ignoring the sheep, shunning the sheep or even in more drastic terms, killing the sheep, Jesus goes to find the sheep, and return them to the flock.

Different commenters from different cultures have had much to say about this story. Some have noted the joy of the sheep at being saved. Others have focused on the joy of the community and the flock at being made whole. Today, going with the theme of being picked up, I relish the imagery of the sheep being carried on the shoulders of their shepherd. The sheep is totally helpless, yet trusts in the shepherd’s abundant mercy to not harm it. Instead of punishment for the sheep, the shepherd seeks only reconciliation and healing.

Let us go and do likewise.

As we begin our moment of silent prayer and reflection, let us consider the many ways we have been shown mercy, and how we might show it to others. Amen.

The Burdens we Bear

Psalm 1 ;Luke 14:25-33

I am often puzzled by things. Somethings just don’t make sense. How does a microwave work? Why does the Publix at 95th and Biscayne always feel like a zoo? Why do we keep believing that this is the year that the Dolphins have figured out their quarterback situation?

But one thing that has often puzzled me about the Jesus’ ministry is the seeming contradiction between two of these foundational statements: From Matthew Chapter 11: ““Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And our reading for today: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Is following Jesus something to give us rest? Or is there as, been famously said, a cost to discipleship?

I believe that the answer is both, but with some nuance and reframing.

As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, Jesus’ call to lay our burdens down is an important one. Some Christians are fond of the phrase, “Giving things up to God”, recognizing that certain situations are outside of our control, or that worrying about them will not add to them.

Unfortunately, this has sometimes been read as a call for an abrogation of responsibility, and I don’t believe it is. If there’s anything we have an inclination toward, it’s to maintain control over everything we can. To give up control over something we hold dear is hard. Everyone who has seen a child move toward adulthood knows that to relax control over something is as hard- or harder- than asserting control over something.

So what burdens are we called to give up to God? Much of what we are called to give up is in the realm of the spiritual/emotional; we ought to give up the burden of sin; our uncontrolled anger, our egos, our selfishness, our greed. We are called to give our desire to absolutely control our future. We are called to give up our sense of surety that we are the ultimate authority in our lives.

Yet this might not be all that we are called to give up. Our Gospel reading ends with a call to give our material wealth- “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

What are we to make of this? Surely we see this among the apostles; they leave their fishing boats and farm tools behind to follow Jesus.

Yet not everyone who is counted as faithful does so. There are numerous others counted as faithful followers of Jesus who do not do this. We know this through our gospels, the letters of Paul and the history of the early church.

Yet we should not give up so easily on this idea. We know that one the great sins of the church throughout history has been the wealth that it has horded for itself, often at the expense of others, often the poor that Jesus told us to give and serve.

There’s some evidence that monasticism – monasteries and people living as monks and nuns- started as a counter cultural movement in its earliest days to follow these words of Jesus- one of the vows monks and nuns take is a vow of poverty. Unfortunately, monasteries themselves would eventually become centers of horded wealth, with some of the most egregious examples owning slaves or being partners to genocide, especially of Native Americans and Africans.

Our tradition doesn’t really do monks and monasteries all that much; the catholic church does, and its big in the orthodox church. You might not know that the episcopal church has monasteries. A good note is that some have become more explicitly ecumenical, welcoming into community, though often not the full experience, people from different traditions. If you want to find out more about that, talk to Brad- one of his happy places is a monastery up in Wisconsin.

But what about the rest of us; those that can’t, or won’t, because of our obligations- to our families, our communities, heck, just because we aren’t spiritually ready for it?

If we cannot fulfill the entirety of Jesus’s command to the letter, at least we can fulfill its spirit. We can have healthier relationships with our money, our possessions and wealth, especially those of us who have more. Even if we can’t give up all our possessions, we can give up our love of money and desire for ever more of it. Although we cannot be perfect in this life, this is no excuse not to strive for it.

But what of the flip side of this? What of the crosses we are called to bear? Those who first heard this message must have been puzzled and troubled by the language of crosses being the burden to bear.

I will note here that the burden of the crosses we bear is going to be categorically different from the burden of Jesus’ cross; The crucifixion and resurrection were singular events, good enough for the redemption and reconciliation of humanity. I do not believe this is a call for martyrdom, physical or metaphorical. It is not our duty to bear the sins of humanity or whatever else you believe happened on the cross.

But I also believe this is a call to responsibility toward one another; although we do not need to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, like Atlas of old, we are called to be there for one another; to recognize that we are, against all odds and whether we like it or not, one body in Christ. We are, in fact, our brother’s keepers. When one part of the body is suffering, the whole body suffers.

Our lives are interconnected with one another- we have a common origin and share a common destiny. This is not just for those we hold most dear. Last week, we were reminded that we called to widening circles of concern; those close to us, the strangers in our midst and nearby, and to remember prisoners and those being tortured as though we were being tortured.

So yes, we are called to lay down our burdens- our anxieties, our sins, our greed and egos and all those things that tear us apart from one another. And we are called to bear new crosses, new responsibilities; toward one another, caring for each other and for the world we inhabit. Let us do things in hope, in faith, and most of all, in love with one another and with our God. Let us contemplate these things in a moment of silent prayer and meditation.

Unaware Angels

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Who has seen or encountered an angel? What was that like?

I have. I see them at least every week, and I’m pretty sure you do to. Let’s take a step back to explain:

What is an angel? Our English word angel comes from the Greek Angelos, which means messenger, diplomat, or envoy. In the context of the Bible- both old and new testaments, as the Hebrew word that’s used- Malak, also means angel- this means one of two things. The most common definition is a spiritual being that is a member of the heavenly court that surrounds God. Some of them are known only by titles and fantastic descriptions: wheels within wheels These are the figures you’re probably familiar: Most famous is Gabriel, the messenger who told Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. You’ve probably also heard of Michael, the archangel who does battles with the forces of evil.

The other is for human messengers of God: prophets, pastors, all those who carry messages from God.

This is a use that seems odd when we first hear it, but does appear in our every day use of the word angel. How many of us have called a nurse an angel for the excellent care they provided? Or a teacher for providing an education to a hellraiser of a child? Did they not carry the message of God’s healing, God’s unconditional love for us? Were they not a sign pointing toward God, even when they were not aware of it?

But I believe the more important question for us to ask is: How many angels have we missed in our midst because they didn’t fit our vision of an angel looks like?

Before we think we’re too capable of recognizing God’s messengers, let us take a more obvious example. Joshua Bell is one of the world’s finest and most famous violinists; indeed, if you’ve heard of a modern violinist, it’s probably him. He was in Washington DC for a sold out concert, back in 2007 with tickets going for well over $100- which, 15 years ago for a classical music concert, was pretty high. He was asked by a journalist to do some busking during the morning rush hour; he made a total of $37 plus one $20 bill from the one person who recognized him.

One person!

This is what I meant when I said I encountered angels every week; people who point to or embody God’s love in some way. At my best, I recognize them. Often I don’t. But I try.

I believe our readings today give us a good opportunity to reflect on noticing the angels around us; in our church, our community, and in our world, especially those that we might not recognize at first. I believe these are best exemplified by the words openness, empathy, assuming good intentions, and humility. Our first reading talks about the first three, while our gospel reading focuses on humility.

Our first reading continues from our past few weeks in the Book of Hebrews- the sermon is nearly done, and this is the application and exhortation section, where the pastor with all the dignity they can muster, begs everyone to please be cool, just for a while.

Remember to be kind to each other is the first piece of advice that our preacher gives, but it is quickly superseded by his next one, a favorite of mine: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” This is, of course, the basis of why we’re talking about angels in the first place.

This is a callback to the story of Abraham and Sarah, who are visited by 3 guests that they give hospitality to that appear human but that they later figure out to be angels.

Yes, good vibes inside the community are essential, but that cannot come at the expense of becoming insular or isolated from the strangers in our midst, our neighbors, or the injustices of the world.

Indeed, what we read in the first part of this exhortation is an expanding circle of care: known members of our community, the strangers in our midst, and those who are suffering, in this example, prisoners and those who are being tortured.

But the way we are reminded to care for them deserves special notice: it is not out of sympathy, feelings of sadness- but rather, “as though you were in prison with them, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” This is a call to empathy – to imagine and feel as though we were there and eventually solidarity; to act as though we were not separate interests groups, but one body of Christ. This is another way of saying, if one part of the body is suffering, the whole body is suffering. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The other pieces of this paragraph are best practices for keeping a community together. The two things that can tear apart a group of people faster than any other are sex and greed. All of us know some community- either a church, a theater, a university, that has been torn apart by either sexual abuse or other misconduct. All of us know a person, place or organization that has been torn apart by greed.

Indeed, greed and lust are two of the biggest hurdles that we face in seeing the humanity of others and especially the divine message that they might carry to us. They reduce people to objects or numbers; neither of which is conducive to recognizing the angels in our midst.

And yes, continuing on in the exhortation, please pray for our church’s leadership; we need it. I need it. Life is hard. There are tough decisions to be made. Know that we are trying our best; often when we mess up or make the wrong decision, there were good reasons for what we do. This is a congregational church- I don’t expect everyone to get in line, but I do hope that we can all assume good intentions from each other. Assuming good intentions allows us to better see the good, the angelic, the love in our midst.

This brings us to our Gospel reading: While eating at the home of one of his fellow rabbis, Jesus tells a story about humility and links it to hospitality.

The context of this story is that in the Greco-roman world, there were upper class parties called symposium, if that word rings a bell. At those parties, mostly men would talk about the big ideas of philosophy, religion and politics and get very drunk on diluted red wine. There would be a u shaped table with the host at the center of the “u”, and the most prestigious spot would be next to the host, with guests arranged according to social position down the sides of the table.

Thus the analogy- better, purely from self-interest- to have humility in this situation, and not be embarrassed by any change of seating downward.

This applies to many areas of life; on Friday night I watched close to an hour of youtube videos of people who showboated during boxing fights and got knocked out for it. We all love seeing someone humbled. We just hate it when it happens to us.

But there’s something interesting about humility for our purposes; Humility that is not mere obsequiousness requires great awareness. It requires an ability to know others and oneself. That awareness, baked into humility, also allows us to see the good, the angelic that people around us do. Sometimes it’s very small things that end up having such a great impact. The more aware we are, the more likely we are to notice the everyday angels.

Openness, empathy, assuming good intentions, and humility. Four qualities for us to cultivate in order to notice the good and angelic in our lives. With the small side effect of making us a little more angelic too.

Because you’ll never know when you’ll be the angel someone needs in their life.


Divine Encounters

Divine Encounters

Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Who has encountered God? What was it like?

Mine was in my first communion, done not as a baby or as an elementary school age child, but as a 25 year old. I encountered God through the words and hands of a young woman experiencing homelessness, who after being kicked out of her house for being gay, came to worship. At a time of testimony, she told her story about she hoped that the story of the prodigal son would become her story, that she would be able to reconcile with her family one day. It was then that I had the realization that the stories in the Bible were not just bronze age fairy tales, but powerful and alive as we are. But I encountered God when during our communion in the round, with one person serving another, she offered me the cup.

That night, in March of 2013, changed my life. Encounters with God often change our lives. It’s inevitable when you catch a glimpse, however brief, behind the curtain of the workings of life, the universe, and everything that how we see the world changes. Divine encounters snap our heads around as much as a sudden cold wind does, causing us to refocus from whatever was distracting us. They reveal truth that we had not seen, and sometimes, that we wish we had not seen.

Our readings today are both about encountering God. Our Hebrews Reading is about the majesty of God as cosmic creator, the God of blazing fire, of smoke clouds and trumpet, whose voice is enough to overwhelm us. God the inescapable, God and the angels of the heavenly host, I am who I am, the ground of being. God is the consuming fire.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke is also about an encounter with God, and although there are no flames or trumpets in this story, it is as full of God’s glory and majesty as any divine encounter in the Bible.

Let us remember that the gospels tell us that these healing stories are in there not just to make us go, oh wow look at that Jesus guy, isn’t he just great, but they also serve a didactic, that is, a teaching purpose. This story is a bit more explicit about its lessons then some others.

The first lesson we should consider is the explicit one, about the Sabbath. It is hard for us to understate, or even really understand, just how important Sabbath was and is for many Jewish people. Actually it’s easier for us to understand in Miami than in many other places; people who have Orthodox Jewish friends, family, or coworkers or who have been in those neighborhoods know just how serious that community takes the Sabbath.

This extends to understandings of the Jewish portion of the Bible, the Old Testament as well; my understanding is that for Rabbis, most important part of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis isn’t Original Sin or creation vs evolution debates, but the creation of the Sabbath, when God rested on the seventh day.

So Jesus’s teaching here about the Sabbath would not have been obscure in any way to his audience in the synagogue, nor would it have been obscure to the people who first read Luke back in the first century. It would have been a debate that everyone would have been familiar with. The argument that Jesus uses, one commenter notes, was a common one- if this idea is true on a lesser principle than it should be true on a greater principle- if you would save and care for a farm animal, surely you would do so for a human.

But I believe that this is the less interesting teaching that is happening in this healing story. The more interesting one is embodied in the woman Jesus heals, and how Jesus speaks about her.

This woman is hunched over, so severely that she cannot look ahead. This is something I’ve seen before; it physically happens with people with severe arthritis and other pain.

But we can, on top of that image of physical distress, imagine people who are so bound by pain and strife and trauma that they psychologically, mentally, spiritually cannot see the way in front of them. That even the very idea of hope has been denied to them. Perhaps we are or have been those people, who see no future ahead of them, no horizon beckoning them onward. It is not that she is a sinner and this pain is divine punishment; she is captive to evil forces beyond her, oppressed by chronic pain.

And in addition to her healing her physical issues, Jesus liberates her from the forces of desperation and isolation binding her. Metaphorically and physically she can now see ahead, see the horizon calling her forward. Her isolation from the community is of course not her fault, and to fix that Jesus reminds her community- not her, because she already knows it, but her community- that she is a fellow daughter of Abraham, and had always been, even in the most difficult times of her infirmity, an integral part of the community.

Her life is changed by this encounter. This happens when anyone encounters God.

What about our own encounters?

In Pentecostal churches, encounters with God- usually the Spirit, happen all the time. Indeed, in many of these churches, it’s not really worship until the Holy Spirit shows up. People will shout, dance and sing as the music builds, and as the spirit catches them. You may have seen videos of people getting slain in the spirit, shaking or falling down while dancing to the music. Many worship services are half day or all day affairs. The worship and praise time at many Pentecostal and charismatic churches is longer than our whole worship service.

That’s not how we tend to encounter God in churches like ours. That’s just not really our thing- it might be cultural or theological but maybe if a song is really good we’ll applaud quietly at the end. We have our deep breaths and still yet compassionate prayers. Many of us also encounter God through nature and through human kindness. Sometimes a song we sing or the words of the sermon are exactly what we need to hear. We love that verse about the Hebrew prophet Elijah encountering God not through the fire or the earthquake, but through the still small voice.

Yet both are valid ways to encounter God. Indeed, I believe that God’s vastness and ultimately, incomprehensibility, mean that any time we try to limit who or how or when people encounter God, that usually says more about us than it does about God.

Whether it’s through flame and earthquake, dancing and singing, word of God rightly preached or the silence and breath of meditative prayer, I hope you encounter God, and it sets you free.


Eyes on the Prize

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 ; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one. ~Brandon Sanderson, Science Fiction and Fantasy Author, his book, Oathbringer.

The metaphor of life as a race is one of the most enduring and powerful in the New Testament. It’s something most of us can understand; running is a basic human activity- although one I do not find pleasant. If you see me running in the neighborhood, you should probably start running the same direction, as I’m probably being chased.

The fun thing with metaphors is that we can play with them and learn new insights through their careful application. Although our New Testament authors often compared the trials and travails of life as a marathon, holding up perseverance as the value to be celebrated, I think this is only partly true.

I believe that scripture readings like todays from the Book of Hebrews, our history, and many of our own life experiences tell us that life is closer to a relay race. This metaphor has power because it speaks to many things we know; we do not live in isolation, we are connected, as a relay runner is, to our families, our friends, our communities, our churches, and other groups. We train together, learning from each other how to do the weird and strange and wonderful work of being alive.

The metaphor of the relay race also reminds us that our lives are connected not just to those immediately present with us in body, but also those who came before us, and those who come after us. There are generations who came before us, who paved the way for the work we do now. Perhaps we call them the ancestors who dreamed about us, the communion of the saints who join us every month at the communion table, or perhaps even in, the words of Isaac Newton, who said, “if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This is a lesson that we forget at our own peril; the work that we are called to- the work of loving our neighbors, the work of building a just world, the work of faith, is work that started before we were born, and will continue long after we are gone. Part of our job is to, like a relay runner, receive the baton, run, and then pass it on to the next runner, the next generation.

In a world that threatens to overwhelm me consistently with the myriad problems we face, this perspective helps keep things in well, perspective. It reminds me that the work was going on before, that there is still work to do, and that it will continue after I am gone. It is not my job to save the world singlehandedly. It is my responsibility to recognize the work that has already happened, to take on the work when and as I can, and when the time comes, to pass it on to those next in line.

That sense of connection, that connection to the past and by extension, to something larger than ourselves is at the heart of our scripture readings today, especially our second one, which will be the focus of our time together.

Hebrews 11 is one of the finest chapters in the New Testament; Hebrews, as I mentioned, is more readable to us than many of the other writings in the New Testament. That’s partly because it is not a letter, like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or the Romans, but a sermon, and given its writing style and word choice, Paul was probably not the author.

The rest of the sermon uses some imagery for Jesus that we see nowhere else in the New Testament, especially that of Jesus as the new high priest of the temple.

This section is something like a hall of fame: a list of heroes of the faith that everyone should know; in case any of those names are not familiar: Rahab sheltered Hebrew spies as they scouted the town of Jericho and is counted among Jesus’ ancestors in the Gospel of Matthew; Gideon, Barak and Jephthah were military leaders whose stories you can find in the book of Judges. I will note here Barak’s inclusion comes at the expense of Deborah, the judge he served and a rare female ruler in the Ancient Near East.

Samson was the last judge, and we should at least remember him for his hair. Samuel was the prophet who heralded David, a figure of great faith and horrible flaws; indeed, these heroes did not represent perfection, but rather courage and faithfulness. They acted with confidence- literally with faith.

For our author, these people were the ones who held the baton in the relay race and ready to pass it to us. He reminds us that they never really got to see the full measure of their work. For our author this is because the fulfillment of the Hebrew people is Jesus and they did not get to see Jesus.

I have a slightly more ecumenical view of things; the Jewish religion as practiced now is not the Christian faith without Jesus, but its own tradition that we share a common ancestor with. But the point remains, no matter your view of Jewish Christian relationships; the work of faith; of loving our neighbors, of seeking a world full of justice is never really done and fully completed.

The history of our nation and its struggle for civil and human rights tells a similar story. Some beloved figures were deeply flawed, perhaps irreparably so, either in their racism or sexism or view of the indigenous, yet they did play a part in these stories. They did run the race, and at least attempted to pass the baton.

Yet, our scripture reading reminds us of a fundamental truth about this relay race; once the baton is passed, it is ours to run. “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Our history, our ancestors, the communion of the saints, the giants whose shoulders we stand on, are to be like comforting blanket, not a set of shackles. They inform us, they inspire us, they do not inhibit us. We are to look forward toward Jesus, not backward.

The United Church of Christ Constitution tells us that it is up to each generation to make the gospel its own. We are to look to Jesus, to inspire us to that work of faith. This reminds us that the end goal of faith is not the air conditioning in the sanctuary, even though it is the subject of many of our prayers. The end goal of faith is not the size of our bank accounts, the number of Instagram followers we have, or even the size of the church we worship at.

The goal of our faith is Jesus, and communion with him, and through that, with all of creation. Keeping our eye on the prize, seeing that end in light of our own experiences, our own ways of being in the world keeps the gospel fresh, and transforms our churches from graveyards to empty tombs.

The flip side of this, of course, is that at some time the time will come for us to pass the batons. It will be time for us to slow down, to manage the transfer of power and knowledge and leadership, so that those behind us might finish their own legs of the race.

When it is time to pass the baton, the work will not be done. Far from it. But it is not our job to finish the work of faith; we are not the saviors of the world- Jesus is. But it is our job to take on the work; loving our neighbors, making the world more just and free, and drawing closer to God. And it is also our job to pass it on. Pass it on to our descendants, that they might have their own vision of the gospel, and meet Jesus in their own ways.


Vanity of Vanities

Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23, Luke 12:13-21

I want everyone to pause for a second, and think back. For some this is going to be thinking very far back, for others, not so much. But I would like for us to think back to middle school, about the time you were 11, 12, or 13 years old.

What was the big fashion trend? What did everyone not just want to wear, but have to wear?

For me, 13 years old in 1999, it was Jnco Jeans; which had these ridiculously wide legs at the bottom that, because I was a little bit short for a 30 inseam, always ended getting busted up from my shoes walking on them. Those were the coolest and most important thing I could have had when I was that age. Luckily, fashion moved forward, relentlessly, ceaselessly.

If our middle school fashion disasters seems a little bit frivolous of a topic for church, perhaps they are, but they remind us one of one of the fundamental truths of life; almost everything in life is fleeting. Many of the things we think are important in the moment are not, and perhaps one of the great activities that we pursue during it is “what is important?”

“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

That was advice from Labor lawyer and arbitrator Arnold M. Zack to his friend, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, back in 1983. Tsongas relayed that advice in his autobiography, explaining his decision not to run for re-election in 1984 while facing a cancer diagnosis.

I think it echoes the core questions of our readings: What are we to do with our lives? What is important? What matters?

Although I cannot tell you the answers to those questions- indeed, I believe anyone who tries to answer those questions for you is probably trying to sell you something- I can try to point us toward answers that have typically been fruitful, and represent the best of our traditions.

Our first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes: Most well-known for people of a certain generation is the wonderful poem in Ecclesiastes 3: there is a time and purpose for all things under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, etc.,

Although it claims to be written by Solomon, based on language clues, it was probably written after the Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. The author, who we usually call “The Teacher”, whoever they are, seems to be old and wealthy, and writes about what is good and meaningful in life.

The most prominent word in Ecclesiastes is probably vanity, and we should talk about it a little bit before we go too deep. The word translated in our Bibles as Vanity is the Hebrew Hebel, which means something like mist, something that cannot be grasped, and fades away. It is a representation of how ephemeral, how fleeting life, and almost everything we experience really is.

That’s why there is a time for all things under heaven- because things shift and fade. Children grow up and old. Neighborhoods change. Cities Change. Generation follows generation.

If this feels familiar, it should; it’s a running theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “All flesh is grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers; the flower fades.

Jesus’ brother- depending on what you believe, either his full brother, half-brother, cousin, or brother from another mother- James- wrote about this in his letter:

James 4: 13- 14- Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

There’s that mist- that hebel- that vanity- once again.

But back to the teacher.

The teacher seems to be especially salty- aggravated or frustrated, by this ephemerality. He seems to almost lust after permanence, as many of us do. He has seen his toil. Why should I do all this work, if those who will enjoy it haven’t labored for it?

This is one of the many things that vexes our author- all of life, the work and toil that we put ourselves through is as hebel, is a mist, is ephemeral and fleeting. Buildings decay, crops are sown and reaped and eaten and the cycle begins again.

Even the pursuit of wisdom itself is fleeting! How much do future generations ignore the lessons of the past, doomed to repeat it until experienced? How much of what we learned in school is now outdated by new advances in science and art?

What are we to make of this ephemerality? What remains, what matters?

This question seems to remain eternal.

I believe it’s a major reason that the idea of eternity is so present within our gospel stories.

Perhaps the greatest of the parables, the story of the good Samaritan, was asked in response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question that Jesus chooses to answer in this reading- not the question that he is asked, but that he chooses to answer is related to that one.

Jesus decides to answer the question: What is eternal?

Jesus is asked to settle an inheritance dispute- and Jesus wants no part in it. I want us to parse carefully the man’s request, and Jesus’ response.

Let us note that the man’s request is for Jesus to do something to someone else. “Force my brother to do what is right.”

It is not to make him happy with his situation, it’s not for healing, it’s not for reconciliation with his brother. It’s not to become the better person. In my experience, we can rarely, if ever, force anyone else to become a better person. We can remind them of their responsibilities, their covenants that they’ve made with God and each other, we can even reduce harm, but changing attitudes comes from within. I speak of course on this from the level of the individual; the expectations we might have of a government are different.

And I think Jesus here has a line that should give us pause when we see Christians align Jesus with the power of the government or the courts: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Jesus doesn’t want to do this for our material, civic, and criminal disputes. The apostle Paul tells Christians to avoid the courts to settle disputes if at all possible.

I believe that this is because the things that are adjudicated in civil courts are not the things that Jesus thinks are important.

“One’s Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Not that our material conditions don’t matter at all; Jesus is very concerned about the poor. But the excess?

He then tells a parable: in some ways it echoes and turns upside down the story of Joseph in Egypt- Joseph of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat who becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt by saving up grain in years of plenty, while then having enough grain in years of famine.

This man has good land that has worked it well. He cannot store his excess properly. So he decides to build bigger barns. He lives well but does not consider giving more of his money to the poor. He does not consider paying his staff more in wages or hiring more workers. He does not consider letting some of his fields lie fallow so that the land may rest. All he wants is more, more, more, and for nothing reason other than having a bigger barn.

Because he says to his soul “Soul, it’s fine. You have no need to grow, to change, to connect with God or to love. For many years we will do nothing to help others, but only serve ourselves in the raw pursuit of pleasure.”

But life comes at us all fast; Tonight, God says to this man, your very life your soul- in Greek the psyche, like psychology- is being demanded of you. And what will you have to say for yourself?

That you decided to build a bigger barn? That you refused to help those who needed it most? That you devoted your life to pleasure?

Through this story, Jesus asks us “What matters in your soul” or perhaps even more so, “What is your soul made of?” For Jesus also tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that where our treasure is, our heart is as well.

These are questions we ought to contemplate now, while we can. Not on our deathbeds, not while we are in crisis, but now.

Because life comes at us fast, and when it does, it is best if we know the contents of our souls. And if we don’t like what we see when we peer inside, by the grace of God, we can change it. By conscious thought which turns to action which turns to habit which turns to a new truth.

Thank God for this. Because no one has ever said on their deathbed that they wished they spent more time on their business.

I will remind you that I cannot answer for you the earlier questions I posed: “what are we to do with our lives? What matters? What is important?”

I regularly try to point us to some answers that seem to be good that we have found; but those should not dictate your answers, but rather inform them. For in the end, each one of us has to answer to and for our souls to God.

Attempting to answer these questions should not be a source of anxiety, but of comfort and joy. Realigning ourselves to God and to each other is a good thing. Although we’ll never be fully in alignment, thankfully, the good news is that God is a more merciful judge than any of us is or could hope to be. For God knows the scope of our lives and the challenges we’ve faced. God knows our perils and pitfalls even more than we do. For God knows and loves us as a good parent loves their child, like a mother hen brooding over her chicks, as a potter loves his art.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Christmas in July

Luke 2: 1-20; John 1:1-5, 9-14

When I look back on my life, I tend to think of it as a book. This may be because when I was a kid I was a voracious reader, and still do a fair bit of it now.

I find it useful to divide my life into chapters, often delineated by big events as reflect; my childhood, can be neatly divided into two- before the death of my parents, when I lived in Miami, and after, when I moved up to North Carolina to live with my sister Nee Nee and her husband Carl.

As an adult, there’d be a new one for when I stepped into a church for the first time as an adult, and it might contain some reflections on all the things that the church has given me over the years; a chance to meet my wife Shannon primary among them- we met at an after church service class in Dallas, but also employment, spiritual meaning and belonging.

Given those examples, what are some chapters in your own lives?

I think this framework of chapters useful as we approach the Christmas stories, because they represent new chapters in so many ways. Within the context of the Bible itself, they’re some of the first stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the beginning of John’s Gospel is the accompanying text for today’s reading. They also represent a beginning, a New Testament, a new story, three quarters of the way through the Bible.

But they also represent new chapters in the lives of the characters in the stories.

For anyone who has had children, pre child and post child Mary and Joseph led very different lives. After the magi give the holy family their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they go home by another road. The shepherds start praising God after they visit the holy family.

God of course, becomes incarnate, becomes flesh and bone in Jesus- literally a new way of being in the world.

One of the reasons I like Christmas in July isn’t just the fun of singing our Christmas Carols again while we’re sweating, but the ability to approach these beautiful stories at the center of our faith in new ways. There’s no Christmas music for 3 months beforehand or worrying about if there’s going to be room in the family budget for gifts, or Uncle Tony is going to get a little too drunk this year on mulled wine. I consider it a blessing for us to be able to encounter these stories without worrying about the ham in the oven at home.

This story has so much richness and depth in it; it has so much to teach us; today, we’ll consider what it has to teach us about how God moves in the world, and about how we might think about our own lives and the new chapters in them.

To begin, I actually love that we pair these two radically different “nativity” stories- from Luke and John- with each other.

One is intimate, the other cosmic, one very rooted in time and place, with characters having their own little interactions, the other at the birth of time and space itself. This reminds us about the character of God; there’s a meme, presumably made by atheists going around on social media that has a picture of the zoomed out galaxy, with text something like, “Christians, do you really believe that the creator of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets wants to be special friends with you?” My favorite Christian reply to this is simply, “yes.” God is both big enough to be the light that shines throughout the universe, and still fit in a manger.

This is useful for us to remember as well as we consider our own lives. Each of us is indeed very, very small in the cosmic scheme of things smaller than we can comprehend, yet vitally important, in more ways, than we can imagine.

But now into the nativity story itself; this beautiful story, which ends with the angels singing, begins with the most mundane of introductions; details about a census. I think this gives us a special insight into how God works in our own lives; what becomes miraculous often does not start out that way. My first experience of communion at the age of 25, which I have talked about before meeting Jesus in the bread and cup, began with looking up a worship service time on a website. Every new job begins with filling out an application and paperwork. Marriage takes getting a license, and pregnancy and birth prenatal care visits to doctors and parenting classes.

The nativity reminds us that God works through the normal as much as the spectacular, the easily seen as the mystical.

This should make us pause and reflect: how has God worked through the normal, and the mundane in our own lives?

What, looking back, seemed annoying or onerous in the moment, as surely traveling cross country with a pregnant fiancé must have been for Mary and Joseph, yet in hindsight was the beginning of something beautiful and holy?

The next informative, and I believe transformative section is the story of the shepherds. For the Jewish people, Shepherds would have been simultaneously a very average job and a symbol of God’s care for the people. The Old Testament is full of imagery describing God as divine shepherd, guiding the people toward green pastures and still waters through dangerous times.

This is yet another reminder of the complex interrelation between the normal and the sacred. But the story of the shepherds is useful to us for another reason.

The shepherds, for their part, are not the main characters, the protagonists in the story of Jesus’ life, or in the gospels. Their mention is relatively brief, only a paragraph or so. Yet it is profound and beautiful. They spend their time with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph telling them how wonderful their child will be and praising God. They don’t give unwanted parenting advice. They don’t harangue them over giving birth in unsanitary conditions. Theirs is a relationship that is brief, supportive, and holy. We know that all who heard them were astounded and amazed at the words of these shepherds, men who were not used to public speaking.

It reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do for each other, however briefly we interact with each other- whether it’s in church on Sundays, at the football game, or at work or in school, is to support each other, knowing that our encounters will echo beyond the short time that we spend together.

How many of us remember the kindness of strangers, a quick compliment or a little bit of help when we needed it most?

Maya Angelou is often attributed with saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

No matter what chapter we’re in in the story of our lives- somewhere near the beginning like our readings were today in the gospels of Luke and John, or maybe ¾ of the way through, where the Gospels appear in the Bible, there is much to take from our Bible readings. These are foundational stories about God as transcendent light in the universe, and God as teeny tiny baby with wittle toes. They tell us about the sacred and the mundane, and how sometimes the best part we can play to support and uplift each other, no matter how brief, or how long, our time is with one another.



Isaiah 66:10-14; 2 Kings 5:1-14

Anyone ever seen the Godfather? I’m guessing most have; it’s widely considered one of the best movies of all time for a good reason.

If you’ve seen it, you might remember a scene where Michael Corleone, is telling his girlfriend Kay a story about his father, Don Corleone,. In the story, Michael Corleone talks about how Don Corleone got his Godson, Johnny Fontaine, out of a contract. At first, the Don offered Johnny’s manager $10,000 to get out of the contract. The manager refused. The Don goes back the next day with one of his… associates, named Luca Brazi, and manages to walk out of there with Johnny released from his contract for $1,000. How, Kay asks? Michael continues: Luca held a gun to his head and the Don told him; one of two things will be on this contract- your brains or your signature.

This is basically the situation at the beginning of our second bible reading this morning, the story of Namaan’s healing.

Before we dive too deep into understanding this story, know that it’s all about power, and the many forms it takes, how it’s used, and who has it.

So let’s start by thinking about the nature of power as we understand it now.

Let’s begin by asking who is powerful?

Power: what is it?

The ability to do things, to influence the world?

What types of power are there?

Power is vitally important, yet in my experience, many in liberal and progressive circles are scared to talk about it. We’re certainly afraid to use it.

There are certainly good and bad forms of power, ways of wielding it that are destructive, violent, and coercive.

But today’s reading, like many- not all- but many of our Bible stories, tell us that there’s a different side to power than what was and is commonly believed.

Power and authority does not have to come from warrior generals and powerful kingdoms. Power can be wielded by slaves and war captives, poor prophets, and people on the margins just as effectively as any marauding army.

Indeed, I believe this story reminds us that a wise person does not run from power, but considers carefully how to apply it, and who is wielding it in each situation.

Let’s dive in.

Naaman is a general from the nearby powerful and wealthy country of Aram. He’s a mighty warrior, highly favored, but he has a problem. He has a skin disease- in those days, there were many skin diseases that were put under the blanket term of leprosy yet we would not today call them leprosy.

This was a problem in the ancient middle east, as it was seen cross culturally as a sign of divine disapproval, and must have also been very uncomfortable.

Naaman must have had had access to the best healthcare as it were in his country, yet nothing apparently worked.

I find it especially meaningful that one of the people who is most powerful in this story- and as we said before, knowledge is power- is a war captive, an enslaved Israelite who didn’t even serve Naaman, but Naaman’s wife, so who was even further down in the hierarchy of the household.

So the King of Aram sends Naaman to the Kingdom of Israel in order to get Naaman healed. He sends Naaman with an astronomical amount of wealth, something like 750 pounds of silver and an additional 150 pounds of gold, and asks that he be healed.

This is the Luca Brazi Don Corleone moment that we opened the sermon with. This terrifies the King of Israel because the gift is no real gift- it’s a threat. If the kingdom of Aram is willing to spend this much money, if it doesn’t work out, will they return with Luca Brazi and a gun? Instead of Naaman asking for help, will the next time he visits, will he be at the head of the army?

The king also freaks out because although he is king, the power to heal is not his to wield. Elisha, the prophet, who is Elijah’s successor, is not a direct servant of the king- no prophet worthy of the title is. But Elisha is not a cruel man; upon hearing of the King’s distress, he tells the king to send Naaman to him and he’ll deal with him.

Another pause here to note something about power dynamics; although today, most of us are used to traveling for medical services, in those days, and sometimes today, the wealthiest and most powerful would have sent for a physician or someone to come to them. By not going to the palace or to Aram, Elisha is already disrupting the normal ways that people expected power to work. Furthermore, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Elisha doesn’t even greet him! He sends a servant outside to tell him to do the ritual bath of the Mikveh, a very basic religious ritual that our own baptism is a descendant from. Who is this man that would seemingly mock and defy the mighty general?

If you’re getting shades of Jesus in this, don’t be surprised, much of Jesus’ ministry was in a direct line of descent from prophets like Elisha. Jesus would have known this story, known how power works and even more so, how it should work.

Naaman rants and raves about this mistreatment, but Naaman did not become a mighty general by pure strength of body. He is smart enough to take the counsel of his slaves and servants, for he knows that the force of arms- both the strength he has as a person and the men he commands- have no power here. They remind him that he was willing to submit himself to Elisha’s intervention if it was some sort of difficult procedure, so why not do it as it’s something easy?

And it works. It requires no esoteric knowledge, no religious test, no pledge of money or allegiance. It is simple, and easy, and Naaman is healed.

This story is a glimpse of how power should work; its source is God, and we tap into it by listening to the wisdom of those voices we’ve often ignored, who society tells us have no value. It shouldn’t come from how many men we can boss around, the size of our bank account, or our ability and willingness to commit violence.

Instead, it comes from our mercy, our gentleness, our ability to cooperate, not dominate. It is neither passive nor aggressive, but holds its ground, as it’s foundation is firmer than the vagaries of flesh that weakens or riches that rust away, but the mercy and lovingkindness of a God who holds us fast.


A Virtuous Path

Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the poet James Weldon Johnson, writing in the depths of the Jim Crow South in Jacksonville, Florida, in the midst of rampant racism, strict segregation and the rule of the lynch mobs, wrote a poem about the struggles that African Americans faced. Put to music within a few years, this poem became one of the most beloved songs in American music. I speak of course, of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Johnson used as underlying, but not explicit, metaphor the journey of the Hebrew Exiles from Egypt to the Promised Land. This was not novel for African Americans, but a key part of the black Christian tradition. Harriet Tubman was called Moses, after all. One of the songs you sang last week- not me- as I was out with Covid- sang was wade in the water, an African American spiritual that used the language of crossing the Jordan River.

The song is about a journey; “let us march on till victory is won; Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”

All of us have felt those days. We’ve all had days, weeks, months, or years even, when the road was too hard to walk. When even waking up and getting out of bed made us weary, when the road was too steep and too uneven. When we stumbled and couldn’t help but believe that hope itself had died.

We might have felt this because of a change in material circumstances; we got fired from a job, or we lost our house or apartment. Maybe it was because a relationship went sour- a break up or a divorce or a ruptured friendship. Maybe it was because of a piece of news; death of a loved one or a tragedy of some sort, or perhaps a piece of cultural or political news.

Many, not all, but many of us felt that on Friday with the US Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Perhaps you felt as I did: uncertainty, anger, frustration, sadness. Maybe you didn’t; I ask only that you respect the feelings of those who are feeling those things. Especially as many of us believe this is not the culmination of a movement, but an expression of it, that will continue to reach into people’s bedrooms and lives, ending with the rollbacks of freedom to access birth control, same sex marriage, and even anti-sodomy laws.

What has become increasingly clear to me is that the road we travel on, the path of Christ, the one called “The Way” in the book of Acts before the word Christian was invented is undergirded by freedom from coercion. The freedom to walk this road is intimately tied to the freedom to not be forced to walk on this road. When decisions in our lives are not our own, when we are forced to walk a path we did not choose, it is no good road, and not the way of Jesus. When we are coerced into a particular vision of “goodness”, it is often not good at all. A gospel not freely chosen is no gospel at all.

Too often the “good news” that the people of world encounter when they hear the word Christian is not good at all; it comes at the barrel of a gun, or dangled by the offer of “civilization”, or wraps itself around the flag so tightly that a government becomes beyond critique. This vision of a coercive Christianity is anti-Christ. Jesus was killed by the coercive power of the Roman Empire who wished to impose religious values on a man that upset systems of domination that we are still struggling against.

This sort of Christianity leads to no fruits of the spirit, for the fruits of the spirit that Paul speaks of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, come about only because of growth by the spirit within and outside of us, not forced onto us by the dictates of someone else. Self-control must start inside the self, not because of fear of another or fear of God.

A brief aside about the phrase “fear of God”; there are two meanings to this phrase and we confuse them. One, as the Bible means it, is closer to a healthy respect for God’s power, and otherness. This is not the fear that an abuser has over their victim, or what we feel towards those who have power and no accountability. This is because love is patient and kind, and does not abuse, and as Paul reminds us, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can see the difference between a Christianity of born out of fear and one that is born out of love. Christianity that rules, dominates, and terrorizes does not inspire love, but rather abuse. It does not build up those who need it most, but rather bite and devours, consumes those who have the least to give.

Yet for love- for joy, for peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, there is no law against these things. The Christianity that I try to practice- that we try to practice is based on these things; it does not force, it does not coerce, it does not abuse. It helps out as it can, when it can, yet does not devour itself, and especially does not devour others.

It recognizes wisdom as it finds her, calling from the rooftops pointing the way to the great feast. It faces rejection- as Jesus does in our Gospel reading- not with fire and flames, but with equanimity. It does not taunt, but listens; it does not gloat in its victories, but expresses solidarity with those who have been harmed and keeps its eye on the prize.

The roads we travel- of our lives, in our Christian faith- are not easy. Yet the path does not and cannot lead backwards; if nothing else, we are always different even as when we encounter the same obstacles again and again.

In one of the most heartfelt lines in American poetry and song, Johnson declares that his people have treaded their path through the blood of the slaughtered. Even as it seems like hope will never be born, the lives and deaths of those who came before us were not, and are not in vain.

For even if we have trouble seeing it, there is a bright star on the horizon that is leading us to the promised lands. It cannot help but beckon us toward it; we might have different names for it- wisdom calling from the rooftops to dine with her, or Jesus whispering our names, calling us beloved. It is the angels singing Glory to God and Goodwill toward men to poor farmworkers. It is the communion of the saints, our grandparents and aunts and uncles who have gone before us to the promised land, who could only dream of who we’ve become who call us ever forward on our paths.

Let us hear and respond to that call. Let us see that star. Let us continue on in our journeys.


Glory Above the Heavens

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8

Has anyone ever taken a job that seemed like a good idea at the time but ended up being a bad fit? For me it was my attempt as a car salesman in the summer of 2009. The recession was in full swing and it was right before cash for clunkers, so no one was buying. All the love in the world to natural salespeople, but I am not one of you. I lasted a full week.

For Vincent van Gogh, that failed career path was the professional ministry. At the age of 23, he was living in England after having been fired from teaching at a boarding house, and became a minister’s assistant at a Methodist church. This lasted about six months before he went home to the Netherlands, where he tried to study for the entrance exams to become a minister. He failed them miserably.

Then he tried to become a missionary; he chose not to go to far off lands, but to a small town in Belgium, where coal miners and their families lived savagely hard lives; many of the men who worked the mines did so from sun up to sun down, and rarely or never saw the sun. Pay was low, and families suffered from lung illnesses from coal dust and other pollutants.

Van Gogh knew that platitudes would do little for these people. He decided to get to know them, not from a distance, but in the same conditions as they did. The conservative church authorities thought that this “undermined the office” of pastor and removed him from his post.

Three times tried, and three times failed as a minister, yet it was these experiences that set him on his way to his artistic career.

But I do not wish to give a van Gogh lecture; there are artists and art historians who have dedicated their entire lives to his work and the meaning of it. Rather, what I hope is that we might examine together his art and philosophy in conjunction with our Bible readings and come to new understandings that might help us in our own religious understanding.

I think Van Gogh was a man who has much to contribute to our understandings. Although he was considered weird in his day, today we might call him a progressive Christian; I personally think he would fit in well at this church.

Three things lead me to that conclusion. First; he had a life-long love and devotion for nature and the rhythms of life that was spiritual in its nature. Second, he was willing to see God in places that many of his contemporaries did not; in nature, in novels, in other religions, and in the daily lives of ordinary people, not just saints. Third, he and related to this; he had a deep concern and solidarity with the poor, peasants and industrial workers alike that was religious in its origin, but not solely so.

Van Gogh’s deep connection to nature came from his time as a child, shy and introspective, in the rural southern Netherlands. The fields and meadows that he played in as a child were a reoccurring theme in his later artwork, and he associates them with the turning of the seasons of life and the cycles of nature.

Yet it was the stars and the night skies which entranced him the most. Carol Berry, in her book, “Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art” describes his connection to the night sky like this:

“He looked to the stars in the night sky—to the “Something on High”—as a source of faith and hope, comfort and inspiration. Below his feet the fertile soil of rural Brabant nurtured the roots of his very being. His sister commented to a biographer, “Nature spoke to Vincent with a thousand voices and his soul listened.” Indeed, Vincent learned to experience life not as a set of rules, but as a series of sacred chords, individually striking his soul.”

And here is where our scripture comes in, full force! Both our reading from the book Proverbs and our Psalm, proclaim the night skies as heavenly handiwork. Just as they delight in the wonders of the natural world, so are we. Just as we are to learn about an artist, and about ourselves from her paintings, so are we called to learn about ourselves and our God from nature.

Starry Night, Van Gogh’s most famous painting, is designed to provoke this sort of awe and connection. The representation of humanity, is only in the small houses of the rural village, and are miniscule in comparison to the grandeur of the night sky. Only the church peeks up into it, and only barely so. The heavens declare the glory of God, with surreally large galaxies and stars dominating the canvas.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.

Yet it was not only in the grandeur of nature that van Gogh found religious meaning beyond scripture.

Thankfully for us, Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, especially to his brother Theo, and worked out a lot of his internal thoughts through writing them out. We know that he had numerous arguments with his father about if the God and Jesus Christ were knowable through writings other than the Bible.

His father argued the Orthodox position, that the Bible was the only way for people to know Jesus, and indeed God’s love.

Vincent had a broader view; he saw it in fiction, in the works of Emile Zola and George Eliot, both of whom wrote realist novels about the interactions of normal people. He believed that Christ was acting in and among the living author as much as the dead gospel writer; after all, Van Gogh reminds us in a letter, Jesus said, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

He also saw it in other ways too: During his time as a missionary, he wrote this in a letter to his brother Theo:

The best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you will like, you will be on the right path of knowing more thoroughly afterwards; that is what I say to myself. But you have to love with a high, with a serious and intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more. That is what leads to God, that leads to unshakeable faith.

Vincent saw Jesus and God’s love as something that could not help but infuse all things. Like Wisdom in our reading from Proverbs, God and God’s love was here at the creation of the world and would be here at the end of it. Just as dust we were made and to dust we shall return, so too from God’s love were we made and to God’s love we shall return. If only we could love will, compassion, intelligence, and a thirst for knowledge, we would be led inevitably to God.

This leads him to find a remarkable fondness for Japanese art, culture, and philosophy, which was becoming very popular as Van Gogh was producing some of what would become his most famous work. I quote Van Gogh again:

If one studies Japanese art, then we see a man, undeniably wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time—doing what?—studying the distance from the earth to the moon?—no; studying Bismarck’s politics?—no; he studies a single blade of grass.

This is remarkably respectful for his time; let us remember that 20 years after this, the United States would ban all immigration from East Asia for decades, until the 1960s.

This is just one of many examples of his deep and abiding love and solidarity with humanity that infuses his life and work.

We heard about why he was kicked out of being a missionary- that he was too close to his congregants and thus degrading the office of pastor, but this was also in his art.

We can see it in his portraits, which are not of the wealthy and famous, but of workers, or old peasant lovers. His models did not pay him for his portraits; most of them couldn’t have afforded it if they had wanted to. Instead, Van Gogh went into the homes and fields where people were and observed them. This might have been in a dance hall, or in a café, or outside of a church. Sometimes they didn’t have to include people in them at all to tell us something beautiful about us.

The still life with Bible was painted right after his father’s death, and probably shows his father’s Bible. It’s well worn, brown on the edges. This is an old and loved Bible, opened to the prophet Isaiah, the favorite Old Testament book of many a preacher. The candles are worn low and extinguished, possibly symbolizing a life extinguished. La Joie de Vivre, a novel by Emile Zola, lies underneath it. Perhaps it represents Van Gogh in relationship to his larger than life father and the debates he had with him about life and the Gospel.

We still have much to learn about and from Van Gogh; not only to about how to appreciate the swirls of stars and galaxies in his paintings and in nature, but how each of us is, as our psalmist says, a little lower than God, a painted image of the divine artist.

I will leave us with this quote about Vincent from Carol Berry, who’s book I have quoted. I hope that one day it might apply to me as well:

Vincent learned to experience life not as a set of rules, but as a series of sacred chords, individually striking his soul.