Faith Bessette graciously accepted my offer to preach and lead evening prayer while I was in Colorado last week – thank you Faith!! Below is her beautiful sermon – I hope you’ll have a listen!
The sermon from Church of the Beloved, April 15th 2018. The link to the readings can be found here.
When I was in middle school I watched my closest friend be abused by another student in the changing room after gym class. I don’t remember the lead up to what happened or how it even started, but I remember with total clarity watching this girl slap my friend square across the face with all her force. Once. Twice. Three times.
I wasn’t the only one watching. We all watched – 25, maybe 30 of us – classmates and friends, who knew the difference between right and wrong, and who knew what we were watching was really, really wrong. We just stood there. We watched. Frozen and afraid. We watched. I didn’t yell out for them to stop. I didn’t run from the room to get a teacher. I didn’t step forward to stand next to my oldest, dearest friend.
I just watched.
It was the first time in my life that I witnessed violence against someone that I knew and cared deeply for, and I realize how lucky I am to be able to make that statement. But that experience revealed a truth about myself that I have been trying to run from since that day: the truth that in the face of violence and deep, deep wrongdoing, I am capable of doing nothing. I am capable of witnessing pain and trauma and injustice and standing still. My fear immobilizes me. I do nothing.
This truth is one of the reasons Good Friday is so very uncomfortable for me. I cannot read this graphic, difficult, and painful gospel passage without knowing right where I would have been if I had been part of that day. I would have been part of the crowd watching this horror unfold. I would have been Peter insisting that he was not one of the men with Jesus. I would have been Simon of Cyrene, carrying the cross. I would have been Pilate – if I could even fool myself into thinking I could achieve his level of bravery – and, not having the agreement of the crowd, I would have ordered the crucifixion despite my doubts.
I can try to console myself by saying that at least I wouldn’t have been yelling “Crucify him!” with the angry crowds. In fact, that’s how I’ve reconciled myself with this passage for decades. I wouldn’t have been that bad. But then the memory of that day in gym class floats back into my brain, and it reminds me that even if the words were not tumbling from my mouth, my silence is it’s own kind of violence. Silence leaves too much space for continued wrongdoing, and in the absence of audible dissent one can only assume that allowance, forgiveness, and even affirmation fill that space instead.
Now I’m not in the business of calling others out for their fallibilities – Lord knows I can keep myself busy naming and tending to my own. But I think it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one capable of watching, standing still, staying silent. I wasn’t alone in gym class in the 7th grade any more than one single person was alone watching Christ crucified hundreds of years ago. It took a whole crowd of people to revolt against Jesus, to call for his death, and to cheer while it took place. Any time one person or a group of people fall victim to violence, pain, and betrayal, it takes a whole lot of silent onlookers to allow that injustice to continue.
I don’t need to tell you that we are surrounded by violence still. Our communities, our nation, our world – it is plagued with suffering. Hunger, poverty, war. To think of it all is, admittedly, crippling and I think that adds to our silence as well. We can’t figure out how to help, how to make a difference, and we are paralyzed and overwhelmed by all the many ways that humans are harming other humans. And so we do nothing.
Now listen, this is not meant to be a sermon that implies all of us are immoral, irresponsible and content to sit idly by while people suffer. I don’t believe that. But it is meant to be a sermon that calls to our attention the astounding power that fear plays in our lives, and our very human desire for self-protection. Because I believe that is what is at the heart of our inability to act in the face of violence. Fear permeates our silence. I have tremendous compassion for 7th grade Meaghan, and how terribly afraid she was watching her friend be hurt. I have compassion for everyone else in that room, all of us wanting it to end and none of us having the skills to make that happen. I have compassion for the crowds in Jerusalem cheering for Jesus’ death. I have compassion for Peter. I have compassion for Pilate.
I am able to have compassion for all of those people, and for myself, because that’s what Jesus modeled for me on the cross. “Forgive them Father, because they know not what they do.” He knew. He knows. He knows we are afraid. He knows our humanity is fallible and our desire to protect ourselves is innate, even when it means turning our attention away from someone else’s pain and death. He knows. And he forgives.
But that forgiveness is not our free ticket to keep doing what we’re doing. His forgiveness does not give us permission to remain silent. His compassion does not mean we can’t be held responsible for the violence we perpetrate in the world around us – either aloud and through our actions or through our silence and complicity.
Quite the opposite. His forgiveness should transform us. His compassion should inspire us to be brave, to speak, to act. His death on the cross was ultimately for greater good – to show us the abundance of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness through the resurrection, we know that. But we also can’t fast forward through the impact of this day to only consider the resurrection. Yes, the darkness of this day is transformed into light through the incredible grace of God. But we must also look squarely at the darkness of this day to understand and acknowledge what we are capable of, and how we are capable of change. God’s mercy is present right here, at the foot of the cross, with a Savior who showed nothing but compassion and forgiveness for the people who wished him harm, or who stood idly by while he was killed. Yes, resurrection is our ultimate Christian story – but the story of this day stands alone. We can be transformed by this day, this death, this story.
At another point in our gospel Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” Friends, when we commit violence against one another it is violence against God. We can try to separate ourselves from the angry crowd at the crucifixion all we want, but there is no denying our continued presence, silence, and neglect in the face of continued violence against our fellow humans and consequently against God. We have constant opportunity to make a different choice: to be transformed, to be inspired, to be brave. It’s so very hard, and when we fail we are forgiven and given another chance so we must keep trying. We must speak. We must dissent. We must protect those around us and not only ourselves. Practice in small ways, by choosing not to laugh and calling out a joke that isn’t funny, by showing up and standing next to someone who is being oppressed, by using the simple words “no” or “stop” when you see something that isn’t right. Fueled by God’s forgiveness, compassion and mercy, our practice of nonviolence in small ways will embolden us to be bolder, braver, and better at ending violence in bigger ways. And whatever you do for the least of these you do for Jesus Christ. It is the least we can do, given what he has done for us.
Sermon from Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. Readings for Palm Sunday can be found here.
Below is the sermon from Church of the Beloved from last Sunday, March 18th, 2018. The lessons for last Sunday can be seen here.
Last week’s sermon from Church of the Beloved. The audio includes the gospel, but the other readings can be found here:
For anyone who wants an audio version of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and the sermon below, you can hear it below.
He’s cute, right?
I know I’m biased because he’s my kid, but I also think I can pretty objectively say that “skinna-marink-a-dink-a-doooooo” is pretty stinkin’ adorable.
I’m glad to have captured this moment on video because – if I’m being honest – the adorable moments have been few and far between these days and the full-on-three-year-old-meltdown moments have been ALWAYS. We are all on the struggle bus. Getting him dressed should be an Olympic Event. Trying to brush his teeth? It might as well be torture. And while he doesn’t appear to be suffering from malnutrition, it’s hard to be entirely convinced it isn’t a problem because he refuses to eat almost all food. Can a child survive on cereal bars and fruit snacks? I guess so.
After a particularly ugly morning at our house yesterday, my husband and I decided to meet for lunch in an effort to spend at least 20 uninterrupted minutes before our brains had shut down from the exhaustion of the day to talk about how we could come at this as a team. Life doesn’t provide nearly the time we would like to be intentional about our parenting, but it was clear yesterday that we needed to make time.
At our lunch we talked out some of the issues, and a big theme that came forward was the dynamic in our lives right now where – especially on school days – we are making a lot of demands on our little guy without allowing for many moments of connection. We move from one thing to another: breakfast, get dressed, find your shoes, brush your teeth. All the while he’s whining and begging us to read him a book, or play cars with him. In our hustling to get out the door his requests come at us as sheer manipulation and stubborn misbehavior. After work/school isn’t much better because we are making dinner and the baby is crying and we’re all tired and and and… We get more and more frustrated and he becomes more and more defiant.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but these are not the moments I videotape and put on the internet.
As we talked about it more my husband and I realized that we need to be more intentional about connecting with Sam throughout the day. We hung our heads a little bit as we both admitted that even in the moments where we aren’t trying to move to the next thing and instead we are playing cars with him, that we still aren’t very present. Our heads are full of work thoughts, our phones are always within arms reach and often in one hand. We’ll be half-engaged with the activity, watching the baby out of one eye and glancing at our email or Instagram accounts with the other.
Not surprisingly we are reaping the benefits of this inattention. Our son is standing in front of us, his requests for our time and focus getting louder and louder and louder.
So we decided to make a better effort about spending time with our kids and engaging with them in a way that allows for deeper connection. Less phone time, more talking, reading, playing. We aren’t trying to be superheroes or anything – I’m only talking about a half hour or so a day here (the kids still have to figure out how to play by themselves for crying out loud). But we want those moments to be real moments, where our kids are seen and heard and valued.
Oh, and we also decided to use stickers. But that’s less relevant in this story.
So that was yesterday. We had some sweet time with the kids last night and early today and the morning routine was a little bit easier (it was probably the stickers). While it was nice to have the morning go a little more smoothly, what was nicer still was having had more moments of connection. Those moments – even in less than 24 hours – were life-giving. Instead of remembering only the meltdowns and time outs from this morning I also remember watching my husband walk our son through a Valentines Day craft for his teacher after breakfast. Isn’t that lovely?
After the scurry of the morning was over I started to shift gears from Valentines Day to Ash Wednesday. (Unfortunate timing, really. For some reason people seem to be more focused on candy and flowers today instead of mortality and Lent).
Anyone who’s been with me in church during Lent knows that I’m not a fan. I’m not much a fan of Valentines Day either but at least it ends a lot faster. Lent goes on for a VERY LONG TIME. Every year we get to this time and I have to dig deep reset my thoughts on this season, and every year I am finally able to accept and even embrace the season while we move through it. But evidently I’m not convincing enough because as soon as we come up on Ash Wednesday again the next year I start to get grumpy and complainy about the fact that it’s Lent again. Isn’t every year a little much for this? This year is no different. It’s too soon. Lent is too long. I like miracles and mountaintop experiences and pancakes. I don’t have any emotional energy for repentance and silence and ashes.
So once again, I find myself trying to dig deep to change my attitude about this holy season.
Today, during my digging, I kept thinking of my strategy lunch with my husband yesterday. We identified a problem in our relationship with our kid. We were honest about our part in the problem. We committed to changing our behavior to enable deeper connection with our three year old.
I had to shake my head as I made the realization:
Damned if that’s not Lent in a nutshell right there.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.”
– from the Ash Wendesday Service, Book of Common Prayer
Lent invites us, year after year, to identify the problems in our relationship with God and in our spiritual lives, to acknowledge our part of the problem, and to commit to changing our behavior to allow for deeper connection with the Divine.
It’s humbling, really, to realize the parallels. That’s what I get for whining.
The problem in our spiritual lives is that God isn’t a three year old child. My son can (and does, daily) look at me and say, “Mommy, I’m talking to you. Are you listening to me?” And when that doesn’t work he can yell and cry and kick his feet and steal a toy from his sister and sure enough I’ll stop what I’m doing to focus my attention on him.
God, on the other hand, tends to be a little less in our faces – at least most of the time. There have certainly been moments in my life where I feel like God has made God’s will for me abundantly clear and I have no choice but to listen. But I’m talking about day in and day out. God isn’t whining and tugging on my leg trying to get me to focus on our relationship and tend to my spiritual life. God is more the “patiently waiting for me to stumble through making my own mistakes until I finally realize I can’t go this alone” kind of presence in my life. Always there, always ready, always yearning for me to realize that what I truly need to thrive is deeper connection with God, first and foremost.
And therein lies the wisdom of the church, despite my attempts to annually rebel against the institution that insists on honoring Lent each year: we need this season. Every year.
We have the opportunity each week in our liturgy to say a general Confession. To acknowledge the things we have done and things we ought not to have done. To ask for God’s forgiveness and to receive absolution.
But let’s be honest – most of us glaze through that part because we know the Peace is coming and it’s hug time. Or bathroom time. Or announcement time. I’m not sure how many of us are truly considering the ways we’ve strayed from God as we utter those words aloud.
Really the least we can do to honor Lent each year. It’s 40 days in the midst of a whole year where we constantly become lost in all of the other demands of our modern lives without making real space for right relationship with God. This is our chance to evaluate, to change our behavior, and to have a deeper connection with God that will be life-giving. Change is hard, and connection is worth the challenge.
Today we are invited into a Holy Lent. We have ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us that we are mortal, that life is short, that we make mistakes and we are given endless chances to make it right, that God is always and ever patiently waiting for our return, calling us closer whether we are able to hear that call or not. This is our chance to reconnect: not because we have to or because we’re in trouble or because the church wants us to be miserable, but because that connection brings life, peace, renewal, and endless, abundant love.
Take God out for lunch today and have a little check in. What are the problems you’re facing right now? What’s your part in it? What changes can you make in your life to live into deeper connection? Now is as good a time as any. The church might even say it’s the best time.
And if you need a sticker chart to map your progress I’m happy to help.
Skinnamarinky dinky dink
God loves you!
Field trips are not commonly part of the pre-camp experience at ECC, but this year we planned a special one.
After just shy of a week of training and work projects with our Junior Counselors, Counselors, and Young Adult Staff, we mixed things up a bit. On Monday morning we piled into cars and vans and headed west. Our destination was Camp Washington – the camp of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I had worked with their camp director to plan a joint training day for both staffs. More than just the material we covered (behavioral management, songs, and games), it was so valuable just to see another camp. We had a chance to learn their customs and structure, to tour their beautiful property, and to learn that camp people are everywhere. We had a great experience, and it was worth a long day of travel to be with them.
That said, it was a long day of travel, made longer still by an issue with one of our camp vehicles which slowed us down a bit getting there. By the time we left Camp Washington for home it was well past 7pm and it was almost a 3 hour drive back. A busy day in the sunshine had left us all a little worn out, so there wasn’t time or energy for much. I was so proud of my staff and how great they had been all day (especially the unexpected hour plus at Burger King that morning while we fixed the car situation), I wanted to do a little something special on our way back.
With a little help from Yelp I located an ice cream place on the route home that seemed worth a stop. Turns out it was this totally weird and cool place. The ice cream store itself is nestled in a village of businesses that sell sheds, cupolas, outdoor patio furniture, decks, and hearths. The result is that you can get your ice cream, sit on a lovely adirondack glider in front of an outdoor stone fireplace, and look out over a valley of shed rooftops below you. As we walked toward the line through the patio furniture we learned that there was a fundraiser that night for a local family who’s mom was battling cancer. All in all a total win: good ice cream, many comfortable seats on which to enjoy the ice cream, and our money going to a great cause.
As we were finishing up our ice cream one of my staff asked if we were going to do Compline when we got back to camp. I said yes, and she instantly joked that we should do it at the ice cream place. Without missing a beat, she began the service, “the Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end…”
This is not actually the first time that I’ve been with the staff of ECC doing Compline some place other than camp. It’s kind of a thing. Knowing the service by heart is something that our camp people pride themselves with, and there’s something silly and fun about reciting the service in a completely different location. By this point we were all standing around a large fire pit anyway, so it felt pretty campy. Once she started it, most of the staff joined in. Someone pulled up the service on their iphone and we just went with it – singing and everything.
Admittedly, some of the staff was embarrassed. I can hardly blame them. We don’t exactly live in a culture where public prayer is a socially acceptable practice. The two staff from the ice cream store who were cleaning up and emptying trashes kept looking at us with weird expressions. But we just kept plowing forward, because once you start Compline it’s not like you can just stop it.
We giggled and snorted through most of the service and sang the Te Lucis a little faster than usual. Not the most solemn Compline service, by any means. When it came time for us to offer prayers for ourselves and others the young man responsible for our prayer list read off the names: Tom, Leo, Elaine.
Just as we were about to plow forward with “Guide us waking, O Lord” one other counselor spoke up from around the fire:
“We pray for the family who this fundraiser was for tonight.”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes.”
That’s the thing about Compline. That’s the thing about any church service. You can be there because you feel obligated or because someone dragged you there or because you have to be there (camp). You can be bored or sad or angry or restless or horribly embarrassed while you are there. You can go through the motions and it can mean nothing to you – even if you are there in the first place because it means something to you. That doesn’t mean it reaches into your heart every time. Whatever your motivation or reasons for being there, you can go through the motions until all of a sudden something really special happens: something you didn’t see coming and didn’t expect.
I was so struck by the fact that while we were playfully reciting Compline in front of an ice cream store, that one of my staff remembered why we really do Compline. Not for the routine, but for the supplication. The chance to offer our prayers before God, whatever they may be.
We finished the service, sang our closing song, and headed to the cars. Most of them will likely remember that moment with a combination of laughter and embarrassment, and that’s certainly fine with me. But I will remember it as sacred. Because for one moment there, 30 or so staff from a church camp offered prayers for a family that needed some love outside of an ice cream shop, and there is certainly no embarrassment in that.
The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
In the church world, they say that every preacher really only has one – maybe two – sermons in them. When I first heard this I was horrified. I thought surely I can come up with a multitude of sermons on a variety of subjects. But the longer I am in ministry I have to admit that I really do have one sermon. It’s not that I don’t preach on a variety of subjects. More that I have one message that for me is the message that I want my listeners to hear. So I repeat that message in many ways and with many stories, but it is still the same sermon.
The risk of talking about the 12 Steps during Lent is that I’m giving up my secret about my one sermon. Because my one sermon is the third step: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
So there you have it. I hope now that you know my one sermon you’ll keep coming to church anyway.
Last week we talked about Step 1: admitting what things in our lives had power over us and recognizing the unmanageability in our lives. This week the steps lead us to consider a Higher Power, and invite us to turn to that Higher Power for our solution. Step 2 reads that we came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 instructs us to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.
Now one could maybe assume that those of us sitting in church have already come here believing in God, but that’s not really an assumption I’m comfortable making. We have excellent food at our potlucks at Beloved, so maybe that’s why you come. Or maybe you love the music or the friendship, but perhaps you just aren’t sure how you feel about God, or you have trouble finding language for your belief system. I think it’s ok to be not totally sure about how you feel about God. I think it’s ok to have questions. And I think that these two steps can be an invitation for all of us to explore who God is and how God can play a role in our lives.
One of the things I have always loved most about the third step is that it allows us to form a God of our own understanding. And you’ll notice the language – we turn our will and lives over to the care of God. We aren’t turning our lives over to the judgement of God, or the anger of God or the wrath of God. Instead we are giving our lives to someone who will care for us. My reading of scripture has also always led me to believe that I am cared for and loved by God, but I’ll also admit that some passages of scripture have caused me some confusion as I make my way to that understanding. In those moments, this step has reminded me that my own experience of God can be my greatest informant about God. And when I read scripture through the lens of my own experience, it helps me to understand the messages in a way that helps me to feel more whole and less confused.
Abraham’s story is a great example of that for me, and is a wonderful passage of scripture to explore the first two steps. First, a quick recap on his story: Abraham is getting on in life and has settled into his retirement with his wife Sarah who he never had children with when suddenly God speaks to him and tells him to pack up shop and hit the road. God wants him to move to a new land, and in return for his faithfulness promises that Sarah will have a child. This seems a little unbelievable to Abraham and Sarah who thought that ship had sailed, but their experience of God’s message in that moment was so clear that they believe it – they believe God will restore them to sanity – and they do as they are asked.
As is so often the case though, God’s promise doesn’t come through immediately, and Abraham gets a little impatient. He and Sarah try to take matters into their own hands, and they make some questionable decisions. The passage we read above comes after their attempt at taking back the control. God speaks to Abraham again, reminding him of his promise. God tells Abraham to look at the stars and says “See this number? So shall your descendants be.”
I’ve always really appreciated Abraham’s willingness to change his whole life to follow God’s will. I think in our own lives sometimes we hope that God’s will for us is going to be just a little thing – maybe a small adjustment to our daily practice or treatment of ourselves or others. And sometimes that is what God is asking of us. Other times we’re asked to do what Abraham has been asked – total life change. Those changes can be scary and unsettling, but in my own experience have led to such incredible blessings.
I have also always appreciated the way Abraham becomes totally skeptical and tries to take control into his own hands. Because how many times have I done the same thing??? How many times have I said to God “ok, the road is clear and I’m going to walk it” and then I get halfway down the road and nothing seems clear anymore and I get confused and tired and instead of trusting the process I start to mess with it myself?
I can’t say specifically, but let’s just leave it at a lot of times.
Notice what happens in the story though: God does not punish Abraham for doubting him. God does not take back his promise. Instead God offers a gentle reminder of what he has in store for Abraham, and renews his promise in this beautiful way.
We are not punished for our human inclination to want to be in control. Instead we are gently reminded that we aren’t in control. We are reminded that God is in charge. We are reminded that we always have the option of turning our lives over to the care of God, and that when we do – blessings abound.
The homework for this week is to get yourself a God box – it can be a box of any size or design. Each time you find yourself trying to control something (and remember the way control can manifest itself – worry, obsession, managing, etc) go ahead and write it down on a slip of paper and put it inside the God box. Physically turn it over to God.
Once you’ve done that, go ahead and pay attention to how often you mentally try to take whatever you’ve written back from God. It’s always entertaining to go through the process of giving our lives over to God and then noticing our Abraham moments where we try to take them back.
Remember, we have the option at any time to turn our will and our lives over to God so that we might be restored to sanity – we just have to take it.