It’s Independence Day here in the USA. A day we celebrate our freedom…usually by eating and drinking a lot then blowing things up. Or at least watching things being blown up.
On some level I suppose that’s pretty much perfect, given who we are.
This morning I got a notice that the Washington Post linked to a speech by Thomas Jefferson to commemorate the day.
Thanks to reading Fred Clark (aka Slactivist) over the years, I’m convinced there is no better tribute to read today than this one from Fredrick Douglas (who is being recognized more and more). Here’s a taste, but it really is worth reading the whole thing — especially if you, like me, are a person of privilege in this country.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Today, let’s commit to making the USA a country we can all celebrate, no matter what demographics define us. For when we’ve achieved that, we will truly fulfill the vision that started the nation.
This past Sunday, June 11th, was Trinity Sunday. While many complex and profound words have been written about the idea of God as Trinity, it seems to me that, at its core, it is a fairly simple — though still profound — idea: God, as God is in God’s self, is relational, communal. Because humanity is made in God’s image, we are ultimately relational too.
Bruce Sanguin put it like this in his book, If Darwin Prayed:
The Trinitarian intuition is that Ultimate Reality constitutes a community and not an individual being… A healthy self comes into being in and through relationships… Quantum science shows everything exists in relation to everything else…the universe is radically relational. Greeks used a playful word for the communitarian nature of Trinity: perichoresis, meaning “to dance around.” Each member of the Trinity is encircling the others in ecstatic dance. Celebrating Trinity is celebrating that the entire universe, including humans, emerges out of a relational matrix.
Or, as I put it on Sunday, we are created for community because we are created by community.
I also tried to have a little fun with images of Trinity in popular culture, such as these:
Sometimes good sermon material gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor. This week was no exception, but I did tell those present about this video and encouraged them to find it. Too often in Christianity’s history, we’ve used doctrine of Trinity as club with which to beat each other up. Or as a fence to mark our territory and declare one another anathema. I think this video does a good job of poking fun at that tendency while also managing to teach a thing or two. At the very least, it made me laugh. I hope you enjoy it too.
[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]
I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.
Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.
With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.
But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.
I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?
The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.
One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. andthe Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:
Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.
Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.
Think positively no matter how hard life gets.
Give much even if you have been given little.
Forgive all, especially yourself.
Never stop praying for the best for everyone.
Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.
Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.
There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.
Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!
Live free in God.
Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.
I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.
As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.
So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.
We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.
One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.
To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.
I don’t have many traditions on this blog (other than posting quite irregularly, of course). However, I’ve tried to maintain a Christmas day tradition. I missed doing it in 2015, so wanted to be sure to get back on track this year.
Each Christmas I post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year); Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, which I find the world’s best and most challenging Christmas song; and a second song that changes each year.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-free future.
Yes, our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. I’m convinced the Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopelessness. It means we’ve got some work to do.
(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)
Previously, I’ve made the second song a light-hearted or even silly offering. However, 2016 being what it has been, I just don’t have it in me. All the shootings here in Chicago, multiple friends in pain over broken relationships, all the celebrity deaths, mass slaughter in Aleppo, the appalling election, the hateful acts and words towards people of color and other marginalized groups as celebration of Trump’s win, and my dad’s death combine to make 2016 pretty terrible.
Still, I refuse to lose all hope. Many friends are standing up to racism and hate in myriad ways. People in my congregation continue to feed the hungry and provide shelter for those experiencing homelessness. I still believe that the “moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.”
Instead of a silly song, how about a “Happy Christmas” cover? Sarah McLachlan’s work with Bare Naked Ladies on “Good Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” remains an all-time favorite of mine. Though her cover here is not new, it is new to me this year. A double-dose of imagining war is over is just what I need. Maybe the same is true for you.
Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate it! Happy Holidays to all other traditions!
In a recent note to the families involved in the youth ministries at the church I serve, I wrote this about Church Conference:
Church Conference is the United Methodist term for what other denominations might call its Annual Business Meeting, or what a corporation might call its Annual Shareholders meeting, or what a leading tech company might call its Keynote Event.
That is, Church Conference is where we do business such as electing church officers, consider the successes and challenges of the past year, and cast the vision for who we want to be in the new year.
Prognosticator that I am, all three of those things happened Wednesday night. Plenty of good ideas were shared, but two moments far outshine all the rest:
The District Superintendent’s dinner with the youth and our newly adopted Hospitality Statement.
I don’t know how often this happens at other churches, but I know that in the last 20 years at WUMC, the District Superintendent has never shared a meal with our youth. That changed Wednesday night. The interaction between the youth and Rev. Dick Wisdom, Superintendent of the Aurora District, was so fun to watch and participate in. Our young people prepared ten questions for Rev. Wisdom, and he responded to all of them with grace, humility, and, well, wisdom.
But what really made the night was a little later when Rev. Wisdom declared that the questions from our youth were the highlight of his year. I couldn’t be prouder of our amazing teens! What were those questions that so moved our DS? Glad you asked…
Do you have children? If so, how old are they?
Were you in youth group in High School? What was it like? Did it influence your vocation? Did you go on mission trips?
What does a District Superintendent do?
What did you do before becoming DS? Before you were a pastor?
What made you want to be DS?
Why did you assign Pastor Danita to WUMC (not complaining)? How did you come to decide this was a good fit?
Is swearing considered a sin?
One of my best friends is Muslim. What can I do, as a Christian/Methodist, to make sure that she doesn’t feel scared or bullied? What if I am too scared to stand up for her?
What do you think of UMC’s “democratic” nature? Is democracy the best way to run a church of Christ? In democracy, majority rules, but is the majority always right? What do we do when the majority is wrong?
Is the UMC too influenced by the political process in our country? Does it interfere with us responding to God’s will?
The other highlight was the historic moment when our congregation unanimously adopted the Hospitality Statement. Our Administrative Council worked on the statement for months, approving it at our November meeting and thus bringing it to Church Conference for a vote. While almost everyone who visits WUMC says they received a warm welcome, and we’ve long tried to be welcoming of people no matter what, this statement marks the first time our congregation has officially declared that all people are welcome.
It is written in three parts:
We are an open and loving United Methodist Community who are:
Welcoming to all;
Uniting in service toward greater social justice for all;
Moving forward with understanding and acceptance of all peoples;
Creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We invite others to join as we live our Christian faith together.
Our purpose is to offer a safe place and community to all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual identities, ethnicities, age groups and other beliefs.
We expect everybody:
To accept imperfection in one another;
To respect that we are all on unique and valuable spiritual journeys;
To recognize that we are all worthy of God’s love;
I am bad at posting the text of my sermons — mostly because I don’t usually write a manuscript from which to preach and then post. Plus, I’m convinced that sermons are best experienced when heard, rather than just read.
Here then, is the audio from yesterday’s sermon. My editing talents are limited so there is a little extra material at both the beginning and the end. Go to the four minute mark to hear the beginning of the sermon. Or start at the beginning to hear a bit of a song and the two scripture passages for the day, Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 7:17-23.
However, if reading is preferred over listening, I’ve also posted my notes below. The caveat being that I mostly use them as a guide, meaning what I actually said doesn’t completely match up with what I wrote. I doubt I’ve ever had a sermon completely match in that way. I suspect that’s true for most preachers.
We didn’t have time after the message for discussion in church, so I’d love for this to become a conversation here. So comment, question, and critique away.
”Names for the Messiah: Wonderful Counselor”
We are a country divided. From coast to coast, we have an issue that pits sister against brother; child against parent; even spouses against each other. I am of course talking about…
Properly using commas.
Why, what did you think I was talking about?
“To Oxford Comma, or not to Oxford comma, that is the question.”
I can’t and won’t solve this dilemma today, though if you know much of anything about me you can probably guess in which camp I fall. But for our purposes today, let’s at least acknowledge that comma placement affects the meaning of a sentence.
Here’s an example; notice the difference: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain, and God.” OR “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain and God.”
Comma placement matters. Can we agree upon that?
Here’s why that’s important today:
The key passage for this sermon series, ‘Names for the Messiah”, is, as you might expect, the passage that, you know, names the Messiah: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
Thanks to Handel’s “Messiah”, we are probably most used to hearing that list as five names: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, etc.
“The two terms are to be taken together. ‘Counselor” refers to the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, to deliver policy.”
‘Wonderful’ may suggest the new king will have great wisdom. Or it may suggest that the plans and policies of the new king will be tremendous and surprising.
Here’s my next controversial statement that’s not actually controversial at all: The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE. He was writing about the crowning of a new king of Israel. He was not predicting Jesus of Nazareth, some 800 years later.
The early church read those terrific titles and used them to bear witness to Jesus, connecting the reality of Jesus to the expectation for a Liberating King, a Messiah, to the Hebrew Testament.
So we inherit a tradition that sees these titles in Jesus. And ‘wonderful’ becomes the operative word.
His teaching is ‘wonderful’ because he tells us and shows us that things we think are impossible are actually possible for God. Scriptures tell us Jesus is wise beyond explanation. He open up new possibilities for us. Thus he is a threat to conventional wisdom and conventional power.
The passage from Luke shows just how surprising and unconventional Jesus is. Even his relative, John the Baptizer, the one called to make the way for Jesus, isn’t sure he really is the one! But because of Jesus, the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed and the poor have good news.
“The old limits of the possible are frauds designed to keep the powerless in their place.” Jesus exposed this desire of the power order of his day and invited the common people to see that another way was possible, and not just possible but what God actually wants for all people. No wonder the religious and political leaders of his day wanted Jesus dead — he was “teaching them out of their allegiance to the entrenched order!”
Jesus breaks down such conventional wisdom, such as that “wisdom” that says white men should be in authority in order for society to maintain “proper” order.
Make no mistake, conventional wisdom and power are resistant to change; resistant to new possibilities. We’ve seen that in the rise of white nationalism, white supremacy, trying to disguise itself in a new name, “alt-right”, but with the same goals: keep white men at the top of the power structure; at the top of society. These are people who, intentionally or not, feel empowered by this month’s election to come out of the shadows and speak overtly, publicly that all who aren’t straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christians don’t belong.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist racism in all its forms.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist demonizing and “othering” of all groups of people: no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter whom they love.
One way we are living this out is through our new Hospitality Statement. What is that statement? Come to Church Conference Dec. 7 to be part of the group that hears, and hopefully, approves this historic document.
Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means another, better way, another better world is POSSIBLE. Not just possible, but is actually what God wants for the world.
We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of hope, especially for those desperately in need of good news.
We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of God’s better way that includes ALL people.
That, I am convinced, is our way forward, together. Amen?
“Today and everyday, I will fight hatred with love and kindness.”
It has been, and continues to be, a very difficult week for some of us. Each day since the election, reports of violent words and actions against women, blacks, Muslims, and LGBT folks are (trigger warning for hate speech and language) filling our timelines — including dozens of reports of it happening in schools; happening to children.
I find myself in an unusual position: largely at a loss for words. Words are kinda my thing. It is disconcerting to have them fail me in this time when so many are feeling, well, all the feels: shock, fear, anger, disbelief, victory, emboldened, attacked, or even hopeful. We need wise words to help us organize our thoughts and feelings and to galvanize us into action. So I’m relying on the wise words of others.
Like that quote at the top of the page. Know who said that? A high school student from our church, Woodridge UMC, tweeted it Wednesday.
“Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love your enemy and pray for them.” Those are other words I keep going back to.
None of us know what the next four years might bring. We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. All we have for certain is today. So today we offer love and kindness. If campaign promises of massive deportation, stripping of rights for women and the LGBT community, and banning entire religions come to fruition, it will be up to us as a community (especially the community of faith in Jesus the Liberating King) to respond with love, kindness, and protection.
If campaign tactics of empowering and employing white supremacists (or white nationalists or “alt-right” or whatever else they are calling themselves today) continue, it will be up to us as a community (especially the community of faith in Jesus the Liberating King) to respond with love, kindness, and protection.
Right now, our church building has a beautiful sanctuary. That building may need to become a literal sanctuary. Will we be ready for that?
Here’s another wise tweet from one of our students: “It is easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind. It is through love that we will get through this, be kind to one another today.”
How might we do that? By saying to any and all — but most especially to the marginalized and the demonized — that this is a safe space. We are here for you. We love you.
Or, as one of my friends put it:
If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.
If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.
If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the police stop you.
If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.
If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.
If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.
If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.
If you’re a veteran, I’ll take up your fight.
If you’re LGBT, I won’t let anyone tell you you’re broken.
If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home ok.
If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.
That seems to me like the to-do list we all need.
Why does this matter so much? Let me share one last quote from this week. This one from a young adult who grew up in our congregation:
“From the moment I saw your video that accepted lgbt youth into the church without judgement, I knew I was accepted in my church. And that meant more to me than I could ever explain.”
Friends, we now know what’s next. We now know what we have to do and who we have to be: agents of God’s love, kindness, and protection.
As I have the last couple years, I’m attempting to live blog this annual event to raise awareness about homelessness in DuPage County — and to raise funds to help neighbors experiencing homelessness. Bridge Communities puts on this event to aid their efforts to end homelessness.
6:30am The view in the light of day:
3:30am I’m extremely grateful for all the dedicated adult volunteers who love God and love our youth enough to spend the night monitoring our Sleep Out area.
12:15am everyone is finally in their boxes or tents and settling down to sleep.
10:00pm Small group discussion post simulation:
-So many ways to become homeless
-so unfair how veteran was treated
-rage! It wasn’t fair! I was first at Section 8 but never got in when everyone else did. I think it was racist.
-hard to know how much info to share at each spot. Should I tell them I’m 45 yo with mental illness
-I’m under poverty line but turned away for making too much
-felt frustrating, disappointing getting the run around, felt judged,
-pens became scarce. Some stole, some hoarded, some shared.
9:00pm As we attempted to enter the church building we were met at the door, told to line up, asked to sign in agreeing to some conditions, and our cell phones were collected.
It was the beginning of a threefold simulation game. First,The church building was our shelter.
Then, each one received an identity, complete with backstory of how we became homeless. Our task was to find a place to stay for the night. Others played the role of apartment manager or women’s shelter or public housing employee. We had to navigate the various systems trying to gain housing.
The final portion of the simulation was food distribution. Each of us received an envelope of money with which we could purchase a snack. Turned out not everyone had the same amount.
8:30pm Couple reflections shared during the bus ride back to church:
It would be helpful to hear more about the programs that the funds raised provide. The mom who shared tonight mentioned some life skills classes, the most interesting of which was “How not to Date a Jerk or Jerkette.”
Learning about those classes helps our kids make better connection between sleeping out & Bridge Communities.
We also thought it would be cool to hear from someone who finished the program, say, 5 years ago speak about where they are now.
8:00pm Couple facts we learned during the rally:
In 2015 Bridge helped 131 families
750 families self supportive after Bridge
This is the 13th year for SOS. Almost $2 Million has been raised in that time.
7:40pm We heard from a few sponsors and Bridge employees, including a nice tribute to one of Bridge’s founders who died two weeks ago. Next, the emcees read through the list of communities represented by the groups sleeping out. Always an easy crowd-pleaser.
Finally, we heard from a family who is a Bridge Community client. I think most years we heard from families already finished with the program, so that was different. The mom spoke about losing the home she was in with her three kids and the 6 months it took to get into a Bridge apartment. But what I found most compelling was when the mom shared the terrible anxiety that accompanies not knowing how she would house her children.
7:15pm In a new twist, a group called Power Brain yoga led some body movements to help keep the blood flowing and have a couple laughs as well.
7:00pm Next up for musical entertainment and testimony-sharing is Savannah Whitaker, who is the winner of “Rising Stars Singing Competition sponsored by PulseFM at the World Pulse Fest.” I admit I’ve never heard of that competition, but Ms. Whitaker has an amazing voice!
6:30pm Troy helped our bus driver navigate the downtown Glen Ellyn traffic and so we’ve arrived at the Rally! It has to be twice as warm as it has ever been in our 5 years with this event. It’s a little discombobulating, honestly. We’re used to just wearing ever layer ever. Tonight? People are in shorts or t-shirts. So. Weird.
Anyway, the Rock Out for Sleep Out by School of Rock is in full swing. Or rather in full rock, I suppose.
Not a huge crowd yet, despite the nice weather. On the plus side, that meant we are here in time to receive a t-shirt. So we’ve got that going for us…which is nice.
6:00pm Our final participants arrived at church and we’re on the Rally Bus headed to the, well, to the Rally. We expect to hear music from local student bands and hear testimony from families helped by Bridge Communities’ programs.
Divorce. Disease. Death. The uncomfortable truth is that our congregation, our communities, and our country is hurting. From more than just those three ‘d’ words, of course. But those are the ones I’ve encountered most in recent weeks and months. Too often, we feel the need to present ourselves as doing fine — even in church. Maybe especially in church. I know because I do it too. In my head, I know that our sanctuary should be just that: a place of refuge from the parts of our lives that expect us to be — need us to be, demand us to be — ‘ok’ all the time. I know I want our place in the world at 2700 75th Street to be a place where it is ok not to be ok. However, I also know just how hard it is to admit to ourselves and others that we’re not ok. For myriad reasons, internal and external, we want and need to appear tough, solid, stoic, strong, above it all.
Yet we follow God in the Way of Jesus. That means we follow a God who willingly became vulnerable and intimately entered the world. Baby Jesus? Vulnerable. Born to an unwed, teenage mother? Vulnerable. Part of a family that became refugees in a foreign country in order to flee violent authorities? Vulnerable. Lived in a country occupied and controlled by a foreign military power? Vulnerable. Openly protested his own people’s cultural practices that further oppressed the poor? Vulnerable. Arrested, beaten, and executed on trumped up charges? Vulnerable.
But following God in the Way of Jesus means we follow a God who lived in an open, vulnerable manner that allowed others around him to be vulnerable as well — which often led to their healing. Isn’t that what we’re after too? Healing the hurt in our selves and in our sisters and brothers?
Our scriptures are full of people crying out to God for help, for healing, for wholeness. Let those authors provide your voice, if need be. Especially good for this are the psalms of personal lament such as Psalm 13, Psalm 35, and Psalm 86. Or try the psalms of communal lament such as Psalm 44, Psalm 74, or Psalm 80.
This Sunday, our prayer time will not feature a responsive litany. Instead we will engage in directed silence, lament, and celebration. To paraphrase biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, we will seek to be honest about the ways the world disorients us and how we might find a new orientation in the grace and love of God.
So whatever it is that makes you not ok today: your own struggles, or issues with which those close to you are dealing, or broader societal problems like systemic racism or violence such as (this week’s examples) Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, or desecration of sacred land in Standing Rock Reservation, or global challenges like getting education for all girls…bring it all so that in our honesty we may lay it at the altar.
Today is Thorsday (aka Thursday) and, I’m told, it’s also #NationalSuperheroDay. I don’t know why that’s a thing, but I like it. Since I was just talking with a friend about a sermon I once did about Thor…seems like a good day for an archive post. Plus, I really do enjoy Marvel’s Thor books. The current run with [SPOILER ALERT – look away if you haven’t yet read the story arc revealing the identity of the new Thor]…Dr. Jane Foster as Thor has been particularly fun to read and is beautifully drawn. Here’s a small sample:
Pretty awesome, right? Anyway, here’s The Gospel According to Thor
Originally posted January 30, 2014
You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.
I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.
Let me know what you think.
“The Gospel According to Thor”
Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23
Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!
Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:
Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games
Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.
Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.
So really, why not Thor??
Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.
Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.
“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”
“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”
“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”
“What! How do you figure?”
“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”
While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.
So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?
A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.
When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.
There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:
-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…
-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.
-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.
-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.
-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.
-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.
-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball
-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.
-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.
Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.
So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”
“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.
We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.
Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:
For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.
Or consider this from CS Lewis:
“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Stories within stories within stories.
In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.
Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??
Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.
Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.
Stories within stories within stories.
There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.
(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)
God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.
Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?
Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.
One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”
You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”
Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:
-1 Billion w/o clean safe water
-800 million hungry
-27 million trapped in slavery
-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted
-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability
There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.
And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.
Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!
But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:
-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.
-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people
-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.
-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.
How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.
What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?
I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?
*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.