Last Words: I Thank God For You

Scripture: Philippians 1:1-11

Allie, an aspiring follower of Jesus,

To all the saints in Rosslyn:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank God for every remembrance of you, praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the beginning up until now. Paul begins almost every letter with words such as these. Here, on my last Sunday in this pulpit, that’s what I want to say: I thank God for you.

I arrived here in Rosslyn nine years ago almost to the day. I was 29 years old; single, at least in terms of marital status; excited to move to an actual city, or at least walking distance from one. My car had been totaled just before I left Williamsburg and so I drove my rental car up here and then my dad went with me to CarMax and helped me move in to my little apartment at the very bottom of the hill. I was excited to try my hand at being a solo pastor for the first time. I was also terrified. I told you this once before, but I texted a friend just before my first Sunday service here and told her I was so nervous I was thinking about just not going.

It’s hard to overstate how much has changed since then. Probably there’s a lot that changes for any of us in almost a decade. I stand here now on the brink of middle age, married with two kids; that Metro-accessible apartment has, like a cliché, been traded in for a house in the suburbs. I do still have the car that I bought at CarMax that day, but my dad is no longer with us. And, of course, I’m no longer terrified at the prospect of leading a church, though I am still slightly terrified each Sunday morning of what Zoom will throw my way today. And then there’s all the ways the world has changed around us in that time, from Rosslyn itself – when I moved in, McDonald’s in Central Place Plaza was still a standalone brick building – to the obvious, Covid.

And you’ve been there, for all of it. Of course, some of you have come and gone in that time, but as a church, you’ve been there.

It is not every pastor who would otherwise choose to be a part of the church where they are appointed or called. For me, though, even though this has been my job, I have always felt that you all are my real church family. You celebrated with Jon and me when we announced our engagement during Prayers of the People and then when we got married. You welcomed our kids when they were born and made clear that you valued them as part of this community. You showed up at my dad’s funeral. You prayed for me and showed me grace in hard times.

It’s not that it’s hard to give up a job, even if it’s a good and meaningful job. The hard part now is thinking about not being part of this community. It still honestly feels a little surreal to say that. And yet, I thank God not just for how you all have been the church in these past nine years, but how you have been the church for me.

I thank God for some of the small memories that will stick with me. I think of learning to use power tools for the first time on my very first ASP trip. I think of Paul, one of our community members who I first met at Wednesday morning Bible study, playing his trumpet at our Christmas Eve service. I think of baking cookies in the Fellowship Hall with our youth. I think of the times a church member surreptitiously handed me a hundred dollar bill to pass on to someone else they knew happened to be struggling. I think of Bob, bringing his bag of food for our Fellowship Hall food basket every Sunday. I think of Pam and Don building a fort out of cardboard boxes upstairs in the choir room while I worked in my office and of Divine letting Lydia help her pack bag lunches. I’ve read that the most important factor in keeping kids involved in church as they grow up is intergenerational relationships, and I can only pray that we find those in Princeton the way we have here. I think of those of you who shared your stories of God working in your lives, and who have given others permission and courage to share.

If I tried to be exhaustive with this list I would undoubtedly fall short. But the Kingdom of God is in these little moments, things that might not have even seemed big to you at the time, but they are what I will remember this community by. And I thank God for that, for a community where rich and poor and young and old and immigrant and native Arlingtonian all come together as one.

I give thanks for the ways you have allowed me to use my gifts and passions here, the ways you’ve let me experiment with different styles of sermons and sung the books of the Bible with me. I thank God, even, for the challenges that I encountered in my time here, because they’ve allowed me to grow. I remember in one of our earliest congregational brainstorming sessions about the possibilities for redeveloping our building, Pat Senyo said to me, “Maybe God sent you here for such a time as this,” and I was like, are you kidding me, I know less than nothing about any of this. Well, guess what, I do now! I think of some of the times when I was worried about not having the people we needed for something, like starting a nursery. I learned something about faith then, I think, because although I never felt any sort of calm assurance in my soul that God would provide, I just kind of kept pushing things forward anyway until we had enough volunteers to proceed, and then looking back I said, oh, I guess that’s how faith works sometimes. I thank God for the way God has answered even my unspoken prayers through you.

Paul writes to the Philippians, “I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it.” Last week, I shared some of my hopes for this congregation as I prepare to move on. I hope you will continuously and increasingly live into your collective identity as the church, the Body of Christ. I hope that you, laity, will take the reins in reaching out and serving our neighbors and speaking out for justice and making God’s presence known in this community.

Of course I would love to come back to visit in five years and see a beautiful new building, with its more obvious main entrance and its rooftop terrace and its portal to the world in the sanctuary, helping us look out on the world we pray for and serve even while we worship. But in the end, a building is just a building. You are the church. And what I really hope is that you will continue to embody the Kingdom of God in your midst as you love each other, as you welcome people through those doors from everywhere in the world and all walks of life, and as you leave through those doors again to be God’s people in the world. I thank God that there will continue to be a place in Rosslyn where people with so many different stories can come and find a home.

Next week begins a new pastoral era here at Arlington Temple as Rev. Marti Ringenbach steps in. I believe that God has some good things in store with you and Pastor Marti working together. I will intentionally fade out of the picture so that Pastor Marti has the chance to develop relationships with you all, and to discern and share her own vision for where God might be calling this church next. I’ll be busy translating ancient languages, anyway! I do that knowing that you will love and welcome her as you have loved and welcomed me, and that she will most certainly see the Kingdom of God in your midst just as I have, and probably in new ways too.

I thank God for you, Arlington Temple. Thank you for being my church, and for letting me be your pastor. I don’t know where the future may take any of us, but I know that this place and this community will continue to be a part of me, just as it is for everyone who finds a home here for a time.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more, that you might continue to discern together what it means to be the church in this particular time and place, even when it’s hard, and that you might live that fully, so that everyone can see the good news made flesh.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.



Last Words: We Are the Church Together

Scripture: Romans 12:1-18

Allie, a pastor, called to order the life of the church and help people be God’s people in the world,

To the church in Rosslyn:

I give thanks for you, for nine years of ministry together, for the challenges we’ve faced and the joys we shared, and for all that God has in store.

For me, this time of year has always been a time for looking forward. Annual Conference marks the end of one appointment year and the beginning of another, in the United Methodist Church, and so this has always been a time to reflect on my hopes for the year ahead and what God wants from me. It’s a chance to recommit myself to this work I’ve been called to.

This year I’m looking forward, too, but in a different way. And, I’m also looking back. You all know now that next Sunday is my last Sunday as pastor here at Arlington Temple. And so, as I think about coming to the end of my ministry here, I have found myself thinking about where we’ve been over the past nine years.

I knew that there was something special about Arlington Temple from the beginning. I stepped into worship here my first Sunday and found a church that was more diverse than any I’d been part of before. Here were people from all over the world, people of different ages, people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, retired government workers and grad students and always a few of our neighbors who had slept outside the night before. And there were almost always visitors. I remember one Sunday when I met a charter bus driver from Pennsylvania, a couple from Germany who were in the area on vacation, and the General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches. All on the same day. It’s just not every place where that happens.

Of course, the global aspect of our church has come with its challenges. More than once I’ve found myself meeting some great new person who’s been coming to church and and finding out they’re moving to Algeria next week. But then, also, sometimes, those people would come back – in a few years when their tour ended or the next time work brought them back into town. I’ve heard people say we’re kind of like a waystation. We’re a place for people to find a home and spiritual nourishment as they’re passing through, which is somehow fitting for a church over a gas station. At the same time, people take what they receive here – that sense of God’s love in community – and they take it with them all over the world.

It’s not always easy to create genuine community across diverse groups of people, and I don’t know that we’ve always done that perfectly, but I think in a lot of ways we do it well. I’ve always said I loved walking into the Fellowship Hall after worship and seeing a Foreign Service officer having coffee with a homeless person. Or a table of young adults with at least three or four different native languages among them. There was a picture I loved from one of my first couple years here that served as our church Facebook page cover photo for a while. It was from a service project we did, packaging beans for the Arlington Food Assistance Center, and in this picture you can just see a bunch of people from clearly different backgrounds, serving together. Then there are the Thanksgiving meals we’ve shared, also some of my favorite images of Arlington Temple: not rich people serving poor people, but everyone invited, bringing what they have, and eating together. That’s the Kingdom of God.

In a church where there’s always so much transition, it can be hard to feel like we’re gaining momentum. And yet when I look back at the past nine years I can see ways we have become stronger. I think one way we’ve come along way is in lay leadership and volunteers – especially up to Covid time. Every year I worried about having enough volunteers to fill all the volunteer roles we had open, but every year somehow people stepped up, and we had what we needed. And over the years we got more people, trying new things. And so over time we could do more. We added a nursery. Again, I wondered if we were really going to have the human resources to make it happen – but I believed that God was calling us to do it, and in the end you must have too, because people stepped up and we were able to welcome families in a new way.

One of those things I tried to emphasize over and over, in every volunteer reminder email, was the importance of people taking responsibility for the jobs they signed up for, showing up, finding their own subs if they had to be away. And you did. We saw new people in leadership, and new grassroots lay-driven ministry, whether that was a small group meeting for prayer each morning during the pandemic or the opportunity to train to accompany undocumented immigrants to their hearings.

And then, of course, there is our building project: always slower than we expect, but still moving forward. It wasn’t long after I first got here that a group of people from the building next door called to talk about how this new Rosslyn sector redevelopment plan would affect our block, and did we want to be in this together? The answer was no, not always, but somehow it seemed that even in the midst of the uncertainty and frustration, God was giving us an opportunity. And so, not quite nine years later, here we are with architectural drawings for a new church, thinking about what that means for us during the rebuilding process and beyond.

Those are all the things I think about when I look back, and I give thanks for this journey that we’ve been on together, and for all the beautiful moments along the way, where I have glimpsed the Kingdom of God here among us.

But like I said, I’m also looking forward. And so as I prepare to wrap up my ministry here, I want to share some of my hopes for Arlington Temple with you.

I hope you’ve really heard me each Sunday when I’ve said that we are the church together. As Paul says, “For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” There are so many beautiful examples of that, and I’ve shared some of them with you already. And: Covid has hit hard, even as most of us have remained physically safe. We’ve had to start at square one again with some things, or so it seems. Our volunteer structure is one. These days, most Sundays we have 20 people in the sanctuary instead of 40 or so, and yet it still takes the same jobs to make worship happen. We still need people to count money if we want to be able to do anything with money. AV is more important than ever, not least because if no one’s there then I’m scrambling to make things work at the last minute and sometimes that put me in a less than worshipful mood. Do we still need a greeter every Sunday? I don’t know. How serious do we want to be about welcoming new people who walk into this space? How important is that to our mission?

Some Saturday nights these days I check the volunteer signup online and there are no names on it. Usually, things more or less come together on Sunday morning, and I’m grateful for that. But I can’t say it doesn’t make me nervous. I know – the weekly signup isn’t an ideal system; Covid has just made it harder to reliably plan ahead. But I honestly hope we can do a little better for Pastor Marti when she comes, until she decides what system she wants to use, so that she doesn’t have to stress out on Saturday night not knowing if things will come together for Sunday.

Speaking of new people coming in our doors: that’s one thing we’ve always been able to count on, right? Our location is part of what makes us such a cool community, with people coming and going for work and school and vacation all the time. Usually when one person is moving to Algeria, someone else is coming in from Haiti. And I honestly think we’ve been pretty good about welcoming those new people to our community. I know there are some churches that have very well-trained hospitality crews and visitor-follow-up procedures and those things are great, but you can’t beat people just being glad you’re there and wanting to get to know you, and I think we do that. And, that’s also something that’s been affected by Covid – and not just because it’s harder to get greeters. There just haven’t been as many people coming in. There have been some! Some of you are new since we reopened post-Covid and we’re thrilled you’re here. Just not as many. And I think that should give us pause.

One of the things we’ve talked about as we’ve worked on designing our new church building is how we want the building to draw people in and then entice them to stay. And that’s a great goal! But hear me on this: a building can never be the whole of our evangelism, because the church is not a building. What if we focused on actually going out and meeting our neighbors instead? What people knew us for doing God’s work here around Rosslyn, and that’s what made them want to come and check us out? My hope is that you all will continue to think about that once I’m gone, how to be the church outside these walls in a way that invites people in. And not just invites people into a building – but invites people into relationship with us and with Jesus.

Speaking of doing God’s work: What is that work? What is it that we want this church to be known for in our community? Hopefully not just having a gas station underneath us.

Pre-Covid, I think we were known to some degree as a place where people could just COME. A lot of the people who came during the week were members of our local homeless community, looking for a simple meal and a place to rest. But some were also students who wanted to practice the piano, or businesspeople who wanted to take a break in their day to pray. Some were people who came for an AA meeting. Since Covid, our doors haven’t been open in the same way, and we haven’t changed that for a variety of reasons that we’ve revisited from time to time in Admin Board. As you know, we’re still handing out bag meals to folks who need them each day, and when I say “we,” I mean mostly Divine. (Kathy Hugh should also get a shoutout here; she’s helped a lot, and some others of you have helped out from time to time; but it’s still mostly Divine.)

When our building here is torn down and we move into an interim space, it’s likely that won’t be able to continue in the same way. And I actually think that’s OK, because the truth is it’s not right or sustainable for our mission to fall to any one or two people.  And so soon it will be time to ask: what does our relationship with our homeless neighbors look like now? Or, what other ways is God calling us to share God’s love and justice in the world now?

One of the things I really wanted to do during my time here, and did not end up succeeding in, was to put together an outreach team to reflect on answers to this question and put them into practice. We saw that happen a little bit at a time for a few years. The team just never took off. I still ask myself what I could have done differently to better midwife that process, but in the end, I think a lot of it was just life. Life is already so much for so many of us. And I get it. It is for me too.

Still: I think most of us value being part of a church that serves its community. But, as I always say, we are the church together. And that means we need more people to be a part of that if it’s going to be something we do. Maybe that means we do something in a different way. Maybe that means reassessing how your gifts and passions and schedules intersect with the need and hurt of the world around us. It’s possible to not do anything. We don’t have to. But then why do we exist? I hope that in this upcoming season of transition, there can be some genuine, ongoing, lay-led discernment about what our outreach looks like. What is the work God is specifically giving this community to do? How are we all going to be part of that?

I want you to know that I hope for this church because I love this church and I believe God loves this church.

I hope because this is a place where I have seen the Kingdom of God – here in the sanctuary in worship, in classrooms upstairs, around tables in the Fellowship Hall, on Zoom – and I want other people who are looking for something bigger than themselves to be able to see it too.

I hope because I truly believe that we can be a witness to the love of God and the story of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit right here in this community around us.

I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. I have been transformed by getting to be a part of it. I have hope because I know we are the church together.

Now may the God who calls us, Christ who shows us the way, and the Spirit who empowers us make it so. Amen.

Last Words: Call Story

Scripture: Galatians 1:1-2:10

Allie, a pastor, called by God to share God’s love and welcome in the world,

To the church in Rosslyn:

I give thanks for you, for the ministry we have shared over the past nine years, and for the ways you have showed me the Kingdom of God in our midst.

I decided that, for my last three sermons here at Arlington Temple, I wanted to write you all some letters. In Paul’s time, letters would have been read aloud to the gathered community, and so I thought it was appropriate to do it that way now as well. I decided that one of the things that I wanted to talk about was call. Mine, yours, what we have discerned those calls to be, and how they might be changing.

Some of you may remember, if only vaguely, that on my first Sunday here at Arlington Temple nine years ago, I started off by telling you my call story. I didn’t read from Paul that day, but from the book of Ruth, and I set my own story alongside that of Ruth the Moabite, who followed her Judahite mother-in-law Naomi to a foreign land not because God came to her in a dream or showed up to her in a burning bush, but simply because Ruth loved her.

I told you about how I first experienced my own call to ministry through relationships. It started with the relationships I experienced at the small church where I grew up, but came to fruition in college as I met all kinds of people whose backgrounds and stories were very different from my own. They were people who houses I helped paint on spring break mission trips, and farmers with whom I planted olive trees outside of Bethlehem on a trip to the Holy Land, and they were refugees who I tutored in English on William and Mary’s campus, and they were the disabled adults with whom I ended up working through my church’s Respite Care program. Each of these people and groups of people unlocked for me a little bit of what the Kingdom of God looked like, and I knew somehow that I was called to live as part of that Kingdom and invite others to live as part of it too.

I did not at first think that that would mean ministry as the pastor of a church. To be honest, I wanted to do something edgier than that, working with people at the margins of society and serving them and welcoming them and advocating for them. I just could never figure out what I actually wanted to do. It wasn’t until my mandatory church internship during my second year of seminary that I said, hey, I think this is it, I think this is what combines my gifts and passions in all the right ways. I got to study and write and teach, I got to be a chaplain to the women in the women’s shelter my church hosted, I got to serve communion to people in line at the soup kitchen that ran out of the church basement on Sundays. The church, I realized, was the best place to carry out Jesus’ own mission of good news to the poor. And so I became a pastor, and I had what became this neatly packaged and, over time, well-rehearsed call story to tell people when they asked.

There was also more to this story, a part that I usually mentioned but often glossed over.

During college, while I was working out what it meant to live as part of the Kingdom of God, I was also falling in love with the Bible for the first time. More specifically, I fell in love with the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. I had always kind of thought that that was the boring part, but then I took a class from a teacher who made it come alive for me. Suddenly all these stories I had grown up hearing in Sunday School were part of a bigger story of God’s people, and what’s more, there was so much I had been missing in these stories without knowing anything about the cultural contexts in which they emerged, and what’s more, I discovered that sometimes these stories even seemed to talk to each other, with different perspectives on the politics and issues of the times.

And so when I did go to seminary, even as I fulfilled my call to ministry praying with homeless women in a church basement, I also took as many Hebrew Bible classes as I could. And I thought, someday I’d like to go back to school and get a PhD in this.

I wanted that, but I didn’t feel God calling me to it. I knew that in that season, God was calling me to ministry, and good news to the poor. God was calling me to the church. And so I set it aside for “maybe someday.”

Today, I want to tell you how that story has continued to unfold for me.

The thing about “maybe someday” is that it’s really, really easy for that to become never. After my first three years as an associate pastor in Williamsburg, I happened to read about this church in Arlington whose pastor was about to become a district superintendent. And I thought, hey, I know that church, and that’s exactly the kind of church where I want to be a pastor. In the UMC, you don’t just get to decide these things on your own, but I did talk to my own DS and put my hat in the ring. And the powers that be thought that was a good enough idea, and they decided to move me here. And I was excited. And, in the back of my mind, I thought, well, I don’t know what that means for going back to school. But this feels right for now, and then we’ll see.

And then what happened is, I loved that church. And sure, there were times when I felt discouraged, and there were times when I had had it about up to here with the church as an institution, but I always loved this church and its people. And as the years went by – five, six – I thought, well, the ship has probably sailed on going back to school by this point. Probably none of my professors would even remember me anymore.

Luckily, I still got to read and I still got to teach. For those of you who have been in Sunday Bible study, especially, I think and hope you’ve gotten to see how I’ve tried to give you the same gift that I got in college: to help you fall in love with the Bible by learning to see it in new ways. We’ve talked about parts of the Old Testament that no one really reads, and their historical background, and the ways the texts bring their different perspectives and create a conversation. That has been one of my greatest joys here, and for a while it seemed like that would continue to be how I lived out this aspect of my call.

In January 2019, something changed. It started when I got a fairly unremarkable email from Wesley Seminary advertising its Doctor of Ministry programs. The D.Min. is a terminal professional degree that a lot of pastors get in areas like church leadership and pastoral care. I was tempted by one of the programs. I also realized that if I went in that direction, I was saying goodbye to this idea of a PhD in Hebrew Bible for good. 

And then I thought, well, you know what, maybe I’ll just take a class in Hebrew Bible and see how it goes. Let’s just knock on this door and see if it cracks open. 

I lived for that class that semester, that spring of 2019. I was about 75 years pregnant with Lydia at the time, my father was dying, I was preparing for maternity leave here at church, I was terribly burnt out, and Tuesday afternoons in this class on Exodus at Wesley were quite honestly what kept me going. And I came out of it saying yes, I want to keep doing this.

I still wrestled with discernment a lot in that time. Did God want me to go back to school, or is that just what Allie wanted? Was I following a call or just a personal dream of self-fulfillment? What about the work that there was still to do here at Arlington Temple, especially on the building project front? These are the questions I asked and talked about and journaled about, over and over.

But I thought, well, I don’t know, but I guess I’ll just keep knocking on doors and seeing what opens. So I kept taking classes, spending every evening and every day off on homework, and I kept loving it. And eventually I said to Jon, who knew I had been talking about it for a long time, I want to go for this. And he said, OK. And so over the next year and a half, I worked on getting everything in order to actually apply for PhD programs in Hebrew Bible: prerequisites, recommendations, writing samples, GREs. And as you know, eventually a door to that opened at Princeton Theological Seminary as well.

Is it God who opened all these doors? I don’t know. I know sometimes privilege opens a lot of doors, too. What I know is that this is a love and desire that hasn’t gone away, and now I’m walking toward it and choosing to trust that this is good in God’s eyes.

I wanted to tell you this story today for a couple of reasons. One is that maybe there’s a part of me that felt like I owed it to you, to give you a reason for why I’m leaving. One person said to me after I made the initial announcement, “I know this has been your dream, and I’m only sorry that you have been delayed for so long in following it.” And I thought, no, that’s not exactly right. I don’t want anyone to think that I haven’t wanted to be in ministry here at Arlington Temple, or that I was just biding my time until the next thing came along. I love this church. You all have been my church family, and I am proud of the things we’ve been able to do together, and I am hopeful for the future of this congregation. I truly believe that God called me to Arlington Temple, and that God continued to call me to Arlington Temple over these past nine years. 

But the thing about call is that it’s not always as static as we sometimes imagine. We talk sometimes like God calls us to one specific thing and we just have to figure out what that is and then do it for the rest of our lives. But really, I think, God calls us to different tasks and different places over the course of our lives, and it’s this ongoing, dynamic, process of continuing to listen to God and talk to God and discern where God is leading us at any given point. We hear a little of this in Paul’s own call story as he tells it in his letter to the Galatians. He travels to one place and then another; his mission is always to tell people about Jesus, and yet he still has to go back and re-work out with others just what his job is supposed to be. And so I also hope that as I tell this story, you maybe hear something that resonates with you, and that this can be a chance for you to revisit your own call stories, and to think about God’s call on your life in a more dynamic kind of way. 

The conclusion Paul and the leadership of the Jerusalem church come to is that Paul is welcome to continue his mission to the gentiles, and all the leadership asks is that he “remember the poor,” probably the poor of the Jerusalem church. I think now of this very clear call I experienced as a young adult, to service and relationship and advocacy for the poor, and people on the margins. And I think, am I really going to go spend five years sitting in the library in this town full of beautifully landscaped yards? Can I still be true to that original call, even as I respond to this newer one? And, the truth is, of course, that there is brokenness even in places with well-manicured lawns, and that poverty usually exists deceptively close to wealth, because usually wealth depends on poverty to exist. So I go resolved to keep my eyes open, to get out of the library once in a while and remember the poor, which, as Paul writes, is what I have always been eager to do.

What’s the end goal of all this? Will this path lead me ultimately to the academy, or back to the church, or somewhere that bridges the two? I don’t know. I’m just knocking and seeing what opens.

What about you? Have you been listening lately for God’s call? I know there are a couple others of you who are on the brink of big new things. How would you tell your own call story? It doesn’t have to be finished yet. You don’t have to be able to tie it up with a nice big bow. How has God brought you to where you are here, now, and what’s next? What about Arlington Temple, as a community? You all are on the brink of some pretty big changes too. How would you tell the story of where God has brought this church and where God is leading you all next?

You may still be in the middle of the story. That’s OK. We all are. And God is with us in it.

May you listen. May you dream. May you knock on some doors and see what opens.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all, and in it all. Amen.

Ready Isn’t a Question

Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

Sometimes, when I’m facing things that are new and big, I think about the time I took a trapeze lesson. I am not the kind of person to whom it would normally just naturally occur to take a trapeze lesson, but on this particular occasion Jon and I were Puerto Rico on vacation, and my friend Jenny happened to be there at the same time visiting her brother, who was a trapeze instructor in San Juan, and we got the lesson for half price.  I’m afraid of heights, but I’m not going to turn that down.

When we got to the lesson, an instructor told us what was going to happen. First we would climb up the ladder, where someone else would meet us on the platform.  They would get us hooked in to the safety harness and tell us to move our toes to the edge of the platform.  We would hold on with one hand and reach out for the bar with the other.  Then they would hold us by the back of the harness as we held our hips out over the platform and reached for the bar with the other hand.  They would say “Ready,” and we would bend our knees.  They would say “hep,” and we would jump.

“When I say, ‘Ready,’” the instructor told us, “that isn’t a question.”

I want you to know that I did, in fact, jump off that platform, and once I realized I was not going to immediately plummet to my death I even enjoyed myself. And like I said, I sometimes think back to that experience when I’m on the brink of something new.

Today is what we call Ascension Sunday, the Sunday before Pentecost each year, and here in Acts, the disciples are also on the precipice of something new and big. At this point in the story, it’s already been a whirlwind couple weeks.  Jesus is executed then rises from the dead and appears to them over the course of forty days. They’ve gone from the ultimate low to the ultimate high to, as they begin to process it all, probably just a lot of what is going on here and what does it all mean. 

And then one day they are eating together and Jesus says to them, don’t leave the city.  Stay here and wait because something big is about to happen. In just a few days they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go out to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

Anyway, remember that about forty or so days ago these guys were locked in a room waiting out the hysteria around Jesus’ crucifixion, and now apparently they are about to be sent off on some global mission to tell people about Jesus. 

I’m not sure they were ready, but then again, ready wasn’t a question.

With that, Jesus leaves, disappearing into a cloud that lifts him back up into heaven. It’s best that we don’t get too caught up in the mechanics of it all, but the point is that Jesus enters another realm, one where he is no longer immediately, tangibly accessible to his disciples. With that, the opening scene of Acts changes our focus from Jesus and the things he did and taught to the disciples and the adventures they will go on.  The spotlight is on them, ready or not. 

As for us: the last couple years have been kind of rough on all of us – I guess that’s an understatement. We’ve been collectively traumatized by the fear and reality of Covid, our lives have been upended in multiple ways, we’ve had to adapt and then adapt again. We’ve experienced social upheaval, racial violence, police shootings, school shootings. And those things aren’t new, but still, life looks very different from what it did 2.5 years ago. Our heads are still spinning, a lot of us, and we’re tired, and burnt out.

And yet here we are.

In a little over a month I’ll be wrapping up my time here as your pastor, and then in August my family and I will be moving and in September I’ll be starting school again. Those are big changes. It’s been twelve years in pastoral ministry, nine of those here at Arlington Temple. You all are my church. You’re the only church my kids have known. It’s hard to leave all of that, and it’s hard to truly know what these next months and years will bring.

You all, for your part, will get to welcome your new pastor, Pastor Marti, in July, and she will of course be different from me. She will bring her own gifts and perspective to this ministry, and she’ll want to do some things her way instead of mine. That might be refreshing to you, or it might take some getting used to, or maybe a little bit of both.

And then, of course, there’s this whole thing with the church building transition. We’re waiting, still, for our six-month notice from our next-door neighbors, for them to tell us we have six more months in this building before it’s demolished and redeveloped. That could come anytime. And then you all, led by Pastor Marti, will have the opportunity and responsibility of figuring out what life together looks like in a place that is different from this one.

Maybe we don’t feel ready. But here we are. And there is this world around us, hurting and broken, and calling out for a response from the Body of Christ. Here we are, with all of this before us.

Right before Jesus ascends to heaven, he tells the disciples to wait. Wait until the Holy Spirit comes, wait for the power to do all of the things you need to do. So here, in this space between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples are kind of in limbo, suddenly without a leader, suddenly with a lot of risky work ahead of them, on the precipice of something big that hasn’t quite started yet.

What would you do if it were you?

Luke tells us what the disciples did.  They return to the city, go back to that upper room where they had locked themselves in after the crucifixion, join the others, and are “united in their devotion to prayer.”

What do you do when life is about to send something big your way? You pray. 

I know that right now especially “thoughts and prayers” are kind of public enemy number one. Prayer seems like such a paltry offering in the face of something big. And let me not suggest that we have to wait to be the church, or to respond to the hurt in the world around us, until all these upcoming changes take place. But don’t worry – the disciples’ assignment is not going to keep them locked in a room. Prayer will not immobilize them. Instead, it will prepare them to act.

What does prayer look like, I wonder, in that upper room with all the disciples huddled together? Are they sitting in silence, listening for that still small voice? Lifting up their fears and hopes for the future to God out loud? Do they use the tried-and-true method of praying the psalms and singing hymns? Do they read Scripture and talk about how God is speaking to them in their time through those words?

No matter what – whether their prayer was any or all of these things – I think it’s important that they were gathered together, and they didn’t do their waiting or their praying alone.  After all, the big new thing that was about to happen in their lives would require them not to be solitary actors, but a community. They were preparing to become the church, and they had to prepare for that together. 

How are you praying in this time of chaos and anticipated changes? Are there ways we might create more space for praying together?

I truly believe that this is a time of possibility before us. And I think there is discernment to be done as we anticipate the movement of the Holy Spirit in all that is to come. What does our future as a hybrid church look like? For those of you who aren’t able to come in person, what does engagement beyond worship look like – how can you be serving and building up this community in new and needed ways? What does outreach to our community look like in a new location and space? How does that outreach involve and engage all of us, so that it’s part of what it means to be this church, and not just the job of one or two? How might this interim period in a new space give us the opportunity to reimagine our ministry and presence in the neighborhood and witness to the world? Things don’t have to look like they always have, and sometimes it takes dislocating ourselves from the ordinary to see that.

Are you praying about those things?

I believe that the church has something to say to the world around us. I believe that we have something to say about everyone, of every race and gender and class and background, being created in the image of God. I believe we have something to say about turning swords into plowshares and being willing to lay down our arms. I believe we have something to say about this culture and economy that tell us we are what we produce or accomplish, about not having our lives ruled by the stock market. I even believe that we have something to say about not writing each other off, even in this climate of political division. I believe God has given us a different way to live as God’s people in the world and that our living is and can be a witness to those around us.

Now, what that looks like in any given time might vary, and so there’s the question: what is it going to look like now, or soon? Are you ready to invest again in this community, in this process of discernment, in everything God is calling us to next?

Are you ready?

When Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples, and the church they will help to create, are now the Body of Christ on earth. When Pentecost comes, they will have plenty of time to go places and do things that address the hurt and need of the world around them. And, for now, the journey starts in prayer.  Neither will prayer end when the adventures begin – because throughout it all, the disciples will continually need to stay attuned to God’s will and open themselves up to God’s power.

There are about to be a lot of changes – for all of us. But I believe that God is getting ready to do something new.

We might not feel ready – but when God says ready, it isn’t a question.

God’s Guidance and the Holy Spirit: How Do We Know?

Guest preacher: Barb Schweitzer

Scripture: Acts 16:6-15

How did Paul and his traveling companions come to believe that they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to Speak the word in Asia?  And how did they come to believe that the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go into Bithynia? And what convinced Paul to believe that the vision he had during the night—was God calling his party to go to Macedonia and proclaim the good news to them? The author of Acts doesn’t tell us.

It is evident that these early missionaries were sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and that they relied heavily on the direction of the Spirit and on prayer. Had they followed their original plans, they would have confined themselves to working in Asia Minor, which is known as Turkey to us today. But we hear that somehow, the Spirit made it plain to Paul and his traveling companions that they were not to go to the southwest portion of Asia Minor as they had planned. As the Spirit closed the doors, the missionaries continued to seek direction for their journey.

If you were all planningon doing some missionary work in the Appalachians and had set out towards North Carolina,  but Pat, the leader of your group, tells you on the morning that you are to begin your trip that it was revealed to him in a dream the night before, that you are being called to go to West Virginia instead—how would you all receive that news?  How many of you would be skeptical? How many of you, knowing Pat, would believe that he was being sincere, and that he really believed he was hearing from God, but maybe he was mistaken?  How many of you would think Pat had fallen off his rocker and suggest that he stay home and go to the hospital to get checked out? Or, would you say, “Ok Pat, let’s stop for a moment and pray, let’s ask God to confirm in all of our hearts where we should go?

God does move in supernatural ways—through prophecies, dreams, and visions—even today. This assertion may sound idealistic and impractical, even delusional, but it is the truth. But, in this 21st century, post enlightenment, materially-based, scientific and technological world, we avoid talking about the possibility of God speaking to us in dreams and visions. Further, because we have developed this unspoken rule in our sophisticated Western society, we inadvertently communicate that it is not o.k. or normal to believe that God is still a God of miracles. We inadvertently communicate that we don’t believe all that scripture says about the nature of God and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us for the work of the Gospel. But the truth is, God can and still does communicate with us in a variety of ways—both in the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. We might experience our heart strangely warmed—like John Wesley did;  or we might hear God in a still small voice. We might understand God is guiding us through opened and closed doors; or we might recognize God directing us through a Bible verse that shows up several times in unexpected ways through our day. AND YET—God does sometimes speak to us in dreams, visions, and other—extra-ordinary ways.

Have you ever met someone who has experienced God—using a dream or vision to guide them? Have you ever personally–experienced God, the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Jesus guide you in a not-so-ordinary way? Do you tell people about it—or do you shy away from talking about it, for fear that people will think you are crazy? I believe that God wants us to proclaim the great works that God has done in our lives—both in the ordinary things of life, but also in the extra-ordinary.  If we don’t, we might be squelching the Spirit and missing the opportunity to witness about God’s amazing faithfulness and love for us—to God’s Glory.

God has intervened several times in my life in extra-ordinary ways, but I will tell you of the first time I recognized that God was communicating to me in an extra-ordinary way. I do this to glorify God—and for illuminating how the Holy Spirit is still in the business of guiding us by sometimes using extra-ordinary means. In 1981, I had a strange-DeJa’Vu experience as I was preparing to drive my boyfriend to the bus station. This DeJa’Vu-like-vision flashed before my eyes. The vision was the front page of a newspaper with headline that reported a fatal car crash. The picture accompanying the headline was of my small—blue–VW bug, overturned at the bottom of a hill, and I was dead. As quick as the vision came it was gone. But something inside me made me believed that God was warning me with this “vision.” So, I invented a phony excuse for not wanting to drive my car and asked to borrow my mother’s large Chevy Impala. Mom said yes, and I took off for the bus-station. Later, while driving home, I got stuck in a traffic jam. The driver behind me wasn’t paying attention and ran  into me going 65 miles per hour.  At impact, her car pushed my mom’s large and heavy car to the edge of the very hill that was pictured in the newspaper—of my DeJa’Vu-like vision. Had I been in my small and lighter VW bug,  I probably would have been pushed over the hill and killed—just like that Newspaper Headline in my vision had foretold—only one an hour before.

Despite having sustained a severe back injury, I believed God had saved my life by warning me with this vision. Prior to this accident, I had grown angry and confused about God and life. But this incident prompted me to begin reading my bible daily. As I read the Bible, I asked God to show me whether it held any relevance for my life. After 6 months of daily reading, accompanied by biweekly visits from Campus Crusade students who witness to me about the love of God, I cried-out to God, and asked God to heal my back and enable me to walk again without the severe pain that had plagued me since the accident. I also made a vow to God, that if God would heal me, I would serve God with the rest of my life. God heard my prayer and healed me at that instant. My back pain was gone, and within 2 weeks, I was running 2 miles every day, pain-free.

How do I know that God was speaking to me through this vision? The most obvious answer is that the vision produced good fruit—it saved my life, inspired me to be grateful to God and to begin to daily seek God and truth by reading my Bible. Within 6 months I had committed myself to being a faithful servant of God. 9 months later, I was baptized by emersion. At the time of my baptism, I believe God filled me with the spirit, because for about 2 weeks—I found myself witnessing to anyone who would listen.  My family believed I had become a member of a cult for a while. By the third year after committing my life to serving God, I had discerned that God had called me to be a missionary and to use my nursing skills in the developing world. I was motivated so much to do what I felt God was calling me to do that I even accepted a nursing scholarship from the U.S. Army so that I could complete my education and become that missionary nurse. After graduation, my mission field became wherever the military sent me and the patients I took care of. In 1991, 3 months after exiting military service, I found myself in Lesotho, Africa, working as a Maternal/Child Nurse Consultant in a Presbyterian Mission Hospital. 3 months later, I was in Okinawa Japan where I found opportunities to minister in a 28-day residential Alcohol Rehabilitation Center. 6 months later, I was asked to teach Biology at a missionary school where 75% of my students were from the Southern tip of India. My stories could go on and on, but what I’m trying to say is that God still does move in miraculous ways today. I think the “fruit” of that Deja Vu vision that God gave me in 1981 is self-evident and I thank God that the Holy Spirit chose to work in my life in this way. Now, let’s go back to Paul and his traveling companions.

How did Paul and his traveling companions know that the Holy Spirit was actually forbidding him to speak in Asia and that the Spirit of Jesus was not allowing him to go to Bythia? And how did Paul know that his dream was God calling him to Go to Macedonia? Let’s look at the fruit of this discernment . . .

First, I think the scriptures show us that Paul sought God through prayer and worship—continually.  Prayer really does make us more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Second, let us look at all that occurred in Macedonia once Paul and his party arrive. Lydia and her family converted to Christianity and were baptized (Acts 16:14-15). After that, a fortune-telling slave girl was delivered from an evil spirit (Acts 16:16-18). Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Philippi (Acts 16:16-28), led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:29-34), and Paul was able to preach to great effect in the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)—all of these are highlights of this second missionary journey. 

Paul also planted several churches in Macedonian cities. Local bodies of believers were established in Philippi (Acts 16:40), Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), and Corinth (Acts 18:1-11). These churches were important in the growth of the early church and enjoyed a long-term relationship with the apostles. Five of the New Testament Epistles were written to these three churches.

The history of the church—and the world—forever changed because of the God given dream known as Paul’s Macedonian Call.

I ask you to consider the impact of Luke witnessing to this event in Paul and his traveling companions’ lives—boldly stating that it was the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus who were guiding the missionary party? I know how Luke’s witness to this event has had on my life. I read the book of Acts early in my Christian Journey and several times throughout my life. Luke’s bold witness to how the Spirit led Paul every step of the way through his missionary journeys has taught me that I could depend on the Spirit to lead me in a similar fashion too. Luke’s bold witness to the whole working of the Spirit throughout the Gospel of Luke and Acts has given me a model of how we should pray about everything and how we can expect to receive the Spirit’s guidance, especially if we believe we will.

In Lesotho, Africa, I became aware of a little paralyzed boy on the children’s ward that had Tuberculosis Meningitis and Marasmus-which is severe malnutrition. He was paralyzed from the neck down and he was psychotic because the Tuberculosis virus had spread into his brain and spinal cord. I had prayed desperately for him for 3 days after meeting him and his mother. The spirit within me was totally distraught. On the 3rd day, while rounding with the doctor, he pronounced that Tjsewani would probably die within the next 24 hours.  Later that evening, I asked the 3 nurses if there was anything we could do for the boy.  The told me there was not, that he was dying. At that moment the spirit brought to my mind a story of a missionary who gave a person a bath and through the bath, the person was healed. So, I asked the nurses if we could give Tjsewani a bath to comfort him and prepare him for his burial once he passed. They surprisingly agreed. During the bath, emersed in water, Tjsewani became clear, mentally. While drying Tjsewani with him wrapped in a bed sheet on my lap, he lifted his arms and put them around my neck—his paralysis seemed to be reversing.  We put him to bed and I went to my quarters to sleep. When I came back to the children warn in the morning, Tjsewani was waiting for me at the door, standing on his own to feet.  The Holy Spirit of God had moved.

            Is it not time that we really  put our faith to work and follow the Spirit’s leading when she leads us? Is it not time that we dare to believe that God can and still does –sometimes—work in extraordinary ways? Can you imagine how our churches would transform and how our lives will be transformed if we started truly believing that God can still move in extraordinary ways, and if we are obedient to the call, when the Spirit calls. Let us be bold and courageous and not worry about what others will think of us when we tell of God’s miraculous works! Amen.

The Gospel According to Encanto: All of You

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12-13

On the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, the community has gathered. The house is decorated and music is playing, but it stops when it is time for the youngest Madrigal to make his way to the door that will reveal his unique magical gift. He stands at the foot of the stairs nervously, then gestures for his older cousin Mirabel to join him. Together they walk, slowly, up the stairs to the door with Antonio’s name on it, where his parents and siblings are waiting. He lets go of Mirabel’s arm and reaches, tentatively, toward the doorknob. At his touch, the doorknob begins to glow, then the whole door. Antonio opens the door into an exotic world of animals with whom he can now talk and interact. 

Some years ago, on the night of Mirabel’s own gift ceremony, it all went a little differently. Mirabel, too, walked up those stairs to a door with her name on it. Mirabel, too, reached out for the doorknob. But at her touch, a fog appeared and the whole door faded away. She is the only member of the family Madrigal not to receive a magical gift of her own. 

These two scenes, if you haven’t been following along for the past couple weeks, are from Disney’s recent hit movie Encanto. We’ve been looking theologically at different themes from this movie, including trauma, redemption, grace, and vulnerability. But we would be remiss to finish out the series without talking about probably the most obvious of theological themes: gifts. 

Except for Mirabel, every one of the Madrigals has a special gift. I’ve listed these before: Pepa can change the weather with her mood, Julieta can heal illness with a meal, Bruno can see the future. Luisa is strong, Isabela makes flowers bloom, Dolores can hear everything, Camilo can impersonate people, Antonio can talk to animals. 

In hearing this, we might be reminded of a well-known passage that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 

Paul goes on to talk about each uniquely gifted person as a part of the whole Body of Christ, which is the metaphor he likes to use for the church. Each member, he writes, is integral to the whole.

If you are someone who has spent much time in church, you have undoubtedly heard sermons on this passage before. Many of you have probably heard me preach on this passage before. In fact, in sorting through things in my office I came across this poster from 2015. I was surprised that I still had it, but glad that I did! It’s a picture of a human body with some different parts labeled – brain, voice, heart, stomach, hands, feet. I had had you all take a spiritual gifts survey that assigned you one or two of these body parts – ears for listening and discernment, heart for compassion, hands for service, stomach for processing information, etc., and then during that service I had you all come up and write your name by those body parts, so we could see just how we form the Body of Christ together. 

I honestly think this is an important sermon to hear once in a while. In fact, I try to preach it in summary every week as we offer our gifts to God – we are the church together. God has given us different gifts for different reasons. To some of us (not me) God has given the gift of having never met a stranger, and to those, perhaps, God has given the work of welcoming new people into our community. To some of us God has given great compassion for our homeless community, and to those, perhaps, God has given the work of supporting our bag meal ministry and other methods of being in relationship with those who live on the streets around us. To some of us God has given more technically oriented brains, and the Body of Christ needs you for working AV and keeping track of money. Being the church really does take all of us, with all our different gifts.

So that all may sound familiar, but my sense is that we are not always as familiar with the context around this passage. In this letter, Paul is writing to arguably the most drama-filled church of the first century. The Corinthians are fighting amongst themselves, they’re suing each other, the rich aren’t including the poor in communion. There’s some more spicy stuff too. Behind most of it is a kind of jockeying for status. This is an aspect of Greco-Roman culture that Jesus addresses a lot in his parables, and we see it in effect at Corinth as well. And, when it comes to spiritual gifts, it’s the same deal: everyone wants to prove that they have the best gifts.

As I’ve mentioned before, this blessing that the Madrigal family has is something they take seriously. Abuela has instilled in her children and grandchildren the belief that their gifts are to be used for the good of their community. Paul would approve of this. And yet we do also see this need for each member of the Madrigal family to prove themselves, to show what they can do and make their family proud. As Mirabel sings toward the end of the movie: so many stars, and everybody wants to shine.

To that, Paul says, If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? None of you is better than the others, he says – the Body of Christ needs all of you.

Maybe we see this dynamic in the church sometimes. I think a lot of times, though, our challenge is almost the opposite. Instead of thinking we have gifts make us better than everyone else, we think maybe we don’t have any gifts at all, or at least we aren’t sure of what they are, and therefore we think, well, someone else can do this job – someone else can be a greeter or work the AV or go out and invite others into church. Someone else, who is better at it than me. Guess what? Sometimes that means no one does.

Sometimes, I think, we are like Mirabel. We think everyone else got a gift and we didn’t.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says something I always found kind of strange. He’s just spent all this time talking about how no gift is better than another, and then he says, “But strive for the greater gifts.”

He goes from here into another famous passage. If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. Love, he says, is patient, love is kind…this is again a passage that we very often read out of its context, most often at weddings. It ends with another famous line: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. 

It took me a long time of reading these two passages to realize: these are the greater gifts. Not prophecy, not preaching, not speaking in tongues, but faith, hope, and love. And the beauty of this is, I think, that these are things that we are all called to cultivate in ourselves. Sure, we might know people who seem to have a naturally strong faith, or people who are just naturally compassionate and loving. But they are not qualities that are meant for only special people. Love isn’t a specific part of the Body of Christ, it’s the lifeblood of the whole body.

Mirabel Madrigal did not get a magical gift. And yet, as we talked about last week at Bible study, Mirabel has gifts of her own. We see this at the beginning of the movie, when she walks with Antonio up that staircase, her presence giving him courage. We see it in her determination as she goes to find the secret of what is threatening her family’s magic. And, we see it at the end of the movie, after Casita has collapsed, as Mirabel leads her family in rebuilding – both Casita and a new future. She is able to see each of her family members for who they are, not just the gifts that make them outwardly special. And she is able to help them see themselves that way, too. And when they do, they can all work together to rebuild.

Mother Theresa once said that if you can’t do big things, do small things with great love. That’s the lesson I take from Mirabel. She has no special gift, but the love and hope she offers her family is in the end the gift they need.

There is, absolutely, value in recognizing our God-given gifts. I hope you do. If it’s been a while (or never) and you want to take a spiritual gifts survey or otherwise talk about it, let me know. There is value in putting those gifts to use. I hope you are. The church isn’t the church without you. But maybe the more important takeaway is that even if you aren’t feeling terribly special, even if you don’t feel like you got an important gift worth offering, the church still needs you, maybe most of all.

My favorite scene in Encanto, the one part that always makes me tear up, comes during the last song, where the Madrigals are working together to rebuild Casita by hand. “What’s that sound?” Abuela suddenly asks, and Antonio says, “I think it’s everyone in town.” And indeed, they are coming, all of them, all of these perfectly normal people who have lived in the Madrigals’ shadow all these years.  “Lay down your load,” they sing. “We are only down the road. We have no gifts, but we are many, and we’ll do anything for you.”

And so all the ordinary townspeople of Encanto, who bring nothing but faith, hope, love, and some tools, rebuild Casita together. Because these things, as it turns out, are enough. Love, and a willingness to put that love into action through service.

My second favorite scene comes at the very end, when the new Casita is finished, and the family Madrigal gathers to survey their new home. There is just one thing missing: a doorknob. “We made this one for you,” Bruno tells Mirabel. And Mirabel, then, begins her slow walk to the door, as she did once years ago at her own ill-fated gift ceremony. This time, though, she doesn’t go to receive a magical gift. Instead she walks, knowing that who she is and what she has to give is enough, and knowing finally that her family sees it too.

She puts the doorknob in the hole in the door, and it begins to glow. 

Love, you see, can be magic enough.

The Gospel According to Encanto: We Don’t Talk About Bruno

Scripture: Psalm 139; Matthew 10:26-31

There are some things we just don’t really talk about. 

– Money. In lots of places money is a taboo subject. You’re bragging if you make too much and just making it awkward if you make too little.

– Politics. I mean, that’s not really true; this is DC, after all. Maybe better to say, politics in mixed company. This includes at church sometimes.

– Religious beliefs – anywhere outside of church. Right??

For the family Madrigal, of Disney’s hit movie Encanto, there’s another subject that few dare to broach: Bruno (of the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”)

Over the past few weeks we’ve met and gotten to know the amazing Madrigals, who live in their enchanted town in Colombia in their magical house Casita. As you will remember, each one of them is blessed with a unique magical gift. Pepa can change the weather with her mood, Julieta can heal illness with her cooking, Camilo can change shape to look like anyone he wants, Luisa can lift whole buildings like it’s nothing. Etc. As we’ve also learned, main character Mirabel is the one member of the Madrigal family who did not get a gift of her own. True to form though, we haven’t yet talked much about Bruno. 

Bruno is Mirabel’s uncle, the brother of Pepa and Julieta. All we know about him from the beginning of the movie is that his gift was the ability to see the future. One day, he disappeared completely.

It is on the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, when Casita begins to crack, that Mirabel starts realizing she needs to know more. Her mission to save her family and its magic leads her first to her cousin Dolores, then to her sister Luisa, who tells her the secret is sure to lie with Bruno.

A little bit of useful background is that on the night of each Madrigal’s gift ceremony, they are given their own magical room. Their room is a space that is uniquely them – Isabela’s, for example, is filled with beautiful flowers, and Antonio’s is a magical rainforest filled with exotic animals. Bruno’s room is filled with steep cliffs, long staircases, and lots of sand. Mirabel sneaks off to explore Bruno’s room and finds, to her surprise, one of his prophecies, an image in shattered, shining green glass. But what does it mean? 

She goes to find out more. And, in the song that made this movie famous, we find out more about Bruno, too. 

Unsurprisingly, the community had some negative reactions to Bruno’s prophecies. It seemed like he only ever had bad things to tell them – their fish would die, they would go bald, it would rain on their wedding day. It began to seem like Bruno was not just predicting the future, but making bad things happen. 

He wasn’t, of course. But try telling that to the people around him. 

And so, convinced that he was hurting his family instead of upholding the responsibility of using their family miracle for good, Bruno disappeared. And the family never – or at least rarely – spoke of him again. 

Why? Why won’t they talk about Bruno? Because it’s painful? Because he failed, in some way, to live up to the Madrigal name? Because he’s the one member of the family who doesn’t make them look good? 

I’ll be honest, it seems to me that it’s not just Bruno that the family doesn’t want to talk about. On the night of Antonio’s gift ceremony, when Mirabel sees Casita beginning to crack, and she tells Abuela, Abuela won’t hear of it. “The magic is strong!” she announces to the whole gathered community. 

To talk about Bruno, you see, is to talk about the cracks that are already present in this magical family.

There are some things we don’t really talk about. Not just controversial topics like politics and religion, but more personal things: loneliness. Fear. Our own mental health. Death, as a future reality for us and for those we love. Sex, in any way that goes beyond certain rules and restrictions. The parts of our stories that carry grief, or shame, or that we fear are going to cause us to be judged.

We don’t talk about Bruno because we don’t want other people to know about the cracks in us.

As I thought about Bruno and the things we don’t talk about, Psalm 139 came to mind. This is the Psalm we read at the beginning of worship. O Lord, you have searched me and known me, it goes.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. It feels important this week especially to note that these words are poetry, and not a scientific or theological statement about when life and personhood begin. Rather, what we have here is the depiction of a God who knows us, intimately and deeply.

This is a Psalm that I think is usually thought to be comforting. God is always with us! In fact, yesterday Jon and the girls and I were driving to a friend’s birthday gathering in Harrisonburg, and we had the radio on a Christian station for part of the drive, and I noted how many praise songs seemed to quote this Psalm in some part. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you are acquainted with all my ways. Hallelujah.

I always thought of it that way too until one time I taught a Bible study on this Psalm and started reading more about it. If we listen to the language of the whole Psalm, it’s not so clear that it’s supposed to be comforting. You hem me in, behind and before, the Psalmist writes. You lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? This, perhaps, is not a God who’s always at our side like a loyal best friend. Instead, this is a God who pursues us, even into the underworld if necessary.[1]

What if the Psalmist is running because they don’t want to be fully known? Maybe they don’t want God to know every thought they have before they even speak it. Who would??? Aren’t there some things just better left unsaid?

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,” Matthew tells us, “and nothing secret that will not become known.” Mark and Luke both quote Jesus as saying this too, but only Matthew has the gall to tell us not to fear. I’m sorry, I don’t consider myself to be a person with any huge skeletons in my closet, but even so, there are things that I would rather stay in the dark.

It turns out maybe it’s not so comfortable to be fully known, cracks and all.

Brene Brown is a researcher and author whose work focuses a lot on vulnerability, and the power inherent in vulnerability. She says she came to this topic through the study of shame. She talked to a number of people and divided them into categories based on their own sense of self-worth and belonging. And she says that of the people who had that strong sense of worthiness and belonging, one of the things they had in common was vulnerability.

“They fully embraced vulnerability,” she says. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating…. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first … the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”[2]

Talking about hard things, the things we’d rather ignore and deny about ourselves, whether it is mortality or grief or sin or shame, requires vulnerability. That’s why we don’t like to do it. That’s why we don’t talk about Bruno. And yet according to Brene Brown, these people who embraced vulnerability were also living life more fully and joyfully.

I do know there are sometimes good reasons not to talk about these parts of ourselves. I know, for example, that it might be physically unsafe for a teenager struggling with their sexuality or gender identity to come out to parents who might not accept them. I know that being forthcoming about a struggle with mental illness can have negative implications for a person’s professional life in some cases. I recognize this. I’m not saying we need to be open books all the time; not everything needs to be a social media blast; obviously discernment is called for.

What I am saying is that allowing ourselves to be known, letting others into our broken lives, being able to tell our full stories, is part of the abundant life that God wants and intends for us.

Even the Psalmist, the one running away from the God who knew too much of them, eventually stops to offer God praise: I praise you, they write, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Perhaps, for just an instant, they are able to see themselves as God sees them: fearfully and wonderfully made, cracks and all. Perhaps, for an instant, it is not so bad to be fully known at all. The Psalm ends with a prayer: Search me God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. What the Psalmist was running from at the beginning is now what they pray for, because they know being known is the beginning of life as God intends. And, in fact, we’ll see this next week, as we see what happens when the townspeople of Encanto finally do see the family Madrigal for all of who they are.

“Do not fear,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “for nothing is covered that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known.” He’s talking, here, it turns out, not about our own sin and shame but about God’s Kingdom, and he’s talking to those who will go out and proclaim it, even when they meet resistance. Don’t be afraid: God’s truth will come out, and that truth is that you are loved, and you are offered forgiveness, and shame is wiped away.

There are always going to be things that are hard to talk about. There are always going to be parts of ourselves that it’s hard to share. But maybe, in God’s eyes and even sometimes in the eyes of others, what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful, and leads us to life that’s fuller and more joyful. Maybe it’s time to talk about Bruno.

[1] I no longer have the resource that first gave me this idea nor remember what it was. In the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Psalm 139 (Vol. IV, p. 1236), J. Clinton McCann notes the “possible ambivalence” of the text in this regard, though he comes down on the side of God’s omnipresence as good news for the Psalmist.


The Gospel According to Encanto: Surface Pressure

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

The author Kate Bowler writes that her great-grandmother, Marjorie Bebbington, was a “hell of a woman.” She was “tough and kind,” made her family’s meals and sewed their clothes, and ran an entire block’s worth of apartments. She was also a painter. Sort of. Marjorie Bebbington wasn’t a very good painter. But Marjorie Bebbington wasn’t used to not being able to succeed what she set her mind to, so one day she walked down to the local thrift store and bought a painting and painted over the artist’s signature at the bottom and signed it herself.

Kate Bowler writes, “I had that one hung in my house until I got old enough to think…wait a minute…she really made some remarkable progress.”

“My great-grandmother,” she continues, “had bought into a story of intense perfectionism: that she had to be everything, or she was nothing at all.”[1]

Last week in worship we met another family with reason to believe that they can do anything and be everything: the amazing Madrigals, of Disney’s latest hit movie Encanto. We learned the story of Abuela, who as a young woman fled her home, lost her husband, and received a miracle: the blessing of a magic house in a magic town surrounded by high mountains, and a magic family in which each member in every generation has their own magical gift. Everyone, that is, except her granddaughter Mirabel.

One of the members of the family Madrigal who we met last week is Mirabel’s sister Luisa. Luisa has the power of superhuman strength (and looks the part.) We first encounter Luisa in the movie as the family is running around making last minute preparations for Antonio’s gift ceremony, which is about to take place that night. Luisa is carrying huge barrels three at a time. Someone needs to move a piano? She’ll get it. Guests need valet parking for their donkeys as they arrive? She’ll pick those donkeys up one in each arm like it’s nothing and move them where they need to go. Luisa is the strong one – inside and out.

As I mentioned last week, the family’s magical gifts aren’t just for fun. At the beginning of Antonio’s gift ceremony, Abuela stands up and makes a speech. “Fifty years ago,” she says, “in our darkest moment, this candle blessed us with a miracle. And the greatest honor of our family has been to use our blessings to serve this beloved community.” This is not the first time that idea has come up. Already in the movie’s opening song, Abuela sings: We swear to always help those around us, and earn the miracle that somehow found us.

All seems to go according to plan that night as Antonio, the youngest of the Madrigals, receives his gift. But that night, as the town celebrates, Casita begins to crack, and Mirabel begins her mission to save the magic and save her family.

She begins the next morning with her cousin Dolores, who can hear everything. Dolores tells Mirabel she heard Luisa’s eye twitching all night. When Mirabel goes to Luisa, Luisa tries to play it off. But eventually, she gives in and tells Mirabel the truth: the night before, while Casita was cracking, Luisa felt weak.

Again, this isn’t just a matter of disappointment. This is a full-blown existential crisis. These are the amazing Madrigals, and Luisa is the strong one. She has internalized Abuela’s expectations. She has a responsibility to her family and community. Who is she if she isn’t strong anymore? What is she worth if she can no longer do what everyone expects from her?

It seems to me that even though “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became the song this movie is known for, it’s Luisa’s song, “Surface Pressure,” that everyone I know seems to identify with. Under the surface, she sings, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service. Who am I if I can’t carry it all, if I falter?

No cracks, no breaks, no mistakes, no pressure.

Have you ever felt like Luisa?

Have you ever felt like you have to be what other people expect you to be? The perfect parent? The perfect child? The perfect employee? The perfect Christian? The person who somehow has it all together?

Do you ever feel like you might just crack under the pressure?

So many of us, it seems, are going through life just trying to hold it together. For some of us, the world shut down two years ago and all of a sudden we were required to keep doing our full-time jobs with skills we’d never used before while also homeschooling our kids. Others of us have felt the pressure of being part of the sandwich generation, caring for kids and parents with health issues at the same time. Just this week I’ve read multiple news articles of young student athletes dying by suicide, unable to live up to the pressure put on them. Meanwhile our capitalist ideology tells us that if we’re not stressed we’re not important; we are only as good as the value we add to our company; we are worth what we can produce. We make ourselves miserable thinking that if only we can find the right diet, the right organizational system, the secret to it all, that somehow we will be OK.

Do you feel that way? Do you ever feel like you. might. crack.?

If so then I have a word for you, from the letter to the Ephesians. The author of Ephesians, who calls themself Paul but may or may not actually be Paul, is writing to churches in Asia Minor, telling these Gentile communities just how they fit into this story and community of salvation that has preceded them. In chapter 2 the author writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

For those of you, who like me, spend a lot of time worrying about how you’re measuring up and earning your right to belong, this is what God wants you to know: all the points you rack up and the awards you win and the hours you bill and the number of books you read with your kid before kindergarten aren’t going to save you.

Our worth, our belovedness, our place in God’s story: those things are offered to us for free. And faith, I think, is not just being able to believe, intellectually, that Jesus died for me, but about accepting this alternate reality that God offers us in Jesus, where no one has anything to prove.

Because I know this verse has been at the center of the whole faith vs. works debate in Christian discourse – the question of, if we’re saved by grace through faith, then, basically, can we just be jerks and not worry about it – let me point out the next verse as well: For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

We go on to read in the rest of Ephesians that the way we live our lives in Christian community matters, and that this is a matter of some intentionality, of working together and listening to the Holy Spirit – but the thing is, it’s easier to love when you know you are loved than when you are required to love your neighbor x amount in order to make it into heaven. It’s easier to live as God intended when we’re not doing it for a grade.

I’ve been seeing a spiritual director over the past few months, and at our last meeting I was talking to her about this voice in my head – maybe you know it – that seems to always be asking if I’ve done enough, if I’ve made the faithful choice, if the thing that I want is really what God wants for me, and she listened to all of this, and then she said, “You know, I have to tell you, I don’t think that voice is of God.” And I said, “How do I know?” And she said, “Has that voice ever brought you peace?”

And I didn’t have anything to say to that, because yes, grace is supposed to challenge us, and yes, grace is supposed to be costly, but in the end, yes, it is also supposed to bring us peace – and not be one more thing that makes us think we might crack.

I think sometimes of the lyrics to a song I really liked in college that I sometimes come back to when I feel like I have nothing left: If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through. And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.[2]  So what if you fall, Luisa? Go ahead and fall, and let grace catch you.

As it turns out, Luisa isn’t the only member of the Madrigals who feels the pressure of trying to live up to her family name and her magical gift. Her sister, Isabela, who has the gift of making flowers bloom at will, feels the pressure to be perfect and beautiful and ladylike, to marry according to her family’s expectations instead of what she actually wants. Isa, it turns out, would sometimes rather grow cactuses than roses. Mirabel, who has no magical gift, feels the pressure of proving her worth in a family where everyone is special but her. Bruno, the uncle no one talks about, even ran away when it seemed like his gift was doing more harm to the family than good.

All of them thought they had to earn a gift that had already been given.

And maybe we do too.

At the end of Encanto, when the Madrigals gather back at their beloved Casita, which has completed crumbled to the ground, and Bruno comes back, Abuela reveals the lesson it took her this long to figure out: The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got, the miracle is you. Not some gift, just you.

Then, the Madrigals begin to rebuild together. With the magic extinguished, Luisa is perhaps only slightly stronger than the average person. But it doesn’t matter. She is part of the family. She is loved, and she belongs.

As Christians we might put Abuela’s words a little differently: the miracle is that we are made in the image of God, that we are loved, that Jesus lived, died and rose again to offer us life both abundant and eternal.

We couldn’t earn it if we tried. All we have to do is – by faith – live it.

[1] Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, Good Enough: 40-ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection, p. 166-167.

[2] “If I Stand,” written by Rich Mullins and also sung (in the version I first heard) by Jars of Clay

The Gospel According to Encanto: The Family Madrigal

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:4-17

Meet the amazing Madrigals.

There is Pepa, who controls the weather with her mood, and her sister, Julieta, who can heal any illness or injury with the food she cooks. The next generation is no less gifted: Dolores can hear sounds a mile away; Camilo can shape-shift and disguise himself as anyone he wants. Luisa has superhuman strength, and the perfect beauty Isabela can make flowers bloom out of nowhere. Abuela is the matriarch of the family. A long time ago, Abuela received a miracle: a magical town in their native Colombia – an encanto – surrounded by high mountains to keep her and her family safe; a magic house, Casita, whose stairs and windows and drawers and floors respond to the family’s every need; and a candle, eternally burning, representing the magic of the family itself, each member with their own magical gift.

This, as you may have picked up on, is the cast of characters Disney’s latest hit movie, Encanto – at least, most of it. If you haven’t seen the movie, that’s OK. I’ll be sending you some video links from the movie in your e-note over the next couple weeks so you can have some idea of what I’m talking about up here, and if you don’t get the e-note I encourage you to search for some clips on YouTube. (That or subscribe to Disney+ for a month – it’ll be worth it!)

Abuela, as we learn, takes this miracle seriously. Her children and grandchildren’s gifts are not simply valued for the sake of fun or power. It is her family’s solemn responsibility to use their gifts for the common good of their town, to prove that they are worthy of this blessing. And so if she sometimes puts her family under a lot of pressure, that’s why.

There are still  a few members of the family I haven’t mentioned. There is Pepa and Julieta’s brother, Bruno – we don’t talk about Bruno. There is Antonio, the youngest Madrigal, who is about to have his coming-of-age ceremony where he will receive his own magical gift. There is Mirabel, the hero of our story. Mirabel is the only person in the Family Madrigal who did not receive a gift, and she has made it her mission since then to prove her worth and usefulness as part of the family.

The story opens on the day of Antonio’s gift ceremony. The mood is celebratory, but there is an underlying unspoken tension. Everyone remembers what happened last time, at Mirabel’s ceremony, when no gift was given. For Antonio, however, everything goes as planned: he opens his magical door and all of a sudden is able to communicate with animals. Abuela breathes a visible sigh of relief. The magic is still at work.

That night, though, while the rest of the family celebrates, Mirabel sees Casita begin to crack. By the time she calls for Abuela, everything is normal again. Mirabel, however, sets out to discover what’s really going on with her family, just what it all has to do with her tío Bruno, and how she can save the family’s magic.

The Madrigals remind me, in some ways, of a story the Bible tells about another family who received a miraculous blessing. The story starts with a shepherd boy named David, the youngest of eight brothers, who in his own anointing ceremony is improbably chosen over all of them to be king of Israel. David doesn’t become king right away. Instead he finds his way into the court of King Saul, proves himself as a valiant warrior, and rises in the ranks – until Saul starts to see his right-hand man as threat to his power. David does eventually become king, but only after years of civil war and life on the run.

Years later, after David is comfortably settled on the throne of a reunited and increasingly centralized Israel, he decides that it isn’t right for him to be living in a nice cedar palace while God’s residence among the people is still the mobile tent that came with them from the Sinai wilderness. So, David announces his intention to build God a house – a temple. That night, though, God speaks to the prophet Nathan. God, it turns out, doesn’t need David to build God a house: instead, God will build David a house – not a physical structure, but a dynasty. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me,” God tells David through Nathan; “your throne shall be established forever.” Suddenly, this is a family that will have the honor and responsibility of carrying a blessing through the generations.

For a while, Israel enjoys a time of peace and prosperity, an era that future generations will look back on as a golden age. It is not so long, though, before we begin to realize that even this miraculous house has some cracks in it.

It all starts when David sees Bathsheba, decides she is going to be his, and arranges to have her soldier husband “accidentally” die in battle. The man after God’s own heart, as David is sometimes called (see 1 Samuel 13:14) has apparently lost himself to his own power. The cracks continues with David’s half-hearted response to a crime committed by one of his own children against another, which leads the nation back down the road to civil war. David does prevail, at the cost of his son Absalom’s life, and when David finally dies of old age his son Solomon takes the throne.

There is no denying the prosperity and splendor of Israel under King Solomon, but this, too, comes with a cost. Solomon’s Israel is a place where the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, heavily taxed and forced into work gangs to build the Temple that David never did. When Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam comes to power, Rehoboam vows to rule with twice the iron fist that Solomon did. The people protest, and the kingdom splits in two.

Descendants of the house of David will continue to sit on the throne in Jerusalem for another (almost) 350 years. Most of them will not be people after God’s own heart. The cracks in this miraculous house get wider and wider, until the house can no longer stand. It falls to the Babylonian army in 587 BCE. Most of the stories we now read in the Old Testament are written and/or compiled as people look back and say, a descendant of David was supposed to be on the throne forever. How could this have happened?

How could this have happened?

Back in Colombia, despite all of Mirabel’s efforts, Casita eventually crumbles and falls as well. In the aftermath of its collapse, we learn more about Abuela’s story. How she and her husband fled their home with infant triplets in their arms as militias rode through, setting fire to everything in sight. How her young husband turned back to defend his family from guerillas approaching on horseback. How that act of love cost him his life, but was also the source of the magic that made the amazing Madrigals. The story of the family Madrigal is a miraculous one, but it is also a story born out of trauma.[1]

And if we go back to David’s story, perhaps it is not so hard to see it as the story of a miracle born out of and wrapped in trauma: this man after God’s own heart, divinely chosen, who nevertheless found the road to kingship paved with violence and fear, and who will see that violence play out in his own family’s story for generations to come.

Psychologists tell us about this idea of intergenerational trauma, how the experience of trauma often doesn’t just end with the person who experienced it directly, but how it comes to bear on the relationships of parents with their children, and those children with their own children. The phenomenon was first studied in survivors of the Holocaust and their children, who showed symptoms of trauma despite having never lived through it themselves. Intergenerational trauma and its cousin, historical trauma, which can affect whole groups of people, can be important in understanding things like cycles of poverty and addiction and the wide-reaching effects of racial injustice in our country.[2]

I don’t know how many of us would identify this kind of intergenerational or historical trauma as part of our own family stories. I know there are those of us in this community who have experienced trauma directly. And all of us, every one of us, has undoubtedly experienced brokenness, every one of us has stories we hoped would go a different way than they did, with all the grief and despair and guilt which come with that.

My point is not to say that we are doomed, destined to pass on the worst parts of our own histories and experiences to those who come after us. Obviously, these are incredibly complex issues, and I do not claim any expertise as a psychologist, but what I do believe as a matter of faith is that there is hope for all of the brokenness in our stories to be redeemed.

I don’t mean to say that redemption will happen magically, or overnight. It often happens as we come to know our own stories, as we confront our individual and collective pasts (as individuals, as families, as a nation), as we use all the resources at our disposal to break harmful patterns and cycles and challenge systems that perpetuate violence and trauma, which we may even find that we are part of. God, I believe, is in this holy work, giving us hope for something new. In this season of Easter, we may be especially attuned to the ways God is bringing new life for us and for the world around us – and how we might be called to participate in that.

For Abuela Madrigal, redemption comes through Mirabel, and her willingness to confront the cracks in the house the family she loves. It comes through Mirabel understanding the trauma that is a part of Abuela’s story and where her obsession over her family’s magical perfection comes from. It comes through breaking the pattern of pressure and fear and starting again on a new foundation.

For David, redemption comes God’s people reflect theologically on their history, as God brings them back from exile and allows them to start anew, even if things look a little different than they once did. And, as we tell the story as Christians, it comes as once again a descendant of David is hailed as King. Jesus will claim the good and miraculous parts in his family’s story and make that the new foundation for humanity’s relationship with God.

At the end of Encanto, the family Madrigal comes together to rebuild. Abuela and Mirabel sing a new song. “Look at this home, we need a new foundation…it isn’t perfect/neither are we/that’s true.”  No longer the amazing Madrigals, the perfectly normal Madrigals must learn to live into a new story – and it’s one that is filled with hope.

Once, David offered to build God a house. God told David God would build him a house instead. But sometimes, God says to us: why don’t you build a house with me? It might not look like the place you’ve always lived, but it will be hopeful, and beautiful, this new foundation that God promises. 

[1] For more about the setting and background of Encanto, this is a good article:


From the Manger to the Cross: The Kingdom Victorious

When I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned the story of a baby who was born surrounded by farm animals and laid in a manger. I learned how this baby grew up and called disciples to follow him, how he healed people and forgave them, and how he made bread multiply so everyone could be fed. I learned about the stories he told: stories of lost sheep and sons who came home and foreigners who stopped to help people on the road.

And, when I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned the story of a man, the Son of God, who died on a cross and rose again.

Of course, I knew that all of these stories were about the same person. But looking back, I’m not sure we always told them like that was the case. It was almost like there was one set of stories about the man who lived, and this other story about the man who died. The stories about the man who lived were nice. But the stories about the man who died were the point, because if God sent God’s only Son to earth to die in payment for our sins, then the stories of the people he had helped and healed and loved along the way were at best bonus content.

I’m sure I’m overstating the way my childhood teachers and preachers – to whom I owe the foundations of my faith – separated those two parts of the story. But I do think we as Christians have the tendency to do that, to talk about Jesus’ life and the things that made him nice and charming on the one hand, and about his death that saved us on the other.

If you’ve been worshiping with us since the beginning of the year, you know that we’ve been going through the Gospel of Luke, all the way from the manger to the cross. And my hope has been for us to hear all those stories we usually hear here and there – the baby in the manger, the calling of disciples, the exorcisms – as part of one bigger story of Jesus’ life and ministry. Last week as we read the passion story in all its parts I wanted us to hear how that man who healed and told stories and made bread multiply is the same man who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, turned over tables in the Temple, ate the Passover meal with his disciples, was arrested in Gethsemane, and crucified by Roman soldiers.

And this morning, that story continues, as a group of Jesus’ female disciples head to the tomb bearing burial spices. Their only hope, now that all other hope is gone, is to the complete the preparation of his body which they hadn’t had a chance to do on the Sabbath. You know the rest of the story: the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the angels gleaming like lightning proclaiming that the living are not be found in this place of death.

It is a story that proclaims new life and God’s love and surprising good news and hope for those for whom all other hope has died. But it is also a story that can’t be told on its own.

You see, we often tell the story of Easter as if it begins at the cross. But the story of Easter doesn’t begin on Good Friday, or even when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of Hosanna. The story of Easter begins when Mary finds out she is pregnant with Jesus and sings of the hungry being filled and the rich going away hungry, of tyrants being toppled and the poor and lowly lifted up. The story of Easter begins, again, when Jesus stands up in front of that crowd in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very outset of his ministry and reads from the scroll of Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The story of Easter continues as Jesus preaches and tells stories about this upside-down kingdom of God, where the poor are blessed, prisoners are freed, sinners are forgiven, and outcasts are welcomed to the table. It continues as he heals people in body and spirit and makes that good news of which he speaks tangible for them, inviting them to live in this Kingdom reality for themselves.

When Jesus begins to attract the displeasure of the local religious elite, we get our first hints of how this story will end. We begin to realize that this good news he preaches, where the first are last and the last first, is not good news to everyone. And if we have ever found ourselves in a position of luck or privilege in this life, maybe we can understand why this good news seemed more like a threat to some.

Eventually, we know where it all leads: Temple leaders who are afraid of the way Jesus criticizes and threatens their institution and the power they get by being part of it; Roman leaders afraid of this revolution he seems to be starting. It all comes to a head on Good Friday, but it was headed down this path from the beginning, since the moment Jesus’ mother and then Jesus himself stood up and proclaimed good news to the poor and the breaking of chains.

All those stories of the man who lived – all the healings and the bread and lost sheep and Good Samaritans – they aren’t just nice Sunday School stories about how much God loves us. They’re the reason Jesus died. The crucifixion is the reaction of the rich and powerful to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in this world. And when we look at it that way, it’s a predictable ending, maybe even an inevitable one, because isn’t that how it always seems to happen, and in fact who are we to say that if we were the rich and the powerful, we wouldn’t have done the same thing?

But that morning when the women show up at the tomb, the whole story changes.

Jesus healed people, and the powers that be said leave them in chains. Jesus ate with sinners, and the powers that be said don’t you know what they’ve done. Jesus talked about the love of God, and the powers that be said who do you think you are. Jesus preached good news to the poor, and the powers that be said no.

On Good Friday, it looked like “no” was the end of the story.

But on Sunday, a group of women arrived at the tomb and found it empty, because the Kingdom of God that had been breaking into this world the whole time cannot be defeated by the powers of sin and death. It is bigger than them; it is stronger than them; the upside-down Kingdom of God is and will be victorious.

I know it sounds naïve, maybe kind of Pollyanna-ish, to stand up here and say that good wins out over bad in the end. Life isn’t a superhero movie. Instead here we are, listening to news of war in Ukraine and in other places around the world that don’t as often make the news; staring down the barrel at another wave of Covid; feeling powerless in the face of the climate change we already see happening around us; feeling powerless in the face of how our country seems to be divided enough that it’s ready to collapse. I can’t promise that any of it will all turn out OK. But the story of Jesus isn’t a superhero movie. It’s realistic enough to tell us that sometimes, the story ends in death – real, actual death. But it also tells us that on Sunday, women went to the tomb with burial spices and it was empty.

There’s a line in one of Paul’s letters that has always challenged me – “If Christ has not been raised,” he writes to the Corinthians, “then your faith is in vain…..If only for this life we have hope in Christ, then we are most to be pitied” (15:17,19). It challenges me because I don’t want us to forget those stories of Christ’s life, of healing and welcome and mercy and love, of all the good news that was preached before Jesus died. But at the same time Paul reminds me that if the story were to end there, who cares? I might as well get what I can for myself now, because we know where mercy and love lead. If Christ has not been raised, if the powers of death win, then why live for anything or anyone other than myself?

But because the tomb is empty, the invitation stands – to live life as part of the Kingdom of God.

I ask myself sometimes – am I living differently because I believe that Christ was raised? Am I living differently because I believe that the good news of the Kingdom of God, and all it might ask of me, is the only way to life in the end? Am I living in a way that wouldn’t make sense if the resurrection turned out not to be true?

If nothing else, I believe this: that the way Jesus lived, and showed us how to live – his way of mercy, and welcome, and justice, and love, and sacrifice – is the way that leads to life, even when it leads through death.

There’s more to the story, you know. As Luke tells it, the story goes on – as Jesus ascends back into heaven and the disciples go off on their own, empowered by the fire of the Holy Spirit to heal and forgive and make bread multiply and welcome outsiders in. They do it because they know – they have seen the empty tomb. They have seen Jesus alive. Their faith is not in vain. And so they go forth to proclaim good news to the poor, just like he did – the man who lived, and died, and lived again.