Easter: Thomas Still Doubted

Scripture: Mark 16:1-7; John 20:19-29

It’s customary, in many churches, to read the story of so-called Doubting Thomas the week after Easter, so I suppose I’m skipping ahead a little bit.  Maybe it would be right to linger a little more on the surprise of the empty tomb, the good news that comes after so much bad news and turns it all around.  But everything is a little different this year, including Easter. Instead of gathering together in a sanctuary filled with lilies, we’re all in our own homes.  Instead of dressing up, we’re on the couch in sweatpants and leggings (speaking for some of you, I assume.)  Instead of eating an Easter meal with friends and extended family, we’re making do with whatever’s in the cupboard.  It’s a kind of un-Eastery Easter.

And maybe it’s not the first time.  Maybe you’ve had some un-Eastery Easters before.  Maybe you’ve struggled your way through your first holiday after the loss of a loved one or maybe you’ve been away from home and the people and traditions that are meaningful for you.  Maybe you’ve had to work, or maybe you couldn’t afford any sort of special celebration.  Maybe you’ve been alone.  I know on Easter last year I went home after church, had lunch with my mom, and then went to visit my dad in the hospital where it was just beginning to become clear that this was the end of the road for him and his fight against cancer.  Everything felt like death; nothing felt like resurrection. Sometimes, for all of us, the hollow ache of Holy Saturday rings truer than the empty tomb.  This year, we’re just in that place more or less together (allowing, of course, for differences in our current personal circumstances.)

And there’s something beautiful, I think, about celebrating Easter anyway.  There’s something hope-filled about celebrating Easter in a way that doesn’t feel like Easter at all.  It’s not necessarily a happy, optimistic kind of hope.  It’s more the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go.  It says we don’t need the lilies and the new clothes and the honey-baked ham or even the triumphant music for the good news of resurrection to be true.  We can let it be true right now, just as things are.

At the beginning of the service we heard the account of the resurrection as told by Mark, who says that the women got to the tomb just after sunrise Sunday morning.  In John’s Gospel, the account begins “Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”  While it was still dark, a couple of women went to the tomb, expecting nothing more than to visit a grave.

Instead what they found was an empty tomb, a risen Christ, and a force of love that could not be held down.  In that moment, everything changed.

Or did it?

“It was still the first day of the week,” John tells us, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples.  This is later that same day. This is still an Easter story.  We are now in a post-resurrection world.  And the disciples, who don’t know that yet, are huddled together in a locked room.  It’s their own self-imposed quarantine lockdown from a world they now have every reason to be afraid of, both because their leader has been arrested and killed and who knows who might be next, and because everything they had come to believe in and everything that had given them hope had suddenly been shattered.  It is there, in the midst of their fear, that Jesus appears to them and offers them peace.

Even then not all of them got the memo.  Thomas, for reasons that go unexplained, wasn’t there with the disciples when Jesus appeared, and he’s not terribly inclined to believe their secondhand account that their fearless leader has returned from the dead.  It must have sounded an awful lot like wishful thinking to him, or maybe some sort of questionable coping mechanism.

It is Easter. The disciples are huddled together in a locked room and Thomas still doubts.  Fear and doubt both still exist in this post-resurrection world.  An empty tomb hasn’t magically changed all of that.

And, even more so – outside that locked door, the Roman Empire is still in charge.  An empty tomb hasn’t toppled an oppressive government, and that was what a bunch of people hoped Jesus would do in the first place.  The people of Israel and of many other nations suffer just as much injustice as they always did – even in this post-resurrection world.  The first Easter was, in its own way, a rather un-Eastery Easter.

And yet, for each person who hears the good news that Jesus is alive, for each person who gets to touch his wounds with their own hands, something shifts profoundly.  Women who came with burial spaces run to tell the others.  Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”  From their locked room, the disciples spread out to the far reaches of the empire to feed people and heal people and go to prison and risk their own death and tell people the good news.

The whole world was filled with death but now, Jesus lives.

This isn’t all there is.  The death, fear, anxiety, stress and isolation of this current moment isn’t all there is.  It will give way to life and love and grace.  Maybe not soon, and certainly not without suffering along the way. But it is bound to, because Jesus lives.  The abundant life God wants for us can’t be held back.  Not in the end.

The world doesn’t change just because of an empty tomb.  But the people who hear and believe it do.  Because if Jesus is alive, then they have new life too.

It’s easy to celebrate Easter when flowers are in bloom and all is right with the world.  But that’s not the world we have – and that’s not a world that needs resurrection.

Instead we gather as we can in a world that feels so much more like death than resurrection and we say Christ is risen.  And there is something beautiful about this, our small act of resistance.  It’s the kind of hope that grits its teeth and refuses to let go.

Good Friday: Out of Control

Scripture: Luke 23:44-46

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to feel like things are in control. I don’t need to necessarily be in control, but I need to trust that someone who knows what they’re doing is. And so I make lists, because if I can organize the chaos in my mind, then I feel like I am in control of it. And I make plans B and C and D. And sometimes I micromanage, to make sure that someone else has thought of all the same details that I have. And too often, I worry, about what happens when things don’t go right.

It’s not a good time in our world to be a person who needs to feel like things are in control.

But it’s Good Friday and it feels a little bit liturgically correct to feel like everything is out of control, because on Good Friday, everything is – or at least it seems to be. Good Friday is out of control because we really do, deep down, want to know that good wins over evil in the end and it gets better and the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and on Good Friday, all of those things threaten not to be true. On Good Friday, the forces of sin and death and evil have their final say. The Gospel writers tell us that darkness covered the earth from noon to three pm as Jesus hung on the cross – darkness, during the day, symbolizing the reversal of created order. It’s existential chaos – not unlike now.

It’s not the same, I know; the world has seen hard times before, and yet as I read the news these days and it’s all surging death tolls and photographs of makeshift morgues and warnings to not even leave the house for groceries if you can help it, it’s hard to just believe that everything is going to be OK, and in fact, it seems for some people at least, it isn’t. And what kind of sense or order is there to the universe if everything isn’t going to be OK?

In the Matthew and Mark, Jesus himself seems to express that existential agony as he dies on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He may know what’s on the other side of all this – the Gospels tell us he does – but in the moment it must have been easy to forget. The one who is God is forsaken by God; on Good Friday nothing makes sense. In John, by contrast, even as things look their worst, Jesus is always calm and in control, and as he dies, he bows his head and says serenely, “It is finished.”

In Luke, though, we meet a Jesus somewhere in the middle, whose last words on the cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

He knows, presumably, that there is life on the other side of this; he may not know at that moment of his death just what that looks like or what it means to get from A to B. But he knows the God who has been with him from the beginning, the one he calls Abba, the one who is love. And so, even on the cross, he is able to say these words of trust; even in death, he offers his life into God’s loving hands.

I find solace in those words at times like this. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” I may not know what the future holds and I certainly can’t control what it looks like – how close this sickness will come to me, what claim it will lay to me, what claim it will lay to my loved ones, or what it will mean for life as we know it moving forward. What is there to do but to keep moving forward in the footsteps of Jesus when death threatens to win? What is there to do but to entrust my life and the lives of those I love into the hands of the one who is love, who has loved us from the beginning?

 

Prayer:

Merciful God, we entrust our lives and spirits to your care. In the days of our greatest fear and grief, we choose to believe that you are working for good. We may not know what lies ahead, but we know that you are love. May we hold fast to this truth, on this day and every day. Amen.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-13

I saw a post going around Facebook mid-last week: it said, “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but today is Wednesday.”  For those of us who are spending all our time at home right now – and I know that’s not all of us, because some of you are essential employees – but for those of who are maybe only changing out of our pajamas on a good day, at least, time does seem to blur together more than usual, wouldn’t you say?

That’s one of the things that makes me glad that we are now entering Holy Week, which is a specific week with specific days with specific meaning: Palm Sunday.  Maundy Thursday.  Good Friday.  It’s a week that grounds us in God’s story in God’s time, even when we may not feel especially grounded in our own.

That said, Holy Week can feel like a bit of a time warp itself.  We start on Sunday with the crowds chanting “hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, five days later we’re at the cross, two days later there’s an empty tomb.

And in the meantime, Jesus finds himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, after dinner has been eaten, after feet have been washed, praying as he prepares to face what he knows is ahead.

Jesus’ ministry began in temptation, as he contended with the devil in the wilderness right after his baptism. We might imagine things have come full circle now, as Jesus has to decide for the last time whether he’s really going to go through with all of it.  Maybe as he prayed that famous prayer, “If it is possible, take this cup from me – yet not my will, but yours, be done,” he remembered how taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

A few weeks ago someone emailed me, looking ahead in this series, and asked how we can pray that God not lead us into temptation.  Is it really God who leads us into temptation?  After all, in the letter of James, it says “When tempted, no one should say ‘God is tempting me.’”  It’s a good question that I’m not sure I have a good answer for, especially since I’m inclined to agree with James there: the world presents us with temptation; God leads us in right paths around and through it.  Some other translations take on the theological challenge by rendering it, “Keep us from being tempted” (as we read a minute ago – CEV), or “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (NLT).  Those translations take a bit more free license with the Greek, as far as I can tell, but I do think they help us think about the meaning of the line.  In the end, the truth is that we will face temptation one way or another. Our prayer should be that we will not let ourselves be led too far down that path, that God will deliver us before it’s too late.

When you hear that word, temptation, what comes to mind?  Something about food, maybe? Sex? I suppose either of those things could be within the realm of what Jesus meant, depending on the specifics, but they barely scratch the surface.  After all, if the next part of the line is “deliver us from evil”, or “the evil one,” that’s a lot bigger than the choices we make about our own apparent purity.  The Evil One doesn’t care if you have another piece of that cake. The Evil One wants you to fear your neighbor instead of loving them.

In some translations, instead of “temptation”, we might read “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (NRSV) which makes it sound even more specific, like maybe we’re talking about the end here: do not bring us to that final test, God, or if you do, help us to withstand it; help us to emerge victorious.  This is, after all, a prayer about God’s kingdom come on earth, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the language here gets kind of cosmic.  And that’s why when we pray it, we are praying something cosmic too: in the words of NT Wright, “it is the prayer that the forces of destruction, of dehumanization, of anti-creation, of anti-redemption, may be bound and gagged, and that God’s good world may escape from being sucked down into their morass.”[1] Deliver us, all together, from evil.

In their own book on the Lord’s Prayer, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas note that the language in this line of the prayer, ‘save,’ ‘trial,’ ‘deliver,’ are all “words of crisis.”  And I wonder if that makes them particularly timely words to pray now, as we face a global crisis – we are probably not in the end times, but it sure does feel like it sometimes.  Is coronavirus the kind of evil we pray for God to deliver us from?  I think we can and should – obviously at the same time we wash our hands and socially distance to the best of our abilities.  I also think it’s a good reminder that while anything that threatens the abundant life God wants for us here on earth, as it is in heaven, is evil, sickness isn’t the worst evil.  As Jesus says later in Matthew: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul.”

Believe me, I say this as someone who tends toward anxiety in the best of times, and the news these days scares me.  I have no problem calling this virus evil.  But the worst evil is that everyday evil that tempts us as it threatens to kill our soul: our fear and hatred of each other, our playing life as a zero-sum game, where your gain is my loss; our inclination to make ourselves safe at any cost.

That’s the temptation Jesus faces in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Sunday hosannas fade and the tide of the week begins to turn.

As we enter this week, from Sunday to Friday and Sunday again; as we enter this next week of distancing and isolation and news that keeps us up at night, maybe you’ll find the words of this prayer Jesus taught ringing especially true to you: Give us what we need, each day.  Forgive us for the ways we fail you and each other.  Deliver us from evil – especially the evil that finds its way inside of us.

And may your Kingdom come, God.  May your Kingdom come.

 

[1] NT Wright, The Lord and His Prayer, p. 55

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-13

We’ve been spending the season of Lent reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer one line at a time, and today we come to the line “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

When you pray a familiar prayer in a pandemic, sometimes the old familiar words hit you in a new way.  Last week, “Give us this day our daily bread” felt especially relevant for our current times, with everyone doing their best to hoard bread and toilet paper and other basic essentials of life.  This week, though, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” honestly just made me tired.  I don’t know about you, but these days I am pretty much in survival mode, both on a day-to-day level, trying to get it all done while my two small children are home from preschool and daycare, and on the broader level of actually trying to survive what seems a lot like the apocalypse.  To be honest, I don’t feel like I have a lot of energy left over to devote to lofty spiritual goals such as confession and forgiveness.

But I told you a couple weeks ago that I don’t think the Lord’s Prayer is meant to be prayed only when things are fine and calm, which, let’s face it, isn’t really that much of the time anyway.  I think important words can take on new meaning when we say or pray them in times of crisis, even when that new meaning doesn’t always hit us right in the face.

We may be accustomed to praying forgive us our trespasses, as we usually do in the United Methodist Church, or maybe forgive us our debts, more faithful to the Greek, or perhaps the less metaphorical forgive us our sins.  No matter which translation we prefer, those of us who have been Christians for a long time are no doubt well-conditioned to know that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.  We have no problem openly stating that fact – in general.  In my experience it’s often a lot harder to realize I need forgiveness for something specific.  I spend a lot of time trying to justify myself.  I may have treated another person with contempt, but that was their own fault – they were clearly an idiot.  I may have lashed out in anger, but the other person started it.  It’s the principle of the thing.  I get stuck there a lot.  And that’s not even to get into the bigger, more communal, cultural sins that I participate in: the subconscious racist bias the world has burned into me; the ways I hoard for myself because the world has taught me there might not be enough.

I also know, as a Christian, that whether my sin is big or small, God is supposed to forgive me, because God is God, and that’s what God does.  And so it’s actually a little bit jarring, if we think about it, to read the rest of this line: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  It almost makes God’s forgiveness sound conditional.  Best case scenario, it makes a pretty big assumption that I’m already forgiving the sins, debts, or trespasses of others.

In the end, I do have to believe that God is bigger than even my self-justified grudges and the anger I refuse to let go of.  I have to believe that God’s forgiveness is bigger than my occasional lack of forgiveness. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness is cheap.  Being a recipient of grace demands something of us.  We have no right to ask for it if we’re not willing to also extend it.

But again, who really has the time to worry about all of that during a pandemic?  We have Zoom meetings to be on, toilet paper to scavenge, and groceries to wipe down with Clorox.  Even for those of us who have suddenly found ourselves with a lot of extra time on our hands probably aren’t in a mental state to engage in a lot of self-improvement.  Lying awake at night worrying about what the next weeks and months are going to bring is high on my list of free time activities at the moment.  Reflecting on who I still need to fully forgive has gotten pushed down pretty far.

And at the same time, there’s something about this particular crisis, and the ways it has disrupted our normal ways of being together, that I sense has helped us to value that community we no longer have in the same way.  I’ve noticed it here in worship, in how glad we are to see each other, even over the computer – maybe even more so than other times.  I’ve noticed it in my neighborhood, in the ways neighbors greet each other even as we move out of each other’s way.  We are re-learning our need for community at a time when that is threatened, and here is a basic truth: forgiveness is a fundamental part of living in community.  We are all broken people, all afraid, all inclined to look out for number one, all hurting, all nursing our own wounds, all shaped and molded by the brokenness of the world around us and the systems that govern us – and we’re all trying to do this thing called life together, and the only way that’s ever going to work is if we can manage to hold out some grace for each other and ourselves.

Going through a pandemic has the power to make us realize just how dependent we are on God’s grace.  Not just to keep us alive, but also to keep us going, to keep us loving, to give us peace, to keep us noticing and experiencing goodness in the midst of pain and fear.  And let’s be real, not all of us are our best selves these days, rising to the occasion.  We take the essentials we can manage to find for ourselves.  We snap at others.  Our feelings are especially close to the surface now.  We easily forget the injustices suffered by people who are worse off than we are.  In these times, in new and old ways, we rely on the grace and mercy of a God who understands, but also invites us to live differently.  This, like all times, is a time for us to hold out grace for each other.

In these wild, anxious, chaotic times, may God forgive us for the debt of love and care we owe our neighbors, but have not made good on.  And may we take that grace we have received, and offer it to each other.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-13

Last Friday, just as all the social distancing restrictions were about to go into effect, I stopped by my neighborhood Giant just to pick up a few things we needed extra of.  I had been hearing all week that everyone was stocking up bread and canned food and toilet paper, and I naively thought that since the crowds had apparently already descended upon the stores, I would be late enough to have missed them.

Instead what I found when I pulled into the parking lot was something reminiscent of Tyson’s Corner at Christmas.  People were fighting over parking spaces and cutting each other off with their carts.  It’s not that the food was gone.  I could get skim or whole milk but not 2%, and only the kind of oatmeal you have to actually cook on the stove, and obviously, there was no toilet paper.

Maybe you’ve had an experience like this recently.

The thing is it’s hard not to buy into, even if you don’t want to, isn’t it?  I never knew we needed an eight-week supply of toilet paper, but then I hear that everyone else thinks they need that and there isn’t going to be any more, and suddenly the first thing on my mind is toilet paper and the fact that there isn’t any, and next time I happen to come across some, I am throwing as much into my cart as will fit.  That’s what happens in a cultural mindset of scarcity.

I know that this speaks to my own privilege, but I have rarely had the experience of wondering where my next meal is coming from.  And I’ve thought about that fact as I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer and especially this line, “Give us this day our daily bread” – or as Eugene Peterson puts it slightly more robustly, “Keep us alive with three square meals.”  I’m aware that I have prayed this prayer alongside people who have no choice but to pray it, because they don’t know how far the SNAP benefits will stretch this month or if they’ll make enough panhandling on the corner to buy lunch today or how the farm or the garden is going to do this year.  And that has always been poignant to me, because I’ve always had my daily bread, and I’ve never really had reason to fear the alternative.

I don’t really have reason to fear it now.  But this is one of those ways praying the Lord’s Prayer takes on new meaning in a pandemic, or any time of crisis.  I look at those bare shelves in the grocery store and even though so far I’ve only had to get the skim milk, there’s this gnawing feeling inside of me asking how bad things are going to get, if there’s really going to be enough.  Give us this day our daily bread: I may really have to mean it now.

You may remember that back in Exodus (16), when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they wondered where their next meal was coming from, and God rained bread down on them from the sky.  The catch was that they were only allowed to collect as much as they and their family needed for the day.  Some people – the same people who are now hoarding the toilet paper – didn’t follow this instruction.  They collected as much of this manna as they could get their hands on.  But the excess rotted overnight and had maggots in it the next morning.

And guess what?  The manna fell from heaven again the next day.  Because you don’t need to hoard when God is the one who provides.

It may be humbling, for those of us who have not often experienced real physical need, to realize that we need to pray this prayer as much as anyone who has.  It’s a reminder that we are not as self-sufficient as we like to think.  It’s a reminder, perhaps, of how little we actually need – not a feast.  Bread.  Three square meals.  It’s a reminder that God is God in times of abundance and scarcity, both.

A couple weeks ago when we were just beginning this series on the Lord’s Prayer, I asked you to notice the first-person plural pronouns.  Our Father, not mine.  That’s important to notice here too: Give us this day our daily bread.  Not give me mine.  Give us ours.  Provide for us, God, grant us the essentials for this life you have given us.  I think we can tell how much we mean this prayer by the way we share what we have with each other.

I’m still wrestling with what it means to pray to God daily for the essentials of life in a time when everyone seems to fear scarcity, and maybe with reason: of food, of toilet paper, of hospital beds, of masks.  I’m aware that there are people, even people of faith, who don’t get the basics of what they need.  You can’t talk glibly about God providing and not acknowledge that.  There are people who die of hunger.  There are people who have to ration their insulin. There are people who don’t have hospital beds.  This prayer isn’t magic, and it doesn’t magically fix broken systems.  What it does is invite us to live into God’s Kingdom on earth: where we share and give thanks and believe that when we’re in this together, there is enough.

Maybe you saw the story earlier this week about the two brothers who traveled 1300 miles across Tennessee and Kentucky buying up over 17000 bottles of hand sanitizer to sell at up to $70 on Amazon.  When Amazon cracked down on price gouging, they had no place to sell their stock, and were forced to donate it.

People put them on the “most hated Americans” list and said there was a special place in hell for people who hoard items like this in a national emergency.  Personally, I think it reads like a parable: The Kingdom of God is like two brothers who hoarded hand sanitizer and ended up having to give it all away.[1]

I don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks and months.  What I sense is that this particular time has the potential to make us pray in a new way – as people wholly dependent on God’s grace each day, and learning to trust in God’s provision together.

 

[1] https://www.today.com/news/brothers-who-hoarded-17-700-bottles-hand-sanitizer-forced-donate-t176028

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Thy Kingdom Come

Scripture: Matthew 6:9-13

I admit it was hard to get my mind back on the Lord’s Prayer as we quickly sped through Plans A, B and C for our Coronavirus response and worship this week.  I’m glad to be getting back to it, because I do think it’s important to have words we know to come back to in times of high stress and anxiety – but also because I don’t think the words of the Lord’s Prayer are only relevant when we’re sitting in church, but also when the world gets really real around us.

If you’ve ever been in a more traditional church on a communion Sunday, you may have heard the Lord’s Prayer is introduced this: “And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say: Our Father, who art in heaven…”  Have you ever thought of the Lord’s Prayer as bold?  It probably doesn’t seem very bold as we recite it each week. It may even seem the opposite of bold.  It feels familiar.

But if we think about the things we’re praying for, it’s actually pretty bold.  I think that’s especially true this week, as we come to the line “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus was a lot of things: he was a teacher, he was a healer; but maybe even more fundamentally, Jesus was a  preacher of the Kingdom of God.  He told stories about what the Kingdom of God was like.  He told people to look around them and see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk.  And he invited people to repent, for the Kingdom of God was at hand.

And so it makes sense that when he taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray for the coming of the kingdom of God.

What does that look like to you? When you think of the Kingdom of God, what word or image comes to mind?  (Invite them to unmute – a place where there is no war, disease, death, grief, or pain – and maybe, positively, a place where everyone is cared for, everyone has what they need, everyone is valued as a child of God.  In the Hebrew Bible it’s sometimes depicted as a banquet; Jesus talks about it like that too.)

That’s not exactly what our world looks like now, right?  Yes, we get glimpses, here and there, for sure; but that world we described isn’t our world, right?  And so when we think about the Kingdom of God we think of a place that’s far away.  It’s a place we hope to get to one day.  But Jesus doesn’t tell us to pray that we might get to the Kingdom of God one day; he doesn’t tell us to pray that we might escape this world and land ourselves in a better one; he tells us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”

I talked last week about why Jesus calls God Father (and it’s not because God is a man!) and similarly, I know people who don’t like the language of kingdom – after all, not only does it depict God as male, it also makes this perfect place sound potentially tyrranical, or at least fairly undemocratic.  There are those who would call it the Reign of God – I do this sometimes – or even the kin-dom of God, which stresses the idea of all of God’s children as one family.

I’ve never really given up on the term Kingdom, though, because I like how it describes a place, and I think that helps us picture our world as this place that it could be.  And just like there’s a reason Jesus calls God Father, there’s a reason he uses this language of Kingdom, and that is he wants to contrast God’s Kingdom to all the other kingdoms of this world.

When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” it’s a direct threat to all the other kingdoms that ask for our allegiance.  Country, economy – if we pray this prayer, they don’t have our ultimate allegiance.

Then we come to this next part: “Thy will be done.”  God’s will is a term we tend to throw around a lot: we use it, for example, to describe whatever happens in our lives.  Sometimes we say it specifically about bad things that happen, like someone’s death.  That can become pretty harmful theology at times.  There are those right now who say that this Coronavirus outbreak is God’s will.  Some of them have pretty clear ideas on why that is; others don’t; it’s just God’s will because it happened.  Sometimes we pray to know God’s will so that we can know what our exact next step should be, and that’s probably better.

These days I’m not so sure that God’s will is so set with specifics.  I think God’s will is for us to love one another, to value and care for one another, to share what we have with one another, to forgive one another, to stand up for peace and work for justice and protect the vulnerable, and honestly, the rest is details.

That certainly doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in the world, but that I believe God is at work on behalf of those things.  And that doesn’t mean that God never has a preferred alternative in a given situation, but that God’s preferred alternative will always be the one that best encompasses those things.

I want to tell you a fun fact here about Hebrew poetry, and I promise it’s going to be relevant.  Hebrew poetry likes to utilize this poetic device called synonymous parallelism.  There are different kinds of parallelism but synonymous parallelism is when you have two lines that say the same thing, just a little differently.  For example, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  That’s from Psalm 19.

I’m telling you this because when I learned about synonymous parallelism, I understood this line of the Lord’s Prayer differently.  Now I hear, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and I realize those two parts are saying the same thing. When God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven, that is God’s kingdom come.

And that means of course that we have a part to play in that.

Not that we can ever be responsible for building God’s Kingdom or bringing it to earth ourselves.  That’s not our job.  Jesus even said it’s already here: the kingdom of God is among you, or the kingdom of God is within you.  What’s our job is to live like we believe that’s true, like we believe that love already reigns.  And when we do that, those glimpses we have of heaven on earth will be more and more.

Is that something we’re ready to pray for?  (I hope so, we already did.)  In this scared and hurting world, may we be bold to live like God’s Kingdom is already here.  Amen.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Hallowed Be Your Name

Matthew 6:7-13

Last week, as we began our Lenten sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, I talked a little bit about my own relationship with prayer over the years, and the fact that I sometimes feel like I don’t really know how to pray.  Luckily for me, and any others of you who might have ever felt like that, Jesus has some words of instruction for us, and that is this prayer we pray every week possibly without giving it a lot of thought.

Today, though, I want to back it up a little, and also turn it over to you: why do you pray?

(I’m assuming you pray.  At least some of you.  At least you do when we’re here together.)  So why do you pray?

One answer might be that you pray because you need help – especially if you need the kind of help that only God can give.  Or because you are grateful, or because you are sorry.  You might pray because you were taught to do so as a child and it became a habit, or because you know you are supposed to.  And maybe, once in a while, it’s because you want to seek God’s will.

The season of Lent is a great time to think about how and why we pray, since it’s the season of spiritual discipline and intentionally drawing closer to God.  I know for me, expressing thanks and needing help are at the top of the list.  In fact, that’s even how I’ve been teaching Evelyn to pray, by thinking of things we are thankful for and of people we know who need help.  That’s similar to what we do here each week in our Prayers of the People, otherwise known as Joys and Concerns.  Those are good reasons to pray, but I also sense that prayer is probably about more than that.

I’ve known people who don’t like pre-written prayers – whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer or the confession I wrote for one week – because they don’t like words being put in their mouth.  I knew a guy in seminary like that.  I said to him once, “Sometimes someone else’s words can say what you were trying to say,” and he said “Yeah, I’ve never found that.”  I completely understand and affirm wanting to express to God just what is on your mind and heart.  And I also believe that one of the good things about being given words to say in prayer is that those words can call us beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs and desires.  We might say that the point of prayer, in a broader sense, is to little by little align ourselves with God’s will – not just to get God to do what we want, but to discern, and be empowered to do, what God wants.

The Lord’s Prayer gives us space to ask for what we need.  But it’s bigger than that, too.  Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, in their book Lord, Teach Us, say that “The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending ourselves toward God” (22).  John Dominic Crossan in his book The Greatest Prayer calls it “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity” (2).

Through the season of Lent, we’re going to reflect on the words of this prayer and their power to bend our lives toward God and express radical hope for all humanity.  One of the ways we’re going to do that is by hearing the prayer in different translations, because sometimes by hearing new words for an old idea, we can be shocked into hearing that old idea differently.  I also want to encourage you to reflect on the words of this prayer by putting them in your own words.  In your bulletin, you should have a blank index card.  Each week as we talk about the meaning of one line of the Lord’s Prayer, I want to invite you to paraphrase that line, put the idea in your own words, and then either put the card in the offering, or hand it to me after worship, or email me after you’ve had time to think about it.  I’d like to compile these lines into our own Lord’s Prayer, New Revised Arlington Temple Version.  I want this to help us think more deeply about these lines that many of us rattle off by memory, and what they actually mean.  I want us, this Lent, to make this prayer ours.

I titled this sermon “Hallowed Be Your Name,” perhaps leading you to believe that that is where we were going to start.  But that’s not actually where the prayer begins, and the first words are important too.

Our Father, who art in heaven.  It’s a simple intro; we’re just naming who our prayer is addressed to.  But there’s a lot packed in there.  We could start with the word “Our,” which is significant because it’s not the word “my.”  This is the kind of prayer we pray together.  And even when we pray it by ourselves, that consistent first-person-plural pronoun reminds us that it’s not just about me:  Give us this day our daily bread.  Forgive us our trespasses.  Deliver us from evil.

John Wesley always said that there is no holiness but social holiness; we can’t be Christians alone.  Sometimes we try: we’d rather know that our personal relationship with Jesus makes everything OK than be obligated to or challenged by each other in any way.  But Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray the “My Father.”

Second, the God we pray to is the God we call Father.  If you know me, you probably know that I try to not to lean to heavily on masculine language for God.  It’s not that we can’t use it at all, it’s just that when we use it all the time, as if the only way we can think of God is actually as a literal man, it kind of gives me hives.  So it’s true that if I were writing this prayer, or even putting it in my own words, I might have chosen something else.  I know people who have had less than stellar relationships with their own fathers may prefer alternatives too.

But there’s a reason Jesus called the God he prayed to Father.  It’s not because God is a man, though I’m sure it was easiest to think so in the cultural framework of the time, just as it is now.  Instead, as Crossan suggests, we might think of all the titles Jesus could have chosen, but didn’t (32).  He didn’t pray to our King, or to God our mighty warrior.  Instead he prayed – and taught us to pray – to someone we can know, someone who loves us and listens to us and cares for us and provides for us.  Crossan suggests the alternative “Householder,” the person whose job it is to run a household and care for a family lovingly and equitably.  I admit it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and neither does the gender-neutral “Our Parent.”  But it does help us think about what we do and don’t mean when we pray to our Father.

Let’s not, though, go so far down this road of God as our Daddy that we forget that God is something and someone wholly other than us.  Does anyone remember the country song from 10 or so years ago, “Me and God?”  (We talked about this in Bible study a few weeks ago.)  It features lyrics such as: There ain’t nothing that can’t be done by me and God.  Can’t nobody come in between me and God.  We’re like two peas in a pod, me and God.

Again: hives.

This song does a good job of capturing the intimacy of a personal relationship with God – which is good.  What it doesn’t do is acknowledge that God isn’t just like me: God is God, eternal, holy, mysterious, the one who breathes life into all that is.  And that part’s kind of important, too.  Both parts are.  So we don’t just pray to “Our Father,” but to “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to God, who is here and also beyond here, whose realm is not our realm, who we can know but also can’t know, to God, who in the words of Willimon and Hauerwas, “is not some pale image of ourselves and our best aspirations” (37).

That’s the God we pray to.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  This is, probably, the most old-fashioned part of the prayer: who really uses a word like “hallowed” anymore?  We do, indirectly, on Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or the eve of All Saints Day in the liturgical calendar.  And maybe you’ve walked the “hallowed halls” of your alma mater, or some other place where holy things happened or special people also walked.  If we read the Common English Bible translation, we would read instead, “Uphold the holiness of your name.”  Others say May your name be revered or May your name be honored; May your name be held holy; Let your holy name be known.

“Hallowed” is holy, revered, sanctified.  Hallowed be thy name.

We might ask what we even mean by God’s name, in particular.

If you think back to the book of Exodus, when Moses meets God in the burning bush and gets commissioned to go back to God’s people in Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let them go, what’s one of the first questions he asks?: What’s your name?  God tells him: I am who I amIt’s the letters of that verb, I am, or to be, that we usually vocalize as “Yahweh,” that is, God’s name.  To know someone’s name is a powerful thing, because a name is a powerful thing.  You may know that if you’ve ever changed yours. I know that when I got married and changed mine, it was a fairly simple legal act (paperwork aside) but also wrapped up in all sorts of questions of identity, who I had been, who I was now, and what it all meant.

In ancient times, especially, a name was more than just a name.  There’s a reason our Jewish friends don’t read “Yahweh” when they come across those four Hebrew letters – they’ll read “Adonai,” (Lord) or “Ha-shem” (the name) or something else instead.  It’s the same reason one of the top ten rules for God’s people is not to take the Lord’s name in vain.  Names – especially divine names – are powerful things.  A name is identity, reputation, character.

There was a time in my life when I was very careful about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I interpreted then to mean not saying “Oh my god.”  I was probably more careful then, for better or worse, than I am now, and I remember a friend saying at the time: “Aren’t there better ways to spend your energy on being a good person?” And I thought about it, and for a time I think she convinced me.  But then I thought more, and I thought about reverence, and how ideally, reverence should start with God’s name but not end there.

These days I would say that there are worse ways to take God’s name in vain.  Willimon and Hauerwas give the example of the Nazi army during WWII and the words, stamped on their belt buckles and their helmets, Gott mit uns – God with us.  “To invoke the name of the free, mighty God as patron of our causes,” they write, “is to take the name of God in vain” (48).   And since Nazis are always the inevitable worst-case example, let’s not think you have to be a Nazi in order to do the same: we do it as Democrats and Republicans, as Americans at war; we do it whenever we use God as our justification to build walls that separate us from each other instead of knocking them down.

To use God’s name in vain is the opposite of it being hallowed.

It’s a little bit strange, if you think about it, that we have to ask God for God’s own name to be hallowed.  Honestly, God’s name should probably be hallowed already, by definition.

And I think here we come back to the “why” of prayer, and to the “why” of this prayer in particular: that it’s not just for God to do what we want, but for us to align ourselves, or allow ourselves to be aligned, with the will of God.

And so we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” which I don’t read so much as the CEB “Uphold the holiness of your name,” as if I am giving God directions.  Instead, I read it like this: “God, may your name be hallowed in this world.”  Or in the words of theologian N.T. Wright in The Lord and His Prayer: “May you be worshiped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed” (9).

And, because it’s not just that someone ELSE might hallow God’s name: “God, may your name be hallowed in my life.”

May I put you first, above my precious hopes and well-laid plans.  May I love what you love; may I love who you love.  May the way I love and give and show mercy and act with integrity show others who you are.  May I be your representative on earth, not in self-righteousness, but in humility.  May I live up to, and into, the purpose you created me for.  May all creation live into the purpose you created it for. May your name be hallowed as everywhere, people choose the path of peace.

It sounds like God’s Kingdom come on earth, and yes, that’s where we’re going next.

I thought some this week about how I might paraphrase this first line of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, and I thought of this: Unreachable God who holds us in your arms, may we always put you first.

How about you?

I invite you to think about these words this week.  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  How will God’s name be hallowed in your life this week?

If we let it, this prayer might be more than just some lines we rattle off each week.  If we let it, as we say its words over and over so that they shape us over time, we might find this prayer bending our very lives toward God.

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Teach Us to Pray

Scripture: Luke 11:1-4

Over the years, I have tried a lot of different ways to pray.

I have closed my eyes and listed off every person and concern I could think to list off.

I’ve used prayer beads.

I have walked in nature and had a stream-of-consciousness conversation with God.

I’ve done yoga.

I’ve tried drawing and coloring; reciting a one-line prayer over and over as I breathe; I’ve tried praying the Psalms.

My go-to prayer practice right now is journaling: I write to God my thanksgivings and prayers for people in need and anything that is weighing on my soul.

I’ve liked some of these more than others, and all of them have been useful to me in some way at some time in my life, but I’ve also never really been sure that I’ve really “gotten” it, that what I’m doing counts as prayer, or that I’ve found the kind that “works.”

And, what does that even mean?  Does prayer “work” only if it brings about a certain result?  Probably not; God’s not Customer Service.  What about if I just feel better afterwards, if I’m more at peace?  Is the efficacy of prayer really just dependent on my own feelings?  There’s some good 21st-century individualism for you.  But on the other hand prayer should be something more than a thing I do just because I’m supposed to, right, so I can check it off my list?

Some people say prayer is about listening, not just talking, but how do I know if I’m hearing God or myself?

And how can I call myself a Christian – if I don’t even know how to pray?

I find that the disciples are often good for making me feel better about myself when I start to doubt my own faith, and in the Luke passage we heard this morning, they are no exception, because apparently they have some questions about prayer too.  It’s such a simple request they make – “Lord, teach us to pray.”  But I wonder what’s behind that, if they wondered whether all the ways they learned to pray from their time and culture were really cutting it either.

“John taught HIS disciples to pray,” they tell Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t respond with anything very earth-shattering.  He doesn’t tell them to do anything special or creative.  They don’t need to memorize the whole book of Psalms.  Neither does he tell them that prayer can be whatever they want it to be, or to find what works for them.  Instead, he answers simply and directly, with five lines.  When you pray, he says, say this.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us our daily bread. 

Forgive our sins.

Do not bring us to the time of trial.

There is Jesus’ answer to their question, and to mine.

Somehow I’ve said these words, or a version of them, in church every week since I can remember, and I’m still not sure I know how to pray.

Now, here’s the thing.  I don’t think Jesus meant that all of prayer is just reciting these five lines over and over.  Jesus prayed in other ways, too.  He asked God for power and for healing and to bless food.  He knew the Psalms by heart.  He withdrew to the desert and to secluded places by himself.  He went to synagogue.  Later, the disciples did these things too.

But when they asked, he gave them five lines.

And so while these five lines may not be our only prayer, I do think they can focus our prayer.  What are the things we should be praying about and for?  God’s holiness. God’s kingdom.  Sustenance.  Forgiveness.  Protection.

Over the next five weeks we’re going to reflect on each one of these, using different translations of Jesus’ words, and I hope we might find that this prayer that may seem rote to us, this prayer that we may pray each week without thinking, can actually be a pretty deep and radical prayer.

I still think it’s great to try different forms of prayer and see it as a journey that I’m trying out for myself.  I’m enough of a 21st century individualist that way!  But there are things that we need to be taught.  Sometimes, obviously, by Jesus.  And sometimes by each other.  I don’t think that any of those prayer methods I talked about before were things I just made up on my own.  I tried them because other people tried them, and found them meaningful, and told me how and why.

That’s what it means to be a community of faith.  We’re all being taught by Jesus, but as we try to put his words into practice, we’re also being taught by each other.  About prayer.  About the things we believe.  About how to live out our faith in the world.  About the ways God can show up in our lives when we least expect it.

Today when baby S is baptized, you all are going to make a promise to her:  to surround her with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others.  To pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.  It’s a promise that others made to us in our own baptisms.  And it’s a promise we make implicitly to each other as we form the Body of Christ together here.

In my experience, when it comes to faith, there are seldom easy answers.  And so we cry, “Lord, teach us!” And he says, OK – now teach each other.

Ash Wednesday: The Grace of Ashes

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

Sometimes I think I don’t believe in grace.

That may be a shocking thing for a pastor to say, and of course it’s not completely true.  I believe in grace, theologically.  I could define it for you, as God’s unmerited favor.  I can tell you all about how John Wesley thought it worked in the life of a Christian, how it is present in our lives before we even know it, how it leads us to the point where we can say yes to God for ourselves, how it continues forever to shape us into holy and loving people.  I can tell you about how we are saved by grace alone, not by anything we do or don’t do or have done or haven’t done.

I mostly believe in that for other people.

It’s just that sometimes things in my life go well, and I feel like I should be able to take the credit for that.  I worked hard and I did it, and that says something about me and my value to this world and to God.  And on the other hand sometimes things aren’t going so well.  Those are the nights I lie awake worrying about how I just don’t measure up to what anyone expects of me.  My words don’t say enough and my church isn’t big enough and I make so many mistakes as a mom and I’ve forgotten to be a good friend.  And again, the personal value judgment: I, myself, am not enough.

I hear a text like Joel, which is heavy on the judgment before it get to words of hope, and I can get behind it, because I can believe I am being judged; I feel it all the time.  Judged by people who are cooler than me or have it more together, judged by my supervisors and teachers, judged even, I fear, by God.

The thing about Ash Wednesday, though, is that it reminds me that all of that is a lie.

Not because I’m not sinful or broken, not because I am enough, all on my own, but because I don’t have to be.  Because in the end, in the face of eternity, even my wins and my successes and my achievements are nothing more than dust.  The goal was never to be enough.  But I am, by God’s grace.

I’d be the first to say that we shouldn’t move too quickly from cross to resurrection.  We need time to repent of the ways we have fallen short without glossing over them too quickly and excusing ourselves.  That time is the gift Lent gives us.

Somehow, though, it’s in ashes, in this very sign of my own brokenness and mortality, that I find the freedom to receive God’s grace.

I wonder sometimes what it would mean to really live by grace, to live as though I believed in it, to live as though I depended on it?   I’m sure it doesn’t mean giving up on love and holiness and all the things I’ll never measure up on – that would indeed be to receive God’s grace in vain, as the Apostle Paul puts it, as if grace didn’t demand anything of me.  Instead listen again to how Paul describes his ministry:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Grace certainly demanded something of him.  In fact, at first glance it maybe sounds like one more way to measure up: wow, I’m not going through beatings and imprisonments and riots and all those things that Paul did, so what does that say about my faith?

But at the same time I want what he had, because he was able to stare death and suffering in the face, and find life.

And in fact maybe it was because he faced those things that he could find the life that was more than them.

Back at the beginning of 2 Corinthians he says it this way: We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we could rely not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.

That is grace: life that is only found in the face of death; wholeness that only comes when we recognize our own brokenness; the freedom that comes from never having to be enough on our own.

Everything else?

Ash.

The world’s expectations of me? Ash.

The amount of money in my bank account? Ash.

To to-do list that never gets checked off? Ash.

The goals I will never reach? Ash.

The ones I will? Ash.

My good deeds? Ash.

All the ways I fear I’m not enough? Ash.

My very mortal life?

Ash.

These ashes help me believe in grace for myself.

Because when everything else is ash, grace is all that’s left.

Saying Yes to God

Preacher: Kathleen Hugh

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-17

We all know, or live in, eccentric families.  (I am certain that they began the minute Adam and Eve had their first children.) I was raised in such a home.  I had a very loving mother, and a father who was a well- known research psychologist. He was also a womanizer and a drunk.  By the time I was 12, we had moved 8 times so he could teach at different universities. Those moves, plus the presence of highly religious and somewhat strange aunts in my life led me to become very wary of God and God’s religion.  For me, most of that was the High Church Episcopal in the deep south: rigid and exclusionary.

And I was required to go to church.  However, I spent most of my time being so disconnected from the service that I made up an adventure to help me stay awake.  I would imagine a tiger coming into the sanctuary, and I would have to figure out how to escape each Sunday, and perhaps save a couple of others.

I saw other people who seemed happy in their religions. To me it looked like they fit in easily and felt safe; and I did want that.  But after church I would come back home to the turmoil.  I learned to read body language and tone so that I knew whether or not this was one of those days that it was safer to go hide in a closet behind boxes. Dad was not safe when he was drunk. I had heard God called “the father” in church. And what I saw at home was God, the father, lying drunk on the living room floor.  And none of the women I loved so much who were so involved in their church seemed happy either.

There was not one time that I was ever allowed to question anything I had heard in church.  And I had so many questions, because I did want to understand why all these people seemed so content in church.

Then there were my beloved aunts and grandmother.  When I was 11, my father went on one of his many drunken flights and simply never returned.  We were evicted and homeless. But unlike so many others, we had family take us in: my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, and my mother’s very religious sisters. And this is when things really got eccentric in our two sides of the duplex!  One aunt refused to have a Christmas Tree on her side of the duplex, since it came from a pagan rite.  But she loved coming over to enjoy ours. Or she would be angry at the drier and kick it, cussing.  When I caught her once, she told me, “But I did not take the Lord’s name in Vain!” There seemed to me to be such hypocrisy in those who were religious.

My other aunt, equally religious, had married my uncle who was paranoid schizophrenic; because, she said, God told her to.  She spent the rest of her life in a house practically covered in aluminum foil so that no one would spy on him.  And she went everywhere with scotch tape on her face to keep her wrinkles from spreading.

So this was my earliest introduction to religion. I was so disillusioned. Everyone pushed me to believe; but what good was this God of theirs?  My aunts were only happy on Sundays, and frankly they were a bit odd. Mind you I loved them all, and I wanted to make them happy, but… So when I turned 15 I gave up trying for a while.  I prayed to God, “Dear God, I know you will understand why I do not believe in you.

During the high points I had no need for God, but at the low points I was grasping desperately at anything that I thought would bring me into that joy I saw in others.  Frankly there were times that a Hare Krishna could have thrown a robe at me, and I might still be selling flowers at an airport somewhere.

Three days out of college, I moved to Atlanta, I became a singer in a band, and married my bass player. Nine years later I got divorced and moved back to the family turmoil hotel in Columbia SC. My beloved ladies were happy to see me, and still openly praying that I might still find Jesus. But I had no real understanding of who this guy was, and was not motivated to look for him; and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy I would want to date. First, based on the pictures I had seen at church, my ex-husband kind of looked like him. You know: thin rock musicians with their long hair. My takeaway from Bible school was that Jesus was unemployed, and couldn’t even hold down a job as a carpenter, and he had so many enemies. Also, he talked a lot to someone invisible in the sky, and that sounded way too much like my uncle!

I did begin to try some different religions, because I was at another low point.  Churches seemed to be a better place than bars to meet people, especially since I didn’t drink. So I wondered which one to try first. Episcopal, you might guess, was already out for me. There is an old southern joke about denominations: “Baptists believe you will go straight to hell, and Presbyterians already know you will go straight to hell, and Episcopalians, well, they just dress nice.” I tried many churches in my twenties and thirties.  I tried the Unitarian Church, which my scotch tape aunt said, sad for my soul, “Kathy, they could believe in Porky Pig.”  I tried Lutheran, Quaker, synagogue, and Bahai. I finally tried the Methodist Church, and eventually married my second husband Ray there, after I met him on what I liked to sarcastically refer to as the new church called American Online.  My 25-year-old friend asked, “What church is that?”  If you are under 30, check it out on Google!

When Ray and I met, we both saved each other, and were deeply in love.  We adopted two girls from China, who remain to this day my pride and joy.  Most of those years were wonderful and loving.  We had a shared purpose: our little family of four.

But as time went on, our marriage began to have some difficulties.  Our idea of communicating became me saying too much and Ray saying absolutely nothing. In fact, I heard my brother tell someone a few years ago that he had known Ray for over 20 years and had written down everything he had said, and he almost had a complete sentence.  It was this difference that began to damage our marriage to the point that I remember thinking in the last few years:  Is this it? I knew I would never leave him, but this was the loneliest of lonely. It was purgatory.  At the same time, I was feeling lost in the rest of my life. I had been lucky to have had several careers: storyteller, educator, group facilitator, national disaster relief director, to name a few.  And while I truly enjoyed each and every one of those experiences, I had spent years wondering why I felt no strong drive to pursue one of them more fully. I felt like a bit of a failure to have let all these opportunities slip away.  And as my marriage was beginning to fail and my daughters were growing up and getting ready to go off to college, I began questioning everything I knew about myself.

Which brings me back to God.  Everything always brought me back to my higher power, as much as I would protest that it did not.  I remained an unhappy person with happy times, but I wanted to be a happy person with unhappy times. I so wanted to experience, even if for a brief moment, that elusive joy that I saw in my religious friends: that sense of belonging, of fitting in.  At first, however, I didn’t think to turn to religion. But I have always been fascinated by science, and especially the science of the brain. So one day I sat on my couch and decided to reach the part of my brain that it was said we did not use, just to see what happened.  Maybe that is where I would find my answers.

So I thought, How will I reach that part or the brain? Meditation?  I would fall asleep. Heavy cathartic exercise?  Are you kidding me!? Drugs? No way. I saw enough of that when I was four and Dad, teaching at Harvard, had gotten involved in the early days of experimenting with LSD.  Great professor parties at our home.

That left only one thing I could think of: go back to my shaky southern church routes. But where would I start? And I knew that if I went this route yet again, I knew that I had to go ALL IN. No tigers in the sanctuary this time.  I had no idea what ALL IN meant, but I suspected it had something to do with Jesus.  But how could I rally around him when I had spent most of my life rallying against him?  But here I was about to go to a Presbyterian church.

But it is never too late, I learned, for God to find you. I did start going to church with my daughter.  But the Pastor wouldn’t let me take communion, even though I had been baptized and confirmed.  He said, “Kathy, you have to fully accept Jesus in your life first.”  Otherwise, I was to come up with my arms crossed and they would pray for me to find Jesus, instead of giving me sacrament. Talk about publicly outing a person as a heathen! I was just beginning to think about God, and Jesus was still a long way off for me.  But, luckily, I did learn to pray with real honesty for the very first time.

Six months later, Ray was transferred from NY to Denver. And there I tried another Presbyterian Church. I was trying hard to not give up, but I did not feel I belonged. Only four months later, in our 24th year of marriage, at the age of 56, Ray died suddenly of a heart attack.  I was devastated. At the same time I remember thinking (somewhat guiltily), “God has given me a second chance”, because I was no longer trapped in marriage purgatory.

I continue to wish, to this day, that Ray was still here on earth, because he was a wonderful man and an amazing father.  But back then, I no longer wished to be in Denver.  My sister came out to get me.  She told me that she was taking me back east so that I could be closer to her and to my girls in NY. And she moved me to Arlington, Virginia two blocks from her, and four blocks from Arlington Temple United Methodist Church.

The first time I came to this church, I had no expectations.  I had visited other churches in the area and was underwhelmed. But I had promised myself that I would go ALL IN, and that meant not giving up. Plus, I knew I had to change how I did and saw things. But I was surprised, because everyone here was welcoming.  And not just the first time, but every time after that.  What really blew me away was that it was communion Sunday. Pastor’s sermon moved me, as it always does; and when Pastor said that all were welcome to God’s table, I almost cried.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  And I took communion that day for the first time in decades, and no one could tell that I was still a heathen.

I was still confused about the God connection, though.  I felt that I was getting closer to understanding. Back in my apartment one day, I said a prayer I had made up on the drive from Denver with my sister, desperate for answers:

“Dear God, please clear my path and show me the way.”

On this day, unlike the other times I prayed this, I heard/felt..a God whisper: “Kathy, God was always there, but God wanted you to have those experiences and learn from them so that you could one day help others.” The moment was surreal.  But I saw my life clearly for the first time, and I saw that the path ahead was much clearer than the path behind me.  I felt the presence of God with me for the first time ever, and I understood that God had been with me, though I did not know it.  And that if there were any roadblocks ahead, I did not need to be afraid, for God would still be with me.  But it would be something I needed to learn from.

As I became more involved in the church and community, I began to see how all my experiences, good and bad and Dad, were gifts from God. I didn’t have to pick just one experience to pursue anymore, but I could now use them all.  I cannot say that I would choose those particular gifts for my girls. But I am now happier than I have ever been.  I am finally a happy person with some unhappy times; and I am no longer afraid and no longer feeling alone or scared.

I have learned many things since I came here.  I have learned that a building does not a church make.  When I came here, I found what I had missed for those 64 years:  a community, a community of faith.  All of us together with a common purpose to go out into the world to be God’s people. I love when we say that together at the end of each service.  It invigorates me. This church is a very special place; and what makes it so special to me is because we are all tuning in to God together at whatever belief stage we are each in. I also learned that this church does things the way I believe God would want us humans to do them.

Here I was able to come and be exactly my authentic self.  I realized it was never about fitting in just to fit in. Here I realized it was about finding a loving community in which it is safe to be oneself.  And to be oneself no matter where you are on your faith journey.  Here I feel allowed to question, to make mistakes without being judged, and to be open about my faith journey. I believe that’s what God does too:  God takes us where we are, and is always there for us. I just had to learn to pray and listen.

And I could not have learned that anywhere else but here, in this time and in this place. Only God knows when and where we will land in God’s world, and I will never ever judge someone else’s journey like mine was judged for all those years, because God doesn’t judge us for that either. I also have learned that I have no right to judge those who have always known God. That early arrival is just as valid as my slow and plodding one.

I have no idea where this new journey will take me, but I know with a certainty I have never felt before: that it is the right journey with new purpose for me now. I have even been attending the Methodist Neighborhood Seminary, a two year program to train people as lay leaders, to help us to better reach out into the community and work together to give our neighbors what they want, not just what we want for them; and to discern God’s path individually. I also love being part of our work with our community of unhoused and poor.  There is so much to do right here in our neighborhood, and here we can do it together with the love and kindness that Jesus preached. Through all of these new experiences I am feeling as if I belong and am safe, and have purpose.

Being in this faith community with all of you is a true blessing. I have a friend who told me her first Rabbi said, “Sarah, go to 1000 different synagogues if that is what it takes for you to find YOUR faith home.” And I have finally found mine here with all of you. With all my experiences here, I have been able to do something I never thought possible:  say YES to God.