Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Leaders, and Saviors, and Us. Oh My.

Amos 8:1-12; 1 Timothy 2:1-7
September 18, 2016
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an election coming up soon. The rhetoric is hot and bothered and as uncharitable as ever – maybe more so than ever – and truth is in retreat.
I don’t think many of our fellow citizens got the memo on “prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for our leaders and those in high office. I’m pretty sure the leaders, themselves, also missed the memo. Somewhere in Amos’ words about a “basket full of summer fruit,” there’s a real political zinger, I’m sure, but I’m not going to go there.
The good news in all of this is that there are now only 50 more shopping days left until election day.
That’s not the only good news. There’s this: despite what you may have heard in the overheated campaign, the results of November’s election will neither bring about the apocalypse nor usher in the kindom of God. That’s really important to remember, no matter which side of the partisan divide we find ourselves.
This is not at all to say that elections don’t matter, much less is it to say that policies don’t matter. Of course leadership is important, and of course we aim to elect leaders who will champion causes that reflect the deepest values of our faith.
Our faith is lived out as we try to follow the way of Jesus in the world. What does that look like? Feeding the hungry, liberating the captives, pursuing peace, doing justice, and doing all of that with a preferential option for the poor. That is to say, our faith compels us to support policies, programs, and plans that respect the poor, that treat the poor with honor, that hold the interests of the poor higher than the interests of the comfortably middle class much less the rich and powerful.
Amos was clear about what angers God: when we “practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” In other words, when we misuse and abuse the poor, God gets angry.
When you start from that place, it’s easy to understand why I’ll say the same thing in every single election season: God is not a Republican … or a Democrat. God is certainly not a Libertarian, and God is also not a Green.
Indeed, listen to the candidates for most political offices in the United States these days and ask yourself, “how often do any of them speak of putting the needs of the poor first?”
You’ll hear, from most of them, a great deal about the middle class. When was the last time anyone ran for Congress or the presidency not promising some kind of “middle class tax relief”? Now, when was the last time anyone ran for one of those offices on a platform that championed, that made central to the entire campaign, the cause of the poor?
There may have been such candidates, but none of them got elected president, and maybe a small handful made it into congress, but none of them made the cause of the poor, the imprisoned, the outcast, the most vulnerable members of our society central to the national conversation about the direction of the country.
Even if you can, for the sake of argument, name a congressperson or two who has consistently championed the cause of the domestic poor, I’m fairly confident that the list dwindles to pretty much empty if you add in the cause of the poor who are not Americans. That is to say, when was the last time you heard a politician whose positions reflected the admonishment of the Presbyterian Church’s great Confession of 1967? A half century ago, our denomination called on the nations and their leaders “to pursue peace even at risk to national security.”
In other words, we declared that our confession of faith in Jesus Christ compels us to pursue peace with regard, first and foremost, to the victims of war who are vastly disproportionately poor. Their cause must be our first priority, even if it risks whatever we think of as “national security” because, and here’s another truth we tend to overlook, God is not an American.
Needless to say, this is not a winning campaign strategy when the baseline requirement of any political speech is that it must end with the phrase, “God bless America.”
Why don’t politicians focus first and foremost on the concerns of the poor and downtrodden? Well, first off, most of the poor in the U.S. are children and they don’t vote. So it’s lousy politics.
Beyond that basic electoral reality there’s this: we don’t elect saviors.
That sounds so obvious that it seems trite, but we tend to behave as if it were not even true, much less obvious. When we make the mistake of believing that we’re electing someone who is going to save us, someone who is going to usher in the kindom, or even someone who going to make us great again, then we walk away from the voting booth believing our work is done. We’ve elected a savior, so now it’s going to be pie in the sky and streets paved with gold, and all we have to do is stroll those streets and eat that pie, all while giving no thought to anything as trifling as the condition of the pie bakers or the gold miners.
That is true no matter who wins. I’m quite mindful of this, because I was deeply involved in the peace movement beginning in Cleveland when I arrived there in 2001, and continuing when we moved here in 2003. I saw the energy drain from that movement when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
Some of that was the result of the partisan nature of some of the peace work. That is to say, some of that effort was aimed more at opposition to President Bush than it was toward authentic peacemaking.
But more even than the partisanship, there was a current of energy that was sparked by the notion that the nation was electing a savior not a mere chief executive. We don’t use that language, mind you, but our behavior reveals the truth.
When you put all your eggs in one basket, then hand that basket to your newly chosen savior, you’re going to be disappointed when that savior turns out to be a human being, and then that person stumbles and some eggs get broken. Such disappointment leads either to anger or to apathy, and neither of those is particularly helpful.
More to the point, when we elect a savior we don’t need to do the hard work of salvation. Electing a savior gets us off the hook.
When the apostle Paul noted that “we are working out our salvation day by day in fear and trembling,” he underscored the hard work, the risks, and the responsibility of people of faith for living into the promise of salvation. He also underscored the multiple meanings o          f salvation: the here-and-now yet also always-yet-to-come, the already but not-yet nature of salvation.
Salvation, according to the sweep of scripture, is about wholeness, about well-being, about right relationships among creatures and with the Creator. It is never fully accomplished in our own time, yet we are invited to live into it day-by-day.
Thus, while elections matter and leaders make a difference, salvation is not on the ballot this fall. Salvation is the ongoing work of God and of the people of God no matter who the voters of the United States elect as president.
Let us pray. Holy One, we live in a divided time as a divided people longing to be one people. Help us to remember that we are, first and always, your people.
We give you thanks for the individuals who respond to the people’s voice and offer themselves as leaders. We pray today for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all of the other women and men who offer themselves as public officials. Give them wisdom, courage, strength, and humility. Open their eyes to the plight of the poor; open their hearts to the brokenhearted; open their ears to the cries of the oppressed; open their hands to welcome the stranger to our land; open their minds to the way of peace.
Gracious God, give each of us discerning minds as we choose leaders. May we remember what matters to you: the cause of the poor, comfort for those who mourn, welcome for the stranger, liberation for the imprisoned, healing for victims of violence, and solidarity with those who suffer the individual consequences of systemic injustice. Give us the courage to speak this truth to those who exercise power, and grant us the strength to love even in times marked by hateful rhetoric.
Oh, God, you know us well, and thus you know that even in the midst of extraordinary events, we live out our days filled with the ordinary concerns: the joy of sharing meals with family and loved ones; the sorrow of grief; the discomfort of illness; the challenges of work; the rest and restoration of Sabbath play. We walk through our days, trying to be mindful of you as we witness the beauty of your creation. In our mindfulness, we ask simply, Lord, hear our prayers.

A Place at the Table

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Matthew 5:1-12
September 11, 2016
It’s a bit odd to focus quite intentionally on beginnings, on “kick-off” Sunday, on “what’s next,” if you will, on the eleventh of September. Phrasing it that way – the eleventh of September, rather than September 11 or 9-11 – provides, perhaps, a bit of distance from remembrances that draw the mind and the imagination back in time.
It is, of course, appropriate to remember and reflect. But, as I sat writing over at Northside Social last week, I was struck looking around at the other coffee shop denizens by the clear reality that many, if not most, of the folks in there were probably in elementary school back in 2001.
It’s been 15 years since the terror attacks that many young adults can only dimly recall from their childhoods, even though the arc of their growing up years was forever altered that bright, clear morning. They’ve come of age taking the national security state just as much for granted as they take their cell phones, and every bit as ubiquitous.
Sometimes I don’t think I even recognize the world I live in, but, strip away the technological wizardry, and it’s a world that Jeremiah would have recognized quite well. For Jeremiah lived in a time of empire and of exile. He lamented, and he spoke out fiercely on behalf of those who suffered under the weight of injustice. He called the powerful to account, and to change. He spoke an uncomfortable truth to uncompromising power.
Jesus, of course, lived in the midst of the empire of Rome – the dominant and defining economic, political, and military power of the ancient world.
As my friend Carol Howard Merritt wrote in the foreword to Rick Ufford-Chase’s new book – a book the book group will be studying this fall:
Jesus ministered under the looming shadow of the Roman Empire […]. The Roman rulers were so tactical about their threats and intimidation that they dotted the sides of the roads with crucified bodies as a warning to the seditious. And even with those horrifying advisories, the disciples resisted. In this time when the Empire exalted the rich, full pleasure-seekers, Jesus reminds the crowd who is really blessed – the poor, hungry, and weeping.[1]
That’s all well and good, but what has it to do with us? What has it to do with following Jesus in the 21st century? What has it to do with Clarendon Presbyterian Church and the lives of the longing and the lost who gather here – or do not. What has it to do with we faithful, doubting, grasping, rejoicing, weeping, laughing, saints and sinners in 2016 and beyond? We who live still in the shadows of fallen towers?
To begin with, it seems to me, we can try our best to be fearlessly honest about the time. As Gandalf the wizard told Frodo in Lord of the Rings, “we cannot choose the time we live in. We can only choose what we do with the time we are given.”
We begin by doing the difficult work of naming the time accurately. You see, whether or not I want to recognize it, the church of today dwells in a time that Jesus would have recognized quite clearly.
We live in a time of empire, and, what’s more, we live in the heart of the empire. We benefit greatly from it, and most of us living in metro DC owe our livelihoods to it either directly or indirectly; after all, DC is nothing if not a company town.
But when we offer up our most basic faith claim, repeating the claim of the earliest followers of Christ, we are pledging our allegiance – but not to the empire of the United States.
The early church said, “Christos kurios,” or “Christ is lord.” They said it in direct response and opposition to the allegiance required by Rome and emblazoned on the coins of the realm: Caesar kurios, or Caesar is lord.
Margaret Aymer’s translation of the Beatitudes begins with a reminder about different empires, different allegiances, and who matters, ultimately, to God:
“Greatly honored are the destitute in spirit, for of them is the empire of heaven.”
Who matters to God? Who is honored in God’s empire?
The poor, the brokenhearted, those with humility, those who hunger for justice, those who love with kindness, those who make peace, those who dwell on the margins of the empires of this world.
How can we, who have pledged our allegiance to the way of Jesus, be his church in our time and place? I hope that we’ve sparked some visions in worship this morning that begin to make clear some provisional answers to that fundamental question.
But wherever those visions eventually lead us, we begin by remembering. We remember those whom God never forgets. For in remembering those whom God honors we begin to re-member those whose lives have been dismembered by the powers and principalities of our world.
Jesus showed us the way of such putting-back-together in and through his life, and he began that work so often at table.
At the table it did not matter to Jesus what the world said about you. Your life could be a tangle of all kinds of disparate and difficult strands, but Jesus would say, “for you, my friend, there is a place at my table.” The world could say of you, “he’s just a beggar,” or “she’s an unwed mother”; “he’s a tax cheat” and “she’s an addict”; “she’s a lesbian,” and “he’s a sinner.” Jesus would say, “welcome, this is my body broken for you.”
So, this morning, you may be feeling wearied by the world, but Jesus invites you, saying, “come you who are weary and I will give you rest.” You may be feeling lost and alone, but Jesus invites you, saying, “I am with you always.” You may be feeling fearful about the future, but Jesus invites you, saying, “be not afraid.”
You may be feeling joyful this morning, and Jesus invites you remembering that it is also good and right to laugh with one another, and that God delights in our joy, as well.
So however the morning finds you this day, there is a place at this table for you, for here we celebrate the joyous feast of the people of God and have a foretaste of the banquet in the empire of God’s love. This – this is how we begin.

[1] Carol Howard Merritt, in Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire (Unshelved Books, 2016) 7.

What Is Our Work?

Jeremiah 18:1-4; Psalm 139
September 4, 2016
I took some pottery classes a few years back. I really enjoyed the way the clay felt and the way the wheel spun, but what I mostly got out of it was that experience of “the clay spoiled in the potter’s hands.” That is to say, I really wasn’t very good at it.
That was perfectly fine. We don’t have to be good at everything we take on, and if I had free and ready access to clay and a wheel I’d probably throw a lot of ugly pots and be perfectly happy with working the clay even if I never got particularly good at it.
A lot of times, it really is about the journey and not the destination, about the process rather than the outcome.
That’s good, because in the larger work to which we are called the outcome is simply not up to us. That larger work to which we are called, as followers of Jesus, as the church, is the work of being faithful – fully and completely faithful in every aspect of our lives.
What does that mean? What does it look like in practice? Oh, and why the heck isn’t the outcome up to me?
That last question is the easiest to answer, though it may be the hardest to accept. The outcome isn’t up to me because I am not God. The outcome isn’t up to you because you are not God.
Even working exclusively within the metaphor of potter and clay, the outcome of what I attempted on the wheel wasn’t entirely up to me. To be sure, I had a hand – two hands, in fact – in it, but I did not build the wheel, much less the power grid on which it relied to spin. I did not gather the clay. I did not grow the wheat that became the bread that held the sandwich that powered my body as I sat at the wheel to throw the pot. I did not build any of it all by myself, so why should I ever assume that the outcome was up to me?
So what is the work that is mine to do? What is the work of faith? Surely, it has a great deal to do with love, and, just as surely, that’s where it gets even messier than the potter’s wheel.
Accepting, as best I am able, that the outcome is not entirely up to me, I am confronted by a second, powerful truth that is also difficult to accept. Not only is the outcome not up to me, but there may be no good reason for what happens along the way.
That’s pretty easy to accept when the work is throwing a pot, but it’s much more difficult to accept when the work is loving another human being. That is to say, it was never that hard to accept when the clay collapsed in my hands and the pot was spoiled. I never searched for deep meanings in the ruined clay.
Yet something in most of us wants to believe that there is purpose and deeper meaning to the most difficult parts of our lives. We need to believe that tragedy happens for a reason, that the deaths of loved ones, for example, have meaning and purpose.
Writer Tim Lawrence captures this search for deeper meaning well in a simple story:
I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.
He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.
And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:
Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.
That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.[1] 
How many times have you heard that phrase? “Everything happens for a reason.” Or, its religious counterpart, “it was God’s will.”
As Lawrence put it, those words, and others much like them, “are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence.” Such words undermine the human need to grieve, because rather than allow us to rest for a season with our deeply felt sadness they short-circuit the sadness and cut short the season of grief. After all, why be sad when the death of a loved one is just part of God’s plan because – and you’ve no doubt heard this phrase – because God just needed another angel to sing in the heavenly choirs.
What a load of theological garbage to dump on grieving friends. God does not need more angels – whatever the heck we think that means.
John Pavlovitz puts it this way:
Deep within the background operating system of my faith there’s a buried, fiercely protected trust in a God who is good and in an existence that matters. But this core truth doesn’t come with the assumption that all things, (including all the horrors we might encounter here), have a purpose. It doesn’t come with a hidden silver lining always knitted into the fabric somewhere, if only we can uncover it.[2]
For one thing, if we hold on to the notion that everything is part of God’s plan, then we’ve created an image of a God who for whom the violent deaths of innocent children and women and men is just another day at the heavenly office.
Pavlovitze goes on to say, “It’s exhausting enough to endure the dark hours here and not lose our religion, without the addition of a Maker who also makes us bleed. Instead, I prefer to understand God as One who bleeds along with us; Who sits with us in our agony and weeps, not causing us our distress but providing a steady, holy presence in it.”
That holy presence is the model for our work of faith. We are not called to solve all of life’s challenges for ourselves, our loved ones, our larger communities. We are, however, called to be fully present through those challenges. More to the point, we are called to be lovingly present, engaged in the work of love at every step of the way.
In ways both broad and social as well as small and deeply personal, our labor is the same – to be faithful to the One who knit us together in love and who calls us to live together in that same love. So, friends, come labor on.

First or Last

Luke 14:1-14; Proverbs 25:6-7
August 28, 2016
Fans of a certain genre of silly comedy films may recall the wisdom of “famed NASCAR winner, Ricky Bobby,” who said, “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” He lived his fast and fictional life according to that pearl of wisdom bequeathed him by his equally fast-living father. Right up to the point, that is, when Reece Bobby pulled the rug out from beneath his son saying, “oh, hell, Ricky, I was high when I said that.”
Sorting out first from last has been a human pattern, or, perhaps better, a human obsession since our earliest primate ancestor climbed down out of the tree, turned back, and said, “check it out, losers: I’m the first!”
We’ve been engaged in the struggle ever since, and, alas, we turn far too often to the kind of wisdom satirized by the Bobby clan in Talladega Nights.
The line worked in the movie because it hits pretty close to home. Far too often, too many of us way too easily divide the world into winners and losers, neglecting the deeper truth that any such dividing line runs first and foremost directly through the center of our own psyche. That is to say, we believe that we know what winning is and what losing is because we know what it feels like to land on either side of that great divide.
It is not enough, however, to question what it feels like to fall on either side of the line. Jesus insists that we must interrogate the line itself. For, you see, the line itself marks out not only the hierarchy of winner over loser, the line marks hierarchy itself. That is what’s at stake here, for Jesus understands quite clearly that all hierarchy is violence, and that all violence reinscribes the lines by which we mark and measure hierarchies.
Let’s take just a couple of examples, but not just any examples, for the ones I have in mind are foundational to American culture and to our understanding of ourselves within that culture. The two examples of hierarchy I have in mind – race and gender – should be called thoroughly into question by any careful reading of the gospels.
Most of us are raised to believe that race and gender are not, in fact, hierarchies, but are, instead, categories, and, what’s more, we are raised to believe that race and gender are naturally occurring categories. If it accomplished nothing else, the exercise we engaged in worship last month at the very least demonstrated that we are perfectly capable of re-writing the racial scripts that we have been raised to read. If we accept what we have been raised to believe, then we accept, to whatever degree our more-or-less liberal-mindedness allows, the various privileges, attributes, and limitations assigned by culture and history.
That is to say, when we imagine the scene that Jesus’ parable calls to mind, we understand without thinking about it who it is that gets to sit at the head table. Of course that table is reserved for men only, and, of course, those men will be white. It is only natural that it should be so. Right?
But in turning the tables on this seating arrangement, Jesus calls into question not only the power dynamics of his own context, but, at a deeper level, the fundamental categories upon which the power dynamics rest in the first place.
When we investigate those categories – race and gender – we find that not only are they social constructs, but, indeed, they are categories invented to support the hierarchies of white over non-white and male over non-male. That is to say, gender is a result of patriarchy, not the other way around. Likewise, racism is not a result of race but, rather, race is a result of racism.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in Between the World and Me:
[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.[1]
It would be perfectly accurate to say much the same thing about gender except that patriarchy is no new idea, and it has been used as the organizing principle of most human societies for thousands of years.
As my friend and UCC clergy colleague Amber Henry Neuroth posted the other day on Facebook:
Equality sounds like a nice idea until you realize that we are all swimming in a culture that sees socialized masculine traits as ‘qualified.’ Women in professional roles are expected to possess all these masculine traits but in a way that doesn’t threaten their male colleagues. We women often soft pedal our brilliant ideas or apologize for coming across too strong. We are taught to be tough in order to compete, but also to take care of men emotionally. We are always in a no-win situation and cannot be seen (or even see ourselves) for who we really are.
To argue about whether racism or patriarchy is primary – not in terms of time and history but in terms of power and effect – would be to engage in precisely the kind of legalism that Jesus so adroitly picks apart when he asks about the propriety of healing on the Sabbath. The particular disease is not the point; healing is the point. The date is not the point; healing is the point.
The time is not the point, for now is the time. Now is the time to turn the tables. Now is the time to deconstruct the hierarchies humans have built upon the backs of those enslaved under the dictates of constructs of race and gender.
Now is the time to see, clearly, that beneath the stumbling blocks of such constructed hierarchies there stand real, live, fully formed human beings yearning to be seen as God sees us: the beloved, welcome to the best seats at the great banquet.
It is way too easy to believe that the world divides simply into binaries that sort us into winners and losers, to believe that if you’re not first then you are destined to be last. But Jesus insists that the truth in God’s eyes is this: those who spend their lives striving to claw their way to the top of socially constructed hierarchies are missing the point entirely. For the first shall be last, and the last first in the Beloved Community. May we strive and struggle for this. Amen.

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 7.

Tongues of Fire

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:18-23
August 21, 2016
Jeremiah asks a perfectly reasonable question, and one that, no matter what one’s age, strikes me as always pertinent. In response to God’s invitation to speak, Jeremiah says, “who, me?”
The author of Hebrews underscores the challenge. When God invites us to speak, the invitation is to wrestle with something that we cannot control: “a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and a sound of a trumpet.”
If those attributes sound confusing and contradictory, that’s because it is never easy to discern, act, and speak out about the deepest mysteries of the soul and its encounters with the divine. The mystery of it all should, at the very least, draw us into humility when we open our mouths to speak a word about our own understanding of God.
The challenge to speak a word about God is daunting enough, but the invitation to speak a word somehow on behalf of God is more than doubly so.
That difficult no doubt accounts for some of the crazy stuff that gets said in the name of God. It doesn’t, of course, account for all of it. Basic human brokenness – greed, the lust for power, bigotry, and the rest – accounts for its own fair share of stupid stuff that gets said in the name of God. As I’ve heard it said, “when God hates all the same people you hate, you’re probably creating God in your image not the other way ‘round.” Or, in the case of human speech, you’re probably putting words in God’s mouth rather than speaking words that God has put in yours.
Nevertheless, the difficulty and great challenge of speaking clearly, honestly, accurately and with humility do not condemn us to silence nor do they get us off the hook for the responsibility of speaking.
Just because Jeremiah made his case – “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” – did not mean God looked elsewhere for a prophet. It’s a good thing, too, else we would never have inherited the word jeremiad, and that’s such a fine word!
Like Jeremiah, we are called to speak. Christian scripture is full of reminders ranging from the Great Commission at the close of Matthew – “go forth into all the nations … and teach them everything I have commanded,” to Paul’s insistence that, through the work and witness of the church, “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”
As our Brief Statement of Faith puts it, “the Spirit gives us courage … to witness”; and, in particular, to witness to our own experience of God.
Our lives are our greatest testimony, and our words, our stories, matter deeply. I am reminded of this every time I do a volunteer shift at the Martin Luther King Memorial. Stories matter. Words matter. How we speak of the lives of the saints matters. How we share our own stories matters.
Our own stories begin to get real when they touch on common human experience. That’s why we spent some time this morning looking at pictures. One of the wonderful things about sports is range of human emotion that is so close to the surface, so easily and readily revealed in the midst of intense competition.
Not too often in our everyday work lives do most of us get the opportunity to express ourselves in such open and raw fashion as athletes. There’s good reason why we are familiar with the phrase, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
But just because we don’t get to those emotional levels in our work most days, certainly does not mean that we don’t get to those emotional places in our lives.
So, looking at the words you jotted down about the emotions you discerned from the pictures, can you recall times in your own life when you felt these ways?

Now, with those moments – whether you shared them or not – in mind, I invite you to reflect on these questions: who was with you through those intense experiences? What was your experience of community companionship or compassion? What did that feel like?

Let’s take that one step deeper into mystery: where was God in the midst of that experience? Did you sense the presence of the divine, the holy in those moments? What did God feel like?

As I looked at these pictures, I found myself drawn particularly to the ones of deep joy. Maybe it’s just because I wanted to feel like a winner, but throughout the last week of watching a lot of sports I only tune into once every four years I have been struck over and over again by the universality of the human smile – the way it touches and sparkles from eyes of every shape and color, the way it makes a face open up and shine, the way it draws you into a story you’ll never actually know but, for a moment, you know you’d like to know.
As I considered the pictures of joy, I reflected on the moments of deep joy in my own life. I have led such a lucky life in so many ways, and though there have certainly been times of loss, of fear, of pain, and a few dark nights of mourning and despair, I have experienced way more than my share of simple happiness, comfort, Sabbath rest, and deep joy.
The deepest joys of my life have been the births of our three kids. There is something elemental in that experience, though it is neither universal nor necessary to the experience of being human.
Those moments have been the ones of the most raw, pure, and total joy of my life, and also the moments of deepest theological insight. Oh, I promise you – and even though she’s out of town this morning, Cheryl would back me up on this – I promise you I did not stop at the moment of our kids’ births and offer up theological reflections.
But I felt a breaking open of my own heart and a spirit flooding it that I can only call holy and wholly other. When, later on, I reflected on that experience I was driven to understand something I’d never quite gotten before: if God’s love is in any way like the love of a parent for a child, and if that Divine love is a perfection of such human expression, then the love of God for God’s creation is unfathomably deep. That I could be loved that much, and that everyone else is, as well, changes everything.

That, my friends, is a story worth sharing. That story, told in a million different ways over thousands of years by countless people and communities, is the story that shapes the life of the church. It is the animating heart of the gospel. It is the story God invites us to inhabit, and to share. Amen.