Yes, indeed. For now at least. Due to the previously-arranged preaching schedule, the previous Sunday was my first opportunity to offer a sermon during our stay-safe-at-home time here in Illinois. So, yes, I spend the first few minutes talking about just how weird that feels. Probably too much time on that. But I strive to be honest in my preaching and I felt I needed to say all that.
I called this sermon “The World Turned Upside Down” because…well, for reasons I elicit in the video. Clearly, when I read the version of the Acts 17 text for the week in The Voice translation I relished the chance to connect to Hamilton through “ruffians” and “the world turned upside down.”
I think this might be my best part:
As we read the book of Acts, I think it is helpful and important for us to remember that Acts is Part 2 of the Gospel of Luke, written by the same person. The book of Acts is more akin to the musical “Hamilton” than it is a field report from an NPR reporter stationed in Thessalonica. What I mean is, that both “Hamilton” and the book of Acts are brilliant works created by master storytellers making use of historical events to tell a story and to persuade people of their beliefs. Both are very persuasive!
So what happens, How do people respond when their world gets turned upside down?
That’s a popular refrain among Christians on these final days of Holy Week. But we might reasonably respond in our most skeptical tone, “Yeah, right!”
Over on my favorite blog, Slacktivist, Fred Clark posted Holy Saturday. First seen in 2010, he’s reposted it every year. Fred has written a ton of great pieces over the years, but that one remains a favorite. Though, as Fred writes, “favorite” might not be the best word for his post or for this day. But it rings true like almost nothing else.
This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know. Easter Sunday? That’s tomorrow, the day after today. We’ll never get there in time. We can believe in Easter Sunday, but we can’t be sure. We can’t know for sure. We can’t know until we’re out of time.
“There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.
That post 10 years ago really helped me better understand what this Saturday of Holy Week really means. I look forward to reading it every year and it always moves me. This time more than ever before. This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, every day can feel like Holy Saturday. Today as we shelter safe at home, we wonder when we will ever get back to normal life. As many others have said, I suspect there will be no normal to which we can return.
We can feel overwhelmed — overrun even — by uncertainty, fear, loneliness, and death.
Today, perhaps like no other Holy Saturday in living memory, we feel the weight of this day. Today, perhaps like no other Holy Saturday in memory, we feel the silence of Saturday.
On Good Friday, at the very moment Jesus’ faith hit its nadir, God’s humility reached its zenith. But Jesus didn’t know that. Like so many others before him since, at the very moment that Jesus was most in need, all he heard was silence.
As counterintuitive as this sounds, if all you hear today is silence know that you are not alone. I can’t say for certain that “Sunday is comin’!” but I’m going to try to keep living as if it is.
Turns out Ash Wednesday was only [checks notes] three weeks ago. I don’t know about you, but it sure feels to me more like three years ago. I mean, what a world we were living in way, way back in February. Think of all the things we did that month: I saw a movie…in a theater…with a bunch of friends. About 100 of us gathered to celebrate the wedding of two amazing people. Our kids had sleepovers. My 80+ year old mom and I went out for lunch whenever we could. Oh, and we all got together for worship. In person. In the same building and everything. Those were the days, man…
But on Ash Wednesday at Woodridge United Methodist Church where I am one of the pastors, we tried something a little different. (Different for us at least.) We tried to weave together a tapestry of scripture readings, songs, reflections, and silence. Isn’t that what we do every week? Yes…but also, no. Sure, we always tie those elements of worship together with a theme, but that night it felt as if we had, however briefly, achieved a new level of integration. It could very well be that “night” is the operative word in that last sentence. Gathering at a different hour than our usual Sunday morning with intentionally dimmed lighting on a day ripe for introspection and reflection…well, somehow it resulted in one of those rare, rare moments when everything seemed to really come together in an almost magical way.
I have no idea if that can be replicated here at all — but being in the midst of this time of social distancing and online-only worship sure seems like the right time to try by sharing the audio recording of that night.
A couple caveats first: The recording doesn’t include the music. But my sense of it is that the music is a vital part of the whole experience. So I’ve added videos of those songs, along with the script we used that night so you can read the intros and outros for those songs. However, as you might expect, what is written on the script isn’t always exactly what you’ll hear on the recording.
Another stylistic note: the scriptures you hear on the recording were read from the back of the sanctuary rather than up front. In other words, the congregation couldn’t see who was reading or from where she was reading. (Although, it was our Lead Pastor, Rev. Danita Anderson reading. A familiar voice, so it’s not as if the “who” question was any big mystery.) Her voice just emerged from the ether like the very voice of God. It was, I dare say, pretty cool.
The scripture readings tonight are meant to provide some snapshots of our relationship with the world, our relationship with each other, our relationship with God…and the surprising role dust and ash plays in all those relationships.
Astrophysicists teach us that the atoms that make up our bodies are made of the remnants of stars, some of which was present at the beginning of the universe, in what we call the Big Bang, almost 14 Billion years ago. So perhaps a more accurate rendition of the common Ash Wednesday phrase would be: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.”
Our spiritual ancestors, those who told the stories that would eventually be written down in the form we know as the book of Genesis, those ancestors were pre-scientific…at least in the way we understand science. And yet, they seem to already have a sense of their connection to the universe and its stardust. Let’s take a listen…
Like we said: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.” Isn’t that description of the world in Genesis so incredible? So much goodness and life and beauty right there in the garden of creation! So what happened? Well, we know what happened: we messed it up.
We forgot who we were and from where — and from what — we came. We forgot we are all stardust and instead fought with each other, fought with our siblings. We created enemies just so we could fight with them. We made scapegoats just so we could banish them and feel better, feel superior. In truth, the whole time we were fighting with ourselves. Over and over and over again, we fought with ourselves.
And yet, every once in a while, we catch ourselves in the midst of throwing yet another punch —physically, verbally, or metaphorically — and we stop and think, “what in the world am I doing??” Too often we wait until we are on the very brink of extermination before we stop, but, so far at least, we stop and seek forgiveness. And that’s a big tent “we” there: including our enemies. Here’s a word about that…
There’s that dust again. This time partnering with contrition and repentance — a turning away from our destructive ways and a turning toward the ways of God in peace and hope and love. And because this is the book of Jonah, we know that the dust also partners with a knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. How does the story wrap all that together? In ash.
Sometimes recognizing our propensity to exclude and hate and sin results in deep and amazing stories like the book of Jonah. Other times, recognizing our propensity to exclude, to hate, to sin against God and against one another results in deep and amazing poetry. Like this…
As the Psalmist says, perhaps God forgives us in order to enable us to repent and change our ways. As it turns out, we have a song for that…
[“Change My Heart O God” All the versions of this song I could find play it much slower (and cheesier) than we do at our church. Here’s the best one I could find…but no lyrics, so…”Change my heart o God. Make it ever true. Change my heart o God. May I be like you…You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.” ]
Ok, so God changes our hearts and we rise up out of the ash. Now what? Jesus shows up, that’s what! Jesus, who spoke and taught and loved like no one else. Jesus, who in mostly mysterious ways, was so intimately connected with God he actually was the literal embodiment of God who up and moved into our neighborhood. This Jesus he told us things that somehow are completely sensible to the point of being almost obvious…and yet also simultaneously near-impossible for us. Ideas like this one from Matthew chapter 6…
[Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21]
I have no idea who first began the tradition of reading this part of Matthew’s gospel on Ash Wednesday, but I’m so glad they did. Hearing this reading on this day carries on the good work of the book of Jonah. Because hearing this reading on this day is also a deep and knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. You see it, right? Every year on Ash Wednesday, Christians of many types and stripes gather and hear Jesus say, “pray quietly; don’t make a big showy deal out of your devotion to me; don’t try to show off how pious you are.” And then, almost immediately after hearing that, what do we do? We PUT A GIANT MARK IN THE SHAPE OF THE CROSS…ON OUR FOREHEAD!
Friends, if part of the ritual of Ash Wednesday isn’t to laugh at ourselves a little bit, I think we’re doing it wrong.
I think it is a wonderful reminder as we strive to follow of God in the Way of Jesus to not take ourselves too seriously. Yes, we mean what we say, our contrition is real, our attempts at piety are real and important, our work to make the world more just for the least, the last, and the left out is real and so important. (As Dr. Cornell West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”) Yet, this reading on this day? That’s a reminder to us that in the midst of our real and important work, we still mess up. Yes, we are loved; we are forgiven; we are trying our best…and we get it wrong. Regularly. We still need to be more like Jesus. Turns out, we have a song for that too…
[Wow. Turns out videos of “More Like You” by Scott Wesley Brown are even harder to find. Ugh. Here are the lyrics: “More like you. Jesus, more like you. Fill my heart with your desire to make me more like you. Touch my lips with holy fire and make me more like you. Lord, you are my mercy. Lord, you are my grace. All my deepest sins have have forever been erased. Draw me in your presence, lead me in your ways. I long to bring you glory in righteousness and praise.”]
So how do we do that? How do we become “more like Jesus”? Our tradition and experience tells us that prayer is one of the best ways. Further, our tradition tells us that silence is one of the best ways to experience God in prayer. But we live in world saturated in noise. How do we even find silence? And if we mange to find it, how do we, who are always on the move, sit still long enough to experience silence? Enter Taize. Prayers that are songs, songs that are prayer; song-prayer meant to lead us into silence. We will sing a few times through. Bow out when you need to; the rest of us will carry you. Come back in when you can. After the song and several minutes of silence, a poem-prayer will lead us out of the silence and into the present. May this time of silence be whatever you need it to be: thanking God for stardust; sitting in ash like the Ninevites; seeing how to be more like Jesus; or just simply being in the presence of Triune God. Let’s sing…
[“Come and Fill Our Hearts” Again, really tough finding a good sounding version of this song. Just listen to the first 45 seconds of this and you’ll get the idea.]
[We offered nearly 10 minutes of silence.]
[Poem-Prayer by Adrienne Trevathan, a Native American United Methodist in Evanston, IL]
Cover me with ashes,
the thick-smoke soot of the earth.
Make my breathing like the journey
from death into life — second by second,
prayer by prayer.
Cover me with a cloak — bring me low to the earth,
your justice whispering to me like the gleam of red rocks,
the colors dancing in the darkness.
Let me know the power of sage and cedar in my bones,
not that I may trap them there,
but bring them forth in words.
Cover me with darkness —
with the presence of my elders, their tears falling around me,
reminding me of why we are here —
sighing, groaning with our singing, longing to hear us into being,
stretching us beyond breathing and praying and weeping.
Cover me with mercy —
let the bones you have crushed rejoice,
like the woman who channeled every ounce of courage and dignity
to touch your cloak and find new life.
Breathe unto me life anew,
Cover me with mud —
bring me to my lowest state, so that in my weaknesses
I see your strength —
the reflection of your eyes in the brokenness around me,
the fullness of your love in the depths of our hearts.
Cover me with ashes —
the ashes of my grandmother,
who in living her days knew no strangers,
worked tirelessly with worn hands
and lifted grandchildren high into the air.
Cover me with mercy —
let my cheek come to rest on the cold earth,
its faithful presence a call to walk humbly
beyond my fears
and ever on to the red road that leads to your love.
The closest thing I have to a tradition on this blog is this Christmas day offering.
Each Christmas I post the Isaiah passage below (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year); John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over),” which I find the world’s best and most challenging Christmas song; and a second song that moves me or makes me laugh.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-free future.
Our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. I’m convinced the Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopelessness. It means we’ve got some work to do.
I’ve used the same “Happy Christmas” video each time, but watching it today…I just can’t use it again. With all the images of war, especially of maimed or dead children, I just can’t. It struck me today as emotionally manipulative rather than as a beacon of light shining on tremendous evil. Maybe that’s a copout on my part. Maybe I simply don’t want to be confronted by those images. Or maybe it has always been manipulative and I only just figured it out. I don’t know. I would love to hear what you think about that.
In place of the graphic violence version, I offer this one by Sarah McLachlan. I find her melancholy tone hits this song just right.
Now, for a second song…despite all that’s wrong in the world — starting with the lunatic in our White House — I’m choosing to be hopeful and joyful this Christmas. The song I can’t stop listening to because it just makes me smile and clap and shout and dance (ok, not dance so much as “dance”) is “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” by Pentatonix. Alright, so this video may be a bit, um, extra. But, c’mon, there’s no way you can get through this whole song without at least cracking a smile. And this season is about finding joy and bring that joy to others. Here’s my attempt:
From the Buerstetta family to yours: Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! Happy Holidays to all!
As I often proclaim, I am bad at math. But sometimes the numbers are so easy to figure, even I can see it: 25-4=21.
For 21 out of the last 25 years — in other words, from July 1994 until now — Woodridge United Methodist Church has had a female Lead Pastor. In the beginning of July we celebrated Pastor Danita’s official reappointment, meaning that number will continue to grow. The United Methodist Church has ordained women for more than 50 years– although the earliest known woman ordained to preach came in 1866. So our little 21 out of 25 statistic really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But I’m convinced that it is.
Here at WUMC, with that 21 out of 25 number, we’re so used to having women as Lead Pastor we may be fooled into thinking women are doing fine in churches everywhere — or at least all over the UMC.
Yet, even in the UMC, women make up only about 25% of our clergy. Further, women of color make up only about 4% of our clergy. Male pastors are more likely than female pastors to be appointed to biggest congregation and the wage gap is especially egregious with female clergy paid 76 cents for every dollar a male colleague makes. As followers of Jesus, seeking justice is our calling. Having an unjust and unequal pay system for our clergy makes for a horrendous witness. That is wrong and needs to change.
Simultaneously, we have to continue to change hearts regarding female clergy. This is obviously true in the larger Christian landscape where the two biggest denominations (Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics) refuse to ordain women at all; and very, very few nondenominational evangelical churches do. But hearts and attitudes need to change in the UMC as well.
The North Carolina Conference of the UMC emailed its female clergy asking for comments they have received about being a woman in ministry. The Conference released a video of those comments — wherein male clergy colleagues were asked to read the responses*.
We as a church and as a society need to do better and be better. As we strive toward that goal, I give thanks to God for those 21 years and counting — and give thanks for the ministry of The Reverend Linda Foster-Momsen, The Reverend Linda Misewicz-Perconte, and The Reverend Danita Anderson. Thank you for being my colleague, mentor, and friend.
*North Carolina’s video reminds me so much of the award-winning video Chicago-based sports journalists, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, released a couple years ago. It’s much more graphic than the clergy video, but very much worth your time and revulsion to watch. Again, for girls and for the women they become all over the globe, we must do better and be better.
From 8th grade through the end of high school, I was always in a school where one of my parents was a teacher. That’s probably the main reason I never skipped a class in those years. Fast forward to college and, well, that record didn’t last. But I didn’t skip many or often because I discovered that once I skipped, it was easier to keep on skipping. While I had many flaws then (and now), I truly did not want to get into the habit of skipping class. So I kept it to a minimum.
As a fully formed adult, I’ve found that same principle to hold for going — or rather not going — to both the gym and church. Both seem to be at least somewhat beholden to habit: go regularly and it is easier to keep going. Skip once and it is easier to skip a second time; easier still to skip a third time. I suspect the relationship may even be exponential. So I keep going. Even — especially? — when I don’t feel like it. (Plus, going to church is, you know, my job.)
It seems that same idea applies to my blogging. Stop posting and it is easy to keep not posting. Even when I have something to say. Even when I cut out a newspaper article because I want to react to it. (Yes, I am old.) Even when I have easily-usable “content” like a sermon recording. Hell, right now I have [checks docs] ten — ten! — sermon documents open on my word processor because I intended to post the audio for them.
Nada, zip, zilch from me on here since [checks website] January! I actually thought it might have been since Christmas, so…yay me?
Anyhoo, how about audio from my sermon last week on Sarah and the important subversive nature of laughter?
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
Here’s the audio. And here’s hoping it is at least slightly better than word salad non-sequiturs.
This is probably a bit odd, but despite the sermon title, I never did make a connection between the temptations Jesus faced in chapter 4 of Matthew’s* gospel and any of the recent TV shows that play on that theme. Boy howdy, did I make a slew of other references and winks, though. ‘Cause, you know, gotta be me.
My thesis was Jesus used his power to care for others and lift them up. We’re called to do the same. As always, I’m interested in knowing how what I intended to say compares to what you hear. All the visuals I used (plus a bonus one or two) are below, after the audio.
The many faces of the Devil/devil/tempter/tester…or could it be…Satan??
Maps! We’ve got maps. I know I struggle to remember where to find all the places mentioned in the story, so these help me.
Bonus image! I didn’t think of this in time, but I should have shown the congregation what Spider-Gwen looks like. (I couldn’t re-find the devil image that reminded me of her.)
Obviously didn’t show this during worship. But still. Seriously, see. this. movie. “It’s amazing. You could even say it is spectacular.”
*Fun aside…thanks to the absolutely fantastic Marvel/Neflix series, Daredevil and its tantalizing and fun companion, The Defenders, every time I say or write “Matthew,” I hear Elodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios distinctively intoning that name. Every. time. You can get a sense of it in this video. But, seriously, watch those shows. Luke Cage too. I’m really ticked they are all cancelled.
Brevity. Not a quality for which many pastors are known. At least not when we’re in preaching mode. We tend to like to talk. A lot. The truth is (at least in my experience both listening to sermons and giving them), a short sermon that is also a good sermon is much more difficult to achieve than a longer sermon. The easiest, most natural path for a preacher to take is to just keep talking.
I don’t know if this sermon here on Matthew 1:1-17 from December 30th is good. But clocking in at about eight minutes, I say it qualifies as short. It is half as long as many of my sermons. (Even approaching one-third as long as when I am most verbose.)
At the very least, it should make the students in our Confirmation class happy. Earlier this year, analyzing and critiquing their worship experience, they determined what we really need is shorter sermons. Or, as they put it, “shorter long-talk talk time.” If that’s not the perfect description of how 13 year olds (or, honestly, most people regardless of age) consider sermons, I don’t know what is. Love it.
I attempted to communicate: Whatever skeletons are in your family’s closet, you’ve got nothing on Jesus. One parishioner told me that idea really helped them better accept the way their family sometimes fails them. That’s better feedback than I often get. Maybe I should aim for shorter more often? I’m always interested to know what you hear and how that compares to what I thought I said. What message (if any) comes through to you?
I know it’s New Year’s Eve, but let’s get in the WABAC Machine and set it for…one week ago. Way back when it was Christmas Eve. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Christmas Eve is kind of a big deal in (most) Christian churches. It certainly is in our congregation.
Christmas Eve at Woodridge United Methodist Church is full of candlelight and carols — even at our early worship gathering (this year at 5pm, so after dark). That service usually has plenty of children too. It feels like a momentous night: expectations of a good-sized crowd; a desire for everything to go just right — but trying to convince myself that no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, we will worship as faithfully as we are able. Plenty of potential too: for seeing people and families who have drifted away; for welcoming first-time guests; for surprises along the way. (All of which moved out of the realm of potential and into the actual!)
Even though I know better, some part of me thinks that if the evening can just be perfect enough, people will be impressed, will see that ours is a down-to-earth congregation doing our best to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the real world as it as even as we work to bring about the world as it should be where all people experience love and justice. If they can see and feel that, perhaps they will join us on this journey.
All of that combines to make for an exciting and nerve-wracking night. Not unlike when company comes over or taking a final exam. I’m nervous and excited because I know it is important and a lot can be riding on the result. I feel it as the college student bores holes into me with his stare. I feel it when the 11 year old pays no attention whatsoever. I feel it when the grandmother laughs. I feel it when the long-time member gives me the slightest nod or smirk. I feel it when a different long-time member drops his gaze into his lap. What does that all mean? Am I simply projecting import and reaction? I can’t say for certain.
How does one approach preparing a sermon for such a night? It’s a bit of a conceit for me to post that question in that way. As if there is a universal answer. All I can tell you is how it went for me.
Our texts for the evening were the usual ones for Christmas Eve: portions of Isaiah 9 and Luke 2.
During my preparations, my wife requested, “Teach us something.” Our kids implored me, “Don’t be boring!” Me, being me, desired to be funny, to get a reaction or five. As with all sermons, I want the hearer to learn something, to feel something, and to have a way to respond, to carry the message on into their life. The hard truth is that not all sermons live up to that. But I think this one was pretty good. Of course, it is ultimately not up to me to say to what degree I was successful.
I can tell you without doubt or reservation that I had fun writing and giving this sermon. I hope that comes through. Let me know what you hear* and what you think.
Singing and praying and working until all people are treated like the image-bearers of God that they are? That’s good news. God calls us to start with those our society shoves to the bottom. That’s the extra good news. That’s the extra love God births into the world through you and through me and through us.That’s what Christmas is all about, friends.
*If you want to play Dave’s Sermon Bingo, here are a few things for which you can listen:
References/homages to (or at least slight nods toward):
Monty Python (as one parishioner suggested, what I really needed was a giant animated foot to drop)
Home Alone (actually this is a sight gag, so you might not be able to catch it in the audio)
The fourth and final Sunday of Advent happened the day before Christmas Eve.* So it was already a challenge to separate Sunday’s message from one to give the next day. Add on the bonus level challenge of the same scripture reading as Christmas Eve (Luke 2:8-20)…and the result is one confused preacher. Fortunately, I had the African-American spiritual, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” to pull me out of my own mucked up mind.
Eventually I figured my best course of action was to simply admit it and lean into my confusion about both what day it was and how to differentiate that day from Christmas Eve. Baptizing a baby named Brandon during worship that day helped. You’ll hear him referenced. There’s also a slight nod toward Lord of the Rings.
I think I was trying to say that as tempting as it is to want to keep things the same, we don’t grow that way. God calls us into the present and future to increase justice in the world. Top moments, as I see them:
Today is full to the brim with potential energy. Just waiting to burst forth. But that’s also the problem. Too often we’re content with the potential. Too often we convince ourselves that staying put is for the best.
And, quoting Mary Had a Baby:
“Go Tell it on the Mountain” reminds us to tell the story about a child who faced homelessness, poverty, lack of documentation, injustice, possible imprisonment, and death.
What do you hear? How should we go and tell this gospel story?
*The day my kids would call “Christmas Eve Eve.” Because they, like so many others I’ve encountered, think “Eve” means “the day before.” I disabuse them of this notion in my Christmas Eve sermon. Ok, I had to disabuse myself of that notion too.