If I Were Preaching, Lent 2A, Reflectionary

Look Up (Lent 2)

“Look up,” my wife says to our 15-year-old when he can’t get his nose out of YouTube videos, but some days we need to say it to ourselves and each other as well. Look up from your phone and see the natural world, the people around you, or the chores that need to be done right now. 

This past Sunday I turned off my Twitter notifications and gave myself a break. It might seem strange to consider this a form of looking up, since I’ve been conscientious for half a dozen years about curating a feed that brings me varied viewpoints about the news and the world. But I needed to mute collective anxiety for a minute and pay attention to something else. Instead of falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter replies, I needed to look up.  

Looking up was key in the heroic life of Harriet Tubman. Her father taught her to look for the North star, a great skill for developing a sense of direction that would be life-saving for her and for the enslaved people she would liberate as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.* Looking up and finding the star gave her literal direction, a way to find a route by night, but it also represented her faith that God would make a way out of what seemed like no way to escape.

Nicodemus made his way to Jesus in the night because he feared showing his curiosity in public. Maybe he had too much to lose, or wanted to protect those who depended on him. It’s clear from their conversation in John 3 that he has only a partial understanding of what Jesus is doing and who Jesus is. My friend Mary Beth uses the email signature “John 3:17 – Look it up!” as a counter against exclusionary interpretations of John 3:16, and I have unpacked the contrast in past sermons. But if I were preaching this week, I would be paying attention to the rest of the passage, particularly this.

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” 

John 3:11-12

Look up! 

“I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1) We know better than to literalize this poetic expression, and yet there have been so many things that I needed to look up to see!

Look up from your phone, your work, and your singular point of view. Look up from your fears, your  preferences, and your prejudices. Look up – for a wider view, a broader perspective, a more dimensional prospect of what God wants you, wants us, to do and be. 

I’ve been reading about Harriet Tubman this week in two different books, both wonderfully accessible: Daneen Akers’ Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman

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If I Were Preaching, Lent 1A, Reflectionary

For Lent, look inside

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:4-5, First Sunday in Lent

“You were a little weak on evil,” said the older pastor good-naturedly, as if the intellectual exercise were paramount. Behind the closed doors of the chapel at my home church, dozens of delegates, both lay and clergy, were discussing my ordination paper. We stood near tables laden with refreshments for the reception planned with hope of a favorable outcome. “Weak on evil,” he repeated, “and a little soft on sin.” 

I had been feeling pretty good about my paper, in which I quoted a seminary professor who said, “Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God.” I wrote it down word for word when I heard it in class, and I typed it up later, so I wouldn’t lose it. 

Was I soft on sin? Or hopeful about the potential for goodness in God’s creation? I preferred the latter interpretation. 

Despite all this, I was approved that day and ordained a few months later. (Pictured after my ordination on 10/6/02, with my kids, in the same space at Woodfords Congregational UCC in Portland, Maine.)

Unfortunately, the ensuing years have shown me that my professor’s assertion assumes we will be able to see ourselves honestly enough to recognize disruption in our relationship with God. Since then, I have seen too many news stories and exposés recounting the abusive behavior of faith leaders who preached one way and lived another, unable or unwilling to see the contradiction between their teaching and their living. Take into account leaders in other fields who call themselves followers of Jesus, and add on professionals who carry authority over others, even parents and guardians, and we can see the picture clearly. This sin, this evil, is not a stunning exception. 

I can see how soft I was on sin, that of others, and my own. Have I swung over too far? Today my distress over the world may have made me too partial to total depravity. 

Even so, I don’t want to be the preacher who condemns others; Jesus certainly told us to beware of critiquing the splinter in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own. From a homiletic perspective, it’s probably more effective to talk about temptation when engaging the texts from Genesis and Matthew this week. Even the temptation to gain something we might otherwise view as positive – knowledge – risks a behavior – disobedience – that pushes us over the boundary into sin. Here’s where I get tangled up. I go down the side paths, wondering “What is our view of disobedience?” My subjective view – does it count as disobedience if the rule is nonsensical or, worse, prejudiced or hateful? – may not be trustworthy and certainly emphasizes a suspicion of worldly systems over an emphasis on relationship with God. 

On this Sunday when people will be comparing notes (or avoiding conversations) about what they are planning to give up for Lent, we could propose a season of conscious self-evaluation. We could take on a purposeful examen. What is my motivation for the choice I am making, whether it is for action or inaction? What are the ramifications of the actions I take? How might the outcome impact me, and others, and the world? And where do I experience God as I examine my actions? 

Look inside, and try to be clear with yourself. Look inside, and ask:

  • Why am I doing this? 
  • What is the potential impact?
  • Who is influencing me?
  • Will my action or decision exhibit love for God, neighbor, and self?

For Lent, let’s look inside.

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Depression, Gospel of Mark, Lent

Things we know but cannot explain in a sound-bite (Mark 1:29-45)

A lot happens in the first chapter of Mark. Early in my ministry, I preached a sermon on this section entitled “The Magical Mystery Tour,” both because I thought it sounded a little sassy, and because Jesus seemed to become a regional rockstar in a hurry; today we might say he went viral.

But it does seem like people are mostly showing up for the transactional aspects of his ministry.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered near the door.  He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. (Mark 1:32-34, CEB)

It’s a straightforward thing, healing those who are broken in body. But whatever the underlying spiritual condition or psychiatric diagnosis of those afflicted by demons takes us into territory that is less measurable, some kind of super-natural wilderness journey. Does Mark mean that the evil spirits are silenced, or the people who have been troubled? Further down, Jesus also calls upon a man with a skin disease to be silent, but the man doesn’t listen; he goes on his way and tells whoever he feels like telling! Jesus asks him, but doesn’t prevent him. I guess it’s because this guy with refreshed skin and a happy new outlook on life knows he has been healed in body, and could point to the person who healed him, but has no real idea who has done it for him.

Some evangelical voices have gotten pushback over the past week or so for suggesting that mental health issues are entirely spiritual issues. I’m not going to link to them, but I will say one made a statement on Twitter and some others made remarks during a women’s conference. As a person who lives with chronic depression, which is sometimes no problem and other times a significant factor in my daily life, I can testify that there are times when my life in a faith community and my personal spiritual practices help, but there are others when they do not, and I’ve long since moved past thinking that how well I do the practices or how active I am at church can make all the difference, or that God is not helping out enough, but I also know that most of the time, in most situations, it helps that I have those resources, except for the times when it really, really doesn’t.

That’s a terrible attempt at a sound-bite.

Recently I heard Suzanne Stabile say that she has noted a trend among church leaders in her circles to have a semicolon embroidered on their stoles or to have a semicolon tattoo on their wrists, so that people in church who struggle with mental illness will know it’s safe to talk to their pastors and other faith leaders. The point of the semicolon, as described by Project Semicolon, is that you are the author of your own life; like a sentence punctuated with a semicolon, it’s not over.

I’m glad that my story did not end when I was most depressed, more than twenty years ago, and at serious risk of dying by suicide. I’m grateful for the people I was able to trust, somehow, who understood that brain chemistry was no reason for shame and that my identity as a person of faith both helped and made things harder. They were so good to me, and along with the medical and mental health professionals who treated me, they saved my life.

Jesus is going to move on to other territories; he has more to do than heal people in one neighborhood or one community of their physical or mental or spiritual afflictions, which sounds okay if you don’t have any of those challenges, I guess.

He’s going to move on because he has something else to say, and a story to reveal about himself, even though he’s not ready yet for anyone to know it.

Healing God,  it’s hard to put you into a few words, but let me try. Thank you for coming among us. Help us to remember that the story is not over

I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:29-45. You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts..