My Very First Sermon Ever- July 21, 2003

In just a moment, I’m going to say a word. If you have one, nothing will
make you give it away. If you don’t have it, you’ll want one. In fact,
if you don’t have one and you know someone who does, you might even be
tempted to take it from them. Are you ready for the word?

The word is… place.

Now I’m going to say a few phrases and I want you to think about the
pictures they recall in your mind:

“You don’t have a place here.”

“I just felt so… out of place.”

“I made a place for you…”

“We go there a lot, it’s our special place. . .”

Did you feel the tension as I read the first two quotes? Did your body
physically and spiritually say, “Ahhhhh” as I read the next ones? The
call to worship, the meditation, and the reflection were all picked
because they all reflect a world in which no one is excluded… and
everyone has a place.

In my freshman year at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, I
was naive enough to tell my friends, “I think I might be gay,” and swear
them to secrecy. Now, how many of you had success with that policy in
the ninth grade? Yeah. Me, neither. The news spread like wildfire and
within minutes, I had my share of both supporters and detractors.

Bobby Simmons, an upperclassman with a strong Southern Baptist
background, and I only had one class together- orchestra. The way that
the chairs were set up, we were both on the back row, in an arc that had
us nearly facing each other.

I should have known this would spell trouble. From then on, every
afternoon, approximately a quarter of the way through rehearsal, I would
hear this loud “pssssst!” sound. Norman, the trumpet player to my right,
would look at me innocently and point toward the percussion area.

Bobby Simmons would hold up a Playboy centerfold about six inches above
his E-flat timpani… low enough to be covered by the chimes so that the
conductor couldn’t see it… and high enough for the entire back row of
the orchestra to be convulsing with laughter. My face flushed. In my own
passive aggressive, non-violent way, I wanted him to die.

Because there was also the lunchtime incident. I was sitting with a
group of friends out on the front lawn, eating my lunch. Bobby and his
friends came up to us en masse, reading all those obnoxious Bible verses
that conservative Christians love to quote as “proof” of their
righteousness. I ran into the counselor’s office, finally sick and tired
of dealing with them. When I tried to explain what was happening, Ms.
Priest looked at me with pity and said, “Well, what did you do to
provoke them?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first real taste of what it was
like to be on the outside, to wonder if I really had a place.

I might have had a little easier time of it had I known something that I
now call “promise theology.” Now, I’m sure all of you have heard of
process theology- the acknowledgement that contemporary understanding of
God and God’s expression through creation, including human beings, is
always in “process” and never complete. Promise theology is based on the
same principle, but in a very personal way. Promise theology is the
acknowledgement that God has a place, a promise, and a plan for our
lives that unfurls in small measure every day… but as humans we don’t
have the ability to see the finished product all at once.
What is in our power as humans is the ability to claim those things- a
place in the world that is uniquely yours, a promise that you will
flourish, and a plan not only for your life, but to connect you with others.

Reminds me of a sunny afternoon in September of 1981… my first day in
children’s choir at First United Methodist Church in Longview, Texas. I
was four years old. The very first song that the conductor, also known
as my mother, pulled out was a tune written by Bill and Gloria Gaither-
very prolific gospel composers that are still pumping out hits today. As
I remember, the rehearsal went something like this:

Leslie: I AM A PROMISE!
Mom: Leslie, sit down.
Leslie: I AM A POSSIBILITY!
Mom: Leslie, sit down.
Leslie: I AM A PROMISE!
Mom: LESLIE! SIT! DOWN!
Leslie: WITH A CAPITAL P! I AM A GREAT BIG BUNDLE OF… POTENTIALITY!
Mom: LESLIE! Do I have to get your FATHER to come and get you?!?!

I know what you’re all thinking. Leslie had to have made that story up.
There is no way that she would have ever gotten up in front of those
kids and just started belting it out like that… she is way too shy and
demure to have ever done anything like that.

Well, perhaps the message just resonated. That song was a very simple,
yet very effective tool in teaching me something I’ve never forgotten.
There is a plan for my life. I have a place. I am the very model of a
Christian individual… but that’s not all there is to it.

Now that we know there is a plan for our lives, that we are literally
and figuratively united in Christ, what do we do with it? In other
words, what does it mean to carry the name United Church of Christ?

According to Paul, “we are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to
do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”

-Good things such as making sure that everything is taken care of so
that Susan has the time she needs to grieve and renew her spirit

-Good things such as taking meals to Jane and Laurie, and watching Ben
so that baby Grace got all the critical attention she needed in those
first few weeks.

-Good things such as analyzing the budget, as the Admin committee has,
so that we know exactly where we stand and the work we need to do to
make our ministry at Bridgeport flourish

All of these things are “faith-based initiatives” that bring us closer
to realizing God’s plan for our lives, and closer to one another in
sustaining our unique bond.

But the work cannot and should not stop with the local church. The
meditation today asks us about times when we’ve turned away from someone
due to preoccupation… or even fear. The contemporary reading is about
unity despite the harsh reality of race relations. There are Christian
churches all over the country, and in fact, all over the city of
Portland that do not ordain or marry anyone within the Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual, Transgender community. There is a war being waged against
people who want more out of life by people who accuse them of taking too
much.

People are divided in hundreds of different ways and it seems as if
there are becoming more every day. If we are called to be united in
Christ, then we are the first ones who need to take a second, or even
third look at our lives to ensure that we are living in the moment,
cognizant of the times when people are reaching out to us, and try to
bridge the gaps that permeate our increasingly isolated, fear-driven
society.

One of the easiest ways that we can possibly do this is realizing that
through Christ, every person around you, regardless of race, gender, or
sexual orientation, has the same place, promise, and plan given to them.
It’s just as the reading in Ephesians has said, “Christ came and
announced the Good News of peace to you who were far away, and to those
who were near; for through Christ, we all have access in one Spirit to
our God.” There is no “us” and “them.” We are all, to quote Rite I in
the Episcopal Church, “very members incorporate in the mystical body of
thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs,
through hope, of thy everlasting kindom.” Fancy language that says
simply- we’re all in. The doors have swung wide.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon for Proper 21, Year B

Originally preached on September 29th, 2012

(sung in Gregorian-style chant)

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

In ages past, Psalms were sung rather than spoken. This is because elders in all religions discovered that if they gave their congregations melodies to put with them, it was easier to remember. The practice is not limited to the Abrahamic religions, however. Surviving from the 3rd century BC is a collection of six Hellenistic hymns written by the Alexandrian poet, Callimachus.

It is anastounding discovery in the modern era that these ideas, the ones that occurredorganically in those days, are now at the forefront in the healing arts.Doctors are unsure of the complete explanation as to why, but over the years, several theories have been examined.

Dr. Paul Broca, whose research was publicized in the 1880’s, is most famous for his discovery of the speech production center of the brain , now called “Broca’s area.” He arrived at this discovery by studying the brains of aphasic patients-persons with speech and language disorders resulting from brain injury. He was most focused on a small area in the frontal lobe, which he discovered aided in the sequencing and rhythm of words. One of the parts of the cerebral cortex, Werneke’s area, is responsible for creating pathways to understanding the meaning of words.

This is all very technical information that boils down to a simple idea. Music literally makes the two areas of the brain work together, forming deeper neurological pathways. Religious leaders learned that before science. People remember music because they are, quite literally, wired that way.

Music therapists have long discovered that if either area of the brain is damaged,the other one will compensate, creating new neural pathways to restore the brain to normal… and sometimes, the easiest way to jump start that process is by singing.

Think about it. How many of you could recite the words to your favorite song,completely out of context? Yet when you’re driving in your car, listening to Journey, all of the sudden you know every word to Don’t Stop Believing?

Or when you’re walking along, and the soundtrack to your life starts playing in your brain. All of the sudden you can remember every word to Twisted Whistle’s cover of Gin & Juice. If you’re like me, you’ll forget where you are and all of the sudden, “with so much drama in the LBC, it’s kinda hard bein’ Snoop D Oh-h Double G. Somehow-w some way…” It’s the same for Snoop Dogg’s version. Rap gets under your skin not because of the melody, but because of the rhythm and sequence of words.

Bet you never thought you’d hear Snoop Dogg quoted in a sermon.

You’re welcome.

No one is a better example of the strides in this research than Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona congresswoman. After a major gunshot wound, she traveled to my hometown of Houston, where one of the most advanced clinics of neurological rehabilitation resides.

From the time she was wounded until the time she could speak full sentences was about nine months. One of the reasons she made such incredible progress was due to the use of music in her therapy. She couldn’t recite the words to songs like “Happy Birthday,” but because she was familiar with the rhythm and sequence of the music, when she started to sing, the words came to her easily.

It is at this point we are ready to study the letter of James. He writes:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should singsongs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.

In order to research this sermon more fully, I turned to the Biblical criticism of theologian William Barclay:

Here we have set out before us dominant characteristics of the early church.

It was a singing church; the early Christians were always ready to burst into song. Christians speak to each other in psalms and hymns and spirituals; singing with thankfulness in their hearts to God.

Another great characteristic of the early church was that it was a healing church.Here, it inherited its tradition from Judaism. When a Jew was ill, it was to the Rabbi he went, rather than the doctor; and the Rabbi anointed him with oil.

James, meet Paul Broca. Paul Broca, meet James.

SINGING ALLOWS THE BRAIN TO CREATE DEEPER NEURAL NETWORKS, WHICH LEADS TO A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF THE MATERIAL.

Singing to God is literally understanding God.

This higher consciousness, this reaching for the divine, is a gift that only humans have. Apes may have a special fondness for God in their hearts, but they will never sing about it. That’s because Broca’s area is nowhere to be found in their brains. This ability for sequence and rhythm supporting comprehension is only found in us. When you think about it that way, it just becomes more and more apparent how great a blessing music is to the life of a church.

And while music is gaining more and more ground in physical rehab, it has long been a voice in the emotional healing of a family, a community, a plantation:

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home

Easy to remember codified instructions. If you get to the plantation before me, and can only take some of the slaves, tell everyone else that I’m coming for them.

In short, be ready. You never know when I’m going to show up, and when I do, your bags have to be packed. Your sandals have to be on your feet. And there is no turning back.

Be. Ready. At. All. Times.

Harriet Tubman led over 70 slaves to freedom with Paul Broca’s help. She may never have read a single word of his research, but she understood the content. Put a melody to the words and people are more likely to remember it, critical because nowhere was it safe to write them down.

So what’s the take-home message here? What does this have to do with modern day life in Portland, Oregon?

(singing in Gregorian-style chant)

God can break into our lives at any moment;
Always be ready for a miracle.
If you are in pain, in body or mind,
Call upon me in song.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Who Do You Think You Are?

“I’m The Doctor.”

“Doctor Who?”

It’s one of the oldest jokes on television, starting in 1963 and, off and on, progressing to a new era of viewers. But that’s exactly what the Disciples want to know from The Jesus this week- “Jesus who?”

The Disciples are, for once, bold enough to have a “coming to Jesus” meeting. They ask him straight out, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

This verse is the only place in the gospel where Jesus is asked directly if he is the Messiah (christos). Prior to this, Jesus has not claimed the title for himself, although others have given it to him. Giving the title to himself would have about as much clout as the “King of Pop.” You don’t invent nicknames and titles. You earn them. Additionally, calling himself the Messiah would have attracted so much political attention that he could no longer focus on his ministry. The people who were convinced that he was just an attention-grabbing nut would have had a field day.

What does Jesus do? What Jesus does best. Confuse the ever-living #$@^ out of them.

Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Did you catch that? Jesus is not talking about a literal interpretation of eternal life, but something closer to John 3:19-21:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

The reason I’m going with this interpretation is that I highly doubt Jesus was telling the Disciples that they were not members of his flock. Jesus was talking about the Disciples’ responsibility to take up the mantle of Christianity, to heal in Jesus’ name, to do more and be more than they could possibly handle on their own. Despite this, though, they trip and fall all over their own humanness. They, like us all, turn toward darkness when the going gets rough.  Jesus is telling them to overcome that part of themselves so that their deeds are done through God instead of despite God.

We all know that feeling of good things happening despite God. We forget to say thank you, we don’t acknowledge the huge bounty of gifts that we have been given by our Creator, and still, life goes on. People win lotteries, wars get treaties, children are fed in spite of our unbelief. The eternal question, however, is “how much better could things be if we were focused on light?”

The God I know is of us, within us, around us. God is a chord that runs through each human being on earth, in every sense of the word. However, you will never find it if you don’t look. Tapping into that energy requires listening to the still small voice inside, nurturing your compassion and empathy, awakening your kindness to a level you haven’t experienced before.

That is what Jesus is talking about. Those who are dialed in reap the benefits of, in effect, wearing the universe. As I have said many times before, God is the answer to every question in every paradox, every time rift, every black hole. Every story that has ever been told.

Jesus uses period language for this, but it is no less powerful.

The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

It’s a radical invitation, because in order to belong to the flock, you have to want it. Jesus does not intrude. God does not intrude. You invite yourself, you show up at the house, they pour you a lemonade. If you join the flock and you stumble, it is not about punishment. No one will steal you from the Father or the Son, because they are one. No, if you stumble, you are still a precious child of God, with the chance of redeeming yourself. Not because God enriches your life, but because the study and pursuit of light can help you keep your own.

They are the teachers that are ready when the student arrives.

In this week’s news, we have the chance to test our mettle at responding with light. On Monday, April 15th, there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon. Runners were injured, and in some cases, killed. Those that live in darkness will hide from the deep emotional chasm that has been left in its wake. Those that have invited the light into themselves, want to show it burning, will rush in with blankets and food and hugs and smiles. Their light will shine, and the dark, broken places won’t look so, well, broken.

The amazing thing about the Gospel is that you have free will to choose which side you’ll take. You can choose either, and good things will come your way by accident. Living in light will encourage them to happen on purpose.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sermon for Lent 4B

Originally posted on Mar 18, 2012

Syrian rebels ignited a new front Friday outside the capital, Damascus, in the first significant fighting there since regime forces swept over the suburbs weeks ago. The clashes highlight the shifting nature of Syria’s conflict, with rebels lying in wait to rise up when the regime turns its guns elsewhere.

-San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 16, 2012

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee today accused the Congress of engineering the ‘revolt’ by Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi and asked her party MLAs to go back to their constituencies and tell people that the Trinamool did not endorse the budget presented by the minister.

-The Indian Express, Mar. 16, 2012

With al-Shabab on the retreat in the face of gains by African Union (AU) forces in Somalia, the militant group is looking for new avenues to exert control both in and outside of Somalia.  The group is focused on recruiting Kenyan Muslims to revolt against, what they term, state-sponsored oppression directed against them.

-Voice of America, Mar. 14, 2012

Political revolutions leave chaos in their wake. Republicans cannot shut down their presidential nominating contest because the party is in the midst of an upheaval wrought by the growing dominance of its right wing, its unresolved attitudes toward George W. Bush’s presidency and the terror the GOP rank-and-file has stirred among the more moderately conservative politicians who once ran things.

-E.J. Dionne, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 15, 2012

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

-Our Numbers passage, written roughly 3500 years ago

Charles Darwin proved that evolution takes place over millions and millions of years, and nowhere in the Bible is it more apparent than in our Old Testament passage today. When people are unhappy, they do their dead-level best to let their leaders know about it. That hasn’t changed in centuries. In a lot of cases, people rise up against leaders with whom they used to be very happy, and such is the case with Moses. Everything was going great- the Israelites had been delivered out of slavery, and they were headed to the Promised Land. As time went on, though, there were certain… problems.

First of all, the desert known in the Bible as Kadesh is the current-day Negev. It is one of the driest, hottest places on earth due to its location east of the Sahara. They were no doubt suffering from sunburn, heat rash, heat stroke… to the point that “survival of the fittest” was taking its toll.

Second, the same people that rejoiced when God sent manna from heaven now thought it tasted terrible, and to top it all off, there was little to no water to wash it down. Whether it was actually terrible is a moot point- they’d been eating it day in and day out for YEARS. In short, their complaints were valid. It was miserable. They may have been slaves in Egypt, but at the end of the day, they could drown their sorrows in the farmer’s market with melons… and olives… perhaps a nice bottle of Claret. They had no idea where they were going or how much longer their current reality was going to be one of hard struggle just to stay alive.

That is when things go from bad to much, much worse. God is angry that the people have lost faith, and the hot, starvation and heat-crazed Israelites are now the hot, starvation and heat-crazed SNAKE BITTEN Israelites.

All of the sudden, Moses doesn’t look quite so bad. The Israelites beg Moses to go and intervene on their behalf with God.

Here is where things get interesting. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and wrap it around a rod, so that when people were bitten by the snakes, they could look up at this makeshift, portable statue and be healed. My first question when I started researching for this sermon was, “WHY?” Why didn’t God just destroy the snakes? That’s when it hit me. God didn’t change the snake bites. God changed the Israelites. In order to be healed, the Israelites had to look straight at the thing they feared. God didn’t take away the pain of being bitten, God gave them something to take the pain away AFTER THEY ALREADY HAD IT.

In modern-day Portland, God is doing the same thing for us… even though the snake bites are almost always metaphorical. The economy is sinking businesses left and right. There are millions of homeless people. There is gang violence, addiction, mental illness, physical illness, communities and individuals that are aching for a cure.

But God doesn’t offer that. God offers a refuge to heal pain as it is happening, when we are willing to look straight at what scares us the most.

Because a cure would have been destroying all the snakes that bite us in the first place.

The difference between a cure and being healed is in the details. As we read in the meditation, taking blood pressure medication cures high blood pressure… but it doesn’t relieve stress. Anti-inflammatories ease the pain in my wrists, but they don’t get me to stop typing all the time.

So often we reach for a cure, when what we need is healing, and that is the message that runs through our Gospel lesson, as well. I am sure that for those of you who grew up in the church- no matter what the denomination- I could wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you to recite John 3:16, and you could do it. However, I sincerely believe that when that verse is taken in isolation, it leaves out the most potent part of the story.

In the same way that God asked Moses to make a bronze serpent to heal the physical pain of a snake bite, God sent Jesus to heal the emotional and spiritual snake bites of the whole world. I use the phrase “whole world” intentionally, because Moses creating the bronze snake was specifically to heal God’s own people- Israelites, and specifically, Jews in covenant with God. The crucifixion was not only meant for Jews, but for Gentiles as well. The gift of a place to look for healing was extended to everyone, whether they were currently in covenant with God or not… John writes, “Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” Whoever. Believes.

That is the good news of the Gospel, but the next verses are the crux of our relationship with God. “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

THAT IS AN INVITATION.

There are so many people that think Jesus’ message is grace, meaning that there is nothing you can do to get God to love you any more… or any less… and they’re right. However, those people are seeing the light of Christ for a moment, when what God is really offering is the light of Christ for a lifetime. It is a covenant that starts out with the initial promise of forgiveness no matter what… but in order to have a sustaining relationship with God, we have to do the work.

So, if God offers healing for all of the snake bites the world has to offer, why do some people prefer to, as Jesus says, “live in darkness?” Most of the time, it is not a matter of malicious intent, but a lack of understanding how to get there from here.

In preparing for my sermon this week, I called a friend of mine who is a transplant surgeon at the Liver Institute at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. Let’s call her “Dr. Anthony” (mostly because that’s her name). We were talking about the differences between curing and healing, illness and disease. One of the things that really struck me was when Dr. Anthony said, “some patients are overwhelmed with being well.” At BEING WELL??? WHY???

For people that have dealt with long-term illness, they have gotten comfortable with the role of Sick Person.™ Faced with the prospect of getting well, they’re having to cope with things that they haven’t had to deal with for a long time. Bills, housework, kid taxiing, you name it- all of these things are frightening to contemplate when it seems like there is a rushing river of activity AROUND them with no concrete entrance. Trying to jump in with both feet often leads to depression for people who are used to other people managing their lives- their only job has been wrapped up in the cure of their physical disease. The process of healing emotionally and spiritually is daunting.

Dr. Anthony also said that people who receive transplants are often guilty and angry after surgery, and she has to give what everyone on her service calls “The Tiffany Talk.” Intrigued, I asked her to give it to me. Instead, she responded with a story.

“I had this patient who was ordering the nurses around, being unpleasant to everyone around him- to the point that the nurses called me about his behavior. When I got to his room, I said ‘you have been given the ultimate gift of life, and you are being horrible to everyone that has rushed around trying to save you. Your actions are a DISGRACE to your donor’s family.’ By the time I left the room, he was in tears.”

I said, “because they feel guilty that the gift is so huge that they can never repay it.”

Often when we fall short in our covenant with God, there are elements of both these ideas. Doing the hard emotional work to become whole and healthy in the spiritual sense is just that: hard work. So often we rely on the grace of God because it is easier than staring straight at the things that frighten us… and the gift of refuge that God has given us through Christ is so big that we don’t have the first clue of how to repay it.

Dr. Anthony’s response to her patients goes something like this… “you do not realize how big a gift you have given to donors and their families. For the rest of their lives, they will be able to say that they saved someone else’s.” When you do the healing work required in your relationship with God, living in light takes on new meaning. You are more able to let light shine through you to others. God’s gift in sending Christ as healer for the world is God’s gift to us. How you use it is your gift to God.

Amen.

Sermon for Proper 29, Year B

The following is a re-post of the sermon I did on November 25th, 2012.

Christ the King Sunday was invented by the Roman Catholic church in 1925 as a celebration of Christ’s lordship. It is the very last Sunday in the liturgical year- we start fresh next week with the first Sunday of Advent. In the new paradigm of power with instead of power over, when you ask most preachers what they’re doing for Christ the King Sunday, they immediately tell you how they’re going to preach about Thanksgiving.

Christ the King Sunday is not an easy topic for preachers because a lot has changed since 1925. Congregations all over the world are put off by the topic of Christ as a King… Ruler of all our hearts… dominion over the entire world… a living, breathing, professional Christian superhero who knows all things and leads our lives in the direction he chooses fit.

Additionally, the phrase “reign of Christ” gives a lot of people the heebie jeebies. It brings up images from the past that don’t sync with our modern view of Jesus… like when the Bible was used to advocate slavery, anti-semitism, misogyny, violence against gays, and anything else that could possibly be justified having a Lord over all would imply. Because a Lord over all means that basically, we can pick one side of the story, and that side of the story is good enough for everybody.

Has the practice of anything that I just mentioned completely gone away? Especially in the United States of America in 2012, ask yourself: “Is there still slavery? Well, maybe not in the US, but certainly across the world.” “Is there still misogyny? Well, it’s all over the place, but at least in the United States, you can make the argument that it’s more polite.” “Is there still discrimination against same-sex couples? Yes, some people are fighting for their lives as we worship.”

It’s STILL. ALL. HERE.

That side of the story hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. People are still struggling every day with fear and loss and pain and all the other emotions that encourage them to grab power where they can. In some parts of the world, the Bible is used to browbeat people into believing that the Bible provides religious leaders with a power they don’t have… the power to change what God believes into what sounds suspiciously like their side of the story. Moreover, since that story is “God’s” story, it cannot be challenged or changed in any way.

You could also make the argument that liberal Christians are also creating their side of the story. Jesus as anti-hero. Jesus serves instead of reigns. Jesus couldn’t possibly agree with the story that’s been created for him by fundamentalists, because the conservative evangelical story sounds so, at best, old fashioned, and at worst, mean spirited and petty. Liberal Christianity sounds suspiciously like our side of the story.

What about people of other religions? Whether Christians choose to persecute or welcome them is decided on a case-by-case basis. Coexist has become a convenient catch phrase for a lot of Christians, but how well we practice inclusion of other faiths is, to the people of those religions, their side of the story.

And then there are the people standing outside of Christianity, looking at all Christians as one group and lumping us all together as one body, one belief, one set of customs. What they believe about us is just as important as what we actually do. In a lot of cases, perception is reality. How we come across to the world outside of Bridgeport to people who are either unchurched or have made a conscious decision not to attend is their side of the story.

With so many sides of this one story, our human story, the question begs to be asked: whose side of the story is Jesus on, anyway?

For you, does it get more personal than that? I know it does for me. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been in a situation where I’ve made poor decisions based on only knowing one side of the story. I, as everyone does, have a singular lens through which I see problems bigger than me. I find out later that there was a crucial piece of information I missed, and I crumble. I argue with myself that I did the best I could with the information I had, but if you’ve ever really stuck your foot in it, you know that saying is useless.

I rage like Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer, in the famous scene the day after he’s been left at the altar. His ex-fiancee is listing off everything she hates about their relationship, and Robbie, Sandler’s character, says, “Once again, things that could’ve been brought to my attention YESTERDAY!”

It is exactly that point at which we find Pontius Pilate. Theologians have argued and will argue which side he was on for millenia to come. I choose to believe this one: Pilate didn’t know the other sides of the story.

As a non-Jew, I’m not even sure that Pilate knew what was going on. He was a prefect of Judea, which meant that he had jurisdiction, but very little is known beyond that. Who knows how much he’d taken in about the Jewish faith, the laws that governed it, or the power players involved. Before Jesus was brought before Pilate, he was tried in a Jewish court by the Sanhedrin~ basically the governing body of Judaism in the region. Who knows what Pilate understood about that process, or why Jesus was in front of him in the first place. For starters, Pilate couldn’t even see a crime… at least not in the traditional sense.

Jesus was no help. Was he the King of the Jews, or wasn’t he? Did he blaspheme or didn’t he? And if he had, why would the Sanhedrin care so much about it that they were willing to put Jesus through what turned out to be a very public execution? Pilate made the only decision he could with the information he had. And then, venturing into fiction, I think he probably vomited into an urn. Because that’s what happens when you know you don’t know something, and you don’t even know how to put your finger on what it is… and very real consequences are riding on your mistake. Your stomach hurts. You get dizzy. You want to roll back time and do things differently… especially in Pilate’s case, where there was a very permanent solution to what seemed to him like a temporary problem. Jesus was probably just a nut job. But that didn’t mean he needed to die over it, did he?

The other side of the story that will never be known is what would have happened had Pilate really understood the concept of Jesus’ kingship. For all of Jesus’ incredible works and amazing way with words, he often did not help himself by speaking where other people could understand him. If you asked a simple question of Jesus, you were often on the receiving end of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Pilate says, “what have you done?” and Jesus replies, “my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

I’m sorry. What?

I can feel Pilate’s frustration. I can imagine him desperately trying to think of something to say that won’t upset the crazy man in front of him. “Ok, Pilate… speak softly, no sudden moves… when am I going to learn that when they say ‘take a vacation,’ I really should go…”

Pilate just didn’t get the concept of living in two worlds. I mean, what would happen in the modern day if I said I was Queen of somewhere, but you couldn’t find it on a map and I couldn’t really take you there unless you died?

Pilate didn’t get it, but Cecille Bechard did. I found this while looking for research on my sermon, and it illustrates the concept of living in two worlds perfectly:

Cecille Bechard is a Canadian who visits the United States several dozen times a day- when she goes to the refrigerator, or the back door, or to make tea, for instance. To read and sleep she stays in Canada, and she eats there too if she sits at the north end of the kitchen table. Mrs. Bechard’s home sits on the United States-Canada border. The frontier cuts through the kitchen wall and across the sink, splits the salt and pepper shakers, just misses the stove and passes through the other wall to sever the Nadeau family’s clothes line and cut off the candy counter in Alfred Sirois’s general store. Almost anywhere else in the world, Mrs. Bechard might need a passport to take a bath.

Cecille Bechard lived in two worlds without even thinking about it. Jesus lived in two worlds the entire time he was on earth, intentionally and with great care. For Cecille Bechard, the boundaries between the two were clearly drawn out on a map. For Jesus, each world weaved in and out, one from the other, to the point where his two worlds were one in his mind.

The problem came in when his two worlds clashed with everyone else’s. People were just beginning to understand his side of the story, and they didn’t always agree with him. Most of the time, understanding of Jesus’ story was through small groups of people, not large crowds. I have to believe that this was intentional as well. When I am teaching a small group of people, I find that they listen more intently. They ask better questions. I am more assured that the information I have tried to give them has actually stuck. I have heard their frustrations, and I have given them answers. I am comfortable with what I teach because computers do not have an emotional story. Logic dictates that in every if, then statement, there is a right and a wrong answer.

And yet, the condition of being human diverges sharply into several thousand right and wrong answers, all based on different answers to the same story. How can we ever get it right?

The Good News of the gospel is that no one ever does. In just about every verse in scripture, we are faced with someone making a decision without knowing the full measure of the situation.

So if there is no perfect answer, is there at least a good one?

I choose to believe that the answer comes in stopping everything you are doing. Stop making it worse! Stop making it better! Sit down. Make a pot of tea. Go to the store and get some of those little cookies you like while your Earl Grey is steeping. Take your tea and your cookies and find a big comfy chair. Don’t even think about moving until those cookies are gone and you are attempting to read your tea leaves. Spend some time alone, in the quiet, and slowly enter the river that is divine consciousness. Create a space for God to speak, because when God is speaking to you, you are listening to the one voice that has heard every side of every story. Ancient wisdom to modern slang. Every thing and every one that has ever come into being is in that divine space.

It will take time for the answers to come. It will be minutes, hours, before your mind is still enough to take in wisdom that is of you and in you and divine all at the same time.

When wisdom comes, sit in the center. Let it wash over you in only the way that peace can. This time, you have received wisdom. Next time, you might give it.

The reign of Christ is at hand, right here in our world, but it not of our world. It is every side to every story that has ever been written, or ever will be. It is a unifying thread that runs through every being on earth. All you have to do is sit still enough to find it.

The question that’s begging to be asked, “whose side of the story is Jesus on?” has a simple answer: “mine.” With that belonging, though, comes the responsibility to say- out loud- “but he’s also on everyone else’s.”

Amen.