Get Back on the Bike (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

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It may come as no surprise that when I sat down to write the last sermon I would preach here at Prince of Peace, everything I wrote seemed insufficient. There is gift in knowing that if one sermon is a bit lackluster, there’s always next time; and if a single sermon fails to proclaim the Gospel as profoundly as one would like, there’s always the hymnody or liturgy. I didn’t feel like I had that luxury this week; ‘there’s always next week’ isn’t afforded to me this week.

I wanted to say it all; and say it well.
I wanted it to matter.

I wanted you all to know how deeply serving as your associate pastor has mattered to me. I wanted to make you love Jesus a bit more, to inspire you to persevere in your working for justice and peace, to urge to be bold and daring in your visioning.  Although that seems a tall order for one sermon.

I also take seriously the office of pastor, and the commission to speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world. This is a mantle upon my shoulders – one that shapes my ministry, despite feeling burdensome at times.

And so, I can’t just stand up here and detail the memories I’ll carry with me (even though there are many); the regrets I have or failures I perceive on my part (thankfully, not too numerous); the number of times Blake tried to lick my toes or apologize for how my newsletter articles and pastor reports always tarried. I’m going to trust that the fullness and thankfulness that I hold in my heart, you somehow know.

Because, it IS my job to proclaim the Gospel and not just reminisce. Plus, with everything going on in the world right now, you didn’t expect me to be quiet, did you?

So, let’s get this thing rolling…

Last week, after the events which unfolded at the Capitol, I felt it my duty to offer a pastoral perspective in light of the traumatic event we had all experienced – to remind us that Jesus is with us, and that in our baptisms we are claimed and called. But now, ten days later, what I’m left with is a deep sense of violation and loss. If you know me well, you know that boundaries, respect, and equality are core values of mine. These are things that make me feel safe. And frankly, I believe they are manifestations of justice.

And so, maybe it’s no surprise that when I read the scriptures for this week, the two verses that gnawed at me with the persistence of a mouse set on finding a way through drywall, were: The first is from Samuel, “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; vision were not widespread.” And the second from the Gospel of John, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Maybe I’m drawn to these words right now because they echo my anxieties, deep fears, and haunting doubts.

I think all of us – no matter our religious or political beliefs, our age, gender, or race – all of us were (and maybe still are) afraid and horrified as violence and hatred erupted just miles from our homes, in our nation’s capital. In my darkest moments, I fear that nothing good, nothing redemptive, nothing just can ever come from this brokenness. Corruption and evil seem to run rampant. I have wondered, too often lately, if we ARE living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, and transformative visions are not widespread. Because it sure feels that way.

My faith tells me this isn’t true. I think that’s why last week I needed to double-down on the promises of Baptism. The word of the Lord is intertwined in water, bread, wine; the good news is proclaimed in pulpits, through poetry, by modern-day prophets and peacemakers; justice is being worked out every time dignity, equality, and freedom are lifted up, even when those times are less than they should be.

My faith tells me the word of the Lord endures. My faith tells me that goodness arises from ashes.

It’s just my heart and head get all jumbled up by the debauchery, godlessness, and contempt that has become so commonplace.
It seems like nothing good can come from Nazareth (or Washington DC). It seems like the word of the LORD is rare (or more accurately, the word of the LORD has been bastardized).

I guess there’s good news in the fact that Eli found himself feeling similarly. He was a priest, who no longer expected to see or hear anything from God. There is some comfort in knowing my doubts surrounding God’s action or inaction are not unprecedented. Eli was also a priest who had lost his courage – his courage to do what God desired and asked of him.

His nations hardships, the immorality surrounding him, and his own family’s wrong-doings had worn him down. It was hard for him to see or hear God.

I get this.

I was just talking to Maddie the other day about bravery and courage. She’s learning how to ride a bike. It’s scary when the world seems to be moving too fast under your feet and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to stop, but simultaneously you can envision how amazing it might feel to harness a bit of that power. Too often, courage is depicted as something that arises during momentous situations, and manifests itself in puffed-up chests, bulging biceps, and roaring might. But, more often than not, courage is as simple as doing the hard, right thing – even when you’re scared, even when others think you’re wrong, even when you feel weak.

It’s hard to tell what the final straw was that caused Eli’s ears to become stopped, for his vision to fail, for his heart to harden, for his courage to dry up, but I can easily imagine a million things that could suck the resolve out him. He’d tried so many times. Maybe the last fall from the bike just banged him up too much.

When I view Eli from this perspective, and know God’s next move – to move on to Samuel, I’m not sure whether to feel hope, sadness, failure, fear, or solidarity.

It’s hopeful that God is so bent on justice that God goes and finds another person who can still hear promise, who can still believe in and see dreams arise, who has a true and innocent heart, who has the courage to climb on the bike…

There’s so much hope for and in Samuel.
God sees it.

And my heart breaks for Eli. And my heart aches for Samuel, knowing the naiveté he must possess. Think about it:

God calls on Samuel – just a small child – to prophesy the fall of the house of Eli; God tells Samuel to name corruption in his own religious home; God wants this innocent to call sin out for what it is, despite the fact that calling out that sin will upend the very institution that sustains him.

What a hard position to be in. Samuel may learn to listen for God, but he may not like what he has to hear or do.

I also can’t help wonder how Eli felt when he finally realized that it must be God talking to the small boy. Did he feel like God had given up on him? Did he feel jealousy? Did he feel relieved? Did he feel shame?

Again, am I to feel hope, sadness, failure, fear, or solidarity?
Maybe all. Maybe all the emotions are appropriate.

Maybe this story feels more nuanced and complex than it usually does because it we are in a similar difficult moment.

I don’t know if our difficulty with naming atrocity for what it is is what causes our courage to wane, our ears to stop, our hearts to slow, or our vision to cloud…

But folks, last week our nation almost fell.

You may disagree with the boldness and straightforwardness that I say that with, but… well, I guess that’s the grace that’s afforded me in this being my last time here.

We have to get back on the bike.

For the love of God and humanity, for the sake of Jesus and all that is dear, for the hope of future generations…

Philip says to Nathanael, “Come and see.”

Dear friends, we’ve seen. I don’t know if we need to ‘see’ anymore.

Now it’s time to follow.
Follow Jesus.
Enact Jesus.

Be Jesus.

The word of the Lord is rare, only insomuch as we fail to proclaim it or listen for it. I mean, I feel like God isn’t whispering in the night, but banging a gong in the broad daylight. We must hear this, people of God. We must see this. And then, we must find the courage to follow Jesus into the dark, desperate places; walking alongside those who are crying out for help and justice. It means taking a closer look at white supremacy, gender oppression, systemic poverty, and social divisions. It means being mindful and peaceful, while working for change.

I know you feel like Eli.

I know you’re tired, and couldn’t we just leave this to the next generation? Maybe you’re thinking God will find another Samuel. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the world needs you NOW. More than ever before. You can be the next Samuel.

The world needs love, and justice, and truth.
The world needs to hear it and see it.

You know what I really want to see? I really want to see those angels running up and down the ladder between heaven and earth that Jesus tells Nathanael about. I have this image of those angels, dashing breathless, distributing so much goodness that they can hardly keep up.

That’s what I want.

That’s what I pray for.
That’s what I want to see.

I may never get a chance to stand before you again in the same way, and so the last thing I want to say to you is this:

You are held by Jesus, the one who said, “You will see greater things than these.” We will. We will see heaven open. We will see the angels. We will see the love and justice of God. We will see healing.

Don’t despair. Don’t hide.

Have courage.

I believe in you.
But, way better than that: God believes in you.