Luke 15:1-10 "Becoming a Good Loser"

Lost sheepYou can lose a lot of things.

You can lose your mind, your memory or your marbles.

Your confidence, self-esteem or your mojo.

You may lose your way, your place or you can even lose face;

Your reputation, self-respect, manhood or virginity.

You can lose sleep, time or your prime.

You may also fail, suffer defeat or take and licking and keep on ticking.

You can lose an argument, a game or a war.

And if you lose your wealth or your health, you then lose hope.

You can be lost in space, lost without your love,

Jesus said, You can lose your life to save it, or save your life only to lose it.

You might even lose your faith…

We seem to be real losers.

Poor little sheep who have lost their way.

No wonder there is so much joy in heaven when we are found.

Apparently the one thing we can’t lose is God.

Losing is an important part of life.  Our culture is too obsessed with winning, and the attitude of football legend Vince Lombardi who said, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”  We are a winner take all society, some social scientists have said.  What is winning really?  Its just a game, its fun, we get a charge out of it.  But in the end, so what if you are the best at throwing a football, shooting baskets or sprinting to the finish line.  Most of life doesn’t have clear wins and losses.  The important things-teaching or raising a child, friendship, building a house, growing food, feeding the hungry or making peace-don’t have clear winners or losers.  You share and support, care and give, nurture, plan and create.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but in most of life you are not either winning or losing, just living. 

The excessive emphasis on winning creates a lot of problems, like income inequality in our economy, or an inability to seek common ground or compromise for the social good.  If you want a good marriage, you have to decide if you want to be right or you want to be loved. Sometimes in life we have to let go of something in order to have something else, because we can hold it all.  Learning to lose and let go is an important skill, more important perhaps than winning, because most of us will do more losing. 

Losing is a big part of self-development.  Our first lost occurs when we leave the womb.  You never have it so good again, warm and safe and protected, no major worries or stresses, and never alone.  It’s a loss and we cry.  And if we don’t the doctor gives us a whack to make sure we are alive.  But without that loss we never will take our first steps, draw a picture or maybe even cure cancer someday.  Later we may lose our innocence and we find out how hard life can be, how ruthless and hard-hearted people can be.  It’s a painful loss, but then who wants to be naïve, living with an unrealistic view of the world and missing what is really happening.  When we lose our innocence it is a chance to become wise and resilient.

I remember a book title by Judith Viorst called “Necessary Losses.”  Its fallen out of my library and apparently much of memory too, but the title really says it all.  The subtitle of the book is “The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow.”  Necessary losses indeed!  How many people do you know who go through life thinking that life owes them something.  Some look for love in all the wrong places.  Then they find they were really looking for love at all, but for someone to take care of them, when they really needed to learn more about taking care of themselves. 

Losses and how we respond to them shape us, but it do not make us losers, it makes us searchers.  We become searchers because we want to feel whole again.  There are all kinds of searches, Ahab had his whale, Percival was on a quest for the Holy Grail.  There was an entire time of history we called “The Age of Explorers” as Columbus, Hudson and de Gamma searched to find out what was out there in the world.  They weren’t lost, they were just exploring. 

One of my all time favorite songs is by U2 “I Still Haven’t Found what I’m Looking For.”

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you

I have run 
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

The last verses say:

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Well yes I'm still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

The song ends with four last, forlorn calls “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  That song has such appeal because much of life feels like that.  Searching and feeling like what we want or need is just beyond our grasp.  We keep thinking that the right job, relationship, experience or accomplishment, self-help book will finally be the thing.  Augustine understood this, the theologian who wrote the first real self-help book in his “Confessions.”  He came to the conclusion that most of our fruitless searching was really because we do not realize we are ultimately searching for God.  Until we know that we are dissatisfied with even the good we find.   Augustine believed we have a God shaped void inside, that nothing else can fill and said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 

It is not easy to be restless.  Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.”  But he did not say when or how long. But it is in the seeking that we find the growing. 

Here is what is most profound and surprising in our Gospel lesson this week.  God is also a seeker.  God is restless too, eager to find us and welcome us home.  What is God like?  Like a woman who has lost her coin-not just any coin-but one of the ten that completes her headdress that shows she is a married woman.  She will not rest till she find it because it is like going out without a wedding ring.  So too God does not rest in a search for us.  God is not content just being satisfied with the righteous who are in the fold.  A good shepherd knows that you don’t leave even one lamb out away from the flock, thinking you have 99 others.  For if you leave one lamb every day you will soon have no flock.  So the good shepherd searches out every single one when they are lost.  I like this image of the restless God that searches for us. 

In a way it turns upside down the way I think about my faith journey and my searching.  The great joy of faith is not so much when I finally catch my great white whale or find my Holy Grail, the right whatever I thought I wanted.  The great joy is that when I felt lost, I was found.

Joy Through it All

"Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning."

IuYesterday our weekly Bible study focused on the word "joy." One member spoke for all of us, sharing the struggle of finding joy when things seem awful-violence in the streets, the dreary expectation of racism and homophobia being spouted in Cleveland all week, and on and on. How can we speak of joy in a time such as this?

While doing research for the class, I came upon the phrase "rejoice in doing good." (Jeremiah 32:41) Can we find some joy in working for the world God intends? This week's lectionary text is the Lord's Prayer, which counsels us to pray "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus goes on to tell us to pray for daily bread, forgiveness, a heart that can forgive, the power to resist temptation and a saving from evil. This is the joyful work Christians are called to do.

It is appropriate to weep through these nights of a political convention so focused on fear and blame. But joy comes in the morning, the joy in finding where God's spirit still moves, giving bread, grace and resistance to evil. May you be surprised by joy today!

Psalm 23 - "Good Shepherd 3.0"

Christ the Good ShepherdI had an important moment of clarity last Monday about how I understand myself as pastor and shepherd.  Sarah and I were both attending the Massachusetts Western area “Day of Covenant,” which is annual gathering of pastors and Conference staff for mutual care and discussion about what we see as the big issues of the church.  Every year they give us a rock and have a moment to share with the group a burden we would all like to lay down, so we can share our ministry burdens.  I feel pretty good, we are doing great, no big conflicts, no thorny issues of toxic personalities, no leaks in the roof.  So I don’t want to be that pastor, who is just so together, pulling a “humble brag,” with something like, “I lay down the burden of having to chose between all the wonderful things in my life.”  Please!

So here is what I thought as I waited my turn (and this is a big deal!)  I said, “I lay down the burden of my death and resurrection as a pastor, because the future of the church calls me to be something beyond what I am now.  I’ve been in ministry for 27 years, and for 26 of those years, I have been the new young pastor.  I’ve always wondered when I would no longer be the new young pastor, I’ve longed for it, and I think now is the tipping point-52 is as good an age as any to declare this.  My whole career I have served a church that is much older than me, and I feel the gravitational shift. The church I was called to serve four years ago is rapidly disappearing, the church that is, in the now, is in transition, and the church of the future will most likely be very different different.   Now what happens when the gravity below you shifts? 

Here’s one example of the shift I sense.  When I started most people sat in the center rows of pews, with just a few stragglers on the sides.  Now most Sundays, the side pews on the left and on the right are each equal to the center.  Many new people have adopted the sides, and the center has shrunk and there are gaping holes where people who sat for decades are now gone. 

At clergy meetings pastors actually discussed managing where people sit, because as churches low attendance looks bad.  One pastor roped off the back pews and moved everyone forward in a tighter cluster, and some churches are just removing pews altogether and just have chairs.  I didn’t realize making seating arrangements would be such a big pastoral role.  Just ask Jonathan Edwards.  First Church needed new meeting house because the old one was too small.  What a huge problem!  The biggest givers and prominent families sat in the front pews.   People bought their pews to build the church.  Edwards hated that idea, which created inequality in the church, in sermons he ranted and scolded, and the church leadership just met in secret and went around him.  Seating arrangements matter. 

Edwards was at the tail end of being Good Shepherd 1.0, for Church 1.0.  Church 1.0, as an institution, upheld the social order, regulating family life, morals, national and ethnic pride.  Pastors carried the rod and staff and it was a social obligation to be in church. Everyone knew where they were supposed to sit, and down front was best.

Church 2.0 changed that.  In the mid 19th century, and heart-felt emotional religion and individualism became a driving energy.  The music shifted from Isaac Watts hymns like “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and “Immortal and Invisible God Only Wise” to Fanny Crosby and Charles Wesley, to “O How I love Jesus” and “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”  And you can sit wherever you want!  People moved to the back of the church, creating a dead zone up front, so pastors have had to leave the pulpit to see peoples faces.  This era culminated at the turn of the 21st century with the Mega Church, a market driven, consumer driven church that has coffee shops and no crosses. 

Good Shepherd 2.0 clergy, on the positive side, learned about psychology and counseling, conflict mediation, how to manage committees, and marketing to attract people.  Here’s the downside.  Many churches and pastor became individualistic and inward rather than communities with a mission to reach and change the world.  A popular seminary professor, Eugene Peterson, said many clergy are “quivering masses of availability” running to find more green pastures, preparing more tables and overflowing cups, basically trying to please everyone, because people might leave, and end up exhausted and burned out, so clergy are now leaving the ministry at staggering rates.  Bill Ames told me there were always 10 percent who don’t like anything.

Church 1.0 and Church 2.0 have been slowly losing energy, like a tire with a slow leak.  The church of social order and obligation has been deflating for a couple of centuries, the consumerist church of individualism is getting boring, and can’t compete with sporting events and movie theatres.  We have pumped more air into the church tires, but never really changed them to solve that leak.  So what will Church 3.0 will look like?  Here are three brief questions– 1)  What will church be about? – the why, 2)  Where will you sit? – the belonging question  3)  What will the pastor do? -the shepherd/leadership question.

  1. First Churches is working diligently on the “why” question. We are already becoming Church 3.0, which is not a place to be a member, but a community of spiritual awakening, where we listen for God’s spirit, and we are sent out on a mission to make God’s love and justice real.  Church 3.0 will equally be movement and institution, spiritual and activist.  Asking the right questions, and being authentic, will be more important that doctrinal conformity. 
  1. So where are you going to sit in church 3.0? Like Church 2.0 you can still sit wherever you want. We are going to keep some of the best of church 2.0, But in Church 3.0 you are going to have more than one seat.  You will have a pew here, a seat around the table with food in Lyman Hall, a seat in each others homes for spiritual life groups or a seat on the ground while you weed in the garden.  Spiritual transformation does not necessarily happen in straight lines, with rows facing the front.  Real community and awakening happens in a small circle where we face each other.   In Church 3.0 I think you may spend less than half your church time sitting in a pew, and more time sitting in a circle.  Sundays still matter a great deal, where we come together and celebrate and sing, but even Sundays we may have more emphasis upward and sideways than just forwards.
  1. So what will the pastors do? Increasingly, our role is equipping you to grow in faith and share in ministry, finding and doing your why, and our purpose, and less time being theological experts, institutional managers and the decision makers.  3.0 pastors may be more like spiritual coaches.  Coaching may have some negative connotations for you, with lots of shouting and ordering people around.  “You, sing louder…and you pass out bulletins…”  Coaching is a new profession that helps people with everything from time management, life goals, starting a new business or career, almost anything. 

What a coach does is listen very deeply, creating an open, non-judgmental environment where people can do their very best thinking.  Coaches help people create new awareness about their situations, brainstorm possibilities, watch for limiting thoughts and behaviors, and then help people organize life to do the things that are truly important and transformative.  How many of you would like that kind of coach?

Sarah and I both have coaches that help us with our ministries.  We often coach each other.  Common Ground and our Vision Meetings operate on a coaching-type of model that is participatory and equipping.  Here is a concrete example.  We have had 17 new members and lots of visitors and we need do better at helping people find their way into our community.  In the past, the pastor/experts would talk with a consultant, or go to seminar, make a plan, run by the relevant committee, and implement it.  Instead, we invited recent new members to tell about their experience, what works and what we could do better.  By May we will implement at least 3 of these ideas.  That is the difference between a coaching culture and an expert driven culture.

I’ve been training with other clergy since September, spending 4 hours every Tuesday night on a webinar, my 100 hours of training are done May 3, and by the end of 2016, I plan to be a certified Associate Level Coach.  I think this could be transformative, but it is a leap of faith for me.  It is a death and resurrection change as I let go of so many things I learned in seminary, and give up control.  But I also think it lets the Spirit in to our work together.  Here is what I’m asking of you.  First, be patient with me as I evolve from Good Shepherd 2.0 to 3.0, and be patient with each other as we figure out what Church 3.0 looks like in the 21st century.  Second, I need practice.  I’m going to set up times where you can sign up for life coaching.  It can be on anything, time management, being a better leader, job stress, saying no, developing healthy life habits, come as a couple to talk about improving family life, envision retirement or start a new business.  These issues have spiritual dimensions.  You don’t have to wait till you have cancer or a great existential crisis to call a pastor. 

So tell me what’s on your mind at the end of this.  Share with me about where you see the greatest opportunities and the place where you feel stretched and challenged. 

Restoration: When Scripture Makes History

King marchingScripture Lessons:  Luke 4:15-21, Isaiah 61:1-2                                                    

What is your elevator speech?  In 30 seconds or less, how would convince someone to embrace your core values and mission? It must be simple, memorable and exciting.  A Mission Statement grounds you in being clear before you act, so every day you can ask, is this true to our mission statement. Organizations spend a great deal of time and money to get it right.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days out in the wilderness, fasting and praying, and being tempted by the devil.  That is what it is like to write a good mission statement.  You have to fend off anything that is less than your true self, your highest calling, your better angels.  Jesus had to reject even good things, like turning stone into bread for the poor, because there is something even more important to do.  

Biblical commentators see Luke 4:18-19 as setting the tone for the whole Gospel.  It is Jesus’s Mission Statement.  He does not reinvent the wheel, because his perfect statement has already been written 500 years before.  Jesus doesn’t pull a laminated card from his pocket and begin reading, he opens the scroll to Isaiah 61, and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Isaiah is the poet of hope and justice, and here’s the context of Isaiah 61.  The people of Jerusalem are tired and discouraged.  They are the grandchildren of refugees, whose families survived the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and lived in exile in Assyria.  The have returned to the city full of hopes and grand ideals, like the Puritans and George Winthrop to build a new shining city on the hill, like many immigrant families seeking a new start.  They have heard their parents’ stories of a thriving and prosperous city.  We used to drink Grande Lattes, and wear Prada and Neiman Marcus, and went to Klienfeld’s for wedding dresses.  If only we could say “Yes to the dress,” again.  And you should have seen the Great Temple that Solomon built, it was even better than our work on the pyramids of Egypt.  We built good stuff back in the day. 

So these grandchildren arrive to a city in ruins and land stricken with poverty.  But they are full of ideals, they get busy rebuilding walls, and and then they rebuild a temple.  Now they do not have the resources and tax base that Solomon had, and it’s a rush job, completed in about 20 years.  A good stone temple takes at least a century.  So when they look at it, the Prophet Haggai records their reaction.  "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"  (Haggai 2:3) They can’t live up to their own great expectations and they are disappointed.

Somewhere in this context the author Isaiah 61 writes these words about freeing the captives and good news for the poor.  Its purpose is twofold, first, to give people hope that this is truly the work that God is calling them to do, to restore their city, so don’t give up even though it is hard.  But second, it is also to remind people that the true basis of national pride is not the grandeur of the Temple, but in justice and equity in the city so that all prosper together.  This is the big idea throughout Isaiah.  If your foundation of society is justice you will stand firm and prosper together, but if you oppress the poor and live in a great disparity of wealth, you will fail.  Isaiah 61 is a renewing of their mission statement, to strengthen their weary souls.

No wonder Jesus is quick to adopt these words.  The promise is never quite fulfilled, and Herod is busy trying to build another great Temple in lower Manhattan, (uhr …Jerusalem.)  Jesus reads, God brings good news to the poor, jobs and opportunity, free the captives of mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs, restoring the sight to the blind (and to those who don’t want to see.)  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Let me give you a second translation to deepen the impact of this passage, from Eugene Peterson and “The Message.” 

Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”


Think about that for a moment.  Can a scripture make history?  Well, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela quoted this passage in South Africa and ended Apartheid, Harriet Tubman and the abolitionists preached Isaiah 61, and ended slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Isaiah 61 and brought down segregation and extended Constitutional Rights to black Americans.  Scripture may need people to make history, but maybe people need the history of scripture to make justice.  

As inspiring as Isaiah 61 it is troubling that we have to keep bringing up so often.  Can’t we just preach it once, fix the problem and move on?  Seven years ago I was hopeful that we had a real breakthrough in race relations when we elected a black president, check off the “end racism” box.  This is a milestone that was unthinkable when the Voting Rights Act came into being in 1964.  So I bet black Americans are now going to college in greater numbers, that the unemployment numbers are falling, and racism is on the retreat as we move to a color blind society.  Right?  But apparently the stats aren’t budging at all.  Stats can lie though.  Let’s ask Black Christians how things are going.

“A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings — like the ones that killed Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Gardner and so many more — are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents.  And before we begin disassociating with the term "white Christians," we should look deeper. The numbers include 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics, and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants. This is about all white Christians.

So what do we make of this?  Do we say black Christians are biased and paranoid?  Or do we say that most white Christians simply refuse to connect the dots, because we are in denial? 

Apparently, it takes more than seven years of a black President to change the course of 500 years of history since the first slaves were dragged to the colonies.  Despite school busing, affirmative action, Urban Renewal, a War on Drugs, a half century later we have made some gains, but on the whole, when we look at the Temple of Racial Equality we have tried to build and measure it against the soaring aspirations of “I Have a Dream,” –to quote Haggai again- “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"   

What happened?  It is not enough to say Donald Trump came along and made racism acceptable again.  Trump is only a symptom; he is like a virus that seizes an opportunity when the body of the nation is weakened. In a healthy republic, Trump is not a serious candidate.  Trump has just emboldened latent racism that has now showed up on X-rays.  In Iowa, where my mother lives, as they prepare for the Presidential Caucuses, white Supremist groups are making Robo calls on behalf of Donald Trump.  American Renaissance, the group that inspired hatred in Dylann Roof, and lead to his shooting of nine black people in a Charleston, SC church, has a Super Pac and is calling people in Iowa.  (Both these groups are not old racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they were incorporated in 2009.  We know what happened in 2008, right.)    

We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.’

The reality is that ending racism is more like curing cancer, it takes more than Vitamin C and one dose or two of chemotherapy.  Cancer attacks the body in so many ways, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer…and there are so many ways that we work to prevent and treat it, radiation, chemotherapy, keeping pollutants out of our food and water.  It takes a major investment of time and money and commitment.  People need support, and rides the doctor, and we have prayer lists.  We all have lost someone close to us, or endured cancer ourselves.

If you are black, you have lost someone to the system of racism.  Maybe it was to drug and gang violence, or prison time for things most people did in college, (since blacks are 10 times more likely to do jail time for drug use than whites) or if you live in Flint, Michigan racism is literally in the water.  The story of the Flint water system is a terrible case of environmental racism. 

BetheChurch1.001So what do we do now?  Healthy organizations go back to their mission statements.

We are here this morning in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  Not just Isaiah, Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But also First Baptist Church, whose members declared themselves to be against slavery in 1840.  (You let a bunch a radicals in when you merged with them!)  It was First Churches that strongly supported the Sojourner Truth statute being placed in Florence against strong opposition. My hope is that 20 years down the road, when I’m retired, a preacher will be standing here saying, look what the people of First Churches did 2016, and 2020.  They stood tall and strong.  Go and do likewise!