Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Open Letter to Yinz...

Philippians 1:1-14New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul and Timothy, servants[a] of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops[b] and deacons:[c]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart,[d] for all of you share in God’s grace[e] with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
12 I want you to know, beloved,[f] that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard[g]and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters,[h] having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word[i] with greater boldness and without fear.

A letter from Jenn, doubter and schemer and starving for Jesus, 
To my best friends of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community
to you who carry broken hearts like newborn infants, 
to you who drag the mess of your lives like toilet paper attached to your shoes, 
to you who thanked God for waking you up sober for another day, 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m so thankful for you. 
I’m so thankful for this place, for how the scuffs on the floor and the dents in the drywall and the consistently clogging toilets have given me room to breathe, to question, to not be afraid that I might break the fancy china or tarnish the silver candlesticks. 

When I am able to pray, when it feels more than rote and hollow and pointless, when I’m able to pray, I thank God for you, because you share the Gospel. 
You tell the truth. 
You show up. 
You show up, and you keep showing up, with your limps and your broken teeth and your empty college degrees and your tears, and your underemployment. 
And you’re here, bringing the Gospel with you, tucked deep inside your pockets, crumpled from when you left it in the wash, soft and worn and unreadable and present

I don’t know jack shit. I’m lost and confused and in a constant state of existential crisis. I’m in a dingy in the middle of the ocean and I have no idea how to find the north star. I have a pile of perfectly clean laundry still crumpled in its basket, just waiting for my pissed off cat to take her revenge. I still have t-shirts from high school. You can write your name in the dust on my bookshelves. I told my dental hygienist that I floss every night, but she knows as well as I do that I’ve just been cramming for the test for the last three days. 

I don’t know how to solve racism or police brutality or how to make ISIS just. stop. I don’t know what to do with my kid’s baby teeth, and I don’t know how to help my friend with a broken heart. 
I don’t know where God is or what God is doing when John Stewart retires from The Daily Show and Donald Trump gets to run for president. 

But this is one thing I know. 
You have the Gospel. 
You are the Gospel. 
And God is going to keep writing that Gospel story in your hearts until the day that Jesus comes to gather up our lost teeth and pick up our toys and hem our pants and remind us to wash our hands after using the bathroom.  

Sure. This is a little weird. A little awkward for me to think this about you, let alone say it out loud in a sermon, but I have to believe that you hold me in your hearts too, that maybe you see a little Gospel in me, too. 
‘Cause we’re all here in this place with these wobbly chairs and under these half-lit ceilings to eat some bread, to dip it in some juice, to say “Thanks be to God.” Like the tree that falls in the woods and makes a sound because someone is there to hear it crash to the ground, 
even in my doubt, 
Christ is present, because you’re here to hear all that doubt, 
complete with my source criticism and exegesis and self-deprecation and oversharing and postmodern philosophical angst, and to love me anyway. 

Guys. For reals. You’re just the real thing. 
Keep loving each other. That’s all we really have, anyway.

‘Cause I’m in my own prison these days. A prison made of synapses and fatty brain tissue and uneven serotonin levels. It’s 9:32 on a Saturday night and I’m just now writing this out because I’m nothing but a zombie, wandering around with my bullshit detector on overdrive. I’m hollow and empty and stuck and if I could get out of my own head for just ten minutes, I could stagger around in search of brains.

But if God is the God that Jesus says God is, 
then even zombies can preach the gospel. 
Even from their own prisons. 
Even in the dark. 
Because that’s what the Gospel is: telling the Truth in the dark. 

Even Paul, sitting in his own excrement in an underground prison, so depressed he thinks of taking his own life, even Paul who’s lucky to have stale bread and sour wine lowered down from a tiny manhole dug out of the ceiling, carried down by a friend who risked his life and his freedom to see to Paul’s shackled needs, even Paul could preach the Gospel. Even in a putrid stuffy prison with a trough in the middle where the dead and despairing would flow out into the sewer system.
Even Paul could see that the Gospel cannot be stopped by a prison, by depression, by a zombie apocalypse, by a little gingivitis, by a premature and interminable election season. 
Even Paul, while he in his darkest place, writes his most joyful letter, annoyingly optimistic, as he sits with the lice and the rats and the murderers and the seditious. 

The worst has happened. 
Paul is not free to promote the peace and love of Jesus Christ in broad daylight, and he hasn’t been martyred for the sake of the Gospel to stand out as an example of steadfastness and dedication to the Christian mission. 
He’s in limbo. 
He’s in the dark. 
He’s under the ground. 
He’s alone and has an itch his shackles won’t let him scratch. 
He is neither alive nor dead. He’s in a waiting place, at the mercy of some drunken Roman guards.

Paul is so confident that the Gospel is spreading that even police brutality and drunk driving accidents and the mentally ill with semi-automatic weapons cannot stop it. 

Paul is so confident that the Gospel is spreading that even our imprisonment of our brain chaos and our broken relationships and our insecurities and our eating disorders cannot contain it. 
He’s so confident that two-thousand years from now a doubt-filled preacher with a depressive disorder will stand in front of you all and not puke at the sound of Paul’s saccharin optimism.

So, dear friends, (as remember, I’m writing this too late last night) I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning, I’m going to take a shower and get dressed and try not to tell my kids to hurry up, and I’m going to come and read this letter to you all because I’m too messed up right now to write a proper sermon, and that’ll be a little gospel. Some good news. Some truth in the darkness. 
Frederick Buechner says, “It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are.” 
I’m going to preach to you the way things actually are. 
I’m going to spend these thirteen hundred forty-seven words trying to get to the way things are, not the way my mind happens to see them at this moment. 

Because the Gospel is the truth, not the incessant voices in my head.

Speak your Gospel. Speak it out into the darkness. Tell the truth to the brokenness and the deaths and the bleeding gums. That’s the Gospel. It’s telling the truth in the dark. 

Because Paul’s letter shows us that Jesus is in all the things. Especially the things hidden in the dark, in the dusty corners and the cobwebbed ceilings. In the mental torture and the personal crucifixions, and in the facades we put up for our dentists and our pastors and our Facebook profiles. Speak the truth to the darkness. 

Brothers and Sisters, be made confident in the Lord. By our imprisonments, dare to speak the Word with greater boldness and without fear. 
Tell the truth, even in the dark.



Monday, August 3, 2015

The Hunger Is the Food

JOHN 6:24-35
24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" 26Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." 28Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" 29Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

This passage brings out my inner snark. I’ll never  be hungry Jesus? Oh really? Really?  What are you going to do, Jesus, put in some spiritual feeding tube through my nose so I’ll always be full of your sweetness and light and inner contentedness? I just give my life to you, whatever that means, and suddenly I’ll never have those Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream binge nights or a sudden need for General Tso’s Chicken or the amazing pad thai from Smiling Banana Leaf on Bryant street in Highland Park? Suddenly I start channelling Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers in one of their “Really” skits. Really, Jesus? Oh Really?

‘Cause let me tell you something, Jesus. I’m hungry all. the. time. No. Not just when I’m pregnant, or hormonal or weepy after binge watching episodes of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

And not just for sweet cherries and grass-fed beef hamburgers or spicy shrimp tempura sushi. Hungry for all of it. For more time, and laughter and confidence and faith and hours at the park with my kids. I want more. More Decemberist concerts and more 50 minute hours with my therapist. More books and vacations and waves and sleepless nights with an infant and even more two-year old toddler assertions of independence. I’m hungry for more ministry and justice and equality and towns where people don’t get killed at traffic stops. 

I’m starving for more peace and more time and more trust that God is real. I’m hungry, Jesus. And in my 36 years of searching for you, you haven’t kept up your side of the bargain. You said I’d never be hungry again, and all I feel is hunger.

What gives? 

On a day when I really didn’t think I could believe in God for one more minute, I asked Dan, my husband and biblical-scholar-in-residence this question: “To what extent can we be sure that Jesus lived, that he loved people, that he believed in God, and that he changed the world?”  And Dan said, “well, with about as much certainty as we can believe anything that happened in ancient history.”

The Gospel of John loves to yank us around with metaphors that explain the signs and those signs that point to the truths which point to the koans which lead to the feedings that land us with more hunger. It’s my kinda gospel.

Once you think you’ve got a bubble of truth settled gently in your hand, it pops. Once you think you’ve pinned it down, it slides out from underneath your thumb. Once you feed five thousand people, they come back, hungry all over again.

I don’t think there’s an answer here. 

All I know is that there have been times in my life when I wasn’t hungry. When I didn’t want any more. When I was done. When pad thai tasted like sand and children’s laughter sounded like radio static. There was only disgust. No more sun or clouds or breeze or fascinating episodes of RadioLab. There was a time when I needed to be force fed more life through an emotional feeding tube and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. 

I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he said I’d never be hungry again.

There’s this comic that a friend showed me that I really get a kick out of. It’s a picture of what it would look like if Jesus tried to feed the five thousand today. He’s standing on a hill, holding out the bread and the fish, offering it to the crowd. And then dialogue bubbles hover over the crowd’s heads that say, “I can’t eat that, I’m vegan.” And “Do you have a gluten free option?” And “Has that fish been tested for mercury?” 

My son has this scheme he tries to pull right at bedtime. Suddenly, he’s starving. He’s so hungry. So we say, “Ok. If you’re really hungry, you can have some carrots.” “No!” he says. “I want crackers. I want fruit snacks. I want Ninja Turtle cherry blast yogurt in a tube.”

And we tell him he can have carrots. And then he gives up and goes to bed —because he wasn’t really hungry in the first place - or maybe just too stubborn to acknowledge his real hunger.

I think we’ve all lost our hunger. And because of that, we refuse to be fed. We refuse to acknowledge what we really need — Even when Jesus is standing right in front of us, offering to us with outstretched arms, the things that we are really hungry for.

I want Ben and Jerry’s and wonder bread and warm glazed donuts right before bed, but what I really need are carrots. What I really need is to be made hungry for those carrots. For that bread. For those  fish. 

What I really need is to hunger for Jesus. 

In my work at The Table, our community meal we serve twice a week at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, I usually start the evening with a real love for people. I make the coffee just the way they like it. I use gloves to wrap the silverware in an attempt to keep them healthy. I stop to ask how folks are doing and to check up on their cats and their landlords and their tendonitis. 

I start the night saying to myself, “I love people. I’m doing what Jesus asks me to do. And I’m loving people with their Jesusy faces and their adorable humanness.” But usually, by the end of the night, I’ve been brought to the brink of my patience, I’ve been heartbroken by the stories of hepatitis C and pregnant drug overdoses and how Lita is excited because she sleeps in the fort at the playground where she used to play as a child because that keeps the rats away, and how Edward’s crippling mental illness forces him to be medicated beyond oblivion, and when I’ve tried to break up another fight between two guys with PTSD. All I can say is, “I love Jesus.” That’s all I’ve got. That’s all that’s left of my idealism and my delusions of Mother Teresa-ness. 
I leave The Table broken, annoyed, discouraged, but hungry, with a renewed love for Jesus.

Is that what Jesus means? You’re not going to be hungry again because you’re going to be hungry for me. It is one of those Zen Koans, isn’t it?

If you hunger for me, then you’ll feed people and forgive yourself and march in that protest and believe in something greater than yourself and your despair. If you hunger for me, that hunger will feed you.

Simone Weil said, “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

Believe in the bread, or don’t believe in the bread. Believe in God, or don’t. To us puny humans and our fickleness and our pain and need, I really don’t think it matters. 

It’s the hunger that feeds you. The hunger is the food.

‘Cause when you stop hungering, that’s when you’re in trouble. That’s when you need medical attention and some support from Western Psych. That’s when you stuff yourself full of white pasta and bad tv and pain pills and the belief that if I just get one more raise, if I just make it until my kids get to college, if I just finally get that house or that vacation or that one person to finally love me the way I deserve to be loved, and then I’ll start loving Jesus,  and then I’ll be full, and then I won’t be hungry anymore. 

But with about as much certainty as we can know that Julius Caesar was assassinated, that Virgil wrote the Aeneid, and that there was a man named Socrates, we are fed with this: Jesus lived, he loved people, he believed in God. He changed the world. 

We know just enough to be hungry for more.  

Maybe I don’t have enough faith to believe in God. But I know I’m hungry for more Jesus. And Jesus believes for me. I’m hungry for more Jesus. And I want that to be enough. 

The hunger is the food.

If the crowd had been satisfied with the Jesus they’d gotten out there in the wilderness in the form of a bread and fish lunch, they wouldn’t have crossed that lake, they wouldn’t have tracked him down. They’d have gone home. They’d go back to their shepherding and farming and handcrafting and American Ninja Warrior and had a great story about that one time they forgot their lunch and someone shared theirs with them. 

But that’s not what happens. They hunt Jesus down. They want more Jesus. They’re hungry for more Jesus. It’s when they say, “Sir, give us this bread always” that they’re truly fed. When they hunger, that’s when the feeding begins. 

And it’s that hunger for Jesus that truly feeds us. It’s the fleshy, glutenous, messy, sticky life of Jesus that truly feeds us. The hunger is the food.
Let’s be filled with the hunger for more Christ. 

Sir. Give us this bread always.