Life Together (OR: Why Matt is Giving Up Complaining for Lent)



Who are we? Who are we called to be…together? And what does that have to do with complaining?

In the season of Lent, in the middle of our strategic planning process, we are pondering the question of ccommunity together. And we have a dialogue partner: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think his classic book Life Together has a lot to say to this moment in the life of Plymouth Church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian and a key leader of the Confessing Church movement in Germany, which resisted Hitler’s regime for the sake of Jesus Christ. He had a comfortable position serving a congregation of expatriate Germans in London, but friends prevailed upon him to come back to Germany and lend his gifts to the resistance.  He became the head of the underground seminary in Finkenwalde –training ministers to serve in that small segment of the German church that refused to capitulate to Hitler.


Bonhoeffer was martyred on April 9, 1945 –hung in the Flossenburg concentration camp just two weeks before that camp was liberated by the U.S. soldiers from the 90th and 97th Infantry divisions.  He was 39 years old.


The underground seminary at Finkenwalde was a kind of experiment. In a time when German ministerial training was dominated by the universities-based, Bonhoeffer shaped the underground seminary into a kind of Protestant monastery. Seminary students lived together, they shared meals with each other, they had regular communal worship.


He wrote Life Together as a manual for that community but it has become a classic of 20th century devotion and theology. Between now and Easter, I am inviting you to read it so that we can have a conversation about our life together here at Plymouth Church.

This past weekend, we launched our Lenten journey with the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That is a story about identity –who is Jesus, really? And what will be the character of the community he creates?

Matthew’s Gospel explores those questions by telling a pretty strange story.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I will be the first to admit it: this is a pretty strange story, even by the standards of the Bible. Jesus goes without anything to eat for a very long time, is magically whisked from one location to the other in the blink of an eye and has an actual, face-to-face conversation with the actual devil. It is just weird.  If you find that you cannot take it literally, well, welcome to the club.  But we should try to take it seriously. When we do that, this strange story starts speaking to us in surprising ways.


It helps to have a little context: where does this strange story fall within the wider story of Matthew’s Gospel? Well, just before the temptation, Matthew devotes a lot of space to the question of Jesus identity.  Matthew opens with a  genealogy—telling us who Jesus is by telling us who his people are—and we get the story of his baptism, where the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God speaks and we hear one answer to the question of who Jesus is: “This is  my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”


And what comes right after that? The story of Jesus’ temptation.  And to me, that suggests this story has something do with the question of Jesus’ identity. Having heard the Spirit say that he is God’s beloved Son, Jesus takes some time and some space to struggle with all of that.  What does it mean to be beloved and chosen by God? What exactly does God intend for him to do? Who is he, really?  Out in the wilderness, before his work can begin, Jesus must wrestle with the question of his own identity. And his struggle sheds light on our struggle to understand what kind of community God calls us to be.


Jesus does not wrestle with these questions alone. At the end of 40 days, the devil drops by for a visit.  And did you notice the very first words out of the devil’s mouth? If you are the Son of God.  Give the devil his due: He knows exactly what is going on here. He has come to hit Jesus where it hurts –to poke and to probe at this still-sensitive question: Who are you? Who are you really?” So each temptation explores the issue of identity. Each temptation forces Jesus to face the question of who he is and what God intends for him to do.  When we keep that in mind, this strange story starts making sense.


So: the first temptation -turning a stone into bread.  Seems like a logical thing to do, and after 40 days of fasting, Jesus must be famished.  But this is not about bread.  It cuts far deeper than that.  As God’s Beloved, as the Chosen One, will Jesus use his power to meet his own needs? He does not always have to focus on the hungry and the poor and the outcast and the sick. He could use his favored status to seek a little personal gain –just a small meal when he is really hungry. Turning a stone into bread -hardly a federal offense.


But Jesus is not interested.  Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy, he replies to the devil, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus knows that he has been chosen by God, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the world.  He will not exploit his special status in order to meet his own needs. Some things matter more than bread.


The second temptation: throw yourself down.  The devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, the highest point for miles around.  And this time it is Satan who breaks out some Scripture, quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 91 about God’s angels protecting God’s people from harm. Reading between the lines here, it sounds like the devil wants Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple so that angels will have to intervene, swooping down dramatically to save God’s Chosen One from certain death.


This temptation may be the hardest one to understand. But remember: this is about Jesus’ identity.  What kind of a Savior will he be? Who is he really? Well, if he does what the devil wants him to do, he will be spectacular and he will be famous–rescued by angels, in broad daylight, in downtown Jerusalem, for all the world to see.  In an instant, everyone would know that Jesus is the real deal, the certifiable Son of God. Then everyone would want to follow him.  It is a marketing ploy, a shortcut to success and, when you think about it, it is kind of brilliant.


But Jesus is not interested.  This time he answers the devil by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy: “It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Maybe by now Jesus has started to see the path that God calls him to walk, the work that God calls him to do.  He already has some sense of where all of this is leading.  And there will be no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no easy success.  Betrayed, denied, abandoned and alone, Jesus will go to the cross –because that is who he is and that is what God intends for him to do.  Really.


The third temptation: the kingdoms of the earth. In an instant, Jesus sees all the nations of the known world –the vast empire of Rome, spread before his feet “All this will be yours,” the devil whispers.  “All you have to do is worship me.” The final temptation is subtle.  The devil knows that Jesus probably has little interest in the trappings of power: riding around in limousines, making big speeches to adoring crowds.  But as God’s Beloved, as the Chosen One, Jesus might be tempted to seize power for the sake of doing good.  Just imagine: same old empire, but with Jesus as Caesar; the power of Rome harnessed for the purpose of God.


But Jesus is not interested.  Once more he draws on the Book of Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Jesus knows that nobody ever beats Caesar at his own game. You cannot use the crude implements of the empire to bring about the reign of God.  You can serve God or you can seek power, but it is awfully hard to do both.


So: three strikes and the devil is out.  The wilderness has done its work. But for now, at least, the way forward is clear. Jesus knows who he is. Jesus knows what God intends for him to do. He is ready to walk the path laid out before him.


And we are invited to follow.


It is daunting to measure the distance between the communities that we are (flawed, fallible, broken) and the community God calls us to be. And it is tempting (I use that word deliberately) to complain about the ways our community falls short.


But here is where Bonhoeffer can be helpful: According to him, when I complain about my church, I am telling on myself.


In the first chapter of the book, he puts forward a seemingly simple idea: Christian community is a gift. It is something given to us by a gracious God, not something we produce out of our own effort. You cannot manufacture Christian community; you can only receive it.


So when it does not work out—when Christian community goes off the rails, when it is marred or broken or bad—it probably was not the genuine article to begin with. It was some kind of illusion, a product of our hands.


But then Bonhoeffer gets kind of personal. He says that pastors, specifically, should not complain about their congregation. If I ever feel like going down that road—if I want to vent and grouse and grumble about my church—I should probably stop and check myself.


I should carefully consider the possibility that I am the problem here.


Maybe I don’t want the good gift of Christian community. Maybe I have been getting in the way of that.

Maybe I have been busy trying to turn Plymouth Church into something else, something I can shape to suit my own desires. And then, when y’all do not cooperate, I start to complain. You are not doing what I want you to do.


When I complain I am telling on myself.


Other people are not the problem. I am.


Thank God for the moments when I can see that.




[i] I never read this story without thinking of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful little book In The Name of Jesus: Reflection on Christian Leadership.  (New York, NY: Crossorad, 1989). Much more of my thought than I even realize is indebted to Nouwen’s thoughts about this passage.

[ii] So I like Fred Craddock’s suggestion—which immediately makes sense to any preacher—that the devil is tempting Jesus to coerce belief by performing some sort of magic trick.  Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  James L. Mays, Ed. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), pp.54-57.


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Plymouth Church Seeks New Director of Child and Family Ministries


Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines, Iowa seeks a full-time Director of Child and Family Ministries. We are a progressive congregation of approximately 3,200 members, committed to inclusivity and diversity.  We are looking for someone with the creativity and commitment to help us build upon our vibrant tradition of engaging children in the life of our church. Working closely with the Senior Minister, lay leaders and church staff,  the Director of Child and Family Ministries will direct the faith formation programming for children, including weekly church school, Vacation Bible School, and other family activities. Strong organizational skills and a proven ability to oversee effective programs for children are a must, as well as a bachelor’s degree (preferably in a related field) and five years of related professional experience. Position includes competitive salary and full benefits. A criminal background check is required. Applicants should submit a cover letter and resume to


Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent: Mary is a Punk Rocker



“Mary is a Punk Rocker”

Luke 1:46-55   

  December 8, 2019


Last week Lindsey Braun launched our Advent mixtape sermon series by reflecting on the ways in which the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel seem to resemble a Broadway musical. And she sang some snippets of show tunes to make her point.

I think it is safe to say that, compared to Lindsey I am a little…lowbrow.  Broadway is not my primary frame of reference. No, when I think about our text for today—when I imagine Mary singing her song—this is what I see: a teenage girl with a bright green mohawk. Maybe more than one facial piercing. A Misfits T-shirt held together with safety pins. Doc Marten boots, scuffed.

Beloved, what I’m trying to tell you is this: Mary is a punk rocker.

It is true that no reputable Biblical scholar will support this assertion. But I know it when I see it. From the years 1986 to 1995 (approximately), my friends and I were the closest thing you could find to punk rockers in the little town of Williamsburg Pennsylvania.

We weren’t deviants—not really—but we did not fit in. We preferred skateboards to footballs; comic books to binge drinking. We felt a certain amount of alienation. I spent a lot of my adolescence on the outside looking in.

But we had each other, and we had our music. The music meant a lot.

It is no exaggeration to say that punk rock music saved my life.

Maybe Mary’s song can do it again.


We pick up this morning precisely where we left off last week: Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. But these are no ordinary cousins and this is no ordinary visit. For one thing, Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age. And, for another thing, Mary is pregnant as well.

Back there, back then, in a patriarchal and sometimes violent culture, her situation is not fodder for some after-school special. Teenage pregnancy is a capital crime. This thing that has happened to Mary…this is dangerous.

But last week we heard how Elizabeth does something extraordinary. She sees her cousin—this girl in so much trouble—and Elizabeth…blesses her. Incredibly, Elizabeth says that this thing that has happened to Mary is a sign of God’s favor. Elizabeth holds up a mirror in which Mary can see herself, and her situation, as blessed.

And I believe it is that context—one woman befriending another, validating her experience, pronouncing God’s blessing—I believe the context of Elizabeth blessing Mary creates the opportunity for Mary to sing her song.

Because that is the way this works. That is what friends are for. The right friends and the right song just might save your life.


Growing up, my friends and my music were intimately connected. In some respects, they were one and the same.

There was no internet of course. Not a lot of radio stations, even. When Williamsburg finally got cable—I think I was in middle school—the basic package included two country music channels, two Christian channels…and no MTV.

How do you survive as a pre-internet, small town skater punk? You find your people. And you find ways to tell each other it is going to be OK.

We did a lot of that through music. We had these mixtapes—literal cassette tapes—that we passed around, sharing them surreptitiously, like Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. These tapes had songs from bands like Black Flag and the Ramones and Bad Religion and the Dead Milkmen and Stiff Little Fingers. The sound quality was poor, the transitions abrupt. Through overuse and constant rewinding, the tapes would deteriorate and eventually snap.

But the music—and the rituals of sharing the music—it was all so seductive. I wonder if my own children will ever know the thrill of smuggling something subversive past teachers and coaches and well-meaning parents.

Do you know why we shared those songs? Because they spoke of something bigger, something beyond the borders of the little world we knew. Because they validated all of our teenage suspicions about the sacred shibboleths uttered by our elders. Because they gave us a glimpse of a wider world when we most needed to see it.

At a tender time in my life, punk rock music told me that I was not alone.


Mary’s song isn’t for everybody. It is for the eccentrics, the misfits, the losers, the people who do not fit in. If you have ever felt like this world is not quite right—if you have ever suspected that you are some kind of square peg—Mary’s song is for you. Mary wants you to know that you are not alone.

You may have missed this message in Mary’s song. I want you to know that is not your fault. The church has done its level best to make Mary over, to make her into someone she is not, to make her polite and meek and mild. And we have taken her song—this rowdy, rebellious, deeply dangerous song—we have taken her song and turned it into some syrupy hymn. We have hosed it down with holy water, filtered it through stained glass, reworked it into something pretty and frilly and harmless.

So this morning, I want you to try to put all of that aside. This isn’t some church song.  It is a statement of defiance, an anthem of protest. Mary’s song is a punk rock song.

Like all great punk rockers, Mary has a whole lot of guts. She stands with both feet planted in her own life and dares to do theology out of her own experience. Who is she? A poor peasant girl who has landed in a whole lot of trouble. But she is, also, the one who has been blessed by God and the one through whom God’s salvation will come.

What does that tell you about God? What does that tell you about the way that God works and the company God keeps? I know what it tells Mary. It tells her that God is not neutral, God is not indifferent, God does not stand at some safe distance from our suffering and our pain.

God gets involved. God comes near. And when God comes near, God comes to take the side of the outcast and the underdog, the impoverished and oppressed, the junkies and whinos and bums.

That is who God likes. That is how God works. And that is how God will make the world well.

So if you feel like a bit of misfit this morning, you are one of Mary’s people. And: you are one of mine. We can wait for God together. We can look forward to God’s promise together. We can share Mary’s song and all the songs that tell us we are not alone.

Once upon a time, punk rock saved my life. By the grace of God, it can do it again.


Mary is a Punk Rocker (Advent Mixtape Week 2)



I want to let you in on a little secret:

Mary’s song? The Magnificat? One of the best known bits of scripture, set to music by so many different composers?

I think it was originally a punk rock song.

Luke 1:46-55

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Mary’s song is the second installment in our “Advent Mixtape” sermon series. We are listening together to the songs of the season. But we want to be very clear about which season. In a sermon at Plymouth, years ago, Angie Arendt talked about “HallowThanksMass” –the season that seems to start earlier every year, an orgy of mass consumption for no particular reason. We know the soundtrack to that season: “Santa Baby” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

But I am talking about a different season altogether –something more ancient, more obscure. For the church, this is the season of Advent. The music is more plaintive, the mood one of longing.

Our songs are about our yearning for God to make good on the promise.

So last week we heard how Mary—pregnant and probably confused—went to visit her cousin Elizabeth (also pregnant). In her anxiety and fear, Mary was no doubt surprised to be blessed by her cousin. It is a powerful moment in which Mary’s experience is confirmed, validated, celebrated. Mary hears from Elizabeth that what is happening to her is actually OK –more than OK. It is a blessing from God.

And I believe it is the context of Mary’s affirmation that allows Mary to sing her song.

It is not entirely original. Mary draws on Hannah’s song –sung by another woman who saw in her pregnancy the larger purpose of God. The themes are similar. Each woman sees her pregnancy as the sign of a great reversal. God will side with the lowly, the least, the nobodies. God enters history in the side of the underdog.

But those are just the lyrics. My question is this: what did it sound like?

No bible scholar will back me up, but I have some theories: The tempo was fast. The guitars were crunchy. Some of the lyrics may have been shouted.

I believe that Mary, the mother of God, sings a punk rock song.

Growing up in pre-internet, pre-cable TV rural Pennsylvania, my friends and I preferred skateboards to footballs. It was a hard way to live. But we heard rumors of a wider world where people like us could find a place to fit in. So my skater buddies and I passed around homemade mixtapes. We shared songs by bands like Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys. We loved this music because it told us something we had secretly suspected for a very long time: the world into which we were being socialized—into which we were so intensely pressured to fit in—that world was, well, messed up. The music spoke to us because it exposed the hypocrisy of authority figures. It told us that we were right to doubt the things that they told us.

I think Mary’s song does something similar.  It celebrates God’s upending of the status quo. It calls out injustice in high places.

Make no mistake: the Advent mixtape includes songs of subversion; lyrics you have to hide from your parents and teachers.

Long before Sheena, Mary was a punk rocker.


The Turning of the Seasons: Thanksgiving, Advent and the Songs of the Season



This is a week of transition –from November to December, from “ordinary time” through Thanksgiving to Advent, from our fall series on friendship to a new focus for Advent.

In worship this December, we will turn our attention to what we are calling the Advent Mixtape. Because the music is so good in Advent –not just in church (that’s a given), but in Scripture as well. The opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel are like nothing so much as a musical. They depict mostly mundane events. But at key moments, without much warning, the characters will suddenly burst into song. And, like any good musical, the songs disclose the true meaning of all these events. Mary’s song tells us that the birth of her baby will mean a great reversal of the hierarchies that define our word. Zechariah’s song anticipates God’s compassionate visitation of a suffering people. The angel’s song proclaims peace on earth and goodwill toward all.

Our worship will invite us to tune in to the songs that tell the truth about who we are and what all of this means. But on our calendar, to the path to Advent leads right through Thanksgiving. So consider joining us for some or all of the following:

  • On Wednesday, November 27, join us at 6 PM for Thanksgiving Eve worship. This simple service in the sanctuary will offer music, reflection and space for gratitude.
  • On Thursday the 28th, it’s our Traditional Pilgrim Thanksgiving Service! Join me and the Pilgrim Choir for a service that reflects on our roots and gives thanks for God’s blessings.
  • And then we welcome the season of Advent with candlelight communion services on Saturday at 5:30, on Sunday at 9 and 11.

Join us for the journey into all that God has promised!


The Life You Save May Be Your Own: Final Reflections on Friendship, Gratitude and Getting Well



12 weeks. 36 worship services. My class. This blog.

We have been reflecting, a lot, on friendship.

Now we come to a pivot point in the year, when Thanksgiving will give way to Advent.

And we will close all of this out with a question prompted by a story from the Gospel of Luke:

Can your faith make you well?


Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


There is much going on in this little story –much more than I initially suspected. (I am especially grateful for the commentaries of Fred Craddock and Luke Timothy Johnson. There work informs much of this blog post).

It is a story that begins in the border lands. In his discussion, Craddock reminds us that Luke’s geography is more often literary than literal. It may be hard to take out the map and identify a path to Jerusalem between Jerusalem and Samaria, but this is a social cartography. This story takes place on the border between Jewish identity and Samaritan identity. Samaritans are, of course, a despised racial and religious group. But Luke takes a special interest in the Samaritans and frequently portrays Jesus’ efforts to cross the line that separates 1st century Jews from Samaritans.

This story deals with leprosy –a term denoting any number of different infectious diseases of the skin and not necessarily Hansen’s disease. Leprosy and people suffering from it are carefully regulated in the Torah. This group of lepers adheres to common practice by standing at a distance and crying out to others.

Jesus does not attempt to cross that distance; he simply instructs them to go show themselves to the priest (standard practice for someone healed of leprosy). But the last part of verse 14 is a sermon in itself: And as they went, they were made clean.

As a wise man once said: “Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be granted. In other words: fake it till you make it.”

But one comes back –to praise God, to give thanks. And he is a Samaritan! So Jesus speaks the words that linger (at least for me): Your faith has made you well.

As Fred Craddock points out: 10 were healed; one is “made well.” (The Greek word, sodzo, is often translated “saved”).

And this leads me to wonder: can my faith make me well? Can yours?

What does that have to do with gratitude? With friendship?

Let’s explore that together -this weekend at Plymouth Church!


Breaking Out of the Bubble: Reflections for Pie Weekend



It is Pie Weekend at Plymouth Church -a time to consider God’s invitation to share what we have!

(What, you may ask, is Pie Weekend? It’s pretty simple: everybody brings a pie. To church. And we eat the pies. Together. This year it will serve to kick off our 2020 Stewardship campaign. You really should come).

The invitation to share is, itself, a form of God’s grace. The invitation is, itself, a gift. When we fail to heed it -when we decide not to share- our stuff can isolate us and cause us to miss out on what matters most.

Luke 12:13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

It’s Pie Weekend at Plymouth Church –a weekend on which we remember how much we have been blessed and consider our contribution to the life of Plymouth Church.

And here is the thing about Pie Weekend: You can’t do it by yourself. It takes other people to put on Pie Weekend.

It takes other people to be a church. We are in this together or we are not in it at all.

So the text for this weekend offers a startling juxtaposition. This is the story of a man who is all alone. And it almost costs him everything.

Although the theme of greed and possessions figures prominently in the teaching of Jesus, this story seems to constitute an especially severe entry in the genre.  And I cannot help but be drawn to a small detail in the story: the man in the parable talks to himself. Unusually among the parable of Jesus, most of the story takes the form of a soliloquy.  As David L. Tiede notes in The Access Bible, the wealthy farmer’s folly seems evident in his unwillingness to consult with others or seek outside opinions. In his entry in the Sacra Pagina commentary series, Luke Timothy Johnson displays telling insight into the farmer’s mindset when he suggests translating dialogizomai as “calculate,” suggesting that the wealthy farmer is somewhat shrewd and self-interested.

The image that emerges is one of complete and utter self-delusion. This is the story of a man living a bubble of his own making.

The farmer’s soliloquy habit sets up another unusual feature of the text: the story employs direct divine speech.  God interrupts the farmer’s musings at verse 20 with a harsh word of judgment. Given the farmer’s delusions, however, the story suggests that we might interpret God’s interruption as a gracious action.  This may also explain the story’s lack of an ending.  Luke may be inviting the reader to ponder the possible fate of the wealthy farmer once God has intervened to burst his bubble.

So consider it a sort of friendly warning: don’t let things get to this point. Don’t let your life be dominated by your stuff. Don’t isolate.

And thank God, we have more than the warning. We have a church.

So come to Plymouth Church this weekend. Share some pie. Ponder your pledge to our work in the year to come.

In will break you out of your bubble. And that will be a beautiful thing.


Is There Life After Betrayal in Friendship? (A Dad Rock Meditation).



Here is the thing about friends: sometimes they betray us.

No one knows this better than Jesus.

Mark 3:13-18

13 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15and to have authority to cast out demons. 16So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean.

When the time had come to grow the work, to advance the mission, Jesus chose 12 apostles. And they were not only his co-workers or subordinates; they were, as he himself explicitly states, his friends.

But look at how his friends treated him. As we remember in the Maundy Thursday service of Tenebrae, on the night it matters most, one of them betrays him, another denies him; all of them forsake him and flee.

Some friends.

But this tells me something important: Jesus knows how it feels to lose a friend. Jesus knows the sting of that betrayal. He has been there and done that.

Maybe we should talk about it more.

When I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) almost 20 years ago, one of my supervisors introduced me to the concept of disenfranchised grief. My CPE placement was at Seafarer’s and International House, and he was a chaplain to merchant seafarers. Many of them had spent most of their adult life at sea and had no close family. But sometimes they would have a dog. So he did a lot of dog funerals. And he told me that dog funerals were so important because grief over the death of a pet is generally not seen as socially acceptable. It is a form of disenfranchised grief.

I think losing a friend falls into the same category.

Virtually everyone has experienced conflict, betrayal and loss in friendship. But we don’t talk about that grief. There aren’t a lot of great pop songs about the end of a friendship. (Although this has a lot of fond associations for those of us who were fans of Veronica Mars). And that means our grief is compounded by isolation.

Could we do better? Could we make some space and give each other permission for the open grieving of friendships that fail?

I hope so.

But let’s not stay there.  I want to take a step beyond making space for the pain to actually imagining some redemption. But in order to do that, I have to out myself as a Gen X cliché dad rock aficionado.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about U2.

In my own defense: I had just turned 15 years old when Achtung Baby dropped. And so it was, yes, a formative album. (I know I sound defensive right now. Because: dad rock!).

Enough throat clearing. If you aren’t familiar with the album, the 4th track is entitled Until the End of the World. It is a kind of Midrash on the story of Judas and Jesus, told from the perspective of Judas. It offers a frank depiction of the pain Jesus suffered from Judas’ betrayal.

But it ends on a hopeful note –and it is that kind of theological imagination that I want to bring to this conversation.

In the first verse, Judas recalls the Last Supper:

Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold just passing time
Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world


The second verse moves the story into the Garden of Gethsemane where (as Bob Dylan puts it) “Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss.”


I took the money
I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think
You lead me on with those innocent eyes
You know I love the element of surprise
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You were acting like it was the end of the world


But in verse three, our dad-rocking Irish midrashists dare to sound a note of hopefulness:


In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you’d wait
‘Til the end of the world


Jesus Christ is our great friend. And Jesus Christ is the One whom we betray, over and over again.


But in the great love of God, Jesus waits…and waits…and waits.


For us. For reconciliation. For the redemption of all our friendships.


Befriending the Dead: Reflections on All Saints’ Weekend



Halloween is upon us! And while I struggle with my own deep denial about the Beggar’s Night forecast (brrr!), I am also turning my attention to the weekend that will follow.


The practice of celebrating All Saints Day is an ancient one.   According to my trusty (and rarely consulted) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, there are references to All Saints celebrations dating back to the 4th century. In keeping with our Protestant priesthood-of-all-believers ethos, we tend to emphasize the “All” in “All Saints.”  Our focus is usually on the idea that “saint” is not some title reserved for the spiritual elite; all of us are saints.


But this year, as we continue our sermon series on friendship, I find my mind drifting to a different topic. I believe that Christian faith is the practice of befriending the dead.


On Halloween, the dead supposedly return to haunt the living. They come uninvited and create creepy disturbances.  My teacher, Richard Fenn, once suggested that ghost stories can be seen as an instance of a dynamic Freud described: the return of the repressed.


But we believe our dead are at peace. I don’t like to wade too deeply into the specifics when it comes to the afterlife, but my own hope for my deceased loved ones is captured in the Prayer of Commendation from the funeral liturgy:


Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant [NAME] Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, and a [son/daughter] of your redeeming.  Receive [her/him] into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the company of the saints in light.


Our dead are safe with God. They have no restlessness, no unfinished business, no need to haunt us. They are at peace.


So instead of being haunted by our dead, we can befriend them. The author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:


Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…(Hebrews 12:1).


This is a sports analogy. We, the living, have a race to run. They, the dead, are watching closely, seated in the stands, rooting for us.


Can I make a confession? I sometimes find myself taking to the dead. Sometimes it is people I knew in life; sometimes it is people I never had the opportunity to meet but who seem real to me nevertheless. (My predecessor, Stoddard Lane, is one of these). Mostly I draw strength from the sense that they have my back, that they are supporting me; that they are, in some sense that I do not understand but deeply feel, rooting for me and for all of us.


This is one of the great gifts of the Christian faith: we are no alone.


Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, we press on!