This weekend I went back to preach at the church where I first came to the faith as a teenager, Woodlake United Methodist Church. They’re in the midst of a sermon series called ‘Curveball: When Life Doesn’t Play Fair.”
Here’s my sermon on Matthew 6.1-13, the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
I’ll post the video when I have it.
God’s Not Throwing You the Curve
It’s strange and exciting to be preaching here today. I want to thank you all for the opportunity.
I mean, it only took incurable cancer and 20-something years for you to get me here but who’s counting? At this rate I’ll have to contract the Zika virus to get invited back.
Other than a shot-gun wedding I attended as a kid, where even the crucifix on the altar wall looked like Jesus had misgivings about the bride’s and groom’s chances, I’d never darkened the doorway of a church until my mother forced me to come to Woodlake Church one Christmas Eve when I was a teenager.
As I tell my congregation all the time, I’m your fault.
Dennis Perry, my associate pastor at Aldersgate, is the one responsible for me being a minister today. But you all are the ones responsible for making me a Christian- just in the nick of time too, I think.
I want to thank Gordon for the invitation to preach for you today.
I feel like Gordon is a brother from another mother (unless my mother was up to things I’m not aware of). Not only is Gordon a hardcore Nationals fan like myself, Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, is also the pastor who started this church so both Gordon and I know what it’s like to clean up after Dennis.
I was confirmed here at Woodlake 23 years ago.
23 years- it was a different world. Things were completely different back then.
For example, back then, 23 years ago…
The White House was mired in scandal and being chased by a special prosecutor because of a President who might also a sexual predator (those jokes go over better inside the Beltway).
And back then, the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet seemed incapable of any legislative wins.
Meanwhile, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and was undermining American interests abroad and OJ Simpson’s legal troubles were all over TV and Talk Radio.
Like I said, it was a completely different world!
I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.
Back then, Dennis Perry wasn’t yet the white-haired, humor-less, passion-less, husk of his former self he is today.
No, back then everything was different.
Back then, Dennis obviously was into fashion (look at that sweater) and progressive gender roles.
Back then, Dennis was bold. Bold enough to wear Wilfred Brimley sunglasses even before the age of 65. I’d never wear those sunglasses, but that’s because I’m a coward. Dennis- back then Dennis was brave.
23 years ago I was confirmed here.
Because I hadn’t grown up in the Church, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.
I was different back then.
I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. I remember, he seemed ill-prepared, like he was just shooting from the hip.
He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.
And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board:
‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’
We might change. The world might change.
The circumstances of your life might change.
But God does not change. Ever.
Then he said the word again and underlined it.
God doesn’t change.
That’s a lesson I learned when you all confirmed me into the faith 23 years ago.
And when a curveball called cancer nearly destroyed my life 2 years ago, it’s the lesson that saved my faith.
That was 23 years ago. And the world does change.
23 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.
It was a different world.
Over 30 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.
And the year this church was founded, 30 years ago, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.
It was a different world. It is a different world.
Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.
One-fifth of everybody.
If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.
Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’
Not only does the Church exist in a completely different world now, the Church is also carrying a great deal of baggage into this new world.
According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:
91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’
87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’
85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘
72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’
70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’
64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’
All that together adds up to one very large millstone Christians are putting around our necks today.
A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended: God is against you.
Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?
As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place. Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.
As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often. As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.
3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.
They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions.
And they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.
3 times a day.
So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how. This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:
‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’
The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.
The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.
And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.
In order to please and placate god.
To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.
You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.
The who the pagans prayed to was:
An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve. An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.
The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן.
What we call Satan.
In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.
Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.
The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.
It’s not the how.
It’s the who.
Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.
Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.
No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.
Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved. Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.
Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.
It’s the Qaddish.
An ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.
He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’
And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.
The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love. The Father who forgives for we know not what we do. The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return. The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.
You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.
We’re pointed to his Father. And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number. Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural. It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now. We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.
One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father. He made it plural. We’ve been included. And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.
The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end.
Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’
In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.
Deliver us from the accuser.
In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.
When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us, that God is the one throwing curve balls at us.
A year and a half ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, ultimately incurable, cancer with long odds for a happy ending.
I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.
When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. No matter how many Hallmark cards you get telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, you can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting.
When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.
And, when you’re as narcissistic as me, you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.
I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized it, here at Woodlake Church because, you know, might as well come full circle.
I pictured the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.
Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this sanctuary is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon.
I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream folks send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like Lily Pulitzer exploded all over it.
In my daydream there’s flowers all over and the pews are packed.
Its standing room only out in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Gal Gadot.
In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis Perry, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.
As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the piano Michael Berkley plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.
Michael Berkley, all the while, is chagrined, wishing I’d instead chosen Elton John’s Candle in the Wind for my funeral service.
Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar, my casket is followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.
They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’
In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the Bishop Sharma Lewis slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late but Stephen Hawking assures her in his Speak-N-Spell voice that she can sit next to him.
After the opening hymn, when Michael Berkley finishes, Dennis gets up to preach.
And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.
But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Gordon and Gordon, first, he reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’
And then Gordon looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’
After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, an ensemble choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.
The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’
Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the singers veer off key because Michael Berkley’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it.
So the choir, even if they’re singing off key, they’re singing their heart out enough that Scarlett Johansson leans over to ask Dennis if she can borrow a tissue.
‘Can I have one too?’ Penelope Cruz asks Dennis just as the singers belt out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’
After the applause dies down, Ali, my wife, chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me.
She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at Woodlake swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.
‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’
With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.
And as God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.
And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to the reception where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture.
But I digress.
My point is-
For a long time, I thought this malady in my marrow, this curveball called incurable cancer, was going to kill me quick.
And I daydreamed.
And I raged. And I despaired.
And I asked questions- I asked a question.
You know the question:
Why is God doing this to me?
Usually, as a pastor, I’m not the one asking that question; usually I’m on the receiving end of the question.
The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-
LIFE THROWS YOU CURVE BALLS.
-and we think…God must be punishing us.
That this is happening for a reason.
That this suffering is because of that sin.
That God is giving us what we deserve.
That this curve ball coming in on us because God is against us.
Life happens and we want to know why. Why is God doing this to me?
And of course we don’t have answers to the why. Any one who tells you they do is a liar.
But we do have an answer about the who.
The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:
The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.
God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.
And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer.
When you pray…pray this way.
Very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.
A little ‘g’ god who throws lightening bolts and curve balls at us because of this or that sin.
While I was sick and in intense chemo for a year, I wore this prayer Jesus gives us thin and threadbare I prayed it so much.
I prayed it constantly because, on the one hand, I didn’t have the strength to come up with my words or wishes of own, but mostly I prayed it because I needed this constant reminder.
The reminder that is the reason Jesus gives this prayer.
The reminder in that strange word Dennis Perry at Woodlake Church first taught me.
The reminder that God doesn’t change.
God’s never changed. God will never change.
God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.
Dennis taught me that when I was confirmed into the faith, but when a curve ball called incurable cancer upended my life, it saved my faith too.
God doesn’t change.
And so God never changes his mind about us. You.
God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.
God doesn’t change.
God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.
As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.
We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.
God- Jesus says- sends rain upon the just and the unjust.
God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.
God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.
God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,
a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,
a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-
who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’
God is for us. You.
Nothing can change that.
Because God doesn’t change.
And if God doesn’t change, then God isn’t the one throwing you the curve.
The god you think is throwing you curves isn’t God.
I like to think I’m unique in all things; the cancer I got is incredibly rare.
The chances you’ll get what I got are tiny.
But the chances you’ll have some curveball or another upend your life- those odds…
are dead-nuts around 100%.
And even if you make it through life without a curveball you won’t make it out life alive.
Remember what I was so grateful to remember that I’d learned here.
That 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.
Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…
Pray like this…