The Pathway of Vulnerability

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This photo is from the shore of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin.

This sermon was preached at Kirk of Our Savior Presbyterian Church in Westland, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Mark 9:30-37.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

“What were you arguing about on the way?”

Silence lingered in the room once Jesus and his disciples had settled into the house in Capernaum.

“What were you arguing about on the way?” That’s what Jesus asked them.

There was a long pause, and none of the disciples spoke up.

I wonder, what did they think and feel during that silence? Did they suddenly feel shame, exposed in some way, recognizing that Jesus had at least partly overheard them? Did they feel frustration, remembering that one particular comment or that one particular person that irritated them the most? Did they make their case inside themselves internally, prepared to bolster themselves should someone speak up, but this time in front of Jesus? Did they feel anxiety about speaking? Who was actually going to answer this question?

They never did answer. They sat there in silence, knowing what had happened before.

The story says, “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”

It was a foolish argument in many ways, but it might have been reactive. Maybe it was born out of deep anxiety. . . As they were passing through Galilee, Jesus was teaching his disciples, and he kept returning to something difficult, something profoundly challenging for them to even take in. He said, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They did not understand this. They knew it was important, but they couldn’t comprehend him. Maybe they felt afraid to even ponder the implications of what he was saying. They were certainly afraid to ask him to clarify.

This was actually the third time recently that Jesus had spoken in this way, and each time, the disciples demonstrated that they didn’t understand. That might have made Jesus feel very alone.

This time, reactive in their anxiety, they began to argue with one another about who was the greatest. In the chaos of what Jesus was implying, they began to turn against one another. They began to posture themselves in the presence one another. They fell all over themselves with dominance. Who was the greatest? What a foolish argument… But what a human argument.

How did they seek to determine this — who was the greatest? Was it about who could speak and lead? Was it about who had possessions? Was it about who held power? Was it about who was closest to Jesus — who had the closest proximity to what he said and did, or who was closest personally to him in relationship? What was their benchmark?

Did that even matter? The result was the same. Rather than choose to be present with one other, and care for each other in their collective confusion and anxiety, they chose the pathway of dominance. They sought to be the greatest.

“What were you arguing about on the way?”

That question lingered as they sat in the house together. And after a time of silence when none of the disciples spoke, Jesus answered his own question. He answered it in a way that the disciples did not expect.

Jesus sat down and called the twelve to him. In sitting down, they knew he was about to teach them. Then Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus turned everything upside down in this way. He inverted first and last. But he actually did more. In saying this the way he did, he created a paradigm shift. In this statement, Jesus turned them toward each other. This statement has care and relationship in it. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

And then Jesus said and did even more. He found one of the children in the house and placed that child front of them. We don’t know who this child was, or how old the child might have been. But because they were gathered together, staying in a house in Capernaum during their travels, this might have been a child of one of the disciples.

Jesus took this child in his arms. He embraced this child and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I wonder if there was then another silence, if the disciples sat there and watched Jesus and this child interact with one another. It was joyful. And care and relationship were a part of this moment.

And a conviction must have lingered in the room. In the silence, the disciples must have felt it internally.

Jesus had placed a child before them, one who did not typically speak and lead, one who had no possessions, and one who held no power. More than just about anything, this child had vulnerability. And along with it, and precisely in it, this child had care and relationship. This child had worth and value apart from anything these disciples argued about on the road.

In the silence, the teaching was clear. Not easy, but clear. Jesus was teaching them to travel in the pathway of vulnerability where they would find care and relationship. Jesus was teaching them to relinquish the pathway of dominance, because the most vulnerable of this world have the greatest proximity to Jesus. Jesus is calling us to that same proximity. Jesus is calling us to be the Church among the most vulnerable.

What would happen — what could happen — if the Church followed even more in this direction?

What would happen — what could happen — if the Church really lived this way?

We might ponder the disciples’ argument on the way to Capernaum and recognize that it was foolish. But we also know it is so very human… We carry our own anxieties too. And collectively, the Church in North America, and many of our own Presbyterian congregations too, face decline. And in the midst of our own anxieties about that, there are times when we value dominance.

Sometimes, congregations complete with one another for members and for resources.

Sometimes, congregations seek to align themselves fully with those in power, and then become so enmeshed with their dominance that they refuse to hold people in power accountable. Churches can align themselves fully with those who have wealth, those who have influence, or those who represent political parties.

Sometimes, congregations can become obsessed with building themselves up — what program do we need to create to ‘get’ more people? (Notice how we use language of acquisition sometimes to talk about our neighbors.) And how do we get them to pledge? While this can involve a lot of language about neighbors, and there is certainly nothing wrong with invitations in these directions, a process that talks about ‘getting’ and ‘acquiring’ can become easily quite insular and self-focused.

Sometimes, congregations can place certain pastors on pedestals. They participate in the creation of celebrity pastors, who are placed above accountability, who are viewed as being “too big to fail.” But people can easily abuse that power — any of us can abuse that power — when given so much of it.

But what would happen — and what could happen — if the Church followed Jesus more and more in this direction toward vulnerability… in the proximity of those who are most vulnerable in our world?

Yes, often, children… children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from… children who are abused and neglected… children who are orphaned and separated from parents… children who are incarcerated… children who live in poverty… children who have chronic illnesses… children who are grieving… children who know violence in their nations and in their homes…

And… all the adults around us who were children just like these. Yes, all the children of God, whatever their age, who know vulnerabilities like these. And yes, maybe we ourselves — children of God — who have known vulnerabilities like these.

I wonder what could happen if the Church gave up its desire for dominance and moved toward the proximity of these neighbors. I wonder what could happen if the Church placed these neighbors at the center, including the center of leadership. I wonder what could happen if the Church turned even more toward one another and toward neighbors in care and relationship.

We might look different than we do now. We might be a part of communities with an array of backgrounds and experiences, with a variety of people leading. While our buildings are great gifts and resources, Church might become less defined by the building — “Do you go to Church?” often means, “Do you go to worship in that building?” — but instead, Church might be defined more as an embodied community of commitments toward neighbors.

The Church might come even closer to Jesus himself. The Church might come alive, even experience resurrection, in that vulnerability, and in that care, and in that relationship.

We are invited into this today. This is our sacred calling. This is our welcome and embrace.

May we have the courage, and may we trust the grace of God, to follow in that direction.

Renee Roederer

“Do Not Worry” — It’s Genuinely So Practical

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Jesus said,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

and

“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

and

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

All of these statements come from the same passage in the Sermon on the Mount — Matthew 6:25-34.

Jesus talks about placing trust in God in the hope that there is ultimately enough, naming that we are seen, cared for, and loved.

Of course, we know that sometimes, people genuinely do not have what they need, and there are times when anxiety emerges from inside the body in ways that can be debilitating. These deserve our attention, compassion, and gentleness, alongside commitments to address the situations that cause them.

Yet also, in the midst of that, and in the midst of many tendencies to ruminate over that which we fear, whether large or small, I think this is genuinely the most practical of advice.

I don’t mean to say that it’s always easy to simply turn worry off, and there are crises that make that remarkably challenging. Maybe even impossible. But in some situations, it is genuinely so very practical to say, “I’m only going to focus on this day.” At least emotionally.

Looking at the larger picture, pondering the bigger pieces, and moving in the longer direction… yes.

But emotionally, focusing on the one day in front of us. Just this one.

“One day at a time,” folks wisely say.

This can be especially practical when large things feel as though they are looming —

deadlines,
medical care,
grief,
crisis,
conflict,
addiction,
moving, or
navigating new contexts.

This is a spiritual practice and orientation, definitely. But it’s also so darn practical.

Just today.
Just today.

Renee Roederer

 

We

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Each of us is unique and particular, distinct and differentiated,
yes
(and these are great gifts)

But in every moment,
each person is a We.

Every single one of us is a Collective —
we are Plural
not only in a myriad of
thoughts,
feelings,
memories, and
impulses,
each as plentiful and contradictory as the next —

but also

We represent internalized others.
We are a nexus of relationships, embodied.

Who is always rooted in Whose.

Whose —
not possession or ownership.
not fate or determinism.

Whose —
belonging,
collective calling,
sacred possibility.

Sacred actuality.
We only need to awaken to it.

Renee Roederer

 

Balance

balance

To the Person That Harms,
To the Family That Wounds,
To the Shame That Devours,
To the Violence That Festers,

To the Grief That Upends,
To the Diagnosis that Stuns,
To the Substance That Hooks,
To the System That Discriminates,

You,

Yes,
You,

Any of You, or
All of You, or
More Than You
(That Which Stays Silent or
That Which Exists Beyond Lists)

You.

You
have never been a gift in disguise —
not tied with a bow
or packaged with grand, silver linings.

But here’s one thing you’ve yet to figure out:

The more you knock us off balance —
The more you pummel,
The more you trounce,
The more you disrupt and delight in the off-kilter,

The more we come to know what our balance is.

And that balance,
when we know it,
when we can name it,
when we can internalize it,
is Strength Beyond Strength.

That Balance is Our Sacred Invitation.
That Balance is Our Secret Intervention.

Renee Roederer

Beyond the Rut

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It’s so easy to get into a rhythm that becomes a rut.

The daily, mundane flow of life can be quite beautiful if we allow ourselves to be present to it. But sometimes, we get in a rhythm where we begin to not expect very much.

I’ve been to Quaker worship a few times, and I find one particular aspect to be quite meaningful. It’s the intention that is built together in community — the expectation that during their time together, significance will be revealed. The Spirit is present, and the people are present, and so everyone sits in silence, waiting for some (and it could be anyone; it could be you!) to feel a certain calling to speak. People contribute wisdom, theological reflection, stories, questions, and occasionally, even a moment of song.

I’m sure that Quakers get in their own mundane ruts too. I’m sure folks come to the Meetinghouse after struggling to get their kids dressed and in the car on time. I’m sure some folks enter the room thinking about irritations they have, maybe even with one another. I’m sure some folks have done this so many times that they come out of a sense of routine, and occasionally, maybe even obligation.

I’m sure all of that is true with Quakers, just as it is with any of us. But I so appreciate — and I see and feel the conviction of this in the room — that Quakers expect worship to lead to moments of transformation.

So today, I’m thinking about worship… what it means… how expansively we might think of it… and what sorts of invitations it brings to us…

In my own Presbyterian context, I confess that sometimes, I forget how transformative worship can be. I don’t mean to say that I simply go through the bare minimum of the motions. It’s not that so much. But sometimes, there are moments when I ponder whether my expectations of meaning, experience, and transformation — in a word, encounter, and sense of calling in that encounter — could be larger and more expansive. I sometimes wonder if I’m in a room with people who could also expect more, which sometimes involves expecting the unexpected… that is, what can happen around us and among us… and what can happen inside us internally.

And then, what if we think about worship expansively? Not only some-odd service at a particular time and place once a week that we do or don’t go to. What if worship is a way of expecting encounter in all things — the Spirit, God, Community, World, Humanity, Larger-Meaning, Significant-Questions, Connection, Care, Solidarity, Joy — in all the mundane, routine rhythms?

Maybe we’re invited in those directions all the time.

Renee Roederer

An Invitation to Love Your Quirks Today

When I find myself driving and jamming to a song on the radio, it’s usually because I love that particular song, or it perfectly syncs with my mood. But yesterday, I found myself beaming with smiles for a whole different reason. A song brought me to a quirky, funny memory.

Did you ever have an imaginary friend when you were a kid?

I did, when I was four. But my friend was not from any typical, imaginary friend category.

A friend my age…? No.

An animal…? No.

A toy come to life…? No.

My imaginary friend was…. wait for it…

book

Yep. My imaginary friend was Davy Jones of the band The Monkees.

I am literally laughing aloud right now as I type this blog post. Such an overly-specific imaginary friend!

Davy became my bud because as a four year old, I loved watching The Monkees on their exceedingly cheesy Nick at Nite television show. Davy and I would play games, and for a brief period of time that I remember, I would buckle a seat belt for him in the car.

Yesterday, while driving to Royal Oak, Michigan, the Monkees’ song, “I’m a Believer” came on the radio. I smiled at my childhood memory and laughed. I also like the song though I’m no longer a believer that Davy Jones is buckled in next to me in my car. (And, you know… thankfully. Though I suppose I could then ask him directly, “Davy, what were you and your boys thinking when you recorded this song?”)

I didn’t ask Davy anything yesterday in my car. But to myself, I thought, “This is funny. I should blog about this. Or maybe put it in a future comedy set.”

But then I thought, “Wait… but is this also kind of embarrassing?”

It’s a quirk.

It’s both funny and embarrassing. And also endearing. And also, as I’ve already said, super overly-specific in a delightful way.

So I share.

But mostly, I share the invitation to love your quirks today.

Renee Roederer

Now

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This sermon was preached at Starr Presbyterian Church in Royal Oak, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in John 12:20-36.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

I imagine that the people were perplexed… Jesus, his disciples, and many others were at the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. That week had been a whirlwind of events, many perplexing and unexpected. In the midst of it all, Jesus’ name and reputation were growing.

In the chapter before our passage this morning, Jesus stays in the town of Bethany, and while there, he raises a man named Lazarus from the dead. This took place just six days before the Passover. This is perplexing and astounding — certainly for the characters in the stories, but many years later, it may also seem bewildering to us as well.

And then, after raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem in a stunning way. John tells the story of it here after these events when we typically hear it during Holy Week. As Jesus rode into the city, people waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.”

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In fact, some Greeks were at the festival as well, and they wanted to speak with Jesus, so his disciples sent for him. We don’t really hear what the Greeks ask him. We only hear his response.

He begins to talk about the Son of Man… who is this Son of Man?

Jesus says that, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What does that mean?

And then he talks about this imagery: “Very truly I tell you,” he says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

And then he says some words that might make us uncomfortable, even as they might have made the characters in the story uncomfortable: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

What does Jesus mean when he talks about our life in this way? He’s perplexing.

And he says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

I’m not sure the people present knew what to make of all of this… They just asked questions: “We’ve heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

They are confused. Even though we know where this story leads, these kinds of words make us confused or uncomfortable too.

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And Jesus says, “The light is with you a little while longer. Walk while you have the light.” Walk, he says. Follow. It seems that following him is light. He says, “Walk while you have the light, and believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” That sounds like life. That sounds like Jesus is inviting us into something.

We can be honest with one another. Jesus can be confusing.

And the Gospel of John is different than the other Gospels. It’s a theological Gospel, which isn’t to say that the others don’t have a theology attached. Certainly, they do. But in this Gospel, Jesus gives all kinds of theological discourses. Sometimes, he says the kinds of things we wouldn’t expect in typical conversation. That seems to be true here.

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I know I don’t typically make grand analogies about loving life… and losing life… and grains falling into the earth, and being lifted up from the earth… in my everyday kinds of conversations. I imagine you don’t either. But I think the author of this Gospel is up to something here. He places great theological invitation in Jesus’ words — not as some kind of verbatim record of what happened on one particular day in a particular, historical account 2,000 years ago. The author of this Gospel places words and meaning in the conversations of Jesus which invite these things to be true for us now. They become an invitation now.

Jesus might sound a bit cryptic and perplexing if we imagine these words taking place in an everyday conversation. But they are written for an audience. They are invitations now. Wherever we are, even 2,000-plus years from the life of Jesus, time collapses and we are invited into a new way of life for this moment.

And so Jesus talks about life — losing life, allowing his life and ours to be lost into meaning that is greater than simply living out our chronological days. We lose our lives into his vision, and we gain greater life, bearing fruit. We become children of light.

We do this by following him. Sometimes, that involves taking risks. Sometimes that involves giving up security. Sometimes that involves trusting that God is calling us — really and truly calling us, beckoning us to new life, new ventures, new connections with our neighbors, and new flourishing that we’ve yet to dream about.

A mentor of mine once had a dream. And it changed his life. And it changed many lives. It’s still doing that. I could tell you that story, as I know it well but I think it’s best to hear it from him. So I’d like to share this video today from Ben Johnston-Krase and Allen Brimer, the co-planters of Farm Church.

This is just one example.

Friends, where is God calling you? Where and how is God calling us? What dreams are emerging?

You know, sometimes we come to worship — and sometimes, I do this as the pastor too — and we get in a rut. We don’t expect that anything significant will happen. But every time we are together, we are being invited anew. We are being invited now.

So how is Jesus calling us to follow him and walk toward the light right now?

What do we need to lose, and what do we need to give up, so that we can bear fruit and gain the life that God calls us to — right now? this very day?

Renee Roederer