How long have you had your cell phone? One year? Two years? Since the most recent version of the iPhone was released?
However long you’ve had yours, I can promise you that you haven’t kept it as long as my husband, Ian Roederer, kept his. Today, I am here to report that after eleven years of faithful use, Ian’s legendary dinosaur phone no longer has service.
Here’s an ode to a phone and an era gone by. . . And here’s a shout out to a person who would keep a low functioning phone for as many years as it takes a newborn to reach fifth grade. Today, we salute a thick, low tech Nokia and its faithful keeper.
When we first moved to Austin, Texas all the way back in 2005, Ian and I entered a Cingular store (remember those?) and started our adventure of having 512 area codes. This was before we had Facebook accounts and the same year that YouTube was a brand new thing. On that day, Ian bought this faithful Nokia, and I bought a flip phone. Since that moment, I’ve had five different phones, and like virtually everyone, I’ve updated to smart phones. But not Ian. With dedication, he kept a dumb phone going until two weeks ago.
Now you may be wondering how this Nokia has been able to work consistently for eleven whole years. Simple answer: It hasn’t. Ian has been so dedicated to this phone that he has replaced the battery four different times.
And in fact, it still works. It’s just that all cell phone providers have progressively cramped his style. Two and a half years ago, AT&T contacted Ian and let him know they would no longer provide 2G service. Well, 2G service was a must! So Ian researched all other companies and switched over to Cricket, the sole provider which would support a bygone era.
That is, until a month ago. Four weeks ago, they contacted Ian to let him know that his simpler days are over. . . Cricket is ceasing its 2G service.
So pigs can fly, and Ian Roederer now has a smart phone.
This weekend, we traveled out of town for a wedding. Before the ceremony, I glanced in the room where guests had arrived and were now waiting. A clump of people were all passing time on their cell phones. And I could not believe it, but Ian was now one of them. There he was, staring at a screen and texting actual words!
I realized it is an end of an era. . .
Goodbye, mid-aught years of the 2000s, before we texted constantly, and could play Snake.
Goodbye, thick, stumpy phone, though you fit more easily in a pocket.
Goodbye, 5 key which often got stuck.
You were beautiful.
Now both Roederers will have to make intentional choices not to get sucked constantly into the smartphone universe as it often calls for our attention.
As Jesus and his disciples were traveling throughout the region of Galilee and preaching to the people, the Pharisees once asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. As Jesus answered them, he shared several parables, including this parable we’re pondering this morning.
In fact, it’s framed in this way: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
In his parable, Jesus sets up a scene. Two men are present in the temple. This is not the synagogue, the place of frequent, local worship. This is the temple in Jerusalem, considered to be the holiest place in all of Judaism. In this scene, we encounter a Pharisee and a tax collector. In their words, we hear a comparison taking place. We see contempt taking place. We see two people in the presence of God – one who boasts of his righteousness yet is ultimately inauthentic, and one who is deeply honest, struggling as he recognizes his own shortcomings.
The Pharisee thinks that he is the one making the comparison. He has gone to the temple to pray, and before God – standing by himself – he prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” He prays not only in the direction of God, but toward this tax collector whom he views with contempt. I wonder if the tax collector could hear his words.
He continues to boast about his own actions: “I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” In saying these things, I wonder if the Pharisee believed he was buying the favor of God.
Meanwhile, the tax collector is also standing by himself, but instead, he is standing far off, ashamed in the presence of God. Jesus says that he would not even look up to heaven. He was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the presence of God, he was devastated about the ways he had fallen short of God’s vision.
In the temple, the Pharisee believes he is making the comparison, but of course, in Jesus’ own words, Jesus makes the comparison. He says, “I tell you, this man” – that is, the tax collector – “went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We may have grown up hearing this story, so perhaps this parable has become somewhat familiar to us. But maybe we need to remember how shocking it would have been to hear Jesus speak in this way. First of all, he was likely telling this parable in the presence of Pharisees. That was bold. He was also telling this parable in the presence of his own disciples – people who had been pushed by the religious establishment. They were marginalized, sometimes, because of their actions, and sometimes, because of their identities. They were viewed as “the Other.” “I thank you that I am not like other people,” the Pharisee prays.
It must have been encouraging for the disciples and followers of Jesus to hear him say that God sees them, values them, and hears their prayers of repentance. They are not pushed away by God, but instead, they are welcomed as beloved children – loved as the people they are, even in the recognition that they may have hurt others through their actions. God welcomes them and sends them in a new direction, regardless of how they are viewed by the religious establishment or the institutional religious community.
And make no mistake, these words would have been shocking and likely offensive to some. Tax collectors were no paragons of virtue. The Jews were living under the oppression of Rome in an occupied state, and tax collectors – Jewish people – had partnered with Rome to exact taxes while gaining a cut for themselves from their own people. In this parable, Jesus is saying that God welcomes a repentant sinner, even one who is despised by the people. It is shocking. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable too.
I’m sure that it enraged the Pharisees. After all, some of them believed they were paragons of virtue, right with God in all circumstances because they were keeping the law perfectly, or at least, seeking to do so. Self-righteousness may have clouded their vision. They could not view themselves as oppressors, though some of the Pharisees were pushing people out of the religious community. Some of these Pharisees were marginalizing others, including people who were now following Jesus. . . Mere fishermen, prostitutes, people with stigmatizing illnesses, and yes, even tax collectors.
This parable was shocking, and Jesus’ commitment to include others was often shocking.
I’ve been pondering this parable all week, and in my thinking, I’ve been trying to make connections between these words and the realities we face today as the Church, a community that is seeking to follow Jesus Christ in the world.
These days, I have a new role. I am a Community Chaplain for Nones and Dones. What an interesting title that is! Recently, the Presbytery of Detroit commissioned me to serve as a regional chaplain for people beyond the walls of churches. I am a minister and friend to people who do not attend congregational churches for a variety of reasons.
So who are Nones and Dones? When I say Nones, you may hear Nuns and think I’m talking about monastic Catholics. But I’m actually talking about N-o-n-e-s, people who are religiously unaffiliated. If asked, “What is your religious tradition or affiliation?” some people might answer, “None.” Sociologists are using this term to describe a demographic subset of the population that is growing.
Sociologists of religion are also using the term “Done” to describe another population of people. These individuals – many of them Christian – have left traditional, institutional churches behind. At times, some of these Dones feel that the Church has left them behind. They no longer feel welcome or comfortable in congregational life.
To be honest, some Dones feel that churches have become remarkably insular. Congregations can easily become inward-focused, obsessed with strategies to gain members, and through larger membership, gain revenue in order to sustain their own needs. When church cultures begin to serve themselves exclusively to the point that they stop doing ministry in and among the wider community, some Dones get frustrated and leave. Some believe that they can engage mission, serve neighbors, and follow Jesus more faithfully apart from the institutional Church.
I can certainly understand why congregations get into these kinds of ruts. In part, this is because religious demographics are indeed changing. Fewer people are walking through the doors to worship and fewer are affiliating with membership. Sometimes in response, church communities want to project a particular image in order to attract people back into the doors. They become ‘shiny church.’ They give sales pitches to people who visit. “Our church is so great. We do this. We do that. Please join us.”
In my role as a Community Chaplain, I’ve been forming a community of Nones and Dones in Southeast Michigan. I’ve been doing this for the last year. We meet in coffee shops and restaurants to talk about spirituality and our life experiences. And I want to be honest with you about something I’m learning. A particular theme has emerged so frequently in these conversations. It’s this: Some people feel remarkably manipulated by Christians. “They’re always trying to sell you something,” someone said recently in one of our discussions.
There is a perception that Christians are not often real with their neighbors. Instead, sometimes, we project an image. Sometimes, we work really hard to sell our churches. Again, we try to entice people by saying, “Come here. Come inside our sanctuary. Our church is so great. We do this. We do that.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about our community when it means so much to us. But are we trying to be ‘shiny church’? Are we trying to project an image? If so, in those cases, are we not a bit like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today?
Perhaps, people beyond the walls of our sanctuaries would like to see the Church be real, that is, to see Christians be. . .
. . . people in relationship with God, welcomed, though they have sinned and hurt others,
. . . people who are honest that the Church has often failed to live out the vision to which God has called us,
. . . people who will embrace neighbors – including those who will never walk into the sanctuary – because those neighbors are loved and valued by God,
. . . people who will allow our neighbors to express their authentic forms of pain, including pain that has been caused by the Church.
Perhaps we need to be less like the Pharisee and more like the tax collector.
And I recognize that I say all of this today in the midst of Stewardship Season at Northbrook Presbyterian Church. This is the season when we prayerfully consider how we will give our resources to support the life and ministry of this congregation.
Throughout this season, people will invite you to consider what to give and how to give.
Today, I would like to be one voice which invites you to consider why you give. Yes, the building needs to be maintained, and yes, and the ministry programs of the church need to be supported. Absolutely. But how can these resources be used in order to be real with our neighbors and meet them where they are? How can they inspire and empower us to move beyond this sanctuary into the neighborhood around us? How can they serve God by serving neighbors?
Let’s continue to ponder those questions this week and in this season. I will close with Jesus’ closing words: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I had a total geekout yesterday about these trees.
When I walked out of the gym, I just stood there, stunned that so many gorgeous fall leaves were present in one place. Of course, I did more than just stand there. I took a bunch of photos and recorded a goofy, geekout video on Snapchat.
Beyond the worthy geekout, however, these trees also remind me of something. I think they’re a valuable symbol, especially as we feel fatigued and on edge during this election season.
Every autumn, trees reveal their vibrant colors when their energy is shifted toward their roots.
All spring and summer, leaves gather energy for sustenance and growth through their photosynthesis process. When the autumn begins, leaves don’t really turn red, orange, yellow, and brown. They are revealed to be red, orange, yellow, and brown. In preparation for winter, deciduous trees stop their photosynthesis process. As a result, the accompanying color of green recedes, and we see the revealed colors of these leaves. This process prepares for the winter season in which roots can continue to thrive and grow.
When we see the vibrant colors of autumn, we might also make spiritual analogies and ponder our own rooting process.
As we think about the present moment we’re living, and the future we want to live,
What forms of energy do we need to shed?
What forms of energy do we need to pursue?
To what and to whom are we rooted?
With what and with whom are we connected?
How can a sense of groundedness reveal beauty?
How can rootedness help us see the worth and value of our neighbors?
During this season, when we see the trees (and potentially, have a geekout) perhaps we can ponder these kinds of questions. As I watch trees make these changes, I like to imagine that their energy and focus is moving into the ground — into the most foundational parts of being — and I find myself wanting to do the same.
What do we need to bring inside ourselves toward the most foundational parts of our being?
Without question, this election season has affected our collective stress levels, hasn’t it? Along with the uncertainty of its conclusion, we continue to encounter rhetoric and incident reports of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It is troubling. I’ve had conversations with friends, and we all feel affected by this. We’re thoughtful and proactive about these harmful trends, but we’re also on edge.
This week, I started turning off social media a few hours before bed, and I’m stunned at how much better I’ve been sleeping. Sleep is deeper and more sound when I do this. I’m wondering, what has been working for you? How do you find ways to step away from the rhetoric in order to practice healthy self-care?
We all need to stay informed and active, not only toward the election, but toward each other. This rhetoric is challenging, but it’s more than words. It’s inciting violence and threats of violence. That’s serious. We have to counteract it with empathy, care, allyship, and advocacy toward our neighbors. This means that we have to continue to engage.
But we also have to take care of ourselves. This likely affects us in different ways and to varying degrees. These days, social media stories are often challenging in their content, but they’re also stressful in their energy. We need to replenish that energy toward self-care and social action.
So what’s working for you? What would you like to try?
I’m going to keep unplugging some in the evening hours. Of course, it’s ironic that I post this today because I’m going to make an exception this very evening. I’m going to live tweet tonight’s debate and tweet along with #presbyintersect. As for the second piece, every Wednesday night, a bunch of thoughtful Presbyterians have a Twitter conversation at #presbyintersect about intersectional needs for justice in the world and the life of faith. These conversations have been so fruitful.
So, my social media-free evenings are not a hard and fast rule, but I’m going to keep trying this. Sleep is simply so much better. What about you?
Earlier this month, my husband and I spent a weekend in Petoskey, Michigan. This small town is located alongside Lake Michigan, and each night, if it’s not too cloudy, people can watch the sunset right over the lake. The view is stunning. Sometimes I forget how miraculous this is. . . The sun sets without fail every evening, yet no two views are the same.
The first night we were there, we saw a sunset unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Just above the water, along the horizon, there was a thick, fiery band of light. No grand swirls in the sky; just one bright, luminous band.
A jetty was in front of us as well, and it contained a walkway toward a lighthouse. As we watched the evening light in the sky, two individuals came into view. One was walking toward the lighthouse, and the other was walking away from it. Though they did not know each other, their silhouettes met within this light of the horizon. It was gorgeous, and no photo did it justice.
Beautifully, it reminded me of a metaphor that Diana Butler Bass uses for God.
She says that throughout most of our human history, we have practiced a vertical spirituality. In our minds — and especially, in our unconscious minds — we tend to think of God as literally ‘up.’ God is up there. . . somewhere. Some of this thought is connected to Christian scriptures, but it’s also a vestige of having believed in a literal, three-tiered universe. God is up, far away in heaven. We are here. And below us lies some kind of netherworld.
Diana Butler Bass writes that for most of our history, religious institutions have functioned a bit like an elevator within that consciousness. They work to bring us closer to that distant God, who is up there. . . somewhere. In response, she says, we have built vertical hierarchies, and Church architecture often mirrors our vertical spirituality too.
Bass believes that we are experiencing a major shift these days. I also sense it. Do you? More and more, people are longing for a horizontal spirituality, a sense that God is with us in our everyday experiences.
. . .God with us on the ground. . . . God with us in our everyday lives. . . . God with us in the midst of suffering. . . . God with us in horizontal relationships,
connecting us in friendship and community,
connecting our world in justice and equity.
God with us. This conviction brings us back to the language of incarnation.
I recently heard Diana Butler Bass talking about these thoughts on a podcast. The hosts asked her if she might provide a particular image or metaphor to think God in a horizontal framework. I loved what she said.
She said, “Yes, actually, the horizon itself.” She mentioned that some have expressed concern that she’s deemphasized the transcendence of God in her arguments — that is, God as holy, mighty, and mysterious. She said that the image of the horizon gives a different view of transcendence.
No matter how much we approach the horizon, it’s always before us, still a mystery. Yet it’s always with us on our plane.
I love it.
God with us.
Mysterious, yet incarnational,
an ever-present Horizon on our plane.
As Jesus and his disciples were traveling throughout the region of Galilee and preaching to the people, the Pharisees once asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. As Jesus answered them, he included this parable.
Our text this morning starts in this way: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This is an interesting way to begin, because perhaps, in a variety of life chapters, we have known what it means to lose heart. We’ve likely known what it feels like to be in a situation that is disappointing or desperate.
Jesus then tells a story about a deep and serious desperation, perhaps more intense than most of us have known personally. It’s a story about a widow, a woman who held virtually no social standing or institutional power in Jesus’ day. In their culture, after the death of her husband, she would have been completely dependent upon male relatives for care and sustenance.
But despite this situation of institutional powerlessness, she was fierce and powerful in her relentlessness.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
The judge shifted his position because the widow was fierce and relentless in her cry and demand for justice.
“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to the chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”
This is an intriguing parable. It’s a challenging parable.
If we read it or hear this on a surface level, it might also be a confusing parable. Jesus tells a story about an unjust judge and then makes a conclusion about God. Are we to compare God to an unjust judge? And is this how we’re supposed to think about prayer? That is, if we just pray continually enough and bother God enough –
maybe then, God will hear us?
maybe then, God will grant justice?
maybe then, God will usher in the Kingdom?
Are we simply trying to annoy God? If we read or hear this on the surface, we might begin to think in this way.
But Jesus is talking about something much deeper. He’s talking about something that is much more beautiful. In his parables, Jesus often makes comparisons with a question that lingers in the air. That question is, “Then, how much more?”
If this unjust judge, who neither fears God nor has respect for people, will eventually grant justice, then how much more will a loving God hear the cries of God’s people and grant them justice? How much more?
This question doesn’t place God far away, perhaps distant yet listening. No, this question places God right alongside human beings in situations of injustice – bearing patiently with them, nurturing them, and crying out also. For God is truly a God of justice.
This parable teaches us that God cares about justice, but it does more than that. This parable teaches us about the location of God in times of suffering.  God is not removed from us. God is with human beings. God always stands on the side of those who are being wronged.
Jesus indicates this as he concludes this parable. Our translation today renders his words into two sentences: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” and “Will he delay long in helping them?” But there is actually another choice that translators can make as they translate here from Greek to English. A little Greek word – kai – is like the word ‘and.’ It signals the beginning of one thought and then transitions to the next. But the word kai can also be translated as ‘even.’ If so, these two sentences are one larger thought.
Borrowing from a translator named D. Mark Davis  we might hear Jesus’ words as, “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?” Bearing patiently. . . with them. This gives us an image of God standing alongside those who know injustice, showing patience, nurture, and love.
Jesus asks this question to give us a picture of who God is and how God loves. But this question is not the last of this parable. There is one final, concluding question, and I believe it is asked of us today. After speaking about God’s commitment toward justice through prayer, Jesus asks, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
That is how the parable concludes. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This question impacts me to the core of my being. Perhaps it challenges you too. After Jesus speaks about God’s commitment toward justice through prayer and God’s location among hut neighbors, he says, “And yet. . .”
“. . .when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Will the Son of Man find us standing where God is standing —
alongside those who are being wronged?
alongside those who know discrimination?
alongside those who are affected by violence?
alongside those who are harmed through all the sinful isms we create,
systems of racism, homophobia, sexism, poverty and xenophobia –
all the harsh words and acts of violence
we put into the world against one another through our sin?
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Where will we be standing?
God hears those who cry out day and night. But do we? As Christians, do we hear these cries for justice? As human beings, do we hear these cries with empathy as calls to action? Do we?
Like this persistent widow, our neighbors – the neighbors of God – are fierce and relentless in these cries, and we will be changed by them if we but listen, go, and stand where they are standing –
to bear patiently,
to nourish, and
to begin to add our voices as well.
If we will follow this Jesus and stand alongside the neighbors of God — who are our neighbors — we will participate in the very Kingdom of God.
After all, Jesus told this parable as an answer to a question. The Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God is coming.
Now none of us can bring that Kingdom into being apart from God’s power, but we do participate in it with God’s empowerment. And I wonder what would happen if we, the Church, stepped out of this building today, determined to participate in that Kingdom by standing among our neighbors, right where God is standing? What would happen?
Perhaps we would begin to bring some of that justice into being.
Perhaps we could live alongside others as answered prayers.
So we will let this question linger in our minds and hearts:
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Last night, I was at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, where we hold a weekly Jazz Mass. During our time together, we took a few moments to check in with one another about all the stress we’ve been carrying. In challenging ways, the upcoming election and the news cycle have affected nearly everyone I know.
We are anxious.
We are angry.
We are tired.
This got me thinking about a book I’ve been reading. It’s called Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How they Shape Our Livesby Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. In the book, Christakis and Fowler conduct intriguing scientific research on social networks to discover how they connect us and affect us. I find their conclusion to be stunning: Daily, our actions, thoughts, and emotions impact others. On average, each person on the planet consistently affects 8,000 people.
The converse is true also. Every day of our lives, approximately 8,000 real-life people are affecting us too. This is because we are relationally connected. In social and emotional contagions, we affect and are affected by our friends’ friends’ friends. Even if we don’t directly know these people three degrees away, we are consistently impacting each other every single day of our lives. That’s astonishing.
Christakis and Fowler have discovered that on average, each person knows twenty people well enough to invite them to a dinner party. If those friends then know twenty people to the same degree, and then those friends know twenty people to the same degree, we are talking about 20 x 20 x 20 = 8,000 people.
They discuss the ways that our actions, thoughts, and emotions impact others. In times of stress and anxiety, we often pass our emotions to one another in contagion. Sometimes, this happens as quickly and simply as seeing someone’s facial expression. The mirror neurons in our brains fire to make a similar facial expression, and then we feel a similar emotion too. This can happen with fear. It can also happen with a smile. These are truly contagious.
So, if we have the ability to impact a social network as large as 8,000 people, what is possible if we practice self-care, spiritual disciplines, and acts of compassion intentionally? These certainly affect us, but they also have an impact upon 8,000 people.
if we are anxious,
if we are angry,
if we are are tired,
in this season of politics and challenging news, we can do ourselves and others a great service by talking about our feelings with friends and working to find inner calm. This helps us become responsive rather than reactive. In this season, it’s important to advocate for justice and social change through our actions. But we can also affect social change just by caring for our inner state. Amazing.