Seven hundred years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah began preaching in Jerusalem.
Called in a time of tremendous division and external threat, with widespread distrust of the people’s disagreeing leaders, and great disparities between haves and have-nots, Isaiah’s career as a prophet began as an attempt to warn his country about the direction it was heading.
About 150 years later, however, the armies of Babylon would surround and ultimately destroy the city, taking many captives to Babylon—a foreign city that was, ironically, not far from where the Hebrew people’s ancient patriarch, Abraham, had originally come. It seemed like so much of what God had done since then was now being undone. It was a difficult time, and difficult to remain faithful to God.
Yet in this moment, God spoke once again, offering words of comfort and soon, direction for the journey out of slavery and back to Jerusalem, which they were to rebuild. This part of the story is also remembered in the Book of Isaiah, and is known technically as “Second Isaiah.” Much of the church’s later imagery and understanding of the Messiah comes from this part of the Book of Isaiah.
Finally, after God’s people returned to Jerusalem, they found that rebuilding their lives and their beloved city was far more challenging than they had ever imagined. They were impatient. There were new threats on the horizon. They disagreed about how to care for neediest, and about under what terms strangers could be among them. Some said that those were worthy enough questions to consider, but that now was not the time—that the situation remained far too grave for that kind of sensitivity just then. The final section of the Book of Isaiah (known as “Third Isaiah”) describes this period, and challenges God’s people to look to the future, when God’s final triumph of light over darkness, and justice over injustice would be complete. Let us look for that day, Isaiah suggested, but in the meantime, there was still a great deal of important work to do.
It all sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet I find myself drawn to different stages in the story at different moments of my own life.
There are times when Isaiah’s initial warnings call me to live differently and to make time for projects designed to make the world a better, fairer, place. At other times, I feel some of dislocation Isaiah describes, and it isn’t clear where God is or what God expects. And of course, there are those blessed moments when I feel a sense of homecoming and restoration, when an especially difficult part of life’s journey feels behind me at last, and I am at last sailing on smoother waters.
Reflecting on Isaiah, the theologian Jo Bailey Wells notes that the possibility of God’s transformation —of us, our general situation, and the world — remains active in all circumstances, “throughout times of prosperity, adversity and rehabilitation.”
That’s been my own experience, too. In any given moment, exactly where God is may not be clear. Yet soon enough, God’s presence emerges, and not as some sort of sudden arrival, but in my own gradual recognition of where God has been all along.
This Sunday, we will begin a three week consideration of the Book of Isaiah after church. I hope you will join us.
See you in church,
Dear Friends of Second Church,
This coming Sunday, we will mark Reformation Sunday at our 10:30 Worship Service — which will include a musical celebration with harpsichord, brass, strings, a boy soloist…in short, the works.
It is sure to be a great tribute on a day close to the 500th anniversary of when it is said that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Saxony (the actual day is October 31st).
There are those who wonder if it happened exactly that way, with all the drama of a Spielberg movie, and I admit that I don’t know.
But it’s clear that a very different way of “being the Church” emerged as a result. Luther focused and then broadened a conversation about how we encounter God, how we understand God’s will for us, and what the world should look like in light of our faith.
Over the last 500 years, that conversation has continued, and what’s proven to be its most enduring feature are its perennial questions, rather than many of its specific answers. Those often turn out to be the testimonies of a particular place and time, with much to teach us, but also much we must respectfully, but courageously reinterpret.
The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not guarding the ashes, but fanning the flames.”
Along those lines, the thing about a Reformation faith is that each generation — and in a very real sense each person — is challenged to remake it anew. We have to fan those flames once again. We have to look for God in our midst and ask what God is doing now, in this place.
What are the urgent concerns of this moment, and how is it that the light of the Gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ can transform them? What does God need the Church to see, which the world, in its brokenness, cannot? And what does that ask of us in the Church, and of all of us as the Church?
There is not one simple answer. How could there be?
Truly, it is no surprise that passionate debate has always been a part of Reformation faith.
Yet clearly, it’s not a passive way of being faithful. It never has been. Moreover, it must not be. That’s one of the Reformation’s most important and enduring insights.
The challenge of wrestling with God’s Word demanded that the first Reformers push for Bibles that people could read in their own languages. Then they saw the need to push for the broad, basic literacy that ensured the people could read for themselves. In this country, you can trace the migration of the Puritans and their descendants by following the founding of colleges across the American West.
But at a deeper level, those achievements came back to that fundamental commitment to wrestling.
Much has changed over the last 500 years. Some even say that we are at the very beginning of the next Great Reformation in Christian history, as the institution of the Church changes yet again to meet life circumstances and new social expectations that have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 50 years.
That commitment to wrestling has not changed.
From where I sit, the most vibrantly faithful, joyful, and committed of our own members today are those who live out that commitment, and the people who visit us and end up staying are those who are seeking a nurturing place to do that, too.
This tells me that, whatever the next 500 years will bring, the women and men whose lives are shaped by a Reformation faith across the generations will always share something much more fundamental than anything that might divide them.
I hope you’ll join us this Sunday to celebrate the last 500 years, and the next 500 years, and to engage for yourself in the deep wrestling that is the enduring heart of our faith.
See you in church,
For the last week or so, my Facebook feed has offered testimony after testimony from women under the hashtag #metoo, sharing their experiences of unwanted sexual advances from men with positions of power in their lives -- elite music camp “star teachers,” coaches, dissertation advisors, bosses, pastors -- men of all kinds, sometimes drawing on even the slenderest forms of “leverage” to coerce women into doing what they wanted.
For the first couple of days, I was truly shocked. Then I got embarrassed that I was so shocked.
In so many cases, the stories were not accounts of a single time, or a single creep.
They were matter-of-fact lists of men named only by role, encountered through the years and in many different places.
Part of the point is that the details of any given one scarcely matter, because in some sense, of course, they are all the same story, told over and over again by women of all backgrounds, and often multiple times within the life of even one woman.
The details don’t matter because we might be too easily tempted to use them as a way to parse these stories, to identify some sort of behavior in the teller, some sort of mixed signal, some part of the context that meant that it was “all an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
We’d like so much to think so. There are mixed signals and unfortunate misunderstandings, to be sure. We can always look for those if we so choose.
Or we can seek to learn from the vast experience of all those for whom these are not isolated incidents, but rather all-too-predictable patterns of living and working alongside men.
Maybe an isolated story has the power to shock us.
But a fact of life that stands in plain view, testified to by countless family members, friends and coworkers, can only reveal how willful our blindness and astonishment truly are. That should embarrass us -- and challenge us, too.
The Church at its best has always been grounded in the understanding that all people are created in the image of God, and are precious to God.
That means they are never to be seen as objects for someone’s particular use or purposes, or as the means to an end. All are worthy in themselves, and always to be seen in light of the fact that God did not consider Creation complete without each of us -- and not for some to serve as “helpmeets” for others, but for all to serve together as coworkers in the vineyard.
This is never to be taken lightly. Particularly by those in a position to give particular help or hindrance, to do good or harm, to enact justice or injustice for others, or to act on behalf of neighbor or of self.
Sin should not shock us. But it must motivate us.
Jesus believed there was joy to be found in working together in service to the Kingdom.
May we work for a day when it is the stories of such joy that speak of our common lot, and not the heartbreak and shame of bearing someone else’s inhumanity.
See you in church,
Who wants to sleep here for a week during the summer?
I'd just returned from Israel, led the main station at VBS, and now had to sleep on a floor in Washington D.C...my wife missed me, my kids wondered where I had been...
And so again I asked...who wants to sleep here, at a five day mission trip, for a week during the summer?
Why would our young people give up a week of lounging around for a week of serving in 100 degree weather and sleeping on hardwood floors?
Little did we know that the media would find us amidst a volunteer shortage...
We toughed it out. Our small band of nine 2CC congregants partnered with about 25 others to serve, learn, and talk with our congressman about how we can help others in our community.
"I didn't think I would feel the way I do...serving others actually makes me feel...better" said Brenna Dodaj during a homeless lunch meal. "Your sermon gave me chills...seriously" said John Wailgum as I preached a message about how God can use us as advocates for those who are in need.
This was a rough week. Hard floors, long days, and the heat made serving others was the last thing on my mind...
But let me tell you...Not one...not one complaint. These kids inspired me and I wish there was some way I could show you that. I'm used to complaining and I just about expected it (Im a father of twins). But not once did our kids complain.
It bothered me a bit but then I realized...and maybe they hadn't either...but...
thats why they went...
They saw that even though they may not be the richest, the best, or the greatest, they realized how blessed they were. They didn't just praise and worship the fact that God had, for some reason, blessed them by giving them some upward mobility in life. The kids started asking the question, "how can I help others who don't have this type of opportunity...who maybe are missing out on 'blessings?'"
Day by day I watched the kids empty their pockets to give money to those who didn't have. I watched Robbie Roth give his last dollar to a man sleeping on a park bench and then Nicole Segal empty her purse to contribute. When offered two slices of pizza by our mission group all of our kids decided to only eat one slice each. They then found a couple outside of a Seven Eleven who were asking for money but instead offered them this cornucopian feast. "Are you serious? Thank you so much!" said the man who was just handed two pies from the local pizza hot spot "We the Pizza." The man and his wife had just experienced Heaven. And so did we...
We learned that to give is better than to receive...
We learned that serving is where God is found...
And we learned that Jesus has called us to this work...
Some of us will be lawyers, writers, doctors, teachers, clerks and the like...but we all have been called to the work of Christ. It's these opportunities that Second Congregational Church provides that opens our eyes to this amazing call to serve and bless others.
Thanks to all of you who donate, who give their time and energy to the mission of 2CC. Know that there is budding fruit in the garden you have made.
Blessings upon blessings,
Reverend Shawn Garan
I received an article titled "The Teenage Spiritual Crisis." In short, it talked about young people, their faith, and how church has...simply put...failed them.
The spiritual yearning is there but these young people don't come to church, they don't see the Bible as God's authoritative word, and they are jaded in the reality that God seemingly hasn't done anything in our world since Moses. And so we confirm them, asking the confirmands if they believe all the stuff we told them to believe. They nod, take their certificate, and head off to celebrate with the family. Sent, likely not to be seen again.
Do young people not want God?
Don't they understand how church works?
I tend to blame teachers, institutions, and those charged with running the churches when people choose to walk away from Christianity. We're stuck in our ways, we know God, we come to church, and everyone who doesn't is lost.
But I think it's the church who is lost today.
Trying Something New
The other day we had our evening service (Evensong) in the labyrinth located in the back of the church. To our surprise, Ellie and I found a young couple actually walking it as we began to set up for our gathering. We introduced ourselves and let them know we were having service at 5pm. They had other plans but seemed genuinely interested.
It made me happy to see people seeking spirituality, pondering God, and even acting out in some expression of that.
We practiced for Evensong at a park on Greenwich Avenue earlier this week, guitars and all. A young lady who had been eating lunch, came up to us, and expressed her gratitude for the “nice backdrop” we had created for everyone. People were drawn to us, they are drawn to our church, they are drawn to God.
It's capitalizing on those moments where we find the person drawn.
What can we tell them about God, about faith, and how we integrate that in our everyday lives?
My hope is that we will be a community that can answer these questions because right now, I don't think we offer much for that couple in the labyrinth, for that young lady at the park, and the thousands that walk by our church, never daring to enter its doors.
Not to be fooled, these young people have observed that a lot of people can "play church" but as soon as those doors open and service is over, God can often get left behind. So they don't go into the building where people play religion. Young people want the real stuff, they want real Christianity, one that challenges how we think and behave. They want to follow Jesus who was a political radical teaching that down is the way up and that great people sit after everyone else is comfortable. They wouldn't see political figures as saviors because they'd already have one. They'd participate in outreach every single day and not once a month. Each day would be baptism, each day confirmation, for all Christians are called to lay their lives down at the foot of the cross, earning them that once derogatory slur, "wannabe Christ!" (that's what Christian literally means in its original context).
And so as someone who is part of the problem, working for the big house of God, I have to critique.
Why are people not attracted to our church?
Maybe it's because we're not doing anything that is attractive.
As that someone who is part of the problem, as someone who knows whats wrong, I can't be quiet. As an employee at God's house I have to reimagine a church for those who have left and given up. Resources need to be shifted, new songs need to emerge, and programming needs to be rethought as to how it serves the soul.
But not just me. Everyone of us called to follow Christ are pulled into the work of critiquing and reimagining.
No more hand me downs. God has called all of us to go. To do whatever it takes for those young people to be drawn to God...and when they are drawn, like the woman who met Jesus at the Well,
A conversation will begin.
Religious questions get answered.
Thirst will be quenched.
Chains will be broken.
And Saviors will be worshipped in that building that was designed to do this work daily.
TLDR: Maybe it's time we start doing more attractive and effective stuff.
Look up the word. It entails a religious person doing something. The religious person who has read the holy scriptures, prayed the written prayers, and sung the hymns of old is moved out from the shadow of the Bible and into the light of the stories it tells.
Demons get cast out of people.
Thousands are fed.
People walk on water.
Water turns to wine.
The dead are raised to life.
The more educated I became about the Bible, I found myself coming up with reasonable solutions as to why the stories it told weren’t actually true. They were just folk tales told to kids back then, giving answers to life’s tough questions.
Red Seas can’t actually part.
The lame couldn’t really have been healed.
Jesus couldn’t have turned a few fishes into a Sizzler buffet.
And there is no way Jesus really stepped out of a tomb after being crucified.
These were only stories that had some moral lesson in it…right?
And so I went to Israel on pilgrimage.
And here I am today, writing to tell you I had it all wrong.
I’ve been to the hillbilly town of Nazareth. I’ve sat at the Sea of Galilee where Jesus fed more than five thousand people. I’ve sailed the sea where Jesus walked over the waters. I stood above the house where Jesus taught Peter and the Apostles, and I’ve even baptized people in the river Jordan.
By day two in Israel I could not stop the tears from streaming down my eyes.
I was terribly convicted. I found that I had domesticated Scripture. As long as I told the Bible how it should behave and highlighted the passages that best suited my lifestyle, it could be that book to help me when I called for assistance. I was its master and it worked well that way.
Pilgrimage, however, offers a different kind of outcome than I had planned.
The stories I read in the Bible were journal entries describing spiritual lessons that challenged this physical realm called earth. These storytelling priests described a backwards kingdom whenever they encountered God and maybe that explains why Scripture often seems ridiculous to me.
It’s into that ridiculous story that God calls us.
Scripture challenges us to imagine a world run by God. In that world the poor are rich, the blind can see, the first are last, enemies are my friends, people can command the oceans, and special needs kids can talk. I read that and I wanted to believe the Bible but, “surely God, you don’t do this today.” And so, at just the right time in my life, God called me to pilgrimage. He called out from across the ocean and said, “Come Shawn!: taste, see, feel, and experience.”
And everything I wanted to believe, I now do.
I know now what God wants us to see. I know exactly what everyone in our church needs to do to see what God wants us to see. And so I ask you, the reader, do you want to see? If not, all you will ever know about God is what others tell you. But if you want to see, get ready for the pilgrimage. For God is only experienced in that. When you say to God, “I’m with you, where else can I go?” you invite God into your story. And we don’t read the stories of a sedentary God. No, this God, when invited in, does the unimaginable. I can testify to it! God has taken me, this broken boy from a troubled home and set his course straight. He has taught me that mute sons have much more to say and teach than I could have ever imagined. He has given me a loving wife, a brilliant daughter, and a stable home life. Where I’m from that doesn’t happen. But it did happen…and because I went to the land of miracles God showed me how the kingdom really works.
If only we invite God in, if only we dared to believe and follow His ways…
That proverbial Red Sea in your life would split to allow you to get through it.
The life trials you never wanted would become your saving graces.
And healing might come in the acceptance that life serves us what it will and God won’t let us walk it alone.
Pilgrimage is us waking up each day and realizing that the God of the Bible is waiting for us to open our eyes each morning. He has called us to taste and see life, in all it has to offer, the good and the bad, knowing that he will let the storm rage on simply to get us to stop trusting in ourselves and to instead, trust in the God who is Lord of the seas.
The Psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?” His answer, “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth.”
He writes a song that only a person who pilgrimages with God everyday could write.
May each day be a spirit filled adventure that shapes and redefines who we are.
One can prepare for a trip…
That’s what all of us here did. The 2CC Israel pilgrims packed our bags and imagined going on an adventure that would take us to the place where Jesus walked. For me, my imagination filled with all of the things that I had learned about in school along with all of the stories I had read in the Bible.
However, within the first day, the reality of what I was getting myself into quickly began taking shape as a world I never saw became real.
Here is an account of one of those instances.
Our guide and seminary professor Dr. Widbin, brought us to a hillside where the popular prophetic hillbilly/rabbi and his disciples had drawn a crowd of people. On that hot hillside many of us huddled for some of the shade under the single tree there. Dr. Widbin began telling us a story all of us had heard before but he prefaced with this caveat, "this may challenge you a bit." He knew we had read this as a story of magic, awe, and wonder...a divine intervention that while powerful, presents Jesus as one who did things that today, we as believers, could only fathom in our wildest of imaginations...
Crowds drawn, families would have covered the hillside, rushing to find a good spot like all of us had, parents would have surely brought along at least some snacks for their kids so that they could enjoy what the popular prophet Jesus would bring.
Maybe a healing...
Maybe a transfiguration...
Maybe a resurrection...
Maybe a mind-blowing sermon...
Maybe even...feeding all of these people that had come to see him.
And so Jesus looked out and began to tell the people about how the kingdom of Heaven operated. The kingdom of heaven is like...
It is like a person who had brought food to a picnic for themselves. They arrived to the picnic and found that some people didn't have any food. It is a place where people might dare to offer a small portion of their food with those around them.
The crowds likely thought, as all would, this a kind gesture, "ah Jesus, what a wonderful teaching."
He wasn't done...
The prophet continued... The kingdom of heaven is like a person who brought a picnic for themselves and then gave it all away to those who didn't have any food.
And now, the crowds, maybe they began to think Jesus had only become so popular because he was a tad bit crazy.
"All of it? What about me?, My children, my family first..." the crowd would have thought...as I would have too.
One parent may have thought, "maybe we should leave. It's getting late and we only have a little food for our kids, this man is silly."
But then it happened. One of the kids in the crowd, unwrapping the bread and small fish their parents had packed for them to eat walks up to the prophet and says, "like this Rabbi?" and hands Jesus the bread and fish.
A child sharing all their food with a stranger.
Then it happened.
The child had set off a chain reaction of generosity.
Looking in their baskets, led by the likes of a child, the people began to see what Jesus was teaching. Sharing, exchanging, feeding one another, looking out for one another, making sure no one had any need...
Thousands were fed that day because Jesus had brought the people the way of this kingdom he had been talking about.
This was the miracle he brought. A new paradigm, a new way of living, communal living , it was a kingdom that even a child could understand.
Jesus' miracle became more than just a text I once read...it became something I could imagine to see happening in my own community. If only I would stand up as he and challenge us to live lives of selflesslessness. Jesus taught his hearers that God was in this exchange, God would be found in the giving, and that it was this heart that he hoped all his disciples would adopt.
May we read the story today and ask, "how might I be the catalyst for a movement of Christ-like selflessness in my home, work, friendships, and the like?"
If a child could do it, I'm sure we could find a way as well.
What is it you and I are holding onto that is keeping the Kingdom of Heaven from finding its home in our genuine love for one another as the people of God?
You can begin at home, work, school, our churches, or anywhere but today we ask, "God lead me in your ways and help me to serve those you would have me serve just like you do 2000 years ago."