I preached this at Pleasant Street United Methodist Church in Waterville, ME this past Sunday. It was particularly wonderful to have a bunch of alumni from my home church in the pews to cheer me on, including two of my former Sunday School teachers. (I told the congregation to blame both of them for any offensive or theologically incorrect statements that I would make over the course of worship.)
For those of you who have not met me before (which I think would be most of you), my name is Ben Yosua-Davis; proud alumni of that school that’s up the road about a mile from here. [Colby College] In fact, in what I I think now qualifies as ancient history, I did a Jan-Plan internship at this church back in 2002; the most memorable piece, of course, not being when I preached, but when I led the Sunday School in a very enthusiastic dance that included a lot of stomping , a dance that was interrupted by a harried usher who very nicely informed me that “You need to be quiet, we’re worshipping down here!”
And speaking of worship, our next scripture passage from the first worship-book of the church, the Psalms; which shares with us about how we should approach God when we gather together as a community:
(Feel free to read Psalm 30 and Luke 18:9-14)
Now, as you might imagine, a lot has happened since I’ve last worshipped with you all. I now live now in a Norma Rockwell painting of a 1950’s small town; Chebeague Island, ME, with my wife Melissa, also a Colby alumn and the pastor of the only church on the island; and my 16 month old son, who is, in my perfectly objective opinion, the most beautiful boy in the world.
But today, I’d like to tell you a story from a previous chapter of my life, one where my wife and I went on a spiritual adventure in Haverhill,MA; one where we planted a new type of church: one that did not have a building or weekly worship, but instead met in homes, and in coffee shops, one that went onto the streets and made friends, and picked up trash, and threw block parties and community board game nights; and tried to love with open hands all the people that our society says are unlovable, a faith community that we called the Vine.
Our story begins on one cold evening in February, as Rob and I were leading Bible study, when I leaned over to him and said, “I need to tell you something.”
“I’m going to drop the F-bomb tonight.”
Normally, when someone like me starts a story in that way, it’s to explain why I had to start looking for a new job.
In this case, it’s to tell you how I stumbled into the best Bible study I’ve ever led.
I should note that when I say F-bomb, the F is, of course, a polite abbreviation for the word…fudge; which I know can be needlessly distracting for so many of us; considering that we are Methodists and coffee hour is right around the corner. Nonetheless, I’m trusting to that you will be able to look past this unconventional use of language; especially if you don’t use “fudge” in your everyday parlance, and certainly never in an environment like this one.
But first, let me tell you a little bit about the group.
It had started with four of us: myself, a blue-collar working man, an unemployed ex-motorcycle gang member, and Kate, a recovering addict and ex-internet uhh…video star. Kate was trying out Jesus with the same enthusiasm with which she had tried out everything else—boundary-less enthusiasm that did not involve even one drop of discretion.
After three months of steady, unspectacular Bible study, I asked those present to invite their friends to our group.
Kate was excited.
“I’m going to invite all my friends!” she told me.
“Great.” I said.
I had heard this before. Everyone, once they got excited about the Vine, said they were going to invite all their friends to it. Despite their best intentions, I had learned quickly that
A) People didn’t have as many friends as they thought;
B) If they did have many friends, most of them weren’t particularly interested in Jesus; and
C) If their friends might be interested in Jesus, inviting them required a lot more courage than most would-be inviters possessed at the time.
For all the “all my friends” promises I had received before, I think a total of about four new people had actually shown up to something.
One week after asking the group to invite their friends, I was hopeful. I thought that if everyone invited all their friends, we might grow the group from four to six. I set the table for ten, just in case.
Then, Kate’s friends showed up.
Twenty-four of them.
Four of them young children.
All within fifteen minutes of each other.
It was like a flash flood.
You don’t host Bible study when twenty-four people unexpectedly show up at your house, you just pray they won’t tear the entire place apart.
I called upstairs to my wife and friends.
They came downstairs and sprang into action, graciously talking to guests, taking care of children, and picking up dishes. The food I had cooked quickly ran out and five emergency pizzas from Little Caesar’s showed up at our door.
People came and went, cheerfully annexing any open chair, couch, or piece of floor they could find.
Fifteen minutes before we were supposed to end, I finally managed to herd all the adults (at least those who had not already wandered out the door), into the dining room.
I sat down, I shared about who the Vine was, and I opened the Bible. It was then that I discovered something very important: none of them realized that they had been invited to a Bible study. Not one.
All the would-be converts smiled and nodded confusedly.
It was a very awkward fifteen minutes.
Finally, everyone left, and I flopped onto the couch, more than a little exhausted and a little exhilarated.
Later that night, I wrote on Facebook, that a “Holy ‘Tornado’” had blown through my house.”
But, do you know how many of those newly invited, unintentionally bait-and-switch surprise guests made it back the next week?
One week and twenty-four people worth of chaos later, it was back to the same four of us sitting around my dining room table.
(I asked Kate about this at dinner later that week. She said, “Yeah! None of my friends would go to a Bible study! So, I just told them they were coming over to a friend’s house for dinner! Isn’t that great?” She winked and laughed. “I fooled them!”)
Six months later, the group had finally started to grow. We had moved our meeting place to a friend’s ratty little apartment on Normand Street, one of the bleakest streets in the city. The group had become, in the words of one of its members, “the island of misfit toys:” a collection bin for all the people who were a little too screwed up or crazy for “normal” church. We had addicts cycling through some stage of recovery (or non-recovery), those suffering from mental illness, and people fresh off the streets—everyone so rough around the edges that they could be used for sandpaper.
Despite our apparent success, I still felt like something important was missing.
The group’s members, who would unselfconsciously turn the air blue when they didn’t know I was listening, behaved like a bunch of prim old ladies at a tea party when they were in Bible study. It was as if being in a moderately church-y environment magically transmuted their profanity into a series of religious aphorisms that must have been ripped from a particularly milquetoast religious tract.
The experience was classic church-“nice.” And also largely meaningless for all those involved.
In all my ministerial wisdom, it had taken me a full six months to realize that something was wrong. The light finally came on when I was walking on the street and encountered a guy who had come to our group about a year previous, during which he had crossed himself once and confidently unloaded every pious phrase he had ever heard in the course of our discussion. On the street, though, he clearly did not recognize me as “The Pastor Who He Had Done Bible Study With” and in the course of a three-minute conversation, he managed to squeeze in the better part of four dozen expletives and twenty assorted R-rated references before genially walking away.
Our island of misfit toys had chosen to make themselves acceptable to the God that they thought good church people like myself worshipped; and in doing so, were leaving themselves at the door. And so, on that February evening, after I had disclosed my strategically questionable plans to my co-leader, during a conversation about Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount (which is such a brutally practical document that it can’t help but incite charged conversation if you’re really paying attention), I asked, “So how do you treat people when they fudge with you?”
The group of disreputable, poor, sometimes addicted, high school dropouts took in my breach of social etiquette.
There was an uncomfortable pause.
Nice church people don’t say words like ‘fudge,’
Nice pastors definitely don’t say words like ‘fudge’” and, if they ever were to say “fudge”, the least likely place for them to do so would be at Bible Study.
And then, as if by magic, everything just opened up.
They told stories about their lives that I had never heard in the previous six. People argued about what forgiving someone seventy-seven times really looks like, especially when that someone is a complete jerk. They asked really honest questions about how their lives might be different if they took Jesus’ teachings seriously, especially his teachings about loving their enemies.
Nothing was off limits for discussion. It was wildly unpredictable and wildly wonderful. Once they knew that it was okay to bring their actual lives to the scriptures, they poured out torrents of wisdom, honesty, and insight that put me and most of my seminary classmates to shame. I learned how “Give us this day our daily bread” could be more than a spiritual metaphor. I learned the cost of deciding to forgive when someone had betrayed your trust for the hundredth time. I learned what it meant to really lament when you lost your housing, your food, or your job through no fault of your own.
I also learned what it meant to come before God and your community without a shred of pretense. I heard disturbingly graphic prayers from people who were asking God to help them deal with their lust. I watched people nakedly wrestle between choosing grace or bitterness after a particularly bad few days. One night, one woman, going through a rough week in a series of many rough weeks, cried out, “Why does my life stink so much?” and I responded, “I don’t know, but let’s pray for you,” and the whole group stopped what they were doing, gathered around her, and laid hands on her as we asked for peace, for comfort, and for her life to turn around. I learned what true, sacrificial generosity looked like when one woman spent her last twenty dollars to buy four Little Caesar’s pizzas for the group’s dinner. At the end of the night, the group passed a hat around to support her (many people giving the last dollars out of their pockets), and she ended up with fifty for groceries for the rest of the week.
We became known as the R-Rated Bible Study: the place where we explored scripture using language that would make good church people (and a lot of other people) very uncomfortable. As one of those good church people, being there was a cold, bracing breath of spiritual fresh air. I had been in good bible study before; but never in a group that was so raw, so honest, so utterly transparent about their motives, their shortcomings, their struggles, the places where their life, quite frankly was a completely fudged-up mess.
In short, it all looked a lot like church at its very best, unlocked by a few choice, impolite words that invited people to bring all of who they were, especially the unacceptable-for-church parts, into God’s and into each other’s presence.
So what does this story about considerably less-than-perfectly-holy language have to do with the text we heard this morning, a prototypical Psalm if ever there was one? Perhaps you didn’t give our text this morning a second glance, but consider; how it would sound if someone got up front this morning, just right in the middle of worship and said:
Sorry Pastor Thom, you’ve just go sit down, but I have to tell people that God is the fudging BOSS. God took my enemies, at work, that jerk who cut me off in traffic and kicked ‘em where the sun don’t shine! Woo! I was down in the dumps; like my own personal-pint-of-Ben-And-Jerry’s-And-Six-Pack-Of-Coors down in the dumps; I was crying into my Netflix queue all night long; but God replaced my sadness with joy!
I admit, I had been pretty cocky, I thought I was pretty much the center of the universe, certainly better off than any of you people, but then God pulled the carpet out from under me. I said okay God, I get the picture, but what’s the point of you punishing me if you don’t let me up off the mat now that I’ve learned my lesson? How will anyone be getting the news out about you if you don’t, you know, help me out?
And God did, my sadness was turned to joy, and I just can’t help myself, praise God!; I’m so excited I could dance, matter of fact, I am going to dance; right now! That’s right, you can join me. Amen.
That’s a little raw, right? And yet, if we’re honest, this is more than-a-little in the neighborhood of what our Psalmist offers us this morning. Our scripture points to what that R-rated group of misfits taught me: that this sort of messed-up, not-exactly-appropriate-for-polite-company vulnerability was necessary if I wanted to enter into the kingdom of God. They taught me that my ability to pretend that I had it together and to expect others to do the same was nothing but an expression of my privilege. I can’t tell you the number of times, sitting in that room with that group of messed up people, that the good-pastor within me wanted to tell them to stop talking, to stop sharing, to learn to moderate their language; to not unnecessarily embarrass themselves in front of all those people.
But what I learned was that embarrassment is truly never justified when you know that you are among the fellowship of the broken; when everyone is as spiritually naked and obviously messed up as you are; when you all come to the same place not expecting admiration or justification, but simply mercy.
That is the sort of vulnerability a world like ours does not respect as the gift that it is. And, if we’re being honest; that’s the type of vulnerability that our church often does not respect as the gift that it is either. And so, for those of us who have grown up in these settings, who have learned the proper way of spiritually dressing ourselves up, of carefully deploying the right religious language to cloak, rather than to name, the most apparently unacceptable parts of who we are; we have to re-learn what it means to let the most profane parts of our lives out, into our relationship with God and with each other.
For God is not put off by our struggle or offended by our brokenness. It is God who takes our deepest fears and half-formed resentments, takes the ugliness of our unresolvable messes and slow burning griefs, takes our implacable hopelessness and relentless doubt, takes, in fact, all of who we are, especially the dark, broken, pieces that we hide even from ourselves; and embraces them.
It is in those painfully unacceptable moments, that we discover what love truly looks like; not earned by being good religious people; but by being the nakedly broken, messed up, screwed up, fudged-up people that we are actually are; and in the process, discovering a Love that is given to us not on the basis of our acceptability, but a love that makes us acceptable simply because we exist; a love that cherishes our ugliness as a sacred offering, and transforms it into grace, gratitude, and joy.
And this process is so painfully, terrifyingly beautiful, that we invent ways to leave ourselves at the door before we dare come into the presence of God.
And so, if you have found excuses to bring only the best parts of yourself to this space…God says bring all of it.
If you have found ways to silence your doubts and suppress your fears…God says speak all of it.
If you have found ways to cloak your grief and ignore your pain…God says share all of it.
If you have found ways to make sure you’re always wearing your spiritual Sunday best…God says reveal all of it.
For to truly enter the kingdom of God, we will all, at some point, be presented with a choice; to travel into that place where the profanity of our identity gets exposed, or to stop, and travel no further into the mystery of love.
After all, it is in those moments, when we gather, naked, afraid, imperfect, profane, that we truly encounter the graceful, boundless depths of the One who can turn our mourning into dancing, our weeping into joy.
Poet and author Madeline L’Engle put it this way,
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will now know
that you are wholly within love.
Or, as I’ve learned to say, sometimes, the kingdom of God is just a few f-bombs away.
Great insights Ben. So many of us are hopelessly insulated from other economic and cultural realities. There is a world out there where “F” bombs are communicated without harsh judgements. And so, in “polite” society, it’s frowned upon, it’s encouraging to understand that God’s love transcends that which we mortals deem acceptable!
I agree Adele!
Thanks Ben for the “blast from the past”. It was true when we lived it and is true still today. “Church” has never been the same since. I do go to regular church on occasion, but I feel blessed to know what is “real church” to me. thx, Keith
PS: Loved the Mira Conklin piece (immigrants / intercambio etc) so relevant to our mission here in Haverhill (MA)
Thanks Keith – As we’ve talked about before, experiences like that messed up church for us as we knew it. I don’t know about you, but I’m still figuring out where my spiritual resting place will finally be!