Shaking Up the Living in the Valley of the Dead: Sermon for April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

10003447_10151948032596787_1474327605_n-137:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

A few years ago, when Heidi and I got married, we had a little logistical problem. When I had been the only one living in the house, there had been plenty of room for my clothes in the closet and in the one dresser. But when Heidi moved in that changed, and we started needing more space.

So we did what any newly-wed couple did in the aftermath of the big day: we went to Ikea and we bought some dressers. Many of you have probably been to Ikea, but if you haven’t let me explain. The idea is that the furniture is fairly inexpensive, in part because it comes unassembled. You load these flat boxes in your car and drive them home and find yourself faced with dozens of pieces and bags full of nuts and bolts and washers.

And, I like to think I’m pretty handy. I have helped to build actual furniture, and I know my way around a toolbox. But this took forever. There was a lot of try to bang things into place, a log of getting frustrated, and a lot left over pieces. And I’m still not sure where those were supposed to go.

I was thinking about that because while I was reading today’s Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been exiled along with many of the rest of his people to Babylon. And people would come to him and he would share his prophecies.

And these were a people who needed two things: honesty, and hope. And in his prophecies Ezekiel brought both. First he told the truth. He talked about the exile, and he talked about the ways that the people had fallen short of God’s expectation. He talked about how they were in a place that they never expected, and about how everything had changed.

But then he also talked about hope. He talked about how one day they would return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the temple would be rebuilt, and they would find new life. And he had this vision that is perhaps his best known: the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel is led by God to this valley that is filled with bones. Layers upon layers. And there is no sign of life anywhere. And it looks like the epitome of hopelessness and death and destruction.

And God says to Ezekiel, “do you think these bones can live again?” I would probably have said “they look pretty dead, God”. But you should probably never count God out in these things. Even still Ezekiel doesn’t say, “yes, of course, you are God, anything is possible for you.” Instead Ezekiel just says “oh God…you know”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but a start.

God tells Ezekiel to start to prophesy. In other words, start talking about the future Ezekiel. And as he does, God starts working too. The bones come together and connect again. And then they become flesh and blood again. And then, God tells Ezekiel to keep talking, and something incredible happens. They are filled with breath again, and the ones that moments ago had just been bones stand up and breathe, and are filled with new life.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones were symbols of the people of Israel, who had fallen mightily. And God shows him that they will be brought back to their feet. They will find new life. They will live again. God promises that. God gives them hope.

Now it’s hard to compare my little dressers to an entire people. But here’s what both stories tell me – putting things together is hard work. Sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you don’t think there’s much of a chance to get things right. Sometimes you get frustrated and wonder if it is all worth it.

But sometimes, despite all of this, you know that you have to keep trying. And you have to keep putting all the pieces together. And that’s what I want to talk about today, because I believe that every Scripture we read has insights for our lives, and this is no exception. And I think this passage could be used to teach us about a lot of things: our personal lives, our families, our friends. But today I want us to think about what it means for those of us who are trying to be the church.

I’ll say this first: church is sometimes hard. Community is hard. Learning to live together and work together and serve God together is sometimes hard. It’s true in every church I know. There are good times when everything seems to be going well. And there are tougher times when it might feel like we are all trying to assemble the same dresser together, and nothing is coming out right.

And those are the times when you wish that God could just say the word, and all the pieces would come together like those bones in that valley, and new life would be breathed into all of us. Well, here’s the reality. I think we can. I think we can ask God to do all those things, and I think God will do them. But I think God needs us to do some work too.

God didn’t tell Ezekiel “just stand there and watch this”. God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy”. And, like I said, God was telling Ezekiel to talk about the future. God was telling Ezekiel to tell the truth, but to also tell the hope. Only when that happened did God start to show him what was possible.

And so, I want to ask those of us who love this church, those of us who love this church, what does this have to do with being church. Because I’ve said it many times, as have many others: church is not something we do one hour a week. Church is who we are every hour of every day. We are the church.

And with that in mind, I want us all to think about this question together: what’s the difference between being a church-goer, and being a disciple?

Think about that for a minute…how are those two different? Let me start by saying this…there’s nothing wrong with being a person who goes to church. I’m glad that you all do, and I’m glad you are here. And, really, to be a disciple, I think you need to be a church goer because I think that we who would follow Jesus all need a community of Christian faith.

But being a church-goer is not the same as being a disciple. Anyone can come on Sunday and sit in the pew for an hour and then leave. And that’s fine. But being a disciple is a whole lot harder.

I used to be a church-goer. But later on, I tried to become a disciple. I don’t always do it well, but I try. And here are just a few things I have learned in my own walk about being a disciple, and not a church-goer:
When I was a church-goer, it used to be about going to church. Now it’s about being the church.
When I was a church-goer, it was about how the church was spiritually feeding me and meeting my needs. Now it’s about how the church can feed and meet the needs of others.
When I was a church goer it was about seeing how others in the church weren’t measuring up to my expectations for them. Now it’s about seeing how I can help be the church with them.
When I was a church-goer it was about being with my friends. Now it’s about being a part of communities where not everyone gets along but we work together anyway.
When I was a church goer it was about how the church could pull together enough resources to fund a building and a budget and a bunch of line items so that we could sustain ourselves. Now it’s about how the church can use those resources to build a thriving ministry that reaches everyone.
And when I was a church-goer, it used to be my church. Now it’s God’s church.

Those are just a few. Maybe you can think of some of your own as well. And in all these things, this is what I have learned: being a church-goer is a lot easier than being a disciple. But being a disciple is the most rewarding thing I have ever tried to do. I say tried there, because I’m still stumbling along…and I’m not getting it right even half the time. But then again, the original disciples weren’t either. And yet, they kept trying.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments we will be receiving Communion together. And Communion is really about community and reconciliation. Our reconciliation with Christ, and our reconciliation with one another. We all sit at the same table, and we are all lifted up by Christ to sit at a much larger table with believers we do not even know. And, sometimes, we even sit at that table with other disciples with whom we might rather not sit. But like those bones in the valley, God sometimes joins us once again. God somehow calls us into new life. God puts us back together. God brings hope.

As we who would be disciples approach the table today, may God lift us up the way God lifted up those dry bones. And may we be knit together and stood up on our feet and given the breath of life. Because we are disciples. And we have work to do. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 20 – Uprooted Trees and the Ground of Being

IMG_1965Every day or so I stop by the Christmas tree we have up in the sanctuary and check the water levels in the tree stand. And almost every time I end up filling a pitcher with water and filling the empty stand. Others haven been doing this too. The other day a parishioner remarked, “That tree sure does drink a lot.”

This is a particularly thirsty tree. I have no idea how many gallons of water that tree has soaked up right before since we cut it down right before the first Sunday of Advent.

But, if you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Even though that tree has been cut down, removed from the snowy field it stood in for years, and brought to the relatively warm church sanctuary where it now resides, it still instinctively knows how to sustain itself. Even though it is rootless, it still draws knows how to live.

Sometimes it can feel like we are rootless too. We can get so far away from what is important, and what sustains us, that we might feel like we’ve just been uprooted and dragged off to another place. We might feel as disconnected from what sustains us as an indoor Christmas tree.

Sure, occasionally we might get a taste of the living waters again. We might get just enough to help us to stay alive. And in that moment we will know to drink. But, in the end, if we stay unrooted, will we ever really thrive?

Come January 6th our church Christmas tree is going to go to some mulch pile or wood chipper. As beautiful as it is, the tree wouldn’t last much longer than that, even if we kept pouring in pitchers full of water. And that makes sense. Eventually what isn’t rooted and grounded in what can give it new life just won’t last.

You and I, we aren’t Christmas trees. We know that. But sometimes it might feel as though we have grown as spiritually dry as a cut pine tree in January. We might long for the places where we used to be planted. We may wish we could just go back to that place we remember and grow again.

The good news, of course, is that we can. Unlike that tree that’s never going back in the ground, the “ground of being”, as Paul Tillich used to call it, is ready to welcome us back. God is ready for us to be replanted and to put down our roots once again. And God is waiting for us to drink up the living water that God wants to give to us.

In the Christmas season, we often find ourselves spiritually connected in ways that we aren’t all year. By a few months later that feeling is often gone. But it doesn’t have to be. This year, stay connected. That feeling you get on Christmas Eve, surrounded by glowing candles in a darkened church, it doesn’t have to come just once a year. Plant yourself in rich soil, and you can be nourished in every season.

Question: What are the ways that you feel rooted in God during the Christmas season, and how can you stay rooted that way all year?

Prayer: God of all creation, even when we are far away from you, we still thirst for your living water. This year, help us to find our roots in you, and in others. Connect us in community. Strengthen us as your body. And help us to find joy and new life all the year long. Amen.

Rise: A Sermon on Everyday Resurrections – June 9, 2013

nain - tissot-resurrection-nain777x561When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.

But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”

I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.

And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.

Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.

The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.

But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.

But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.

But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.

Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.

(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)

But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.

But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.

In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.

Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.

To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.

And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.

But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.

Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.

When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.

Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.

But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.

He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.

When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.

They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.

Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.

I Have Seen the Lord – Sermon for Easter, 2012

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (response)

Two nights ago, some of us gathered in the sanctuary here for Good Friday services. Together we read the story of the Passion, Christ’s trial, crucifixion, death, and burial together.

We did something new this year. Instead of just one person reading the Gospel, we split it up, and took parts, and read it with different voices. We sat with each other and listened. And after the service some of you told me that you really heard the story in a way you never had before, and it profoundly affected you.

It did me too. The story about how Christ’s love and compassion for us all was so threatening to some that they would kill him. The story about how God became human like you and I, and told us how to live and how to treat one another, and the world wouldn’t hear it. The story of how the world sometimes does its worst to those who deserve anything but.

It’s a hard story to hear. It gets to us. But not long after the story ended, like the rest of you, I got in my car, and went home, and had dinner, and started getting ready for Easter morning.

Two thousand years after the Christ’s death, we have that luxury. We have the luxury of being what some call “Easter people”. We know how the story plays out, and we know that Jesus does not stay in the tomb. As much as the story affects us when we hear it again, we have that consolation. Good Friday is not the end.

Now at this point you may be saying, “You’re right…Good Friday is not the end. So stop preaching the Good Friday sermon and get on with the Easter one.” And I will.

But before I do, I want you to think about this. What if you didn’t know? What if you were hearing the story I read you this morning for the first time? What if you had lost your friend who was love embodied, and you’d driven back home not with hope, but with a gut-wrenching sorrow?

That’s what his friends were going through. He was their teacher, and they were his disciples, but they were also his friends. And they had loved him. Even the ones who couldn’t bear to stay with him for the end, they loved him.

They loved him so much, that as soon as they could they went back to his grave. Maybe just to be close to him. They were good Jews, so they would never have gone to a grave on the Sabbath, but as soon as they could they went. Mary first.

She got there and the stone that had sealed the tomb was gone. And she looked in and so was Jesus. And she runs to Simon Peter and John and tells them, and they race each other to the tomb and look inside.

Nothing. Just a few cloths that had wrapped the body.

Simon Peter and John leave Mary there. She stays, weeping, until she hears a voice: “Why are you crying?” She thinks it’s the gardner. She says, “If you took him away, if you have him, just tell me. I’ll take him myself.”

And then the voice says her name, Mary, and she knows. She cries out, “Rabbi”. And she knows it is him. And Jesus picks her, the one who stayed, and wept, and searched, and sends her to tell the other disciples what she has seen.

Mary is the first witness to the risen Christ, the first to testify to what she has seen. The first to get to share the good news.

It’s an awesome task to be given. To see the risen Christ, and to be told by him to spread the word. Don’t keep it to yourself. Go…tell the ones who need to hear it the most, the ones mourning and in pain, that I am risen. Go and tell them, suffering and pain and hate and death did not win.

Mary got to do it first. She went and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

She was the first one Christ asked to do it. But that doesn’t mean she was the last to get the job. Because every person who would follow the risen Christ gets the same assignment. Everyone who would call themselves a Christian gets asked to do the same thing as Mary: go to the ones who need to hear it the most, and tell them you have seen the risen Christ.

It was an important job two thousand years ago, when the disciples mourned for the one they thought they had lost. But it’s still an important one today.

As much as we are Easter people, much of the time we still live in a Good Friday world. We’re still a world that chooses violence, and fear, and hate, too much of the time. Though Christ is risen, we often choose to act in the exact opposite way than what he taught us.

That means that on most mornings, a fair number of people are feeling the same way the disciples must have been that morning. They’re wondering where hope has gone. They’re crying out for another way. They’re listening for any news that suffering doesn’t win. That death doesn’t get the last word. That God is so good, and so full of grace, that God doesn’t give up on the world, and the stone rolls away from the tomb.

There is a world that needs to hear that. Maybe even you need to hear that. I know there are days when I need to hear that. And I don’t think I’m alone.

And that’s what the Easter story teaches me. That love wins. And that people need to hear that. And also, that I’m one of those people.

To be a Christian is to be a witness to the Resurrection. And that’s not always easy. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to get sidetracked.

But that’s why it’s so important to put yourself in the places where you know you will hear the Resurrection story again and again.

I’m sometimes asked what the point of coming to church is. Does God love us more if we come, or get angry at us if we don’t? And my answer is, “no”. I don’t think God has some sort of a church attendance checklist.

Instead, I think this: I think church matters because it’s a community of witnesses to the Resurrection. I think it matters because when I see new life, when I see Resurrection, I know I can’t keep it to myself. I have to run and tell the ones I love who need to hear it the most.

And I think it matters because sometimes, when all of life feels a lot like Good Friday, I need to go to a place where I can hear there is an Easter. I need to go where other witnesses are running to from the tomb, shouting with Mary, “I have seen the Lord.”

I need that. I think we all do. I think we all need a place where we can tell the story together. Just like we told it together, and really heard it in a new way on Good Friday, how much more powerful can the story of Easter be when we deliberately tell it together? We need to tell the story of love that triumphs over everything. We need to tell the story of the Easter that comes after Good Friday. We need to tell the story of new life where none was thought possible. And we need to tell it together. Because each of us holds a piece of that story, and each of those pieces needs to be heard.

I’m thankful for all the little Resurrection stories I’ve heard over the past year. Thankful for all the reminders that Good Friday isn’t the end of the story, and that Easter is real. I’ve heard a hundred different Easter stories in this congregation this year. And most weren’t in April.

I’ve heard of new babies born, and those who were given up for dead regaining life. I’ve heard of new families begun, and old relationships mended. I’ve heard of marathons run, and addictions overcome. I’ve heard of judgements being discarded, and anger being transformed. I’ve heard of cancer in remission, and the indomitable spirit of those who aren’t but still fight. I’ve heard of two churches becoming one, and new witnesses walking in the doors. And I’ve heard of those who once were lost but now are found, and those who helped a valley that was nearly washed away to rise again. And those are just the stories of the ones who were here. There are so many others we still want to know.

We’ve celebrated Easter in this church nearly every week. And we’ve celebrated it in our hearts even more. Don’t let anyone tell you that those weren’t Resurrections. They were, because God was there giving new life in each one of them. And I look at each one and say, “I have seen the Lord.” May it be so this year, in Easter, and everyday.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen…

Lent, Mud Season, and Making Room for the Mess

The other day I stepped onto my driveway and my duck boot sunk down in mud deeper than my ankle. I knew it was the start of mud season here in Vermont, that mythical fifth season between winter and spring when mud covers everything. Our dirt roads turn to mud, our shoes are coated, and our pant cuffs show tell-tale signs. The mud gets everywhere.

I didn’t know about mud season until I moved here two years ago. People explained to me that the ground freezes so hard in the winter that it’s still not thawed when the piles of snow start to melt in early spring. The water has no way to go back down into the ground, so it stays on the surface, mixing with the dirt and making a mess of everything.

That’s fitting for Lent, which most years conveniently overlaps the mud.

In Lent we face the parts of our spiritual life that are the messiest, thickest, and the most inconvenient. We often find that even if we can hide the mess from others, we can’t hide it from ourselves. Like mud, it gets everywhere.

It is the mud season of our souls. The time when when look deeply at what’s inside of us, and start to find the places that we are trying to keep frozen and impenetrable to God’s grace. We all have them. They’re filled with fear, anger, prejudice, resentments. It’s easier when we keep them hidden and frozen because we know that once they see the light and start to melt we won’t be able to control the fallout. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to really dive head first into Lent. Deep down we know that letting God into the deepest parts of our soul can make things messy.

It’s not surprising that Christians are so wary of the mess. We learn it from the very institutions dedicated to nurturing our faith. In the church we often prefer the neat, bright, and convenient to the reality that life is messy, and hard, and imperfect. We err on the side of keeping the surface clean, rather than digging deeper.

It’s why we don’t talk about the hard stuff in many churches. It’s why instead of having honest, life-changing, deep discussions, we often dwell on what’s easy to agree upon, or what is so inoffensive to anyone that it is uninspiring. We don’t talk about addiction, or depression, or economic justice, or inclusion of LGBT people, or any other topic that might cause division, even though there are many for whom talking about any one of those things would be a lifeline. Instead we create a church culture that is the spiritual equivalent of keeping up appearances.

People have come to believe church is a place where we want you show up in your Sunday best, rather than with mud on your shoes. I think that’s one reason churches are a lot more packed on Easter morning than on Good Friday, or any other day than Lent. We’ve taught church goers that we know how to find God on the best of days. But we rarely talk about how to find God on worst of them.

Which is why maybe we need the mud. Maybe we need the mess. Maybe we need the season where on the surface everything looks like it’s going to hell, but deep down we’re opening ourselves up to something new.

I’ve never seen a thriving church that hasn’t at some point in their life together been willing to risk letting God’s grace disrupt everything. They heard about the members they would lose. They heard about the donations that would dry up. They heard the cautions. And then they did it anyway. And new life sprang up.

I’ve often found that the most vital churches are the places that do Lent the best. They’re the places that don’t shy away from acknowledging the messiness of the spiritual life that, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about it, we’re all experiencing anyway. They become the churches that journey with parishioners as they go through their own spiritual mud seasons. And those parishioners become the ones who turn that place into something vital. Something life-giving. Something that has a lot to do with Resurrection.

I’ve been watching the people around where I live. They’re Vermonters. They’re used to things being messy. And so they also know what happens when the earth thaws, the water recedes, and spring breaks forth. This time of year sweetness comes in the maple syrup being cooked down from sap in sugar houses, and new signs of life come as nature wakes up. They know that after things get messy, they get good.

It’s taught me a lot about what Lent can be for the church. It can be the time hearts thaw the way the earth does, old barriers to God’s love melt away, what’s unknown is allowed in, and new life emerges in us all.

It can get muddy, but God can do incredible things with that mud.