“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.

leaving

The Easter Sermon

azaleaEaster Sunday is thirteen days away, no small thing for those of us in the profession of ministry.  It’s time to start thinking about the Easter sermon, and it helps that one of my colleagues is preaching this week for Palm Sunday – my brain has a little more space to jump ahead to resurrection, skipping the wine and the bread and the cross bit.

Oh, Easter; Christmas too, but we’ll just face Easter for now.  It’s hard to describe the odd weight of both expectation and indifference about the Easter Sunday service, at least from this pastor’s perspective.  I am always greeted first with a sense of inadequacy – how can I possibly convey anything close to the awe, wonder, amazement, fear, joy, miraculousness of that event?

After inadequacy greets me, I meet doubt; not doubt about the story, which I choose to believe as true (maybe not factual, but true.)  It’s trying to figure out the counter-arguments those in the congregation will be forming in their minds as they hear the gospel story and the sermon that follows.  Can I anticipate their questions and address them in the sermon?

After inadequacy and doubt, indifference saunters in.  I really don’t think that many people come to Easter services for the sermon.  I just don’t.  They come because it’s Easter and their mom is making them go to church.  They come because the music really is spectacular.  They come for lilies, although all of our indoor lilies are fake because of allergies – they will have to make do with azaleas.  They come to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service.  But I’m pretty sure that less than 1% come for the sermon, and I’m okay with that.  Sort of.

Sort of, because in one way it takes the pressure off.  If very few really care what I talk about for ten to fifteen minutes, perhaps I don’t have to write The Best Easter Sermon Ever of All Time this year.  But sort of because then I get challenged.  Then I start thinking, but if I only write The Perfect Easter Sermon That Captures the Hearts and Minds of Believers and Doubter Alike, then maybe they will realize that the sermon is one of the many reasons to come to worship.

Oy vey.

I do take comfort in the details of the Easter story itself.  In Luke’s version, the women went to the tomb, saw two angelic figures but no Jesus, then ran to tell those male disciples that indeed he had risen.  The disciples dismissed their story as nothing more than an idle tale.  Good heavens, if the most incredible news for the followers of Jesus was heard as an idle tale, then why on earth should I worry about my Easter sermon?

Here’s the thing: a lot of us pastor types really do take worship seriously.  We love planning  worship, we love leading worship.  We love the poetry of worship, and the prose, and music, and the silence, and the sacraments, and the kids dropping their hymnals and the old people with their walkers and buzzing hearing aids.  We love to be translators between for the human and the holy.  We love to look out at the congregation and see the beloved community gathered, and realize on any given Sunday that there are people we’ve never seen before who have come to be a part of the beloved community, at least for an hour that particular Sunday.  We love God, and we want to share the love.

And for us pastors who love worship, Easter is weird and joyous at the same time.  It is our most high, holy day.  It commemorates the event that makes Christianity Christianity.  It also commemorates the event that people most question, or get turned off by, or laugh at.  And the service(s) is full, which is a nerve-wracking joy, but it ups the ante.  Why are these people I’ve never seen before here?  What are their expectations?  And should I even worry about meeting their expectations?

Here’s my goal for the next thirteen days: to let go of the expectations.  To picture the beloved community that will gather on March 31, to see familiar, dear faces and faces I’ve never seen before and may never see again.  To wrestle in my mind and heart about this idle tale upon which a religion has been constructed, this idle tale that sprinkles dollops of hope upon some in the world still.  To write well, clearly, leaning more toward the poetry than prose.  To not feel responsible for anyone’s faith but my own.  To allow joy and mystery, and to make room for doubters and believers.  And to have fun with it.

That’s my goal for the next thirteen days; that, and maybe a dollop or two of inspiration.