I am sure folks referred to coffee as mud long before I thought about it, but it was in the Big Apple that I first encountered the MUD truck. You can find coffee on almost any street corner in Manhattan, not to mention the ubiquitous coffee shops, in one spot, two Starbucks within sight of each other, and countless diners and delis, though this last group is being driven out as developers rush to build investment properties for Russian, Chinese and American kleptocrats.
The MUD truck, orange with a stylish design and logo, bills itself as gourmet street coffee. We tend to blame the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular for coffee culture, the $5 cup of coffee and the strange notion that the quality of the beans and the degree of the roast matters, for bringing a European sensibility to US coffee drinkers, but it really all comes down to one man, a Dutch-American named Alfred Peet who died in 2007. Peet was the son of a Dutch coffee roaster, had apprenticed with a coffee and tea company, and when he immigrated to the US, he found the swill served during the post-World War II years undrinkable. He finally had the assets to open his own shop in that commie-pinko haven of Berkeley, California in 1966. The rest is history.
I’ll have a Venti Americano with an espresso shot please…
It was with this in mind that I inadvertently stepped in a big pile of, shall we say, mud, during my first call as an Associate Minister, where ministry to young adults was part of my portfolio. Young adults were walking into the church every week, which was amazing given that the church was not Open and Affirming and made little effort to reach out to that community. If they happened to be musicians, they often connected with the very young music director, who was right out of college. If not, they would attend for about six weeks, then drift away.
For while the congregation said it wanted younger members, it offered few programs that connected with that population, and we were unable to get them down the hall for coffee hour, where we served coffee that somehow managed to be weak and burnt at the same time, the cheapest stuff at the grocery store that had sat in the pot for hours before anyone poured a cup.
Every week those young people walked directly out the front door after worship, got in their cars, and went to St. Thomas Coffee Roasters, the coffee house up the street. While I would eventually shepherd a functional young adult group, the first step was to get them to coffee hour. So I went to St. Thomas Coffee Roasters and struck a deal. We’ll buy our coffee from you, place a sign that identifies it as your coffee, even offer some bags for sale. The proprietor was all for it. I went to the sexton, who made the coffee at that particular church, and showed him how to make coffee at normal strength, not espresso, not water, but somewhere in between, like you might make at home. I reassured him, as he fretted over how expensive coffee was, that we could find savings elsewhere.
So we made the good coffee, a good cup o’ joe. And all hell broke loose.
We hadn’t chosen a dark roast, a common generational complaint. It was just too strong. And it didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain that you could add hot water to strong coffee, but you couldn’t do anything with weak coffee. They couldn’t hear it.
And I couldn’t hear them. For it wasn’t about the coffee at all. You’d think I’d have remembered the first rule of pastoring: the problem is almost never the problem.
Here was this group that had been the lay leaders of the congregation, members of the local school board, ran businesses, went where they wanted when they wanted. They had autonomy. They understood the rules. They mattered. And now they were anxious, for younger leaders were changing things. They had to wait for rides because some could no longer drive. Many of their dear friends were dead, and their own bodies were failing.
It wasn’t about the coffee, and while it was a little about control, that really wasn’t it either. The coffee simply became the thing they latched onto in their general anxiety and grief.
To the best of my knowledge, the coffee didn’t change when I moved on in search of my own pulpit. But during the time I remained in that church, we tried to do a better job listening, to be present in the anxiety and grief.
And when a colleague with 25 years tried to bring coffee into the Sanctuary, to allow young adults to bring coffee into worship? Well, that’s a story for another day.
We live in anxious times. The church in America has been an anxious space for the last three decades, as attendance plummets, as we fail to communicate the good news in a way that is compelling, as younger generations see the church for what it is in the news, at best irrelevant and obsessed with the past, and always a source of homophobia, hatred and misogyny, associated with the Moral Majority, Franklin Graham, and the money-grubbing preachers of prosperity.
For while some have been busy making fun of younger generations, Gen X and Millennials, of hipsters and smartphones, those generations have been part of a connected world, have been going to school with their Muslim friends, their LGBT friends. They are tolerant and compassionate and engaged. Many are far better at following Jesus than most people who call themselves Christian, but they think organized religion is corrupt and irrelevant. And that is if we are lucky, for some were actually exposed to religion and abused by it, not just physical and sexual abuse, but psychological and spiritual abuse. For far too many, including every LGBT person in my generation, a church is a hostile space until proven otherwise. This is why churches aren’t just asked to be open. They are asked to be affirming.
Following Jesus is hard. He didn’t create an institution, he created community, and it was costly to join. Whether we are followers of John, as in today’s reading, or working on our fishing boats, in the other version, we are asked to leave something behind, to leave behind people and places. Following Jesus involves sacrifice, anxiety, and grief, every single time. And it is the only way to opt into the kingdom of God.
We like the “God is love” stuff. The costly grace bit makes us anxious.
Never mind lifting us up out of the mud and making our footsteps firm. We are the mud, clingy anxious mud.
I hear your anxiety. Pastors are anxious too. I know. Colleagues with decades of experience are in my Facebook feed, on a high-wire between hope and desolation, knowing what they must do, knowing what it might cost, for how do you preach good news that is relevant in times such as these. Thousands of us will face the choice between the gospel that fires our hearts and job security.
The dreamers, brought into the country illegally as children, are anxious. Muslims are anxious. Families with a child with a congenital heart defect, a pre-existing condition, are anxious, for at 1:30 Thursday morning the rug was pulled out from under them. People are bristling, even with their friends and allies. And I’ve been warned about March and April. I can’t wait.
And on top of that, I am asking you to become something new as a church, to drop your fishing nets and start fishing for people. I am asking you to preserve the traditions that are still working, but to abandon those that aren’t. I am asking you to be a church that is relevant to those young adults, a church that is worth getting out of bed for, a church that gives real tools that can be used this week to make our lives better, to make lives around us better, to make this a better world, because I believe in a better world, believe humans are capable of justice, kindness, and humility. And that is anxious muddy work and sometimes involves grief.
I am listening. I will walk with you through your grief and anxiety, just as I walk with people through grief and anxiety every day in ministry. We will journey through the mud, washing one another’s feet as Jesus taught us by example. I will lift you up and make your footstep firm for a time, but when I am waist deep and going down, I will look to you to throw me a line.
We will fight over coffee, as silly as it is, because protecting the oppressed is complicated and terrifying and coffee seems manageable. But Jesus meant it when he said heal the sick. He meant it when he said feed the hungry. The prophets meant it generation after generation when they demanded justice, demanded an end to exploitation and appropriation.
We are going to be in the mud sometime. We may well end up in a mud fight before it is over. But we are smart people filled with love and holy imagination, and we can get back up, clean-up, and keep going. It was mud that made the bricks in Egypt, but it was also mud that Jesus used to open the eyes of the blind man.
Mud. Made of the same stuff as the stars, as you and me. Mud, the stuff of life, organic and wet and full of potential. Maybe its not so bad after all.
Are you anxious? Yeah. Me too. But the time is now. John the Baptizer is crying out “Look! The Lamb of God…” Its going to cost you something. Will you follow?