Posted in Sermons

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

I am grateful for the opportunity to preach at the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University in observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 19, 2020.

 

Seattle University Land Statement: 

I (we) respectfully acknowledge that our event today is taking place on Duwamish aboriginal territory. I (We) pay respect to Duwamish Elders past and present and extend that respect to their descendants and to all Indigenous people. To acknowledge this land is to recognize its longer history and our place in that history; it is to recognize these lands and waters and their significance for the peoples who lived and continue to live in this region, whose practices and spiritualities were and are tied to the land and the water, and whose lives continue to enrich and develop in relationship to the land, waters and other inhabitants today.

 

This week, across the world, people from various denominations and traditions are coming together for a week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I am honored to be an ecumenical partner in this observance, and am grateful for the opportunity to be here with you today.

I am a Baptist…and if there’s one thing Baptists aren’t…it’s unified. Local autonomy is one of the four Baptist freedoms, the things that make Baptists uniquely us. This means that individual churches can decide amongst their own congregation about most policies, and if they decide to associate with other like-minded or nearby churches, they can do so with consensus in their congregation. Individual churches decide to affiliate together. But for the most part, Baptists are a headstrong bunch and each church can decide what its life together looks like…then you get the American Baptists, the Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Northern Baptists, the Progressive Baptists, the General Baptists, the Independent Baptists, the Alliance of Baptists…and on and on and on. You get the picture. 

For progressive Baptists, like those of us who accept women and LGBTQIA people as called to ministry, sometimes it can feel like we have more in common with progressive, justice-seeking folks in other denominations than we do within our own Baptist tradition. So unity is something we are grateful to join our ecumenical siblings in contemplating.

But even though Baptists as a group haven’t figured out the whole unity thing, some among our number have shared deep wisdom on this subject. 

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, I am humbled to be American Baptist, the tradition in which Dr. King was himself a part, and I pray that I do justice to his legacy throughout my ministry. Rev. Dr. King saw the disunity of the world in stark reality, as his experience as a Black man growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South, offered a vastly different vision of the world than I can ever imagine. Over the years of his ministry, Dr. King preached that unity does not mean uniformity, where all people would conform to the dominant Anglo-European white culture, but that unity of purpose was possible. I share these words that Dr. King preached in a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” acknowledging the choice of gendered language and intending it expansively: 

“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood. Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood. Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.” 

Did you hear the famous lines in there?  “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” In this increasingly globalized world, what affects one of us affects all of us in myriad ways. Whether the example is climate change, global manufacturing and trade, the diamond industry, international politics, social media…people around the world are connected more now than humans  ever have been before. Sometimes NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard-ism) is tempting, as we place our happiness and our space and our well being above others, but we cannot deny that with all the storytelling technology we have access to, the globe is really just a large neighborhood. We must begin behaving like it. Particularly in the United States of America, this country with so much economic, political and cultural power and influence, we cannot now deny that our lifestyle comes at the expense of not only those who are marginalized in our own cities, but also those who are living on the edge around the world. 

And so in this week where we are tasked with praying for Christian unity, what are we praying for? And I mean the nitty gritty details of what it means to be unified. Not the surface-level, pastel-painted unity that is sugar-coated and nice to think about. But the real work of unification, the work that calls each of us to reflect on our lives, our values, our relationships, our privileges. The work of deep conversation and negotiation, of compromise and collaboration. Unity doesn’t mean we all agree all the time, that we have the same ideas and think the same way.  It means that we have the same vision as we go forward in life, a vision for the flourishing of all people. A vision for the end of violence, for wars to cease, for disease and neglect and self-harm and hatred to stop. When we are unified, we act for the good of the community, not just the good of ourselves and those like us. 

There are many ways of praying, many methods for coming together in common purpose as we pursue the vision of the kin-dom of God.Perhaps we pray by folding our hands and bowing our heads. Perhaps we draw or paint or write. Perhaps we meditate and spend time in silent contemplation over a Biblical text or a poem. Perhaps we pay attention to the beauty of the created world which God called “good.” 

A 4-year-old friend of mine once told me that she likes to do “eyes wide open” prayers, so she can see everyone that she is praying for. This is how I hope we pray as we pursue unity. This is the hard work of the gospel, to engage our spiritual sight and attempt to see as God sees, to love as God loves. To do this, we must open our minds, hearts and hands. We must allow ourselves to be changed by the prayer, changed by the way we see each other, changed by how we know each other as people made in God’s image. To pray for Christian unity, we must divest from the systems of privileges that divide us, that draw lines for who is our neighbor and who isn’t. And for those of us at the top of the food chain, we must utilize the privileges we have to magnify the voices that are shuttered, and to quiet the voices that are overpowering. We must take risks, as Paul did, in receiving a blessing from people he didn’t know, in being surprised by the kindness offered from an unfamiliar hand. 

Dr. King reminds us that we all can be a part of this work of Christian unity, the work of living in service to all children of God: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Because when we have a heart full of grace, we can take the risk of hospitality and share that grace with others. When we have a soul generated by love, we are dipping into a wellspring of God that demands to be shared and shared and shared further. 

We can provide a warm fire, we can offer food to the hungry, we can outfit people with provisions for the journey. We can see Jesus in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the downtrodden and outcast. 

Perhaps we will make it possible that the whole world will know we are Christians by our love, and the kindness we offer will no longer be unusual and surprising, but common in our struggle for justice for all.

This week, let us pray that we have enough humility to unite with our siblings across traditions to pursue justice. That we have enough grace to give and receive feedback as those of us with various privileges continue to try to be allies. That we have enough humor to notice when God is pushing us towards kindness, even and especially when we are reluctant. That we have enough love to stay in the struggle when it gets tough, to love each other through hardship and pain and division until we can meet together in peace. Let us pray, and let us pray together, and let us pray without ceasing, for a world that reflects the goodness of our God.  May it ever be so. 

Posted in Sermons

“The Gifts of the Magi”: A Sermon for Epiphany 2020

This sermon preached January 5, 2020 at Seattle First Baptist Church

Matthew 2:1-12

Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the time when the wise ones from the East finished their journey and finally met the Christ child. These folks are important figures from all over the world, despite the fact that we don’t know how many of them there were or their names or what all they gave to Jesus. All we know for sure was that there were some special visitors from a far off-land and some gifts were given. This room for interpretation leaves exactly that…and so, of course,  every Christmas there are an abundance of cartoons depicting the wise men and their off-the-mark gift giving. There are many cartoons about the wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and having that be nice, but then the wise women show up and have practical gifts like diapers, freezer casseroles, and milk pumping tips. Or pointing out that the wise women would have asked for directions and arrived on time and not made a pit stop with Herod in Jerusalem at all. 

But really, what was it like for the wise ones to show up with the wrong gift? The wise ones, you may remember, were powerful Zoroastrian astrologers, respected in society. They traveled a long way, probably from the area known as Persia, from what today would be known as Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And during their travels, they got a little sidetracked. No, let’s be honest, they got A LOT sidetracked. We can understand their train of thought, right? There is a new, important king on the block and we will go find him. Kings live in palaces. Palaces are in political centers. Jerusalem is a political center. Therefore, the king will be there. Oh, wise ones, why did you use the logic of human power arrangements rather than divine humility?

And find a king they did, as they met with Herod and inquired as to the location of the new king. And, as we discussed last week, Herod the Great was a ruthless ruler, and a cunning, manipulative politician. So we shouldn’t be that surprised when Herod, who was always insecure about his power and position, attempted to get the magi to do his legwork and find out more about this child. The magi agreed and left Jerusalem, and apparently somehow got back on track and went to Bethlehem. They found the house where the mother and child were, and entered. 

And something miraculous happened. They recognized Jesus. They recognized the importance of this child. And they knelt down, assumed a position of respect, and paid him “homage.” Some Bible translations make this clearer to modern readers by saying they “worshipped him.” 

Then comes the gift giving. So the expensive, extravagant gifts were given to a poor, unwed, teenage mother in a small town and her young child, who was more likely to chew on a brick of gold rather than know what it was for. These were not the right gifts for the situation. Perhaps that’s why they went astray toward Jerusalem. They had brought gifts fit for a king, for a wise ruler, for someone more like the Son of Herod than the Son of God: gold and frankincense and myrrh, sweet and expensive spices…surely the powerful in Jerusalem would have a use for these, would know what to do. 

But I wonder, if even though the wise ones had misread the situation, or made assumptions about what kind of king they would find, if they did have the right gifts with which to adore baby Jesus. 

The exact right gift was the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, because that’s what they had. The right gift was to spend time pursuing the feeling they had that something special, something important, something big had just happened in the birth of this child. The right gift was to put aside their power, their privilege, their status, and kneel down at the feet of a small child. The right gift was paying attention to dreams, recognizing the dire political situation and choosing the side of justice. The right gift was to humbly recognize one who would show the way towards living justly with his life, no matter what the powers that be demanded or expected.

My friend Al reminds me of these wise ones, someone not afraid to divest themselves of their privileged status in favor of honoring the way of justice.

If you were to visit Oberlin, Ohio on a Saturday around noon, you may see some kindly Midwestern folks sporting homemade cardboard signs fixed to yardsticks saying things like “Peace is possible” and “War is unjust.” The weekly Peace Vigil has been going on every Saturday since September 15, 2001, the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, when my dear pastors Mary and Steve Hammond from Peace Community Church of Oberlin gathered with some congregants to demonstrate against escalating violence in the Middle East. Up until last June, you’d have seen a tall, gangly elderly man wearing a bright yellow raincoat or a “No Nukes” t-shirt holding a “No War with Iran” sign. That man was Al Carroll, a dear friend of mine and longtime peace activist, including involvement in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Al was a physicist, and during the Vietnam War he worked at the famous Brookhaven lab on Long Island, experimenting with small particles. During this time, there was a proposal for his lab to experiment with a process that would basically make nuclear weapons smaller and more accessible. Al and his colleagues protested this use of technology, and were ultimately successful. 

Due to his long career in physics and his close brush with nuclear power, Al spent most of his retired life continuing his love of learning by auditing classes at Oberlin College, my alma mater. Though I met Al while attending Peace Community Church of Oberlin, I also took a few classes alongside this dear man about 60 years my senior. One of these classes was a class on Islam, with the Professor Jafar Mahallati. 

Professor Mahallati was Iranian, from the historically significant city of Shiraz, the ancient hometown of the mystic poet Hafiz. During the 1980s, he had served as an ambassador to the UN and was instrumental in brokering the peace deal that ended the Iran-Iraq war. Following this, he had returned to one of his great loves, teaching, and wound up at Oberlin in the Religion and Language departments. Among the assignments for this class was meeting Professor Mahallati for tea and talking about peacebuilding, or perhaps memorizing a verse like this for recitation in front of the class:

A Great Need by Hafiz

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

Al Carroll and Professor Mahallati became good friends. Out of the tense situation post-9-11, Al had decided he needed to learn more about Islam and peacemaking in different religious traditions and pursued education in this area. The class I shared with Al was one of many he had taken with Jafar, and sometimes he would invite Jafar to the weekly Peace Vigil. 

For Al and for Jafar, friendship is key to peacebuilding. 

The honest, open encountering of the other; the willingness to see yourself in another’s situation; the compassion to witness how another human experiences the world and recognize that your wellbeing is bound up with theirs. Recognition is key to friendship. As Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you.” 

Perhaps this is what the wise ones discovered. They were seeking a king, and had only envisioned this king one way, in a way that would appreciate gold, frankincense, myrrh, fine clothes, whatever they had brought with them to honor him. But unbeknownst to them, that king was also seeking them: in encountering the child Jesus, their lives were changed. Like a former nuclear physicist shifting from using the gifts of his knowledge and curiosity to benefit war to lay down his gifts and humility in the work of peace building, setting himself against everything his career had been about, the magi divested themselves of the status given by Herod. They disobeyed Herod’s orders. They let dreams guide them on a path that would not lead to Herod’s murder of Jesus. They were not ashamed to humble themselves at the feet of a child, recognizing the way of Love in front of them, the way of Love that was seeking them all along.

Today, at this challenging time in history, I sadly say that I recognize a feeling that we are on the verge of war. And I think I would know what this feels like, since this country has been at war for over 67% of my life, and over 95% of my brother’s life (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/08/22/heres-how-much-of-your-life-the-u-s-has-been-at-war/). And since Thursdsay and the assassination of General Soleimani, I have seen Facebook and Twitter and news outlets sharing stories of more young people taking oaths to serve and protect, going off to basecamp and being deployed to Iraq. I have also seen news outlets jump at every bit of information, and I am reminded that war is a lucrative endeavor, of course not only for media, but especially for weapons manufacturers, arms dealers, security companies, fossil fuel companies, tech giants like those in our own backyard, and politicians who buy into the idea that supporting war guarantees re-election. There are voices crying out about “patriotism” and “support the troops” and “protecting America’s interests” and “safety and security,” voices that do not question why new recruits are mostly poor and working-class people under the age of twenty; not questioning why it is not supportive of those who have given their lives over to the military to protest war and keep them home in their communities. Honestly, figuring out to say this week was hard…until I talked with some of my fellow millennial pastor friends, who spoke truths like, “But aren’t we on the brink of war every Sunday?” This shouldn’t push us towards normalizing war into apathy, but to question why there is so much of it. 

In considering what Epiphany means today, what encountering the Christ child has to teach us here and now, I remember the lessons from Jafar Mahallati, and I turn to poetry, one of the greatest teachers of friendship, compassion and empathy, a great source of wisdom. In exploring Iranian poetry in particular, I ran across this quote from an article by a USAmerican poet regarding her experiences attending Persian poetry readings: “In the US, if a person is under stress, they are told to sit in a room and meditate. In [Persian] culture, they are told to read poetry.” 

From the poet Hafiz: 

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From every angle in your darkness

The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

Trusted.

I know the way you can get

If you have not had a drink from Love’s

Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of

The vital need

To keep remembering God,

So you will come to know and see Him

As being so Playful

And Wanting,

Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:

Bring your cup near me.

For all I care about

Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about

Is giving Love!

(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

Perhaps we don’t have the right gifts, the relevant gifts, the gifts that will make all the difference. But look at what we do have: The gifts of recognizing ourselves in others. The gifts of poetry. The gifts of giving to those in need. The gifts of humbling ourselves in favor of encountering a different way of being, a new way of loving justly. These are the gifts of the magi. 

May it ever be so. 

 

artwork by He Qi. 

Posted in Sermons

Reality Check: a sermon after Christmas

This sermon preached at Seattle First Baptist Church on December 29, 2019.

 

Happy Birthday, church! Happy 150 years! 

Though we have been celebrating 150 years of ministry with our Seattle neighbors for several months now, yesterday was truly the 150th anniversary of when the first 11 people gathered in the winter of 1869 and covenanted together to form a community. Christmas was barely over and a new decade was coming in fast, and yet, our Baptist ancestors gathered to commit to doing life together, to being church together. They signed a document called the New Hampshire Covenant, popularized by the American Baptist Publication Society in the 1850s and handed down through some Connecticut forbears to the folks who gathered in newborn Seattle to form First Baptist. Here’s what the New Hampshire Covenant says:

“Having been led as we believe by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized, we do now, in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ . . . to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of this church, in knowledge, holiness, and comfort, to promote its prosperity and spirituality, to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines, to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.”

We probably wouldn’t use this language today to express what we do here together as we follow the way of Jesus the Christ, but we can still appreciate the passion and dedication of these founders as they promised to “solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another…to walk together in Christian love.”

So that was 150 years ago yesterday. I wonder what happened next. What happened 150 years today? What happened on December 29? Did some of those folks wake up and say, “What do we do now?” 

And on this December 29, I echo that question. Christmas Day has come and gone. Yes, we are in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas, which lasts until Epiphany. But the presents and the glitter and the still, soft singing of Silent Night are over for another 360 days. What do we do now?

Our Scripture today is one of those texts that serves as a reality check for us. At Tim and Patrick’s Boxing Day drop-in on Thursday, I found myself sitting in a corner chatting with our own Eric Jeffords about my process for sermon writing. During our conversation, he asked, “How do you know what text to preach on?” And that’s a great question. Some of you may know that usually Tim and Patricia and I use the Revised Common Lectionaryto guide our preaching schedule; the RCL was made so that every 3 years a church would go through the whole Bible about one time. This fall, in honor of our 150th Year, we chose passages related to themes we wanted to focus on; and we departed from the lectionary in Advent as well, as we chose to read the beloved nativity sequence from Luke’s gospel. However, just as with any holiday, our festivity must come to an end somehow, and we return to the lectionary, to the assigned reading for this day in the church year. And this one, my friends, is a tough one. Sometimes I feel I need to remind us that there should be content warnings for the Bible, and this is one of those times. So take care of yourselves, friends. Do what you need to do to steward your wellbeing in this service.

Our Scripture today is from Matthew chapter 2, verses 13-23. 

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

    wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This text is challenging. Difficult. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. This text teeters on a tightrope between being a text of terror and a prophetic promise. And, after the festivities of this last week and the sacred and sentimental readings from Luke’s gospel, this text is our reality check. 

Esau McCaulley, a professor at Wheaton College and an Anglican priest, questions,“Why is it important that the church calendar tells this story at the beginning of the Christmas season?…The church calendar calls Christians and others to remember that we live in a world in which political leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent on the altar of power. We are forced to recall that this is a world with families on the run, where the weeping of mothers is often not enough to win mercy for their children. More than anything, the story of the innocents calls upon us to consider the moral cost of the perpetual battle for power in which the poor tend to have the highest casualty rate.”

I find it deeply meaningful how Scripture works on me, if I let it in and live alongside it for a while.  And this text is no different. It takes no creative gymnastics to find similarities between the story captured in this Scripture and our own time. Perhaps so little extrapolation that it makes us uncomfortable, it raises our defense mechanisms. 

For example, a debate has been raging on Twitter recently, concerning this passage of Scripture. Some people think that calling Jesus a refugee is not correct, based on the geological growth of the Roman Empire and the way us contemporaries think about borders and the lack of historical evidence for the murder of children in Bethlehem. Others, rightly, remind these Tweet-ers of the power of story, that these events are not necessarily 100% historically factual, and, most importantly, of the definition of refugee, “people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” Jesus, as he reminds us in Matthew chapter 8, had nowhere to lay his head during his formative years, from his birth in a manger to having his life threatened and leaving his home to attempting to return home only to more worries about political persecution from the government. And so, yes, from this story, we understand Jesus as a refugee, or an internally displaced person. To preserve his life and give him hope for a future, his family left their homeland. Departure and return were central to Jesus’ early life, and we echo these movements on this Sunday as we return to Scripture texts that cause us pause, that force us to check ourselves, that disorient us following the comfort and brightness of the Christmas holiday.

There is nothing sentimental about the Christmas story in Matthew. This is one reason why your pastors put our heads together and decided to hang out with Luke’s gospel, with Mary’s magnificat and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Anna and Simeon and shepherds and angels and twinkling stars praising God. No heavenly choir announces Jesus’ birth in Matthew, there are just some astrologers who are ordered to spy for a tyrant. No snuggly sheep or protective oxen watch over the baby, just a family fleeing in the middle of the night. 

As we depart from the holiday season and return to our regularly-scheduled lives, the stories about the movements of young Jesus’ family go with us. The shepherds and sheep, magi and camels, heavenly host and star had all returned home, and Jesus’ family was left alone, just the three of them, in Bethlehem, according to Matthew’s gospel. And just as his Old Testament namesake did, Joseph began to dream.

Now, these weren’t really good dreams, right? Maybe something good came of the dreams for Jesus and his family, but the dreams of Herod the Great’s political jealousy causing him to turn to brutality against innocent children were about to become all too real. God spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream, warning him that Herod had evil intentions for baby Jesus and telling the Holy Family to flee impending violence and hide away in Egypt. There was a promise to return someday, but at the time, Joseph didn’t know when that would be. 

Cut away to Herod in Jerusalem, raging and plotting a way to destroy the infant king he had been told about. He decided to take out his rage on all children age two and under in the village of Bethlehem, thinking surely the child prophesied would be swept up in the violence and “destroyed” as the NRSV tells it. And so there is weeping and lamentation over senseless violence against innocent children.

In an article entitled, “Herod, too, is the reason for the season,”Matt Skinner from Luther Seminary, writes, “[it] would be easier if Herod has been an out-and-out monster. He wasn’t.” And this is true. Herod the Great, in power over Judea from 37-4 BCE was an Idumean appointed by Romans as a kind of puppet governor. You see, the Romans, for the most part, didn’t mind how brutal a territorial ruler was as long as the region paid taxes. Herod had to fight for three years to secure his power, and history tells us that he never felt secure on his throne: he killed his wife and one of his sons because he thought they would threaten his position. And yet, as Matt Skinner reminds us,

“Herod was no madman seething on his throne pulling the wings off butterflies. Many of his contemporaries saw him as a savior in his own right…[Herod the Great] made sure his kingdom would be significant, prosperous, and protected within the emerging Roman Empire.” He goes on to say, “Evil rarely presents itself as a beast with horns, fangs, and claws. Usually it dresses itself up in respectability. It burrows into systems that we rely on to keep our societies from spinning into chaos. Evil rarely acts alone. Tyranny and arrogance can’t exist in a vacuum. They demand accomplices. They survive because their enablers are also contributors.”

I wonder what images this text conjures for you, read today in a comfortable, warm church in a wealthy city in the USAmerican empire. How have I, have we, has our church, been complicit in sustaining evil as it burrows into systems of white supremacy, heteronormativity, transphobia, Christian supremacy and American exceptionalism? What lurks beneath the sheen of respectability that we enforce by the ways we police each other’s bodies, lifestyles, finances? How does what we are willing to say but not willing to do for the sake of justice make us enablers of these systems where Herod is merely the figurehead? 

“Herod,” writes Matt Skinner, “would have given the order [to kill the children] but he would not wield the sword. He had people. Agents who would swoop in, pound on doors, and disappear again as quickly as they arrived…Herod was a savvy politician who knew how to use favoritism, brutality, deception, and arrogance to advance his ends. Those are the tools used by people who believe they will never be held accountable. Those are also the values that get encoded into patterns and norms that govern our daily life. They become our ethos. They make us complicit. Herod and his resistance to the reign of God remain alive and well today.”  

I’m sure each of us could imagine without too much work these dynamics in our country today: people in need of jobs, of security for their families, of a story to tell themselves about “just following orders” or “standing their ground,” coerced into aligning with unadulterated power and an arrogant tyrant. And, for many of us, we are not wielding the sword, or following orders. And yet, we, too, in our various ways of holding privilege, are silent when faced with opposition; cross the street instead of look a person in need in the eye; turn our gaze from the everyday bigotry that we have been taught is normal and acceptable; assure ourselves that the brutality of empire isn’t a big deal because it hasn’t come to our doorstep yet. 

Jesus was a refugee. And, like the family on the front of your bulletin today, he and his family were forced to leave their home due to threats of violence. Today, as followers of the Way of Jesus, we are called to remember his family, and to see them in today’s refugees, displaced persons and people experiencing homelessness. We are called to understand that threats of violence towards vulnerable communities do affect us, because we are all bound together as children of God. This Scripture that calls us to a reality check also invites us to place our hope in the activity of a God whose love is far more powerful than the ragings of Herod and his cronies. 

Yesterday, December 28, was really just the start of our 150th year. And many of us have the question, “What do we do now?” on our lips. I offer this invitation to you, in the words of the prophetic poet Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

So, friends, in the rest of the 12 days of Christmas, in 2020, let’s find, heal, feed, release, rebuild, bring peace and make music. Let’s make sure the next 150 days, months and years of our life together are done in service to our neighbors and those living life with their backs up against the wall. In the words of our church’s affirmation of values, let us “go deeper in faith as we do justice, love mercy, work for peace and walk humbly with God.” The work of our 150 year legacy is not over with this anniversary. We are just beginning. 

 

Refugees: The Holy Family by Kelly Latimore 

Posted in Sermons, Spiritual Practices

The Sounds of Christmas: a meditation for Christmas Eve

As part of the Christmas Eve 2019 Service at Seattle First Baptist Church, the pastoral team and some congregants worked together on the theme of “Coming to Your Senses on Christmas Eve.” We shared short meditations on the Sights, Sounds, Touches, Smells, Tastes and the “Sixth Sense” of Christmas. Here’s the one I shared about the Sounds of Christmas.

Church bells ringing. The Hallelujah chorus. Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. Go Tell It On The Mountain. The hustle and bustle of malls. Homes filled with friends and family, full to the brim. The crackle of a cozy fire enjoyed alone. Little pitter-patter steps coming to wake you up to unwrap presents. Silent Night sung a capella. 

These are some sounds of Christmas. Amid the rush of December, the busy-ness of holiday shopping and mall Santas ho-ho-ho-ing, something miraculous happens. We gather together to tell again the story that is as old as time, already has been and has not yet come again, the story of a little baby born in a manger. 

And I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure there was not a lot of silence on that holy night when Jesus was born. Laboring people are rarely quiet as they bring new life into the world. Anxious partners are not so silent as they rush to assist their loved ones in the birth process. And I have never met a cow, sheep or chicken that stopped mooing, baaa-ing or clucking when you wanted them to. 

So whatever the circumstances were of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth, I’ll bet you it wasn’t quiet. So why are we so attached to a silent Christmas? Silent Night is one of the most beloved Christmas carols, but probably not all that representative of the sounds on that first Christmas eve. 

Perhaps we think of silence as a sign of peace, hearkening back to the Christmas Armistice. When things are quiet, there’s no fighting, no warring, no arguing. But the cessation of sound can also be a sign of deep disturbance, like when all that could be said has been said in a fragile relationship. In activist circles, we often hear “your silence will not protect you” and “those who remain silent in dangerous times are not neutral; they choose the side of the oppressor.” Silence is a precarious tool that can be, and often is, wielded by the powerful.

So what kind of silence are we seeking for this holy night? I wonder if it is the gentle silence of a newborn finally ceasing wailing and falling asleep in loving arms. Or, perhaps it is the silence of freshly fallen Christmas snow, softening the sounds of the city so that tired workers can sleep soundly at last. Maybe the quiet determination of people decidedly resisting hatred and bigotry through nonviolent methods. Maybe the silence was not a long silence, just capturing the moment before the kids wake up and the doorbell rings and the train rumbles past. Maybe it was just enough for a hint of holy.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in one of my favorite advent devotionals, “Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all this love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands?” 

Just a moment of pause. Just a moment of holy quiet. Just a moment. Will you join me, please, for a short silence.

(pause for 1 minute)

Listen. Listen closely. I hear the sweet silence of a sleeping baby and the contentment of restful spirits. I hear the quiet that comes when sighs too deep for words are held back. I hear a world that waits with bated breath for liberation for all who are overshadowed by oppression. And I hear the good news that unto us a child has been born and their name shall be called Emmanuel, God-with-us. Do you hear what I hear?

Posted in Uncategorized

Advent Wreath Liturgy 2019

This advent candle lighting liturgy follows the regular pattern of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. The families who led our church in this ritual ranged from people with chosen families to families with small children to intergenerational families. I split up the readings into 3 parts, but folks can adapt this as needed depending on how many readers you have.

Enjoy!

download here: Advent Wreath Liturgy 2019

Posted in Sermons

And the table will be wide: a sermon on Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

In July of this year, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Cali, Colombia to participate in the Global Baptist Peace Conference. You may have heard about this event: it happens every 7-10 years and is sponsored by Baptist denominations around the world. I attended in part because Seattle First Baptist has been involved in justice issues near and far for many years, as well as because I serve on the Board of Directors for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por la Paz, one of the organizations that sponsored this year’s conference. The Baptist Peace Fellowship has been an incredible gift in my life over the past five or six years, as I have learned more about the kin-dom of God from these peacemakers striving for a better world than from anyone else. 

At the Global Baptist Peace Conference, there were over 400 people from over 36 countries represented, who spoke more than 60 languages. There were children as young as infants and elders in their 90s. There were youths from Colombia whose families had been disappeared and murdered during the guerilla clashes with government forces; seminary professors from Myanmar who witness against the oppression of indigenous peoples; Baptist faith leaders from the Republic of Georgia who advocate for LGBTQ rights; indigenous Mayans from Chiapas, Mexico who are climate activists; pastors from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe who dreamed about one day sending aid to the USA instead of the other way around. And me, a young pastor who works with children and youth. And two folks from Seattle First Baptist Church, and Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, our Executive Minister of Evergreen, and Josue Gomez, the President of American Baptist Churches-USA. To say I felt out of my depth would be accurate: what did I have to offer to these accomplished peacemakers? What did I have to give, as an Anglo-USAmerican whose country has been complicit in much of the violence facing some of the other countries gathered there? But as we went about the week, I felt I was praying with my presence, and I leaned into my discomfort in a spirit of honesty and transparency as I sought to gain skills to heal the world. For just one week, an incredible diversity of people gathered at the United Baptist Seminary of Colombia for a week of worshipping, listening to stories, sharing skills, praying together, eating and dancing salsa. 

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the altar space during the Global Baptist Peace Conference

And all of these activities were communion. And on World Communion Sunday, I remember the faces of those I broke bread with; those I danced with at a salsa club called “The Devil’s Cauldron,”; those whose workshops I attended as I desired to expand my skills as a peacemaker; those who literally served me the bread and the cup during our closing worship. All of these were communion.

All of these activities, eating and dancing and drinking and hugging and learning and worshipping, were communion because they helped me remember who Jesus is, and what Jesus did.

As I shared simple meals of arroz con frijoles and chicken and salad, I remembered how Jesus ate…a lot. He is eating SO much of the time in the gospels, and that reminds me that Jesus was human. He hungered and thirsted, just as we all do. 

As I danced at the salsa club with people from 20 countries, I remembered how Jesus went to a wedding, participated in community celebrations, and was capable of feeling joy. How he lived in a body that maybe danced, maybe moved to the music, maybe remembered dance steps from learning them alongside his mother and father. 

As I learned about the sociopolitical history of Colombia, as I paid attention to the stories of teenagers who were teaching other teenagers about conflict resolution, as I received stories about people traveling with the migrant caravans headed towards the United States, I remembered how Jesus taught all who follow him to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. 

And as I tore a small piece of bread and dipped it in grape juice, I received the blessing of knowing and being known as someone made in the imago Dei, the image of God. 

As we know all too well, this awareness of others as God’s image bearers is all-too-rare in today’s world. As we watch the news, as we talk to loved ones who live all across this country and all over the world, we hear over and over stories of relationships not as they should be, of abuse, of discrimination, of imprisonment. Perhaps at times we could join with the prophet Habbakuk in saying “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” “Violence!” we cry out, looking at the detention of immigrants at the borders (and within the borders) of this nation. “Violence!” we cry out, listening to the bombings and war cries and weeping of mothers like Rachel, looking for her children. “Violence!” we cry out, feeling the earth shaking under our feet and the sea levels rising and human-made structures collapsing to the ground. 

And yet…like Habbakuk, the prophet who converses with God, who is openly frustrated with the Divine, we may pause in our angst and recall that we, too, have seen a vision of a different way of living. We, too, have seen the kin-dom of God among us. We, too, have seen the imago Dei in the face of those we “other”. Habbakuk’s vision is the second part of our Scripture today, as he announces that even though times seem dire, there is reason to have faith, there is reason to hope, there is reason to continue trusting God. 

In the second chapter of Habbakuk, after listening to Habbakuk’s concerns and frustrations, God responds to the prophet, saying, “Keep the faith. Share the vision you have been given, because it is coming. Justice is coming.”

That’s what we were doing at the Global Baptist Peace Conference. Sharing the vision. Telling our stories, making it plain on tablets so all could read and know, reminding each other to keep the faith. Justice is coming. 

And that’s what we are doing today, on World Communion Sunday. Across the whole globe, people are gathering for worship and to share communion. 

But we do have to acknowledge that World Communion Sunday is a bit weird. For one, as Protestants who usually only share communion one Sunday per month, we can be tempted to think of the Lord’s Supper as special. And, in a way, it is special. It is a gift from God, a way of communing with the Holy One, a path to remembering Jesus Christ. But it is also not special: it is ordinary, it is commonplace, it is something that makes us who we are as Christians. One blog I read about this reads: “But if Holy Communion really is the Church’s signature rite, if it is indeed that which makes the Church what it is, then “special” is exactly what it is not. We don’t think of the air we breathe as “special,” the breakfast we eat as “special.” These things are gifts, of course–breath and food–but it is in their givenness, their ordinariness that they are the means for life and health.” 

And I wonder why we only set aside one day a year to be World Communion Sunday? Why the first Sunday of October? Why only once a year? Shouldn’t every day we share communion be a world communion Sunday, where we remember and honor those who are sharing this same meal all over the globe? And shouldn’t every meal we eat, like the rice and beans in Cali, Colombia, be communion? Shouldn’t everything we do be reminding us of the life of Jesus the Christ? Shouldn’t everything we do, from eating to drinking to dancing to embracing to learning to worshipping be an activity in which we recognize God’s love for us? 

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friends at La Caldera del Diablo

So, in light of those questions, I choose to think of World Communion Sunday like this: There are some things that transcend language, race, ethnicity and geography…and communion is one of those things. I believe that it even transcends time. As we gather at the table today, let us remember that Jesus gathered with his friends and community, the men and women and children, the young and old and in-between, Jews and Gentiles and all sorts of people. It may not have been easy for them all to gather there, being different and carrying cultural expectations and assumptions about the others. But Jesus stood in the gap, between people who were different, uniting them as family; between different ways of worshipping, gathering them in one Spirit; between age groups, making all people siblings in Christ. Though we may have good reason to cry out, “Violence!” and “How long, O Lord?” right now, be assured, justice is coming. Peace is coming. Across the world, people who bear the image of God are working to bring about change, to be in solidarity with “the least of these,” to change situations of oppression. Across the planet, on this World Communion Sunday, the vision of God’s coming kin-dom is alive and well, being made plain by the work of ordinary people like you and me. 

And so today, I ask you: What is your vision for the future? What will the kin-dom of God look like? What will Jesus’ table be like? 

In closing, I offer these words from a favorite poet, Jan Richardson

AND THE TABLE WILL BE WIDE

And the table

will be wide.

And the welcome

will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide

to gather us in.

And our hearts

will open wide

to receive.

And we will come

as children who trust

there is enough.

And we will come

unhindered and free.

And our aching

will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow

will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands

to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn

toward each other

without fear.

And we will give up

our appetite

for despair.

And we will taste

and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

for those who thirst.

And the blessed

will become the blessing.

And everywhere

will be the feast.

 

May it ever be so. Amen.

 

This sermon originally preached October 6, 2019 at Japanese Baptist Church, Seattle, WA.

Posted in Prose, Sermons, Writing

The Generation Before: a meditation

Every summer when I was a child, I went camping with my dad, uncle, grandma and grandpa in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every summer we set up camp at Little Lake State Campground, site #11, the one with the best access to the water and a fallen log where we could tie up our kayaks. We found a sturdy cedar branch that would be a good makeshift broom, and we always swept the pine needles into a pad where we could pitch our tents. And we lived this way for a week or 10 days at a time, waking up each morning to drink hot cocoa and watch the fog raise over the lake, going to sleep each night listening to the gentle whoo-whoo-ing of the saw-whet owls and the monotonous buzz of cicadas. 

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Grandma and Grandpa in the glow of the campfire, summer 2008

When we finished our time camping, when the Klepper kayaks were folded up and stored, when the camp stove had been cleaned, when the tents were dried out and folded, we picked up that cedar branch again and swept the campsite. Grandpa always told me that we had to leave the campsite better than we found it. This sweeping the campsite became a ritual to me, a tidying that went beyond packing out our trash. For me, it became a way to bless the land and the next people or animals who enjoyed that place. A “paying it forward” that cost us nothing but time and attention. 

My grandparents were like that. Thinking of the next generations to come. Born during the Great Depression, sometimes I found their propensity for collecting items annoying or just plain weird…but everything had a use, every action served a purpose, nothing was wasted. 

For example, my grandma Betty, a diminutive woman who claimed she was 5’4” her whole life but ended up being about 4’10”, often found the sleeves of her shirts too long. An avid sewer, she would take the scissors and cut the sleeves to be an appropriate length for her. And then, because she was not one to waste material, she would make herself pockets with the trimmed fabric. Not ONE pocket, but multiple pocketS. This tiny woman wound up having shirts that had four or five pockets neatly sewn on where before there were none. She never had to carry a handbag, she always had enough pockets to store her keys, tissues, glasses cloth, spare barrettes and anything else she had a mind to. 

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My grandmother, Betty, at our favorite campsite, summer 2008

After grandma died, I shared this story about her pockets with a friend who pointed out that grandma was not only making an item of clothing more functional, but she was also sticking it to the patriarchy. In case you haven’t thought about this recently, or ever, clothing meant for women often lacks pockets. By some accounts, pockets ruin the figure of a woman. By others, women don’t need pockets because we can carry everything in our handbags, of course! Why would we need gender equity in clothing?! And my grandma was making a statement about this injustice by sewing her own pockets. 

The cedar branch and the pockets are my heritage, the gifts from those who have gone before. The call to “see differently” that Tim talked about is not only important for those of us who are here now to do as we look forward to the next generations. It is also important for those of us alive now, especially those on the younger side of things, as we recall the past, as we remember ourselves in order to figure out where we are going. Though I wondered at the necessity of sweeping our campsite thoroughly, and was struck embarrassed and skeptical about my grandma’s multiplicity of pockets on all her clothing, I now understand those oddities as gifts, lessons for me about how to be generous to those in the future, how to pave the way for those who come next. I see grandma’s insistence on pockets as an endearingly obstinate way of her telling me to observe the world I have inherited closely, and not to be afraid to change the game to make space for myself. 

What do those of us present here and now plan to leave to the generations in the future? Perhaps we leave what the generation behind us left. Wonder at the grandeur of the planet, and the knowledge that we humans play a role in the wellbeing of all created life. Keen observation and critical thinking, enough to realize that the world must not be how it is; and of course, the willpower to take the scissors into our own hands, to approach the sewing machine and fabricate a new reality of equity and justice. 

This sermon preached August 25, 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

Fleeting Temples: A sermon on Luke 12:13-21

When I was 7 years old, I wanted an American Girl doll. I don’t know how, but American Girl catalogs seemed to magically appear at the houses of little girls around age 5 or 6 or 7…and I was captivated by them. An early interest in history combined with a nurturing spirit that resulted in my dolls and stuffed animals having complex inner lives contributed to an inescapable desire to have one of these dolls as my very own. Maybe Felicity, the doll with Scottish ancestry from Revolutionary times would be perfect for me! Or Samantha, from the Victorian era, whose fashion I found intoxicatingly gorgeous. 

But American Girl dolls were not just toys. They were status symbols. In my 7 year old mind, the coolest, prettiest girls all had American Girl dolls. One friend even had an American Girl doll-themed birthday party, to which all of the guests were invited to bring their American Girl dolls and play and dress them up together. I was invited…but I didn’t have the doll. There was something about possessing that doll that made the other girls belong. Even though I was well-liked and friendly to everyone, it felt like something was missing. I wanted to have that doll so that I, too, could belong. By having this doll, I felt that I would be enough.

What is it about material possessions that gives us comfort? What is it about our society that how much money we have, what type of home we live in, where we shop has so much to do with how others see us…and how we see ourselves? In many Western countries, and especially in the USA, people tend to (I’ll be honest, I tend to)  seek security through our possessions. As I reflect now on my desire to have an American Girl Doll, I realize I was seeking a false sense of security to assure me of my worthiness and beloved-ness. That kind of security is not gained by possessions, but our society encourages us to think so. We love the appearance of wealth, the ability to spend and to have more, to supersize and maximize, to pursue what we are told is happiness–owning things. Stuff. Maybe if we buy that new dress or those new shoes or that new model of mountain bike or the vacation home or the Tesla, maybe then our life will feel ok. In some ways, many of us worship our possessions, insuring them and buying home security systems to protect them. Maybe once we have the American Girl doll then we will feel ok. 

But what is enough? How do you know when you have enough? Certainly those who live, as Howard Thurman put it, with their “backs up against the wall” know that if you have to ask that question, you probably already live comfortably.

This is where the rich fool comes in. He has a great big overabundant harvest and realizes it won’t all fit in the barns that already exist. The barns have worked every other year to store the harvest from his land and provide him a lasting supply, but not this year! What will he do? He consults with the wisest person he knows–his own self! The rich landowner talks to himself and wonders how to solve his problem of abundance. “I know!” he says, “I will tear down the barns I have now and build bigger ones so I can accommodate all of this bounty! Then I can rest easy knowing I stored all my goods and possessions and will always have enough to eat, drink and be merry!” This sounds like a great plan to him…until God comes in and throws a wet blanket on all of the rich man’s fine scheming. And to be honest, God seems pretty miffed at this dude. God says, “You fool! You were so preoccupied with your wealth that you forgot that your life is not guaranteed! When you die tonight, what will become of all of your treasures? Bet you didn’t think about that, did you?” At first glance, some might not “get” the parable…after all, parables were Jesus’ favorite, and most confusing, storytelling methods. Some might ask what’s so wrong about planning for the future? What’s wrong about storing up an abundant harvest? What’s wrong about wanting to have a comfortable life? Is it just me, or is this parable getting a leeeeeeeeetle too close for comfort? Y’all, I hear ya! This is why parables are so confusing…because they invite, even drag, us into the story, forcing us to ask these same questions about our own lives. 

So let’s get back to the bones of this story. Jesus is sharing this parable because a person called out to him to make a decision about how an inheritance would be divided. Jesus replied that he was not the one to arbitrate, but also that wealth and material goods should not be our chief concern in life. And to illustrate his point, he introduces this story about a rich man. Note that the man in the parable starts out rich. In first-century Palestine, there was pretty much a zero-sum economy. If one person gains, someone else is sure to have lost. Palestine, which was under the rule of the Roman Empire governed through local puppet governments, was taxed doubly…first a 12.5% tax was due to the Empire and then the Temple, often the location of local governance, was due tithes, offerings and sacrifices…add on to that land leases and renting from local elites…and there wasn’t much keeping wages for the common folk. So the subject of the parable is a rich man at the beginning of this story…not to mention how rich he is after the windfall harvest! Rohun Park, considering this Scripture in their 2011 dissertation entitled The Challenge of Economy, asserts that the rich man controlled enough land and people before the ginormous harvest so that he was already successful. Park says, due to the socioeconomic situation of first century Palestine, we can assume that “the harvest he has acquired is indeed a consequence of exploitation.”

The windfall harvest is presented as an amazing gift, a blessing that exceeds expectations over and above all of the work and resources that went into the crop in the first place. Some of you may remember from our Bible study sessions in Adult Learning that the Gospel of Luke is famously skeptical of wealth and wealthy people, and this story is no different. Park adds on to this, “In the Gospel tradition, everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar or to any human being.” And so the rich landowner proves himself the fool because he doesn’t question the economic system that put him in an advantageous position in the first place. To add to that, the bountiful harvest was made possible by God, the Creator and Sustainer of the land and the harvest…and yet the rich man, entrapped unquestioningly in an unjust, zero-sum system, does not bother to consider God’s role in this blessing! Instead, quite the opposite happens…David Lose writes, “The relentless use of the first person pronouns “I” and “my” betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” 

But the security that the rich man seeks makes him a fool. Though he had many great plans about what he would do with his abundance, God informs him that his life will end that very night. This is not to say that God killed or made it so that the man would die but that God, as the Author of life and death, knew that the rich man’s plans for his own wellbeing were futile. There is no planning for the future without considering and collaborating with God. 

God then asks another poignant question, “What will become of your beloved possessions after you die?” The man had made no mention in his self-serving soliloquy about a family or friends or community, about any neighbors or poor people to whom he could leave his wealth. Presumably, the land and stores and barns would be left to the Empire upon the man’s death…and Luke’s Gospel doesn’t look kindly at the Empire continuing to enlarge its economic power. 

Perhaps this rich fool could benefit from seeing that historic play, You Can’t Take It with You, about a post-Depression-era family who won’t sell their house to a successful banker-turned-munitions-monopoly who wants to buy land in that neighborhood to put a competitor’s factory out of business. Little does the banker know that his son has fallen in love with, and intends to marry, a member of the family who lives in the house that won’t sell. The eccentric grandfather, Grandpa Vanderhof, repeatedly tells his story about working in business, realizing he wasn’t happy, and leaving it all behind to collect stamps and go to the zoo and spend time with his grandchildren. Leaving business proves financially detrimental to his family but also encourages them to pursue an engaged and loving life with family and friends. After a whole bunch of drama, Grandpa gets in the same room as the banker, Mr. Kirby, tells him he ought to go out and make some friends, and utters those famous lines… “maybe it’d stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”

And it’s true, right? You can’t take it with you! The rich fool learned this lesson the hard way…he spent all his time building up his wealth and benefitting from the exploitation of common laborers and neglected to consider God’s role in the blessing of a bountiful harvest…he forgot that his life was not his own. This parable echoes of Ecclesiastes’, that old book of wisdom, which repeatedly reminds us that “All is vanity.” That text reminds us that there is a time for everything, a place for everything in the circle of life, and that pursuing possessions and wealth and status are all meaningless…these things carry no cosmic meaning at the end of our lives when we return to the dust from which we were born. Ecclesiastes tells 7-year-old Anita: “The belonging that you seek will not come through gaining this special doll. Trust that you are loved just as you are.”

And yet, the trap that causes us to hoard our assets and seek security in materiality, that trap of consumerism is so alluring. Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Our reality is that no matter how much we have, we are always aware of things we don’t have. We are bombarded by marketing wizards whose job it is to convince us of all the products we need to complete our lives. And so we never quite feel that we have enough. Like the rich farmer, we are tempted to think that having large amounts of money and possessions stored up will make us secure. Sooner or later, however, we learn that no amount of wealth or property can secure our lives. No amount of wealth can protect us from a genetically inherited disease, for instance, or from a tragic accident. No amount of wealth can keep our relationships healthy and our families from falling apart. In fact, wealth and property can easily drive a wedge between family members, as in the case of the brothers fighting over their inheritance at the beginning of this text.” 

And so this story, this parable from Jesus and the frame in which he tells it, are stories about priorities. These are stories about idolatry. These are stories about how humans seek control in order to stave off loneliness, grief, existential fear. These are stories that invite us to examine where our true security lies, where our sense of belonging really comes from. True belonging comes only in the fullest sense when we are conspiring with God for the good of the world; when we are living each day caring not only about our own self-sufficiency but practicing seeing the imago Dei (the image of God) in each other and concluding that we must labor together for a just world to be birthed. Because we can’t take it with us, especially in times like these, when there are so many needs all around us– among those of us right here, today. Preacher and activist Shane Claiborne says this in his book Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?: “God’s people are not to accumulate stuff for tomorrow but to share indiscriminately with the scandalous and holy confidence that God will provide for tomorrow.” 

I ask you, Church, where does our security come from? From our building? From our wealth, evident in tithes contributed? From our history, which tells the story of our communal identity? Does our security come from knowing and being known, loving and being loved just as we are within this community? 

And friends, I feel I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we went to bed last night to the news of a mass shooting in an El Paso Wal-Mart. And that we woke this morning to news of a mass shooting, less than 13 hours later, in a neighborhood of Dayton, Ohio. Many people in this country seek security through guns, and the right to have them is protected by legislators who seek security in military might that can be propelled into action by USAmerican nationalism. White supremacy is nothing but fearful, privileged people seeking security, systematized. And the shooting in El Paso, like many before, and sadly, many yet to come, we must name as white supremacist terrorism, because we must name the false security of supremacy when we see it. We must name evil out loud when we see it. Grievously, the security many in this country seek have dangerous sides that infringe, if not totally destroy, the security of others. 

Friends, we  can’t talk about security without talking about sanctuary. Many of you may have seen a video released about two weeks ago of neighbors in Hermitage, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, forming a human circle to protect an undocumented father and his son from being apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aided by Metro Nashville Police. The neighbors, linked by hands, arm in arm, knew that policies, money, police, and government don’t make security a reality. The neighbors sang, prayed and talked to the father and son, who were inside their van outside their home. The neighbors delivered water to the father and son, delivered gasoline so that they could keep the AC running amid the 95-degree weather as they fought to keep their family together. Some of my friends were among those holding hands with neighbors, and the message many of them shared on social media and via text message was from Movements Including X, the group that trained the community to take action: The resounding message was “the truest sanctuary is an organized community.”

And so today, I invite you to meditate on the rich fool, a first-century Scrooge who was not redeemed by finding community and sharing his wealth as Dickens’ villain did. I invite you to consider the brother who called out to Jesus to make an arbitration about the inheritance he was due. I invite you to let go of whatever you are holding onto that gives you a false sense of security, whether it is the goods you own, the privileges you were born into, Christian superiority…it could be many things. Let go, and instead store up what Luke’s Gospel called “treasures in heaven” by seeking the security only found in community that comes together to honor the image of God in the Other; the security only found in a group bound together as they seek to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I call on you to seek this sanctuary of human-and-Divine-relationship, of abundance and gratitude and grace, in the most mundane places, each and every day. 

Perhaps it is not in dramatic soliloquies and bountiful windfalls and complex parables that we find expressions of security that resonate with our own lives. Perhaps it is in the simplicity of human relationships, the kind that I wish the rich fool had experienced, the kind that eschew greed and goods, that we find the deepest meanings of life together. To this end, I leave you with the words of poet Danusha Lameris, called “Small Kindnesses:”

“I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk

Down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs

To let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”

When someone sneezes, a leftover

From the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. 

And sometimes, when you spill lemons

From your grocery bag, someone else will help you

Pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We wanted to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

And to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile

At them and for them to smile back. For the waitress

To call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,

And for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.

We have so little of each other, now. So far

From tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. 

What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these 

Fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,

Have my seat,” “Go ahead–you first,” “I like your hat.”

 

May it ever be so. 

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Photo I took at Arches National Park, September 2019

This sermon originally preached on August 4, 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church, Seattle, WA.

 

Posted in Prose, Spiritual Practices, Writing

Reflections from the Global Baptist Peace Conference

July 17, 2019

On Monday morning, I arrived in Cali, Colombia along with almost 400 other peacemakers from around the world. Over 30 countries are represented here, and many different languages are being spoken. Some have asked why I would spend so much money and have such a large carbon footprint by flying here, and I understand those questions. For White, Anglo citizens of the USA, there is a constant temptation and encouragement to think that the way we experience the world is the way everyone experiences the world. Our privilege makes it hard to empathize with others, hard to even start the process of thinking that life is different from ours somewhere else. Traveling to a different country with a different history than the USA’s (yet inexplicably tied to the same forces of domination and destruction that rule over us now) can be an important way to widen our vision and expand our empathy. There are people here from Colombia, from the republic of Georgia, from Mexico, from Cuba, from Rwanda, Uganda, the Phillipines, Italy, Australia…the list goes on. The folks hosting us here in Colombia are sharing their national pain and sorrow with us, including their personal stories and political visions and creative means of responding to the domestic terror they have experienced. These are experiences that is so specific to Colombia, and yet relatable all over the world. The Peace Accord of 2016, which was an agreement between the Colombian government and guerrilla forces (the FARC being the main one) is not a perfect document and it had not been implemented in perfect ways. The former president of Colombia received a Nobel Peace Prize for being an architect of this agreement. But as one survivor of the conflict said in yesterday morning’s panel, “I would rather have an imperfect peace process than a perfect war.” There is no arriving at peace. Peace is not a destination but a process.

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a sign in LAX

Justice is also a process, a path to travel, and not a destination. I am honored and humbled this week to be in the presence of clergy and activists and artists and humanitarian workers who have been engaged in the processes of truth-telling following the civil war and have also engaged in practicing radical forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for the faint of heart, and it is not right for everyone. It cannot be demanded and no one is entitled to it. The survivor I quoted earlier, a journalist whose husband was kidnapped and murdered along with other politicians from this district of Colombia, shared deeply about how she thought she had forgiven the FARC for what they had done in 2002. In 2014 she met representatives of the FARC and realized her rage and pain were still there…telling the truth helped release her from her pain. The same survivor said later on, “people who look for justice only as jail sentences are practicing revenge.” Revenge is not sustainable for a healthy community, though many find it lucrative. Revenge is not Christ-like.

The challenges to the Peace Accord are much the same as challenges to countries around the world, especially as fascism and nationalism and populism are on the rise. Challenges like political polarization, deep income inequity, and government being dominated by an extreme wing are familiar, too familiar, for comfort…hearing these stories and being in this place are a call to action. 

We could receive stories and learn from the comfort of our own homes in the USA, but what we receive would only be part of the truth. As a friend said aptly, “It’s another form of colonization to learn everything in a USA context.” Being in Colombia to participate in this Global Baptist Peace Conference is part of decentering myself as white Anglo USA citizen and showing solidarity with people who have experienced unrest that causes most USA citizens to call it “dangerous” to travel here. There is something sacred about being physically present with people, greeting each other with the same spirit across languages and nations. I pray the rest of this week and this time together will work in me and in all of us so that we are all moved to do what we can to pursue a world without violence.

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July 18, 2019

This time together in Colombia is sacred. People of many races and many languages and many theological perspectives have gathered together, spending many hours traveling, being the targets of searches at country borders, functioning on little sleep, missing events in their churches and families and countries. After we have made such an effort to be here, I cannot look away.

As people share stories of violence done to babies as young as 18 months, women, children, transgender people, queer people, migrants, religious minorities, poor people and people who are oppressed because of their race and ethnicity, it is hard to listen. I’ll just be honest about that. In my life I have faced violence, yes, but my white, Anglo, US-American privilege has protected me from a lot of the physical and political violence faced by people I am meeting here this week. At times this week, as I am deeply moved by what people are sharing about the ways they (literally) stand in the gap between oppressors and oppressed, terrorists and civilians, hateful counter protesters and justice-seeking demonstrators…I have heard things that break my heart. I have learned about ways my country has supported violence against rural farmers in Colombia and exported death-dealing theologies to indigenous people in Mexico and the ways people who claim to share my faith oppress our LGBTQ+ siblings. I have heard testimonies from people whose families have been targets of torture, who have received death threats, whose children have been kidnapped, who are afraid to leave their homes at times because of the work they are doing to bring about a more just world. I cannot turn away.

And as I contemplate returning to my country, the United States of America (not just “America” because that includes the whole Western Hemisphere), I cannot, and will not, turn away. And I am grateful and hopeful to know that there are many who will not turn away. Some are here this week in Cali. Some are reading this post. Some are in my church. I thank the God who overturns tables and chooses women to be witness to the resurrection and who makes a meal to feed thousands out of two loaves and three fish that I am part of a community of peacemakers who will not turn away. As Mayra Picos-Lee, the president of the Board of the BPFNA~Bautistas por La Paz, said today in her responding words following our morning plenary: “the commitment is to action.” When our hearts break, may they always break open, so the compassion we feel moves us to action.

And by no means am I, are we, are those gathered here, perfect. We cannot “let perfect be the enemy of the good”, as my beloved pastor and mentor and friend Steve Hammond says. The people who are here, who are part of Baptist denominations and organizations, we are not perfect. But a remarkable thing about this conference is that the work people are doing is being shared without shaming anybody, without guilting people into action, without playing the game of out-activist-ing someone. Stories and testimonies and sermons are being shared out of a desire to deeply know each other in meaningful ways, to take account of what part of the work is ours to do and to support each other while doing it.

Repenting is a part of this work. Before I became Baptist, i was part of a tradition that had prayers for repentance that we said on everyday Sunday. It was helpful for our community to have a space to air grievances and acknowledge our complicity. But with my low self-esteem, i took repentance too far sometimes. And after spending a lot of time in my personal prayer repenting out of my own broken image of my self-worth, I have since come to know the grace of God’s loving me as I am, as Mary Oliver says, “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.” I have reached a point in my understanding of sin and of God that I am convinced that communities of faith, particularly those marked by various privileges such as whiteness and high socioeconomic status, must consider again repentance as a part of our spiritual practice. We have much to repent for: complicity in white supremacy, USAmerican supremacy, exploitative capitalistic practices, silence, Christian supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. Repentance has its linguistic roots in the Greek word “metanoia” which means “to think again” and “to change ones heart and mind.”

This conference is calling me to repent. And I share that call with you. Repent, change your heart and mind, about the ways we engage with exploitative practices. Change our hearts and minds from buying into death-dealing theologies that play into white/Christian/USAmerican supremacy. Change our hearts and minds to not only be the Samaritan who helps the person left at the side of the road, but also to accept help and wisdom and care from those from whom we least expect it. 

Leaving and returning are part of the cycles of life. So on Sunday morning, I will leave Colombia and leave this community of peacemakers and return home, to the USA, to Seattle, to my church and my home and my community, with my heart and mind moved to action, to find the work that is mine to do.

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Found friends in the airport in Panama City!
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the tent of meeting
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the tree planted by all of the Baptist peacemakers, with stones from each country represented
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some of the amazing people on the Board of Directors of BPFNA~Bautistas por la Paz
Posted in Sermons, Writing

Veni Sancte Spiritus: a sermon on Acts 2:1-21; 41-47

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

When I was about six years old, I went to the park with my grandma Betty. It was summer and I was spending the day with her and her neighbor across the street, Shirley. Shirley had a grandson about my age and multiple cats, and so I loved spending time in their grand Victorian house. But today, we were headed to Rayner Park, so we could look for frogs and watch the ducks and slide on the slides. I was a bit of a shy child, especially at age six, and so I wasn’t terribly adventurous. Colin, Shirley’s grandson, was, and encouraged me to climb to the top of what seemed like an impossibly tall slide so we could slide down. Well, it was decided I should go first, and so I sat at the top of the slide and looked down…alllllll the way down…and right when I thought I might be ready, Colin pushed me. And there I went, sliding down metal hot from the sun, and landed abruptly, surprisingly, flat on my back at the end of the slide. 

The wind had been knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe. 

This was the first time this had happened to me, where I really could not catch my breath and I couldn’t move and my body seemed to be paralyzed with panic. I couldn’t breathe. 

Grandma and Shirley were on the scene in no time, helping me sit up and calm my racing heart, telling me to inhale and exhale slowly and surely as Grandma rubbed my back. As Colin slid down the slide to a graceful end with his feet on the ground, Grandma commented on how the dirt at the end of the slide had been worn down and so there was a small ditch at the end…how could I have known?

But what I did know in that moment was that my body was remembering how to breathe in and out slowly, that I was no longer wracked with sobs that stole my breath, and that I was not alone. 

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

The Latin word spiritus and the Greek word pneuma share these meanings: spirit, wind and breath. The English words respire and conspire come from the Latin spiritus…to respire means to “breathe again” and to conspire means, at its root, “to breathe together with.” So in our Pentecost Scripture today, as the followers of Jesus were all gathered in one place and suddenly a great wind came inside the room, we can understand this wind to be God’s breath, the Holy Spirit. And as something like tongues of flame hovered over the heads of the people gathered and as they began to speak in multiple languages, the languages of all the peoples of the Earth, the breath of God was inhabiting them, reminding them to respire, to breathe again; the Holy Spirit was conspiring with them, breathing with them. 

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

Sometimes people imagine Pentecost to be an undoing, a reversal, of the Tower of Babel. Do you remember that story? Up until that point in human history, humans were content to speak one language and rely on God…but then they had an idea to build a huge tower to the sky, to reach heaven, to be close to God…or perhaps, to become gods themselves. Babel was the height of human arrogance, and so God scattered the peoples of the earth and gave them many languages so that they could not understand each other, so that they would no longer be able to band together and challenge God’s authority. And so some folks think that Pentecost is the undoing of the Babel story. Where God scattered people at Babel, God gathers together at Pentecost and the people can understand each other in their many different languages. But Pentecost is not the opposite of the Babel story: the opposite of the gifting of many languages would be giving one language, and at Pentecost, the people are given understanding of languages. At Pentecost, the miracle is that, as Larry Green reminded us last week, “they were all together in one place.” Out of diversity came not uniformity, but community. 

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

Now, it should be noted that however nice it is to talk about the Trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the last member of the trinity is kinda given the short end of the stick. Pentecostals and many Baptists and Anabaptists talk a lot about the Holy Spirit that enlivens their worship and bestows spiritual gifts and makes the priesthood of all believers work. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up all that much in the gospels, besides coming down from heaven in the form of a dove to bless Jesus’ baptism. But the Holy Spirit is the main character in the Acts of the Apostles. Some of you may remember from our adult learning sessions in January that Luke and Acts were probably written by the same author in the late first century of the Common Era, some 50-60 years after Jesus’ execution. There are many similarities between the books of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, as the author likes to make parallels between these two. Thus, in Luke 2 we have the birth of Jesus. And in Acts 2, we have the birth of the church. In Luke, God puts on flesh and is called “Emmanuel, God-with us.” And in the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all people, another sighting of Emmanuel, God with us. 

Now, after Jesus died and rose again, and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus had promised to send what some Bible translations call “the Comforter,” “the Advocate,” the “Counselor.” Jesus had promised not to leave the people of God orphaned, without any path forward. Jesus had called on the ancient prophets for God to pour out the Spirit on all flesh, on all people. And gathered in one place, people with different experiences and life stories and plans and feelings, these folks were about to receive Jesus’ follow-through. 

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

Henri Nouwen writes, “When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us… We are seldom aware of our breathing. It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’” (Daily Meditation by Henri Nouwen, May 18, 2014)

He’s right. I don’t think about my breath very often. I only really think about it as I’m hiking up a hill, or as I am surprised by something, as I strain to get into a challenging yoga pose, or as I am anxious and my lungs feel like they are in my throat. I think about my breath when I’m at the bedside of someone transitioning from this life into whatever is next, or when I meet a brand new baby breathing air for the first time. I think about my breath when I hold someone close and notice that our inhales and exhales are synchronous. In the intimate, thin places at the edges of life and death, when our bodies are struggling to do miraculous things, that’s when I think about breath. 

But, really, breath is not an everyday noticing for me. And similarly, and perhaps oddly for a Baptist, the Holy Spirit is not an everyday noticing for many people. I mean, the Spirit of God doesn’t always send tongues of flame and rushing winds and multilingualism to remind us of God’s presence. But maybe there are other ways the Holy Spirit is drawing our attention to God, the Creative One who breathes in and with and for us, who empowers us to respire and who conspires with us. 

Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century German mystic, wrote these words that she imagined the Holy Spirit saying: “I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life…I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life. The air lives by turning green and being in bloom. The waters flow as if they were alive. The sun lives in its light, and the moon is enkindled, after its disappearance, once again by the light of the sun so that the moon is again revived…and thus I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power. Everything burns because of me in the way our breath constantly moves us, like the wind-tossed flame in a fire.” ( in Lauren Winner, Wearing God, 205)

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place. How beautiful are our words about the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, the Breath of Godself. But do we really believe God is with us? Do we really believe that the Creator of the universe is breathing in and with and through us right here, right now? As we watch the news and scroll through Facebook and pay our rent and go to work and volunteer at church and attend seminars on privilege and go to protests and spend time with our families…in what ways are we missing how the Holy Spirit is showing up in our lives and in our world? I don’t know about you, but I am tired. I am overwhelmed. I could name so many things, and I’m sure you could add to the list…What is there to do, on this day of Pentecost, in this world so full of pain and so overwhelming? 

And what was there to do on that first Pentecost, as Jesus’ followers tried to figure out what was next for them, who was going to be their leader, how would they relate to the Roman Empire that murdered their prophet, how would this fledgling movement ever survive?…what was there to do…but say, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

As on the first Pentecost, we are gathered together here, all in one place, each of us containing the breath of God that breathed into us at birth. We can practice noticing God-with-us by gathering with others who also have the breath of God in them. Noticing the edges of life in the breath of the very young and very old. Noticing the shimmering of the dew in the morning breeze as the Spirit greets the world with a Good Morning. Noticing the Spirit inhabiting our most intimate moments, loving us through the motions of each other’s bodies and rises and falls of respiration in each other’s chests. 

And so once we notice our breath, once we recognize that God is continually creating and breathing new life into us and reanimating places in the world that are lifeless…once our attention is drawn to this, what do we do? We cannot simply know that we ourselves are given life by the breath of the Holy Spirit and stay the same…no, the people of Pentecost were literally conspiring with each other, breathing with each other, inhaling and exhaling the same air. They conversed with each other, committed to life together, spread the gospel news of how life continues after death and beyond. In the tradition of those people on the first Pentecost, we must ask what we are called to do in this time as we remember the Spirit among us and call forth the Spirit again. Let us respire, breathe-again the breath of the Creative One who conspires with us each and every day, the One who animates our world, the One whose Spirit is surely in this place. 

Today, beloved church, I invite you to join me in saying, “Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. Fall afresh on us. Breathe the breath of life. Breathe in us. Breathe through us. Conspire with us.”

Breathe with us into the places in our lives that are anxious. That are hurting. That are complacent. Breathe with Your Creation, reminding us that we share this Earth and that we are not alone. We breathe the air that the dinosaurs breathed and that the prophets breathed and that Jesus breathed and that our ancestors breathed. We breathe the air that is filtered through the complex biology of each and every green growing thing, the air that works with the fertile soil to help us grow. 

Breathe with us into the chests of children with asthma and the elderly whose lungs are damaged from wildfire smoke and pollution. Breathe with us into the lungs of Appalachian coal miners and migrant farm laborers and indigenous factory workers. Breathe with us into the lungs of folks living on the streets who have nowhere to turn for clean, fresh air in the middle of a modern city. Breathe with us into the chests of farmers whose lands are being flooded, who fear they have no livelihood.

Breathe with us into the lungs of those who can breathe no more because they were killed by state violence. Breathe with us into the jails as people are forced to breathe stale air. Breathe with us for those like Eric Garner who cried, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before his respiration was taken from him. Breathe with us for those like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and so many more, even here in Seattle, who should have taken many many more breaths but whose lives were cut short. Breathe with us for the trans women of color and with the indigenous women who are missing and murdered, and for all those who fight for justice for their loved ones. Breathe with us into the stuffed detention centers full of immigrant families and children, who feel breathless desperation to escape the violence and poverty and degradation of the places they used to call home. 

Breathe with us into the lungs of women lying with their feet in stirrups in the doctor’s offices, awash with a multitude of emotions. Breathe with us into the lungs of people whose bodies feel like they are not their own. Breathe with us in the lives of people with cancer, people in the hospital, people who are aching for accessible and affordable medical treatment. Breathe with us in the bellies of tiny babies, born too early or on time, born healthy or sick, born at all into this world which cannot promise to sustain them. Breathe in the lungs of people in labor, particularly black and brown women and trans* people, who labor and labor and labor to bring another human life into this world, who struggle as Romans says the earth does, with pangs of travail, as the world seeks to birth a new life onto a dying planet.

Breathe with us into a world that was Created so that all life would flourish but that is now imbalanced so that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer and the middle is disappearing. Breathe with us into the lives of our graduating seniors, that they may be filled with your Spirit as they become more of who they truly are and bless the world with their passion. Breathe with us into the streets and halls of power, that we might recognize your Holy Spirit conspiring for justice for those pushed to the edges of society and so that we might join this conspiracy

Breathe on us, Breath of God. We know your sweet Spirit is in this place, because we are in this place and You are breathing in us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. 

Veni Sancte Spiritus. 

This sermon originally preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church.