Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized, Writing

We Are Not Superheroes: A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

A lot of people love the idea of Superhero Jesus. The Jesus of miraculous healings and magical multiplication of fish and bread and the calming the hurricane and perhaps the most mysterious superheroic feat of all: walking on water. You’ve seen the image, haven’t you? Jesus, pictured sure-footed and upright, balancing on the top of the sea as Peter sinks, waist deep and extending his hand for help. Jesus grabs Peter’s hand and saves him from a watery grave, instead retreating into the boat, seemingly calming the raging storm.

But I also know there are many of us today who are a little too practical for this story of water walking. We chock up these stories to embellishments and exaggerations, stories made popular through zealous evangelism and not through scientific truth.

And yet…the image of Jesus walking on water calls to me. A being that has power over the very elements, who finds himself supported by the waves instead of being overcome by them. Having recently spent some time at the ocean’s edge, the image of the water walker is unfathomable to me. And it calls me.

It also called to Peter. You’ll remember him, one of the disciples who would later betray Jesus three times, who would not quite “get it” all the time, who would be the “rock upon which the church would be built.” So, after a lot of working and traveling and ministering with Jeus, following the feeding miracles and healings and so much more, Peter was ready to act, ready to jump out of the boat and into the fray. Peter thought he could be like Jesus, he could walk on water too.

But Jesus wasn’t just walking on water on a whim. He put in his work, his self-work, his self-care. Jesus had spent quite a bit of time in the previous few chapters trying to get away and rest. Sometimes we just need to get away, as Tim said last week. In this passage, we see that Jesus stayed behind on land, dismissed the crowds and finally found some quiet time where he could pray. But the disciples did not have the same experience, and we can’t ignore their lack of rest in this situation that sometimes is recalled as a ghost story. Perhaps they were seeing apparitions because they needed to rest, too. Perhaps they saw Jesus as a ghost because, as womanist Biblical scholar Dr. Mitzi J. Smith writes,

“Perhaps, Jesus looks like a ghost because the Jesus that the disciples left on the other side of the sea looked overworked, fatigued, drab, and unsteady. Perhaps they were not accustomed to seeing Jesus look so rested, in control, and peaceful; thus, they think he is a ghost. Sometimes we are haunted by visions of our better selves. Our better selves are such an improbability for us that to see it, to envision it and what it may take to achieve our better selves is a haunting. We are haunted by better days that seem to escape us. Sometimes we get ourselves in such a rut of not taking care of ourselves, of not exercising, of not sleeping well or barely sleeping, of not eating properly, that to live otherwise haunts us.”

Maybe the image of the water walker calls me, calls us, because in some way we DO want Superhero Jesus to exist. We do want superhuman strength and power and command of the elements to be real. We long for something that arises out of our mundane existence and shows us the true real potential of humanity. We are haunted by the unlimited potential we desire, forgetting that we are not God. I think USAmerican culture really likes this, even if I or we still have some questions. USAmerican culture loves the stories of the “young scrappy and hungry” founding fathers, the legendary cowboys, the charismatic Civil Rights leader often pictured standing alone, the one heroic person standing up against a police line. All of the images I have named have their own deeply complex histories, and I absolutely want to encourage you to seek them out, but what they have in common is that they have been whitewashed into a myth of exceptionalism and individualism that has unparalleled power.

We do a disservice to the real lives and real experiences of people who were forced into this narrative or erased to make this narrative work, the human beings enslaved by the founding fathers, the indigenous people whose lands were stolen and given to farmers and cowboys given free range, the strategic team behind Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the decades of organizers advocating and agitating to be heard. We do a disservice because we do not allow the complicated truth to come out and we choose to see one version of history, one way to to make history: to be a lone ranger, a solitary martyr, a standalone voice.

I recently attended a Militant Nonviolent Civil Disobedience training with the prophetic leader Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who has been traveling to protest areas ever since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri began in 2014. (A note about that, please keep watching to see if there are any of these training sessions you can attend!) In the training, as he led the crowd through drills of what to do if there is tear gas, pepper spray, if you are beaten or arrested, he reminded us over and over that if there is a high level of decentralization in a social movement (meaning that there is not a hierarchy of folks in charge) a high level of discipline is required. He shared about how movement organizers strategize, that they are most likely not looking for a fight, that the first rule of nonviolent civil disobedience is “preservation of life so you can live to fight another day.” So when we see a (no doubt powerful) image of one lone person out in front of the crowd, there is a much bigger story, strategy and discipline outside the range of the camera. Also, “movement high” is real: the excitement and adrenaline you get from being part of something big. Rev. Sekou warned to not let your adrenaline get ahead of you, especially white folks, who sometimes feel emboldened to act with that “superhero” feeling pumping through our brains, but whose actions can endanger the collective and render useless the years of strategic organizing by action leaders. Beware the superhuman.

For white folks, the Superhero narrative can be alluring, aided and abetted by skin privilege. White people are more at risk to feel invincible, that nothing can touch us. That feeling only puts the Black, Indigenous and People of Color around us at more risk. White folks can feel over-empowered sometimes, convinced of the right thing to do in each situation, that their opinions are right because they are standard, and put on the defense if those notions are challenged.

This church, and our society as a whole, have been talking recently about white folks “doing their own work,” which is key to creating substantive change and undoing white supremacy. Part of this work for white folks is processing that no one is a superhero. Too often white people put ourselves in the positions of “saviors” rushing in to solve problems that we and our ancestors and our systems created, steamrolling the wisdom and work of people of color. Filipinx writer Jasmine M. Pulido wrote in a powerful article for the South Seattle Emerald this past week,

“White allies seem to think that once they stand up for Black lives that they are now on the “us” side of “us vs. them.” Hate to break it to you, white folks — that’s not how it works…Real white allies become humble at full recognition of their own complicity. Real white accomplices harbor fear because they know what real risks they will need to take to create a more equitable system. They finally understand the advantages that they’ll have to give up, the ones they shouldn’t have had to begin with, to dismantle white supremacy, and they’re feeling stunned by this dark, loaded reality. When we say “do the work,” they comprehend that “the work” isn’t a fun book club or a few vocal social media posts. The work is hard, grueling, and tiring. It is a long commitment that will very likely outlive their lifetime.The real work happens after the protests end.”[1]

And it’s important to recognize that Black and Indigenous folks and people of color are not superhuman either. Often, white people expect them to be. Think of Therese Patricia Okoumou, the Black woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018. She was praised as a hero, sacrificing for liberty for children separated from their families at the border. Or Bree Newsome, who removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse flagpole in South Carolina in 2015. In a powerful article entitled “Black Women Are Not Your Superheroes,” in Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue has some pretty radical reporting, you should pay attention to them!), queer Black feminist Jenn M. Jackson writes, that Newsome

“has continued her activism since [she removed the flag], but she did not act that day because she has a secret, super alter ego, as she expressed online after Okoumou’s action…Newsome tweeted, “[Black women] are on frontline of revolution in America & have been for generations b/c the system of white capitalist patriarchy was literally organized around our enslavement. This is also why we represent the base of progressive mvmt. Y’all erase this reality thinking we exist to save others.” The problem with Black women being considered superheroes is pretty straightforward: They’re not. Black women are human beings…” The author goes on to describe the long history of this, from the mythology that white supremacist culture has drawn around Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and BIPOC women in particular, to Northwestern professor of African-American and gender and sexuality studies Jennifer C. Nash has written that Black women are ‘“multiply marginalized,” and thus “have a unique…contribution to make regarding the issues facing oppressed people. Because of this situatedness, Black women may possess skills in navigating the social world from a different vantage point than some other groups. This is not a superpower. This is what surviving oppression looks like.”[2]

So as some among us struggle each day to survive in a society built to entrench white supremacy, let those of us with systemic advantages pick up the work to dismantle the systemic sins that we and our ancestors created. We cannot continue operating in our daily lives treating some people as superhuman with powers that mean they require less rest, fewer resources and are satisfied being Atlas and holding up the world. That is simply not true, and only serves to dig the ditch of oppression deeper and deeper. Physical, mental, spiritual and emotional restoration is important to all, but particularly indispensable for those who have marginalized identities. Each of us must testify every day that all humans are made in the imago Dei, the image of God, beloved and unique and worthy of respect, love, safety and a thriving life.

Friends, I have to confess that sometimes I feel like Peter. Sometimes I get one little piece of information, have watched a powerful documentary or read the hottest new book or listened to an interesting show on NPR, and I just bound out of the boat, forsaking the rest of my community and running ahead, showing off to others that “I’m a GOOD white person, I GET it.” Only to find out a few moments later, when I get distracted by something else, that I don’t have anything to prop me up. Robin diAngelo, the author of White Fragility, the book many people are studying in the church right now, writes, “White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

In DiAngelo’s words, I see Peter’s certainty that he also could walk on water, over-emboldened by the appearance of Jesus on the waves. But Peter needed to stop trying to be Jesus. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith says, “Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join them in the boat. Sometimes we want our own miracle at the expense of others who are in the same boat as us.” Peter thought himself superhuman, exempt from the laws of physics and biology, sure of his footing on water. He was missing the truth that collective liberation is only possible when we don’t forsake our comrades in the boat, when we love each other in our full humanity, fear and all.

Some translations of this Scripture have Jesus saying “what are you afraid of?” instead of “do not be afraid.” I like this because Jesus is calling us to examine our fear, question it, get to know it, confront it and move through it…not to be the lone follower stepping out in front, but to be a people who can hold all our fears and anxieties and move through them to do the work of justice. But for me, at least today, this story is not one about faith over fear, or even faith through fear. It is a story that reminds us that Jesus wasn’t a superhero and we aren’t either. That we can’t go around the world treating each other like superhumans, denying the truth that each of us are made in the image of God, but we are not God ourselves. Instead, we must testify to love, as Larry sang this morning. Love that dwells in the human heart and makes itself known through human lives. Love that accompanies us out upon the waters, that fills the spaces between us. Love that tells the truth about our limits and boundaries, that listens with intent to learn and change. Love that reins us into reality and pushes back the apparitions of our perfect selves so that we may live into the messy, beautiful, complicated, beloved and real community.

“From the mountains to the valleys

From the rivers to the sea

Every hand that reaches out

Every hand that reaches out to offer peace

Every simple act of mercy

Every step to kingdom come

All the hope in every heart

Will see what love has done.”

Beloved church, treasured friends, let us place our trust in the mystery of Love, that which moves us through the storm together.

This sermon originally preached on August 9, 2020 for Seattle First Baptist Church.

See also

Protest Backlash and the Failings of a Superhero Culture, Hollywood Reporter


[1]https://southseattleemerald.com/2020/08/04/the-sleep-walking-white-ally/?fbclid=IwAR0aLUhgTOG8esE2HrKE0Yzo266OKzzs6k6Hc2OSXxRSjTu4RMhwaUjedMw

[2] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-women-are-not-your-superheroes

Posted in Uncategorized

Resources for Clergy on COVID-19

I live in Seattle, which has quickly become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. In the last week and a half, discussions of COVID-19 have gone from “well, it’s only really older folks that need to worry” and “I’ll still fly/shake hands/not wash” to the Governor recommending all public gatherings over 50 people be cancelled or postponed and the King County Public Health recommendations getting more and more serious. ***Updated 3/12/20: Governor Inslee has now banned all gatherings over 250 people and Public Health has released more stringent guidelines for faith communities. Link below.***

I am 28 years old. I’ve been alive and aware during global pandemics before, but have not been an adult in charge of making decisions for community health. Y’all, it’s stressful. Even though I am young and healthy and rarely get sick (knock on wood), I work closely with people who are elderly, who are immunocompromised, who are trying to get pregnant, who don’t have access to reliable and affordable healthcare. The decisions of “to close the church or not to close the church” have been agonizing, as have been decisions about traveling, about hosting visitors, about riding public transit, about doing hospital visits. This is a hard time that seems to just get more challenging with the spread of the virus across this country (not to mention the extreme measures China and Italy have had to take).

So, here are some resources that I’ve looked to for help thinking about how to respond to this outbreak in Seattle.

I will continue updating this with compiled information that has been helpful for myself and my church.

Prayers/Liturgical Resources at bottom of page.

3/13/20

Follow your local public health guidelines. For me, this is King County. We have an alert system that sends a text message to me when the number of cases is updated or we get more news about testing sites.

Right away when news outlets were breaking stories about COVID-19 in Seattle, I found this page from the Wisconsin Council of Churches very thorough and thoughtful on multiple levels. This is a great resource for considering how your community is responding.

After a meeting of about 50 faith leaders with a representative from Public Health on March 4, my friend Jeremy over at Hacking Christianity wrote this, and has kept it updated with new information coming in (over the past 7 days–whew!).

Here is a document specific to houses of worship, written with questions from that ^ public meeting in mind. Here is an updated version from 3/12, given after the Governor of Washington prohibited gatherings of 250+ (as in, they’re banned and you could be fined). I’m leaving the first link up because it might be helpful for locations where the situation has not gotten as serious.

Here is an article, again from Hacking Christianity, about creating livestreamed worship in 3 days.

My friend Eileen wrote this about guidelines for pastoral care in this time when in-person contact is being limited. Pastoral care needs won’t go away, and will probably increase, as people face increased isolation.

A clergy colleague recommended the Washington Warm Line, a peer support help line for folks who just need to connect with someone. The volunteers on this line have personal experiences with mental health diagnoses. This kind of line can be helpful in addition to pastor availability. Your community may even wish to set up a phone tree of sorts to check on people with limited mobility, mental health challenges, or folks in isolation to keep track of people’s wellness.

A lot of folks have also been looking to this GoogleDoc for information from a social epidemiologist and demographer. She is not updating it currently, though I think much of the info is still relevant and helpful in explaining the COVID-19 situation for laypeople.

Here’s a great document “Ways to Pray if you can’t get to Church.” Check these out an adapt as needed!

From my friend Mindi on Ministry in the Middle of a COVID-19 outbreak, for the Christian Citizen. And then she wrote MORE on things to think about for planning ministry in this time.

Church without Walls has a great collection of resources for worship in this time, including definitions of various ways of connecting virtually, prayers, art, and pastoral care concerns.

Resources for church financial leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. (UMC Discipleship)

Here is an infographic on Zoom Basics and Best Practices.

OneLicense has made a gratis license available to ease copyright worries during COVID-19 virtual worship.

The State of New York has issued suggestions for cleaning for houses of worship.

And on a lighter note…

For signage options and encouraging people to wash their hands, visit https://washyourlyrics.com/ to make your own handwashing poster!

Or, use something like this to encourage folks to pray while they wash:

And here are some more prayers that may speak to you or your congregation in this time:

Sarah Bessey’s Breath Prayers for Anxious Times.

This was posted in a Facebook clergy group but is unattributed. If you know who wrote this, please comment so I can give credit!

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, Uncategorized

Into the Deep Water: a sermon on Luke 5:1-11

Have you noticed that water is everywhere? Surely, on this snowy weekend, we are thinking a lot about water, particularly in its frozen form, falling from the sky and making Seattle’s hills very icy. Did you know the human body is around 60% water? 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. And water is important in the Biblical tradition as well. One scholar counted over 722 references to water in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the world is formed out of the primordial waters of chaos; water transforms the world in the Great Flood; the Hebrew people come through the Reed Sea. In the New Testament we read about baptisms in the Jordan river, about Jesus turning water to wine, about the “living water” of the gospel. And, as Baptists, we have a particularly close relationship to water. 

Have you seen that joking meme about the differences between Methodists and Baptists, told by donuts? The Methodist donut is covered in sprinkles, while the Baptist donut hovers above a full cup of coffee, just having been “dunked.”

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Get it? Full immersion is our tradition in Baptist life, signifying the spiritual renewal and rebirth as we emerge from under the water. 

Water, whether filling the baptistry or flowing in the river in which we are immersed upon confession of believer’s baptism, is intimately related to discipleship. Our Scripture today is one of many New Testament texts that makes this connection clear: 

From the gospel of Luke, chapter 5:1-11, read in the Common English version:

5 One day Jesus was standing beside Lake Gennesaret when the crowd pressed in around him to hear God’s word. 2 Jesus saw two boats sitting by the lake. The fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets. 3 Jesus boarded one of the boats, the one that belonged to Simon, then asked him to row out a little distance from the shore. Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he finished speaking to the crowds, he said to Simon, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”5 Simon replied, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” 6 So they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. 7 They signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They filled both boats so full that they were about to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” 9 Peter and those with him were overcome with amazement because of the number of fish they caught. 10 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners and they were amazed too. Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” 11 As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Lots of sermons are preached on this passage and its corresponding versions of the story in Mark and John…and these sermons focus on fishing. Well, I’ve been fishing only once in my life and am not prepared to share analogies about sportsmanship. You should be glad for that!

Let’s wade into this story together, alongside Simon Peter as he learns about discipleship in the deep water. Here’s the scene: Jesus was preaching and teaching in his home region of Galilee. This was a location under Roman occupation, a place sometimes referred to as “backwater.” But Jesus of Nazareth had gathered quite a following by his teachings and healings and exorcisms. People wondered who this guy could be: is this really the Messiah, the one we’ve waited for? Or is he simply an itinerant preacher doing magic tricks? How is he special? So many people were wondering this, so many people were following him that he was pushed to the edge of Lake Gennesaret, the Sea of Galilee. As the crowds pressed in, he had to leave land and get in a boat anchored close to shore so that he might continue to preach to them. And Jesus chose Simon Peter’s boat. 

Jesus took a risk in asking Simon for a favor. “Won’t you take me on the water, just a short ways, so everyone can still hear me but I have a little space?” Jesus initiated the relationship, initiates the risk. Simon could have said “no.” But, tired from working all night long, Simon agreed. Maybe he, too, was interested in who this guy could be. Howard K. Gregory writes, “Into this context, where men and women come face to face with their limits and give up, Jesus enters and asks the men to push one of the boats away from the beach.”

And then Jesus says this: “Row out into the deep water. Let down your nets for a catch.”

Imagine yourself as Simon: He’s minding his own business, going about his daily work. He’s tired from the long night hauling in trammel line nets with his colleagues. And now this random itinerant preacher tells him how to do his job? And is telling him this from sitting inside Simon’s boat?  Tells him how he should go about fishing in deep water, when Simon knows full well he’s been fishing all night with no results?! I imagine Simon wondering, “why me? Why did he have to get in MY boat?” as he thinks of how much longer it’s going to take him to get home to his family. And that’s a good question, why Simon? The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary reminds us that fishermen are not called because of “qualifications, character or potential. God’s call is as unpredictable as it is unmerited.” Notice that Simon is at work, completing his daily routine, when Jesus comes onto the scene next to the Galilean lake. This call to relationship, to involvement with God’s work, did not come in a holy place, but in the middle of routine daily activities. Jesus’ relationship with Simon is based on asking a favor, taking a small risk that becomes a great one.

Simon grants Jesus’ request rather begrudgingly: “Because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” And so goes following the way of Jesus. Sometimes we do ridiculous things. Perhaps we row out into the deep water, where we can no longer see the bottom, no longer catch sight of our goal, where our purpose feels obscure. Sometimes we are not really sure what will happen. Sometimes we think internally, “what are we doing? There’s no point. This makes no sense.” When talking to my friend Dan Lyvers, a Disciples of Christ minister in Colorado, about this passage, he said, “Everything we do as Christians is ridiculous, but we do it anyway.” “Because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” Somewhere along the way, faith takes over. But faith in what? Simon finds out as he goes into the deep water. 

After a night of fishing and empty nets, exhaustion from hard labor, God’s abundance presents itself. Risking a response to Jesus request proved more fruitful than Simon could ever imagine. One author observes, “So often the cost of discipleship does not come off the top; it is demanded of us after we have given everything that we can give. Jesus did not show up after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast. He came to find these men at the end of a long working day, after backbreaking labor, and he told them to keep on working.”

 In these times, when climate change threatens the most vulnerable among us, when extreme weather events leave folks who are unhoused in more danger than ever, when wars are being fought and children imprisoned and political schemes seem more satirical than dangerously real, we may feel like we are in deep water. We can’t see through the murky water surrounding us. The boat that had kept us safe, that we’ve spent years working with, is creaking and our nets, the provisions of our livelihood, are stretching and fraying…and the reality dawns on us: are we sinking? Why do we find ourselves here in the deep? What do I have to offer? I am tired. I am strained. I am stressed. 

And then: abundance. More fish that we had imagined, giving us the strength to go forward, affirming that we are going in the right direction. Just when we lose sight, may we, as Simon Peter, encounter God’s abundance in ways far beyond our expectations. 

But I also wonder if Simon Peter saw the abundance of fish and thought, “Oh great, how am I gonna deal with this? Can anyone come here and fish and glean this size of harvest? Does my skill not matter, my lifetime of work in the fishing industry not matter, because this random guy can join me and we suddenly catch a bumper crop?” Does Simon worry he might fade into obsolescence? Does he worry all of the risk and energy of rowing into the deep water will be in vain because they are going to sink? Does Simon worry that his comrades who come to their aid in the second boat will also meet their peril because of the risk Simon took in following Jesus? It is easy for cynicism and frustration and angst to take over…and their root emotion: fear. Again, Howard K. Gregory: “The invitation to put out into the deep for a catch provides a sharp contrast to our human penchant for the predictable and the routine. It is an invitation to venture into new ground or new depths, but it also points to new challenges in mission and ministry for the church in every generation. We are challenged to respond to the urgings of God breaking into human lives. In the case of Simon, as for the Christian faced with such a command, there is realization that the most profound and significant experiences of God and life are not to be found in the safe ways and places.”

So, friends, what is our deep water? What are the risks that feel just too risky? As an individual? As a church? When does it feel like God is asking too much of us? 

Simon’s interactions with Jesus in this passage show us that discipleship not only can feel somewhat pointless, somewhat silly, but can also feel dangerous. We may even feel threatened when following the way of Jesus: threatened by the abundance that is so much more than we imagined that we fear we will sink. Threatened by the loss of our power and privilege, of our comfort, shaken out of complacency. 

The songs of our faith offer comfort in these times. 

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go, 

the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; 

for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, 

and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” 

Or perhaps like this: “I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good ole way…oh sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down…down to the river to pray.” 

Or like this: “deep river, my home is over Jordan, deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.” During the month of February, as we observe Black History Month, we remember the struggles faced by our black and African American siblings. Part of this is remembering that spirituals such as “Deep River,” contained codes for enslaved peoples to travel north to free states, encouraging them to “cross over” the Jordan River, a code for the Ohio river. This deeply religious song has provided encouragement for folks working for liberation for over two hundred years. This song, among many others that I have not named here, reminds us that Jesus is with us as we go into the deep water. Jesus encourages everyone to persist in our quest for freedom, for liberation, for justice, each in our own way. Eduard Schweizer says “faith does not come as assent to statements previously preached, but as trust in Jesus’ call to try once more, contrary to all dictates of reason.”

And in this deep water, we, like Simon Peter, come to realizations about our identity. Simon Peter falls on his knees before Jesus as he is struck by the extreme abundance of the catch. He admits his sinful nature, crying “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinner!” But Jesus does not leave. Instead he says, “do not be afraid,” which may be translated as “do not recoil,” or “do not run away from me.” In the moments when we are so far in the deep that we feel we have risked it all and fear being overcome by the abundance and feel the only answer is isolation, Jesus won’t leave us, and tells us not to run away. While we are worried about catching fish, about pursuing our livelihood, about going home after a long work day, Jesus calls to us from the deep water to join him in witnessing the great abundance of God’s love, calls us to leave our fear and follow him. This call has consequences, and requires a reversal of priorities and a reordering of commitments. Chandra Taylor Smith wrote that Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen “became actives agents of justice for God; for it is impossible to live our passively the transformative vision of God’s just social order. Everyone is an active advocate for social justice in a truly just society.”

The crowds pushed in on Jesus until he removed himself from land and preached on water. The fishermen listened to Jesus as he told them to let down their nets, to try one more time. At every turn, Jesus’ persistence and risking relationship empowers others and calls them into doing the same for the kin-dom of God. In the doing of kin-dom work, they realize more about themselves than they ever imagined. 

David L. Ostendorf tells this passage from Scripture in this way: “God’s word lived among them…the word has come to dwell in the midst of every day lives and everyday fishermen…God’s living word cuts through the din of pressing crowds and the lives and labors of common people. It shapes the sweep of the human story. It alters the lives of those who hear and heed. God’s living word cuts through daily life with the gift of freedom–the radical, radicalizing freedom that enables one to leave everything, to follow to the fullest. God’s living word draws people in. it calls and pulls and then pushes people out–Simon and James and John, who could scarcely believe their net-bulging catch from deep, empty waters. They were amazed and yet afraid. The word came to them, captured them. They left boats and nets. They left the old way and followed. Heard and seen and heeded, God’s living word demands our decision–it lays upon us the choice of staying on the boat or leaving everything and following, of moving through that transformative moment to the fullness of life, when ears and eyes and hearts are truly opened and we cannot turn back. For followers of the living word, life is never and can never be the same. It is altered forever.” 

This weekend last year, I visited Seattle First Baptist Church for the first time. It was my “incognito” visit, my first interview with the search committee in person and the weekend when I came to Seattle looking with the eyes of someone wondering, “Can I live here?” The sun shone that weekend. I felt pulled this way, pulled to the northwest, pulled to this congregation, as the search committee and I shared deeply from our hearts and asked “wonder” questions and discerned the way forward. But it wasn’t until I joined the church service that morning when I realized how far I had rowed out into deep water. It wasn’t until Tim’s sermon that I realized exactly what was going on, that God was calling me to this congregation. It wasn’t until Tim shared a quote from Marianne Robinson that I realized something about my own character, and began to acknowledge what I’ve really gotten myself into by visiting that weekend. The quote from A Course in Miracles, goes like this: 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

And so, as we go about these times that feel like deep water in so many ways, may we remember that God is always with us, leading us in myriad ways that are more than we imagined. When it feels like our feet can no longer touch the bottom and the waves rise around us and we don’t want to row out any farther, the Holy One is with us, calling to us, “Do not be afraid! I am with you always!” Friends, we are invited to join in the work of the kin-dom of God, the work of the beloved community, as we go deeper in faith and continue to learn more about ourselves. Let us liberate ourselves and each other from our fears, and live into our truest identities as beloved children of God. Leave everything else behind, all other identities, all other loyalties, and follow. 
This sermon preached on Facebook (!) on February 10, 2019 because it was too snowy and icy to get to Seattle First Baptist Church.

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Anhelamos/We Long: A Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

This sermon begins visually. Check it out here. 

Time…time…time…there are all kinds of time. There is a time to get up in the morning. There is a time to go to bed. There is a time to go to school and work and church, and a time to come home. There is a time to play. But what is time?

Some people say that time is a line, but I wonder what that would look like. Wait, what is this?

Time. Time in a line. Look at this. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. It is brand new.

Now look. (pull the string slowly)

Look. It is getting older. The part that was new is now getting old. I wonder how long time goes. Does it go forever? Could there ever be an ending? (pull to the end)

It ended. Look at the beginning.

The beginning that was so new at the beginning now is old. The ending is the new part now. We have a beginning that is like an ending and an ending that is like a beginning.

Do you know what the church did? They tied the ending that was like a beginning and the beginning that was like an ending together, so we would always remember that for every ending there is a beginning and for every beginning there is an ending.

This is how we teach about the circle of the church year and the sacred times with children in our Godly Play Sunday school. Today is a special day because it is the first day of Advent. It is the beginning of a new church year! Even though many of us don’t celebrate a new calendar year until January, today is the first day of the Christian church year.

I like the way Godly Play explains time. This gold ribbon reminds us that time is not always linear, not always marching on towards a great climax the way some history books tell us it does. The circle of time represents how time repeats, how sometimes events repeat themselves, how time folds in on itself and endings become beginnings.

Sometimes we begin advent with the gospel of Luke’s words, “In those days…” and we look backwards in time, remembering what came to pass so so long ago, when the first century of the Common Era began. “In those days…”

But sometimes we begin advent with reading the prophets, ancient writings that came even before the Common Era, even before Jesus, even before the Roman Empire. Way back even to the 6th or 7th or 8th century before Jesus was born, we read what the prophets wrote. As we read them, a funny thing happens. We read something from the past that calls us to look into the future.

And that’s what our advent theme already/not yet is all about. Things that have happened in the past, like stars that are already born but whose light has not reached us yet, or the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, are always still already unfolding. The time that was the beginning is old now, so it is like an ending, the Godly Play story says. This upside-down, topsy-turvy, time-twisting, folding and unfolding theme of already/not yet is descriptive of advent. Gary W. Charles writes in the Feasting on the Word commentary: “Advent…leaves us dizzy over time. Advent is not a steady, constant, “time marches on” kind of time, a persistent drumbeat of day after day, year after year. Advent is unpredictable time, unsteady time. In this time-tumbling season, we look for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and still is being born in us–this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is among us right now. Not only is Advent not well behaved, neat and orderly; it contorts time.”

This is church time. This is God-time. This is advent time.

God-time is what Jeremiah wrote about in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today. The prophet Jeremiah wrote our Scripture today either during or after the Babylonian exile. Remember that the people of Israel had come into what they called “the Promised Land” and set up kingdoms and laws and families. And then people from outside the land came into the land and tried to take them over: the Assyrians. After a long and arduous and devastating siege, the Assyrians went away. Then the Babylonians came, and they did not go away. Instead they destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem, they destroyed the Temple where the people of God went to worship, and they took people from their homeland. John Calvin writes of the exile this way: “As they were then exposed to slaughter…the children of God saw thousand deaths; so that it could not be but that terror almost drove them to despair; and in their exile they saw that they were far removed from their own country, without any hope of a return.” The people of Israel, long persecuted, were homeless again. The prophets we read on the first Sunday of advent were writing against this backdrop, writing with the knowledge of their people’s despair in their hearts. Theologian Jennifer Ayres writes, “Despair is characterized primarily by the conspicuous absence of theological hope. Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future.”

The promised alternative future is named in Jeremiah 33:14-16 this way: “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what the leader will be called: The LORD is our righteousness.”

Even though these promises felt like they would never be fulfilled, the prophets gave words to the longing of the people for the day that they just had to believe would come. Again, Jennifer Ayres: “The inclusion of prophetic literature in the Advent lections points to the importance of waiting, anticipating, and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstance. And it is in the season of Advent that we engage in the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination. Together with the prophet, we are called not only to name suffering and injustice, but to lean into God’s promised alternative future…although we do not bring about [this future] through sheer force of will, in our waiting we do try to place ourselves in a posture so that we might become partners with God in the advent of a new reality.”

This is the call of advent: “to engage in the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination” towards a world characterized by “a new social context in which we live together in safety, peace, and righteousness. God will do this, as promised, and even bring about new life for the city.”

Whew! What a daunting task the prophets call us to today and throughout the next four weeks of anticipating the Christ child’s birth. This season of the church year, though shorter than Lent and Pentecost, encompasses a lot. The story of Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor in the Bronx, is told in the Feasting of the Word commentary. Rev. Neumark says that she never feels quite connected to the season of Lent, when some dwell in guilt and shame and deprivation. She doesn’t feel connected to Easter, either, when we are supposed to be full of joy and victorious. But for her, she says, “advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come Emmanuel!”

Anhelo. It means “I long.” Anhelamos, the collective form means “we long.”

The sermon writes itself this week. The southern border crossing of San Ysidro near San Diego and Tijuana was shut down this week. Tear gas was used on children. People literally killed themselves trying to climb over border fences into the United States. The sermon writes itself for this first Sunday of advent, when we name our “anhelamos.” This sermon, like the Scripture for today, like Advent itself, must be bilingual. It must speak the language of current realities while also speaking the language of the future. We must speak one of the languages of the thousands who seek asylum in our country, even as we speak the language of the empire that shuts them out. We must speak the language of despair even as we adopt the lexicon of hope.

Anhelamos/We long.

One of the people walking in the caravan is a woman named Olga Suyapa. She and her family left Guatemala and were heading north towards the United States. A coordinator of the Joint Action of Churches, Sean Hawkey, wrote the following about Suyapa on his Facebook page: “I spent 22 hours in a hospital with Suyapa…The name Suyapa is symbolically significant because the Virgin of Suyapa is the patron saint of Honduras. Suyapa had walked for nearly two weeks in the migrant caravan, with her husband and three of her children, and she was eight and a half months pregnant. They had decided to leave because of abject poverty and insecurity. Her waters broke amid a crowd of 8,000 people in Juchitán, Oaxaca. In the following minutes, she was separated from her husband, and was taken to the public hospital where she was told they couldn’t attend to her. A human rights promoter, called Jesus (I’m not making this up) grabbed the trolley she was on and with my colleague [sic] she went to a private hospital, and after a very long labour [18 hours], gave birth to a baby girl. She is calling the baby Guadalupe, the significance of that won’t be lost on any Mexican, as the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico.” Suyapa and her husband are grateful that their daughter was born in Mexico because that gives the family certain rights in that country.

And how appropriate that Guadalupe is named for the mother of Jesus, who is called La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, a young woman who spoke with angels and cried out, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked upon my humble situation…God has scattered the proud and brought the mighty down from their thrones and exalted the poor; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” The Mexican newspaper that reported Guadalupe’s birth did not shy away from the religious overtones of the event when it wrote that Guadalupe is the first woman born in “exodus.”

Suyapa and her family say that baby Guadalupe gives them hope. I wonder if the advent of the new life come into the world helps them lean into the nearness of a promised future where they will have economic opportunity and be together as a family.

Erich fromm, in the Revolution of Hope writes, “Hope is paradoxical. It is neither passive waiting nor is it unrealistic forcing of circumstances that cannot occur. It is like the crouched tiger, which will jump only when the moment for jumping has come. Neither tired reformism nor pseudo-radical adventurism is an expression of hope. To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. There is no sense in hoping for that which already exists or for that which cannot be. Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

In the book we are reading this month for adult education, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the eschaton, the fancy theological word that means “end things.” In one version of the eschaton imagined by ancient peoples, there is a final cosmic battle where victory comes through destruction. When the Babylonians came to destroy Jerusalem, some thought it was that final battle as they watched their temple burn. Another version of the eschaton is an ultimate feast celebrating victory through peace and justice. In Godly Play we ask “wonder questions,” so I wonder which version of the end things we want to be ready for.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote in his book Theology of Hope, “I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as an opium of the beyond but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in the world.” Just as the aid worker Jesus was ready to jump into action to help Suyapa deliver her child even though there was no room in the public hospital, we must ready ourselves to jump into action, awake to the circumstances of the world and help deliver the world that is possible, that has already been promised and that is always on its way.

When I saw a picture of Guadalupe a few days after her birth, part of Hawkey’s post I just shared with you, I saw the Christ child.

baby guadalupe born on migrant caravan
Photo by Sean T. Hawkey, used with permission

I thought to myself, “Anhelo un mundo donde los niños sean seguros, sanos y fuertes.” “I long” for a world in which Guadalupe is safe and healthy and strong. Anhelo para un mundo de paz, justicia, y amor. I long for a world of peace, justice and love.

Una pregunta, one question: ¿Qué es lo que anhelas? What do you long for?

Turn to someone next to you and share your longing with them.

Y tambien, ¿Qué anhelamos? What do we long for as a body of Christ?

I think we long for justice for those who are pushed to the margins. We long for a world where people have what they need to live healthy, happy and safe lives. We long for a world where children do not have to stand trial for deportation alone, but can receive sanctuary. We long for a world where freedom of movement is accessible to all. We long for a world sin fronteras, without borders. We long for a world where toda la humanidad es bienvenida, where all humanity is welcome. We long for a world where we show la gracia de Dios, the grace of God, to each other in our speech, our actions, our hospitality and our witness.

We must wake up. We must watch for la luz del mundo, the light of the world, that is already here and yet always on its way and coming forth in each of us during this advent season.

Give voice to your longing.

Anhelamos el nacimiento del niño cristo.

O ven, o ven, Emmanuel!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

 

This sermon originally preached at on December 2, 2018 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

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Foolish Questions: Mark 10:35-45

Have you ever played a game of “truth or dare” with a child? When I was little it was always the game that I dreaded because it asked you to make a decision before you had all the information. Will you tell a truth, usually a secret or something embarrassing, like do you have a crush on someone in your class or did you ever eat play-dough? Or will you take a dare to do something silly or stupid or…mean? Will you pinch someone or ignore someone or change who your best friend is? What someone might ask you held great power over my imagination: my answer would reveal if I was “in” or “out,” if I was wise or if I was foolish. In our Scripture passage today, the disciples attempt to play truth or dare with Jesus. 

The context for this passage is important. In the beginning of Mark chapter 10, Jesus is saying things like “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” and “ go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” These are some of the most well-known verses from the gospels, and some of the passages that most acutely point to what kind of kingdom Jesus was working to bring about. And they come right before our Scripture for today. In verse 31, Jesus says, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” speaking of a cosmic reversal in the way humans order our society. 

And then: “Hey, Jesus, we want you to do anything we ask.” 

Jesus, being the nice guy that he is (and probably having their number and suspecting what was coming), says, “Ok, James and John, what do you want?” 

And they sure do get themselves in hot water, as they ask for honor and prestige when Jesus “enters his glory,” when his time for ruling comes. They think they are asking a simple question. Perhaps, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, they hope to trap Jesus in a quick answer to a foolish question. However, Jesus’ answer offers a lot more than they bargained for.  

James and John were sons of Zebedee, you know, these are the guys who were called away from their fishing boats when Jesus said, “Come, follow me!” They are among the first disciples Jesus called, and they left their family and their livelihood and their community to follow this itinerant rabbi from the backwater of Judea. These are the guys who traveled with Jesus, listening to him teach and preach, witnessing Jesus’ miracles (and in the gospel of Mark we get A LOT of miracle stories), eating and drinking and baptizing right alongside Jesus.  

And yet, the disciples are often seen as silly or confused or just plain missing the point. As a child in Sunday school, I remember thinking (and sometimes saying aloud) “Silly disciples!” as we read yet another story of how Jesus shared a story or a prophecy and the disciples consequently did the thing that Jesus just told them not to do. It’s like when a cat gets onto the mantle: “no, don’t push that photo off the mantle, it’ll break, no, don’t do that, get down from there, no, be careful!” and then the cat nudges your family photo off the ledge. As it smashes, the cat surely looks you right in the eye as if to say, “What? Was I not supposed to do that?” The disciples are the cat in this story. Some scholars think that it must have been embarrassing for the disciples to be so confused all the time, so much so that the author of the gospel of Matthew had the mother of James and John ask for her sons to be glorified along with Jesus…yeah, play up the “pushy mother” trope, why don’t ya? Or the author of Luke’s gospel called this discussion a “simple dispute,” and glossed over it all together!  

It’s easy to be frustrated with James and John, because if anyone should understand what Jesus is about, what Jesus is trying to achieve in his ministry, they should be the ones to get it. James even accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain when he was transfigured! And it doesn’t get much more plain than that that something cosmic is going on with this dude.  

But in a way, the disciples and their questions are not silly. Did not Jesus speak in riddles and parables and rather abstractly? He wasn’t exactly plain-spoken! Reading the gospel stories about all of the times the disciples misunderstand Jesus, I want to tell them that it’s ok to be confused–sometimes I am confused too! But other times, I get almost angry with the disciples…I want to shake them and say with exasperation, why are you asking these foolish questions? Don’t you get the message here? Are you willfully ignoring what Jesus is telling you? Are you purposefully asking for power and privilege when this rabbi preaches just the opposite?  

mark 10.35.45 image

Verse 32 of Mark chapter 10 says the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ stories as they followed him to Jerusalem, but the others who followed him were afraid.  

What do we think of that? Do we join the disciples in amazement or the crowds of followers, in fear? Because though we might immediately say, “no, I’m not scared, I am amazed!” it is important to recognize that the gospel according to Jesus, the “good news” that he was delivering throughout his life and in his teachings, is scary. It’s intimidating. It’s dangerous. For people then and for people now, the gospel was one of sacrificing their power and privilege for the sake of the kingdom of God. The gospel was in direct opposition to the Roman Empire, and really to any empire, which some scholars call the domination system: “which is characterized by power exercised over others, by control of others, by ranking as the primary principle of social organization, by hierarchies of dominant and subordinate, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, honored and shamed,” (Charles Campbell, Feasting on the Word, Year B Proper 24). That gospel shook people, and is still shaking people today. 

And so, in spite of that shaking, that world-reversing, upside-down-turning gospel preaching Jesus was doing, his disciples still come to him yearning for power. Having just heard “the first will be last and the last will be first,” James and John ironically position themselves with those who the world puts first, those seated in the most important spots at the banquet, those whose bank accounts are most robust, those who sit on councils and make decisions and produce governance plans. James and John, seeking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he comes into his glory, do not understand the prophecies Jesus has been telling them about his own death; in their questioning, these sons of Zebedee position themselves with the very rulers who will be the ones to kill Jesus.  

The author of the gospel of Mark really liked irony. If you look closely at this gospel which is the earliest gospel written, Mark is constantly playing with people’s expectations and giving the narrative ironic twist. Like Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, Mark is telling the truth, but telling it slant, playing up certain parts for dramatic effect when they are not quite what they seem. And what could be more dramatic than a mysterious person called “the Son of Man” predicting their own gruesome death at the hands of the state on three separate occasions, while their followers are so confused that they actually wind up aligning with the power of the empire that the Human One came to topple? What could be more ironic than the seemingly-silly questions the disciples ask having profound answers with deep implications for discipleship? What could be more ironic than two former-fishermen imploring their rabbi to allow them to be seated at his right and left hand when he is glorified, when soon there will be criminals hung on his right and left when he dies by capitol punishment on a cross?  

I wonder why James and John asked to receive positions of glory. Was it out of lust for status? Was it a misunderstanding of Jesus’ core teachings about the reversal of power? Or were they afraid that they actually did understand Jesus’ predictions and they were in denial? Were they asking over and over hoping that they would get a different answer, praying that the truth of what Jesus predicted wasn’t real?  

Maybe the disciples do get a bad reputation for their seemingly foolish questions. Maybe their questions aren’t foolish at all. Maybe the gospel writer is using James and John’s question to show how deep earthly power gets. David B. Howell, in the Feasting on the Word commentary, reminds us that “we want a lot of things that we never admit out loud.” Our Scripture today is one place where the desire for privilege and status and wealth and security are shared openly.  

Though James and John had traveled with Jesus since the beginning of his ministry, it took time for them to adjust their thinking to the different world order Jesus was heralding. Jake Owensby writes, “God’s realm is an upside down kind of glory.” The orders of status and privilege in human empires do not have the same sway in God’s kingdom. Even though the disciples had left home, family, livelihood, even though they had given up so much, their thinking showed they still clung to the hierarchical order of worldly empires. Anyone who has begun their own journey of acknowledging and undoing the various privileges we carry can attest that training your thinking takes time. It is a process that necessitates going through your thoughts with a fine-toothed comb, seeking out all the ways which our patterns of living uphold systems of oppression. Questions must be asked, serious and silly and honest and heartbreaking questions. And sometimes we feel foolish when going about training ourselves to think differently. But this passage shows us that the disciples are right there with us. When Jesus said the disciples must becomes servants in order to lead, imagine what confusion ensued! Imagine what reluctance this message would have been met with!  

James J. Thompson advises in Feasting on the Word:  

“We frequently confuse the purposes and goal of our cause with our hope for personal success. Subsequently, even our best thoughts and actions tend to be tainted with vanity and ambition…The appropriate response to our incurable tendency to put ourselves first is to be cautious and self-reflective about our motives…the proper response to human frailty is not to give up on the notion of leadership or action; it is to set up checks and balances within a community or organization. We must keep each other honest. We must be a community of accountability.”  

And so the disciples’ foolish questions reveal a lesson about servanthood and humility as a perfect foil for the powerful. Frederick Buechner defines humility this way:  

“Humility is often confused with the polite self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy. True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do,” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 47-48.)

If the disciples heard Buechner’s definition of humility, what do you think would happen? I have a sneaky feeling that James and John would feel kinda sheepish when they looked at how they asked Jesus for prestigious positions. And perhaps the other disciples, who were mad at James and John for asking, would consider whether they were jealous of the disciples’ question or whether their anger was righteous towards those who misunderstood Jesus’ mission. And so the disciples’ bold assertion that indeed, they are able to drink the same cup and share in Jesus’ baptism, is a misunderstanding of Jesus or wishful thinking, but it certainly is not humble discipleship. Jesus was not looking for disciples who had the ability to share in all aspects of his ministry, he was looking for disciples who had the availability to be open to the emergence of God’s kingdom.  

But these values, too, can be misconstrued and become dangerous tools. Dolores Williams and Renita Weems and Emilie Townes and many other womanist theologians, Biblical scholars and ethicists have referred to the explicit use of servanthood ideology to keep people of color, and specifically women of color, in positions of subservience. “Self-sacrifice…does not mean self-mutilation or self-extinction; we are not called to disappear,” (James Thompson, Feasting on the Word Year B Proper 24.) Humility, when forced, is also a weapon. And it ceases to be humility, but instead becomes oppression.  

Jesus finishes our Scripture passage in truly Jesus-style: He  describes more specifically the ways that the alternative community of discipleship and servant leadership differs from the Roman empire’s mode of ruling. He tells the disciples, 

“You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” 

Jesus makes a promise to the disciples. He is not only showing them how his mission and their work in the world oppose the power structures of the empire, what some call the “domination system.” He also promises radical change to the powers that be…not only will they be flipped from servant to leader, but they will be entirely separate from any hierarchy empire would recognize, and I love that the Common English Bible uses this word, for the cause of the “liberation” of many.  

Noted preacher and homiletician Charles Campbell writes that Jesus’ promise in these last three verses serves to assuage the disciples’ fears. Their question to Jesus, their desire for power and security are the results of their fear…the world was changing, their leader was saying confusing and troubling things, they had set about the hopelessly human task of training themselves to think differently. The “Big C Church”–and our church–can relate to some of these fears. Many in mainline churches are worried about the church’s future, are worried about changing worship styles or religious community that happens outside of the church walls. And so we would rather secure ourselves and our status rather than risking the way of the cross by training ourselves to think differently and move in the world differently. That’s amazing…and scary. 

Campbell writes,  

“Sometimes these words [the cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (v. 39)] are read as a threat or warning from Jesus: “James and John, you too will be crucified.” However in the larger context of the story, Jesus’ words may also be read as an extraordinary promise: “You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security. Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me. You will be faithful disciples even to the end.” Here is the great promise for the church. We need not always live in fear; we need not continually seek our own security [and relevance]. Rather, we have Jesus’ promise that we can and will live as faithful disciples as we seek to follow him. It is an extraordinary promise made to such a fumbling, bumbling group of disciples–then and now!”  

 As we sang earlier, Jesus calls to us,  

“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed, 

for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. 

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, 

upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.” 

 And so, bumbling as we may be and asking foolish and not-so-foolish questions, the church today–that is, WE–have a choice to make. Will we fear the new, fear irrelevance, fear change, fear fading from importance, fear letting go of our own power and privilege and let ourselves play into the Domination System of the empire? Or will we join Jesus as he calls us to put aside our quest for greatness at others’ expense, put aside our anxieties over our own importance, and follow the way of humble discipleship?  

Indeed, friends, hear this good news today, we are called to serve one another, we are called to be light for the world, we are called to let each other be our servants and be Christ to each other.  As we continue on our journeys and pilgrimages, wherever we are bound, let us have the grace to ask good questions, grace to risk receiving true answers, grace to embrace our foolishness, face our fears and accept our humanity. May it ever be so. Amen.  

 

This sermon originally preached on October 21, 2018 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

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Sticks and Stones: A Sermon on James 3:1-12

Well, I can honestly not recommend preaching after this Scripture passage. Talk about pressure! “My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity…Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us…” whew! That’s a lot to chew on. And, indeed, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her addition to the Feasting on the Word biblical commentary for this Sunday, “preachers wise enough to know that they preach chiefly to themselves will spend some time praying this passage before attempting to interpret it to their congregations.”  

And yes, Barbara Brown Taylor, or BBT, as I affectionately call her, is right. I get it: teachers have to be careful because they are raising the next generation of humans to think for themselves, to hopefully grow into being compassionate and active advocates for themselves and others in this world. An effective teacher is one whose words and lessons stay with you as you grow, whose influence continues to empower you to be your best self long after you’ve left their classroom. For me, those people are Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Carl, Mrs. Fuller, Mr. Rupp, Mr. Gumbrecht, Ms. Wieland, Mr. Baker, Nancy Boutilier, David Kamitsuka, Cindy Chapman, Victor Judge, Viki Matson and Dale Andrews, may he rest in peace and justice. All of these people have been examples of the teachers who saw in me a young person with promise, and dedicated their time and energy and heart to empowering me to think for myself, speak truth in love, and show up to advocate for others. These teachers help me understand the part of the Greco-Roman worldview in which the author of James writes that held teachers in the highest esteem. Teachers were praised for their intellect and ability to construct coherent arguments and their ways of deftly communicating true wisdom to those who learn at their feet.  

But the letter of James, while upholding the idea that teachers are one of the highest goods, consonant with their first-century context and sociopolitical position, is a letter thick with warnings for those who occupy positions of influence. A writer in the Preaching God’s Transformative Justice commentary puts it this way: “authority is a breeding ground for sin.” This goes beyond those who teach and preach, now. Politicians come to mind easily: think of campaign seasons when leaders vying for television ratings and votes (in that order) cut down opponents in order to invalidate and eliminate them. When they use the language of “winners” and “losers” like misguided children arguing over candy on a playground. When the phrase “truth isn’t truth” is found on the lips of people praying they can continue pulling the wool over voters’ eyes just long enough to cover their own sorry behinds…when duplicity is forced at every single turn just to keep the status quo level and secure their place at the top of the pyramid. That example comes fresh to our minds. But the letter from James warns that anyone in positions of influence, anyone people look up to, anyone with authority over others, is standing in the middle of “a breeding ground for sin.”  

Perhaps some of you were listening to NPR this week to hear the story investigating how many children–CHILDREN–are disciplined on school grounds with tasers fired by school security officers, mostly employed by the police department or a private security company. CHILDREN. The authority given to security guards in these stories results in their deployment of a weapon that can cause cardiac arrest on children with bodies sometimes less than 70 pounds. These incidents were shared in the news story not to show how much of a threat children are to armed security guards, but instead to show how poorly trained and how weak the resolve of too many security workers in school settings.  Again, from Feasting on the Word, “[the letter from] James forces us to confront the questions, Could the same results been obtained without the destruction of others? And if so, why do they speak destructively? Indeed, can destruction serve God’s desire for humanity?” What we get handed down, ultimately, from Greco-Roman culture, among many other things, is the power of language. Words matter.  

William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and Flannery O’Connor have penned many aphorisms about the power of the tongue when it goes unbridled, prompting readers and theater-goers to consider whether they themselves should hold back their own tongues from wagging too often without thought. But the truth about words and language goes far deeper than impulsiveness, and the power of words and language was attested to long before Shakespeare began to write.  

God created the world, the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the entirety of the cosmos, through speech. Words create worlds. “Let there be light” and there was light and God called it “good.” Or consider the world that was shaped when the first human, Adam, was given the power to name the animals. Biblically speaking, if you know someone’s real name, if you have the proper words to describe them, you have an immense amount of power, whether you are considering what exactly to call a leopard or a poison dart frog or a jellyfish, or whether you are trying to trick the imp Rumpelstiltskin or whether you are naming God “El-Roi.” The power of a true name, the power these words convey, need only be attested to by our transgender friends, who all but beg us to take the time to learn and use their preferred, their true, pronouns and names.  

During my first semester of Divinity School, I took a class on writing a spiritual autobiography. The first assignment was “the word becomes flesh” with the prompt to write about “what word, the very moment it was uttered, took on a life of its own?” Words create worlds, shape reality, form power relations, and take on their own lives and associations, carrying these with them whenever they play around in grammatical gymnastics. Take for example gendered pronouns for God: though we know that God has no physical body with genitalia that gives clues to sex and gender, so many people consider God to be male and they refer to God with “he, him, and his” pronouns. And even though we here may be among those more used to using many different pronouns for God, or no pronouns, I have to admit that sometimes my tongue slips into saying “Father God” and “He loves us” and “His will” because that is the world that I have been associated with for the majority of my life…a world where God is male and therefore pastors are male and therefore women are less than because they (I mean we) are further from God’s love. Words matter.  

Even, and especially right now, in the world of sports, where the capacity for humans to attain great speed and show great agility seems to push bodies into the spotlight more than speech, consider the words used to describe the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem or the words assigned by commentators to describe Serena Williams’ “hysteria.” Those words matter, because they bring to light the deeply held racist and misogynistic ideas that are alive and well, continuing to create worlds, continuing to name and assign value. The world of those words for Colin Kaepernick and his allies is the same world that allows someone to run for governor in Georgia while urging voters to resist from “monkey-ing it up” by voting for his African American opponent. These words indeed do have flesh.  

james 3 fire

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning.” The letter of James urges us to recognize the authority we have contained in the distance between our minds and our mouths. The authority to name, assign value, build up, tear down, create a worldview that others may adopt and make a home in. And though, as USAmericans, we may have been brought up repeating the  adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” when getting teased on the playground, deep down we know that’s not true. How very American it is to focus on the physical threat of sticks and stones while completely ignoring the words people utter. How often does intention get measured over impact? “Well, I didn’t mean it” or “don’t be upset, it’s just some words.” Well, elementary Anita knew that was wrong. A little boy who called me “chicken legs” because of my pale skin caused me to be self-conscious about wearing shorts or skirts or swimsuits to this very day. I can literally not get dressed for a fun summer day without his voice echoing in my mind…and my heart asks, “is that true?” because I have learned to inhabit the world created by his words for over twenty years. And knowing this, we cannot traverse this world so glibly…we owe it to each other to hold back the sticks and stones, and we need to continue to learn to balance intent with impact.  

After all this, the epistle of James is not just prompting us to think about our words so that we understand their power to clothe themselves in flesh and therefore live with more intentionality. The writer also points out the hypocrisy in human living, and furthermore, in Christian living. “People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! Both freshwater and saltwater don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and freshwater doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.” The duplicity of speech comes when we give lip service to God the Creator of the Cosmos, the Source of All Life, the Origin of Good and Love…and then we turn around and curse others, deriding them even though they are made in God’s image, God’s very likeness is imprinted on each and every human being. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that often people have shown up to springs labeled “Fresh Water” only to receive a cup of saltwater. And we Christians think we are in the business of sharing the “Living Water.” This is where the breeding ground of sin is most fertile–in the temptation to hypocrisy that is nourished by complacency. Mark Douglas writes, “Evil, for James, is not defined by consistently foul action but by its capricious movement between the fair and the foul…Such a definition, incidentally, is all but mandated by an anthropology that recognizes humans as both made in God’s image and capable of cursing others.”  

Our Scripture for today concludes with a word about wisdom: “Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom…wisdom from above is pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” And how are we to be wise? How are we to be and do good in this world where evil is so easy, so comfortable, so near? Again, Mark Douglas writes in Feasting on the Word, “Becoming wise means learning how to think carefully and virtuously in complex situations where one is tempted to think simplistically and act recklessly.”  

But, friends, I have a confession to make. This text from James was hard for me. It seemed to be all about reigning in the tongue and the ego, probably written to a community that needed to tame their speech and stop the spread of gossip around their Christian community. But I’ve never had to be lectured on being quiet. I’ve never had to be told to hold my tongue. I’ve been socialized this way. I’ve been taught by examples in society to undercut my own feelings, my own thoughts, to reign in my own ideas and creativity in favor of hearing someone else’s. I’ve been taught that my voice matters less, that my opinion is not as valid as others, all based on the facts that I am female and I am young. So sometimes wisdom for me looks like choosing to share what others may not like to hear, speaking up for myself, calling out people who have abusive and manipulative behaviors. I have learned that my voice is important, that it is alright and necessary to share my righteous anger and it is the work of wisdom to shut down entities that systemically disenfranchise people, particularly people of color, women, gender-non-conforming people, immigrants and children. The work of wisdom is to advocate for understanding all people as made in the very likeness of God.  

The Creation of the world through speech was intentional. Not only did God name one by one the ways the cosmos were to be shaped, but Wisdom worked with God in declaring with appreciation and awe the divine work “good.” Wisdom also works through the Psalms and the book of Ecclesiastes and the teachings of Jesus and the epistle of James to share that wisdom is being authentic, being genuinely in love with the world in such a way that we do not put up with injustice any longer. Author Vera Nazarian writes, “Yawns are not the only infectious things out there besides germs. Giggles can spread from person to person. So can blushing. But maybe the most powerful infectious thing is the act of speaking the truth.” And speak the truth we must. And speak the truth we shall. In love and in wisdom, breaking the sticks and shattering the stones, co-creating a world where we all recognize our identity declared “good.”  

 

This sermon originally preached September 16, 2018 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

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The Sparrow, Too: A Sermon on Psalm 84

There is a special family who lived at one time in my college church. This church is an American Baptist and Alliance of Baptist-affiliated collection of activists, dissidents, loving friends and hospitable peacemakers. They meet within an old building. The stairs sag and creak. The plaster on the bathroom ceilings is falling down. The carpets in the fellowship hall are stained. The pipes in the kitchen have burst so many times during the Ohio winter that you can only get a trickle of water through there anymore. The stained-glass windows are faded and show spider-vein cracks. And there is a family of bats in the balcony. 

This kind of sounds like the children’s books that begin, “If you give a mouse a cookie…” or “if you give a moose a muffin…” Mine would go, “If you put a bat in the balcony…” To be sure, chaos ensues.  

But these bats didn’t really disturb much, honestly. They frightened the aged Sunday school teacher as she took the children to their class one morning (they wound up having Sunday school in the fellowship hall that day). They flapped around during an advent organ concert. They caused my dear pastor Steve to get more exercise than he bargained for as he attempted to shoo them out.  

Maybe these bats came to hear the Word, just like you and I are here today! To be sure, these church bats lived in the house of God, and found happiness, even if only for a short while. These bats had found a home in our church, much like the sparrow who nests beside the altar of God, albeit a little bit more sinister.  

Psalm 84 reminds us that God is a particular God, caring about even where individual sparrows nests and preparing a place for the sparrow to hatch her eggs near the altar of the Lord. The sparrow, too, can nest in God’s house.  

house sparrow audubon
House Sparrow

Now, I think of sparrows as pretty standard animals. I see a lot of them in cities and lighting on houses and I don’t really think about them a lot. But sparrows have been through a lot, as a species! When I was using that good ole’ sermon prep tool called “Google,” I ran across a story about the Four Pests Campaign in China. Mao Zedong and other leaders at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s encouraged citizens to exterminate all sparrows, which were seen as enemies of progress because they would feed on the farm fields and decrease production. They were even called “public animals of capitalism” because they would take more than their share of the harvest. Citizens would bang pots and pans out in the street to discourage the birds from landing; this was so successful that many birds just fell from the sky out of exhaustion. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs crushed, young drowned and flying sparrows just simply shot down from the sky. Rewards were given for the largest number of sparrows killed. This mass extermination of sparrows resulted in severe ecological imbalance when the sparrows were no longer there to be predators for various insects. Locust populations bloomed in echoes of Exodus imagery. Extreme imbalance plagued the Chinese ecosystem, altering the homes and livelihoods of millions of people.  

And though this country may not have the same drastic story about extermination of sparrows, we do have records of raids against rats, the Colorado potato beetle, mosquitoes, emerald ash borer, bed bugs and other “undesirables” prone to be in our cities and under our feet…and in our homes. And so, knowing a little about this history of pest extermination in the United States and mourning the loss of so many sparrows in China, the irony was not lost on me this week as I had my own adventure with my own little “undesirable.” An eight-legged one. A multi-eyed one. And as surely as I’ve spent this week preparing a sermon on the psalm that begins so lyrically, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of heavenly forces!” I spent half an hour trying to get up the courage to swat a too-large arachnid that decided to traipse across my bathroom floor while I was brushing my teeth Thursday night.  

This led me to go down another Google rabbit hole about Giant House Spiders, which, as you Seattle-ites know very well and seem to have left out of this job description, are a thing here.  

So lest you think I only preach about snakes, crows and spiders, let’s consider with hospitality the presence of these sometimes-unwanted and less-than-loved local critters that find their homes in the rafters and tall trees and crawl spaces and floorboards. Are these un-legged and too-many-legged and winged creatures less important to God than the precious sparrows which nest nearby the altar of the Holy? Are these creepy-crawlies and squawking scavengers to be devoid of house and home? God created these animals and insects, our neighbors, to be at home in this world just as much as we are created to be at home in this world.  

Our Scripture today, Psalm 84, was probably composed to mark a pilgrimage to the holy temple in Jerusalem. “How lovely is the dwelling place of the Most High God, the Lord of heavenly forces!” the pilgrims sang as they traveled towards the geographical center of their faith, their home away from home. This was in a time when people all over ancient Mesopotamia made sense of the world through worshipping a diverse pantheon of gods and goddesses. Each god had their own particular gifts and abilities, and each god had a house. Different temples were constructed to worship different deities. The temple in Jerusalem was where the Israelites went to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who liberated them from their oppression under Egyptian rule, the God of David and his son Solomon, who saw fit to construct a temple, a beautiful home for God to dwell. God would no more wander with the Israelites, contained in the ark of the covenant, moving from place to place as the twelve tribes of Israel and their descendants traversed the ancient land. In the temple Solomon built, the Ark of the Covenant would live in the Holy of Holies, the most holy space, where Godself dwells. When the Ark of the Covenant was placed into the holiest room in the inner sanctum of the Jerusalem temple, Solomon said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  

So, in other words, God lives here but God can also get around and walk about a little bit? And if this sounds a little weird, that the God of the cosmos could be made so small to dwell in this one particular building in this one particular place, hear the words of our gathering hymn: “Not just in buildings, small and confining, not in some heaven, lightyears away. Here in this place the new light is shining, now is God present and now is the day.” This hymn calls to us to consider the particularity of God. The Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of the whole entire universe, enthroned in the heavens, breathing the breath of life into every single creature that slithers, crawls, walks and flies, giving each bird its song, giving each rose its color, making the dry valleys flow strong with fresh water…that Creator also chooses to dwell in a particular place. For the Israelite people, that was the Ark of the Covenant and then the temple in Jerusalem. 

This cultural backdrop is what the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem were thinking about. God has a house, a literal, physical house where we can go visit God. A place on the map. A true home away from home. In a way, that sounds really nice: “Here’s a place I can go visit that will always be here, where God will always be found. It’s God’s home and I am welcome here.”  

What does it mean to find a home in God’s temple? Think of this sparrow, who felt comfortable enough to nest in the temple, near the altar, perhaps near the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, despite all the hustle and bustle of temple priests and pilgrims paying tribute to the Most High God, and the organists warming up for Sunday worship and people greeting each other and people setting out cups for coffee hour. The temple of God, or the church of God, is often a really busy place! And yet we read that the sparrow finds enough comfort to build her nest, to lay her eggs, to prepare for the next generation. That kind of comfort is so needed in this world where we exterminate pests and alter habitats for drilling oil and natural gas, where people are plagued with wildfires that threaten their homes and livelihoods. To have a place where God is certain to be found, even as the natural world is changing and as the Israelite pilgrims remembered their time in exile. That certainty and that feeling of at-home-ness, provided the inspiration for this beautiful song of praise to God.  

But confining God to one location is also incredibly limiting. Because homes change. People beat pots and pans to stop sparrows from landing and making nests; we use brooms and heavy books and whatever sandals are nearby to squish any so-called “intruding” bugs; people lose their homes due to poor decisions, unfair management, natural disasters and rapidly shifting markets. Homes change. The fires the past couple weeks have been reminders of this fact.  

In December of 2008 my grandparents’ house burned down to the ground. Thankfully, my grandparents were not at home at the time, only returning from their bowling league when someone told them that a house on West Fort Street was on fire. It was their home, and they found themselves at 80 years old, homeless. Some faulty wiring in their attic caught fire and burned their home of 55 years to the foundations, leaving a few items burned or damaged by smoke. The family Bible was unable to be recovered. The bluebell china, one of the only valuable heirlooms, was all cracked, so grandma wasn’t able to give it to me like she had promised, a gift passed down to the women of our family. Family photos that were able to be recovered still smell of smoke to this day. My grandpa wasn’t able to be buried this past spring with the flag he received when he was discharged from the army after the Korean War.  

Though it was my grandparents who were faced with having to find a new home and rebuild their lives literally from the ground up, my whole family shared the experience of not being able to return home. The basement where we shared many Thanksgiving pies over the years, the living room where my cousins introduced me to Star Wars (the original trilogy, of course) and the bedroom where I slept when I was sure I saw Rudolf’s nose zipping by one snowy Christmas Eve, all gone. The building that had been converted from a one-room Nazarene church to a home for my grandparents, four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren was gone, the walls and carpet and windows and doors and items held within all gone. In the days that followed we had to re-learn and re-create what home meant to my family. We could never go home again. We had to learn how to be home without a building.   

That white-hot truth is facing so many people in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, as the fires burn through the Pacific Northwest landscape, sending smoke and some ash even as far as to cover my Prius in my driveway here in the city. That prickly truth also impacts countless flora and fauna residents of this bioregion. And yes, as forestry officials remind us, fire is not always destructive in negative and desecrating ways that steal homes and memories and lives. Sometimes it can be constructive, as certain trees need fire in order to reproduce, in order for their seedpods and cones to open up and reveal the seeds of the next generation. But the fires make our temperatures and emotions rise uncontrollably, and the smoke makes it hard to see and breathe. We can’t see familiar landmarks in front of us, we can’t discern where we should go. The fire and smoke obscures how we see our home. The fire and smoke disrupt our daily lives, perhaps enough to be frustrated and cough more. Perhaps enough to wonder why this is the new normal for our bioregion. Perhaps enough to wonder how unhoused people in our city can make a home in this “new normal.”  

I recently learned about an app called “Find It, Fix It,” which purports to “report selected issues” to the City of Seattle. Apparently on this app (are you familiar with it?) you can report a pothole, a broken-down car, a malfunctioning parking meter and anything else you find that fits the list of undesirable things in our city, near our homes. Did you know that there are some people in our city who make the list of “undesirables”? I bet you know who they are. In a recent Atlantic article, a journalist interviewed neighbors in Seattle who reported unhoused people sleeping in public areas to the City government using this “find it, fix it” app. Find IT, fix IT. How dehumanizing, to refer to another being made in the image of God as an “IT.” People are not to be found and fixed, they are to be embraced and enfolded and held. They are to be seen and heard and understood as precious vessels of the breath and creativity of God. They are to be treated with dignity and hospitality, to be shown compassion that soothes dry valleys with springs of living water. If the sparrow, and the snake and the crow and the spider are welcome to nest near the altar of the Holy One, how much more are human beings welcomed?  

The writer of this psalm said “one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere!” That is how good, how right, how true it felt to be even reaching the doorstep to the temple of God. How much safety, comfort, and hospitality touched even the courtyard of God’s house. But let’s go beyond this courtyard as we seek to welcome all people so that they might find home near the dwelling place of God. The incredible musicians of Sweet Honey in the Rock share these words in one of their songs 

“There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, 

no mirrors in my Nana’s house. 

There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, 

no mirrors in my Nana’s house. 

And the beauty that I saw in everything 

was in her eyes (like the rising of the sun).  

 

I never knew that my skin was too black. 

I never knew that my nose was too flat. 

I never knew that my clothes didn’t fit. 

I never knew there were things that I’d missed, 

cause the beauty in everything 

was in her eyes (like the rising of the sun); 

…was in her eyes.” 

Perhaps the pilgrims reaching the outer courtyard of God, being just-this-close to God’s dwelling place among the people, felt this way. “The beauty of everything was in her eyes,” and that’s what it felt like to be home. And the composer of Psalm 84 knew some of this feeling too, knew that the Holy One was not only to be found in “buildings confining” and “not in some heaven lightyears away.” The psalmist also met God along the path to the temple, along the highways and byways, on the journey. As they passed through the dry valley of Baca, supposedly a deeply barren place, the psalmist writes that springs of fresh water flourish in the deserted place. The psalmist saw the beauty in everything, never knowing that the valley was dry, never believing that water could never be found there again. This transformative view of that which is dry being made fertile again spoke to the psalmist of God’s presence with the pilgrims, of God’s presence with the parched land. Perhaps Nana’s house, for Sweet Honey in the Rock, speaks of God’s house. No mirrors were present to enlarge the pieces of ourselves that society tells us are undesirable. No mirrors to make us question our belonging, our beauty, our worth. Perhaps we also can see the beauty in everything as we consider what it means to make home, what it means to feel home near the altars of the Lord while understanding the Holy One as a dynamic, transformative Living God at work out and about in the world. As my friend Joy Bronson shared on a recent episode of the Theosophia podcast, “why would God create this big beautiful world if God didn’t want us to find God there?”  

Our God is both a God of all-encompassing love, justice and mercy, as well as a God who chooses to particularly dwell with particular people. This God is specific. This God calls our names. This God knows what we look like and what our favorite foods are and what fears we hold close to our hearts and where to find us when we have turned away from love. This God is dynamic, transformative, creative and redemptive. This God is not only found in buildings that are dark and confining, not only in some eschatological hope of future peace and prosperity in heaven, this God was alongside the pilgrims on the journey, transforming the dry valley externally as well as their internal dry valleys. The pilgrims found God in the temple in Jerusalem, but they also found God along their journey. I imagine that all of the pilgrims found ways to find the dwelling place of God within their own hearts.  

And so wherever we are, let’s make a home, and let us do it together. Let’s make a home where we can sing the songs of our faith with gusto, where we can raise our children together in safety and wisdom. Let’s make a home with no mirrors, where we don’t seek external signs of our internal worth but we see it reflected in each other’s eyes and in each other’s actions and in each other’s lives. Whether you dwell now in the place where your parents and grandparents lived and loved and worshipped; whether you are far away from those you love most in the world, geographically or emotionally; whether you have spiders in your sinks and bats in your balcony and crows sitting on your car; whether you have been separated by the veil of death from those who remind you who you are; let us remind each other: you are where God dwells. We are where God dwells.  

“There are no mirrors in God’s house, no mirrors in God’s house. The beauty I saw in everything, the beauty in everything, was in God’s eyes.”  

May it ever be so.  

 

This sermon originally preached on August 26, 2018 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

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Fools, Cynics and Good Christians Like Us

On my first morning in Seattle, after arriving to my new apartment at about midnight and getting less-than-adequate sleep due to nerves and the time change, I awoke early–very early–around 5:30 am. Not on purpose. There were a bunch of crows (which are apparently quite common here) caw-ing at other birds around my apartment building, having a grand ole time flapping around and cussing in bird-speak at each other. Or perhaps they were saying good morning. But for my purposes, it was cussing. How could they be so rude? How could they not know that I just moved across the whole entire country and needed some rest? The thought crossed my mind: “now I’m awake, I have more time to contemplate how much nicer sleeping would be.”

What a cynical response, Pastor Anita! How snarky you are! And yes, we all do have our moments where cynicism seems like the best response, either to get a laugh or relate to someone or just to cope with life’s ups and downs.

oscar the grouch cynciAnd y’all, there’s a lot of coping to be done right now, isn’t there? This week has hurt. This week has been filled with disappointing and dangerous announcements from our government; with stories of children separated from their families, unsure of how and when they will reunite; with tales of horror from Nicaragua; with news of fires devouring homes; with heartbreaking stories of yet more young black people being targeted for violence by white people with weapons. I’m sure we can add our own personal hurts, disappointments, fears and anxieties to this list much too easily.

The author of our Scripture text today knew a bit about the suffering and injustice in the world. Psalm 14, in the Common English Bible, reads: “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God. They are corrupt and do evil things; not one of them does anything good. The Lord looks down from heaven on humans to see if anyone is wise, to see if anyone seeks God, but all of them have turned bad. Everyone is corrupt. No one does good—not even one person!” This is quite an indictment, and one that surely transcends time.

You see, the psalms were composed thousands and thousands of years ago, when the ancient Mesopotamian world was controlled by warring empires who sought to stretch their borders and increase their might and enlarge their purses. They were willing to do this at any cost, which often meant the lives of the least among them. Many cities were allowed to maintain their own governments after the large empire swept through, as long as they would pay tribute. And so, seeking to please the empire and keep the empire’s army far away from their cities, local governors and bureaucrats would turn to corruption, keeping the peasant class disenfranchised so that they might maintain their own standard of living. And so, in the ancient world, mind you, it became so that cities and nations and empires were highly stratified societies. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer under the careful and threatening watch of the empire. And so, many people turn to psalms of lament and exasperation, to cynical responses, to getting their news from late-night satirists, to jokes-that-aren’t-really-jokes,if-you-know-what-I-mean … or did I just skip over a few millennia?

The author of psalm 14 refers to “fools” who do no good and “devour my people like they are eating bread but never calling upon the Lord.” Injustice was rampant in ancient Israelite society, particularly after the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the author expresses their exasperation as the psalmists do so well: heavy-hitting truth-telling coupled with a “prophetic oracle of judgment.” (J. David Pleins) These “fools” are blamed for the exploitation of people that is as common as eating bread, these “fools” are predicted to panic when Israel’s salvation comes, when the Lord changes the people’s circumstances for the better.

If I am honest, I have always heard that these “fools” the psalmist condemns are the atheists. Have you heard that as well? “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” quip vociferous TV evangelists and mega-church preachers. “And do you want to be a fool? Turn to Jesus!” And honestly, no, I don’t want to be called a fool. And I find the assertion that atheists and non-Christians are fools upsetting and offensive to people who have found a moral code somewhere other than in Judeo-Christian teachings. As we know all too well, just saying you’re a Christian does not exonerate you forever; we Christians are as capable of moral failings as non-Christians. But that’s neither here nor there, really, because it’s not atheists the psalmist condemns. In psalm 14, “fool” is used not as a description of intellectual capability or philosophical belief but as a moral category.

In the preaching companion “Feasting on the Word,” Alyce McKenzie writes that the author of psalm 14 is calling fools not those who “refute God’s existence,” but who “dismiss God’s relevance.” They are “practical atheists” who seek no accountability from their community or from their Creator God. God might exist, but it doesn’t really matter to these “fools” the psalmist considers.  And the hard truth is that sometimes I am a fool in this sense.  I find comfort in my racial, class and educational privilege so that the problems of the world do not touch me as much. I rely on my own self and my own understanding when I consider how to fix the world’s problems: some good logic and sound ethics should do the trick, is God even around? I choose not to trust and not to hope in God sometimes, when the hurt and brokenness and pain in the world get to be too much. The “practical atheist” in me is like someone meeting their friends at a party. “Oh, Jehovah’s not here yet? Ok, I’ll just chill on my own and take care of this myself.”

This summer we have been looking to Barbara Gibson’s reimagining of the psalms. And instead of talking about “fools,” she pushes us to think about “cynics.” Even though I just grudgingly admitted to being a “fool,” in the Biblical sense here, Barbara really challenges me with her “the cynical people say there is no truth.” Woah. How am I supposed to react to that? She’s talking about me.

The sometimes-raunchy, most-times hilarious website UrbanDictionary defines a cynic as “someone who always expects the worst and most selfish motives out of everyone and everything. Otherwise known as experienced.” Case in point. The musical group Nana Grizol’s song “Cynicism” contains these poignant words that deliver their own definition: “Cynicism isn’t wisdom, it’s a lazy way to say that you’ve been burned.” Stephen Colbert adds these words: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no.”

In these challenging times, as we may be tempted to be a “practical atheist” and deny God’s relevance to our political and personal situations, we may be tempted to be “lost in our own confusion” and “see no reason to feel hope,” as Barbara put it. If we can be honest together, we must acknowledge that the “fools who live without accountability” and “cynics who say there is no truth,” the modern day versions of those empire-abetting Mesopotamian governors who exploit the peasant class, are also sitting in churches. Sometimes I think of that old Pogo cartoon that says, “I have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.”

But Psalm 14 does not leave us there, sitting in our grief and confusion and guilt as we realize that perhaps we are the ones who act the fool or play the cynic at different points of our lives. The psalm carries an exhortation to all of us, inviting us to consider the harm that we perpetrate and perpetuate, challenging us to transform our behaviors, to stop exploiting and devouring those whom we see as less-than us. We need not live this way.

Stephen Colbert named that cynics often say “no,” and we see that in the Scripture’s beginning lines: “fools say there is no God,” “cynics say there is no truth.” But then Colbert continues his quote, offering this challenge to cynicism: “But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. So, for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.’”

This is what the author of psalm 14 is talking about. When we give up our cynicism, we find that we are embedded in an interlocking community of all creation. Fighting cynicism means accepting accountability. It means embracing the idea that situations of injustice can change and that we can positively participate in that change. Resisting cynicism means resisting the powers that lull us to complacency, telling us that we have no need of God, no need of accountability, no need of anyone and anything outside ourselves. We find that we belong to each other. That our salvation is bound up in each other. That our lives depend on each other.

A few weeks ago, Tim called us to consider the topic of belonging, a difficult concept. And here, in the midst of Psalm 14, it resurfaces, as the psalmist laments the lack of belonging in their community that has been perpetuated by injustice. Belonging also pervades as we notice the end of the psalm where the psalmist calls forth deliverance and salvation for their community. Salvation is a communal activity, it has not been distilled into the simple individualistic “I’m going to heaven” or “Jesus died for MY sins” that many of us are familiar with. No, at the close of the psalm, the writer, refers to all of the house of Jacob, the whole community of Israel, who will be delivered. Even the fools and cynics were included, because, according to Pogo, “they is us.” As Barbara Gibson writes, “too many people find no meaning in life. They have closed their hearts to the mystery. Don’t they know the bread of life is baked for them too, not just the earthly bread? All they have to do is ask.”

And ask we must. Those among us who have hardened our hearts to the mystery of belonging, who have found ourselves complacent in our positions near the top of the food chain, who have unquestioningly relied on our own reason and strength. We must ask for the bread of life to be shared, for the cup of hope to be passed to us as we engage in truly belonging to each other. Many in our midst have been participating in the conversations on race with Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, our Executive Minister for the Evergreen Region of American Baptists. Throughout the past three Wednesdays, the groups that have gathered have considered the various privileges we carry with us, particularly the racial privilege that many of us have by virtue of nothing but birth. These weeks have led us through individual and communal defensiveness, pain, frustration, confusion, self-reflection and careful consideration of where we go from here. These weeks have shown us the hard beauty that comes with throwing aside our foolish lack of accountability and tossing off the binds of cynical complacency, as we learn how to love all people better.

And so for as long as we have the strength, will we say “yes”? To growing? To seeking truth? To hoping when hope seems hopeless? It is entirely too easy for good, kind, justice-seeking Christians to be cynical right now. There are so many things to say “no” to, so many places in our world where wisdom and life experience and kindness and hope seem just not good enough anymore.

The quote at the top of your bulletin is one that I have loved for a long time. “Hope is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.” And I ask you, friends, where is hope to be found, when even Good Christians Like Us are caught up in examining and undoing our privilege and divesting from the ways we exploit “the least of these”? Good Christians like us…well, according to Barbara Gibson, we must seek to tell the truth. Not the cynical truth. The real truth. That life is hard. Injustice is still rearing its head. And yet, we must affirm that God is real and present with us. We must embrace the mystery of loving and living that calls us to resist powers that separate the strong from the weak. Resist the temptation to greed that separates the rich from the poor. Resist the pull of scarcity and fear that leads us to horde and put up fences and hide from our neighbors. Because Jesus did not call us to do what is easy. He called us to do what is right. He invited us to participate in our salvation by asking these questions, undoing privileges, engaging in brave conversations, asserting our common humanity: fools, cynics, good Christians like us alike. He asked us to demonstrate hope by recognizing God’s presence with us in the midst of injustice. God is as near to us as our bodies, Barbara Gibson reminds us.

It may be dark. It may be scary. It may be divisive. People may be dying. So, friends, hear the Good News: here we are, fools and cynics and good Christians with the work cut out for us. We are the birds awakening in the middle of the night so that we might call out to our God, call out for all to hear that hope is not hopeless, that the light is yet coming! The light is on its way, even now! So let us embrace the mystery of how we belong to each other as witnesses to the image of the Divine in each of us. Let us lean into the hope we find in God’s constant unfailing presence, “in spite of our cynicism and fear,” Barbara writes. And I’d add, “in spite of our foolishness.” Though the night is still very dark, the dawn is breaking.

May it ever be so.

This sermon originally preached at Seattle First Baptist Church on July 29, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Our Father It? a blog from Christianity Now.

There’s a new online publication in town, answering questions of why Christianity is relevant to the modern world. Check it out at christianity-now.com. I recently wrote a blog entitled Is Our Father It?, so head over to the website and check it out.

http://christianity-now.com/is-our-father-it/