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 Sermons, Writing

A Living World Demands It: A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9

Many of you probably know by now that one of the things getting me through this time of COVID-19 is my garden. It’s not a big garden, but it’s certainly a joyful one. Cherry and San Marzano tomatoes, Kentucky wonder pole beans, marigolds, a wee cucumber and, of course, strawberries. One of my very favorite things in all the world, I knew I had to have strawberries in my little garden. 

Fast forward to June, when the beginnings of a red tint shown onto the ripening berries. I checked them morning and night, waiting for just the right moment before I could pick a ripe berry grown by my own hands. 

I was looking forward to these…

But I wasn’t prepared for the squirrels. Now, I thought the birds might also be interested in the strawberries, so I acquired some bird netting and fashioned a barrier that little birdies couldn’t get through. But the clever gray squirrels in my neighborhood made quick work of these edible rubies. I raged for a few days, staring out the window obsessively and rushing outside every time I saw a squirrel. But at some point, I have to make my peace with this outcome. At some point, I have to smile ruefully, remembering Wendell Berry’s words “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

At some point, I have to accept that I planted something that serves a different purpose than I anticipated. 

There are some things that we just can’t control in life. We all know this, whether we’ve come by this knowledge by way of gardening or job searches or raising children or facing medical diagnoses. And in some way, the subject of this parable, the sower, knows this, too. 

Farming in first century Palestine was different than in the USA today. There were no irrigation systems, no mechanized equipment, and no pH testing of soils. Some of you may be chuckling to yourselves that this last farming advancement might have been welcome to this sower who was scattering seeds all over whatever soil was available. How could they not know that the soil was rocky? How could they not see the birds nesting in the trees and waiting for some easy snacks? How could the sower not understand that the thorns would choke whatever attempted to grow? Maybe this sower was not terribly preoccupied with efficiency and gross yield. The information that we see, the questions that occur to us in our privileged positions in the 21st century, exist in a whole different universe from the original telling of this parable. Theodore J. Wardlaw in the Feasting on the Word commentary says we are dealing with a “High-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil—as if it were all potentially good soil, which leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.”

So the farmer isn’t the foil in this story. The farmer is taking the extravagant risk to spread the seed everywhere, hoping something will grow. Maybe the result won’t be what she was expecting, but planting seeds is an act of faith. It is an act of trust. At some point, humans can’t do anything more to make plants grow. At some point, the seeds are in the ground and it depends on the health of the soil to be ready to nurture them. At some point, the generosity of God becomes clear as growth occurs. 

This parable has been used to describe the task of discipleship. The word of God falls on many more people than who internalize it and understand it and commit to it. It takes work to follow the Way of Jesus, and not everyone accepts the call. It takes work to follow the words of Micah 6:8, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God…and not everyone says yes. 

So how do we say yes and accept the call to discipleship? Will we be like the sower, moving forward in faith and sharing the good news indiscriminately? How can we prepare ourselves and our congregation and our community to nurture the sprouts of justice that are sowed? 

My friend Jimmy is a gardener in many senses of the word. Sometimes he can be heard talking about holy compost, the stuff that must be laid into the soil to encourage growth. Holy compost can be icky, stinky, decaying, just like its organic counterparts. For something new and healthy to grow, often it takes other material to be let die, to be grieved and allowed to decompose. 

In the past four months, our world, our lives, our communities and our church have changed immensely. We have had to let some of our comfort go, allowed “the way things are always done” to be let go, set aside ideas of what we expect life together to look like…this is a time of holy composting. This is a time when we are reimagining what church is and preparing for something new to take place. In this time we are also going through a long-range planning process, in which more than 120 people participated. We are also attempting to confront white supremacy in our world, in Seattle, even in our own congregation and especially in our own selves. For so many of us, any one of these things at any time would feel overwhelming, would cause us to reevaluate our lives, would encourage us to think deeply about what the Holy Spirit is doing in and among the members of this congregation. Let alone confronting these and more world-shaking issues in the midst of a global pandemic when so many are facing uncertainty with their jobs, schools, healthcare and more! So for some, this time of composting might feel like decaying, and there might be feelings of loss, betrayal, heartbreak, guilt and shame. We can grieve that together, all the while knowing that this holy compost is fertilizing the soil so that something fruitful will occur.

So we can compost. But we also have to put in our own work. We have to dig and hoe and till. We have to organize and strategize. We have to give our time, sweat, labor. We have to relinquish land, money, privilege, social status. The questions ahead of us are these: What will we be willing to put in to prepare our community to nurture seeds of justice? Are we willing to listen to those inside and outside our community who have been living with their backs up against the wall? As we contemplate a long-range plan, will we put aside our pride? As we delve into confronting the white supremacy in our own church systems, will we admit we don’t know everything? In this time of composting, will we let others lead? Will we risk angering people we love as we show up for just causes, as we say “things don’t have to be like they have always been”? Will we accept that the things we plant might have a different purpose than what we anticipated? 

I hope that many of you have read Parable of the Sower by Afro-futurist sci-fi author Octavia Butler. For those of you who haven’t, here is a brief description of the book. Out of the literal ashes, the main character, Lauren, a young Black woman, makes her way towards a new life, leading others who are inspired and empowered by her revolutionary conception of faith. This new order of spirituality is called Earthseed, and contains verses like this: “Create no images of God. Accept the images that God has provided. They are everywhere, in everything. God is Change— Seed to tree, tree to forest; Rain to river, river to sea; Grubs to bees, bees to swarm. From one, many; from many, one; Forever uniting, growing, dissolving— forever Changing. The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

There is holy compost at work in Parable of the Sower. The way of living that privileged profit over people, that was entrenched in white supremacy, that bore little patience for the gift of empathy that made Lauren who she needed to be to find a way to go on…that way of living had to pass away. “God is change,” Lauren says, and to truly embrace this understanding of God is to embrace the fact that another world is possible. That something new can arise out of the ashes of the old. That there are things we can’t, and shouldn’t control, like the yield of a balcony garden that feeds local squirrels. 

I’d like to share an excerpt of an essay by Octavia Butler pertinent to this conversation about sowers and seed and soil:

“SO DO YOU REALLY believe that in the future we’re going to have the kind of trouble you write about in your books?” a student asked me as I was signing books after a talk. The young man was referring to the troubles I’d described in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.“I didn’t make up the problems,” I pointed out. ‘All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.’

“Okay,” the young man challenged. “So what’s the answer?”

“There isn’t one,” I told him.

“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.

“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

http://kalamu.com/neogriot/2013/07/09/history-octavia-butler-gave-us-a-few-rules-for-predicting-the-future/

Beloved church, you are the sowers. 

You are one of the thousands of answers, if you choose to be. You may be spread in rocky, thorn-laden soil or exposed to birds of prey. But in this time of holy composting, as the world as it was is slipping away, you can choose not to scrabble at the past in attempts to control the future. You can become part of the compost, part of the nutrients that feed the soil and help new things grow. You can grow, despite the situations of your life that have taught you you can’t change. 

In a recent Sojourners article entitled “What the Church can Learn from Octavia Butler,” my friend and pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Boston, Cody Sanders, wrote, “In order to be faithful in this hour, we can’t lie to ourselves believing that things are so bad that they can’t be changed. Nor can we believe that things will inevitably be better sooner or later. Either is tempting to believe. Neither is true.” 

Friends, embarking on the journey, asking the questions, listening intently, wondering at the future…these are Lauren Olumina’s gifts that make it possible to emerge from the ashes, these are the high-risk sower’s gifts that encourage faith in the midst of change. So what are we willing to do to be soil that yields growth? Are we willing to change as God, through Jesus, invites us to so that we are conspirators building the Beloved Kin-dom?

Like the sower, we can’t predict or control the outcome of our acts of faith. But we can accept that God is in the changes, perhaps that God is change itself. 

Like the sower, we can express radical hope by spreading the gospel of inclusive love on all whom we meet, through our words and our actions, our presence and our protest. 

In the words of Octavia Butler, in Parable of the Sower

“There is no end 

To what a living world 

Will demand of you.” 

May you ever listen to that voice that calls you to help build a living world. 

Amen. 

This sermon originally preached for Seattle First Baptist Church on July 12, 2020.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

Pretty Words for Messy Work: A Sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8

Today is Graduate Recognition Sunday. Now, I know there are a lot of jokes that can go around about graduation speeches, lots of cliches and worn-out metaphors and cheesy illustrations…I have experienced several graduations in my life, the most recent of which was only two years ago, in advance of my moving to Seattle and serving in ministry with you. I can confirm that many graduation speeches have these hallmarks of cheesiness. And also, many don’t, and it’s a shame that many don’t remember the wisdom shared. But, it’s also understandable. Because graduations are a time of life transition, a liminal time where there is tension between leaving the sureness of the past and venturing into the unknown future. Whether you or a loved one are transitioning from kindergarten to grade school, from middle- to high-school, from high-school to college or into a degree program or finishing education, graduation times are liminal. Life transitions can be exciting, because it is often good news that situations change, that things don’t have to be as they always were, that something new is on the horizon. And it’s also natural to experience fear, anxiety, and trepidation when you are called forth, called to attend to something new beyond yourself and embrace a new way of living. 

Enter our Scripture for the day, which Delia read so well, the story of Jesus calling the disciples. I think it’s easy to gloss past this part of the gospel of Matthew, hurrying on to get to the good stuff of healings, preachings, parables and more. Why do we need to know the names of the disciples or where they’re from or what their professions were? That’s boring information, I’m here to learn about Jesus!

Though the disciples’ personal stories may go the way of common graduation speeches and fade soon from memory, let’s take a moment to get to know these folks. Because they, like today’s graduates, like all of us in this current societal moment, are being called to something beyond themselves. In this group of disciples, we have two sets of brothers: Simon Peter and Andrew; James and John. We have a tax collector, Matthew, who worked for the Empire and was probably not a popular person because of his profession. We have Simon from Canaan, who in Luke’s gospel and Acts is also referred to as a “zealot,” so he would have been a passionate revolutionary who probably didn’t get along so well with Matthew being in the pocket of the Empire. We have Thomas, who we know had a lot of doubts about the Jesus movement. And we have Judas, who eventually would trade insider information about Jesus resulting in his arrest and violent death at the hands of the state. 

And Jesus, gathered this motley crew, “gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness,” taught them to travel unencumbered across the land, relying on the hospitality of strangers, refusing payment for their services and living simply. 

One must ask, perhaps a la Thomas, if the disciples knew what they were getting into when they faced that moment of transition. We hear in other Scriptures about how Peter left his home and family, James and John left their father, the fisherman Zebedee. They lived with a common purse and shared all things, and sometimes were chased out of town, and were watched by imperial spies. So what made them become followers of the Way? 

I’d argue they knew what they were doing, at least in part. Jesus offered a vision of how life could be, a vision that was so tempting and world-bending that it was worth leaving behind the security of life the way they had always lived. 

And so today, I ask you, do you see the vision? Do you feel the world that is possible, and, to quote author Arundhati Roy, that is so close you “can hear her breathing”?

Let me be clear: I’m not only asking our graduates this question, because in my brief experience of these people in our community, they have vision. The graduates we celebrate today have a vision of a world characterized by peace, they make music, they think deeply, they demonstrate for justice in the streets, they take action in their schools, they work with children, they advocate for accessible teaching pedagogies. Nola, Sarah, Eva, Jessica, David, Anna have a vision of a better world. 

So I ask again, do you see the vision of the world that is possible? And I suggest that it is closer than we may think. 

Detroit-based activist, author and movement strategist adrienne maree brown suggests that USAmerican society is suffering from a crisis of imagination. This resonates deeply with me, as there are many places in my individual life and our collective life as a country that I have taken for granted, been apathetic and even cynical towards, thinking those intoxicating words “this is how it’ll always be.” On last week’s episode of the podcast “The Word is Resistance,” a project of the Faith division of the Showing Up for Racial Justice organization, Jean Jeffress, a minister from Oakland, CA, shared this characterization of our current situation in the United States: “The US empire has literally never been anything but a white supremacist holdout that literally fought a war against itself to try to keep black people enslaved and has for centuries written into its laws and customs the violent exclusion of every nonwhite person and, lets face it, every non-Christian tradition. And then there’s capitalism…and it just screws everyone over.” Indeed, a crisis of imagination deeply plagues this country for us to wind up in a place where justice has still not reached our Black, brown and indigenous siblings. 

Again, Jean Jeffress, “There is nothing creative about white supremacy. There is nothing creative about colonialism or the building up and crumbling of empires over the millennia. There is nothing creative about imperialism or the violence it takes to maintain imperial order and rule over imperial subjects. There is nothing creative about capitalism or patriarchy, all tools of empire. All of these things are based on extraction. Of labor, resources, human beings for forced labor, culture, language, history, stories, religion, music, extraction of the very breath from the bodies of God’s children.”

adrienne maree brown encourages me, encourages us, to combat this crisis of imagination and push in whatever ways we can for a renewed spirit of creativity towards liberation.  I highly recommend her book Emergent Strategy, a concept which she describes as “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”

Beloved church, these are pretty words for messy work. 

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve had family and friends from across the country reach out to me because of the things they’re seeing on the news about Seattle. “Why are the police tear gassing protestors with umbrellas?” “Do you know anyone in the front lines?” “Why would there need to be street medics?” “What does it mean to ‘Defund the Police’?” And, of course, “What is this Autonomous Zone all about?”

I have to admit I’ve had trouble knowing what to say, at times. There’s a lot of misinformation going around about what has been and is happening a mere few blocks from our church home in Capitol Hill. The images we have been seeing conjure feelings from anger to un-surprise to shock to galvanizing for action. Police using rubber bullets at close range against protestors, spraying children with pepper spray, releasing tear gas on protestors. Journalists running away as flash bang grenades are thrown towards them. Friends writing each other’s phone numbers on their arms in case of arrest or medical emergency. A car surging through a group of protesters and the driver shooting someone trying to protect others…then being arrested calmly with little force. Legal observers staying vigilant through hours and hours of rising tension. Neighbors filming from above in hopes their view of the streets below will be enlightening. 

And, we have also seen regular people exercising their imaginations as they creatively show up for each other. Local businesses opening their doors to share food with protestors, to shield them from gas. Nurses who finish COVID-19 testing all day volunteering their time as street medics. Barricades in the street covered with graffiti, guerilla gardens popping up in street medians, black and brown activists telling their stories to white folks who actually put their lives on pause to listen and learn, poetry written on the pavement, the documentary 13th showing on a screen in Cal Anderson park, people making food for each other and giving it away freely, community health advocates helping people in need. “Black Lives Matter” painted in a rainbow of colors and patterns down Pine Street. (If you haven’t seen a photo of this mural, it is stunning.)

https://www.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/h8er1i/black_lives_matter_mural_on_east_pine_street_in/

Here we have a vision of what could be. People showing up, with their own life experiences, multifaceted identities, and varying levels of access to resources, embracing the vision of the Autonomous Zone, a vision of a world beyond punitive policing. This is a vision from our Black, brown and indigenous siblings, and I want to follow this vision. A vision of what is possible when people treat each other with kindness, generosity, compassion, when people demand accountability from systems that have gone unchecked. I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the Autonomous Zone, but I must admit that the vision is beautiful. It is a vision of what a world characterized by imagination can do and what a creative community can be.

Hear this poem from adrienne maree brown:

There is an edge

Beyond which we cannot grasp the scale

Of our universe.

That border,

That outer boundary

Is imagination.

The only known edge of existence

The only one we can prove by universal experience –

We can imagine so much!

We can only imagine so much.

If perhaps it is a function of our collective minds

A dream of our endless nights

Then there will be abundance so long as we can imagine it –

Abundance on earth

If we can imagine it

Or abundance of earths

A sphere for every tribe

And every combination.

And to have it all

All we need is to remember

there is an edge

And grow our dreams beyond it.

Friends, we must expand our imagination. As we grow our dreams beyond the edges that surround us, hear this good news: though the systems of entrenched power and privilege thrive on extraction and apathy, to quote Jean Jeffress again, “God extracts nothing. The power of God is the power of life. Is the power of grass growing up through concrete, is the power of extinct species reappearing, which has happened recently. Is the power of black and brown people in the US surviving and being glorious even though nearly every ounce of political and institutional will has been used to crush and dehumanize. God is the power of creation, not extraction. God is creation and creation is alive.”

Beloveds, the gospel today is that another world is possible. The good news is that we are experiencing a sacred call to work for justice and to cultivate God’s vision. The good news is that things don’t always have to be this way, the good news is that after decades and decades of advocacy against police brutality, Black and brown activists are seeing traction. The good news is that WE have been called to be disciples of Jesus, to follow the Way of Jesus, to spread compassion, to heal, to decry the evils of systemic sin, to engage in the movement with each our own gifts and talents. The good news is that in a liminal time, Jesus gathered a motley crew of people from all walks of life, to think creatively and to live into a vision of another world. Indeed, that’s what God is doing with us TODAY. 

May we travel by the Way of Justice as we join in the building of a Beloved Community. Amen. 

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Originally preached for Seattle First Baptist Church, June 14, 2020.

Posted in Sermons

Finding Our Way

Scripture John 14:1-14

When I was in elementary school, sometimes my grandpa would pick me up from school. He’d drive up in his Camry and announce that we were going on an adventure. Usually this involved some form of getting “lost” along the 15 mile stretch of farmland that separated our small towns. Grandpa would ask me which way to turn onto country roads flanked by rows of corn, wheat and soybeans, and then at some point say delightedly, “Ok, we’re good and lost. How do we find our way home?” 

And I, aged six or seven or eight years old, learned not to be scared by being lost. You see, Grandpa had shared with me some skills to help me find our way home. He had taught me to navigate by the sun. With a map in hand and a watch telling the time and a clear view of the sun, I could usually get us homeward bound. Every time I look towards the sky, I remember those lessons in way-finding.

In this Scripture passage from John chapter 14, Jesus is surrounded by people who are feeling lost and confused. This passage is part of the Farewell Discourse, kind of the last instructions Jesus gave before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.” And Thomas, bless his heart, says, “But we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” 

And then Jesus shares these words, “I myself am the Way—I am Truth, and I am life.” 

Well, ok, Jesus, that really clears it up. Thanks for the obvious and to-the-point answer. 

Honestly, I feel a lot of kinship with Thomas, whose name is often synonymous with a lack of faith. Especially right now, as institutions across the country and world are planning the way forward with reopening industry and businesses. Especially right now, as some shelter in place orders remain through May, as they do in Washington State, and others expire earlier, or have expired already. I wonder how we can know the way forward when so many talk optimistically about the lessons our society can learn during this pandemic, and yet every news cycle reveals this country is still dreadfully sick with the poison of white supremacy that results in the murder of beloved black and brown children of God. 

Thomas has a point, doesn’t he? How can we know the way?  

Most of us are probably familiar with sayings that assure us that meaning is in our journey and not our destination. I wonder what Thomas would say about that. It seems like in this passage the disciples are taking Jesus’ words literally, concerning a literal destination of a house that has many rooms that Jesus is going to visit ahead of them. Thomas, Philip, Peter and others were worried about the physical location of Jesus so they could accompany him and continue ministry with him. But Jesus had different ideas. For him, The Way was not a path that could be marked on a map. The Way was a mode of living in collaboration with Truth and Life. The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures often referred to the way of wisdom, and following a path of life. This was the worldview into which Jesus was born, grew, lived and died. In fact, the early church was called “the followers of the Way.”  

Now, this famous Scripture passage continues as Jesus says the only way to know Abba God is through him, and that he and Abba God are one, indwelling together, recalling the poetic prologue to John that reads “In the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We must be careful with this text because so many Christians over time have used it to further their agenda of exclusivism. As followers of the Way of Jesus today, we know from living in this world, that nothing is so simple as insiders and outsiders, sheep and goats, good and bad. Those who show us the way are not always practicing Christians, are not always people we expect, people who are like us. Part of the Truth of living is that God is so much more than anything humans can conceive, and so we must not put God into a box that reflects our image. It is in this context of living everyday in a grayscale world, we join with Thomas in asking, “How can we know the way?” 

The answer is right there. Jesus is the Way, and the Way is Truth and Life. Jesus has shown us how to follow him, perhaps not footstep by footstep but by transforming our lives so we are people who understand our wellbeing as intimately tied up in the wellbeing of others. Jesus has shown us what truth is, what justice is, how to resist the tyranny of Empire, how to turn over tables used for economic exploitation. Jesus brings children to his side and listens to them, Jesus believes women and allows them to share their gifts in ministry, Jesus ministered to people who society had thrown away. He has shown us the Way, and we are called to Follow.  

Today, the Way of Jesus may seem hidden in our USAmerican society that prioritizes profit over people, but it isn’t going away. We can always come back to the path, pull away the vines and remove the logs from our eyes and follow once again. And, as Athena so beautifully sang, “no one is alone…people make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they’re alone…no one is alone…” Friends, as we follow the Way, as our complicated humanity causes us to stray from the path, let us know deep in our bones that we are not alone. 

That is one of the gifts of being community together: we are not alone. The saints of our hearts who have gone before show us the way. The church elders who love us and count us as family show us the way. The Godly Play teachers and youth group leaders and storytellers and poets and camp directors who help us experience the sacred stories and find our place among creative rituals show us the way. The parents, siblings, guardians and chosen family who nurture us and teach us how to be in the world show us the way. For Baptists, we proclaim our commitment to follow the Way of Jesus by participating in immersion baptism, surrounded by a community that covenants to journey with us on the Way.  

But how can we find the way in this time and place, when so often we feel, and are, isolated and alone? Social connection in the time of COVID-19 has proved to be a challenge. Technology is a blessing in many ways, and I count myself as one of many people who have learned so much throughout this time of physical distancing. But even as we gather using online platforms, there is a dynamic of connection that cannot be recovered, and that I pray about every day…the feeling of being present with each other in body. I feel so much joy in the dance parties and storytimes and Wednesday community gatherings and all of the online events we are doing together…and I also miss you. 

Last Sunday night, our youth group gathered virtually to watch Frozen 2 together. As we were messaging while watching the movie, there seemed to be general consensus in the appropriateness of this movie for the pandemic in which we find ourselves. For example, the magical snowman Olaf described how he practices “controlling the things I can when things feel out of control.” Perhaps living in this time is, as the Princess Anna sings towards the end of the movie, a matter of “doing the next right thing.” 

In the powerful song where Anna describes her descent into depression following a traumatic journey to find truth, Anna sings,  

“I won’t look too far ahead 

It’s too much for me to take 

But break it down to this next breath, this next step 

This next choice is one that I can make 

So I’ll walk through this night 

Stumbling blindly toward the light 

And do the next right thing 

And, with it done, what comes then? 

When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again 

Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice 

And do the next right thing.” 

Beloved church, what is the next right thing for you, and for us? In this uncertain time, you don’t need to have it all figured out. Heaven knows I don’t. But the way forward is remembering that we are not alone, and dedicating ourselves to doing the next right thing.  

Jesus left his disciples to follow the Way of Truth and of Life. The disciples had learned to navigate by following the Son, and so must we. We must follow this Way today, and every day of our lives. As we follow the Way we must proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of all people; decry white supremacist violence; and fight for economic justice for those living with their backs up against the wall, as Howard Thurman would say. This way is one that places the common health of our community above our desire to get a pedicure, that holds in the highest regard the freedom of religion for all, even those with whom we disagree. This Way is one where we proclaim Black Lives Matter, and where we join our voices from wherever we are worshipping this morning with Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of Ella Baker’s words, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” 

The next right thing is always advocating for freedom, for justice, for peace, for truth, for life, for love. This is how we can know the Way we are called to live. We are called to make this world a true home where all belong and are free. 

May it be so. 

This sermon originally preached for Seattle First Baptist on Zoom #quarantinepreaching on May 10, 2020.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

The View from Here: a Sermon on Psalm 130

Friends, it has been almost four weeks since I went to my first meeting between clergy and public health officials regarding COVID-19. I sat in the sanctuary of Queen Anne United Methodist Church on that Tuesday afternoon and listened to directions about how we had to try new norms at our church, like washing our hands and refraining from shaking hands, and how we should conduct disinfection several times a day, preferably following each group who is in our space. I thought, “Well, this is challenging but it’s practical, so we’ll do it.”

By the time I could share this information with our church staff meeting on Wednesday, one day later, everything had changed. Public Health recommendations had changed. Churches had begun to plan online-only worship. It happened so fast.

And the rest of March has been like that, too. Has this really all happened in the space of one month? Has the way of life that so many were accustomed to really drastically changed in the space of three weeks? We’ve gone from hearing about COVID-19 on the global news to worrying about our neighbors in Kirkland to being suspicious of anyone who coughs in public to self-quarantining to sheltering in place. 

Though no one would have wished for these circumstances to characterize our Lenten journey this year, I find myself grateful for the decision to spend Lent with the psalms, the poetic and literal center of our Scriptures that call us to remember our humanity in all of the range of emotions that are possible. And I am grateful for the Scriptures that are assigned to this day, the 5th Sunday in Lent. 

The psalmist writes, “I cry out to you from the depths, Lord–listen to my voice!”

How many times have I, have any of us, been in a position to utter these words– “God, listen! This is hard and I am scared! Don’t you hear me? I’m down here, lonely and depressed and isolated and anxious and frustrated, I am crying out to you!”

This is one reason I love the Wisdom Literature in the Bible, including the psalms and proverbs and Lamentations and Ecclesiastes: they are so relatable. If you are feeling something, anything, there is a psalm for it. 

However, in the USAmerican Christianity that surrounds us, Martin Marty is right when he says, “Talking about a cry from the depths does not fit into a theology that markets well, as theology is supposed to do today.”

And this is fitting. Because having empty church buildings and having to adapt quickly to web-based virtual church and not being able to be physically present with each other are ALSO not marketable. These things are hard, but they are where we are. And there is a psalm for this. And it’s our text for today. 

The psalmist begins in desperate exasperation, almost like they’ve been reading my mind as I pace around my 900-square-foot apartment over the past 15 days. But the psalmist does not stay there…they move into naming characteristics of God. The psalmist says that God is forgiveness, because, let’s be honest, if God kept track of every single sin that individuals (not to mention the collective) has done…we wouldn’t be in such great shape. But “forgiveness is with” God. God is not a punitive God who holds judgments against us forever, but rather, forgiveness is one of God’s characteristics.

And though our Lenten theme at Seattle First Baptist Church has been “turning,” the psalmist does not issue a call for repentance. They do not name their sins and implore God to forgive them, as other psalms do, they simply name that God forgives and claim their hope in God’s promise. 

They say, “My whole being waits for my Lord–more than the night watch waits for morning!”

Christians, of course, are used to waiting. During Advent, we have a candle lighting ritual that begins “Advent is a time for waiting. This is not your regular waiting, where you must stand in line for a long time and maybe get bored. Instead, during advent, we wait expectantly. We wait in anticipation of the good news coming soon. We wait to hear again the story that is as old as time, and yet being made new every day.” During Advent, we remember how the mother of Jesus waited to give birth, how Simeon and Anna had waited their whole lives for the revelation of the Messiah, one who would deliver the world into God’s justice. 

And Lent is a time of waiting too, as we slowly follow Jesus’ ministry towards his last days in Jerusalem. We have watched Jesus gather the children, feed the multitudes, and even raise a beloved friend from the grave. Next week we will accompany Jesus through the streets of the city as crowds lay down their cloaks and wave their palms. In less than two weeks, we will remember Good Friday, knowing, with the benefit of time, that death is not the final answer.

At the beginning of this Lent, we didn’t know how much we would be waiting, or what we would be waiting for. And with the current COVID-19 situation, we are doing a lot of waiting. Hospital workers and medical professionals wait for their next shift, wondering if there will be enough Personal Protective Equipment. Teachers wait for opportunities to be with their students virtually. Parents with children at home 24/7 wait for moments of calm when they can process the world events and how to talk to their little ones. Grandparents wait to see their loved ones again, even as they quarantine for their own health and safety. 

As Christians, we wait expectantly. The psalmist shows us how to do this. “My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise, more than the night watch waits for morning.” They are not getting bored waiting. They are not staying sedentary until someone else comes along to solve their problems. Their waiting is an active waiting. In this waiting, they are hoping, they are embodying hope as they cry out to God.

And our waiting, though we may each be sequestered in our own spaces for much of our time these days, is also active. By staying home in quarantine when it is possible for us, we are actively participating in slowing the spread of this pandemic. Yes, by sitting on your couch and watching reruns of Downton Abbey or Brooklyn 99 or Tiger King, you are taking an active part in ensuring the welfare of our whole global community. And those of you who work in healthcare and utilities and public health, you are also participating actively in keeping our world neighborhood healthy. 

Waiting is hard. It can be frustrating. It can be lonely. And right now, as we on the west coast watch COVID-19 spread across this country, as it continues to grow in our region as well, waiting is hard. There are so many unknowns, and in general, humans like to know things. We like end dates. We like control. We like to know we have power to do and be what we want. Right now, that’s not really possible. 

And so, we continue to cry out in our waiting. From wherever we are, we can lift our voices to God. We can use our whole being to wait upon God, to hope in God, to call out to God. The psalmist says “faithful love is with the Lord, great redemption is with our God.” It is an act of faith to call out to God from the depths, to be assured that God is present with you and hears your prayers. It is an act of faith to witness to God’s nature as forgiving and loving, even in the midst of situations that cause us to question and doubt. 

In our Godly Play story today about Lazarus, Martha tells Jesus “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “Those who believe in me will live, even when they die…do you believe this?” Now, Martha, is often portrayed as complaining and being angry at Jesus. Here, I think she is actually expressing her deep faith in him in this story. Her faith in Jesus’ healing love is so firm that there is no doubt in her mind that Jesus would have been able to save her brother. Martha, like the psalmist, cries out to God even in the midst of her grief. And then, when Jesus asks her if she believes that death is not the end of the story, Martha, like the psalmist, witnesses to God’s nature, saying, “Yes, I believe you are the Christ.”

Martha’s depths of grief do not prevent her from crying out; her faith leads her to call out, to confront Jesus, and eventually, leads her to a new and great understanding of God’s activity in the world through Jesus. 

Stephen Farris, in my favorite Bible commentary, Feasting on the Word, says as long as we can cry out, hope remains. He notes that as the psalm ends, help has not yet come. The psalmist leaves us in the place of waiting, of hoping, of continuing to call out, assured that God’s presence hears us. 

And now, here, in Seattle, I wait. I wait actively, trying to adjust to each change that comes with the relentless flood of the news. My best friend Judith said this time is one of recalibrating, because nothing can be taken for granted. Graduations that have been so long in process and so hard-fought are postponed or cancelled. Weddings and funerals dare not occur as planned because of the crowds they gather. Birthdays and retirements are celebrated without fanfare at home. Births and deaths are attended by few, if any, other than healthcare professionals. The big moments and milestones of our lives that we have looked forward to celebrating in community are shape-shifting or disappearing altogether as our scope of vision narrows to our own apartment, house, backyard and neighborhood. We are being reminded that we are indeed a global community at the same time as our immediate daily living becomes much more local, down to the square foot. And we live in this tension, like the psalmist who professes faith out of the depths, like Martha and Mary mourning Lazarus and yet welcoming Jesus. 

We are all part of what H. Richard Niebuhr called the “web of creation,” a multifaceted web that is reminding us of our interconnectedness at the same time as revealing that those on the margins are suffering in far more painful ways than those of us in the center of society. At the same time as we are understanding in a new way how actions of others across the globe affect us, we are re-learning that some political leaders easily assign worth to certain lives. As Wendell Berry says in a favorite poem, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.” I will not sacrifice the elderly and immunocompromised for the sake of the economy. 

In an address to Yale Divinity School in 2005, Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes shared this wisdom:

“lately, we have existed on the almost-true, sometimes-true, and half-true without looking for the true-true

searching for the true-true is what i think we should be after these days

this takes what ethicist Marcia Y. Riggs calls a mediating ethic

this mediating ethic is not one to seek easy reconciliation

it is an ethic, which is a “process of acknowledging seemingly diametrically opposing positions and creating a response

that interposes and communicates between opposing sides. It is living with tension rather than aiming at an

end result of integration, compromise, or reconciliation. These may be outcomes, but mediating as process occurs

whether or not mediation as an end does.”

mediating as process rather than mediation as end

and i suggest that the only way we can faithfully look at who we are

as a nation

and the roles we should and must play

as people of faith or people who hold deep values of respect for others and the rest of creation

who must live our lives not always comforted by the holy

but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life

and not just talk about it or wish for it or think about

means that we remain in the tension

in the process of uncovering and working through how we can build faith-filled responses

to meet the needs of those who may be the least of these

or folks just like many of us—blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them

with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless justice that can only come from a rock-steady God”

As we turn towards God in this Lenten time, it may seem like we are being told to turn away from others. This is not only about keeping 6 feet of physical distance and refraining from shaking hands, but some people even report not wanting to meet others’ eyes when out for a solitary walk. This is a reaction born out of loneliness and of fear. But right now, though it is hard, we know that keeping our physical distance is a way that we turn toward the world in love, in compassion and in solidarity. We are all in this together, as Emilie Townes reminds us, writing,

“we are responsible for each other and ourselves

we may not always agree, nor should we expect to

we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions

we may get tired and need a break, but we must always come back because we do not get out of this life

alone

and we are responsible for what goes on in our names”

So, beloved ones, do not cease your crying out, whether on your own behalf or for the sake of others’ whose voices have become weak as they call against the whirring of industry and the blathering of false prophets. Do not let up on reminding the government of their responsibility to protect the people of this country. Do not refrain from sharing your love with the world. Though we may find ourselves in the depths right now, and we are struggling to make meaning out of these times of physical distancing, let us raise our voices, testifying to what we know: This is hard. This is scary. This is not forever. God is with us. 

And for now, these words from Wendell Berry give me hope:

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts….Practice resurrection.”

So let us embrace the everydayness of mediating in the tension. 

Let practicing resurrection become part of this everydayness. The everydayness in which we can remember that God is still speaking and moving and acting in and through nature. That baby squash plants grow out of compost piles from last autumn. That life is bursting forth from the flowers and trees on the streets of our city. That our community cannot be contained in a building, that there are no barriers love will not cross, and that God’s mercy will bring us home. 

May it ever be so. 

This sermon originally preached on March 29, 2020 via Zoom.

Posted in Prose, Writing

Accepting the Call

I am seven years old. It’s time for communion in my United Methodist Church in a small town in mid-Michigan. After watching communion by intinction happen for so many years from the sidelines, I am excited when my mom tells me it is ok for me to line up in the center aisle with her and slowly shuffle forward, waiting for my time to tear a piece of bread off the soft white loaf and dip it in the grape juice. I’m not sure why I didn’t take communion before this age–the UMC offers open communion. But I guess I just didn’t feel ready, whatever that meant to seven-year-old me.

So I get in line with my mom, our steps muffled by the plush red carpet as we slowly walk forward. I notice that as people approach Pastor Tom and the Lay Minister Joyce near the altar rail, the second person in line stops at the end of the pews and waits until the person in front of them has been served. I approach Joyce after my mom, who waits for me at the side aisle, since she isn’t in the habit of kneeling at the altar rail to pray. Joyce looks at me directly and lovingly, and says something, probably a traditional, “This is my body, broken for you” and “this is my blood, shed for you,” as I take a small piece of bread between my child fingers and pulled gently, shedding some crumbs as I separate the bit from the loaf and carefully dip the bread in the grape juice. The chalice contents rise into the pillowy layers of bread as soon as it touches the surface of the juice. It reminds me of the experiment we’ve done in school where the celery turned different colors if you added food coloring to its water. The juice drips onto my fingers, which I know will be sticky later. I tuck the wetted bread into my mouth and taste what years later I call a memory of the church where I grew up. Love, life, bread, blood…given…for me.

Several years later, a new pastor preaches on a communion Sunday. He says that he often observes people coming forward for communion and tear small bits off the large loaf, perhaps being too “Michigan-nice” and wanting to make sure there’s some left for the folks at the end of the line. I will never forget what Pastor Daniel says that day: “This bread, and this cup, are signs of God’s grace. That grace is for you. There’s nothing you can do about it! So take a big chunk of bread, grab a piece of the kingdom–this grace is for you.”

That day I started ripping off bigger pieces of bread. That day I started taking grace seriously.

I am thirteen years old. Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Scarlett have just asked me to be a junior Sunday school teacher for the preschool Sunday school class.

At the time, I am feeling angsty and frustrated about having to wake up early and go to church with my mom, while my atheist father sleeps in or lounges on the couch reading the funnies. He didn’t have to go to church. And the youth group doesn’t really interest me, as I think it’s much more like a clique of cool kids who say stuff about wanting to be welcoming to all and then never change who is invited to their lunch table…so I say yes.

Over the next five years, I will go from being a junior Sunday school teacher to a full Sunday school teacher when Mrs. Scarlett has to step back due to her declining eyesight. I will prepare simple snacks of “ants on a log” and play the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem and make up games with the three- and four-year-olds as they learn about Jesus….no, scratch that.

I soon learn it is really me who’s doing most of the learning. Sometimes I don’t understand why church, why Jesus, why the Bible, why God, has to be so complicated. The three-year-olds get it–love God, love yourself, love others. Be kind. Do good things. Just as I was training to be a first-rate teenage cynic, the preschoolers are making the core of Biblical teaching make sense to me.

I go through confirmation during Lent when I am thirteen. I am baptized before confirmed in a ceremony on Easter morning. As the water is sprinkled on my head, I think about all my questions, all my wonderings, all the things my soul hasn’t grasped yet, all the things that make me think, “do I really believe that?” A great chasm seems to open in front of me, as deep as the many things I do not know.

But as the droplets from the font trickle down my hair onto my face, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being held, aware that all my questions were welcome.

That’s the day I truly believed I was loved by God.

I am nineteen, and having a spiritual crisis. My grandpa had a serious stroke shortly after traveling to Ohio to hear my college Renaissance choir’s December concert. The stroke didn’t seem possible, and I’m still not sure what to think.

The grandpa who took me out for ice cream in the winter because the Michigan cold didn’t allow the Death by Chocolate to melt; the grandpa who played Wizard of Oz with me so many times, pretending to be the Wicked Witch of the West and scrunching his 6’3” frame down to the floor, crying “I’m melting!”; the grandpa who took me to the planetarium and then read me the Greek myths corresponding with the constellations we liked the best…this grandpa, this towering, brilliant man who knew everything there was to know about Midwestern botany and could whistle every North American birdsong, had lost control of the left side of his body. He would likely never walk again.

And in January, I find myself visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize, France. I was so hesitant about traveling across the world when my grandpa was still unstable and his future wasn’t sure. But here I am, singing and praying and studying and cleaning and drinking tea with pilgrims from all over the world. My thoughts are only of an eighty-one year old man in a small town in Michigan.

One night, before taking a vow of silence for a week to pursue prayer and contemplation, I ask God to show me a sign. I’ve wanted to do that before, but never did, since I thought that meant I was weak in my faith. Who needs a sign of God’s existence and presence? If our faith was strong enough, we would be sure enough without a special sign, right?

…Right?

But I need something to get me through that silent week. I am so scared of being alone in the silence, faced only with myself, faced only with my internal chaos, with my worry and fear about my grandfather, about aging, about mortality. And so, after meeting with a Sister who would usher me and my friends into our silent retreat, my heart cried out to God, if grandpa is going to be ok and if this week in silence is going to be worth it, give me a sign.

And I step outside into the most beautiful sunset I have seen in my life.

That was the day I learned that signs are real.

I am twenty-two, and ready to preach my first ever sermon. Preaching isn’t something that had ever crossed my mind before. And for good reason: I had never seen an ordained woman until I got to college. I had never heard a sermon from a woman’s voice until I got to college. In fact, sometimes I will say “I didn’t even know I didn’t know women could preach” because the idea of women in ministry had been so far removed from my frame of reference. And I most definitely had never ever thought about myself as a woman in ministry.

But throughout my college career, my pastors and friends and professors and mentors have kept saying things to me that made me wrinkle my nose at the idea of me as a minister.

Things like:

“You’re very pastoral when you welcome new students to our campus ministry.”

“You are a theologian. Have you ever thought of going to seminary?”

“The way you accompanied your friend to the hospital was like what a chaplain does.”

“You write and speak about your faith so beautifully…would you like to preach sometime?”

So now, during the spring of my senior year of college, after realizing that somewhere deep inside myself I did want to preach, even though I had no idea what that meant, really, I prepare a sermon on the story of the road to Emmaus, creating a mashup with the story of the Good Samaritan. Looking back later, I realize I had no idea how to craft a sermon, how to fit my storytelling to my preaching voice, how to connect with the congregation and gauge their reactions.

But today, I preach. I preach some words, yes, that I’d researched and written and cried over and worried over. But I also preach with my presence. My presence in the pulpit as a young woman means that I could preach, was allowed to preach, that God could and did and is giving prophetic words to young women today. My presence as someone who never had role models of women in ministry until college means that representation matters, that after I found out about women preachers I realized that was a possibility for me, too. My presence in the pulpit doing something I never had ever dreamed was possible is a testament to God calling everyone to a particular ministry, no matter what plans we had made for ourselves.

I preach. And my beloved congregation, my church family, loves on me and affirms me and holds me as I blossom before their eyes.

After my sermon, I sit down next to my friends, who had lined up in the second pew on stage right, beaming at me the whole time. And I cried. Sobs rip from my chest as something deep inside me seems to click into place. A flame that has been burning in my belly for twenty two years suddenly is fanned…and what a bright light it casts.

That was the day I said “yes” to my call.

I am twenty six. I am kneeling on a small, square pillow at the front of the sanctuary. I’ve been attending this congregation for four years, during which I’d gone to divinity school, served as a church intern in two congregations, been a pulpit supply preacher, gone through the ordination process with my church’s Ordination Committee, and now I am ready to be ordained. Well, really, the moment ordination is conferred is when the congregation agreed by consensus to ordain me, and that was several weeks ago. But today, dressed in a solemn black dress and wearing my red preacher heels and kneeling on a pillow, I am being blessed by individuals and families coming forward to lay hands on me. The line, I am told later, lasted for about an hour, as person after person went forward to share a short blessing. The tears start, and they are mirrored on the faces of family, friends, peers, professors and congregants. My pastor April’s wife Deborah hands me her rainbow tie-dye handkerchief.

“May you know you are enough.”

“May God fill your soul with wisdom.”

“May you share hospitality with all you meet.”

Blessing after blessing comes, and I feel pressure on my head, shoulders and hands as folks kneel beside me or bend down to hug me or pray over me.

And I just take it all in. As someone accustomed to putting others first and being present in others’ pain, it is a challenge to kneel there for an hour, accepting the love and affirmation and hope gushing forth from my community. My only task is to receive, to be poured into, so that I may pour out from what I have been given.

That was the day I believed that I was enough to be a minister.

I am twenty eight now, and I am serving in my first call. Over the last two years, I have been ordained, graduated with my Master of Divinity degree, moved over 2,000 miles from home and become an Associate Pastor. I have left friends and made new ones, moved in with my partner, learned how to ride public transit (because Seattle has public transit!), learned what to do in an earthquake (because Seattle has earthquakes!), figured out how to pay clergy taxes and adopted a cat. My congregants compliment me on my sermons, pray for me, critiqued my hairstyles and my choice in lipstick color, bring me pies on Boxing Day, tell me they think of me as their granddaughter, challenge my Biblical interpretation, playe Simon Says in worship with me, cry with me and invite me to their Harry Potter movie marathons. The ups and the downs, the joys and frustrations, the challenges and the blessings of ministry are always right next to each other.

It is humbling to be called to witness the complexities of life lived in community.

The women who have made it possible for me to be a preacher are constantly in my heart: Marie, Joyce, Mary, Erin, Amy, April, Deborah, Harriet, LeDayne, Patricia, Chelsea, Drew, Claire, Kelsey. And so, whenever I preach, I remove my shoes and leave them under my pew. I approach the pulpit barefoot, or in sock feet, slowly, deliberately, because the pulpit is holy ground.

I am a woman. I am a millennial. I am a feminist. I am a writer. I am a preacher. I am a pastor. I am beloved by God. I will never take the call to ministry for granted.

This essay originally published by HerStry on March 24, 2020.

Posted in Worshipping with Children, Writing

Innovative Ministry during COVID-19

I am a pastor in Seattle. March has been a wild ride, as Seattle started reacting to public health recommendations around COVID-19 on March 3. The rest is (rapidly-changing) history. And March, not to mention the pandemic, is not even over. Churches (little “c”) and The Church (Big “C”) have had to adapt to technology usage, theologizing about illness/crisis/pandemic/faith/loss, and pastoral care in the absence of being able to be physically present with each other. #SocialDistancing is hard for churches that share communion regularly, that pass the offering plate, that share signs of peace with each other and shake hands and hug and drink coffee together and snuggle kids and make food for each other…so, like, everyone, right? But we know that #SocialDistancing is pretty much the main line of defense we have against #COVID-19 in the USA, and so we have to do our part as faith leaders to model good and healthy behavior. Phillippians 2:4 says something about that: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (NRSV).

I have seen folks altering the language about #SocialDistancing, encouraging things like #CompassionateDistancing instead, because right now, staying home and away from people (especially vulnerable folks) is the compassionate thing to do. And #PhysicalDistancing, because though we cannot be physically close at this time, we still have the capability to be social. (Thanks, technology!) And churchfolk (should) know that we can maintain spiritual closeness even though we are not physically present in the same location…this is where the impact of our “cloud of witnesses” gains even more meaning for me. Now, I am not only thinking of those witnesses who surround me who have transitioned on from this life, but I also have my churchfolk with me as I pastor in this time. These churchfolk might be a block away or a couple miles away, but while we can’t meet in person, their faces and life situations are front and center in my brain and my heart.

So, wow. There’s a lot to consider when churches transition from meeting in person to doing virtual ministry to offering programs and worship online. I have compiled some ideas for different age groups and situations that I have used/will use in my ministry in this time of Physical Distancing. Feel free to use these ideas, ask questions, or share your best practices as well! We are all truly in this together, and we need each other. We are many members, but we are one body (1 Corinthians 12).

Things to Consider

  • access to technology and facility with technology
    • how can you help folks access the needed apps/websites/programs; how can you help them learn
  • class differences: who is working from home, who is working in essential locations in the community (grocery store, banks, gas stations, hospitals), who might need childcare
  • how you’re getting the word out about your church’s programs:
    • voicemail message on church phone line
    • messages on pastor email/auto responses
    • social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and website
    • email communication with church family

Children’s Ministry

  • Include a children’s time in the worship service. 
    • Read from a storybook Bible (recommendation: Growing in God’s Love)
    • Utilize Godly Play or Young Children in Worship stories
    • Talk directly to children (speak into the camera and make it obvious that this time is for them).
    • For object lessons, pick something easily accessible to kids at home. 
    • Use the time to talk about the feelings kids might be having relating to the current situation and life in quarantine. Acknowledge anxiety, fear, confusion, worry, grief and loss. (The adults overhearing this need this message too!)
  • Kid Kits.
    • Share via email. Include things like word searches, printable coloring pages, crossword puzzles, poems, writing and drawing challenges, links to songs and videos to watch. 
    • Drop off kits at their houses. Include things like bubbles, small puzzles, coloring pages, Bible verse cards, small stuffed animals, hand sanitizer, teabags, a small individually-wrapped snack.
  • Hold “Kid Chat” office hours. 
  • Make “Kid Chat” videos to post. Talk about how God welcomes all feelings, even and especially the tougher ones like fear, anger, grief, anxiety, confusion and depression. Back this up with Bible verses and stories. Invite them to respond to you. 
  • Storytime. Read to children, whether it is from a Bible storybook or from a picturebook you love. 
  • Craft time. Find a craft that has common household items and invite kids to a Zoom meeting where you all craft “together.”
  • Zoom Dance Party. Share kid-friendly songs to dance to. Challenge the kids to follow your dance moves, or follow theirs!
  • Scavenger Hunt at Home. Make a list of things that anyone could find in their homes. Or do a Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt.
  • Treasure Hunt. Make clues that lead to other clues and end in a prize. See this for ideas. 
  • Invite families to send photos of their children’s artwork and other creativity to you. Invite them to share with other church members. 

Youth Ministry

  • Text message youth group. Set aside the same time each week to check in with the youth group via text message. Facilitate by asking check-in questions. Lay ground rules at the beginning of your youth group message chain. 
    • Use Examen-style questions, like naming a “rose,” “thorn,” and “bud” for the day. 
  • Invite them to “gif their day” by sharing a gif that expresses how they feel. 
  • Puzzle Party. Either drop off or mail a puzzle to each youth. Then schedule a time when you all can videochat and do the puzzles simultaneously. 
  • Digital Scavenger Hunt. Invite youth to grab a screenshot of the found items. 
  • Cooking challenge. Set a weekly theme for the youth to cook, then have them send you photos of the items!

Young Adults

  • YAs are usually more experienced with technology so can probably easily meet using Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, Discord or another platform. 
  • Pray together. 
  • Check in with them individually via texting, emailing, calling and social media. 
  • Do a book study. The Millennial Narrative was a powerful study for my young adult group to do, as it explored the book of Joel and themes of grief and transition. For such a time as this, right? 
  • Use videoconferencing to share a meal together. Invite Young Adults to Happy Hour. 
  • Invite Young Adults to share their technology aptitude with others who need it. 
  • Assign Young Adults buddies with older congregants to check in regularly. 
  • Use Jackbox to play games together. 
  • Netflix Party. Download this Google Chrome extension and host a movie night for young adults where you can watch a movie together and chat at the same time. Or, watch a movie everyone has access to, and Zoom during the movie. 

Parents/ People Providing Childcare

  • Work with them to find out what times they most need something to offer to kids. Plan your program for that time. (For example: a parent made lunch while the kids joined me in a virtual dance party the other day!)
  • Be available for “office hours” for kid chats. Kids need a place to process what’s going on in the world, and people in children’s ministry should be safe places to be heard and have their experiences validated. This can also be helpful for parents, to support them in talking with their kids. 
  • Be available and in close communication with parents! Ask them what they need and how you can help them. Pray with them. 

Intergenerational

  • Prayer Time
    • Gather for a short prayer during the lunch hour. Have a pastor facilitate if possible. Keep this meeting over Zoom and confidential. 
  • Bible Study
    • Use Zoom to continue a Bible study. For preachers, consider Zooming with congregants to gain ideas for your sermon on Sunday. #collaborativepreaching
  • Trivia Night
    • Make a PowerPoint of the questions then use the Share Screen function in Zoom to show participants. 
    • You can also use Zoom then stream it to Facebook Live to provide people multiple ways to participate. 
  • Virtual Potluck
    • Invite people to share dinner via Zoom. Depending on how many people join, invite folks to share what they are eating for dinner or tell a story about a special memory with food they have. 
    • Check out Dinner Church for ideas on liturgies to use. Marcia McFee also has a liturgy that may be useful. 
  • Talent Show
    • Give people a week or two to prepare something for a Talent Show. Set parameters for this, like it must be 2 minutes or less. Have people email you to sign up for a slot. Use Zoom (and stream to Facebook Live, if desired).
  • Happy Hour
    • Invite people to join a Zoom meeting for an hour. This can be open, unstructured time where folks can hang out with no agenda. 
  • Facilitate technology access.
    • Share tutorials for whatever technology your church is using. 
    • Have an open time when you can accompany folks through the process of downloading and using programs like Zoom. 
    • Be generous with your patience. 
  • Collaborative Spotify playlist. Invite people of all ages to share (church-appropriate) songs to this playlist. 
  • Shared photos on a GooglePhotos page, a shared Facebook album, a Flickr page. Have people upload photos of themselves #stayingathome. 

Sunday Worship. There are LOTS of options out there. Find the one that works best for your congregation.

  • Facebook Live. This worked well for a couple weeks for my congregation, but it has become clear that the amount of traffic at 11am PDT is just too much. This caused us some difficulty in posting our videos.
  • Zoom. This is cool because your church members can see you and each other. However, you would need a Pro account to accommodate more than 3 participants for more than 40 minutes.
  • Worship leaders on Zoom, livestream to Facebook or website. Be aware of the busiest times that Zoom will be trying to connect to Facebook (like, when all other churches are doing this). The connection between Zoom and Facebook Live can be unstable and it can be frustrating for viewers.
  • Vimeo video streaming
  • Youtube Livestream
  • Record ahead of time and post. This is probably where my church will go, as we continue to realize the challenges of technology. We are learning as we go, and that’s ok! If you record and post, you can still host a Watch Party on Facebook when your video is posted, then church members can continue chatting in the comments.

For Communion Sundays

For Holy Week and Easter:

  • Offer a Holy Week kit. Shout out to Laura and Southminster Presbyterian for this one!
  • Hold a Good Friday service just for children. See my guide for this here
  • Offer an “In Remembrance of Her” service honoring the woman who anointed Jesus. 
  • Hold a “dinner church” meal for Maundy Thursday for your congregation, complete with a short liturgy and pastoral prayers. 
  • Easter baskets
    • Abide by public health guidelines when putting together Easter baskets and distributing them. 
    • Include some pre-filled eggs to help parents make an egg hunt for their kids happen. 
  • “Egg” a yard
    • Place already-filled eggs in the yard of church families. Of course, let them know you will be doing that before you actually go and drop off a bunch of eggs. This is one way to share the love while social distancing!

I will keep adding to this list as we go on and as I try these ideas. Add yours to the comments!

Let’s help each other flourish.

Love,

Pastor Anita

Posted in Prose, Writing

How to Survive Your First Year of Ministry

In a recent visit to Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, the church where I was ordained in April 2018, I was asked if it felt better to be in my second year of my call than the first. And I almost shouted “YES!” because it does feel sooooooo good to have one year, one whole liturgical calendar, under my belt. With that said, here are some quick tips for surviving your first year of a call, in no particular order. 

  1. Know your people. If you have a church directory with photos, get one and use it. Spend time going through the membership and praying for them. I even have a paper copy that I make notes on, recording things like “Oh yeah, that guy is from Michigan, too” and “that person also loves cats” and “their mother died last year on Christmas, I should check in this year at that time.” Keep up with what’s going on in folks’ lives and let them know you are there to go with them wherever life wanders. 
  2. Learn your context. If there are other clergy in your area, meet with them and learn the context of the place in which you serve. Try to get a historical, demographic and cultural history of the area. What are the things your church cares about? What have been the hardest/happiest/most growth-inducing times in the history of your congregation? I literally made a chart of what I knew, didn’t know and wanted to know (K-W-L, anyone?). And, also, I made a power map of my congregation (who holds what kind of influence in different arenas). SUPER enlightening.
  3. Set boundaries. For me, that looks like not checking or answering my email on weekdays after 6:00pm (unless I have evening meetings) and after church on Sundays (cuz for real, I don’t want feedback on the sermon or meeting requests right when I get home from preaching). Like keeping pretty clear lines of pastor and congregant, and communicating directly when those lines are getting fuzzy if it makes you (or them) uncomfortable. It looks like being discerning about who to give my personal cell phone number to vs. asking parishioners to contact me via our church voicemail. Boundaries look like deciding before you start your call what your social media policy is (for example: I don’t send friend requests to parishioners, but I do accept if they initiate a friend request and I don’t accept friend requests or follow requests from people under 18.) Boundaries are also important for stewarding family and friend relationships. For ministers, it’s tempting to be your family’s chaplain…you don’t have to be. Communicate as clearly as possible with your family and friends about the kind of pastoral roles you can and can’t fulfill (i.e. yes, I’ll perform your wedding ceremony but you still have to pay me because an MDiv ain’t free). 
  4. Take breaks. Set your phone alarm so you get up from your desk and move around. Schedule vacation reminders on your email so you are not tempted to work when you’re supposed to be restoring. When you take time for your own sabbath, you are giving others permission to do the same. If you have colleagues, ask for accountability. Sabbath is holy time, people! 
  5. Have a ministry buddy. Someone not involved in your church. It is an immense benefit to have someone who knows you well, like a friend from seminary or someone else in a caring profession, to talk to about your frustrations, your awesome moments, your cares and griefs and hopes pertaining to your call and your ministry. You may be blessed with people in your church who love you and understand many complexities of ministry. But you need somewhere outside your place of call to share your heart. Keeping in touch with your mentors is also a great way to keep in touch with a community that understands a bit of what you are going through.
    1. Addendum: have friends outside of church. Though your social circles may overlap between your work (church) and friends (maybe also church???), it is healthy to have space to be yourself without the power dynamics of pastor and congregant. Yes, power dynamics exist. Yes, they matter.
    2. Another addendum: there are some awesome social media communities available for folks who are in isolated areas. Groups like Young Clergywomen International (LITERALLY my favorite ever), Progressive Youth Ministry and programs like 3MMM are great reminders that we’re not alone. 
    3. Ok, another one: If you’re in a new place and you’ve discovered it is super duper hard to make friends as an adult (hey, I’m just saying what we’re all thinking), at least find a place where you can be around people who are not in your congregation. Maybe that’s at the gym, a coffee shop, a language class, whatever. You are a pastor, yes, but you’re also a human being. Let the human out to play.  
  6. Keep notes. I felt like a genius when I decided to do an evaluation of each liturgical season and event. The week between Christmas and New Year of my first year of my call, I made lists (I’m a list-maker, could you tell?) of Things To Celebrate About This Season, What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Planning for Advent and Ideas for Next Year. Then, I assigned myself some digital reminders (thanks, Google) and saved the lists in a clearly-titled document, which I found this year when I was looking for ideas for Advent and Christmas. Make sure you record the things that you celebrate, cuz you will want to remember them. 
  7. Write thank you notes. My mom, and Emily Post, should be so proud. Since the beginning of this first call, I have made sure to make a note to myself to thank people for every time they have invited me over for dinner, sent me a sweet card, gave me nice hand lotion for my office, or shared a particularly needed compliment. Practicing gratitude is a wonderfully important practice, whether your notes are handwritten, meaningfully said during coffee hour, or an email. This encourages others to practice gratitude in a way that is authentic for them, and before you know it, this becomes a part of your church culture. 
  8. Spend time taking care of yourself physically, emotionally  and spiritually. Make sure you get enough sleep, get the right amount of healthy food, drink enough water and exercise in ways that make sense for you. If not treated well, your body will take the rest it needs from you. Emotional labor often takes roost in the body, and pastoral ministry is full of it. Better to work with your body than against it. 
  9. Get a spiritual director. Many spiritual directors, findable through Spiritual Directors International, have sliding scales to fit various budget needs. Spiritual directors can help you steward your faith life, witness your gifts and what you bring to your ministry, and think theologically alongside you. My spiritual director is one of the most regular appointments I make (a monthly basis is good for me) and we have powerful conversations about everything from gardening as a spiritual practice to making home in new spaces to my practice of preaching. Or, maybe you have a “spiritual friend,” who can do this kind of deep listening and accompaniment work. Make sure to check with a friend for consent if you want to do this work together, since witnessing requires a call to reflection and trust. 
  10. Be proactive about your mental health. This deserves a whole list on its own. Y’all, I live in Seattle, and sometimes the sun doesn’t seem to come up here...and it’s hard. Whatever your mental health situation, this part of your life deserves regular care and check-ins. Whether you see a therapist, take medications, sit next to a sun lamp on a daily basis, journal or a whole host of other activities, make sure to take this part of your life seriously. It is serious. I know that 100% of you would encourage people in your care to seek mental health assistance when needed, and that goes for you, too. There’s ZERO (let me repeat: ZERO) shame in seeking mental health care. When you care for yourself, you care for others around you, and you build important tools that help you stay in ministry for the long haul. 
  11. Keep an encouragement box. For me, this is cards and photos from my ordination, sweet notes congregants and colleagues write to me, poems that touch my heart, and prayers that remind me who I am and that I am called. I get this box out every time I need a pick-me-up, feel too cynical or bitter to be helpful or am struck with imposter syndrome…so, like, a lot. 
  12. Love your people. There is such beauty in people choosing to come together and be church, to accompany each other along life’s journey. And there is such grace in being called to serve a community that is exploring what it means to pattern our lives after the Way of Jesus. Love your people, through the joys and pains and sorrows and challenges and pettiness and micromanagement. Love your people by showing up for them, challenging them, encouraging them and giving them opportunities to learn, grow and serve. And, let them love you. There will be moments when they surprise you with depths of grace and faith that you hadn’t seen coming–receive them with open hands and an open heart. 

Ok, so these aren’t quick tips, but I hope they help in some way…at least to say, “You’re not alone!” Being called to ministry is a humbling opportunity. Give thanks for it. And be honest about it…alllllllll of it. God is right there with you. 

What resonated with you? What was missing? What got you through your first year of ministry? What wisdom continues to inform your life and work? Leave a comment below!

Thanks to my dear friend Eileen Campbell-Reed at Three Minute Ministry Mentor for inviting me to write this blog post! (Originally posted at 3MMM)

Posted in Sermons

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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

 

Seattle University Land Statement: 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Great Need by Hafiz

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the poet Hafiz: 

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From every angle in your darkness

The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

Trusted.

I know the way you can get

If you have not had a drink from Love’s

Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of

The vital need

To keep remembering God,

So you will come to know and see Him

As being so Playful

And Wanting,

Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:

Bring your cup near me.

For all I care about

Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about

Is giving Love!

(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

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

May it ever be so. 

 

artwork by He Qi.