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 Prose, Spiritual Practices, Writing

Reflections from the Global Baptist Peace Conference

July 17, 2019

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

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a sign in LAX

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

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

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

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July 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Wait…There’s More!”

 

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Eastertide

When I told a friend of mine that I would be preaching the Sunday after Easter, he said, “Hey, don’t worry! No one shows up the Sunday after Easter anyway!” So on that note, thanks for being here today! 😉

But really, a lot of people think the story of Jesus stops at Easter. On Easter we wear pretty pastel colors and some wear fancy hats and we hug and cry aloud, “Jesus is alive! He is risen!” and tell people we love them more than usual because the good news is that death has been conquered. Wow. Can you believe it?! The powers of death have been defeated and the empire shall not have the last word and–holy moly–the women are the ones to whom the gospel, the good news, was shared first! Golly gee, that sounds splendiferous, doesn’t it? What a way to end the tale that stands the test of time! A story for the ages! An epic! Rejoice!…right??? “But wait…there’s more!” to the story of following in Jesus’ footsteps and learning to encounter the Divine in the “other.” “But wait…there’s more!” as we slowly realize that, boy! we thought following in Jesus’ footsteps was hard, but recognizing the risen, resurrected Christ is often even harder.

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We’ve just finished the season of Lent leading up to Easter, a time of “spring cleaning for our souls” that shows us where the centers of our lives are and helps us focus on Jesus, clearing out the junk layered by years of becoming desensitized to oppression and abuses of privilege. In this season, we have prayed, fasted, been more intentional in our rituals and with our relationships; we have practiced taking life slower, adopted a somber attitude about the ways of this world, practiced centering ourselves more; we have divested from practices that harm ourselves, our neighbors and our world in favor of creating right relationships characterized by justice and mercy. And on Easter we rejoice after a long and harrowing season living contemplating the darkness of Good Friday.

What we discover as we continue showing up to church after Easter, as we continue to read the Bible past the crucifixion in Luke 23, as we continue to live real lives in this world, as we continue to desire to know the living Christ…is that we are not always good at recognizing Jesus. The word “recognition” has two parts: “re” and “cognition.” This means, basically, re-knowing; knowing something again. This word carries a connotation of relationship, because to re-know something or someone, you have to be familiar in the first place. Cleopas and his friend on the road recognize Jesus because they already knew him; this was not some chance meeting for the first time where you find something in common with your seatmate on an airplane. This was re-meeting Jesus, re-knowing him.

But the events on the road to Emmaus are different. Even though this was a time of meeting-again, the disciples have a hard time recognizing Jesus. He appears to be a stranger to them. We can easily imagine that they truly cannot see the road ahead of them through their blinders of disappointed dreams, not only for themselves but for their whole community of Israel. Maybe they walk this road because they don’t know what to do with themselves and have decided to just go home after the shock and trauma of the events in Jerusalem.  As they leave the city, they may be fleeing persecution, maybe trying to put the events in Jerusalem behind them and move on to a new and better life (remember that, unlike us, for them a week has not passed since Easter. Jesus was crucified three days ago…these wounds are incredibly fresh). So no wonder recognizing Jesus was hard as they tried to see past their personal grief and the shadows unadulterated power cast on their world through recent events. They are wondering how their understanding of the words and deeds of Jesus matches up with the trauma of watching their leader be killed. They wonder, “How does this make sense?” and throw up their hands in despair, or perhaps hang their heads in shock. Rev. David Lyle Jeffrey writes of the disciples’ questions that are simultaneously our own questions: “What does it mean to meet the resurrection on the road, as a stranger, when we are between places and perhaps beside ourselves? What are the ethical dimensions of this text, especially the encounter with Jesus as a “stranger in a strange land”? Do we take this “resurrection” — this homeless one — into our homes?”

Rev. Jeffrey also writes that when Jesus says, “You foolish people” in our text today, Jesus is actually saying something closer to “Bless your hearts,” something I’ve learned as a Northerner living in the South is that in the South this phrase carries a complex meaning combining both close relationship and rolling your eyes. And, really, we are not so different from Cleopas and his unnamed companion, traveling the road to Emmaus–or Murfreesboro–or Memphis–or Atlanta. We, too, have questions. Holy Week was difficult for many of us. World events and personal struggles and heartaches tinge our experience of the world in ways that do not always grant us clear vision. So perhaps Jesus lifts up his hands to heaven and mutters, “bless their hearts” towards us in our confusion post-Easter. But we also have it easier than the disciples because we read the text omnisciently with the advantage of time and space. We know that Jesus is the center of this story and we watch as the disciples are traveling on a road that could literally, and does, define their life after the event of the cross. Then they meet Jesus and turn right back around…taking the same road again; re-knowing the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, traveling it again but also for the first time. With Jesus at the center of the narrative, they travel this stretch of ground with different experiences of Christ before and after their encounter. Traveling the road together changes how they know Jesus.

As the two travelers seek answers to their questions, we learn they are really story-seeking. Jesus, who is also re-meeting the disciples, answers their questions, as he often answered questions, by offering a story of his own in return. Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus at Lake Shore Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, writes in one sermon, “The men on the road to Emmaus tell Jesus one story: a grief story, a disappointed dream story, a bellyache story, and Jesus takes this story into himself with God-attentive ears . . . and then he tells a different one. That is, they think it is a different story, an old story they’ve heard before about their people, about the ups and downs of God’s deliverance and their denial, the ups and downs of exodus and exile, of prophets and promises, of sinful kings and unexpected heroes. But really Jesus is taking their story and weaving it into the fabric of this one. He is reminding them of just how many times God’s people have been disappointed, and also confused. Lost, wandering, plundered, pensive. He is reminding them how many times God’s people have stumbled right into deliverance, mercy, and help. How many times angels appeared when one was on the brink of death, how many times babies were born to the barren, how many times food fell from heaven upon the famished. It is a long meandering story that approaches a happily-ever after ending, then gets jerked right back towards despair and conflict.”

As Jesus listens to Cleopas and his friend, he does not deny their past experiences or name their grief or trauma for them, but allows space for their lives to interweave with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. As they walk, treading the same path side by side, some re-cog-nize-ing must be going on for Cleopas and his friend (you know, that feeling when your intuition is going wild but you’re not quite able to put your finger on what’s happening yet?). The travelers invite Jesus to join them for dinner.  The stranger is reluctant, but takes his place at the table and picks up the loaf of bread. // Surely we have all had the experiences of deepening relationships of all kinds by sharing intimate stories, communally exploring important and holy texts together, and sharing a meal…but wait, something more is going on here. The stranger lifts the loaf of bread, blesses it and breaks it, and suddenly Cleopas and his friend see clearly! Jesus becomes known to the disciples on the road through voicing the truth about their lives, interpreting Scripture and sharing a meal; together, they create active and resilient community.

Through this story-sharing and history-telling, we join the disciples in seeking to re-know Jesus. So if recognizing Jesus means re-cog-nize-ing, re-knowing, how can we re-cognize Jesus if we don’t “cognize” Jesus first? If we don’t know who he is, if he appears to us as a stranger? As someone we would never invite to have lunch with us, who we’d never allow into our homes and families? How did the disciples, when meeting a stranger on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, still somehow recognize the divine in that person enough to invite them for dinner?  How can we, today, re-cognize the divine in someone that society labels “other” if we don’t know “the other” first? As we seek to re-cog-nize Jesus with the disciples, we discover roadblocks that shape how we do or do not recognize Jesus in those people we meet: various social stratifications, different seating arrangements at work in the breakroom or in the school cafeteria…or here in church. We forget that we have something in common with every human being we meet; each of us has the mark of God on our hearts and are made in the image of God.

What do we do with the resurrected Jesus who claims that death is not the end? Who was buried in the ground and sprung up like a seed for another round of life? What do we do with the resurrected Jesus who leads us to recognize, to know and re-know people who are consistently harmed and endangered by the institutions of power in our society?

One thing we know for sure is that if we can view the scriptures and our personal experiences through the lens of the cross and resurrection, searching for the ways the divine makes our hearts burn within us, then we can open ourselves to meeting Jesus on the road, looking like a stranger. Coming here this morning, participating in a community that actively seeks to know the resurrected Jesus through sharing our life stories and reading Scripture and breaking bread, we know and re-know that Easter is not the end of the story of God’s participation in our lives and in the epic of creation. This is just the beginning.

We, who seek to honestly embody the beloved community of God, are the beginning. We, who seek to recognize Jesus in those marginalized by people and structures that hold power in our society, dedicate ourselves to actively seek to know those people as beautiful and good creations of the Loving Creator of All Life. And in this story, we traverse the road through the seasons of the church year looking for road signs that we are traveling the Way of Love in the right directions, each carrying our own stories and experiences, each wondering which Scriptures have the potential to speak to our lives every day, each looking forward to knowing each other through the rituals we celebrate as we remember Jesus, his life and mission. We struggle to make sense of the connections that burn in our hearts. There is more to know, and we are seeking together. May it ever be so.
This sermon originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, TN on 4/23/17.

Posted in Sermons

Jesus’ Math: Counting and Discounting

Text: Luke 15

(For this sermon, I invited all people who “identify as children” to come up to the front of the sanctuary. Then I read Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara to the congregation and showed the children the pictures. Then we had the following conversation before I headed back to the pulpit 🙂 )

Counting on Community
from Sujei=) on Twitter:

Let’s count how many people are with us in worship today. Is it hard to count how many people are in here? Why?

Is it also a way to count if we say: “Jimmy’s here. April’s here. Hilary’s here…” Let’s call out the names of who is present. 

One way of counting is knowing each person who is among us, knowing that we are glad to be here together and that we “count” to each other. As we look who’s here, we also see who’s missing from our number, who we are missing…that’s a way of counting, too. When we join together with our community, we “count on” each other!

There are many ways of counting. In preschool, we learn how to recognize certain numbers and quantities by sight. For example, I see: four coins or six sheep. I don’t have to pause and count number by number, identifying each specific coin or sheep. Suppose that the shepherd in one of our parables was out in the field with his sheep. If he had five sheep, it would be easy to notice if one sheep was missing; he could recognize that fact by sight. If he had twenty sheep, he might just have a slight, nagging feeling that something is not quite as it should be; he might have to take a moment and go through his roll call to see if he was missing someone. If he had one hundred sheep, as the parable goes, it probably took him a little while to figure out that a sheep was missing, and, after counting and finding that sum is counted short, which sheep in particular was missing. As one of my professors at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Amy-Jill Levine, says, “Although ‘having’ [as in “a shepherd having a hundred sheep”] might simply mean ‘having charge over,’ the image conveyed by all three parables is that of substance. Perhaps it is those who ‘have’ who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing.” (Short Stories by Jesus, 35)

So how do we notice who is missing? As the children did up here just a minute ago, we can count and try to assign a number to each individual person in this room, the children in the nursery and the nursery staff, and maybe print that number in our bulletin to show that our church is “healthy” and “growing” and that we have a strong and vibrant community–numerically…But do we know the names of those who aren’t here well enough to call on them in their absence? Do we know the life situations of each of those people with whom we share a pew or a choir row? How do we show each other that we don’t just count each other as a number, but we count each other among our family, as those companions on the journey through this life, with whom we share dreams of embodying the kin-dom of God?

These are big questions, and questions that we are not asking alone. These are questions that the shepherd in our parable asks as well. Does the shepherd, whom AJ Levine wants to label as negligent, know which of the sheep is missing? Know what caused the sheep to leave? Does the shepherd ever question the motivation or the situation that was the occasion for the sheep leaving? Maybe the shepherd forgot to mend that hole in the fence that he saw but then left to go watch the Titans game or binge watch Downton Abbey. Maybe the shepherd separated families of sheep when he sold some of his flock to a farmer down the road and the sheep missed its family. What was the sheep chasing that it left its flock behind? Was the grass truly greener, or is there something else at stake in leaving the safety of the herd?

And what about the sheep that the shepherd left behind? Did the 99 sheep feel left out when the shepherd went chasing after the One who left? Did they begin to hold a grudge because the shepherd wasn’t there to witness to every joy and struggle of their lives? Did each sheep miss being seen as individuals? Did they think that their lives mattered less than the sheep who needed special attention at the time?

The sheep are teaching us to count, and no, it’s not to put us to sleep–quite the opposite, in fact! One way that we have been taught to do math is to count numbers that add up to a 0-sum game. That kind of thinking is easily divisive, as one is always out for themselves and does not question what privileges they themselves have been gifted, while always wanting a chunk of pie from the person at the next table over. That’s like saying, “But what does it mean for my life?” every time someone is asking you to listen to their current struggles. That’s like getting the same size ice cream sundae as my brother, looking at his two scoops of ice cream, an equal helping to mine, and saying, “but his look more tasty!” 0-sum games lead us into perpetual discomfort by our own doing, constant complaint as we are always looking out for the areas of our lives in which we are cheated and made to feel “less than,” even if its our own selves who are dis-counting our personal human worth. “But the shepherd went after that sheep and left us behind! We must not matter at all to the shepherd.” 0-Sum-thinking tricks us into always believing that if someone else has, then we are the have nots. And who wants to be them?

We can so easily dis-count each other, and, if we imagine the sheep to be conscientious, the 99 might feel dis-counted. For all of you bargain shoppers out there, what does getting a discount mean? It means, right, that we get to own the item at hand for less than its original price? That we get the same value as the original price for less, right? But is the shepherd getting the same value out of his flock for less? No! He notices that something is not as it should be, one who should be here is missing, and he sets out to retrieve that someone. The value is less because we are valuing it less, because we are not accounting for the value found in the wholeness of a community.

The author of the gospel of Luke would have us believe that this parable was about repentance and forgiveness, as the most precious sight is the sheep that returned to the flock and repented for running away. But that’s not quite how it reads. I don’t remember the sheep have that metanoia moment, that “turning around” and deciding actively to change it’s life and go back to the flock. The shepherd, who probably overlooked that one sheep, was the one who turned around, conducted an extravagant search for the one sheep out of the 99, and returned to the flock to restore the one that was lost. Yes, the sheep was lost, but the center of the story really is the shepherd. The shepherd who is learning to count the flock and so account for his flock. So 99+1=100, right? That’s what the author of Luke would have us think. One that was lost now is found and the group is whole again. Sound reasonable?

Yes, 99+1 does equal 100 objectively, using traditional arithmetic. But when Jesus tells this story about the Negligent Shepherd who searches for the Sheep That Got Away, Jesus’ math doesn’t quite add up. There’s something going on more than the idea that the person who owned the sheep wanted the whole entire flock to be constituted of a round number and so 99 simply wouldn’t do. The shepherd was willing to trust 99 sheep to stay in the same location and watch out for each other (an inconceivable trust, for those of us who have met sheep before) while he searched for the one that got away from the group. As AJ Levine writes, “One out of a hundred is easy to overlook, but as soon as the owner recognizes his loss, he takes whatever steps are needed in order to bring the group to wholeness. Even a missing 1 percent must be noticed. And if he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what, or who, is not there.” (Short Stories by Jesus 35)

When we are counting on community, the focus is not on quantity, but on quality. When we are valuing wholeness, we account for the ways we count on each other. The math of Jesus equals much more than 100% because we simply can’t count, can’t even begin to grasp the abundance of God’s goodness that is revealed to us when we resist the urge to dis-count those whom we do not know or do not understand, those who have strayed from the flock, those who we do not count among our visions of who is “us.” So the way that these sheep are teaching us to count is not by forming a single-file parade across our vision as we fall into sleep, but by showing us that what matters is not the number of the sheep or the coins or the sons–what matters is that we count each other among the kin-dom of God. When we truly count each other as one of our family of Christ, when we count on each other as more than numbers but as precious individual beings made particular in the image of God, then we are exponentially growing our community within the love and justice and grace of God.

You might have noticed that our Scripture for today contains three parables, accounting for the entirety of chapter 15: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son (whom my professor AJ calls the Lost Son). I’ve only been talking about sheep–and that’s because sheep are a lot easier to count than money and family. Sheep are a lot easier to count on than money and family–they generally stay the same, stay where they are, they don’t change all that much. And sheep are a lot easier to be a-count-able to than money and family.

The Common English Bible titles the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke “Occasions for celebration.” But what we learn as we count who’s here and who’s missing is that we can only celebrate when all are restored, when all are counted in community.

 

(This sermon originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN on March 19, 2017.)

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing

It Started With the Children

This week, I’ve been blessed to participate in the 2016 Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference for Child Advocacy hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, TN. As a seminarian, I joined with over 60 other students from seminaries and divinity schools all over the country to read, study, think, discuss and share together about race and racial justice in the United States of America; ministry with marginalized communities, particularly folks of color; prophetic preaching; economic justice; and advocacy for children who are consistently overlooked and shut out of a prosperous future in our nation.

On the first day, Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner asked the seminarians the “EMT Questions” that have since framed my week:

  1. What is your name?
  2. Do you know where you are?
  3. Do you know what time it is?
  4. Do you know what just happened?

And though none of us seminarians was lying on the floor after suffering a medical emergency, we have been working together to process what just happened, a certain type of heart attack that has gripped our country for the past two weeks.

No, the past two years.

No, the past two hundred years.

The books that primed me for the conference, including Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas; Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Prophetic Tasks by Dr. Walter Brueggemann; Cut Dead But Still Alive by Dr. Gregory Ellison; The Third Reconstruction by Rev. William Barber; and Faith and Ferguson by Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, each prepared me to think about the construction of modern USAmerican society by bringing up pieces of this country’s history that may seem coincidental or of no consequence, but that are actually each a part of the myth of American exceptionalism that we continue to spoon feed each other.

Basically, the USAmerican society was built on the backs of enslaved people of color, who were seen as less-than due to the creation of specific theologies and hierarchies that value people by the color of their complexion, and is sustained through the exercise of commerce that to this day commodifies non-white, non-male bodies (the descendants of those enslaved peoples) in various kinds of labor that do not receive just compensation due to the glorification of profit. If you want to read more about this, I suggest reading Dr. Brown Douglas’ most recent text or this shorter article.

So entering into this week and these questions about things like Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, American individualism, white supremacy, unequal labor, and violence against black and brown bodies–another question entered into my consciousness, voiced by Rev. Dr. Lindner again:

How did I get here, to this place of ultimately questioning how USAmerican culture treats children?

How did I get here?

For me, it started with the children.

When I graduated from college, I started teaching gardening at a preschool. These preschoolers, with their small hands covered in dirt and picking through worms and juggling seeds for coneflower and cabbage and carrots, lift me up with their beautiful faces upturned in awe; with their questions and doubts; and with their sheer joy at observing their world, still so fresh when they are four years old.

But before that, I volleyed balloons on Easter morning at my college church with a three-year-old who cried, “Come play with me, friend!” while the congregation sang, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” Over my time in college, I got to know his family and his story and his struggles at school and his emotional patterns and the foods he likes to eat. After six years of playing “chopsticks” (a game played with two friends facing each other and bumping fingers together in math formations), I recently visited him at the church. He ran up to me and said, “Hi! I don’t remember your name, but we played together.” That meant the world to me. Yes, we played together. Yes, I’ll eat my picnic lunch with you. Your people are my people.

And even before that, I was in seventh grade and two older women who taught my preschool Sunday School classes asked me to be their assistant. I was twelve, wasn’t really interested in going to church because my dad didn’t go to church and mom taught Sunday school so I was kinda over it. I didn’t know really what “believing” meant, and I was bound up in this cycle of hearing evangelical voices in the dominant culture questioning whether I was “saved enough.” But then I started going to three-year-old Sunday school. I started doing crafts. I started reading the Bible stories (with all the different character voices). I started creating skits and leading songs and hugging children and playing the donkey entering Bethlehem or Jerusalem. I became invested in my church community through the children. And that spring of my seventh grade year, when I would get baptized by some holy sprinkling on Easter morning, I would realize that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing being a Christian.

But I thought about the children, and I thought, “Ok, Lord. Teach me. If the kids are here, I’m here.”

I’m still here, Lord. Help me learn more about how to love children better and stronger and with more truth. Help me learn how to see and respond to and reinforce the dignity of each child as a beautiful and unique creation of God, no matter their life situation or circumstance or experience. Help me learn to be an advocate for better education, better health care, better schools, better churches, for these little ones.

Isaiah 11 says, “A little child shall lead them.” And lead me, the children have. They led me to church. They led me to finding and fostering a family in my college years. They led me to a garden, to learning about the environment and where my food comes from. They led me to eating better and creating stronger community around the table. They led me to rediscover how to play. They led me to value my own sense of wonder.

If we let them, the children can lead us to imagining a way forward through this world that is so scary. You see, when children are young, they do not hate. They do not fear difference. They ask shameless questions and laugh when they are surprised or learn something new and they love with complete abandon. The children see that another world is possible, and they are willing to live in it before we tell them that they can’t. As bell hooks writes, “Most children are amazing critical thinkers before we silence them.” Let’s get out of the way, and let the children lead us.

 

 

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

Come to the Water

Text: John 4:3-30, The Samaritan Woman at the Well

 

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

God invites us to come to the water. And Lord, we are thirsty.

The Samaritan woman is thirsty too. She lives in the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the traditional place of cultic worship for the Samaritan people. There is a well at the foot of the mountain. People say it’s the one that Jacob started, where he met Rachel; where Rebekah was asked to become Isaac’s wife. It is a place where families are combined and flow together into one future of possibility. The woman brings her clay jar to this well in the middle of a hot day. She can’t bear to bring it in the morning, when the other women come to draw water for cooking and for bathing their children, so she comes in the middle of the day, at noon. She carries pain in her jar, she carries pain to the well today. When she arrives, she thirsts. She meets Jesus at the well.

Jesus meets the woman at the well and asks for some water to drink. I always think this is a little bit rude of Jesus, asking the woman to pause in her daily duties to give him a drink. But in the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that Jesus sees her as more than someone with a bucket, more than someone who can fulfill his physical thirst at this moment. Jesus truly sees the woman as a whole person, sees beyond entrenched ethnic divisions and variations in religious practice, sees an opportunity to make a new relationship possible. He sees her as someone to whom he can offer living water.

What is this living water?

Living water is that which quenches our thirst, both physically and spiritually. Living waters are available to everyone, no matter what their life experience and geographical context. Living waters flow from the spirit and can empower and equip people to persevere in the midst of oppressive and unjust situations. Living waters are the gospel. Living waters are the waters of justice.

And the woman is not the only one at the well that day who is thirsty for these living waters. Jesus is thirsty for the waters of justice as well. He sees the injustice in the world, sees the blind beggars and the hungry people on the highways and byways and the tax collectors living greedy, half-fulfilled lives. He sees the women like Rachel, weeping for their children crushed under the state-sanctioned violence in Rome, or perhaps in Ferguson, or Baltimore. He sees the Samaritan woman, longing for community and thirsty for just treatment. And I believe he sees the thirst of those in Flint, Michigan as well.

Ever since hearing the news out of Flint, I have been heartbroken. Growing up in a town about an hour’s drive from Flint, I know the shared economic history of this area, shaped by the auto industry. I also know the Pure Michigan tourism ads with actor Tim Allen’s voice narrating rich descriptions of the “hidden treasure” of Michigan while showing pastoral images of Michigan’s land and water juxtaposed with the harsh reality of Flint’s water crisis, primarily affecting people of color living in the inner city. I see Flint residents toting gallons of smelly, yellow water everywhere they go in an attempt to prove they are being poisoned. As the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche said, “They muddy the water to make it seem deep.” And that seems all too true in Flint right now.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Over a period of 18 months, between April 25, 2014 and August 2015, the government of Flint sanctioned the use of water from the Flint River for the city’s water source, instead of a pipeline from Detroit, which had been in use for the past fifty years. Government officials hoped that this would save money for the struggling post-industrial city. This decision was made even after research by the Department of Environmental Quality warned against this choice. What ultimately happened was that the city did not properly treat the Flint River water, and the level of chlorides in the water corroded the city’s ancient lead pipes, leading to water laced with lead flowing into people’s homes.  

Doctors in Flint report that the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since 2014. The medical conditions associated with lead poisoning range from skin lesions, hair loss, and increased reactions to asthma to chemically-induced hypertension, vision loss, depression and brain damage. The World Health Organization writes that “the neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.” We won’t know for years what the consequences of this budget-tightening response measure will be for the children of Flint.

“We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star. “We’re not even human here, I guess.” Another resident told the Detroit Free Press “we get treated like we don’t matter.”

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Ryan Cumming, writing for the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Finding Faith in Flint,” says, “It is impossible to miss the sacramental volatility of water, that medium that gives life and takes life. It encapsulates the irony of living in the Great Lakes State without clean water to drink. It symbolizes both the life-giving grace of the created world and the death-dealing abuses of power that come when we silence and marginalize our neighbors. It is the touchpoint that knits together people across the spectrum of faiths and no-faith. It has become a rallying point for a community to come together.”

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

When I think about the lack of justice in Flint, there is a sad irony that points to the contamination of more than just H20. In crises, we often are willing to extend spiritual living water to those experiencing oppression or injustice, saying with good intention and a willing heart: I’ll pray for them. But why do we hurry to offer spiritual living water without literally giving our neighbors and siblings a drink of fresh, clear H2O? Why is the idea of fixing the systems that prevent people from accessing their right to clean water so outrageous?

Friends, it is US who are spiritually contaminated because we hesitate to do what Jesus did with the woman at the well: we hesitate to truly SEE the situation. We hesitate to see people as fully human, too steeped in our own lives, own problems and our own narrow view of the world to see across differences and cultural divides. We look away from those in the poorest areas of our state and country, we look away from our neighbors, and our ignorance lets this catastrophe continue. All the time, we put up barriers that divide the world into categories of us and them, or maybe it’s white and black, rich and poor. Whatever these divisions and binaries, when we live in a way that divides us from being aware of the basic needs of our neighbors, we are reducing each other to us and them categories. We are consenting to see each other as less than human, not deserving of the same health and wellbeing.

As Jesus in the gospel of Matthew says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt 25: 42-43 NRSV) When we support systems that deny access to a basic human right such as clean drinking water, we are denying Jesus. And we are denying spiritual living water to ourselves at the same time.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Jesus gives us an example of how to see the injustice present in the world and take action. Speaking to her present context, Jesus truly sees the woman at the well and knows what she needs. Though she is thirsty and has come to the well to draw water, the Samaritan woman is so overcome with Jesus’ knowledge of her past, so overwhelmed with the feeling of truly being seen and valued as her own person and not just as her ethnicity or marital status, that she runs into the city to tell everyone about the man “who knew everything about me.” The text tells us that the woman leaves her jar behind, the jar with which she had planned to carry precious H2O back to her home, the jar whose emptiness prompted her to come to the well in the first place. Why would she leave it behind? Who will fill this woman’s jar?

Leaving jar, the woman must have had a deep trust, not only that she would receive that living water, but that her physical needs would also be met. Perhaps this woman knows that she will enter into the beloved community, similar to the community of Acts 2, where each person’s material needs are provided for in a kind of sharing economy. By drinking from the living water, the woman is no longer shamed within her community for her past relationships, a patriarchal reading of this scripture that denigrates her sexuality and assumes her multiple past partners must be a source of grief for her. By drinking of the living water, the Samaritan woman at the well becomes part of the community who experience Jesus firsthand–including those he healed, those who appealed to him for healings of their loved ones, and those to whom he revealed his true nature as the messiah of God, no matter if they are Jews or Gentiles–or Samaritans. She must have known that Jesus performs physical healing which then makes spiritual healing possible.  Jesus was always healing people’s physical needs without first asking proof of their religious pedigree; just ask blind Bartimaeus and the man who sat near the pool of Bethsaida. She must have known somehow that becoming part of the community of Jesus followers would bring not only living water for her soul, but also living water to drink.

The question now before us is this: Will we fill each other’s jars with the waters of justice? Will we stand in the way of systems that oppress, and help each other gain access to this living water?

If you want to say, “Yes!” And commit to working with your neighbors to help spread the gospel of living water by taking action concerning the Flint water crisis, we must listen to the voices of those directly impacted by this situation before rushing in with our own ideas of how to fix things. Consider these suggestions from Flint’s Woodside Church on how to help (http://www.woodsidechurch.net/flint-water-emergency/):

  1. Send donations of money to help fund re-filling stations in the church. Don’t just send bottled water.
  2. Volunteer to distribute water around vulnerable neighborhoods.
  3. Show up at public demonstrations in solidarity with Flint residents.
  4. Read, learn and share information. Discern how you can be a part of a gospel-centered response.
  5. Be aware of your privilege and use it to support residents. Don’t assume you know how to help. The pastor writes, “We know what we need.”
  6. “Consider the difference between justice and charity. Charity is about donations (like water and money), but justice is about building relationships, hearing the voices from the community, and changing the systems that got us into this in the first place.”
  7. Advocate. Examples of this are making sure resources are distributed to those enduring the most hardship first; voting against racialized policies that redistribute resources from inner city areas to more affluent suburbs; advocating for a return to democratic government in Flint, instead of Emergency Managers not elected by the residents and put in power by the Governor; advocating for better infrastructure and jobs.

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

Beloved community, we have been taught to care for each other after the example of Jesus. Instead of giving in to the categories with which people usually divide themselves and their communities, Jesus draws the woman into a new relationship and into a community which provides for each other’s needs. He meets her at the well to co-create a new way of living and being God’s people by offering her living water.

Living water does not value profit over people.

Living water does not validate power-over relationships.

Living water does not obscure the true story in favor of an easy one.

Living water values equity over equality.

Living water reinforces the imago Dei, encouraging each person to see themselves in the image of the divine.

Living water knows that justice is a prerequisite for peace.

O let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

 

This sermon was originally preached for a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Prophetic Preaching and Social Justice Ethics.

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 20: Sixth Sunday of Lent and Holy Week: Faith into Action

 

Luke 6:20-26

So what can we do about this, for those of us who do not face the same struggles as some of the folks we have learned about in this season of Lent? First, stay woke. Pay attention to where your food comes from and why some people don’t have the same access that you do. Second, keep being informed. It can be scary to see inequality and injustice, but it’s scarier to live it. And, if you are a person who carries a lot of privilege with your identity and through your body, you have a Christian responsibility to stand up for the good of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Third, create a ritual or a liturgy that expresses the thoughts and feelings you have about this situation of injustice. Ritual often helps process emotions and events in constructive ways, committing events to memory without robbing them of their significance for the future. I’d like to suggest some ritual styles to try.

Some Christian communities do “stations of the cross” during this time of year. These stations are the multiple actions Jesus took from after the Last Supper until the time he is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. There are traditional and Biblical stations of the cross, helpfully laid out in this chart from Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts’ article on Patheos.com, from the 2004 Pope’s Stations of the Cross.

In Nashville, Amos House Community, an intentional community made up of folks dedicated to eradicating homelessness in the city, organizes a City-Wide Stations of the Cross, where faith leaders gather together and witness the modern places in our city where Jesus continues to be tortured and crucified, such as the Criminal Justice Center, the State House, the downtown prison and the Justice Department. I propose adopting a food-centered version of this practice, focusing on places where there is inequality in food access: visit a corner bodega, a grocery store frequented by low-income folks, a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, where only certain interests are served, a school garden, a soup kitchen, and other places in your city where Jesus’ is betrayed by the powers that do not invite all people to the table of justice and community.

 

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 6: Fourth Sunday of Lent: Table Theology

 

Luke 14:7-24

When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I was part of a group called the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin (since changed to the Eclectic Christians of Oberlin). Our activities revolved around preparing food for each other and eating together every Sunday night in a little house owned by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Our advisors were a husband and wife couple who co-pastored the local American Baptist church, an open and affirming community dedicated to inclusion and social justice activism. Ten or fifteen of us would gather together in the small dining room and hold hands around the table, shiftily eyeing each other as we asked “Who wants to pray?” I’d usually step up and pray, thanking God and asking God to bless our food and our community, and help us be witnesses of God’s social justice in the world. We’d then serve each other huge helpings of mac ‘n’ cheese and pie and vegan rice dishes, then adjourn to the cozy living room for a conversation about theology and communal intercessory prayer.

There was something about eating together, sharing a common meal and blessing each other, that moved me significantly. I had never felt so loved, so held, by God than in those moments where we’d joke and cry and sing hymns and shovel tasty homemade delights into our mouths. One of the coolest things about this group was that there was no faith requirement: our name had the word Christian in it, but we were never exclusive–our Muslim, atheist, Jewish, pagan and Catholic friends often joined us to talk about the nature of God, the life of Jesus of Nazareth as an example, and practicing faith-based social justice. There was always enough room for everyone around the table, always enough food to go around. When we were together, we never ran out of blessing. Letty Russell puts it well:

“A lot of community takes place at a table, and the Christian heritage already has a long tradition related to table community, table sharing, table talk, and the like…At this table there is no permanent seating, and whatever chairs of authority that exist are shared. Christ is the host and bids everyone to come.”

Jesus tells several stories in the gospels about hospitality through inviting all people to the banquet, no matter station, ethnicity, class or religion. In one parable, told in Luke 14:16-22, Jesus describes how all people should be invited to the banquet, even those in the “roads and lanes.” Earlier in that chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the guests at a banquet that they should not place themselves in the highest seat, but that they should adopt a humble posture until the host invites them to move up, suggesting a practical and liveable way of interpreting “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Though many of these teachings about meetings and hospitality are told in parables, Jesus’ life is also an example of hospitality given and received. He regularly ate with lawyers, tax collectors and prostitutes, to the chagrin of the learned Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes (Mark 2:15). Jesus also knew how to receive hospitality, as he visited Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family multiple times and often was fed by supporters of his disciples throughout his ministry (Luke 10:38-42).

Growing up, family dinners were sacred to me. I lived a few states over from my mom’s family, so we’d drive seven or eight hours every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter to be together and eat hearty home cooked meals. As I went to college and began to share meals with people outside my family, I was reminded of the sacredness of eating together in itself. Gathering together to share the fruit of the earth, the fruit of creation, was a way of remembering the body of God given through Christ in creation.

Reflection Questions:

  • What is the meal you have most enjoyed in your life? Were you with anyone when you ate it? What is special about that time?

  • How do you see living and eating in community? Is this something that is special to you? How can you move yourself to give and receive hospitality in light of this table theology?

  • How can you take steps in your everyday life to invite folks on the margins to the table, literally and figuratively? Where in your community can you help eradicate hunger?

 

Resources:

Ayres, Jennifer. Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.

Wirzba, Norman. Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Feb 28: Third Sunday of Lent: Keeping Kosher, Keeping Community

 

Deuteronomy 14:3-21

A lot of friends of mine, even those in seminary, say that when reading the Bible,  they skip over the books of Numbers (because it’s about numbers…), Leviticus (because it’s got laws) and Deuteronomy (just more laws…). And during the time of Lent, we’re just supposed to focus on the Gospels, right? Because that’s about Jesus and his life, and the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) doesn’t have anything to do with Lent.

Well, sorry, kids, but I’m here to suggest you read Deuteronomy this week! And guess what else? I think it’s going to be interesting because we are reading about eating practices and food purity laws.

Here’s the thing: Deuteronomy is a really cool book because it helps us understand what the community of ancient Israel might have thought about itself. Deuteronomy was written during the 7th century BCE, right as Judea (another name for Israel) was recovering after a hundred years of Assyrian domination. After the Assyrians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 722 BCE, the Israelites were trying to figure out how they could live and honor their god YHWH in a world where their temple was destroyed. Therefore, when they were no longer able to worship their god YHWH in the temple like they had before, they turned to issues of behavior to distinguish themselves. Some of this behavior concerned what they ate, as recorded in Deuteronomy 14:3-21: they are prohibited from eating camels, hares, badgers, pigs, eagles, vultures, osprey, shellfish and many other animals.

Because so much of American culture is obsessed with diets and with “clean eating” and knowing what goes into our food, sometimes Lent is transformed into a catch-all get-healthy time where we cut out all the “bad foods” as a “spiritual practice” when really we are just getting sucked into mainstream diet culture. Well, that doesn’t really help us focus on God, does it?

I think the ancient Israelites were on to something by noticing that what and how we eat helps define who we are as a people (remember the food culture discussion from last week?). But they also recognized that there are ways to regulate what we eat that have to do with how we live in community and how we think about what is holy.

Here’s what my friend Jessica, a Conservative (read: conservative legal interpretation) Jew who keeps kosher (observes the dietary laws) has to say about kashrut (the dietary laws):

“I keep kosher because it makes me feel more connected to Jewish tradition, and it makes meals more special and meaningful. For example, because kosher meat is more expensive than non-kosher meat, it is more of a rare treat to eat something like brisket. Therefore, meat meals are reserved for holidays and other special days, like Shabbat… Many Jews ask themselves the same question—what is the point? Jews from the Reform movement (one of the most liberal) have completely abandoned kashrut for the most part, Reconstructionist Jews are the most progressive and choose for themselves based on the community, every Conservative congregation I’ve ever encountered insists everything be Kosher, and then you have Orthodox Jews who argue over whose hashgacha (kosher supervision agency) is most reliable! Something to keep in mind is that as a result, “kosher” means different things to different people…”

Jessica goes on to talk about the difficulties of there being different ways to observe kashrut in communities, involving people having to check the food coming into the synagogue and keep to strict rules about what food is acceptable and unacceptable. Two synaogues she participates in have “two-table” system, where one table basically practices one version of kosher and the other table practices the other kind. This works because, according to Jessica,

“…no one should be put into the trap of saying “I don’t keep kosher” because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don’t believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don’t keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.”

So, even though some of these dietary laws might seem outrageous to Christian families, they are not necessarily bars to participating in community or enjoying food. Jessica’s claim that they help her feel connected to her tradition is a beautiful way of expressing the need to be in religious community across time and space. Food is one way that we do this, and food laws can free us to enjoy the benefits of community without being so focused on what we are not allowed to do.

Reflection Questions:

  • Some people care a lot about what goes into their bodies, and so are interested in the use of Genetically Modified Organisms in foods. Do some research and figure out your position on GMOs. Are they good for us? Are they bad for our health? Do companies have an obligation to label them in foods we buy at the supermarket?

  • Journal about a food experience that translated across time and space. What was it like? What do you remember when you think about/consume this food?

Resources from Jessica to understand kashrut:

http://mahrabu.blogspot.com/2006/02/hilchot-pluralism-part-i-two-table.html

http://tikkunleilshabbat.blogspot.com/

https://rainbowtallitbaby.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/real-world-kashrut/

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qRTw3Mnrv5N5ncJr4st0-OqIgW5kG1qd3n3EBPNVV74/edit

 

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Feb 14: First Sunday of Lent: What’s Food (and God) Got To Do With It?

If you happened to grow up in a Christian household that observed Lent, you are probably familiar with the idea of “giving up” something during this period of 40 days (46, counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Tradition has it that the 40 days of Lent represent the 40 days that Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 4:1-11), though there are many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that have a theme of 40 days of sojourning into the wilderness for some reason or other (see, Moses, the wanderings of the Israelites, etc.). People in diverse strains of Christianity practice giving something up as a way to make space in their lives to pay more attention to God and God’s call in their lives. Many see giving up something, food and drink in particular, as a way of purifying the temple of the body as a reminder of the importance of Jesus’ body that was to be broken for the salvation of the world. Yet others find it helpful to give up something because it’s a good once-a-year slap in the face to recover your yet-to-be-started New Year’s resolutions (yeah, we’ve all been there).

If you didn’t grow up in a Christian household observing Lent, you are probably either thinking

1) what in the world am I reading this for?

2) so THAT’S why I could never watch TV during the month of March

or 3) I enjoy when my Christian friends do this because I get all their chocolate and/or wine (for you who are of age, of course).

However, there are some darker sides to this seemingly benign liturgical practice of forgoing treats which you habitually enjoy. The way that some people practice Lent is focused very much on penance, on repenting of your sins and thus punishing yourself by giving up things which you enjoy, mostly falling into the categories of Sweets, Alcohol, Meat, and Chocolate (yes, it gets its own category…duh). Though I am generally a fan of dwelling in the shadowy parts of our faith, exploring fear and doubt and spiritual silence as a way of getting to know the different sides of God, I do not wish to perpetuate any damaging thinking arising from theologically reflecting about punishment and food shaming.

In United States American culture, food is fraught with positive and negative connotations reaching from warm community dinners to the rising prevalence of food-related self-harm diseases, such as anorexia and bulimia. In a certain way, giving up food we usually enjoy cannot only have the side effect of making us a wee bit healthier for 40 days (no one gives up “salad” or “beans” for Lent, amirite?), but it can also attach painful ideas about shame and controlling one’s urges/desires under the guise of being a spiritual practice, and can trigger emotional responses to these very serious diseases.

Food and how we eat is also gendered. Men don’t want to order “girly” drinks at bars, and women feel weird drinking “man’s beer” and are often worried about how much food they can eat on a first date so they don’t “look like a glutton.” How many times have I been told that I should only order a salad on a first date? A ridiculous amount of times. I’ll eat whatever I feel like eating, thank you very much. And so will he. (or she/they/whoever you like to date). Preparation of food is another place where gender intervenes; many girls and women are taught that the place for them is in the kitchen and are expected to make the bacon after the men bring it home…and it’s 2016?!

Another important aspect of our culture’s relationship to food is fat-shaming. It’s dangerous and a socially accepted version of shaming. There are multiple projects that are dedicated to fat acceptance, some showcasing what folks who identify as “fat” go through when eating something (ice cream, donut, etc.) that thin people around them disapprove of. Also, have you ever verbally slurred someone by saying, “Oh, you look so good, did you lose weight?” or slurred yourself by saying, “Damn, I look so fat today. No one is going to find me attractive.” Beauty and desirability and fitness for life or a relationship have 0, that’s right 0 things to do with what people eat/how they eat/how their bodies process food and store fat. All the numbers on the scale can read “beautiful creation and child of God.” Check out these cool resources about fat shaming and fat acceptance. (Fat Acceptance and Body Love: http://theadipositivityproject.zenfolio.com/; http://www.haleymorriscafiero.com/; http://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/tag/weight-size/; http://ineedfatacceptance.tumblr.com/.)

For these reasons, I’m going to encourage us to spend this Lent being a bit more intentional about what we are “giving up,” if indeed we choose that route. A dear friend of mine from college always “took on” a new practice instead of “giving up” something, though she did try to abstain from desserts. This “taking on” took the form of a new volunteer project, a self-improvement task of not gossiping but sharing joys, and learning how to knit. So, your Lenten practice can take a lot of different forms, but I want to encourage you to join me in rethinking our relationship with food during the next 40 days.

Here are some ways to think about this practice:

  • What is your favorite food? why is it your favorite? are there nostalgic memories attached to this food? or is it simply delicious?

  • Have you ever been shamed for eating/not eating something? reflect and journal about that time in your life and how it has affected you afterwards

  • Have you ever gone on a diet? What was that decision like? What did you notice in your body differently while you were on a diet? How do you see diets portrayed in USAmerican culture?

  • What have you always wanted to know about food? Wondered where it comes from? How does it get from farm to table? Take some time and research something that interests you!

That sound like a lot? Here are some (easy-ish) practical things you can do:

  • Keep a journal! Write down how you feel, what you are thinking and how you are keeping track of your body over this time.
  • Interview people around you about their relationship to food.
  • Try to cook for yourself more throughout this Lent.
  • Jesus eats A LOT in the Bible. Find some of these passages and read them with friends over a meal once a week during Lent.

If you feel like you want to embark upon this journey with me, please let me know and keep me updated on how you are thinking/feeling. Write to me, post on this blog, follow me on Instagram, do whatever y’all feel like doing to keep in touch and build a community around re-imagining abstinence/sweet deprivation/etc. over this holy season of communal retreat.