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 Sermons

Here We Are.

Isaiah 6:1-8 (CEB)

6 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!  All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” 4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!” 6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” 8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am. Send me.”

 

isaiah-6-chagall
The Prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall

 

This past summer I was fortunate to join with other Vanderbilt Divinity students and attend the Children’s Defense Fund conference at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, TN. On the first day of the conference, Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, a civil rights veteran and a Presbyterian minister, led the seminarians gathered there in exploring theology and action. She asked us what she calls the EMT questions: the questions that Emergency Medical Technicians ask people who have just been in an accident to assess head trauma.

These questions are:

Do you know who you are?

Do you know where you are?

Do you know what time it is?

Do you know what just happened?

If a person responds correctly to all of these questions, they are considered “alert and conscious times 4.” If they only respond to the first three questions, they are considered “alert and conscious times 3” and so on. Rev. Dr. Lindner told us that the first question, “Do you know who you are?” is the most important, because identity is the last thing to go in trauma situations. She also proposed that the utility of these questions does not end in a hospital setting, but that they can also be applied to prophetic ministry.

Let’s ask the prophet Isaiah a few questions:

Do you know who you are?

     Yes, I am Isaiah, son of Amoz.

Do you know where you are?

      Yes, I am in Jerusalem in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Do you know what time it is?

     Yes, it is during the reign of King Uzziah.

Do you know what just happened?

     Yes, King Uzziah has just died. And I have seen a vision from God.

Well, our prophet seems to be alert and conscious times 4. But something is missing from these questions when applied to theological work. We must also ask: what is the meaning of all of these answers together? What do we do now that we know the facts?

For Isaiah, he lived in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Biblical scholars tell us that in this time, around the 7th century BCE, Assyrians exiled many elites from the northern kingdom of Israel during the time of Isaiah’s ministry. This created a lot of political tension within the community of Jerusalem in the south, because they feared Assyria would come for them next, according to other prophets and psalms recorded in this time period. King Uzziah’s death also marked a point of transition of power and potential social upheaval. Isaiah’s ministry took place under several different kings: after Uzziah, there’s his son Jotham and then his son Ahaz, and then Hezekiah. The point is, there was a lot of political strife going on in Isaiah’s time; you can read about the cycle of good kings and bad kings and all the transitions in the book of 2nd Kings.

In recent weeks, we’ve talked a little about the job description for prophets, which never seems like much fun, and for Isaiah it’s the same. God grants Isaiah a magnificent vision and allows Isaiah to see the world as God sees, and yet, these are God’s directions to Isaiah: “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend.” God sends this chosen prophet to go speak to people who willfully turn away from God. Sounds kind of like a doomed mission, to me.

And yet, there’s something about answering God’s call with a strong “Here I am. Send me.” that sticks with me. Could what’s missing be the meaning to which the EMT questions are pointing? Acknowledging the facts of the situation, recognizing the possibility of trauma, and still answering God’s call affirmatively.

Glendale, what are the answers we give to the EMT questions today?

Who are we?

In some ways, all we have to do is turn over our bulletin. “Glendale Baptist Church, a caring community of equality and grace.”

We are Christians, called to be a community of the living body of the Christ. We are called to contradict violence with love, war with creation, hatred with understanding, ignorance with wisdom, fear with faith, and oppression with justice. We are people who have amazing resources in our DNA of building communities of resistance–whether it is providing sanctuary for Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany or witnessing against the School of the Americas or crossing borders to create a mutual and loving relationship with a church in Santa Clara Cuba or declaring themselves open, affirming and inclusive of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer folks, Christian churches have been–and will continue to be–places where people gather to join God’s work in the world. With Isaiah, we are called to be a people who show up and speak to a people with unclean lips–and sometimes they look like us.

Where are we?

We are in Nashville, Tennessee. We are in the Southern United States. We are in former Confederate territory. We are in a church. Like Isaiah, we inhabit space in a powerful country that too often sees threats surrounding us.

What time is it?

There are different ways to mark time. One way is printed on the front of your bulletin. Another way to describe today is that it is the first Sunday after a presidential election, a fairly normal every-four-years occurrence. Or, we could say we are living fifty years after the Civil Rights movement began. And like Isaiah, we are in a time marked by political upheaval and transition.

What just happened?

We now have a leader who brags about assaulting women; who threatens to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out of this country; who made disparaging remarks about a soldier who was killed in the line of duty because he was Muslim; who, for that matter, wants to ban all Muslims from this country that some say was founded on a value of religious freedom. Many are saying this election result is a surprise because they were taken off-guard, because they thought “surely, people are better than giving in to hate/racism/sexism” “surely, this won’t happen” and then it did. People have been saying, “The veil has been pulled back and now we see clearly.” In recent days, we have seen horrifying hate crimes take place all over the country. Now that the veil has been removed, those who would commit acts of terror have been emboldened by the vocal validation of the man who will be sworn in as the President in January. A gay man in a bar was taunted and beaten; Latino high school students in Michigan were told to go back to Mexico; women are being harassed openly in grocery parking lots and malls and outside their schools; white men have told black men and women and children, “It’s our country now.” 

There we have the facts–we are alert and conscious times four. So what do we do now?

First, let us remember that only some people are now having the veil pulled back off of a world which they–which I, too,–dearly hoped was not really the reality. Some have been living with various veils over their world for quite a while. As a woman, I live partially in an unveiled world where the realities of sexism and misogyny affect me every day; but because I’m white, the veil of white privilege keeps me from experiencing systemic prejudice based on my skin color. There are many veils that cover worlds of homophobia, transphobia, bias against people with different abilities, ethnocentrism and so many more. Many people in this very room live in unveiled worlds where prejudice is obvious and bold and affronts us every day; others are kept from seeing by veils of privilege marked by whiteness, economic status, white supremacy, patriarchy and American citizenship.

In Isaiah’s vision, the prophet had the veil of his humanity pulled back such that he was blessed with being able to see how God sees: the glory and praise of the Lord was too much for him! His reaction to seeing the vision was confessional: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips!” He mourns that he is ruined, there is no hope for him because he has said terrible things, perhaps words that divide and exclude, that propagate bigotry and hatred. He confesses his complicity in the uncleanness of his people. In the United States of America, as in many places around the world, our privilege/our social status, is determined by several factors. The most prominent factors are race, gender and economic status. Due to these factors, all of us in the room are complicit in structures that oppress, meaning that we have a part in making possible a way of living that puts down people so that others–so that we–can be lifted up. For those of us that benefit from systems that use and abuse people so that we can maintain our own comfort and complacency, we must follow Isaiah’s prophetic lead and confess our role in sustaining systemic evil.  We must confess all the ways that we have stayed silent while people used words, perhaps racial epithets, that we deem unacceptable, or perhaps it was saying something homophobic at the family dinner table, or objectifying someone’s body in a workplace. We must repent of our part in this violence.

Hear the words of a friend and colleague of mine, Jules Galette, said at Friday’s protest at Vanderbilt: “For the arc of the moral universe to approach justice, we must bend it.” This is a big task, but God is in the habit of asking prophets to do big things. And as Glendale Baptist Church, we already have a statement expressing our angle on bending this arc:

Again, on the back of our bulletin, let’s read together: “We strive to partner with God and follow Jesus on the Way of Love; to create sanctuary for one another with special concern for those who are marginalized; to work intentionally for mercy and justice; to sustain a creative and compassionate theological voice; to gather resources joyfully and share them generously; to love our neighbors and care for all of creation.” Those are pretty good places to start.

Concretely, we know what living these commitments look like. As I read the following activities, please raise your hand if you are involved in these programs. Look around at each other to see who is raising their hand–maybe stop them on their way out and talk to them about their work.

This looks like:

  • serving folks experiencing homelessness with Room in the Inn;
  • supporting our Muslim siblings at the Islamic Center in 12South or over in Murfreesboro;
  • volunteering with LGBTQ youth experience homelessness with Launch Pad;
  • feeding people with Luke 14:12;
  • gathering churches together to provide moral leadership for our Nashville Community with Nashville Organizing for Action and Hope;
  • raising awareness about sexual assault and providing support for survivors;
  • Providing healthcare;
  • teaching;
  • organizing against white supremacy with Showing Up for Racial Justice;
  • making music and art to celebrate beauty in our world;
  • growing food and building sustainable infrastructure.

Look around us–we are already involved in so many important activities. This election just means that we keep doing what we’re doing, but with an understanding that we must act more urgently–we keep educating and keep agitating and keep growing and keep bending that arc of the moral universe further and further towards justice.

But what if we are still not ready to act? What if we are afraid that as we bend, we may break? We may not be the best speakers, we may have said or done things that have hurt and angered and oppressed people in the past. We may be waiting for the right words and we wait for the right time and we wait to be perfect and we wait for approval and we wait  for total safety. But the time for waiting is past. That time is long past. Our complicity will not depart from us, but we do not have to remain stuck there. Even though Isaiah has unclean lips, he cries, “I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!” Then, a seraph brings a hot coal from the temple altar to anoint his lips, confirming that God chose Isaiah to do God’s work. God knew Isaiah had the potential to speak truth to power and so the anointing coal prepares Isaiah for righteous conversation.

My people, in times like these, God anoints our mouths and readies our speech. For some, the coals grant the courage not to shy away from or avoid tough conversations and speak hard truths and call out those who are divisive or in denial–even those closest to us. For others, we need more love on our tongues to speak  into a world inundated with fearful and hateful speech. God, working through our community of resistance at Glendale Baptist Church, is preparing us to engage with our neighbors, to call them into loving dialogue and to spur them to action. On your way out of the sanctuary, please pick up a red gem from the baskets by the doors to symbolize the coal that anoints your lips. What is the righteous speech that God wants you to use to bend the arc of the moral universe just that much further toward justice?

Dear friends in this community of Christ, we know who we are. We know where we are. We know what time it is. And we know what just happened. So, when it is time to make meaning from these answers and take action, God asks us this: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

And even though we know the facts of the situation, as dire and scary as they may be; even though we have ventured into the unveiled world to see as God sees; even though we are aware that trauma may come in the days ahead, I pray that we all can answer in one voice: “Here we are. Send us.”

 

Originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church, 11.13.16.

Posted in Sermons

My Neighbor, the Mountain: Earth Day Sermon

As you might have heard…last Wednesday, April 22, was Earth Day. Founded in 1970 and leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day began in part as a desire to raise as much awareness about the deterioration of the natural environment as was raised by student demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War. Earth Day was born out of a struggle for justice in its many dimensions, and has seen worldwide movement after being founded in the United States.

As expected, my Facebook newsfeed was chock full of folks posting about climate activist art and 350.org and ways to abolish extractive industries and people planting trees and everything you could ever think of that is related to care for the Earth. The obligatory post quoting the Native American proverb “We don’t inherit this planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” showed up about every other minute. Pictures of folk spending sunny days in their garden (highlighting the pastoral) and hiking huge mountain ranges and steep canyons (highlight the sublime) were ubiquitous. [But only for one day]

What was I doing on Earth Day? Not gardening or hiking or planting trees.
Naturally, having a Facebook argument with a dear friend, who also happens to be a climate change denier.

My friend had several points to make. 1. The Earth has had ice ages before when humans weren’t around­­and who caused those climate changes?; 2. Scientists are grant­funded and keep claiming that climate change is real to keep the money flowing to think tanks that do climate research; 3. That ice melting being a problem doesn’t make sense because when you melt ice cubes in a glass of water your glass does not overflow; and 4. That it is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.

As far as the first three go, I will let the majority of climate scientists who study greenhouse gases, geologists who know all about cyclical environmental disruptions, and chemists who understand that ice melting in a glass is different from ice melting on an always­changing and eroding Earth, explain for themselves why some of my friends’ ideas are a little less than informed and play into some dominant political ideologies.

But I want to focus in on the last one: “It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.”
I actually agree with this, but probably for different reasons than my friend wrote it.

It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change because i​t is already happening. It is all around us.​Agriculture is changing because of billions of bees that are dying­­there go our pollinators that help us grow our food. Extreme weather events such as droughts and flood­inducing rains are becoming more common­­symptoms of Earth’s HVAC system being out of whack. Rates of species extinction are happening at the fastest rate EVER (yes, in the whole entire history of our planet). The Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral due to ocean temperatures rising causing coral bleaching­­basically killing off the bacteria that cause the vibrant coral rainbows. Islands are becoming inundated with water as ocean levels rise, submerging exotic locales such as the Maldives, Fiji and, in recent news, the island chain of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. Environmentalist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben suggests that we need a whole new name for this planet which we are inhabiting: “Earth” but with two As: “E­a­a­r­t­h,” because it is somewhat like the old planet, but irrevocably changed, and with an uncertain future.

However, all ego and desire to be right aside, there is something hugely wrong with my Facebook argument. It’s not about the science. It’s not about “believing” or “not believing” in climate change. It’s not even completely about politics and money at this point.

Communities all over this world, both human and nonhuman, are suffering, are being constantly harmed and degraded and pushed to the brink of what we recognize to be living well.​ Folks are suffering, even here in the United States of America and in Nashville, and we are beyond the point of no return. We are beyond the point of blaming each other and playing partisan politics. We have long passed by the possibility of keeping our tunnel vision focused on our own backyards, and are now faced with the reality that everything on this planet is interrelated and decisions and actions made on one side of the globe can be distinctly and intimately felt on the whole other side of the world.

The task ahead of us is this: We need to figure out a way to enhance each other’s flourishing in light of a changing climate. It’s here. It’s now. It’s up to us.

This is a daunting task, figuring out how to mitigate the destruction that is coming down the pipeline to a habitat near you, courtesy of years of industry and exploitation of resources and people and urbanization and a whole host of other causes. This is difficult, figuring out how to support communities who are losing their families, their food, and their sacred spaces because if the ocean rises any farther, their homeland will simply​cease to exist.

As people of faith, we know that there are resources in our sacred texts about creation care.
Hear words from Genesis 1:
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that was made and indeed, it was very good.”

The psalmist writes: “God makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. God waters the mountains from God’s upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of God’s work. God makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for humankind to cultivate­bringing forth food from the earth.” (Psalm 104:10­14)

From the prophet Isaiah: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

We also know that there are texts that do not paint such a rosy view of the creation, instead focusing on a far­off (or perhaps close­at­hand) eschatology of the end times and Judgment Day. The books of Daniel, Isaiah, Joel, Revelations, and even the letters to the Thessalonians in the New Testament all speak of lakes of fire and God’s wrath against those who turn away from God, rendering them to an eternity of unspeakable pain. B​ut d​on’t worry about your physical body or our degraded Earth, there will be a “new heaven and a new earth because the old earth had passed away and there was no sea.”
­­­­
But where are the texts that speak to the need to build community, to restore us to each other and make new our relationships, to understand the power structures that are exploiting our neighbors and damaging our collective dignity?

I suggest we take another look at the parables.

I believe the parables of Jesus (short stories told with the purpose of being surprising and alarming; stories that not only f​lip over​the status quo but s​hatter it c​ompletely) are underutilized in Christian Biblical discussions of environmental justice. Some folks believe that parables are rather literal, serving only to set examples of ideal social interactions between humans, which sadly keeps the interpretive reach of parables in the human realm alone.

However, if we widen our definition of environmental justice, we can understand how parables may be useful. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” I often like to talk about environmental justice as incorporating, and thus necessitating, all other justices, (as well as being very Biblical).

For example: Without economic justice, there is no environmental justice; Economic justice involves people being able to feed their families by working for a living wage; a case study would be the Coalition of Immolakee Workers in Florida, who are fighting to push major grocery stores like Publix to pay workers more for the tomatoes they pick. Here’s another example: Without racial justice, there is no environmental justice; a case study would be the development of toxic waste sites and garbage dumps in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, such as in Dixon, Tennessee, a mere 42 miles west of here. I​t even happens here in Nashville.

So, if environmental justice is concerned about the race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, sexuality, income, health and education level of all people, then environmental justice is not just an ecological issue. It is also a social issue, concerned with the way that people separate themselves and assign value based on differences. The parables can help us with this.

Take the story of the Good Samaritan.

The frame story for Jesus’ telling of this parable is important. A lawyer (or rather, a scholar of the law) was trying to test Jesus to see if Jesus truly knew the Torah Law. He basically asks Jesus what kinds of deeds he needs to do to get into heaven. Jesus turns the question back on him, forcing the lawyer to respond with the correct Torah portion “Love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yep, you did a good job memorizing that…” and turns away, but the lawyer persists: “But WHO is my neighbor?”

So Jesus tells this story:
There is a person walking down the road minding his own business, by all accounts a Jew, based on the audience who was listening to Jesus tell the story. He falls into the hands of robbers, who beat the person violently, rob him of all his possessions, and leave him for dead in a ditch on the side of the road. A few people come along (members of the clergy, no less!), and instead of having mercy and saving the poor soul (as members of the audience listening would hope they would do), they cross over to the other side of the road, wanting nothing to do with this helpless figure. But t​hen​who should come along but a S​amaritan,​a member of a group that the Jews detested at that time because of a long history of violence and persecution. And what does the Samaritan do but upon seeing the lifeless figure in the ditch, lifts him up and puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn and pays for his care. No amount of social segregation based on race, class, birth sex, or gender identity could change the fact of the mercy shown by the Samaritan towards the Jew. Jesus, while telling this story, asks his audience “Who acted as a neighbor to the person in the ditch?” and they rightly reply “the Samaritan.” Thus the word neighbor is given an exalted status, is shown to mean a person who defies barriers with grace and mercy.

But notice, also, that while the lawyer in Jesus’ audience was trying to figure out who his neighbor was so he could decide how nice he had to be to get to heaven (do I have to walk his dog? invite his family over for dinner? clean his car?), Jesus turns the word neighbor around, giving it a dual meaning. Not only is the neighbor the object of the help, but it is also the person bestowing the help­­there is a mutuality of being neighborly. Neighbors are in constant relationship, both giving and receiving at all times.

As are we​with this planet we are riding on. As many of us here are Westernized USAmericans, we have been born into a culture based on capitalism, which is upheld by the over­utilization of natural resources and the exploitation of people all over the world. Our very way of being has been based on being able to take­take­take from the land…now we have to figure out how to give back to our home the Earth.

What if we treated the Earth as the Samaritan treated the person who lay beaten, violated and bleeding in the ditch? What if we looked around with our “neighbor goggles” on, and saw everything around us as being enlivened by the Spirit of the Divine, just as we ourselves are?

How would our lives be different if we lived seeing a mountain as our neighbor?

And so I’m not here today to school you on climate science, tell you the true meaning of the Good Samaritan, or make you feel bad about your lifestyle. (Really). I’m here to suggest a constructive way of reading our changing world that will open our eyes to environmental justice issues around us, and so that we might be able to think up a way to address these issues as a community.

Every time we demonstrate for fair wages for low­income workers, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we write letters and call our senators asking them to support free and reduced lunches for Tennessee students, many of whom are food insecure, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we paddle the Cumberland River or hike the Appalachian trail and stop and experience awe at the beauty and grandeur of creation (including cleaning up after ourselves), we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we refuse to see the world in polarities, but instead see not only shades of grey but a technicolor universe of powerful and diverse people, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Friends, our good Creator has blessed us with a beautiful Creation to care for, and, when we have not done such a good job of it, has used the words of the apostle Paul to remind us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…f​or the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”​Let us go forth to be partners with God in the renewing of Creation, in the redemption of our human relationships so that we can enhance the flourishing of all life on this beautiful, this one and our only, Blue Planet.

*Sermon originally preached at Scarritt Bennett Center, Nashville, TN April 28, 2015

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Commencement and Pentecost

Two weeks ago, I graduated from Oberlin College. After four long years of reading, studying, writing, taking tests, living in dorms, sharing bathrooms and showers, listening to lectures, eating in dining halls and paying tuition, I have come to the conclusion that it all went wayyyyy too fast. In the moment, I know I dreamed of that day when I wouldn’t have to be writing this paper on Exodus or studying for my chemistry exam, and now I don’t exactly wish for those days to return. Certainly with the popularity of social media, I will be able to keep up with friends much more easily than past generations, but right now that’s really hard to be thankful for. What I miss is my community.

When someone knocks on my door, it’s not my friend bound for circus school who wants to go to the local bar and club. I can no longer walk over to my crush’s house just to ask him to come to dinner with me. I’m not able to be there for a friend struggling with anxiety, able to hug her and tell her that her life is going to be ok. Evenings don’t hold swimming in ponds and secretive bonfires in the woods and singing cowboy songs; instead I’m in front of the TV. The kids that I get to watch grow up will not be the adorable grandchildren of my pastors that I have colored, played, and danced with. When I go home at night, my friends and roommates are not there to cheer me up with dancing to Taylor Swift’s “22” song on the kitchen counter. Past are the days of singing Gillian Welch on a front porch with people far more brilliant than I am. When I’m overwhelmed with a complicated mix of joy and sorrow, my strong, intelligent, beautiful girlfriends aren’t here to sit on my bed and cry with me, exchanging stories of how they overcome internalized sexism every day of their lives. The people that I am used to lifting me up and holding me in the palm of their hand are not there. On Sunday mornings, I won’t be worshipping in a space where I feel completely at home and loved, having left behind the fear and shame of crying in public to embrace instead the beauty of being able to feel emotions in these wonderful peoples’ presence.

I have been more homesick in the past two weeks than I was my freshman year, when it physically hurt to be away from my hometown. Now there is an empty, dull gnawing in my chest. I long to fill it with cookouts with religious studies nerds, conversations about feminism and capitalism with my radical colleagues, and friends who make pottery, keep chickens in their dorm room, dance barefoot at midnight on the bandstand, cook home-style meals for upwards of 60 people a day, and who can quote lines of Rumi or Neruda on the spot. It’s safe to say that I feel landless—plucked away from the place where the roots that held me steady were those that I planted myself. My college town has become the only place that feels like home. Of course, I feel as if I’m home whenever I’m in the presence of folk that I love, but there is something definitely special about the geographic location of Oberlin, Ohio.

Fortunately, the past two weeks back in my hometown have been a time of rest and relaxation—something that I rarely did fully over my college career. I have been sleeping a lot and watching a lot of mindless television (though I do argue that since I am moving to Nashville, the new-ish show about Music City USA is “research.”) I have been spending time cuddling with my cat and laughing with my brother. I’ve been spending time reflecting.

This past weekend I was fortunate to be able to travel back to Oberlin for a dear friend’s wedding. This friend was the reason I made it through my freshman year of college. Upon a painful breakup with my high school boyfriend right as I was getting acclimated to college life 200 miles from home, this friend scooped me up and set me right. She cooked me dinner, sat me down with a box of tissues to listen to my story, and gave me a Jane Austen book. I love her so much, and it was a complete honor to be able to be a part of her wedding day. Her wedding so fully expressed the individuality of her and her partner, as well as the grace and unity of them as a couple. The bride and groom were fully embraced by our beloved church community, and there was an amazing envelope of love all around those of us that shared in that sacred time.

Also this weekend, I was able to witness a thoughtful and moving sermon delivered by another Oberlin alum, Kathryn. She is currently in Divinity School, and I’d heard many stories from our beloved pastors about her. Today was Pentecost, and her sermon was just what I needed to hear as my reflective and emotional post-grad self was overwhelmed with the situation of being back in a town that I had just left…and was having trouble leaving again.

Pentecost takes place several weeks after Easter, and is the official time when the Holy Spirit comes down among the people of the Earth, a little bit after Jesus ascends into heaven. This “little bit” of lag time is really important, according to Kathryn. The disciples, who had been through so much in three or four years, were suddenly plucked out of the world they had come to know and forced to reckon with a world they were not sure they were prepared for. They had listened to Jesus, confided in him, questioned him, traveled with him—they had stored up an immense amount of knowledge from his teachings. But when he was taken up into heaven and the Holy Spirit didn’t come down to earth right away in an easy switcheroo, they must have felt awfully lost…and awfully scared. They had entered into a strange limbo where they had to turn inwards toward their community to collectively remember the lessons and teachings of Jesus which they hoped had prepared them for whatever uncertain future was to come. They were in a holding space where they were not yet embarking on the path which they were meant for, but were waiting…but for what? The disciples had to strengthen and support each other before they could turn outwards empowered by the Holy Spirit to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Similarly, senior week and commencement weekend were a time for us graduates to turn inwards before we turned outwards, hopefully towards what we are meant to do. I feel like I am in limbo just like the disciples, stuck between graduation with both head and heart knowledge and getting to a place where I can use them. I find this time between graduation and moving on to the adventures to come in Nashville scary and frustrating and sad—I’m used to being busy and so I just want to jump into more projects and preoccupy myself such that I don’t have any time to miss my friends and my church and what feels like a “real life” that I left behind in Oberlin. But the disciples must have used this sacred time to re-collect themselves, to feel and process the things that had come to pass between Good Friday, Easter, and the ascension. Reflection time is one of the best things that we can give ourselves, though it is by no means easy. But it is entirely necessary if we, if I, am to continue on this path—towards what, I can’t claim to know. I do know this: the Holy Spirit is not only waiting for me with tongues of flame that will help me speak the languages of peace, solidarity, and justice, but the Spirit is traveling with me every step of the way.