Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From the mountains to the valleys

From the rivers to the sea

Every hand that reaches out

Every hand that reaches out to offer peace

Every simple act of mercy

Every step to kingdom come

All the hope in every heart

Will see what love has done.”

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

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

See also

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


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

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

Posted in Sermons, Writing

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

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

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

I was looking forward to these…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There isn’t one,” I told him.

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

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

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

Beloved church, you are the sowers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no end 

To what a living world 

Will demand of you.” 

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

Amen. 

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

Posted in Sermons, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs

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

When someone sneezes, a leftover

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

And sometimes, when you spill lemons

From your grocery bag, someone else will help you

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

We wanted to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May it ever be so. 

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Photo I took at Arches National Park, September 2019

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

 

Posted in Sermons, Writing

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

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

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

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. 

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

Posted in Sermons

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: John 10:22-30

I am a cat person. Some of you know that in October, I added a cat to my home. She’s a mackerel tabby named Emery…and some of you have helped outfit her need for toys and scratching posts and snuggles, and she is grateful. Now, before I brought her home, I was mulling over the proper name for a cat. Since I love Harry Potter, I thought I might call her Minerva, after Minerva McGonagall, who is a registered “Animagus” someone who can turn into an animal at will. I thought about other sweetly human names like “Josephine” and “Sophia.” I did all this thinking and planning about the name of my pet while somehow knowing in the back of my mind that I’d wind up calling her “Miss Kitten” anyway!

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Emery, summer 2019, age 2

And really, some people wonder, what is the importance of a name for cats? They’re not like dogs, who know their names and come running to you eagerly. But a recent study proved that cats indeed DO know their name…they just might not care! 

And so, whether Emery responds to her given name or “Miss Kitten” or “kitty cat” or “sweet baby angel fluff ball” as my friend Hannah dubbed her…at least she knows my voice and recognizes me calling to her.

The quote at the top of your bulletin is from Neil Gaiman’s famous youth fiction book, Coraline. In this passage, Coraline is trying to figure out the name of the cat and she gives an example of how things are named…she says, “see, I’m Coraline. That’s what people call me. Now what do people name you?” And the cat says, “you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

I can imagine Coraline getting impatient with the cat, who is often rude and unhelpful (the verisimilitude in the cat’s character is striking!) and saying, “How long will you test my patience? If you have a name, tell me plainly!”

My intention is not to compare Jesus to a cat, though I have an affinity for both things. You see, I relate to Coraline and the temple leaders who didn’t care for Jesus…sometimes I want to cry out at a situation, at the world, at God, “Tell me plainly! How long will you keep me guessing? What’s wrong with just admitting what I am asking?” 

Our Scripture today says that there were Jerusalem leaders who opposed Jesus who were “circling around him,” recalling the other passages in John’s gospel that unfairly paint “the Jews” with a broad brush as they try to entrap Jesus. Indeed, one of those passages comes right before this section of Scripture, where Jesus heals a person on the sabbath and the leaders were trying to figure out if it was acceptable or not. And Jesus answered them by telling the Parable of the Good Shepherd, describing how Jesus as the Shepherd cares for the sheep, knowing each one individually as well as keeping the group together. For those who were here on Youth Sunday last November, you got quite the treat of the children of this congregation acting out the Good Shepherd story…and now we get to see what comes after it.

So here we are: the religious establishment is trying to get Jesus to drop all pretense and games and parables and say in plain speech who he is and what he’s up to. However, the problem is that they don’t really want to know who Jesus is…they want to know what to call him. They are obsessively concerned about titles, and when that is the case, we must ask, “Who is doing the naming, and why?” Naming can show an intimacy, a depth of knowing that divulges secrets of power and privilege. Naming can be colonizing, as indigenous words for homelands and animals and bodies of water are steamrolled by weighty, bland, European names. Often those who are so caught up in titles for things are seeking control. And John’s gospel tells us that’s what is happening here. The leaders want to know which title Jesus claims so that they know what Jesus means, if he’s any threat to them or to the Empire that keeps the status quo. It is almost as if they are goading him in to telling them he’s the Christ, just so they can offer a rebuttal and say “no you’re not and here’s why.” This is a loaded question they are asking him. 

But our titles are not our identities. They are not the only way we are known. Who we are on the inside of our hearts and in the fabric of our souls cannot be summed up in a few words. For example, we know that not all teachers teach. Not all pastors are pastoral. Not all CEOs are good at business. Not all presidents are presidential. Not all mothers mother and not all fathers father. Not all judges are just. Not all people who call themselves “allies” practice good allyship. Sometimes the actions of people who are not given titles shows more about their true character and capabilities than people who are given these titles.  Knowing what to call someone is very different from knowing that person as an individual, knowing their true nature, becoming familiar with their heart. 

Jesus understands this. Jesus knows that the opposition he faces is searching for a way to discount his voice, to ensnare him in a trap, to make a lot of this title “Messiah” that is so important–and so politically volatile at that time and place within the Roman Empire. And, the leaders just might be asking the wrong question…not only because it is rooted in a desire to control, but they are seeking a plain, direct answer about the nature of Jesus’ relationship to God. And the trouble with asking someone to speak plainly about God’s identity is that it’s not so simple as that. As heard in our gathering words, names do not capture God’s nature or identity or the true relationship we have with the Divine…that’s why we call God “Life, Love, Mother, Father, Shepherd…” and so many more names. Gary D. Jones, in the Feasting on the Word commentary, says, “The trouble with talking plainly about the things of God is that the things of God are anything but plain. When a person begins speaking with unequivocal certainty about God, this is a sure sign that the person is no longer speaking about God. we can speak with unequivocal certainty about things our minds can grasp, but God is not one of those things. God grasps us; we do not grasp God.”

And really, this is where Jesus is going. As the crowd of learned leaders around Jesus exasperatedly says, “For heaven’s sakes, just tell us who you are already! Are you the Messiah or not?!” Jesus says…“I have told you, but you don’t believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me.” Jesus is making it clear that he’s not going to answer the loaded question. He’s made it clear already, and saying the title plainly will not tell them anything more about his identity when they’ve already dismissed his actions in the world. 

Jesus, perhaps much like the cat from Coraline, does not need to accept any external title to know who he is…and even so that others will recognize who he is. By this time in Jesus’ ministry, the leaders should have heard that he’d been walking around teaching and preaching, healing people and performing great signs of power. He’d done plenty of things testifying to his presence in the world, the unity of his will with God’s will, and his care for the people of God. At every turn, Jesus was intentional about letting people know his identity and purpose. 

Jesus prefers to be known not by some high-fallutin’ title by the works he does in the world. No, it’s more than that–Jesus IS known by his actions…no loaded questions can change the fact that he’s been teaching and preaching and healing and doing miracles and describing all the different ways that people can get in touch with God. By reminding these leaders that his actions in the world testify to his identity, he is resisting their desire to put him in a box. I am reminded of whenever I’m on a plane or strike up a conversation with a stranger and they ask me what I do. I have to make a split-second decision: do I tell them I am a pastor, or do I say something like “I work with children and youth at a nonprofit”? If I tell them I am a pastor, usually one of two things happens: either they shut down completely or they want to tell me their whole life story and ask advice. There’s not usually a middle ground, just one or the other. See, they are operating out of their idea of what a pastor is, informed by their life experiences. They are assuming things about me just because of my title. They are lumping me in with other pastors they have met, and what do you know, in their mind I just become an “idea.” In our Scripture today, Jesus is asking his conversation partners to let go of operating from places of privilege and status, concerned with being told what title Jesus uses so that they can verify their ideas and assumptions about him. Jesus’ identity cannot be grasped through “rational intellectual discernment,”(Gary D. Jones) but by the trust and experience of relationship with God. So Jesus sidesteps their loaded question, offering more observations of his identity, saying, “My sheep know my voice. I know them and they follow me.” 

This knowing of which Jesus speaks is not the knowing of letters strung into words…this knowing is relational, is mutual, is occurring at an embodied level. “My sheep know my voice.” If we think back to the story of the Good Shepherd, where the shepherd is attentive and loving and knows each sheep individually, there is a deep intimacy in the kind of knowing going on. Rev. Dr. Paul Duke, a co-pastor of First Baptist Ann Arbor, observes, “Repeatedly in the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus says that the sheep know him, recognize his voice, hear him call their name, and therefore follow him…belonging to the shepherd, in other words, is chiefly and deeply relational. It is about knowing and being known, about mutual recognition…a personal responsiveness, a shared understanding.”

Beloved church, we have many ways to talk about God, many names we bring to attempt to capture our experience of witnessing everyday miracles and our hopes for justice for all people and for our planet. But do you know the voice of the Good Shepherd–not just understanding the concept of God but at a deeper, embodied level? Is this voice as clear in your mind as the voice of a beloved family member or lover or dear friend? Is this voice of the Good Shepherd one that you can tune in to, almost like an old-fashioned radio dial where you have to twiddle the knob back and forth so you can clearly receive the station? That is something we can’t get right the first time, we have to pay attention to the actions of God in the world, we must have experience twiddling that dial to the right station, so we can receive it just so…Gary Jones says, “Our minds must be engaged in the discernment of faith and the way of God, but many of us are still trying to exorcise the ghost of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) by recognizing that we have relied overly much on the intellect as the primary faculty in the Christian life.” 

Today, I invite you to tune in. To pay attention to what God is doing in the world…to the small, everyday graces like the blossoming flowers and the gentle squeeze of a loved one’s hand and the food on your table. To the vibrations of all our voices singing together in harmony. To the abundance of opportunities to share your gifts with the world, and to accept the shared gifts of others. Your title, your status, your privilege do not make you more or less worthy of God’s love. How you respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd is what matters. Your identity before God is not contingent on that job promotion, on your family ties, on your earning level, on your debt level, on who or how you love, on what you do for a living. Your identity before God is something that can never be changed…God will accompany you throughout your times of trial and triumph, through your victories and your pains. God will hold you in the palm of the Sacred, embrace you in the arms of Love, gift you with the grace of knowing and being known in ways you never thought possible. 

So listen, this day, to the Voice of the Good Shepherd that is calling you. The Voice of the Good Shepherd “is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say ‘do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.’ it says, ‘you belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.’…amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise–a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher)

Friends, my prayer for you this day is that all may have abundant life as each of us claims our identity as Beloved children of God, made in God’s image, held in the hand of Love that will never let us go. May it ever be so. 

 

This sermon originally preached on May 12, 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

Easter 2019 Sermon: John 20:1-18

Before I was ordained and became a pastor, I worked in a garden. To make a beautiful job even cuter, I worked in a preschool garden. Now, all you adults are great, but 3-5 year olds are my people. I absolutely loved this job. Preparing the ground by weeding and hoeing and composting leftover organic material. Carefully planning and planting seeds, sometimes in long rows and sometimes in mounds and honestly, sometimes just scattered on the wind by a four-year-old. Even through the steamy Nashville summers, I thrived on being outside every day and living close to the earth and witnessing the brilliance of young, brand-new humans. Being in the garden was a perfect place to nurture my mind, my body, my spirit and my faith. Because miraculous things happen in the garden. Plots of ground where a child dumped a whole packet of watermelon seeds wound up being far more fruitful than the carefully-managed sections I planned; they just grew slowly and steadily. There were always just enough strawberries for each preschooler to have one. Plants that looked like they’d died, either from drought or heat or too many five year olds pulling at them all the time, still gave off seeds so their species would continue on. Squashes and pumpkins and decorative gourds grew out of the compost piles because they just couldn’t be kept from growing! As the saying from Jurassic Park goes, “Life finds a way.” 

You just can’t keep life down in a garden! Perhaps this is why there are so many wisdom sayings that have to do with gardens and harvest and planting and seeds. A favorite of mine, heard often from the mouths of those advocating for justice, and especially quoted by people searching for the disappeared students in Mexico, is “they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” As Pastor Tim shared just moments ago, it often happens that what is buried comes back, sometimes in ways we never expected or never dreamed about. Seeds, harmless though they may be, looking like they’re devoid of life, actually are harboring immense amounts of energy. Seeds, planted in fertile soil, can rise again and give life to the next generation. Seeds, in the right conditions, remind us that resurrection isn’t a one-time event. It is ongoing, unstoppable, prophetic force. 

Perhaps this is why Mary went to the garden on that early morning so long ago. She should have known that Jesus was dead. Mary had seen him die. Mary had seen it all–she had traveled with Jesus, heard him preach and teach and heal. She had been with him at dinner. I imagine she ate the bread and drank from the cup, perhaps being confused at what Jesus was talking about: where was he going that she could not follow? And despite her confusion, she stayed. After watching Jesus be arrested and beaten and paraded through the streets carrying the cross on which he was to be crucified, she stayed at the foot of the cross. She stayed with his mother Mary and the other women. She stayed, when the male disciples went away, afraid for their own lives that they would be associated with this man who was executed like a criminal. She stayed, while Joseph of Arimathea retrieved God’s body and lay it in a tomb. She stayed, while the stone was rolled in front of the tomb. Mary of Magdala should know what death means, having gotten up close and personal with it. She should know the finality of death, that once the body is washed and prepared and wrapped in linen and laid away, that body is not coming back to life. 

And yet…miraculous things happen in the garden. And so that’s where Mary went. The garden, the site of God’s original creation, the place where “the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “all things came into being through God and the Word.” The garden, the site of Jesus’ prayers and sanctuary. The garden, the location of the tomb hewn out of the rock. The garden, where the things that are buried rise again. We come, this morning, on the first day of the week, to the garden, asking “is it true?” This is what theologian Karl Barth said that every person who shows up to church holds in their hearts: the question, “is it true?” 

The question this morning is, “is it true that Friday not the end of the story? Is it true that Love really can not be put down? Is it true that God’s justice is coming, no matter if the authorities and the warriors and the politicians and the empires say it’s not?”

Nathan Roberts from The Salt Collective shared these words on Facebook on Friday: 

“Good Friday is the day Christians remember the public execution of Jesus. A day we are reminded of the consequences of living with revolutionary love. Love that stands beside assaulted women, love that flips over corrupt tables, love that throws parades, love that tells people to pray for “our daily bread” not just “my daily bread”, and love that provides free healthcare to those who society gave up on. Love without cultural boundaries, without fear of the government laws, without fear of religious judgement, without fear of dying. Jesus was publicly executed by a world that refused to change. And on Friday his body hung as a warning to all his followers. But Love would not stay dead.”

Miraculous things happen in the garden. Maybe Mary, showing up in the garden, not sure if she was too early or too late, would say, “Pilate tried to bury Jesus, but he didn’t know Jesus was a seed. The empire tried to bury Jesus, but they didn’t know Jesus was a seed. The powers of death and destruction tried to bury Jesus, but they didn’t know Jesus was a seed.”

Jesus, planted in the ground, buried in a tomb, rose again early in the morning, a life-cycle completed and yet ongoing in seed and bud and blossom. 

But perhaps Jesus is also a gardener. After all, that’s what Mary thought when she saw him, when she heard him call her name so personally, so intimately, so lovingly. So if Jesus is a gardener, maybe it is by being a seed that does its own propagating, like wild dandelions shed their seeds to their surroundings. Maybe it was no mistake that Mary thought the Risen Christ was the gardener, because he was living proof of the resurrection. He had planted a seed of hope in the midst of the despair of Good Friday and the waiting of Holy Saturday and the deep night going into Sunday morning. Jesus had planted a seed of hope amidst the sacred spaces that were burning and the faithful who are grieving and the modern-day crucifixion that keeps claiming people for death who have so much more living to do. Christ Jesus has planted a seed in each of our hearts, in each of us a tiny resurrection, a small piece of Godself loving and dying with us. 

Because that is the true miracle of the resurrection–when the empire tries to bury us, push us to the margins, separate our families, destroy our home Mother Earth, drown us in anxiety and apathy, console us and keep us complacent, shove us into strict binaries of identities, crush passion and creativity…the empire forgot that we are seeds and we rise again. We are planted in this garden, in loving community, to be nourished and challenged and loved and held accountable by each other for the flourishing of all. WE can be the resurrection because Jesus planted the seeds of resurrection in each of us, preparing each of us to respond to God’s voice as God calls our names, telling us that the powers of this world, the powers of might and force and destruction and even death, hold no sway against love, justice, mercy and grace. 

And so, this morning, I remind you of the words of one of my favorite poets, lifelong Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry: “practice resurrection.” And practice we must, every day. Like Mary, we are showing up in the garden, maybe some of us fearing it is too late for redemption, some of us feeling like we are too early, it’s too soon, for new life to take shape…but y’all, just like Mary, we are right on time. Right on time to catch the first rays of dawn breaking through. Right on time to receive a promise of something more than grief and depression and anxiety and fear. Right on time to hear the God of Love speak our names in a way only God can call us…like the way only your mother can hug you just-so, or only a dear friend can discern the sly winks and nods. We’re right on time to witness God turning the world upside down, bringing forth something miraculous from something grievously mundane. We’re right on time to witness the seed bursting from its seed coat, sending its delicate tendrils up through the soil to convey a message of life ongoing, flourishing from bud into blossom. We’re right on time to be resurrected, out of the holy compost of our own lives, ready to see the rays of the Son, we’re ready to burst into bloom for all to see. 

Let us go forth to BE the resurrection this day, and every day of our lives. 

May it ever be so. 

 

This sermon preached Easter 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church, in collaboration with Pastor Tim Phillips, who preached first on Joseph of Arimathea.

Posted in Sermons

Made You Look: A Sermon on Acts 1:1-11

What’s that? That, over there. Do you see it? Made you look.

What’s that? That, right here. Do you see it? Do you see each other? Made you look.

Y’all, today is a special day. Today we are honoring the graduates who are a part of Glendale Baptist Church. And what better Scripture for this momentous transition in our beloved ones’ lives, what better text for a day in which we honor the process of learning and the gaining of knowledge, than the Ascension, a story about transition…and about those left behind.

Not left behind in a bad sense, just, not progressing to the same stage. You see, Jesus was a teacher. He was not very didactic, in a “tell-it-from-the-front-of-the-classroom” sort of way, but he was a “show and tell” teacher. He made his disciples work for their learning. Jesus, however nice and friendly as we imagine him, was a hard teacher. Sometimes those he taught were confused–just ask Peter. Sometimes those he taught walked away sorrowfully, not understanding what he was trying to tell them–just ask the rich man. Sometimes those he taught got a different lesson than they were hoping for–just ask the Samaritan woman at the well, or the centurion, or Bartimaeus. Jesus often taught in parables. They might seem simple, but often were a lot more complicated once you dove into them. Parables were not a short memory verse, which you’d get a sticker for in Sunday school; parables became part of you. They made your work for your lesson. Sometimes they worked on you, entering your heart and taking over your mind as you would mull over and over what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Jesus the teacher shared the knowledge that was needed to get to the next stage of life…but he did not accompany his disciples there. They had to go on their own.

And so on this day, as we honor how those among us participate in the learning process, it is appropriate that we accompany the disciples as they gaze up into the sky, slightly perplexed by Jesus’ last words to them, not quite sure what was going on. That’s what transitions do to us. They shake us up, they make us think, they leave us cautionary and wary and wondering if what we see is real, if what we know is something we can count on. They leave us looking around, trying to learn how to make this place, this “right-now” our home.

Our text for today, at the beginning of the book of Acts, takes place shortly after the resurrection. Church, we are still in the time of Easter–isn’t that wonderful? We are still basking in the afterglow of getting up-close-and-personal with the nitty-gritty moments that surround the death of a loved one as we learn that love is a far stronger and surer power than that of the realm of death. In the season of Easter, we learn about what Jesus did post-resurrection and how the early church figured out their purpose in the absence of Jesus. See, the transition that occurs on this special day is that of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. He teaches and the disciples listen and then Jesus is taken up into heaven, covered by a cloud. After the book of Luke ends with this event, the book of Acts picks up where the author left off in the story, recording that the disciples “were staring towards heaven.” Can you imagine them? The disciples who had given days, months, years of their lives to following Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and even into places like Samaria; these disciples who had followed Jesus through his arrest, trial, violent death, time in the grave and revelation of his resurrection; these disciples who had been in the Upper Room when he appeared to them and let them touch his hands and side so recently pierced by crucifying nails; these disciples, who we might expect to have it all figured out, are staring up into heaven…lost. Confused. Waiting. And I imagine that Jesus, as he is taken upward on the same path as Elijah, chuckles, “Made you look.”

fugel ascension of christ
Christi Himmelfahrt by Gebhard Fugel c. 1893

What happens next is instructive. While they are all gazing up, not sure quite what is going on, not sure what had just happened to them–and graduates, on commencement you might find yourselves feeling similarly–someone says to them, “Hey! You! Why are you all standing here, willy nilly? I’ll tell you what’s really going on. You already know what you need to do. You already know what Jesus taught you.”

The author of the book of Acts writes that before Jesus was taken up into heaven, Jesus instructed them to wait for the Holy Spirit, to be attentive to how the Spirit of God would move among them, to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” That is the calling for these disciples. To be witnesses. And, perhaps because we have heard this story before, or perhaps because we see certain similarities with the way the disciples received Jesus’ teachings (with confusion, shock, frustration and incomprehension), it takes a moment for them to figure out the gravity, and grace, of this call.

Dr. John Holbert, a Biblical scholar who writes a blog for Patheos.com writes,

“But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out “I love you.” Suddenly, two men “stood near them.” Just as in the gospel where two men attempt to explain to the women who are looking for Jesus’ dead body that they are looking in the wrong place, since living beings are not to be found in graveyards, so now two men tell the stiff-necked (in more ways than one!) apostles that their eyes are not looking in the right place. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go,’ and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. “When” is simply not the right question to ask. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of loot, while prognosticating a certain time for Jesus’ return. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.”

Oh, the spectators and speculators and witnesses. All of these words might seem so closely linked, and yet carry such different meanings when held up to the lamp. I’m gonna guess that some of us are joining the disciples in the “not-getting-it” part of this linguistics lesson. Let’s see if we can parse these out.

Now, spectators are fun! They sit on the sidelines, or sometimes even stand, waving their arms as the “wave” comes around and thrusting their foam finger in the air and cheering. They show up, they are present in the place, together with all the rest. They mostly pay attention–between chowing their hot dogs and Dippin’ Dots, that is. They look. They watch the action happening before them, playing out on a field, a pitch, a rink or a screen. But no matter what they do, they don’t really have a bearing on the action. Nothing the spectator does will change the score, altar the character of the players, or make that perfect pitch, hit, kick or drive. Spectators are present, but they are not engaged.

Witnesses, however, are not just here for the fun. Like the spectator, they are present and they look at the action. But they also see what is really going on. Witnesses feel a sense of responsibility for the action taking place. Witnesses are engaged. They understand the interconnectedness of all life. They understand how our humanity is all bound up together, our love is all bound up together, our liberation is all bound up together. These are no passive bystanders that turn and look and move on. No, these are people who feel duty-bound to truly see what life has to offer them in that moment. These are people who feel that nudge from the Spirit saying, “You’ve gotta be here for this.” And then they show up.

And yes, I know that some of you, who use sports analogies way better than I, would argue that you are not just a spectator, but you are truly a die-hard witness to Vandy baseball or Preds hockey or UT football…or anyone else, for that matter. But, sorry to break it to you, none of us here in this sanctuary is qualified to gain the winning touchdown or goal. So you’re stuck with me and my very limited sport knowledge, as I try to express to you that witnesses feel some kind of solidarity with those with whom the action is taking place, while the spectators can go on with their lives, unchanged.

And this is part of the role of the church: to be witnesses. Those raised in more conservative backgrounds might associate the practice of evangelism with the idea of “being a witness for the Lord.” While we acknowledge that often traditional evangelism, the business of “saving souls” and spreading the gospel of Jesus can be problematic in its theology, spreading paternalism and capitalism and a narrow vision of morality, there may yet be something to the practice of being a witness. We witness in many different dimensions. The first dimension occurs as we witness to the life of Jesus Christ, the gospel that proclaims that death does not have the final answer, the gospel that proclaims love continues beyond all evil, all hatred, all violence. Jesus’ miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection shows us this. These life stages are miraculous not only because of the fact of their occurrence, but because of their revelation that our God is a god who is WITH US. In all of these moments of growth and life, God calls to us, “Made you look.”

The second dimension is that we witness to the gospel, the “good news” that Jesus himself preached in Luke chapter 4:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

  because he has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

  and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

These words are yet another “made you look” arising from our text today, as we look alongside Jesus towards the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and bring good news to them, good news to ourselves, through our thoughts, words and deeds.

The third dimension is that we witness to the events going on around us, sharing with our Loving God special concern for those who are marginalized by the powers and principalities of this world. Though we are not always good at it, we must do our best to see, truly see and understand, the plight of “the least of these,” those who have been made to be “the least of these” by virtue of their identities and expressions in the world. We must do this for those suffering from natural disasters, displaced by war and greed, marginalized because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, economic class and belief system. As Dean Emilie Townes reminded the Divinity School at Vanderbilt during our commencement worship service on Friday morning, we must be present to the grief of the world. Our task is to witness: to see and empathize and move forward being altered. Witnesses do not leave unscathed as spectators do. They leave changed. Made you look.

The fourth dimension is that we witness to each other’s lives. As all of the graduates among us can profess, we have witnessed to this most holy work of Glendale Baptist Church. We have even participated in it. Some have grown up here, people have watched you tread these floors as a toddler and elementary school child and tween and teen and now delightful young people who yet have still not glimpsed the true power of your being and your actions in this world. Some have grown up here, and I include myself in that, learning how to live and move and breathe in the midst of this Spirit that surrounds us and enfleshes us and creates community in us.

And you, dearest Glendale, have witnessed our growth. You have shouldered our burdens and we have shouldered yours. You have born responsibility for our wellbeing and we have born responsibility for yours. You have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by our relationship, and we have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by your relationship! I would like to invite you now to share briefly how you have witnessed and been witnessed to as a part of the life of this community.

[Pause for sharing]

As we discover in our moments of reflection and sharing, witnessing is not a passive activity. Witnesses incur a responsibility. As we enter the role of the witness, we are in some way acting upon that moment. Something in the metaphysical cosmic character of a moment is changed by virtue of our presence. This is not said so that we will inflate our own self-importance, but so that we might notice that we make a difference in this world. When we witness something, we we are also allowing it to act upon us. Being truly seen and known is a powerful thing. How many of us here, when finding ourselves overcome with emotion, are relieved in some way when that friend listens to us in just the way we need? When a loved one notices what’s on our hearts without us having to utter it aloud? When a stranger offers a simple gesture of kindness and it is somehow it hits the spot? What we learn from these random encounters, is that others witness to our lives. That our lives matter, how we show up for each other matters: to our families, friends, our church, our community, our world. A life spent learning how to follow Jesus, learning how to live in this world espousing an ethic grounded in love and justice and mercy and grace, is worth pursuing. This kind of life matters, and it makes you look. At yourself. At others. At the world. Toward the future.

So church, I’m not a heavenly visitor dressed in white talking to the early church of disciples as you stare into heaven. But I echo the question asked in the Scripture text today: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” We know what Jesus has called us to do. Look around at each other. Explore this precious, temporal world with your compassionate heart. Consider everything from the lilies to the least of these. Are you a spectator or a witness?

What’s that? Over there? Can you see what I see? Made you look.

Now: act.

 

This sermon originally preached on May 13, 2018 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

“How to be Alone”: a sermon on Mark 1:35-39

Mark 1:35-39 Common English Bible (CEB)

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.  Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

 

Today, dear friends, I invite you to consider solitude. Yes, even at VDS, we can gather together and consider solitude, even we can slow down from our rushing days and sit in the silence, even we can turn off our dinging phones and buzzing social media notifications and adopt a contemplative spirit, even we can pause from wondering “what in the world is the construction crew doing now?!” and rest in what Kelsey Davis says, “is the sound of the new world being built.” And, I’d add, even we can ask an extrovert to offer a word about solitude. A friend texted me the other day and said, “often it is introverts advocating for solitude when in reality it can be helpful for all people…it’s good to hear about solitude from an extrovert.”

And y’all. I am an extrovert. I may be speak in a quiet voice sometimes, or think for a long time before speaking, but I love people and I love being around people and I get my energy from spending time with people. Solitude for me has sometimes been very unnerving, because I equate it with isolation. I recall a favorite five-year-old friend of mine who cried when her grandparents told her she had to sit in the corner (of the same room) so she could calm down to eat at the dinner table. Her grandpa said, “I think you just need a bit of alone time so you can calm down.” My friend Sofia, with great big alligator tears said, “But I don’t want lonely time!” Alone time…Lonely time. How often do we get alone and lonely confused and wrapped up in each other? The connotations that we conjure when encountering these words are sometimes, but not always different.

For me, “isolation” brings to mind images of friends living “off the grid” and “Into the Wild” and hermits choosing to live away from a community. Isolation seems to always come with a relationship in tow–being isolated from something or to something, always gaining a definition in view of another thing. People’s experiences of isolation can be very different, affected by mental health, social ostracism, racial segregation, and incarceration. Though in this message today, we will together consider benefits of finding solitude in alone-ness, we must consider the ways in which our society strips and withholds contemplative, chosen solitude from some folks and forces isolation.

Considering solitude, however, for me, brings up images of kayaking alone at dawn, sauntering along a quiet path at Radnor Lake, finding stillness in the midst of a warm summer day at Centennial Park, and even, drinking wine alone in my room watching reruns of the West Wing. I name these experiences as solitude because I choose it, because I have agency over how I am alone. I used to never choose to be alone if I could help it, even now preferring to be “alone” in one room…within reach of my best friend on the other side of the wall. Being alone is hard, hard enough that a book entitled “How to be alone” by Sara Maitland, was published in 2014, examining how people in Western, American culture vilify alone-ness. The American dream is individual achievement, agency and freedom…and yet people who are alone creep us out, garner strange looks in the street, cause us to worry about them, and even fear them. Maitland considers that “normal people” do not live alone, unless they are individual intellectual, the solitary writer, the singular scientist working alone in a lab; we scrupulously hold our introverts to a standard of extreme giftedness…otherwise we ostracize them.

However, Jesus, though ostracized in his own time and we ought to consider how we continue ostracizing Jesus in our time, Jesus knew how to find solitude. And let’s be honest, it was hard for him. The gospels are chock full of him trying to get a moment’s rest, a moment without crowds following him, a moment to take a nap, a moment without his cell phone vibrating in his pocket telling him to read CNN to find out the latest media blitz or letting him know his mom wanted to talk to him or reminding him it was time to do his homework. Maybe it’s anachronistic, but let’s face it: Jesus was a busy dude. He had a lot on his mind, and that’s why it’s so important to see him in Mark 1:35-39 finding some time to himself, even if it was before dawn, so he could pray. Alone. In solitude.

When I was a first year at Oberlin College, three friends and I spent two weeks in France with the Taize community. In case you’re not familiar with the monks of Taize, they are an ecumenical Christian community that ministers to people all over the world, seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. At that time in my life, I had no intention to be a serious Christian, to seek theological education, to answer a call to ministry. I was on this trip with my friends and I was interested in contemplation, and so, hey, I found myself at a monastery in southern France, in January. I spent a good bit of time singing, drinking tea with folks from France, Indonesia and Colombia, writing in my journal, and walking around the nature paths the monks had fashioned over the years. One evening, my friend suggested that we go into a silent retreat for the last six days of our trip. Everyone agreed and looked forward to it…and I wasn’t so sure. Me? Be quiet for SIX DAYS? That didn’t only sound BORING, that sounded SCARY. I was afraid to be silent. Afraid for those around me to be silent. Afraid to be faced with myself.

Those six days turned out to be some of the most important days of my life. While I was in silence, I truly felt “IN” the silence–it surrounded me, not with an overwhelming pressure like that of isolation, but with a warm, soft solitude. Though I still went to communal worship and ate communally, I did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to me. Initially frightened of this experience, I discovered in that time that I was not alone, that in the silence I was faced with myself but I was also faced with God. God was with me in the silence, and we were alone together. When it was time to leave the silence and return to the world of conversing aloud together, I was ready to speak, yet I also did not want to leave. How could I maintain this spirit of solitude within myself, even as I returned to the hustle and bustle of collegiate life?

When the disciples finally find Jesus alone, praying in a deserted place, they were relieved. “Lord, we’ve been looking everywhere for you!” “Why would you go off by yourself?” “There’s people who need to talk to you!” “We need you!” I imagine that Jesus shook his head calmly as he told them that they would travel together to a new place, as he dusted himself off and prepared to preach, for that is what he came here to do.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness. Let’s keep returning to our solitude.”

Friends, let’s consider solitude, along with Jesus, as a time or space or mindset in which we process our experiences in preparation to return to the world to do what we were meant to do. Solitude, meaningful as it is in so many ways to so many different people, must often be cherished as a time of preparation. My partner put it this way: “Solitude is quiet time away from everybody to just revert to your sole self. Away from the world and it’s quiet. It’s important to value that because the rest our time we are blasted with information 24/7: we have phones that constantly buzz and ding, social media apps to update, news to read. It’s important to trust who you are without all of that before engaging with those outlets because they can affect so much in powerful ways. It’s important to value who you are without all of that; as just a person existing; it is the most important thing in the world that you are centered and love yourself fully before bringing anyone or anything into your life. That starts with being ok with, truly comfortable with solitude and appreciating it for the rare times one can find it.” We must consider how our time of solitude, in which we renew ourselves, prepares us to do the work which we are meant to do: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Naturalist writer Wendell Berry writes, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”  How do we find the balance of alone and together? Picture a dandelion, all white and puffed up in the summertime. As the wind blows, the seeds scatter. Each of them has the memory of belonging together, but each of them has their own work to do. They carry their communal identity with them, their identity of “dandelion” literally written in their DNA, but they scatter to the four winds and begin a new process of creating together-ness from alone-ness.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, we have the opportunity to create community together by learning together. In some ways, this means we must learn how to be alone together. In All About Love, bell hooks writes, “ many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” There is a community aspect of solitude, in which we respect each other’s individuality while seeking flourishing together.  Once we inhabit solitude and let it inhabit us, once we enter into being alone not as something to be feared, but as a path to renew ourselves, we can consider the ways that solitude prepares us for living communally. Henri Nouwen writes,  “Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.”

Often, perhaps because I feel at home in nature and love gardening, there are no better illustrations for theological concepts than ones from creation. Though I have not always known, and still do not expect to master the concept of “being alone” for some time, if ever, I look to butterflies. Butterflies know how to be alone. They actually spend most of their life as a caterpillar, prompting many social media memes about self-love, self-image and transformation. These monarch caterpillars, a lovely delicate lime green color, spend their time munch-munch-munching along on milkweed leaves, drinking the sweet leaf milk and growing nice and round because this time is a time of preparation. Caterpillar prepare physically to enter a space of great solitude: they enshroud themselves in chrysalises. Here they stay for a couple of weeks, their bodies changing and gaining different colors and their tummies full of milkweed fueling them as they become what they were meant to be. After a time alone in their chrysalises, these miraculous creatures emerge as butterflies. But, they are still not ready to join their siblings in flight: first they must dry their wings, often still wet with the orange dye from their transformation. After that time of solitude, the butterfly is still preparing to take to the sky. They strengthen their wings, flapping slowly, and then–they alight, fluttering with such abandon, traveling towards their destiny, whether it be the beautiful lupines in the garden next door or the mountains of Mexico. To transform within their time of solitude, preparing to take to the sky, requires that they lean into their choice of alone-time, that they lean in to the possibility that being alone will give them what they need to flourish. They must give themselves over to becoming. This is the risk of solitude. Actually being prepared to do what you were meant to do.

In a canoeing memoir entitled “Listening Point,” which my father read to me at bedtime while I was growing up, naturalist writer and Minnesotan Sigurd Olson describes the meaning of the book’s name: He says about the location that inspired him, “I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”

Friends, today I invite you to explore solitude. Whether that means taking a break from noise, from social media distraction; relocating yourself physically to an environment where you feel comfortable; or drawing into yourself, into your own inner chrysalis, I invite you to find your own “listening point.” Where you may be present, alone with yourself and that which is Holy to you, enshrouded in a love that prepares you to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. May it ever be so.

 

This sermon originally preached at Vanderbilt Divinity School, March 21, 2018.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

“In Sight of Snakes”: a sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers 21:4-9

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea[a] road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous[b] snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

I’m not sure I have Good News to share today. When you preach, you’re supposed to have Good News to share, but I’m not sure I do. You see, today’s Scripture is about snakes. Yeah. Snakes. And I know that this is the first time that I’m preaching in this congregation, and I wanted to have some Good News to share with you–but today’s Scripture, coming to us from the book of Numbers, is about snakes. Not my favorite topic to discuss when I’m new here. Because, y’all, I’m afraid of snakes. When I was growing up in Michigan, I spent a lot of time outside, camping and hiking and kayaking with my family. My dad was an avid gardener, mostly collecting various Michigan wildflowers and cultivating them in the rock garden outside our sun porch. Sometimes, dad would come inside from working in the yard with his hands cupped gingerly around “a surprise,” inviting me to close my eyes and open my hands to receive the “gift.” One time it was a cricket, one time a monarch butterfly, one time even a tiny baby bunny that had become separated from its mother…and one time, it was a very small, very slithery, bright green baby garter snake. Seven-year-old Anita was not pleased.

Almost everyone has a snake story, about being out hiking and seeing a snake, about getting creeped out by the snakes on nature documentaries on PBS, about finding a snake in a place where it shouldn’t be. Furthermore, almost every human that ever lived had a snake story. You see, scientists have been researching over the past several years to find out whether a fear of snakes is inherent in human evolution. A recent study confirmed that infants as young as 6 months old will display a fear reaction when confronted with pictures of snakes…and spiders, for that matter, but that’s another sermon.

This evolutionary bias against snakes makes sense. For early humans who didn’t have the benefit of modern medicine, snakes posed a huge danger, particularly venomous ones. They might attack when ambushed as early hunter-gatherers searched for food in the tall grass, or in the rainforest, or in the desert. There’s also the fact of how they move: it doesn’t make sense to us. “Undulating” is usually the word that comes to mind for me as I watch a snake slither across the television screen in a shiny, slippery ribbon. Some scientists are actually stumped as to how snakes actually accomplish motion, some slithering at speeds as high as 6 miles per hour and some with the ability to climb trees. Snakes are good at showing up where we least expect them, such as the 6-foot-long Black Snake my uncle found coiled up on the motor of his kitchen refrigerator in his cabin in the Smoky Mountains; or like the large python that my friend in Ghana found sleeping in his bathtub one morning. Humans have pegged these unnerving serpents as animals-to-watch-out-for since the beginning of time, most ancient cultures preserving art and legends that depict snakes as necessitating great respect.

Just think of the imagery of snakes that we find throughout history, and even today, in our culture. Ancient legends regard snakes as everything from guardians to demons to healers. The mysterious properties of snake venom are perhaps responsible for this, containing the potential for both harm and healing. Snakes are associated with the symbols of healing across ancient mythologies, such as being entwined around the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, often depicted on hospital symbols today. More often, though, we lose the positive recognition of snakes and associate them only with the satan, the devil. They are depicted as cunning and sly. The Bible contains images of snakes as enticing tempters who spread gossip and incite sin. Just recall the Garden of Eden story: who is the bad guy? Who starts all this trouble? Yeah, I thought so. The snake.

With all this in mind, we can understand just a bit of how the Israelites were feeling as they wandered in the desert. They had been walking in the wilderness for decades at this point. The original generation of people who had escaped from Egypt was passing away and the younger generation was becoming cynical, wondering if they would ever arrive at the promised land. The mentality of the wilderness was one of confusion: “What are we even supposed to be doing?” “We’re bored!” “We’re hungry!” “Even if we had food, it would be bad!” “We’re tired!” “WHAT GIVES?!”

And then, to top off all the complaining, God sends snakes (!) among the people. Suddenly, the people can only look down at the ground as they walk, as they camp, as they continue to find the manna in the mornings among the dew. They are fixated on what is around their feet, listening for a rattle of danger, a hiss of death. Imagine the anxiety, the fear, the division they must have felt. Many of us today recognize, and resonate with, these emotions in our own lives and in our own cultural contexts.

So Moses prays to God to remove the snakes. But God is in the habit of surprising us and God does not remove the snakes. Instead, God points the Israelites to focus in another direction. Instead of looking down at their feet, fixating on the presence of venom at the ground-level, God bids the wilderness-wanderers to look up–at a serpent of another sort. A bronze snake, which Moses affixed to a pole and lifted high into the air, so that one who had sustained injury from a serpent might look at the bronze snake and live.

Wait, wait, wait, did God just entice Moses to erect an idol? Isn’t this story about the same group of God’s people who got into trouble with a golden calf? The same people who do a lot of complaining, only to repent and then start complaining all over again? What is God playing at, here?

At this point in our snake story, it’s not surprising that we, Christians in a modern context, would be puzzled by this turn of events. Theologian and prolific writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“For some reason, Christians seem to jump to conclusions whenever there is a story with a snake in it. Sinister music starts playing in our heads. We sniff the air for brimstone as we reach around behind us trying to find the [garden hoe to whack it with]. This is probably because we all believed our Sunday school teachers when they told us that the snake in the Garden of Eden was really Satan in disguise. Or maybe it’s just that old snake-hating gene looking for a just war theory? But whatever it is, it won’t work in this story. There is no Satan in Torah. All of the snakes belong to God.”

All the snakes belong to God. Not to worry, everyone, because these snakes are God’s special snakes that occupy our story of venom and healing, of fear and salvation. (!) The adjective describing the snakes in our Scripture today, from the Common English Bible, is “poisonous.” The Hebrew word that describes the serpents is “serapim,” which means “to burn” or “fiery.” This “serapim” should bring to mind the “seraphim,” the flying fiery serpents mentioned in the story of the call of Isaiah the prophet. The Biblical seraphim are the heavenly beings that guard the throne of Yahweh, the God of the people of Israel. Seraphim have a twofold charge in religious lore: to destroy and to protect. These seraphim are no doubt a far cry from the sweet pink-cheeked cherubs we can find as knick-knacks in Hallmark stores. These fiery serpents have some awesome power, some power that confounds death and life and exists somewhere in the in-between. With the connection with these famous angelic beings, the people of Israel (and those of us reading their story) would be smart to be at least a little wary of these serpents who slither among them in the wilderness. They know the snake stories, and are wise to be afraid.

Rev. Christopher McLaren from St. Mark’s’ Episcopal in Albuquerque writes in a sermon on this text:

“I think we have to admit it. This is a strange story. It is hard to explain, ambiguous and numinous all at the same time. The story is a story of salvation, of saving help, but it is a dark story of salvation. The story tells us something that Christians often don’t want to acknowledge, that somehow in the hands of God, evil and good, threat and promise, life and death are all intertwined. It is hard to explain it, but we know intuitively that we are onto something. The truth is not simple or easy. It is complex and paradoxical. Deep truth is not easy to understand, it is not always tidy. It is a weird reversal of sorts. Moses takes the very image of the evil that is afflicting and frightening the people and recreates it into a salvation for the people. He takes their anxiety and fear and pulls it up from under them and puts it up on a pole and makes them look at it. He makes them stare their fear and anxiety in the face and, in doing, so they are saved. They find life in the midst of death.”

This theme of life in the midst of death is not unknown to Moses, whose life was made possible by his mother helping him escape death declared to Hebrew baby boys by pharaoh’s edict. This theme is not unknown to the Israelites, who experienced the Passover of God’s spirit that allowed them to live while the firstborn of Egyptian families perished. This theme is not unknown to me, who pursues a ministry of presence in the midst of a culture characterized by separation, distance and distraction facilitated by always-new technologies, self-centered individualism and ideologies that pass for patriotism. This theme is not unknown to us here at Seattle First Baptist Church, who by gathering here seek life, seek to know and be known, seek community in the midst of the death-dealing forces that control our world. In fact, it is appropriate to remember this particular snake story, replete with references to suffering and salvation, halfway through Lent. The gospel that is paired with today’s reading is this: in the gospel according to John, Jesus is visited by a man named Nicodemus, who arrives under cover of darkness. Nicodemus comes wondering who Jesus is and what he’s up to. He inquires how to gain eternal life and Jesus responds, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

Now THIS is a strange snake story. Why would Jesus compare himself to a snake, with all their messy cultural associations? And for goodness sake, we still have questions left from the Old Testament text: Why would God not take away the snakes? How could asking the Israelites to look directly at the thing they fear actually heal them?

Friends, Lent is the time when we remember being in the wilderness and live in the liminal space between life and death, between the miraculous birth and the death and resurrection of Jesus, between being bitten by the situations of our world and our lives and the promise of justice that Jesus’ life-conquering-death story shares with us. And in this in-between time, where we live so much of our lives, God is asking us to look at that which we fear the most. The disciples had lots of practice doing this, as over and over and over they voiced fear and trepidation to Jesus, who always responded, “Do not be afraid. Follow me. I will be with you.” So during Lent, we join Jesus’ very human disciples as they accompany him in his ministry, as they follow God’s very human Child and help him do the very human work of spreading the gospel of good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, and liberation to the oppressed. Minister and poet Jan Richardson wisely reminds us that “to follow God does not often mean traveling with certainty about where God will lead us. Rather, following God propels us to be present to the place where we are, for this is the very place where God shows up.” In the midst of uncertainty, of all of the ways we experience wilderness in our lives, we know it can be hard to present. God is always doing Something New in our lives, inviting us to practice being present and join the dance of the Divine. Standing on the cusp of the Something New is pretty overwhelming, especially, say, if you are finishing a degree and contemplating a move across the country and meeting a bunch of passionate, kind people you want to do ministry with. It’s hard to be present when I have to return from Seattle to Nashville to finish required classes and write a few more papers, but I know that God will show up there, too, hopefully with some extra motivation and some editing skills and perhaps some chocolate. Just as God shows up here, with us, right now, with what we need to be present where we are.

In this story, the Israelites had to be present where they were. The physical pain of a snakebite and the ensuing complaints and cries from families and friends called them to be present, right then and right there in the wilderness. While they were being present, perhaps angry and frustrated and hurting, perhaps they realized, ever so slowly, that God was there, too. Perhaps they realized that God was not going to take the snakes away, God would not take the origin of the fear and the pain away. But God would point them in the direction of healing.

Friends, we know by the simple fact of living in this world that God does not always remove the source of pain. There are not always clean breaks, easy answers, equal shares of hurt, fears that get banished once-and-for-all. Often we must hold onto pain far too long for any of our liking. Sometimes we are even afraid of letting go of our pain. Like the Israelites, we can only look down at the ground, at the source of our pain, wandering in the wilderness staring at our feet, absorbed in our own worlds. The fears and hurts we carry with us, that are written on our skin and enfleshed in our hearts, sometimes become part of our identity such that we can get stuck in one place. Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “What concrete things do we focus on that epitomize our fear? In what sense do these things become idols that keep our fear in place? What is God capable of doing with these idols, once they have been plucked out from under our feet and set up on a pole where we can see them clearly? How does God respond to our fear, both in the wilderness and at the foot of the cross?”

In this Scripture text, we find that God shows the Israelites, those complaining wanderers, that moving towards healing is possible if they face their fears directly. To confront any fear or past hurt or injustice, we must know the shape of the challenge, what it looks like, how it moves, so that we can figure out how to move beyond it. We must shed light on that which is cast in shadow, not only the hidden parts of our lives, but also the pieces of our cultural identities and lives which we keep under wraps, which we deny and brush under the rug. It is only by exposing the forces that divide us–racism, nationalism, classism, heterosexism, misogyny and many others–that we can begin to confront them. And, it seems, in a world that is bent on dividing us, we have no choice but to create the beloved community amongst ourselves, so that we can fully participate in the larger world. Can you visualize it, the beloved community? Can you hear it calling, this world that is possible? To do this, we must move towards healing, towards restoration, though the wilderness may be full of snakes, and though we may not be sure in what direction to fix our attention.

The snake story we consider today points us to recognize that we live in the tension, between that-which-harms-us and that-which-heals-us. The bronze snake on the pole may look at first glance like the death-dealing forces that every human life encounters, but we are surprised to find it is really the anti-venom, the healing that might sting at the time but that allows us to continue. Snakes in ancient mythology symbolize this tension but also symbolize transition and transformation. They shed their skin. Snakes show us that living between death and life can be dangerous and can be healing. We all live in this space of tension, but we also have the potential to be transformed on our way to healing. And friends, the Good News is that transformation is possible. Though we remain mostly the same person as before, the process of healing can resemble a sloughing-off of skin. Like the snakes in our story, there is something different between the snakes that slither among God’s people and the bronze serpent exalted on a pole; perhaps this, too, is a matter of shedding the layers of myth, legend and superstition about snakes representing sin, evil, and the demonic. As we journey towards healing, we must acknowledge the layers that we let go: maybe we let go of lies about ourselves, whether self-told or from others. Maybe we slough off the pieces of ourselves that have not obscured our true identities as beloved children of the Holy. Maybe we shed the myths about ourselves, our families, our cultures, our world that have been proven only to deal in destruction instead of give life abundant. This transformation, this shedding of skin, requires vulnerability. Are we willing to face our fears, our pains, our challenges head on, eye-to-eye, looking up instead of down? Transformation is a worthy risk.

The Hard News is that transformation is also a process. Healing is not a one-time event, it is a sometimes slow, somewhat tedious process of sloughing off the dead skin, the layers of pain, the rough edges left by trauma and trial. Moving forward in the journey through the wilderness is not made possible by a single moment, but many moments of complaining, doubting God’s love and liberation, and falling into sin…and then repeating this process over and over again. The Israelites are tired and hungry and wonder what it truly means to be the chosen people, and then here God comes, saying, “Look into the eyes of your past. Gaze upon that which scares you. I will be with you through it all.” I kind of wish that it wasn’t a snake a pole that I had to look at to be healed; I have to admit it’d be a lot nicer if it was a cricket, or a butterfly, or a bunny…but the truth is that the Israelites, that we, have to look at a snake. This may not be a necessarily comforting message, but it’s an honest one.

God’s people had to choose to face their fears directly, to look in the eyes of the bronze snake and believe they would be healed. Church, a choice lies in front of us as well. How often do we know what it might take to heal ourselves, to heal our world…and yet we make a different choice? We look away. We hide our eyes. We lack whatever it is that gives us the strength to be vulnerable…perhaps we don’t trust God to come through for us, perhaps we don’t believe in the power of this snake on the pole, the thing that God Herself placed there so we would use it to heal ourselves.

So, church, what if we look directly at that which scares us? What if we face our fears directly? What if we risk vulnerability and simply focus on God’s presence with us, at all times, no matter what fears come our way?

Transformation takes time. Though we may not want to spend time wandering in the desert for forty years, though some of us may feel like we have been, we must acknowledge that this shedding our fears and moving beyond our pain is a process. When God instructs Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole, God does not say that the people will all be healed at once. God leaves the snakes. The snakes may continue to pose a threat to the people. But whenever someone is bitten, they must only choose to look in the direction of the bronze snake and they will be healed. By turning their attention to the possibility of healing, by looking their fear square in the eyes, they will not perish from their wounds but persist. God’s people in this story show us the very process of living in sight of serpents: fear, anxiety, pain, healing, redemption…then again: fear, anxiety, pain, healing, redemption…then again and again and again. We face our fears. We confront our pain. We are honest about our needs. Over and over we must choose to fix our gaze on that which is life-giving, that which is life-affirming, even and especially in the midst of the powers of the world that seek to keep us looking down, concerned with the venom poised and ready at our ankles.

Maybe there is some Good News in this snake story after all, moving in ways that are hard to understand, and showing up where we least expect it. Dear friends, when we are in sight of snakes, focusing only on the anxiety and hurt that holds us captive, remember this: God is with us all the time, in all places. God never leaves us to face our fears alone. The Holy One shows us how to point our vision toward healing. As always, the Good News is complicated, it’s difficult, but it’s real. It’s honest: God’s presence is with us at all times, through the pain, showing us the way to healing, accompanying us and holding us at every turn. May it ever be so.

 

This sermon originally preached at Seattle First Baptist Church, March 11, 2018.

 

Posted in Sermons

Impractically Practical: a sermon on “blessed are the humble”

Some of you know that I am spending my summer doing a field education internship with the Vanderbilt University Hospital chaplains. I have been spending time visiting patients and sitting with families and praying with countless people with a variety of ailments since May, and, though I am new to this, I have been deeply humbled to do this work…and the other day, I received a blessing.

I was going on rounds on the trauma wing, and it was time for me to visit a man I shall call Larry. Earlier that morning I had seen Larry lying in the ICU hooked up to several machines, looking quite forlorn. But now, here he was in front of me, sitting up in his hospital chair with his son at his side, looking pretty chipper and announcing to me that “It was almost time to go home!” Of course, not all chaplain visits go like this, but sometimes they do, and that is what I call a miracle.  Larry and his son and I chatted for awhile about Larry’s time in the hospital, about the wonderful trauma team at Vanderbilt, and about what Larry was looking forward to doing when he returned home several states away. After a bit of this chitchat, Larry asked me to pray, and the three of us prayed together. As I exited the room, I shared my usual “I will keep you in my prayers and may God bless you in your healing.” My body was halfway out the door when Larry stretched out his hand towards me and said, “May God bless you and keep you and give you peace.” He said some other things, but I was too surprised in the moment to remember the words.

See, I was under the impression that I was the chaplain, that I was in the business of doing the blessing. Well–oops. I forgot that annoying tendency of humans to surprise us, and found myself in that moment wondering what to do. What could I do? I nodded and bowed my head and thanked Larry graciously. I was humbled to receive a blessing from a patient.

Sometimes the words “meek” and “humble” make me feel…weird. The dictionary says they mean things like “Overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame. Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, lowly.” And “Happy are the humble,” as our Scripture for today reads,  sounds to me like the kind of thing that someone might say to a woman who was acting “out of her place,” to a laborer who was asking for fair wages, to a soldier questioning the morality of orders. “Happy are the humble,” so you better get back to feeling “low in rank, subservient, insignificant,” as our Dictionary supplies. When I think about being meek or humble, I look for where power shows up in these situations: if someone can be “made humble” or “made meek” by a person with power over them, it opens the door to exploitation and abuse. The Beatitudes have historically been used almost as bludgeoning tools against groups of people whom Christians have tried to make subservient, like Jews and slaves. “Humble” does not always have good connotations, and we need to be aware of these.

But then there are times, like with Larry in the hospital, when the tables turn. When the one who we expect to be humble (wearing a hospital gown, attached to machines, unable to leave on his own volition) blesses the one who makes a new friend of humility. I was wearing my professional clothes, had a badge identifying me as staff, and was relatively in control of my time and location. Perhaps this blessing is like the kin-dom of God, unexpected, impractical and surprising. Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about by saying, “happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.” Perhaps he is talking about Larry.

Some people have talked about the beatitudes as imperative, or as prescriptive, providing a recipe for good Christian living. But this does not make sense for Jesus to say that it is only when we are meek/mourning/poor in spirit, that only then can we receive God’s blessing. Despite the powerful exhortations to welcome and move through grief with grace we sometimes hear, we have to admit that we don’t really want to grieve, so why adopt that as a prelude to blessing? No, we affirm a God whose blessings and grace are not conditional. So let’s tuck away that idea for now, and instead look at the beatitudes as indicative, or descriptive. They are not an outline for how to gain a blessing, but they are describing who is/has been/will be blessed. In this teaching, Jesus is telling us how the  kin-dom will be. Like most of Jesus’ teachings, the beatitudes can be a wake up call to the kin-dom.

Charles James Cook writes in Feasting on the Word, “Whenever we hear the Beatitudes, we are struck with their poetic beauty and, at the same time, overwhelmed by their perceived impracticality for the world in which we live. We admire the instruction, but we fear the implications of putting the words into actual practice. We live in a time when the blessings given are to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear. Perhaps this is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down. Who can survive in attempting to live into the spirit of the Beatitudes?”

He goes on to say, “The answer resides not in their impracticality but in their practicality.” Perhaps Jesus meant for the words of the beatitudes to be lived everyday by ordinary people like you and me. Cook says that often we hold up the giants of faith like Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa and the world-renowned peacemakers like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu as role models. We should look to these legacies and learn from them, but we must be careful not to construct them as models of unattainable perfection in our mind such that we would limit ourselves from even trying to participate in the work of justice, for fear we will fall short. Cook challenges us to think about the ways that the beatitudes can be lived, because they are so practical they appear impractical to our world as it is now. The words “blessed are the meek” and “happy are the humble” seem impractical because they do not line up with our understandings of power.

It doesn’t take a lot of sleuth-work to figure out that our Western USAmerican culture does not value humility.  No, with its capitalism and white supremacy and nationalism, how could it? The USA boasts of our independence, not interdependence; our freedom, not our justice; our pride, not our respect for all life. The meek and humble are not the ones who make it to the top in our world. They do not hold power in the form of money, land, personnel and respect. The world does not treat them as blessed. So how should we understand Jesus’ words that are so impractical for our time?

The beatitudes confront this issue of time directly. Jesus is blessing and naming as “happy” those who are humble right now, whose lives may not be seen as worthwhile by the current society, those who have been made humble by unfortunate situations and circumstances of life like economic hardship, illness, addiction and exploitation. But Jesus is saying that their lives do matter now, that they are blessed now.  And not just now, but within the kin-dom that is expressed in visions of a nearby time: “they WILL inherit the earth,” there WILL be a time when their lives are seen as worthwhile. Just as God spoke the words “let there be light” and there was light/ “let there be day and night”/ “let there be land and waters”/ “let there be creatures that crawl/swim/slither/dance/walk the earth” and it was so—just as God created with these words and the whole creation trembled as it burst into life–just like this, Jesus’ words “The meek SHALL inherit the earth” made it so, put these words that indicate the coming of the kin-dom among us into motion. This WILL come to pass. Those who are weak, who have been made humble, who have been mistreated, who don’t know the value of their own life, whose bodies have been taken for granted and violated, those people–will inherit the Earth. Jesus, by sharing his vision for the kin-dom that is yet-to-be, declares that another world IS possible… (and author Arundhati Roy says, “on some days I can hear her breathing”).

Do we believe that this is possible? That the beatitudes are “for real”? How can other world come to be?

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, famous pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, agrees that the Beatitudes are descriptive, but suggests that they are also performative. Maybe, she says, “the pronouncement of the blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself.” Therefore she offers an expanded version of Matthew 5 verse 5:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. [And I would add, blessed are the hospital patients] Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

The Sermon on the Mountain was spoken by Jesus to teach his disciples. As we strive to be faithful students, are we learning what Jesus is teaching us? Are we greeting his words with an attentive posture, though we are separated by time and space from the mountaintop where these words first were spoken? Friends, we must humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself–by recognizing that we cannot do life alone, that none of us is as good as many of us joined together. As we open our hearts to the teachings of Jesus–as we work on our own discipleship–we are tasked with participating in the reality that Jesus was working and living and loving to create. We are tasked with taking up the beatitudes for ourselves and our community, so that they are not just random words to us in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. We are to go about our lives blessing the meek, the mourning, those who labor right here, right now. We don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we are scared that we won’t do it right; we don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we don’t have enough time. Jesus’ words to us bid us to go and do likewise. We are to go about living the beatitudes so that they become truly descriptors of the world in which we live, move and have our being.

Friends, today let us dedicate ourselves to participating in the Beatitudes. In this world, it is impractically practical to share love, to build community, to forgive those who hurt us, to acknowledge when we have done wrong, to accept the progress of time, to practice awe and wonder. Let not our rank, status, race, class, ego get in the way of receiving blessings from impractical places. Let not our tendency to sell ourselves short, to underestimate ourselves, to hide our gifts, to cut ourselves down; let these not get in the way of our deep knowing that we, ordinary people though we are, are called to live the beatitudes by receiving Jesus’ blessing of the humble. Let us accompany each other in our journeys, giving and receiving in mutual love and care, pushing back against the world that sells isolation and individualism. May we always retain the capacity for surprise as others–as we–extend our hands in blessings that seem impractical, but that make all the sense in the world.

May it ever be so.
Sermon originally preached July 9, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. 
(photo: http://www.crosskeysvillage.org/blessing-the-hands/)