Posted in Sermons, Writing

The View from Here: a Sermon on Psalm 130

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this mediating ethic is not one to seek easy reconciliation

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

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

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

whether or not mediation as an end does.”

mediating as process rather than mediation as end

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

as a nation

and the roles we should and must play

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

who must live our lives not always comforted by the holy

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

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

means that we remain in the tension

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

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

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

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

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

“we are responsible for each other and ourselves

we may not always agree, nor should we expect to

we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions

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

alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it ever be so. 

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

Posted in Worshipping with Children

Resources for Holy Week with Kids

Hey y’all! I bet those of you who work in churches are already working on (or maybe even have finished???) planning for Lent and Holy Week. In my congregation, we just finalized our themes and preaching texts and program plans, and I am especially looking forward to using my Tenebrae Service for Children again. Last year, we had the adults gather in the Sanctuary while the children, another adult and I did our own small service in another room set up to be a sacred space.

But in case you need some more resources, check out these! I am always updating these and would be so glad for feedback on what works and doesn’t in different contexts, so leave a comment and let me know how it goes!

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

“Turn Turn Turn”: a sermon on Mark 1:9-15 for the beginning of Lent

Mark 1:9-15 New International Version (NIV)

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[a] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

 

Friends, today we gather in a time of transition. Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the festival where we rejoice in community by eating pancakes together, or perhaps paczkis, if you’re from the Midwest like me. And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, a day that traditionally is heavy with contrast to Mardi Gras. Tomorrow we will observe the beginning of Lent by remembering Genesis 3:19’s words that are echoed in Ecclesiastes 3:20: “all go to the same place; all are from dust and all shall return to dust.” Many Christians around the world observe this transition into the season of Lent by attending somber services that remind us of Jesus’ impending journey to the cross. We repent of our sins and clergy follow 7th century Gregory the Great’s practice of marking our foreheads with ashes, saying “You are from dust and to dust you shall return.”

Many people, myself included, attend some kind of Ash Wednesday service and then continue to wear the ashes on our foreheads all day. This is one of the only days out of the year that I am physically marked as an observant Christian, where everyone I encounter sees the ashes on my forehead and goes, “Oh, I know who she is.” This is not a normal occurrence for me. I do not wear headscarves or prayer shawls or whole-body coverings or jewelry that marks me as a member of my religion. Being identified physically is something we experience by virtue of almost every other attribute about us except for our faith: for example, though I do present my gender in very feminine ways, people usually can look at me and understand that I understand myself to be a woman. I have pale skin, and so usually people understand that I move through the world receiving the benefits of my white privilege. Based on what clothes I wear, I’m pretty well marked as a middle-class USAmerican. And there’s a good chance that understanding me as a white Anglo-European-American woman living in the South, people could assume that I am Christian. But it not every day that I am physically marked, physically set apart from the world in a way that explains the faith that I hold dear.

Sometimes it is physical attributes that set us apart and attest to our place in the world. Other times it’s our experiences. Other times it’s values and beliefs. For Christians, we often say or sing, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” And I dearly hope that is the case, as we seek to live a faith rooted in radical compassion, hospitality, justice and peace. But on this first day of the Lenten season tomorrow, let’s consider what it means to be set apart from the world via a physical mark, if only for one day.

Our Scripture today reminds us of how Jesus was set apart from the world. The author of the gospel of Mark begins his gospel by telling the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus went to his cousin John down at the Jordan River and asked for baptism. Then the heavens opened and a dove descended and the voice of God resounded as God called Jesus, “Beloved.” Talk about being set apart—having the sky rent apart and a giant beam of light (which I imagine is what you might see in early 90s Disney movies, or perhaps Star Trek, either one) and a dove coming to land on you–this is not an experience that many people have had 😉 And then, if that weren’t enough to signal–hey, something’s going on here with this guy, immediately following this, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted. He turns from exhortations to seize power, control, and wealth and the gospel writer shifts into recounting Jesus’ travels. Upon finding out his dear cousin John (the voice who had been crying out in the wilderness) had been imprisoned, Jesus took up the mantle of teaching and preaching, calling to us, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

In this Scripture, we understand Jesus to be beginning his ministry. He is beginning the work that his set-apart-ness has called him to. He has turned from the life he lived prior to now, presumably as a humble working-class carpenter in backwater Judea. He is different now.

And as we stand on the cusp of Ash Wednesday, at the threshold of Lent, this story calls us to figure out how we are different, how we are set apart as we pursue a life of learning from and following the way of Jesus. Jesus is helpful in this task because he gives us examples of what it means to be set apart. He calls us to “repent,” which has a Greek root in the word metanoia meaning to “think after,” or “think again.” The connotation of metanoia is “to turn around.” The question, of course, is “what are we turning from?” and “what are we turning to?”

In baptism, there is an example of this “turning” wherein, if you are from an Anabaptist tradition, you descend into the water to arise into new life in the community of Christ. The Anabaptists of the radical wing of the Protestant reformation called for adult baptism by immersion so that each new member of the congregation could declare their testimony of faith and make a conscious choice to follow Christ in community. Baptists, Mennonites and many others today follow this example by confirming teenagers or adults who share their faith journey with their congregation before getting “dipped.” Baptism for Anabaptists is not about being set apart from the world by being saved from original sin, but about a conscious declaration of awareness that after being immersed in the water, one is immersed in the life of faith in Christ; one is different now, set apart.

Jesus continues this example of what it means to repent, or turn around, with his temptation experience. I have a lovely story Bible written in the 80s by German Lutherans that depicts Jesus in the wilderness looking contemplative. Right behind him, with grasping arms and a gossiping tongue is a figure who looks just like Jesus, but in shadow. The temptation for power, control, greatness and wealth is ever-present in this capitalistic society in which we live, as it was present in different forms during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus resisted the temptation to power, turning away from it and towards God; after overcoming temptation, he is different now.

Then Jesus begins his ministry proper—he goes into the world and declares that God has come near to the world. Perhaps he experienced this special nearness during his baptism, during the blessing from the heavenly dove, during his temptation and inner struggle to turn towards God’s call on his life. He issues the call to follow him by telling us to “repent.” This call is one to turn from our old lives, what we thought we knew, the power we may have desired and enjoyed, and to set ourselves apart by virtue of our beliefs, our values and our hopes. For this turn, we must ground ourselves in what we know about our true nature, the one of being formed as part of God’s Good Creation.

I shared with you earlier about the Greek root of the word “repent,” which we have considered as “to turn, to think again.” But there is also a Hebrew root of “repent.” It means: “to feel sorrow” and “to RE-turn.” Turning and return, these words weave together into a circle across time and translation. My pastors at Glendale Baptist Church have abandoned the traditional cruciform marking of ashes on folks’ foreheads in favor of drawing a circle, as they say, “Come full circle in the love of God.” This simple alteration of the tradition declares for those who would examine us more closely a different focus of our theology, another echo of Ecclesiastes 3:20: we are from dust, and we shall make a full circle return to the dust; we live time-bound lives that are grounded in the always continuing presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

How will you come full circle this Lenten season? What life-limiting habits will you give up? (beyond chocolate) What life-giving practices will you turn to? This season of the church year issues a special invitation to us to consider where we turn when we are confronted with time to reflect on our set-apart-ness. Perhaps we turn inwards, seeking wisdom from our lives and experiences. Perhaps we turn to our bodies, searching for information about the world that only our sensory, tactile selves can give us. Maybe it is to community that we turn this Lent, as we seek to journey with each other as we accompany Jesus to the cross, through death, to resurrection. And maybe, we may choose to turn to God, shoring up our relationship with the Divine Love, dedicating ourselves to listening more deeply and to loving more fully.

“To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn).” In a way, the words sung by the Byrds again echoing Ecclesiastes as well as finding their place in the puzzle as Jesus turns thrice over, offer assurance. They assure us that no matter what is going on in our lives, people have been here before and will be here again. They assure us of our place in the beloved community of believers, situating us in love and mutual support. They assure us of our grounding in that which is Holy accompanying us throughout all of our twists and all of our turns.

At the beginning of this season that causes us to think again, calls us to turn around, causes us to re-turn to ourselves and to our God, we remember the song that comes full circle. This circle of ashes is not quite about beginning and endings, is not quiet about the fullness of life experiences that one collects over their span of years. It is all of these things that turn, turn, turn together during the circle of life. We turn, turn, turn as we respond to our life situations by reorienting ourselves. We experience love, and are different. We experience loss, and are different. We experience God, and are different. We are in constant orientation and reorientation as we re-think and re-turn over and over again.

To every thing—there is a season. Turn, turn, turn. Amen.

 

Image from http://www.creativesimplicity.ca/everything-turn-turn-turn/.

Posted in Sermons, Writing

“But Wait…There’s More!”

 

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Eastertide

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

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

yolo jesus.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Easter: Risen Bread, Risen Lord

Mark 14.12-31; Matthew 26.17-29; Luke 22.7-20

The first time I served communion was on Ash Wednesday 2015 in a beautiful service at Vanderbilt Divinity School. After accepting the invitation to traverse the small all-faith chapel, reminiscent of a cave carved out of the rock, and become anointed with oil, water, soil and ashes, the worshippers arranged ourselves in a sacred circle and offered the sacrament to each other. As a younger person, I had passed the silver tray holding tiny cups of juice to the person seated next to me in the pew, but I had never held the bread in one hand and the wine in the other and offered it to a neighbor. I had never said, “the bread of life, given for you” and “the cup of grace, given for you” to another person.

As the bread and cup approached me, I found myself trying to swallow my tears, hoping no one would see the characteristic reddening of my nose as I realized that this was going to be the first time I served the Lord’s Supper to anyone. In a way, I had dreamed about this moment, when I’d be a good enough person and minister to offer something so sacred to be partaken of by a fellow human. When my neighbor offered me the sacrament, I met her eyes and smiled, accepting the grace. I turned around to offer it to the next person in line, a friend of a friend and a United Methodist pastor, and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room on me. It wasn’t a scary feeling, ebing watched–rather, it was comforting and warm, being held all together in this holy space.

“The bread of life, for you.” “The cup of grace, for you.”

Just like that, the moment passed as the receiver of my blessing accepted it, turned and offered it to another. But in my heart, in the core of my being, something had shifted. What did it mean for me to be able to offer the sacrament to another person? Some cosmic meaning had attached itself to my hands, the hands holding carefully kneaded and baked bread, lovingly pressed grapes, my holy hands, the ones God gave me, the ones God created for this purpose of offering myself, and the holy, to another person.

Henri Nouwen writes,

As we recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread, we recognise him also in our brothers and sisters.  As we give one another the bread, saying:”This is the Body of Christ,” we give ourselves to each other saying:  “We are the Body of Christ.”  It is one and the same giving, it is one and the same body, it is one and the same Christ.” (Nouwen, Henri. “Christ’s Body, Our Body,” in Bread for the Journey. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006.)

In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and farmworker organizer César Chávez shared the eucharist (literally meaning “thanksgiving” with a connotation of shared grace), the first meal that Chavez ate after fasting for 25 days in protest of the treatment of farmworkers in California. It was appropriate to break a fast in honor of justice by the sacred meal of bread and wine, the same meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death. In sharing this meal, Kennedy and Chavez together recognized the presence of God within the current struggle for justice for migrant farmworkers. In partaking of this holy symbol of love and community, they recognized Jesus’ witness of love for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and exploited people in this world. In eating, they witnessed the sanctity of the earth which produces food and sustenance.

Dr. Jennifer Ayres writes,

“As God in Christ has entered into the human situation, so eucharistic liturgy is near to the concrete and particular situations of men and women.”  (Ayres, Good Food, 61.)

Consider how you will partake of the Eucharist on Easter morning. How will you, in your acceptance of the bread and wine of the earth, remember those who don’t have enough food or drink? Make room to witness the radical abundance of God in the fruits of the earth into forms which humans partake. Come to the table and share the grace with your neighbor.

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday: Last Suppers

Luke 22-23

As we near the time when Jesus was betrayed and given over to be killed by capital punishment, I encourage you to think about the Last Supper in a new context. Two artists, Henry Hargreaves and Julie Green have created artistic depictions of last meals requested by incarcerated persons on death row before they were executed. What is significant about these requests? What is significant about how Jesus spent his last meal and last night before being killed? What do these diverse Last Suppers communicate about human’s relationship to food and the role of food in cultural memory?

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

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

 

Luke 6:20-26

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

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

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

 

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 13: Fifth Sunday of Lent: Hunger and Thirst: Contemplations on Food Access and Environmental Racism

John 6:35

If I were sharing a classroom with you, I would step to the front and ask: “How many of you have ever been hungry in your life?” You would raise your hand, remembering that time that you were at practice late and forgot to eat dinner, or your mom packed a lunch for you that was a little too small for your adolescent body. Then I would ask: “How many of you have been hungry for days on end, or have ever had to live without eating three square meals a day?” Fewer of you would raise your hands. Maybe it would be only people of color, or children of immigrant families, or people who were raised by a single parent working a minimum wage job. Maybe it would be someone who was emancipated at 16 and had to work full time to afford rent while finishing high school. Maybe it would be your classmates who are single parents themselves. It might even be the children of farmers who don’t own the rights to the produce they grow but sell it to larger companies to ship cross country or use it to fatten animals. But the point is: food access is not the same across the board.

What do I mean by food access? I mean: how reliably can you regularly gain access to healthy, fresh, affordable food that is close to where you live? You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food that is within a reasonable geographic distance would be a right guaranteed to everyone in the United States of America? But the reality is far from that.

Have you ever heard of a food desert? The USDA defines it as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Have you ever lived in a food desert? Check out the USDA’s map here to see where the food deserts nearest you are. Food deserts exist in most major cities and in large swaths of rural areas, and are invisible. Watch this short film that follows a woman throughout her day getting her groceries and preparing a meal in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch this 46-minute film about food deserts in rural Virginia or the movie “Food Deserts” about hunger and access in Chicagoland.  

So, there’s a lot of information there. It’s all about how some folks are denied easy access to food because of where they live and what’s available in their neighborhood, which often has something to do with race and class. That phenomenon has another name: environmental racism, defined by the US Legal Department as “Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.”

These ideas are big, and they can be overwhelming. You might be asking, what can I do? I’m just one person! But there are many ways for you to learn more and get involved in food justice. Here are some ideas to try out this week:

  • Walk a labyrinth, concentrating on the way in on the inequality present where you live. On the way out, contemplate how you can be part of a solution by using your resources to live in solidarity of the belly.

  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen.

  • Host a screening of the films mentioned above, as well as take any of these steps listed on the Interfaith Power and Light’s Cool Harvest webpage.

  • Help with any mobile grocery markets or Meals on Wheels in your community.

Also, here is a series of questions from a retreat called “Becoming Bread for the World” at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Ohio. Use this poem as a meditation on food access and inequality. [Gunilla Norris, Becoming Bread. New York: Bell Tower, 1993.) in the Becoming Bread retreat materials from John Knox Presbyterian Church.]

Hunger

In this place hunger is our guide.

What shall we find here to nourish us?

We have nothing of our own…

nothing but need.

Reflective Questions:

  • Think about how it feels to be hungry—hungry in your stomach and hungry in your soul. For what do you hunger?
  • What food do you have access to because of where you live/where you shop/where you get your food? How might this be different for other people? What affects your access to these food resources?

 

 

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 6: Fourth Sunday of Lent: Table Theology

 

Luke 14:7-24

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection Questions:

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

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

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

 

Resources:

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

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