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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved church, these are pretty words for messy work. 

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

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

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

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

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

Hear this poem from adrienne maree brown:

There is an edge

Beyond which we cannot grasp the scale

Of our universe.

That border,

That outer boundary

Is imagination.

The only known edge of existence

The only one we can prove by universal experience –

We can imagine so much!

We can only imagine so much.

If perhaps it is a function of our collective minds

A dream of our endless nights

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

Abundance on earth

If we can imagine it

Or abundance of earths

A sphere for every tribe

And every combination.

And to have it all

All we need is to remember

there is an edge

And grow our dreams beyond it.

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons

Finding Our Way

Scripture John 14:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t look too far ahead 

It’s too much for me to take 

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

This next choice is one that I can make 

So I’ll walk through this night 

Stumbling blindly toward the light 

And do the next right thing 

And, with it done, what comes then? 

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

Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice 

And do the next right thing.” 

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

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

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

May it be so. 

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

Posted in Sermons, Writing

The View from Here: a Sermon on Psalm 130

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this mediating ethic is not one to seek easy reconciliation

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

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

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

whether or not mediation as an end does.”

mediating as process rather than mediation as end

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

as a nation

and the roles we should and must play

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

who must live our lives not always comforted by the holy

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

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

means that we remain in the tension

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

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

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

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

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

“we are responsible for each other and ourselves

we may not always agree, nor should we expect to

we have to give an accounting of our actions and inactions

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

alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it ever be so. 

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

Posted in Sermons

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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

 

Seattle University Land Statement: 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Great Need by Hafiz

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the poet Hafiz: 

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From every angle in your darkness

The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

Trusted.

I know the way you can get

If you have not had a drink from Love’s

Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of

The vital need

To keep remembering God,

So you will come to know and see Him

As being so Playful

And Wanting,

Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:

Bring your cup near me.

For all I care about

Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about

Is giving Love!

(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

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

May it ever be so. 

 

artwork by He Qi. 

Posted in Sermons

Reality Check: a sermon after Christmas

This sermon preached at Seattle First Baptist Church on December 29, 2019.

 

Happy Birthday, church! Happy 150 years! 

Though we have been celebrating 150 years of ministry with our Seattle neighbors for several months now, yesterday was truly the 150th anniversary of when the first 11 people gathered in the winter of 1869 and covenanted together to form a community. Christmas was barely over and a new decade was coming in fast, and yet, our Baptist ancestors gathered to commit to doing life together, to being church together. They signed a document called the New Hampshire Covenant, popularized by the American Baptist Publication Society in the 1850s and handed down through some Connecticut forbears to the folks who gathered in newborn Seattle to form First Baptist. Here’s what the New Hampshire Covenant says:

“Having been led as we believe by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized, we do now, in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ . . . to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of this church, in knowledge, holiness, and comfort, to promote its prosperity and spirituality, to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines, to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.”

We probably wouldn’t use this language today to express what we do here together as we follow the way of Jesus the Christ, but we can still appreciate the passion and dedication of these founders as they promised to “solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another…to walk together in Christian love.”

So that was 150 years ago yesterday. I wonder what happened next. What happened 150 years today? What happened on December 29? Did some of those folks wake up and say, “What do we do now?” 

And on this December 29, I echo that question. Christmas Day has come and gone. Yes, we are in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas, which lasts until Epiphany. But the presents and the glitter and the still, soft singing of Silent Night are over for another 360 days. What do we do now?

Our Scripture today is one of those texts that serves as a reality check for us. At Tim and Patrick’s Boxing Day drop-in on Thursday, I found myself sitting in a corner chatting with our own Eric Jeffords about my process for sermon writing. During our conversation, he asked, “How do you know what text to preach on?” And that’s a great question. Some of you may know that usually Tim and Patricia and I use the Revised Common Lectionaryto guide our preaching schedule; the RCL was made so that every 3 years a church would go through the whole Bible about one time. This fall, in honor of our 150th Year, we chose passages related to themes we wanted to focus on; and we departed from the lectionary in Advent as well, as we chose to read the beloved nativity sequence from Luke’s gospel. However, just as with any holiday, our festivity must come to an end somehow, and we return to the lectionary, to the assigned reading for this day in the church year. And this one, my friends, is a tough one. Sometimes I feel I need to remind us that there should be content warnings for the Bible, and this is one of those times. So take care of yourselves, friends. Do what you need to do to steward your wellbeing in this service.

Our Scripture today is from Matthew chapter 2, verses 13-23. 

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

    wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This text is challenging. Difficult. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. This text teeters on a tightrope between being a text of terror and a prophetic promise. And, after the festivities of this last week and the sacred and sentimental readings from Luke’s gospel, this text is our reality check. 

Esau McCaulley, a professor at Wheaton College and an Anglican priest, questions,“Why is it important that the church calendar tells this story at the beginning of the Christmas season?…The church calendar calls Christians and others to remember that we live in a world in which political leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent on the altar of power. We are forced to recall that this is a world with families on the run, where the weeping of mothers is often not enough to win mercy for their children. More than anything, the story of the innocents calls upon us to consider the moral cost of the perpetual battle for power in which the poor tend to have the highest casualty rate.”

I find it deeply meaningful how Scripture works on me, if I let it in and live alongside it for a while.  And this text is no different. It takes no creative gymnastics to find similarities between the story captured in this Scripture and our own time. Perhaps so little extrapolation that it makes us uncomfortable, it raises our defense mechanisms. 

For example, a debate has been raging on Twitter recently, concerning this passage of Scripture. Some people think that calling Jesus a refugee is not correct, based on the geological growth of the Roman Empire and the way us contemporaries think about borders and the lack of historical evidence for the murder of children in Bethlehem. Others, rightly, remind these Tweet-ers of the power of story, that these events are not necessarily 100% historically factual, and, most importantly, of the definition of refugee, “people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” Jesus, as he reminds us in Matthew chapter 8, had nowhere to lay his head during his formative years, from his birth in a manger to having his life threatened and leaving his home to attempting to return home only to more worries about political persecution from the government. And so, yes, from this story, we understand Jesus as a refugee, or an internally displaced person. To preserve his life and give him hope for a future, his family left their homeland. Departure and return were central to Jesus’ early life, and we echo these movements on this Sunday as we return to Scripture texts that cause us pause, that force us to check ourselves, that disorient us following the comfort and brightness of the Christmas holiday.

There is nothing sentimental about the Christmas story in Matthew. This is one reason why your pastors put our heads together and decided to hang out with Luke’s gospel, with Mary’s magnificat and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Anna and Simeon and shepherds and angels and twinkling stars praising God. No heavenly choir announces Jesus’ birth in Matthew, there are just some astrologers who are ordered to spy for a tyrant. No snuggly sheep or protective oxen watch over the baby, just a family fleeing in the middle of the night. 

As we depart from the holiday season and return to our regularly-scheduled lives, the stories about the movements of young Jesus’ family go with us. The shepherds and sheep, magi and camels, heavenly host and star had all returned home, and Jesus’ family was left alone, just the three of them, in Bethlehem, according to Matthew’s gospel. And just as his Old Testament namesake did, Joseph began to dream.

Now, these weren’t really good dreams, right? Maybe something good came of the dreams for Jesus and his family, but the dreams of Herod the Great’s political jealousy causing him to turn to brutality against innocent children were about to become all too real. God spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream, warning him that Herod had evil intentions for baby Jesus and telling the Holy Family to flee impending violence and hide away in Egypt. There was a promise to return someday, but at the time, Joseph didn’t know when that would be. 

Cut away to Herod in Jerusalem, raging and plotting a way to destroy the infant king he had been told about. He decided to take out his rage on all children age two and under in the village of Bethlehem, thinking surely the child prophesied would be swept up in the violence and “destroyed” as the NRSV tells it. And so there is weeping and lamentation over senseless violence against innocent children.

In an article entitled, “Herod, too, is the reason for the season,”Matt Skinner from Luther Seminary, writes, “[it] would be easier if Herod has been an out-and-out monster. He wasn’t.” And this is true. Herod the Great, in power over Judea from 37-4 BCE was an Idumean appointed by Romans as a kind of puppet governor. You see, the Romans, for the most part, didn’t mind how brutal a territorial ruler was as long as the region paid taxes. Herod had to fight for three years to secure his power, and history tells us that he never felt secure on his throne: he killed his wife and one of his sons because he thought they would threaten his position. And yet, as Matt Skinner reminds us,

“Herod was no madman seething on his throne pulling the wings off butterflies. Many of his contemporaries saw him as a savior in his own right…[Herod the Great] made sure his kingdom would be significant, prosperous, and protected within the emerging Roman Empire.” He goes on to say, “Evil rarely presents itself as a beast with horns, fangs, and claws. Usually it dresses itself up in respectability. It burrows into systems that we rely on to keep our societies from spinning into chaos. Evil rarely acts alone. Tyranny and arrogance can’t exist in a vacuum. They demand accomplices. They survive because their enablers are also contributors.”

I wonder what images this text conjures for you, read today in a comfortable, warm church in a wealthy city in the USAmerican empire. How have I, have we, has our church, been complicit in sustaining evil as it burrows into systems of white supremacy, heteronormativity, transphobia, Christian supremacy and American exceptionalism? What lurks beneath the sheen of respectability that we enforce by the ways we police each other’s bodies, lifestyles, finances? How does what we are willing to say but not willing to do for the sake of justice make us enablers of these systems where Herod is merely the figurehead? 

“Herod,” writes Matt Skinner, “would have given the order [to kill the children] but he would not wield the sword. He had people. Agents who would swoop in, pound on doors, and disappear again as quickly as they arrived…Herod was a savvy politician who knew how to use favoritism, brutality, deception, and arrogance to advance his ends. Those are the tools used by people who believe they will never be held accountable. Those are also the values that get encoded into patterns and norms that govern our daily life. They become our ethos. They make us complicit. Herod and his resistance to the reign of God remain alive and well today.”  

I’m sure each of us could imagine without too much work these dynamics in our country today: people in need of jobs, of security for their families, of a story to tell themselves about “just following orders” or “standing their ground,” coerced into aligning with unadulterated power and an arrogant tyrant. And, for many of us, we are not wielding the sword, or following orders. And yet, we, too, in our various ways of holding privilege, are silent when faced with opposition; cross the street instead of look a person in need in the eye; turn our gaze from the everyday bigotry that we have been taught is normal and acceptable; assure ourselves that the brutality of empire isn’t a big deal because it hasn’t come to our doorstep yet. 

Jesus was a refugee. And, like the family on the front of your bulletin today, he and his family were forced to leave their home due to threats of violence. Today, as followers of the Way of Jesus, we are called to remember his family, and to see them in today’s refugees, displaced persons and people experiencing homelessness. We are called to understand that threats of violence towards vulnerable communities do affect us, because we are all bound together as children of God. This Scripture that calls us to a reality check also invites us to place our hope in the activity of a God whose love is far more powerful than the ragings of Herod and his cronies. 

Yesterday, December 28, was really just the start of our 150th year. And many of us have the question, “What do we do now?” on our lips. I offer this invitation to you, in the words of the prophetic poet Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

So, friends, in the rest of the 12 days of Christmas, in 2020, let’s find, heal, feed, release, rebuild, bring peace and make music. Let’s make sure the next 150 days, months and years of our life together are done in service to our neighbors and those living life with their backs up against the wall. In the words of our church’s affirmation of values, let us “go deeper in faith as we do justice, love mercy, work for peace and walk humbly with God.” The work of our 150 year legacy is not over with this anniversary. We are just beginning. 

 

Refugees: The Holy Family by Kelly Latimore 

Posted in Sermons

And the table will be wide: a sermon on Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

In July of this year, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Cali, Colombia to participate in the Global Baptist Peace Conference. You may have heard about this event: it happens every 7-10 years and is sponsored by Baptist denominations around the world. I attended in part because Seattle First Baptist has been involved in justice issues near and far for many years, as well as because I serve on the Board of Directors for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por la Paz, one of the organizations that sponsored this year’s conference. The Baptist Peace Fellowship has been an incredible gift in my life over the past five or six years, as I have learned more about the kin-dom of God from these peacemakers striving for a better world than from anyone else. 

At the Global Baptist Peace Conference, there were over 400 people from over 36 countries represented, who spoke more than 60 languages. There were children as young as infants and elders in their 90s. There were youths from Colombia whose families had been disappeared and murdered during the guerilla clashes with government forces; seminary professors from Myanmar who witness against the oppression of indigenous peoples; Baptist faith leaders from the Republic of Georgia who advocate for LGBTQ rights; indigenous Mayans from Chiapas, Mexico who are climate activists; pastors from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe who dreamed about one day sending aid to the USA instead of the other way around. And me, a young pastor who works with children and youth. And two folks from Seattle First Baptist Church, and Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, our Executive Minister of Evergreen, and Josue Gomez, the President of American Baptist Churches-USA. To say I felt out of my depth would be accurate: what did I have to offer to these accomplished peacemakers? What did I have to give, as an Anglo-USAmerican whose country has been complicit in much of the violence facing some of the other countries gathered there? But as we went about the week, I felt I was praying with my presence, and I leaned into my discomfort in a spirit of honesty and transparency as I sought to gain skills to heal the world. For just one week, an incredible diversity of people gathered at the United Baptist Seminary of Colombia for a week of worshipping, listening to stories, sharing skills, praying together, eating and dancing salsa. 

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the altar space during the Global Baptist Peace Conference

And all of these activities were communion. And on World Communion Sunday, I remember the faces of those I broke bread with; those I danced with at a salsa club called “The Devil’s Cauldron,”; those whose workshops I attended as I desired to expand my skills as a peacemaker; those who literally served me the bread and the cup during our closing worship. All of these were communion.

All of these activities, eating and dancing and drinking and hugging and learning and worshipping, were communion because they helped me remember who Jesus is, and what Jesus did.

As I shared simple meals of arroz con frijoles and chicken and salad, I remembered how Jesus ate…a lot. He is eating SO much of the time in the gospels, and that reminds me that Jesus was human. He hungered and thirsted, just as we all do. 

As I danced at the salsa club with people from 20 countries, I remembered how Jesus went to a wedding, participated in community celebrations, and was capable of feeling joy. How he lived in a body that maybe danced, maybe moved to the music, maybe remembered dance steps from learning them alongside his mother and father. 

As I learned about the sociopolitical history of Colombia, as I paid attention to the stories of teenagers who were teaching other teenagers about conflict resolution, as I received stories about people traveling with the migrant caravans headed towards the United States, I remembered how Jesus taught all who follow him to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. 

And as I tore a small piece of bread and dipped it in grape juice, I received the blessing of knowing and being known as someone made in the imago Dei, the image of God. 

As we know all too well, this awareness of others as God’s image bearers is all-too-rare in today’s world. As we watch the news, as we talk to loved ones who live all across this country and all over the world, we hear over and over stories of relationships not as they should be, of abuse, of discrimination, of imprisonment. Perhaps at times we could join with the prophet Habbakuk in saying “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” “Violence!” we cry out, looking at the detention of immigrants at the borders (and within the borders) of this nation. “Violence!” we cry out, listening to the bombings and war cries and weeping of mothers like Rachel, looking for her children. “Violence!” we cry out, feeling the earth shaking under our feet and the sea levels rising and human-made structures collapsing to the ground. 

And yet…like Habbakuk, the prophet who converses with God, who is openly frustrated with the Divine, we may pause in our angst and recall that we, too, have seen a vision of a different way of living. We, too, have seen the kin-dom of God among us. We, too, have seen the imago Dei in the face of those we “other”. Habbakuk’s vision is the second part of our Scripture today, as he announces that even though times seem dire, there is reason to have faith, there is reason to hope, there is reason to continue trusting God. 

In the second chapter of Habbakuk, after listening to Habbakuk’s concerns and frustrations, God responds to the prophet, saying, “Keep the faith. Share the vision you have been given, because it is coming. Justice is coming.”

That’s what we were doing at the Global Baptist Peace Conference. Sharing the vision. Telling our stories, making it plain on tablets so all could read and know, reminding each other to keep the faith. Justice is coming. 

And that’s what we are doing today, on World Communion Sunday. Across the whole globe, people are gathering for worship and to share communion. 

But we do have to acknowledge that World Communion Sunday is a bit weird. For one, as Protestants who usually only share communion one Sunday per month, we can be tempted to think of the Lord’s Supper as special. And, in a way, it is special. It is a gift from God, a way of communing with the Holy One, a path to remembering Jesus Christ. But it is also not special: it is ordinary, it is commonplace, it is something that makes us who we are as Christians. One blog I read about this reads: “But if Holy Communion really is the Church’s signature rite, if it is indeed that which makes the Church what it is, then “special” is exactly what it is not. We don’t think of the air we breathe as “special,” the breakfast we eat as “special.” These things are gifts, of course–breath and food–but it is in their givenness, their ordinariness that they are the means for life and health.” 

And I wonder why we only set aside one day a year to be World Communion Sunday? Why the first Sunday of October? Why only once a year? Shouldn’t every day we share communion be a world communion Sunday, where we remember and honor those who are sharing this same meal all over the globe? And shouldn’t every meal we eat, like the rice and beans in Cali, Colombia, be communion? Shouldn’t everything we do be reminding us of the life of Jesus the Christ? Shouldn’t everything we do, from eating to drinking to dancing to embracing to learning to worshipping be an activity in which we recognize God’s love for us? 

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friends at La Caldera del Diablo

So, in light of those questions, I choose to think of World Communion Sunday like this: There are some things that transcend language, race, ethnicity and geography…and communion is one of those things. I believe that it even transcends time. As we gather at the table today, let us remember that Jesus gathered with his friends and community, the men and women and children, the young and old and in-between, Jews and Gentiles and all sorts of people. It may not have been easy for them all to gather there, being different and carrying cultural expectations and assumptions about the others. But Jesus stood in the gap, between people who were different, uniting them as family; between different ways of worshipping, gathering them in one Spirit; between age groups, making all people siblings in Christ. Though we may have good reason to cry out, “Violence!” and “How long, O Lord?” right now, be assured, justice is coming. Peace is coming. Across the world, people who bear the image of God are working to bring about change, to be in solidarity with “the least of these,” to change situations of oppression. Across the planet, on this World Communion Sunday, the vision of God’s coming kin-dom is alive and well, being made plain by the work of ordinary people like you and me. 

And so today, I ask you: What is your vision for the future? What will the kin-dom of God look like? What will Jesus’ table be like? 

In closing, I offer these words from a favorite poet, Jan Richardson

AND THE TABLE WILL BE WIDE

And the table

will be wide.

And the welcome

will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide

to gather us in.

And our hearts

will open wide

to receive.

And we will come

as children who trust

there is enough.

And we will come

unhindered and free.

And our aching

will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow

will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands

to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn

toward each other

without fear.

And we will give up

our appetite

for despair.

And we will taste

and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

for those who thirst.

And the blessed

will become the blessing.

And everywhere

will be the feast.

 

May it ever be so. Amen.

 

This sermon originally preached October 6, 2019 at Japanese 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, 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.