Tuesday, April 25, 2017

You are a child of God

You are a child of God.

No matter what people think about you. No matter what you think about yourself. You are a child of God, and no one--- NO ONE--- can separate you from God's love. That's what we were reminding ourselves of today at the spring meeting of the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council is like the Supreme Court of our church, and for years their docket has been filled with complaints pertaining to human sexuality. Today's meeting was no exception. However, these meetings are not usually open to the public, except today. Today, the Judicial Council heard oral arguments over whether or not the election of a married lesbian to the office of bishop in the Western Jurisdiction is lawful under our Book of Discipline. The bishop in question is Bishop Karen Oliveto, a fellow Drewid who I have worked with at General Conference and marched beside on the fiftieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s "I Had a Dream" speech. She is a true leader and one of the most pastoral people I have ever met. She is also one of the most Wesleyan! Today, one of my professors from Drew described her as "one of the best of us" clergy. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to listen to a fellow clergyperson from the South Central Jurisdiction continually using the words "null, void, unlawful" when speaking of the ministry and person of such an amazing child of God. But then, the Book of Discipline itself uses the phrase "incompatible with Christian teaching" in reference to same-gender loving people, so why should we be so surprised?

But in spite of witnessing the church at its worst in this trial, I also witnessed the church at its best. I have not been organizing with this particular church community at the last convocation or General Conference because of depression accompanying my infertility and miscarriages, turning me inward, sapping my energy. Today, though, a clergy colleague called me up and encouraged me to drive to New Jersey with her, and I am so glad we went. I got to see old friends and professors and classmates. I met people I have only met online and made new connections. I sang Mark Miller songs and received communion. I saw people who have been beaten down stand up straight and live into their calling. I was witness to the persistence of the resurrection. I witnessed how no matter how much death we might experience, God is still bringing about new life.

When we arrived, we stood in the lobby to pray before going into the hearing. And we started to sing: "No matter what people think. Think or say about you. You are a child, you are a child of God! No matter what the church days, decisions, pronouncements on you, You are a child, you are a child of God!" And as we sang, Bishop Oliveto and Robin walked out among us on their way to the room where the hearing was and stopped to greet us. Here they were, and many of us were, feeling discouraged. Perhaps wondering what life could possibly be found in this United Methodist Church. But the life was this community, sprouting up from a deep grounding in love to show how we can live as children of God.


Before we left, we received communion from the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus. The tables where the members of the Jurisdictional Conference sat were covered in rainbow stones and bread and juice. The room where words were uttered rejecting the movement of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of queer people was washed in songs about grace and tearing down walls. We reclaimed a space of death for new life where all people are recognized as children of God. We spoke the truth that there is nothing, no one, not even the church, that can separate us from the love of God.   

I am not hopeful about the future of the church based on the work of the Judicial Council or the Commission on a Way Forward. I am hopeful about the future of this church led by the amazing people I saw witnessing to the resurrection today.

Communion reclaiming Judicial Council space

Friday, April 14, 2017

Finished: A Good Friday Sermon

This year Presbury UMC worshiped with Lord of Life Church (ELCA) for Good Friday.


Scripture: John 19:25b-30 (NRSV)
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Sermon: Finished
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we hear this story year after year. But even though it may be familiar to us, we ask that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts startle us into transformation and new life. Amen.

Jesus was dying. The women watched as he, already brutalized, was dragged through the city. They watched as the nails went into his hands, as the cross was lifted up. Their eyesight may have been blurred as they wept, their hearing may have been obscured by their own wailing, but they knew what was happening to their beloved teacher, healer, and savior. They knew his life was finished, and, with it, theirs as well.

We have not been to public executions. They are considered barbaric, though of course this week I learned that the state of Arkansas prepares to put seven people to death in ten days because the drugs they use in executions are set to expire. And of course, you can see plenty of footage on Youtube documenting police shootings in our own country. And of course, we hear almost daily it seems of bombs being dropped, on our behalf we are told, in other parts of the world. But while with these reminders we may catch a glimpse the shame of public executions, the senseless violence of it, most of us do not really understand it. But we do understand pain. And the women at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John are like we have been at one point or another or maybe like we are now, consumed by our own pain. Wondering how our lives could go on.

 And while the women stood there, hearts breaking, helpless, angry even, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And then he died. So what is finished?1 His life? We know that not to be the case. His work? Well, I don't know. Have you ever met someone needing healing, redemption, salvation? So then “it” couldn't refer to sin either, since we know there is still some sin left in the world, right? Maybe “it” meant pain, his and others? The women at the foot of the cross could tell you otherwise. We could tell you otherwise. 

Like so much of the Bible, the statement “It is finished” is open ended, resisting easy answers. So you may read it differently than I do. Tomorrow I may read it differently than I do today. But today, I think that Jesus didn't mean all pain was over when he declared, “It is finished.” He didn't mean sin was gone. We read this statement as an ending, but instead it is a beginning.2Even as he was dying, Jesus was promising us a new way to live.
You see, in the Gospel of John, “while the world hurls forth the worst it has to offer, Jesus remains unfazed and triumphant."3 Can you imagine what the women at the foot of the cross felt when they heard Jesus' words? They were despairing and fearful, but he was calm and confident. He wasn't belittling their pain, though; in fact, just a few verses earlier in our scripture, he encouraged them to continue to lean on one another when he told the beloved disciple and his mother that they were family now, saying, “Woman here is your son.” But death did not shake him the way it was shaking them. Because he trusted in God's transforming power. And he declared, even though no one could see it yet, that the old life was gone and new life was beginning already. It is finished.  

Frankly, I always preferred the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, who cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). I want a God who knows my pain. But in the Gospel of John, the women are the ones who know my pain. They are huddled together, broken. But Jesus reaches out to them, not allowing the ugliness of the world defeat him and inviting us not to let it defeat us either. He does not let sorrow have the last word, or pain. In the Gospel of John, new life does not begin in the empty tomb, but even before, even from the cross. Because Jesus shows us possibility where we might never see it. Before the resurrection, he shows us how to remain triumphant even in the midst of pain.

I don't know about you, but this is a lesson I need in my life. Presbury knows that my family and I have struggled a lot in the past year. This is not the first, but the second Easter in a row that I would have been pregnant if I had not miscarried. And I have still not yet experienced the promise of new life. I cannot see it. I don't have certainty that next year or the year after we will finally have a baby. The bitterness gets so overwhelming at times. But Jesus in the Gospel of John on Good Friday tells us we don't need certainty. And he tells us that we don't have to let pain overwhelm us. He tells us it is finished. He doesn't tell us how or when; when he says, “It is finished,” he invites us even in the midst of our pain now, today, to live differently.

So what has to be finished in your lives, and also in our world, for you to walk in this new beginning Jesus has made the way for? On a post-it note, I want you to name, on one side, what needs to be finished in your own life, and on the other side in the world, for us to walk in new beginnings. Maybe it is bitterness and jealousy, like I struggle with after miscarriage. It could be a sin that needs to stop controlling your life. It could be a toxic relationship or a job that keeps you from walking in new beginnings. And on the other side, what needs to be finished in our world? Let us trust Jesus' declaration that it is finished, even when we can't imagine otherwise. I want you to write it down and come forward and nail it or just post it to the cross. We will leave those things there, and prepare our hearts to follow Jesus into a new life trusting the old is finished and there will be--- that there is already--- a new beginning before us.

 1The idea that follows riffs on the commentary by Randall C. Bailey, “Good Friday,” Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A, eds. Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 192.

2Trygve David Johnson, “Homeletical Perspective on John 18:1-19:42,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 301 and 303.
 3Mary Louise Bringle, “Homeletical Perspective on John 18:1-19:42,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 309.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Tribute to My Mother-In-Law

We lost my husband Aaron's mother a day before her fifty-sixth birthday and a week and a day before Aaron's thirtieth birthday. This is what I shared at her celebration of life. 

I am Shannon Sullivan, Bonnie's daughter-in-law. Or Ms. Bonnie, as I usually call her. What can I say--- it's hard to break habits from high school. We all know the stereotype of the relationship between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law, but it probably won't surprise you to know that Ms. Bonnie was not like that. In fact she supported me and defended me and continually checked in to make sure that Aaron was treating me all right. Even though my sisters insist that I am the reacher and Aaron is the settler in our relationship, Ms. Bonnie--- and David too--- always looked out for me. “That Aaron better be spending time with you instead of always going to the airport!” she would say to me.  

The first time I went to Aaron's house as his girlfriend, Aaron and I went walking through the woods and came back with the bottoms of my jeans caked in mud. She was mortified, worrying that my parents would never let me come back. So she made me borrow a pair of Aaron's pants so she could wash mine. And his pants fit me. Kind of a terrible experience for a fifteen-year-old girl who knew little about body positivity, but I later joked that we would have to get married because we would save so much money on pants if we could borrow one another's! But it was just the first of many ways she took care of me--- of us--- even while she made us laugh, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Mr. Mike told us the other night that she knew Aaron and I would get married when we went away for college even though we went to different colleges. But she never said anything to Aaron because she never wanted to influence him. Sure, she gave advice, but she always wanted us to make our own decisions and supported us no matter what we did.  

But it was her faith that really was transformational. There's a story in the Bible about the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. It's the book of Ruth. In it, a woman named Naomi loses her husband and both sons and decides to move back to her own country. One daughter-in-law kisses her and wishes her well but another clings to her and ends up going with her to Bethlehem. That one is Ruth, whose name means friend, and Ruth really took care of Naomi in the fog of her grief and nourished her into life. Bonnie was more like Ruth was in this story for me, and I was more like Naomi, especially this year. Naomi at one point says change her name to Mara, because Mara means bitter and she thinks God has dealt bitterly with her (Ruth 1:20). I felt a lot like Naomi this past year. Now, Ruth's life was one big struggle too, but she does not give up, as Naomi actually does and I felt like doing at times too. And Ms. Bonnie never gave up either. 

I was one of the people who helped care for my mother-in-law on and off for the past two years. I would come over to her house to help with meals and moving around, but I would bring my grief baggage and my frustration with God and my hopelessness that I would ever have a baby. Ms. Bonnie always had hope, for herself, for me. She was always there to give me an encouraging word. She would often say that it was so hard because she couldn't do anything, couldn't offer anything because she was so weak. Carrying hope for someone who doesn't have anymore is a pretty big offering. So is prayer. She and Mr. Mike would pray for Aaron and I every day, even while Aaron and my prayers were often focused on ourselves because of how isolating our grief and anxiety can be; she didn't let her physical isolation and even later her depression keep her from directing her energy for prayer towards others. She was a true friend, a woman who was always giving, always loving, in spite of her own pain and in spite of my frequent bitterness.  

Chaplain Allen Seigel at Upper Chesapeake read Proverbs 31:10-31 as Ms. Bonnie was dying. Verse 29 says, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Bonnie did surpass them all. And even though I am still thinking of changing my name to Mara sometimes, I give thanks to God for Bonnie's friendship, her guidance, her prayers. And I know the love of Christ that she taught us will still sustain us as a family always.

Monday, January 30, 2017

An Afternoon in a Refugee Camp

The refugee camp in Bijelo Polje, 2004.
When I was fifteen, I visited a refugee camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I don't remember much about it--- I think the people there were refugees from Kosovo maybe? I don't remember much what the camp director told us about how the camp ran, how many people were there, how long people could expect to be there. But I do remember the children in the camp. How we tried to play games with them but really the kids were clinging to us so tightly we could barely move our arms to toss a ball, and the ball would come right back to us. My sister, who was fourteen then, said she still remembers the face of the little girl who held her hand the entire time. She remembers trying to get her to play but she'd just smile, shake her head and just hold her hand. I remember not all the children had shoes, but perhaps it was just because it was summer? I remember the concrete everywhere--- different from the images of tent cities with blue UN tarps like we usually see on TV nowadays. But this camp was concrete encased in a chain link fence. I remember the faces of the children pressed into the fence as we left.

The woman who translated for us while we were in Bosnia went on to work in a local school there and I remember her telling me that the children at that camp went to her school. So these refugees had different opportunities than ones crossing the sea or living in a tent on a border somewhere. But whenever I hear about refugees in the news, I remember the feel of tiny hands gripping mine with fierce longing. I remember the faces of children so desperate to be treated as something other than a criminal or a burden or unwanted that they were willing to attach themselves to a stranger like me who could not even remotely speak their language or, let's be realistic, throw or catch a ball.

And so when the president of my country issues an executive order banning refugees from entering the country for 120 days--- except those from Syria who will be banned indefinitely--- I get angry. How dare we prioritize a mythical concept of safety over the lives of children? I remember the faces of the kids watching us leave--- those were not the faces of terrorists. Those were not the faces of threats to our national security. They were the faces of children wondering why they lived in a cage. Wondering when they would have a home. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees. Over half of refugees are under the age of 18. These are the people we are really rejecting.

So let's stop allowing our politicians to feed us lies about our safety and instead embrace our fellow human beings. Call your representatives. Financially support organizations working with refugees. Reach out to local organizations that help with resettlement (if you are in the Baltimore area, check out the Refugee Youth Project). Pray and work for a world where people are not forced from their homes in pursuit of peace and stability. Remember that it is not our safety that is a concern but the safety of these children in camps.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The people who walk in darkness

Upper Chesapeake Medical Center has restarted a perinatal bereavement support group. I was the first speaker, and the group ended up being relaxed and informal, but this is what I had prepared to say.

In the last year, I have had two miscarriages. The last one was only a few weeks ago. We have been trying to have children for over two years. And I should tell you I am a pastor, so this is a busy time of year for me. It is Advent, the season of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ by remembering and even reenacting the birth of a baby. It's also a season of waiting.

Does this sound like a super fun time of year for a person dealing with the death of babies and wondering when, if ever, she will ever get pregnant again?

Hint: it's not.

One of the scriptures we read during Advent that I usually open Christmas Eve services with is from the prophet Isaiah. He writes, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2). He writes about the Israelites, desperately hoping for a new reign of peace and prosperity after life under the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. Christians read it as the anticipation of Jesus's birth. And it is a scripture that has been sticking with me in this season. Because I feel like those people who walked in darkness--- not (necessarily) because of politics, but because of grief.

I knew I was going to have a miscarriage my first pregnancy. We had conceived on Christmas day last year, which is probably more information than you need to know, but this was after over a year of trying and my desperation was so strong that I basically missed a day of work every month when I got my period because all I could do was sit around and cry. When we learned we were going to have a Christmas baby, it seemed too perfect. I didn't trust it. Perhaps that says something about my faith, you can analyze that later, but this moment should have felt like dawn after a long night. Instead it just felt like more darkness. That is until just before the eighth week, when I finally started picking out baby names and researching potential Halloween costumes. Finally, that light seemed to be shining! And then I had a miscarriage. I remember sitting in the car on the way to the emergency room on my husband's twenty-ninth birthday while he prayed for us and he was still praying that our baby would be okay. I had no such hope. I already knew our baby was gone.

Now the days after our miscarriage were not as dark as that day. I could feel hope again. After all, we hadn't been sure we could get pregnant naturally but we did. And when it started to get dark again, after not getting pregnant for seven months on our own and with some help, the day of the baby's due date ended up being another experience of renewal that let some light seep in. And then I got pregnant again, a week after my first due date, and, even though I was cautious, I allowed myself to hope this time. To hold my belly and talk to the baby. To again try and decide on a middle name for a boy. But I only allowed myself to hope a little bit. I had grown accustomed to the dark.

I miscarried again. And this time I saw no light. And when people reminded me that God was still with me, and that I have a wonderful supportive husband and church, and that I have so much to be thankful for, I just got more bitter. I wanted to be left alone in my grief. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and my heart adjusted to hopelessness.

But I don't think hopelessness is all the darkness of pregnancy and infant loss can teach me, and maybe teach us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again...”1
 
One of those things I have learned is the power of community. I have always believed that community is beautiful, but it was not until I was stumbling in this darkness myself that I actually experienced it saving me. Like just his past Tuesday, when I was exhausted and ran into a family acquaintance in a hospital waiting room while looking for one of my parishioners. She asked me which of my sisters had lost the baby. I burst into tears when I told her it was me, not one of my sisters, even though I thought I was doing so well with not crying in public. But while I tried to blink back tears, she took my hand and told me about how between her two children, she lost five pregnancies. She told me about how her son was a twin, but his twin died at seventeen weeks. She had to carry the dead baby within her as she carried the living one. And she told me this story not with triumph, not with the smile and “See, one day you will have a beautiful baby too just like I did,” end to the story. She told me her story just to let me know I was not alone, and she had cried too, so many times.

I want to run the show. I want to be able to plan my pregnancies the way my mother did, when she decided she never wanted to be pregnant in the summer again, so my sisters' birthdays are June 1 and June 3. I want my doctor to tell me the next IUI will work. I want to know when I get that positive on the pregnancy stick that I will be pregnant for forty weeks, not seven or eight. But we don't run the show. We don't have control over our ovulation or the quality of our eggs. We don't have control over crying in the middle of a hospital waiting room with an almost stranger. But when I stop trying to control the outcome, I might start to see beauty and goodness in the light there is, even if it isn't the kind of light I wanted or expected. Like the beauty and goodness there was in sitting with a woman, listening to her story and not feeling so alone anymore.

The darkness of pregnancy and infant loss is horrible. I would give up this journey in exchange for a baby in a heartbeat. But there is still goodness in the midst of the horribleness, still light in the darkness, even if it is a just faint glow. And I believe that is because the darkness is not dark to God, as Psalm 139 tells us. To God, the night is as bright as day. God can work the good from even terrible situations. God can help us see beauty by that faint starlight even when the sun isn't shining.

So though even today I do not expect to see a great light, to feel the warmth of a smile on my face when I get to hold my baby for the first time, I know that this darkness we walk in the meantime is not just a place of death and hopelessness. That we can learn to walk in the dark, and to reach out to our siblings in this journey and help them walk too. And maybe together we will find that even the night can be bright.



1Barabara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 5.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Joy Happens In Relationship

This is  a sermon from Presbury United Methodist Church's Mismatched Nativity series. 


Scripture: Luke 1:39-58 (NRSV)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 

Sermon: 
Let us pray:  
Patient teacher, we probably don't all feel very joyful this morning. Maybe we are worried about a loved one in the hospital. Maybe we saw our credit card bill and are trying to figure out how long it will take to pay it off. Maybe we just got a bad night's sleep. There are so many things that keep us from rejoicing in you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts show us how near you are today. For that is good news indeed. Amen.      

We are continuing our sermon series on a Mismatched Nativity. You can come up after worship, or just see from your seats that this Nativity is composed of many different sets, and many from places like Haiti and South Africa. Of course, there are also gnome and Snoopy nativities represented, so it is a bit of a strange concoction here. But it serves as a visual reminder for what we have been talking about--- these characters from the story of Jesus' birth were not so different from us. Their lives are not perfect. They had problems like we do. They messed up once or twice in their lives--- but, even if you aren't convinced they did mess up, everyone around them thought they did and judged them for it, made their lives harder for it. Zechariah prayed but really didn’t have hope. Mary was less pure and holy than spunky and courageous. Today, we are talking about Elizabeth, a person of faith who experienced joy but also still felt fear and anxiety, just like many of us do.    

Our scripture today is about joy pure and simple, from Mary to Elizabeth and back again. But remember that joy and happiness are not the same thing. We are not talking about a sense of contentment, like after a long day when you finally get to put your feet up and relax. We are not talking about the feeling of pleasure we experience when eating our favorite food. We are not talking about the warm fluttery feeling like the kind you get in your stomach when you realize the next Star Wars movie is out next week. Or maybe you don't get that feeling, but I do! Joy is a deeper feeling than those even though it is sometimes fleeting. Joy is a kind of resistance and resilience. Joy transforms us, and shows us possibilities we once thought impossible.     

Let's just look more carefully at Mary and Elizabeth's story. If we picture these women at all, which, let's face it, Elizabeth and Zechariah are left out of the Nativity so often we don't think of them as being a part of the story--- but if we picture these women, we picture halos and light, big smiles and big bellies. Scripture doesn't exactly tell us otherwise, though it does suggest that Mary probably did not have a big belly yet, but I wonder if the halos and smiles put us off from the part of the story we can best relate to--- that Mary and Elizabeth were afraid.     

We aren't really sure why Mary set out and went with haste to see Elizabeth. Yes, the angel had given her the good news, but it wasn't like she had a car and could just run over with cake and balloons. Rev. Adam Hamilton in his bible study about the geography of the story of Jesus' birth says that the journey by foot between Mary's and Elizabeth's homes could have taken nine days. He writes, “The fact that Mary was willing to travel nine days across three mountain ranges [hill country, the scripture tell us, remember] to see Elizabeth speaks volumes about how she was feeling. She longed for someone who might believe her and who could help her make sense of what was happening.”1     

Now in those days, women would often journey to family member's homes to help with pregnancy, delivery, and taking care of the newborn baby. It was probably not out of the ordinary for Mary to go on such a journey, or at least women Mary's age. But I have a friend who has another theory. She believes that Mary was kicked out by angry and frightened parents. We really have no idea, but think about it--- how many of you would believe a teenager, even the sweetest, most innocent teenager you know, if they told you that the Holy Spirit impregnated them with God? Maybe they got angry and sent Mary away, to wait until her delusion had passed or to negotiate with Joseph's family so no violence would befall Mary, since the law at that time, whether or not it was enforced, was to stone a woman who had committed adultery, even against her betrothed. Whatever you believe, I think these possibilities tell us that this journey to Elizabeth's house was not taken by Mary while she was skipping and singing to woodland animals like a Disney princess. She was afraid and uncertain. Her courage in agreeing to serve God was waning in the face of very real fears and anxieties.     

And Elizabeth, she was also full of fear and anxiety, despite the faith she exhibited when we read about Zechariah a few weeks ago. Of course, I could be projecting my own experiences onto Elizabeth, but two different people I talked to this week who had multiple losses and struggled with infertility agreed with me, so this is not isolated. As much as Elizabeth wanted to become pregnant, as much as she realized our God is a God of miracles, for those who experience pregnancy loss and infertility, pregnancy is scary. Every time I told someone I was pregnant this last time--- which was only a few people because I was so scared--- I burst into tears. And not happy tears. Every time someone responded with congratulations, I didn't feel like I could accept it yet. I felt like I was holding my breath--- and I could tell Aaron was too. I remembered seeing people post pictures not of 12 week sonograms but of the actual pregnancy test just weeks after conception and could not fathom how you could share something that was so uncertain.     

Elizabeth, you may remember from the beginning of chapter one of Luke's Gospel, went into seclusion for the five months after she conceived. Even though she was a woman of deep faith, a woman who proclaimed, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Elizabeth felt like she was holding her breath. Did Zechariah really have a vision? Did God really mean this baby would be the one, or maybe she would miscarry and have another? God's time isn't our time after all. Even though she had faith, she was afraid. Rev. Hamilton points out that, “It seems to have been Mary's visit that drew Elizabeth out of her seclusion. Mary needed Elizabeth, but perhaps Elizabeth also needed Mary.”2     

Mary and Elizabeth were not these majestic superwomen who could do anything and everything easily and without any fear or worry just because God called them to do it. They were people full of faith, people seeking to love God more. And as people of faith, when their belief waned, when their fear reared it's head, they reached out to one another. And that reaching out made their faith even stronger. That reaching out gave them joy, true joy, based on the knowledge that they were not alone. That God was with them, helping them to see beauty and goodness even in the difficult things.3     

“Joy happens in relationship.”4 There isn't some magic formula for joy, some specific prayer or action that only haloed people with big smiles can experience. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child that would become John the Baptist leaped in her womb. But her heart leaped too. And she finally felt the presence of the Lord again stronger than her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy. She blessed Mary, crying out to her in joy, which then prompted the most joyful song in all of scripture, at least to me. The Magnificat. With Elizabeth's blessing, Mary was able to let joy fill her again after over a week of walking and worrying, seeking a friend. She knew God had remembered her because Elizabeth did--- not as a teenage mom, but as a person blessed by God.     

Do you have a person like Elizabeth and Mary had? A friend who is there to help you find God when it is hard, a friend who can help you hear God's voice when you can't? That is what this week was for me, from church people to life-long friends, to Muslim women, to a virtual stranger in a hospital waiting room, I encountered people like like Elizabeth, who emerged from their own pain to speak a word of blessing upon me.     

This is a congregation full of Elizabeths and Marys who need to take the journey to reach out to one another in love and let God transform them. So let us open our hearts to the joy God already has in store for us. In the spirit of reaching out, I invite you to turn to your neighbor and rejoice together, as Elizabeth and Mary did together. Offer one another signs of God's joy!    

1Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 63.     
2Ibid., 65.     
3I thought about this following a comment on The Young Clergy Women Project Facebook Group, posted 1 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.   
4Another comment this time on the YCWs Preach the Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 10 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tear Down this Wall

Today is November 9. It is 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I've been to the Berlin Wall. I've seen the bits of it left standing, surrounded by modern buildings, covered in colorful graffiti. It seems so much smaller, almost quaint. But still it is eerie, to imagine the rest of the wall, sprouting along the trail, marking where it once was. I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, witnessed story after harrowing story of how people from East Berlin would escape into West Berlin, how they would escape into freedom. And often into the arms of loved ones long separated by the unforgiving concrete. 

Of course, it isn't too hard to imagine the rest of the wall, imagine the watchtowers with guns pointing toward the wall, the barbed wire, the bare ground between living spaces and the wall. It isn't hard because I have seen the wall in between the USAmerican and Mexican border. Now this wall isn't as much concrete as metal, jutting out of the earth in between families and communities. Graffiti and art installations still decorate that wall, but only on the Mexican side. The other side, the side of the land of the free and the home of the brave, is all guns and barbed wire. Though nowadays, graffiti covers both sides of the wall in Berlin, the museum speaks of the same, stark militarism that was once on the Soviet side of the wall. The USAmerican side was full of art, tributes to those walled off. The reversal of roles in our country today is unsettling.

Today, 27 years after the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we woke up to find the president-elect of the USA is the candidate who promised another wall. "Build the wall," became the chant at his rallies. One of his big campaign promises from the beginning has been to stop the flow of immigration from the south. But when I hear the chant, "Build the Wall," I think of Berlin, split down the middle between freedom and totalitarianism. I think of craning my neck to see the sky over the wire topping the fence of the existing wall in Mexico. I think of fear and loss. And I wish that instead of chanting, "Build the wall," we were echoing (Republican!) President Ronald Regan's words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The work we have to do now, post-election, is this work of tearing down walls. Of putting this wall, and this whole campaign, in context with our shared history. Yes, there are some who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, who wanted a big upset and change when they voted for the new president-elect. But now that the election is over, we need to step back and remember the reason we once fought against one wall. We need to spend some time tearing down instead of building up. Tearing down our walls, walls of hostility between white people and Muslims/Latinx/Black/queer/the-list-goes-on people, and the actual physical walls that divide families and communities. The actual physical walls that, even if they are built by the USA, fit seamlessly with a history of tyranny we ascribed once to the Soviet Union.

Because tonight is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when in 1938, people attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany, a pogrom announcing what would become the Holocaust. Glass shards splintered in the streets, inside buildings, marking the shattered ideal of community and safety. The shattered ideal of freedom. Could this be a possible outcome of this election? The rhetoric of this campaign season, 78 years after Kristallnacht, has been violent, pitting races against each other. While our president-elect has not called for a night of Broken Glass against Muslims or Latinx, in the fearful and violent world we live in it would not be far to journey to such a night. But we can still tear down walls of hatred before we shatter our ideals of freedom.

I was only two years old when the Berlin Wall fell, but I grew up listening to my parents talking about the power of the images of people with sledgehammers descending on the wall. You could buy pieces of the wall--- and I know many people who still have a piece. The crumbled wall was a symbol of freedom, of reuniting families. Of the Spirit of Democracy. Not like the shattered glass on Kristallnacht, symbols of division and hatred. But it is up to us what we will choose to build up and what we will tear down.

Tear Down this Wall

Today is November 9. It is 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I've been to the Berlin Wall. I've seen the bits of it left standing, surrounded by modern buildings, covered in colorful graffiti. It seems so much smaller, almost quaint. But still it is eerie, to imagine the rest of the wall, sprouting along the trail, marking where it once was. I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, witnessed story after harrowing story of how people from East Berlin would escape into West Berlin, how they would escape into freedom. And often into the arms of loved ones long separated by the unforgiving concrete. 

Of course, it isn't too hard to imagine the rest of the wall, imagine the watchtowers with guns pointing toward the wall, the barbed wire, the bare ground between living spaces and the wall. It isn't hard because I have seen the wall in between the USAmerican and Mexican border. Now this wall isn't as much concrete as metal, jutting out of the earth in between families and communities. Graffiti and art installations still decorate that wall, but only on the Mexican side. The other side, the side of the land of the free and the home of the brave, is all guns and barbed wire. Though nowadays, graffiti covers both sides of the wall in Berlin, the museum speaks of the same, stark militarism that was once on the Soviet side of the wall. The USAmerican side was full of art, tributes to those walled off. The reversal of roles in our country today is unsettling.

Today, 27 years after the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we woke up to find the president-elect of the USA is the candidate who promised another wall. "Build the wall," became the chant at his rallies. One of his big campaign promises from the beginning has been to stop the flow of immigration from the south. But when I hear the chant, "Build the Wall," I think of Berlin, split down the middle between freedom and totalitarianism. I think of craning my neck to see the sky over the wire topping the fence of the existing wall in Mexico. I think of fear and loss. And I wish that instead of chanting, "Build the wall," we were echoing (Republican!) President Ronald Regan's words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The work we have to do now, post-election, is this work of tearing down walls. Of putting this wall, and this whole campaign, in context with our shared history. Yes, there are some who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, who wanted a big upset and change when they voted for the new president-elect. But now that the election is over, we need to step back and remember the reason we once fought against one wall. We need to spend some time tearing down instead of building up. Tearing down our walls, walls of hostility between white people and Muslims/Latinx/Black/queer/the-list-goes-on people, and the actual physical walls that divide families and communities. The actual physical walls that, even if they are built by the USA, fit seamlessly with a history of tyranny we once ascribed to Soviets.

Because tonight is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when in 1938, people attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany, a pogrom announcing what would become the Holocaust. Glass shards splintered in the streets, inside buildings, marking the shattered ideal of community and safety. The shattered ideal of freedom. Could this be a possible outcome of this election? The rhetoric of this campaign season, 78 years after Kristallnacht, has been violent, pitting races against each other. While our president-elect has not called for a night of Broken Glass against Muslims or Latinx, in the fearful and violent world we live in it would not be far to journey to such a night. But we can still tear down walls of hatred before we shatter our ideals of freedom.

I was only two years old when the Berlin Wall fell, but I grew up listening to my parents talking about the power of the images of people with sledgehammers descending on the wall. You could buy pieces of the wall--- and I know many people who still have a piece. The crumbled wall was a symbol of freedom, of reuniting families. Of the Spirit of Democracy. Not like the shattered glass on Kristallnacht, symbols of division and hatred. But it is up to us what we will choose to build up and what we will tear down.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Spontaneous Abortion, Shame, and Politics

I went to my reproductive endocrinologist the day after my miscarriage. She was wonderful and comforting, especially after a traumatic experience in the ER. But as we went to leave, she handed me a summary of the visit, in which I discovered that under my medical history, these words were now listed:
spontaneous abortion

That's the medical term for miscarriage. Spontaneous abortion. And I was shocked by the way my gut seemed to bunch up as I read those words, how tight my throat got, and how I kept sneaking a look at that part of the paper again and again wishing those words would disappear. I was shocked because I have been pro-choice my whole life. I have always supported a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body, have even been a one-issue voter for choice, interned for pro-choice organizations. My mother is pro-choice. My father is pro-choice. And yet when I saw that word abortion, I felt shame.

Already, I was feeling like a failure. Not only did my body have enormous difficulty getting pregnant, but when I did finally, blessedly, conceive, my body could not bring that baby to full term. My doctor had already assured me there was absolutely nothing I did wrong--- even kind of rolling her eyes at the idea that stress could have caused my miscarriage. She assured me that miscarriage is a natural, even if horrible, biological response to a non-viable pregnancy. But I still wondered. What if I hadn't eaten that spicy guacamole that one time? What if I put my feet up more? Did I drink too much coffee? Did I eat too much sugar? What was wrong with me?

Yes, the shame was partially a result of my perfectionism, my frustration with my lack of "success" rather than understanding what happened as natural. But a lot of the shame around the word abortion comes not from my own attempts to control my body but from the church.

I love the church. I am a pastor and a pastor's kid. But The United Methodist Church recently broke our relationship with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. My friends growing up were pro-life, my college religious group was pro-life, many in my current faith community (both congregation and county-wide) are pro-life. And I saw the agreements on Facebook after a certain political candidate commented on abortion. Speak for those who have no voice. God is a God of miracles. It's not your body... 

Abortion=Shame in the church world (even for those of us in the beautiful progressive church world in which abortion is not stigmatized, our voices aren't usually amplified enough). You did something wrong. You messed up His Perfect Plan. You are selfish. Even though I had a miscarriage, just the word association was enough to send me into a shame spiral. Which then made me wonder--- what about those women who had late-term abortions for the sake of their baby's and their own health? There are plenty of stories floating around in response to recent incorrect statements about late term abortion, stories of women who desperately wanted children but who, through counseling with family and their doctors, made the decision to end their pregnancy because their baby was suffering or they were suffering. Two of my friends, one of whom I have been trying to get to come to church, have made the awful decision to terminate very wanted pregnancies and shared the stories about it just this month. Often insurance does not cover abortive procedures, even in instances of fetal abnormality and maternal health, adding a financial burden to an already grieving family.

When you condemn abortion, for many women who hear your condemnation, you are just adding a little shame and stigma to an already shitty situation. You aren't speaking for those who don't have a voice. You aren't speaking out against murder. You aren't changing anyone's mind about abortion. You are triggering hurting people.

Women and our families don't need politicians telling us how awful abortion is. We need compassion; we need care. We need to make medical decisions with medical professionals. The words (and images and slogans) used against abortion are not often messages of truth and justice but weapons of shame and stigma. Instead, maybe we should practice a little more grace.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Prejudiced Prophets and Grace for All

A sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1,5-11
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

...Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Sermon:
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for your gentle lessons, and your willingness to work with us even when we try to run away, like Jonah did, and even when we get angry with your judgment, like Jonah did. Help us to hear your wisdom in this story of grace and repentance. And help us to respond as the Ninevites did, not as your prophet did, so that we may always celebrate your mercy and steadfast love. Amen.

We all know the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish or whale. But do we really realize why Jonah ran away? It was not because Jonah just didn't want to. It was because he was deeply prejudiced.

Nineveh is introduced to us in scripture as wicked. If we go back further in scripture, we find that Nineveh is Israel’s enemy as the capitol of Assyria. In the books of Isaiah and Nahum, Nineveh is continually denounced by the prophets due to its wickedness. That is the whole reason why God wants to send Jonah in the first place: to tell the Ninevites they needed to repent. So maybe it isn't prejudice at first glance, right? He just doesn't want to be around wickedness condemned by God, right?

But listen to verse three of chapter one: when Jonah went the opposite direction of Nineveh, he went away from the presence of the Lord. He wasn't going away from wickedness. He was going away from God by avoiding the people God called him to help. Do we ever do that? A colleague of mine here in Harford County just told me a story about how he went down to pray in Baltimore with other clergy after the uprising, and he shared the experience with his congregation, since he had seen so much of God there. They didn't hear him. Instead they argued with him, telling him it was too dangerous to go, and besides why should they help people who don't want to help themselves? His congregation had their minds made up about Baltimore, like Jonah had his made up about Nineveh. And so they set their faces away from the presence of the Lord, away from the very real possibility of reconciliation and justice.

That's what this story is about. It is not about getting stuck in the belly of a fish and being spat back out when we are ready to do what God has called us to do, though that part of the story makes for good songs and cool imagery. This story is about possibility, about how God can transform the wicked Ninevites--- but even more about how God can transform a prejudiced prophet.

Jonah was not just prejudiced because he ran away from Nineveh. Look to the end of the scripture, the part we don't pay much attention to usually because we always talk about the fish part. The Ninevites hear the pronouncement on their wickedness. They listen to Jonah! And they repent. The whole city, humans and animals, fast and cover themselves in sackcloth and cry out to God. God hears them and has mercy on them. And that mercy made Jonah angry.

Oh Lord!” Jonah whines to try and cover up the cries of the Ninevites. “Is not this what I said when I was still in my own country. That is why I fled to Tarshish from the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:2-3). Then Jonah asks for death because, according to him, it is better to die than witness God's steadfast love and mercy transform those he despises. This is how small prejudice makes us--- how sick and warped and twisted it makes us. Jonah did not just try to go as far away from the people he hated as possible; he got angry when he saw that God loved them too. Jonah got angry that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

And God sighs. We read none of chapter two, but I encourage you to go home to read it. It is a poetic psalm of thanksgiving given by Jonah to God when Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Jonah laments, but he also names God as the one who brings us up from the Pit, who delivers us. Jonah has named God as deliverer, but yet he only wants God to deliver people like him. So God sighs when God listens to Jonah's whine. Rather than whacking Jonah upside the head, as I think Jonah needed, God made a bush. Jonah was out sulking outside the city, hoping God would change God’s mind and destroy the city anyway, and God created a big beautiful bush to shade Jonah while he sulked. But the next day God had the bush whither, leaving Jonah exposed to the heat. Which set Jonah off again. After listening to Jonah's rant, God pointed out Jonah's failing. Jonah had more love for a piece of shrubbery that he only knew for a day than he did for a city full of living creatures, living creatures created by God. We don't know what happened after God corrected Jonah. We do not know if Jonah repented, or if he went on sulking. But the story ends, leaving it open as a question: how would we respond? If God pointed out our prejudice and our failings to us, would we respond with repentance, or would we go on doing what we always have?

Either way, here's the thing: even filled with prejudice, God used Jonah to bring about grace and mercy. Even we, with all of our failings, can be used to bring about God's grace and mercy. If I were God, I would not want to work with a whiney guy like Jonah. But then again, Aaron could probably tell you that I can be a tad whiney myself sometimes. Guess what? God's grace extends even to whiners. The grace in this story is not just for the Ninevites, but also for Jonah. God did not give up on Jonah: insisting Jonah go where God called Jonah to go, and even coming up with a gentle lesson to help Jonah get why the Ninevites were so important. God does the same for us.

We can just make God's job a lot easier by opening our hearts in the first place.

I have been talking the last few weeks about church growth. I haven't really said the words “church growth” often, but that is what we have been talking about. I told you we would be completing a survey, trying to figure out what our next steps are as a congregation. You may be wondering what church growth has to do with Jonah. It is that openness, opening our hearts to everyone God loves, is necessary to growth.

Now, you may feel you are already a very open person. That you aren't prejudiced like Jonah, so crippled by cultural ideas of who is worthy of salvation and who is not that we would go in the opposite direction of where God is calling you. I know you all, and I know you have good hearts and mean well. I would hope you would say the same about me. But. Have you been on Facebook lately? And I know not all of you are on social media--- have you watched the news lately? You might not feel very prejudiced at the moment, but what if I showed you a bunch of pro-Trump memes and you are for Hillary? Or vice versa? How long does it take for you to talk to someone on the other end of the political spectrum from you before you write them off as stupid?

That's just one example. Even if we can escape overt sins of racism or sexism or classism, our culture seems to have lost the ability to have conversation and form relationships over partisan lines. If you are pro-police, you cannot listen to Black Lives Matter activist because they are wrong wrong wrong. If you are pro-choice, you cannot listen to someone who is pro-life because they are wrong wrong wrong. We do not believe that the group we are against can turn from their evil ways. If they actually do turn out to be nice people, this can be very displeasing to us, and we can become angry.

But remember what God tells us. Those people we disagree with are people God has created, just as God created the Ninevites, and God has offered them the gift of grace and redemption. Maybe, rather than getting all frustrated about what our brother-in-law or cousin or neighbor is posting on Facebook, we can talk to them about God's grace, which is something we need just as much as they do. That's how we can grow the church. By reaching out across our differences and sharing in God's grace.

So who do you need to share grace with? Who are your Ninevites? And when are you going to invite them to church?