Monday, February 25, 2013

Let Your Heart Take Courage

I preached this sermon the week I announced I would be reappointed from Deer Creek Charge to Presbury United Methodist Church. While I know the Spirit is present in the midst of the move, it is still a very difficult one. And Psalm 27 was a comfort to me this week.
Scripture: Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Let us pray:
God, our stronghold, shelter us this morning.
Bring us in close to you, that through the reading of this scripture
we may see your face. Amen.
I looked to Psalm 27 this week and felt its waves of assurance wash over me as the psalmist names God our stronghold. I felt the praise of power and beauty, and wanted to join with the psalmist in his pursuit of beauty. But this is not where the psalm ends. There is an abrupt change in the psalm, where we go from praise to lament. It has caused some scholars to wonder if these were two or more different psalms stuck together. In any case, the tension between these two sections is awkward. In college I worked at a writing center, helping students hone their papers, and one of my primary critiques to everyone was that they needed to work more on transitions. There is no transition in this psalm from praise to lament between verses six and seven. You’ll notice in Cheryl Ann Toliver’s rewrite, which I included in your bulletin (see here), she finds it more convenient to skip the praise all together then try to explain this tension.

And it is one this to have this unresolved abruptness exist in the psalm. It is another thing to see the direction of it: praise to lament rather than lament to praise. In reading it I wanted to point out to the psalmist that it is more compelling to “begin with a wavering, almost desperate faith, more longing than hope” and then concluding with “a strong statement of conviction,” more compelling to move from “doubt to certainty, dark to light.” As one commentator on this psalm wrote, after all isn't this how faith and life are supposed to work? A tidy, seamless journey from doubt to certainty. Yet, as we at this church know in our personal journeys as well as in our corporate journeys within this congregation, neither our lives nor our faith journeys are so tidy.1

We waver. Sometimes we go from the strong sure claims of salvation and fearlessness, to crying out for God to hear us and back again in a day, let alone how jumbled we find ourselves in our lifetimes. The psalmist goes from joy in verse six, saying that he will sing and make melody to the Lord, to painfully imploring God in verse seven: Hear O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

This tension in this psalm has always spoken to me, drawing me to want to preach it long before I knew anything about an appointment. It is a perfect psalm for Lent, for “the Lenten journey can be a foray into the soul, offering us a good time to look deeply within ourselves in order to understand the [sometimes dark, always mysterious] realities that beset us.”2 It is a journey where we ask ourselves how we can fear anything when God is the stronghold of our lives, when at the same time we ask why God is hidden from us. And it is a journey that is not linear, that wavers between our praise and our lament, between doubt and certainty.

At the very heart of the abrupt tension in this poem, though, at the very heart of this praise and lament is fear.

Throughout scripture, we are told not to be afraid. Abraham in our scripture this morning is told not to fear. We hear over and over again the angels at Christmas time telling us not to fear. Jesus tells us not to fear when he rises to life. I have always thought this was one of the most important messages of scripture, this constant whisper that we ought not to fear. Our psalm even asks rhetorically how, if God is holding us up, how we dare fear? But in this one little psalm, the abrupt change from joy to lament reminds us in Lenten fashion that even when we know intellectually that we are not to fear, our hearts don’t always get the message. We fear being abandoned by God. We are paralyzed by this fear, no matter how we try to let go of it. Just because we have intimately known God does not mean we don't find it easy in moments of crisis to feel abandonment.

Even Jesus himself cried out to God not to abandon him on the cross.

And so, in the spirit of Lenten self-reflection, I began to reflect on my own fear. I turned to the uncertainty I was feeling my first overnight at the hospital when I was a student chaplain. My first page was to labor and delivery, where a couple had just learned that twenty weeks into the pregnancy that they had lost the baby. Pregnancy is one of those moments in which there is often that kind of joy described by the psalmist, a confidence in God’s provision, a time in which we want to behold God’s beauty all around us. But such joy was abruptly brought to an end. What should have been a time of praise turned very quickly into a lament.

What first struck me when I walked into the room was that they were good looking people. The father had just come from work, still wearing a suit, though he had lost the jacket. He and the mother wanted to talk briefly, but after I prayed with them, they told me I could come back and check in later. When I did, the grandparents of the baby were there, so they gave me a brief update, and then thanked me in a “you can leave now” kind of way. I ended up being extremely busy that night, spending hours with another family who had lost someone, but that first family stuck with me. I pictured them spending the night together pleading with God, “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.”

I was the one who prayed that, who, in the same moment I knew God was cradling that family in God's hands through the care of the nurses, through the hugs of the grandparents, through the strength of the father as he held onto his wife--- in that same moment I could not see God, could not understand why such a thing could happen. I feared abandonment, feared that this family was lost in their lament, lost in those heartbreaking words of the psalmist struggling to see God’s face.

In the morning I did not want to go back, but I knew I had to, so I went up the room and could not help but be relieved when I saw it empty. But I went to the nurse's station and the nurse said, “Oh I'm glad you're here. They are in the recovery room.” Then she led me in to sit with the parents, who thanked me for coming and talked a little bit with me. I could not really understand what the mother was saying because she spoke so softly. The father said they were both doing much better that day. But then when I asked about the baby's name, which they had told me was Olivia, the father said. “It was going to be Olivia before we started having kids, before we even got married. It was always Olivia.”

The father did not rail against God, though he would not be in the wrong to do so. He never even asked why. He never seemed fearful. He certainly was not joyous, but he had a quietness around him that reminded me that the end of the psalm is not that fear, uncertainty, doubt. The end of this family's story was not the loss of a child. It was a father reminding himself of their love story, of how they were a family and would continue to be a family. It isn't an overwhelming perseverance in the face of tragedy. It was a name and an affirmation that his family was not over. As it had been, so it would continue.

Maybe I'm reading a lot into this father's words. But the quietness of that room, that room I so feared, was not the quietness of lament. It was the quietness of verse thirteen.
I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

I may not see goodness in this moment, the psalmist says, but I believe it exists. I believe I shall see it in this life, not just when I get to heaven. I may not feel God's presence now, but I know it is there and that I will experience it again. I cannot boldly proclaim my confidence in this moment, as the psalmist could at the beginning of the psalm, but I proclaim that one day I will be confident again.

Our stories are not these linear tales from doubt to faith. Our stories are journeys from doubt to faith to doubt to a glimmer of hope back to doubt and hopefully again to faith. They are these circuitous paths in which we can lament and praise in the same breath, but paths where even in the depths of lament there is that direction from God, that reminder that we will see goodness again.

And finally the psalmist encourages us:
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heard take courage; wait for the Lord.

Waiting is not the glamorous kind of courage we seek in the face of our fear. In fact, we see waiting as annoying not as heroic. But this is our task as Christians. To wait. Not passively, of course. We can't just sit back in our armchairs and wait for the rapture. But we do, in the midst of the dark and difficulties in our lives, survive our fear by waiting through the darkness to feel the light again. Waiting for the hope of things not seen.

Psalm 27 “is not a psalm about how God answers our prayers,” about how God brings us out of our sadness and darkness into joy again. Rather, “it [is itself] a prayer, even a plea, for patience, for trust, for the ability and the endurance to wait for the Lord, even when the Lord's arrival is a long, undetermined way off.”3 There are times in all of our lives, even sometimes just in one day, where we must courageously wait for the Lord. Where we must know, even when we don’t feel it, that goodness will return. Such waiting is a part of our Lenten journey as we come ever closer to the story of Jesus’ death.

So I encourage all of you this week to pray Psalm 27, even if you don’t feel the tension between doubt and faith, even if you are not fearful in this moment. Pray it for your friends or family who are journeying through dark places. Pray that you may have the ability and endurance to wait for the Lord in the midst of struggle. For God is there beside us in the midst of our struggle, being a light to us. May we open our eyes to see it.

Let us pray borrowing words of Cheryl Ann Toliver’s poem:
Now help us to wait for you, Lord God.
Help us to be strong and unafraid when we feel overwhelmed.
We ask this so we might endure the coming metamorphosis,
so we can become the people you call us to become. Amen.4

1See Richard C. Stern, Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 57.
2Samuel K. Roberts, Theological Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 56.
3Richard C. Stern, Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 59.

4 Cheryl Ann Toliver, “Psalm 27,” The Works of Cheryl Ann Toliver, 2003 reposted 19 February 2013,

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dance Then Wherever You May Be

Blogging, what? Prepare yourselves for a bunch of sermons to appear sometime, but for now:

"Dance then, wherever you may be!"

Dancing is not my strong suit. You should have seen me out there today, attempting to follow the simple choreography the students at North Harford High School put together. But my soul has been dancing ever since, dancing to the tune of new world possibilities.

If you had told me eight years ago that I would be spending VDay 2013 at North Harford High School, my alma mater, in Harford County, Maryland, I would have laughed in your face. My high school is in a conservative, isolated community--- not one that you would think would foster VDay festivities. When I say VDay, I don't just mean Valentine's Day. I mean the reimagining of VDay to include a fight to end gender-based violence. This reimagining began with Eve Ensler, famous playwright of The Vagina Monologues.

I began my love affair with Eve Ensler's work when I first read The Vagina Monologues in high school and my drama teacher Ms. Green allowed me to do my playwright project on Eve Ensler. Since then, I have seen productions of The Vagina Monologues all over, including a production in French! I have helped organize performances at Dickinson College and Drew Theological School. The performance at Drew Theological School was one of the proudest moments of my life--- and was the best performance of The Vagina Monologues I have ever seen. That performance was for VDay 2012, the year I also saw the official Occupy Wall Street Vagina Monologues in New York City featuring Eve Ensler herself.

So after the high of VDay 2012, if you would have told me even last year that I would be spending VDay 2013 in the high school I graduated from, I would not have laughed at you, I would have been sad.

See VDay 2013 is a big deal. Eve Ensler explains:
This February 14 2013, V-Day will be 15 years old. It was never our intention to be around that long. Our mission was to end violence against women and girls, and so we planned to be out of business years ago...So less than a year ago, we announced One Billion Rising, a call for the one billion women and all the men who love them to walk out of their jobs, schools, offices, homes on Feb 14, 2013 and strike, rise and dance!
I wanted to rise up and dance. I saw myself at Times Square or in DC--- not the community where I grew up in the high school where my angsty teenage self located so much that was wrong in the world. And yes, my community still suffers from isolation and is often limited by a conservative value system, but I could not imagine a better place to participate in One Billion Rising.

Going to North Harford High School to see over 250 students crammed into the school atrium, holding up their pointer fingers to signify One Billion Rising--- this reminded me that this is the kind of work that matters most. My teacher Ms. Green was the one who got the event off the ground, opening space for these students the way she did for me as I studied Eve Ensler ten years ago. Here, I saw how teachers work with young people (even when I was too angsty to see it when I was a teenager) to create spaces in which they can begin to imagine a different world, a more healthy and loving world in which no one lives in fear of abuse or assualt.

Every third woman was given a card with the number 3 and asked to stand up to help their fellow students visualize how many women are beaten or raped in their lifetime. These students were given space to begin to understand the pervasive nature of violence across the world. And they were shown that they don't have to be a part of that cycle of violence and control. They can resist.

As I stood next to the principal, who is supportive, and saw my former teachers, and a few students I recognized from church dancing, I have never been prouder to be an alum of North Harford High School. I have never been more inspired to be part of a movement to rise up and say enough is enough. We are over violence. We were, in Eve Ensler's words, "Dancing up the will of the world to end violence against women and girls."

And when we wake up tomorrow, we cannot go back to our silence and our ignorance. We will not go back to being part of households, communities, or a world that condones violence against women. We will continue our dance, wherever we may be, even though it will be difficult with the specter of violence on our backs.

Inspired by those teenagers at North Harford High School and their amazing teachers, I, as a pastor, will speak on gender-based violence from the pulpit on Sunday. I will make a more concerted effort in the future to create space in my churches that looks a bit more like that atrium at North Harford, filled with people creating a different world. A world in which we are all safe and free.

How will you join in the dance?

One picture of the flashmob from @laxingirl79

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Absolute Truth

This is the manuscript for my sermon to the Deer Creek Charge on a Sunday (which happened to be Ravens Superbowl Sunday--- we had purple communion bread!). This was the final part of sermon series on 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The last two weeks we have been talking about the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian Christians, focusing mainly on how we are to care for each other as the body of Christ. On how we are to build the kingdom of God here and now.

It might seem that the imaginative and creative image of a many-membered body of believers caught up in mutual care for one another would be enough to imagine that we were already in heaven, or at least close. But Paul isn’t finished. He says, if you think this is something, let me pull back the curtain a bit and let you in on an even more fantastic vision of the Christian life as prepared for us by the Spirit of God.”1

First Corinthians chapter thirteen, this even more fantastic vision, is perhaps one of the most famous passages in scripture. Even if someone does not go to church, he or she is bound to hear this passage at weddings, see it up on walls. When I was growing up, we had a similar picture to the one I brought in here that Aaron and I have hanging in our bedroom hanging up in our bathroom. Perhaps a strange place to keep such a scripture reading, but the point is that by associating 1 Corinthians 13 with weddings and homes, we domesticate it. We forget that Paul is talking about a radical love here, not marital love, not familial love--- though certainly those loves can be radical too and reflect the love Paul is describing. But what Paul is talking about is a totally different way of acting with every person we encounter, a Christ-centered life that should not be relegated to our homes alone.

So let us pray together:
Patient teacher, come alongside us this morning
as we focus on this scripture together. Teach us the meaning of this love
you call us to. Amen.

When I was in my first year of college, I was part of a campus Christian organization that had dynamic worship on Friday nights. I loved the music we sang, and we all sounded so good together. After singing and prayer, the leaders of the group invited a preacher, usually from the surrounding community, to come and preach.

Well one week a man came to preach about Absolute Truth. I don't remember what scripture he preached from, but I do remember his lesson and it still pains me to this day. He said that Absolute Truth was marriage between a man and a woman. Now, I know that many of you may believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. My point is not how we ought to define marriage this morning. My point is that the Good News we read in the bible, the Absolute Truth we read here is not a definition of marriage. Not even close, and it makes me so sad that here were forty or so college students, broken people in a campus culture that had little room for Christ-centered living, being told not of the poetic love of God but lectured on a narrow political hot-button issue.

Because friends the Absolute Truth we should have named that night is summed up in 1 Corinthians 13: Love. Love Never Ends. Not a tame love that sounds nice at weddings and poetry that looks nice on your living room wall. Rather, a powerful love that is modeled off of Jesus' own love for us. This love patterned off of Jesus' own love for us is the key to the whole gospel.2 So today, let's focus on Paul's words about love to un-domesticate them.

It is worth remembering that these past few weeks we have spent on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians have only focused on chapters twelve and thirteen. So what was Paul talking about before he got to love? Well, he was adjudicating arguments that kept popping up all over the place in the young Corinthian church. People were arguing over which mentor and teacher to follow, about what kinds of food they could and should eat, about how to worship, about who had the most important spiritual gifts, about marriage and sex. You know, easy stuff that we certainly never fight about today.

Paul addresses these arguments. But chapter thirteen is something different. I feel as Paul has been writing he takes a moment to set aside his letter, cover his head with his hands, and pray harder for these troubled and argumentative Corinthians than he has prayed before for them. And so when he comes back to the letter, he is renewed, and he points them and us to the real way to get in on the gospel. You see, the real practice that is the key to the gospel is not what teacher we follow, Calvin or Wesley, Mark Driscoll or Adam Hamilton. We have not unlocked the gospel if we discover whether contemporary worship or traditional worship styles are better. We do not unlock the gospel when we define marriage, and we do not unlock the gospel when we polish our spiritual gifts. Certainly all these things are important questions as we explore our faith, but they are not the Absolute Truth of the Gospel. Rather, what unlocks the gospel for us is the practice of the discipline of love. We cannot discern our other questions properly unless we first start with love.

Rev. Lauren Winner, Episcopal priest and professor of Christian spirituality at Duke, used that term the discipline of love in a sermon I heard this week and so I had to use it. Too often we don't think of love as a discipline. We think of love as magical, using phrases like “love at first sight” and talking about how we “just know” when we find the right person for us. The discipline of love reminds us that love is something we should grow at with time, something that we must focus ourselves to do, center ourselves. It is something that we should model on Jesus' love for us. Lauren Winner describes this as, “God's love for us. A love expressed in creation and a love expressed on the cross. And it is a love that is always Other-directed, or, more accurately, a love directed to Two Others: to one's Beloved and to the God who created her and sustains her.”

Love, of course, can become an occasion for sin. And that's why Paul explained what he was talking about when he was talking about love, why he defined love for us. Too often we seem to be attending to our Beloved, but we are using the other to make ourselves feel good. And sometimes we love the other person for what we think they should be or could be, rather than for who they are. Romantic love seems to be particularly susceptible to these problems, I think.

But Paul saves the definition of love from the limited definitions of romantic love, conjugal love. He corrects our selfish forms of love through his definition of love as patient and kind. He tells us that jealousy is not really love, that insisting on our own way is not really love. But when we read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings, we sometimes miss that part. To really take it seriously, we have to recognize that Paul is not talking about marital love here, but Paul is talking about the love we should have for everyone as Christians. About how our every action should be rooted in love--- a love that reflects not our own selfishness, but that reflects God.

I came across this story by Charles Moore, a former seminary professor who now lives in a Christian community. The story is about the transforming love that Paul is talking about here. As a student at Cal Poly, Charles met a physics major named Alan. Alan was virtually blind, able to get around well enough, but he struggled with reading and needed to rely on others to drive him places. He was a straight-A student, later returning to Cal Poly as a physics instructor.3

Now, Alan was very happy to discuss religion, but he was extremely skeptical of anything religious, especially Christian. He was well read and well versed, and he argued his doubt like a scientist. He said he was an agnostic: there simply wasn't enough evidence to warrant belief in God. Charles and his friends trued to convince Alan, give him some kind of “proof,” but Alan would gently explain that he needed an assurance of truth.

What was intriguing about Alan, according to Charles, was that he liked to hang out with Charles and Charles' “Christian friends.” They reached out to him, always inviting him to the beach or midnight runs to Taco Bell or whatever else they were doing.

One evening, Charles' group of friends had a praise night on the beach. Alan said he would go to enjoy the sunset and roaring bonfire. But by the time the evening was over, Alan had made a commitment to follow Jesus. No one had spoken to him, nor did anyone even know at first.

“You see,” Alan explained to Charles, “while everyone was singing around the fire, I realized that whenever I am around you Christians I am happy. Even when we disagree with each other, I find myself liking to be with Christians.”

Charles, not understanding, said, “But, Alan, I thought you were never going to become a believer unless there was first enough evidence.”

“Yes,” he replied, “and I still require it. But that's precisely why I now believe. It's how you all love each other that strikes me most. I never considered that evidence before. A good scientist, you know, considers all the facts. I simply haven't found the love you Christians have for each other anywhere else. That's evidence enough for me that Jesus is Lord.”

That's what Paul is talking about when he's talking about love. What makes a difference in people's lives in not whether we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, or whether we have prophetic powers, or even faith--- it is about love for all our brothers and sisters, a simple patient love. I say simple, but certainly this discipline of love is not possible for any of us without the Spirit's aid. Certainly it is a practice we will have to work at all our lives. But friends, love is our call as Christians. So let us go forth to love, each and every day.

Friends, may we go forth from this place remembering our calling to love. Let us remember in the difficulties of the week ahead, and in the joys, that love never ends. Jesus' love never ends. May that give you strength. So let us go out and embody Christ-centered love for all whom we meet. Maybe even fans of the 49-ers. Amen.
1James Boyce, Commentary of the Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Working Preacher, 3 February 2013,
2Much of this sermon is inspired by or borrowed from Lauren Winner, “Corinthian Cross-Stich,” Sermon given at Duke Chapel on 31 January 2010,
3Charles Moore, “The powerful witness of community,” Beyond Argument, Intervarsity 1997