Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is why we fail

This is my Christmas Eve sermon for Presbury United Methodist Church.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, on this most holy night, or perhaps better, this most impossible night, we glorify you and praise you for all we have heard and seen, as the shepherds did. But may we all continue to ponder this story in our hearts so that it can continue to change us, so that we live as though we know you are Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Amen.

Every year, we come back to this story. We read the same scriptures, we sing the same songs, and we light the same candles. And yet, we are not the same. We come to this story differently every year, hopefully a little older and wiser and healthier and happier, but maybe just a little older and a little poorer or a little more lonely or a little more sad. And so, while the story doesn't change, we can read it differently, ponder it in our hearts differently, see ourselves positioned within it differently than before. Understand who God is in a new and different way.

Except that's not usually what happens. What usually happens is that we have heard the story of Jesus' birth so many times that it takes on this nice, sweet, fairy-tale like feel to it. Rather than remembering the intense awe and fear Mary and Joseph experienced in the presence of the angels, or the ostracism that they must have experienced at the hands of family and neighbors, we see them only as happy new parents. Rather than smelling the musk of the animals, and worrying about their unpredictability around a baby, we smell only pine trees and see animals like the ones in Snow White or Cinderella who help clean the house. Rather than recognizing parallels between the shepherd in Jesus' story and the working poor in our own world, we clean them up in our minds, make them more respectable.

We are left with a story that comforts us in its familiarity, and maybe even one that inspires us in its simple beauty. And we need that--- we need comfort and inspiration. But we have limited the story if that is all it is for us, we have tamed it. When we hear the angels in the story say, “Do not be afraid,” we do not hear them speaking to us. When we see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we do not see our children. We may treasure the story the way we treasure an ornament that was our grandmother's, but we do not ponder it in our heart. We do not put ourselves beside the manger year after year, and let the story change us.

The past month, I have been using Star Wars to illustrate and inspire us as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. I was going to try and be a little less geeky for Christmas Eve, but I can't. Because what Yoda says to Luke seems to tap into the trouble we have with limiting the story of Jesus' birth. Yoda is this little green alien who is a powerful Jedi master, and he is teaching Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original trilogy, how to become a Jedi himself. Yoda tells him that he must unlearn what he has learned, explaining to him that with the power of the Force, nothing is too heavy or too big to lift. Luke isn't really getting it, and sulks off, saying “You want the impossible.” And then Yoda lifts a giant x-wing out of the swamp with the Force. Luke rushes over too see for himself before stuttering, “I don't believe it!” To which Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”

We read the scriptures, sing the songs, and light the candles, but sometimes we don't believe it. We find comfort in it, usually, maybe we even enjoy it, but sometimes we don't believe it. We don't believe that God has done the impossible, broken all those impossible barriers of time and space--- no, I'm not talking about outer space this time--- and come to us. God, the Creator of the Universe for whom we use such authoritative names as King and Lord, God chose to become a human just like us. And God did not choose to be born a king or a jedi master or even just a nice middle-class boy, God chose to become a poor, brown peasant born to unwed parents in a town under occupation by the Roman Empire. We forget these parts of the story when we let the familiarity of the words lull us to a sense of comfort. When we read the story more closely, when we ponder it in our hearts, we find ourselves declaring, “That's impossible!”

Sometimes, we don't believe God would become incarnate, that God would put on flesh and dwell among us. And that is why we fail. According to scripture, we were made in the image of God, but there was a break, and that image has been corrupted. If we need to wonder about that corruption, we can look to the news from this year alone from the rampant terrorism of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram massacring innocents in Nigeria and Lebanon and France to the terrorism of racists that claimed lives at Emanuel church in Charleston, from the horrifying rhetoric of politicians particularly concerning refugees and Muslims to greedy men raising the price of important HIV/AIDS medications. And the list goes on. The list goes on in our own lives as well, as we count broken relationships and missed opportunities. Our failures stemming from our incredulity at God's presence in ourselves and our neighbors are apparent. But Christ's birth is the reconciliation of that image, the act of taking us back, making us at-one-with-God (atonement) again. In Christ's birth, God shows us that nothing is impossible. That God can be incarnated in our neighbors, in ourselves. And that we are not too far gone for reconciliation.

So tonight, as we read scripture, as we sing, as we light candles, and as we come to the table for communion, I pray that we believe in this impossible story. And that we allow our belief in our incarnated God to change us so that we may see possibility everywhere. The possibility of the transforming love of God.

There Has Been an Awakening: A Star Wars Themed Christmas Pageant

I am such a huge nerd, I subjected Presbury United Methodist Church to a Christmas pageant written using scripture and dialogue from the Star Wars franchise. Enjoy!


(PASTOR SHANNON putting on jacket like she’s going to leave.)

NARRATOR: Hey Pastor Shannon, where are you going?  
PS: I'm going to see the new Star Wars movie!

NARRATOR: Oh yeah. I almost forgot how big a geek you are.

PS: Whatever NARRATOR. It is a classic battle of good and evil! Plus it takes place in space!

NARRATOR: Well, you should stick around here because number one, it's your job. And number two, we are talking about the ultimate battle of good over evil today in worship.

PS: Wait--- do you mean Easter, when God defeats death and Jesus rises from the dead? I thought that was the ultimate battle of good over evil. But we celebrate that in the spring, and it is cold outside now, and plus I don't see any chocolate Easter eggs anywhere.

NARRATOR: Ok, Easter is the ultimate battle of good over evil. But so is Christmas! God became human! Listen to this passage from the Gospel of John:


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us...

PS: Oh, yes, that is one of my favorite scriptures!

NARRATOR: Of course it is. But what it is saying is that in Jesus, God put on flesh and lived among us! This mighty, powerful God, who brought all things into being just by speaking; this God of light who cannot be overcome by darkness--- this God became a weak, suffering human, to live in solidarity with us.

PS: Yes, God didn't just reconcile us to God's self through sacrificing Jesus, but by becoming Jesus. God came to walk with us, and showed us a new way to live. And that Love God showed by becoming human is a lot like how Obi Wan Kenobi explains the Force: “it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” It is a pretty cool story. But it doesn't take place in space.

NARRATOR: No it doesn't, but I think you'll like our re-imagining of the story. (to church) Pastor Shannon and Presbury United Methodist Church, sit back and enjoy our Christmas Pageant!


NARRATOR: A long time ago in the days of King Herod of Judea, in a galaxy not so far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: Turmoil engulfed Palestine at that time, much like turmoil still engulfs us today. So God sent angels to bring a message of peace and justice, or good news of great joy, to settle the conflict, and prepare the way of the Lord.

(ANGEL and MARY are standing in front of the wreath.)

ANGEL: Be not afraid! The Lord is with you!

MARY: Aren't you a little short for an angel?

ANGEL: Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you? Well you should not. For my ally is the God, and a powerful ally God is. God is your ally as well! And now you will conceive and bear and child, and you will name him Jesus. The Force will be strong with him, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

MARY: How can this be since I am a virgin?

ANGEL: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.

MARY: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

(MARY steps to the center of the stage. ANGEL steps back into the background.)

MARY: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For I am a poor young woman from Nazareth, the town furthest from the bright center of the universe, but God chose me! 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. Help us today, God! You are our only hope!

(MARY exits.)

NARRATOR: There was unrest at home, however, specifically in Joseph's home. Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but here she is, found pregnant. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to declare his intentions to leave her, he receives a visitor.

ANGEL: Joseph! I find your lack of faith disturbing!
JOSEPH: What? Who are you?! What are you doing here?

ANGEL: No, I'm just kidding about the lack of faith thing--- don't be afraid! You are actually a righteous man. So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.

(ANGEL and Joseph shake hands.)


NARRATOR: A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: A decree went out from Emperor Palpatine...I mean, Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. Pursued by the Roman Empire's sinister agents, well, kinda anyway, Joseph and Mary journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Mary would give birth to a baby who can save all people and restore freedom to the galaxy and bring balance to the Force.

(MARY and JOSEPH appear with DONKEY. They walk back and forth.)

MARY: Joseph, we need to find a place to stay now.

JOSEPH: Cool it, your worshipfulness, but no one seems to have any extra room for us anywhere.

MARY: Well, someone has to save our skins. Into the barn, flyboy.

(All the ANIMALS come onstage. C-3PO brings in the manger.)

JOSEPH: (holding his nose) What an incredible smell you've discovered!

MARY: Well we will make it work. I'll have the baby here and we'll wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger.

(C3PO brings a baby out to MARY.)

NARRATOR: Now, in that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

(SHEPHERDS and SHEEP enter. ANGEL appears. All SHEPHERDS cover their faces.)

ANGEL: Do not be afraid! Fear is the path to the Dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering! What I am here to share with you today is good news of great joy for all people!

SHEPHERD 1: Well if there's nothing to fear, why give me a heart attack like that. Sheesh!

SHEPHERD 2: Seriously, me and this stuck up, scruffy looking, half-witted nerfherder here are just trying to mind our own business!

SHEPHERD 1: Who's scruffy looking?

ANGEL: Hey cut it out guys. I'm trying to give you good news, ok? Anyway, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

SHEPHERD 2: A Savior! Sounds like somebody's having delusions of grandeur.

ANGEL: Not at all, actually. This shall be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger.

SHEPHERD 1: A manger? Like where animals eat?

SHEPHERD 2: Doesn't the poor guy have a crib?

SHEPHERD 1: That can' be comfortable. But speaking of mangers--- hey, are you hungry?

ANGEL: Ok, it seems I'm dealing with some real laserbrains here.

SHEEP: (laugh)

SHEPHERD 2: Laugh it up, fuzzballs!

ANGEL: Enough, enough. God has chosen you, humble shepherds though you are, to witness God's own self in human form. God didn't choose Herod, or the Emperor, or some rich dude. God chose you! You are important to God.

SHEPHERD 2: Wow, that does sound pretty awesome.

SHEPHERD 1: Yeah, I feel kinda special now!

SHEPHERD 2: Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place!

(SHEPHERDS and SHEEP move to the side, and MARY and JOSEPH and Jesus set up. SHEPHERDS kneel around the altar.)

(ANGEL moves to the center.)

ANGEL: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, may the Force be with us all!


NARRATOR: A long time ago in a galaxy not so far, far away...

(Star Wars theme song plays.)

NARRATOR: Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, seeking a child they learned of in their studies of the night sky. The evil puppet king Herod, obsessed with maintaining power, invited these wise people into his palace for a secret meeting...

(Imperial Death March plays.)

HEROD: Hello wise men from the East. I hear you are searching for something very interesting.

MAGI 1: Oh yes, we have been reading the work of prophets around the world because we have noticed changes in the night sky. A star rising over Judea.

MAGI 2: It has been written: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rules of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

MAGI 3: We understand this prophecy and the star to be connected. That the shepherd ruler of Israel was born at the star's rising.

HEROD: WHAT?! A king to replace me? A Messiah to be anointed over me? I must find the child!

MAGI 1: (to MAGI 2) I've got a bad feeling about this.

HEROD: Oh, sorry for my outburst. I am only excited because I, too, have been searching for this Messiah. To pay my respects, of course.

MAGI 2: (waves hand) Um, I'm sure he's not the Messiah you are looking for.

MAGI 3: (waves hand) You don't need to see where he was born. We can go about our business. Move along.

HEROD: Those Jedi mind tricks don't work on me! Now go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word.

(HEROD exits.)

MAGI 1: I've got a bad feeling about this.

MAGI 2: Me too.

MAGI 3: When it is time to go home again, let us leave for our country by another road.

(MAGI walk down the aisle and back up. Meanwhile MARY, JOSEPH, and JESUS set up.)

MAGI 1: (pointing) Look! The star has stopped.

MAGI 2: We did it! We made it! Let us go see this child that makes kings quake and stars rise.

MAGI 3: Let us worship the newborn king!

(MAGI kneel at the manger.)
(ANGEL steps back into center stage.)

ANGEL: And so the people who sat in great darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death, light has dawned. There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?


PS: Wow, you were right! That story really is an epic battle where good triumphs over evil. I feel like we should celebrate with a party the way they do at the end of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi when the Death Star is destroyed---

NARRATOR: Ok, Pastor Shannon, I think we've indulged your geekiness enough for one day. Remember, we need to be preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ child all over again. The Gospel of Mark, which does not have a story about Jesus' birth, still leaves us with an important message as we celebrate Christmas this week.


The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

NARRATOR: We aren't just talking about a nice sweet little baby we can hand back to his mom and dad when he gets fussy when we are talking about baby Jesus. We are talking about power, the power of the presence of God within a human being. This power may have been most complete in Jesus, but it is in each of us as well. Like the angel said at the end of the last act--- we are talking about an awakening. So let us leave from this place preparing our hearts for the power of the Holy Spirit to wake us up!

PS: That's a pretty good message to end on. And remember, no matter how sleepy you may end up feeling, the Force will be with you always.

NARRATOR: And also with you!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Iman Means Faith

This is the answer I gave to our Board of Ordained Ministry about an experience with peace with justice ministries I've had as a pastor. I wanted to write about my experience of Islam to counter the hate-speech that seems to be acceptable today, but, without the time during Advent, I thought I would recycle this:

A group of women from a church were sitting in a restaurant during Advent, and talking about how Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother, has been represented across cultures, including an Arabic representation. Mary is revered in some Muslim communities and is mentioned more in the Qu'ran than she is in the Bible. Except in the middle of this conversation,  one of the women said, “Well, if that's true, then it's too bad they [Muslims] all are still so violent.” 

Comments like this, willfully ignorant, incorrect, and even hateful, about Islam are too common in our churches. I have served congregations in Harford County, a largely white county, overwhelmingly Christian, and also woefully illiterate on other faiths. Some Christians do not see why such illiteracy is a problem, but the reality is that illiteracy breeds violence and intolerance. In his book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world, Brian McLaren writes, “Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong--- and whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious.”1 If I wanted to interrupt the hostility, I would need to engage in peace and justice ministries that fostered interfaith relationships.

My own faith became stronger through my friendship with Muslims who I met through a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004 (and have returned to visit at least eight times). I have always felt called to interfaith youth work, believing in the South African concept of ubuntu, that we become who we are through relationship with others. I never expected to be about to do interfaith work in homogenous Harford County, but when preparing to teach confirmation, I sought non-Christian congregations to visit, and somehow came into contact with Tasniya Sultana, an organizer for Project Iman, a Muslim Girls youth group. We met, had a great time, and began to plan ways for our youth to get together.

The first year, we met twice, starting by meeting with Project Iman during Ramadan. Their group was much bigger than our own, particularly because only my girls in youth group were invited the first time. I also ended up bringing a few younger girls with my youth (whose pictures ended up in the paper).2 Some of the youth went to the same school! We began with a craft where we learned to write our names in Arabic and talked about our favorite holidays. We shared stories, explaining in very basic terms how we walk in the footsteps of many of the same giants of faith, Abraham who they call Ibrahim, or Jesus who they call Isa, for instance. They spoke of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael (Isaac in the Bible). When our craft was finished, we stood up and got in a circle for a game. One of the leaders of Project Iman read a series of statements and we were supposed to take steps into the circle if the statement was true for us. She deftly included theological and scriptural statements along with statements about our families and favorite foods. And then they prayed. We sat at the tables in our own attitude of prayer while they prayed before breaking their fast. The girls from Presbury were quiet. I didn't see suspicion or self-righteousness or anything our culture teaches us about how Christians should see Muslims; instead, I only saw wonder and openness.

The second time we met was at Presbury. We ate together and painted birdhouses as a craft to go with the scripture I shared, Luke 12:22-29, about how we should not worry for God is with us. Then I had questions about how our faith teaches us to deal with worry and fear. One of the leaders from Project Iman said she loved the scripture! But the most powerful experience of the night was when we moved to the sanctuary and shared about our worship experiences. I told the kids they could ask each other whatever they wanted, but I also asked them questions. It was fascinating to see what kinds of questions they had for us, how they noticed the colors in the sanctuary and asked about their meaning, as well as to see how excited they were when I asked them to tell me about how they worship. It was a safe space where the Muslim girls were asked questions not to put them on the defensive but just out of wonder. And we as Christians were able to model Christ's hospitality.

Rev. Emily Scott, a Lutheran pastor of a dinner church called St. Lydia's in New York, said recently: “Sometimes you are seated next to someone so different, that you don't know how to start a conversation. And then something happens. In that moment, heaven and earth overlap, and God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be.”3 The interfaith relationships between Project Iman and Presbury are fostering those moments where God builds a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be, a world of peace and justice where Muslims and Christians are more interested in eating, laughing, and sharing together than fighting or using hostility to shore up our identities. Our plans for this ministry are to expand it to all our youth, as there is now a Muslim youth group for boys that Project Iman works with, and to have not just dialogue together, but to work together for justice too. For Ramadan in 2016, we are planning a 30 Hour Famine-type event to raise money and awareness about world hunger. We want to continue to create that overlap between heaven and earth, that glimpse of earth as it should be, in our little corner of Harford County.

1Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 63

2See Nimra Nadeem, “Muslim, Christian girls join for interfaith iftar,” The Baltimore Sun, 28 July 2014, accessed 14 July 2015,

3Emily Scott, from a talk at the ELCA's national youth gathering posted by Nadia Boltz-Weber on Facebook, 18 July 2015,

Monday, October 26, 2015

Backsliding into Bad Theology: On a Journey of Infertility

As a pastor, it is embarrassing to me how quickly I revert back to bad theological understandings of God. On Sundays I preach about a God who is with us, inviting us to be co-workers, a God who lures us to love. But really, at least today, I want a God who, like Santa Claus, rewards me for being good by giving me everything on my wishlist. I want a God who understands fairness. Or, I'd take a God who has a better sense of timing, my sense of timing; like a Wedding Planner on a bluetooth headset ready to make perfection happen on my schedule.

You see, a year ago, my husband and I were taking pictures in the park where we got married, as we try to do every year on our anniversary. We brought our puppy with us, and I remember thinking, "Next year in this picture, there will be a baby."

But there isn't.

Now, I hadn't totally won Aaron over to my way of thinking while we were taking pictures that day. He is a very practical person, knew we have plenty of time, and just wanted to have fun. I agreed with him--- holding off my desire for children at bay at least until I went on my big blow out vacation to Bosnia and Herzegovina last year. But while in Bosnia, there was this particular moment when one of my friends was sitting drinking coffee with me and her three-year-old came over acting silly. My friend, who was pregnant and so exhausted she struggled to stay awake during our visits, shook her head at her daughter and said to me, “Are you sure you want kids?” Before I could respond, her beautiful little girl, who was upside down at this point, looked up at me with her huge brown eyes and said, “Ok!” She had been repeating things I said the whole day, but this time both her mother and I almost fell over laughing. I knew in that instant I wanted to start trying to have a baby.

I have wanted children all my life. The desire has gotten softer in some ways as I work through my social programming to want children and as I watch people ignore their other callings in order to be mothers, but I have always wanted to hold my baby in my lap, reading When God Was a Little Girl in our big noisy house. When Aaron and I got married, we knew there wasn't a rush; we wanted to settle down, enjoy one another. I would still often find myself jealous when friends announced pregnancies--- after all Aaron and I had been together longer than the rest of them had and from the time I was young I was the "mother" type in my groups of friends. Even friends who were vehemently opposed to having children themselves at the time, even they would say, "Well, I'll just play auntie/uncle to Shannon's pack of kids." So when we were still holding off and they weren't, I would get a little jealous. But then one day, one of my friends told me she was pregnant and I was genuinely happy for her. And I was so happy for my sister, even though she is younger than I am, because I knew she and her partner were ready for kids before we were. I thought the lack of jealousy was another sign of readiness. That I was growing up or something. Cue that be-bluetoothed God on the phone making stuff happen.

But then. Aaron and I started trying, and nothing happened. Christmas came and I was unable to enact my hilarious birth announcement plan for my family and actually had to buy them gifts. But it was still early yet. And then, we went on a vacation to visit family and friends in which I had envisioned myself pregnant when we first planned the trip, only I still wasn't. And then it was April and I realized that I would not have a baby in 2015. And then my beautiful nephew was born, and my sister and I had not been pregnant together.

At first, I was upset but my husband kept saying, "It takes a while for most people, don't worry." And my best friend said, "Stop being stupid. You will have a baby when you have a baby." [She's sweet like that, but it really was comforting.] Many of you reading this may even think trying for a year is nothing, but the comparison with those who have tried for years does not lessen my own pain. I reminded myself that these empty months meant I could go on mission trips and did not have to worry about ordination interviews during maternity leave. I reminded myself that for as many stories I hear about getting pregnant on the first try, there are many too of struggles, even if only for a few months. And I reminded myself that it was not worth it to me to have a baby but not a loving supportive partner (Aaron is really worth more to me than ten sons).

But here's the thing about infertility: it is a huge betrayal by your body, especially when you are unused to not “succeeding” at something. And it is a huge betrayal by God. Ultimately, any rational, well-meaning thoughts cannot stand up to the desperation and disappointment endured month after month. Every month I feel my period coming on and I know I'm not pregnant, but I still have that tiny hope until my period comes.

I am angry, and I am tired. That first day of the month when I realize I am not pregnant--- that first day I spend crying on the couch as much as I can, raging at the unfairness of it all to my Santa Claus God. When people ask, "So when are you going to have a baby?" I want to stop answering, "well, I want to get ordained first," or "oh, I haven't gotten rid of that pesky travel bug yet" (and I really never will at that), and just say, "I'm not sure I can," giving them a glimpse of the disappointment I face month after month as I ask myself the same question. Except I don't want pity or to hear remarks like, "stop being so negative," either.

Because the next day, the day after the crying and the raging, I get up, take a breath, and remember a God who does not open and close wombs based on some kind of a reward system, who does not work on my schedule or anyone else's for that matter but who does not require my pain to teach me a lesson either (ahem to all of you who say "well, it's just God's plan you don't have a baby yet"). Instead, I reach out to a God who was crying and raging with me just the day before on that couch. I lean on a God who is lending me the strength now to try to find the abundance even in the emptiness. I turn to a God who is showing me how to create family in a different way. 

Because there is so much beauty even on this journey of infertility. I have had the most amazing conversations with my youth when I am driving a bunch of them around in my tiny Toyota Corolla; I wouldn't be able to fit them all in if I had a carseat to accommodate as well. And I have taken up writing again, which would be much more difficult if I were spending a lot of time pumping. And I can stay up late with the love of my life watching funny videos and sleep in without worry the next day. I can sing leftie church hymns and read radical children's books with my nephew all day as though we are the only two people in the world (well, besides my dog Stella who also appears in many of our adventures). These are moments of abundance in the midst of disappointment and emptiness. They are moments that might still exist with a baby, but they might not, and they are moments to be treasured. Because they are enough. And I am enough.

And God, that God who is beside bearing all my disappointment with me and still helping me find joy--- God is enough.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

God of Action Communion Liturgy

The Cokesbury Vacation Bible School Curriculum for 2015 was G-Force, about God's love in action. I wrote this more interactive communion liturgy for our Vacation Bible School kickoff worship service at Presbury United Methodist Church.

The primary scripture for this service was Acts 17:22-31.

Invitation/Confession/Pardon/Passing the Peace
L: Because our God is a God of action, God calls us to move to the Table, to come and receive grace. But too often we find ourselves stuck, unable or unwilling to hear God's direction to love. So let us confess our stuck-ness before God together:
P: Living, loving God, we know that you have called us to be your love in action. But that can be so hard! We give you so many excuses, find and put up so many barriers to keep us from living as you have taught us. Forgive us for all those times we do not care for our neighbors and all those times we don't follow your lead.
(A time of silent confession.)
L: Do not be afraid! Our God is not unknown but is indeed not far from any of us, with arms outstretched ready to welcome us whenever we ask for forgiveness!
P: God's forgiveness propels us forward to show the world the immensity of God's love!

The Great Thanksgiving
L: In God we live and move and have our being!
P: Thanks be to God!
L: God is so mighty that God cannot be contained! God made the world and everything in it, even each of us, breathing into us the breath of life. What kinds of things did God make?
(Share your own responses at this time.)
L: God made so many things, and we are so thankful. But God was not alone in God's work. God chose us to help! We messed up more often than not, but there were some of us who did amazing things for and with God! In Vacation Bible School we will learn about people who helped God, people like Jochebed, Miriam, the Egyptian princess, and Moses. They played a part in bringing us, God's people, to freedom! And we will learn about Solomon, who took action to honor God by building a temple! Who are other people who helped do God's work?
(Share your own responses at this time.)
L: Of course, Jesus also helped do God's work. Jesus was God in human form, and he healed people who were hurting and ate with people who were always alone. And he taught us a lot. What kinds of things did Jesus teach us?
(Share your own responses at this time.)
L: But the love Jesus showed us, God's love in action, was so radical that people were afraid. So they plotted to kill Jesus. Jesus knew he would die, so he gathered his friends together to teach them about love one more time. He brought them together for a simple meal of bread and wine. He took bread, thanked God for it, and shared it with his friends, saying,
P: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
L: When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said:
P: “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
L: And so now, we remember Jesus – all that he did on earth to show love and all that he does for us now to care for us. And to say thank you for all this love, we should love one another and care for those in need. Let us pray:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit help us to put your love into action, caring for our neighbors, following your teaching, and sharing about your love everywhere we go. Amen.
And now, with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray the prayer Jesus taught us: THE LORD'S PRAYER

The bread of life.
The cup that saves us, and sets us free.

The table is set and all are invited. In the United Methodist Church, we practice an open table. This means you don't have to be a member, you don't even have to be baptized, you don't even have to be fully awake this morning. You are invited to come and know that no matter who you are, you are a beloved child of God and God's grace is sufficient.

We will be taking communion by intinction, meaning I will give you a piece of bread and you can dip it in the cup. Now come and eat.

Giving the Bread and Cup/Prayer after Receiving
P: Living, loving God, we thank you for this holy mystery in which we have searched for you and found that you are not far from us. Thank you that your move among us and through us to do your work and spread your love here on earth! Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

God Is Never Done with Us

This is what I preached on the second word for a 7 Last Words Service at Clarks United Methodist Church. Eight United Methodist Churches (with 7 pastors) came together to remember the crucifixion: Cokesbury Memorial, Presbury, Union, Salem, New Beginnings, Union Chapel, Clarks, and New Hope Christian Fellowship UMCs. 

Scripture: Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (NRSV)
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

Photo by Aaron Harrington, 2015
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 

He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Let us pray:
Even on the cross, you show yourself to be our patient teacher. In the midst of ridicule and torture, you offer words of hope to another who was in need. In the midst of real human ugliness, you speak of paradise. So even in the midst of the stresses in our own lives, the grief, the fear, may you speak to us again of paradise through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, and help us to call out to you in search of your kingdom. Amen.

Last month, some of my friends and clergy colleagues began circulating a petition with the hashtag #kellyonmymind. Kelly Gissendaner, Georgia's only female death row inmate, was scheduled to be executed on March 2. The execution was first postponed because of snow, and then because of cloudy drugs, almost as though some Georgia state officials were just looking for reasons not to execute her. Yet the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles who can actually grant her clemency has no interest in doing so, despite the prayer vigils and demonstrations and phone calls.

You see, Kelly readily admits that the act that put her on death row was heinous. As she has said in a much-quoted clemency petition:
There are no excuses for what I did. I am fully responsible for my role in my husband’s murder. I had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment. I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil...
And we know from Georgia's actions in 2011, that even in the face of evidence of a wrong conviction, which Kelly admits hers was not, the state has no qualms about executing people. Troy Davis was executed in spite of pleas for clemency around the world and continued maintenance of his innocence.

Kelly is not innocent. But her story has garnered so much attention because of the repentance at the heart of her story. Kelly has transformed completely, from this self-centered and bitter person to a redeemed and renewed child of God. Testimony after testimony of guards, inmates, and theology students who studied alongside Kelly speak to her transformed life.

So when I imagined the criminal beside Jesus, I imagined Kelly. I imagined the injustice of the Roman death penalty much like the injustice of the death penalty in Georgia. I imagined the wailing of the women following the cross to sound like the wailing of those who have called for life for their friends like Troy and Kelly. And in my imagining I knew that God's justice and mercy are nothing like Georgia's. And nothing like ours.

Now, I do want to point out that nothing in this scripture indicates that the criminal in Luke's gospel repented. We often refer to him as the repentant criminal, but he never asks forgiveness for what he has done. He doesn't express remorse. He doesn't say the sinner's prayer or confess Jesus as his savior. We can assume, given what we know of Rome historically, that the criminal was a political one, a revolutionary, but we do not know for sure. Luke's description of the criminal gives us absolutely nothing in the language of today's traditional understandings of salvation with which to explain what this man did to merit paradise. But what Luke does show us in this encounter between Jesus and the criminal is that God's justice and mercy, God's saving work, are not limited like our understandings of them are.

God is never done with us. God can work with whatever we give, no matter how small. God does not give up on us. When Kelly was coldly planning her husband's murder, God did not give up on her. When her husband was murdered and Kelly planned to get his insurance money, God did not give up on her. When Kelly was sentenced to death by human courts, still God did not give up on her. And finally, she realized that. And she accepted God's love for her.

Now, you might agree with me that God does not give up on us, but you may disagree that the criminal crucified alongside Jesus did nothing to accept Jesus. He might not have confessed Jesus as Lord, but he did reach out. He stood up for Jesus against the derision of the other criminal. He admits his guilt, though he does not go into detail. And then he addresses Jesus. He asks Jesus to remember him. It may not be what we expect, but what Jesus' response shows us is that it is enough. God's saving power is enough.

So when we start to forget that God's saving power is enough, whether because we have given up on ourselves or whether because we have promoted ourselves as gatekeepers for who can and cannot be admitted into Paradise, Jesus reminds us from the cross "how deep the Father's love is for us." "How vast beyond measure," it is. As Kelly writes, "I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

Here we find ourselves on Good Friday, men hanging from crosses, the fear clinging around them as though it was fog. It was an evil place, soaked in the blood of so many. But even there, no one was was beyond redemption. Even there God's saving power was enough. "Jesus, remember me," one criminal said, finding it more difficult to speak as he was painfully, slowly robbed of his breath. And Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be wth me in Paradise." You, even you, will be with me. For God is never done with us. 

References Read in preparation for the sermon:

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


This sermon was preached on Epiphany at Presbury United Methodist Church

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon: Stars
Last week we skipped ahead to when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped King Herod's vicious and evil plan to kill Jesus. We spoke of dreams--- and we see in our scripture today that the wise men were dreamers too--- and we spoke of the need to pay attention to dreams. The theme of paying attention is one we can link with this story too, the story of Epiphany, when the wise men come bearing gifts for Jesus. This is a story most of us have heard many times before, yet how often do we ourselves actually look up to see how God is speaking to us?

So, as we look to hear God speaking to us anew today, let us first pray:
Patient teacher, you awoke people in the East with the brightness of a star, and stirred something within them, sending them into the unknown in search of you.
Wake us up, stir something within us, and send us into the unknown today
through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.

Photo by Aaron Harrington
A few years ago I got Aaron a telescope for Christmas. We set the telescope up, found a map of the stars, and began gazing. Now, most of the time, I stood outside hoping Aaron would hurry up and get tired of the night sky because it was Christmas time and it was cold outside. But then I saw Venus, a big bright star sitting up on the horizon, and then Jupiter surrounded by moons, and then Saturn crowned with rings and everything, and then the moon, so close I could see all it's dimple-like craters. I still didn't like standing around in the cold, but it was pretty cool to see the majesty of the heavens so close it was as though I could reach out and put my fingers in those moon dimples. And when the telescope wasn't set up, I would still find myself looking up at night, lost in the twinkling, in the wonder.

Saturn (photo by Aaron Harrington)
The Moon (photo by Aaron Harrington)
Since we moved here, it is harder to use the telescope with all the lights on the street. To really get some good star-gazing in, you have to go to places called dark sky locations, basically areas far from the light pollution not just of cities but of towns too. On the East Coast, dark sky locations are basically non-existent. So here, living in a neighborhood that is never completely dark, the stars are not as potent with light. Some get lost in the flood of streetlight, making the sky seem faded almost. So, I stopped paying as much attention. When I take the dog out, I find myself pulling my coat tighter around me and keep my head down, focusing on the sidewalk rather than the tapestry of the cosmos above me that is magnificent despite the slight fading caused by light pollution. 
Map of light pollution
When I read about the wise people from the East in the Gospel of Matthew, I wonder how they kept focus, rather than so easily giving up on it all. The sky is a beautiful, immense, incredible thing, but life happens; we get busy. We forget that great expanse above us and stop paying attention to God's wonders. In ways small and large, we just find it easier to look at the cracks in the sidewalk than to turn our faces back to the wonders, revelations, and guideposts around us. Particularly if looking toward that beauty requires us to do something big and even uncomfortable.

Which got me to thinking: in the Gospel of Matthew, this story of the wise men and the star is sparse in detail because it is meant to be symbolic. There are guesses as to what the star the wise men saw was, but no definitive historical evidence. Similarly, the wise people themselves are ambiguous: “The term 'magi' [that is translated as wise men] suggests [that they are from] Persia, [but] their practice of astrology indicates Babylon, and the gifts they bring point to Arabia or the Syrian Desert.”1 The story is filled with ambiguities to get us thinking, and maybe to put ourselves more easily in the story. As I wondered how the wise people were impassioned enough to follow the star, I began to see clues for how I could lift my head and stop gazing at the sidewalk, and turn instead to wonder. I began to see how I, and perhaps how all of us, can, like these wise people, keep my eyes on the sky and my heart in the quest for Christ.

The first thing we learn about the wise people is that they are from the East, a place very different from Israel. That does not help us much at first glance. We are already living in a place much different from ancient Israel. But in that simple description, we learn that the wise people were Gentiles, people who did not worship God as we understand God. Now we are Gentiles too, but we understand God through the same lens Jesus' people did, putting us more like the inhabitants of Jerusalem than the wise people. We too may ask how could they be so moved by God to go on this incredible journey when they did not even worship God “properly”? Yet it was they, and not the religious scholars of the day in Jerusalem, who sought to pay Jesus homage.

Presbury's youth group and Project Iman
Of course, I am not saying we should all convert to another religion so we can better understand Christ. Rather, this information reminds us that there are amazing gifts to be discovered in those who seek a connection with the living God but may not know the same name for God that we do.2 When we build relationships with other seekers who are from different traditions, we are turning our faces toward wonder. Last year, our church partnered with a Muslim girls youth group, meeting once in the summer and again in the fall, and it was amazing to see the beauty in just sharing the journey to understand God rather than trying to convert one another. We broke bread with them and witnessed their prayer--- and I saw the wonder on our girls faces. We brought them into our sanctuary and shared what our worship was like and learned about their worship experiences. The sky darkened with all our questions, but strong pinpricks of light shone through as we fellowshiped together. We began to lift our gaze from our isolation, focusing only on the ground ahead of us, to see the light of God in the faces of those around us.

Another way we can lift our heads to God's wonders that we find in the wise men in in their learning. We translate the term magi as wise men, which tells us something. Walter Brueggemann, a preacher and scholar, refers to these wise people as Eastern intellectuals, and argues that though they may not have been Jewish, they were familiar with Jewish scripture like the books of Isaiah and Micah.3 So they kept focus on this star through their thirst for knowledge and their love of learning. Now, before those of you who are too cool for school roll your eyes at me, I don't think this love of learning has to be book learning, though hopefully that book called the bible is involved. We turn our eyes away from the star to the sidewalk when we become complacent in what we know. We stop looking up at the metaphorical stars God sends us because we think we know all we need to know. Instead, we need to teach one another. We need to read and share articles and devotionals. We need to share testimonies and interpretations of scripture. We do this weekly in bible study and in our contemporary service. Some of our lay servants also participate in an early morning prayer phone call where they have developed relationships and deepened their prayer lives together. But it comes first from a drive to continue learning.

The story of the wise people seeking Christ by the light of the star can be our story too. We can learn from them how better to look up, away from the cracked sidewalks in our lives, from the busyness around us, to the beauty of the stars in the sky, to those moments or people or places that can point us again in the direction of God. The last lesson we learn from the wise people that I will share this morning is to follow the star. I am passing out cut-out paper stars, an idea I got from a fellow clergy woman.4 “On each star [is] printed a word. I invite [you] to take a star and consider how God might be speaking to [you] this year through the word printed on [your] star.” Integrate the word into your prayer life throughout the year. Figure out in what way you can follow it. May it be a way of reorienting you, of turning your faces to the beauty Christ offers us. I encourage you to join us for bible study this year and our small worship group on Wednesday night. I encourage you to engage in mission. I encourage you just to reach out to someone different from you and build a friendship, seeking Christ in the unexpected. But if those steps are uncomfortable for you, start small. Pray on this word, and let this little paper star be the place from which God shows you new wonders.

Let us not only open our eyes to the light, but also let the light within us shine forth in all we do. For we are not just to be the wise people, opening our eyes to the wonder of God and the journey on which God takes us. We are also to be the star.5 So let your light shine!

1Daniel J. Harrington, “Notes on the Visit of the Magi and the Flight to Egypt,” Sacra Pagina, Volume 1: The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2007), 42.
2Stephen Bauman, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12,” Epiphany of the Lord, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 216.
3Walter Brueggemann, “Missing by Nine Miles,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggeman, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 133, as quoted in Kathryn Mattews Huey, “The Season of Epiphany,” Sermon Seeds: Inclusive Reflections for Preaching from the United Church of Christ, Year C (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2012), 38.
4The paragraph that follows comes from the ideas of fellow member of the Young Clergy Women's Project, which she describes in blog under the category “STARward”: Marci Auld Glass,STARward, Glass Overflowing: The place where Marci blogs about God's abundance,
5“[I]n the Gospel of Matthew discipleship is often likened to a kind of shining, which recalls the light from the star that shined on the Christ child. Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world....let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:14,16). That disciples are called to shine is important to remember in the season of Epiphany, for now that Christ has ascended and the Spirit has been given, we are the ones through whom this light shines forth.” William J. Danaher, Jr., “Theological Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12,” Epiphany of the Lord, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 216.