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?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow: more reflections on miscarriage

I left my hair down because I am vain and thought I would look better in the pictures. In like three seconds, my hair was pasted to the side of my face and neck, supposedly waterproof eyeliner melting down my cheeks. My flimsy blue pancho caught the wind from the force of water hitting water as though it were a sail. Other tourists pressed in against us as we had the coveted spot front and center of the ship deck. Selfie sticks swarmed around us, and we couldn't hear a thing because of the rumbling of the falls before us and the boat's engine beneath us. It was an experience quite unlike the baptisms I celebrate as a pastor, where I bring a nervous but steady person in front of a quiet congregation and sprinkle water from a small bowl onto their foreheads. But this--- mist from Niagara Falls coalescing on my face, filling my shoes, and trickling down the front of my shirt as I leaned against the bow of the Maid of the Mist tourboat with Aaron at my back--- this felt like a baptism. As the spray fell across my face, I remembered my baptism and was thankful.

Thankfulness is a spiritual practice I have been clinging to in my grief, but today I was not intending to thank anyone for anything. I was going to hold Aaron's hand, walk a ridiculous amount, see Niagara Falls, and do anything and everything to distract myself. Because today, we should not be taking a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Niagara Falls--- we should be welcoming a baby into our home. Today is the due date for our first baby.

But our baby died.

Our baby died, meanwhile life has gone on and it seems like everyone else is pregnant and I am supposed to be happy for them. I have spent much of the last week angry, enraged really, and done with everything. I want to run away. I just want Aaron and I to go off and be hermits alone somewhere where we are far enough away from other humans that I can scream whenever I want and not disturb the neighbors. But today was different. Today, on the day when I was trying to distract myself from death, I felt new life.

Now sometimes with grief some events are easier than others. Sometimes anniversaries are easier than the mundane, every day part of grief. The most hope I have ever felt through this whole shitty two-year journey of loss and infertility was actually the day of my miscarriage. Perhaps this due date was just an easier grief, and next month when (I mean if?) I find out that my fertility treatments did not work again I will find myself wanting to smash glass, burn things, and rip out my uterus to drop-kick it. But today, I could breathe. I could sense God's arms wrapped around me. I could feel hope.

In The United Methodist Church's liturgy of thanksgiving over the water for baptism, we pray, remembering the story of Noah, "After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow." The rainbow is a promise. Not that everything will be easy--- because even though the destruction we experience on the earth today is not caused by God as the flood was said to be, our world is certainly just as violent and horrific. And even though babies born after miscarriages are called rainbow babies, I do not believe God has promised me a rainbow baby. But in the rainbows dancing around Niagara Falls, I knew that God has promised and is promising to be with me. God continues to offer me new life, abundant life, cutting through the fog of grief  to incorporate me by the Holy Spirit into God's new creation. And the God of all grace will establish me and strengthen me that I may live in grace and peace. May God do the same for us all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Building on Faith: A Devotion for Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity International invites us all to take part in Building on Faith Week, Sept. 11-18, 2016. Faith leaders from around Harford and Cecil counties contributed devotions and prayers on the theme of unity for our local affiliate. We will feature one of these prayers each day during this coming week. 

We will celebrate Building on Faith Week in Edgewood, which has also been named our Unity Build. Affiliates from across the country are joining efforts to bring people of all faiths, no faith, all ages and abilities together to help build affordable homes for our neighbors through their own Unity Builds. 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Presbury and our Habitat family before work!
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Devotion:
Power tools have a way of bringing people together. This summer, for the third year in a row, my church in Edgewood partnered with a few churches in Northern Harford County to bring our youth on a mission trip with Appalachia Service Project (ASP), where we do construction work and partner with families. On our team, we had youth from Edgewood putting up drywall alongside Duck Farmers and private school kids. We had geeks and goths and preppy students all roofing together. We had black and white kids, Methodists and Baptists and atheists, holding hands with our host families and blessing one another.

I am always amazed at the way people come together when we do good works. I love seeing how our identities and affiliations transform from walls that separate us from one another into blessings that we use to work together. But I really should not be surprised. For unity in our diversity is what God created us to do. In the book of Ephesians, we read, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are God's handiwork, God's works of art, in all our diversity. And we were created this way so we can work together to do good, to love and serve our neighbor in all that we do.

On this day when we remember the terror of the September 11, 2001, attacks, let us also remember what we learn in Ephesians. We are all God's handiwork, not created for fear, but for good works.

Prayer
O God, our creator, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty all around us, though so often we are blinded to it by the terror and violence in the world. Bring us together on this build, as you created us to be. May we be a blessing to one another today, and may we fill this house with the goodness for which you created us! Amen.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Litany for the Fifteenth Anniversary of the September 11 2001 Attacks

I wanted to write a litany for my congregation to remember the tragedy of 9/11 together. But I do not want us to think we are somehow unique in our experience of violence, or that we are justified to fight violence with violence. I want us to turn to scripture, to turn to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, to learn how we are to respond to terrorism.  

L: Let us lament together:
P: This should not have happened.
L: It was an ordinary day, but, if we were old enough, we remember where we were when we heard the news. We may have been looking on from a distance, as those women who followed Jesus did at his crucifixion. Feeling helpless. Devastated.
P: This should not have happened.
L: We have listened to the stories of first responders, hearts racing, bodies racing even faster to get to the top floors, many of them showing a greater love, laying down this lives for their friends.
P: This should not have happened.
L: We turned to one another as Cleopas did to a stranger, looking sad, saying, “Are you the only one who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And the world grieved with us.
P: This should not have happened.
L: But it did happen and it still does. We hear stories of bombings in cafes. And we see mass shootings in schools and churches and nightclubs and movie theaters on the news. We even hear whispers of drones bearing our own flag striking down civilians in far away countries. Terror knows no religious, cultural, geographical, or political boundaries. In this world drowning in fear, we call out today as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
P: This should not keep happening.
L: But God has not forsaken us. God reminds us not to be afraid over and over again throughout scripture. When Jesus was resurrected, he broke into the upper room, locked by his terror-filled followers, and he breathed peace onto them. So Jesus does with us. And with that breath, we are given the responsibility to build the kingdom of God, to pass the peace of Christ, and to live the promise of resurrection.
P: And that is what we should do. And that is what we will do with the help of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hide and Seek: A Sermon on Creation and the "Fall"

A sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 (NRSV)
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”


So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.


Sermon: Hide and Seek
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for the breath that you have breathed into us this day and every day, and for the beauty of your creation. But we confess that we forget your goodness and beauty and try to hide away from you, afraid. Breathe into us anew this morning, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts might reveal again to us your glory. Amen.

Picture from @loubielouwho on Instagram
I love playing hide and seek or peek-a-boo with small children. I love how they think that if they can't see you, that you also cannot see them. Like they disappear. I love their delighted laughter when their eyes are opened and they are found again, or when they find you. I read a news article about a scientific study of peek-a-boo. Apparently, scientists and researchers were trying to figure out what makes this game such a fundamental part of human existence--- it crosses cultural boundaries, historical eras, everything. As part of their study, “most of the time the peekaboo game proceeded normally, however on occasion the adult hid and reappeared as a different adult, or hid and reappeared in a different location.” Trick peek-a-boo. Older kids loved this, loved the surprise, but it turns out that the younger a child is, the less funny they think trick peek-a-boo is. Developmental psychologists believe that the reason why younger babies don't like trick peek-a-boo is that the game “isn't just a joke, but helps babies test and re-test a fundamental principle of existence: [object permanence, to use science-y language, or] that things stick around even when you can't see them.”1 Even when we disappear, or we think we disappear, we are not lost forever. 
 
But, as much as we laugh about these kids playing hide-and-seek behind poles and sticking out from beneath pillows, they are not so different from those of us who are older. And they are not so different from the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, who heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time and the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees in the Garden
 
Now some of you might chuckle with me at the image of the first humans hiding from God like the kids from these pictures.2 But even if you are, you may be wondering how the metaphor of hide-and-seek works with our scripture today. After all, the children playing hide and seek that we laugh at are not hiding in fear. We are talking about funny Buzzfeed lists, not crime shows where we find children hiding under the bed as their parents are dragged away. When we read this scripture, we tend to read it as the first humans making a huge mistake and hiding from God in fear, worried they have displeased and disappointed their creator and really their companion. We read it and label it with words like Fall. 
 
I do not deny that this story can be seen as a story of disobedience and punishment. If you just read through the next few verse after where we stopped today, the punishment motif is pretty darn strong. But I want us to read the story differently today. I want us to read it with new eyes and to notice the grace in this story that we usually do not notice. And I think that grace is hinted at in verse eight, when God is walking in the Garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Notice in this scripture, God is described as breathing, walking, and talking more like a superhero than the Spirit we usually imagine when we imagine God. The presence of God is physical in this story. God is physically breathing into the nostrils of the creature God made from the dust of the ground. God is physically laying that creature down as he sleeps deeply and removing a rib to fashion into another creature. God is not perceived physically as the serpent speaks, not passing the fruit around as the woman and man eat, not sewing fig leaf loincloths alongside the man and the woman when they realize they were naked. God is not perceived to be there physically when they hide. 
 
But does that mean God was not there? Just because we do not see or feel God, does that mean that God is not there? When our hands cover our own eyes, does that mean God has disappeared? When we hide, does that mean we have disappeared before God? Does the principle of object permanence--- that things stick around even when you can't see them--- apply to God?

Today in worship, we are celebrating baptisms, and, in our tradition, baptism is an affirmation of God's object permanence. Well, it's more than that, more than just that God sticks around even when you can't see God. Baptism is also an affirmation that God continues to work on us, continues to transform us by grace, even when we think we are hiding from God. 
 
The language we use for baptism is the language of new life, that we have died to sin and are now given new life. We ask those candidates for baptism or their sponsors if we are baptizing babies, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” When I met with Leah and Gracie and Ben, I asked if when they answer, I do, to that question, and get baptized if that meant they would never get caught up in the spiritual forces of wickedness, or experience evil, or sin every again. To which they answered that yeah, they probably would sin again. So does that mean if they sin that their baptism is invalidated? If that were the case, we'd need Ms. Janice back here with her supersoaker shooting us with baptismal water every week!
When we are baptized, we are acknowledging that God's grace is always at work in us. We have the knowledge of Good and Evil, our eyes are opened, but unlike what the serpent said, we are not like God. We still need God. So it is good that God sticks around even when we think we have it all figured out, or we get so stressed or sad or mad we ignore God, or even when we are ashamed and we don't know what to do. Baptism acknowledges our constant need of God's grace and affirms God's presence constantly with us. 
 
The first humans, dressed in fig leaves, hid among the trees of the Garden. But I wonder sometimes if it was less because they were afraid and more because they were testing a fundamental principle of existence: will God still seek us out, even when we do the things God tells us not to do? They did not realize God was already with them as they ate of the fruit and as their eyes were open. They did not realize God was with them even as they hid. But God called out to them anyway.

We stopped our scripture reading this morning at verse eight, but I want to continue onto the next verse:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Even when we hide, even when we think God cannot see us, God still calls out to us. So the question we are left with is, how will we respond to that call?
 

1See Tom Stafford, “Why All Babies Love Peek-a-boo,” 18 April 2014, BBC Future, accessed 27 August 2016, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140417-why-all-babies-love-peekaboo.


2See https://www.buzzfeed.com/mikespohr/21-kids-who-are-absolutely-terrible-at-hide-and-seek?utm_term=.vopgjRxA1#.sn3Qz820y.

Running the Race: A Sermon on Faith and the Olympics

I am not a sports fan, but we had fun with this reading from Hebrews and the Rio 2016 Olympics. This is a sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.


Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (NRSV)
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Sermon: Running the Race
As we pray, we're going to stretch this morning. We are really getting into the Olympic spirit, today, folks. But prayer of the daily sort can be a kind of spiritual stretching anyway. You are reaching for God, asking God to change you. You are opening yourself to God, to possibility. If you don't pray, just like if you don't stretch, that does not mean you will not be successful, or that you won't experience God. It just means it can be a bit more painful, right. So today, we will pray with our bodies, stretching our spiritual muscles as we prepare to hear the word God has offered to us:
Patient teacher, (reach up toward the ceiling)
you know the weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, (cover head)
so we ask you to help us lay aside all that keeps us from you. (lay aside)
Wrap us up in your presence anew, (hug self)
open us to your Word, (one arm stretched forward)
and move us along the race set before us. (wave hands)
Amen. (reach up toward the ceiling again)
 
Now, I should admit that I am not a fan of running. Jerry says that he doesn't think there ever any reason to run unless you are being chased. I'm not even sure that is true. I have a friend from seminary who started running after she had children to set an example for them, to show them how to love their bodies and their potential, and she posts daily motivations and meditations about running. One she posted this week said, “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” That has stuck with me all week. Hasn't made me start running, but has gotten all tangled in my reflections on the Olympics, on the encouragement in Hebrews to run the race set before us, and ultimately on faith. What if we looked at this race of faith as more of a celebration of what God can do, rather than to focus on the weight and sin that clings to us?

The community for whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written were bowed down under the weight and sin that clung to them. They had undergone some serious persecutions for their faith, not like martyrdom or anything, but imprisonment and confiscation of property. In ancient Rome, you could refuse to worship the state Gods, but only if you were Jewish. Though we don't know for certain, the way the author writes, he seems to worry about this community converting from Christianity to Judaism.1 The author of Hebrews sense confusion and also demoralized people and so begins writing this explanation of faith and who Jesus is. In our particular passage, we see encouragement. We see that “we can have realistic faith for our future because of what God has done in the past.”2 This is the celebration! We celebrate what God has done and imagine what God will do.

The Olympics is full of stories of encouragement. That's the only reason why I watch what little I do--- for the stories. Usain Bolt is a favorite for NBC to talk about. He's charismatic, larger than life---this is an actual picture of him.3
Picture by Cameron Spencer
He crosses himself before he runs, but the way he does it, you wonder if he's really seeking to show God's glory or if it's like a lucky talisman for him. The story I wanted to share today, though, is not about his faith, but about how he trained last year with Brazil’s three-time Paralympic champion
Terezinha Guilhermina ahead of the ‘Mano a Mano’ event. The Paralympics is just like the Olympics but for people of varying physical abilities. Terezinha, for instance, is blind, but boy she can run. She just needs a guide to help her stay on the track and in the right lane. “Athletes and guides are usually linked together by a tether, which must be made of non-stretch material, tied around the wrists or held between the fingers.”4 For this one particular race, Usain Bolt was her guide.“It was a dream come true,” she said. “He was a little uncertain at the start, afraid that I might fall over or that he would run too fast.”5 Usain Bolt uncertain is probably a funny image, but his participation in the Paralympics brought it a lot of respect and attention it already deserves, and Terezinha felt very honored by his willingness to participate.


Before hearing about this story, I had not known anything about guides in racing. Actually I know painfully little about the Paralympics, but the more I find out the more fascinated I am. In reading up on guides in running, I discovered:
The tether [that holds the athelete and the guide together] poses similar challenges to running a three-legged race, so getting the right pairing is crucial – the guide should be similar in height to the athlete so they will be able to match stride patterns as well as synchronising arm and leg movements. The guide will set up the athlete comfortably and ensure their hands are placed correctly behind the white start line. A good guide must be able to keep pace and also have the potential to run faster than the athlete, and it is important that they are not prone to injury. Using verbal cues, guides will instruct and motivate their athletes as well as making them aware of any bends. They can also have a crucial job in raising the levels of cheers from an audience.
This sounds much more difficult than what Usain Bolt does by himself, doesn't it? A lot more coordination is involved. Team work, but also servant leadership. Because here's the other crucial thing about being a guide: “Guides must not cross the finish line before the athlete, or the athlete will be disqualified.”
From Getty Images

And this image of a guide got me thinking back to our scripture today. The writer of Hebrews imagines the journey of faith as a long-distance race that does not begin and end with us, but really begins and ends with Jesus. “Jesus is the one who runs ahead, sets the pace...”6 to our writer. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we read in scripture. The examples our lesson opened with today are from the Old Testament, and some from the experience of the ancient Christians, but they all center in this fact that Jesus has run the race for us already. Jesus is victorious already. So even in our struggles, we should have faith because we know Jesus has gone on before.

But I love the image of a guide to help us stay on course, as well. That is my hang-up personally. Sure, I know that even if I am grieving or grumpy or frustrated, God has ultimately been victorious. Jesus has already run the race and faced what I have faced and worse! I can look at the big picture of the universe and know that God is at work and is doing wonderful things. I have that kind of faith. But I struggle with the kind of faith to get me through the day sometimes, you know? And that is where I see that Jesus has not only won all the Gold Medals there are to win and is waiting at the finish line for us with a nice cup of water and whatever else people want after running a long race. Jesus has also come back to run beside us, not dragging us to follow his lead, not aggressively keeping us in our lane, but lightly guiding us, helping us to stay on course. And Jesus will remain beside us even if we insist on going off course, always trying to guide us back. If we have a false start, so does Jesus. And when we go to cross the finish line, Jesus is just behind us, cheering.

Which is less comforting than it sounds. Think back to the guides in the Paralympics. Running in tandem with someone is harder than running alone in many ways, at least in the immediate moment. Faith, too, is harder in the immediate moment. You have to be open to communicating. You have to pay attention. And your focus can't just be on the big picture, but on the steps it takes along the way.

Let's just look to the first example our scripture this morning gives us: By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. The Exodus itself was an endurance race. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, enduring oppression and violence, until finally Moses, with help from siblings Miriam and Aaron, took up his calling to speak God's truth to Pharaoh until Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. Every step of the way, the Hebrews complained. They saw miracles--- the parting of the sea! But still they complained and let fear control them, creating idols, doubting God's provision. Where was this faith the author of our scripture today talks about? Where was the celebration of what God can do?

Well, it was there. In that one step in front of the other as they passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. God was beside them as a guide, and in moments here and there they perceived it! Just by putting one foot in front of the other.

Faith to run this race is not about constant assurance and constant trust. It is about trusting enough to pick up your feet and move anyway. For Jesus has already run the race, and he is our guide at the same time, matching our moments and helping us stay on course. So let's run with perseverance. Amen.


1Bart D. Ehrman, “Christians and Jews: Hebrews, Barnabas, and Later Anti-Jewish Literature,” The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 419-420.

2David E. Gray, Pastoral Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.

3http://cdn-s3.si.com/images/cameron%20spencer.jpg

4Eleanor Lees, “Paralympics 2012: the guide runners,” The Telegraph, 8 September 2012, accessed 20 August 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/paralympic-sport/paralympics-gb/9529080/Paralympics-2012-the-guide-runners.html

5Rio 2016 and NPC Brazil, “Usain Bolt runs as guide for blind Paralympic champion Guilhermina in Rio,” 19 April 2015, IPC Athletics, accessed 20 August 2016, https://www.paralympic.org/news/usain-bolt-runs-guide-blind-paralympic-champion-guilhermina-rio

6John C. Shelley, Theological Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.