Sunday, August 12, 2018

Power and Weakness

Today was the second in a series bookending our first ever Harry Potter Vacation Bible School at Calvary UMC in Frederick. I described it in this way: The Harry Potter story is one in which love for friends and for the world wins out against this relentless drive for power and control. God uses our vulnerabilities (weaknesses) too.

2 Corinthians 12:6-10 (NRSV)
But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 
Luke 22:24-27 (NRSV)
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” 
Sermon: Power and Weakness
Let us pray: 
Patient teacher, we know we seek to control our own lives, but you remind us through scripture and story that you have different intentions for us. You intend us to love. So be with us in worship this morning, speak through the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, so we draw ever closer to your intentions for us. Amen.

I have a confession to make. I am a huge nerd. I know that is surprising to all of you, but I had to preface my sermon this week with that. When I wrote my ordination paperwork, I referenced Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings and probably Star Wars and Firefly too. So I am pretty used to connecting the Bible to my geekery. And that’s what we did this past week. We looked at the popular world of Harry Potter and used it to teach about Biblical stories and Christian values in our second Vacation Bible School of the summer. 
One of those values has really struck me lately. The Harry Potter story is an illustration not just of a battle between good and evil but between the love of power and the power of love.
Sure, there are definitely evil characters in the books. Lord Voldemort is the epitome of evil: he has no redeeming qualities and really spent his whole life being evil, even his childhood. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the heroes of the story, are a little more complex, but they are at their cores good people. I would think many of us would prefer to think of ourselves as the Harrys, Rons, or Hermiones of the world, but even though evil is apparent even in our own communities, I think we would be hard pressed to point to someone and label them as the embodiment of evil the way Lord Voldemort is in the story. And so we can distance ourselves from the story. Oh, we think, we would join resistance movements if we lived in that kind of world, but we don’t, so as long as we are nice to people that counts as acting out goodness in the world. We have less responsibility in this framing of the story as good v. evil. So I want us to look at it differently. This is not just a battle of good over evil, but of power and weakness.

Did you catch that phrase in our scripture reading today about power and weakness? Paul, was writing to the Corinthian community in what sounds like a defensive way. Someone must have accused him of being weak, of being not as important as everyone made him out to be. I mean, if someone refered to me as weak, I would probably be mad. And Paul probably was too. But his response is not to show power, not to prove that he was strong, but to agree with the criticism. Yes, he says, yes I am weak. This, as my friend David points out, is a truly vulnerable moment for Paul.
He tells his Corinthian readers that he is hurting; really hurting. He is looking for God to take something from him, some part of him that caused him deep pain. We don’t know what it is, but we do know that Paul wants to be done with it. He wants an instant cure.1 
And he admits to that desire to the whole Corinthian community. He is hurting and uses the famous phrase everyone wonders about: he says he has a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We don’t know what it is. But I understand his desire to be done with pain and want an instant cure. 
My understanding comes not from a physical illness or pain in my own life, but from the pain that comes from being vulnerable enough to love and then having to face losing that love. Brené Brown, a researcher and storyteller, defines “vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”2 It is easy to decide the risk is too great, to decide that feeling is linked with failing, with weakness, and we try to shut ourselves off from vulnerability. This is what Voldemort’s whole life illustrates. His father left, mother died, he grew up in an orphanage, and so even as a child, he decided that loving someone who could leave him or die was too great a risk. Instead, he would focus on what he could control and began to pursue power and success at any cost. 
Over and over again throughout the books, Voldemort scoffs at the power of love. When he confronts Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets, he wants to know the great power that protected Harry as a baby, and when he discovers that Harry was protected by his mother’s love, Voldemort dismisses that as luck.3 Voldemort always believed that if he discovered a more powerful wand, or used more powerful magic, he would never have to love anyone and risk being hurt by them. But that meant that he never risked knowing the power of love either.4 He was so afraid of experiencing the thorn in his side that Paul spoke of, so afraid of being weak, that he never knew the true strength of love. 

When Voldemort was preparing to face Harry Potter for the last time, one of his henchmen asked to go find Harry and bring him to Voldemort. Voldemort declined the offer, saying “[You do not understand Potter] as I do. I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come.”5 Voldemort called Harry's love for his friends, his compassion for those who were hurting, his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, a weakness. And surely, Harry felt weak in the Battle. Over and over again, the narrator describes how Harry tries to compartmentalize as he sees the death toll rise, tries to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but he feels so much pain. And still he is willing to give up his own life for the ones that he loves. And that love is what kept him alive when he was thought to be dead. That love, that weakness--- spoiler alert--- wins. 

Now, I don't think any of us are like Voldemort, not in the sense of his complete failure to empathize or feel remorse, but I do think we sometimes avoid being vulnerable because we don’t want to risk, we don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to hurt. And we don’t want to change. Maybe we don’t trust that love actually wins. Many of you know I have had multiple miscarriages and suffer with infertility, and I have found that despite all the ways I have witnessed love winning in the pursuit of parenthood, despite all the different ways there are to parent, there are absolutely times I want to shut myself off, stop trying to be a mother in any way and just do something different. Maybe take up juggling? Have you ever felt that way? In the wake of a divorce or a friend’s betrayal or a lost job or an unexpected death, do you want to run away, shut yourself off from feeling? Find some way to not feel so weak and exposed?

Or maybe your avoidance of vulnerability comes within community. Maybe you don’t want to argue anymore, so you don’t engage with anyone about politics who doesn’t agree with you unless it is to shut them down. Maybe you are afraid of illness and so you don’t want to visit anyone in the hospital, not matter how lonely they may be. Maybe you are uncomfortable around people speaking a different language and so you belittle them and avoid them and start to believe they are profoundly different from you. To be vulnerable means that we might have to feel not only our pain, but also another’s pain. And if we feel someone else’s pain, we might feel a responsibility to do something to support them. 
Harry, Ron, and Hermione are vulnerable throughout the story. And their vulnerabilities are risks, they do get hurt. Harry spends so much of the books looking for a father figure in the headmaster Dumbledore, in his godfather Sirius, in teachers like Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody. And these figures often fail him in some way; they hide truth from him, they leave him, they turn out to be someone they are not, or they simply make a mistake. And yet from each of these figures, Harry learns love and grows stronger in that love. Even with their betrayals and failures, still that love built him up to be the hero he becomes at the end of the story. 
And that’s the point Paul is trying to get across, I think. He is acknowledging that he is just like us, just like Harry. He doesn’t want to hurt. He doesn’t want to be so vulnerable. He has asked God to take away his weakness. But God didn’t take away his weakness, and God doesn’t take away ours either. Through Paul’s prayers, God speaks to him and all of us, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Through the Harry Potter story, through our own lives, we see the same thing. True power, the power of love, is made perfect in weakness, in vulnerability. In taking risks and walking without certainty.

This is what Christ asks of us. This is how Jesus himself lived. In our Gospel story today, Jesus reminded his disciples that true greatness isn’t about power but about service. Throughout Jesus’ life, he consistently chose love over power, even though that meant instead of a crown of gold he wore a crown of thorns. He chose love even when facing violence and ridicule. But this choice of love is the power of Christ. That in our vulnerability, in our risk taking, in our weakness, love has the last word over death. 
My question for you, for us, to go home with this week is in what ways do we choose love? Not in what ways are we good and nice to other people, but in what ways do we open ourselves to one another, even when it makes us weak and vulnerable? In what ways is God making us perfect in our weakness, perfect in our love?

1David Finnegan-Hosey, Christ on the Psych Ward (New York: Church Publishing, 2018), 67.
2Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 34.
3J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 1999) 317.
4See J.K. Rowling, “Chapter 35: King's Cross,” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 2007) 705-723.
5J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 2007) 654.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Creating Enemies

This is a sermon I preached for Calvary UMC in Frederick.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Sermon: Did Jesus stutter?*

One of the variants of the meme.
There is a meme that I see from time to time that shows Jesus sitting beneath a tree, surrounded by people. He's teaching, and he says, “Love one another.” Another speech bubble appears from the crowd; “but what if,” the crowd asks, “what if they are gay or Muslim or have less money than me or don't have a home or have a different skin color or were born in a different country or voted for someone I don't like?”  And Jesus answers, “Did I stutter?”  Jesus tells us in our scripture reading today from Matthew’s Gospel to love our enemies. He tells us to pray for those who persecute us! And he doesn’t stutter when he says it.    

But we can still get around the difficulty of this scripture because, really, who are our enemies? After all, we are not superheroes. Most of us anyway. We aren’t fighting shadowy villains in spandex bent on taking over the world. Nor are we feudal kings fighting other lords for land, even though we might be side-eyeing our next-door neighbor for planting an ugly bush on our side of the property line. While there may be plenty of people we don’t like, enemy is probably not a word we use in our daily vocabulary.  But we do have enemies. And some of them are taught to us.

Some of you remember the Cold War, right? My dad loves bad 1970s action movies, so I have seen many many movies in which all the bad guys have terrible Russian accents. The epitome of evil, such movies teach us, can be found in Soviet Russia. It seemed so silly to me, but remember, I was two when the Wall between East and West Berlin came down. I never had duck and cover bombing drills in school. But I have experienced the creation of an enemy. When I was in ninth grade, we huddled in Health class and watched the news when the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City came down on September 11, 2001. I was taught pretty quickly that I had enemies after all. At first, it was just learning about this terrorist group called Al Qaeda. But eventually, through news reports that constantly used the word “Muslim” to describe the word “terrorist,” I forgot about white domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, and learned that Muslims were the real terrorists. And terrorists were my enemy.

No one ever said to me, “Shannon, Muslims are your enemy.” But through media and people’s fear, that notion kind of sunk into me. So imagine three years after 9/11, when I went on my first trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I found myself surrounded by Muslims. It was a little confusing. They were not very scary. We went to a big international event one evening when we on that first mission trip and I saw people wearing shirts in English that playfully, or snarkily, read: “I am a Muslim. Do not panic.” In fact, the Muslims I met had undergone far worse terror at the hands of Christians during the genocide in the 1990s than I had experienced on 9/11. But how easily we create these universally bad people in our imaginations.   If it had not been for Muslims, I might not be the Christian I am today. You may have heard me tell this story or read about it because I talk about it a lot: Ðana was one of our translators on that first trip to Bosnia, and she is who I visited earlier last month when I was on vacation. She is a Muslim; her father was killed near the community mosque by Christian soldiers when she was a child. One day, our host Saja took me and my sister with her and Ðana to a friend's house for a dinner. Being on a strange continent with strange people who didn’t speak our language eating strange, but surprisingly tasty, food in front of a house that was still stained with bullet holes should have been terrifying. But my sister and I sat thigh to thigh on a tiny bench and ate, listening to the drone of the huge beetles that zoomed around the porch light as well as the music of the almost-guttural Bosnian language. And in the midst of this, Ðana reached over and hugged us to her. “I love you,” she said. 

Ðana, a Muslim woman who had grown up during a war in a country that most USAmericans cannot locate on a map, a woman I had only known for something like two days at this point, told me and my sister, white Christian Americans who had idyllic childhoods but whose country was waging a war against Muslims in the Middle East, that she loved us. And it was in that moment of her telling us that she loved us that I felt God telling me that God loved me.   Love your enemies, Jesus said. He doesn’t tell us why. But in my life, loving someone I was taught was my enemy opened up new worlds for me. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my Christian journey. 

Now you might not get a chance to go someplace like Bosnia to test out Jesus’ command to love our enemies. But Muslims are not the only enemies that have been offered to us. Throughout history and in every culture, we demonize and marginalize.   And right now our culture seems to be all about the creation of enemies, along religious, racial, and political lines especially. Two weeks ago, I went to a preaching conference where two senators were also invited to speak. One of those senators was Cory Booker from New Jersey. He shared a lot about how we are in a moral moment as a country, one that should transcend political parties and he shared what he called the Tale of Two Hugs.

The first hug was between President Obama and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Senator Booker joked about how it was an awkward man hug, but pointed out that no matter how awkward it was, it was used as a political weapon against Governor Christie. How dare a good Republican hug that terrible President Obama! But Senator Booker reminded us how awful the devastation was after the hurricane, how exhausted and upset Governor Christie was. And how in that pain, the president reached out in compassion and the governor received it. Similarly, after Senator John McCain’s cancer diagnosis, when he came back to the floor of the senate, Senator Booker crossed the aisle to hug him. And he immediately received hate tweets. How dare he, a progressive, hug a terrible Republican! But Senator Booker said he saw a brother, one he disagreed with often but one who was a fellow human being, in pain, and so he reached out in love. 

Now in some ways, these men are enemies. Unlike me and Ðana who, when we first met, were teenage girls who liked the things all teenage girls liked despite the differences of our backgrounds, Republicans and Democrats often have competing agendas. And those agendas matter. Often, when we read the Gospel lesson to love our enemies, we use it to mean that we ought to just let people take advantage of us, that turning the other cheek when we are wronged means let ourselves be abused over and over again. We pray for those who persecute us and neglect voting against that persecution or marching in the street to speak out against it. I don’t think that’s what the scripture means at all. What Jesus is telling us to do is to recognize one another as human beings, as people in need of love and prayer even when we come from different backgrounds. Even if we disagree with one another. And that love and prayer can be transformational and draw us closer to God.

Jesus explains, For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?...And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Jesus tells us that there is a reward in loving even those enemies. That there is more to the abundant life he calls us to than us only hanging out with people who look like us and act like us and think like us. Instead, God intends a more beautiful world, one of real relationships and transformed hearts--- not only our enemies’ hearts, but our own hearts as well.

Now, I admit that I am preaching to myself this week. Not because society has created new enemies for me, or because some have been constructed when disagree with people, but because some of my friends were deeply wronged. You may be in a similar situation, sometimes seeing enemies at work or at family gatherings or even here at church. And you may see them as enemies because they are simply different from you and you don’t understand them, because they disagree with you, or maybe because they deeply wronged you. This scripture gives us direction to liberate us from the fear and anger with which having enemies burdens us. It reminds us that we don’t have to live this way; that instead we can choose to see one another as human and call one another to live in a new way together. 

Because Jesus doesn’t stutter. He says we are to love one another. Even when we disagree. Even when we are angry. Even while we keep working for justice. Even then we love. And we pray. My prayer for us is that we take this scripture to heart and learn to expect transformation.

*The original title of the sermon and refrain throughout that reference a meme perpetuate ableism. Rather than stuttering, we should be asking if Jesus misspoke. I am committed to reeducating myself about the ableism I've internalized and will work to not make such thoughtless mistakes in the future!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Manna Collecting at Our Feet: A Review of Christ on the Psych Ward

As a pastor and chaplain, I have experienced the presence of Christ on behavioral health units, or psych wards. I led a weekly Bible study on a local behavioral health unit as a volunteer chaplain, and served on a behavioral health unit as the student chaplain before that. Nearly every experience I had on the behavioral health unit brought me face to face with God. One week, we read the Beatitudes together in Bible study, and we spoke of how blessing does not mean being lucky, because we did not feel very lucky that day on the locked-down unit. It does not mean being prosperous. It means God is walking alongside of us, choosing us, whether or not we realize it. So many weeks, a patient would lead us in prayer for another patient, for me, for our world, in a way that we would know the Holy Spirit was with us. It was hard, too; especially on days when everyone sat and stared at me, or when someone tried to read scripture out loud but couldn’t because the hospital didn’t have Bibles at a more accessible reading level, or when I met someone who was so angry I remembered why the nurses’ station gave me a panic button. But even then, God was there, offering love again and again. When I would share (in very general terms to keep confidentiality) about my experiences on the behavioral health unit, my parishioners would begin to open up about their own stories of mental health struggles. In his new book, David Finnegan-Hosey asserts, "telling our stories is an act of resistance to the alienation and isolation of mental illness." And we have found, in telling those stories, in resisting alienation and isolation, we draw closer to one another and to God.

 David Finnegan-Hosey has written a book to help us tell those stories and to share his own. Christ on the Psych Ward is part memoir about his experience in and out of psych wards and part theological text, using the Biblical story to help frame not only his story but all of our stories. As he tells his story, he helps us discover what my congregation was beginning to discover as we broke the silence around mental illness. He writes, "Rather than a conversation about people with mental illness, and how the church can help them, I want the church to listen to and hear the stories of people with mental illness, and to discover the surprising gifts we have to offer."

One of the most surprising gifts that Christ on the Psych Ward offers was not surprising to me at all, because I have known David for a long time.* I found it incredibly refreshing to experience his readings of scripture, especially his interpretation of Genesis 3, the story we often refer to as "The Fall." He asks questions of the text, doesn't fall into easy readings, and, from the depths of the psych ward, shows us why these stories and how we read them matter. Who told you you were naked? God asks in Genesis 3:11a. And David imagines God's voice shaking, saying, "Who told you...that you were lacking in anything? Who told you that you were anything but beautiful and good?" These are questions of life and death when read from psych wards, but they are also questions of life and death that our faith communities should be wrestling with instead of perpetuating tired agendas of shame. I want to use this book not only to interrupt the stigma of behavioral health struggles in church, but also to teach confirmands about sin and shame and challenge Sunday school classes to locate the presence of God in their own lives every day.

I found refreshing challenge in David's words, and I also found grace. This book gives us, clergy and Christians and simply people who are seeking, the grace that is God’s vulnerability in our own vulnerability. When I first read this book, it was on the eve of the first anniversary of my beloved mother-in-law’s unexpected death and while recovering from surgery before my last (in this chapter at least) attempt to live out my call to have a baby. And so I found myself drawn in because of my own need, not only as a pastor, but as a child of God. David speaks of God’s grace being sufficient for us, about learning to take life day by day, moment by moment. He said in the psych ward, he kept a “victory column,” with things like getting out of bed, taking a shower, eating a meal, and other small wins, to help him notice the sufficiency of grace we have to help us get by. He said, using the story from Exodus 16, “Perhaps we are all struggling, longing for an abundance that seems always out of reach, missing the manna collecting at our feet." David’s book was some of that manna collecting at my feet as I struggled on a difficult day. It was a surprising gift, much like many of the patients I have worked with behavioral health unit and the sharing of stories in my own congregation. May it be so for you as well.

Manna collecting at my feet. Or, in this case, laying on my feet and snoring.

*David and I met on a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. We got to work together often in United Methodist Church circles, but he has since joined the United Church of Christ because The UMC's commitment to justice has rotted as we continue to discriminate against queer folks and as we have been unwilling to listen to and act upon our missionaries' call to peace in Israel/Palestine (among other things). The whole time I read this book, I lamented the loss of his voice in our denomination (the guy is so freaking Wesleyan, really) and wonder at the sheer number of passionate theologians The UMC has lost or silenced because we just can't love our neighbors. But that is a whole other blog post.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Rainbow Covenants

I wrote this sermon for Calvary UMC based on one I wrote back in 2014 for Presbury. It is a story that has captivated me and I've been trying to move out of the way enough for the Holy Spirit to share it.

Hebrew Bible: Genesis 9:8-17 (NRSV)
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Let us pray:
Patient Teacher,
we give you thanks for this scripture even when the stories within it are hard.
Open our minds today. Open our hearts.
Write your covenant within us, so that these stories we read become more than just children's bedtime stories. May they become our story. Amen.

How many of you have heard the story of Noah's Ark before? It is somewhat familiar, I know. Most of us if we have any religious background at all growing up hear about it as children. Look at the animals in the ark! we say, mimicking the lion's roar. When I was a kid, we used to read these silly stories written from the points of view of the animals on the ark. We used to laugh and laugh at Noah trying to keep the elephant away from the mice they were so terrified of. But when you take a moment to read the Genesis account, you realize that this is not a nice happy story. Lots of people die. Earlier in chapter six of Genesis, the scripture actually says that God was sorry God had made humankind. It is a heartbreaking, confusing, terrifying tale. But from the terror emerges this beautiful promise, a covenant, one of many that God makes with us throughout our history as people of faith.

You may have heard a tale of terror this week if you turned on the news. Or maybe you didn't. Can something really be a tale of terror if it replays over and over again to no effect? But surely what happened in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Wednesday was the kind of evil that would make God regret creating us.

When I think of the story of Noah and the ark now it is the idea of God who is angry and frustrated and done with the world that sticks with me. It sticks with me because it is an image that makes me uncomfortable. And because it is a feeling I understand. I scrolled through images of the victims, read stories about them, heard the nonsense from Washington about thoughts and prayers but no action. And I thought, you know what we need, God. Another flood. How can we possibly come back from this? How can we rebuild in a world where so much has gone so wrong?

But God does not work like we do, thank goodness. Well, in the story of Noah, God does take on some decidedly human tendencies, which makes me wonder that we decided the destructive flood came from God because humans have a capacity for violence we would like God to have as well. I'm not so sure God does share those qualities. But there is something in this story that God does share with us. And that is grace.

God is able to redeem even the worst of situations. A flood was coming, everyone would die, but maybe God could still save us. And God did. Noah built the ark. Teachers and coaches gave up their lives for their students. First responders saved who they could. And now survivors are claiming their voices and standing up to politicians who refuse to enact common sense gun laws to try and save more children from the horror they lived through.

We may think in these stories of terror that God should pack up shop and move on. But if God does that, then we don't have to change either. We get to wash our hands of the world, stop trying to figure out how God is calling us to change it. We don't have to sit there and be grieved over loss as we move toward new life anyway.

But God has made a covenant with us. Set a rainbow in the clouds to remind God’s self, supposedly, but also to remind us: new life is possible.

I see the story of Noah as a resurrection story. Sure, it is a much more depressing resurrection story than the one we will read in forty days, but it is about new life that comes out of the horror of death. Not because of the horror of death--- God doesn’t need destruction to bring about new life. But new life is always possible for humanity. The thing that makes Noah’s story a Lentan one is that it covenants with us, requiring us to rebuild. To try again. To take forty days to dig deeper into spiritual disciplines, to fast and pray, and turn our lives back to God.

So already I have suggested in this sermon that maybe it wasn't exactly God who caused the Flood like the text says. Now I am reading a responsibility for us into the covenant we read this morning. If you look carefully at the covenant we read, God covenants with us that humanity will never again be destroyed by a flood. There is no response for humans. It isn't a “if you do this, then I will do that” kind of covenant.

Maybe the Gospel story explains this part better. In the scripture we read from Mark, Jesus has been baptized. He emerges from the water, the heavens open, God names him beloved, and then he is immediately driven into the wilderness. We can presume he is still wet, that’s how quickly he moves. He doesn't have time to celebrate his belovedness; he gets right to work in the wilderness, relying totally on God in the midst of difficulty to discover what his identity as Beloved means for his work here on earth. God never says, “This is my Son, the Beloved if he does all the things I want him to do.” But Jesus knows that his identity as Beloved of God means that he has a responsibility to help live into the kindom of God.

And so do we. God's covenant with Noah says there is no such thing as too far gone. We might not believe God, but that is what the rainbow tells us anyway. There is no violence, no grief, nothing that is too far gone that God can't eke some good out of it. And we, as beloved children of God, baptized as Jesus was, also have a responsibility to work with God to eke out this good. We are agreeing to work with Jesus to renew the world from the inside out.

I was talking to Pastor Beth this week about this passage from Noah. When I read it now, I picture less the art we find in children's Sunday school rooms, and instead I picture an experience I had the last time I was in Bosnia.

Bosnia, to those of us who remember the news in the 1990s, is one of those places that seemed to once mirror the wickedness of the world that must have so disappointed God. During the war, neighbor killed neighbor, concentration camps were established, mass rape was used as a calculated tool of war. Today, the violence is not rampant though tensions still course along ethnic lines, but corruption still defines the country. There is apathy, disgust, hopelessness. A dark rain flooded the country with a hate so powerful that it is a wonder anything is left, but even today stagnant water left over from the war seems to cover so much. Bosnians know the wickedness of humankind. They have wondered if God can ever pull them out of the violence they have endured--- if they are too far gone. Bosnians know what Noah felt, looking over the wickedness of his fellow humans as those first fat drops of rain fell on his nose.

That wickedness is always very apparent in graveyards in Bosnia, especially if you can look across and see just how many graves are marked 1993 or 1994. And one day, I found myself in one of these graveyards. I had gone with my friend Đana to visit her family because it was Bajram (or Eid), a family, food, and faith-oriented holiday. First, though, we stopped at the community graveyard; during Bajram, one also says prayers for the dead. The cemetery sits almost precariously up on the mountain, rows of skinny white graves sticking out into the sky. We stopped the car and got out to see Đana's cousin Dijana and her family were already there. Dijana and Đana covered their heads with these huge scarves and went over to the graves. I stood around awkwardly trying to keep Dijana's three-year-old and Đana's two-year-old from falling down the mountain. But at one point I paused and looked up at the two cousins praying, their veils flapping in the mountain breeze, at this little line of graves all with the last name Domazet--- most of whom I knew. Đana's father was killed during the war in 1994, her mother from a heart attack when she was in her early forties, her grandmother from Alzheimer’s, and her aunt from cancer. Đana was crying, and reached over to touch her mother's grave. So much loss in such a young life. So much pain. The floodwaters in life had taken so much from her. And yet, yet here we were. The sun was shining, the grass was so green, and two toddlers were running around hand-in-hand laughing.

Đana rebuilt her life. She decided that the destruction of war, the pain of grief, the constant fear of loss would not keep her from living. Noah rebuilt his life, built a home and planted vineyards. And many in the community of Parkland, Florida, are rebuilding already as well, refusing to let violence have the last word in their community.

Perhaps there is a part of your life that needs rebuilding. Perhaps there is a part of you destroyed by fear or apathy, shriveled by bitterness and loss. Invite God into those places this Lent. Look for rainbows, seek goodness together. Perhaps that means taking up a practice like gratitude journaling--- forcing yourself to look for the good in your life and nurture it. Perhaps that means becoming an advocate as many students are, standing up to death-dealing things in our world and working to stop them. Perhaps that means spending time in service, helping someone else to rebuild.

The rainbow covenant reminds us that God will work beside us to bring life from dead situations anywhere and anytime. Won't we choose to work with God?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pray for Us

Hebrews 10:24-25
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-28
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Beloved, pray for us. Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Let us pray:
Patient teacher we give you thanks a morning of welcoming new members. And we give you thanks for this time of worship. Guide us now, in the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, to follow the path you have laid before us. Amen.

Growing up, my mother led the church every Lent in taking up a practice. Originally it was to be a new spiritual practice every year, but the very first one they tried stuck and they continue to do it year after year. They call in “prayer partners.” When you walk into church during Lent, you get a slip of paper that you are to write your name on. Then the slips of paper are collected and at the end of the service, they are passed around in a basket for everyone to take a name. You have to make sure it’s not yours, but that week, you commit to praying for whoever you chose at some point every day. Growing up, our family put all our prayer partners together on the Lazy Susan on our kitchen table, and every day before dinner, we would light a candle and take turns for praying for all of them together.

I thought it was a nice tradition. So I stole it when I started serving a church as a pastor. I passed out slips of paper every week, encouraged people to pray, and got a lot of good feedback from folks. But I didn’t know the transformative power such prayer had until the first year I started this at Presbury.

One week, a parishioner who let’s call Maria, got another parishioner who we’ll call Tamara’s name. Maria was one of the matriarchs of the church at that time, a widow with more money than most in the congregation. She loved music and when her grandkids came to visit. She struggled with her health, but always spoke about blessings rather than her struggles. Tamara also did not talk much about her struggles, which were many. She was older and lonely. She wished her family would visit more, but she was also surrounded by affection and respect at the restaurant where she still worked. She was retirement age but she was unable to retire. She also never complained and lifted up blessings frequently, but she was generally quiet. Maria prayed for Tamara, not knowing quite what Tamara’s prayer concerns were since there was only room on the paper for a name, not an explanation, and then she came into church next week and reached into the basket for a new prayer partner. And she got Tamara. Again. Now, Presbury is not a large church. And both Maria and Tamara sat on the same side of the church and I usually tried to switch the baskets to mix up the possibilities of whose name people would get. But Maria had Tamara two weeks in a row.

And so this time, as Maria prayed, she also felt a deeper connection to Tamara. She began to wonder how she could reach out to her. So she decided to send her flowers to work, and signed that they were from her prayer partner. And by the end of the week, Maria gave me cash in an envelope to give to Tamara anonymously.

Tamara told me about the flowers and cried, and then cried again when she opened the envelope. She wanted me to tell her who her prayer partner was so she could thank her. I couldn't, but even if I could, I'm not sure I would have. Because I think that though what Maria did for Tamara was special, in some ways it is the normal next step on our discipleship journey when we are praying and worshiping together.

For the past few weeks, we have been talking about Discipleship Pathways, which are those ways that we can draw closer to God. A disciple, remember, is a follower, in this case a follower of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus set out on a path to become more and more like Jesus, especially when it comes to how we relate to God and one another. The past few weeks, we have talked about how serving God and others and how generosity and giving help us grow and mature in our spiritual lives, help us to become more like Jesus. Worship and prayer are another pathway to help us encounter the living God.

Prayer are worship are two of the ways we are most often drawn into life in the church. Worship attendance is often one of our basic litmus tests for Christians, right? Prayer is ubiquitous to the point that even people who don't know much about God or even go to church still admit to praying, especially in times of need. With this framing, they seem more like entry-level tasks of discipleship than life-transforming ways to deepen our discipleship. But worshiping together and praying together are not just for beginner Christians anymore than our Gospel lesson today about the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor are ones we check off our list of how to become a Christian when we get join the church.

Loving God and neighbor are easy to say, easy to understand, but hard to do. So it is with prayer and worship. We have scripture to tell us the words to say--- heck, my personal prayer life consists more of breathing than it does composing actual words in my head. We have alarm clocks to wake us up and cars to hop in and drive to get us to worship once a week. But to let prayer and worship change us? That is another story. But think about Maria and Tamara, how both of their lives were enriched through prayer and worship. They found a deeper connection to one another and to God.

This connection is something that we don't just need as Christians, but that we need as human beings. Aaron and I listened to a podcast about loneliness this week. Britain's prime minister Theresa May was quoted in the podcast as saying that in Britain, “Two hundred thousand older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.” Apparently Britain has appointed minister for loneliness because research suggests it is a growing health epidemic, as dangerous as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It is a risk factor for premature mortality. In fact, they called it a public health crisis.1

While listening to this podcast, I kept thinking about this pathway to discipleship. I'm sure that like me, you have heard people say that they worship just as well at home in the quiet or in the woods alone as they do in church. They can read the Bible by themselves, and they don't need anyone to pray for them. And while sometimes being alone is important, research like this reminded me at least that we are not created to be alone. And it follows that loving God, worshiping God, even praying are not things we are supposed to do alone either.

Of course, when we pray and worship together, we take a risk. You have heard C.S. Lewis' assertion that “prayer doesn't change God--- it changes me”? But we don't like change. We don't want to change. We want to God to listen to us and do what we want. But prayer and worship in community? That's risky. Too many moving parts. When Maria prayed for Tamara, she felt compelled to do something. She couldn't just go about her daily routine like nothing had changed after praying for Maria. Both of them entered deeper into discipleship, both found a closer connection with God, and began to live with the hope and expectation that God was working in and through them. Prayer and worship are not solitary activities. They must be done in community, for community.

Connection is important, to our health apparently, but also to our faith. Our connection to others makes possible our connection to God. Many of you know that Rev. Beth Richards and I went to a conference to learn about Stephen Ministry, a one-to-one caring ministry designed to be led not by pastors but by people in the pews. Calvary is starting up Stephen Ministry again as a way to help foster those connections. People who are going through a hard time--- grief, illness, loneliness, for instance--- are paired with a Stephen Minister who will pray for them and meet with them weekly just to listen. One of the people at the conference who was a Stephen Minister herself but had had her own Stephen Minister in the wake of a diagnosis said, “I knew God was with me, but I needed someone with skin on.”

This is what the discipleship pathway of worship and prayer does: point us to the God who is ever-present with us by putting us alongside others with skin on who God is working through. Does that mean that your prayer will always be transformative if you start praying with a friend? Does it mean that everytime you join us for worship here at Calvary you will immediately feel closer to God? No, not always. But being here, praying for and with each other, and worshiping together clears a path to allow us to move ever closer to that ever-present God.

So after sharing about this pathway, I really think you needed me to give you some homework to help you work on it throughout the week. I didn't cut up pieces of paper to have all of you exchange prayer partners, but you aren't leaving empty handed today. Today, you have prayer partners right there in your bulletin. Our list of new members. Take that page out of your bulletin and put it in your wallet, in your car, on your bedside or kitchen table. Put it somewhere to remind you to pray for each of these folks every day. Shake their hands today and remember their faces to say hi next week. Go online or call the office and look up their address and send them a welcome card. Who knows? Maybe you will find yourself more connected to God by connecting to one another in prayer.

To echo the words from our 1 Thessalonians reading today: Beloved, pray for us. Me, yourselves, the person sitting next to you in the pew today, and our new members. Pray daily. And show up here next week to see where God is leading each of us, drawing us ever closer in love. 


1The Loneliness Epidemic, accessed 27 January 2018,

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid, Mary

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Our theme for Advent comes from the words the messengers from God, the angels, be they Gabriel or a whole host, say when they appear to share the good news of Jesus' birth. Do not be afraid. Our world is a fearsome place, and we are fear-filled people, often for good reason. But the angels remind us that such fear can keep us from hearing and experiencing the good news that God is with us. Last week, we looked at the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and cousin-in-law of Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother. His fear was so much a part of his identity he didn't believe the angel standing in front of him. This week, we are talking about Mary, and our fear that God has made a mistake and that nothing can ever change.

So as we delve into this story, let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for the words of your messengers, and ask that they sink into our hearts today as we worship you. Amen.

Aaron and I returned from vacation just over a week ago. We went on a big European adventure for our thirtieth birthdays, spending most of our time in France, though we also spent a few days in Italy and an afternoon in Switzerland. We drove, well, Aaron did anyway, to get from place to place because we figured we would see more that way. Anytime we saw a really cool old church or old castle, we could just stop on a whim. Except every town in France has an old church or castle. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I distinctly remember at one point Aaron pointing out the window and saying, “Oh look. Another castle.” Now castles sometimes cost money to go inside, so we didn't always go in those. But churches are free. So we visited a lot of churches. And most of them, being Catholic, seem to be named Notre Dame, or Our Lady, in deference to the Mary we read about in our scripture today.

We saw so many statues, icons, and paintings of her in these churches, particularly of the moment our scripture today describes. She's always calm and serene, regal, usually reading a Bible or some kind of devotional in the Annunciation. Even if she appears small and child-like in stature, there is a calmness to her in these images that makes her seem not just older but otherworldly. And though we Protestants may complain about this veneration of Mary of Nazareth sometimes, we too are guilty of relegating Mary to a pedestal of perfection. Because the more perfect we make her, the less we feel we can emulate her.

But when I read this scripture, I don't read this Mary as this meek, ethereal being. I think she's kind of snarky. Whereas Zechariah cowered in fear and clung to disbelief when faced with Gabriel, she raises an eyebrow and points out the flaw in God's plan. In fact, reading back over the scripture in preparation for this sermon, I had trouble figuring out where such a delightfully self-confident young woman was fearful. Notice the words: perplexed, not fearful: But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Zechariah is terrified when he meets the angel. The shepherds are as well. Mary is perplexed. She is confused and has no qualms about asking the angel to explain himself. That is a bit different than fear.

It is the angel himself who brings up fear. Writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner imagines the scene of Mary encountering the angel from the angel's point of view, and in so doing uncovers an interesting understanding of where that fear comes from. He writes:
She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. “You mustn't be afraid, Mary,” he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.1

Maybe the fear in this story is not Mary's fear at all. Maybe it's Gabriel's. From scripture, we do not know much about angels, what they think. We don't know that they experience emotions like fear. We only know that they share God's message with us. But I, like Buechner, wonder. Was anyone in heaven talking to God, throwing ideas about redemption back and forth. And did anyone think the whole incarnation thing was a good idea? As Buechner points out, “the whole future of creation hung on the answer of a girl.”

One of the beautiful images of Mary of Nazareth that we encountered in France was a Mary with an intricate and expensive crown on her head and royal bearing. This is not the Mary Gabriel encountered. Mary was just a young woman, girl really. She was nothing special in the conventional sense, certainly not someone who had proven herself responsible or worthy or anything else we might consider a requirement to bear God's own self into a world filled with violence, pain, and suffering. How could one young girl bring God into this kind of world?

So maybe the fear in this story is not just Gabriel's. Maybe it's ours. Fearing that God has made a mistake. A mistake to choose a young, poor, brown woman to bear God’s own self. A mistake for God to put on flesh and dwell among us at all. A mistake to keep loving us. A mistake to keep offering us opportunities to transform the world.

Most of us, though, would never admit that we thought God would make a mistake. But we act like we do. We throw up our hands and say, “I don't know what you're trying to do, God, seems a little off, and nothing we do is ever going to change anything anyway.” And so we don't. Even with angels before us, sharing God's plan, more often than not we don't say yes, as Mary did. More often than not, we have a list of reasons why God's plan wouldn't work. We want a total do-over, to wipe the slate clean. We've given up on the world as it is. We believe changing it is impossible.

But Mary didn't. She asked questions, of course. “How can this be?” she asked, eyebrow still arched in confusion. Almost like she's saying to the angel, “You know there's a pretty big problem with your plan, so how are you going to get around that?” But when the angel answered her, she was in. Because she believed the angel. Nothing is impossible with God. This mess that our world is in is not irredeemable. God uses us, maybe not to bear Jesus in the same way that Mary did, but God uses us to bear God's self, to bring light and love into a hurting world, and to work for the kingdom that will have no end.

Now, I should admit to you that I had a rough week. I found myself crying or clenching my teeth in rage whenever I turned on the news and heard something about politics. On Friday, I read a powerful letter about moral bankruptcy in our country and in the church that made me wonder if we should just shut everything down. And then I came back to this sermon. I came back to Mary of Nazareth and her unwillingness to let fear turn to disbelief and disbelief turn to apathy. When God said, “Will you do this with me?” She said, “Here I am. Let's go.”

And so, even though the news is filled with stories of morally bankrupt leaders, I began to think of other stories, stories like Mary's, of people who have not given into despair but instead transform the world by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” I want to share one such story with you.

Tarana Burke is a name that has come up recently in the news.2 She is the founder of the Me Too campaign ten years ago, recently taken up on social media and exploded. An actress used this campaign, writing, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The hashtag exploded everywhere and got people talking about the epidemic of sexual violence in the country, and even creating cultures in some places where that violence is no longer tolerated. Tarana said that the campaign evolved out of her own experience. She said the simple words, “Me too,” are so powerful because someone said that to her. She is a survivor, as well, and those two words helped her in her healing, and so she has been able to help others in their healing. We still have far to go, so far it may seem daunting and impossible. And in some ways it seems useless, as some senators are being forced to step down over allegations of harassment but others are possibly getting ready to be voted in regardless of similar acusations. How easy it would be to let our fear that nothing will ever change, our fear that we are powerless keep us from breaking the silence! But Tarana didn't let that fear keep her locked in shame. She spoke out, and through her campaign and survivors sharing with survivors, she shared God with a hurting world.

Now perhaps it's not exactly a fair comparison, to say that either Mary of Nazareth or Tarana Burke's stories are about a simple response of hope in the face of fear and despair. After all, Mary's “Here am I” launched her into a pregnancy outside of marriage and a motherhood that would lead to watching her son die on a cross. Tarana Burke's “me too” has deepened her organizing work with hurting people in hurting places. You can't say, “me too” and go back to life as usual. But so often we think that if it isn't something big, it isn't going to make a difference, so why even bother? Mary's and Tarana's stories show that even simple words can be transforming in big, though difficult, ways.

Do you know of other Mary of Nazareth stories? Of people who refuse to let the fear that nothing will ever change and God's plans are crazy keep them from working with God anyway? Perhaps you may know one from history, like Harriet Tubman, or maybe from watching television and hearing of peacemakers like Malala Yousafzai, or maybe you know someone from church or school or work who has in some way brought God into the world. Find those people. Become those people. Yes, our God might seem pretty crazy at times. But, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary, nothing is impossible with God. Let's jump into the possibility together. 

1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, as quotes in Maria LaSala, “Mary's Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency,” 19 December 2011,
2See 17 October 2017 accessed 9 December 2017, See also Tarana Burke, “The Inception, Just Be Inc., accessed 9 December 2017,