Based (loosely) on Matthew 24:36-44
Advent is a time of waiting. We take this time in our season to watch and wait to see the presence of God in our lives and in our world.
Some years at Advent, I wonder what I’m waiting for. Am I going through the motions of Advent, just so we can get to the good stuff? I want to jump right to Christmas hymns and baby Jesus in the manger. I want to get right to the magic and beauty of the season. I don’t want to wait, or pretend to wait. I want the good stuff right now.
Those are in the good years. Those are the years when I don’t feel like I need God all that much. Because God is here. Or perhaps more accurately–things are going well. In the good years, I don’t long as I do in other years. I’m content, so God and I must be on good terms.
But this year–well this is not one of those years. Waiting, anticipation, even desperation–they are all part of the mood this season. We know we are waiting. We know that things are not right with the world.
The waiting is perhaps a wake up call from the “everything is going to be ok” mantra we’ve been telling ourselves for so many years–that thin veil of hope we cling to. Right now, “everything will be ok” is not a comfort. It is a lie. The words I’ve heard some Christians lean into lately are “God’s still on the throne” and “God’s still in control”. And while that is true, I don’t understand how it is true, or when it will make sense.
This season of advent, we read these apocalyptic texts–the ones that come this time every year–and they seem more real and more true than I remember them to be last time around. Two in the field, and one is taken. Watch. Stay Awake. Be alert. I’m watching. I’m waiting. I’m alert. And–quite honestly–I’m feeling hopeless.
So, it’s difficult to see the candle of hope lit this morning. Because I’m not feeling hope. Hope has never felt further away than right now. It’s difficult to light this candle of hope today, because I am struggling to even know what hope is.
A few days after the election two friends contacted me from occupied Palestine to see how I was handling our new political reality. And I had to laugh. It was ridiculous to think about my friends, calling me from Hebron–where they had to walk through multiple checkpoints that day, I’m sure. They were worried about me.
I appreciate their friendship, and that they care about me. But I know their concern comes from a recognition that my sense of hope is shallow and thin. I have no lived experience to test my hope, no resolve to keep working, no sense of courage in difficult times.
I sense that we often live like hope is a matter of wishing for things to be better. We keep our fingers crossed for good things to happen. That fingers crossed mentality doesn’t get us far when we are in deep difficulty. It doesn’t get us far when we really begin to face the reality of the world we live in.
So, I want to think about a deeper definition of hope, one that goes deeper than crossed fingers in shallow difficulties.
I’m thinking today about two definitions of hope that we might be able to work with.
One is the Palestinian definition. Sumud is another word for hope in Arabic. It’s translation is steadfast hope, or steadfast perseverance. This word can best be described by two symbols: One is of a deeply rooted olive tree–it is a Palestinian symbol of life. The olive tree has existed on the soil for thousands of years. This persistent tree gnarls over the years, but continues to bear fruit. I’ve seen trees that have been burned down recover and green up again. I’ve seen olive trees, cut to their stump, begin to grow again. These are hardy trees, and the only reason they are so tough is because their roots go deep into the rocky soil.
That is hope.
The other symbol for samud is that of a pregnant Palestinian woman. When I first saw this symbol for sumud, I thought of a conversation I had with several Mennonite guys about ten years ago. Maybe you know the type–they have read all the right theology and philosophy, but lack some life experience.
I had been invited to a gathering of young Mennonite leaders (I was considered young at the time!), and we went to hear a doom and gloom theologian talk about how terrible things are. They really liked the speaker, and while I didn’t necessarily disagree with the speaker, something didn’t sit well with me.
I listened to the young Mennonite dudes engage this theologian’s work, and I didn’t contribute anything to the conversation, because I was becoming more and more sad. Finally I said, “But here’s the thing, guys–I have kids.” And that pretty much ended the conversation.
The end is near theology was destroyed by the thought of little ones living in it. The pregnant Palestinian woman represents the need to continue for whomever and in whatever comes later. It’s not about us, but this samud, this steadfast hope is for others.
So, samud–hope–is rooted deeply in people, it’s not easily destroyed by political ideology or oppressive systems, and it’s not for it’s own sake but for the sake of others. And that is why Palestinian friends could call me after the election. They were rooted deeply in who they were and in their people’s stories. They had hope, even when I didn’t, and even when the political situation here would have a much bigger impact on them than on me personally.
Let’s talk about another definition of hope. This one from Vaclav Havel. Actually Havel had a lot to say about hope, so let me throw out a couple of his thoughts on hope:
First, Havel said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Now, I’m not sure what Havel thought made sense, even in the worst of times, but I know what I keep coming back to, and what you keep coming back to. And that is the incarnation. That is that soon God will show God’s vulnerable face to us. Soon, God with us will feel more with us than God feels right now. Hope is not optimism. It’s not fingers crossed. Hope is knowing God is with us in all this mess, even when it feels terrible right now.
Here’s the other thing Havel said–he said, the act of hope is “walking towards the things we want.” So, hope may be a feeling, but it is also an action. We act on those things for which we have conviction. If we are convinced that God shows up in the worst possible situations, we act in that direction. That is hope.
Things feel apocalyptic now. They maybe even feel hopeless now. But, we are in advent. And we have one candle lit. One small candle of hope. Our hope is not a shallow, keep your fingers crossed kind of hope. Our hope is rooted deeply in our stories that go back thousands of years. Our hope is rooted deeply in the soil of our faith and the faith of our ancestors. Our hope is not just for us, but we act knowing that this is about more than us.
Our hope is our action, our resistance, and knowing that God is here with us. God is with us. God with us. Let us access our source of all life, our hope, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Sermon based on Phillipians 2: 1-14
Preached at Germantown Mennonite Church
This week, Reba and I were talking about a song that is important in our family–My life flows on. It’s a song I would often sing to the kids at bedtime, when they were little. It’s a song that makes me a little weepy, because it’s full of meaning and embedded with so many stories from my life.
Reba asked, “What is it about this song? Why is it so special?”
We talked about the power of this song–of singing despite life’s difficulty because “since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth. That’s the most powerful line in this song. The song doesn’t say “IF love is Lord”–I often mistakenly sing it that way–but the song is “SINCE love is Lord.” It’s a given, not a possibility. Love IS Lord.
Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth.
Paul had a loving, tender relationship with the church in Philippi, so this text today reads as a bit of a love letter. He’s reminding his Christian friends of their need to love, to be united in love, with a common purpose and a common mind. Paul here gives a model of leadership that is oriented not towards self-interest and ego, but to humility and service.
And then Paul moves into this piece of poetry that BIblical scholars believe is actually an early Christian hymn. Paul says, Your attitude towards each other should be like that of Jesus:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness,
And being found in the form of oppressed humanity,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every mouth should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Paul described Jesus in this text as the average Roman citizen would describe Caesar. Because at the name of Caesar, every knee should bow, and every mouth confess that Caesar is Lord. But Paul turns Lordship upside down. The Lordship of Jesus is not like the leadership of a ruler–it is humble, it is obedient to a God that doesn’t promise to make our life easier, and it is a life of service to others.
The Lordship of Caesar is one of control, of empire, of enforcement. Paul says that the Lordship of Jesus is love.
And more than even the contrast between Jesus and Caesar’s leadership style, Paul is saying Jesus is Lord. Which means, Caesar is not. Jesus is in charge, and Caesar is not.
To declare that Love is Lord or Jesus is Lord is a strong statement. It’s a political statement. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he is making a dangerous political claim when he says Jesus is Lord. Jesus is in charge.
Lord was a term used only for Caesar only. To call anyone else Lord was a radical and dangerous assertion. It was to declare that Caesar had no power. Claiming another Lord was treason.
To claim that Jesus is Lord is also a preposterous proposal. It meant that Jesus–who died a public and gruesome death, was in charge of the world. That’s not just treasonous, it’s impossible to those who don’t understand the power of Jesus’ story, and of his resurrection.
It sounds pretty silly to claim that Jesus is Lord. No wonder the early Christians were so misunderstood. They were claiming that Jesus–a Palestinian Jew murdered by the Roman Empire–was actually the most powerful being in the known world.
I believe that Paul, if he had a word for us today would say to the Church in Germantown, “Jesus is still Lord.” As treasonous and ridiculous as it sounds–Jesus is Lord.
It seems like an important season for us to remember that Jesus is Lord, that love is Lord of Heaven and Earth. Because I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of remembering that lately. We’ve been whipped into a collective froth around this election. I’m scared, friends. My kids are worried. Charlie has suggested alternative countries we might move to if this doesn’t go well.
This season is a test of our belief that Jesus is Lord, that Love is Lord of heaven and earth. Because, while we follow in the way of Jesus, we are humans, living in the American empire, with concerns about our children, our retirement, our housing value, our wages. We are also concerned about those who don’t have access to basic human needs. There are things our Ceasars can do to make lives in this country better, if only they would.
And yet, Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is Lord. Love is Lord of heaven and earth.
Here’s something you may not know–historically Mennonites have dealt with this Jesus is Lord idea by refusing to participate in government. Mennonites have traditionally not voted, or held public office–that was pretty common until the mid-20th’s century. It was the Mennonite way of saying, “Do whatever you want, Caesar, because Jesus is Lord, Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth.”
But, like most things, it’s more complicated than all that. I’ve heard many Mennonites express that while Love is Lord of heaven and earth, voting is also an important personal choice for them, especially when so many disenfranchised people in this country–like the undocumented, the incarcerated, or those with a criminal record–cannot vote. So while we do not believe that Caesar is Lord, we do have an opportunity to make lives better in this country with our vote. And we have the opportunity to assert a morality of love into our government systems with our votes, our letters to leaders and our protests.
More than anything this election season, I’ve wanted to find ways to express the Lordship of Jesus, the power of love. The election feels very high stakes, but so does forgetting how to love each other. Caesar is not Lord, our nation does not have the power to cut the lordship of love from our lives.
When I hear about folk being afraid to come to polling places for fear of bullying, I do not want to fall into the trap of Caesar being Lord, but find ways to express the Lordship of Jesus, the Lordship of Love over heaven and earth. And since this Mennonite church is a polling place, I will express the Lordship of Love on November 8th, by offering coffee or tea to everyone that enters this building, by introducing myself to every neighbor that comes through these doors.
When I read about how starkly divided this country is in this election season, I am committed to not gloat should my chosen candidate win. Instead, I want to express the Lordship of love in ways that keep us united in purpose and with a common orientation of love.
And maybe the best way to elevate the Lordship of Jesus is turn off the news, to stop franticly checking fivethirtyeight.com, and other election predictors. Every bit of drama from the news cycle serves to elevate Caesar, not Jesus.
When this election is over in a few short weeks, the issues that concern us will still exist. They don’t go away because our chosen candidate is in office. The Lordship of Christ needs to be asserted again and again.
We live in strange times, friends. There has never been an election like this, and it fills me with fear and terror. And yet, through all the tumult and the strive, I know that Jesus is Lord, that Love is Lord of heaven and earth. Let us orient ourselves towards this way of love, taught to us by Jesus, and amplified by Paul as he navigated life in the Roman Empire. AMEN.
Sermon based on Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Preached at Germantown Mennonite Church on August 14, 2016
My delegation to Palestine this summer had two nicknames for me. “Iron Lady” and “Momma Bear.” Momma Bear was the name that stuck. When I told my family about this nickname, they liked it too. They thought it was fitting.
So, why did I get the nickname, you may be wondering? I did not tolerate members of the delegation being late, or forgetting things and needing to run back to their room. We were a team, we did things together, and we needed to respect each other by being on time and being ready for what we were going to see and do that day.
What my team probably didn’t realize is that most of my momma bear behaviors came from being worried about their safety. I was worried if there were stragglers, because we were in a refugee camp that was continually raided by watching soldiers. I raised my voice if we couldn’t stay together in a militarized neighborhood, because there were soldiers everywhere, and they didn’t want us there. Often the delegation didn’t see the soldiers, but the Christian Peacemaker Teams staff and I always knew where they were. I became fierce if I saw the team doing things that would get us into trouble. Because I know what can happen in these places. I know what has happened in these refugee camps when others have visited. I know, and I needed to be fierce so that we could stay safe.
Two weeks in protective momma bear mode. It’s a several levels above regular protective parent mode, because thankfully I’m not responsible every day for 12 fiercely independent adults in occupied territory. I’m only co-responsible for two sensible, self-aware teenagers in Philadelphia.
Why do I tell you about my momma bear self? Because after two weeks of this protective mode, I came back home, and was forced to face the occupation I’d just seen. My focus in Palestine was on keeping everyone safe, knowing what was next, how to get to the next event, how much the bus fare was, and trying to remember if it was a Muslim, Jewish or Christian holy day, and how that would impact travel. I didn’t have time to let the occupation hit me.
But when I came back home, and settled into the horrors of what I’d just seen, it was ugly. I was angry. Beyond angry, I was raging. Everything set me off. Innocuous emails. My own forgetfulness. The lack of toilet paper in the bathroom, misplaced shoes.
Thankfully, I work with people like Michelle and John who have been to the West Bank, and who know this rage. Thankfully, I am married to someone that has seen me in this mode before, and doesn’t take it personally.
Today’s text and my last two weeks of adjusting to home has me wondering what about the place of our rage in our faith. I’m wondering today about what good it is to us, what is says to us, and how it teaches us. Because, I’m raging still, and maybe your raging too. And Jesus himself in this text is raging.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Don’t tell me that Jesus said this calmly. Or with a sad, gentle demeanor. No, Jesus said this in anger. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus was pissed.
Being in the West Bank, I witnessed the repeated indignities of the Palestinian people. In the repeated raids of the Aida refugee camp, where children were afraid to play, and parents were afraid to send their children to the playground. A camp where a net had to be put over the new soccer field so that tear gas canisters and stun grenades didn’t hit the children when the played, or set fire the new turf on the field. I visited a village that had been demolished 101 times, in an attempt to drive these Bedouin people off their land. I heard stories of families living across from an illegal settlement who were repeatedly harassed and shot at by settlers and soldiers. I saw that checkpoints in Hebron have become more dangerous, more militarized, separating Palestinians from soldiers,and increasing the danger that they will be shot or arrested at a checkpoint.
So, when Jesus yells and rages, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” I hear that anger. I feel the rage, the quivering in his voice, the righteous anger of a man with a baptism to be completed, a Jesus tired of the slow change, and tired of people not getting it.
I’m feeling some Jesus-y rage today, a rage that comes from seeing injustice, a rage of impatience for things to change for people I love. I’m furious that despite my best efforts, and the efforts of so many of us, our nation’s politics moves towards self interest and away from caring for all God’s people.
So, what is this rage, and where does it come from?
Rage helps us feel powerful when we feel powerless and small. It’s is the emotion that stirs and motivates us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. Sometimes that rage causes people to do some pretty bad things. We see plenty of rage gone bad in our city–especially on these hot summer days–and that is terribly problematic and dangerous. But often, if directed well, rage can motivate folks to move towards love, towards truth, and towards justice.
Many of us have grown up being told that rage is a bad thing. That’s especially true of women. Our rage is sinful. It’s not feminine, or socially acceptable. So we need to tap that down. Kill our anger. Because nothing good can come from it. Have you heard this before?
What happens when we kill our anger? I believe that when we do that, we lose f touch with what scares us. Our anger shows us our deepest fears. For Jesus, his anger showed us his fear as that no one really understood what Jesus was talking about, and if they did, they would not follow him. If they really understood the divisions that following Jesus would bring, they would go back to their homes, back to their neighborhoods that were under Roman occupation, but at least they weren’t on the front lines of family and community division.
Jesus was fearful that no one understood. And he knew they didn’t get it. How many parables did this man have to share before people understood? How many people did Jesus have to have to heal before his own disciples understood? How many different ways did he have to say it nicely?
I also believe that when we kill our anger, when we do what so many of us were taught to do, we lose that fire, we lose our motivation. When we aren’t angry about the ways of the world we live in, we can become apathetic. We don’t try to be better neighbors, personally and globally. We don’t try to follow Jesus, because it can be such a challenge to us and to our community. If we don’t tap into our anger, we don’t dare do the things that scare us, even if they are the right thing to do, and they right things to say.
We need anger and rage. Jesus needed the anger. He needed the fear that it brought. He needed to speak it out. He needed to shake people from their apathy, and to be shaken to his core. He said, “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace on earth? No, I’ve come to bring division. From now on, a household will be divided–three against two and two against three.”
Here’s the other thing about rage. It doesn’t bring us simple answers. It actually complicates story lines that we’ve been given, and those polarizations we’ve created. Our anger forces us to see the complexity of something that’s been made too simple. It’s not as simple believing this or that. It’s as complicated as the further down you get on the road of discipleship, the messier things become. Because discipleship bring division. It does not bring us simple answers. And the anger keeps us going, as the scales fall from our eyes, and as the way becomes less certain.
The rage will be there. It should be there. It serves to drive us, to motivate us, and to force us to pay attention to our inner lives. To pay attention to what lives under those strong feelings. It forces us back to the very source, the fire of life, that lives and grows within us.
But, we also need to step back from our anger, to get perspective. And thank God for that Hebrews text today–this text gives us a long view. Our ancestors have been doing the hard work for many centuries, for millennia. They never quite arrived. They never got their prize. The injustice didn’t ever completely end. The promised land was always just out of their reach. But we still keep reaching. We still keep moving towards the goal. The rage is a motivator, but we can’t let it spin us out of control. The rage is there, we can’t kill it, and we shouldn’t.
We have Jesus as an example of how to live with our rage. We speak it. We let it motivate us. We don’t fear it. We don’t kill it. We embrace it, and allow it to move us towards deeper faith and discipleship, just as it did with our ancestors. AMEN.
Every once in awhile, a new musical comes to Broadway that changes everything. This year, the game-changer has been Hamilton: The Musical. The next big musical is about this nation’s’ founding father, and the current face on the ten dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton.
It’s the most ridiculous premise for a musical, and that’s not the only thing that makes it great. What is powerful about this piece is what the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has done to distinguish the music of the revolution against the music of the establishment. Establishment language and roadway ballad and chorus song, but the music of the revolution in Hamilton is all rap and hip-hop. The radical ideas, arguments for justice and against slavery, are done in rap battles between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and Aaron Burr.
The music of the revolution is not music that we hear in polite society. If we think of fancy parties, we imagine a nice string quartet. Here in church, I can’t think of a single time that I’ve heard rap or hip hop. Our music is rich four part singing, often unaccompanied, and all of it easy on the ears.
But the music of the revolution is what we hear outside. In my neighborhood the music of outside is rap and hiphop. It is loud. It is fast. Urgent. The rhymes are creative. The bass reverberates in our chests. The music describes the reality of life in our country that is not the reality we present in polite society–but hip hop can be a challenge because it’s not our story, and we don’t always want to hear these words that challenge our systems and ways of living.
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
The wisdom of the street shows up in many different forms–
Outside the Damascus gate in Jerusalem, wisdom shows up in the form of old women selling sad looking figs and dates. It’s young Palestinians boys being arrested and detained. It’s the sounds of the call to prayer wafting over the city, calling Muslims (and all of us) to turn to God, to remember God’s greatness.
This is the wisdom of the street. This is the cry to all who live, at the gates of the city.
The wisdom of the street is at the intersections, where folks who long for home ask for something to eat. Or, teenagers who want to play in the underfunded school marching band, hold out their boots and ask you to help their school get new uniforms. Or the well dressed man sells mini-pies and a newspaper to make a living and to spread his truth.
This is the wisdom of the street. This is the cry to all who live.
The wisdom of the street is Philadelphia high school students organizing a protest on Broad Street in Philadelphia, in front of school district headquarters. They were protesting that their friend, Brian, was beaten and assaulted by a police officer in one of our public schools. These children organized, publicized and spoke out against the injustice they experience in the halls of higher learning. The cried out for their humanity to be remembered, and restored in their own schools–that they not live in prison conditions, but have the their human rights restored
This is the wisdom of the street. This is the cry to all who live.
So, what is this wisdom that is calling out at the city gates and at the crossroads?
This text is specifically read today to remind us of the work of the Holy Spirit. Today is Trinity Sunday, a Sunday when we remember the complicated theological dance of God the Creator, Jesus the sustainer, and the Holy Spirit, the life-giver.
But, rather than laying out a theological treatise, I’m choosing to focus on the holy spirit, also known as wisdom.
And here’s what we know about the Holy Spirit. She is wild–she shakes things up, and blows things around. She sets fires.
The Holy Spirit tells the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it. The Spirit also tells us things in ways we don’t want to hear it.
And, according to this text, Wisdom is directional. It shows up at the gates, and crossroads of our journey–those places where we ask for directions–and she shows us the way to go.
What we often hear and see at the gates and crossroads of our city are the stories that are unfolding in front of us. Stories of pain. Stories of exclusion. Stories of desperation and last resort. And in those stories, wisdom sits.
There are many ways that we choose to hear or tell these stories. We can look at the Palestinian youth detained at the Damascus gate and tell the story of a young “terrorist in the making” or we can tell the story of a frustrated kid living in occupation. Stories at the gates and the crossroads are wisdom, and they are calling out to all who live. But they are not wisdom if they are about protection, because the holy spirit is anything but safe.
The author of Hamilton: The Musical, Lin Manuel Miranda, a second generation Puerto Rican immigrant spoke at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduation last week. He’s a storyteller, so he talked about what he knows best. He said this (and I think it relates directly to our text today): Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative…this act of choosing will reverberate across our lives.
Stories are essential. They are life changing. It’s important that we tell stories, but what kinds of stories are we telling? Who do they include and who do they omit?
It’s so easy to tune into only the stories in this circle, to keep out wisdom’s cry for life outside these walls. It would be easy to plug up our ears as we crossed the busy intersection of Washington Lane and Germantown Avenue. But if we do that, we close ourselves off the wisdom, to the call to all who live. Inside the city walls is safety, but outside the gate, at at the intersections of our journeys, there is no safety and protection. We are open to the Spirit’s wisdom to blow us right over. We are open to hear wisdom in the voices that we don’t ever elevate.
The thing that has been so revolutionary about Hamilton the musical is that it elevates a different story. It tells the story that we are so completely familiar with, the story of our founding fathers, but puts it on the edges of the city, and at the crossroads. It tells the story from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton, a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.” It tells the story from another perspective, and gives an urgency to the message in a history that’s run cold and self-protective.
Wisdom is at the gates of the city and at the crossroads. And if it is wisdom we seek, if it is the holy spirit winds we long to have blow over and through us, why are we not also in the streets, listening to unfamiliar, uncomfortable story?
Holy Spirit guide us until all truth. Let us be changed by the stories we hear. Because in those stories are life. AMEN.
Sermon based on Acts 2: 1-21
Take the Creation story. The story of the creation of the first people on earth is one of humans made from dirt and the hand of God, and this story of awe and beauty somewhere along the line was twisted into a story about gender power and gender roles. And, in nearly every artistic rendering we see of this story, the first humans always look well groomed with the right sized leaves being placed just in the right spot. Where’s the vulnerability? Where’s the mess? Where’s the dirt out of which they were created?
Or how about Jesus’ birth: God became a vulnerable child in an infant Jesus, a strange unlikely answer to the cry of God’s suffering people. This story has been turned into the cute little baby Jesus, whose cheeks we want to pinch.
Even Jesus’ stories and words–which are the most counter-cultural things you’ll read– have become a model of piety for the church, when they were anything but that.
Jesus violent death at the hands of the empire, has been deformed into a personal Jesus, dying on the cross for you. And don’t you forget it.
And Jesus’ resurrection has come to represent this pristine, perfect, and spiritual act. When it was anything but that. It was defiance, against death, against everything that tried to kill goodness and love. It was big and unexpected, and we still don’t know what to do with it.
Likewise, the church has domesticated the wildness of Pentecost fire. We have turned dangerous fire into a carefully encased candle, a gentle flame dancing daintily over the heads of awaiting disciples. Even the lovely rendering of fire behind me is tame, although let me assure you, taking down the cross that has been up, and putting up the Pentecost fire was about as wild and harrowing an experience as I’ve had in a while.
What happens when we domesticate the scripture? It turns our scripture into a nice story, rather than a dangerous one, a pretty metaphor, rather than an event of utter destruction, where new things arose from the ashes.
And honestly, domesticating the story makes it more difficult to relate to. How many of you have perfect lives? If you raise your hand, I don’t believe you for a second. So, why, why, why does the church keep trying to impose perfection onto this book.
Every good and perfect thing that happened in this book comes from mess. Jesus birth–a mess. It didn’t happen where it was supposed to happen, and the mother was not who we imagined she should be. Jesus was not the royal messiah the people hoped for, he didn’t deliver the message they wanted, he didn’t live and he certainly didn’t die the way they hoped.
The Pentecost story is read as if the tornado and flames in the room is tame and fanciful, like something magical and enchanting from a Harry Potter book. But, pentecost was anything but that.
Folks, the church was born amidst terrifying wind and fire that filled a room. It was not organized and pretty, as we also see documented in art. It was a tremendous mess that took the disciples breath away. And as a result of this weather event in a room–the disciples were compelled to leave the fear behind, the fear that brought them into that room to hide. After the fire and wind, the fear was gone, and they couldn’t help but be in the streets.
Fire and wind are a dangerous mix. Wind causes the fire to spread. Wind makes the fire hot. And when fire comes, it destroys everything. Some of you who have experienced the power of fire know this all too well. Fire is traumatic, life threatening.
Beyonce’s new album came out a few weeks ago, and it it one of the most incredible pieces of musical art I’ve ever seen or heard. It documents a marital crisis between her and her husband. She lets him have it about his infidelity and lies. With her words, burns everything in her relationship down, and says, “I’m not sorry.” But at some point on her journey in this album, she sees the seeds of something beautiful that still exists between the two of them, and says, “If we are going to heal, let it be glorious.” And from the ashes, these two people, begin again. She and her partner had to burn everything down to see what was left. Their relationship had to burn to the ground so they could see what was left.
This happens in forest fires too. As terrifying as they are, they serve an important purpose. They kill off diseased trees and insects, and they allow those smaller groundcovers to grow. Those ground covers are what hold the soil in place. When the trees get too big, the other plants are denied sunlight.
And, when the forest fire dies, it leaves strong tree seeds to grow in the earth, in a soil nurtured by the ash from the fire.
Today I’m thinking about Pentecost in the wildest way possible–On that day when the wind and fire entered that room, everything burned away. And what was left were seeds.
And those seeds were the disciples, and their passion to tell the story of Jesus, who showed them the way to live, and in his death and resurrection, showed them the way to live and die without fear. These disciples–after this weather event in the upper room where they waited fearfully–they were sent to all parts of the world. We know some of the disciples traveled all around the world–to Spain, Africa, Italy and elsewhere–to tell the story of Jesus. They did not have a book. They didn’t have a theological perspective. They had the stories and their experience.
Today I pray for fire. Not an actual fire to consume this building, but a fire to burn away all the things that have been created and called church. I want to burn away all the bad theology that has been used to hurt, exclude and keep people away from God. I want a fire that will burn away all the extraneous, distracting things that cover up what is what is truly the gospel.
I want all of that to burn away, so that we can see what’s left. What is left are the seeds that grow strong in the rich soil of what was. What is left is a story that is radical again, that–under all the theology has been layered on top of the creation story, Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection stories–under all of that is a radical, counter cultural, message that we need to hear again. Under all those layers of cultural normativity we’ve put on the biblical story is a story of God reaching out to us, of God wanting relationship with us, and wanting us to love and care for each other.
So maybe this sounds more angry than I mean it to, but let’s just let this whole thing burn down. Let’s let this system of Christianity we’ve inherited be burned by the intense fire of God’s love, and by God’s original intentions for us. Let it burn. Let’s let go of all those things that we’ve inherited that have nothing to do with the gospel. And let’s see what’s left.
And then let’s let what’s left be blown about by the great wind that is the holy spirit. Because, this gift we’ve been given is not ours to hold onto so tightly, it’s not ours to tame or control or even define. It is God’s gift to us.
My first experience with foot washing was not at a foot washing service. It was when my friend, Karla, gave me a pedicure.
I didn’t ask her to–she really wanted to do this for me. And I didn’t know how to say no.
Karla was newly married, and new to Philadelphia. Her family was from Honduras, and while her English was proficient, it wasn’t her heart language. Philadelphia was lonely and unfamiliar. And she was pregnant with her first child, a fact that took her by surprise. She was seven months pregnant, stooping over my dusty summer feet, and I was so embarrassed.
When I first met Karla, she became like a sister to me almost immediately. I had just had my first child, and after 2 years of full time work, I was quitting, to stay home with my energetic son, while I incubated the hope of another child soon to come.
I didn’t love staying at home with my son. Some parents are cut out for playgrounds, sippy cups, stroller walks, and nap time, but I found it isolating and lonely. Mustering up enthusiasm for legos and Sponge Bob Squarepants was not something I could fake. I longed to feel more useful to the wider world, even while understanding intellectually that my son needed me.
Karla was easy to talk to. She also knew loneliness. She was trying to find her way in this new world, just was I was in a new season of my life.
So one day, she bought a foot bath and told me she was going to give me a pedicure. The details are hazy, but I remember that she took a lot of time on her knees in front of me–her body growing hope, as she began to enter that uncomfortable third trimester. She washed my feet, trimmed my unkempt nails, and scrubbed my rough feet until they were soft again. Then she applied a festive color–a color of that didn’t reflect our inner lives, but one that seemed to point towards something new.
Sometimes, when we look back on that moment together, Karla expresses such gratitude for our friendship, and I feel a wave of discomfort thinking about that beautiful gesture of love. It’s the same feeling I get at our annual Maundy Thursday foot washing service. As a pastor, I’m comfortable to serve whoever comes to me, but to have someone help me stirs up feelings of exposure and vulnerability. I don’t want anyone’s help, and I certainly don’t want anyone to see my weakness or vulnerability. And that’s when control and anger take charge within me. If I control this Maundy Thursday service, it can’t penetrate me. If I am angry (at something, anything), I don’t have to think about feeling vulnerable.
This morning, I went for my first spring pedicure. I want my toes to look great with the Easter dress and peep toe heels on Sunday–at least that’s what I tell myself every year when I go. But, honestly, that’s control talking. The truth is I don’t want my feet to look bad at the foot washing service. I don’t want anyone to touch my scaly winter skin, or run their hands over my stiff, cracked heels, or see that I still have remnants of last summer’s color on my toenails. I don’t want anyone to see the true me. I don’t want anyone to see me as anything but strong and self sufficient. I fear any sign of vulnerability. And the Maundy Thursday service rips the bandage off my festering fears every year.
Yesterday in church we sang Will you let me be your Servant, a song that was a very important part of my wedding ceremony with Charlie twenty-two years ago. The first verse filled me again with fear and joy–
Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant too.
The intention of this verse is my own. But the practice of it is another thing. And yet, I’m grateful for friends and partners that welcome my vulnerability, and that insist on it as a prerequisite for relationship. I’m grateful for this vulnerable practice every Holy week, a reminder of the lengths we must be willing to go to for each other as we follow Jesus to death and resurrection.
Sermon preached at Germantown Mennonite Church on March 6. 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; II Corinthians 5:16-21
My family and I live in the neighborhood of Mt. Airy, just two blocks west of the church. It has a bit of a reputation–it’s recognized by many civil rights groups as being one of the first successfully integrated neighborhoods in th U.S.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when blockbusting was taking place all over this city–the practice of real estate agents persuading owners to sell their property cheaply because of fear of other races moving into white neighborhoods–Mt. Airy unified, refused to sell their homes out of fear, and welcomed whoever wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to come.
It’s an amazing legacy to move into–and I’m proud to call Mt. Airy my home. But, the reality of integration is more complicated than all that.
I live on a working class block–three story twin homes owned mostly by African American families. They take good care of of their block. They watch out for each other. They are strong, proud people, and I’m honored that they’ve put up with me for these 11 years.
My block is wedged between two other very different blocks. The block behind us–Weaver street–is made up of two story row homes, lived in by poorer African American families. The block in front of me is Hortter street–a much more middle class block, made up of both black and white families–all good, well educated liberal Mt. Airy types.
These are three different blocks, right next to each other. And they all have very real feelings about the other blocks. On my block when the Weaver street kids come over to play, the families on Sharpnack street families complain that the kids are loud, and “why don’t they play on their own street?” And when the Sharpnack and Weaver street kids go to the Hortter street houses, neighbors warn each other not to allow those kids into their yards or homes to play with their children.
Even though many of the kids from all three streets attend school together, there are definitely ideas about who comes from the good street and the bad ones, who is clean and unclean, who is sinner and saint–all based on where they happen to live, where their family can afford to live.
The religious leaders went to Jesus and expressed outrage that Jesus was eating with sinners. With the unclean. With people that the religious leaders wouldn’t be seen with, let alone eat with. Jesus was eating with the Weaver street families, and the Hortter street families were not happy.
So Jesus did what he does best–told a story. He told a story of family–a father and his two sons. It’s a story as old as Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. Who is the good son, and who is the bad one? Who is clean and who is unclean? Who is worthy of inheritance?
But Jesus put a spin on this story–instead of choosing who gets the blessing, as happened in the Cain and Abel story and in the Jacob and Esau story, God, who functions as the parent in this story, offers both children and inheritance, and welcomes both children to the table.
And this is complicated–while the parent is welcoming both kids to the table, we are casting judgement on both the older and younger kid in this story. We think the younger one was selfish, and squandered their inheritance. The youngest ended up living among farm animals, and only returned home out of a vague hope that their parent would treat him as well as the other employees at his childhood estate.
The older one was at home, working obediently for his parent, when he learned that his younger sibling was back and being celebrated. And it made this oldest child really angry.
I find myself feeling deeply conflicted about about the younger son, the older son, and the parent. Perhaps you feel this conflicted feelings too. For the younger son I feel angry that he wasted this inheritance, and angry for the way he treated his parent. And yet, I feel sad for the younger child who had such little faith in his parent as to think he would be treated like less than a son.
And even while feeling these conflicted feelings about the youngest son, I’m angry with the parent, who didn’t question where the money went, but went straight to celebrating the return of his youngest. Doesn’t something need to happen before the celebrating? Doesn’t a confession, or a change of heart need to happen?
Many of us can relate to the older, obedient child in this story(as the oldest, and obedient child in my family, I certainly can relate) who was furious that his father was setting up a big welcome back party while the oldest was out working in the fields.
It feels like a kick in the pants for the oldest child to be laboring in the fields while the long lost youngest child, who squandered his riches and ended up working with pigs, came home and was celebrated with a huge party.
This prodigal story is about a lot of things, but it feels here like Jesus is trying to get us to question our own standards of fairness, our own sense of what is good and bad, clean and unclean. Jesus wants this story to feel uncomfortable.
And the more we deconstruct this story, the more we encounter our own biases–who we like better in this story, who we have qualms with, wno is right and wrong, good and bad.
And underlying this story is the bigger question–who deserves another chance? Who deserves a party and who does not? Who deserves punishment? And who is worthy to come to the table?
We all deserve another chance. Whether we’re the oldest child or the youngest, a sinner or a saint, the clean or the unclean, whether we’re from Hortter, Sharpnack or Weaver street. We all deserve a chance. We all deserve a seat at the table. God wants to celebrate each and every one of us.
If I deserve a second chance, if I am worthy to sit at the table, so are you. The parent in this story wanted both of the children to come to the table.
And here’s something to note–the parent didn’t ask the youngest child to explain himself or confess his misdeeds before the celebration began. In fact, the parent interrupted the youngest when he tried to deliver his confession speech. The parent didn’t care about any of that. All he cared about is that his beloved child was home.
Jesus invites us to celebrate with whoever comes to the table. In Jesus’ story, it’s not about being at the table first. It’s not about right living, right beliefs, right behavior. It’s not about the right zip code or street address. It’s simply about being together at the table of celebration.
It’s a beautiful image, but it leaves me with a lot of questions. I wish I knew what happened between the brothers at the celebration. I wish I knew what happened the next day. Did the parent and children ever get to talk about their feelings around the return of the youngest child? Did they reconcile? Did they see each other as equally deserving of celebration?
I wish I knew.
Jesus certainly didn’t leave us a detailed manual. That wasn’t his style. He left us to wrestle and question. And most important–Jesus left us with this story. This story that communicates deep love for us, no matter who we are, where we have come from, or what we have done. And Jesus leaves us the task of loving each other and being ministers of reconciliation.
The questions are the easy part. The deconstruction of this story is easy. The challenge set before us is this: will we build something new? Will we create spaces of reconciliation where we are all welcome, without qualification, to receive God’s love and grace?
I pray that we do. AMEN.
Talk at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, January 19, 2016
I’m the pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, the oldest Mennonite congregation in the Western Hemisphere. It is an historically distinguished congregation in many ways. It is the place where the first protest against slavery was written in 1683–100 years before the Quakers, and 175 years before the emancipation proclamation.
We are also distinguished in that we were removed from both the General Conference and the Mennonite Conference, prior to their becoming the Mennonite Church USA in 2002. We were removed from the Mennonite Conference in 1997 for welcoming queer folks into baptism and membership, and we were removed from the General Conference in 2002 for ordaining a gay man for his work as a chaplain.
So, while we call ourselves Mennonite, have solidly Anabaptist beliefs and practices, we are now an independent Mennonite congregation. Which, in our Anabaptist communal theology, feels pretty ridiculous.
When I began preparing for this conversation and read the intentions and hopes of this session, I have to admit that I began to feel a little uncomfortable. Am I being asked to talk about how I’m ok after the experiences of ongoing exclusion from the denomination? It’s a little bit like coming back to a lover that has wronged me and saying, “It’s ok; I’m fine. Don’t worry about that thing that happened in our past.”
But I want to talk about what what resilience looks like in exile, so I’m going to do that. I am very aware that there is a lot of unfinished business between Germantown Mennonite and the denomination. And while it hangs over this conversation, my purpose here is not to foster reconciliation, but to talk about resilience, so that’s what I’m going to do.
I often relate being the Pastor of Germantown Mennonite church as being like Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Hester was forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest, a constant reminder to everyone that she was an adulteress.
I’m very aware of my scarlet GMC–that mark that reminds me of the impact of this congregation on my life, but also a mark that reminds people of my status and associations.
For me personally, let me just say–and not to be too dramatic about it–but this congregation has saved me. I would not be in Church, and I would not be a follower of Jesus, if it wasn’t for the folks at this church that gave me a safe place to be angry and broken. I arrived at Germantown when I was 22. My mother had just died of cancer, and if one more Christian told me that if she had more faith she’d still be alive, or that God needed another angel, I was going to lose my mind.
This congregation was good at broken, and they were good at lament, so I felt at home there. It was the first time I’d ever been in a church where I didn’t feel like I had to be perfect or together. I could come in angry, or sad, or however I was feeling and it was ok.
This congregation–particularly the gay men of the church–showed me what God’s love looks and feels like. I grew up in a church that preached God’s wrath and anger exclusively. I couldn’t not even conceive of love and grace. These folks at GMC modeled the art of being broken, and walked through the valley of the shadow of death me me.
And later, they said to me, “Why aren’t you in seminary?” “You are called–when are you going to say yes to God?” So, when the spiritual mentors at the church told me I should pursue ministry, I began to ask these questions of God, and was surprised–and terrified–when the words of my faith community and the words of the spirit were all saying yes.
I spent eleven years in this congregation before going to seminary. And, after three years of seminary Germantown Mennonite knew me so well, and yet they called me as their pastor anyway.
That’s how the congregation has impacted me personally. The congregation’s expansive love of Jesus, and trust in the spirit has show me another way.
But here’s where the resilience in ministry comes in: the rest of the world does not look at Germantown Mennonite Church the way I do. The rest of the world often sees that scarlet letter burning on my chest, and they make judgement about me and this community I love.
As the pastor of Germantown Mennonite church, I’ve received non-specific death threats. I’ve gotten hate mail, or “instructive” mail on how I should teach my congregation the correct way to read the Bible. We were even threatened by Westboro Baptist back in the day.
Those things don’t bother nearly as much as the subtle signals I get from other Mennonites that let me know that I am a pariah–that my congregation is a pariah.
Like the time I was invited to speak at a youth event, then dis-invited a few weeks later, because “We just aren’t ready for you yet–you understand though. Right, Amy?”
Or the time that I sat in as an observer on a contentious denominational meeting where the Executive Minister was speaking, and no one talked to me or sat within 10 feet of me.
Or that time that my congregation ordained me and some friends didn’t attend because they were worried that their bishop might find out.
Or when folks hear me talk about the power of scripture to transform and are genuinely surprised that I read the bible.
I’m very aware that depending on the event I attend in the Mennonite world, it may be hard for people to associate with me, to speak with me directly, to engage me in conversation. Because I represent something. I represent queerness even though I am not queer. I represent controversy, even though I don’t feel or look very controversial. I represent the thing that people fear in this denomination–exile and brokenness.
It’s an odd place to be. Because I didn’t come to the congregation as an attender in 1996 because I had a particular position on sexuality. I came because I was looking for Jesus, and I found him in this queer, marginal Mennonite church in Philadelphia.
It’s an odd place to be because I think I’m a pretty normal person. Boring even. I’m a middle aged white lady married to a middle aged white guy. We have two kids, we live in a non-descript neighborhood. I drive a minivan, for goodness sakes. I don’t look in the mirror and think–pariah. I usually look in the mirror and wonder what scarf will look nice with my boring outfit.
I’m a boring, middle aged pastor, shepherding a controversial church. And yet, I feel called to continue to engage the denomination–this denomination that has exiled me and my congregation. But I do not engage as a victim, because Jesus didn’t do that, because Germantown Mennonite does not live like that, and neither do I.
I feel called to engage the denomination because I am Anabaptist and so are you–and as an Anabaptist I understand that discipleship is not a solitary journey. I also know that while we disagree on this little thing, we agree on so much more. It is why I show up time after time.
The story that I relate to most from the scripture in this regard is the story of the Geresene Demoniac. The demoniac was healed by Jesus, which was terrifying to the townsfolk. This former demoniac, now clothed and in his right mind, said to Jesus, “let me go with you!” But, Jesus said, “No–go back to your community and tell them what I’ve done for you.”
I don’t tell you these things to garner sympathy or action. Not at all. I’m called to this place, I feel good about the work I do, I feel the spirit at work. I tell you these things because somewhere in my story, I bet you can relate to the feelings of isolation and outsider-ness. Because even if I wasn’t the pastor of this infamous congregation, I’d still feel like an outsider in some ways. It’s the strange side effect of this role to which we are called. As pastors, we automatically have a strange apart-ness in our congregations.
The question posed today is how am I sustained in a spiritual desert. But really, I think the better question for me is how am I sustained in a spiritual cow pasture. Because I live and work in a rich and beautiful community. I just never know when I’m going to step into shit with the wider Mennonite world.
So, here’s how I try to manage the in the cow pastures of ministry in and around my context. I’ve broken this up into four categories:
1–Spiritual Practices. The two most important spiritual practices I try to cultivate are–silence and sabbath. I’m terrible at both of them, but I’m somehow gratified to know it’s a practice, and not a perfection I’m working on. It gives me some hope to keep at them.
I understand silence as the practice of stilling my mind. of coming back to myself and of reconnecting what’s happening in my head to how my body is experiencing it. I’ve practiced silence in many different ways over the years.
I’ve done a lot of yoga as a way to practice silence. When I first started practicing yoga, my instructor talked about taking up the practice as a way to still her monkey mind. That idea resonated with me. My brain goes a mile a minute. I make lists in my head constantly. I make lists of lists I need to make. Yoga’s focus is on breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in and move your body to this pose. Breathe out, and move your body again. Flow through the breath. Focus on the breath.
There has been something really wonderful about having someone guide my breath, and guide me into silence. All I have to do is breathe in and out when my instructor says so. I’ve joked that yoga is the only place where I let someone else tell me what to do.
The yoga practice has given way to simpler, more affordable ways to still the monkey mind. One my days off I like to walk in Fairmount Park, the most incredible park system in the country. I try to walk to for several miles on my day off. I walk in the woods, clear my head, and focus on breathing, in and out.
Monday is my day off, my sabbath, and I try really really hard not to do anything work related. I don’t respond to emails, texts or calls on Mondays. Sometimes emergencies happen, and that’s ok. Sometimes people don’t get that I’m off, and I have to give a firm, “We’ll talk tomorrow” text or phone call. But generally, I try to keep Mondays for quiet.
2–This is not a spiritual discipline per se, but it is something I try to practice as much as possible–I practice opportunities to be human.
Now maybe that sounds like a strange one to you. Because obviously, pastors are human. We all know well our own personal failings. But the problem is not our humanity, but the pedestal we are put on by others.
To go from being just Amy to having people call me Pastor Amy was a difficult transition. There’s some heaviness associated with that title, and as shepherd of the flock you don’t want to let any one down. I have found myself dealing with urges to present myself as more pious and godly than I am or ever could be.
And I really try to resist that. I’m a human in a role of leadership in the church. But I am not perfect. My family reminds me of the often. As do my friends. And even my congregation reminds me. And I’m delighted to have people in my life that remind me that I am human. It’s important that we practice that as much as possible, that we relish in our failures as a sign that God is still at work on us.
3–As often as possible, I try to worship and participate in unfamiliar contexts. For Jewish High holy days, I visit Rabbi Linda’s synagogue. On the Saturday before Easter, I slip into the Easter Vigil service at my neighborhood Episcopal church–they have an incredible choir and the incense is thick, and the worship is worthy of a celebration of resurrection. On Christmas day, when most Mennonites do not have worship services, I slip into my friend’s small Lutheran church, and allow someone else to tell me the story in a way I’ve never heard it before.
In this same vein, I participate in a weekly interfaith lectionary text study group with other clergy. We read the scriptures we’ll all be working on for the next Sunday, and share our observations. Rabbi Adam always brings a profound insight to us about Jesus, or Isaiah or the Psalm. The ways that other traditions read our shared scripture keeps the scripture fresh and alive. Hearing my Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopalian friends’ read on the stories with their own theological stand serves to deepen my won understandings. And, not only that, these folks have become my dear friends and colleagues in pastoral and social justice ministry. They keep me sane.
4–A final word on resilience comes from my twelve year old daughter, Reba. I asked her a few weeks ago how she thought I was able to do this job and not lose my mind, or my soul. She immediately had the answer in the form of a recent pop song from the artist, Sia. She said, “Mom, you’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart.” Thick skin, elastic heart. I like that. And I think that’s a pretty amazing compliment from a 12 year old.
Ultimately, that’s what we need in this work. I can’t take every criticism or failing to heart, because the toxicity might just destroy me.
And at the same time, we have to have an open heart for the work, our community, and the congregation we serve. We have to, or we will not survive.
Your context does not have to be nearly as complicated as mine to live and work in a desert or a cow pasture. We all work in places that have great potential for toxicity. But, in all those places are people of hope, walks where we come back to ourselves and to God, and people that keep our feet on the ground. May you cultivate those people, places and experiences in your work and ministry–in deserts or cow pastures.
A sermon based on John 1:1-14
January 3, 2016
A few weeks ago, I risked arrest with members of New Sanctuary Movement at City Hall. We were concerned about a change of policy from the Nutter administration in its treatment of immigrants in our city. I haven’t talked publicly about the action—partially because it was a very difficult experience for me, and partially because while it was a public action it was a very personal decision.
But, I do think I need to talk about it.
Here’s something you may be surpised about–I don’t like marches. I don’t like rallies. I don’t enjoy the chants and spectacle that go along with all of it. And I definitely don’t enjoy participating in acts of civil disobedience.
I don’t really enjoy putting myself out there on the front lines of these social issues. But, over the last few years, I’ve really felt called to show up at these events–I’ve felt called to stand in front of gun shops; I’ve felt called to march in the streets after the Mike Brown Verdict, and show up at Occupy Philadelphia events as a peaceful presence.
But I don’t like it. It’s nowhere close to my comfort zone.
In fact, after the action a few weeks ago, a few folks said, “Amy you are so brave!” “You are tough!”–and I had no idea what to say. I don’t feel tough or brave. I felt scared to death. I questioned myself the entire time I sat on the steps of city hall. I question myself every time I march in the streets.
I usually feel like the biggest phony out there–who do I think I am protesting? It is an internal struggle the entire time I’m marching or sitting in protest.
So–you may be wondering–why do I do this?
And the reason is very simple to me–I feel called to do this. In all of the places where I’m standing or sitting, I’m not the one that is directly impacted by the event–gun violence has not a direct impact on me, nor has immigration or unfair treatment by authorities. But, I know people for whom it has. And I have felt called to stand with them in this way.
This is not something I do to seek attention for myself but for the people the issue impacts. And, it’s something that I do in prayer and in consultation with my family. With every action I ask–”Does this make sense for me to put my body in this place?” and “What are the potential consequences” and “Am I willing to risk it?’ And most importantly, I pray, “God, is this where you want me?”
Every action like this is a reminder that I am not Jesus–I can’t save the whole world–but I can point to the light of Christ in my words and actions.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
2015 was a hard year. We’ve been beaten down by bad news. I had conversations with some of you about the sense of helplessness you feel about the world, and I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes that say the same thing–we feel helpless to make the world better. Our hearts have been broken by the brutality of the world this year.
Many of you are doing difficult jobs during the week–working with children in the foster care system, teaching in troubled Philadelphia schools, providing health care for underserved populations–you are working too many hours for too little pay. You bring your clients home in your heart. They keep you up at night with worry and sadness.
Your job is your vocation, that thing you are called to devote your life to–at least for now. And that means that your worship and prayers may look like calls to God for help with that client that keeps you up at night, prayers for an end to suffering for a dying patient, or prayers for strength to get through the next few weeks in your classroom.
Others of us come to church with energy to engage in the issues with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. For many of you faith and practice looks like praying with your feet, marching in the streets and chanting.
But no matter what type of person you are, and what type of work you do, 2015 has been tough. I can see it in all of us.
Working in our little corner of the world, in whatever we do, feels like a drop in the bucket. The problems are too big, and our role in turning it around feels so insignificant. How do we make this world better? Can we? Is it even worth it to try?
In our text from John, the gospel is writer is talking to a persecuted, beaten down church.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
That is a message to a worn out people.
The word today feels like an important one for this congregation to hear. You are not the light. Christ is the light. You do not have to do the work of fixing every single broken thing. All you have to do is point to the light. All you have to do is testify to the light of God.
So, how are we called to point to the light? How are we called to bear witness to the light?
Often when we gather, and hear the difficulties and challenges in this world, we ask ourselves the question, “What can I possibly do?” We see a problem, we want to fix it. But perhaps the question is not one about doing, but one about calling. Where is God calling me?
Sometimes that calling involves marching in the street. And sometimes that calling involves a gentle hospitality, bringing people together, building relationships.
Sometimes that calling involves the front line work of standing against the principalities and powers, and sometimes the call looks like studying the word together in small groups, to strengthen ourselves for the work we do.
We are not Jesus. We only point to Jesus. We only follow Jesus.
In the work of Jesus that we read about in the gospels, not everyone that followed him was going around preaching and teaching. Many were following Jesus by sharing hospitality, but doing what they could, by saying yes to those things they felt called to do. But most of Jesus’ followers weren’t on the front lines–they were supporting the work. They were pointing to the light.
They knew they were not Jesus. But, they were pointing to Jesus.
I hope you hear this text as a moment of grace in a difficult time in our nation and world. You are not Jesus, but you are called to point to Jesus. You are not Jesus. You cannot fix all the problems of the world.
I’ve felt called in these last few years to march, and engage in acts of civil disobedience. But, I could do these things without other Jesus followers supporting me, and testing that call with me. My acts of resistance are just a drop on the bucket. My sitting at city hall didn’t change the Mayor’s mind–he changed his policy anyway. And even in my internal tensions and doubt, I know that calling to be real.
The question is not, “What can I do?” or “What is the most effective thing?”but “How am I called?” How are you called to point to Jesus? How do you point to the reign of God among you? Let that be our grace filled question in 2016. AMEN.
Sermon based on Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36; preached at Germantown Mennonite Church
In 2011, Bhuddist monk, Thich Naht Hahn, and ecologist David Suzuki, gathered for a weekend meeting in British Columbia. They talked about all sorts of things, but ultimately the conversation turned towards life’s big problems–greed, power, waste, suffering, and the uncertain future of our planet. And what was the thread that connected all these things for Hahn and Suzuki? Despair.
Hahn and Suzuki shared that same sense of despair about the direction the people of earth are taking–that humans are more motivated by self-interest and mindless consumerism. Neither of these men had a sense of hope that humanity could or would change their ways.
I understand the despair. The news of the last week is enough to send anyone that’s paying even a little bit of attention into an emotional spiral. What’s as disturbing is what is not being reported–ecological news isn’t nearly as sellable as “Muslim terrorists”, so we don’t hear much about the trash island in the pacific ocean, or the relationship between fracking and earthquakes, or the increasing temperatures of the earth, and it’s impact on our weather, ocean levels and food production. Ecological news doesn’t sell, so it’s not well reported.
Naming all of this makes me want to put my head in the sand, plug my ears up, and hide. The under reported and over reported news all feels oppressive. All the problems of the world make me…despair.
We live in a culture of despair. There is a pervasive dread felt by many people who are genuinely concerned about the future of this world, a world that we see full of war, conflict, terrorism, economic disparity, and a struggling ecosphere.
But despair is nothing new–we didn’t invent despair. David Suzuki and Thich Naht Hahn didn’t invent despair. Humans have been despairing since long before our scripture was written. But what has changed about the culture of despair is that we have ways of killing each other more quickly and and less personally. I’m talking about weapons of mass destruction; I’m talking about drones; but I’m also talking about destruction by way of entertainment and distraction. We have all sorts of ways to keep our eyes closed, our ears plugged, and the problems of the world away from us.
It’s funny, actually, that we look at these apocalyptic texts during advent and worry that the apocalypse is coming. But friends, I hate to inform you, but it’s already here. There is flooding on the earth. The earth is distressed. There are signs. But, just we just can’t bear to see it. So, we distract ourselves. We distance ourselves from each other and from the earth.
When we read these apocalyptic texts, we tend to focus on the destruction. But today, I want you to read these texts knowing that apocalypse is upon us. What are the words of comfort from the prophet to those experiencing the end of the world? What are the words of instruction from Jesus to a frightened group of followers? What are the words that speak into our despair?
Jesus spoke the words from the gospel of Luke to a community of believers who had just experienced the end of their world–the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world. To this, Jesus said, “When these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is drawing near.”
As the temple was coming down, Jesus wanted his followers to fight the urge to run and hide, to keep their heads up and look for the salvation that’s coming.
Jesus also said, to the struggling community, “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you like a thief in the night.”
I had to look up that word–dissipation–because I must have missed that in my SAT prep course. But dissipation means engaging in bodily pleasures. So, Jesus is telling his followers not to be weighed down by distractions–of bodily pleasures and drunkenness–and worries of this life, because otherwise the apocalypse will sneak up on you, because you haven’t been paying attention.
The prophet, Jeremiah, spoke to his community in a time of great despair, a time when it seemed that the world had ended for the people of Israel. They were brought into captivity by the Babylonians–not since the time of Egypt had the Israelites been in captivity, and they were broken-So, the prophet spoke this promise to the people: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to you. In those days, and in that time, I will cause a righteous branch to spring up, and he will execute justice and goodness in the land. In those days you will be saved and live in safety.”
Between Jesus and the Prophets, we have two different yet equally important words–from Jesus, we have words of instruction– pay attention, lift up your head–and from the prophet Jeremiah, we have words of hope– God is about to do something.
Thich Naht Hahn and David Suzuki were asked after a weekend of talking about all the things that make them despair, how they keep going when the world is falling apart. They mentioned three things:
First, they live in communities of simplicity and hope, places where people practice living Second, they live in communities that do not rely on entertainment, consumption and possessions to be happy.
And finally, they live in communities that do not see activism as an act of punishment or self-torture, but of hope and truth telling.
These communities fight despair by living fully into the reality of the apocalypse, which I should mention means “revelation” or “unfolding”. They are not bracing for it to happen. They know it’s already here. They are practicing keeping their heads up and their eyes open. They are practicing telling the truth.
David Suzuki and Thich Naht Hahn are practicing the words of Jesus and the words of the prophet Jeremiah, whether they know it or not. And these practices of full awareness combat despair and give them hope.
I look at the problems of this world and I despair. I worry. I fear for the future. And Jesus asks us to trust him when he says that we should lift up our heads, stand up straight, look for signs of Christ’s coming.
Somehow, somewhere, with our eyes fully open, and our heads up, when we take in the full pain of the world, it is more difficult to despair when we are not distracted. (Note here that I did not say impossible) In full awareness, our hearts are open to hope, and more ready to notice signs of Christ.
This season of Advent, I invite you to practice hope, to practice lifting up your head and opening up your eyes, to practice looking for the righteous branch, to practice full awareness, as a way to combat despair. Let’s try it together and see what happens. AMEN.