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.
Sermon based on Matthew 10:35-45. Preached at Germantown Mennonite Church on 10.18.15
In the last few weeks, as we’ve been reading the gospel of Mark together, we’ve heard Jesus final instructions to the disciples before they entered Jerusalem, and Jesus faced his death. This was a time of stress and strain for Jesus–he knew what was coming, but these disciples were not prepared. They followed Jesus to Jerusalem, but they didn’t realize what it meant.
These instructions of Jesus in Mark 10 were the last chance he had to tell the disciples what all of this was about. In the beginning of the chapter, Jesus instructed the disciples that we don’t cast of the young, and those who have no agency, just because it’s convenient for us.
In the conversation with the rich man from last week’s text, Jesus told the disciples that the reign of God is about economic justice, a concept which was very difficult–for the disciples and for the rich man–to imagine would be possible in their time.
While it was difficult for the disciples to imagine this new way of living, this way of being together, they were also hung up on the glory, and the good press associated with being with FOJ–friends of Jesus.
So, Jesus had to give this next–and final word of instruction and teaching for the disciples.
James and John, brothers, and among the closest of Jesus disciples, pulled Jesus aside to talk to him. They ask him if they could be at his right and left hands in glory.
I imagine that Jesus has to be frustrated to the point of sarcastic, but he responded–can you drink this cup? can you embrace this baptism?
And the brothers responded–of course!
But they did know what they were agreeing to. They still didn’t understand what was involved in following Jesus.
Jesus said–Remember not to cast out those who most need to be included, then this reign of God is about economic justice, and remembering others. And finally, the first will be last and the last will be first. It’s interesting that this last instructions were about who gets the recognition and glory.
The first will be last, and the last will be first.
So, just in case we get on our high horses about how much good we are doing, and how righteous we might be in our care for each other, Jesus tells us–this is not about notoriety, or fame, or glory. The work of discipleship is about service, service that is often not noticed by “important people” and certainly not glorified. And that service is the way of the cross.
This final hard word from an exasperated Jesus is a good ego check for the church. Just in case we are feeling smug for doing the right thing, for taking Jesus’ words seriously–more seriously that “that guy over there”–Jesus reminds us that this is not about our egos. It’s not about being popular for our generosity or kindness. This is about service to all, without ego, without a desire for fame, or getting a seat closest to Jesus in glory.
Chapter 10 of Mark demonstrates–over and over again–that the disciples don’t get it. But this is Mark’s intention in telling the story. The flawed first disciples of Jesus give us plenty of room to relate to the story–because they are as flawed as we are.
These last few weeks, as we’ve slogged through Mark 10, I’ll admit, I’ve felt a sense of hopelessness about following Jesus. I have the advantage of knowing how the story ends–with Jesus brutal death at the hands of the empire–(the disciples didn’t really understand that at the time)so I know that Jesus is leading us to hard places, to do difficult things.
And I’ll admit to feeling pretty reluctant about this path. I don’t want to do the hard things. I don’t want to give up things I’ve worked for, to lay down my own life, to serve others. I don’t wake up every single day and think, “What new things will God ask of me today? I can’t wait to find out?”
I want to be able to say to you that following Jesus is hard, but there are incredible rewards. Because while it’s true, they aren’t always the rewards I”m seeking after.
The only thing that gives me a glimmer of hope today is that the disciples were far bigger jerks than I am. It’s probably wrong of me to compare. And I confess to you that I am a sinner, broken and in need of God’s grace.
But it still does give me hope. These disciples that Jesus chose–called by name–were some of the most surly, unkind, and thoughtless guys you’d ever meet. They never really understood what Jesus was trying to say to them. They never fully understood the teachings of their Rabbi, Jesus, until he was gone. And even then, they fled in fear.
And yet, they kept following. They got up every day, and looked to Jesus for guidance. They didn’t always interpret his words the way Jesus would have liked, but they kept talking with Jesus, asking him questions, pondering his words.
The final instructions of Jesus to his disciples are a hard word for us. It might not be what we signed up for when we were baptized. It might be taking us to places we didn’t want to go, or calling us to go against family, upbringing, or community expectations.
But this is what we learn from Jesus death and resurrection–the path of discipleship is the path of life. What looks like death and futility to everyone else is life. Gathering in all people is what life looks like. Participating in God’s economy is participating in the economy of life. Serving others, our egos aside, it the way of life.
So, here’s what I’m thinking:
If those first 12 surly, unkind disciples could do this–if they could walk this difficult path of life together, and continue to engage Jesus and ask questions–even though the didn’t completely understand it–than certainly we can too. AMEN.
Sermon based on Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Preached at Germantown Mennonite Church on October 4, 2015
If you are on social media, perhaps you’ve seen the hashtag–#blessed.
“I got into grad school!” #blessed
“I went on a Caribbean cruise” #blessed
“Sixty people wished me a happy birthday!” #blessed
It’s become the equivalent of a humble brag. Folks don’t want to say how much money they have or how many friends they have, or how amazing of a school they are attending, so folks say they are #blessed.
But in this particular context #blessed is used in our culture as lucky more than anything. They feel lucky to have gone on vacation, or gotten into school, or to be surrounded by friends. But blessed? I don’t think so. Blessed is one of those biblical words that has been removed from our relationship to God, or falsely used to talk about our good fortune. And I’d like to explore the nature of this word, in the context of the book of Job.
There’s a lot in in these verses from the book of Job that I consider to be disturbing. Just listening to this text again today this morning gives the the shivers. God is playing games, using Job as a pawn to prove the goodness of humanity.
Satan, an associate of God, has the job of wandering the earth, gathering the worst of humanity. Satan reports to God that his suspicions about the evils of humanity are true, and God reminds Satan of Job. And God invites Satan to test Job.
So, I have issues with humanity being used as pawns in a game between celestial buddies. I have to be reminded–when I take this story too literally and my anger towards God comes to a boil–that this is a story about humans trying to understand God.
So, I’m not going to get into this question of humans as pawns in a game between the forces of good and evil, because it’s a distraction from the other big questions on this book.
This book is a classic biblical theodicy–a literary device used to deal with the ongoing human struggle: Where is God in this human mess?
And I believe we get to the heart of the struggle in this tense conversation between Job and his wife. Job was afflicted with painful sores all over his body. This came after his children were killed in a tragic accident, and after he lost his fortune.
Job and his wife and been through more than their fair share of suffering. And in her frustration, she proclaims, “Curse God and Die.”
Maybe you can relate to the sentiment. I’ve had a few days where I have had some pretty unsavery one sided conversations with God. I’ve cursed God plenty of times. I’ve wished for that relationship to end. I’ve cried out to God, “Where are you? If you can’t fix this, what good are you?”
Job’s wife says this horrible thing–She tells Job to curse God, and give up.
But, is that what Job’s wife is really saying? The hebrew word for Curse here is actually a word that many of us know–Barach.
Besides this being the first name of our current president, who knows what that means?
It means “To bless.”
So why does this phrase get translated as “curse” rather than “bless”?
This word for Bless is also a euphemism for “curse” because no one would want to say “Curse God” outloud. That would be blasphemous.
It would be like a family 100 years ago, saying that their daughter was “going to visit family out of town” instead of saying she went away to have a baby. Or like saying that someone “passed away” instead of the truth that they died.
Sometimes it’s easier to sugar coat the language we use than it is to really say what is true, and what is really on our minds..
Job’s wife could have been blessing or cursing God. We don’t know which it is. But rabbinic scholars believe that this blessing and cursing is very closely linked. Because how can we bless God when good things happen but not hold God equally responsible for the bad things. If we are all about blessing God for the good things, are we not to bless God for the bad things? If we are going to curse God for the bad things, should we not also curse God for the good?
We want to attribute the good things in our lives to God, but then we must also attribute the bad things to God too. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel too great about the kind of God that pulls strings like that, making my life good when God feels I deserve it, or making my life bad based on God’s whim, or latest conversation with Satan.
But for so many of us, that’s our concept of God–someone that we have to appease to keep our lives good. If God is angry with us, than we can lose everything. And I have trouble with that concept of God. It’s one that doesn’t take into account the institutional sin and oppression to which we are inextricably bound. You can be a very good person, but if you are born in a refugee camp in Syria, life if going to be tough. You can pray every day, but if you live in poverty, your life will be challenged. You can go to church every Sunday, read the scriptures faithfully, do all the right things, and still get diagnosed with a debilitating disease, or have fertility issues, struggle with depression, or get get hit by a drunk driver.
Things happen. Life happens. Sometimes it’s all really good, and sometimes it’s challenge after difficulty after trauma.
So if we are going to bless God for the good, we have to be ready to bless God for the bad. This is not about being lucky, or #blessed by God. More and more I understand this to be about God being with us–in the #blessed, and in the #worstdayever.
You will never hear me, as a pastor, say that God caused good things to happen. I believe God’s power is far more creative than all that. When I pray for healing, I do that convinced that healing will come, but never in the way we expect it. When I pray for a change in life situations, I pray convinced that in whatever happens, God will walk with me. When I pray for an end to suffering, I recognize that suffering may not end, but that God will give me strength.
God is not a fairy godmother, available to grant our wishes. God is not our puppet master, pulling the strings while we have no control or agency in what happens. God is not a sadist, waiting eagerly to ruin us when we screw up.
God is love.
It’s as simple as that.
God. is. love.
And that love is the kind that walks beside us in good days and bad, in terrible life circumstances and when we’re on top of the world.
We often mistake the highs of life for God’s blessing. We praise God for these things. And certainly, God is worthy of all our praise. But, can we muster that same praise for God when times are tough?
For Job, by the time we get to the end of this book, he has put God on trial. He has cursed God, he has asked God all the questions. And God finally replies by saying, “What do you really know, Job? Who do you think you are? Were you there when I created the earth? Do you know how my mind works?”
And Job realizes just how little he knows. And he gives up. Job stops asking the questions. God has responded to him, not by giving him what he wants, but by reminding Job of his own place in the universe. And what can Job say to that?
So Job gives up. Job blesses God and curses God, just as every person of faith before him did.
We come from a long line of faithful who live in that mess–who live somewhere between blessing and cursing. Blessings and curses aren’t mere hashtags to be strewn about on the internet. They are serious business. They are the heart of our faith and our questions. Blessing and cursing God means that we are still engaged with God; that we are still wrestling with a God we don’t understand or fully know.
And that is a good thing. AMEN.
Sermon based on Esther 4
Preached at Germantown Mennonite Church on 9.27.15
The story of Esther is an entertaining one, but I’ve been questioning this week what good it is to the church. This is a story where there are no truly good people, no heroes here. You know who you are supposed to dislike, but the people you are supposed to like are also pretty flawed and kind of awful.
This is not a story that we hear in the church too much–not even in Sunday school. My guess is that it’s not one that can be relayed in any uncomplicated way. The least complicated part of the story is the part we read in worship today. But there’s much more to it, so I’ll try to tell it efficiently.
The King threw a big party, and at it he asked his Queen, Vashti, to dance for the banquet wearing nothing but her queenly crown. She refused, and the king banished her from the kingdom.
The king needed another queen so he held a beauty pageant. Esther, a Jew, won the pageant and became his new queen. Esther kept her Jewish identity secret, on the advice of her uncle Mordecai, who was an advisor to the king.
Meanwhile, two of the king’s advisors plotted to kill the king. Mordecai learned of the plot, told his niece, and Esther reported it to the king. After the king hung these traitors, he appointed Mordecai as his senior minister.
Another advisor, Haman, demanded that everyone that served the king have complete loyalty to the king, and ordered the all to bow down to him. Mordecai could not, because it was forbidden in his Jewish tradition. This made Haman very angry, and he sought to destroy Mordecai and all of the Jews in the kingdom.
Haman wrote a decree that all those who did not bow down to the King should be killed, and the king, not realizing the implications of this, agreed and signed the decree. Mordecai, Esther and all the Jews were distressed. They fasted from food and water for three days.
At the end of those three days of fasting, Queen Esther summoned all of her courage and went before the king. Using her beauty and sexuality, Esther persuaded the king to offer her the fulfillment of any wish. She told him about the plot against her people and asked that it be stopped. The king granted her wish and ordered Haman to be hanged. So, on the day intended for their destruction, the Jewish people were saved.
Not only were the people saved, but Mordecai and Esther went after their enemies and killed every last one of them.
This is a pretty messy story. And, it’s the only one in scripture that doesn’t mention God in a direct way. In this story, the good people–Esther and Mordecai–use Esther’s sexuality to get the King’s attention. And when they win their struggle, and the lives of the Jews are saved, they go and kill their enemies.
There’s no clear moral argument in this story for how one should act. There’s no really good person. There are only really flawed people trying to do the right thing with whatever’s in front of them. Whether it be by using their sexuality, their power or position.
I have to admit that I’ve been in the weeds with this story this week. How does one get anything good out of this really messed up story? What do we do with this story?
As messy as this story is, I keep coming back to the interaction between Mordecai and Esther that we read in Chapter 4. Mordecai went to Esther and told her of Haman’s plot to kill all of the Jews. He told her of the gravity of the situation, and said to her, “Esther, you were born to save your people. You were put here for such a time as this. And if you choose to stay silent, deliverance will come another way, and you and your family will die.”
Mordecai’s laying it on pretty thick. But he has a point. In her unusual position of royalty, Esther has the power to do something good for her people.
These words of Mordecai, to a young Esther, are stirring. Mordecai is convinced that Esther has and that we have the power and agency to change things, especially when we are increasingly feeling like there’s nothing we can do to stop any of the evil happening in the world.
It feels like we’ve hit a lot of these “for such a time as this” moments in the last several years we’ve had “for such a time as this” moments:
- Charleston, or any of the many brutal and public shootings.
- Or maybe the “for such a time as this” moment is the refugee crises
- Or maybe it’s the many climate disasters. Everything from dying bees, to the hottest summer on record, to a water crises around the world.
There are a lot of moments where we say to ourselves or each other, “Who’s going to fix this? Who will make this better? Who is going to step up?”
And according to this complicated book of Esther, some of us are born “for such a time as this”–to use what we have been given and our station in life to save each other’s lives. We need people like Mordecai in our lives to remind us that we were born to do. We need to be willing to lay down our lives “for such a time as this.”
But here’s my ongoing concern with Esther’s story–there’s no sign of God anywhere. No mention of God, no inspiration of God, no conversation with God in prayer.
There’s no sign in this book that God even exists.
As a pastor, this bothers me. As someone who believes in God, and in the centrality of God for our freedom from oppression, this story deeply troubles me. This is the very thing that I worry about with people of faith: that we are concerned with “for such a time as this”, but not so concerned about where God is in all of this.
In the story of Esther, Mordecai declares that this is the right time for Esther to save the people, to rescue them from death. But this is a very human appeal, which results in very human outcomes–that Mordecai and Esther, in their zeal to save the Jewish people, went further than just saving their people. They killed their enemies. They didn’t just save themselves.
It’s not unlike what happens in the book of Judges where the people do what is right in their own eyes, and in an attempt to do the right thing, they end up doing what they want. They end up doing incredible violence.
This story begs the question that I’ve been asking since my sabbatical–where is our faith in our social justice? What role does it play? Where is God in “for such a time as this?”
My greatest fear is that in our zeal for social justice, we lose sight of God’s call, and we forget to listen for the spirit at work, we stray from the path of discipleship. I fear that we might forget to balance our love for justice, with telling the story of Jesus and praying for wisdom to know how to act.
So many of the stories in the Hebrew scriptures–Esther and the book of Judges included–are reminders of how much we need God. When we do what is right in our own eyes, when we act “for such a time as this” without God’s guidance, I fear that we too might lose our way.
The story of Esther is–today–a reminder of our need for God. We can do much good without God, but we can also very quickly lose our way without God’s guidance and wisdom.
We were born for such a time as this, but we still need God. AMEN.