Sunday, December 13, 2015

Called and Freed to Be Ordinary Radicals

I love John.  John the Baptizer.  What a guy…what a character!  Dressed funny, eating strange things, and never afraid to speak his mind and to be a mouthpiece for God.  He tells truth boldly and with no trace of fear.  I just love him.  He’s one of my most favorite Biblical folks.  One of my favorites, even though I must admit to being a little uncomfortable whenever I read what he has to say.
“You brood of vipers!”
And although that is so outrageous as to be a little laughable in this day and age, the thing about truth-tellers is they capture our imaginations precisely because they make us uncomfortable.  Maybe we are tempted to dismiss John as “a crazy wild man” because of his appearance and his words, but through them, we are captivated.  He is a prophet, an inspired teacher and proclaimer of the will of God.  He’s a radical.  The people in the crowds have come to the water to be baptized by John, and he greets them, “You brood of snakes!  What do you think you are doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?”[1]  Do you think simply saying “I’ve been baptized!” will save you?
I think often, especially as Lutherans, we are often tempted to say, “yes” to that question.  After all, we hold mightily to the truth that we are “saved by grace through faith apart from works of law.”  And that is true.  We who believe in God are given complete grace, mercy, and love.  However, the salvation and redemption and re-turning to God that comes through faith and through our baptismal covenant with God does not save us from judgement if we don’t own that baptismal claim on our lives and do something with it. 
In other words, it’s not enough to acknowledge what we are saved from (sin and death), but we also ought to spend some real time meditating on what we are saved for.  And then do something with it.
(Pastor Dan said it really well today in Sunday school when he said, "We don't need our good works, God doesn't need our good works, but your neighbor sure does.)
John says, “It is your life that must change, not your skin.”[2]  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’[3]” His message is clear. Don’t assume that because you have a religious heritage or a tidy religious upbringing or because you are baptized, or confirmed, or go to worship on Sunday, you belong to God’s people.  In other words, your life, your relationship to your neighbor is more important to God than your pedigree.  If the people who identify themselves as God’s people do not live in relationship to the world as children of God through their actions…through the fruit that they produce…God can always start over with people who are willing to bear God into the world through their obedience in word and in deed.
Now here’s the part in the Gospel lesson that sticks out to me as a little hopeful.  Instead of throwing up their hands in dismay, the crowd engages John by saying, “if who we claim to be isn’t enough to escape judgement, then what are we supposed to do?”  And John responds with a practical list of things, “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.”  And this is important, John leaves no wiggle room, no room for disobedience for those of us who might say, “Well, I’m not rich…I don’t have excessive wealth or things.”  John says clearly, “some people in your community don’t have enough to survive, so if you have anything at all, share it.”[4]  Again and again in the gospel, we see condemnation of the rich.  If you are wealthy, even if you have acquired it without hurting anyone, God offers admonition to share and promises woe if we don’t share with the poor.  (this is echoed later by Jesus in the Beatitudes).  It is not enough that you don’t actively hurt your neighbor by cheating or stealing or by paying unfair wages.  You must also not injure your neighbor passively by ignoring her.  If we see a need, John (and Jesus) say we are to meet that need.  It is not enough to say “hey, I got all this stuff fair and square”…we must give what we don’t need to those who do need it.  Note:  I did not say share what we don’t want.  That’s easy enough.  I said, “share what we don’t need.”  But it’s difficult to do in practice because we earthly creatures are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t hold tight to what we’ve got.  We are bound to our material possessions and eager to cling to them, even if we see someone else struggling.  We are tempted to say, “She should have gotten herself an education.  He should get himself a job.  Make better choices.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, people, it’s the American way.  I did it, you can and you should do it too.  Reap what you sow.  Etc.”
John says that’s not the way to be for children of God.  Our job is not to judge.  Our job is to care for one another and all of creation.  If you have two coats, give one away.  Not, if you have two coats, determine whether or not the freezing person in front of you has done enough to deserve your charity.  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.
I think about the extra bed in my house, the full pantry, the loaded closets.  I am convicted, too.  
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? 
The next questions to John from the crowd come from tax collectors and soldiers and they also say, “Teacher, what do we do?”  And here John addresses ethical behavior for people in power.  This moves beyond sharing to address behaviors that cause poverty. John tells the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing people in order to make more money. Don't take more than the minimum, don’t shake people down, and don’t blackmail them. Be content with your wages.[5]
All of these admonitions seem simple enough.  Share, be kind, be honest. 
And I think it really is that simple.  But somehow the execution of those things seems abundantly difficult when we hold them up to the kind of world we live in. 
There are some scary things happening out there.  Mass shootings, terrorist threats, police brutality against people of color, and cover ups by those civil servants sworn to serve and to protect us. 
It is tempting to turn inward to declare those things “someone else’s problems” and to “take care of me and mine”.  The other temptation is to look at the magnitude of suffering in the world, those beaten or murdered or chased from their homes, children in this country and in others who are sick and suffering and starving…to look at all of that and to throw up our hands and say, “it’s too much, I can’t fix this.”  But that’s not what we are called to. That’s not the baptismal claim on our lives. 
We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is everyone.  And if that sounds overwhelming, what if I say it a different way?  We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is anyone?
That means we have the opportunity to be ordinary radicals every single day.  That means interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of any person we might encounter.  What if we go into the world looking for ways, little ways, to be kind…to be honest?
Radical means relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.  What if we work to fundamentally change the way we as a community interact with one another one little encounter at a time?  That, my brothers and sisters, is completely doable.  Through ordinary things.
Last night, my girl Helen told me about a child in her school.  This little girl is about 10 years old.  She is Muslim and wears hijab, a head scarf, as an outward expression of her faith…even though she is the only child in her school to do so.  Helen says that when other children pass this girl in the hallway, they whisper “ISIS” to her.  As though this little girl could possibly be connected to or responsible for extremists on the other side of the world.  She is being bullied, ostracized, shamed, threatened because of her faith…her firm belief in Allah. 
Helen came to me last night with grief for this girl.  “How do I help, Mama?  What can I do?”  And so, Helen and I spent last night talking about Islam, about what it means to be Muslim, who Allah is.
Do you know what the name “Allah” means?  It simply means “God alone.”  And Muslim is an Arabic word that means, “one who surrenders to God.”  Helen and I have come to understand that although we believe and proclaim Jesus as God and Savior, we must be Muslim, too.  Ones who surrender to Allah…ones who surrender to God alone. 
Helen has figured out that she and this girl are not so very different after all, and that to be Muslim means the exact opposite of what ISIS stands for.
So, “How do I help, Mama?  How can I be this girl’s friend and supporter?”…my 11 year old girl has already seen the hurt and shame and anxiety and distrust on her schoolmate’s face brought about by the fear and hardened hearts of other children…fear borne in ignorance.  Helen has figured out that if everyone understood what it means to be Muslim, this girl would not be being treated so badly. 
So, we decided that Helen will introduce herself to this child of God, this child of Allah, by saying, “My name is Helen.  Your hijab is lovely.  Will you teach me how to tie one?” 
This is a tiny thing.  But it is powerful.  It addresses the visual symbol of this child’s faith which the world is using to shame her…and calls this symbol beautiful.  And by acknowledging the beauty of the faith symbol, Helen is acknowledging the beauty of the faith.  And by asking to learn more about it, Helen can instill value in this child’s faith from a Christian perspective.  Not that this Muslim child needs Helen to validate her faith…but the Christian children at the elementary school seem to need to see that.
My girl is an ordinary radical.  Willing to fundamentally change the way this Muslim child experiences school in Prattville, Alabama.  And, Insha’Allah, God-willing, fundamentally changing the ways both Helen and other Christian children interact with her.
Sharing a coat.  Sharing a lunch.  Sharing a carefully worded compliment.  Sharing a moment in time which says explicitly or implicitly “I am with you.”
That’s what we are saved for.  That’s what our Baptism calls us to do:  bearing Christ into the world with our hands and our feet and our mouths until he comes again.
We are called and freed to be ordinary radicals.  In the name of Jesus.

Thanks to
The Message
Working Preacher
for assistance this week.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

In the Meantime, the In-between Time

I grew up here in the Bible Belt…well, all over it, really, and when I was in middle school (junior high), I remember riding the bus through the mountains of East Tennessee…which you might call “the buckle”…with my baby sister Elisabeth and my best friend Shannon.  The three of us often shared a seat, or Shannon would sit with her little brother in the seat just next to ours.  It was a time for the important conversations of middle school:  which teacher was being “nice” this week (this usually meant who had decided against giving us homework), what we were hoping to get our parents to let us do over the weekend (which usually meant trying to persuade them to let us spend all waking hours and most sleeping ones together), and, of course, who liked who (this was junior high, after all. Jesus says not to judge us). 

But I remember one particular morning as we drove along, past drop-off shoulders down sides of small mountains (hills in East Tennessee…mountains to those of us who call Montgomery home) and around the curve by the cemetery at the top of the hill, some other kids on the bus told us that ketchup was declared a vegetable and the world was going to end that very afternoon.  They had heard it on the radio over breakfast, and so they knew it was true.  Jesus was coming back, and the world would end in a blaze of fire and fury. Just. Like. That.

I was a little concerned that Elisabeth might hear this particular conversation and be unduly worried.  After all, she is 6 ½ years younger than me, and it was my JOB to protect her from unreasonable worry (unless I was the one administering it, of course).  So my friend Shannon and I, being the intelligent, reasonable, older siblings, began to refute this world-ending prophesy as a possibility.  I pulled out some conversation I had had with my dad about the matter, citing my confirmation curriculum and the particular wisdom which comes from being a Lutheran in the Bible Belt.  “Of course, Jesus isn’t coming this afternoon!  The Bible clearly says that Jesus will come like a thief in the night!  If you can say the hour or the day, it just can’t be true!!  2 Peter.”  And I don’t know about Shannon, but I felt pretty smart that morning…teaching those born-again Christians what the Bible really says.

And as we argued, voices getting louder and louder, my little sister, whom I had nearly forgotten in my righteous fervor, piped up:  “But if Jesus is coming,” she said, “what do we do in the meantime?”

In the meantime…

The gospel lesson today takes me right back to that scene on the bus in the hills of Morristown, the smell of hot vinyl seats and rubber erasers and bodies not washed nearly recently enough.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.   Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."[1]

Can you smell the vinyl and the brimstone?

I really wish that Luke had added a “but then” in the middle there. 

Because then, we might read it like this, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.  And [But] then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome!  When all this starts to happen, up on your feet.  Stand tall with your heads high.  Help is on the way!”[2]

Help is on the way!  Jesus is coming!  Not as a matter of alarm, but as a matter of alleluia!!  The listeners of Luke in that day would have understood this passage to mean that Christians should be alert, should be paying attention, for the coming of Christ.  That is, not so caught up in the expectations of the world or of the season…parties, drinking, shopping, maybe even the worrying that comes with daily living…not be so caught up in all of that that they forget to remain confident, even eager, as they look for signs that signal the coming of the Son of Man. 

The listeners of Luke in the time of the gospel writing were all too familiar with war, famine, and destruction.  They looked with hopeful anticipation toward the day that Jesus would return to end the Roman Empire once-and-for-all, to end the oppression for those who followed Christ.

Luke was sensitive to that, of course.  And he pushed his listeners to stand in the in-between space.  In other words, Luke changes the question from “when is Jesus coming?” to “what do we do in the meantime?”  It is that in-between time, that in-the-meantime, which opens space for the mission of God and our participation in it.  So that no matter what rumors are heard, the church is to remain committed to ministry in the world.

Now in this time and place, we know, thank you, science, that the world will not end this afternoon.  But AT THE SAME TIME, we are well acquainted with the challenges that come while waiting for an event that seems slow to transpire. 

What are you waiting for? 
The end of childhood hunger both here and abroad. 
Biopsy results. 
Reconciliation with a loved one. 
A welcome for refugees. 
Civil rights and acceptance for LGBTQ folks. 
The cessation of violence in this country against Black and Brown bodies.

And how do we feel in that waiting time?  Are we fraught with tension?  With anxiety or anticipation?  Maybe so.  But Luke would remind us that we are also to be leaning toward hope.  Hope that comes because we know the rest of the story.  

And that hope is where we draw strength for our participation in God’s mission in the world. 

We await the coming of Christ, but we do not do so idly. 

My professor David Lose says, “From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can "stand up and raise [our] heads" because we have heard Jesus' promise that our "redemption draws near."[3]

We, too, have heard that Jesus is coming.

How will you raise your head?  How will you get up on your feet?  How can you prepare the way for the coming of Christ in the days to come?  Can you find a new or deeper way to participate in Lunches for Learning?  Can you be a voice for someone who has none?  Can you be an advocate for those folks who live in the margins here in Montgomery…margins because of gender or sexuality or poverty or religion or race?  Can you share your time and your resources?  Or can you bear witness in your daily interactions…as I like to say to the good folks at Christ in Prattville…how can you be an ordinary radical…that is interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of your neighbors? 

Speak up when you see little injustices.  Write your representatives when you see big ones.  Begin conversations which might change the lives of the ones with whom you speak…or which might just change your own life.  Welcome others in to your presence and thereby welcome them in to the presence of God.

Turns out, my baby sister is a powerful schoolbus theologian.

Jesus is coming.  Thanks be to God!

Now, what are we going to do in the meantime?


[1] NRSV
[2] The Message

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Uncovering Hope

The scripture lessons for this week come from what we call “apocalyptic literature”.  Now, I grew up here in the South where good folks, neighbors and preachers alike, used readings like this to predict the end of the world, to call for “repentance”, to assure the rest of us that “the end is near” and that we better “get right with God” and “to Hell (literally) with everybody else.”  And if the billboards around town at Halloween were any indication, this sort of preaching and teaching is still happening here. 
Millions of dollars were made and spent on the “Left Behind” series.  Lots of sleep was lost over the end of the Mayan calendar.  And if you Google the definition of “apocalyptic” you get the answer “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”  But that’s not really what these lessons are about.  That’s not even what the word is supposed to mean.
If we go back to the roots of the word “apocalyptic”, we find that the word has roots in Greek “apokaluptein” and actually means “uncover”. 
What in the world are we supposed to uncover in readings such as these? 
You see, all of the lessons this morning were written in a time of madness, despair, and exile (either literal or figurative). 
Daniel was written for the Hebrew people as they struggled through literal exile…a casting out of their land…a land which was central to their faith.  It was written to give hope to a people who had lost hope…a literary lifeline “in that time, your people shall be delivered.”  Hope for the hopeless.
Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christians living in Rome.  They were caught between the crush of empire and the struggle with their Jewish sisters and brothers.  Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.  Words pointing to a soft spot to land…hope.
The Gospel lesson is no different.
If you consult Biblical commentators (or talk with my internship supervisor Terry Kyllo), you’ll find that most of them agree that that Gospel According to St Mark was written during the Jewish revolt of 67.  By that time, Palestine had been under Roman occupation for more than a century.  The people’s land had been stolen from under them.  The vast majority of the people were poor beyond our comprehension in modern day United States and were forced to make terrible choices:  many of them could not both pay their taxes and eat.  (So the choice was “how would you prefer to die…starvation or execution?)  They wondered “how long can this go on?”
In earlier centuries, the people of Israel had been crushed under still other empires, and during those times of oppression and occupation they developed an idea of an “anointed one”, a messiah.  They believed that the messiah would free them from the oppressive empires and lead them to live as God imagined…as God created them to be.
In those days, the people believed that the messiah would come as a mighty warrior who would amass a colossal army.  The messiah would over throw the Romans with violence and war and, to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, he would paint the mountains red with the blood of their enemies.
Jesus didn’t look like that guy.  And so, not all of the Jews came to understand that Jesus is the messiah…the true anointed one sent by God as savior to the people.  They waited for another to come.  They began to grow weary of waiting.  And they began to do the violent work of overthrowing the empire themselves.
But eventually, those who used violence to cast out the Romans turned on each other.  Blood ran in the streets as the groups fought to see whose leader would reign in Jerusalem and be revealed as the “true messiah”.  All this infighting left the people distracted and weary and vulnerable.  By the year 70, the Romans returned to Jerusalem.  Over a million people died in the takeover.  The temple was destroyed…and so were the hearts of the people.
Once you know the history, the lesson today takes on new meaning….we’ve uncovered another message here.  In this story, the writer of the Gospel of Mark is urging his community not to participate in the violence.  Neither against the Romans nor against other Jews.  “Don’t listen”, he says, “to those who claim to be the messiah.  Don’t fall into violence.”  Mark is telling us that the way of Jesus, this nonviolent, obedient-to-God-but-not-to-the-world way of living is the only way to life as God envisions for us. 
While I was on internship, Terry frequently reminded me that it often feels as though we have to or that we should use force or violence to make the world better.  And the human reaction to pain is to wish for someone else to experience it too or more or instead.  “An eye for an eye,” we say.  But Jesus says, “if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”  Violence leads to more violence, and violence in the name of God makes God into a god of violence.  Whatever god we worship, that’s the god we try to live out in our personal lives, and that becomes the kind of society we create.  A vison or an understanding of a god of violence can only lead to our mutual destruction and a dog-eat-dog-eat-cat-until-only-the-cockroaches-remain kind of world.
Jesus says we don’t have to live like that.
That’s what we’re uncovering here in the lessons today.  We’re uncovering hope and the realization that there is something larger than violence and death out there in the world.  That our God is not a god of violence but a God of presence, of accompaniment, of love. That God remains with us in our pain, in our fear, in our weariness, in our suffering, and in our despair.  God is bigger than all of those things.  And God is present with us in the midst of them.
On Friday, I heard the news of the terror attacks in Paris.  And then I heard of the attacks in Beirut the day before.  And I’ve watched the last two days as the media has covered the stories with such radical difference.  And I’ve learned that there have been attacks on many days last week in several other Middle Eastern countries which received just as little press coverage as the ones in Beirut did.  Iraq.  Syria.  Palestine.  Most of my friends on Facebook changed their pictures so that an overlay of the French flag was visible, and that’s not a bad thing.  But no one has changed theirs to look like the flag of Lebanon.  Or the Palestinian flag…or…or…
I’ve a beloved friend who is Muslim and who grew up in Turkey with a British mother and a Turkish father.  We met because our spouses share a vocation, and she is a citizen of the United States now.  Her heartbreak, and mine, is that terror is just that:  terror.  We shared a conversation last night in which she said, “Everytime there is a terror attack, my heart breaks. Every time there is a terror attack in a western country, my heart aches the same way….AND we deal with Islamophibic bigots.”  Violence begets violence.  Often in sideways kinds of ways.  “If I can’t give it to the guy who did this, I’ll give it to the guy who looks like him or worships like him or dresses like him because they must be the same…”  That’s not okay.  It’s not loving.  It’s not Godly.
We can’t afford to give in to violence against our neighbor because she or he bears some resemblance in appearance to the ones who perpetrated these attacks.  Violence against us births our fears and tempts us to birth violence.  We want someone else to feel and to understand our terror too or more or instead.  But that’s not what the gospel writer is after.  We can’t give in.  Especially to fear and misdirected anger and violence.  To quote actor Mark Ruffalo, “Don’t allow this horrific act to allow you to be drawn into the loss of your humanity or tolerance.  That is the intended outcome.”
So, then, what?
Mark the gospel writer reminds us that when things are uncertain or scary or there appears to be no end to the pains and struggles and things that terrify us, God is still present in the creation and re-creation of the world.
That’s what these lessons are uncovering for us today.
That’s what those birthpangs are about.
Transforming the world without violence is not easy or pain-free.  And it is risky.
But God is in the middle of all this.  In the middle of Paris as musicians play memorials at the sites of the slaughter, yes, but also in the middle of Beirut as a father and daughter sacrificed themselves for the sake of the lives of hundreds as they worshiped in mosque, and in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Israel…in all of these places where fear and violence appear to be winning the battle.  God is there.   Bringing, bearing, birthing something new into the world.  As Terry says, “God our Mother continues to push and to breathe until by grace we lay down our silence at injustice and our swords of fear and live in the way of Jesus.”
What does that mean for us?  For this little band of believers in Prattville, Alabama?
It means that we take seriously Hebrews 10:24.  “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Where do you see fear or pain in our community?  Where are you called to bear witness to a living, loving God?  How can you provoke your neighbor to be active in love and in word and in deed?  Where can you bring reassurance of God’s love to light a place or a heart which was or is dark with fear?  How can you, yes you, bear witness to a God who is NOT far away but who is in fact dwelling with us in these turbulent times?
We ARE called to bear light into darkness.  We are called to walk in a world of frightened, frightening, angry, lonely, hurting people and to uncover the good news for the whole world.  Not by doomsday predictions or attempts at controlling or dictating behavior, but by being the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  By encouraging or PROVOKING one another into acts of love, works of truth-telling of witness-bearing of non-violence.
We are called to do and to proclaim loudly the works of God in this world. 
We are called to uncover hope as the world ends and begins again.


Much content unapologetically borrowed from Rev. Terry Kyllo and Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton.  They can be found here and here respectively.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

One Year Later- a homily for Marysville and Tulalip

photo taken from the website of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Marysville, WA
In June, I was asked to write a sermon for the 9 month mark after the shootings at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.  This sermon was to accompany a service for healing and was intended to be heard by a community of many faiths and backgrounds.  The service was never held and so the sermon never preached, but I thought today, at the one year mark, the words might offer hope as we continue to walk toward healing.

May Creator guide, heal, and sustain us.  Amen.

(Please read Psalm 46 and John 1:1-5)

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change…”
And change it has. 
Nine months ago, we could pretend that we were just another all-American town (whatever that means…I’m not sure exactly).  Nine months ago, we hung Halloween decorations, brought out our heavier sweaters, and watched our young people head out to Homecoming games and parties and dances.  Nine months ago, we prayed for the people on the other side of the world, for those who don’t have it as good as we do.  We worried for Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan as Muslim killed Muslim in power struggles masquerading as religious difference.  We thought about Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone.  Countries which were being ravaged by Ebola.  We prayed for girls in Liberia who were kidnapped and sold into slavery.  We prayed for Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black man was shot to death by a police officer, and for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, where a gay couple was severely beaten because of the person they loved.  Nine months ago, we thought tragedy belonged somewhere else.
Today marks nine months since our little community was rocked by violence.  Nine months since that crisp autumn day in October when a smiling, bright eyed, and laughing teenage boy walked into the cafeteria at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and murdered his friends.  And took his own life.  And shattered the illusion that our world is predictable, that our town is safe from seemingly random acts of violence.  It shook us to our very core.  Our hearts melted. 
The questions of how this happened have been mostly answered.  The questions of why this happened may never be.  Sometimes there are no answers.  And that space between knowledge and understanding is a difficult space in which to stand.  No man’s land.  A place where we feel lost and desperate and as though the world shifts under our feet.  A place where we get so off kilter that it may seem the whole world is slanted or crooked or wrong.  A place where the seas in our souls rage and where we tremble in tumult.
But God is present even here.  Even in the places where we think or we feel impossibly alone, desperately abandoned.  God is here.  God has always been here, “In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.”  God present from the beginning of time and through all of time since the world was new.  And God promises to remain here with us and to give some measure of calm.
As I was reflecting on the seasons that have passed since those five children walked into spirit country and only one remained here, I was able to see streams of calm, rivers of gladness, pockets of hope…places where the light of God shined so brightly that it became our strength.
The tribes, the city, the schools came together to help guide our people toward recovery.  Other school systems sent guidance counselors to assist our children.  Grocery store managers provided food for rescue workers and school and city officials.  Churches opened their doors for safe harbor and reunion.  Children offered flowers and prayer flags and song and embrace.  As morning dawned, it was clear that God was in this place.  Here in Marysville, WA. 
And there we found hope.
And as the days since October have passed, some bright and some bleak, we have discovered that hope comes abundantly to those who are open to receive it and hope is offered continually for those who are not quite ready. 
It is in the prayers of our neighbors of all faiths, 40 of whom were represented in the Interfaith Prayer Service, in the postponement of a high school football game as rival teams granted our team mercy in the week that followed, it is in the songs of school children as they offer their voices in prayer and lament, in the dances of rainbow children as their movement proclaims death does not have the final word, in the return of the butterfly which announces the running of the salmon…a sign that all will be well.
The Creator breathes into our midst, in the middle of our suffering, and we find strength and refuge in the Word of our Creator’s lips born in the lives of one another and in the renewal of creation
And there we find hope.
Hope that God will take this vile action, this loss of life and beauty and joy, this ruin, and continue to shatter it…to burn it.  To destroy weapons of war and destruction that this may never happen again in this place…and, we pray, in this world.
Hope that we can still our quaking souls and remember and understand that God is God!  God is with us; God is our refuge.  God who is here and promises to remain here.  Creator who is life and light to all people.  From before the worlds began.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and will not overcome it.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mark 8:34-37 or Jesus, the Rich Man, and the Condemnation of Christopher Columbus

The challenge of preaching this story is that it really is as simple as it sounds.  Often in a text, I’ll discover some meaning that had been hidden before, or as I get older I see new ways to interpret a lesson.  But this one is fairly flat.  Now this year, we are reading this story on Columbus Day weekend, and I am having no success at separating the two…so maybe the merging of these two stories is just what the Great and Holy Spirit is whispering today.

So, Jesus is on “the way” (which we know to mean the road to Jerusalem rather than simply headed down the street to Grandma’s house), and a young man stops him and kneels before him.  “Good teacher,” he says, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the question without really answering the question, because, well, we know that there is nothing you can do to inherit something.  An inheritance can be a kind of gift (it can also be a burden, right?).  To receive one, someone else has to die.  So it’s not so much about what you do as it is about your relationship to the one granting the fortune (or dining room table, or grandfather clock, or geriatric Bishon Frise…just a few of the things I’ve inherited from relatives over the years).

Maybe this young fellow means “how do I get saved?”  Now, we know the rest of the story, Jesus continues on the way to the cross and that’s ultimately what brings us back into full relationship with God, but this young guy doesn’t know that.  He just knows that Jesus has the answer.  But the Jesus we meet in the gospel of Mark plays his divinity really close to his chest.  He spends a large portion of this gospel account admonishing people to “tell no one” that he is the Messiah. 

Now we know from reading the rest of the Gospel according to Mark that when a person kneels down to ask Jesus for something it’s always a request for healing.  Could this be the case here?  Is Mark trying to tell us that something needs to be healed in this man’s life?  Maybe, because Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t answer the question that the young man has asked.  His answer to the young man isn’t about what you have to do to inherit eternal life because Jesus already knows how that will happen.  His answer to the young man is about how to build relationship with his neighbors and fellow inheritors of the kingdom of God.

Maybe Jesus is saying that to bring forth healing and the kingdom, we have to consider our neighbors.  If you look again at the passage, you’ll see that all of the commandments Jesus cites in this conversation are from the 2nd portion of the 10 Commandments.  They are all related to human interactions rather that to the human/divine interaction.  “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your elders.”  When the young man says he’s done all of that already, Jesus says, “ok then, there’s one thing left:  Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say “burn it” nor does he tell the young man to just walk away from it all.  Jesus says, “sell it and give it to the poor”.  To the poor.

Now you see, in the time of Jesus, despite the words of the prophets, many people viewed the wealthy as specially blessed by God.  I wonder if we in the 21st century United States still see it that way.  If I work hard enough, I’ll get God’s favor.  If I have all the things: money, good car, nice house, beautiful wife, land…  Those things and wealth and ownership have come to be synonymous in this culture with “blessing”.  But Jesus reminds us that that isn’t true.  Over and over again, God in the person of Jesus aligns Godself with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor.

 Jesus asks for the young man to change his relationship with the poor.  He is asking the young man to help his neighbors and to really identify with them.  To move from a place of charity and disengagement to one of relationship and accompaniment.  And perhaps Jesus sees that for this young man (and for us!) to be engaged with his neighbor will bring healing to both of them.

What do you have that puts a barrier between you and your neighbor?  What do you do or say that builds a wall between you and the poor?  Where do you travel or live that says “I’m better than you”.  What do you own that says implicitly or explicitly “I’m the inheritor, the chosen” or “you’re not welcome”?

(Confession:  I’ve got a sign hanging in the entrance of my house.  It preaches law and division.  And I love it.   It says, “Be Nice or Go Away.”)

In 1492, the indigenous people of the Americas discovered Christopher Columbus.  And a little over 500 years later, many or even most indigenous peoples still wish that they hadn’t.  While I was taught in school (in Georgia and in Tennessee) that Columbus arrived peaceably and discovered “savages” and set about “making their lives better, poor dears”, as an adult, I know this “truth” to be a terrible lie.

Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere and brought disease, and torture, and famine, and slavery.  His arrival impacts us greatly even today, not because he “discovered” a world which had already been peacefully occupied for thousands and thousands of years, but because today in this country, especially in the South, we feel the repercussions every day of his arrival as we live in broken relationship with people of color because we continue to wrestle with that legacy of slavery, and I don’t know for sure, but I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a Native American person with whom to share a cup of coffee on any given Saturday morning around here.  Because we forced them away.

“In 1838, four thousand Cherokee died in the forced removal that the Cherokee call “The Trail Where They Cried”.  The removal of the Cherokee people resulted from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was violently implemented by Andrew Jackson.  In 1831, the Choctaw were the first to be uprooted, followed by the Seminole in 1832, the Creek in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838.  By 1837, forty-six thousand Native Americans had been removed from their homes.”[1]  Removed from their ancestral land.  Forced into a particularly hellish kind of exile where families were given impossible decisions…the kind where no matter the choice, a piece of the chooser’s soul was lost. 

Imagine for a moment that you are a Native woman.  You have married a white man and your tribe has adopted him into your culture.  Your husband and your children have lived with and among your people working for the good of the tribe, for the good of the neighbor.  Now imagine the federal government steps in and says, “you, Native woman, can choose.  You can become “white” and remain in your ancestral lands with your children and husband, or you can leave your children, husband, and the land of your heart (the seat of your relationship with Creator) and march with your tribe to a new land.  Choose either your people, your sisters and mothers and fathers and brothers and your traditions which are as much a part of you as your bones and your skin and your soul, or choose your children and your spouse and your home where the trees know your name but you can no longer have both.”  Impossible.

Here in the South in particular, we are inheritors of this dastardly removal.  People died and made impossible decisions so that we might work and play and worship on land that was stolen on our behalf.   

James and I own a home here in Prattville.  It’s a tiny property really with a small-for-six-humans-three-dogs-and-two-cats brick house built upon it.  My kids and their friends and furry companions run around our lawn with barefeet (watch out for the fireants!) playing soccer and fetch and remembering their baptisms in the sprinkler.
But I am deeply aware that long before the feet of my children touched the grass in the back yard, before the foundation of our home was poured, before the farmer sold us the land to build on, before the farmer tilled that soil, this land belonged to the Creek.  Other children have run barefoot over this grass.  Other friendships have been forged here.  Other meals prepared.  Other hearts have sung.  Other eyes have watched the storm crest the hills to the northwest and wondered if they should bring in the laundry.
My family and I live on and benefit from someone else’s deep and grievous loss.
“In the church, we celebrate martyrs and saints, not warriors and conquistadors.  The church has a rich history of celebrating particular people.  While the United States might celebrate Christopher Columbus, the church celebrates the lives of saints….  We need to be about discovering lost relatives and forgotten ancestors.”[2]  We need to rediscover our neighbors and what it means to be neighbor.

On this day before Columbus Day, when our nation celebrates a mass murderer and architect of grief, pain, and destruction…in the name of God and of the church…I am pausing to consider what this means for me here in Prattville, AL, especially in light of this week’s gospel account.
Does Jesus want me to take my land, my home, and give it back to the Creek?  Yes, without a doubt.  The United Nations says that I should too.  And if my home is stolen Creek land, then this church building sits on stolen Creek land, also.  We are the conquerors.  We are the wealthy, we are the oppressors.  This is hard to hear and, trust me, hard to say, because it means that daily we are bound into a life of harming other humans because we have inherited a system which makes us the oppressor.  And there is no real way out. 
So what do we do?
What if we remember that when Jesus calls for us to sell and redistribute our wealth he is also calling for a change in relationship?  He is asking us to identify with the poor…but I think we can and we should extend this to all who are marginalized.  What if we look at our possessions and our privileges, the things that keep us complacent and on top and offer those things up for the safety, the empowerment, the comfort of our neighbors.
What if we can’t give our homes away? (because to be honest, that would require the federal government to purchase our homes and churches and Chick-fil-a’s and then give it back to the Creek…the federal government is the agency which stole the land in the first place…but we benefit from the theft…and I cannot imagine the federal government making such restitution in my lifetime)    
What if we are stuck, understanding how we benefit from a system that harms other folks?  How do we function?
I think we start by telling history truthfully. I think we honestly evaluate the church’s involvement in a history that brutalized, dehumanized, murdered, and enslaved millions of people…both Native and Black. 
Then, I think we look around and see just how we still benefit from that involvement.
Then, we open our eyes to see the very real truth that many of our neighbors still suffer today from the motion set in place by a man who sailed in the name of greed, brutality, and enslavement and called it God.
We listen.  And we open our lives, our hearts, our homes, our sanctuaries for the very real pain and grief and suffering that our neighbors still endure.  We feed them…food in Christ’s Kitchen for sure…but also the nourishment of friendship and accompaniment.  We become voices that say “I am willing to make myself vulnerable so that you might be an equal part of this community…so that we may together bring forth the kingdom”.

“Good teacher, what can we do to inherit eternal life?”  Nothing.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we’ve already inherited it.  And that’s the very Good News. 
And from that foundational promise, that wonderful inheritance, we are free to share of our time, our possessions, of our very selves in relationship to those whom God has also called “very, very good”.  And today, especially, we pray for and with Black and indigenous peoples. And we condemn the legacy of Christopher Columbus in the name of Jesus Christ.

[1] Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals