A Sermon For Pride Sunday: Draw The Circle Wide

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Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still…

                                               

They drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.

 ~Edwin Markham

Mark 7:24-30

And from there (at table in Jerusalem) Jesus arose and went away to the region of Tyre [a group of people often in conflict with or at very least strangers to the Jews]. 

And Jesus entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hidden. Immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek (gentile), a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her little daughter. 

And Jesus said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  

But the woman answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

And Jesus said to her, “Because of this word go, the demon has left your little daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.

Sermon: Draw The Circle Wide

Just before where our story for this morning picks up Jesus is at table with his disciples in Jerusalem… after yet another argument with the temple elite and legal experts about what makes something holy, ordinary or unclean… this is a long held debate, in the ancient Jewish tradition and later in our own Christian tradition… what makes something we do sacred, profane or just plain ordinary… The Pharisees Jesus argued with were making a case for their tradition in which it was customary to wash ones hands in a ritual way before sitting down at a meal, they complained that Jesus’ disciples weren’t all following these rules… Jesus didn’t actually take time to argue the merit of the ritual itself… we all know rituals can either be deeply meaningful or they can become meaningless… Jesus pushes the Pharisees to remember why they even participate in these rituals… he says its not about the ritual, its about what’s behind it… is there anything behind it? Any true commitment to God or neighbor in your ritual??

He quotes Isaiah and Moses… reminding them of their common tradition, Judaism. He reminds them that it is not simply about rules that humans make, those rules are only helpful if they point to the commandments that God makes: Love God, love your family, love your neighbor…

Mark’s Jesus is not gentle or polite. He will look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks, and he thinks these folks are misguided… he tells them that God doesn’t care what they put in there bodies… clean or unclean food so much as cares what comes out of their mouths.

When he and the disciples call it a day and are sitting around the table he gets even more graphic. Realizing, with what seems like surprise, that they still don’t understand what he’s saying, he gives them a biology lesson – “Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.” (Luke 7:19)

I know, gross right?!

But Jesus wants to be clear: God does not care what you consume; God cares what it is your heart creates. Its what emerges from our hearts that have the potential to lead us far from God, or near to God. What has the potential to defile or waste or destroy us is when a desire emanates from our hearts to hurt another, to do violence, to use our words or power to diminish or destroy, to be unfaithful or greedy or arrogant… this is the true waste that we are capable of, the wasting of our capacity for love and generosity and freedom. 

This feels like a draw the circle wide moment doesn’t it? Jesus insisting that some things trump the rules – or at the very least won’t be contained by them. Jesus insisting that it’s love, not rules that win.

So this the last conversation Jesus has before the encounter we read this morning. Right before he speaks these horrible words to a desperate woman begging for his help, he speaks these words, these wise and brave words to the disciples.

Don’t you find that a bit unsettling? How do we square these two encounters? One in which he seems so clear, so sure about what boundaries, what rules, are truly important (or aren’t) and in the next seems to build a fence around his compassion? You know, I love it when Jesus is bold and I can even handle crass – it gets my attention – but what’s with the cruelty? How can he be so cruel?

Jesus goes by himself to region of Tyre, he finds a friendly home and hopes to stay there for a bit without being seen. The text doesn’t tell us whether he’s come to rest, or pray, or plan. Simply that he didn’t come to do public ministry and yet Mark tells us, immediately, this woman who has heard of him comes along and throws herself at his feet, begging for his healing help.

Every time I read this story I’m brought up short by the way Jesus behaves here. What is he doing?

I’m not a parent with a lot of rules but the big one at my house is, we don’t hurt one another. Not with words or hands or fists or feet. Causing someone pain on purpose Just. Does. Not. Fly. And when Jesus calls this woman a dog I have to admit I recoil, I am angry and sad and shocked… I’m disappointed – this is the beloved child of God, this is the boundary breaking, in your face for justice version of God walking around with human skin on… And not unlike I would respond to my children I have to ask: what are you doing? What are you thinking Jesus?

This seems so out of character for him, why would Jesus harass this poor woman who simply wanted to save her tiny child. Isn’t this exactly who Jesus most often goes around standing up for, poor defenseless women? Outsiders? The powerless and the oppressed?

But here’s the thing… we don’t, any of us, fit so neatly into such categories do we? It would be so much easier if we did. This is why I think we are so quick to make assumptions about one another. It’s just easier than delving into the complexity. It’s simpler to sort ourselves than to allow ourselves to overlap, collide and impact one another.

I have to admit, in most cases I wouldn’t even stop to consider the assumptions I make about the woman in this story except if they are true then it seems Jesus is using (or not using his power) in an incredibly hurtful way, even if he is tired and just wants a break. This is the one to whom I confess… I need to understand. And so Jesus’ behavior gives me cause for pause, to stop and dig a bit deeper into this story… into the complexity of these characters.

 So, first let us understand the geography of where Jesus has arrived… the region of Tyre has an urban center almost entirely filled with gentiles (or Greeks). They are the wealthy class at the center of the region but along the rural borderlands, probably where Jesus was visiting and hoping to remain hidden, there is a large and ethnically diverse community that included Jews, these folks farmed and raised livestock, and were most likely quite poor and would often go hungry in order to supply the urban center’s population with resources. Tensions were likely high between these communities. Urban and rural, Greek and Jews, rich and poor, the power flowed from the center and rarely reached the edges. In some ways it mirrors the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine.

When we read this story, we often make some serious assumptions about the woman that Mark tells us is Greek… from Syria. He says gentile and we read outsider. He tells us she is a woman and we assume poor. He tells us she throws herself at the feet of Jesus and we think powerless.

But it’s more complicated than that. As a gentile woman she is likely from the urban center. Likely she has resources and clout in her community. She is an outsider in this Jewish household, she has crossed a boundary to come to Jesus but in the larger scheme of things it is Jesus who is an outsider in the Region of Tyre.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m trying to simply flip this story, I’m not interested in painting Jesus as a victim here any more than I liked this woman being treated as one. I’m making it complicated because it is complicated. Jesus is a Jew, and even causing trouble within his own Jewish communities.  This will put him at odds with those in political and religious power throughout his entire ministry. But Jesus is also a teacher, a Rabbi, a man deserving respect and a man who has the ability to heal the sick, sometimes, with a simple word.

The fact that Mark doesn’t even give us a name for this woman indicates her value to some extent. Women are so often left unnamed, it makes it easier to dismiss them, which Jesus has all of the power to do. And in her suffering and pain, in her driven desire to do what ever it takes to save her child she makes herself incredibly vulnerable no matter how wealthy she might or not be.

And here’s what I think happens. Jesus sees this woman, and he sees the antithesis of everything he’s preaching. He’s just come from Jerusalem where he’s trying to shift the politics and the economic powers in his community towards justice instead of being a slave to greed, he comes to Tyre to be among his own community, to take refuge in his own people, faithful and hardworking Jews, and this woman who represents yet another powerful system that crushes the folks he loves comes asking him for his help and he calls her a dog.

 A dog. This was not a term used to describe all gentiles; and Jesus has already shown kindness to other gentiles in his ministry. The word dog was used by Jews in this time period to describe those who hounded them, who scavenged from their work and resources, who used their power and strength to take what wasn’t theirs, and to benefit from their loss. Like the dogs who lived off on the edges of their farms and villages, that indiscriminately took what they could without concern about who it impacted.

Jesus called the woman a dog because this is what he saw when he looked at her; he saw a scavenger and an outsider. But in that moment she was more than the categories and assumptions and stories he knows about people from the city of Tyre. She was a fellow human in pain, she was a parent who would do anything to recover her child, she was in deep need and she knew, she knew that Jesus was her answer.

In that moment, in which many of us, if we were met with anger, whether deserved or undeserved, would turn away. In that moment, when most of us, if called names, or treated with cruelty would hide our faces, would give up and walk away, the woman insists. She stands her ground, and I imagine her looking Jesus in the eyes when she asks him to consider the plight of even the little dogsshe has the wit to take him in, to encircle his system, his beliefs, his mission with her own need, and I think Jesus sees her. He suddenly sees her, not her Gentile-ness, not her woman-ness, not her rich or poor or greediness… he sees her humanness. And he hears her pain and it changes him. He changes his mind because of her words. He tells her this himself, “because of your words your little daughter has been healed.”

What’s amazing about this story is that this woman could feel the promise pulsating off of Jesus. She could smell the new life on him and she was willing to wrestle it from him if necessary… I love that Jesus was walking around exuding a story more promising than he even realized… and so are we. We hold a promise bigger than we can imagine, we have good news that’s so big we will never be able to tell the whole story, and we have endless, endless love to spare. Wouldn’t it be amazing if folks didn’t have to throw themselves at our feet and beg to be healed? Cry out to be seen? Wait, and wait and wait to be included?

Our ideas about status and the categories we create that divide us are our own inventions, we do this sometimes to create order, to divide things up so we can attend to them effectively and appropriately… sometimes we develop identities that are a rich celebration of our particular experiences, cultures, ethnicities and familial stories but other times we create or use these categories to diminish and control people… Even Jesus did it, you are not a Jew… you are not a human… you are a dog.

Think about how race and ethnicity have been used as categories to diminish some folks while elevating others. Consider how we misuse male words or female words to describe whether something is strong or weak, whether someone is smart or dumb. And consider how narrow of a story we tell about what constitutes normal or acceptable when it comes to how we define our relationships and our families, when we know, in this community, so many beautiful variations of family?

When I was in seminary I remember reading a theologian who was discussing how we participate in conversations about pluralism and interfaith relationships. And he used an illustration that I’ve always remembered and I think can apply to so many of the ways we categorize ourselves. He suggested that most often we create spectrums… spectrums of belief, spectrums of political or social perspective, spectrums of sexual orientation and personality. Instead of locating ourselves on a long line, he says we might think instead of locating ourselves inside of circles. The smallest circle is personal, it tells your story… mine says I am a woman, a daughter, a mother, a Midwesterner, an American, queer, white etc… but eventually I move outward drawing wider circles to include communities of which I’m a part, to include ways I’m connected to others until I finally arrive at some very large circles, the circle of humanness, the circle of all that is created life…

The categories we create are only helpful if they enliven us and help us to understand one another, to draw closer together and create meaning for ourselves and for all people, just like the rules Jesus argues with the temple leaders, they are only good if used for growing closer to God, not if they are used to divide or diminish us or to exclude one another.

One of the most poignant moments in the lgbtq workshops I’ve been teaching is when one young man, a member of a youth group, listening to the story of how the categories in the lgbtqia family have continued to grow and be defined in order to make sure no one is left out, he raised his hand and said “wouldn’t it be amazing if we all just identified with the category of human being?” Yes. Wouldn’t it?

And so we live in an imperfect world, where part of our story, part of our call is trusting that we hold more promise than we can imagine, enough to continue to draw the circle, wider, and then, wider still.

Words of commissions for Pride Walkers:

Today we walk with openness and in solidarity with LGBTQ folks in particular because no one should stand alone, no one should be drawn outside our circle of love. No matter their orientation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or straight. And its not just these few that are walking, we carry a sign that says Friendship Presbyterian Church, and this identity belongs to ALL of us. We all walk together today.

Our circle will continue to expand beyond today, we will draw it wider and wider still so that no one is excluded, so that no one stands alone, no matter how rich or poor, how brown or black or white they are, or how old or young they are, no matter what makes their family: One person or two, many children or none, grandchildren or nieces or nephews, we will draw this circle together until we can celebrate the beauty in the diversity of all of our identities and until we can recognize one another first as human beings. Amen.

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Dreaming God’s Dream (a sermon for pentecost)

1st Reading: Genesis 11:1-9  (translated by Theodore Hiebert)

All the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled toward the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and let us fire them.” The bricks were stones for them, and asphalt was mortar for them. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth.” Then God came down to see the city and the tower which the human race built. And God said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” Then God dispersed them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, God named it Babel, for there God mixed the language of all the earth, and from there God dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.

2nd Reading: Acts 2:1-18 

When the day of Pentecost (Shavuot) had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’

Sermon: Dreaming God’s Dreams…

So here we are in Jerusalem for another festival. You know It’s a wonder Jesus’ followers would be willing to pile into Jerusalem for another festival after what happened the last time they set foot in the city on a festival day. Don’t you suppose they came through the door of their probably hesitant host with some amount of trepidation? I wonder if the sounds and color of that Palm Sunday parade or the memory of Jesus around that table, or the fear of the guards who arrested him mixed in with the strange experience of the empty tomb washed over them? Did they gather around tables and exchange notes on who had seen Jesus where? What had he said and done in secret rooms and on the beach? Were they excited? Afraid? Triumphant?

When I was little I remember hearing this story and imagining a secret gathering… sort of like a special agent planning kind of meeting where they discussed their Jesus sightings and decided what their next move would be.

That’s what I pictured because most pictures and Sunday school lessons of this day imply or teach that there were just a few straggly disciples hunkered down together that day.  But the story written here in Acts 2 tells us that they all gathered… and earlier in Acts (1:15) we read that all of these early Christ followers have grown in number to “about one hundred and twenty persons”.

And so here they all are. It is the joyful festival of Shavuot… the celebration of first fruits, when the first fruits of harvest are given to God. Can you see them crowding into a house together? Passing the peace and wondering what might happen this time…

And of course, God doesn’t disappoint!

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)

This all “would have included the women and the men, the Twelve, and the many other unnamed, faithful followers of Jesus. All of these receive the Holy Spirit; all are given the gifts of speaking in other languages. This follows a pattern that will reoccur again and again in Acts, the Holy Spirit has a tendency not to discriminate based on human standards.”[i]

All of this commotion, the loud winds and strange flickering fire and the cacophony of over one hundred voices drew a crowd… can you imagine it? The neighbors poured out of their houses and the street filled with people…

The story describes those “living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5, 14) as devout Jews from every nation – “these were immigrants, not pilgrims as we often imagine, but those who had emigrated from areas of the Roman Empire to the north, east, south, and west of Jerusalem. As subjects of Rome, all of them would have spoken Greek, the language of the Roman military and of commerce for much of the early imperial period. But they were also multilingual, speaking languages of their natal lands also.”[ii]

It’s almost as if God’s holy winds had blown the walls of the house clean off, because suddenly there are throngs of people and there are the disciples right in the midst of them… And as they pour into the streets the disciples are speaking in the natal languages of all of these immigrant peoples; not in the language of the empire, but in the languages of the people. Can you imagine that? Have you ever been lost in a foreign land, unable to communicate and suddenly heard your native tongue? Have you ever gotten lost or confused and then discovered just one familiar landmark or seen just one familiar face in the chaos?

Often times we read this story along side the story we heard this morning from Genesis about the city of Babel and we think oh… this is God putting things back together. At Babel God stirs things up, scattering folks and giving them different languages and here, finally, at Pentecost, God is putting things back together. Some scholars have even called this day a reversal of Babel. But think about it. The Genesis story of Babel explains the creation of multiple languages; and its reversal would be the creation of one unifying language. But that’s not what happens here at all, rather than requiring of all of the people to speak one language, Pentecost gives power to the band of Jesus followers to speak all the languages of the world.

At Babel God leans in and notices that folks are beginning to look and sound an awfully lot alike. And God says aloud (seems like he’s talking to mother wisdom again) “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” (Genesis 11)

God mixes language and dispersed people at Babel because it’s God’s unfolding dream for the world that the world is filled to the brim with a beautiful collage of diversity, color, language and culture. The story doesn’t tell us God is angry or punishing the people, but it does tell us that God’s spirit will sweep in and stir up some new life and some difference where things are getting stale.

The Spirit blows in and mixes things up… in the city of babel it mixed up the language and sent the people out… out of complacency and safety and into the world.

In Jerusalem it causes confusion, which is pretty hilarious given that everyone actually understood the words coming out of the mouths of the disciples. The confusion of the Jewish community is in trying to piece together what on earth is happening, Suddenly God is speaking in and through this band of Galilean Jesus followers. They’re not in a synagogue or temple. This isn’t a voice of authority. Not a rabbi or temple elite, not a roman official or imperial guard, but in their own voices, in the words of each of their ancestors and in the words of their mothers.

In Jerusalem Peter quotes the prophet Joel, declaring that this Holy Wind will make prophets of our children, infuse us with the dreams and visions of God. If only we can hear them… if only we can see them…

Turning in your Easter Homework – finding evidence of resurrection, of new life…

On Easter Sunday you recieved this homework:

Pay Attention

Look for signs of resurrection – of new life

Report Back – Tell about it

(We did this as a congregation, taking a moment to record signs of resurrection and new life that we’d witnessed over the last 7 weeks. Then we turned and shared these with our neighbors, then we reported back to the larger group.)

Pentecost is another birthing moment… it marks the birth or beginning of the Church but how does this birth continue to happening in us? In the life of our church and in our own lives?

How is God’s dream being born through us?

The Holy Spirit Turns the house inside out… how are we getting outside our own house?

How are we getting outside of our own train station?

What Holy Spirit wind will blow our walls down? What commotion are we creating? Where are we seeking new life?

We too, are the prophets and the dreamers… God’s vision for the world becomes our vision, when we are looking at the world like God does. God’s dream for the world becomes our dream when we see God’s new life springing forth and we become the prophets we are called to be when we witness to what we’ve seen. When we report back and tell our stories to others.

Recently on a Tennessee gas station bathroom wall I saw evidence of our need to connect to one another, to share a common story. The walls were covered with folks penning hello from all over, giving their names and their home states, even their home cities. We have a deep human need to connect, a need to be in common, a need to tell our story and hear from one another. The folks working hard to build the tower in Babel make total sense to me. Of course we want to gather with others like us, how often do you find yourself in conversation trying to find out everything you don’t have in common with another? Never.  Even when we gather with those who are different we begin to come together, with common language, values and ideas, we are changed by one another and we move closer to one another…

It’s not bad or good, the desire for sameness. But our differences are often what create the spaces for growth, in our relationships and in our communities. It’s often, here in our community  around these very tables, that I hear someone say, I just don’t know if I’m the right fit for this work group… I am not all that sure I belong in leadership, what I’m bringing is different than what others bring to the table…

What if, instead of imagining that our differences keep us out or are reason to exclude ourselves…  what if we imagined that our differences were exactly what was needed? What if these differences, our different ideas and perspectives, our different stories and gifts, each given to all of us were the very dreams and prophesies that God is pouring into us? What if the differences we encounter in the world are what we most need to pay attention too? To see God working in all things?

Our biblical stories today in Babel and Jerusalem are not the antithesis of one another… one doesn’t break us and the other fix us.

Instead they invite us into the ebb and flow of the work of the Holy Spirit. Like our breath, inhaling and exhaling, the Spirit moves us into communities of comfort and back out into the world. The Spirit blows through our midst shaping our visions and dreams for the future – sometimes asking us to take dramatic risks and make mighty changes but then… then she reforms and remakes us, comforts and encourages us, moving us ever closer into the new life God’s dreaming for us. Amen.


[i] Aymer, Margaret. Edited by, Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 782-784). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] ibid

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Students of Life (a sermon for easter sunday)

Students of Life

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.” 

~Mary Oliver

Luke 24:1-12
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [women who followed him from galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
24:2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.
24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
24:7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
24:8 Then they remembered his words,
24:9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.             

Who are these crazy women?

We’ve got some unlikely witnesses here… today’s scripture tells us that it is “Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James”, and then adds “and other women”. Earlier in chapter 23 Luke tells us that these women are the ones who followed Jesus from galilee (Luke 23:55) and earlier in chapter 8 he describes them in this way, “there were women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: [that was] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:2-4)

These women from Galilee, have been with Jesus for the long haul, they fed and followed him, sat like students at his feet and prepared for his death.  They witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:49) – and remained at Jesus’ side when everyone else had fled, Among the “other women” I imagine Martha and her sister Mary walking together and Mary, Jesus’ own mother who ushered him into the world at birth and sat at the foot of the cross when he was crucified, surely, she was there too… All of them climbing the hill to the tomb – a community of women, ready to do the burial work, the grief work – ready with their spices and their oils – to lovingly say goodbye.

But when they arrived at the tomb it was open… can’t you imagine them peering in – too many to all look in at once, they crowd the opening and take turns gaping at what appears to be an empty tomb. But their confusion turns quickly to fear when two men appear… dazzling white like that messenger Mary must remember from so many years ago who brought the first rumor of incarnation…

Can you imagine them dropping together to the ground – in terror and amazement…

And this is my favorite part – according to Luke, these men don’t even bother with trying to calm them, there’s no “don’t be afraid” or “do not fear” like we’ve heard from such gospel messengers before. Instead they ask the women whose heads are on the floor,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

Now, all the gospel accounts of these days are rich in their variety and each offers a unique interpretation of the events leading to Jesus death and resurrection but one detail they share is utter silence on the part of the disciples and followers of Jesus in those hours and days between his death and sunrise on the third day… its almost as if the whole community dies with Christ on the cross… after a blow by blow account of the days and hours from Palm Sunday till Jesus last breath and final word from the cross the silence of the following hours and days is deafening.

The gospel of Luke tells us these same women saw his body from the cross to the tomb. and then we get nothing until the sound of their footsteps fall on the sunlit path to the tomb. There is not one account – not in Luke or any other gospel – of a disciple, man or woman, who said “wait a minute, Jesus said this would happen, Jesus is not dead, I know it!” There was silence and there was sorrow, there was disappointment and disbelief – in the face of such trauma, such violence and loss how could they possibly remember…  how could they even think straight, they must have been overwhelmed with such grief. How could they have thought to look for Christ anywhere but the grave?

But when the dazzling men said to them,

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

They remembered his words and turned back towards Jerusalem at once to tell the others.

This is what a witness does – they see or experience something – something that moves them or marks them or terrifies them and they can’t help but tell about it.
Can you imagine how their sorrow began to ebb making space for curiosity? For joy as they moved, in mass, back to Jerusalem? Can you imagine how what had been a quiet moving vigil towards the tomb transformed into a noisy procession as this crazy news bubbled up from inside them on their way back?

When they return to the disciples still huddled in grief they all crowd in and tell them everything they had seen. I imagine them all speaking at once, telling one another, confirming and affirming their stories – an unlikely bunch of witnesses, chosen to be the bearers of terrifying and exhilarating news.

The gospel of Luke tells us that the story fell on deaf ears, that these words seemed, to the apostles gathered there, an idle tale, and they did not believe them. The words: idle tale are a kind translation, “the greek word here is lēros, (it’s only appearance in the New Testament), is usually reserved to describe the ranting of a person suffering from delirium.”[i]

Which is ironic given that for many of these women such as Mary Magdalene, this is just what Jesus rescued them from in the midst of his ministry and now as the witnesses of his resurrection our thought to be mad. Once again Jesus turns everything we think we understand upside down…

Martin Marty says that “Sometimes stories are too weird to be taken seriously, and sometimes the tellers of the stories are weirder yet.” And this is a weird story – really the whole story of Jesus from beginning to end – like an sixth grader I met recently said, “first God gets born to this random woman and then grows up and does all kinds of weird stuff, healing folks and loving folks… how does that work?” And then instead of loving him back he gets rejected, then  he ends up dying a scandalous death of an outlaw, crucified on the cross… and now… and now, he’s not dead? He’s alive? It’s an unbelievable story told by this crazy community of women,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

This news the community of women bring is perplexing, and disconcerting… if there’s anything we can count on in the human experience it’s that generally dead people stay dead… we face these losses and we struggle with the grief and we turn to our memories for comfort – but it’s a story we know how to do. We know how to gather together for comfort and burial preparations. We know how to tell stories and reach back into the past to canonize and eulogize…

But Jesus is restless in the grave… Can’t you imagine that skin and boned Christ digging his feet into the ground and getting ready to rise? Thinking, “I’m not leaving this world yet…” I love that the incarnation doesn’t end on Good Friday, no, this is just the beginning – Life wins, love wins… it stubbornly pushes up out of the dirty ground of our grief and says,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

My dear students of God, resurrection insists on three things:

Resurrection insists that we turn our attention from death to life…

Where are you holding onto that which is no longer life giving? What do you cling to that keeps you from knowing amazement? From experiencing joy? What makes you surge with energy and what fills you to the brim? Have you noticed how much better we do death than life? How much more comfortable we are there?

Jennie and I are getting married in June and it’s gonna be a rockin party – almost everyone we love is genuinely excited. We’ve gotten tons of support, great response from friends, family, communities… so much love. There have been just a few folks who have responded in the negative, and wow how I lived into their rejection. Gone days worrying and despairing over an unkind word. Why? Why do we do that? Why are we so easily overcome with despair when God is pouring delight into our lives?

God is present in our pain but is ever inviting us into the open spaces where the light will nurture in us the story of resurrection… the story of new life.

Resurrection insists that we remember…

Just like the messengers remind the women to remember, we too are invited to remember the ancient story of one who would not be moved, who would not be swayed from the path of love. The one who insisted that a trip to the cross would wound him but could not defeat him, this is not a static put it in a keepsake box kind of remembering, no this is a dig it out and wear it – let it change you again and again memory made new each time we tell it, it is a embodied and reimagined re-membering that will put us back together each time we fall apart.

Resurrection insists that we turn back with joy… this isn’t new we can simply sit on… resurrection insists that we too witness to the this amazing news… that we tell this weird story of love and life winning out over death… of God showing up in human flesh, vulnerable and tiny, the story of how God gets good and dirty, digging into the hardest things that humans face:

Greed, loss, suffering, illness, rejection, insecurity, poverty, relinquishing their power when we really really want to hang onto it.

Again and again offering love in the face of our fears and grace every time we fall short.

Resurrection insists we tell this story even though it makes us sound crazy… just like those women who found the empty tomb… delirious with delight.

Mary Oliver writes this poem: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” 

And this is your Easter homework friends. We’ve been students of God all through Lent but we haven’t had a lot of homework… but this is your takehome assignment for the Easter season that begins today and doesn’t end till Pentecost Sunday (you get awhile).

Pay attention – seek out the resurrection… look for signs of life!

Be astonished and amazed… even terrified!

Then report back… tell about it. Tell me. Tell one another. Tell everyone you meet.

Amen


[i]
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 12519-12523). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Palm Sunday: Take it to the streets.

Sermon: Students of Possibility

Palm Sunday

Luke 19: 28-40

Trying out the human mic… the human mic is a process used by protesters, demonstrators or occupiers… it’s used when a crowd gathers with out permit or permission to use sound equipment in order to be heard. And so they use their voices to amplify the message… let’s try it. I say something and the few people who hear me repeat it – then it gets repeated again until the crowd picks it up.

Mic check… mic check…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

This is the story of Palm Sunday as told by Luke… it’s the story of a community organizer… Jesus, organizing his people and staging a demonstration – This day we’ve come to call Palm Sunday – although no palms appear in our Luke text – is a staged move. It’s intentional and particular, an on-purpose, enactment of the words familiar to his own tradition found in Zechariah chapter 9… Jesus sends his disciples on a mission to get not just any animal but a donkey – and not for just anyone but for the Lord – words echoed in the song of Zechariah:

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus could have ridden into the city on any day and attracted attention. There was already talk of his arrest, he had been driven into hiding and had just resurface the day before at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha where many had heard of his return and had gathered to see not only him but the resurrected Lazarus as well…

But Jesus chooses this day, this time – this is beyond a public demonstration – this is a particular time set aside for the celebration of Passover – when thousands of Jews from far and wide are entering the gates of Jerusalem – the very home of God – the place in which heaven touches the earth – and they enter in a way that symbolizes the exodus of their people – this a time already steeped in the memory of how God rescued their people from the hands of a powerful oppressor.

This is a time in which emotions are running high. Imagine the atmosphere – the fervor of celebration – and in remembering an exodus of old there is a longing to be free again. Free of the Roman occupation, free of the rules, regulations and taxes, free from poverty, free from the violence they’ve encountered each time they’ve risen up – for generations they had been conquered, oppressed and even exiled by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after so many years of exile; but freedom had never arrived; just a new kind of exile.

So even in the midst of this ‘celebration’ there is an ingrained hope that a “new exodus” would free God’s people from the “oppressive weight of empire.”

Imagine the hope of celebration mixed in with the fear and discontent. Imagine this swelling crowd pushing it’s way into the city. Imagine the fear in the hearts of the temple officials and the Pharisees that had been forced to collaborate with Rome and were now expected to control this crowd.

And here comes Jesus and his multitude of disciples… (cue the human mic)

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

It’s a movement… a street theatre and a political action… Jesus touches on the crowds longing for deep change, for something to hope for, for the promise of a revolution.

But what kind of change is Jesus really offering?

A regime change? Just a change in political party? A hostile take over?

Some who were gathered there – some of Jesus’ own disciples truly did believe Jesus was there to execute a hostile take-over of the Temple, even of all of Jerusalem, that he would in fact become their King on earth

There were also some who were just thrilled to finally see this Jesus in person… the one who crosses all kinds of boundaries… they have heard the stories of teaching and helping, of Lazarus’ Resurrection, the blind man’s tale, the mothers’ whose children were healed and the teaching about a God who has come near to hear, see and feel the pain of the people.

And this is the key- all kinds of boundaries – remember at the beginning of Luke when Jesus first claims his role in fulfilling the prophecies? Remember when his hometown nearly throws him over the cliff because he suggests that God’s dream for the world includes more than just the folks sitting in the temple? Jesus doesn’t just touch the lepers and feed the hungry… he also sits at table with tax collectors, Pharisees and other collaborators of Rome. Jesus offers a vision… a possibility greater than the multitude of disciples, the crowd, the Jewish or the Roman officials, and even we… all these generations later can quite imagine.

Jesus takes it to the streets as an agitator for peace… Yes – to offer an alternative to Roman Rule and Rome’s collaborators… but not an alternative that simply means flipping the power structure – it’s an alternative that means abolishing it completely.

And yet, again and again it is so difficult – almost impossible to see another way – a truly new way. So the crowd – while some of them might say yes! Here comes the one who will make for peace! Others might be saying, hooray! Here comes the one who will not simply save us but will cut down our enemies…

 And how often do our cries for peace turn to cries for revenge?

How often do our cries for justice (getting what we need, what is enough and sustains us, what gives us meaning and preserves our integrity, our humanity) turn to cries for retributive ‘justice’ instead (a desire for punishment, eye-for-an-eye, by any means necessary ‘equal treatment’ and violence)?

Let’s go back to Zechariah for a moment, after he sings about one who will enter both triumphant and humble he sings this:

  and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

Jesus takes steps on this day that mean no going back – he offers a possibility that he know will not be understood – that continues to be so very difficult for us to hear, to embody.

Just after our scripture reading for today ends Jesus stops at the edge of the city, takes a long look at Jerusalem and then weeps. He says aloud, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”

Jesus is telling the people – all of them, his disciples and the Jews gathered from near and far, the Pharisees and officials, the Roman guards… your thirst for power, your anger, your desire to push another down and to trample those whom you hate will destroy you.

 How hard this must have been to hear for the most oppressed? Where was their ruler and King? Where was their savior? What do we do when our leadership disappoints us?

How often is that our salvation doesn’t come in the way we are looking for? How often do we confuse success… and coming out on top with being rescued by God?

As I was finishing my sermon yesterday I kept thinking about how we took to the streets for the CROSSwalk on Friday night (protest and solidarity with those who are being overwhelmed and oppressed by gun violence in chicago’s streets)…

There were several things the crowd heard chanted and chanted back in return… We walk… Let justice roll down…

Many people, parents, siblings, community members spoke that had lost a loved one – often a child to gun violence. I imagine – like the community of folks who couldn’t escape the oppression of the Roman empire they were tired, and angry and sad – and yet the gathering gave them hope – the people who were willing to take to the streets created a sense, however small, of possibility.

But really it wasn’t enough… I think of how many folks turned out into the very same streets to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day last weekend… and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way at all – celebration is good. But what does it mean when we turn out in the millions for celebration but only a in the hundreds to stand for peace? To offer solidarity to those that are suffering so immensely?

As we walked another member of my church asked me, “You’re queen for a day, how would you fix it?”

And I really don’t know. I know there are deep and troubling issues at the intersection of poverty, racism and cycles and cycles of violence and hopelessness… but I don’t know and this unknowing makes me angry… how I wonder can we make for peace in the streets? How is it fair that at my kids school every third grader has an ipad and in other neighborhoods students don’t have notepads? How is it that we build things like Trump Towers downtown where we walked and there are kids without homes to go to in neighborhoods all over the city? I encountered an artist this week who each year recreates the stations of cross around the story of a different marginalized people. She suggests that the face of the crucified Jesus is their face. If these communities are where Christ Crucified lives then how do we respond?

I’d certainly like a Jesus figure to come in and lay down the law… I’d like a powerful Jesus person to come in and redistribute the wealth… and yet here comes Jesus and he says yes, of course you’re right Shawna. Every single one of these kids, the ones who are getting shot and the ones carrying guns, and their folks and their families, they are welcome at the table. But then so are you Shawna and right next to you is going to sit Donald Trump, and I’ll give you Anne Lamott (I mean as long as we’re dreaming) across the way but then you can’t just talk to her,  you’ve got to make friends with Donald too. You’ve got to lay down all the prejudice and anger and assumptions and pull up to the table and work out your plan for peace together.

What are the things that make for peace?

Luke tells us that the crowd laid down their cloaks in order to make way for Jesus… to clear the path and make his way down the Mount of Olives and across the valley towards the gates of Jerusalem easy –

What will we lay down in order to make a way for peace?

Can we lay down our own coats? Our own protective garments – the ones that we wear to protect us from strangers? The ones built of armor to protect us from being hurt or broken-hearted? The ones that cover our heads and faces, keeping us from seeing the how systems of poverty and oppression continue to flourish when our eyes our covered?

How far are we willing to go to make for peace?

Most of the crowd that gathered this day couldn’t stay with him all the way to the cross, the journey became too dangerous, too fearful, too painful – some even turned against him.

In my pastoral care training I encountered the phrase, lead from behind… it always stuck with me. I like the idea that a person can lead the way to their own wholeness, to their own recovery. That one-way of ministering to another is to listen to their story and their cues. To lead them by following them… to stay with them. And as holy week unfolds, we are charged with staying awake – staying with Jesus.

But Luke’s Jesus is a prophet and prophecy is all about getting out front not following behind, and that’s what Jesus teaches us on this Palm Sunday. He gets out front and cast a vision that more than a thousand years later we’re still catching on and catching up to.

What is Jesus’ vision? Is it a hostile take-over? Is it a revenge or retribution? No… no it’s not. It’s this crazy idea that every single person… the tax collector who collaborates with the enemy and the crazy folks possessed by demons and the unclean folks and the blind folks and the once dead folks are all welcome to participate… they are all a part of this kin-dom vision…this heaven meets earth, and peace engulfs them both vision.

Can you imagine it? It sounds risky and foolish really…  Can you imagine the possibilities if we took to the streets and invited them all in? Every person we encountered? If we continue to take our tables out to the streets and feed all kinds of people, even the ones you don’t think deserve it?  If we truly welcomed not only the poor but the rich? The really smart and the ones that seem a little crazy? The kind and the unkind? The lost kids like that prodigal son and the know-it-all been around forever folks like that annoying older brother? Argh…. Don’t you hate this vision?

And yet we’re invited to follow – to follow in Jesus’ prophetic footsteps. What will make for peace? What will bring us to the streets? How will we agitate for peace?

It could get us in trouble… it certainly did Jesus. This is the time of year you really start questioning the choice of following him isn’t? I mean all the way to the cross? It could get you killed –

But… it might also get you resurrected.

AMEN

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Let Your Faces Shine

Last week I attended #salic or the Six Agency Leadership Consultation in Baltimore which is a fancy way of saying that the PC(USA) sent representatives from the six agencies that make up the denominational institution to consult and dream about the future and about the 21st Century leadership in the church with 30 -40 pastors from around the country. For much more in-depth description of the conversation you should read Nanette Sawyer, Dawn Hyde, Adam Walker-Cleaveland and Jeff Foels reflections… or you could check out Adam’s storify event which is a wonderful compilations of reflections, tweets and images of our time together.

Instead of adding to the reflection pool which has been wonderfully representative of our time together I am posting here, my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday in which I attempt to integrate some of what I encountered in our conversation as well as speak to the call of leaders in my own context at Friendship Presbyterian Church. We ordained three new officers and installed four, two ruling elders and two deacons. Due to the conversation at SALIC I reformatted our constitutional questions so that they were read responsively  If you would like a copy of the questions send me a note, I’m happy to share! My sermon is below and the images came from my time listening and dreaming at SALIC2013.

Ebb & Flow: Visual Notes from  SALIC2013

Visual Notes from SALIC2013

Transfiguration Sunday

February 10.2013

“Let Your Faces Shine”

We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.

~Thomas Merton

 

 

Scripture: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”

Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Baptized By the Fires of Change: Visual Notes from SALIC2013

Baptized By the Fires of Change: Visual Notes from SALIC2013

Sermon: “Let Your Faces Shine”

Most of the time repetitiveness and redundancy doesn’t make for a good story… we usually experience them as a sign of literary laziness or boring content… but our biblical texts are an exception. In the bible when we notice a pattern, a repeated theme, something happening again and again… and again, it is usually a good sign for us to pay attention. You would think even the disciples would have figured this out by now – I mean we share a common ancestry, a common story – for Peter, John and James the mountaintop was a familiar place, in their own lives and in the stories of their Jewish ancestors. I’m not sure I’d go anywhere near a mountain with Jesus, especially if I had an inkling of what who he really was, which according to Luke (chapter 9), they should have – Jesus the messiah (which he has just confirmed for Peter in their last conversation those eight days before they find themselves climbing this mountain).

I mean think about it… every time Moses, or Elisha or Jesus climbs a mountain something crazy happens… the sky breaks open, God speaks or reveals something… like the laws of Moses or the promise land, there is always some insane weather wind, earthquake, fire, deep silence (like an eye of a storm) or enormous thick clouds or bright shining lights… When Luke tells his listeners that Jesus and his favorite three disciples are heading up the mountain it’s a clue that something brilliant, something revealing, something revolutionary is about it happen. It’s Luke’s way of beating God to the punch line, “Pay Attention!” “Listen Up!” he says – what happens here… and what will happen next is IMPORTANT…

Ruth Everhart, a writer and pastor in DC traveled the Holy Lands in Israel and Palestine and wrote a book about her experience. She tells this story about visiting Mount Tabor… even though our biblical text (Luke or any of the other gospel writers) does not give a name to the mountain Jesus climbs in today’s story the early church (348 CE) chose to commemorate it or celebrate it on this mountain because it is central to the area and communities in which Jesus ministered.

Ruth writes:

When I was on a pilgrimage in Israel, we visited the Mount of Transfiguration. Our itinerary allotted thirty minutes for this taste of mountaintop glory. As the bus rumbled toward the base of the mountain, I thought: It’s a ridiculous timeframe, of course, but maybe it will be enough.

In the story, Jesus manages to “get in and get out” of glory rather quickly. It’s Peter who tries to hang onto the moment.

At the foot of the mountain we pilgrims had to switch to taxis. The only road up is a series of hairpin turns that a bus can’t manage. We ascend, sloshing back and forth across the seats, the vista switching abruptly at each turn like looking through a viewfinder held by a child.

When we emerge at the top, we are breathless and rumpled and disoriented enough for glory. [Imagine…] That this was the very spot, this mountain tiptop, where Jesus shone like the sun, the veil between heaven and earth pierced for a moment.

They’ve built a church up there by now, of course. Peter’s way won out. After all, we humans are like that. We like our hammers. We all know what it’s like to be the onlooker, the disciple in ordinary clothes, gawking at the dazzlers. We want to hang onto our brush with a moment of glory.

Like plain-clothed Peter, we humans are well-meaning and awkward, helpfully offering to do unhelpful things. “Let us make three dwellings . . .” And don’t we all feel for Peter? He was being so goodhearted, so helpful. So entirely human. “Hey, I know how to use a hammer. Let me use it. Let me build a booth. Let me nail this moment down.”[i]

This is a Sunday I really appreciate the lectionary… in both our Exodus and Luke accounts both Moses and Jesus demonstrate the two essential pieces of what it means to be people of faith… to be responders to God’s call.

There is the work of the mountaintop and the work of the valley.

There is the listening, seeking God, seeking peace, seeking illumination and there is the response… the reporting back, the testimonial, healing, doing work of God in the world.

These two pieces are like two halves: not so much in tension or competition with one another but two halves that make for a holistic and meaningful life of faithfulness, two halves in which we are called to move in and out of and back and forth and in-between in the pattern of our own lives.

And both… both halves result in transfiguration and transformation.

The first half is this – We are called to climb the mountain – that is to find the places where we can see, taste and know the presence of God. For some folks this looks like a church or a synagogue… a house of worship, a gathered community. For others it’s the quiet moment at the start of the day, before the world wakes up, a moment of connection with God.

We are called to seek God out. Luke makes a point of telling us multiple times that Jesus was setting aside this time for prayer. This wasn’t a moment of care-giving or activity. It was a moment of worship – a time of centering, a time of infusion.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ face changed, that he was infused with the light of God, so much so that his face and clothes shone brilliantly.

Where or when are you infused with God’s light?

Luke also tells us that when Peter suggested they build three dwelling places… God engulfs Peter in a cloud and seems to be speaking directly to Peter and the other disciples:

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Instead of speaking to Jesus, like God did at Jesus’ baptism – God urges the disciples to listen, to listen to Jesus and to pay attention. When I think about Luke’s community… early Jesus followers – waiting and wondering what they should do next… how to be and become the church – folks who would also very much like to build some dwelling places… find a place of safety, a place where God seems to live. A place to live and worship and build community… and yet they are urged to listen to Jesus… to follow Jesus’ lead – to do as Jesus does.

Which brings us to the second half… the other part of the story. Some scholars believe that God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus because God wants them to understand who Jesus was – the messiah, and this might be the case. Understanding and believing in who Jesus is was incredibly important to the early fledgling community of Christ followers that Luke writes to.

But I think God was getting Peter (and the Luke’s community… and ours for that matter) ready – God is getting us ready for what comes next. God says: “This is it friends, this is my Son, I have chosen him and you will listen to him… now watch what he does next.”

He goes down the mountainside and into the valley. He doesn’t stay long in this holy place, this thin place where God’s radiance pierced through the atmosphere and recharges him. He returns to the work of ministry, he returns to the place where there is deep need. Where a man waits, frightened by his son’s illness, distressed that no one can help him –and Jesus uses his power immediately to help another, to rescue the boy.

enterhope

Enter Hope: Visual Notes from SALIC2013

It’s two parts – two halves… personal and public. Mountaintop moments of transfiguration and valley work of transformation… Light infused and light reflected… both moments holy…

I’m interested in this idea of trans… transfiguration… transformation, transfusion – the prefix trans or tran means to cross over, go beyond, to change thoroughly…

Transformation has become a bit of buzz word in the church – not just ours, I mean the whole denomination, even the whole Church Universal. And I think sometimes we do that with words that both inspire and scare us… we domesticate them, write them into our mission statements and goals, we long for new life and growth and yet we also long to contain such things…. Or to control them… incremental change sounds a lot more manageable than transformation… or transfiguration.

It’s scary to imagine utter and complete change. What if don’t recognize ourselves or one another? What if we lose track of who we are? Of where we’re going?

Earlier this week I participated in a conversation about the Church… where we’re headed and what it means to be leaders at a time of such rapid change. We kept talking about all the changes… social change, technology, pluralism, transient communities, increase diversity…

We kept talking about it as if we had some choice in the matter… should we or shouldn’t we as the Church change too? And after a bit I thought wow, it’s sort of hilarious that we’re having this conversation (myself included). We’re like Peter and the disciples on the mountaintop, sleepily rubbing our eyes and looking around asking ourselves – in the midst of utter change and upheaval, in the midst of transfiguration – we’re asking if we should change when, in reality, it’s already happened – when really the question in front of us is not if… but how?

How will we respond to the change in us and around us? Will we claim God’s power to transfigure us? To refigure, refine and transform us? Will we claim God’s brilliant light like Jesus does and move back into the world to be a beacon of healing and hope?

Often times, once we’ve experienced transformation we’d rather nail it down (like Peter) than risk losing it… and like Ruth Everhart says, “we humans are well-meaning” – there are even times that building something facilitates God’s work. But on this day, in this story, the mountaintop wasn’t meant to be a permanent residence. It was meant to be a flash point for transformation… for experiencing God so fully, so overwhelmingly that Jesus and the disciples are empowered – are imbued with the holy light of God that will enable them to return to their valley work.

In a memoir (Breathing Space) about ministry at a church named after the transfiguration—Heidi Neumark writes:

“Living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration … [It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”

Charge to newly ordained/installed officers and to the congregation:

In just a few minutes we’re going to ordain and install our new elders and deacons. When teaching elders are ordained and installed there is often a series of “charges” – that is words of direction or advice for them and the community. In preparation for this ordination and installation today I offer these words of charge to all of you:

God speaks of Jesus in today’s text saying, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!” and yesterday when session and deacons met together we read portions of the Book of Order – in a section about our call to openness and to change we read that we are called to a “more radical obedience to Christ”[ii]

Radical and obedience are not two words we normally see together… and I imagine many of us are attracted to one of these words much more than the other… but here it is again these two halves. In our obedience we seek Christ out, we seek to worship and pray and to love God – we commit to ways of practice and service, of becoming more like Christ… and yet what we discover in doing so, like Christ we become a radical people – radical in our openness, radical in our love, radical in our forgiveness, radical in our ministry of generosity and hospitality…

To those of you entering into or serving in leadership positions – for the time you are in this role – called to be leaders of our community, remember to visit the high mountaintop but do not linger there. Seek ways of renewal and restoration, seek God out and be imbued with God’s holy light but stay on the move… carry the brilliance of God’s love with you down the mountain and into the world… As leaders urge and prod and entice us to follow your lead, your movement, help us in our transitions, cast a vision for our transformation, and together we will be transfigured.

And to the gathered community – the congregation – we must stay awake, there are times we long to build a dwelling place, to plant ourselves and refuse to be moved. But we have learned, in this community, that movement, transition and flexibility can also be life giving. We are called to follow the lead of these ordained and installed elders and deacons, to go with them to the high mountain places and to the low valleys, allowing our faces to reflect God’s light to the world, to shine God’s light into into the dark and shadowy places of own lives and into the lives of those we seek to serve.

AMEN


[ii] PC(USA) Book of Order F‐1.0404

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Thank You for Naming… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

I am deeply grateful for Larissa Kwong Abazia’s reflection titled: “Thank you for NOT asking.” which she guest posted this week on

grounded in three

grounded in three

Jan Edmiston’s blog, A Church For Starving Artists. She writes of her experiences in the call process, of being asked “inappropriate questions” and of wrestling with how to answer them faithfully. She raises some really good and some really hard questions for those of us who are committed to the ongoing work of justice, inclusion and education in the Church. Here is the issue it raised for me:

 Sexism and gender privilege is real and it is present in all of our interactions, even when good people of God are working to call a great pastor, if we don’t name these issues and the ways in which they manifest then things will not change and we will continue to struggle to find wholeness in the Church.

Just as is the case for those of us who are queer pastors in the Church and know that while the passage of 10A is cause for much celebration and thanksgiving it doesn’t shift the job market, many churches will only consider calling lgbtqia pastors when the hard work of education, hearts changing, and policy writing is done, and this is true for women in ministry as well. We have been training and ordaining women in the PCUSA since 1956 but only 34 percent of our currently ordained clergy folks are female and only one out of five are in what’s considered a pastor/co-pastor type of position, this includes small church solo pastors as well as head of staff position.

I believe our individual experiences with and responses to what Larissa has called “inappropriate questions” are shaped by the intersection of our experiences of privilege and oppression. I also believe that our experience of these questions and how they make us feel are a culmination of many of our experiences over time in similar settings.

When I think back on my own experience in my last search for a call in the PCUSA I am certain that I held a much more positive perspective the first time someone on a PNC asked me why I wasn’t married or how my kids would survive “at home alone while I was at work” (someone was making a lot of assumptions, weren’t they?) if they called me as their pastor. It was much more difficult many months, even a year into the search to respond to questions such as, how old are you? And, who will pick your kids up from school if you’re working? Without taking that to mean that the person asking was assuming that I might be too young or inexperienced for the job or that I am not intelligent enough to organize and make arrangements for the care and well-being of my family while I am at work.

I would suggest that it’s tricky business to say that we should respond to these questions with the assumption that the person has the best of intentions or is looking out for my best interest which is what MaryAnn McKibben Dana offered as one option in her well thought out response at her blog, The Blue Room. Overall my experience with PNC’s and APNC’s are that they are in a tough time of transition, they feel a great deal of pressure to make the right choice on behalf of the whole congregation and while they could most likely use some pastoral care they are often asking questions that revolve around the care and well-being of the congregation not the candidate in front of them. I have even experienced members of a PNC whose questions were obviously motivated by their personal needs and issues as well. Therefore, I would be more likely to assume that these “inappropriate questions” arise from unexamined assumptions about the role of women in the life of a family, internalized gender oppression if the person asking is female and sexist ignorance (however benevolent) if the asker is male. I would not assume they meant harm but that is not the same as assuming they are well-intentioned.

Let’s assume also that these questions are not asked in a mean-spirited way and therefore are an opportunity for some education, deeper understanding and personal growth which in the community where, I am in fact, the called and installed pastor it is absolutely part of my calling to help provide. However, a candidate at a job interview is not in a pastoral position of authority. The majority of the power in the relationship is held by the PNC or APNC. They are in a position to continue the process or not, the PNC has the power to recommend you as a candidate to the congregation or not, the PNC has the power to ask an array of questions ranging from faith and formation to theology to your personal life. How do we, as pastors and candidates respond so that we do not perpetuate attitudes of sexism, how do we provide the right amount of transparency without contributing to an imbalance of power and authority and yet care well for those who are asking the questions? It’s definitely a balancing act!

This raises, for me, a hard question. Why do questions about my ability to care for my children, to manage a family life and career or questions about my orientation, stature, my looks or my gender make me feel small, invisible, or powerless? I’m both funny and intelligent, two things Mary Ann McKibben suggests help her to be a strong leader but I have also had some bad experiences. I have often fielded questions that were meant exactly how I took them, meant to make me feel small and insecure. They were asked out of a place of judgment and skepticism as to my skills and abilities. These experiences leave one raw and worried about future questions and experiences and while those of us who have these experiences can and should do the work of wrestling with them and healing the wounds we should also expect the Church to hear and respond to these experiences. To work to create processes for educating PNC’s and encouraging them to tackle difficult issues of sexism, racism, privilege and oppression as well as insuring professional standards for interview processes.

So how do Church leaders, Executive Directors, Associate Execs, COM and CPM Chairs and COM liaisons take responsibility and take steps to institute education around not only sexism but racism and homophobia as well? How do we, as minister members of presbyteries understand our role in the interview processes that are unfolding in the congregations around us?

Let’s begin by naming it when it happens and then by doing some education around these issues. Let’s listen, and truly hear the stories of those who have had good experiences and those who have had hurtful ones. Let’s hear them and believe them and then take the next step of critical analysis as to how and why these scenarios happen and how the positive ones can be reproduced and the negative ones can be corrected. In the meantime, I agree it’s a good choice and it shows a commitment to having a healthy pastor to ask questions about a pastor’s spiritual care practices, about how she attends to her own spiritual and emotional health and how she will balance her professional and private life. These are questions that can be applied to any candidate, no matter their status, female, male or transgender, no matter their racial/ethnic background, whether they are a parent or non-parent, caregiver or grandparent, single or partnered, straight or queer.

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A little bit of grace…

Today I Danced…

I don’t dance… at least I try to avoid it.

I love to listen to music but my creative gifts don’t lie in really hearing the notes of the music or making my own. My rhythm is, to say the least… lacking and I am self conscious in my moving body… never sure what my feet are doing or how to move gracefully from one place to another. And I don’t even know where to begin to put my hands, my arms… my hips.

But today I was working with my Alzheimer’s group. This a group of people who have young-onset Alzheimer’s and they are progressing to the point where many of them can’t speak to their experiences. Their verbal ability is waning as the disease progresses but they enjoy music, hitting a drum, and working with art materials that don’t require finite motor skills.

An amazing music therapist and I work together to provide them with opportunities to communicate through sound and images. This often evokes memories and deep joy as well as sadness. Today as we worked with drums the music therapist said that often when people are drumming they are able to be fully present in the moment, losing themselves in the beat and rhythms of these simple sounds.

As we were drumming one woman conveyed in a few words and by showing us on her drum the way she learned to drum in Mexico. And then our music therapist began playing the song La Bamba on her guitar. As the song unfolded and the members of the group began to pick up the beat on their drums this woman came alive and began dancing in her chair. Our therapist asked her if she wanted to dance and she nodded yes and so I got up to help her up out of her chair. But once she was up she didn’t let go of me and she began to dance…

In those moments, lost in her joy I joined her in the dance and we clumsily danced in a small circle while the others drummed and the music therapist sang and played. It was simple and beautiful and awkward, we communicated through the movement and I followed her lead moving in a circle, twirling and swinging close and moving away forgetting to be anxious.

There was a time this woman would have danced circles around me and later her husband told me that they used to go out and dance techno, that she loved it.

On the days I work with these folks I am filled with such a mix of emotions. I am so sad for what they are losing, their memories, their independence, even their identities. The glimpses we receive, into their lives and stories are like small gifts of light, like stars that glimmer for moments in a dark sky and then disappear behind clouds.

But as they live with their disease they invite us to be singularly present with them in the moment. Whatever happened moments ago is forgotten and what is about to unfold is beyond their control. There is only right now. This beat, this note, this song. I am so deeply thankful to receive their wisdom and to live in this space with them and be invited to dance.

I don’t speak Spanish and when I got home today I looked up the lyrics to La Bamba. I discovered the first few lines of song translated into English are,

In order to dance the Bamba

In order to dance the Bamba

You need a little bit of grace

a little bit of grace

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