Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sermon on Yeast (Matthew 13:33)

Matthew 13:33
He told them another parable: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

National Coming Out Day may not be on every church calendar... yet. But I believe it is important to pause and notice the day. And it is a day where I could spend time preaching on one of those five or six verses that folks, like the protesters outside our morning service, read to us with their loud speaker pointed right to our windows. It is true, in some ways-- they helped get the sermon started as many folks walked in. But the truth is, I’m kind of over it. Because it is a matter of reading style where we just have to agree to disagree. And sending you out with talking points about Sodom and Gomorrah being about hospitality and sexual assault probably will not convince anyone that that ancient story is not at all about two loving men wanting to hold hands, raise a sweet baby and grow old together. We could spend today talking about Biblical models of marriage, but as you look closely, most of those models involve one man and his first wife, his second wife, his third wife and maybe some concubines that he has control over... which to be frank, is not a model of marriage I’m interested in exploring. And we could spend today talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans and dive into the finer points of what he means when he says “natural” and “unnatural” sexuality... however, I prefer to save that conversation for Valentine’s Day and invite all of you back for a Wesley Pub where we can get serious about Paul’s Roman and Jewish culture and decide for ourselves how much applies to our guidelines for a life-giving sexuality.

Today, I think we move past these verses that folks want to lift up in the face of our world becoming ever more open and inclusive. It’s time to rise. I pause today in wonder of how far we have come. In 2003, I was working on a project for my Masters in Education called Heterosexist Language in the Secondary School Climate. I researched how often words and phrases meant to dehumanize and hurt were thrown around the classroom and batted around the hallways of a school. You couldn’t go a minute in a hallway without hearing the phrase, “That’s so gay.” And it was so common, it was said without much thought. At that time I was in high school classrooms and invited conversations around language, because I believed that when we dehumanize with our words, we take steps to dehumanizing with our hands. And yet, today, 15 years later, a word for which I would have sent students to the office is a part of our ministry. Fifteen years ago, I sent students to the principal for using the word queer, and yet today we have a campus ministry effort called QueerFaith on Campus. This is radical change, to live in a time when a community claims a word used to wound. And so today, we name how far we have come and acknowledge how far we must travel. We can celebrate the change we have seen and yet acknowledge just how vulnerable our progress seems to be. This is why we must rise, resilient and strong.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast that a woman took and mixes in three measures of flour until it was leavened. This Parable seems simple; it invites us to consider this little agent of powerful change, this yeast. To imagine a woman, feet planned firm on the cool floor, arms caked in flour up to her elbows, the dough she works, smelling sweet and sour and to see her turning those simple ingredients into something that nourishes. It is not hard for us to imagine the dough rising and the baker woman, her hair still dusted with flour, pulling the fresh, warm bread from the oven. This is a short story we can get behind with ease and want to be a part of this yeasty presence of God that rises, expands, transforms, and nourishes people.

But even yeast is complicated. We cannot take yeast out of context. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until it was leavened. Yeast is not simple. We might remember yeast as something that comes in these cute little packets, contained, friendly... not much different from a Kool-Aid package. But this is not what Jesus is talking about. It would be more like sour dough starter, which I asked Maria Walker to make for us this week. When she brought it to me, she warned me of how it could explode! Jesus is talking about an leavening agent and it takes a little experience and wisdom to work with leaven. It is really left over bread, allowed to mold and ferment. It is volatile and it has its own life and process; too little time and it is useless; nothing will rise. Allowed too much time, it becomes dangerous, poisonous even. Yeast is powerful and must be cared for. It has its own timing. Maybe this is why Jesus uses yeast in different ways. There is good and bad yeast. Paul does this too, and they learned it from their Jewish tradition. When Jesus talks about bad yeast, he is talking about the Pharisees, which is not, as some people have taken it to be, a suggestion to encourage anti-Semitism. It is rather a critique of a competing perspective on practicing Judaism. And I might add, I think he would level the same critique of us modern Christians. Perhaps we can see the power of our faith as yeast: too little time and care, it is flat and useless; diving too deep into the ancient words without care for the people of the context around you and a hope for the most vulnerable, it is dangerous. The Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast, good yeast that gives life and permeates every inch of the dough so it can be transformed, so it can nourish.

The Gospel of Thomas, which didn’t make it in our canon, shares this same parable in a different way. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a WOMAN, who took a little leaven, (hid) it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman making this abundance of bread. In the parable when it says three measures of flour, we might think of three cups, you know - a nice amount there on the counter. But three measures of flour is a lot. And maybe it is just a coincidence. Or maybe it’s not. You see, there is another place where a woman works with three measures of flour. It is right before that whole Sodom and Gomorrah incident in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah, the founding partners of our faith, were camped in the midst of their wild wilderness journey. They were not particularly pious, holy, kind or even brave all the time, but they did follow God on a crazy adventure. They left a perfectly fine homeland and wandered because God called them to do it. One day Abraham, eyes to the horizon, saw three strangers. He did not circle the wagons, get his weapon to stand his ground or prepare for the worst, he prepared for the best in them. He ran to offer hospitality; actually he orchestrated the hospitality. They killed a fatted calf, they got out the best stuff, and he ran to Sarah and said take three measure of flour to make them cakes. Amy Jill Levine likens this to making 60 dozen biscuits! Can you imagine your partner out in the street talking to people you don’t know, then running in and saying, “Honey, can you make them 60 dozen biscuits?” I think this is why she laughs at God at the end of the story - she is covered in flour and exhausted. 60 dozen biscuits is a totally unreasonable gift. No skimpy, just enough bread for dinner. Three measures of flour is too much dough for one woman to work. It is baking for a banquet; it is a feast. This is the hospitality of the Kingdom of Heaven. It calls a woman to bake an unreasonable amount of bread. It calls for care and attention to the yeast, that it be just right and permeate every inch of the dough.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in three measures of flour until it was leavened. We are called to rise, to be that wild, lively yeast, to be unmanageable in the best possible way. We are called to unreasonable, holy work that asks a lot of our time, passion, and energy. Work that asks us to make 60 dozen biscuits. We are called to let God’s love permeate us, so we might be changed, with every cell and fiber permeated so we, like yeast, can permeate this community and world. It is big and holy work and it rises out of something that seems so small. We are the leavening disrupting the shaming structures that say, “You are of little worth” or keep people feeling small, we are the leavening to repent and shape a new church. We are the leavening proclaiming a new day. Rising to say, “You are beloved, period.” Rising with love in spaces of hurt and harsh words. Rising with compassion though surrounded with apathy. Rising with hope in a world of despair. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Let’s rise to the occasion.

May it be so. Amen.

Discussion Questions
What is your experience with this parable and the image of yeast/baking? What does it mean to be good yeast?

What are your 60 Dozen Biscuits? What does hospitality mean to you in the Abbey, in your home, in your work?

What are the spaces that limit your hospitality or your courage? What can you do to live a little differently this week?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A New Lens on Repentance

A few weeks ago we celebrated communion in a service that I will always remember as the day I publicly insulted one of the most important mentor in my professional life. I did this on accident and because I was trying to be funny. Bread in hand, I was inviting people to the table and sharing that this is a meal of grace and not to worry if they have questions or needs. Looking at Dr. Dan, cup in hand, I was trying to remember how many years he had served… and I couldn't remember… and I thought about how many years he was a DS and then how to say he retired but was still serving, and then I thought about saying he had the compassion of a hundred pastors plus ten… and decided that was dumb and sounded like Dr. Seuss. I cycled through all my unscripted ideas and got nervous about my long pause and I said, “He had like 100 years of experience.” I knew immediately by the groaning laughter in the room how far I had just stuck my foot in my mouth. I tried to explain. I tried to back track. I got red, and my cheeks got hot, and I felt bad. And I just had to say… “That was a bad choice. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.” I served communion and felt like my face was so hot it must have been toasting the bread. It wasn’t until the 5:30 service that I knew the music guild was playing such a great song while we served communion.

It is hard to make mistakes. Hard to hurt people you care about, no matter how big or small the infraction. It’s hard to grow and change. Maybe that is why communion is a meal of grace and perhaps this is why our faith is woven through with treads of forgiveness, transformation, repentance, and peace. 

Repent… it is all over the Bible. We might hear the word and shutter; unless we are talking about someone else, of course. Then we are quite good at figuring out what other people should confess. We have such a good eye for the sins… when they belong to someone else, and we know the things they should do differently or better or not at all. We can pity their low self-awareness or lament their lack of compassion. If knowing how much other people should change was a competitive sport, most of us would be pro. If we are really honest, some of those things that drive us the most crazy are probably things that we project and drive us crazy about ourselves. 

In Luke Chapter 3, John tells people to repent and he starts his sermon by calling people a “brood of vipers” (Lk 3:7), and I can’t think of one culture where calling people a bunch of snakes has been a real compliment. He has a hard job teaching repentance. At least the way we hear it. We hear it like it is coming from an old time preacher, pounding on a pulpit or a stranger yelling at you as you walk across campus, “REPENT Sinner.” We hear it from a place of unworthiness, shame and guilt. We hear it used to make us feel small or force us to conform to someone’s boxes about behavior. The thing is, I don’t think that is what John is preaching. 

Repentance is about changing, adjusting course, turning around. Turning that gaze inward and seeing how and what we ourselves need to change… not just consulting for others. It is what John the Baptist is out in the wilderness asking people to do. And the most critical thing about repentance is his reminder, of who they are. If they claim status as children of Abraham, they are a part of a people that make relationship with God. They are created in the image of a life-giving, all-loving, creative and powerful God, and they are called to show up in the word that way. John reminds them they are a people of covenants and promises written in stone and crossing the sky in rainbows, they are beloved, so beloved Jesus even calls God, “Daddy”.  John the Baptist reminds them they are children of God and that that doesn't allow for easy or cheep repentance. This repentance is born out of worth, value and love. It is completely opposite of trembling with shame, just feeling lucky God would glance at our unworthy, messy lives. 

Maybe that is why people are actually coming out to see John. They don’t have to, he is kind of a strange man, eating bugs and honey, out on the margins of society and people come to repent. They come to take that step of changing and they can do it because they are so beloved and they are so worthy and they are reflections of a life-giving, creative God.

They ask John what is the next step and each one must answer with their lives. Sharing. Sharing food, sharing coats, and not exploiting people with one’s power and authority. This must be what he meant when he said, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) Change is hard and it must be real. It must be lived. That is why, I suspect, practice is important. One strategy I have learned is call Life-Centered Prayer by Ben Campbell Johnson (slightly adapted from Marjorie Thompson in her book, Soul Feast).

1.  Gather the Day. Identify the ten or twelve major events of your day… prayers, conversations, meetings, meals, work and activities. Make a list.

2.  Review the Day. Reflect on each item in your list, without judging yourself, avoiding feeling, or making excuses. How did you feel? How were you present?

3.  Give thanks for the day. Thank God for each part, person, moment, and celebrate God’s loving presence in the midst of it all.

4.  Confess your sin. Sin is brokenness. Acknowledge your faults in thought, word, and action toward God, neighbor, self and creation.

5.  Seek the meaning of the events. Reflect on the larger significance of each event.  Ponder: What is God saying to me? What am I being called to do? How do I want to be present?

Give it a try? Change and growth are hard and the gift is the grace to do it in community, fueled by a God that seeded resilience, love and passion in our very souls. We can change. WE can even repent and it’s not because we have to or be punished, it’s because we are so deeply loved that we can change. 

Blessings from you friendly, local Abbot
(Who would never start a sermon by calling anyone a bunch of snakes but may have to publicly apologize to her Mentor.)

Rev. Debra

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Judges 4:4-5

Judges 4:4-5

In seventh grade at a weekend retreat for FCA, a young leader with probably 16 years of life experience said something to me like, “You know, there is a Deborah in the Bible.” Before I could even get the profound words, “Oh cool” passed my lips, he concluded,”Yea, she killed a guy with a stake and a hammer.” Oh...NOT Cool. So that pretty much killed my interest in this Deborah of the Bible. Some years later, when I was exploring seminary, my pastor gave me a book with images of women leaders in the Bible and one image depicted Deborah weaving baskets. Which seems nice, right? But not true. None of it. She is not a basket weaver and she never killed a guy with a tent stake...someone else in her story did that.

What we do know about Deborah is that she was a prophet. She may not be one of the Major Prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah or even a minor prophet with her own book title, but she was a prophet like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron before her. This meant she had the work of listening to God on behalf of and through the whole of her community. This work meant nudging and urging, challenging and reminding God’s people of their covenant or partnership with God. So she was a prophet and even a poet, chanting hymns like Moses and Miriam. She was also a judge; one of 12 Judges with the work of guiding her people, settling disputes, helping people move on from wrongs and hurts so those wounds would not fester and break the community apart. We know she had a palm tree office located between two communities...and while we don’t know this, I like to imagine it as a bit of an oasis, with shade above and a view out in front of her and relationships restored...a pretty great courtroom, if you will. We also know she was a wife. At first glance, you might have the same response I did. When Amos was announced as prophet, he wasn’t noted as Amos, husband of Gomar. And while we might be familiar with a history of this kind of treatment of women, scholars point to something more. Wife of Lappidoth, could mean a particular household, but many suggest it means something more about her relationship to the whole people of Israel. It could be translated woman of fire, woman of spirit, woman with torches or spirited woman. And so, when we gather all those images together for our modern English-speaking brains, Deborah looks like one bad ass woman. Spirited and powerful and not someone to mess with a pillar of fire, one even suggests. A women who earned every inch of her authority to lead, giving valued judgements, holding the heart of her peoples’ hopes in her role as a prophet.

Historians point to moments when the culture is unsure as a prime time for non-traditional leaders. The structures that dictate what a leader should look like or from whom they ought to decent give way to effectiveness. It was an uncertain time in Israel, between Moses and Joshua bringing the people to a promised land, and before kings like David and Saul and Solomon. And there was a period of conflict with the Canaanites, a back and forth power struggle that put the losers lives in a space of vulnerability. Deborah led at such a time. We know it because there is this litany...”The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” beginning in chapter four.

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. (4:1-3)

This is where Deborah took authority - and as she was working from her Palm Tree office, she sensed it is time to make a change. And she did something different from most of the male leaders in the biblical narrative; she sought help. She called a man named Barak (his name meant lightning), and she told him it was time to destroy their oppressors, the Canaanite king with his general and his 900 iron chariots. Barak, despite his name being powerful, was probably a thinking man; and this task seemed like a pretty big gamble. Further provoking the hand of their oppressor could prove even more deadly to the whole people of Israel. And so he responds:

Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ 9And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

He risked the glory that would have been his had he gone it alone. The scripture shares a story of confusion among Sisera’s forces and perhaps those 900 iron chariots are not so great when they are swept away, just like the chariots of Egypt before them.

‘The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. 20 The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21 The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might! (5: 19-21)

Perhaps all the iron on those chariots didn’t work out this time and the whole army was reported dead. But the story continues with Sisera on foot, the general away from his ride seeks out the help of a woman.

18Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ 21But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. (4:18-21)

Wouldn’t it have been easier if we had stopped after that part about the palm tree....and just skipped this ugly death stuff? Israel was free...or at least freer. Deborah, Barak and Jael were heroes. A song of victory was sung and yet looking back today, we are left wondering if they could have achieved their freedom through peace rather than old school military conflict. It’s not exactly pretty or the happy outcome we would like, and since our lives are not hanging in the balance, it is easy to have an opinion about Deborah.

Traditionally we approach Deborah with total affirmation or total disappointment. Women have looked to Deborah, despite this violence, as an example of leadership. Given so few examples in our tradition, it can be easy to see why we might. Early Queens of England and Scotland (frequently named Mary) lifted Deborah as a woman in whose footsteps they might follow. Others disagreed. John Knox, Presbyterian cleric, praised Deborah, even while suggesting women in his own time were unfit to lead. My favorite part of his objection to their leadership is the bold title of his essay “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” In 1558 he wrote, “Exempted by God from the common malediction given to women and against nature HE made her prudent in council, strong in courage, happy in regiment and a blessed mother and deliverer to HIS people.” This statement makes me want to celebrate Deborah and raises my gratitude that Queen Elizabeth took such offense to it that she would later limit Knox’s involvement in re-establishing the Church of England. Knox was not the first man to struggle with Deborah; her leadership was omitted in Hebrews when Barak comes up in Chapter 11. The same happened in 1 Samuel Chapter 12.

She however, survived the generations of edits and translations and invites us to look on her leadership. While some women have cheered at the thought of her, others have been disappointed, hoping for more. Her leadership used the same old tools of violence as every other leader. She might have fought for the right reason but, we might argue, she used the wrong means to her end. Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented on this piece of the Bible as disgusting, and noted particularly how Jael misuses the sacred work of hospitality.

So are those the only choices - total affirmation or total disregard? What if we could name our really high expectations of one female leader in the face of Patriarchy? It is easy to hope that one leader makes all the difference, but we have seen how one black president didn’t end racism in our historically racist country. And we know one woman leader won’t end patriarchy in our historically sexist world...not alone anyway. We know the names of King and Mandela and Gandhi and we know that they were part of mass movements, fueled by hundreds and thousands of others putting their hearts and lives on the line to make the world different, seeking peace through peace.

The thing about learning from Deborah is we can celebrate how she partnered, how she stood with her people, mended broken relationships as a judge, offered wise counsel and was deemed a woman of fire and spirit. And we can name how we wish she had done things differently. But doing that is only fair if we are brave enough to turn our gaze inward, and root out what we must change about ourselves. How we must be different to participate in the waves of change and transformation we seek.

This past weekend, many of us saw images we never thought we would see in America in 2017. White people, marching in mass, unmasked, carrying the odd combination of Nazi flags and tiki torches. Of course, being shocked should tune us into our privilege. Seeing an emboldened current of radical terrorists, that once seemed to simmer only in hushed spaces, reminds us that the progress of the past few years remains stunted until those bearing the banners of hate and terror can be brought forward into the circle of the whole human family. This is the real and challenging work of our faith. Our covenant at baptism asks if one professes faith in God and commits to the dangerous road of salvation traveled by Jesus. The next questions call us to a special reflection today: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you? Do you want to work on that together? That is the heart of our faith.

Discussion Questions:
1. What can we learn from Deborah? What about her stood out to you?

2. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins?

3. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Jonah: The Pouting Prophet

Jonah 2:2-4: In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

The words we read in Scripture today are the reflections of a desperate man – Jonah – who had, perhaps, reached the lowest point in his life. In a nutshell, Jonah was a well-regarded prophet in the nation of Israel when God asked him to go to a city called Ninevah and tell the people to either change their ways or be destroyed. Jonah didn’t want to go; not because he didn’t like God’s message, but because he thought the people of Ninevah were truly horrible human beings. And he was probably right – from a historical context, what we know of these people is that they were evil. These were people who tortured and killed innocent and vulnerable men, women and children. The type of people who took pleasure in hurting others for no particular reason.

So Jonah said “no,” I’m not going there. And he took off as far in the opposite direction as he could go in an effort to hide from God. But while he was on a boat, there was a huge storm. The others on the boat threw Jonah overboard because they thought the storm was his fault.

That’s where the whale comes in. Most of us who know the name of Jonah associate him with the whale. Decide for yourself whether you believe Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or whether that whale is an allegory for something that happened to Jonah that put him totally and completely and disgustingly at rock bottom for three days. After hitting rock bottom, instead of avoiding the evil people of Ninevah, Jonah decided it might be cool to give them God’s warning and watch them be destroyed.

So he waltzed into this city that had at least 120,000 people and started yelling – in 40 days, God’s going to destroy you unless you get your crap together and apologize. Then he walked up a little hill, sat down, and felt pretty smug about having a front row seat for these people’s destruction.

What happened next was a bit of a plot twist – because these horrible, no good, very bad people actually listened to Jonah and feared God. From the king to the lowliest servant, they begged for forgiveness – and Scripture says “God had compassion and did not destroy them.”

When this happened, the smug prophet became the pouting prophet. The self-righteous prophet became the angry prophet. He sat on his little hill and pouted. He didn’t want these people to live! He had suffered through his own rock bottom and he believed with all his heart that these evil people deserved to die a horrible death. God’s response – basically to call Jonah a hypocrite. Here’s a guy who believed he deserved a second chance but didn’t want the same standard for the people of Ninevah.

Because of Jonah, I was thinking this week about the ways we hide:

  • Our fears
  • Our hopes
  • Our shame and embarrassment and failures
  • Our dreams
  • Our anger
  • We hide them from each other
  • We often hide them from ourselves, burying things deep inside
  • We hide from God

When confronted with difficult circumstances, Jonah chose to hide; literally needing to hit rock bottom – and even then acting like a bit of a douche. When confronted with difficult circumstances, the evil people of Ninevah chose to humble themselves, drop to their knees, apologize, and vow to change. Neither was wrong. In both circumstances, God was compassionate; God was patient; God was waiting; God was THERE.

Last week, Pastor Debra talked about John Wesley’s pursuit of perfection and how it turned out to be a myth.  Wesley discovered that the greatest achievements happen in our ability to pick ourselves up after falling down. It can be difficult (maybe embarrassing) in the context of a world that tells us to judge each other. We watch reality shows that encourage us to criticize and “vote off” those who don’t sing well, or dress well, or cook well! We pursue the perfect body, perfect home, perfect family – but perhaps we need to celebrate our imperfections and the journey of living.

CS Lewis – I want to lay before God what is truly in me, not what I think should be in me.

Story about family who decided to be imperfect together: In this house there were seven – five family members, one housekeeper, and one large dog named Moose.  They instituted a new system in the house where everyone is assigned a day.  On that day, whatever may go wrong, the person who is assigned (and ONLY that person) is to blame for everything.

The housekeeper is to blame on Saturdays; they planned it that way because it’s her day off so she doesn’t have to hear the things for which she’s to blame.

Moose the dog started it . . . One morning when the dad was raging around the kitchen over who drank the last of the milk AGAIN and who didn’t go to the store for more AGAIN, his daughter walked in with the dog and said, “Moose did it; and he’s so very sorry.”  Moose did look guilty – and the family laughed about it – and suddenly the milk crisis was forgotten.

For a while after that, Moose got blamed for everything, and seemed to accept his martyrdom with silent dignity.  Then the daughter complained that Moose’s burden was becoming too heavy to bear.  That’s when they all decided to share the blame.

In this family, when it’s your day, your job is to apologize and grovel a little while asking for forgiveness, which is easy when you and everyone else knows that you’re not really to blame for whatever happened.  What started out as a joke became the new family way. They laugh and they lose track of guilt and blame and imperfections.

WARNING: There’s a small but powerful condition attached to all of this: when I live in imperfection, I need to know you are there for me (and I for you) to listen, encourage, hold accountable, love – this is the responsibility of the body of Christ. This is who we are.

HIDE AND SEEK (by Robert Fulghum):
In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide and seek. How long since I played? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. But adults don’t play hide and seek. Not for fun anyway. Too bad.

Did you ever have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so well, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide and seek, not hide and give UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide and seek and yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide too well again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.

A man I knew found out last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And he knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Some people said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody. But privately, his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say goodbye.

He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide and seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. We say things like, “I don’t want anyone to know” or “What will people think?” or “I don’t want to bother anyone” or “would they still like me if they knew?”

Better than hide and seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is IT goes and hides, and everyone goes looking for him. When you find him, you hide alongside him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody giggles and somebody laughs and everyone gets found.

Medieval theologians described God in hide and seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.

Olly olly oxen free! The kids in the street are hollering the cry that says, “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all of you who have hid too well. Get found. Olly olly oxen free!

May we be a people who want to be FOUND – by each other, and by God. May it be so – Amen.

Discussion Questions:
1. What does it look like when you hide?  How does it feel?

2. From what are you most likely to hide?  How does hiding impact your most important relationships?

3. Why is being found hard for adults?  How can you help someone?  How can you take steps to be more vulnerable with others?

Monday, July 31, 2017

John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist

A Methodist is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. A Methodist is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written Word. They think, speak, and live according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Their soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, they so walk as Christ also walked.

Ephesians 4: 15-16
"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."

John Wesley believed you should be perfect, or at least, that you should try. He founded our movement with his little brother... probably like all great college start-ups in a dorm room with the 18th century English equivalent of pizza. And when we look at him as that graduate student... he seems a wee bit full of himself, and this whole perfection business feels over the top coming from a self-righteous, know-it-all graduate student.

Of course, when we think of perfection, we might think of a perfect score. We live in a world of scores. We earn a GPA, we know what it means to get a + next to the A. We grade our bodies sometimes with dress size, sometimes with lab results, and sometimes with BMI. We grade our finances... we can get a credit report complete with score and see where we are on the bell curve of life. We even grade babies. Babies come into the world, and we grade them on a scale up to 10. So for us, perfection looks like 100%, and well, the quest after that measure is not always healthy.

It might have looked like that for Wesley too... at least when he was young and hadn’t made any big mistakes. John Wesley was a young man with promise, and probably if we met him in college... that whole perfection comment would fall pretty flat. He was the son of a Priest. He came from a place of study and experience and probably even a little bit of an advantage as he joins in on the family business. His dad, Samuel Wesley, was so principled that he would go to debtor’s prison before compromising with a powerful parishioner. If that wasn’t enough to raise the perfect preacher - his mother, the smart Susanna Wesley, took the work a step further. She invested in her tender children with time devoted around the question, “How is it with your soul?” She was the educated daughter of a popular Puritan minister, and at her kitchen table, she urges her family to reflect deeply on where they are growing in faith and where they are struggling. She invites study and reflection, and her kitchen table pulpit became the place everyone in the parish wanted to meet when a less than thrilling Associate Pastor took her husband’s place for a time. (A fact, that did not go unnoticed; and when her husband asked her to stop... well, nevertheless, she persisted and kept her Sunday study going.)

Samuel and Susanna Wesley sent their thoughtful, earnest-thinking son, John, into the world of study and faith. He attended Oxford, met success, and was yet honest about his deep longings and his struggle to feel an assurance of God’s presence. His younger brother, Charles, entered the University while John served as an Oxford Fellow. Charles and his friends, along with John, saw something more. They were devoted to their faith, but they were longing and unsure and looked perhaps for some passion or something they didn’t quite feel they were finding. And in a move that seems totally counter to aspects of our modern culture, where we might just complain about organized religion or say, “I’m spiritual” and go on a hike... they took a path of diving into the deep end; they attended worship together, took communion, fasted, prayed, read theology and studied scripture. They were so intense that folks started to take note of this group - and not always in a good way. They started mocking those Methodical folks. William Morgan, an Irish student, began pushing this heady thinking and reflective group in new directions. They connected with children and eventually found a caretaker. They went to the Castle prison and visited the debtors and the felons. That enlivened their faith, and Morgan pushed them to visit another prison. This is how they grew, one new experience at a time. They pushed the faith journey from the head to the hands. They got into this place of experience, where the right and wrong answers of an academic faith perhaps didn’t matter so much. They got out of the comfortable places, university libraries and stately pulpits, and this changed their theology. The power of experience began taking root and not everyone at Oxford was impressed. They were mocked... the bible moths ...so methodical... so Methodist! Wesley took that insult as a badge of honor. He began to defend their work and said “YES. We are Methodist.” Wesley started a campus ministry, something that seems really impossible these days. He was going places with the seeds of this small group moment.

And this is when he set sail, literally, to the new world. Prepared to take it by storm, confident in his training and in his new experiences. But his trip was rough. The storms tossed the ship, and while he and the English folks on board feared certain death at sea, Wesley saw the German Moravians singing Psalms from a stand point of deep peace. Wesley wanted that kind of peace and joy... even in the storms of life. His dream of changing lives didn’t really take root in the Native American communities he encountered and he did a terrible job with the folks in his white parish. He found a little success in connecting with enslaved Africans... which probably didn’t help the whole situation with the white folks. This is obviously before clergy attended strict boundaries training seminars and Wesley, who is noted as being easy on the eyes, fell in love, or at least in like, with a local woman. There is support for this courtship but Wesley, the earnest, unsure, and ever thinking man of faith, seems unsure about marriage. The 17 or 18 year old Sophia, likely on the brink of becoming an old spinster, accepted the proposal of another man and Wesley started acting out. He banned her from communion. All the grievances of the parish come to a head and the list is long. Angry people are often great at keeping lists, and Wesley’s intensity about faith practices didn’t win him any friends - at least not any who spoke up. He leaves, and he leaves quickly. He returns to England, shaken and unsure. He, the guy who was written up in the paper as bound for success, returned early and with bad reviews.

Thank God he failed. It was in this failure that his faith got tested and his theology of grace grew. This guy, with a terrible first job evaluation that looks like this “I like nothing you do... Indeed there is neither man nor woman in the town who minds a word you say. And so you may preach long enough; but nobody will come to hear you.” This is a guy that I think could talk with us about perfection. He came back from Georgia a wreck. Unsure of his calling and vocation. Unsure that he can preach and teach a faith he doesn't quite have. He sought new teachers and humbled himself in learning. He traveled to Germany to learn from the Moravians. He longed after an experience of assurance of God’s presence... something beyond all of his working and methods. His mentors urged him to preach faith until he has it, and so he did. This grace he was seeking shaped his world. As his theology matured, he named three graces, Prevenient Grace, already there, a gift of God seeded with in us and all creation. Justifying grace is this grace of awaking, of turning toward God; and Sanctifying grace is a grace of practice, the work of the Spirit... helping us grow every step along the way. Wesley got his justifying experience, but unfortunately it came after his little brother already had his own. But that one heartwarming, awaking moment, as powerful as it might be... was still not the sign of perfection.

Sanctifying grace, the grace of practice, fuels the quest to perfection. And the gift is we don’t have to go it alone... in fact, that doesn’t really work. It is a team sport with individual and communal practice. Wesley named the Means of Grace as the keys to this work. Those are reading scripture, praying, fasting, being in a small group, taking communion, and being in worship. They require showing up and being brave. See earlier, in our scripture, Paul named speaking the truth in love and growing into the body of Christ. And doing that requires real love of self and real self-awareness. This work cannot be born out of unworthiness, but out of value, and the faith that we are created in the image of a Loving God. That sense that we can be perfect because we are loved, rather than we should be perfect or we will get in trouble may make a huge difference in our journey. But the work is still hard.

This is where Wesley’s small groups became so powerful. It was a group of people that could really and earnestly say where you had made a mistake or a misstep. They were venerable and there is power in vulnerability. They could ask you where you felt connected or disconnected from God and hold you accountable to changing. It is constant evaluation, reflection, trial and error... which is obviously something everyone loves... right? This is why Wesley could set his sights on perfection; because he believed the work along the way transformed him and the world. This is also why when people told him they reached perfection... he invited them to keep working, refining, praying, and seeking God.

Thank God he failed and grew and got interesting. Thank God he struggled with his faith and invited us to really struggle in ours too. Amen.

Discussion Questions:
1. When have you failed?

2. What does it mean to “speak truth in love?” How can you listen and how can you speak it?

3. When have you experienced grace?

4. Who can share honestly with you about your growing edges?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Oldest Sister: Exodus 15: 20-21 (Sermon & Discussion Questions)

In this scripture we meet the dancing prophet and oldest sister... which, if you have seen any of the posts in my newsfeed on Facebook, the oldest child is the smartest and best-looking. She sets the stage for her little brothers to live up to... and those brothers just happen to be Moses and Arron. The more I think about how powerful an older sister is... Well, I just don’t think Miriam gets enough credit for liberating the people of Israel.

Moses just finished a long celebratory hymn, and Miriam picks up a tambourine and organizes a dance. She is named as a prophet in Exodus, and she is named as a prophet with equal billing to her brothers in Numbers 12:2 (when she names her own title) and Micah 6:4 (when a later prophet honors the family trio responsible for liberating the people of Israel). This dance is a ritual associated with military victory and often sung to returning warriors to celebrate victory. But here, the dance is not a celebration of success in battle as much as it a celebration of liberation from slavery and a victory for which they didn’t have to raise one sword. This is the moment when the people of Israel are coming out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind... when all of a sudden this moving mass of humanity see Pharaoh’s army in the distance. The King of Egypt has a change of heart and sends his army to invite them back. There they stand between one of the world’s largest empires and a sea. God steps in, and Moses, with staff in hand, parts the waters. The quest of liberation is so powerful, even the sea moves out of the way. The people of Israel pass through the sea, and behind them the fighting force is washed into the waves. In celebration, Miriam starts the dance. I wonder if this gives us some insight into her person and her leadership. The stories of Israel may have elevated the voices of her bothers, but her voice and her work is mostly whispered in the text.

Perhaps her leadership looks more like a dancer, like a choreographer. Someone with vision and heart. Someone who can see the gifts of others and put them in the right moment with the right move to make something bigger than any one dancer can offer alone. Maybe we see this in her earliest presence, as a child. We first greet her as perhaps a 7 or 8 year old. Maybe she was the helper who played and nurtured and bounced her little brother. She has watched her mother hide her pregnancy and her baby brother, and at last, when the family is out of choices, she has watched her mother prepare a basket and place the infant in the waters of the Nile. Maybe she prayed as she stood watch over the vulnerable little Moses. Maybe she sang one of the songs that her mother taught... a song that steadied her nerves as she watched. Then it happened: the princess of Egypt, bathing in the water, pulled Moses from the basket. Miriam leaps in, at the right spot and the perfect moment and takes charge. She asks the Princess, “Shall I find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby?” Seriously, this little elementary school adoption agent has just found the perfect entry and she secures Moses’ life and gets her mother a job nursing her own child. Moses is safe, and their family connection secured.

Perhaps Miriam’s gumption and courage didn’t stop there. Perhaps she had been leading the dance of revolution for years, waiting for the right moment and the right teammates, like Moses and Arron. Perhaps we don’t see her leadership as much because we tend to have a pretty narrow view of leadership. The stories we write about events or happenings tend to highlight folks that are out front, speaking, directing, and perhaps taking the credit. When people say we have a leadership problem, I think sometimes it means we have a leadership vision problem - like leadership mostly looks like General Patton barking orders. The thing is, the Hebrew people are not an army. They don’t just do what they are told. They are prone to complaining and whining.

They have literally watched God part a sea and destroy an army bent on their destruction and yet they are rarely “all in.” When they were hungry, God provided manna... bread from heaven - and they wished they had some meat (like if God can provide bread, doesn’t She know steak would be nice!). They are prone to grumbling, and at every turn there is the “go back to Egypt committee.” Most churches have one of these yet today... the team that says, “You know what was better? Slavery and genocide.” Moses, Arron and Miriam do a dance of leadership. Encouraging, challenging, reminding and envisioning the future of God’s promise with these people.

Miriam sounds perfect, right? Amazing... like an early version of Wonder Woman. But there is more to the story. In Numbers 12, the grumbling and complaining catches up with her and we meet her as a human.

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Arron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Arron, and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’ So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Arron and Miriam; and they both came forward.

That is being called to the principal’s office... big time. Miriam and Arron complain to Moses and end up in a meeting with God. The Bible names Moses as so humble that God has to intervene... but maybe Moses was just tired of dealing with conflict. Miriam’s complaint is about the Cushite woman Moses married. This is a big problem. It could be a complaint about Zipporah, the woman Moses married in Midian who comes from a region with a city bearing that name. It could be a woman from Cush or Ethiopia, a new wife. And if that is the case, then things get more difficult for us to love Miriam. Is she objecting to Moses marrying a woman from outside the tribe of Israel? Possibly. There have commentators that lament this moment and probably some pleased to find a bit of the Bible as racists as they were. Other writers and rabbis share that in the context, a Cushite woman is thought to be beautiful and valuable and unique... so our worries about her racism can be put at ease. Those writers sometimes suggest something else, a sister and a sister-in-law not getting along. They propose Miriam is bumped from role of first lady and the family conflict is obvious. And sure, family systems are complicated today and we should not assume we are the first to struggle with welcoming new family members and adjusting to life in community. However, why do we have to assume that women must be in conflict and competition? Some Madrash and Miriam apologists go a step further to suggest Miriam and Arron had maintained families, while Moses was not always present to his spouse or spouses and that Miriam’s complaint urges Moses to balance his prophetic call and his family life. To be honest, this feels like a bit of a stretch on the educated guessing that we modern people do when we examine ancient texts.

Regardless of what you see or want to explore in this point of Miriam’s story, the outcome has a lot to teach us. God punishes Miriam for elevating conflict with Moses and her skin turns white and sick. Her death seems likely until Moses intervenes and asks God to save his sister’s life. Miriam is healed and her punishment is seven days of banishment. The camp does not move. They do not forge ahead. The people do not leave without Miriam. M.T. Winter proposes this a sign of the community’s high value on Miriam’s leadership. She is imperfect, and she is their leader, but they do not abandon her. She returns to work and presumably keeps dancing. This is a story of real leaders, imperfect and powerful. Miriam shows us grace and reconciliation are a part of the liberation story.

May we have the courage to dance with her. May we honor the Miriam’s who create something beautiful with us and for us. May we look for our ways of leading in the dance of life and may we celebrate in all seasons.

Discussion Questions
1. What has been your experience of Miriam? Who taught you about her and what did you learn?

2. What do you think of leadership as choreography?

3. Where does Miriam’s story resonate with you? Where are you challenged? Have you ever had to seek reconciliation with a family member or an organization for a mistake or misstep?

Esther 4: 9-17 (Sermon and Discussion Questions)

Esther’s story looms large; she and Ruth are the only women to have their own books. While there isn’t extra-biblical literature to verify her story as history, her story lives in an annual festival called Purim. It is a celebration with food to share and costumes to wear... for us outsiders, it might help us to think of it as the best parts of Thanksgiving and Halloween in one day. With the festive celebration, there is a tradition of reading this book as comedy. There are extremes and extravagances like foolish kings and a year of spa treatments for a first date. Which sure, might have been comedy, but for my ears, if it is a comedy... it is a dark one. Purim is a celebration, but it is a celebration of a time when the Jewish people lived through an edict that allowed people to kill them and take their possessions. Adding to the ugliness of this story, the whole genocidal plot emerges because one assistant to the King had his feelings hurt. One bruised ego almost led to the destruction of a whole people. So if it is a comedy, perhaps it has the edge of something like the Daily Show or Stephen Colbert - comedy that outs absurdity and dysfunctional folks in power.

The other space that makes this a bit challenging is the gender dynamics. First, this is a story about a woman who leads her people, risks her life and takes charge. Which is something I want to celebrate... no joke.1 Additionally, it is hard for me to read the story and not hear how it resonates with narratives of human trafficking today. Esther is taken into custody, she is groomed for a year, and being Queen may be a great deal, but it is still pretty transactional and not much of a partnership. So there are spaces in the book of Esther that require us to look at how we are different. Today, we don’t understand Kings to be quite so all-powerful or view women as property (most of us). And as we read this text, if we are honest, there are many ways we are not as different as we would like to be (which is perhaps the best reason of all to read it).

The book of Esther actually begins with another Queen, Vashti. Vashti was queen of the Persian Empire, and she is throwing a great banquet for all the ladies of the realm. Her husband, the King, is throwing a party for all of the men. These men, powerful underlings of the King, are partying, and normally the only women at this party are ‘dancers.’ The king seems to be having a great time, everyone is drinking, admiring his wealth, and he gets an idea of the only other thing he needs to show off. He sends for Queen Vashti to appear in only her royal signet (her crown alone). He wants her to appear naked, and Vashti... well, she declines. A few scholars, even women scholars, have suggested she was trying to protect the King from his own poor judgment. But I really like thinking of her as a powerhouse woman, taking a stand and dropping the mic. You can choose how you feel about her.

The King decided he felt ANGER. With the blow to his ego fresh... his aides step in, and they were worried too.

1 Jeanne Porter names Esther as model of intercessory leadership in her book Leading Ladies: Transformative Biblical Images for Women’s Leadership. 

‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.”18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! (Esther 1: 17-18)

So the officials devise a plan to keep Vashti from smashing the patriarchy in one act of defiance. An edict goes out to all the land that Vashti is not permitted in the presence of the King and all women are reminded that they have to listen to their husbands. Then the King’s servants come up with another idea sure to make his day.

‘Then the king’s servants who attended him said, ‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.3 And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them.4 And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.’ (Esther 2: 1-3)

And the really shocking point is the sentence to follow. “The King thought this was a very good idea.”

This is where Esther enters the story. She is one of the young beautiful women “brought into custody.” It was not like American Idol and women are lining up to audition, the scripture names this as taken into custody. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, the man who adopted and raised her, suggests she might keep her Jewish roots a secret, and she is taken to the citadel to compete for the king’s heart. She is groomed for a year, and during that time we can only assume she is as lovely on the inside as she is on the outside. She wins the hearts of the folks in charge of the harem, and in the end she wins the heart of the King. He chooses her to be queen and holds a banquet in her honor. As they celebrate her new royal role, Mordecai uncovers a plan to assassinate the King... and he and Queen Esther prove their worth.

Things are going great until a new guy is promoted. His name is Haman, and he is so excited about his promotion that he believes everyone should bow down to him... and everyone does... except Mordecai. This is where things take a bad turn. Haman needs something to fix his bruised ego, and dealing with Mordecai directly doesn’t seem to be an option. So he requests the total destruction of all the Jewish people, and he wants it so bad he will reimburse the King’s treasury the lost taxes. The King could have responded, “really, that sounds extreme," but instead he seems to responds... “Sure.”

The king’s secretaries were summoned on the 13th day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King.

Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring.13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the 13th day of the 12th month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.14 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day.15 The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion. (Esther 3:12-15)

Mordecai tears his clothing, dawns sack cloth and ashes, and grieves publicly in the city of Susa. Esther’s servants share the news of Mordecai’s public grief and she reaches out to learn what is happening... apparently the news is not well reported in the haram. Mordecai urges Esther to intercede and save her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying,11 ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for 30 days.’12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said,13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal position for just such a time as this.’15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai,16 ‘go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. (Esther 4: 9 -17)

“For such a time as this.” This is where Esther goes from passive to active... at least in the story that is before us. It is where she takes charge and commits to the risk. She asks Mordecai to gather all of the Jewish people and to pray and fast with her for three days. She pauses when others might have jumped right in. She stops to listen to and for God. At the end of the three days, she goes before the King, dressed in full regalia and he does not deal a death sentence... he invites her to ask her petition. Once again, she is patient. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet.

Her leadership saves her people. After feasting, when the moment is right, she names her fear of the King’s edict that may end her life and kill her people. And her well placed intersession works. Haman is brought low, killed with the very instrument he planned for Mordecai, and Esther is lifted up. The King does not reverse his edict (apparently when you are infallible that is a problem). But he does grant Esther authority to draft a new edict that allows the Jewish community to gather and to defend themselves.

Esther’s intersession works. Her role as leader is clarified and she carries the weight of the King’s authority in this work. She listened to her people, she understood the systems at work, and she risked it all. We might be reading this story and thinking, “Wow, well good story... good story for Esther to risk her life and save the Jewish people from genocide... but not for me.” It is a pretty big ask and most of us live with enough privilege that that level of risk is pretty distant. Maybe we are asked to make little steps of intersession and without that practice how could we even prepare for a request as big as Mordecai’s?

Perhaps for us this looks like standing with someone vulnerable at work, someone with little authority or voice needing us to listen to their voice and use ours. And that can be risky. Maybe outside of the work place it looks like training to be a CASA volunteer, standing with children as an advocate in court. Maybe it looks like learning and listening with OTOC and speaking up against laws that keep some people in poverty. Esther modeled a leadership of listening and praying and preparing and her story urges us to explore our own call. Or maybe there are spaces we are asked to Mordecai, to care for a leader, particularly a young leader, to see his/her potential and promise and to call it out of them. To be the people that encourage, challenge and hold them in prayer.

Discussion Questions:
1. What is your experience with the story of Esther? Have you read/heard it before and in what context? 

2. What do you see in Esther or Mordecai that you see in yourself? What do you see in them that you wish to see more of in yourself? 

3. What are the places where you stand with someone vulnerable and intercede? What do you need to do that work in our world? 

4. Would you try praying this week for another person in your group? (if you need help thinking about this kind of prayer... see below). 

Intercessory Prayer 

“Praying for friends and enemies is intercessory prayer. In intercessory prayer, we pray on behalf of others. We ask not for ourselves but for them,” says Jane Vennard in the opening of her book, Praying for Friends and Enemies. For me, intercessory prayer is about relationship—relation with God and with those for whom I care and am concerned—whether it's a brother-in-law undergoing cancer treatment or the folks of the Middle East amidst their fear, violence, and hopes.

I have discovered that one of the most healing and wholeness moments for me is the experience of the sun warming my back—it creates such a sense of well-being and the presence of the Divine. So when I want to pray for others, I find myself holding them in the presence of sacred sunlight—warming, healing, infusing them with the Divine—not speaking, not requesting, just holding—letting God do the rest.”

—Rev. Susan Davies, Retired UMC Clergy

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In ALL circumstances?

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
April 23, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-22
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

Our scripture today is a letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. And let me tell you: Paul LOVES the Thessalonians. When you read through this whole letter – and you should because it’s only five chapters – you get a clear sense of Paul’s affection for the small community he established in Thessalonica, this ancient city on the Aegean Sea. Early in this letter, Paul writes about his time with the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”

Here Paul is thinking of himself as a nursing mother to this infant church. He is pledging commitment to sharing both the good news of Christ and his very self with them. He LOVES them.

Now I’m not sure entirely why these Thessalonians receive so much more verbal affection from Paul than many of the other communities he writes to. Maybe it’s because this is the first existing letter we have from Paul in the scripture – the earliest one -- and maybe he’s all idealistic and hopeful and hasn’t been beat down in his ministry yet. And maybe it’s because the Thessalonians do sort of sound like the teacher’s pet of all of Paul’s churches.

He has received word from Timothy who went back to visit them that they have been firm in their faith and love despite persecutions. And Paul proclaims “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”

So Paul loves these plucky little Thessalonians, which makes me think that it probably grieved his heart to hear from Timothy that they were experiencing sorrow and disappointment. In the fourth chapter of this letter, Paul addresses their worry. You see, some among the Thessalonians have died, and the community is saddened by it. Of course, grief is normal when people die, but it is especially a problem because Paul had told them that Jesus was going to come back to fulfill all things, to solidify the triumph of good over evil, within their lifetimes.

And so the Thessalonians are waiting, and people start dying around them. I imagine they were heartbroken. They believed that the resurrection was proof that God’s total triumph of good over evil, of life over death had begun, and they believed in the promise that Jesus was coming back any day now to finish the job. And yet they had to watch their loved ones die, and their community was suffering persecution.

We in this community have also just celebrated Easter. We have just celebrated the proof and the promise of resurrection; the proof and promise of God’s ability to take whatever evil the world can muster and transform it into good, whatever death the world throws at us and breathe life into it.

But yet life keeps throwing so much evil and death at us.

We are the heirs to the Thessalonians. We are their heirs writ large. If months after hearing the gospel, the Thessalonians are disappointed that Jesus has not returned, how much more disappointed are we that 2000 years later Christ has still not returned to restore all things to paradise!

How much more disappointed are we when churches are bombed in Egypt. When children are assaulted, when world leaders are all bravado and bluster and within reach of nuclear weapons, when millions of people live in poverty, when racism still limits the opportunities and health and very lives of people of color, when health care is a commodity rather than a right, when there is discrimination against gay people and violence against trans people. When we continue to lose the people we love to death and broken relationships. It is beyond reasonable to be disappointed and grieving.

And what does Paul have to say about this to the Thessalonians? In the midst of their grief and disappointment, and out of his deep love for them, he says “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoice? Give thanks in all circumstances? Why would Paul possibly say this? If we read it in context, we realize that this is not some trite “well, this is your cross to bear” or “God has a plan” response.

It’s because Paul believes. And though Paul concedes in chapter 5 of this letter that no one exactly knows the day or the time, he believes that in fact Christ will come again in fullness. And the triumph of good over evil, of love over hate, of life over death will be total.

Paul believes that the resurrection of Christ is both proof and a promise of God's ability to overcome every last shard of brokenness in our world.

And I believe that, too.

Because even amidst the brokenness of the world, I have seen proof of resurrection and glimpses of the coming kin-dom of God.

I have seen proof of Good overcoming Evil in the long view of history. I can see the long arc of progress: the end of slavery, women respected as persons not property, diseases treated and cured that used to mean sure death. Nearly one billion people were taken out of extreme poverty in just twenty years from 1990 to 2010.[1] But do not get me wrong. This arc has not been without severe and serious setbacks. We are perhaps in the midst of one of those setbacks right now.

But I can tell you that I believe that no narcissistic world leader, or populace acting out of a last gasp of white supremacy, or church scapegoating queer folks is anything more than a blip in God’s cosmic movement toward good and love and justice.

Because even as the global narrative seems dire, the kin-dom is here and coming in a million tiny ways. We can hear it in the story that our guest preacher Gee told on Good Friday – of her work starting schools for girls in rural Afghanistan. We saw it this past Thursday in the photographs displayed here at the Abbey, and the hundreds of people who showed up to learn about the people with abilities in those photos.

I tell you, I saw it at the immigration vigil in February – not just in those hundreds of supporters lining Dodge Street, but more than anything in the thousand-watt smile of a hijab-wearing mother as she drove by in a mini-van. The kin-dom is here and coming when 170 queer clergy come out in a letter in open defiance of an oppressive church.

So I say to you: rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances.

Because the sufferings of our time are real. And because in God’s cosmic narrative, they are temporary. And because as we live and breathe and love each other, we are participating with God in the restoration of the world.

Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim 

Monday, April 3, 2017

It’s Hard to be Humble

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey

Matthew 18:1-5 

Jesus asks the disciples to become like children, this is not the first time children have served as an object lesson for his stumbling, bumbling disciples. This moment harkens back to another time when the disciples were having just as much trouble understanding what the whole Jesus  movement was about....the time when Jesus rebuked the disciples for keeping children at bay  and says, “Let the little children come unto me.” (In proper King James English, of course). We have seen the photos or perhaps been in a church parlor or library with a framed yellowing print of Jesus surrounded by a group of delightful children. They are listening, they are attentive, no one is crying, everyone seems cool and into sharing. There are no stains from lunch, no one has their finger in their nose ready to wipe the booger on Jesus....which is a reality I have seen when you find yourself surrounded by toddlers. Jesus wants us to become like children, and while I’m not sure it has much to do with boogers, I am sure it has something to do with vulnerability and a lack of control. Jesus points to children because, once again, his disciples have forgotten the point of living like Jesus. Becoming like children means losing control. It means losing any status you might have in the regular order of the world. It means not having authority, limited choices and real vulnerability.

Early Christians approached this with a notion of transformation with love and humility. Love was the goal, the outcome that ordered all things. To love as God loves was the goal and humility was the vehicle. It was, for early monastics, the path that paved the way to love as God loved. It was the key of total transformation and it was a tough road to travel. And while we can understand perhaps love, or get closer to it, I’m not totally sure we can get close to the sense of humility that Jesus was inviting. 

When I was in Seminary, one of my friends had a party. She invited our classmates, her friends from church, and artist friends to her amazing home in Dallas. During the party, I saw a guy walk in with a bright red t-shirt and the state of Nebraska across his chest. I walked toward the door, not believing my eyes...did that say Humboldt Nebraska? Arriving in front of him, I smiled and with considerable enthusiasm, I asked, “ARE YOU from HUMBOLDT, Nebraska?” He looked confused, I looked back at his shirt, and it actually said, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Nebraska.” I quickly said, “I’m sorry. I misread your shirt. I’m from Plattsmouth, just south of Omaha, where are you from?” He looked confused again and then looked at his shirt and looking back at me he said, “Oh I’m not from Nebraska. I just thought this shirt was totally ironic.” I had about 50 follow up question; like, was he one of the many Texans who assumed we didn’t have running water, street lights, and shopping malls or did he really think everyone from Nebraska was a model of humility, thus rendering the shirt “totally ironic?” I didn’t really want to ask so I just said, “Oh, ok....Thanks I’m going to get something to eat.” 

It didn’t feel good that he would think Nebraska was humble. We don’t handle humility very well. Basic definitions from various dictionaries offer descriptors like, lack of pride, lack of self- worth, a low view of one’s own importance, low self-esteem or not valuing self highly. The synonyms can link you into words like shy or unassertive or unsure. This sense of humility is so far from the model Jesus and his followers embodied. Jesus wasn’t shy when he fed 5,000 people on a hillside. He gave clear directions and didn’t beat around the bush asking the disciples to take action. He didn’t have a low self-esteem or self-worth, he was confident as he took on the religious leaders of his day. He was assertive from start to finish, he was clear on his intentions, even unwilling to make an explanation to Roman officials that could have saved  his life. The early church took the model of Jesus to heart, and this goal of love was filled by humility, but it was not a humility born out of one’s lack of value. Rather, it gave them the courage to be truly humble. It was, and is, humility of deep value, made in the image of God as a follower of Christ. 

Humility has two key aspects: one is repentance and the other is avoiding judgement.  Repentance is an opportunity, and it is something we hate doing. We hate hearing about mistakes or missteps, and it is hard to receive instruction or guidance that can help us grow. It can make us feel small, and if we have placed our value in that ability to do everything just right, well, it can be a blow to our self-worth. Perhaps you feel the sting when someone makes a suggestion or names a concern? I know I do. I struggle when people correct or challenge, even when it is done with love. It becomes easy to want to deflect or explain or undo something.  Early monastics looked to this as an opportunity to live ever more closely to God’s love. They didn’t resent a correction, challenge or concern - it was a chance to grow. Repentance, seeing forgiveness, was a grace. Any they could hear what they had done wrong or name their mistakes because they were so loved and so valued it was safe to learn, change, repent, be forgiven and grow. Their value wasn’t based on doing everything right or the appearance of doing everything right; their value was in God’s deep love. 

Just as humility frees Christians from the risk of embarrassment or a bruised ego, the other side of humility is refraining from judgement. Refraining from judgement is hard - it was hard then, and it is hard now. This is why the Abbots and Abbesses challenged people bringing a concern about another to notice the brokenness that judgment could create. As a part of this humility, right and wrong behaviors could not be listed or made easily into a code. Love is more complicated than black and white choices. Living in real love is more complicated and more discerning, which means judging another is impossible. 

Origen of Alexandria named this journey with a powerful metaphor. He invited us to think of our journey as sailing a ship. It requires our thought, our learning, our care, our intention and our effort to navigate through the sea, but we do not do it alone. God’s grace powers our craft, and love is the wind that fills our sails. We are asked to be open to it, to navigate with it. The power of our humility is in the love of God, the knowledge that we are of worth and value, which allows us to be truly vulnerable and brave in our journey. May we have the courage to be open, to seek forgiveness and transformation as a gift for our journey. May we have the courage to navigate the seas of struggle and hope all around us and may we grow into those with humble hearts who love as God loves. 



What does it mean to be humble? What does it look like when you see it? What does it look like when it is missing? What is one positive example of humility...someone you know? What do you love about interacting with them? 

How do you feel when you hear the word repent? Do you feel like there are any times and places where you have asked for forgiveness or offered it to yourself or others? 

What does the word judgment mean for you? How do you feel about it when it is directed towards you? Can you name a time when you have judged others and what that was about for you? What would it mean to refrain from judgement?  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Risky Love

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey
John 15:4-5, 9-11 and John 15:12-17

I hate romantic comedies. I really do. Well, maybe I don’t hate them as a form of entertainment, but I do hate the notions of love that we glean from them. In romantic comedies, love is all about infatuation. It is that thrill of the chase, that attraction that makes your heart race and your mind unable to focus on anything else. Every romantic comedy ends with the couple finally getting together, maybe walking down the aisle, maybe driving off into the sunset. And everything is puppy dogs and rainbows.

Now, I’ve got nothing against puppy dogs, and y’all know I am a big fan of the rainbows, but…but we also know that these movies are just about the very beginnings of relationships and don’t tell us anything about the hard work of loving for the long haul. They are certainly not about the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in our scripture today.

This week as I prepared to preach, I read a commentary on this scripture from a book called The Cultural World of Jesus. And it told me that in the ancient Mediterranean world, notions of love were not about affection. They were not about this feeling of love, but they were about attachment and bonding. Love was more about doing than feeling. To love was to act out of commitment to and solidarity with another person. To physically and emotionally care for them. Not necessarily to feel warm fuzzies when we think about them.

And because love was about doing rather than just feeling, it makes sense that Jesus names a radical act as the pinnacle of love. He says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Of course, we know what happened, that Jesus quite literally died for the love of his friends. And sometimes you hear Christians talking as if this is the whole story. They talk about how it was so great that Jesus gave up his life for us. And I do think that Jesus’ willingness to die for his friends was an amazing expression of the depth of God’s love and commitment to Her creation.

But the scripture doesn’t stop there. Jesus isn't just talking about what he is going to do here. He's talking about what his followers are supposed to do. He says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." This is no saccharine love, no Hallmark kind of love. Jesus says I am so committed to you that I will die for you, and I want you to do the same for each other. This is no easy ask.

Luckily, we are rarely in situations that call for such a sacrifice. But I do think that every time we are asked to love in the way that Jesus calls us to love, the kind of love that is about doing rather than just feeling, we are at risk of losing something. We risk losing the time that is required to nurture a relationship or help a loved one through difficulty, we risk losing resources when our love extends to physically caring for someone – whether we share our money or open up our homes or prepare a meal. When we open up our hearts to care, we risk being hurt and disappointed. Loving like Jesus calls us to love involves risking all kinds of loss.

And that can be scary. It’s scary to commit to that kind of love. I confess that I struggle with this. When I am confronted with someone who needs love, my first instinct is to think about scarcity. I am afraid there is not enough. I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough energy to offer another person love. I can’t make room for someone else. My life is too full already.

When I reflect on this, I think my fear of expanding my circle of love is somewhat rooted in this ridiculous myth I carry around – one that I've been trying to shake off for some time. I used to believe this: that there are some people who doing well, who have all their stuff together, and so they can give love because they have resources to spare. And there are some people who are broken and struggling, and they need love and care to be given to them. And so to have a healthy community, you need an equal number of people who have all their stuff together to the number who are struggling and need help. Which on the surface seems to make good mathematical sense. Except my experience has taught me that it doesn’t really work that way.

I learned this when I was part of Church of the Village. I’ve talked about it before. Church of the Village is located in a quite upscale area of New York City (as in, Taylor Swift has a condo there), but Taylor Swift was definitely not coming to our church. In the great socioeconomic divide of New York, we were definitely populated by folks on the lower end of that divide. And when I got involved there, I thought this: we just need to get some healthier, wealthier people in here to take care of these folks who are struggling, and then we will be alright.

Of course there were some instances where it might have seemed that was how it was working.

There was Frances*, a retired well-paid executive at a global agency of the United Methodist Church, who invited more than one person from church, at different times, to live with her when they lost their housing – which was an alarmingly frequent occurrence for people trying to survive in that expensive city. And sometimes her generosity worked beautifully and the person she was helping got on their feet, and sometimes it turned out to be pretty messy. But she taught me about what real, risky love looked like.

But Frances was by far the most "together" person who taught me about risky love. More often than not, I learned from people who had experienced difficulty and loss and were still trying to make ends meet. And often, they were the first to step up and care for others -- even if they didn't quite have their stuff together.

There was Donna who gave Mother's Day presents to all the moms in the congregation on her salary as a public school security guard. There was Sharon, an addict in recovery who started attending church after utilizing the food pantry and immediately became one of most active volunteers in our feeding ministry. There was Tim, who lost his housing and had to move way out to Staten Island to find something affordable, and who used his little extra money to buy something each week - new socks or food or a coat - for a homeless young man whom he saw on the way to church every Sunday, who lived in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

You see, these folks weren't protective of their time or their resources. And I think it was because they had experienced the abundance of God's love and presence. It was God’s love and presence that had gotten them through their lowest moments.

 And because of that - it was the people who I had once seen as broken - who I thought were the broken people who needed my help - who were able to help me and help others. Because they had experienced loss and resurrection. And they understood Jesus' command to love as not some burden, but as the Good News of what their lives were going to be now that they had experienced the transforming and boundless love of God.

I tell you these stories, and I rely on remembering these stories because it reminds me that when I am called to risky love, I don't need to be afraid. I don’t have to save this world on my own. Not just because I can’t, but because the economy of God's grace is not like our economy. When we give love away, it is not lost. It is multiplied. The more you give away, the more you sacrifice; the more willing you are to give, of your care, of your time, even of your resources; the more you are able to truly love and truly live.

And that is not some burdensome slog of a life. It is exactly the life of liberating love that God dreams for us. In the first part of our scripture today, Jesus tells his disciples – and he tells us - about this self-giving way of life not as a something we owe to God, not as a punishment, but as a gift from God. And he tells us this for a very particular reason: "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."

May we receive this gift.

May it be so.


*All names have been changed.


1. Which of your resources (your time, your money, your physical or emotional energy) are you most worried about sharing? What are you afraid will happen if you give too much of them away?

2. Do you know anyone who seems to live from a place of abundance and generosity? What does that look like? Why do you think they are able to live and love generously?

3. How can you cultivate an awareness or mindfulness of God’s abundance in a world that urges us to believe that there is never enough?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hypo-Christians & The Deep Dive

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 19, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 23

Jesus is less than thrilled.  This might be an understatement.  He has a litany of seven woes and calls the religious leaders of his day blind guides and a brood of vipers.  This is particularly notable because Jesus didn’t gecnerally walk around Israel calling people snakes.  One group of people actually tried to toss him off a cliff, and he didn’t even utter one word to them.  Roman soldiers were tasked with killing him and there was not one unkind thing that came across his lips.  But hypocritical religious leaders, watch out.  Jesus saved his anger for the blind guides.

He invites people to listen to the teachers, saying, “‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (Matthew 23: 2-3) Jesus names how they study the words but don’t embody them, they hear the prophets but can’t live as one, and they teach the stories of the past but don’t live them in the present.  He names how they heap up burdens on others and use their spiritual practice to gain power and honor and un-merited authority.  “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (v5).  Phylacteries were a tool for spiritual formation, a leather box bound to the arm, carrying a scripture.  If could serve as a constant reminder through the day of the sacred story pushing the wearer to live more faithfully or fully. But here the tools of spiritual formation became a tool of power and honor.  A way to show off.  A way to look really faithful in the community rather than being really faithful to the community.

It is this misuse of power that launches Jesus into his litany of woes, over and over saying, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”  (v23)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (v25)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (v27)

Jesus is pretty serious and these are just a few.  He looked at the hypocrites, tithing even from their herb garden but neglecting the poor, the widow and the orphan and he must have been enraged at how they apply the law.  I suspect he had three choices in the face of this reality…or at least perhaps we have three choices when we see it.  First, he could have looked at the way these men gained power and privilege, how they gained authority without merit and he could have chosen to join them.  Understanding the system before him, could have allowed him to engage it, be part of it, work his way into some advantage.  Second, he could have looked at the scribes and priests and Pharisees and determined them to be hypocrites and he could have given up on the whole mess.  He could have looked at the men who couldn’t embody their teachings and decided to give up on all of it, let go of the prophets and stop singing the Psalms, forget his phylactery and stop caring about the stories of Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah, David and Ruth.  He could have decided the whole thing is like a white washed tomb and just let it go.  But he didn’t.

He chose a third option. He chose, I think, to get rooted so deep that he could stand firm in challenging the status quo.  He knew his tradition, he quotes prophets and the psalms spring from his lips whenever he needs them.  He teaches in the temple and everywhere he goes because he knows his faith and loves it enough to discover something more, to see beyond the teachers and into the teaching, to find the power of his faith even when he sees hypocrites all around him.  And this choice is one I believe, he is asking of us.

This text has been used in ugly ways by Christians throughout history.  Christians have read, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  And thought it was about Jewish religious leaders.  This scripture has been used to scape goat, tighten fears of difference and has led to genocide and anti-Semitism, which is a gross misuse and spiritual violence.  The truth is, if we are honest, Jesus would likely have a litany of woes for us twice as long.  A litany of woes regarding how we spend money and build huge sanctuaries, or have such amazing liturgical bling, or neglect the poor or spend too much money on junk that doesn’t matter or cut meals on wheels.  Anything really.

When I was growing up in the Methodist church, I remember learning about doing good, singing songs…sometimes about frogs… learning psalms, picking up trash, walking for the crop walk and talking about the environment.  But as I entered high school and college, I became more connected to para-church ministries that offered Bible studies, which became a primary source of spiritual formation.  And the studies had a primary theme: behaving in a particular way.  As I look back at the Bible I used, I can see what that theme was: it was about sex.  Every verse I have highlighted is about sex or really it was about waiting until you are married to have it.  This of course was sprinkled with a side of don’t drink or do drugs and topped off with both the threat of hell and the grace of forgiveness…kind of.  All of these themes are obviously important for young people to be thinking about; how to care for your body and your wellbeing in a world of choices.  In college with the Navigators, who met on Friday night because they were so serious, there were detailed classes about courtship, a process of praying about dating for six months, a process of talking to someone of the opposite sex (of course) for six months, in a group and maybe holding hands and it culminated in another six months of engagement.  They gave away books, they had every detail and everyone took notes.

My time was a little short lived because I soon shared my call to ministry and my plans to be a United Methodist Pastor.  Which, they had a chart for as well! I like to call the chart, “Why women are secondary and can’t speak in church.”  But at the same time, I was talking with my pastor at home, he gave me new books to read and new questions to ask.  Questions the Bible study leaders couldn’t work with or work through, questions that didn’t fit into the nice five step process they had laid out for salvation.  I started taking classes in Religious studies and Christian history and soon it was like I was discovering something new and old at once.  Everything was more complicated and more interesting.  Christianity was so much bigger and more beautiful and more difficult than I had imagined.  And the parts about sex; well, they were so minimal.

I often wonder what it would have been like if those Friday night bible studies had focused less on policing behaviors and required a more expansive look at the Bible. What if the details had been about the phrase “blessed are the poor” and if the charts and graphs focused on the causes of poverty, the statistics from near and far, the ways people were working to make changes, the structures that help, and the laws that hurt?  I sometimes wonder what it would have meant for the Navigators to look at what Jesus means when he said he came to “proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor” in Luke 4.  This is an economic policy, a year of debt forgiveness, where people enslaved by debt are freed and land is returned to the original owners who may have lost it.  I sometimes wonder if we had spent less time worrying about strategies to not have sex and more time looking at how Jesus healed people what it would mean when Christians today talk about healthcare.  If rooms of college students were looking at the bible saying, “we may not understand healing or practice it in the same way, but is there a way that we as Christians can be a part of it?”

We are called to this strange faith, this beautiful faith that asks us to dive in.  Perhaps diving in gives us the chance and the requirement to stand up and say, “Woe” when we need to.  Perhaps it requires us to take a look at ourselves and at our churches and at our community leaders that claim Christianity and name that we all have room to grow into the faith Jesus taught us.  

Questions for Discussion:

When you read this scripture about hypocrites, what is your first thought?  What makes you angry and why?

Have you considered giving up on faith because of the church and hypocrisy?  What would it mean to get deeper and explore faith in a new or renewed way?  What does this require of you?  Do you have to change anything?

What do you struggle with in your own journey…is there anything that makes you feel like a hypocrite?  What are you working on?