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 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.



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?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Extraordinary Hospitality

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 12, 2017

Scripture: John 2: 1-11

This text always surprises me - first, I am reminded that I still belong in middle school every time I hear the word ‘drunk’ read in worship. Second, well it’s not the text as much as the surprising ways I have heard people talk about it. Mary comes to Jesus in a desperate moment at a wedding and Jesus turns water into wine to save the day. For some, this is an example of Christ blessing marriage . . . and of course, that means marriage between one man and one woman. It’s just if you take a little look into the context, it is true the marriage could be one man and one woman; but it’s also true that it could be one man and his second wife, or one man and his fourth wife or one man and his tenth wife. This is not a model of marriage I find interesting. Ironically, the same folks who focus on Jesus blessing a marriage don’t see him blessing the wine. My early experience with a campus ministry taught me that in an effort to police what is good and bad or moral and immoral behavior (with, of course, consuming wine being a big No- No), bible study leaders were ironically willing to apply context to this part of the scripture. They’d say, “well, it was different then, wine was safer than water…it is really about hydration.”

The truth is, this scripture is probably not about blessing a wedding or policing wine consumption . . . Mary does not ask Jesus for help to prove a point; she asks him to help the family because they need it.

This is a hospitality crisis. Mary sees the need of people and she knows Jesus can help, so she gives him a motherly nudge. The wedding celebration is still going and the party is running out of wine. We can imagine it. Weddings don’t always go as planned. Groomsmen give inappropriate toasts and fathers trip going down the aisle. Stuff happens, and today that stuff goes viral. We can imagine the pressure of wanting things to go just right and we can imagine the embarrassment of things going wrong as though it will be splashed across Twitter, “McRamsey’s run out of wine at daughter’s wedding - SAD!” But for Mary and the bride’s parents, it’s not about avoiding embarrassment or managing their image as much as it is about the sacred practice of hospitality. Mary grew up hearing the stories of her people welcoming strangers. She taught Jesus about their people’s history of welcoming the foreigner and treating the alien as a citizen, not just as a policy, but as a part of their faith. Hospitality was a part of their identity and written in their covenant with God.

Chapter 18 of Genesis invites us into the story of Sarah and Abraham welcoming three strangers. Abraham goes out of his way to invite them in and offer them the best they have. He kills the fatted calf, makes cakes…well he doesn’t…he has people do that…but he is the chief architect of the family’s welcome. He and Sarah don’t save the calf for their anniversary or a special event and choose the non-fatted calf or an old goat (honestly, I don’t know the opposite of the fatted calf but there must be something; we all know there is a difference between a nice meatloaf and prime rib you were saving for Christmas dinner). The point is, they make the most generous welcome they can offer. They don’t vet the visitors or ask for paperwork; they welcome them. They make themselves vulnerable and it turns out the visitors are angels, and the story concludes with a blessing. Hospitality is so vital that in the next chapter, the three incognito angles journey further, enter the city of Sodom and wait to be welcomed. No one offers hospitality except Lot and his family. Lot puts his family at risk as the city of Sodom turns hostile, which is classically represented by a mob of angry men. They want Lot to send the guests out to be assaulted. This story isn’t about sexual expression between two partners, it’s about sexual assault. And sexual assault is about having power over another. The people of Sodom want to dominate these guests in the most intimate and violent way. This story ends with fire and brimstone raining down from on high while Lot and his family narrowly escape. The sin of Sodom was a sin of hostility in place of hospitality and this sin receives one of the most epic punishments by God in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible takes hospitality seriously, with both a carrot and a stick approach…i.e., you could be entertaining angels or your city could be demolished - you choose. Mary and Jesus and the people at the wedding grow up singing the songs of a faith that welcomes the stranger. Hospitality infuses the work and life of Jesus; everywhere he goes, he feeds and includes. It also shapes the life of all who follow him. The early Christians became known for their hospitality; they break bread and share all things in common. They are so good at it that the Roman Empire turns to them as an example when the emperor asks his leaders to learn from the Christians. Today, this might be more of a corporate meeting and the emperor saying, “you know who does hostility...I mean hospitality well? The Christians. I know we are trying to kill them, but they are great at hospitality. Someone go learn from them and then we will have a great PowerPoint of best practices next month.” Perhaps, not quite like that – but the point is, hospitality is woven into our faith. As Abbeys and monastic communities began to dot the religious landscape, the rule of faith required hospitality. St. Benedict called on his community to welcome the stranger as one might welcome Christ. The stranger is God incarnate. And offering hospitality to anyone was a gift and a matter of spiritual practice.

Jena Reise writes about her experience of Benedictine hospitality in her text, FLUNKING SAINTHOOD. In reaching out to a distant relative, she was received in his home and he was excited for a call out of the blue. He was thrilled to do something that wasn’t on his list. He was thrilled to make her lunch, oh and her husband and her daughter…oh and another couple with whom she was traveling! He lavished time and listening and lunch on the group as long as they had, not as long as he had. He was flexible and open with his time and his energy and the resources that he had to make the best welcome possible.

Jena writes also of her attempt to practice hospitality. She writes about welcoming friends and family in ways that most of us can understand. Having a house guest is not always easy, including navigating our space with their needs. Hospitality pushed her to look at her schedule and how she really didn’t have time or take time to welcome her guests. She was reminded to listen to her guests when she got annoyed at dietary practices that didn’t match her plans for an amazing roast or beautiful chicken dinner. She learned from the jokes and barbs that she sent out, and one of the most difficult moments came in bringing her brother an ash tray and a comfortable chair rather than chiding him one more time about lung cancer.

Hospitality is not easy. It is rooted in a Latin word that means stranger or foreigner. It is the same root from which the words hospital, hotel and hospice emerge. It is also the root of hostile. How we treat the stranger with hospitality or hostility. How we enter into the unknown is the practice of faith. Do we choose the risky, loving vulnerability of hospitality or the guarded, controlling and dominating path of hostility? That is why each week we gather with open hearts at this table to take in Christ the host through this meal. We practice each week in community so we can shape how we live each day. Perhaps this week invites a little practice or a big test of your hospitality. What would it mean to look at is as sacred? What would it mean to practice it so well that people know you for it? We practice hospitality individually and communally. We practice it here each day in our living sanctuary, seeking to surprise and delight and include each and every person. Sometimes that means cleaning a table or redoing the floors, and sometimes that means greeting with a smile or listening to the hard words that are felt but not spoken. Practicing hospitality makes us vulnerable and we engage in it as people of faith entering our national political structures. Our faith calls us (as it did Mary and Jesus, Abraham and Sarah), to be people who welcome the stranger. And as we all know, that is hard to do in a world ruled by fear of strangers. This faith calls us to speak love into this fear.

Maybe we join Mary in asking for help? Mary sees the struggle and the need and she asks Jesus for help. And here in this story of amazing hospitality, God shows up, saving the best wine for last. Everyone thought the party was over - the wine had run out, people were leaving the dance floor - and God shows up and the party is back on, better than ever. The gift is extraordinary. It is beyond expectations, and it is the best that can be offered. May we have the courage to offer our best. May we have the courage to be the blessing in unexpected places and unsure moments.

May it be so. Amen.

Questions for Discussion:
When have you felt welcomed? What does great hospitality feel like and look like?
When have you welcomed or offered hospitality? How does that feel? What do you love about it? What do you find challenging?
What does it mean to you that the words hospitality and hostility are rooted in the same Latin word? Have you heard churches or music refer to Christ as Host and does that mean to you?
What is a step toward hospitality that you might try in this season of lent?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wandering in the Wilderness to Find our Best Selves

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 6, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 4: 1-10 

This scripture about TEMPTATION is the start of Lent every year in the lectionary (a shared reading system that helps church communities read the bible in three years). Matthew, Mark and Luke share this story of Jesus in the wilderness. Mark offers the shortest account of 40 days in the wilderness, but that is kind of his style. Luke and Matthew share this more expansive version that personifies the tempter as Satan or the Devil and gives the tantalizing details of three temptations. This kind of personification of evil may be a little beyond how I tend to understand my faith, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand the struggle this story invites us into. This wilderness of temptation has some historic resonance that echoes back further than Jesus in the wilderness. When Matthew, Mark and Luke share the story of 40 days in the wilderness, their readers and listeners hear an echo of the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness. Those 40 years were years of temptation and uncertainty. They were unsure about food and manna rained down from heaven. They were unsure about their God, built idols and received the Ten Commandments. They were unsure about their journey out of slavery in Egypt and even considered turning around for the Devil they knew rather than the uncertainty of freedom. They were tempted to return to the social and political systems they knew, even if it meant slavery in a powerful empire. After 40 years in the wilderness they emerge into a new promised land, having overcome the temptations to turn back or shrink away.

Jesus emerges from his 40 days in the wildness more clear about his call as well. The gospels place this wilderness time as one that immediately follows his baptism. The spirit fills him, surrounds him, is upon him and he is driven to the wilderness for a season of fasting and prayer. It is there that things get a little wild. Jesus is tempted by the Devil, this agent of brokenness tempts him and in sort of a mind-blowing twist, the Devil keeps quoting the Bible (a fact we should probably keep in mind next time we encounter someone quoting the Bible at us). The Devil asks Jesus to prove himself and fill his belly by turning stones into bread. The Devil asks Jesus to prove God by throwing himself off a cliff and requiring God to save him. And last but not least the Devil takes Jesus up high to see all the kingdoms and glittering things of this world. He offers the deal, it can all belong to Jesus if he just accepts it. With each temptation the Devil pushes a little further, quoting scripture. And the thing that links these temptations is that they are all about misuse of power. Misuse of natural world, changing a stone into something it is not. Misuse of faith, testing God and making yourself vulnerable for the wrong reasons. Misuse of power in the world. Jesus can be all powerful by the world’s standards, he can be on top of the system that is…except he says no. Jesus emerges from these 40 days more surely himself. More clear about how he will live and work in the world. He will not abuse the natural world, the religious authority he holds, or conform to the political structures as they are; he is about the work of God’s kingdom and the work of making all things new. Forty days in the wilderness, like the 40 years long past, make Jesus more clear about his work. He sets out immediately to invite other people into this ministry.

 Lent invites us on a 40 day journey. Of course, there is some old church magic math that doesn’t count Sundays, but still the period of lent invites us into our own wilderness with our own temptations. It makes sense that Lent begins with this moment of Jesus facing the hard spaces of being human, the spaces of real temptation to misuse or abuse. Of course, when we compare Jesus facing down the Devil and giving up being an empire, abstaining from Chocolate or coffee or soda or something like that seems a little…well…small. So maybe this Lent we can think about what is really holding us back from understanding ourselves, being ourselves and moving boldly. Maybe we can dive into our own wilderness. That wilderness that is really wild and really inside. Perhaps there are some things to give up or let go or leave behind. And maybe that is even chocolate for you, but I bet there might be something tougher to give up and even more powerful - should you choose it. The other question I would raise as we start Lent is this, “What have you given up already…without even thinking about it?” We give up things all the time: relationships with old friends or working out when we start getting busy, and then we stay busy and we are still busy so we just never pick it back up. We might have given up making a family meal or spending time reading or learning or studying or praying or probably Church - although that is clearly no one here. We give up things all the time that really mean something and make us our best selves. So maybe as we dive into this wilderness, the wilderness of our lives this lent, and ask we should ask what practices we might try, or what might we give up or take up again that will help us emerge our best selves? What would help us emerge ready to be our best selves and confident in offering our best to the world?

We have 40 days. We can imagine Jesus, baptized and spirit-filled, facing the questions of his head and heart, the temptations to conform rather than transform, the temptations to choose the easy path or the safe path - or at least the one that doesn’t get you killed on Good Friday. We can imagine that time in the wilderness where Jesus committed to the life that was important to him and the practices of his faith that would make him the leader he needed to be. We have 40 days. Let’s go to our own wilderness. Let’s be brave together.


What is your experience of Lent?

What would you consider giving up? Are they things you should give up anyway? What would it mean to you?

What have you given up without considering it or without intention? What would it mean to reclaim or renew some practice or relationship?

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Light That Pierces the Lingering Winter Darkness

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at the Urban Abbey
February 5, 2017

Scripture: Luke 2: 22-35

So here we are. It’s still winter. This past week, we have experienced some of those classic short, grey days of late January and early February. And apparently, just a few days ago in Pennsylvania, some people dug out this very fat and very tired and irritated-looking groundhog named Phil, (I mean, who names a groundhog Phil?) and Phil determined that there will be six more weeks of winter. I watched the video. He seemed very irritated.

I can sort of relate to Phil. I’ve been feeling maybe a little chubby lately from the comfort food-stravaganza that seems to accompany my couch-sitting around 9 PM every night.  And like Phil, I have felt tired and irritated this week - mostly just tired – during these cloudy and dreary days, my heart heavy with worry over the state of our world.

So today I got out a whole bunch of candles. Today we are celebrating the Feast day of St. Brigid (technically February 1st) ,and the feast day that falls on the 2nd: The Feast of the Purification of Mary. The Purification of Mary is the story that we heard in our scripture today. It is that moment when Mary and Jesus and Joseph go up to Jerusalem, up to the temple, in order for Jesus to be dedicated and for Mary to be ritually made clean again 40 days after giving birth to a male child.

St. Brigid is actually associated with this story. See, Brigid, who lived in the 5th century CE in Ireland, is known for many things. She is known for being a child who got in trouble for giving her family’s food away to the poor. She is known as an abbess who founded a monastery for women and men that became a haven for artists. She is the saint people call on during childbirth and daily labor and for rest at night.

And she is also known as a sort of time-bender, a time-and-space-traveler. Many stories about Brigid are about how she traveled, sometimes in a dream, and actually participated in the stories of Jesus. In this particular moment in Jesus’ life, Brigid is said to have traveled back in time in order to hold two candles and walk before Mary to light her way into the temple.

You heard in the scripture, while they are in the temple, the holy family encounters this old man Simeon. The text says that the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple so that he would meet Jesus. And when Simeon meets this tiny savior, he declares that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” In other words, this savior Jesus would be a light and a savior not just for his own people – but for all people.

It is this light motif that caused some Christian churches to celebrate something called Candlemas – the Mass of the Candles – at this moment in the church year. The priest would bless all of the candles – candles that remind us of Jesus being the light for the whole world – even at this moment of lingering darkness, lingering cold, six more weeks of winter. Even here – we glimpse the hope of light.

Now it would be easier to stop here, and just rest in a simple declaration of Jesus as light and hope. But scripture, like our lives, is complicated. The gospel is not the gospel without struggle. So we go on reading the scripture and hear Simeon’s blessing of Mary. He says to her that Jesus will be opposed and will reveal the inner thoughts – perhaps the true nature – of those who oppose him. And then Simeon speaks these ominous words to her: “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Even scholars admit that it’s not entirely clear what Simeon means here. But we do know the rest of this story. We can imagine that it is a reference to Mary's experience as she walks alongside her beloved child. It will be her nearness to Jesus, her love for Jesus that results in her soul being pierced, her heart broken. It calls to mind scenes of Mary at the foot of the cross -  scenes certainly not yet imaginable for this young mother holding her baby.

But isn’t this the paradox of life, the paradox of love, that it is in the very times that we love the most, the times when we open our hearts up to true care for one another, that we are most likely to find our souls pierced?

And paradoxically, I too have found in this dark and difficult time in our calendar year, this dark and difficult time in our political life, that I have experienced the light of Christ most truly in moments where I could care for people in this congregation, and in moments when I witnessed you caring for each other. And these moments have been just as likely to bring me to tears as they have been to bring a smile to my face.

They have pierced my heart. They have helped me realize how much we need one another. And they have reminded me about the exquisite gift we give when we allow someone to care for us. I’m not sure how I would not have made it through the last month without the blessing of having people to care for, and having people to care for me.

You see, I believe that in this personal work of caring for one another, we experience God's presence, and that is where we are empowered and encouraged to engage in the sometimes-overwhelming problems of the world. Said another way...when we care for one another, God is in it.  It is the very presence of God that transforms our compassion - our suffering alongside one another - into the power to resist evil and work for justice.

So I invite you to imagine the scene with St. Brigid holding the candles for Mary as she walks up the steep steps of the temple in Jerusalem. Go ahead and close your eyes if that helps you imagine. Ask yourself this question: Who are you holding the light for? When are you Brigid in this story? Now ask this: who is holding the light for you? When are you Mary in this story? Not one of us has to do this caring for each other alone. If no one is holding the light for you, ask for help. You can be a means of God’s grace. You can give others the gift of encountering God's presence through caring for you.

You can open your eyes.

Here is the good news: I believe in the light. I believe in the light of Christ that pierces the lingering winter darkness. And I believe that, like Mary, to walk beside Christ and to take up the cause of Christ will pierce our souls as well. We will suffer sadness and heartbreak as we risk caring for one another.

And yet. When we suffer and die to ourselves with Christ, we rise with Christ, too. We rise as others offer us light. We rise as we offer light to others. We rise up in solidarity. We rise up in protest. We rise up knowing that we are just one person, and we will not change the world on our own.

But we rise knowing God is God, and Christ is light, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

Even now.

May it be so.