Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Be Not Afraid" (Christmas 2017)

We know this story. You have heard it before, and if not at church then surely from Linus when Charlie Brown asks, “Does anyone really know what Christmas is all about?” You have heard it, you have sung it, I have preached on it before. And yet you came to be a part of the story again. And that is kind of how Christmas works. Every year we make the make the list, send the cards, wrap the gifts, put up the tree with ornaments new and old, we make the bread or the cookies that our great-grandmother made, and probably the same cookies that her grandma made. We check in with Scrooge and Tiny Tim, we watch as the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, we do feel like it is a Wonderful Life, and even commercials from the U.S. Post Office can make a person tear up… I’ve heard. We enter into this season that is new and yet timeless in the same moment. We hang ornaments that remind us of the past, we kneed the dough our Grandmothers did, read Mary’s Magnificat, and so we bring the past to the present and we bring a diversity of voices into one song.

That’s what we do. We mix traditions and stories and songs into one season of celebration. It is a part of who we are. We put out our a nativity every year which is totally, ‘Biblically Incorrect,’ if that is a thing. There is no place in the Bible where wise men and shepherds show up at a manger to see a newborn. Matthew and Luke tell different stories, and we have never been forced to choose between Joseph’s dreams and Mary’s magnificat, between wise men and shepherds. I mean, how could you choose? The wise men have the best outfits in the nativity, and children dressed as sheep are the most adorable part of any Christmas pageant. For 2,000 years, Christians have been wise enough to see the same truths in different stories. Wise enough to value the differences that make us stronger.

Without Matthew, we would miss Joseph and his dreams. We know about his family and we know he is a righteous man who discovers that the woman to whom he is engaged is “With Child.” Which is kind of a problem, no matter what century or country. Mary is pregnant and she shouldn’t be, and Joseph discerns to dismiss her quietly, which doesn’t sound great to me but is the nicest thing he can do. His family probably breathes a sigh of relief, one uncle is probably just glad it is over, and his grandma is probably just glad to put this mess behind them and move on. You see in a culture of shame and honor, taking on Mary’s shame could be a struggle for the whole family. Joseph goes to bed ready to dismiss Mary quietly and then he has a dream. An angel asks Joseph to stop being afraid, stick with Mary, and give the baby the name Jesus, which is a reflection of the name Joshua and means “God Saves or God Helps.” Joseph wakes up ready to get married and give this “illegitimate child” a big powerful name, no shame here. His uncle is probably urging him to think about this, his dad is probably making the puffy face he makes every time he is disappointed, and his grandma is taking his temperature and saying, “It’s the hummus! It was off. Somebody check the hummus. I think it’s bad.” But Joseph is faithful, not fearful. He wakes up with resolve to follow that life-changing dream.

From the Gospel of Luke, we learn about Mary, and we can’t loose her verse in the song. Mary is the only one in the Christmas story that talks back when an angel delivers big news. She takes in the news of her pregnancy, she ponders and she speaks up. She does not bargain with the Divine, like “Sure, if I can have a better house or if you can make everyone know this baby is legit, or at least give people heartburn when they make nasty comments.” She discerns, and when she says “Yes,” she is all in and will not accept the world's shame. She puts her hand on her belly and says to the world, “You think I should be ashamed, and I tell you I am blessed to be a blessing. You think I should be embarrassed, and I help you see God. My soul magnifies the Lord.” Where would we be without her powerful song!

The Gospel of Luke not only gives us Mary, but shepherds. Luke tell the story of these men who labor out in the fields. And while we might hear shepherds and think of adorable, freshly bathed children in a Christmas pageant, that’s not really the picture first century folks are seeing when they hear the Christmas story. They know shepherds are out on the hills, caring for a flock of animals that probably belong to someone else, someone who likely doesn’t pay them to much, particularly considering the extreme weather, wild animals, long hours and the totally dependent sheep. And shepherds are not treated with much respect in town. It doesn’t matter how many Kings like David got their start as shepherds, they are associated with the smelly, stupid animals they serve. But here in the Gospel of Luke, these outsiders get called up to deliver the big news. Here in the Gospel of Luke, angels illuminate the once midnight sky and the shepherds are terrified. The Angel says, “Fear not for I bring you good news of great joy that shall be to all the people.” The Angels conclude with a mission: Go, find the baby and share the good news, and they do just that. They don’t wait for permission, they don’t check their PTO, they don’t find a sitter for the sheep, they just go. I imagine them, moving these animals used to wide open spaces through the narrow streets of ancient Palestinian streets… hooves on the paving stones, weaving their way from the margins to the center, everyone in town waking up at the noise, joining the procession that these outsiders lead until they arrive to sing and celebrate and make the royal decree of Good News.

The Gospel of Matthew may lack shepherds but it has three wise men, or kings, or magi. We know them as the people who show up with the big ticket items on the registry, gold, frankincense and myrrh… which today might be a crib, a car seat and a diaper genie. While we have all kinds of names for them, it would help us to think of them as philosopher-research scientists. They have a job that is different from the shepherds. They study history, culture and religion; they study the sky and chart the stars. They see a star at its rising, and they put everything that they could have stayed home to do on the back burner, and with deep intention they show up. We may not catch it, but seeing a “star at its rising” links to Hebrew poetry in the Prophets about God bringing light to people in deep darkness, and we may not know the ancient short hand the first folks hearing the Gospel of Matthew might have, but we can learn it. In the ancient world, when an important man is born or dies, the universe speaks up and a star appears. And so they go. The wise ones look to the sky and show up. That is the truth of the story, everyone grows when they let go of fear, indifference and distractions. Everyone in this story changes. If you were not clear, the story shows you by literally moving everyone to a new place. That is the power that links all these differences together.

Of course, there are two people in the story that don’t change, and they go nowhere. We know their names, King Herod and Caesar Augustus. Luke begins with Caesar, forcing Mary and Joseph to go and be registered, and it is obvious there are no medical waivers, even for very pregnant women. He is immovable and his title of Emperor is followed up by the name Augustus, a title conferred by the Roman Senate which could mean something like, “One who is to be favored by God and deserving of human adoration.” He claimed divine favor, ordination, blended theology and politics in his favor, and the early Christians would use his language. Phrases like “Lord of Lords” and “King of Kings,” or “Prince of Peace” or “Savor,” or pronouncements of “Good News of Great Joy” belonged to the empire that kept peace by force. Early Christians would point to the Empire begging us all to see how this man, Caesar claims ordination by God, claims God’s authority, claims the divine purpose, and it makes him all the more cruel, brutal, and wealthy, while this man, Jesus, claims divine authority to live God’s call and it makes him more vulnerable, compassionate and generous.

The Gospel of Matthew offers a different King, King Herod. He is King of the Jewish state, but it is more of a result of Roman connections than royal lineage. Imagine a leader, insecure and obsessed with his image, (I know that is hard to imagine right now). Imagine a leader trying to make the temple great again… bigger again, obsessed with military power and building better walls, and doing all of this at the expense of most of the people to the benefit of very few. Herod enters the story with the Three Wise Men. They arrive at the Palace, an obvious place to find the baby that is bound to be the future king and the problem is… well… Herod doesn’t have a new baby boy. Herod calls in his own Philosopher/Theologians, and they alert Herod to an old prophesy, from a prophet whom probably wouldn’t care too much for a king like Herod either, and it says that there will be a baby in Bethlehem. This is where it gets tricky, or at least sneaky. Herod, the text says, calls the wise ones in “secret” and urges them to go find the child and let him know where he can go to pay homage himself. The wise men are warned in a dream to go home another way, though I like to think someone could be wise enough to see through this villain’s lie. The gospel tells us how everyone is afraid, Herod and all of Jerusalem with him. Maybe it is because they knew deep down that Herod the Great was not so great, and when afraid of losing power, capable of the unthinkable, like assassinating some of his own children. Herod has all the power and money, status and the Roman army whom are masters of crushing resistance, and yet in this story he is driven to anxiety by a peasant baby born in the back woods of the kingdom. The next part of the story is why Christmas pageants never involve Herod in the story, it's just wrong to make kid play the part. The next part of the story isn’t substantiated by sources outside of the Bible, but it must have seemed plausible to first century listeners. The next part of the story is the part we tell the Sunday after Christmas, when no one shows up and an Associate Pastor preaches It is about Herod, so insecure and so violent, that he orders the execution all of the baby boys guilty of being born in Bethlehem around the time of a star rising.

This is a part of the story of Christmas. We don’t make any ornaments about it, and you don’t see a lot of kids named Herod, but it is a part of the story. God shows up, and it is messy and ugly, there are harsh realities and violent leaders. God shows up anyway, God does not wait for Israel to get it all together with a really great king or the right Caesar to make peace the right way. God shows up in the brutal mess and says do not be afraid. God shows up, Emmanuel, God with us. Because for every Herod there is a faithful man like Joseph, who hears God echo in his dreams and wakes Mary up to say, “We have to go. Jesus is in danger…. no, it was not the Hummus. Let’s go.” God shows up, and for every Caesar there is a woman like Mary who sings a song about God lifting up the lowly and tearing the powerful from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Mary pretty much drops the mic when asked, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?” God shows up, and for every dictator there are shepherds coming in from the margins to be counted and for every bad king there are three good ones showing up with big gifts to change the status quo. Everyone has a choice in this story, God shows up speaks into the world, “Do not be afraid,” and they choose.

And so do we. Maybe its not an illuminated night sky or an angel in a dream, but God shows up with the challenge, “Be not afraid.” And yet we are, afraid of what we might lose, afraid to feel, afraid to love, afraid of who we might miss. Afraid to fail, afraid to succeed. Afraid to lose power, privilege and possession. Afraid to miss out. Afraid to look foolish. Afraid to get lost. Afraid! We are afraid, we are worried and anxious… most of us …a lot of the time. Can you imagine what it would mean to let go of those limits and fears? Can you imagine were you would go? What we could do? This is the story of Christmas, God showing up and not in the distance but as close as a baby’s tender touch. God showing up, with us. God challenging us, “Do not be afraid.” Fear not, I am with you. Do not be afraid is the chorus that holds the Christmas song together, we hear the verse of Joseph’s faithfulness and Mary sings her courage into the world. We need all the verses that Matthew and Luke have to offer, we need the shepherds, as much as we need the wise men to sing their song. We dive into this story every year, every week, sometimes every day. And at Christmas, we pause as God whispers yet again, What is your song going to say? What is the verse you are singing with your life? What is your part in the great, big, messy symphony of life?

Be not afraid.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Peace Versus Plan

John 14:27
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“My peace I give to your… Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Jesus offers peace to his disciples, urging them to not let their hearts be troubled and I think to myself, I wondered if they thought, “Jesus… do we live on the same planet? Look around at this mess and tell me how your heart is not troubled.” Maybe they are more faithful, but when I look at the world around us I am tempted to think offering peace is just not enough. Peace seems almost impossible. “Peace be with you” is hollow when it seems impossible. He might as well say, “I am giving you 100,000 billion dollars, or here is a unicorn,” the way we hear, “My peace I give to you.”

That might because when when we think of peace we think of it as what it is not; it is an absence. Peace is the absence of war; peace looks like beautiful people in black and white photos celebrating the end of WWII with pure joy on their faces. Peace is the absence of violence, pausing the words and weapons that wound. It looks like the absence of politicians bickering, or perhaps no more tweets. Peace in our relationships might look like partners putting an argument on hold or siblings getting along and letting things go, or at least not bringing it up… like that one Aunt not demanding Grandpa apologize publicly for his vote last November before he opens his Christmas present…hypothetically. Peace looks like the absence of tension, debate and argument at home. And then there is the question, “How is it with your soul?” I think of that deep question that Wesley asked his friends in his small group that we continue to share when we wonder how someone is and we expect a bigger answer other than ‘fine.’ When I think of peace in my soul, I think of the absence of worry, tension and anxiety; I think of finished to-do lists and plenty of time.

But when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” he is not talking about an absence. In the Gospel of John he is preparing his disciples for the final moments of struggle he will face. He is preparing them for the reality that prophets don’t live long and that they will have to journey on their own. And in this moment of struggle and grief and preparation, he does not give them a plan. He does not reiterate the Ten Commandments or give a checklist; he offers peace. Peace, not an absence but a presence. He does not offer the absence of struggle; he offers peace for the struggle. He does not offer an easy plan; he offers resilience and support for the journey. He is rooted in a tradition of Shalom, this greeting of wholeness and well-being. And when Jesus offers peace, he connects it with the gift of the Holy Spirit, this advocate and presence that will journey with them. Peace is not only a presence rather than an absence, it is a gift that comes with a companion and a teacher. Peace is not a simple plan, it is so challenging that it requires a teacher and thus learning. Jesus offered this wild, vivid spirit that will help us discern, learn and grow. Peace is a gift, a complicated gift. It is generative and life-giving in the midst of a world that deals destruction, hurt and violence. It is generative in the midst of grief, heartbreak and sadness. It is the deep well of resilience that make the disciples capable moving forward… even when Jesus asks them to pick up a cross and follow him.

This summer, I will celebrate 10 years under appointment as a Methodist Pastor, and during my ten years people have shared heart-breaking stories… partially because if you are on an airplane and you tell them you are a pastor… People have shared their stories of loss and grief: the death of a child, the death of a lover to cancer, the terminal illness with no mercy, the horrors of childhood with abusive parents, emotional abuse, divorce, terrible bosses and terrible companies, fires and incarceration. And in almost every case, there is a pause, and it ends with the phrase, “But God has a plan.” And I think… “What…uh…noooooo.” This plan theology always catches me off guard; it shouldn’t because it is everywhere. Perhaps I struggle when I hear it because it reminds me of when people said it to me. I was 26, I had been married for five years to my high school sweetheart, and he wanted a divorce. I was heartbroken. It wasn’t my idea, I didn’t want it, it didn’t make sense to me. I cried so much my eyelids were swollen and my lashes were matted down… at least once a day… if not all day. It was a hard moment, and I was pretty sure I would never love again and would live alone, as a shell of myself, and to make matters worse, I didn’t even have a cat. People would listen to my grief and then perhaps, needing to close the conversation, or just tired or just not sure what else to say, they would say things like, “Well at least you are so young,” like that made it easier. Or, “At least you didn’t have kids,” or “At least you didn’t own a home,” and I would think, Right, less paperwork… I guess… I should feel better. And then most conversations would crescendo to a final and resounding, “Well God has a plan for you and you are going to be great.” And I would think, Well if this is God’s plan it is a really bad plan. Later that year, I started seminary and people began to say something like, “Well God just wanted you to go to seminary so He could use you in ministry!” and I could think of about 100 other ways She could have accomplished that goal. 

I needed peace but people offered me what I’m going to call plan theology, and there is nothing unusual about that. Maybe we lean in to plan theology because we just need something stable and solid to hold onto when the world feels too uneasy. Maybe we lean into plan theology because we get nervous sitting with people in those really hard spaces or allowing ourselves to be there. Grief and loss make us uncomfortable, it is hard to be present in broken spaces. It makes us aware of our own vulnerability, which we don’t like. Maybe it is that we like to make something seem reasonable, even when it is not, so we don’t have to worry quite so much about how our own lives could change in a moment. Maybe we lean into plan theology because we don’t know what else to say and aren’t quite skilled at just not saying anything at all.

This holiday season, I wish we as the church could lean a little bit more into peace theology, rather than plan theology. I wish we could shut up, get uncomfortable, and sit with someone in their worry, hurt, pain and anxiety and not say anything about plans, rationalize it, or proclaim we know how they feel. I wonder if we could just be present and listen. Maybe if we listen we will start to hear how the whisper God’s peace is seeded within and begin to notice in these tremendously painful stories a glimpse of that courage or resilience and honor it. Maybe if we are still, we will sense God’s peace and be God’s peace.

As I look back on my journey. I am grateful for every moment of struggle and broken heart, in both my personal and my professional life. Even though I would have rather read a book on some of it, I learned and I grew, and I wouldn’t change a moment of it because I wouldn’t dream of changing where and who I am today. And that also puts me at a vantage point where I could say, “It was all part of God’s plan… see how perfectly it worked out.” But the truth for me is that peace is what brought me through. It was the people who stood by when my eyes were full of tears and just let me cry. It was the people that listened and named the strength and resilience and grace they saw with me when I couldn’t see it myself. Jesus offers us peace and the Spirit that shows up in teachers around us and whispers direction from within. God’s peace is generative and life-giving. It is not a plan and it doesn’t make life easy, but it is a presence that sustains us through the grief, brokenness and pain. God’s peace is that resilience that lets us love again, knowing we are strong enough to be vulnerable again. It lets us risk again with the confidence that we will rise from falling, and it grants courage in new ways to journey down new roads… with or without a plan. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Psalm One

Psalm One
Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on God they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season (in due season),
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they give life.

Today we celebrate our sixth birthday. In preparation for today, I wondered when we would stop celebrating birthdays? I didn’t grow up in a church that celebrated birthdays. Actually, I have never been in a church that celebrated a birthday, unless it was a big one, like 25 years or 100 years or 150 years. Maybe we treat church birthdays like we treat our own. We stop celebrating at some point, like maybe after 21, or it seems for sure after 30. After 30 we only celebrate the big ones and we forgo the big party for 32, 46 or 57. We celebrate the early birthdays the most. Maybe that is because those are the ones where we see the most change. Year to year we see big changes. When Lila turned one, I felt a certain joy, because we had taken a parenting class before her birth which gave us reason to be afraid of almost every thing. Everything was a hazard, cute stuffed animals and a loose baby blanket could be sure and certain death. We celebrate milestones when we really need too.

Perhaps, we never celebrated birthdays at church because no one remembered when getting from one year to the next was a big deal, or none remembered when the church started. It always seemed that the United Methodist Church, just like the Presbyterian church or the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, had always been there and in someways would always be there. These institutions were a part of the community, solid and stable and not changing much. But the truth is there is change. Our big institutions, all of the mainline church denominations, have been facing decline. The world is changing, and the way people connect to church has changed too. We are in a time of decline across the board. You might be able to see it in a sanctuary but you can just as easily read about it in plenty of well-research studies. The world is different. Stores are open on Sunday, kids practice soccer on Sundays, no one moves to town to join the closest United Methodist Church just because their Mom raised them that way. So why are we here starting a church in an uncertain time? It makes no sense. Research shows the mile radius around the Abbey to be filled with people who are high in their distrust of clergy and disinterest in the church, and a high interest in “alternative spirituality.”

Today we plant a church because this new day gives us new hope. Today no one feels obligated to join a church because they want to be good citizens, or need to network or like to sing in a group. No body has to come to church anymore. Which is the gift. Everyone comes because they want to.  Because they seek and they long to, because they love. And our church is open every day all the time, a living sanctuary. We are here to share the gifts of the church, freely and lovingly.

We have a lot to give. We have inherited a strong foundation from our Annual Conference. Church institutions have talked about changing, doing it differently or being different for a long time but when it comes to actually putting money into that work, well that is a different story. New church starts are usually in a suburb with a cute white guy pastor who plays a guitar and has a tattoo or a piercing… but not both. But here, you have proof of people brave enough to really fund something different. We inherit their courage and the gift of a strong foundation.

We have been gifted with a strong call to justice by our mother church. First United Methodist Church has planted justice in our DNA. It is a church that refused to pay a pastor who preached with a pistol and disregarded the rights of Native people. It is a church that during its hay day was large and wealthy and white with powerful people, and it stood in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. It is a church that made Omaha’s first home for PFLAG and stood up for LGBTQ+ rights, before it was cool. This call to justice is seeded in our very being.

We inherit the grace and courage of our tradition. John Wesley and his brother Charles and their little group of college friends that created a movement. WE inherit their integration of the head and the heart and the hands. Their deep well of grace and their holiness that was both social and personal.  Their call to action, meant they showed up. Showed up to create schools for young people without access, they showed up to feed the hungry, and they showed up to change tax codes and laws that kept people poor. They showed up in prisons and preached in fields, they worked to make fair labor standard and abolish slavery, and their little holiness club turned into a movement that spans the globe yet today.

We bring all of this to the table, it is a part of who we are and it is how we show up. Showing up is at the heart of our theology, we are about to enter the season of Advent where we talk about God showing up. And it is not a distant metaphor, it is as real as breath. Emmanuel, God with us, God within us. And when we celebrate Christmas, we remember God showing up and not as the oldest son of a popular king, not as the oldest son of the Chief Priest to reform the temple, but God shows up born to a woman who shouldn’t be pregnant and by some accounts surrounded by farm animals... which was not recommended in any childbirth class.

We show up here because that is our call. It is simple and profound. And sometimes even showing up is hard. It took a lot of paper work and asking and re-asking to get started at all. And there were days when I looked at the struggle before us and thought is this ever going to work? Will we make it? Will it matter? And every time I have leaned into this poetry of Psalm One, the phrase of bearing fruit in due season. I have looked at worship attendance and worried. I have looked at our coffee bar and worried. I have looked at our giving and worried. In our first year, 2012, we raised in a whole year what we will often this year raise in one month. There was reason to worry, particularly if you looked close and realized that most of that money was the gift of my mom and my boyfriend. But the truth is in every moment there was an answer. A reason to hope, the season was winter and spring would come, in due season we would bear fruit.

That is the gift. In this uncertain adventure, that every moment of uncertainty has been met with people who bring gifts; gifts I don’t have. I didn’t know anything about coffee, I didn’t even drink it, but Chris Smith did. There was no class about permits or paint colors, plumbing or Excel spreadsheets, but all of those needs were met with the gifts of people who care. Every moment that seemed like an obstacle has been an opening to learn about a new gift and to grow the Abbey through the gifts of others. You bring gifts to this community and I am ever grateful. May we have to courage to use them to grow. May we deploy them for God’s love with the foundation of where we have been and a eye for every year to follow. 

May it be so.


Discussion Questions

1. What is your favorite birthday memory? What do you love or not love about marking a year of your journey?

2. How do you identify with the Psalm? What would it mean to pray it daily for a week?

3. What are the gifts you bring to community? How do you feel called or challenged to use them?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints Day Sermon (1 Corinthians 13)

1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV)

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


We hear this scripture a lot… at weddings. It is so common at weddings that some couples say, “I don’t want that scripture - everyone else uses it.” It is the scripture I shared at my Grandma’s funeral. Because this poetry about love speaks in all cycles and phases of life. It names our call to love with profound and simple phrases that ring true and raise a challenge… love is kind; love does not boast or seek its own way; love hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things. This love endures beyond what we see and know for sure. The poetry culminates in this story seeing dimly and knowing only in part. It invites us beyond what is now and into the sense that we don't see everything and we don’t know everything. Which I think is the perfect place to begin any conversation around death.

We are in a season where the hours of evening are creeping into the daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere it is a time when we see cycles of life and death in the world around us. The once vibrantly green fields have turned dry, brittle, and golden. Crops are dying to life, becoming grain to nourish and seeds to sow for the future. It is a season of transformation, where evening creeps into daylight. It is a season where we actually name what scares us. We name it and we literally dress up as the most terrifying things. We dress up as witches and ghosts, goblins and political figures. People turn nice normal yards into grave yards, coated in cob-webs and punctuated zombies and old bones. Everything that scares us we name it. And I believe it is essential work to name our fears, including what might be our biggest fear, our own mortality. Facing our own death is hard and may only be eclipsed by facing the death of one we love. I think that is why we set aside this time each year, to name it and face it.

When I was in seminary, we were assigned to write a credo. It required thought on eight key aspects of Christianity. And while this was not an unusual assignment, I am grateful because there were themes I loved to write about and there were themes I would have never chosen. The one I struggled with the most related to death and the mystery of what lies beyond death. Everything I wrote sounded small in the face of the topic, and I have never been too committed to pearly gates and streets paved in gold or a mansion waiting with our name above the door. As I erased everything to start over, I received a call. My friend needed help. She was having a baby, and I was her photographer. It was a first for me, and I witnessed nothing going according to plan. She had a fever, she was sick, and the plan with the right music and the powerful natural birth was gone. And as I witnessed this powerful moment, I thought Ember, the baby girl we were waiting for, must think she is dying. Everything is changing; her body has participated, growing to term, positioning itself for birth. And yet the womb that was her home is pushing her out. She is pushed out, away from everything that sustained her life, and it must feel like she is dying. And yet she is received. Breathing air she didn’t know she could, seeing light and hearing new sounds without the womb surrounding her. She must feel like everything is strange and new, a death of one way and yet she is received into life.

When I have had the occasion to be in the room with people at the time of their deaths, it has been peaceful and holy. On Wednesday, Joel Walker shared his experience as a hospice chaplain. He named the peace and the powerful presence of a spirit bigger and bolder. He named how every person on staff experienced this bold mystery, regardless of their faith. We can’t know all the logistics, we see in part and know in part. So maybe we should stop trying to know it all or at least claiming we do. While we may not be able to name the logistics and specifics, we can rest into the mystery of God’s love. We can love that we see dimly, love that we know only in part, and that love is what we rest into. In the mystery, we might imagine being received.

We pause to talk about death, to name it beyond easy images or tired clichés to be open to the mystery of life and death so we can face each day with courage. We name our fears of death so they don’t hold us but empower us. Because naming our fears isn’t about cowering but empowering. We name our fear so it doesn’t hold us back. We celebrate All Saints because it means we can live with reverence for each hour and we can be brave as we live in the world that fills us with doubts or despair. When we open ourselves to the big bold mystery of God’s spirit, we can open ourselves to the spirits of the saints that went before us, encouraged us and loved us into being. And when we open ourselves to God’s love, we can move forward to be those saints for others.

Discussion Questions

1. What does it mean to be a Saint?  Who has been a saint that you remember as important in your life?

2. What gives you comfort and courage in the face of big fears, like mortality?

3. What do you need to live each moment with reverence?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

1 Samuel 25: 14-18

1 Samuel 25: 14-18
"14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, ‘David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.’

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, ‘Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal."

My favorite part of this scripture is the note that Abagail didn’t tell her husband what she was doing.  She is a woman we don’t hear enough about; she is left out of the lectionary reading cycle that guides many churches and there are zero Sunday school songs that echo her story. Perhaps this is because she is a woman caught between two pretty egotistical men. One of whom happens to be the man that will be King, King David is the King against whom all other Kings in Israel’s history will be measured except here… he is not looking partially good.  

David is caught in an in-between space, named as future king, plucked from the middle of no-where, the last son of no-body important. Some lowly shepherd on his way to being king. The problem with David being named as the future king is that there is a current king and power is not something kings let go of very easily… it would seem. And yet David has been useful, even to the soon to be outgoing king, in terms of his military leadership. So this moment we find David with a crew of folks, a small army, a band of marry men out in the country side. Except they are really not so noble. This group of men need to be fed and housed and are depending the people they are “protecting” for this payment. They are perhaps like pirates without a boat, they might even be people we would label today as a terrorist cell, a roving militia striking fear into peoples hearts to get what they want. This is where things get messy with Abigail.

David crew brushes up into Nabal, Abigail’s husband. He is a wealthy man leading a wealthy household and the author of this story wants us to be clear that Nabal is ill-natured. He is difficult to say the least, and it is named over and over. Perhaps a more vivid translation would be peppered with adjectives I don’t want children to repeat. He is difficult, and there is this kind of sense that that is just Nabal, like he is the Ancient Mediterranean Prequel to Grumpy Old Men. The problem is when David’s militia demands something of Nabal, Nabal’s response is sort of along the lines of “David Who? That nobody from nowhere.” This response is natural for Nabal to give, just as it is obvious to us readers that David, Future King David’s, Ego is not going to take kindly to this insult and refusal. And so the battle is set. David promises sure and certain destruction and death to Nabal and his household. Nabal seems unfazed by this threat, however, the servants in his household are not. They seek an intercessor, a leader that will save them from David and the only person that can save the day is Abagail.  

She hears the story of what has happened and takes the word of the servants to heart that David and his men were caretakers of them when they were in the fields keeping the flocks. And she responds. The thing she responds with bread.

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19and said to her young men, ‘Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 

Not just a little food but a lot of food. Perhaps this is why the details have so much real-estate in the story. She takes bread to an army. She takes wine to a terrorist cell. She takes raisins to fight pirates. She meets fear and uncertainty, a space of potential violence with abundance. And it works. Her massive spread of food changes the threat of violence into a banquet of sharing. David thanks her,

32 David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from blood-guilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!’

She met violence with peace and scarcity with abundance. She looks at an army and shows up with two hundred loaves of bread. She brings so much food it takes a caravan of donkey’s to move it into place. And it changed the course of events.

That is the interesting thing about all the stories around bread in our Bible. They are totally unreasonable. Jesus is in a desolate place, and yet thousands of people are gathered on a hillside and he tells his disciples its time to feed these people. They give him a spreadsheet of reasons it cannot be done, they didn’t have time to plan, there are to many people, no one RSVP’ed, it would take a years wages, there is no bakery, and in the face of all their reasonable, understandable no’s Jesus picks up a few loaves of bread and shows them how to say yes. With enough loaves to count on one hand, he blesses and breaks bread and there is not only enough when everyone else does the same, there is more then enough. They have so much they collect extra and there must be someone putting it in to-go containers making sure everyone gets a little bite for the road. It is totally unreasonable and it happens in breaking bread. We see it in the heart of the Parable when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is live yeast that a woman took and kneed into three measures of flour. Three measures of flour is a lot of flour. It reminds us of Sarah and Abraham’s story. Abraham seeing three strangers on the horizon, welcomes them and as a part of the welcome he runs in and asks Sarah to take three measures of flour to make them some cakes. Amy-Jill Lavine reminds us this is like making 60 dozen busiest. It is no wonder Sarah is laughing at the end, she is exhausted. 60 dozen biscuits for people you didn’t invite and an event you didn’t plan is totally unreasonable.  

These bread stories are totally unreasonable. Something so small and simple, bread, changes everything. They are reckless and abundant. 200 loaves of bread, 60 dozen biscuits, feeding thousands at the spur of the moment, you cannot miss the message of abundance that is wrapped up in the stories of bread. Perhaps they teach us something about being bread for each other, how it requires a lot of us, our utmost. Being bread, being faithful is totally unreasonable and requires us to be reckless and wild. 

I believe that is why we gather because we waiting to make our 60 dozen biscuits. Of course, not literally, we may not all be ready to load of a donkey with a feast of bread, wine and raisins. But we have something to give. God has seeded gifts in our very being and we are waiting to give them, to discover them, to share them and to be inspired to give them beyond reason. We gather each week to explore what that might be, to dive into our spiritual life so we can come out ready to share our best with the world. Maybe it is your time, maybe it is your resources, maybe it is your talents maybe it is all of the above. But at every step we are called to go big, to be unreasonable and unrealistic and change the world. Abigail changed everything by meeting fear with compassion, scarcity with abundance, and the threat of destruction with the promise of hope. We can too. May we have the courage to be bread for each other. Amen

Discussion Questions
1. What did you know about Abigail before this study?
2. What do you see in Abigail’s story that gives you courage as you chart your own story?
3. What does it mean to be bread for each other? 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sermon on Yeast (Matthew 13:33)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A New Lens on Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Debra

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Judges 4:4-5

Judges 4:4-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Jonah: The Pouting Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist

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

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

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

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

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

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