A Baccalaureate Message

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Below is the message I gave this morning for Salem Academy Baccalaureate…

It is such an honor to be here with you today, in this beautiful setting of the May Dell. It is wonderful to look at the faces of our seniors before me, and to know how strong, creative, brilliant, kind, and compassionate all of you are. None of us could have imagined a time like these past 15 months, and yet here you are – having accomplished more than anyone could have expected, under the most challenging circumstances. You have not only done your academic work – you have continued to do all the wonderful extra-curricular things that really make Salem Academy special.

Our clubs are strong and healthy.

Our plays are vibrant and creative.

Our younger students have been mentored and cared for.

You have created mutual forms of support, lifting each other up on difficult days.

And – you have even offered support and kind words for those of us who are fortunate enough to work here – and on behalf of all of us, thank you!

Now the traditional Baccalaureate message normally talks about accomplishments, and success, and how to be even more successful when one goes off to the greater world.

This morning, I’d like to reflect on what “success” truly is. I remember back in ancient times, when I was in high school – we had senior superlatives – and they were the superficial things from the 1980s than any John Hughes movie could highlight more fully.

I did very well academically in high school – was a leader in various clubs – very active in my church and the community – in short, I did all the things one needed to do to be successful. And the one thing I really wanted was to get the Senior Superlative for “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Now I am certain all of you can guess how this great desire of mine ended. I lost out to a rather quiet young woman whose brother had won “Most Likely to Succeed” a couple years previously. And yes – I was bitter. And I was so immature that when I ran into her 7 years later, as I was finishing a Masters at Duke and had a good job waiting on me – I remember smugly thinking “I’m more successful than she is.”

I am not proud of that!

I hope and pray that all of you are more mature and grounded that I was at age 18 or age 25. In fact, I know you are!

I bought into what society told me success was –

Good grades

A big name school

A “good” job

Connections with important people

Having influence in the world

Receiving awards & accolades

Having the appearance of someone who had power and “had it all together”

Now I am not standing here before you saying that any of these things are bad – not at all – but what I am saying is that if we strive for these things because we believe that is what society expects of us – then we have lost sight of what it truly means to be successful.

One good thing that has come about the past 15 months is that many people are rethinking how they want to live in the world – what success means for them. Does it mean spending most our time on things that really do not have value? Does it mean filling our homes with possessions? Does it mean that we are so focused on how we appear in the world, that we rarely connect to others in deep, meaningful ways?

All of us have dealt with real trauma in the last 15 months – and in a variety of ways. The pandemic, growing awareness of racial injustice, mass divisions in our country, economic challenges, growing environmental devastation, isolation, loneliness, grief…

What is the best way for us to live in this world? Especially in the midst of such challenges?

The most important thing for any of us is connection.

Connection to our deepest selves – who we truly are and we who want to be

Connection to each other – our closest circle of loved ones, others in our society and the world

Connection to creation – to the gift of nature around us – the very ground of our being

To be successful means that we are connected.

Now all of you have done a fair amount of mindfulness activities with me during your time at Salem. The core of a mindful practice is to be connected to ourselves, to others, and to creation.

One of the true gifts of Salem Academy is the connection each of you has to each other. Sophie very graciously sang an old song I requested for today – Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Now I know that many of you heard that and thought, “Wow – that’s the Gilmore Girls theme.”

Yes,it is – but many years before that – it was a thought-provoking song from the 1970s about what it means to be a friend.

What it means to be connected to another person – when you are down and troubled, a true friend is there with you, brightening up even the darkest night.

Our sacred readings which Emma read for us today all focus on connection – how we are connected to another.

We are to love one another as we love ourselves. And please note that says we can’t truly love others unless we love ourselves first.

We are to be in community with others with kindness, compassion, a humility of spirit, an understanding heart.

Now – this isn’t always easy – and sometimes it’s really hard. And on those days when it’s not easy to be in community with others – even those we truly love – then it’s time to work more on loving ourselves and be connected to the most important part of ourselves – so that we can love others.

So – for this Baccalaureate message today, I wish each one of you success. And not success as the world defines it – but success as the deep spirit of the world defines it.

I wish for each of you continued deep friendships and love.

I wish for each of you compassion and wisdom.

I wish for each of you the deepest of connection – to yourselves, to creation, and to others.

I’d like to end this message by asking our seniors to come forward to the table up front in just a moment. You will notice there is a big pottery bowl with small rocks there. They come from the grounds of Salem, right here at the May Dell in fact. And I want you to take one rock – to take it from this home of Salem – and to carry it with you as you go around the globe to the various places you are heading.

When you look at this rock – remember these things –

You are always connected to your Salem family

You are connected to creation, and the very literal ground of this institution

You are connected to your own inner being, and you are as strong as the rock you hold.

“The Act of Transformation”

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Below is the message I gave this morning on Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20 “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Today’s text is from the very first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark begins his story of the life and ministry of Jesus – not with a birth narrative – but with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John. So we see the very beginning here. John has been arrested, and we know that he will soon be executed. But while John is in jail, Jesus wastes no time starting his work. He comes to his home turf – Galilee, and is at a major gathering place – the Sea of Galilee.

 The Sea of Galilee is a large freshwater lake, 13 x 7 miles. The people who lived in this area were fairly diverse – ethnically, religiously, culturally. Even though it was part of the Roman Empire, the major Roman authorities were in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Galilee was the backwoods. And these fishermen were the essential workers of the area, barely getting by on minimum wage.

 We tend to have an idealized version of the fishermen from the New Testament. In today’s world, fishing is seen as a relaxing pastime – a leisure activity which relieves stress. But this was not the case for fishermen back then. The Roman Empire controlled every economic aspect of life. People had to buy fishing licenses and continue to pay fees, just so they could fish. They had to deal with heavy taxation. Fishermen were not simply self-employed people who had freedom and lived even somewhat comfortably. They were at the lower social strata – struggling to ends meet.

And just like so many essential workers in our society – they received some of the lowest financial compensation and didn’t eat if they didn’t work. And their work was essential – fish were a staple of the diet for the people of this area. The economy, and everyone in the area, relied on these people to spend their lives fishing in challenging conditions on a sea known for its sudden storms.

 The fact is – Simon and Andrew and James and John – didn’t really have that much to lose by leaving their nets and following this new rabbi.

So Jesus approaches them and says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News…Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Let’s spend a few moments looking at the exact language here. The Greek doesn’t translate exactly to the English. The words which are translated “repent” and “believe” are interconnected, and mean more than what we might imagine. “Repent” comes from the Greek word which translates “to turn around.” It is about physically going in the opposite direction of where we were heading. It’s not just a change of mind – it’s a complete reorientation of the way we live. It is action – pure and simple. And then the word for “believe.” In English, we think of this word as an agreement to certain statements. It’s a gnostic approach to ideas around which we can wrap our heads. But “believe” in Greek is a word that is all about action. “To believe” is something our heads, our hearts, and our bodies have to follow.

 As we know from the ministry of Jesus, he always taught by doing. Traditional rabbis were centered in a particular location, and disciples came to them. Jesus instead traveled, healed, taught in all sorts of places, engaged and interacted with all sorts of people. Actions speak louder than words, and we learn best by doing.

And so the scripture for today reinforces this idea of action – we repent by turning our bodies, and our hearts, and our minds – in the opposite direction. And these four disciples did just that. They dropped everything – including complying to the Roman economic system – and followed Jesus.

Now when we talk about “following” in today’s world, there are a number of things that come to mind.

We follow –

                The news

                People or groups on social media

                Our family’s expectations

                Society’s expectations

                Perhaps our own inner critic

So much of the work I have done over the years with college women is helping them deconstruct the expectations others have placed on them – expectations which dim the inner light each one of them carries. To get in touch with that Divine Light they each carry – to follow that – is to follow God, to let go of those nets and follow Jesus. So many have been taught to follow some authority outside themselves, rather than the Divine Light that shines at their very heart and soul.

And so the disciples in this story follow – and follow immediately. As we’ve already said, they didn’t have a lot to lose – but what courage they had to follow at a moment’s notice, stepping into an unknown life!

Homiletics Professor Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary wrote – “Epiphanies, especially of the divine nature, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection, but instantaneous commitment and risk. Or, to put it another way, no real choice. Naming epiphanous moments, describing those times when your response is out of your control, that might be getting close to articulating what happened with the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, well then, get ready for a wild ride. This can be simultaneously freeing and terrifying. Free to respond in the moment. Terrified of what beyond the moment will unfold.”

I think we’ve all had at least one moment in life where we responded in the moment – our bodies and souls responded before our minds had a chance to think of all the reasons to talk ourselves out of taking said action. I’m not talking about a rash decision, but when we deeply listen to our souls – when we have an epiphany. The disciples had an epiphany that day – and they offered the only appropriate response.

Now for the last part of my message today, I want to address the more traditional Bible Belt understanding of this passage. Repentance and belief are seen as an individual actions, and being fishers of people is all about evangelism and getting people to a confession at the altar.

This kind of interpretation divorces Jesus’ words from his context. He was a rabbi who was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor of fishing for people is found in the Hebrew prophets – Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk. And the prophets were not talking about individual piety. Their call for justice – fishing for people – was about living in a just society, where the oppressed broke free from their chains, and everyone was valued and cared for. “Essential workers” were not left to do the hardest work in society, for the lowest pay.

Repentance, belief, fishing for people – these were not statements about individuals – but about the community. These words were a call for the transformation of society, so that it might better reflect the kingdom of God.

Theologian Ched Myers wrote, “Jesus is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitive system and back to a network of “fictive kinship” that practices mutual aid and cooperation… The revered image of “fishing for people,” then, should be understood more in the sense of Dr. King’s struggle “for the soul of America” than in terms of Billy Graham’s altar calls. But as the story makes clear, we can be assured that Jesus’ summons to discipleship was both profoundly political and personal—then and now.”

We know we are struggling for the soul of America right now. The essential workers of the past year – who have made certain we have enough food to eat, who have cleaned infected workplaces and retirement communities and hospitals, – they are on the edge of poverty, and our government has been content for twenty years with a poverty level minimum wage. White supremacy is creating countless domestic terrorists, and the FBI places this group as our greatest threat. Our country has never dealt with the original sin of slavery and racism. When we sweep things under the rug, they are still there and simply rot until the rug is destroyed. Today – we are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of our country.

As we hear the calling from Jesus – to be fishers of people – let us use our hearts and our minds, and our hands to follow in the footsteps of the prophet and bring about a systemic transformation so that we might live in a more just society. This is what it means to say the kingdom of God is near, and the time is fulfilled. All will be fed, will have equal opportunity, and will not be judged by the color of their skin.

Today – let us respond as a community to be fishers of people, so that we may transform our community as we witness to the kingdom of God. Amen.

Inspired by Blessed Mary

My parents gave me this manger scene back in 1989. I keep it displayed year round!

 Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

         This passage from Luke is unique. It shows up nowhere else in the Bible. You might recall that the Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative, and the Gospel of John is much more esoteric in its approach to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph and the Wise Men, while the Gospel of Luke focuses on Mary, Elizabeth, and the shepherds. Luke was always focused on the people society normally places on the fringe.

         And thus here we are in the very first chapter of Luke, with a teenage girl from nowhere as the central character. Now let’s begin by trying to gain a fuller understanding of who this girl was. Mary was probably around 14 years old, and from a backwoods town that wasn’t really considered important at all. Even though she was young, she was considered marriageable age during this time period. And we know she was engaged to Joseph, who was probably about 20.

         Marriage during this time was normally arranged between families. It was a two step process. The legal contract would be drawn up and the couple would be “engaged.” They were not formally married yet, but there was a legal commitment. For a woman to be pregnant, and not by her engaged future husband – she could be exiled from her family and community, or she could be stoned to death for adultery.

         Mary full well knew her situation. And so she ponders it. Let’s reflect on the word “ponder.” Mary was a thinker. We all know people who are very thoughtful. They mull things over before speaking or taking action. And that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it? I’m sure many of us can recall too many times in our own lives when we have spoken or acted without really thinking first!

Mary understood as much as any human could the task she was undertaking.

And this is really the exact opposite of that awful modern Christmas song – you may have already heard it on the radio – Mary, did you know? I wish I could ban that song. It falls into the diminished view of Mary that Protestants have encouraged over the centuries. In the immortal words of the 90s rock band No Doubt, Mary is just a girl – incapable of making her own decisions and just a passive recipient of whatever decisions men might make. 

Protestants have made Mary simply a passive vessel – the physical host for Jesus, who had no agency of her own. Our society tends to give women value if they are mothers, and especially if they have given physical birth. I have known so many women who dealt with infertility or who chose not to have biological children – and the assumption is normally made that because they are not a “mom,” that they are selfish or something is wrong with them. 

Motherhood is a calling – and it is not the primary definer of a woman or her value. When we look at today’s scripture and reduce it to Mary’s acceptance of a physical pregnancy – we are missing the point!

The point is that both Mary and her older kinswoman Elizabeth were important in God’s kindom because of the love they had for God and their willingness to continue God’s work– whatever that work might be.

         Mary is important – not because she was a biological mother – but because she was always willing to be a conduit for God – she supported her son’s ministry, was there when he died, and continued his work after his death (in addition to other women).

         Mary is blessed because she believed the words of God and chose to actively follow – wherever that might lead.

         Mary was not some meek, mild, willfully ignorant child – she was fierce. We can think of teenage girls today who will not be cowed – who are strong and fight for what is right.

Greta Thunberg– the Swedish teenager who has dedicated her life to combatting climate change, even being dismissed and verbally attacked by some of the most powerful men in the world.

Mari Copeny– sometimes called “Little Miss Flint” – a 12 year old girl from Flint, Michigan, who enlisted former Pres. Obama and others to combat the ongoing water crisis in her hometown.

Malala– the Pakastani girl who is a human rights advocate, especially for education for girls, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17

Yusra Mardini– a teenage Syrian refugee who helped save other refugees and has been an advocate for the refugee community

Kahlila Williams– a 16 year old voting rights and Black Lives Matter advocate who has had a very busy year

Sarina Krishnan– who founded a non-profit in California to help support immigrants

Melissa Khasbigan– a Texas teen who founded a non-profit which combats global illiteracy

I could list a lot more teen girls who are doing amazing things. But the main point is this –

Mary thoughtful and intentionally chose to accept this offering from God. She is not revered because she was a physical vessel – she is “favored” and lifted up in our faith because of her faith

When people ask, Mary did you know? The scripture is plain – she knew her child would be named Jesus – a derivation of Joshua, which meant Savior. She and the rest of the Jewish people in Israel lived in an occupied land. The Roman occupiers controlled their lives, their taxes, their politics. Revolts, hoping to overthrow the Romans, had been commonplace. So – when Mary heard her son’s name – she knew what that could mean and the subsequent possibilities.

Rev. Karoline Lewis says that in the text we see Mary move from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to Mother of God, from denial to discipleship.

She is an empowered young woman who, after thoughtful consideration, makes a conscious decision to accept Gabriel’s words. She takes action by seeking out the mentorship of her older kinswoman, and she continues to actively fulfill her calling as a prophet and disciple throughout her life.

Theologian Mark Allen Powell wrote these words about Jesus, during his ministry “Jesus is teaching a crowd or people when a woman calls out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” This is a colorful way of saying, “How blessed to be your mother.” This woman thinks it would be wonderful to be Jesus’ mother because Jesus is a great man and the worth of women is often determined by the quality of sons they produce. Jesus completely rejects this (sexist) ideology and declares, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”

         Blessed Mary is one of the best inspirations for us today, especially as we continue to face difficult and challenging days this winter –

We might be uncertain – like Mary, feeling unprepared for the challenges of the day

We might wish someone else would deal with this

We might have lots of questions which will never be answered

We might have to deal with some kind of fear and anxiety every single day

We might be afraid of getting it wrong, thinking there is a different way we could be doing this

But just as Mary stepped forward in faith, so can we. The world around Mary – then and now – might have discounted her as a meek and mild teenage girl – but God knew the truth of her – and we know the truth. She was a strong, fierce woman who actively changed the world and brought love into this world in a new way.

         Thanks be for Mary’s determined and bold faith and life, and thanks be for God who fills us in such a way that we too might follow her example. Amen.

Peace during 2020

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The United Nations designated September 21 as International Day of Peace in 1971. Many people around the world today are designating space apart and time to offer up prayers and actions for peace. We traditionally think of peace as an absence of violence (i.e. no wars) or as a mindset where things just don’t bother us.

On this important day, let’s take steps to a deeper understanding of peace. The year 2020 has been like anything we could have imagined – a global pandemic, the disasters due to climate change, a grave economic crisis, an election cycle unlike anything we have seen before, and the ongoing fight for racial justice. We don’t know when things will end, and we are wondering what “normal” might be in the future. Peace seems about as far removed from our lives as we could possibly imagine.

Yet, peace is this very thing we need at this time. There are two types of peace we can work towards each day. The first is that inner sense of peace. This does not mean not worrying about things, or just feeling happy, or being in denial about what is going on around us. True inner peace is about being connected with the ground of our being. It is about knowing our deepest selves. It is about understanding our connection to the universe and all creation – each plant, the air we breathe, animals, and every human on the globe. It is being fully present in the moment – not rehashing things from the past or cycling through future scenarios. Peace is fully about the present and being connected.

We can find this inner peace in a variety of ways – prayer, meditation, being outdoors, reading something which is sacred for us, creating art, connecting at a deep level with another human (even if it’s virtually).

And in tapping into this inner peace, even if for just a few moments a day, it empowers us to work towards peace in this world. The saying is that there is no Peace without Justice. That is so very true. We are called to work for justice if we want peace in this world. We are called to hear the voices of those who are oppressed and marginalized. We are called to care for our planet and the creatures on it. We are called to make certain no child is hungry or mistreated. We are called to work towards a society which cares for all people equally and equitably.

Our beloved saint, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lived a life of working towards peace, because she was a champion of justice. So much that I have in my life, and the opportunities I have – as a woman – are possible because of the way in which she peacefully and with love was always a champion for justice.

On this day of Peace, my prayer for you is that you will find a few moments of peace, and those moments will empower you to keep working towards peace and justice for our world.

Love, love, love…

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One day in sixth grade, I recall complaining to my long-suffering mother about my name. “Amy is just too cutesy. Why couldn’t you have given me a stronger name? I think I’ll go by my middle name.” Mom patiently explained the name Amy means “Beloved,” and I was – so she thought it was a good name.

I’ve long since given up my 12 year old rants, and have actually come to “love” my name. I have realized over the years that the strongest part of me is my heart and my ability to love. To be able to love is the greatest thing we can do, and to be one who loves is the greatest thing we can be.

A few years back, my marriage was in shambles, things were tough financially, and I had a demanding job and carried all the emotional labor of running the household with two very active children. I reached a tipping point one Friday night, and took off for the weekend to see one of my best friends. My Granny resided in a nursing home near Patty, and I slipped in to see her on Sunday morning before I returned home. Granny was in the throes of dementia, so I knew she wouldn’t recognize me or be able to talk about anything from the last 50 years. But I also know that we don’t completely understand how the brain works, and it was always important for me to love my Granny and be present with her. She had helped raise me, after all.

I sat beside her bed, and loudly spoke (due to her hearing loss), “Granny, Granny! It’s Amy. I’ve come to visit.” Granny never quite focused on me, but she slowly responded, “Amy. Amy. Everybody always loved Amy.” I couldn’t stop crying. She said so many wonderful things to me over the years, but those words spoken out of her confusion were perhaps the most important ones she ever said to me.

Love never goes to waste. Even if it is received poorly, it changes and transforms the one who loves. We become a higher being and can see the world in a brighter light. Even if our love is ignored or rejected, it carries us (the ones who love) to a more fully formed and fully human plane. The one who never, or rarely, loves is to be pitied. Their vision is limited and their lives pathetically narrow. It is love which widens and expands our world in ways we could never imagine. And the more we love, the greater the world.

Yes, our hearts can be broken. And love is what heals the cracked heart – the love we have for ourselves and the love the universe has for us.

Love lifts us. Love heals us. Love lights the path. Love creates the colors and shadows which enrich our journey. Love bonds us to another in ways we can never fully comprehend and for which we can only be thankful.

In Shakti Gawain’s classic book, Creative Visualization, she provides a list of mantras for creating more positive energy in this world. One is I love to love and be loved. My hope for you is that these can be your words to live by in the coming days, especially in the midst of the uncertainty, pain, and challenges of these times.

Trying to Breathe

Sunday marked the beginning of the Pentecost season in the Christian year. According to the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers had gathered for the Jewish festival in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. Jerusalem was a large and cosmopolitan city with numerous languages spoken. The Holy Spirit descended on these followers, and they were able to speak so that every person in the crowd heard the words in their own language. The word for spirit can be translated as breath. The Spirit of God, the spirit of life, is breath itself.

Breathing is such a foundational thing for our existence that most people don’t ever think about it. We completely take it for granted. And yet, our nation is dealing with crises which are focused on the inability to breathe.

The Coronavirus attacks our ability to breathe, until a ventilator has to breathe for us.

The majority of Americans are in severe economic distress, stealing our ability to breathe easily as we try to figure out how to pay bills.

And black and brown people have their breathe taken away from the evils of systemic racism and oppression. The video of George Floyd shows a man literally crying out that he cannot breathe, while four white police officers ignore his pleas. “I can’t breathe” is the rallying cry heard throughout our nation this past week.

Pentecost is about the rush of wind or breath, of God’s Spirit, bringing about new life and a transformed way of living. Black Lives Matter, and I pray that a new spirit is sweeping this land so that white people will begin to take in cleansing breaths that help us identify and deal with systemic racism so that a better and more just world will be created. For all of us white people, we have a great deal of work to do. Praying and being nice isn’t enough. During this Pentecost season, here are some resources which can help us actively work towards bring new breath into this world.