The virtual message I offered for Winston Salem Friends Meeting today…
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.
My sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2019….
2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
This passage from Matthew is the lectionary reading for today – this first Sunday after Christmas Day. The Wise Men had come from Persia to visit the baby Jesus – and this visit happened some time within the first couple years of his life, even though we tend to place the Wise Men at our Nativity scenes with the shepherds and the newborn Jesus. You might recall that the Wise Men had sought information from King Herod when they were following the star to look for Jesus, and Herod wanted them to tell him where the infant “King” was once they had found him. Being wise in many ways, they returned home by a different way.
So once Herod discovered he had been tricked, he decided to have every child under age 2 executed in the area of Bethlehem. An angel spoke to Joseph to warn him of the upcoming murders, so Joseph took Mary and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt – and there they stayed until Herod died.
It’s not easy to hear this text immediately after Christmas Day. We are still in the Christmas season, and we have sentimentalized this season in recent decades to the place that it is only about being happy. We even sing, “It’s the hap – happiest time of the year!”
We place a great deal of pressure on ourselves to be happy at this time of year, and to do everything we can to ensure happiness for others. And studies have shown that it is actually a very depressing time for a significant number of people. Happiness doesn’t come with the season for large numbers of people.
Our society has done an amazing job of setting up Happiness as our primary goal in life. Americans talk about one of their inalienable rights being the “pursuit of happiness.”
But this Christmas season we don’t celebrate the Prince of Happiness – we celebrate the Prince of Peace.
Happiness is a superficial veneer – Peace is something different and much deeper.
It’s important for us to hear this passage from Matthew today, often entitled “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
We can’t really be happy when innocents are slaughtered – when children die every day in this country from gun violence, when people of faith are in danger simply for worshipping as with the violence facing our Jewish siblings in New York, when hundreds of thousands of children around the world are seeking asylum or living in camps in terrible conditions, when there are children within a few miles of here who go to bed hungry every night, when there is the greatest income inequality that our nation has seen in almost 100 years and the vast majority struggle just to get by.
Any feeling person can’t be always happy if they are really paying attention to what is going on in the world.
But we can have Peace. We can have Peace if we follow in the steps of Jesus and work towards justice.
That is what the Christmas season is truly about– not attempts to “feel” happy or insulate ourselves from the bad tidings of the world around us – it is about accepting the peace we find when we truly follow this baby in the manger – as he flees to seek out political asylum in Egypt – as he lives in the forgotten backwoods in poverty – as he loves every person he meets, especially those outcast by society – as he loves people in such a radical way that the people in power decide he must die.
Our scripture for today reminds us that Jesus is both, and always, a beacon of hope, and the constant irritant for those in power, even as an innocent baby. This passage reminds us that Jesus entered a real world of pain, brokenness, oppression – a world where the killing of infants and the easy ability to forget and not care for the children of our world exists.
This is how we celebrate Christmas – eyes and ears wide open – loving others – looking for the moments of joy and happiness when they come – and knowing that true Peace comes from following the Prince of Peace, the light in the world, wherever it may lead us.
Pastor David Lose shared this story – “When I was ordained, a retired pastor and parishioner gave me a print made from a woodcut depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What made this particular rendition distinct is that they were not alone. Instead, they were surrounded by a group of refugees, reminding us that in this story of forced flight, God-in-Christ identifies with all who have been driven from their homes by the threat of terror, all who are displaced by violence, and all who flee in fear with hopes for, but little assurance of, a better future.God is with us, even in the darkest times. And God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.”
Happiness can and will elude us during this season of Christmas, but Peace remains. We know that we are not alone – others are with us, physically and spiritually, during the challenges we face – both individually and as a society.
And the Christ Spirit of Peace remains with us always, and will empower us to work towards justice in the world which cries out for it, just as Rachel cried out in Ramah for her children. Peace be with you, and with the world around us. Amen.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..
Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.
Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.
Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.
Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.
I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.
Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.
I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.
Last week was a whole lot like life in general – the truly wonderful intermingled with the truly awful. I was fortunate enough to be in Albuquerque during the time elected representatives of my denomination, the United Methodist Church, were at a called international General Conference – gathered to figure out a way forward from division over the issue of homosexuality. My denomination has a long history of focusing on social justice and progressive ideas. The fact that I, as a woman, am clergy is representative of that. My denomination also has a long history of trying to be an umbrella which is inclusive, even in terms of theological interpretation. We have been straddling this fence for so long that it is not tenable anymore. If we were only a national denomination, the decision to be fully inclusive and welcoming would have been made well before now. But we are not. And so a minority of conservatives, funded by outside sources which also have tried to shape our political landscape, have been able to band together with international delegates to pass a plan which is virulent in its condemnation and scope.
The fact is that our churches are filled with people who identify as LGBTQIA. I have more clergy friends than I can count across this country who identify along those lines, and some of whom have long-standing marriages with happy children. One of those colleagues said to me last week, “They will have to pry my ordination from my hands.” And in my over 20 years of collegiate ministry, I have sat with far too many young people whose families and churches broke ties or condemned them because of gender or sexual identity. How can anyone hear those stories from God’s children and support such legislation as barely passed in St. Louis last week?
This isn’t the end. Most of the legislation has already been ruled unconstitutional, and in all likelihood our Judicial Council will affirm the unconstitutionality next month when it meets. But the damage has been done. The fight for property and the name of what it means to be Methodist will continue, but the pain and suffering inflicted on my siblings cannot be undone.
The good part for me last week was being at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. Close to 200 were gathered, and one of my joys was seeing all the young women who were present. It filled my heart to hear their stories, ideas, and vision for collegiate ministry. Our closing dinner took place Tuesday evening, on the heels of the final vote at General Conference. I was seated at dinner with some other UM clergy, and two young women from colleges in the Northeast. One is Muslim, and the other is Jewish. In the few minutes before food arrived, we had all been instructed to share with our dinner companions about positive things that had occurred from the chaplains’ conference. All of us UM ministers were so grateful for the support of the rest of the chaplains, and as I explained a bit of what was going on with the UMC to these two young women, I told them that the highlight of the conference was seeing so many young women, and especially of different faiths, present at the conference. I told them it gave me hope for the future. And I started to cry. The Muslim woman immediately reached out to hug me.
LR Knost wrote a poem that states we are all drops in the same ocean. When I see the goodness, the love, the compassion, the humanity from our younger generations, I see hope. When I see what we have in common, what binds us together, I see hope. When I see that the wisdom of the Divine Spirit speaks in more languages and manners that we can possibly imagine, I see hope.
There is much work to be done in my denomination, my church family. The Spirit of God will continue to move and work in powerful ways, regardless of what happens. And I will not abandon those who have been wounded so deeply. With the compassion my young colleague showed me last week, I will continue to reach out my arms to include, and love, and lift up each one of my siblings. I see hope…
Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. – Elie Wiesel
Reverend Jes Kast tweeted this morning, “Repeat after me: I was made for this. I am needed for this era.” Those words spoke to the very depths of my soul. How many times can a heart be ripped up? How many times can we continue to be outraged by the hate, violence, and evil filling our society? Two black men were killed in Kentucky on Friday, simply because they were black. Eleven people, from ages 54-97, were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning simply because they were Jewish.
The past two years have seen a massive increase in hate incidents and crimes due to skin color, religion, and political affiliation. Elie Wiesel’s words seem to have been written for this very moment, even though the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate has been dead for 2 years. Each and every location for these evil acts must be the center of our universe. We cannot rest, or ignore, or deny, until we have worked our damndest to change this society.
Jesus said if we are not with him, we are against him (Luke 11:23). If we are not actively with the people being persecuted and murdered in our society, then we are against what is good, just, and loving. And just saying the words is not enough. We all know that actions speak louder than words. It’s been more than enough for months now, but let’s remember that we can continue to work together to fight this evil.
“When we stay silent, we are just as much to blame as those we fight against, and fight is what we must do…”
These powerful words concluded another compelling episode of NBC’s show, Timeless. This amazing show is in its second season (and unfortunately, just a short season of 10 eps), and it just continues to get better and better. The diverse characters are fully realized – strong, goofy, intelligent, complicated, loyal. Women are changing the world – they support each other – and their lives do not revolve around a romantic interest (even when there is one present). It’s hard to believe each person isn’t actually a real person, even if they are the “bad guy.” It has action, humor, drama. But the best part is the social and human truth it embodies each week.
Last night’s episode was about the Suffragist Movement. Once again, the show uncovered forgotten history, and showed how women were treated as they tried to have their rights represented. We all know that being able to vote does not make one an equal citizen, but it is a crucial first step. As we have seen the rights of anyone in this country who is not a white male (and supposedly Christian) trampled in the past couple years, this show could not be more timely. The parallels between the various historical settings each week and what is occurring in 2018 hits almost too close to home. In the climax of the episode last night, these words were uttered, “When we stay silent, we are just as much to blame as those we fight against, and fight is what we must do…”
Silence is complicity. If we ignore the oppression of others in our society and do not make the effort to speak and to act, then we are just as bad as the oppressors. If we act like all lives matter, without realizing that black and brown ones suffer far more proportionally, then we are part of the problem. If we choose not to worry too much about women dealing with sexual harassment and assault and lower pay, then we are part of the problem. If we turn off the tv when we see a child ripped from a parent because of lies about immigration, then we are part of the problem. When we choose to ignore continual lies and inflammatory language from our highest elected official, then we are part of the problem.
It reminds me of that old bumper sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” But anger is not enough. The anger needs to propel us to action.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and once again this evening I will lead a meditation and candle service for students. Many of these students are living in the aftermath of sexual abuse and assault. Others will be present because this issue has affected people they love. Working with women who have been impacted by this pervasive problem is one of the most important parts of my ministry – and also one of the most challenging. I have lost sleep, filled with concern and pain for young women who have endured experiences no one should have to endure. I have found myself at a complete loss for words, when students have hoped I would know the right thing to say. I have learned over the years that the most important thing I can do is to be present – to show compassion. And as I am present, I also know I can offer a word of grace.
The church has so often failed women when it comes to sexual assault and abuse. How many sermons have we heard about King David being tempted by the lovely Bathsheba? This biblical story is truly about a king, taking a young married woman who had no power to reject his advances. And how many sermons have we heard about Esther, wrapping King Ahasuerus around her finger, when in fact she was a political prisoner who was kept with numerous other women in a harem?
As do so many of us clergy nowadays, I decided to do a quick Google search about prayers for sexual assault survivors, seeing if some words of grace might appear on my computer screen. A few helpful things popped up, but most were simple prayers that begin with the phrase “Father God.” I know from my many years of working with women that praying to a male deity is one of the last things most of them want.
Even in the shadow of #Metoo, the church still believes a male head can take care of everything.
The biblical understanding of God is that God is above and beyond gender, above and beyond human constraints and understanding. Yet, the church remains comfortable with allowing a patriarchal world to dictate how we understand the Divine, no matter who it might harm. When will the church get out of its own way and encourage a connection with the Divine that is truly life-giving, compassionate, and helpful? And for the people who reply that perhaps a loving heavenly Father can bring healing – I do agree – but that should be at the individual’s instigation. It should not be the primary way she is forced to engage with the deity.
A significant number of women sitting in churches understand sexual assault and abuse all too well. They keep their stories buttoned up, tucked away deep inside, and listen to the images of a male figure taking care of it all. Let’s open up these stories, these images, and allow the Spirit of the Divine to flow as She will.
A blessing for 2018:
Women-mothers are made of fire. We hold the potential to both burn and balm, harm and heal, inearth and illuminate, exhaust and embrace. It is this same fire that can mold fear into double-edged weapons with the intention to protect against the violence of darkness. This darkness will choose to harm you, like others have, attempting to destroy your light. But it will fail.
Daughters, your fire holds the potential to either burn or balm the cracks between your broken heart, to harm or heal the darkened skin across your arms, to inearth or illuminate hopeful visions of your future self, to exhaust or embrace the woman you ar e becoming.
May we women realize that we are fire. We must remember, more often, to feel its warmth.
The news has been inundated this past week about Harvey Weinstein and his decades of sexual harassment and assault of women. When the story first broke, I wasn’t surprised. I know a great many women who were not surprised. This is par for the course in living life as a woman. (Yes, there are men who deal with this as well, but it is a pervasive issue for women.) John Oliver rightly chided the Academy for congratulating itself on getting rid of seemingly the one man who does this kind of thing in Hollywood.
Sunday evening brought forth a different way to highlight the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault in our society. This message filled social media –
Copied: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
It is really difficult to find a woman who has not dealt with this at some point in her life, and oftentimes on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter how we are dressed, where we are, or what jobs we have (yes, women clergy deal with this all the time). And if we choose to report this, we know everything about us and our lives will be questioned as if it were our fault. We know people will doubt our stories, or think perhaps we just took things the wrong way. We know others will look at us with pity, instead of us as an autonomous individual who is competent and capable. And all that doesn’t even begin to touch on the nightmares or flashbacks – all the times we have to overcome fear or anxiety and attempt to trust ourselves or another person.
When I saw all the “Me, too” posts on FB, I continually tapped the anger emoticon. I’m angry. I’m mad as hell. The media keeps talking about being shocked, but this is a country who elected a serial assaulter as President, and wrote off his bragging as locker-room talk. This is a society that tells women they should dress in sexy and attractive ways, and then completely tears apart her clothing choices when she deals with harassment or assault. This is a society that encourages boys to be tough and powerful, and shames them when they are sensitive or cry.
The focus needs to be removed from the women, and placed on the men. What makes men think this is okay or acceptable? Certainly our legal system makes it easy to act in this way, and the falling back of Title IX (by a woman selected by Trump) does not help in the least. Men need to give other men loud and clear messages about what is appropriate and respectful behavior to women. And while I despise the men who say “since I have daughters I speak out about this topic,” we need to think seriously about the messages we give our children – whether or not they are our legal children. I have reared both a boy and a girl. It wasn’t easy talking about these things, but we did it. And we continue talking about these things. One of my goals for my son was to make him the best male feminist around. I knew it was critical to counteract the messages he received from society about how boys should treat girls, and what it meant to be a real man. As a mother to a son, I know I can do a great deal to help change this culture, one man at a time.
I hope people don’t just say they are shocked, or feel bad about the situation. I hope they get angry – angry enough to change our culture and our legal system.