The Flight to Egypt

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My sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2019….

Matthew 2:13-23

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.

 

Brokenness and the Christmas Season

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This is the message I gave at our recent College Christmas Candlelight Worship Service –

A number of you know that I have been struggling with knee issues for a while, and had a partial knee replacement a few weeks ago. I feel fortunate to have access to the surgery, and to the follow up physical therapy. I also am very fortunate that my parents are in good health and were able to come and stay with me during my first week home from the hospital.

My mom had a full knee replacement a few years ago, and is a retired nursing home administrator – so she really understands knee issues and the therapy required to heal from the surgery.

In my first few days post surgery, as I struggled with the pain of doing everything the physical therapist instructed, my Mom offered these words, “Well, Amy, maybe something good that is coming out of this is that it can help you be more sympathetic to those who struggle with physical issues.”

I laughingly responded that I thought I was already sympathetic enough. My mom was right – as she normally is. I am a fairly sympathetic person, but going through the pain I experienced for the months before the surgery, and then the challenges of recuperation – including using my departed grandmother’s cane every day – has certainly given me insights I would not have had otherwise.

As I am hobbling into this season of preparation for the Christmas celebration, I have been thinking about what it means to be broken. No one wants to be broken. We all want to be healthy, whole, strong, independent.

A central part of the Christmas message is that God chose to enter this broken world through the life of Jesus. A tiny baby was born into poverty on a cold, dark night in the backwoods of the mighty Roman Empire. His family soon had to flee their home and seek asylum in a foreign land due to a political tyrant. This baby would grow up, and would love others so much that his heart and body would be broken.

Jesus experienced a broken world. He witnessed people ostracized, alienated, harmed, rejected, demonized. He saw hate and fear oftentimes dominate love and compassion. And he understood that when one of us is broken or hurt in this human family, it breaks the entire body.

And it was into this brokenness of the world that love and hope were born.

My knee now has a piece of titanium in it. It is perfect – the muscles around it are still adjusting – but I know this right knee is the strongest physical part of my body. I keep hearing the words of the pop song, Titanium, in my head. I’m sure many of our students know it –

I’m bulletproof – nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium…

      Now this song is fun to sing, but the truth is that our real power and strength come through our brokenness. 

When our hearts are broken by the pain in the world we see around us, that is our strength.

When our arms are tired from reaching out a helping hand, that is our strength.

When our hands hurt from holding tight in solidarity with the oppressed, that is our strength.

When our legs buckle from trying to lift up others, that is our strength.

When righteous anger over the harm done to others keeps us awake at night, that is our strength.

The Christmas message is not that we are called to be titanium. We are called to be broken – and in that brokenness, we know the very best of humanity. In that brokenness, we are connected to others – every other person we will ever meet, and every creature throughout this world. We  know that each person we encounter is our sibling. The connection to others and the world around us is our strength.

Leonard Cohen’s beloved song, Anthem, has a line that speaks to us today. It goes – “There is a crack in everything – that is how the light gets in.”

The light can’t get in when we are titanium. The light only shines through what is broken and cracked.

As we see the Moravian star before us today, and as we light the Moravian beeswax candles in a few moments and see that soft flame – Let’s think about the light that comes in the darkest, longest night of the year – and let’s remember that the light we need only comes through what is broken. Being broken is not the end – it is the beginning. When we are broken enough to open ourselves up to others and to love and to grace and to compassion – that is when all of us together become as strong as titanium. Amen.

 

 

The Pollenacolypse & Easter

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Central North Carolina is beautiful right now. Everything is in bloom, the sun is out, and a cool breeze keeps it from getting too hot. (And on a side note, I have asked too many students if they have sunscreen!) Yet, along with the beauty comes the seasonal pollen. This is the most pollen-filled place I have ever lived, and this year the pollen is worst than normal. My allergies are raging, some of the roads are covered in yellow, and my car could really use a daily washing. Some people have even coined this particular year as the season of  the Pollenacolypse.

As I sit with Holy Week, preparing for Easter, it seems like the pervasiveness of a dampening blanket of yellow which takes away my ability to breathe, or even think clearly, is symbolic of the heaviness of the season. Holy Week is flat out depressing. There is no way around it. Most Christians do try to work around it – They wave palm branches and sing joy-filled songs on Palm Sunday, and then ignore all the other holy things until Easter Sunday arrives. But the fact remains that if we don’t experience the fear, isolation, pain, and death of Holy Week, then Easter simply becomes one more day of the year where we dress up, sing happy songs, carry flowers, and eat a big meal.

Life is tough. No one willingly wants to experience a Holy Week. No one wants to feel abandoned, alone, dealing with pain and grief and suffering. Many people experiences holy weeks on an ongoing basis, when life just throws too much at us, whether it is on a personal or communal scale.

Yet, as a resurrection community, we are called to remember hope and new life always awaits. And when we can’t feel it in our hearts, we can remember it in our brains and words. I always liked the advice of Philip Otterbein, “Preach faith until you have it.” On the days when we think the hard times will never end, we keep telling ourselves that it will, until it finally does. I know the pollen will go away. I don’t know when, and I wish it were sooner than it probably will be. And as a person of faith, I know Easter will come. When we have our times of “holy weeks” – when life is too much – Easter will come. We won’t know when, and we will wish it were sooner than it actually is – but it will finally come.

As the pollen will be washed away, painful days will be washed away – and the world will be as new.

 

What Hope Looks Like…

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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…

Just Generosity – A Christmas Message

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Below is the message I recently gave for our College Christmas Candlelight Service…

A milestone has recently occurred in my family – one that many people my age and older always appreciate, and one that all our students here are looking forward to with great anticipation. My son finished college a couple years ago and moved out to the Rocky Mountains, where he can snowboard and climb sheer rocks all he wants. And this past summer, he got his first real “adult” job – one that has a decent salary and benefits and all those wonderful things. And I know that many of our students – especially our seniors – have lots of Holiday dreams about when that time will come.

A couple weeks ago, my son Caleb was asking about what I wanted for Christmas. He is actually able to come be with us in person this year, so I told him his presence and some dark chocolate covered cherries were plenty. And he said, “No mom, I can be really generous this year. You’ve done so much for me my whole life – and I am glad it’s my turn to be generous.”

Of course, I teared up – because that’s what moms do – but the word he used – generous – has stuck with me. People toss around that word a lot – I believe without actually thinking about what it really means. We might tell someone at the dining table – “Be generous dishing out the mac and cheese!” We like it when people are generous with their praise or thanks, especially when we are reading comments on a returned paper. We always appreciate people who are generous with time and money.

Generosity is a trait we all can admire, but it seems also to be something that people feel like they can only offer only after they have everything they need. The Christmas story before us today is one that abounds with the message of generosity, and from many people who had so little.

Teenage Mary knew all sorts of problems could come – even to the point of being stoned for adultery – when she found out she was pregnant with Jesus – but she generously offered praise and thanks for the blessing of being the mother of Jesus.

Joseph knew Mary was pregnant with a child not his – but yet he cared for her and protected her, and “adopted” the baby Jesus as his own.

The owner of the inn had space that was overflowing with people due to the government decree, yet he found room in a warm and friendly manger for Mary and Joseph, generously offering the best he could.

The shepherds in the fields were some of the poorest in the region, with days and nights filled trying to keep their sheep safe, yet they were generous with their time, coming to lavish praise and wonder on the event of Christmas night.

The Wise Men were generous with not only their time and money in journeying far to visit the new babe, and giving costly gifts, but even more generous in their wisdom of not giving away his location to the King who wanted to execute the baby Jesus.

Generosity is a theme we see throughout the Biblical narrative – in fact, it’s a theme throughout the major religions of the world. Every major religion has at its heart the message of treating others the way we want to be treated.

And we certainly want others to be generous with us, don’t we?

Ron Sider wrote a book first published almost 20 years ago, entitled Just Generosity. It’s a wonderful play on words. Generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life – being compassionate, loving, kind, supportive, understanding. Yet, true generosity is not possible without Justice – thus Just Generosity.

Generosity is not about the sloppy sentimentality that people can so easily fall into during this season.

Generosity is not about having big hearts, giving what is comfortable with our financial means, saying we love everybody, and being blind to systems and actions which harm others.

True, just, generosity is about giving when we aren’t certain we really can, and doing so with a loving heart.

True just generosity is about relinquishing our own power so that we can include someone who is on the margins and barely hanging on.

Just generosity is about taking our whole beings – our material possessions, our time, our ideas, our likes and our dislikes and our loves and our hates – and giving fully so that we can be connected with the rest of humanity and thus share in the true peace that only comes in that connection.

The old adage is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is. It’s a good thing to receive, but it’s an event better thing to give. And to give generously and justly – of what we have and who we are – that is the best thing of all.

So my Holiday wish for each one of us today – let us be generous in spirit – with each other – with those we love and those we don’t like. And let us be justly generous in all the many ways we can make this tumultuous world a better place. Amen.

The Tree of Life

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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.

Sexual Assault and a Male God

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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.