“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.

The Flight to Egypt

low angle photo of coconut trees

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

 

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.

 

The Feminist Advent of St. Brigid

Brigid-jpg-740x986the following is the message I gave at a Christmas Lessons & Carols last week…

There are a number of women saints who have intrigued me over the years. At this time of year, I tend to recall fondly stories of St. Brigid. She, along with St. Patrick, are the two patron saints of Ireland. Now it’s hard to pin down what is historically accurate about a woman named Brigid who lived 1500 years ago and what are mythical stories that developed.

And it really doesn’t matter. The Celtic imagination knows that truth and inspiration can be found in these stories, no matter what may have factually occurred.

One story about Brigid is that she was the midwife during the birth of Jesus. Now we know that Brigid lived about 450 years after Jesus, but that’s beside the point. The story of Brigid helping Mary give birth to the Prince of Peace provides real truth. The figure of Brigid herself is all about new life, giving birth, transitioning to a new way of existing.

Throughout most of history, wise women were midwives. These were women who understood nature and creation. They used the gifts of creation to help mothers as they endured the traumatic physical event of giving birth. Then they made certain this new little baby transitioned from the safety of the womb to a new existence in this world.

The message for this season of the year is about giving birth, symbolically transitioning to a new life. For each person here, we have all experienced transitions to a new life – a new birth.

Our first transition was a physical birth, just like the baby Jesus.

We had new births when we started school, and were students.

We had new births if younger siblings came along – and we birthed a new identity as an older sibling.

We have new births with celebration of birthdays – becoming a teen, a legal adult, a person of middle age, a retired individual.

We have births with new jobs and vocational opportunities.

We have new births when we enter into deep relationships which transform us and enable us to grow.

We have new births when we discover our calling in life, and take steps towards on that journey.

And at each point with the new births in our lives, there have been midwives – people who have used their gifts to ease the pain of transition and to help us be healthy and strong as we encounter our new lives.

During this Christmas season, I encourage everyone to think about how you can be a midwife. How can we be like St. Brigid, helping birth a new world?

We can seek to ease pain and suffering – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual. We can offer words and actions of kindness and grace. As we celebrate the Prince of Peace today, we can share peace with others – and especially others who may not bring peace to us.

We can offer hope. We live in days when we are constantly bombarded by images and actions of violence, hatred, divisiveness, and fear. Hope can keep us moving forward on days when the awfulness around us can paralyze us. A midwife recognizes hope, encourages it, and helps others live in hope – no matter what we might encounter.

St. Brigid – whether she was a real woman, simply a legend which developed, or a combination of the two – inspires us to be midwives – to move forward to a new life, a new birth, a new way of being filled with peace, love, compassion, and hope. Let each one of us seek to be like St. Brigid – a midwife. Let us seek to help birth a new life, a new world, around us.

Today, as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, I would like to close with the hearth prayer of St. Brigid.

Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,

Lady of the Lambs, protect us,

Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us.

Beneath your mantle, gather us,

And restore us to memory.

Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong.

Guide our hands in yours,

Remind us how to kindle the hearth.

To keep it bright, to preserve the flame.

Your hands upon ours, Our hands within yours,

To kindle the light, Both day and night.

The Mantle of Brigid about us,

The Memory of Brigid within us,

The Protection of Brigid keeping us

From harm, from ignorance, from heartlessness.

This day and night,

From dawn till dark, From dark till dawn. Amen.

 

A Post-election Christmas Message

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traditional Moravian beeswax candles, trimmed for Christmas

Below is the message I gave at our college Christmas Candlelight service last week.

Faith communities across North Carolina this weekend are coming together for a special focus in worship services. The North Carolina Council of Churches, working with other non-Christian faith communities, are focusing on this one theme – Love One Another. Every major religion in the world has at its heart the message that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. So the idea of loving one another comes naturally from this foundational message.

Love one another.

What better way to share the Christmas story than to talk about loving one another? This message is especially critical for us in our society today. Our country is greatly divided. Hate incidents and crimes have spiked dramatically in recent weeks, occurring to people I know personally, and people who sit in this congregation. What is supposed to be a time of great joy with the Holiday season, is instead for many a time of pain, anger, anxiety, and sadness due to the hate-filled division dominating our culture.

Jesus, the baby whose birth we honor today, was born into a time and place of violence, and a society filled with religious and racial and cultural divisions. Born into poverty to two very unimportant people, his family soon fled as refugees to escape the genocide of male children by an unstable ruler.

Yet, in spite of the danger and uncertainty of his time, Jesus brought together people across lines of division from the very beginning. One of our scriptures today tells of a time when the wolf will live peacefully with the lamb. This is a sign which indicates that the light of God’s kingdom is breaking through on earth.

At Jesus’ birth, this Jewish baby had shepherds who visited – men who were on the fringes of society and living out in the fields with the sheep. The average person didn’t want to associate with a smelly shepherd who couldn’t find a better way to make a living.

At Jesus’ birth, the Magi from Persia came with gifts of great monetary value. These non-Jewish leaders, men of great wealth and power in their homeland, gathered with the castaways from society to honor a baby born into poverty in a stable.

At Jesus’ birth, animals were present, welcoming the child into their home in the stable, and signifying that all God’s creation is meant to be united in love and community – the poor, the outcasts, the wealthy, Jew and non-Jew alike, the most vulnerable of creation.

It was certainly a feast of Love at the first Christmas.

What does this mean for us today? When we focus on loving one another, I am absolutely not saying – Just be nice to each other. That is superficial and meaningless. It reminds me of that phrase I often heard growing up in the South, “Bless her heart.” Now it sounds innocuous on the surface, but my mom always said people really meant, “Bless her pointed little head.” – It meant being nice to someone’s face, but disdaining who she truly is. It placed the person as “the other,” separated from ourselves where we lived in a place of privilege and power.

Truly loving one another is not just “being nice.”

Love is the most wonderful and life-giving thing in this world – but we all know that what means the most in this world are the things for which we have to work the hardest.

Something I appreciate about working in the heart of Salem is the Moravian Motto – “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

This doesn’t mean we gloss over injustice or try to “be nice” – it means we do our dead level best to find ways to respect, engage, and encounter the other person as a child of God. There is not one person on earth with whom we will agree 100%, and sometimes we will find our disagreements are so big that relating to the other person seems impossible. Liberty in non-essentials can be a major challenge. And if we don’t agree on what is an essential or non-essential, it becomes even more difficult. There are no easy answers in trying to figure out how to engage and be in community across what feels like as essential to us. It takes commitment to that relationship with the other person. It takes patience. It takes grace.

This is not easy, but we are always meant to reach out in love – no matter how the other person responds. Loving another can be tough – parents knows we have to provide tough love on occasion for our children. There are times we have to speak words of truth and justice, which the other person may not want to hear. And Love doesn’t mean we always like the other person. Love takes a whole lot of hard work. It takes a generosity of spirit in being in community with that person, trying to understand that person’s point of view. And the more abhorrent or foreign that view seems, the more important to respect them and remain in community together.

Now in the end, love is all we really have, isn’t it? There is far too much hate in the world today – hate which will consume each one of us if we let it. There are far too many people spewing words of division at each other. There are far too many loud voices not respecting the humanity in others.

Love is all we really have, isn’t it? Jesus was love – his life was about loving others – each and every person – and it threatened the establishment so much that the people in power decided to execute him. But that didn’t stop his love. And it didn’t stop millions of people over the centuries being inspired by his example and reaching out in love to others, no matter the consequences. And not just Christians. People of other faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and others – see him as a great teacher with a prophetic message who has shown us a better way to live.

So I say to you today – go forth and love each other. It’s often not easy. And when it’s not easy – that’s when it is the most important. It will be the most challenging and difficult thing we do in our lives. But it will definitely be the thing that makes us the most fully human, and that makes us most filled with the Divine.

It will be that which makes life worthwhile.

Go forth and love.

 

 

The End of Hope

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One of my favorite classes in seminary was Black Church Studies with Dr. Willie Jennings. Prof. Jennings began the class by asking us to raise our hands if we were racist. We glanced around at each other, none of us wanting to claim such a title for ourselves. I certainly felt like I didn’t qualify for that – social justice had always been an integral part of what it meant to be in my family, and I had plans to adopt transracially. Yet, Prof. Jennings continued by raising his own hand. “Everyone here is racist. We live in a racist society, and thus we cannot be removed from that foundation. We are part of it. The key is to recognize it.”

25 years later I have not forgotten these words. This summer they have seemed more poignant than ever. The stats are clear that black individuals are stopped by police at far greater rates than non-blacks. Senator Tim Scott recounts his own experience with this – an experience his white colleagues do not share. (And I shouldn’t have to write this, but of course I support our police. As Prof. Jennings pointed out, none of us can be removed from this racial foundation, and we need training and education to recognize the blinders we wear.) It has also pained me greatly to witness, and to hear first hand from my students, the dramatically increased harassment of Muslims in our country. Many others have stated this – and it is true – Islamic State is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. When political leaders call for mass deportation or interviews of the incredible young Muslim women with whom I work, my heart breaks for them. They don’t deserve this treatment.

The idea of the United States being a “Christian nation” has been tossed around throughout the history of this country. The name of Jesus has been taken in vain to support xenophobia, misogyny, and white elitism. This country was begun with mass genocide of the natives, and then built on the backs of slaves. We can’t erase or ignore this. It’s in our blood. There are so many wonderful things about this country, but we need to acknowledge our history and the continuing repercussions in how we relate to each other. We need to follow the steps of Jesus in reaching out to others and including them in community – especially those who have been outcast, downtrodden, beaten, and discounted. If we are truly Christian, we will look for ways to include, unify, and love together.

One reason I have never forgotten Prof. Jennings’ words is because a year after his class, I heard them resounding in my ears while I stood outside the Food Bank/Mission in Asheville. I brought a donation and saw two men at the door. They both greeted me. I assumed the older white man was the volunteer, and the younger black man was there for assistance. It turned out to be the opposite. I was ashamed of myself, even though I don’t think they knew of my assumption. I stood there, a minister in the community and one who actively discussed and worked towards racial reconciliation – and yet I found once again that the original sin of racism of this society had been played out through me.

It’s been a terrible summer in many ways for our society. I hear so many young adults feeling like there is no hope. Yet, the old saying is that it is always darkest before the dawn. This racism and xenophobia have always been present. I am thankful for technology and social media which can help us recognize it – and hopefully we can take those challenging steps to be a better society.

Let this summer not be marked by fear, hatred, and despair. Let us see this time as the recognition of the work we have to do, and the beginning of a hope for tomorrow.

 

Giving Up Giving Things Up for Lent

lent-imageI’m giving up giving things up for Lent. After having spent close to 30 years seriously contemplating my Lenten practice of fasting, I think it’s time for a change. I first discovered this ancient practice of giving something up for Lent while I was in college. One of my friends, another religion major, was a devout Episcopalian. I recall seeing her in a Wednesday morning class during my freshman year, wondering how she could have dirt on her forehead. I kindly let her know, because what kind of friend who let someone go around with dirt on her forehead all day? She grinned, and then patiently explained Ash Wednesday and Lent to me.

I felt like an idiot. How could the minister at my own United Methodist Church not have told us about something that Christians all over the world had done for centuries? I vowed I would join Christians around the globe in observing Lent, so that I could best be prepared to celebrate Easter. During those first few years, I always gave up something to eat. I have attempted chocolate six different times – but between my birthday falling during Lent and the arrival of Girl Scout cookies – I never succeeded. I have given up Diet Coke a couple times, and have focused on red meat until I finally gave up red meat completely. (Turns out eating red meat has a very bad impact environmentally, and I could certainly get protein in other ways.) After a while, I turned to things like not gossiping (a Lenten promise to which I was driven by a particular coworker), and not thinking negatively. I also experimented with taking on something – like a special volunteer project or fundraising for hunger.

These have all been well and good, and I am glad I observed Lent in those ways, but those days are in the past. I have spent close to 25 years in the ministry, much of it working with women and especially young adult women. So many women have already given up so much in their lives. Sacrifices made for children, parents, husbands. Time spent trying to prop up a broken public school system. The thankless job of managing the details of dying churches, while many lay men still held the power and were oftentimes not acknowledged by male clergy. Volunteering to help those in need, while they themselves found it difficult to make ends meet.

In the midst of this patriarchal society – where women do not earn what men earn, are graded on their looks, are abused and killed at alarming rates by male partners, and are the backbone of a broken economy – I encourage the women of the world to give up giving things up for Lent. Instead of giving up yet one more thing, find some way to treat yourself during this season. Get that long overdue haircut. Buy a special chocolate bar. Take time to read a book for fun. Tell your husband he is on duty one evening or day while you go and just goof off. Join a women’s group. Take a retreat, even if for just a few hours.

I am well aware that I am fortunate woman. I have not had to make the sacrifices that many of my sisters make each day. But that is the point, isn’t it? We are all sisters. And Jesus is our brother. He required sacrifices of those who had much, and knew that Mary deserved to sit at his feet and learn with the men. He didn’t require her to spend one more minute in the kitchen, sacrificing her time and energy so that others could be with him.

So I invite my sisters to observe a Holy Lent, knowing that the women of our world are not required to be the sacrificial martyr.

The Prince of Peace in today’s world…

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The traditional Moravian beeswax candles for our Christmas service

The first Thursday of December is when Salem College holds its annual Christmas Candlelight worship service, which has been a tradition since the beginnings of our school in the late 1700s. As College Chaplain, I am privileged to provide a meditation. Our world right now is so particularly shattered by hate, violent rhetoric, fear and misinformation, that it begs to be addressed, especially during this season of advent. Below is the message I gave last week –

We come together today for this annual worship service to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. And Christmas is all about honoring the Christ Child. During this season, there are many names we call the Christ Child – the Light, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace. This afternoon, I would like to focus on what it means to prepare for the coming of Peace.

Peace is something we talk a lot about in this world, but it is so elusive. The name Salem itself comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. The Moravian founders of this area sought to build a peaceful society in the midst of a world that seemed so far from it. At the heart of this sacred ground of Salem – peace should reside.

Just as the early Moravians knew, just as Sister Oesterlein (our first teacher) herself knew, this world is not peaceful. In recent months, we have been particularly reminded of that. Violence pours forth in so many parts of the world – whether the streets of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Nigeria, or other places not deemed as news-worthy. Violent, mass shootings have become so commonplace in our own country that many of us aren’t as shocked as we should be, and think that all we can do is pray. Institutionalized racism is still a core fabric of our society – 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – racism is present, whether it’s obvious, subtle, or unrecognized by the people in power. People who don’t fit what society deems the “norm” are seen as less than and less worthy.

And we all know the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – and we know the lie that fills that phrase. Words of hate, fear, division and ignorance do hurt us. Peace is that intangible thing we talk about, especially at this time of the year, but which we struggle to grasp. Before we can even define what Peace in our own lives, and Peace in the world, truly means – it slips through our fingers.

The child we gather to hear, sing and pray about this afternoon was someone who lived in a time of great violence and upheaval. He knew that Peace was something greatly desired in his world of unrest, hatred and fear. And when he talked about Peace – it wasn’t a sanitized version, where everything was clean, neat, happy, and uncomplicated. It wasn’t just the absence of violence. It can be too easy for us to buy into this – to sit in our nice clothes in a beautiful setting with the comforting aroma of beeswax candles and think this is Peace.
This – this that we experience here today – this is what propels us to work for Peace. Peace is real – it’s authentic – it’s messy. We come together not because this is Peace – but because this gathering lets us glimpse the possibilities before us. As we see the goodness in our sisters and brothers – we want to carry the hope and promise of true Peace with us tonight and tomorrow and the day after – we want the world to reflect what we see in small part here.

There is an old saying that holds true – If you want Peace, work for Justice.
Jesus was someone who didn’t just sit around and talk about lofty ideals. How he lived – his actions spoke far louder than words. He reached across lines of division – whether it was religious or cultural or political or socio-economic – and brought people together in unity. He insisted they operate with respect for the other, and place others before themselves. He modeled that Peace does not come from a place of power, but from a place of servanthood, of understanding, of walking in someone else’s shoes – especially if they are shoes in which we’d rather not walk.

I encourage you today – take the glimpse of the beauty and peace of this afternoon – this wonderful hint of a better world that is before us at this moment – I encourage you to carry it forth to a world filled with violence, division, fear and hatred. Take steps – both big and small – to work for the abolition of violence in all its many forms, to work for justice – so that peace may prevail. Breathe in the Peace around us, and release that breath of peace to the world. One place, one person, at a time – let peace begin with each one of us, as we seek to go forth and change the world for the better.

Peace be with you. Amen.

Where are you from? and welcoming the Stranger

“Where are you from?” As a native Southerner, that’s a question I’ve heard a great deal throughout my life. We like to know where people grew up, and then there is an excellent chance we will ask a couple more questions and find out we know some of the same people or are distantly related. As a native of the North Carolina mountains, I also get excited to meet someone from the Appalachian Mountains (and please pronounce it App-A-Latch-Un, and not App-A-Lashan). There’s something comforting about making a connection that speaks to the core of who I am.

Yet, that question is not always asked with kindness or respect. A hilarious video by Ken Tanaka highlights the difficulty non-white individuals can encounter in our society when people assume they must be from somewhere other than the United States. A Harvard student was asked this same question by Donald Trump Monday night when the young man attempted to ask a serious question of the Presidential Candidate. The implication is clear – someone of European descent is a “real” American, while someone of non-European descent is not.

Migration is a fact of history. It is a constant, at times having greater urgency than others. We are certainly witnessing that in our world today. How we respond to migration, and thus immigration, says far more about the people we are than about the people who are moving from one place to the next, or even the people we are assume (oftentimes incorrectly) are immigrants.

The Christian faith is based upon the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus spent his early years as an immigrant. Due to persecution and threats of death, his family fled to Egypt where they could live in safety. So many of the migrants of our world today – whether in Europe or North America – are fleeing for reasons of safety or because the poverty is so overwhelming that it is impossible to survive. Jesus’ experience as an immigrant surely impacted his teachings, as did his own faith as a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with mandates to welcome the stranger, the foreigner – to provide shelter, food and safety. Jesus himself said to that when we help the stranger, the one in need, then we are in fact welcoming him.

So why are we in this country so scared of someone who is different? Why do we want to literally build walls to keep out those who live in extreme poverty or dangerous places? Especially for those who continue to call this place a Christian nation, how can we say that if we ignore one of the basic tenets of the Bible?

Christians need to reclaim this vital part of our teaching and expression of faith. To become insular, to fear one who is different in whatever way we perceive them, is to reject Jesus. I am fortunate to work with a very diverse group of young women as a college chaplain. It pains me to hear some of them share their stories of rejection and fear, either as immigrants, or as citizens who are assumed otherwise because of how they look. Yet, in the midst of the pain so many of them experience, I can see the face of Christ. Each day, these young women teach me more and more about the Christ spirit, and what it is to welcome the stranger. And when we welcome the stranger, we discover more rewards and joy than we would ever know by limiting our circle of friends, or members of our community.

Where are you from? I’d like to say I’m from a place where all our welcome, and much grace is always to be found.