What Is A Blessing (a sermon)

Good morning! It’s great to be here with y’all this morning. I had not heard of Shepherdstown PC or indeed Shepherdstown, WV before Jeananne invited me to come preach several months ago. But, it turns out that a lot of people I know and love, know and love y’all. Because every time I mentioned to someone that I was coming here, they said, “Oh Shepherdstown! I love that church!” So just know that you come highly recommended.

In fact, one of my colleagues’ father is a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, and way back in the early 90s he did a pulpit exchange and came here for a summer. So you were the first American Presbyterian community my friend was a part of.

It’s also been great to be in Shepherdstown, which is clearly a very unique place. After I was sent off to dinner by the owner of my B&B and his pet parrot, I wander through downtown and passed a drum circle, and artists, and later I commented to some friends that it’s nice to be reminded that there are little pockets of resistance everywhere, standing against brokenness.

Especially in times like these. Because what a year it’s been. Sometimes, the divisiveness and conflict in our country overwhelms me. I still remember – in the months after the election – my staff team of journalists and I all realizing we were in for a marathon and not a sprint. Sometimes it feels like we’re jumping from one crisis to another, and it is exhausting.

And I know it isn’t just me. Because in the months after the election, Sojourners saw recording breaking engagement and readership and donations. And then, around March, we hit a wall. Our engagement dropped – and this isn’t just true for us. It’s true for publications and media across the board. People are tired. They don’t know what else to do.

Maybe you’re feeling similarly. And in the midst of that, we take some time away, and we come to this place to worship and be with God and wrestle with our thoughts, and our fears, and our faith.

And today, that brings us into contact with a story about Jacob. It’s a fairly famous story — the story of Jacob wrestling God (or an angel — depending on your interpretation) by the shores of the Jabbok. It’s also a weird story. Because really, how often in scripture does somebody wrestle on the ground with God? And perhaps because it’s so well known and because it’s so weird — this passage — as I was studying it this week — filled me with questions.

Questions like — how does Jacob always end up in messes like this? And where does this random guy he wrestles come from? And how does he know it’s God? Why doesn’t the stranger just tell Jacob his name? What is the deal with the hip thing? And above all, this scripture left me with this question: What even is a blessing? What does it mean here? What is this thing Jacob is so desperate to get from God that he wrestles God for it? What does a blessing even mean or look like is such a messed up world?

Because the world Jacob lives in — it’s pretty messed up. And I think to fully understand the message that today’s scripture holds for us, we first have to understand the world that it happens in. Jacob’s world.

Jacob is one of the great ancestors of Judaism — son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. He is the the literal national of Israel (or at least he will be, by the end of our story for today). His 12 sons will become the 12 tribes from which the Israelites — and eventually — Jesus will descend. He is — by all accounts — a biblical hero. But he’s also … a trickster. It’s his wiliness that first defines him in the bible – even from birth. He is described as fighting his brother in the womb, and then grabbing hold of his brother’s heel as he was born. He tricks his twin brother Esau into selling him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, then he tricks his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau by disguising himself.

But there’s a reason why Jacob is the way he is. From the jump, the world he enters is stacked against him. He is the second born son — even if only by mere minutes — and that costs him inheritance and security. On top of the arbitrary rules of birth order, his brother is favored by his father because he better fits the role ascribed to boys of their time — he loves to be out in the fields while Jacob spends his time in tents. Essentially, Isaac prefers Esau because he is a “man’s man” and Jacob … is not. Jacob in his turn is favored by his mother Rebecca, but because she is a woman — her favor doesn’t hold much power. Later, Jacob will be deceived and swindled by his uncle Laban, forced to trade years of labor for marriage to the woman he loves.

And all around these twisted family dynamics is a world of nomadic, hard living, and pharaohs and famines and war and slavery and brokenness. We know a bit of this world too, in our own time.

So Jacob, with his mother’s encouragement and seemingly God’s approval, comes into this world bound and determined to circumvent and thwart and overthrow its broken systems, its flawed values by any means necessary.

He struggles, at times. His deceitfulness has a cost. He gets a taste of his own medicine from the trickery of his uncle Laban, and he ends up separated from his beloved mother, and at violent odds with his brother. He is at odds with everyone really, even his own family. And despite being surrounded by wives and children and servants, he is mostly alone. Isolated.

Having left Laban, and after years of one crisis after another, avoiding Esau and the conflict between them, he faces yet another crisis: their inevitable reunion. He cannot run away anymore. And for this brief in-between time, he finds himself here — on the shores of the Jabbok — wrestling a strange man, who is also an angel and also somehow God. Let us listen to the story:

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 

26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

I was struck, when I first revisited this text in preparation for this sermon, by two different things. The first – which isn’t really relevant – is that it got Bohemian Rhapsody stuck in my head all week. You know – the part that goes, “Let me go! Bismillah no! I will not let you go!” “Bismillah,” by the way, means “in the name of God” in Arabic. So maybe that verse is more relevant that we might think.

But the more significant thing that struck me was the word “daybreak.” For whatever reason, it just gave me a really visceral image for me of how this scene plays out. Jacob has been avoiding Esau but his reckoning is coming, and soon. And so he has done everything he can to prepare for this conflict. He sends droves and droves of livestock ahead of his party as gifts for his estranged brother. And then, he sends his whole family and all his servants ahead of himself over the river for the night. And then, he stays behind. Once again, alone. Isolated. Or so he feels. And all he is left with is his own fear, his own helplessness, his thoughts, and — it turns out — God.

Immediately, this image made me think of my childhood. At a very young age, I developed a strange and disruptive problem. As I was laying in bed at night, my mind would begin to race. And I would think about the people I loved who were far away from me and worry about them. I would think about all the people in the world and how some of them were hurting and I couldn’t do anything about it. I thought about the inevitability of my own pain. I thought about all the hard things we cannot control and cannot avoid – like pain, and conflict, and death, and time. And as a kid, these thoughts would overwhelm me. I’d go through periods of weeks at a time where I couldn’t stop thinking about these things and feeling fearful and helpless.

During the day, I developed a coping strategy. I kept myself busy. I filled my time with distractions and put as much distance between myself and that overwhelmed feeling as I could. But at night, when I had done all I could and I was all alone, the thoughts and fears would come back. And I would have to face them.

Sometimes, my mother would come up to bed and hear me sobbing in my room and she would come in and ask what was wrong. I would tell her and she would get quiet. And then say that there were some things we just weren’t meant to understand. Because what else could she say really? These things I was afraid of — pain and conflict and time and death — they were real and inevitable. She would leave, and eventually I would just lie there and cry out to God. And ask God why? Beg for some kind of mercy. Beg God to just let me fall asleep so I could escape a little bit longer. The truth is, this still happens to me sometimes, all these years later.

As I grew up, I developed better coping mechanisms. I also came to understand in a deeper way that hard things — the hardest things — are a part of life. Eventually, we all have to face them. Still, every once in awhile, on a dark night, I will find that I have done everything I can do, and I am left alone with those old fearful thoughts.

In my own way, I empathize with Jacob in this moment. With this feeling of not knowing what else he can do. Of not being able to run away or fight anymore. That feeling when everything just becomes too much. And then, really having it out with God and at the same time begging God for a blessing. And again I wonder, what is a blessing in this situation? What is the blessing that Jacob needs?

I said earlier that two of my questions about this story were, “Where does this random wrestler guy come from? And how does Jacob know that it’s God?”

I think maybe these two questions, at least, answer one another. Because this person does not arrive on scene. He’s just there, like he’s been there all along — and perhaps Jacob had just forgotten to notice. And so maybe Jacob does know that it’s God, because who else but God is always, already there?

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that this stranger takes hold of Jacob, and isn’t afraid of Jacob pushing back. This scene is intimate. Incarnational. Relational. Vulnerable. And mutual.

Did you know that the verb translated in this text as “wrestle” actually, literally, means “get dusty?”

God and Jacob are rolling around in the dirt. They are getting dusty together. This phrasing, I think, means even more when you remember Eden. And the dust from which we are formed and are destined to return. God is in it with that Jacob, fulling immersed in the earthy humanness of Jacob’s struggle as they hold tight to each other all night long.

I wonder if this is why the stranger/God refuses to tell Jacob his name. Scholars often talk about how in the ancient worlds, knowing someone’s name meant you had power over them and that that may be why God is reluction. But I also can imagine that after this close, intimate encounter, it’s as if God’s saying, “Come on, Jacob. You don’t need me to answer that. You know who I am.”

All through this long night of fear and helpless waiting, God is with Jacob. Not just distantly, not just metaphorically. But really with him. God let’s Jacob take hold of him and neither of them let go. After a life time of being distrusted, and isolated – God reminds Jacob of the power of relationship. Real, tangible, messy, dusty relationship. Jacob has spent his whole life putting tricks, and distance, and whatever else he can think of between himself and others — between himself and the hard things, himself and conflict and pain. But God seems to be reminding Jacob that his power and his calling lie in drawing close.

You shall be called Israel, God tells him. Because you have striven with man and with God. Striven. Wrestled. Gotten dusty with. Touched and held on and refused to let go. God reminds Jacob that he is made for relationship.

And relationship too has cost. Even though Jacob prevails, he does not come away unscathed. God strikes his hip, and puts it out of joint. The significance of this event is a matter of debate. Some point out that Jacob’s lasting hip injury would have kept him from ever being a soldier – ensuring that the leader of the national of Israel would not be a violent conqueror (a theme that would, of course, later be echoed by Jesus). Regardless, what’s clear is that after this night with God on the shores of the Jabbok, Jacob literally walks away differently.

And what happens next? Daybreak does indeed come. And the time to face Esau and all that Jacob has been avoiding arrives. He is still terrified of Esau and his men and the violence he is sure will ensue. But this time, he goes on ahead. Drawing close to Esau. And what does Esau do? He runs up to Jacob and embraces him. They talk hold of each other and they do not let go. At least not for awhile.

Maybe, this is the blessing that Jacob needed, in this messed up world of his. A reminder to keep going. To keep facing the hard things ahead and striving for better. But also a reminder of the power of relationship and engagement, and being willing to come away differently, vulnerably affected. Perhaps the blessing is knowing deeply his calling to hold onto God and to others. Even when those others seem to have become enemies.

Maybe that’s the blessing this story holds for us too. We lived in troubled times. Conflict abounds. Derisive rhetoric dominates. And those who have been most at risk in our society, those who are oppressed and marginalized, are more at risk than ever. There are times when I don’t know what else I can do. When I don’t even know what to pray for – what a blessing might be – so just say to God, “please, please” and hope that she knows the rest.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe on a big, whole world scale, maybe in your own life. Maybe you know, like I know, about those long nights when there is nothing left to do but wait and wrestle with your own fearful thoughts.

Let’s this story, then, be a blessing for us. A call to gather our energy about us and continue to strive. A call to draw close to one another and continue in vulnerable relationship, instead of keeping one another at a distance. To take such firm hold of God and one another that we forget how to let go. And may this blessing be a promise too: that God is always, already there. In the dust with us. Holding on, and just as stubbornly refusing to let go.

I said at the beginning that this story filled me with questions. Now I leave with us with one. How can we bear this blessing to the world? Daybreak is here. The world beyond waits. There are Esaus approaching. Conflicts, and struggles, and fears, but also people, and possibilities, and opportunities. What does this blessing look like for us and for this world?

I’m not sure, but I do know that we figure it out – together.

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The They God (a sermon for Pride)

** A sermon originally preached at Church of the Pilgrims on June 11th, 2017 on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4.**

This week is holding a lot. It’s the week we traditionally celebrate the Trinity. It’s obviously DC Pride weekend. And tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Pulse massacre. To top it all off, the was a weird lectionary week — the prescribed set of scriptures we follow throughout the year. And to be fair, Ashley gave me permission to throw out the lectionary, but when I read this text from Genesis, I knew I had to preach on it. Specifically, verse 26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

This passage makes me think of my best friend M, who last week became the first non binary trans person commission as a deacon in the UMC. My friend M who has been in this ordination process for 9 long years and living out their ministry the whole time. My friend M who has been denied and rejected over and over. And my friend who’ve I witnessed catching flack about their pronouns — the singular they — over and over. People say “you’re messing with our pronouns.”

But right here in Genesis, God is messing with our pronouns from the very beginning of our story.

I knew I needed to preach on this text because there’s something a little queer about this passage. About the plural pronoun God uses.

Biblical scholars will tell you that the reason for this “our” instead of “my” is that when Judaism began, the status quo was polytheistic. It was not assumed that there was only one god. But much later, this verse gave early Christians permission to dream of the Trinity. Of a singular God who contained a multiplicity of identity.

During one class in seminary, my theology professor, Cindy Rigby, told us a story about Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle, in case you don’t know, is most famous for her young adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle In Time, which explore the meeting of science and spirituality, childhood and adulthood, love and loss, and known and unknown. L’Engle also wrote quite a bit about a faith, though this fact is less well known.

The story goes that she was speaking at an event once, and afterwards there was a time for questions and answers. A young teenage girl came to the microphone. She told L’Engle that she had first read A Wrinkle In Time when she was about 8 or 9 years old. L’Engle was impressed and a little skeptical at the idea of someone reading her book at such a young age. She asked the girl, “Did you understand it?”

And the girl thought for a minute, and then she said, “I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.”

I love this story. And I don’t remember now if our professor Cindy used this story on the day she taught us about the Trinity or if it served some other purpose, but the Trinity is what it always makes me think of. I love the Trinity, and on this Sunday in which we traditionally celebrate the Triune God, I could easily be tempted to lose myself in a sermon turned academic lecture that tries to explain the way the Trinity works. I’ve made that mistake before, but it misses the point.

We don’t have to understand the Trinity to know what it’s about.

I love the Trinity. And this is why I love it. When I was first learning the theological concepts behind the Trinity in seminary, I felt like I was learning words to a language that I already knew – had always known deeply. There is a word that theologians use to describe the relational nature of the Trinity. Perichoresis.

It literally means: dance around, but it’s meant to describe the way that each aspect of the Trinity is in relationship with the others, constantly flowing into one another in an eternal dance. Love within God’s very being. Love that cannot be restrained by boundary or border, but instead spills over.

Learning about the Trinity, all those years ago, I realized I knew that kind of boundary-rejecting, spilling-over love. That’s the way I love. For the first time in my life, my bisexuality was not something I had to reconcile with my faith. Instead it was a gift that helped me understand my faith.

For so long, this passage in the creation story, the one that says we are created in God’s own image, has been used in problematic ways. It has been used to uphold maleness and gender essentialism. Whiteness. Able-bodiedness.

But that interpretation misses something crucially evident in this text. That we are not made in the image of a static, bearded man-God. We are made in the image of a God who contains multitudes. Who is diverse within God’s own being. We, all of us, were created in the image of limitless love, of a multiplicity of identities. All of us, living out our various stories and identities, and ways of loving and being and dancing in this world — all of us are reflecting an image of our creator. No one of us — no one way of being or doing or loving — fully captures who God is, but in each other we are invited to encounter God ever more fully.

In this way, this text is a promise. An assurance that we are created beautiful and beloved.

I wish I could stop there. It’s Pride weekend after all — let’s focus on the good stuff.

But we can’t overlook the other part of this verse. The part that says, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

I don’t like this part. Specifically, I’m troubled by the word dominion. On the basis of that word, we have consumed and destroyed so much of God’s good creation. In the same way that we have twisted the first part of this verse to privilege some types of people while oppressing others, we have used this second part to oppress and exploit the world around us. The world given over to our care.

I fall firmly in the camp of people who interpret this passage as a call to stewardship. And to be honest, because I wanted to avoid getting into the weeds of all this, I looked up the original Hebrew. I hoped that I would find some room for a different interpretation. Nope. The original Hebrew does translate to “rule over.” In fact, the root word could be translated as “subjugate.”

And that’s hard. Because it doesn’t add up to think that a God who contains relationship and mutuality within God’s own being would also command us to subjugate others — people or creation.

We may not fully understand God, but we know what their about: Love.

And that makes me wonder if maybe we don’t have a word for the kind of power that God embodies — the kind of power we are called to embody. I think that right here in this text, we see our own broken impulse toward power-over — our binary, black and white, either/or, us or them violence — running up against our both/and, everything, everyone, love love love, with-and-for God.

Even right here in the beginning, we distort our most basic calling — to relationship with one another and with God and with the world around us. We break it into dominion and hierarchy. We are so bad about this. We see it every day in the news.

And I have perhaps never been more personally affected by the reality of our brutal brokenness than I was a year ago, tomorrow. On June 12th, 2016, I woke up early to go to my job at the church where I was a pastor. I had been with a friend at a queer bar the night before, and I woke to the news that at another queer bar — a gay dance club in Orlando — a man had opened fire and killed 49 other people. He killed them because he couldn’t stand the way that they loved. He couldn’t stand the image they reflected.

I’ll be honest with you. One of the strange realities, I think, of coming out in the age of sweeping LGBTQ victories is that I didn’t fully understand, until the Pulse massacre, how deeply people in this world still hate us. And the violence they are willing to enact to make us disappear.

Pulse was an act of racist, transphobic, queerphobic, misogynist hatred.

Those things are a part of our humanity. They are real. They are at work even now in this world, right alongside the destruction of our planet. They are the impulse toward dominion and subjugation. They are real, human realities.

But this passage reminds us that they are not the image in which we were created.

We were created in the image of a plural God. I love that in the same way this wording once gave early Christians the ability to dream of the Trinity, this plural pronoun passage now invites us to think of non-binary gender and consider once again that the image of God is so much broader than our own singular experience.

In multiplicity, in diversity, in community, incredible new things can be created.

And that makes me think of what happened in my life, after Pulse. I heard that there was a movement to toll church bells at 3 o’clock on the Wednesday following the shooting, in honor of the lives lost. I asked my boss if we could participate, and quietly decided I would go out to the courtyard at that time and read the names of the victims aloud. That was all I expected.

But I showed up to staff meeting that Tuesday, to find that my boss was determined to make it a prayer service. And another colleague suggested we bring in our jazz band, and another pointed out that we should invite our friends at the Islamic Center and the temple down the street. And then, another colleague absolutely insisted that we buy the biggest rainbow flag we could and hang it above the front doors of our sanctuary, on the busiest street in downtown Chicago.

And so it came together. And it was more and more powerful than I could ever have imagined on my own.

Only because there was more than one of us could the full vision be realized. Only with communal vision can we even begin to fully see God.

We live in a broken world, a world of violence. Of either/or, of us vs. them, of dominion. But that is not what we were created for. We were created to reflect the both/and, perichoresis, dancing, Trinitarian God. And that God has the last word.

We may only see in a mirror dimly now. We may not fully understand, but we can know what God is about.

Love. Love love love. Beautiful, limitless, spilling over, queer and good love.

That’s what God is about. And even if this world sometimes makes us forget — that’s what we’re about too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Ordinary Measures: A sermon on Emmaus, Table, ritual, grief, and Grace

**Originally preached at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2017. In memory of former Pilgrims pastor Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, who died on April 27, 2017.**

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-35

In December, I officiated a small graveside funeral service for my grandmother, two days before Christmas. Afterwards, I was standing with my mom and my stepdad, and some of my mom’s good friends who had shown up to be a comforting presence for her. It was that awkward moment where all the formal choreography of grief that had taken up our week was over, and we were left wondering what to do with ourselves next.

Soon we found ourselves sitting around a large table at Mary Mac’s Tea Room for lunch. Mary Mac’s is a historic institution in Atlanta. A soul food restaurant with walls covered in photos of the famous people who have dined there, and a woman whose entire job appears to be visiting each table and offering folks a back rub. My family has gone there for years, and it was one of the places my mom and I sometimes took my grandmother out to lunch when I was home visiting.

So on that day we ordered mimosas and toasted my grandmother’s life, and then I asked my mom what she was thinking of getting and she said, “I’m actually thinking about chicken tenders.” We shared a look, and a weighty smirk, that only made sense to the two of us.

See, as my grandmother’s health and memory declined over the last decade or so and her memory started to fade, those lunches with us became one of the few activities that got her out of the house. We’d go to one of several places around town, and no matter where we went – she always, always ordered chicken tenders. I don’t even think she realized that she always ordered the same thing, because every time she would thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, only to eventually say, “you know, I think today I’ll get some chicken tenders.”

It made us laugh, my mom and me — I think because there was just something so her about it.

And I must have inherited something of that from my grandma, because every time I go back to visit Atlanta or Austin or Chicago, I always have a list – not only of restaurants I must return to — but specific menu items at each place that I must order.

There has always been, for me, a sense of joy and home in the routine of good food and table fellowship. I grew up in the land of comfort food. Of church potlucks, and casseroles, and meat and 2 veggie meals most nights of the week. To this day, when my siblings and I return to my parents’ house, the first place we gather is the kitchen. And after opening some wine and stirring up some cosmos and pulling out the chips and dip, we begin to list out — each of us — our must-have foods for the time we’re together. My sister always says broccoli casserole. Like clockwork. It’s tradition.

On Wednesday of this past week, some of us gathered here at Pilgrims for a prayer service, to communally process our feelings about Jeff’s transition into hospice. We didn’t yet know what the following day would bring. We washed hands, we read scripture, we sang songs, and prayed, and of course, we broke bread together. All the familiar routines of worship. At the beginning, Ashley reminded us all of the power of ritual. That we do these things over and over so that we know them by heart, and they anchor us — so that when all else in this world becomes strange to us, these rituals remain familiar and recognizable and dependable.

I imagine that many of us relate to this notion of the world being turned on its head and becoming strange to us. Especially this week. We grieve the loss of Jeff and other loved ones. And we grieve a country and world that seems in many ways to become less and less familiar to us everyday, more and more plagued with injustice, corruption, and suffering.

And if you, like I, have come here today feeling this way at all, we find ourselves in good company with these two disciples who walk the Emmaus road. In a sermon she preached years ago, former Union Seminary professor Barbara Lundblad suggests that the unnamed disciple who walks along with Cleopas is, in fact, meant to be us. It’s not hard to imagine that today.

So often in our celebration of Easter we forget that it comes in a moment of abject grief. These disciples are heavy with it. They are slowly trudging along this dusty road outside of Jerusalem, trying to process with each other what has happened — what they’ve lost. At first I’m tempted to question why they’re even going to Emmaus — Jesus has just died! — why are they doing anything?? But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? Life continues, despite grief, there are errands to run, to-do lists to conquer, journeys to take, even if you must drag yourself along.

I suspect, because I’ve known the feeling myself, that these disciples feel a little bewildered in their grief. A world that made sense to them so recently, no longer does. Familiar roads become unfamiliar. Even light and time seem, somehow, different. Perhaps that’s why they don’t recognize Jesus when he draws near. Or maybe they didn’t recognize him because they know he’s dead, and thus their minds will not allow them to consider that he’s alive, even if he’s right in front of them — even if it is what all the prophets declared.

Regardless of their lack of recognition, Jesus does come to meet them on that road, in their grief. And he stays with them a long time, even past evening. It’s worth noting, I think, that these are not two of the Eleven. These are not the famous disciples. These are just two random followers of Christ, who earn no mention anywhere else in scripture, but who are nevertheless worthy of Jesus’ real, unrushed presence on the very day of his resurrection. He loves them. And if we see ourselves in this story, I hope we remember this part.

And in that love, he gathers with them at table. He takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. And then they recognize him. Why in the breaking of bread? Well because this was their ritual, wasn’t it? They had seen him bless and break bread a hundred times before. He’d done it only a few days earlier. This was their comfort food.

And so in a world gone strange and cloudy with grief, they return to this old habit, this comforting routine, and discover in it that Jesus is with them, still and always. Indeed, he has been with them, for awhile, even if they didn’t know it.

The miracle of that first Easter long ago was undoubtedly Christ’s resurrection and conquering of death. But the moment where we recognize Christ with us, always with us, is in the ordinary act of breaking bread at table.

This is the power of Jesus Christ sharing in human life. To allow ordinary life, ordinary acts, to transcend the extraordinary and then, in turn, become extraordinary themselves.

In all the rituals Christ enacted and taught — in baptism, in washing, in storytelling, and serving others, challenging injustice, and above all at Table, in cup and bread, we are reminded again and again, that Jesus is as familiar to us, as present with us, as the daily need for food and drink, even when we cannot recognize it. He is never far away, but always with us – in the ordinary moments and in a world turned strange. Walking alongside us. Sharing our pain. Filling us where we are empty. And inviting us to join in his work.

This story — this road to Emmaus — teaches us that the Table where Jesus meets us is not off somewhere far beyond us, waiting to welcome us when we arrive, good and ready to eat. Jesus and his Table come to find us and meet us, wherever we are.

Two weeks ago, a man named Ledell Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas. In place of his last meal, he requested communion. This story struck me and has stuck with me, I think because it reminds me of a truth I am so sure of: that whether Ledell had requested communion or not, Jesus was there with him. There is nowhere Jesus is not with us. He is present with the one who cannot chew or stomach food because of ability or illness. He is with the one who is dying. He is on dusty, heavy roads with weary walkers, and he is in the dark heart of grief and pain.

In the ordinary act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread — Jesus transcends extraordinary boundaries of distance, death, and time. He calls us to follow him and promises us a new life that transcends those boundaries too. We participate in the rituals he taught us — rituals that Jeff enacted so well in his lifetime — we tell stories, we serve others, we challenge injustice, and we gather at Table. When we do these things, we do them remembering Christ, and with Christ, and with all those who have and do seek to follow him.

The promise of Christ is that one day, we will all gather at God’s Table — all of us and all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after. We will join together at the Table where all things are made new. But the promise of Jesus on that Emmaus road is also that every time we look for familiar comfort in these rituals he taught, and every time we gather at our imperfect Table here to break bread and remember, every time the Table finds us, we are also somehow — by the Grace of God — already there at that once and future Table. Whether we recognize it or not, every time we come to the Table, including today, we are with Jeff and with the great cloud of saints, and we are all with Jesus.

In this ritual, we are bound together across extraordinary circumstances, by Christ’s ordinary Grace.

Jesus meets us at the Table, he meets us where we are. And takes, blesses, breaks, and gives so that we remember he is there and remember his promise. That promise is always bread, but not only bread. It is the promise of life that overthrows death, of gathering us all up together in his embrace, filling us where we are empty, blessing what is broken in us and in this world, and making from brokenness, from broken bread, from broken hearts, and broken us — something newly and forever whole.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

RainbowBread

Persisterhood (a poem)

**originally written and published on 2/8/17

I’ve been called persistent
like it should make me feel
ashamed,
like stubborn is a sin
and pride, an ugly name.

I’ve been told that
I’m a bleeding heart
and my blood
makes me unclean.

And that because
I am a woman
I should be silent
and unseen.

But I know what they’re afraid of,
and I know that they are wrong
because persistence, heart,
and stubborn pride
are all what make me strong.

And they link me to a
Sisterhood who cries and fights
and stands
and refuses to be silenced
by some frightened man’s demands.

So you can try to keep us quiet
and you can try to keep us down,
but you will feel the force
of womanness
refusing to be bound.

And you can try to conquer us
with laws, or might,
or fist,
but you’ll learn what we already know, that
always, we persist.

Sanctuary (A sermon on Orlando)

**Originally preached at the 8, 9:30, and 11 am services at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, on June 19, 2016**

Bulletin cover quote: “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

1 Kings 19:9-15

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus

—–

Galatians 3: 23-29

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 

There is a poem that goes like this: “Before I die, I want to be somebody’s favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer, and be absolutely certain I will keep it safe.  I will keep it safe.” (Bone Burying – Andrea Gibson)

Sanctuary. What does it mean to you?

Is it vaulted ceilings and stained glass and beautiful organs that make a sanctuary? Or prayer and communion and preaching? Or is it something else?

Is sanctuary a place where you feel claimed and known and home? A place where you can breathe deeply in the affirmation of your own belovedness? Where you can let your guard down and just be? Is sanctuary a place where, no matter what hard or awful thing is happening in your life or in this world, you feel safe?

Perhaps sanctuary is what you’ve come looking for this morning. If so, I’m glad you are here. We call this very space a sanctuary so certainly there is some assumed connection between sanctuaries and churches.

In our Galatians text for this morning, Paul describes the kind of perfect community—an ideal world—that Christ’s love creates. In this ideal that Paul describes, faith and belonging are what hold us all together rather than rigid boundaries and rules of law. The world transformed by Christ is one where there is “no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.” It describes unity not only for Christians or for Jews, but for all children of Abraham—all children of God.

It’s worth noting that the unity Paul describes here isn’t a unity devoid of differences. In fact, throughout his writings Paul celebrates differences in story and background—emphasizing over and over that Gentiles, that is non-Jews, need not become Jews to join with them in faith. What changes—what is erased and eradicated—is the “or”—the divisiveness and the hierarchy that oppresses one group to preserve the privilege of another. What is absent is judgment that deems one person or group less valuable, less valid, less worthy of love and embrace, less human. In the world defined by Christ’s love, we are all beloved children of God, and in God and one another we find belonging, home, affirmation, and safety.

Sanctuary.

This is the promise that the church is called to embody with every fiber of its being. I hope you’ve known that feeling in the church. I have. My church growing up was one of the first places I felt that kind of belonging and safety—my deepest sense of home and belovedness. That experience has brought all the way here. To this pulpit. To this community. To a life of ministry.

But the angry, tragic truth of our broken world is that many have not found sanctuary in churches. Many have experienced exactly the opposite of the kind of community that Paul describes in Galatians—instead of belonging and unity, they’ve experienced expulsion, rejection, and judgment. So many of the people who have encountered church in this painful and damaging way are the people who need love and belonging and sanctuary the most. As a bisexual woman, I have known that experience of church too.

I have seen and resonated with a lot of pieces written this week in the wake of Orlando’s brutal tragedy which seek to explain to those who are not lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gay, or queer how LGBTQ spaces—centers and bars and nightclubs like Pulse in Orlando—operate as sanctuaries for LGBTQ people, many of whom have been rejected by their churches and even their families.

These queer spaces allow LGBTQ people like me opportunity to be in community together where we are affirmed and embraced and allowed to be fully who we are—who God created us to be. Even as I love and serve the church, I know how crucial such spaces are.

The poem I quoted at the beginning of this sermon is by a queer poet named Andrea Gibson who I see perform every chance I get. Andrea’s shows are a profoundly queer experience where myriad variety of bisexual, transgender, gay, lesbian, and queer person come together and cry and laugh and celebrate the truth of our identities and our belovedness reflected in Andrea’s poems.  Even though Andrea is not religious, there is so much God-love and gospel truth in those poems. I often tell people that Andrea Gibson is a queer experience of church.

But I went to an Andrea Gibson show on Tuesday night—just days after a man walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed 49 mostly latinx LGBTQ people, and at this show, everything felt different. Security was heightened and so was anxiety. I found myself wondering if such LGBTQ safe spaces would ever feel like sanctuaries again.

In Galatians, Paul describes the way the church and the world should be—the truth and promise we know in Jesus Christ—but at times like these, the distance between us and that ideal world seems impossibly, devastatingly far.

In this world, when we remember the violent, racist massacre in a Charleston church that claimed 9 black lives just a year ago… When we remember San Bernadino and Sandy Hook, and the excruciating number of shootings in between—especially in our own city, When we remember Paris and Brussels and countless acts of Islamaphobia in our own country, When we remember Matthew Shephard and the racist and homophobic violence that claimed 50 lives last weekend—we know we don’t live in a world where the barriers and walls of division, hierarchy, and oppression have been torn down—not even close. And we cry out to God wondering where we might find sanctuary from all that is so very broken.

In truth, these days, it feels like we have a lot more in common with Elijah than with Paul. Elijah lives in a deeply broken world, surrounded by violence and abuses of power and injustice. There are no purely good guys in Elijah’s story—including him. But he feels persecuted and isolated and afraid. Things have gotten so bad that he is running for his life—desperate for refuge and God’s help. He is looking for sanctuary. He cries out to God “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

We hear echoes of his cry as we listen to accounts of Orlando survivors and how they prayed for safety in the midst of their terror. We hear it in the voices of latinx LGBTQ folks as they talk about the intersections of discrimination they face daily as people of color, sexual and gender minorities, and often immigrants. We hear it from so many people in this world today cast into the wilderness of the margins by our systems of injustice and oppression, by racism and sexism and heterosexism, by transphobia and xenophobia.

We are a world where divisions and prejudices leave so many persecuted, isolated and afraid. Paul calls us to a dream but Elijah’s is the experience we resonate with these days.

As Elijah hides in his cave, disastrous events continue to unfold, one after another without ceasing. A great wind, an earthquake, and then a fire. And God does not speak to Elijah in these acts of destruction. But when they over—when the world has quieted down for a time—Elijah gathers himself up and goes out, and God speaks. I have often heard this text interpreted as how God uses silence, but God is not silent. God speaks. God is not passive, and neither is Elijah. Elijah gets up, he leaves the temporary refuge of his cave and goes out to meet God.

And when Elijah tells God of his fears in search of solace and sanctuary, God commands Elijah to venture into the wilderness.

It isn’t the sanctuary Elijah was hoping for. At least not right away. But others join in his work. Elisha takes up his mantle. Bit by bit, inch by inch, Elijah’s world draws closer to the world of God’s promise.

We too will have to leave the temporary refuge of this place and wherever else we go in our lives to hold back the tide of what’s hard and broken all around us. It is tempting to stay. And we should take hold of one another—comfort each other, breathe deep in the solace of community and affirmation of our own belovedness.

But when the loud furor of this latest storm quiets down (and far too soon, it will), we will have a choice. To stay hidden in the silence and in the comfort of our old familiar prayers, or to go out and meet God. And when we cry out to God in our fear and our longing and our pain, God may indeed send us into the wilderness—right into thick of all who are hurting and cast aside—to do the work of justice and seek the world of Paul’s dreaming, the world of God’s imagining, the world of Christ’s promise.

It may feel to us, as it has this past week, like that wilderness is so very wide. Like the distance between us and the world to which we are called is so very far. But we are called to be the church in this world. And the world is crying out for sanctuary, and God is looking at us.

Heart-heavy and unsure as we may be against the tide of all that is broken around us, we know and trust that we don’t go out alone. We go with a promise. That God is here. And God is out there. And God is not silent. God has never been silent.

God sent Christ into this world to transform it. To break down every wall and every barrier that divides us and sets us against one another so that might be held together in one love.  The promise that we are all beloved: gay and bisexual and asexual and straight. Male and female. Transgender and nonbinary. Black and Asian and Latinx and white. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and all else. We are all held together by the love of God.

Whatever the world looks like today and tomorrow and six months from now—that promise made known to us in Jesus Christ is still true. Already true. Maybe the world has yet to recognize it, but our faith assures us and so we know. And even now—even in the midst of it all—we catch glimpses. There are moments when the truth of who we all are—one beloved family—breaks in.

All week, in Orlando and all over this country, LGTBQ people have gathered in queer spaces and danced in memory and in defiance of hate and fear.

Two years ago today, our national denominational body—the General Assembly, voted to approve marriage equality.

And last night, in the 60th year of our ordaining women to ministry, our Presbyterian denomination elected to be led by two women for the first time. They are different ages, different races, with different stories. But they and our whole denomination have committed to being agents of racial reconciliation, of justice and inclusion for all people, and to being witnesses of Christ’s radically transforming love. And that sort of in-breaking is happening here too.

On Wednesday something amazing happened, and it happened here at Fourth. After a spark of conversation at Tuesday’s staff meeting—in the space of just 24 hours—the request to chime our bells 50 times on Wednesday afternoon in honor the lives lost transformed into an interfaith prayer service and a historic blossom of color and welcome on the outside of our church.

On Wednesday morning, young people from a visiting youth group worked with some of our clergy and other staff to cut hundreds of rainbow colored ribbons and tie them onto our railings along Michigan Avenue. Still others of our clergy staff climbed out onto the roof above our front doors to drape a giant rainbow flag for all to see. And that afternoon we gathered with friends from Chicago Sinai and the Downtown Islamic Center and others, and with the powerful musical gifts of our dear friend Lucy Smith and the jazz quartet. We sang together, we prayed and read sacred texts together. We tolled the bell in silence for every life lost and we read the name of each victim aloud. We stood as one people and cried out for a better world—the world we believe we were made for.

It was not everything. It was not enough to change the world. But it was a beginning. Here on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, it was a beginning. It is our calling to carry that promise of God’s love out into this world, onto our steps and into the streets. We carry it to each other and to all people. We are called to bear the promise of sanctuary to all who need refuge and safety and home and belonging. And together we work for a day when that promise of sanctuary encompasses the whole world. That is how we make it through the wilderness. That is how we cover the distance between.

All week, I have been thinking about Sanctuary. Not just the concept. I have been thinking about the song. Do you know the song I mean?  [singing]:

Lord, prepare me

            to be a sanctuary

            pure and holy

            tried and true

            with thanksgiving

            I’ll be a living

            sanctuary for you.

 

I’m sure some of you know it. It was a favorite of mine from church camp days – it always felt like a promise and an invitation. It took me years to realize that some of the implicit themes behind—of biblical purity and perfection—were holding people out as much as they felt like they were holding me in.

But this week I have been thinking about this song in a new way. What if we decided it wasn’t about purity or being set apart? What if we understood it instead, as our promise to be a sanctuary to others? To all people and especially to those who are marginalized or hurting? And even and especially to those who have been led to believe the church cannot be safety and home for them?

Let that be our prayer for this day and every day. That God would prepare us to be a sanctuary for everyone who needs it. That we might be pure and unhesitating in our love and holy in our work for justice. That even as we are tried by the horrors and hardness that this world sometimes delivers, we would remain true to the promise that we are all one and all beloved by God. That we would give thanks for God’s steadfast love and for our chance to be a part of it, and that we would always be a living, breathing promise of grace and sanctuary for each other and for all. Let that be the prayer and promise we carry out from this place.

If you know it, will you sing with me? [all singing]:

Lord, prepare me

to be a sanctuary.

Pure and holy,

tried and true.

With thanksgiving,

We’ll be a living,

sanctuary for you.

 

Amen.

vigil

Enough (a sermon)

**Originally preached at Jazz Worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 5, 2016.

1 Kings 17:8-16

The Widow of Zarephath

8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’

11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ 12But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’

13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’

15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

For many years, the church I grew up went on mission trips to Mexico every summer to build houses with an organization called Constructores Para Cristo (CPC). This organization sought to confront the reality of homelessness and poverty in Piedras Negras, Mexico one small house at a time. Every week, when a new church group arrived to begin work, the staff of CPC told them the same story. It’s a common fable, so maybe you’ve heard it before.

The story goes that one day a man saw a his child walking along the beach and stooping over again and again to pick something up and throw it in the water. The man drew closer to the child to investigate, and realized that the beach was covered in starfish as far as the eye could see—brought in with the tide and now stranded. The little girl was picking them up one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean.

Amused, the man asked his daughter, “Why are you doing that?”

And she replied, “If the starfish don’t get back into the ocean, they’ll dry out and die. So I’m putting them back.”

The father laughed and said, “But there are thousands of starfish on the beach, there’s no way you could possibly save them all. Even if you tried to do this all day—it just wouldn’t matter.”

The little girl picked up another starfish and stared down at for a minute. Then she held it up to show her father and said, “It matters to this one.” And she threw it in the water.

The point of the story is simple and clear: even the small things we do matter. Whatever we can do to help makes a difference. The little girl understands this, but the father doesn’t. He’s overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and what impact he could make doesn’t seem worth the effort or cost. And so, he does nothing.

****

In our scripture passage for today, the scope is smaller, but the stakes are higher. Elijah is a stranger far from home. He has no community to rely on and no resources. And so he asks a woman—a widow with a son—for help.  When he asks for water, she obliges—it seems easy enough to do. But then he asks for food. A morsel of bread.

The woman falters. Elijah is relying on her on the most basic level. Her faith and culture suggest that it is her responsibility to show hospitality—to care for him. But she feels incapable of meeting his needs. She doesn’t have enough—not even for herself and her son—so she can’t give enough. She tells Elijah that she has only enough meal for her and her son to eat and then they will die.

She feels overwhelmed, just like the man in the starfish story. But Elijah encourages her and tells her to trust in her faith in God. And so the woman does what she can. She gives him food and has enough for herself and her son and the meal and oil do not run out so that the 3 of them are fed for many days.

My life does not look like the life of the woman in this story—or Elijah’s life, for that matter. Though I may sometimes stress about my budget or my future, I am not on the verge of death. I am not short on food. I don’t wonder where I will sleep tonight. But I do know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the scope of someone else’s need—to feel like I don’t have enough to give. Like I can’t do enough.

Maybe you know this feeling too. When we turn on the news in the morning, or scroll through our Facebook feed, or even just walk down the street—we are inundated with all the hard, terrible things happening in our world.

A quick glance at yesterday’s Chicago Tribune revealed 5 dead and 18 wounded in our city just one night into the weekend. It told the story of a young man—a Stanford student—convicted of sexually assaulting a woman at a party and being sentenced to only 6 months in prison. It talked about the professor killed in last week’s shooting on the UCLA campus. And of course it covered the death of Muhammad Ali while remembering the realities of racism he contended with and worked to overthrow in his lifetime.

We rejoice at the good, hopeful stories that find their way to us, but we cannot ignore all that is troubling around us. Countries and regions shredded by war. Ceaseless gun violence in our own streets. The seemingly insurmountable realities of climate change and our hurting planet. Hate and fear, pain and prejudice, illness, poverty, loneliness, and loss. It isn’t hard to see—it’s hard not to see.

As Christians, we believe that we are called to be generous. To work for justice. To care for creation, to serve others and especially to help those who are most vulnerable. But I think this question of enough often gets us stuck. In a world as broken as ours: where do we begin? And perhaps a more troubling question: where do we stop? For surely if we tried to solve every problem and meet every need, we would lose everything—maybe even die—while hardly making a dent in all that’s wrong in this world.

We fear that we don’t have enough to give—not enough to do and give as much as we’re supposed to. And what we can give—isn’t enough for the ones that need it.

This is, on some level, the struggle that overwhelms the father in the starfish story and makes the widow falter before Elijah. It is a struggle that I have known deeply—and personally—for most of my life.

Growing up, my parents were divorced and, over my early years, my father’s financial circumstances deteriorated so that—by the time I was in middle school—he was struggling to keep a roof, any roof, over his own head. Sometimes—there was no roof. Or there was just a shelter, or the broken-down van he’d been given by his church. My dad struggled with alcoholism, with job loss, with mental health issues, and diabetes—all of which impacted his stability and finances.

I learned about income inequality and the complexity of circumstances surrounding homelessness and poverty by watching it happen to my dad from the comfort of my 3-story, suburban house less than 2 miles away from him. I remember sleepless nights spent wondering if he was safe, if he was okay, if he would have a future, and why our lives looked so different. It didn’t seem right or fair. At 10 years old and at 13 and at 20—I was flooded with worry about all that my dad faced, with guilt over my own profoundly different reality, and with my own sense of utter helplessness to fix any of it. I knew that it would take more than a dollar, or a meal. I knew that there was something bigger broken, but I didn’t know what I could do about it.

I’ll confess something to you. I remember this feeling well not just because I felt it so often about my dad growing up, but because I still feel it—sometimes about my dad, but all the time walking through this world and the streets of this city. Every time I pass someone on a street corner asking for food, or change, or work, or help—I see my father. I wonder whose father/mother/child this person is and who might be somewhere worried about them.

Sometimes—I’ll admit—I duck my head and walk quickly—trying to think of something else. Sometimes, I try to calculate how much it would cost if I gave $5 or even just a dollar to every person I passed who asked for help. Sometimes, I think to myself all the reasons why it’s okay that I didn’t stop and engage. Always I feel that same overwhelming flood of helplessness. What can I do, really? If I couldn’t do it for my father, what can I do for all of these? Whatever I have to offer—it is not enough.

These are hard questions. Questions I imagine many of you struggle with too—whether about homelessness and poverty, or violence, and something else. There is some value to recognizing that there is a larger system of brokenness at work that one simple act of generosity or kindness cannot fix.

Another modern fable tells of a river with a village on its shores. One day, a villager notices a baby floating down the river and jumps in to save it. Then more and more babies come down the river and the villager gets a bunch of other people to help her save them all before they drown. Eventually, one woman leaves the group and starts to head upstream along the shore. Someone asks her, “Are you giving up?” And she says, “No, I’m going to find out how to stop these babies from ending up in the river to begin with.”

We need both direct service and love, and deeper work to dismantle systems of injustice. Both are crucial.

As Christians we are called to love one another and to work toward a world that is just for all people. Our faith demands that we act with care and service toward others in all the ways we can, when we can, as much as we can. Too often though, our awareness of the extent of brokenness in this world keeps us from doing anything at all. Knowing that a single act can’t solve the problem and that it is beyond us to fix the whole system—we avert our eyes from the painful realities of other people—we bury ourselves in our own concerns and comfort ourselves with the reassurance that we just can’t do enough—don’t have enough to give.

I don’t believe there is a clear answer to how much we should offer or how or when. There isn’t a prescription in our faith for how much good is enough. But we are told where to begin. Anywhere. And not to stop. We are called to do something, to give something. As much as we think we can spare—and then perhaps a little more. We are called to see each other and not avert our eyes—not surrender to our sense of helplessness, but trust that we are part of the larger work of God. And so are the ones we serve, and so are others serving. No single one of us is called to do everything, but we are called to recognize that we are connected and that only by committing to that connection and loving one another will needs be met and healing happen and good prevail.

It’s significant, but perhaps easy to overlook, what happens next in our scripture today—after the woman shares what little she has.  I don’t mean the miracle where God allows her meal and oil to never run out, so reminiscent of other bible stores. I mean this little detail in the text, verse 15: “she went and did Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.”

Did you notice what happens? That Elijah is included with them for many days? He was just a stranger on the road—an unknown traveler who—having been denied help or kindness—might easily have gone on his way and remained a stranger. Instead, his fate, his life, his well-being and that of the widow and her son become bound up together. In fact, it is because of this relationship that Elijah is around to help save the widow’s son when he dies.

The widow acts because she believes and trusts that—more important than her fear of scarcity or her sense of helplessness—is her call to relationship and community with Elijah. For her, that relationship is enough to make it worth it.

This is the kind of love and care we are called to. The uncomfortable twist in our gut as we walk by someone struggling or bear witness to the injustices of this world is the Spirit reminding us that we are all one. That we are made family by the God who loves us all. Whatever we do in the face of that discomfort, we cannot ignore it. When we avoid it, rationalize it, ignore it—we fail to see each other. When we act in love—whatever we do—we are reminded that we belong to each other. That our struggle is one struggle. That our story is one story. And that our hope is one hope.

The little girl in the starfish story doesn’t ask whether she has enough to give or can do enough to matter. She just knows that it matters enough for the starfish whom she encounters—and they matter enough to her—to try and keep trying.

What is enough? This is a question our faith compels us to wrestle with, but our faith also tells us that this is not a question that God asks at all. God offers us love and grace—and that love and grace help us to see each other, bind us up together, and empower us to love and serve one another in ways beyond what we imagine possible.

Even when we feel we don’t have enough or can’t do enough, we can trust in God. When it comes to how much of that love and grace God offers—to us and through us—the measure is never just “enough.” The measure is more than enough. Abundant. More than you can ever imagine. The measure of God’s love and grace is “endless.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Woman Card (a sermon)

**Originally preached for the jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, on May 1, 2016.**

Acts 16:9-15

16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,

16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.

16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

I want to tell you a story—a story I learned when I was young. It’s from a book called Amazing Grace and it’s about a girl named Grace. If Grace were real, she would be delighted to know I’m telling you about her now, because Grace loved stories. She loved stories in books and in movies and from her grandmother’s long memory. And she didn’t just like to listen to the stories—Grace liked to act them out. She was Anansi the spider and Joan of Arc. She sailed the seven seas as a peg-leg pirate and played ancient hero in the Trojan War.

When Grace’s teacher announced that her class would be doing the play Peter Pan, Grace knew right away that she wanted to play Peter. But a boy in her class tells her she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s a girl and Peter Pan is supposed to be a boy. And a girl in her class tells Grace she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s black and Peter Pan is supposed to be white. Grace went home that day sad and self-conscious, but her mother and grandmother encouraged her to ignore the kids telling her what she can’t do. “Those kids don’t know anything,” they assure her.

So Grace practiced all weekend, and when the time came to audition the next week, the whole class agreed that she was the best and should obviously be Peter Pan. And so she was. The play was a huge success, and Grace was amazing. Amazing Grace.

Grace’s classmates tell her she can’t be Peter Pan because they think they know what Peter Pan looks like. They think they know that Peter Pan is white and male and because that’s what they expect, they can’t imagine a world where Peter Pan looks different. But they’re wrong. Peter Pan looks like Grace because Peter Pan is Grace even if they don’t know it until they see it. Without her, their play doesn’t make any sense. It’s incomplete.

This week, I confess, I’ve been thinking about a lot about who is allowed to do what in our society. I’ve been thinking about this thing I heard of this week called, “the woman card.” I’m not interested here in dissecting the particular implications or context of the original statement. But it did compel me to ruminate on what it means to be a woman in this world and in the church—and the challenges and gifts that come with it.

Growing up, it never occurred to me that some people believed that women couldn’t be pastors. After all, every Sunday I showed up to my church and greeted our associate pastor, Shannon Dill. She was what I pictured when I closed my eyes and imagined a pastor—she was kind and faithful and smart.

In fact, it wasn’t until I announced that I was planning to attend seminary myself that I encountered any pushback. There were people—strangers and loved ones alike—who felt that my gender precluded me from being called to ministry. It caught me completely off guard. As far as I was concerned, the leadership of women was just another part of what the church looked like. It wasn’t hard for to me imagine. Of course, I was lucky. Plenty of other people grew up with a different understanding—a different picture of what the church looked like.

But the truth is that women have been a part of leading the church since it began. There was, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus. And there were the women disciples—Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Martha and the others—the first to encounter the risen Christ and share the good news of Easter. And today we have the story of Lydia.

Lydia is a woman from Thyatira of Macedonia—who sells purple cloth and worships God. Paul and his group encounter Lydia on the Sabbath day—outside the gate by the river where women gathered to pray. And Lydia opens her heart to all that Paul has to say and is baptized then along with her whole household. She opens her home to Paul and those with him—in fact, she doesn’t really take no for answer. And her house becomes the base for a new church in Macedonia and beyond. She and her household keep that new church going, presumably even while Paul is imprisoned.

Lydia is often credited with being the first European convert to Christianity and her encounter with Paul there by the river on that Sabbath day opened up and expanded the church in a whole new way. That is no small part to play.

How easy it would have been for that encounter to have never happened. After all, Lydia wasn’t at all who Paul was looking for. She wasn’t what he expected or what he imagined.

See, Paul had a dream—a vision. And in his dream it was a man from Macedonia who called out to him and begged him to come and help them. Paul takes his vision seriously, he trusts in it, and as soon as he is able, he sets out for Macedonia to find this man and offer help in the name of Christ.

I wonder what might have happened if Paul had only been willing to see that man from his vision. What if he had not been open to another encounter, to someone who he didn’t expect and couldn’t envision? What if he had discounted Lydia because of her “woman card?”

Indeed, Lydia is unexpected—and not just because she was a woman rather than a man. The woman card, so to speak, is not the only card she has. We can surmise from this story that Lydia was an independent woman. She was a businesswoman in her own right who had charge of an entire household of her own. She was a God-worshiper, a God-fearer—which is to say, a Gentile follower of God. And while traditional artistic depictions of Lydia portray her how we might, today, typically interpret the word “European”—that is, as white—some scholars suggest that due to travel and trade routes—there is a high probability that Lydia was a woman of color.

Though Paul knew that women were a crucial part of Jesus’ ministry, this independent Macedonian businesswoman of color was probably well beyond what he could imagine when he thought of the church. But that didn’t stop him from talking to her and it didn’t stop her either. It’s worth noting that this text makes a point of saying that God opens Lydia’s heart to hear Paul’s words. God was at work in her too, already.

Sometimes, we talk about there being both a visible and an invisible church. The visible church is what we picture when we squeeze our eyes shut and try to imagine. It’s the old buildings and the structures and the worship services and the hymns. The invisible church is beyond our own ability to picture and imagine. It’s everywhere God is at work and everyone whom God is at work within.  When we encounter the invisible church in new ways—the visible church takes on new life too.

Lydia is already a God-worshiper. God is already at work in her life just as God is at work in Paul’s life. They both open themselves up to one another. And though we talk about this story as the beginning of the European church, in truth the church was already there—it just hadn’t yet been fully recognized by Paul and the others. When they do recognize Lydia and the invisible church that is already there in Macedonia—new life begins.

All these centuries later, the world and the church look a lot different than they did in the time of Lydia and Paul. And, in some ways, they don’t look so different. It’s not quite as unusual as it was then for a woman to be an independently successful business owner. Certainly we are more in touch with those from other cultures and other places around the world. And the church is expressed, even visibly, in myriad and diverse ways.

On the other hand, we are still a world and a people inhibited by our own expectations of what and who is normal. We still struggle to accept and celebrate those look or live differently than we do. We are still debating—emphatically—in our society today about who can lead: in government, in business, and in churches. Who is entitled to equality and justice. Who is indispensable and who is disposable. We still fall into the trap of believing we know how things are, how they should be, and what (and who) they’re supposed to look like.

The false certainty that this world can and should only ever be the way we picture it when we squeeze our eyes shut—that is a deception of our brokenness. It is the reason why, in a world that is more diverse and more connected than ever—we are still plagued by barriers of distrust and discrimination. We are still bound up by the limits of prejudice: racism, sexism, heterosexism—it goes on. It is costing lives and hope and so much possibility for goodness and healing and growth.

Lydia’s story finds us in the midst of the complicated, messy, brokenness of our own myopic vision and offers us a different view. A reminder that God’s church is bigger and broader than we expect. It is built and served by and serving those we might overlook or discount if we rely only on our own understanding. Whether we are like Paul struggling to follow God’s call past the limits of our own dream or like Lydia—called to serve and speak to a world that does not always fully see us: this story is a promise that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work all over this world and she is not contained by the limits of our humanity or own imagination.

In a world often defined by fear and shored up defenses and privilege and prejudice and injustice—the church is called to be a prophetic witness that something bigger and broader than we can imagine is binding us together. We, as the church, do not go out into the world simply because the world beyond needs us—but because we, the church, need the world beyond. The church is there too—visible to us or not. Beyond the limits of our knowing and our expectation—there are people we are incomplete without.

Lydia was the first. That’s what we say. The first European convert—the follower of God who made her house into a gateway for a broader church. She was the first, and then—God alive in her and made visible—many others followed. Perhaps precisely because she wasn’t what was expected—she was a woman, an independent, faithful woman of color: the understanding of what and where and how the church could be grew and was never the same. There have been other firsts too in the church and beyond. The first person to cross the ocean. The first person to walk on the moon. And others. The first LGBTQ pastor, the first black president, the first woman on an American bill. These first and many others teach us that our knowledge of what can be is not the limit of what should be or will be.

In this Easter season, we remember that our entire faith is built on the unexpected and unimaginable. A God who meets us in humanity—in the form of a tiny child. A God who preaches a world of justice beyond any that had been or has been known. A God who, having met us in human life, dies to meet us in death so that we might know that even there we are never alone. And a God who overcomes death, returns to new life and offers new life to us—with the incredible promise that there is no limit to God’s goodness or love—whether we can imagine it or not.

It is in this promise that we place our faith. It is to this promise we cling on the days that we fear injustice and prejudice might have the last word. In the moments when we squeeze our eyes shut and still cannot picture a world that is not broken—a world that is good and healed and whole. We trust in God to open our hearts so that we can see what God sees.  We trust in Jesus Christ—the one who, above all and always, is first and last and guides us beyond what we know, expect, and understand and into the wonder and boundlessness of grace. Amazing grace. Imagine that.

Amen.