As Much As You Want (a sermon)

(Originally preached at Maryland Presbyterian Church on January 21, 2018)

John 6:1-13

6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.


Recently, in looking for something mindless to binge watch while I packed up my apartment to move, I stumbled on a show called The 100. It primarily focuses on the experiences of a group of 100 teenagers who have grown up entirely on a space station — called The Ark — because the fallout from a nuclear world war 97 years earlier has rendered Earth uninhabitable. These teens — considered expendable because they’ve committed crimes ranging from petty theft to murder to threatening to reveal government secrets — are sent to Earth to determine if it can now sustain life, because the Ark is dying and oxygen is running out.

Over the course of four seasons and counting, The 100 follows these young people, and eventually their adult counterparts, as well the other human beings they — surprise, surprise — discover on Earth who have survived what was deemed unsurvivable. Perhaps the most eerie thing about watching this show at the end of 2017 is how very not impossible it feels, these days.

The goal of these characters is simple: save our people. But the problems the characters face are complex, often forcing them to act in the face of universally bad options. And overarching all of it are these questions: who are your people? Who deserves to be saved? And what does it mean to be a good person in a world where you are forced to do bad things?

Again and again, the main characters make disastrous and horrific decisions, enacting violence, sacrificing other people deemed “outsiders” — in an attempt to stay alive, to keep hold on precious and scarce resources. At one point, when another nuclear fallout threatens and a bunker is discovered that can only hold so many, the people from each group send representative champions to engage in a death match fight to decide which clan or group will be saved while all the others die. Every time in the show a decision like this occurs, as the deciders grapple with their own humanity, their fear of scarcity, their desperation running up against their morality, they say the same thing: “We had no choice.”

This is a story of scarcity. Of desperation.

And thank goodness, this is not our gospel. This is not our holy truth. Instead we have Jesus. And some bread. And 5,000 people who show up hungry but do not remain that way.

When David told me y’all were doing a sermon series on the elements of worship, I immediately asked if I could preach about communion because it is one of my very favorite parts of our worship. I love it because in the midst of so many high and restrained and pure traditions, communion — even when it’s trying to be formal and perfect — is always, inevitably messy. Bread crumbs. Spilled wine or juice. The awkward dance of who passes what to what. I love it because it’s exciting for kids, and for me — when I’m feeling a little peckish waiting for lunch. I love it because no one looks pretty when they’re eating. But we all need food. In this way, the Table is a vulnerable place, and we come bringing our most vulnerable, awkward, messy, hungry, not pretty, humanness. And that is exactly where Christ meets us, exactly how God receives us, and welcomes us home, over and over and over again.

I love it.

And because I love it, I have preached about it. A lot. So about five minutes after I told David I would preach on communion, I started to wonder what the heck I was going to say. What text could I choose that I hadn’t done before? What new and novel thing could I say? And in that effort I ended up choosing one of the most well known biblical texts of all time. Whoops?

The feeding of the 5,000 is not exactly a communion text. I mean, it isn’t the Last Supper or Cleopas and the unnamed disciple encountering resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It’s fish, not wine. It’s 5,000 cranky strangers in the grass, instead of your closest friends at a dinner party.

On the other hand, it has everything to do with establishing shared meal as a crucial part of Jesus’ ministry. And it has so much to say about why we come to the Table. Hunger, desire, love, generosity, community, transformation, abundance.

In an age where post-apocalyptic fiction teeters on the edge of realistic, where daily news breaks usher us constantly into a new and increasingly ominous reality. Where fear of scarcity and difference, and sharp lines of, “Who are your people and who aren’t?” “Who deserves to be saved and who deserves to be thrown under the bus?” — are enough to literally shut a government down — we are all hungry. For a different story. For a different way. A different choice.

And here, in this text — Jesus shows us that the way of the Feast is that different way.

It is an endless debate among scholars, theologians, and biblical interpreters whether the seemingly miraculous climax of this story — when 2 fish and 5 loaves of barley bread somehow become enough to feed thousands of people (with leftovers no less!) was an actual miracle, or a domino effect of human generosity. Did Jesus magically amplify the amount of food? Or did the initial act of sharing inspire others to share from their own store?

I’d say when it comes to humanity — either one of those is a fairly miraculous explanation. But frankly, that’s not the first miracle of generosity I spy in this text.

Here’s how it goes: Jesus has spent the day blowing people’s minds by healing those who are sick. And then he’s tired, so he gathers up his posse and sneaks away for a little decompression time. Can you blame him? I’d be beelining for a bubble bath and a glass of pinot faster than you could say Son of God.

But the people – ALL THE PEOPLE – will not leave him alone. They follow him. They want more. And what does he do? Tired, drained, in dire need of introvert time, and no doubt hangry? His mind already on the pending Passover observance and the work that will entail.

He looks back at this crowd of eager and relentless thousands and says, “Okay. How are we gonna feed these people?”

I mean, what? That would not have been my response. My response — a perfectly reasonable, self-advocating one, in my expert opinion — would have been to whisper to the closest disciple and say “get. me. outta here.”

Who would be this generous? Clearly, Jesus. Maybe only Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, that is the first miracle of this story.

From the jump, this is an extraordinary counter to our standard mode of being. And when Phillip points out to Jesus that 200 denarii — 6 months wages — would not be enough to feed this crowd. When Phillip says essentially, we can’t do it – we have no choice. Jesus says, “Yeah we do. We do have a choice. Let’s make it happen.”

I imagine Phillip and Andrew and the others glancing awkwardly at one another in this moment. Maybe a subtle eye roll. Here he goes again. What are we even going to do?

And right on cue, a boy steps forward and offers his 5 loaves and 2 fish and Jesus gives thanks to God for this meager supply and gives it to the people — “as much as they wanted” the text tells us.

This is a world, a moment, defined by actual, tangible, undeniable scarcity from every visible perspective — of food, of energy, of options. But in Christ, it becomes a story of abundance.

“As much as they wanted” — can you imagine? And everyone — everyone — is fed till they are full. No one is denied. There are no walls to keep people out. No demands that the unworthy be removed or returned to where they come from. No ugly stares at those relying on the kindness of others to be fed.

When was the last time you heard a story of everyone getting “as much as they wanted?” In our world today, usually if someone is getting as much as they want — it’s at the expense of others getting what they need. Scarcity is our human paradigm. And in the face of it – Jesus offers radical abundance. Of food yes, but also of generosity, of love, of hope.

Honestly, these days — that post-apocalyptic teen drama I mentioned earlier feels closer at hand than this miracle feast. And maybe that is why it matters that we come to the Table week after week, month after month, year after year. To remember that even when everything in the world around us is chaos and hurt and bad options and it feels like we no good choice — we do. A better choice. A better way. An abundant way.

One of my favorite things about this text for today is when it describes that after everyone had eaten — as much as they wanted — they collect twelve baskets of broken fragments, the leftovers. I mean first of all, this touch at the end really kind of puts the whole thing over the top. Even after feeding an impossibly large group from an impossibly small amount — they are left with a greater amount than they started with. And it is an abundance made of brokenness.

This too is what Communion is about. It is a sacrament of healing and transformation, not in spite of brokenness, or the absence of brokenness, or even the overcoming of brokenness — but through it. We come bringing our broken hearts, our broken selves, weary from this broken world, we come bearing our meager fragments and Christ meets us there in his own profound, love-driven brokenness and says “This is all we need. Everything we need.”

It matters that Communion is messy and sticky and real. Because it means that even in the mess of this world, of humanness, God is at work. And in that feast of broken pieces, right in the midst of this broken world – we catch a glimpse — a taste — of a better world. The world we are called to. The kindom of God.

During seminary, I spent one summer in Philadelphia doing my field education internship at Broad Street Ministry. While Broad Street is primarily a worshipping community and a ministry that serves those who are experiencing hunger or homelessness, I worked specifically with a program called the Youth Initiative. The Youth Initiative is a summer mission program, that challenges traditional mission trip models by exposing youth who visited from all over the country, to both the realities of need in an urban environment, and the systemic realities that undergird those challenges — helping young people of faith to understand their call to serve others as a call to work for transformative justice.

Part of the program’s structure is for the visiting groups to spend each day working with a different program providing some sort of service to the Philly community — and then to critically examine what is good about those services, and what falls short.

One day during that summer, I was with a group serving a meal at a nearby Christian organization. Broad Street’s own meal program is set up so that those dining are seated at round tables, and are served at the same time, given what they need — specifically to avoid the trauma experienced by those who are hungry and made to fight for a limited amount of food available. The trauma of scarcity.

This other kitchen where we were serving on this particular day did not share this model. It served men specifically, and it was a very small space. So hundreds of men lined up outside and were quickly shuffled through an assembly line of food, then give a very brief amount of time to scarf down their food before being sent back outside to make room for others.

The day I was there, I was assigned to hand out bread.  Every other part of the meal was closely regulated in terms of serving size. But we had a whole lot of bread. So I had the gift of being the only who could offer the men coming through the line more than the minimum amount.

As a seminarian, it was — of course — impossible to be offering bread to people and not think about communion. So I did. And with each new face and outstretched plate I encountered in that tiny kitchen and dining room, I was struck by how terrible the world can often be, how almost hopelessly messed up it is and we are to let people live in this way, to go hungry and without a safe place to live. To dehumanize them in the way I saw these men and others dehumanized over the course of that summer. And so over and over again, as I offered the bread to each new person I thought of Jesus looking on all of this mess and saying “This is my body, broken, — this is my body, broken, — this is my body, broken.”

But what I got to say out loud, over and over, to each new man in the line was, “Would you like more bread? You can have as much as you want.”

They were both true. At the same time. And Communion is the meeting place of these two truths. The brokenness, the hunger. And the open-hearted, boundless offer of God’s love to fill us up and keep us going.

The Table reminds us that Christ is always with us, right where we are — standing in the tension of what is and what will be.

That encounter, that experience of abundant love, transforms us. And this is why I believe that — whether Jesus magically amplified the food supply or not — people were moved to shared of what they had. Because in experiencing radical abundance, they were invited to become a part of that radical abundance too. To turn around and offer to others, invite others. The abundance comes in the sharing. And finds it’s meaning in the sharing too.

Communion — all shared meal really, but especially Communion — is an inherently communal experience. Bread is a communal experience. It is a gift of God cultivated by human hands, shaped by human hands, offered by humans hands, and received by human hands. The Communion we will partake of here in just a short time from now will connect us to one another, and to others not even here who have helped the bread we share come to be.

Communion is never just us alone with God. But all of us together with God. All the gathered thousands, and millions, and billions from every time and place. It is a reminder that we all belong to God, and to one another.

Reading this well-known scripture story this week, I found myself wondering what became of those baskets of leftover broken fragments of bread. After Jesus made so especially sure that all the remnants were gathered up so that nothing was lost. Where did those baskets go? What did they do with them?

Here’s what I like to imagine: that someone took them to another place, maybe 12 other places. Where others were hungry, and afraid that they didn’t have enough. And that perhaps, in those new places, when that bread was offered — those hungry folks too were inspired to share of what they had. And so after all of them had eaten their fill — as much as they wanted — there were even more leftovers gathered to be taken to other hungry places, and so on and so forth, meal after meal, day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia.

Until today, when that bread — those broken fragments made feast — comes to us. And we are called to the table, to share in that same meal — along with those first hungry thousands, and all who came after, all those we’ve loved who have come and gone before us. It is our turn to give thanks, and take, and break, and eat — as much as we want. And then — the abundance of bread, of love, of grace that remains when we had been filled — where will it go next?

Wherever we take it, of course. Wherever we share it. Wherever we offer it to this hungry, broken world, remembering the One who invites us all, connects us all, transforms us all, calls us all to the kindom feast. Wherever we bring the abundant love we have feasted on and offer it with open hands and open hearts, saying, “Take as much as you want. There is plenty to go around.”

May it be so. Amen.


Troublemaker (an Epiphany sermon)

*Originally preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., on January 7, 2018* 

Matthew 2:1-12

A few months ago, I found myself in a very unexpected period of immense life upheaval. Perhaps you know the feeling. I had previously arrived at a place of relative calm and stability and even joy — one of those rare and precious times when every part of life seems to fall into place. A year into my life in a new city, I’d found a dream job, an amazing group of new friends, a promising start to a relationship, and an apartment that was tiny, but which I loved. I felt settled and at peace in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever. It felt like the kind of peace people search for. And then, of course, life happened. And some other life happened.

Within the span of a few months, everything became disrupted in jarring ways. First at work, and then in my relationship life, and then finally, my housing situation fell apart. And though my friends were loyal and compassionate, they too were struggling in painful ways and I hurt for them as well. I was afraid, and stressed. Everything suddenly felt out of control and — it would be fair to say — I like to be in control. A lot. I have, over the course of my life, honed the ability to problem solve creatively in just about every situation. I have always fought stubbornly to get and keep what I want, to do whatever I had to, to keep it together. I’m good at that. By contrast, I have never handled being out of control very well. This time was no different.

Perhaps this quality in myself is why — when studying the text for this Epiphany week — I made the somewhat alarming discovery that I actually … relate to King Herod. Believe me when I tell you that — in this age of ideological and political conflict — of all the modern day people I *could* compare to an unstable, self-obsessed, power-hungry, violent first century ruler, I did not expect or want it to be me. But listen, verse 3 says that when the magi came speaking of the birth of the prophesied King of the Jews, Herod heard it and was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him.

I admit my first reaction to this verse was to question, “Really, was all of Jerusalem with him? Or was it more like the king’s sentiments were merely projected onto his subjects?”

But then I looked a little harder. The Greek word here that gets translated as “frightened” or, in other places, “troubled,” is “tarasso” and it’s described as meaning “to stir up that which needs to remain still.”

There is some intensity in that definition — especially the last part. The “need to remain still, at ease” carries with it a sense of desperation, of impending threat. That is what Herod feels in response to the birth of Jesus Christ. The sure and certain realization that everything he knows and relies on — everything familiar and stable in his life and world — is about to change forever in ways totally beyond his control. I know that feeling. And so I can believe that the people of Jerusalem did, in fact, feel it right along with the king because whether you are a demented despot or a citizen barely scraping by, the sudden promise of impending and overwhelming upheaval can be terrifying.

We get that, don’t we? Who runs willingly and joyfully into the unknown?

But the one we call the Prince of Peace, who comes to us in the frail vulnerability of a newborn child comes with a promise that precedes any lasting peace — and that promise is indeed the stirring up of that which we need to remain still — the setting in motion of utter upheaval.

This word — tarasso — follows Jesus. It’s the same word that describes how Zachariah feels with the angel comes to announce John’s birth. And it’s the same word used in the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water. It’s what the disciples feel when they see him doing the impossible. It is that deep, awesome knowing that something is stirring.

King Herod is afraid and all of Jerusalem with him. And they should be. Christ has come, and everything familiar is about to be stirred up. Nothing will ever be the same.

These days we dress up Epiphany as a joyful folktale about colorfully costumed kings from far off lands going with their camels to bring fancy gifts to sweet little baby Jesus. But what epiphany really is, is the revelation of God in a powerful and profoundly transforming way.

It’s not unreasonable to be afraid, to dig our heels in, and hold tighter to the things we know and take comfort in. But that isn’t the only possible response — it’s not the response of the magi.

In the midst of my season of upheaval, I took a trip to Northern Ireland. I was primarily there to work on a story, but I took some time at the end of my trip to travel to the northern coast and relax and reflect and try to embrace the changes happening all around me. I spent my days staring out at the striking and rocky coastline and the deep blue Irish sea. I prayed. But I couldn’t quite dislodge my fear. I couldn’t quite trust that if I let go, God would be at work in the chaos surrounding me in powerful ways that I couldn’t imagine.

On the last morning of my time at the coast, I took one last walk down to the beach to watch the sunrise and when I came back up to the AirBnb where I was staying, two older women had arrived. They called each other Bird and Bebe and they were from Abilene,TX. They shrieked in delight when they heard me say y’all and invited me to sit with them. I honestly wasn’t quite in a social mood, but their joy and vibrancy were infectious and so I agreed.

Over several cups of coffee and toast, they took turns telling me the story of how they had spent four years planning out every last minute detail of this three week trip they were on in Britain. The entire point of their journey was to arrive at a place called the Callenish Stones — an ancient ring of rocks not unlike Stonehenge — on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Scotland at precisely 9:02 on the Autumnal equinox. I don’t quite remember what was meant to happen at 9:02 at that location on the equinox, but it was clear to me that it mattered a great deal to them.

They described their adventures in the days leading up to that one event. How almost from the moment they got off the plane in England, their plans began to fall apart. Missed reservations, the challenge of driving a rented car where everything is on the opposite side, bad luck — it was an amazing and frustrating combination of misfortunes. But Bebe and Bird never lost an ounce of their mischievous joy as they told me the story.

Despite all that had gone wrong, the two women kept trying to make it to their destination. And then finally, an issue with a train schedule made it clear to them that there was no way they would get to the stones by 9:02.

“We just had to surrender,” Bebe said to me. “We had to accept that we weren’t going to make it.”

“Sometimes,” Bird said, “You have to give up, and then see what happens.”

And so they did, and somehow — by remarkable circumstance — they arrived at their inn on the small island with 5 minutes to spare and found two Canadians headed to the stones who offered them a ride. They left their bags in the rode and got in and when they arrived they found two other strangers, scotsmen, one of whom was wearing a black hoodie and drinking a beer, and he pulled out some bagpipes and played them as the group of 6 strangers made their way up to the stones and stood together at precisely 9:02 pm on the autumnal equinox.


The point of the story isn’t that the two women from Abilene made it to the stones after all, but that when they surrendered to the universe — to use their words — everything changed in a way that they could not imagine but somehow seemed intended to be. And it transformed them.

I told them, “You’re not going to believe this, but your story is so crazy to me because I came on this trip, exactly because I needed to learn this lesson about surrender and trust.”

Bird said, “Oh of course I believe it. This is the universe at work too, you see.”

Unlike Herod, and more like my friends Bebe and Bird, the magi choose trust over fear and control. We refer to them often as the three wise men or kings, but the truth is that we don’t really know their gender or their number, or even exactly where they came from. Most scholars agree that they were likely Zoroastrian priests — an early monotheistic religion that predates Judaism and of course Christianity.

It matters to know this, because it means that when the priests saw in the stars the foretelling of the birth of Christ, and then chose to follow — they were leaving behind everything familiar to them in pursuit of a child prophesied by another faith entirely. Where Herod saw danger and threat in all that was being stirred up, the magi saw wonder and invitation. It was not without danger for them, of course. It roped them into the conspiracy of the king and honestly, we don’t really know what becomes of them when they leave Jesus and don’t return to Herod as they were commanded. All we know is that they follow a star and listen and watch and trust where it leads and there they encounter God’s own self. Then, they go home a different way. Of course they do. For isn’t that what it means to encounter Christ? To be transformed such that you cannot back the way you came. You are different. Everything is different.

And so this story sets in motion the life and work of Jesus — God with us — work which will flip tables in the temple and command storms on water, that will lift the lowly and outcast, and cast down the powers of this world. Jesus will turn all understandings about power and purpose and living itself on their head. Jesus has come to be a troublemaker.

The question and calling for us this Epiphany is to ask ourselves what in our own lives is Christ stirring up and setting into motion — even those things we are fighting hard to control and hold onto? What is Christ stirring up in this world — demanding the end of what is familiar and worldly in favor of a profoundly new way?

There is so much chaos in the world these days, so much upheaval that does not come from God, but rather from the desperate clinging to power and security of those who have it – generally at the expense of those who don’t. There is so much to fear.

The promise of Christ to us in this Christmas season is not that everything will be calm and stable and familiar. But it is a promise of holy upheaval, within us and beyond us — absolute transformation toward a different way of being, a better way. There is hard work that must come. And change and maybe chaos even. The flipping of tables and managing of storms and upending of oppressive worldly systems and powers. But in the work, in the transformation — we find a new way. And in that new way of being, in Christ himself — if we can learn to open ourselves and surrender and trust even when we are afraid — we will find home, and a peace that lasts for us and for the world, and we will not be troubled any more.

May it be so. Amen.

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.

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.


Persisterhood (a poem)

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

I’ve been called persistent
like it should make me feel
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.


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.