The Gift of Limitations (A sermon for Pride and More Light Sunday)

**Originally preached at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, WV on June 3, 2018 for their More Light Presbyterians service***

1 Samuel 3:1-10

3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

3:2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

3:3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

3:4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”

3:5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

3:6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

3:8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.

3:9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

3:10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

—————-

The Sundays when we read this passage in church growing up were some of my favorites. I loved the thought of this young person, a child even, being called by God by name, even when the adults couldn’t hear it.

We almost always sang the hymn “Here I am, Lord” on these Sundays. I would sit in the balcony of our sanctuary, next to other kids in our youth group who were goofing off or doodling on their bulletins, and I would let the sound of the hymn wash over me. The words filled my lungs, then my chest, then my whole body, burning outward from my heart — absolutely earnest.

[sung:] “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? … I will go, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”

My voice would break every time, tears hot in my eyes. I felt these words so strongly, felt so certain that they were for me. A calling.

I didn’t know then that I would grow up to be a minister. I definitely didn’t know then that I’d grow up to be a queer minister. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

I was still fully on board the veterinarian/writer/actress/teacher train. But I did feel, with the sort of unshakable certainty that perhaps only children can achieve, that God was calling me to something. I didn’t know what. I couldn’t imagine it. But I believed.

That call stayed with me, and eventually, in the fullness of time, molded itself into a call to seminary and ministry. Having grown up around an amazing woman pastor, I didn’t question that I could be one too.

Until I came out. And everything changed.

I went to seminary in the fall of 2011, just a few months after the PCUSA officially voted to ordain LGBTQ pastors. 2 weeks into fall semester, I came out as bisexual. That was a hard year. Though I had grown up being loved and affirmed and embraced by the church community of my childhood — I was deeply afraid that they would reject me once they knew that I was queer and dating a woman, and that if they somehow did choose to keep me “under care” in my ordination process, it would cause an irreparable rift in the church I so loved.

I knew that many of them would be unable to see or imagine a future in which someone like me could be a minister. And I couldn’t see or imagine a future in which I could live out my calling and maintain my relationship with them.

And so, with much heartache, I left them and continued my process at the openly affirming church I had been attending in Austin, where I was in school. That following summer, I attended a retreat for emerging LGBTQ pastors put on by an organization that was then called Presbyterian Welcome. Hidden at a retreat center in the mountains of north Georgia, the playground of my childhood, a few dozen of us gathered, queer and trans and all feeling called to ministry.

We shared in worship, in meals, in fellowship, in time to tell stories and care for one another and grow. It was a time of respite from a church world that felt so often threatening to us, and it was a time to dream of a different church, a better church, and a better world than the ones we knew.

On the last night of our retreat, we gathered for a closing worship service. There was a sermon — about Samuel’s mother, Hannah, actually. And then, the worship leaders brought out several sets of plate and chalice, filled with bread and juice. And they told us to get into small groups and gave each group a communion set.

And then they said: the church declares that only those ordained as ministers can break the bread and pour the cup. And the church may not ever ordain us. But tonight, we stand before God and each other and we say, “Whatever the church thinks, we are called” and we claim our right to this sacrament. And so we presided at table for one another, we broke bread and shared cup and spoke the Words of Institution, and then we each placed a rainbow stole around one another’s necks and affirmed each other’s call.

It was an act of rebellion against the limits of the church. And it was an act of faith in the limitlessness of God. It was holy.

—-

This scripture for today is also a story about limitations.

In this passage Eli has grown old. His eyesight is going, the text tells us, and perhaps his hearing is not doing so well either. He is running up against his human limitations — which we all have in various ways — and those limitations keep him from hearing God’s call to Samuel.

Samuel, meanwhile, is very young. The text tells us that he does not yet know God. He has not yet fully learned and so his knowledge and experience are limited.

And all around them in a world where visions have become rare. The people have run into the limits of their ability to imagine and believe.

And into this house of human limitation, God enters. And calls to Samuel.

“Samuel” God says in the night. “Samuel.”

And Samuel says, “Here I am, here I am!”

But Samuel, in his youth and ignorance, doesn’t recognize that it is God. So he runs to Eli, whom he trusts. And Eli couldn’t hear the voice of God, so Eli tells him, “I didn’t call you, go back to bed!”

Twice more this happens. God calls. Samuel misinterprets. Eli doesn’t hear and sends Samuel back to bed.

Except the third time, though he cannot hear the voice, Eli perceives, given his own wisdom and experience, that God is calling Samuel. Eli knows that there is more to God’s story than his own understanding. And so he tells Samuel as much, affirming the call. And he sends him back to bed and tells Samuel that when he hears the voice again, he should respond, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

This is, in part, a story about limitations and how those limitations get in the way of our relationship with God and one another.

To be human is to be limited. We are finite. Mortal. We age. We must learn things in order to know them. Each of us, in various ways, has limits to our abilities. And what we are capable of imagining, of understanding, is shaped largely by the limits of our own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. We have a bias.

Certainly when our own experience or inexperience, our particular knowledge or ignorance shaped by the limits of our context, brush up against each other — we can find ourselves at odds with one another. Unable to understand each other. Unable to recognize how to move forward.

But there is a gift to knowing our limitations — and that gift is knowing that there is more beyond them. That we are limited but God is not. We see only in part. But at the limit of our individual knowing, understanding, ability — someone else’s begins. And so together we are made more whole.

This is a story about limitations. But it’s also story about faithful people who know to look beyond their own limits for truth. To trust in God and one another.

And so, Eli whose eyesight is diminishing and who cannot hear God, listens to what Samuel tells him. He sees and hears not only with his own eyes and ears, but with God’s.

And Samuel — sweet Samuel — with his ready posture and willingness to respond, Samuel loves with God’s heart.  Together, they imagine with God’s imagination. And discover God’s call in a time and place that neither of them had thought of or expected.

See Eli and Samuel knew that they were limited, but they also trusted that God is not. Samuel — knowing his limited understanding and experience — seeks Eli’s wisdom and truth. And Eli — with his limited hearing and sight — trusts in Samuel’s journey and call.

From this moment, a great prophet grows. And what these verses don’t tell you is that when Samuel returns to listen to God, he learns that God is displeased with Eli and his family and that there will be consequences for what they’ve done wrong. He is afraid to tell Eli, but the older man receives the news with humility and faith. He knows that leaning into God’s expansive dream also means reckoning with where he has fallen short.

Sometimes our limitations can do harm to us and to others, but there is the gift as well. When we see them for what they are — we recognize that we need others — their vision, their hope, their gifts, their perspectives — to move past our own limits and dream with God’s imagination.

——

One of the best lessons my queerness has taught me is that the full expansiveness of love is beyond the capacity of any one person to imagine or know. And that love, that limitless love is what, and how, and who God is.

God is limitless. God’s dream for a better world is limitless. And God’s capacity to call people, to make use of their gifts, to compel them to lead and inspire and challenge and grow — that too is limitless.

God calls non binary people and women and men. God calls people who are trans and those who are cisgender. God calls those who are asexual and bisexual and gay and lesbian and straight.

And the church is better for it.

4 decades ago a gay Presbyterian pastor named David Sindt rode an escalator up and down over and over at the denomination’s General Assembly gathering, and he held up a sign that read, “Is anyone else out there gay?”

The church could not see the future that God allowed David to envision. But David’s vision pushed the limits of what the church could see. It cost him, dearly. But all these years later, here we are in a future made better by God’s call on David’s life and David’s willingness to dream with God’s imagination and see with God’s eyes and love with God’s heart.

His actions at General Assembly ultimately led to the creation of More Light Presbyterians whose tireless efforts over the years — in conjunction with other organizations like The Covenant Network and Parity — led finally to the change in our polity that recognized God’s call on LGBTQ ministers seven years ago.

And six years ago, I broke bread in a room full of beautiful God-beloved and God-called queer people — who even then were dreaming of and claiming our right to a future beyond our limits to see.

In the years since, one of those gathered became the Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians — the first transgender executive director of a PCUSA organization. Another became their communications director, who voice is quoted in today’s bulletin. Nearly all of us have since been ordained, or are well on the way to ordination.  A lot of us were the first of our kind in our contexts — the first out openly gay man ordained in Texas, the first out openly bisexual woman ordained in Texas, the first black queer woman ordain in the PCUSA, and the second. We were not the last.

One of those gathered in that Upper Room was my friend David Norse. I met him that weekend, when we were both seminarians, newly out, still grappling with the question of how our queerness could be reconciled with our call. With all the others, we presided at table together, illegally, in that room on that night.

And 5 months ago, we presided at table together again, this time at the church where he is called and installed as pastor, and where I had the privilege of guest preaching. Both of us out openly queer ordained ministers.

And not long after I was ordained — four years after I had left them in fear and with a broken heart, I returned to my childhood church to lead worship and was received with joy, love, and open arms. I preached a sermon called, “Homecoming.”

So much has changed and so much change and growth is yet to come.

All of that potential, all of that future goodness, and more — was swirling in that retreat center room. Hidden then, for fear of retribution, because we were beyond the limits of the church’s vision. It could not see us. And even we struggled to hope, but God is limitless. And God could see it all. And so we dared to dream with God’s imagination and see with God’s eyes and push the church and ourselves to grow.

Right now, this very second, new life and new vision is swirling. New possibilities are being born. And God is at work calling and leading and inspiring in ways and with people that we cannot hear or see or imagine. It is beyond our limitations and it is our work to trust and be open.

This is, no doubt, one reason God calls upon queer people to lead the church. Because our journeys through hate and hope, through doubt and discovery, through judgment and embrace — indeed our vary capacity for love that transcends boundaries — make us profound witnesses to this holy truth: that to love the world as God loves it, to see the kindom that God calls us to, we must not rely on our own understanding, nor dream with our own imaginations, nor see with our own limited vision. Rather, we find the world of grace when we love with God’s heart, and dream with God’s imagination, and see with God’s eyes and then say, “Here we are. Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.”

May it be so. Amen.

Shepherdstown

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The Holy In-between (An Ascension Sermon)

*Originally preached at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday, May 6, 2018*

Acts 1:1-11

1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning

1:2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

1:3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

1:4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;

1:5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

1:7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1:9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

—-

“When the thing that defines your world disappears, how do you find your way out of your old story and into a new one?”

A few months ago, a podcast called Invisibilia released a new episode entitled “I, I, I, Him” which explored the experiences of people who had endured the loss of a person or thing that was crucial to their understanding of who they were. One of the stories the episode tells is about the mother of host, Hanna Rosen, after Rosen’s father died unexpectedly from a brutal and brief illness.

Hanna shares that, in the wake of her father’s death, her mother was utterly undone. They had been married for 51 years. They did everything together – ate breakfast, went for walks through town, visited with their grandchildren. For Hanna’s mother, all of those ordinary, familiar life things had become unfamiliar in her husband’s absence. Performing them without him felt to her like a betrayal. In the midst of her deep well of grief and bewilderment, Hanna’s mother began speaking of a surprising plan. She wanted to jump out of an airplane.

Hanna explains to the podcast audience that her mother is decidedly not an adventurer or a risktaker. Never has been. Jumping out of a plane is so far off her mother’s personality radar, that it’s alarming. It almost seems like a death wish. Eventually, Hanna learns why her mother wants to jump. She explains that while she’s up there, a stone’s throw from Heaven, she hopes to catch a glimpse of her husband to tell him goodbye and that she will see him soon.

Hanna’s mother can’t stop thinking about ways to reconnect with her dead husband, even if only for a moment. She is consumed. She needs some way – some drastic way – to reckon with the ending she has experienced so she can move on to whatever comes next.

“When the thing that defines your world disappears, how do you find your way out of your old story and into a new one?”

This is the question Hanna Rosen offers up about her mom. But it could also be asked about the disciples on Ascension day.

Jesus is blessing his dearest friends and followers. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father (that is, the Holy Spirit who will come on Pentecost) and then (in the Luke account) tells them to go out into the world and proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations, to the ends of the earth.

And then, while he is still speaking, still blessing them, and offering guidance and farewells — he is lifted up into Heaven and disappears.

I imagine this moment vividly, like a scene in a movie. The camera is tight around Jesus and his ragtag and worn out group of friends, and the music swells to a grand crescendo as he raises up and disappears. And then we see close ups of the disciples’ weathered faces. Their expressions of grief, and awe, and wonder, and loss, and desperation as they keep looking up at where the man they love has gone away.

The scene continues past the expected several long, meaningful beats until it grows a little uncomfortable. In my imagination, the audience watching this on screen is growing restless … what comes next? And then, the camera slowly pans out. And there, standing just feet away from the dumbstruck disciples, are two random men in white who have evidently been watching them staring up at the sky for who knows how long. I picture the strangers with amused and exasperated expressions, as they finally speak, startling Jesus’ friends and followers from their reverie.

“Seriously,” they say. “He’s gone. Why are you still staring up at sky? He will come back like he told you, just like he went away like he told you. It’s no use gaping slack-jawed at the heavens until then. Move on.”

The thing that makes this story and scene a little awkward, is that it’s really two stories. Or at least, it’s the ending of one story, and then the waiting for the next story to begin.

We don’t actually talk much about the Ascension in our tradition. It’s stuck in between 2 Sundays in our liturgical calendar, and just a week and a half before Pentecost which we celebrate as the culmination of the Easter season and the true beginning of the church. For many of us, the of Ascension of Christ gets only a passing mention, perhaps as the secondary scripture or just a reference point in a Pentecost sermon.

And on the one hand, that seem seems a little strange given that it is literally the final moment of Jesus’ earthly life, he who is the center of our entire faith. For this reason, you would think it might be a bigger deal.

On the other hand, it’s not all that surprising that we overlook it. It is, essentially, the denouement of Jesus’ life story. We’ve had the rising action, the conflict, the climax, the falling action, and we’ve arrived at the point in the story that is meant to tie up loose ends, wrap up final details, and close the book. What begins in this final scene, is a murky, in-between, uncertain time that doesn’t fit squarely into any story at all.

With our biblical canon hindsight, we generally consider the next chapter as beginning with Pentecost. So there are 10 days to go. Here in this text’s final verses, the disciples — and we with them — find themselves in a sort of narrative no man’s land.

And of course, there’s the fact that the disciples don’t have the benefit of hindsight. They don’t have the luxury of a well constructed, time-tested New Testament that tells them what part of the story they’re in, or whatever comes next. They have the promise of something coming — a promise that, for all the proof and reassurance they’ve seen in Jesus in recent days — is still just an disembodied hope.

And then, they have this ending. This overwhelming ending. The loss of this person who defined their whole world. And it’s a loss further compounded and confused, no doubt, because it’s happened before. They have lost Jesus once already. They watched him die a gruesome death. They saw his body go limp, his eyes go dull. For three days they descended into the depths of their grief. And then, just when it seemed the story was over, he returned to them, alive. And here is he gone again, but promising another return.

They ask him when and are reminded, firmly, that the time of God’s kindom is not for them to know.

I find that I can’t really blame them for staring up into heaven — for perhaps allowing themselves to hope that if they stare up long enough, they’ll never have to lay eyes on a world devoid of him.

“When the thing that defines your world disappears, how do you find your way out of your old story and into a new one?”

“After” is a hard place to be. We are not good, generally speaking, at after.

It is the moments and hours and days after a funeral, when the rituals of grief give way to whatever undetermined thing is meant to follow. It is that strange, hollow, sadness when you’ve finished an absorbing book and aren’t yet ready to start a new one. It is that weird week between Christmas and New Years.

Our books and movies and stories define life and experience for us as something with a clear beginning, middle, and end. They don’t prepare us for what happens after the ending. Or between the ending and the next beginning. The part where there’s no clear narrative outline, no God-in-human-form walking a step ahead of us, calming storms, and commanding us clearly in the face of each new situation that arises.

It is a murky, lost time that the disciples find themselves in here at the end of this passage. And so it is no wonder that we rush right past it. Skirting the edges of its uncertainty in favor of the new narrative structure that Pentecost brings.

Except here is the truth: so much of life and faith happens in the “after,” the “before,” the “inbetween.” The already but not yet. In fact, we exist entirely in such a space. Some are fond of saying that we are an Easter people in a Good Friday world. But we’re not. We are an Easter people in a post-Ascension world.

We have witnessed Resurrection, but we still suffer and die. God has come to us and for us but many days we still feel godforsaken. Forgiveness has been declared, but so much is still so very broken. We have seen a great light, but things can still seem so dark.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. And Christ will come again. … But not yet. So now what?

I feel this so much in these days. Perhaps you do too.

I work for an organization called Sojourners. We are a Christian social justice advocacy org, and a magazine and website seeking to speak truth and offer Christian context to current events. Sojourners has been striving to embody the transformative grace of Christ — albeit in our imperfect human way — for nearly 50 years. It has seen more difficult seasons and struggles that my 31 year old self can fully understand. Everyday, we struggle to keep up the fight for justice even when so many days lately it seems like a lost cause. We struggle to stay motivated, hopeful, healthy.

My job is to care for our audience. To cultivate it, grow it, advocate for it, and minister to it. And so I pay attention to what matters to people. I listen. I read the news, I follow conversations on social media. This can a wonderful thing. It means having meaningful conversations and encounters with people whose lives have been touched by our work, who stand with us in the struggle. But it can also be really hard.

I read hate mail and angry comments and letters from people who feel hopeless and lost. I watch people tear one another apart, seek to decimate the God-image in others. I watch hate win over and over and over. And I feel so uncertain, some days, about what the right move is. About what comes next. And about what we and I should do.

I have caught myself, on more than one occasion, casting my eyes to the heavens as if to say to God: “could you just get back down here already and fix this mess?”

I get these disciples. But the angels, the strangers, the dudes in white — have a message for me and for them and for all of us.

Stop stargazing, and get about the work your God has given you. Jesus has told us that it is not for us to know when the kindom comes.

But Jesus has also told us what is for us. To wait and trust deeply in the promise of God. To be comforted, inspired, and compelled by the Holy Spirit. In a post-Ascension world, we are commissioned not simply to follow Christ. But to become his very body, his hands and feet in the world. And to go into the cities we come from and the towns we’ve never seen, in the land we call our own, and to every nook and cranny of this earth, right into the heart of brokenness and darkness and uncertainty and fear and to witness to the truth of who we know Christ to be: the embodiment of forgiveness, and love, and grace.

Here is how Hanna Rosen’s mother lives out her “after” — her “inbetween.”

She jumps out of the plane. She does, in fact, jump, and she drags a loving but terrified Hanna with her. By the time the fateful day arrives though, a shift has occurred in the grieving woman. One day, she wakes up and begins to think not of “I, I, I” — not of her own feelings and beliefs — but of “him” — of what her husband would want. She imagines how she would feel if their circumstances were reversed, and she realizes that she would want her husband to live and embrace life and to honor the best of them and of her. And she decides to do the same.

So she does jump. Not because she is desperate to hold on to her husband for as long as she can, to cling to another glimpse of him, if only for a moment. She jumps because, it turns out, long ago her husband had been a paratrooper in the army. It was the one part of his life that she did not share with him.

And now, with him gone, she is determined to embrace all that they shared and all that he was and to live it out. And so she is in the plane, high above the earth. Kissing heaven. And Hanna tells listeners that her mother’s face is so happy. And the instructors take it as evidence of how ready she is. But Hanna sees a religious kind of joy. Her mother is saying over and over and over again “I love you, I love you, I am doing this for you.” She is filled with love and life and the best of who her husband was, determined to descend from the heavens and bear it out into the world below. And so she steps to the edge of the open airplane door, to whatever comes next, to that unknown holy in-between, and — Hanna tells us — she does not look back.

May it be so, for us all. Amen.

 

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.

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