The Reign of Christ: let the Light shine through

REIGN OF CHRIST SUNDAY
November 25, 2018

A sermon for the people of God at
Bethesda United Church of Christ, Bethesda, MD

2 Samuel 23:1-7

It’s good to be back here, and to give Pastor Dee a week off. I truly enjoy worshipping with you. You might not know that I’ve had opportunity to be in worship with Valerie before… but it’s been a while. And it’s lifted my heart. Thanks, Valerie, and choir for your gift of music to us this morning!

If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’m a Buckeye fan transplanted in Maryland. And I’m sorry-not-sorry about the last two wins… I believe there’s some people who are Terrapin fans and some folks from Ann Arbor in your congregation. It’s deep in my Buckeye DNA to go a little crazed when OSU football is on. My family will testify!

Every team, whether they win or lose has a leader. The trainers, players, fans and coaches all look to the head coach. They cast blame on the head coach when things go badly. They allow for occasional flub ups when things are iffy. They celebrate when things go well. Players who make the game look easy are often called “naturals”. But “naturals” actually give hours to conditioning, practice, study and then fine tuning their skills. There is a tremendous price to be a leader, or a “natural” at anything – and it is important for those of us who are in leadership, or who aspire to be the leader in a sport or a corporate office, make sure that we NOT sacrifice who we are and who God made us to be. The temptation to “win at all costs” is huge.

Like the song Natural1 from Imagine Dragons says,
That’s the price you pay
Leave behind your heartache, cast away
Just another product of today
Rather be the hunter than the prey
And you’re standing on the edge, face up ’cause you’re a Natural…

God asks men and women who are called to be leaders in the Kingdom of God to be above that. To be persons of integrity, not opportunists or power mongers.

So let’s take some time to consider what God asks of us as we participate in the work of the Spirit.

Our text this morning is on a week between the season of Pentecost and Advent. A time for us to take a breath, liturgically speaking, and begin to look ahead to the prophets and the Gospel stories proclaiming the birth of Christ and the return of Christ.

Israel’s King: David

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from the Vanderbilt Divinity School Digital Library http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu

Our text centers of these words of David, in his last days, speaking from his experience as king over Israel. While David was called “a man after God’s own heart” by the prophet Samuel, we know he was a flawed human being.
• David was attacked by his enemies yet believed in God’s deliverance
• He was driven by his desires yet acknowledged his sins of adultery, murder and enmity within his own house.
• He was humbled by his failures and accepting of God’s judgement
• Despite all this – David was still trusting in God at the end of his life – believing in the “everlasting covenant” – a prophetic arrow in the future of the coming Messiah

David the human being engaged in a practice many have participated in over the years: giving words of blessing and reflection. There is a sense of completion to his reign and his awareness that it all came from God.

There is no self-aggrandizement. There is no legacy-building. There is a profound prophetic word from God through God’s servant David to God’s nation. We know from our study of the text at other times that David’s to-do list was not completed. God did not allow David to be the one to build the Temple. Though his motives were pure, the prophet Nathan told him that God would not allow him to build the Temple. God’s plan was for Solomon, David’s son, to build the Temple.

Humanly speaking, it must have been difficult.

Imagine your “dream job”, your “capstone project” that you have worked your entire life to complete. And just as you begin those final plans, God makes it clear to you, saying, “no, this will be the task of that young intern you’ve been mentoring.” I call these moments “holy no’s.”

I’ve had “holy no’s” in my life. They were almost soul-crushing. I would cry and whine and beg God for a different answer. And if I did not believe in God’s goodness and love for me, they would have led me to despair. It’s only now — looking back on those “no’s” that I can say “thank you.” God’s goodness and kindness shines through.

David’s response is one of faith. He may have asked God “why?” but—  then David  responded in praise and worship. He spent the rest of his rule trying to listen and follow God. Time after time, David failed. Time after time, he was chastised and restored in grace and relationship. David was God’s leader for that time.

What is God’s Leader really like? From our text, we hear God’s leader described as one who “rules in the fear of God.”

God’s Leader: In the fear of God

3b One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
4 is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

5a Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure. (2 Samuel 23, NRSV)

cropped-dsc_0453.jpg

In these lines of poetry, this portrays a leader who is known to be like the God she or he serves: God the just, the strong, the beautiful, the provider, the protector, the unchanging. The words in verse 4 suggest that this is a restorative leader, a shepherd of the sheep who leads them in these luscious, green pastures.

This is a leader who promotes justice for the people. Egypt was well-known in the collective memories of the Jewish people. They remembered life under Pharaoh.

This reminds me that, like many groups within our society, there is a deep-seated memory of racism and violence, of prejudice and anti-semitism. There are classes of people who have experienced inexcusable discrimination. A leader who promotes justice needs a long-term memory of the ways that humanity has failed in exercising power in the past.

A leader who has a heart for God is someone who has deep reverence, worship, and obedience. Again, the memories of the Jewish people would recall stories of what would happen when they were following God’s leaders. In the book of Exodus, the people of God saw the provision of God in manna – but only when they took just enough. They remembered what happened to their enemies. They saw the power of obedience, and the swift and certain judgment of the defiant.

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© 2012 National Science and Media Museum, Flickr | PD | via Wylio

We who live in a democracy, not a monarchy, may enjoy the pomp and circumstance of royal weddings and processions. If we travel to London, we stand in line and wait to watch “the changing of the guard” at Buckinham Palace. But there’s something about  authoritarian leaders that makes us squirm. It can take us out of our comfort zone.
• Because who “deserves” to lead?
• And if God’s leader is in place, what does God’s Kingdom really look like?

Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul writes about “The True Kingdom” on the Working Preacher blog:

The kingdoms of this world bank on sowing suspicion and authorizing autonomy. The kingdoms of this world depend on individualism and everyone for themselves alone. The kingdoms of this world insist that hierarchy will establish successful rule and that a ladder mentality, that keeps people in their proper places, is the mark of achieving and accomplishing leadership.

Not so with the Truth. For Jesus’ Kingdom chooses relationship. Jesus’ Kingdom chooses the perils and predicaments of flesh. Jesus’ Kingdom tells the truth about the Truth — that God so loved the world.

The truth is, we like clear and simple answers, really. We don’t like grey areas. We don’t like it when we think there’s a “fudge factor” that puts one person into a powerful position over another. This is especially true when we do not trust the person in leadership that has the power to pass judgment on us, to tell us when we are off track, not following Christ’s leadership. We don’t like having authority over us who is not trustworthy, who is dictatorial and uncaring.

Christ is not like an earthly ruler, of course. We know this. But in our humanness, we transfer our lack of trust and our skepticism. We forget that in the Reign of Christ, God’s Anointed will rule with justice and equity.

God’s Anointed: Christ Pantocrator

IconChristtheSaviorPantoKrator
Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

Who is God’s Anointed? In Eastern Orthodox and Catholic circles, one of the titles of Jesus is Christ Pantocrator. Two Greek words were put together to paint the word picture of the might, power and strength of Christ over all.

Pantocrator: pantos (“all”) + kratos (“might, strength, power”)
All-Powerful, Almighty, Ruler of All

To the Orthodox in particular, this image and expression of Christ is not unfamiliar. Iconography depicts Christ in this role of Ruler and Judge, of Christ’s humanity and deity. In the Orthodox icons, Christ is a large, centered, seated figure. The other persons or entities are smaller and limited to the corners of the art. Christ is pre-eminent. The face of Christ is the focal point.

Protestants morphed Christ Pantocrator into a more benevolent “Christ in Majesty” with a figure seated on some throne or dais, surrounded by depictions of the four Gospel writers, or saints and archangels. And as the centuries have wound along, the Church has strayed away from this idea of Christ the ruler, Christ the judge. We are more apt to speak of Christ as our Redeemer, or the Good Shepherd. And he is!  I think if you look at the art in church windows in a modern building, you won’t find depictions of Christ as Ruler over all.

Art reflects the culture… what does that say to us? hmmm…

Every time the theme of “The Reign of Christ” is observed in our liturgical calendar, we are faced with a serious question:
Who is Christ to us?
Like the first century Christ followers who faced political pressure, we have to ask ourselves Who is my ruler? Is it Caesar? Is it money? Is it passion? Is it power? Or is it Christ?

The Church is not outside the petty infighting, corruption and scandals that we see in the political realm. The Church has people who want power, who abuse, who bully, and who lie. The Church has people who misuse funds. The Church has people who are racist, ableist, sexist homophobes.

We have to own where we, personally and corporately, fail God and each other. We have to own where we have been polite and silent instead of joining our voices in protest and anger with those who have been disenfranchised. We have to march, pray, speak out and act in ways that demonstrate we know we are part of the problem.

In a few weeks, we will sing carols about the Advent and Birth of the Christ Child. The second verse of Joy to the World by Isaac Watts speaks of this longing for change and for our part in bringing the world closer to the Kingdom of God in our midst:

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy!

Where is the joy in a world of pollution and greed? It can be increasingly hard to see God at work. The clouds of darkness get in the way. I struggle. I question. I get mad (sometimes) that evil seems to be so strong and the Light of God is so weak.

Songwriter and cultural commentator Leonard Cohen said in his work, “Anthem”2 these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That’s how I cope. I look for that crack where the light gets in. Maybe it’s engaging in a creative act that lifts my Spirit. Maybe it’s hearing beautiful music. Maybe it’s doing something for someone less fortunate. Maybe, just maybe, I need to, in the words of poet Wendell Berry, I need to “…lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

Can we be the Light that breaks through the world’s darkness?
Can we bear Christ’s Light in our actions and our words?

Can we be
…like the light of morning,
…like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

Can we shine the Light of the Christ into our world?

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An early morning sunrise at the airport.

Please pray with me:

O Christ, Ruler over all, omnipotent and powerful, and lover of our souls, shine through us. Turn our hearts towards the grander purposes of Christ, of the Kingdom of our Lord, who reigns now and forever.
Amen


1 © 2018 KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records
2 “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, © 1992, licensed by SME (on behalf of Columbia Records); UBEM, CMRRA, SOLAR Music Rights Management, Sony ATV Publishing, and 9 Music Rights Societies

The night before I preach…

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My robe and (hopefully) the right color stole all ready to go.

…I have a million questions on what I’ve written (is it too long? is it too esoteric? is this what God wants me to say?)

…I realize I either have to do laundry or wear a barrel

…I can only find one of the shoes I want to wear

…I write my “panic list” (DON’T FORGET!!! across the top of a sticky-note)

…I find the right color stole (I think!)

…I spend far too much time on Instagram and Facebook

…I laugh at myself and go to bed.

God’s got this! CHILL!!

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God
Ephesians 1:3-14

A sermon offered to the people of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
July 15, 2018

It’s wonderful to be back here with you. The last time I subbed for Pastor Dee, many of you were on a bus headed to Baltimore for the General Synod meetings. I am delighted to be giving Dee some well-deserved rest, and I want to commend you on giving your pastor a lengthy time of renewal.

This morning, I want to wander with you in the first chapter of Ephesians. Now, as Biblical scholars love to do, there has been discussion and disagreement over the years as to whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians. Was it written by a scribe who took liberties with Paul’s dictation? Is it a restatement of Colossians? Is it from a student of Paul? Or is it from the latter period of Paul’s ministry, written for the struggles of the area surrounding Ephesus?

Honestly? I will let wiser heads than mine go argue about that. What is clear is that this book contains wisdom that the First Century Church needed. Its central message is of unity: one calling. One baptism. One household of faith. The earlier patriarchs decided that Ephesians was part of the written Canon and adopted it. Paul/or the author that only God knows wrote it. I think I’ll land there.

In just eleven verses, however, the writer unpacks some heavy-duty theology! He touches on predestination, creation, atonement and redemption: all those “churchy words” that would take a week to unpack and properly understand. The text declares our place in the Kin-dom of God as “God’s own people.” Oh… and just to make it “fun” for those of us who had to study Koine Greek, he does all that in one extremely long run-on sentence.

But I want to focus on these verses because it focuses on the “big picture” of the “kin-dom” of God. The “kin-dom.” Not the kingdom. You may have heard it before… But if you aren’t familiar with it… it is a word that describes the relational nature of God, the way that the Divine adopts, loves and relates to us. We are adopted Kin! This expression works for the central theme of unity, rather than a top-down, power-heavy structure in “kingdom.” Kin-dom has been in public discourse for many years, but appears earliest in the work of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and also the writing of Sister Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun.

A wise woman I know, Dr. Reta Halteman Finger, suggests that “The Kin-dom of God is a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar.”[1] Instead of a top-down, authoritarian government that humans like to set up, there is a sense of communal responsibility and commitment to one another. That’s the kindom! And Paul, teaching this radical re-ordering of government, just might have upset Caesar’s priorities!

Kindom fits this morning’s Epistle reading. Can you hear its familial nature in the first verses of greeting? This concept of unity and community? Paul spends a lot of time defining and declaring the whys and wherefores of our relationship with God. As I reflected on the text, I asked myself, “What was SO IMPORTANT that he wanted to build this painstaking theological foundation?”

That’s where I was drawn as I pondered the text. It would be easier to outline and define each of the big theological words and then go home… and maybe watch a little soccer. But I don’t think that’s the central message. It is, for me, summarized in Ephesians 1: 13-14.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13-14

All those conditions and definitions of our relationship with God are for the purpose of cementing in our adoption. Our inclusion in the family of God. Our place in the plan of God from the beginning of time. Not because of anything we do or are. Not because of where we grew up, or who are grandparents are, or where we went to church. But because of grace. We are loved because of grace.

These words applied to the members of a church in the region of Ephesus in the first Century. And they are true for us today. It is because we are chosen, because we are forgiven, because we are redeemed, because we are loved that we are all adopted into the family of God. We are God’s own people. We are all known and loved and covered by God’s grace. Gentiles? Welcomed into the kindom. Jews? No more privileged than the Gentiles. All are part of the beloved!

The problem is, we struggle with what being “the family of God” looks like, acts like, talks like, worships like, eat like, loves like, smells like, and serves like. We have opinions. Definite opinions! “That’s what Church should be!”

Even in a progressive, Christian community.
Even with people who want to be in a church!
Even with a congregation who has deep roots in love, fellowship and service.
Even in an area where we have county, state and federal officials with a progressive bend.

I don’t have to tell you that in our country, the divisiveness and incivility is at epic proportions. Not just on the internet. The highway road rage. The office shootings. The gun violence in schools. The rise in domestic violence. The “bully pulpit” of some politicians who seem bent on dividing any coalitions that threaten his or her own power, and suggest if you don’t do things their way, you’re not really a “Christian.” From County politics to Congress, there’s a whole lot of hating going on!

In all of these situations, grown up people forget what was drummed into their heads in elementary school. You remember some of those truths from the book by Robert Fulghum, All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.[2] You know… basic human decency? “Take turns. Say please and thank you. Clean up your own mess. Say that you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” And so on…

We forget we are all the same — flawed, forgiven humans. From the outside, we are so radically different. We are fractured by our individual needs and interests. We experience life from such radically different perspectives that it’s hard to have peace in a household, let along in a church. Yet Ephesians brings back to mind our mutual inheritance and redemption. As they say in the South, “we are kinfolk!”

How can we see and celebrate this family resemblance? This kin-dom?
First, by seeing that we are all brought in to this fold by God.

Not a one of us came up with the idea on our own. We were invited, enticed, engrained, enfolded into the fabric of the community by the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s job! We came into the family under difficult circumstances, or privileged ones. We were nurtured by Godself. We were known, loved and wanted before we knew we were known, loved, and wanted. We are a holy, blended family. Our identity is not because we know how we came into our spiritual heritage, but that we were, indeed adopted in. Just like there are many kinds of family (biological, blended, adopted, foster) there are many ways to come to a knowledge of God’s personal love for each one of us. And there is no “one correct way” to come into the family — just like there are many ways to create a human family! Our identity in God is exactly the same.

This should bring forward in us a sense of deep humility. In every way, we are each forgiven much, and blessed with much more. But far too often, it comes out as entitlement. It’s as if our little selfish inner selves are saying, ‘God always DID like me best!’ or churches say, “God likes the way WE worship best!”

I have to tell you that churches and even whole denominations have split over this entitlement. Congregations “bleed out” and die because there are power struggles and cliques! Common goals and dreams are set aside for personal wishes. But God invites us to lay our sense of “earned favor” and accept that it is unmerited, unearned, and unending. The grace of God.

What’s another way to demonstrate that family resemblance? Because it’s not just understanding that we are brought in on equal theological footing. It is to acknowledge that this kin-dom is not built on the expense or punishment or exclusion of others. 

To offer a more modern perspective, I’d like to return to the views of the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She proposes a view of the church and society that is based on Mujerista Liberation theology. She believes that life, in its fullest expression, results in the freeing of families and communities that are not oppressed by others. The Latina culture’s high value of family and community is a result of honoring and promoting the mutual hopes and dreams of everyone. This is the foundation for all societal and spiritual experience. This is how people thrive! She declares that this is multi-generational and in it there is room for all![3]

How many of us have had living situations where the mutual concerns and benefits of every member of the community were part of the decision-making process? Maybe it was your first apartment or rental house with friends from college. Maybe you lived in an intentional community, or were part of a dorm or rooming house where you shared in the rent, the rules and the chores.

Theoretically, this is the same way that the Church could be. I say, “could be” because we all know that there is a difference between being an “organization” and an “organism.” The Body of Christ is an “organism.” But the practical governing and life of the Church is most definitely an “organization.” We have committees and commissions, pastors and church councils. And sometimes we take our eyes off of our common ground, and we forget our family resemblance in our “organism” as the Body of Christ!

Humor me this morning… because I believe that one metaphor we can visualize is to think of ourselves… is a quilt!

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Quilt block from one of my grandmothers

We are stitched together. All of us unique parts are brought together with the whole design in mind. Each quilt, each local Body of believers, are unique and beautiful, and each part of the pattern repeats in a way that brings harmony, beauty, and warmth. The quilt is pieced in patterns of shapes and colors, (like this one, made with squares and diamonds, or like this quilt, made up entirely of hexagons.)

Creating quilts in my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ day created community. Women gathered around frames a “quilting bees.” Their shared efforts provided a piece of practical household furnishing. Quilts take what’s left of scarce resources and make something new.

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My grandmother’s quilt. 

There is an unproven legend that quilts pointed the way on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it’s true! As Anna Lopez, an education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan said to Time magazine, “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”[4] Maybe those quilts were used to guide people to freedom.

Quilts memorialize events or people. How many of you saw the NAMES Project, the quilt which remembers AIDS victims? Families and friends created a 3×6’ panel and they were stitched together into huge blocks. In 1995, the quilt covered the entire National Mall. Now it would blanket it many times over.

Perhaps when you think of a quilt as an image of the Body of Christ, you think of this lovely one made by my grandmother. And you think to yourself, “Yes! The Church! Decency, order, variety and diversity! Blended together by God and stitched together in unity and love!” God is that comforting presence, that warmth that welcomes us.

As the poem in our bulletin this morning suggests:
I think God is a quilter
Who takes His needle and thread
To piece our world from nothingness
And give it form instead.

Well… yes.
And no!

First, I think if God is a quilter, then God should be represented as a “She.” I think I have met one male quilter in my life… No offense to the anonymous writer on the internet. Just sayin… it should say she takes HER needle and thread…

I actually think the kin-dom of God is a little more wild and rambling and creative, and a little less controlled and boxed-in. I think the work of the Spirit is freeing, not confining. I think the actions of the Church are passionate and varied and beautiful. I think there are times for the kin-dom of God to be beautiful and decent and well-ordered enough to make any introvert happy.

And then… the Bapticostal side of me says… No… the Holy Spirit is a crazy quilt!

 

crazyqlt
Created by my great-grandmother.

Here’s the real picture of each of us being grafted in, adopted, changed and molded into a whole. Here there are threadbare places and misshapen pieces. There is imperfection! There is chaos. Wildness. There is random order. It is unified, but unique. They are all stitched together in this crazy quilt called a “church.” Apart by ourselves, there is no sense. Put together, it is a beautiful thing. It is a legacy, a promise, a dream of what is to come. It’s a dream of God might do, if we could get along. Like the “hope chests” of old, there is the possibility of what is “not yet.”

The Body of Christ, the kin-dom of God that is represented by this crazy quilt, is a church that knows there is hard work ahead. Its a church that says, I will do everything I can in this process of loving and caring for one another and our world will take everything we have. It will only be as successful as our least-attached piece, as our least committed member.

In the writing of Ephesians, Paul (or pseudo-Paul), was attempting to bring unity to a deeply divided people. A people who had other gods and religions practicing right on their doorstep. A culture which denied women the rights of full citizenship, and allowed slavery. (And even told slaves how they should act!) Ephesus, though a modern seaport in its day, was not so good at showing love and compassion to one another. The writer’s words were full of encouragement, of unity, of love, and of understanding.

And in these words, may we see and know for ourselves that we are each a piece of God’s divine plan in the world. We are each chosen, beloved, adopted and blessed. We are each stitched into the kin-dom of God. May our lives be a response to God who loves us, and may we together bring the praise of God’s glory.

Thanks be to God!

Gracious God,

We who are comfortable, forget those who feel discomfort. We who are healed, forget those who are wounded.  We who need you, forget that your Holy Spirit would change us and mold us and meld us and loves us in ways that we cannot even fathom. May the words that have been spoken be like arrows to our hearts, for you are a Great God who can do all things… in Christ, we pray. Amen.

 


[1]From Kingdom to Kin-dom and Beyond. Christian Feminism Today, https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/Accessed 6/29/2018.

[2]Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.

[3]Chapter 9, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (p 171-190). Valentín, Benjamín. In our own voices: Latino/a renditions of theology.Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, © 2010. Accessed: June 29, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.31279.0001.001.

[4]Stacie Stukin (2007-04-03). “Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”TIME. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1606271,00.html  Retrieved June 27, 2018.

Blog Tour: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

It’s hard to believe, but almost ten years ago, I began a journey towards becoming a pastor. At that time, I had only met a handful of women pastors, and NONE of them were in my denomination.  I learned from them, laughed with them, cried with them… And they challenged ME to consider becoming a pastor too.

I was a little surprised. Pastors are wise. They have mumbo-jumbo-big-words Bible knowledge. They prepare all those sermons with Greek and Hebrew and quote commentaries. They handle public speaking, difficult questions, and emotional life events. They didn’t get vomit-inducing stage fright. (Guess who did?)

I called myself “a worker bee.” Though I avoided ministry areas like teaching children’s Sunday School, I had served on worship teams, sang in choirs, planned large events, organized service projects, created devotional guides, and organized small group Bible studies. I was busy serving God and I loved it. There were no women pastors in my church. There were “directors” and “leaders” who were female. But no “pastor” titles for what I thought were clear, God-given reasons.

And then the Holy Spirit got a hold of me. And She nagged. Reminded. Shoved possibilities under my nose. Made me laugh, cry, and worry that I was “doing it for myself.” Alienated me from friends and their families because I was “going outside of God’s will” for my life. pheeto

Still I pressed on. I cared for my family and household, kept writing and serving. And kept blogging. I finally did an internet search for “women in ministry” and “women pastors.” And I stumbled onto a blog ring in its infancy, RevGalBlogPals. There was humor, heartbreak, support and a huge welcome. I started as a “blog pal,” and slowly but surely made my way a few years later to “Revgal.”

In the early stages of my blogging, I was moderately anonymous, as were most of the Revgals. Slowly, as my pastoral identity took shape, so did my public identity as a blogger. I began to meet people who said, “Oh! I read your blog!” (And yes, I did wonder why… but I did as my parents taught me and said, “oh, thank you!”)

Last week our RevGal book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpitwas released. After a busy Sunday, I stopped for a pedicure (a self-care practice I learned from my RevGal compatriots) and started reading. Faces that I had “met” on Facebook came alive with their stories, reflections, prayers and humor. I felt again a surge of thankfulness for their authenticity and vulnerability.

The book is a collection of vignettes around the common themes of ministry: calling, sacraments, death and dying, church administration, families, and life in the “real world.” More than once a lump rose in my throat and I brushed away tears. I chuckled and commiserated. These are my sisters-of-a-different-mother. I am so grateful that their words are published for you to read, too.

We are so very different. We serve in small churches, large ones, in church administration, in hospitals and hospices. We are robed and non-robed, liturgical and free worship, lectionary preachers and topical preachers. We are a collective voice that reaches far beyond what we know. We inspire one another. We challenge each other. We bring a prophetic voice to the conversations around race, politics, class and gender identity.

As our public identity grows, so does our clout. The book reminded me again that our visibility in the world, beyond the church, in the marketplace, homes and hospitals, means that “pastor” and “preacher” are no longer a male-only words. We are role models, and perhaps we are just beginning to realize how that makes a difference for our children.

Last weekend, I officiated at a funeral for one of my hospice patients. The small gathering, just a  few dozen, shared stories and came together around a sweet, sad memorial service. There were several children present, and their noise really didn’t bother me. I reassured each parent that not only was it OK that they were there, but that their presence reminded us of the legacy we leave. We metoodemonstrated to them how we support one another in times of celebration and times of grief.

At the end of the service, one of the girls ran up to me and gave me a hug. She beamed at me and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a preacher, too!” With her mother’s permission, we did a quick selfie, and I felt the warmth of God’s approval flowing gently around my shoulders.

This future preacher reminded me that it is our presence, as women, as pastors, as role models, that contributes to the sea change towards women in leadership. As I grow in wisdom and understanding, may I never forget… I stand on the shoulders of women who blazed the trail ahead of me. And I help define the path for future women in ministry to serve, God willing.

Disclaimer: I have written one of the essays in this book and received a free copy as my compensation from being a contributor. Otherwise, I receive no financial reimbursement for my efforts.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor. Edited by Rev. Martha Spong. Foreword by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt. ISBN 978-1-59473-588-2 Available on-line from Skylight Paths or via the RevGalBlogPals page.

This is where the healing begins…

My sermons never go exactly as written… but here’s what I wrote (and I think came close to preaching). It’s all God’s anyway. 🙂

THiS is where the healing begins
John 5:1-18

given to New Leaf Church in College Park, MD

In my line of work, I see what can happen in a person’s life – or a family dynamic — when there is serious illness. When I walk into the trauma room as the chaplain on duty, I am going to be with someone who is having one of their very worst days. Ever.

  • It could be that they are victims of the insurance industry bureaucracy, so they did not keep up with preventive health care, and might have avoided what they are going through.
  • It could be difficulty with getting an accurate diagnosis or a finding a good medical practitioner who is on their health plan.
  • It could be that they made poor lifestyle choices
  • It could be they inherited bad genes that resulted in a predisposition to cancer.
  • And sometimes, it is just a perfect storm of all of the above.

It makes you stop and wonder. And ask questions. Questions I’ve asked – maybe you have too…

  • Why IS there illness and disease?
  • Why does it happen to GOOD people?
  • Why doesn’t God heal all the time?
  • What does it mean to be “healed” anyway?

In matters of faith, I can’t provide all the answers. But there are things we can find in the Scriptures to consider together. We may not be able to get a 25-point plan for health care from the Bible, but I think we can hear God’s heart, and see what that might mean for our lives.

So let’s look at John 5…

Background:

This story probably took place during the Feast of Booths  or Tabernacles (Sukkot) – established by God in Leviticus 23. It’s suggested that the Feast of Booths had three purposes:

  • to celebrate God’s faithfulness in the present harvest time
  • to remember God’s deliverance of the Jews from captivity in Egypt, and
  • to then give out of their abundance to the needy around them.

As an observant Jew, Jesus was in Jerusalem for this feast, and he was in the area of the pool of Bethesda by the Sheep Gate of the wall of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The Pool at Bethesda

Bethesda in Hebrew would be Beth Hesda – it means “God’s Mercy” or “God’s Grace”– and had come to be known as the place where healing comes by the mercy of God. A nice word picture of the hopes of these desperate pilgrims!

There was a Jewish custom that when an angel stirred the waters, that the first person in the pool would be healed. Of course, if you were really infirm, you could not get in the water first. So many had servants or relatives with them who would help them into the pool.

Archeological digs have confirmed the presence of this pool with the 5 porches (actually columns) outside the Temple. But they are not sure if there was some kind of underground spring that fed the pool with ebbs and flows in the current, or another explanation for the water being “stirred.” It  doesn’t really matter, of course. That’s not the point of the story.

This story is one in a series of miracles that Jesus performs right under the nose of the Jewish leaders (the Scribes and Pharisees). Unlike his many miracles in the countryside, or in private homes, this one is literally on the doorstep of the seat of Jewish authority. It is early in Jesus’ ministry (at least in terms of John’s chronology). And it occurs after Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, and after he heals in Cana – a Roman official’s son who was dying. The word was getting around. John carefully records for us in his Gospel that Jesus cared about the needs of everyone he met – A Samaritan! A Woman! A Gentile! And in this healing event, a Jew.

The Healing Event

It’s important to remember that a devout Jew, one who wished to worship in the Temple, would do their best to avoid the sick. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel? The priest and the Levite were on their way to Jerusalem and they carefully avoided helping the injured man. They did not want to become unclean.

Jesus chose to walk through this area where the outcasts would be lying. He probably came into the Temple area through the Sheep Gate – a gate that is believed to be on the east wall of old Jerusalem, where the herders could drive their sheep and goats right through the gate and into the Temple.  Imagine this… the Lamb of God walking into the Temple Grounds where the sacrifices entered the Temple. Ponder that for a moment…

It was not a place where scribes and Pharisees would be hanging out. It might have been a strategic entry for Jesus to enter the Temple in a more covert way. But the point is – he chose to walk among the outcasts.

Outcasts – who were not even allowed into the Court of the Gentiles.
Outcasts – who could not offer sacrifices.
Outcasts, who in some cases were isolated from their families because of their “unclean” condition.

According to the writings of Josephus, a Roman historian, the areas surrounding the pools were crowded. It probably was smelly, loud and full of disease. The animals driven through this area probably left a lot of dung behind. It was noisy, smelly and chaotic. Picture the worst photos you’ve ever seen of a village clinic in a remote part of the world – add the sounds and smells of suffering – very few of us would choose to walk in there.

The person Jesus helped is reported to have been disabled all of his life. In 1st Century reality, to have lived for 38 years as an invalid probably with some form of paralysis, you would be close to your life span. You would be well-known. You would have been a beggar. You wouldn’t have been able to run a business or learn a trade. You wouldn’t get married, SOooo you probably didn’t have children to care for you in your old age, the Jewish version of Social Security. And so this hopeless condition was where the man found himself.

In verse 6 Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The man responds that (essentially) he “can’t” be healed because he has no one to help him get into the water first.
So Jesus tells him to “just do it” (that’s a rough translation) and the man gets up and walks!

I wonder… Was he startled into it? Into standing up, picking up his mat, and walking? Like he hadn’t wanted to do that before? Or even TRIED to do that before?

And yet he did. He carried his mat and was seen by the Jewish authorities. He was roundly scolded for “working” on the Sabbath. He defended himself – “the man who healed me” told me to! But he couldn’t identify who healed him.

Then in verse 14 Jesus meets the man in the temple and tells him to sin no more. Jesus challenges him to live a new, healed, changed life, to live as though he had never been afflicted. Instead of reminding the man to fulfill his purification requirements, Jesus instead directs him to live a changed life. Focus FORWARD.

When the Jewish authorities discovered it was Jesus, they were ticked. This rabbi from Galilee told someone to WORK on the Sabbath. What was he thinking? They began to harass Jesus. The persecution and plotting to kill Jesus began to escalate.  He flouted the rules of the Midrash. He told a man to WORK on the Sabbath. He HEALED on the Sabbath. He was among the UNCLEAN and then entered the temple. And then – he claimed he was equal with God. He walked in a position of authority. They were not happy.

Besides ignoring some points in the midrash, the common interpretation of their religious practices, Jesus was up against a mindset that had some serious prejudice against those who were ill. To be sick meant that you had surely sinned. To be an invalid for so many years – to be born that way – your parents had sinned. They religious leaders were focusing on the minor details of obedience. They were making theological mountains out of molehills.

Remember that Beth Hesda meant “God’s Grace”? To the Jewish religious authorities, the pool of Bethesda was a place of DISgrace. In fact — a bit of trivia – the word in Aramaic means “house of disgrace”  or “shame.”

Illness was viewed as a disgrace

In the Old Testament – disease, illness seen as a form of punishment, of disobedience against God. It was part of the Law:

Deuteronomy 28:

58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting.

…and it goes on to explain that they will not only die from their disease, they will lose the Land that God promised them.

Ouch.

In some respects, then, illness could have come from disobedience – the laws of health/purity/food prep were in part a way of protecting the Jews from disease. The dietary laws helped keep them healthy during their wilderness wanderings. Pre-germ-theory, it’s about the best they could understand about disease.

But in addition,

Illness was seen as a judgment

David and Bathsheba’s first son died when he was 7 days old. Nathan the prophet told him that it was because he had disobeyed God.

Solomon urged the people to follow God wholeheartedly so that they would not go through famine or pestilence or drought or be besieged by their enemies — to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration instead of being belligerent and rebellious.

Later in the stories of the Kings of Israel, God shows judgment by causing the wicked kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” to become ill and die.

So there was this institutional memory among the Jewish people that God punished by causing illness and death. Understandable. It clearly influenced the Jewish people in the time of Christ, too.

Remember the story from John 9 where the disciples asked… Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind? (It was a fair question! It’s one that we ask isn’t it? “WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?”)
Jesus said, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him…”

Christ saw illness as an opportunity

  • to show God’s power and to show his positional relationship of authority with God
  • to show he was doing God’s work
  • and ultimately, on the cross, to defeat sickness and death once and for all. (I don’t know about you, but I long for that day when suffering and sorrow will flee away and “everlasting joy” shall be ours.)

To our western minds, we can understand that Healing can be physical, spiritual, relational or all three

We know that God is Jehovah Rapha – the one who heals Ps 103:3

  • To make us whole
  • To bring restoration
  • To bring wholeness/peace within (shalom)
  • To meet your needs – your deepest needs — The biggest need we have is a sense that our physical bodies, our physical needs are not the important part of us. On some deep, personal metaphysical level, we know we need God.
  • To join in community together – if you are united in prayer about a grave concern, many other small, petty things fall by the wayside.
  • To increase awareness of the pain around us — Everyone has hurts. Everyone faces loss. Everyone struggles with physical pain. Even the politician from that other party will die and his devastated family will need comforting.

In my work there are times that I have had to extend comfort and compassion to patients or their families, and I confess I struggled to feel compassionate towards them…

  • the bereaved family of a diplomat who was from a country that I know represses women (By extending compassion to his widow, was I accepting their culture? No – I was representing the Christ I worship, who brings people together, who speaks peace.)
  • the heroin addict who did not quite die of an overdose and her broken-hearted parents watched her paraplegic body waste away over the years (By comforting them, was I condoning her drug habit? No – I was empathizing with a parent’s pain and loss.)
  • the young staff member who comes into work with a hangover and feels terrible (When I listened to her complaints, I then had an opportunity to be trusted, and now I am someone she will turn to for accountability and encouragement.)

Christ calls me – calls you – to stop judging and see the human needs around us, and as best we can, to offer our assistance, or at the very least, our prayers!

One of the difficulties with the whole issue of disease and wellness is that there is a huge disparity between the HAVES and HAVE NOTS. I’m not talking about the 1% or even the 47%.

I’m talking about basic health insurance – for people who work less than a full-time job, who work under a contract, or who are part of a small business –  basic health insurance is unreachable. Realistically, you and I can’t meet all of these needs. But what is a Christian’s response to the needs around us? What is just? What is right?

I confess that I can get a little angry at the bureaucracy and politics which surround providing for the needy around us. I don’t want to wander too far from the text 🙂 but I think it is important that, as people who name the Name of Christ, we pass over politics and consider the human quotient here. The opportunities to respond with a Christ-like attitude are endless.

We can follow the clear example of Christ

  • See who we CAN help
  • Ascertain if they WANT help
  • Help network to get the resources or the means to make it happen
  • Pass the credit to God
  • Expect criticism, misunderstandings and perhaps unwillingness to be healed (after all – the man at the pool could have said, “no thanks, I’ll just sit here and let the world come to ME.”)

I noticed on your church website that you are partnering with CASA and CUCEThese are simple, personal ways to make a difference. (By the way, you might also consider looking into sites like Manna Food or the Maryland Food Bank, helping them process donations of produce or other items for their shelves.)

Yes, these are “just” conversations. Working on a common tasks. Pooling resources, money and personnel. Offering a welcoming presence. These small things accumulate – and they make a difference.

Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

And she also said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

You and I cannot heal every person we meet who has cancer, or arthritis, or diabetes. We can’t remove every addiction, or bring about restoration to broken relationships. We can act – in small ways – to show the compassionate, personal love of Christ. We can speak to that deep human need to love and be loved. We can show acceptance.

I commend you for where you have been faithful… and for where God would lead you next to care for the hurting around you.

Remember – All Jesus asked the paralyzed man was to get up, pick up his mat and walk. So Go – Carry on. And do your small things with great love.

Start where you are… let the healing begin. 

Let us pray…

NO Alligators Allowed in the Pool!

I’m kind of done with the election rhetoric. Of my party. Of the other party. Of the parties of the second part and the third part. Of parties, talking heads, editorials, commercials, PACs and committees. Enough.

It’s easy enough to say that “you don’t have to go there.” But that assumes that everyone can read the sign.

It’s really NOT that obvious.

Sometimes when the “hot button” issues are being tossed about in an election cycle, it’s hard not to want to dive into the arguments. So much muck, so little time.

Then, when the elections are over, we’re back to the same tired arguments of theology. It’s not easy, but you can thoughtfully and graciously articulate your position, while remaining considerate of the opinions of others. I appreciated that in a couple of blogs that I read this afternoon.

First, Kurt offers a guest post by his friend Alan Molineaux, who discusses the conundrums of “discussing” anything related to complementarianism and egalitarianism. (Note: if this isn’t something that interests you, please feel free to move along and watch an NFL game or something.) 🙂

From there, I found Caroyln’s blog where she shared an excerpt from Dr. Roy Ciampa, Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, on his recent article “Ideological Changes for Bible Translators”. The full text of his discussion is here.

After some of the recent comments by Dr. Dobson and others, I am encouraged. I am encouraged when I read the thoughts of well-read, thoughtful people. I am encouraged when there can be dialogue and we don’t automatically assume that one of us is “not a Christian” because we have different hermeneutics.

I am encouraged because it does not depend on me, but on the work of the Spirit to bring the same edges of the conversation together for a cohesive whole.

Beatitudes… A fresh perspective

Last week I had the opportunity to preach at our home church, Church in Bethesda. I hadn’t preached since Christmas Eve/Day last year. I was grateful for the opportunity… but wondered how it would go since I was feeling a little rusty.

I shouldn’t have worried… It went well – in fact, my Beloved Bearded Spouse said that it was the best he’d heard me preach. Ever.

If you’d like, you can listen to the recording here, mumbles, bumbles and all.

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I used a quote from Henry Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. It actually showed up in my email early in the week and resonated deeply with me as I studied this passage.

Our brokenness reveals something about who we are. Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something unique about me. The way you are broken tells me something unique about you. That is the reason for my feeling very privileged when you freely share some of your deep pain with me, and that is why it is an expression of my trust in you when I disclose to you something of my vulnerable side. Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique.

Nouwen beautifully illustrated, for me anyway, the ways that imperfect, struggling, sometimes selfish or stubborn believers come together and form The Church. In my sermon, I referenced the beautiful stained glass windows in our sanctuary. The individual pieces of glass by themselves are unremarkable. But when they are placed together by a Master, the finished designs speak more than the individual pieces combined. They take on a life of their own.

These are a couple of the windows in our church sanctuary…

During Communion, as people came forward to receive the Bread and Cup, I invited them to leave their brokenness at the altar. Large vases with water, brightly colored rocks and glass on the bottom, were placed at various places around the front. And the result was a mosaic of our brokenness, transformed into something new, and fresh, and totally God.

This was one of the tables before the service started…

I had my kaleidoscopes out on the prayer stations as well. I used them as an illustration of how, despite our brokenness, we can bring creativity, beauty and inspiration to the world around us — despite the constant tumble and change of our world. (You’ll have to use your imagination. I don’t have photos of the images from my kaleidoscopes!)

I did the math. This was my 24th sermon. Ever. So I’m still a rookie with a lot to learn.

Thanks be to God.