Tired and Mossy

Just in front of my parking space yesterday was this mossy trunk of a stately oak tree. The grass wasn’t sprouting yet. The branches were bare, and last year’s leaves blew around on the ground beneath her. No sign of spring anywhere…

I had a moment of familiarity. The cold, dark, and windy days we’re having, one after the other, are getting to me. I don’t mind the cold so much. It’s that grey and gloomy sky that seems to be stuck behind a blanket of clouds forever. I’m feeling tired and mossy. It’s true.

Ok, Ok. That’s a bit melodramatic. But that’s March in the MidAtlantic. The weather flip-flops between cold and grey, and has just enough peeks of sunshine to remind us that winter will, eventually, go away. But what seems to predominate are the gloomy, rainy, sleety days. It’s… tiresome.

I drove around, a little grumpy, a lot discouraged. I had received news lately (for myself and people I care about) which have not exactly been something to celebrate. Then there’s the general muck-and-mudslinging of our political mess here in the US. It was all getting to me.

At just the right moment, God seemed to weigh in, just to remind me that I was not traveling alone. I spotted these beauties later in the day while waiting at a stoplight. (It’s a little off-kilter, but I only had one shot before the light turned green!)

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Just a bit of color. A patchy blue sky. A reminder that, yes, I can get through this day/season/struggle. And you can, too.

Yes, you will go out with celebration,
    and you will be brought back in peace.
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
    all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12 Common English Bible

 

Who’s Calling? A sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

Offered to the people of God at Bethesda United Church of Christ

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
 (Psalm 19:14 ESV)

Thank you, my new friends, for the warm welcome to your church and your pulpit. I have enjoyed my friendship with Pastor Dee and other women ministers in the area, as part of the group called RevGalBlogPals. We found each other through the magic of the internet. The six of us in our small ministerial group meet about once a month. We laugh, talk, cry and pray about ministry and about our lives. I’m honored to preach here today for your pastor and my friend.

I did not mention in my bio that I was a member at one point in a United Church of Christ congregation. During my high school and college years, my family attended First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, the church of Washington Gladden, Boynton Merrill, and Chalmers Coe. Being in a UCC congregation is very much like coming home! I say this to reassure you… I may be a crazy Baptist preacher, but I honor my UCC roots!

As you read from my bio, my primary ministry is that of a chaplain. When I worked at a trauma center, it was not uncommon to get that middle-of-the-night phone call. In a groggy, sleep-deprived state, I jumped out of bed, put on my shoes and headed for whatever emergency I was called to… But before I responded in person I needed to know Who’s Calling – and get straight in my mind what I was walking into.

Today’s text in Genesis 22 is one of those texts with a wake-up call in it. For if we do not remember the nature and intention of Abraham’s God, we can easily go careening off into the wrong direction. We can also do this text a grand disservice and take it as a simple conversation. Perhaps we might join philosopher Immanuel Kant in the depths of his cynicism. But this text can point us back to the Imago Dei, if we are paying attention.

After all, it is a hard story to hear, isn’t it? As if Genesis chapter 21 wasn’t bad enough – the story of Sarah and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael… of jealousy and banishment… and of God’s protection and provision. If we read this story with ears of disbelief, we might respond much like the Abraham immortalized in another of Bob Dylan’s songs, “Highway 61.” You may be old enough to remember it:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”[1]

I invite you to ponder Genesis 22 with me as we try to find the threads of grace and justice and hope and peace that we believe ARE the hallmarks of the Divine’s work in the world. In a broken, twisted, confusing world like ours, there are many around us who do NOT see that God is there.

My imperfect take on this text is simply this: as you read these words, never ever let the Covenant God of the Patriarchs out of your sight. Read these words through the filter of a relational God, not an impartial, angry God. We will indeed struggle if we forget this story in its context. The context is one of a covenant relationship. And it is a covenant relationship that will go through a severe test of faith (for Abraham).

Who’s Calling?

A Covenant God. A just God. A God who asked Abraham to leave everything he knew to go off into a new land, with a wife who has yet to bear children, to begin a great nation.

Who’s Calling?

A Covenant God. A God who keeps promises. A God who tells Abraham to walk for 3 days and then kill his son as a sacrifice. Our minds boggle. WAIT… Hold on now… Binding up a human being for sacrifice? Where is this relational God now?

The binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, is found in the Sacred texts for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The text weaves in faith and despair. Hope and disbelief. Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling takes chapters and chapters to untangle the philosophical questions in this story. Never fear – I will not read the entire book to you! (But, should you wish to wrestle with this personally… there is your assignment!)

The relationship and love of a father for his son is emphasized in the construction of the very words of our text. In true ancient storytelling fashion, the repetitive words make it clear that this son, this Isaac is precious and beloved.

From our text in v. 3: Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…
Yes. His only legitimate son and heir. That one.

and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…
…and Abraham is given this horrible task…

The classic Jewish midrash by Rashi suggests God made this as a request to see if Abraham would really obey and follow him, only to then reward him.

The Holy One, blessed be He, makes the righteous wonder (or wait), and only afterwards discloses to them [His intentions], and all this is in order to increase their reward.[2]

Was this just a “test”? Was this a challenge to expand Abraham’s faith or just the beginning of the tale of God’s faithfulness?

When God promised Abram his descendants would outnumber the stars in Genesis 12, did Abram know how it would happen? He had no children, no land other than the space he pitched his tent! He did not yet know how God would do all these things but believed. We read in Genesis 15 and later in Romans that God “credited it to him as righteousness”. Against all the odds of the improbable, Abraham believed.

The Apostle Paul reminded us of this in Romans 4:18-22

18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

And isn’t that what we are called to in a time of improbable politics and conflict? We are called to believe that though it seems unlikely, God is at work… in and through and in spite of us!

On some level, Abraham had faith that God would do something even though he thought he was to sacrifice Isaac. In his own words in Genesis 22: 5, Abraham says…

Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.

…WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.

Was it a prophetic statement or a quiet and desperate prayer by Abraham?  “WE will come back?”

I would suggest to you that Abraham may have been uncertain HOW God would bring offspring… with no son… or how Isaac would return with him, alive, but he believed that El Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One would do it! Based on all Abraham knew of God’s work in the past, he had faith.

Rev. Jacqueline Lewis says: “Faith in God means remembering deliverance in the past and expecting deliverance in times to come.”[3]

Remembering deliverance… expecting deliverance… I suggest to you that THIS is the narrow way through to understanding and living with this text.

Two other characters in this story deserve a moment of our reflection.

SARAH

First, Sarah.

Other than knowing the backstory, that she is Isaac’s mother, she is absent from this narrative. It’s not surprising. Women in the time of the patriarchs did not offer sacrifices nor lead worship, so they would not have made this kind of journey. They supervised households, had babies, made clothing, cooked meals, tended flocks and crops, and fetched water.

Sarah’s real worth in her culture’s eyes was measured by how many sons she birthed. She believed her barrenness was from God. In Genesis 12, she said that God had “prevented” her from having children, and in order to see that promised sea of descendants appear, she suggested Abraham have children by her slave, Hagar. She saw no other option.

How do we view Sarah? Do we see her as a schemer? Someone trying to keep her position as Abraham’s first wife?

Or do we see her through the lens of a woman who knows she is only chattel? Someone who not only could be replaced, but has no other recourse? Someone who only has an outside chance that things might go her way… but just in case… she pegs in her own position in the sand.

When we force people to the margins in society, whether by virtue of race or economic status, why are we then taken aback by their desperate measures? Rather than long-range planning, Sarah found a short-range solution. It’s a strategy that many of us have fallen prey to, if we are honest… Fear that I won’t get what’s “mine” or I will lose what little security I have.

Women of today are all Daughters of Sarah… If we from our place of privilege can find compassion for Sarah’s plight, can we then transfer that compassion to “the Hagars” in our lives? The people who have been intentionally shoved into exile? The ones who do not have favored status? The ones who are aliens…?

So, Church, how might we respond today to the marginalized and ignored…?

THE RAM

The other character I’d ask you to consider is the ram, who is, as the poet Yehuda Amichai said, “the true hero of the Akedah”  [Ah-KAY-dah]. Listen to the first part of his poem:

The True Hero of the Akedah
Yehuda Amichai  translated by Chavatzelet Herzliya[4]

The true hero of the Akedah was the ram
Who did not know about the pact among the others.
It was as if he volunteered to die in place of Isaac.
I want to sing, for him, a memorial song,
About the curly wool and the mortal eyes
About the horns that stood silent on its living head.
After the slaughter, they were made into shofars
To sound the blast of their wars
And to sound the blast of their celebrations….

The ram caught in the branches may have been reaching to eat the last tender shoots of a limb. Picture the deer in your neighborhood, straining to get the new, freshest buds off the top of your azaleas. Or the cow reaching through the fence to find the greenest grass.

Perhaps the ram was struggling for survival in a part of the world where green things and water are scarce. One could imagine the ram losing its footing and its horns becoming enmeshed in the branches. It could not get away… and it was there. Stuck. Waiting. A Divine appointment. To be sacrificed would be a merciful end rather than a long, slow death by thirst and starvation.

Could this happen naturally? Yes!  It did, as suggested by art found in “The Great Death Pit” from an archeological dig in the 1920s led by Leonard Woolley. (See pictures here at the Penn Museum website.) Some of the sculptures had a stylized animal, either a goat or a ram, caught in the branches of a small tree or bush. They were dated to be around 2100 BCE, the approximate time it is suggested Abraham lived.

The ram is also significant because it reminds us that the ancient peoples did not always use animals as sacrifices. The scarcity of resources, or fear of survival, led them to sacrifice children to the gods, like Amar-utu the Akkadian god of the desert sun.

Abraham was called out of this practice to worship the One True God. In this transition of a people group from old beliefs to new, he saw the ram as a reminder from God: I will provide for you.

Rev. Kathryn M Schifferdecker from Luther Seminary[5] says “the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac becomes the foundational act for all the Temple sacrifices that follow”

With our modern-day eyes, we can make the connection between God providing the ram, with God making a way for us, for our faith to declare us as righteous. We know Christ, the Mediator between the human and the Divine.

From your earlier years, you may remember these words from the Heidelberg Cathechism:

And who is this mediator—true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous?
Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who was given us
to set us completely free
and to make us right with God.

How do you come to know this?
The holy gospel tells me.
God himself began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise;
later, he proclaimed it
by the holy patriarchs and prophets,
and portrayed it
by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law;
finally, he fulfilled it
through his own dear Son.

Abraham moves in this uneasy space of the old (human sacrifice) and the new (the ram). The ram brings a pause in the downward arc of the knife:

Abraham, Abraham!
Whom do you serve? (You gotta serve somebody!)

Abraham, Abraham!
Look up and see what God is doing! What God has already DONE.

We are all bound and unbound from challenges, illness, even death by the Creator God who made us. Even those we love the most. We bring heart-felt requests to God, believing, as Anne Lamott says, “someone hears us when we speak in silence.”

We must ask ourselves when we feel stuck:
“Who’s Calling?”
Whom do we serve?
Do we SEE God?
Do we HEAR God?
Do we respond with understanding?

Can we sit with the tension of this text?
Can we feel the agony of an impossible decision?
Can we spare compassion for our neighbor who does not have enough money for rent AND food AND utilities AND medicine AND clothing?

Can we see this story from our places of brokenness?
Can we remember we only see one side to a story?
Do we forget there is a place for God to speak into our lives and change us?
Are we listening and responding to God’s Call?

Are we finally waking up from a deep sleep, grabbing the phone in our sleep-fuzzed states?
Are we even move-able? Or are we, as Anne Lamott says, like “mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins”?

Church, Church! Christ speaks!
Do we answer, Who’s Calling?

Or do we say, as Abraham did, Here I am!

Can you answer? Here I am!

HERE I AM!

Thanks be to God!

[1] Highway 61, lyrics by Bob Dylan. https://bobdylan.com/songs/highway-61-revisited/

[2] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8217/jewish/Chapter-22.htm#showrashi=true

[3] Jacqueline J Lewis, “Summer Series 1: God’s Creative Connection” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series. ©2016, Westminster John Knox Press. p 57.

[4] http://ktiva.blogspot.com/2006/11/poetry-of-akedah.html

[5] Kathryn Schifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14, Working Preacher blog, © 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138

Wondering Woman 

It’s… Wondering Woman!


It’s Saturday. I have laundry to do, correspondence to send out, books to read and a sermon to write. I also have a head-pounding allergy headache. And what I really want to do is nap. Or garden. 

Mostly I’m just wondering how I’m going to fit everything in my day into my day. Wondering where I’ll find that source with a perfect “pithy quote” for my sermon. Wondering why an antihistamine that worked fine for years stopped working this spring. Wondering why people gotta be so stinky to each other!!

I’m Wondering Woman. And I lost my cape, sword and shield…

Look at my picture closely and you’ll see dirty dishes on the counter. Look even closer and you’ll find cat hair in the corners. (I think I got the cat hork all cleaned up. But you never know.)

Wondering Woman managed to get through the work week with everyone in the household alive and accounted for. I also saw God do big things in the lives of my hospice patients. And I had some gentle moments of encouragement and challenges to growth from people who know me well. 

Yes, I’m Wondering Woman.  Occasionally, (and by that I mean daily), I want to chuck it all in the river and float away, but the Spirit of God compels me. I’m picking up my sword and shield, not to attack, but to defend. Those bullets aimed at my self-confidence are all too Real. 

BAM. 

Another bullet blocked. 

If you’re sermon-writing, care-giving, child-chauffeuring, house-cleaning, or hammock-swinging today, don’t give up. Press on. And fight for the dear ones next to you. 

Now… where did I put that cape?

On mission… soli deo gloria!

Crossposting: Why I Need RevGalBlogPals

Note: This is a reposting and expanded version of a Facebook post on a private page. It retells some of my own story to ordained ministry. (If you’re a regular blog reader, you can move on now…) I share this story because RevGalBlogPals is a small, grassroots 501(c)(3) organization and can use your support.

Why do I need RevGalBlogPals?

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Our book: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

I was ordained later in life. Even though I originally went to seminary in the 1980s, I did not complete more than a semester of classes. In the conservative congregation where I was leading ministries and worshipping, women didn’t “do” that. I was told that “good Christian women” don’t become pastors. Something inside me yearned and burned. But I didn’t know any women pastors. So I quit.

Fast-forward 20 years. I’m continuing to serve in my local church. I’m reading Gilbert Bilezikian’s Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family. And I meet my first women clergy at a Walk to Emmaus retreat. Privately and individually, they each said to me, “Why aren’t you going to seminary? Why aren’t you a pastor?”

I was thrilled. And terrified.

As I started seminary, I searched online for “women clergy” and found the fledgling RevGal bloggers. I joined their collective voices on-line. They were patient as I found my feet in ministry, asked my clueless questions, and challenged my tightly held assumptions about gender roles in the church, my patriarchal-brewed theologies, and my limited view of the world. They helped me laugh at myself. They freely offered resources. They cheered me on as I was ordained and began chaplaincy training.

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My friends and co-laborers from RevGalBlogPals

While I’ve gained professionally from their blog posts, I’ve also benefited personally. Ministry is at times a lonely calling. The outside voices of criticism frequently drown out the Call of the Spirit. And now there are cultural forces at work that demean women in general, and progressive Christians in particular. I could not do my work without a local group of RevGals who are my sisters in ministry and my friends. We ponder, wonder and cry together. We went to Princeton Seminary’s Engle Preaching Institute and continue to study and learn together. We “found” each other because of RevGals!

There’s something else I’ve learned from being a RevGal. It’s OK to not have my stuff together. It’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to work on caring for and preparing my parishioners for Advent, and not have a stick of decoration up in my own home. It’s OK to cry out to God with my hurts as I listen to others do the same. And it’s more than OK to be intellectually and emotionally honest in my spiritual journey. There’s no “fourth wall” in ministry: I am  Called as I am, warts and bruises and all, to serve God. Nothing miraculous. Just a real woman, serving an amazing God.

img_3176As a monthly supporter of RevGals, I receive back so much more than I can give. I write for the blog. I enjoy the books they write. I use their liturgies in worship. I pray for their families as they pray for mine. And I know, without a doubt, that we are bringing diverse, compassionate voices to a world that so desperately needs them.

Join me in supporting RevGalBlogPals. Together we do make a difference in our devotion and our ministries. And if you have a woman pastor, chaplain or clergy member, send them our way! We will join forces for the greater Good!

I Will Hold Your Story

In my work as a chaplain, I am privileged to listen and reflect with those who are brought into my circle of care. I am not the only one who listens to these patients. Nurses. Social workers. Physicians. Nursing assistants. Even the food service and environmental service staff! We all are part of the patient’s journey towards wellness. We provide services, relieve pain and pressure, and make sure the patient’s and family’s needs are heard and met.

Sometimes in hospice work, however, we do not have tasks we can do. We provide the gift of Presence. Of listening. Of hearing and holding stories. It is a privilege and a blessing.

 

Patient

© 2011 Medill DC, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

I Will Hold Your Story

When the time comes, I will hold your story.
I will listen to the words you do not say.
I will honor the memories that spring to mind,
suddenly, wildly, impetuously,
as if they must be remembered.
They must be said aloud or be forgotten forever.

When the time comes, I will hold your story.
I will laugh with you
(even though it hurts to laugh)
until the tears rolls down our cheeks,
and we gasp for breath,
As if you will never laugh again.

When the time comes, I will hold your story.
I will hold mementos and souvenirs.
I will cherish photos with you.
I will look at faces from your youth,
faded on paper, but not in your heart.
I will help you speak their names.

When the time comes, I will hold your story.
I will honor your faith.
I will celebrate the loves of your life.
I will clean my cheeks with my tears.
I will lift a glass in memory of your life.
I will remember…
And then some day,
Someone will hold my story, too.

When the time comes…

Rev. Deb Vaughn, 6.8.2016

Forgiveness and Alligator Shoes

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EPhoto Credit: “Alligator Shoes”, © 2014 Robert Sheie, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

It was quite a shock to run into this man. I was getting some charting done with an eye on the clock, hoping to squeeze in one last patient for the day. I did not expect to see a nemesis from my past in a nursing home’s administrative suite!

At first I didn’t know for sure… for he always was a person who had a bit of swagger and bravado. He was a  man of high-priced, tailored suits and fancy alligator shoes.

And this man? He was looking desperate, slightly shabby, and selling photocopiers…

Really?

I blinked. Glanced over at him again…

Nope. That was the guy, all right. Could I leave without him seeing me? Maybe if I kept my head down and my focus on the charts…

Our eyes met. Crap. I smiled and went into my “public face” mode. (I confess. I acted polite, all the while dying inside.) We exchanged pleasantries. I managed to escape moments later, bemused by the emotional journey I traveled in just a few seconds. I was shaken at how all those feelings came boiling back up…

It was not a good memory. The feelings were slightly raw. Still.

He had lied about me to our superiors. Lied about me to our peers. Made every veiled, misogynistic remark he could about women in ministry. Put me into tears on more than one occasion with his snide remarks about my weight. Or judging me because I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom. Or smirked at my age. I felt self-righteous anger begin to rise…

And God said, “Forgive him.”

Lord, are you kidding me? After all I went through? And people were fired… And…

“Forgive him.”

I stewed about it the rest of the day. And then… I began my studies for an upcoming sermon, and read through the verses for Holy Week, including the Crucifixion. The passages on demonstrating forgiveness, from the heart, hit me… hard.

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25. NIV

Yikes.

I prayed for this man, asking God to bless him (and knowing that he will never know). I prayed for my attitude. I prayed for my anger. And, true to the promises of God, I felt my burden of hurt lifted from me.

I have a focus and purpose in the Work of God in this world… and I am moving on to do it. God is merciful.

Blessed be.

The love of thousands

Walking, I can almost hear the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark. It is winter and there is smoke from the fires… Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. “Be still,” they say. “Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”

Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World

L-R: crocheted lace by Claudia Bishop Harsh, tatted lace by Maurine Bishop, crocheted lace by Katherine Hengst Harsh

I came across the lace looking for something else. My grandmother, great-aunt and great-grandmother created them as trimmings for pillowcases and collars, tablecloths and handkerchiefs.

I have held these pieces of lace many times, turning over in my hands, running them between my fingers, looking at the fine crocheting and tatting. Usually I gently fold them back up and put them in a small box labeled “Logan.” (Logan, Ohio is where many of my relatives lived.) But then I realized… I could use this trim on the Lenten stole I was trying to finish!

I remembered going to church where my grandparents worshipped in Logan. If I close my eyes to remember, the sights and smells come flooding back…  The creaky sound of the carpeted floors in the sanctuary. The stained glass and dark, polished (very hard!) pews. The robes and the music… this would be a fitting use of their lovely handiwork!

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After worship at Twinbrook Baptist, Rockville, MD

When I wore my new stole at church on Sunday, I felt wrapped in the love of my family. It was a very simple stole, made of a patchwork of various purple prints, and trimmed with this crocheted lace. But I knew… my family was there in spirit, hugging my neck, represented as I prayed, and offered the Bread and Cup.

The stole was a reminder of the faith of my family through the generations to the present. They have encouraged and celebrated many milestones in my work and ministry. I am so very grateful.

Be still… watch and listen… You are the result of the love of thousands… 

I was, indeed, surrounded by their love.

Thanks be to God.