On Parenting and Other Failures…

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I have never really thought of myself as a very good parent.  I am constantly finding myself in the midst of parenting and thinking, “I really could be handling this much better.”  In looking back, I can see countless ways in which I escalated a situation instead of deescalated, in which I got stuck in wanting control instead of fostering independence, or in which I simply lost my cool.  Parenting sometimes brings out the worst in me, and on the really bad days, I feel like I am failing pretty miserably at the whole endeavor.

I feel that way about my faith sometimes too.  I know all the ways I am called to serve God and to be a faithful disciple.  But I often find myself failing.  For as many times as I can be like an insightful Peter, more often I am like the Peter who is sinking into the sea, trying to control what Jesus does, or putting myself in front of the gospel.  Reading about modern saints, or people who are making a difference with their life only makes me more aware of my many failings to live as a faithful Christian.

The good news is that children, and other people, often give us glimpses of hope and encouragement.  The other day, I was stirring from a nap with my youngest (who refuses to nap now unless you nap with her).  As she was waking up, she smiled at me and said, “You can be my best friend, Mommy.”  A few nights ago, my oldest requested to start using the same shampoo, conditioner, and soap that I use, instead of her 3-in-1 tear-free wash we have been using.  I sighed out of irritation, and asked her why.  She said, “Because I want to be like you, Mommy.  Except for your short hair!”

I laughed on both occasions, but both comments reminded me that for all the times I fail, there is still love.  For all the ways in which I mess up this parenting thing, there are glimpses of times when I managed to get it a tiny bit right.  I think the same is true for our faith life.  For all the ways we are horribly imperfect, we also have glimpses of powerful faithfulness.  I encourage you to listen to those around you to hear those little comments that will encourage you on your journey.  And then I invite you to straighten up, take a deep breath, and get back in there.  God is doing amazing things through you.  I can’t wait to hear all about it!!

Dad Teaching Daughter Electrical Engineering

Photo credit:  www.quoteambition.com/best-encouraging-quotes-words-encouragement/

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Sermon – Matthew 15:10-28, P15, YA, August 20, 2017

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I have never really liked the story we hear from our gospel lesson today.  Every time I have heard or read the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, I cringe.  I do not like the way Jesus ignores the woman.  I do not like the way Jesus then tries to dismiss her – not only because his dismissal is rude, but also because he is being exclusive, saying that his ministry is only for chosen of God.  And I especially do not like the way Jesus not only calls her a dog, but also basically treats her like a dog.  This is not the Jesus I know.  And I am pretty sure that this is not what the slogan designers meant when they asked, “What would Jesus do?”

But the real problem with this story, the problem that I do not like to talk about, is Jesus’ ugly behavior reminds me of all the times I have acted in a similarly ugly way.  Most of the time, my ugly behavior is well-intentioned or even justifiable.  When I see a homeless person or someone begging for money, and I know that I have nothing to give them that day, I have honed the art of avoiding eye contact.  Or, when I am not protected by the rolled-up windows of my car, and a similar person asks me directly for help, I have figured out my patented response, “Sorry I do not have any cash;” which is sometimes true, but is often a lie.  I do have cash, but I feel awkward explaining that I give to agencies that make a difference for people like them to protect me from having to have this very same engagement.  Or I have had countless conversations with people I have helped through the church’s discretionary fund, only to have to say “no” when they show up two weeks later because, as I clearly communicated, we have a policy of helping people not more than once every six months.

Now I can completely explain all the reasons for the things I do:  I am a petite woman, so avoiding engagement with what could be a volatile, unstable person is generally a good practice; I have created a framework for giving which makes a difference, but also makes me feel more comfortable; I have a system for our emergency assistance program because I need to make sure the church’s discretionary fund supports as many people as possible, and as fairly as possible.  All of those explanations are good, and they exhibit healthy boundary-drawing.  In fact, I have had multiple conversations over the years when each of those decisions has been labeled as smart, intentional, and fair.  And yet, when I am in the midst of each of those types of scenarios, the execution of those smart decisions still feels ugly.  I feel like I am actually following that slogan, “What would Jesus do,” when I am in the midst of ignoring, explaining why I cannot help, or firmly drawing a boundary with someone who is being too pushy.  But instead of following the Jesus we find in our passage today and feeling good about myself, I am left with a sense of discomfort.

So, if I feel uncomfortable with my actions, and I especially feel uncomfortable with this version of Jesus that we find in Holy Scripture, why is this story in scripture at all?  And why, of all the texts they could have included, did the designers of our lectionary demand that we hear this particular passage?  Let’s start with the first question – why this story is in scripture at all.  The good news is that this scripture, despite all its ugliness and discomfort is important.  Jesus is sent to the people of God with a very specific mission:  to initiate God’s purposes for God’s people.  God had promised long ago to send a messiah to save God’s people.  Jesus is now enacting that mission.  Jesus has been clear all along that God’s mission starts with God’s people.  In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends out the disciples the first time, Jesus tells the disciples to go only to the house of Israel, not to be distracted by the Gentiles, or non-Jewish peoples.  He is not necessarily being exclusive.  Jesus knows that the people of Israel are going to be a blessing to all people, including the Gentiles.  But the first job is to get the people of Israel on board – to help them understand that the messiah is here and the reign of God is beginning.[i]

The problem for Jesus, and perhaps the reason why we find Jesus the way we find him today, is that the people of God are not listening.  They are throwing Jesus out of towns, they are arguing with him about the following of laws instead of seeing the fulfillment of the law, and they are faltering in their faith.  Just last week we watched as Peter sunk into the sea.  Today, Jesus is moving on to Tyre and Sidon because his people have kicked him out of town.  And all of that stuff we heard today about what defiles a person being what comes out of the mouth, not what goes in, is an argument about getting so caught up in the letter of the law that one cannot see how one is violating the spirit of the law.  So here Jesus is, beating his head against a wall, with the people of God refusing to understand or listen to him, when a woman from a country his people oppose says very simply, “Lord, Son of David.”  The people of God, the leaders of the people of God, even the disciples of God do not get who Jesus is.  But this unclean, foreign, woman – so a triple outcast – gets who Jesus is.

So, we can imagine that Jesus is feeling a little raw – in a sea of rejection, the affirmation of this lowly outsider may not have been enough to draw him out of his funk.[ii]  Fair enough.  But the woman persists.  Jesus lets down his guard a little bit, and instead of ignoring her explains he is not trying to be rude, but he has been sent on a mission that entails him proceeding in a particular manner – Jews first, Gentiles later.  But the woman persists again.  And frazzled, rejected Jesus, who has tried to politely ignore, then perhaps politely explain, snaps and asserts his boundary.  “The good news is just not ready for Gentiles, okay?”  But the woman persists again.  She takes Jesus’ nasty words and she transforms them.  She takes that belittling label “dog,” and puts the label right in front of Jesus.  She does not want to wait for Easter.[iii]  She does not want to wait for the people of God to wake up.  She wants her blessing, the blessing that God eventually intends anyway, to start.  Right now.

And Jesus does that beautiful, awful thing we all hate to do.  Jesus admits he is wrong.  He heals her daughter, seeing in the persistence of this woman that he has gotten so caught up in the proper process and the appropriate boundaries that he has limited the power of the gospel and the reach of the good news.

The last two weeks I have been working on a request for financial assistance.  The person needed rental assistance, and the case had been fully vetted.  I knew Hickory Neck could not cover the full rental payment, so I offered to collaborate with some other churches.  Now any of you who have ever tried to collaborate know that although collaboration is good, collaboration is never simple nor fast.  So this week, the case came back around because the deadline is rapidly approaching.  I explained where we were and how I needed to get back to the churches I had invited to help.  The person I had been working with finally snapped and said, “You guys are all wrapped up in all these protests over something that happened hundreds of years ago.  But when the effects of racism are staring you in the face, and you can actually do something about it, you can’t seem to move!”  I felt like I had been slapped in the face.  Here I was following my process, staying with in the reasoned boundaries I have created, working creatively to solve the problem, while also being quite passionate about and wanting to work on correcting the sin of racism that our whole country is addressing since Charlottesville last weekend.  And here was a Canaanite woman, a Gentile calling me out – pushing me out of the theoretical, or the master plan, and asking me to look her in the face and explain why the fulfillment of God’s promise cannot happen today.

We do not like this story today because Jesus is dismissive, rude, and mean.  But mostly we do not like this story because Jesus’ story reminds us of the times we have been dismissive, rude, or mean.  We can claim that we do not like how Jesus behaves in this story, but really we do not like how Jesus is a mirror of our own behavior in this story.  And for that reason, I am grateful for the discomfort today.  I am grateful for the ways in which I am squirming today because something tremendous happens when Jesus gets uncomfortable today.  When Jesus gets slapped in the face by the Canaanite woman, he wakes up.  He stops, sees, and hears her.  And he changes course.  This lowly triple-outcast changes the ministry of Christ forever.  No longer is Jesus doggedly sticking to the plan of the redemption of Jews followed by the redemption of Gentiles.  Jesus mercy and mission get wider, right in this very moment.[iv]  Jesus’ wide arms of mercy, love, and grace spread just a bit wider, eventually being spread so wide that they fit onto the cross.

Our invitation today is to let our arms start moving to the same position.  I do not know who the Canaanite women are in your lives.  I do not know if your heart needs softening on racism, on sexism, or on some other -ism.  I do not know if you heart needs softening on some other person or group you have deemed beyond redemption.  I do not know if your heart needs softening by the person whose eyes you are avoiding.  But our invitation today is to recognize that our dismissiveness, our exclusion, our boundary-drawing is already in line with what Jesus would do.  Now Jesus is inviting us to keep doing what Jesus would do and to change our minds – to do better, to behave better, to be better.  Stretching our arms that far wide will be hard.  But the promise of transformation is much more powerful than anything we have imagined.

[i] N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 199-200.

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven:  Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 62.

[iii] Wright, 201.

[iv] Brown Taylor, 64-65.

On Race and the Pilgrimage Ahead…

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Photo credit:  parentingsquad.com/6-ways-to-improve-race-relations-at-home

Last summer a confluence of events happened.  I heard an interview with the author of Homegoing that made me want to read her novel about the history of the slave trade in Ghana and America.  I learned of a Diocesan pilgrimage to Ghana.  I was invited to a racial reconciliation discussion group in the community.  And my Netflix queue brought up two movies in a row – Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Straight Outta Compton.  As I read, watched, listened, and prayed, I wondered if God might be inviting me and our church community to talk more deeply about race.

So we did.  We read Homegoing at our church and our discussions were vulnerable and beautiful.  We went to a play in Colonial Williamsburg about the difficulty of serving as black and white interpreters in a time of slavery.  We hosted an Anglican priest from Ghana, prayed for this year’s Ghanaian pilgrims, and encouraged parishioners to consider a pilgrimage themselves.  We hosted a Bible Study with a predominantly African-American church. And we watched sports films that addressed racial relations.  At some point this summer, about a year after my initial epiphany, I began to wonder if I were beating the same drum too often.  Maybe race was a conversation we needed to give a rest.

And then the protests and counter-protests happened in Charlottesville.  As I watched hatred, racism, and violence on full display, as I saw rage, indignation, and entitlement in protestors’ eyes, and as I watched peaceful resistance dissolve into violent resistance, I knew we were not done with this race topic.  The scars are so deep and the impact is so rampant that we may never be done.  But fatigue, especially by white people, is not an excuse to disengage.  This week, I invite you to consider what you want to do in your life and in your community about racism.  If you are looking for suggestions, I commend the concrete suggestions by the Diocese of Virginia found here.

For me, I am committing to staying involved in our local ecumenical racial reconciliation discussion group.  I will keep inviting our church into race-related conversations, and encourage our exploration of our own complicity with the sin of racism.  I will keep reading and learning.  And I want to commit to going to Ghana with our Diocesan pilgrimage group.  I am not sure our family can afford it (I guess you know what to get me for my birthday!), but I feel God pushing me to walk through those slave castles, to learn in-person our shared history, and see the impact of slavery on another country.  I feel drawn to walking with fellow pilgrims of both white and black races, seeing how God might transform me on the journey.  If you feel similarly called, please join us next summer.  Or if you know you cannot make the pilgrimage, but want to financially support our engagement, I will help you become a partner with us.  Whatever you choose, do something.  I look forward to hearing about how God is calling you or how God is already using you for change.

On Adventures and God…

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Photo credit:  Elizabeth Shows Caffey

One of the themes of this summer for me has been new adventures.  This summer I tried aerial yoga for the first time – a practice of yoga that involves being suspended from the ceiling with silks.  I also rode a bike for the first time in over 20 years.  And last night, for the first time ever, I represented our church by throwing one of the first pitches at our local minor league baseball games.  In each of those instances, I was nervous, skeptical, or downright scared.  I know I yelped at least once in aerial yoga.  When I first started riding the bike, I was so stressed out that my hands started hurting from gripping the handlebars.  And as I waited to throw that first pitch, my stomach was doing flip-flops.

Those examples may not sound all that thrilling to you.  I certainly did not skydive, bungee jump, or walk a tightrope.  But those adventures were all experiences I normally would have declined – coming up with a hundred reasons why the adventures would be a bad idea:  pulled muscles, skinned knees, or a bruised ego.  But in each instance, I could see in the eyes of the people asking me to take the adventure a sense of longing, hopefulness, vulnerability.  They were inviting me into adventure, and saying “no” would have meant a crushed spirit of enthusiasm.  And so, against my better judgment, I said “yes.”  And you know what?  In every instance I had a ton of fun!

I was thinking this morning about that weighty pause when someone invites you into adventure – when you can either say “yes” or “no,” with the person left eagerly anticipating your response.  I think we experience that same weighty pause with God all the time.  God is constantly inviting us to take on new adventures:  stepping through the church doors for the first time in a long time, hoping not to be judged or hurt; going to a church study group, unsure about how your doubts or questions may be received; serving dinner at the homeless ministry, wondering what you can possibly say to or have in common with someone who lives on the streets.  If you do not have a relationship with Christ, saying “yes” can be hard.  But even when you do have a relationship with Christ, responding positively to an invitation from God can be hard.  Taking on new adventures with God means trusting, letting go of fear, and making yourself vulnerable.

I wonder what invitations to adventure God has been inviting you to try this week.  What invitation might you say “yes” to that you have been delaying or refusing altogether?  The risk is that you might pull some muscles, skin some knees, or bruise that old ego.  But the payoff is that you might find meaning, purpose, and renewed relationship with God.  And I suspect that you might also have a bit of fun!

Sermon – Luke 9.28-36, Transfiguration, YA, August 6, 2017

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Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.  Now, normally, we celebrate this feast on the last Sunday of Epiphany, right before Lent begins.  This is the last celebration in a season of days meant to celebrate the ways Christ is made manifest to us.  And what a feast!  What better way to close out Epiphany than to use one of the most glorious experiences of Christ’s life – Jesus shining brightly, wonderfully transfigured for an elite group of disciples?  But we are not in the season of Epiphany.  In fact, we are right in the heart of the season of Pentecost – or what we call “ordinary time.”  As we amble our way through the end of summer relaxation, the placement of such a magnificent feast day seems out of context.  This is not the season of the year when we come to church expecting drama and flair.

And yet, I wonder if this is not the perfect time to talk about dramatic revelations of God.  Just in the past two weeks, I have been a part of two different conversations that talked about how we notice God in the small, seemingly mundane moments of life.  The first was a conversation with a study group.  We were talking about the concept of synchronicity as coined by Carl Jung.  Jung defined synchronicity as “meaningful coincidences” – those events that on the surface seem like coincidences, but upon further reflection the event carries much meaning.  The group could think of countless times when a particularly meaningful song came on the radio at just the right time or someone called you just when you needed the call.  The second conversation I had was with a group of friends, a few of which had read a book about what the author called “God Winks.”  These were little moments when something innocuous happens, but upon further reflection, they may have been moments where God was trying to communicate, affirm, or comfort.  Examples included seeing a bird just after the death of a loved one, or seeing a flower bloom in an unexpected place.

I loved the convergence of these conversations because I think they get to the heart of why the Transfiguration is sometimes hard for us to fully appreciate.  You see, in Luke’s gospel, the text is quite dramatic.  In the midst of prayer on the mountain, suddenly Jesus’ face and clothing becomes a dazzling white.  Two of the greats of our faith, Moses and Elijah, not only appear, but are talking to Jesus.  And when Peter speaks to try to make sense of this fantastic moment, a cloud rushes in, blocking their sight and booming into their ears the very voice of God.  And then, just as quickly as the light and sound show begin, they are left in silence with Jesus as if the event never happened.

We love this story.  And yet, there is a way in which this story is so fantastic, we cannot really relate to the event.  I imagine very few, and maybe none of us, have ever experienced an encounter with God where we saw blazing lights, an appearance of the fathers of our faith, and heard the voice of God.  Occasionally, we will hear stories of someone who dies and is revived, who then tells stories of a bright light.  But for most of us, those kinds of moments are beyond our faith experience.  They are so fantastic that they feel fictional, or at least inaccessible.  The danger with that kind of conclusion is that we can conclude that Jesus himself is also inaccessible – at least in meaningful ways to us.  Unless God talks to us with Bose-quality sound or Jesus shines before us like the lights of Las Vegas, we must be doing something wrong.

Episcopalians can be especially susceptible to this kind of dismissal.  As a people who value the mind, and who celebrate the gift of our post-Enlightenment era, we are skeptical when people share their mountaintop experiences.  I had a friend from high school who went to a pretty conservative, evangelical school for college.  Though she herself was somewhat theologically conservative, even she found herself to be in unfamiliar territory.  You see, at her school, there was an expectation that people share stories of how they heard God speaking to them.  I am not sure why, but apparently the student body had dramatic encounters with God – so much so that not only were you expected to have them yourself, but also they almost became a point of pride or one-upmanship.  The whole practice was like Christian bullying from my friend’s perspective.

But the danger with dismissing other’s dramatic God moments or even the Transfiguration is that we can end up dismissing encounters with God altogether.  Since we do not live in the time of Jesus, I do not expect that any of us will ever witness what Peter, John, and James do.  And since most of us will not have near-death experiences, I do not think we will encounter bright, shiny Jesuses or disorienting, booming clouds.  But we will experience God in tangible ways.  We will have those moments of synchronicity or God Winks.  We may not hear the voice of God directly.  But even if we do not hear a distinct voice whom we believe to be God, God is speaking to us all the time.

I cannot tell you the countless times I have talked to someone who said they felt an odd compulsion to call a friend they had not spoken to in a long time.  When they acted on the impulse, they found a friend in desperate need who needed a good word.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone was clouded with anxiety and the sun shone beautiful rays of light through the clouds, a rainbow appeared, or a creature crossed their path.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone has gotten off their routine – a missed bus, a forgotten item in the house, or a traffic jam, only to then have an encounter they never would have had if they had been on time.

I do not think those are mere coincidences.  I think, knowing how incredulous our information-overloaded minds are, God finds new, brilliant ways to speak to us all the time.  They may not be moments filled with light, but when we realize how we saw God in a person on a particular day, we feel like a light has shined into our minds and hearts.  Those moments may not be clear words spoken into our minds by God, but they may be clear words spoken by a stranger that are as disorienting as God’s own words.  You see, God is showing God’s self and speaking to us all the time.

Our invitation in light of the Transfiguration is two-fold.  First, God invites us to hone our senses.  God invites us to let go of all our human-created incredulity, and to be open to those God Winks or meaningful coincidences.  In order to do that, we are probably going to have to start sharing our crazy stories, knowing that we may be judged or doubted.  But the more we share those experiences, the more we create a community of people looking for tangible signs of God in everyday life.

Second, God invites us to shine light and be God’s voice for others.  About the Transfiguration, scholar Cláudio Carvalhaes says, “Unless we get out of the fortress of our worship spaces, and rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be, and shed light into the lives of the poor of our communities, we will never know what transfiguration means.  Glory will be an unknown word and experience.”[i]  Carvalhaes argues that sensing God’s voice and light in our own lives is not enough.  Our work is to come off the mountain, as Jesus and the disciples do in the verses following our reading today, and be agents of healing, care, and wholeness.  The Transfiguration “was never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square.  It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of the unimagined possibility at ground level.”[ii]  In sharing Christ’s dazzling light, and God’s booming voice, we also find our lives transfigured – changed through encounter with others.  We create space for those God Winks and meaningful coincidences to occur, and in so doing, make space for God in us, through us, and around us.  Amen.

[i] Cláudio Carvalhaes, “Commentary on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43),” February 07, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2756 on August 2, 2017.

[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.

On the Power of Hospitality…

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Photo credit:  www.riversouthbay.org/my-river/opportunities/hospitality-team

As a priest, it is pretty rare that I get to sit in the pew, let alone worship in or experience another church’s community.  But last week I had the opportunity to do that in two very different, but blessed ways.  The first was taking my children to Vacation Bible School (VBS) at a local Disciples of Christ church.  The church is one of our ecumenical partners, and I had preached there during a pulpit exchange last Lent.  Our children had requested attending VBS, but our shared Episcopal offering was at a time we could not do.  So off to the Disciples of Christ church we went.  As we ate dinner each night, and as the kids ran off to crafts, music, teaching, and play, and as I sat in on the adult class, I felt like a guest in a wonderful house of hospitality.  I watched as within just a week, the church members fell in love with our children, giving them hugs and high fives, teaching them powerful lessons about how they are made for a purpose and that God is always in their corner.  It was a wonderful gift to be welcomed as strangers and sent off as fellow disciples in Christ.

The other experience was quite different.  A gentleman who had worked for the cleaning company we use at our church passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago.  His church hosted the funeral, and I attended the service on Sunday.  The funeral was admittedly a difficult one.  Lonnie had experienced a rough road in life – from the loss of family, addictions, homelessness, imprisonment, recovery, and new life.  I only knew his story superficially, having been introduced to him through one of our parishioners who was a mentor of his.  But what I witnessed was a community of faith who completely embraced Lonnie in every way – loving him fully, accepting him as he was, incorporating him into the life of the church, welcoming him into their homes, and being active agents of his recovery and faith life.  They offered me a powerful witness about what Christ-like relationship looks like.

I come out of those experiences with two distinct conclusions.  First, I have a renewed appreciation for my own faith community.  Though I learned powerful lessons last week, I also developed a renewed love for Hickory Neck and our distinct work in furthering the kingdom in the greater Williamsburg area.  My experience reminded me of what radical hospitality can feel like as a recipient and made me want to offer it more.

Second, I am impressed with the broad range of expressions of faith in Williamsburg, and I am grateful that there is a place where anyone can find a church home.  The witness for Jesus is strong in this community.  I suspect that the more we appreciate our collective witness, the stronger our individual witness will become.  If you have not invited a friend or acquaintance to church lately, I encourage you to do so.  Experiencing the gift of Christian hospitality, community, and formation at Hickory Neck is not a gift to keep to ourselves.  That gift can be life changing!

Sermon – Genesis 29.15-28, P12, YA, July 30, 2017

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Every week that I am preaching, I start out by listening to a podcast by biblical scholars.  They talk for about twenty minutes on the four lessons, and always have interesting things to say.  Sometimes their insights lead me in a particular direction, and sometimes not.  This week, these most esteemed scholars had one thing to say:  do not preach on the Old Testament lesson.  In all my years of listening to them, I do not think they have ever suggested avoiding a text altogether.  Their reasoning was sound.  They simply felt that this part of the Jacob story – the antics between Laban and Jacob that leave Rachel and Leah voiceless property, objectified and dehumanized – had no good news, no gospel, to offer or preach from this week and should therefore be avoided.

So.  Let’s talk about the gospel in Rachel and Leah’s story.  To get there, you are going to have to hang through some rough stuff first.  Here is the thing about this story:  this story of Laban tricking Jacob to marry Leah before marrying Rachel is often depicted as a story only about Jacob and Laban.  In fact, usually this story is depicted as being the story of how Jacob finally gets what is coming to him.  Perhaps there is some validity to that analysis.  Jacob, the trickster finally gets tricked.[i]  Jacob, the man who weasels his way into the birthright and his father’s blessing, is weaseled out of his desired bride and is tricked into fourteen years of service for her – a price well beyond anything that would be expected in his day, especially of a relative to the bride’s family.[ii]  One could argue that Jacob met his match in his father-in-law Laban – a man equally dishonest, scheming, and self-centered.

And all of that analysis is interesting.  But I do not think that is where the heart of the story is today.  Today I am more interested in Rachel and Leah.  Rachel and Leah have been put at odds probably their entire life.  Though Leah is the older sister, Rachel is the more attractive sister.  And in their day, and ours, being attractive means wielding some power.  Then, Jacob comes along and wants something he cannot really have – a younger sister whose older sister has not yet been married.  Then the two women are thrown around as objects, as though they are non-persons.  We hear nothing of what Leah feels, being veiled and forced to marry a man who does not want her, without his consent or hers, and then to be scorned the next morning.  To make matters worse, a week later, her husband also marries her sister.  And let’s not forget about Rachel.  We assume she desires Jacob as he desires her, but we are never told about her feelings.  Assuming she did want to marry him, she had to stay silent as Leah took what had been promised to her.  Then, in order to get the husband she may or may not have wanted, she had to share him with her much more fertile sister.  Though we do not read about it today, Rachel’s barrenness is just one more way she is the victim in our story.

But all of those questions and ruminations are just speculation.  We know nothing of how either woman felt because the text does not tell us.  The text, the culture, the men in our story treat the women like objects; silent property to be manipulated at their will.  Rachel and Leah are pawns in Jacob and Laban’s twisted, deceptive lives, with no rights, no voice, and no power.  And when we look at their voiceless, powerless, hopeless lives, we may believe, like those scholars, that there seems to be little good news here.  We could even ask the harder question:  where is God?  Where is God when Rachel and Leah are dehumanized and objectified by an entire system and family?

The easy way out of this story would be to suggest that we are lucky because at least we do not live in a society like Rachel and Leah’s.  But the reality of treating some people in society as property has long been a part of our identity – thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, and today.  Last weekend, Scott and I had the opportunity to visit Monticello.  I had never been and was excited to learn about a respected founding father.  And what I learned was not disappointing.  Jefferson was a brilliant man:  a scientific genius, a profound wordsmith, with a creative, prolific mind.  But what drew me in was the slave tour at Monticello.  Behind the grandeur of Monticello, the technological advances, and conveniences of the property was the reality of slavery.  Behind all of fascinating parts of Monticello were the voiceless, dehumanized, objectified men, women, and children.  Behind the thrill of advancement and intellectual prowess was the cold, harsh reality of people whose lives were out of their own control.  To be fair, of slaveholders, Jefferson was one of the less physically brutal, and there is a chance that he actually loved at least one of those slaves.  But they were still slaves, ever living under the threat of physical violence, and perhaps worse, separation from their partners and children.

Two stories at Monticello helped me connect with the utter depravity of our story from scripture, as well as the redemption and hope from our story from scripture.  The first was of a slave at Monticello who was “leased” to a local townsman while Jefferson was out of the country.  She came with three sons.  In the course of her time in town, two of her sons came of age and were sold away.  Meanwhile, she and the man began a relationship and she had two daughters with him.  When Jefferson returned to the country, the slave approached Jefferson herself and asked if she and the man could continue to live together with their children.  Jefferson agreed that the man could buy her and the two children they had borne together.  But her remaining son he ordered back to Monticello.  I was struck by how even though Jefferson was somewhat gracious to her, she still lacked power – she lived at the mercy of others, her children treated as property.  Her life was traded like Leah was traded from Laban to Jacob.

But then there was another story.  When Jefferson died, he left behind many debts, so the majority of the slaves were sold.  One slave was able to buy his freedom, but not the freedom of his wife and eight children.  One by one, over time, the former slave bought back his wife and seven children.  But one child remained.  Eventually the remaining son of that slave was to be sold to a plantation far away, and the man could not gather enough funds to purchase him before he was sold.  In solidarity, the former slaves of Monticello pooled their money and were able to help the man finally reunite his entire family.  Even in the midst of the sinful institution of slavery that treated our brothers and sisters as dehumanized property, the powerless were able to scrape up some power and find a sense of agency.  They found some sense of redemption in their collective power.

I like to believe that there is some glimmer of redemption in Rachel and Leah’s story too.  Despite the ways they are objectified, made into commodities to be bartered without input, these two women and their servants give birth to the twelve tribes of Israel – the very fathers of our faith.  God moves in human imperfection, and God’s love overcomes human failure to love.[iii]  In the face of barrenness, God opens wombs.  In the face of oppression, God makes a way out.  In the face of Leah’s lesser status, comes the genealogical line that produces Jesus.[iv]  This voiceless, unwanted, powerless one produces the man who redeems us all.

It is easy to sit in judgment of Jacob and Laban, or to sit in judgment of the institution of slavery.  As biblical scholar Beth Tanner says, “We can sit comfortably on a Sunday morning and condemn their actions and their culture and thank God we have evolved.  But that would mean we miss the point of the narrative completely.  They are not “them.”  They are us.  We are far from perfect.  Families are messy and often broken.  We hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally.  We act in our own best interest and against the greater good of others.  We forget to ask those with less power about decisions that impact their lives.  To look on this family is to look straight into human brokenness.  To look on the culture is to hold up a mirror to our world that still judges individuals on their appearance and treats women as less than men.  [The story of our ancestors] is not cleaned up to impress the neighbors or provide unobtainable role models for moral living.  They are faithful and sinful.  They are blessed by God and cursed by their actions.  Their culture is on display in this text, and it has a good dose of corporate sin in its sexism and treatment of those with less power.”[v]

In that messiness, in that hopelessness, in that depravity is still gospel light.  “Gospel is present because God keeps God’s promises to a sinful humanity.  God is faithful when we are busy managing our lives.  God is faithful even when God is not overtly part of the narrative.  God loves the broken families of the world.  God loves so much God will send [God’s] son to ‘the sons of Israel’ and by extension, to us.”[vi]  I don’t know about you, but when I am staring into acres of land, contemplating the racism and oppression that began hundreds of years ago, or I am facing a text about the powerlessness of women that continues from thousands of years ago, I am grateful for a God who is faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God.  I am beyond humbled by our God who refuses to disown us in our hatefulness, and goes to ultimate lengths to save us from ourselves.  And I am thrilled by a God who can make a great nation out of us, despite ourselves.  We are not beyond God’s redemption.  We are not beyond God’s forgiveness and grace.  This text is our reminder that God’s good news is offered fresh, everyday, throughout time, offering us the opportunity to become co-creators of goodness.  And that is good news to be preached.  Amen.

[i] W. Eugene March, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Batch 2, Proper 12, Year A (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 6.

[ii] Greg Garrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Batch 2, Proper 12, Year A (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),3.

[iii] Garrett, 5.

[iv] Matthew 1.3.

[v] Beth L. Tanner, “Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28,” July 30, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3353 on July 26, 2017.

[vi] Tanner.

On the Legacies we Leave…

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IMG_5640This past weekend, my husband and I took a trip to Monticello.  Before I tell you much about my experience, I must confess that I am not a Thomas Jefferson scholar by any means.  I knew his role as a founding father, how revered he is – especially in this part of the country, and more recently, that he was likely the father of several children through a slave he owned.  Though my knowledge was admittedly superficial, that combination of information left me wanting to know more about this prominent man in American history.

Knowing the role Jefferson played in history and his relationship to Sally Hemings, I was surprised to learn Jefferson had written quite a bit about the immorality of slavery.  He found the practice of slavery and the slave trade to be an abomination; and yet, he also found extracting himself from the institution to be insurmountable in his generation.  As I listened to Jefferson’s revolutionary words, I felt myself becoming angry.  If Jefferson was so incensed by the system, feeling morally convicted, why didn’t he do something about it?  Why didn’t he work for change?

Now, I know the counterarguments.  Of slave owners, Jefferson was one of the less brutal ones.  Jefferson was a product of his day – an entire nation and economy caught up in and dependent upon the institution of slavery.  But despite those acknowledgments, I felt frustrated.  Of all the amazing legacies Jefferson left, and with the brilliant mind he had, why not more action against slavery?  And if he could not affect systemic change, why not at least change the system at Monticello, freeing and hiring the slaves he owned?

Luckily, my righteous indignation only lasted a few minutes.  In the midst of my anger at Jefferson, a deeper truth hit me like a ton of bricks.  I realized I am leaving a legacy around the issue of race too.  When relatives look back at my life hundreds of years from now, what will they say about my inaction around racial reconciliation?  Will they look at the violence against and degradation of African-Americans in the twenty-first century and say, “Why didn’t she do more?  If she believed in the dignity of every human being, why didn’t affect change?”  It would be easy to leave Monticello or any discussion about slavery feeling a sense of moral superiority.  Instead, I invite you to join me in reflecting upon our complicity with the sin of racism in our own day, considering how we might change our own legacy.

On Sports, Story, and the Spirit…

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Photo credit:  coachcarter5.blogspot.com/p/plot-summary.html

This summer, our church was looking to do two things:  we wanted to offer a “light” educational series that adults could enjoy and we wanted to continue our conversation about racial reconciliation.  One might think those two goals do not go together.  But we were not to be deterred.  We settled on the option of watching movies that were about racial reconciliation.  Movies are certainly fun, but the topic still wasn’t capturing the “fun” or “light” criteria.  Then the idea hit us:  sports movies!  Sports movies allow us to be entertained, while sneaking in powerful stories of hope, challenge, and encouragement.

The model has worked even better than I suspected.  Our first two movies have been 42: The Jackie Robinson Story and The Blind Side.  The last two movies are Coach Carter and Invictus.  We were able to feature four sports:  baseball, football, basketball, and rugby.  Each week we have been able to cheer on teams, laugh at comical moments, and pause with discomfort when truth broke through.  Our conversations have been rich – each movie bringing up parallels in our own stories – about race, about respecting the dignity of every human being, and about our journey with faith.

I think what has made that work is each movie is based on a true story.  We did not make that connection when planning the film list, but it has been a powerful surprise.  Unlike a fictional film, which could be dismissed as romantic, overly simple, or unrealistic, these movies show us real people, trying to live faithful lives on and off the field.  Their stories have been encouraging us to do likewise – examine how we are living faithful lives on and off the field.  Ultimately, I think that is the only way we are going to make our way toward racial reconciliation:  sharing our stories and listening to others’ stories.  It would be easy to do otherwise; to keep our heads down and ignore what is happening in the world about us.  But these stories invite us into another way of being.

The invitation of our Faith and Film series this week is for us to find ways to engage outside of the theater.  Maybe you start by telling someone about this awesome movie you just saw.  Or if you are feeling more confident, maybe you simply talk to a friend or coworker – either of your race or another – and start with a confession, “I watched this movie and it has made me think about [insert your thoughts here].  What is your experience with that?”  Using the movie or your own story allows you to do what Jesus did all the time – engage people where they are through the power of story.  I believe reconciliation starts there:  one story at a time.

Sermon – Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23, P10, YA, July 16, 2017

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I don’t know about you, but this gospel lesson always makes me a little nervous.  As soon as I hear about the different types of soil where seed is sown, I start to get paranoid.  I think of the countless times when I did not understand what the kingdom of God was about, or what God was trying to teach me, and how the evil one started clouding my thoughts.  Or, I think about that those moments where I have been filled with new fervor for God, only to get distracted or anxious, and lose that sense of intimacy with God.  And the good Lord knows that I have been more than distracted by the cares of the world and the lures or preoccupation around money and lost touch with my faith.  Of course, by the time I get through that litany of doubt and self-loathing, I feel a sense of doom.  I will never work hard enough to be good soil!

The good news is this parable is not about me or you.  At least not in the way we think.  Whenever scholars talk about this text, the text is referred to as the parable of the sower – not the parable of the soils.[i]  By getting distracted by all of the ways we do not measure up or the ways in which our faith is sometimes shallow, unsophisticated, or self-centered, we miss the point altogether.  This is about the nature of Christ – the original sower of the Good News, and the expectations of how the disciples will be similar sowers.  To understand what that means, we need to let go of our anxiety about our soil, and hone in on the nature of the sower.  You see, the sower might recognize that three-fourths of soil is not fertile.  The sower even confesses that of fertile soil, the yield will be different – some hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty.

Being aware of this math, you would think the sower would develop a strategic plan, assessing how to maximize productivity, avoid burnout, and get the best return.  That is certainly how modern farmers would go about things.  I learned this week of a new machine produced by a major farming company that has perfected the art of planting seeds.  The planter slows down the seed through the use of a small puff of air.  That puff of air makes sure the seed does not roll where it should not, and perfectly lands where the farmer intends.  The machine is a genius development through science.  And that machine is nothing like the sower in Jesus’ parable.[ii]  Despite all the data – that three out of four seeds will fail to thrive, and of those seeds planted in good soil, the productivity will vary in size, the sower casts seeds in all of the soil.  The sower takes his time, his money, his knowledge and, based on our standards, wastes it.  The sower just throws seed everywhere, letting whatever happens happen.  The sower knows that each seed will do something – whether be feed for birds, or experience the joy of new faith, or even get close to growth before distraction.  But the sower does not care.  The sower seeds with abandon.  The sower sows with reckless extravagance.

I am not sure I am capable of sowing like the sower sows in this parable.  I think about Jesus encouraging his disciples to be recklessly extravagant sowers, and instead, I think my method would be a little more like what Barbara Brown Taylor imagines.  Her modern retelling of Jesus’ parable goes something like this:

“Once upon a time a sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them.  So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field.  He put up a fake owl he ordered form a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.

Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel.  A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings.  So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant that he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.

Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day.  That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl.  He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands.”[iii]

This version does not work as well as Jesus’ parable.  In fact, this version captures our resistance to the kind of extravagance Jesus is promoting.  We like control, measured actions, and predictable results.  We like efficiency, productivity, and practicality.  Just look at any church that has been planted in the last twenty years.  The Diocese conducts a study, location is considered for months, research is done to ensure maximum yield before a new church is ever begun.  Or even look at our own evangelism efforts.  We are strategically considering neighborhoods that are near the church, where people may be looking for a church home, or how people may fit in with certain demographics before we spend capital on evangelism campaigns.  And all of those efforts are smart business.[iv]

But that is not the kind of business that the sower in the parable is about.  The sower is about throwing the Good News everywhere.  The implication for us is clear.  The sower’s example means that we too need to be extravagant with our sowing of the Good News.  We cannot look around our neighborhood and say, “I mean, he already has a church, or she clearly had a bad experience with the church, or we’re not even that close, so….”  We tend to wait for months to ask someone to even come to a movie or a fall festival, let alone church.  What if they say no?  What if they avoid us afterwards?  What if they assume we’re pushy?  What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?  We get so caught up in “what ifs” that we are like a sower standing frozen with our pouches.  Instead, Jesus’ sower is standing beside us whispering, “Go ahead.  Throw the seeds anyway.”  The sower not only tells us to not be afraid of talking to others about our faith and the Good News of God in Christ, the sower tells us that we should not care – not care if the soil is fertile or what the yield will be.  In knowing the yield will be limited to 25% of those approached, the sower says we should just throw that seed, that Good News all over the place, because ultimately, what the seed does, or how the soil is, is not our responsibility.  Our responsibility is to sow the seed.

The sower in our story encourages us to be another way.  The sower says, “Hey you, on the path, in the thorns, in the shallow soil, and in the succulent soil, I want to share something with you.  Hey you with birds, thorns, rocks, and nutrition creeping in, I want to spend some time with you even though it may be a total waste of time.  I want to listen to you, I want to reflect with you on where God is acting in your life, I want to tell you why I got up today and drug myself to this awesome place called Hickory Neck.”  I know the work sounds scary and even illogical.  I know even attempting to sow seeds may feel like a task you are just ill-equipped to do – or you may assume is the work of the clergy.  But let me leave you with this:  you came here today because this community means something to you.  You came here because you are fed here, challenged here, loved here.  Why wouldn’t you want to invite someone into that wonderful experience?  Why are you clutching onto a pouch of seeds that could mean new life for someone else?  Jesus has already warned us that the return will feel low.  But you never know when you are going to encounter that soil that produces not just thirty- or sixty-fold, but sometimes a hundred-fold.  In fact, scholars tell us that those numbers indicate an unimaginably large amount of productivity.  A good amount of produce would have been seven-fold.[v]  Jesus promises much more return!  We cannot control how our Good News will be received.  Our invitation is to be as illogically, recklessly, extravagantly gracious and loving sowers as our loving Lord who could not care less about the results.  So grab your seeds, and let’s go!

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26.

[ii] Rolf Jacobson, “SB549 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 15),” Sermon Brainwave Podcast, July 8, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=911 on July 10, 2017.

[iii] Taylor, 28-29.

[iv] Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 237.

[v] Talitha J. Arnold, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 236.