Good to Great

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Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I have been sooooo busy lately! So busy! There’s just been so much work to do, so many things to get done—I have literally been running from thing to thing!

Church has been busy.

School is almost out and there are parties and field days and open houses.

And don’t get me started on my kids—ha. They have been asking if they can do karate, and swimming, and maybe can we go to the beach soon? Oh, and let’s make time for the zoo next Saturday.

And then there’s our Garden and our yard—we can’t possibly let it start looking ragged. What would the neighbors think? So we are out there at 8pm mowing the law in the dusk, or weeding the flower beds. Inside, we are cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors because grown up people have clean homes, right?

I have barely had time to stop and take a breath. Forget doing something I actually enjoy–running, or sewing, even reading a good book—I simply have been too busy. No time for those things.

Maybe next year.


Have you ever found yourself in one of these conversations with a friend, a neighbor, a loved one? Ever noticed how, even as they are piling things up, making a mountain of suffering right before your eyes, that they seem to be enjoying telling you about it? Like it’s a badge of honor to be that busy? Its almost as if the more unhappy you are, the more stressed out, the more about to fall apart, the better?

And then, of course, you know the rules: when one person starts in on their list, everyone else feels compelled to chime in with their own stuff, as though this were a competition to see who was more miserable, more sleep deprived, more stressed out this week? Because it’s a competition, right?  Who is the most miserable this week?

What is it about our culture that so many of us (particularly women) feel compelled to make our lives unbearable with an unceasing pile of expectations? What is it about our society that the only way to look like you have it all together is to run yourself ragged until you are nearly falling apart?

Maybe it’s our Puritan history. (When in doubt, blame the puritans, I always say.) This country was of course founded by people whose historical theological perspective told them that good people do good things. And not just some good things. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots…you get the picture. When Jesus said “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” our puritan ancestors seem to have taken that to mean that we should literally strive to be perfect.

But here’s the thing.

Here’s the surprise of the Pentecost story today:

when the Spirit shows up in the room with the disciples, they are all together, and they are doing……….nothing.

On purpose.

Remember last week? As Jesus is ascending into heaven, he looks at his disciples and tells them:

Go to Jerusalem and wait. Wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

They don’t have any idea what Jesus is talking about. They are literally clueless. But there is one thing that they have going for them, and that is this: they know how to listen. And when Jesus is gone, instead of

immediately rushing to fill the void

instead of

running around looking for something to do that will show the world that they are successful and contributing adults,

they listen.

They put down the nets and they wait. For something to happen that they do not know.

And when they are willing to do that, when they are willing to stop, to pause, to gather together in a posture of open-ness to what God might be doing and saying—the Spirit shows up.

Like the waters of creation, the Spirit

moves upon the disciples,

fills them up,

gives them words they didn’t know that they had,

until they cannot be silent any longer,

but are compelled to go out into the community and share what God has done and speak a word of life to those who are gathered there.

I wonder sometimes whether we have, in our rush to do good, to be good, to make a difference, I wonder if we have forgotten that sometimes the most important thing we can do is not more, but rather to simply be open. Perhaps we have forgotten that when we fill ourselves to overflowing, there is no room for the Spirit to maneuver within us in that place where Frederick Buechner says our heart’s deep gladness and the World’s deep hunger meet.

Because we are a busy people. We are so busy, our calendars need calendars.  Google cannot contain our schedules. Our children are so busy that they have to schedule the sorts of things that should be happening naturally—playdates, or soccer games on the borough field, or pickup games of basketball. We have so over-scheduled our lives—and the church is at fault for this too—that we have neglected to make space to wait for the promise of the Father.

And that is a real travesty. Because the real tragedy of all this is that we can do a lot of good on our own. I’m guessing that you are the kind of person who is really darn awesome.  You are probably a really wonderful, competent person that has the ability to do a whole lot of good. But we can do GREAT things through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can be more than ourselves in the power of the Spirit. That, I think is the miracle of Pentecost—that eleven good men became great when they were willing to make space for God to work within them.

The great runner, Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four minute mile, was once quoted as saying “before the race we store up spirit.” Friends, we who call ourselves disciples of Christ are running this race of life and faith. And it is hard. And we all will struggle. Sometimes we may want to quit. Sometimes we may be tempted to depend only on ourselves. And those are precisely the times when we need to set things down and make space for God’s Spirit to move within us. Because what we need is the strength that comes both from within and without us. The spirit that will carry us when we fall, will encourage us when we struggle, will rejoice with us when we triumph.

And what do we need to do to store up spirit? It’s simple, and yet possibly one of the hardest, most counter cultural things that we could possibly do in this world. We must be willing to say no, to put some things down, so that we can make space to rest, and listen, and wait for the promise of the Father, which is as alive today as it was back then.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Holy Spirit Advocacy

This sermon is deeply indebted to the reflection of Dr. David Lose, whose writing on his blog inspired my direction as I prepared to preach on the 6th Sunday of Easter.


 

 1 Peter 3:13-22

13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

 

You have an Advocate!

Did you hear that?

YOU HAVE AN ADVOCATE!!!!

How does it feel to know that you have someone who is on your side? Someone who is, who has been, and who always WILL be FOR YOU?

This world is facing an epidemic of loneliness—that creeping suspicion that nobody is with me. That nobody understands ME. That nobody is for ME. It can make you feel more than a little paranoid—this idea that the world might be against you. Or worse, depressed, that maybe you don’t matter all that much. Or even angry—enough to hurt other people the way you have been hurt yourself. We see this. We see this.

And then into the picture comes Jesus Christ himself. And he tells us:

You have an Advocate. And not just any Advocate, THE ADVOCATE.

The Holy Spirit, God herself.

Who, like Clint Eastwood, will be there in the Good, and the Bad, and the Ugly.

Or, if you prefer a scriptural metaphor, will, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, be there by green pastures, and in the valley of th shadow of death.

She’s there. Through it all.

When you need encouragement—you’ll get it.

When you need to be reminded that someone is rooting for you—She will raise her voice and cry out your name.

……but how?

The Holy Spirit is one of the most confusing parts of God’s presence amongst us. It’s the point in confirmation class where I get a lot of blank stares. Because she’s hard to understand.

Jesus is easy—he was a literal man, who walked the earth we live on, who had a mother and siblings and friends and enemies just like we do, and who said a bunch of stuff that people thought was interesting enough to write down. We can understand him.

And that Holy Roller, the Father himself—who hasn’t imagined a voice within the thunder? Who hasn’t wondered whether there was something bigger out there, who made the earth and everything in it? What is man that you are mindful of him?

But the Holy Spirit?

All we have are metaphors.

She’s like the wind. Or was it a dove? A breath, even? Maybe she’s more like a Ghost? No, that can’t be it….oh yes, a still, small voice!  Or wait–is she your conscience?

Maybe.

The problem with the Holy Spirit is that none of us have ever met her in person.

Except.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit shows up when we are together. That somehow she is amongst us, and through us.

In other words—the Advocate makes her appearance whenever we are church to each other.

Whenever you support a brother or a sister in Christ

Whenever you encourage the fainthearted

Whenever you support the weak and the afflicted—

THAT IS HOLY SPIRIT ADVOCACY.

Whenever you love someone else’s baby like he is your own;

Or take the time to get to know that quiet teenager in church;

Or visit the elderly member because you know she might be lonely—

YOU ARE THE ADVOCATE.

You are testifying to God’s power moving through Y-O-U.

Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.

top.jpgIt is utterly amazing to think that you could be the conduit through which God’s power might be felt in the world. It’s as though you were the electrical in a house that God has been building, and it wasn’t until you were Grounded in the Word that Jesus showed up and threw the circuit breakers on, and the Spirit coursed through your body as it flooded that house with light. To illuminate the world we live in.

See, Jesus isn’t content to just have us look back to the story of God’s presence amongst us. He wasn’t interested in a backward-looking faith. He knew that we needed to feel God’s presence, alive and active, amongst us now.

He knew that if those words he spoke were going to matter, we needed someone who would love us as much as he did.

He knew that we needed an ADVOCATE to show us how to be an Advocate for one another.

So how does it feel, knowing this? That you have someone?

Because remember what we said in the beginning—the world is a dark and lonesome place. Perhaps it gives you the strength, in the words of Peter, to endure, to suffer for what is right, to resist fear, to defend your difference in Christ with gentleness and reverence. Perhaps it helps you to put your hope where it belongs—in Christ, the defender and author, pioneer and perfector of our faith.

And perhaps it gives you the courage to share what you know—that we are not alone. To embrace one another, to baptize babies in defiance of the darkness because you know the power of the light that courses within you. To be with and for one another because we are better together than we are apart. Because THAT is our Testimony. That is HOLY SPIRIT WORK.

Just be warned—the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. Once she is in you, she may take you somewhere you did not expect. She may ask you to open your heart wider than you anticipated. She may change you, or challenge you, or bid you follow her into unknown territory. But she’s worth it. She’s worth it, friends. Because in her, we are alive. And God is with us. Amen? Amen.4ba29a44f27cce7fb545c9654ff5dcf8.jpg

 

 

 

Dinosaur Bones

 

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You gotta love a good metaphor.

The other day, I was sitting with some clergy colleagues and we were talking about the role of the pastor.  What, we wondered, is the pastor’s real job?  Sure, they are supposed to preach, to teach, to visit the sick, to shepherd the flock, to die on the cross demonstrate self-sacrifice, and to model discipleship.  But how?

For some of us, the answer was simple–you do all of that by casting a vision.  One colleague offered that when he serves a church, he sees his role as providing the church with a vision that is God-centered and faithful to the gospel.  A faithful ministry, he said, is one where you have succeeded in convincing your church to follow you where you believe God would have the congregation go.

But not all of us agreed.  As we sat in the room debating, I found myself thinking about dinosaur bones.  Specifically, about the process by which archeologists carefully and meticulously unearth these ancient treasures from below the ground, and then painstakingly assemble them together to show us something of what dinosaurs (or ancient pottery, homes, synagogues, you name it) may have looked like.

In that moment, I was compelled by the notion that successful pastors don’t cast a vision–they unearth the vision that was there all along.  They tend to the soil of their congregation, listening for clues that might help them discover what is lying below the surface, waiting to be revealed.  Good pastoral ministry knows that the congregation has a vision, they just may have forgotten it, or buried it beneath anxiety about change or finances or anything else that has a tendency to get in the way of the gospel.

Of course, I was feeling pretty profound when I finally had the courage to share my metaphor with the group, but it turns out I had still more to learn, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than a colleague blurted out:

“Of Course!  It’s like the Hadrosaurus!”

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this can’t possibly be right….

If you are like me, then you were probably utterly confused, so I will explain what my colleague was so excited about.  Apparently, we have been finding dinosaur bones for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we always knew what to do with them.  In fact, , scientists were often baffled by the bones, and sometimeswould put them together in all kinds of shapes using what seemed to be educated guesses.

Until they found the Hadrosaurus. In 1858, scientists in Haddonfield New Jersey uncovered the first largely intact dinosaur skeleton.  It was the first time they had enough pieces to know what a dinosaur actually looked like, and what it revealed is that, up until that moment, we had it all wrong.

 

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Ahh, that’s better…

Before the Hadrosaurus, paleontologists had assumed that most dinosaurs were
quadrupedal; Hadrosaurus revealed that they were not.  It turned out that dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus were completely fictional–they never existed, we just imagined them because we didn’t know what we were looking at. It took seeing a complete, intact dinosaur to realize that we had it all wrong.

In our group, we found ourselves on the precipice of something important.  We were realizing that the role of the pastor may have more to do with paleontology than we realized.  Yes, a good pastoral leader pays attention to her congregation and helps uncover what is already there. But they also need to know how to faithfully fit it all together. In order to help the church be faithful, they must endeavor to fit those pieces together so that they make something that is real and honest and true.

There are plenty of instances where we uncover a bunch of different passions and visions, but if we don’t have a blueprint, we cannot fit them together in a faithful way. And that is what Scripture is for.  It is our Hadrosaurus, our guide to what the church should look like.  And thanks be to God that, like the dinosaurs, there are countless models of faithful churches to look at. But they all follow certain rules.  They are faithful to the message of Christ, devoted to works of mercy and compassion, to worship and prayer, hospitality and healing, justice and reconciliation, generosity of spirit and with resources.

These building blocks make us who we are. And when we are attentive to them, when we put them together correctly, they reveal something about who God is.  More than that, they leave something for future generations, a blueprint for those who come after to follow as they, too, learn what it means to worship the one we know as God.

 

 

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What if my bones were in a museum,
Where aliens paid good money to see ’em?
And suppose that they’d put me together all wrong,
Sticking bones on to bones where they didn’t belong!
Imagine phalanges, pelvis, and spine
Welded to mandibles that once had been mine!
With each misassemblage, the error compounded,
The aliens would draw back in terror, astounded!
Their textbooks would show me in grim illustration,
The most hideous thing ever seen in creation!
The museum would commission a model in plaster
Of ME, to be called, “Evolution’s Disaster”!
And paleontologists there would debate
Dozens of theories to help postulate
How man survived for those thousands of years
With teeth-covered arms growing out of his ears!
Oh, I hope that I’m never in such manner displayed,
No matter HOW much to see me the aliens paid. -Bill Watterson

 

I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22   “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

Recently my husband and were driving in the car and we had the rare chance to enjoy one of those adult conversations that have become so rare for us lately.  We didn’t talk about our kids, or our schedules, or who is making what for dinner, or who needs to clean what when.

So you may be wondering–What did we talk about?

We spent an hour talking about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Of course, you are saying to yourself! The Categorical Imperative! I’m sure you and your partner discussed the Categorical Imperative at length last summer over mimosas in the garden! Your toddler reminds you of the Kant’s analytical thought all.the.time.  Right?

Of course, there may be a few of you who haven’t found yourself wading into German Philosophical Waters recently, so let me explain.  First of all, who the heck is Kant?  Well, Kant was an 18th Century philosopher.  As a young man, he wasn’t all that remarkable.  In fact, he was darn ordinary.

Until the Categorical Imperative.

His thinking on this subject launched him from relative obscurity to mega-star status–he was the Bruce Springsteen (for all you PA-NJ types), the Michael Jackson (for the rest of us) of his time. And he had a heck of a lot to say about moral action, where it comes from, and how we know what it is.

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

The idea that things that are right are right in themselves, what is wrong is wrong. That these are things that are able to be discovered through reason alone.

But how do you know if something is “right in itself?” Kant proposes three conditions, all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to satisfy his categorical imperative:

1) all actions must be universal. You should only act if it makes sense for you to will everyone to act in the same way. Your will must be consistent. (thy will shalt make sense)

2) every human must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end. In other words, manipulation is always wrong.

3) We have a responsibility to be a moral agent: We are ALWAYS setting an example for other people. Always behave as though you are the moral authority of the universe.

 

Wait a second.

This sounds an awful lot like something we heard in our scriptures earlier this morning.  What was it that Peter said?

But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

In other words, doing what is right is more important than being comfortable. It is, pardon the pun, categorically imperative.

Which is why it MUST, according to Kant (and Jesus), come from within.
Remember that first condition of Kant? That our actions must be universal? That means that our actions should be consistent with the kind of world where you think everyone should act the way you are choosing to act in that moment. Whenever you have a choice before you, ask yourself : what would the world be like if everyone were to act this way? And then do what seems best for the world. That is an act of good will.

For Peter, an act of good will is to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did, even if it threatens your own safety and well-being. Because it is right. And that, to Peter, makes sense.

Consider the following example: I have always felt personally uncomfortable in the presence of the suffering of another person. When my son got stitches on his lip after falling off a chair, my stomach was in knots at the Emergency Room. Whenever I encounter someone begging on the side of the road, or struggling with a particularly heavy burden, I am tempted to look away.

So I ask myself: would the world be a better place if it were morally acceptable to avoid the suffering of other people?  If we were not morally obligated to bear witness, would the world be a better place?

I wonder.

Which is precisely where our second condition from Kant. Because it isn’t enough just to be consistent. Our choices also must respect the dignity of other people. Kant’s second maxim for discerning what is right is that you may not manipulate another person or treat them as a means to an end. Which is another way of saying that your choices, your decisions, your moral code must not take advantage of another person, or forget their inherent worthiness.

That means we can’t go around ignoring inconvenient people, and we also cannot go around imposing our will on others just because we think it is good for them (or for us). Which, incidentally, we do all the time at church.

If this isn’t sounding utterly insane to you, let me put it another way: if we are to take Jesus and Kant at their word, then logically it follows that we need to stop teaching people “because I said so” kind of rules, and instead create the kinds of opportunities that lead people to impose these rules, our moral framework, upon themselves. Under this framework, the good will of the Christian Community should be to create opportunities for individuals to take Christ’s yoke upon them. The last thing we should be doing is throwing up barricades and boundaries on the behalf of others. Once we do that, we have ceased to do God.

To be a little more Gospel, you cannot put down the nets and follow Jesus for anyone else. You can only do it for yourself. You cannot choose to suffer for anyone else; only they can make that choice.

Kant’s second maxim: you can’t manipulate someone—everyone deserves to be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

Or, in the words of our Gospel today: you cannot make someone be a sheep. A sheep chooses to obey the master. Trust me, as someone who raised sheep herself—you can’t make a sheep do something she doesn’t wanna do. You will NEVER gain the trust of that sheep through force, threats of violence, or coercion. The sheep must choose for itself. When the sheep has the freedom to choose, only then is it capable of good will.

If we want more sheep in the pasture—well, then, we need to act like that pasture is worth living in. Finally, we find ourselves at Kant’s final condition: there is a responsibility to being a moral actor. We must remember we are always setting an example. So we have to act like it. At all times. Even when nobody is looking. Because it doesn’t matter what happens. What matters is our intent. Remember, it was Jesus who said that sin is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of our actions. Because it doesn’t matter how kind you act, what matters is what you think.

We who have chosen, we who believe these words of Christ to be true and timeless, not because someone told us to long ago but because we have experienced it, we must take care to honor our neighbor, and to be a good example. We are all potentially somebody’s big sister or brother in this faith, and our actions will determine whether this family, this flock, continues to grow and bear fruit, or withers on the vine.

We must be constantly open to improvement, to the opportunity to do the right thing, whatever it is, because we will it. Because it is good and right.

Jesus believes it ISN”T enough to just do what you are told. You have to believe in it for yourself. In Kant’s words, it needs to originate within you. What is good and doing good only count if they originate out of the system of rules that you place upon YOURSELF. That means you have to have decided to adopt them. They must be freely chosen—no one can impose them upon you.

This is I think what made the early church so special. They shared out of their abundance, they gave to one another as anyone had need, they worshipped because they BELIEVED IN IT. And the response was overwhelming: daily they added to their number.

At this point one of a couple things have happened to you:
1) you tuned out somewhere along the way—in which case, my apologies for losing you!  Watch this awesome youtube video for a more interesting overview of Kant.

OR…..

2) perhaps you have found yourself thinking a little differently. Perhaps you have found yourself asking: what is MY categorical imperative? How have I made a commitment, or how CAN I commit to “will the good” in the world? Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that Philosophy is not actually the worst choice of major that your grandkid/child/best friend could have chosen after all. Perhaps it actually may have something important to say.

So what is OUR Categorical Imperative? What can we not live without? What kind of world do we imagine? If we are Christian, our Categorical Imperative is contained within the vision of the Kingdom of God—the blueprint is laid when Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. Not because he told us to. But because we believe it is the right thing to do. Until we are whole. Until, alleluia, we are one. Amen, and may it be so.

Cross Post: Young Clergy Women

I had the honor of interviewing some of my female colleagues in ministry recently for a reporting piece that was published with the Young Clergy Women Project Magazine, Fidelia.  The piece is about how our bodies inform our ministry, and how ministry informs the way we think about our bodies, especially as it relates to assumptions around child-bearing and caring.  There are some great reflections from young clergy women of various backgrounds, speaking about the experience of adoption, of pregnancy and childbirth, and more.  It was an honor to share these stories, and I hope you will find it useful, either as a fellow clergy woman, or as someone who might benefit from hearing some of the real experiences that “women who work” endure in order to provide for their families and answer their callings.

Pub Theology: MLK Edition

This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jan Pub Theology.jpg

It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation.  We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring?  What do we most need to hear?  I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.

If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)

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“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.

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“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.

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“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

 

Change is Coming

 Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:47-55

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

the-change-up-180.jpgA special assembly, they called it. Just for girls. They kicked the boys out of our fourth grade classroom and out onto the playground for extended PE and rolled a large television cart into our classroom. A visitor joined us in the classroom, and before we knew what was happening, we were talking about “the change.”

Now let’s be clear. I was 10. I had no idea what she was talking about. All I cared about was the little pink and purple “pencil case” covered in quotes by famous women that she gave to each of us, at least, I thought it was a pencil case. It was full of strange objects that I had only glimpsed in my mother’s bathroom cabinets.

That woman in my classroom—neither her nor my teacher Mrs. Datlow ever really said plainly what she was there to talk about. Or maybe she did, but we didn’t really know how to understand what she was saying. All we were certain of by the end of our special assembly was that something was coming, that it would make us different, and that when it happened, we would need these bags. And Abstinence. That too.

So I kept that bag in my backpack (for years I kept it!), waiting for that moment when I would need it. Waiting for the day when I would finally understand what it all meant.

At home, I would pull out that little pencil bag and read the quotes printed on the outside. I remember the one by Eleanor Roosevelt the best: “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I loved that quote. Later I would learn that Ms. Roosevelt had a lot to say about women—she was once quoted as saying that “women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.”


It occurs to me that this certainly could describe our Gospel lesson today—for this morning we are introduced-reintroduced, really-to a woman whose story starts out with her in hot water, a woman whose encounter with God teaches her just how strong she will have to become. The only problem is that she isn’t really a woman yet—Mary is, by today’s standards, a child. Many scholars think that she might have been anywhere between ten and fourteen years old when the angel first arrived at her door.

Which, these days, would make a fifth-7th grader.

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It turns out that Mary wasn’t all that different than I was when I sat in that classroom what seems like a lifetime ago, pondering a messenger’s confusing words.

And I don’t know about you, but knowing that—knowing that Mary was a child, really—changes the story for me. To be reminded that Mary wasn’t a woman—she wasn’t fully grown, wasn’t fully anything yet—she was still a little girl when the angel brought the news to her that she would bear the savior of the world.

I wonder: Did she understand what that meant? Could she possibly? Can any of us imagine what that must have been like for her?

And maybe it is just my age, but these days I find myself wondering what it must have been like to be Mary’s parents in the days after this glorious news. For us, this news is glorious—for them, it must have been terrifying. In a culture where virtue is everything, this news has the power to destroy Mary, to destroy her reputation, to ruin her life before it even begins. Should we be surprised, then, that her first act after the angel’s visit is to run away to a distant cousin’s home? Back then, I wonder whether it was really possible to see this child for the blessing that He was?

And of course, I wonder what it must have been like to be Mary herself. I can’t speak for others, but for me being a preteen was often quite painful. I was growing so fast that my brain couldn’t keep up. I was trying to figure out who I was and what that meant. I always felt awkward. I still liked playing my little ponies, but I also was starting to think that boys were kind of cute too. I wanted so badly to be cool, but every time recess came around, I found that being cool and playing games, ie running around the yard pretending to be a horse, or a mermaid, or a princess, or a monster, were often mutually exclusive. And I wanted adults to take me seriously, but I struggled to understand what they wanted from me. When I was a tween, I was slipping notes under the door to my parents proclaiming that I was almost a grown up, and that they needed to start treating me like one and letting me stay up until 10pm if I wanted to. I wanted so badly to be grown up, but I didn’t know how.

And I think of this when I imagine Mary these days. Classic art often depicts Mary as this beautiful, peaceful, utterly calm and still young woman. How many 10 year olds does that describe for you?

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If we were to imagine this story today, perhaps it might be more accurate to picture Mary curled up under the covers collecting cats on her iphone, wearing her favorite flannel pajamas covered in cartoon foxes. Perhaps we should imagine this fiercely independent child clutching her beloved stuffed animal, even though she would never be seen outside the house with it. Her hair mussed on one side, her teeth wrapped in braces, the first signs of acne on her forehead.

e81b495f2f1fddd112b40e781a633ce2.jpgAnd here is what is amazing to me—when the angel of the Lord speaks his promise into Mary’s life—when he asks this child of God to bear the savior, Immanuel, God-with-us, into the world…. she is not afraid.

Perhaps she is too young to be fearful. Maybe her parent raised her to be respectful to other adults. Perhaps the excitement of being chosen, being set apart, overcomes any reservation. But Mary chooses to embrace God’s promise of hope. “Let it be according to your Word,” she replies. In a world that is dark, and fearful, she imagines freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, hope for the hopeless. She is faithful to the God of promise who guides her.

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Does she know the desert she is about to enter? I wonder. But just as God promised a way through the desert for the Exiled people of Israel in Isaiah 35, so God will provide a way forward for this brave little girl who has embraced a very big task. A task that she will only come to appreciate as she grows in wisdom and knowledge. God will be with her when her child is born in the darkness of a stable rude. God will be with her at 24, when her child disappears in the city of Jerusalem and she cannot find him for days. God will be with her at 45, when her baby is executed by the state for proclaiming a kingdom not of this world, for suggesting that the way to make Israel great again is not through strength, not through force, not through violence, but rather by seeking out and saving the lost and the broken.

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I wonder what might it mean for us, at this midway point in Advent, to remember that God’s Good News for the world can come in the most unexpected packages—for our God has a fondness for surprises like preteen girls and homeless prophets. That in fact, God rarely chooses the most dignified and deserving of us for the biggest tasks—the Good News, more often, comes to us from lowly, forgotten, humble places. The corners of the world from which we tend to hide our eyes.
Might it change the way that we pay attention to the world around us? The way we listen to our own children, our own neighbors? I wonder, would we be willing to accept a God whose salvation is found in the desert places of this world, places where all hope seems lost, where life has given up the ghost? Would we be willing to listen to a God who speaks justice out of the mouths of today’s preteens, today’s homeless, today’s oppressed people?

Because that is the God we worship, friends. A God who shows greatness in the least expected places. A God who strengthens weak hands, makes firm feeble knees, breathes strength to the fearful heart, and grants sight to the blind, movement to the lame, words to the speechless, sound to the deaf, and water to the parched places. Can we imagine?