Category Archives: sermons

Spiritual Triage

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, June 28, 2015

Mark 5:21-43

This has been quite a week, hasn’t it?

In the last 10 or so days, a white supremacist murdered 9 people at a bible study; the Supreme Court released decisions on same-sex marriage, health care, and housing justice; four more Black churches across the South were burned by arsonists; and terrorists attacked in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France on the same day. President Obama, even, went from making a celebratory speech on the Supreme Court decision straight to the funeral of Rev. Senator Clementa Pinckney, where he delivered a eulogy full of grief, anger, and resolve.

It’s almost too much. And meanwhile, our own lives go on, full of daily needs, mundane things and beautiful things; happiness and sorrow and frustration and gratitude.

It’s been a rough week for me personally, as my relationships with two people who are dear to me feel like they’re ripping apart at the seams, both at the same time. There were a few days when I wanted to wail with the Psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!”

And then, you know, just to top it all off, yesterday I spilled boiling hot coffee on my foot and all over the counter on my way out the door.

This week I can sort of resonate with Jesus walking through the crowd by the sea – coming straight from the madness of one healing in the country of the Gerasenes right into Jairus’ need for his daughter’s healing; while the crowd continues to press in on him with their own needs, their own hopes, their own pains, their own longing for a messiah. The muchness is so great that he can’t even finish one miracle without being interrupted by more desperation!

Weeks like this one, I think we’re all that crowd pushing in: with rejoicing and mourning and confusion and anger and tentative happiness and grief and fear and maybe some more feelings we don’t even want to acknowledge yet. Probably some of us are looking for healing, like the people we meet in this passage, but all of us are looking for something.

* * *

Mark tells these healing stories together to make a point, or more probably several points. It’s a fast-paced gospel, and these two woven-together healings drive the narrative forward, picking up speed along with the urgency of Jesus’ mission and the assembling crowds.

But these two characters belong together for other reasons, too. They are a dramatic pair, this young girl who has grown up in a wealthy important house, together with this woman who has lost all the status she might have had because of her disease, declared unclean and therefore unable to worship, be in her family’s house, or even to be touched. She has spent all the money she had, trying to stop this bleeding that has continued as long as the girl has been alive. One has an influential father who can stride right up to Jesus on her behalf, while the other is so filled with shame that it takes all her courage to approach him unnoticed.

It seems to me that if we were to transplant this story to our place and time, Jairus and his daughter would probably have white skin like ours, and the unnamed woman would more than likely have brown or black skin. Right?

Jesus knows all this, too, about the women who need his healing, and so he knows just how shocking it will be when he stops following Jairus and says “Wait! I have to find this person.” Really?! That could have been anyone or no one, Jairus is thinking, and you’re going to take the time to find her while my daughter is dying?!?

Yes, Jesus would say, except he’s too busy now taking this woman’s hand, looking into her eyes, and hearing her story. Daughter, he calls her, you who had no family left are my family, and your faith has made you well. Your outlandish hope when you had no reason to have any more hope at all has finally healed you. For her it means not just a physical healing, but also a social restoration – you who had been cast out are welcomed back with love and healing touch.

And then Mark cuts back in and barely lets this lovely moment finish before word comes that Jairus’ daughter has died. But again, Jesus tells them that their faith is what matters. And this girl does not need the same kind of social restoration that the woman did, but she does need some pretty big healing!

And, for all the social implications of these juxtaposed healings, the girl is just as tenderly healed. Jesus takes her hand, with the ritual uncleanliness that implies now that she is dead, and she gets up and she walks and she eats.

* * *

Now I don’t know that I have a neat packaged message about these stories – because healing is messy and complicated, and why does healing seem to come so fast in some cases and take so long in others? If it is faith that makes us well, then why are so many good and faithful people suffering with disease and debilitation?

So I ask, how are we bleeding? What are the places in you that are crying out for healing? What is it for which you would throw yourself down at Jesus’ feet?

Who are the people around us who bleed, and what can we do about it?

* * *

Following in Jesus’ steps means that we might still need healing as much as anyone else, but we also are called to notice where hurting people have been kept out – and then to stop what we’re doing to take their hand and start to heal the wounds of exclusion.

And we do that not because we’ve never been wounded ourselves, but precisely because we have. In the midst of all these needs – all these conflicting emotions and joy in the midst of sorrow in the midst of hope – our strength comes from those places where we were hurt but have started to heal. And in those very scars we can see where others are still bleeding around us.

In those scars, in those places we may have felt cast out but now have been brought back by the healing love of friends, of family, of God, we can follow in those holy steps and search out the ones who need healing so badly they might slip through a crowd unnoticed, following their last hope.

Make no mistake, there are hurting people in this country, and the wounds cut deep. The events of these past weeks make that abundantly clear if it wasn’t already. And if we say we follow Jesus – prophet, messiah, and healer of wounded people – that must matter to us.

The sin of racism is woven deeply into our lives all over this country – and if we think it’s not our problem, then it most certainly is our problem. We who are white have a very particular responsibility at this time, and that is to start listening to the voices of hurt that we have tuned out or avoided or just disbelieved.

We are caught up in our own lives and our own swirls of emotion and hurt and need, and that is okay. But we have to notice when Jesus might take time out of helping us to turn to someone with an even deeper need, and would keep us waiting because theirs is the hurt that needs to be attended to right now.

* * *

And, you know, so much of Jesus’ healings was the social and communal reconnection that went along with the physical healing. We may not be able to raise people from the dead, but we surely do have the strength to begin to heal social wounds.

Our genuine connection with others will be healing for all of us, whether we know it yet or not. It is in our relationships where we find the greatest, holiest joy, along with all the difficulties and annoyance and pain. And that is true not just for our relationships with people we’ve decided are “like us,” but it is especially true when we’re able to make real connections with people who are different.

It is messy and complicated and hard, like so much of life if we’re honest. But we proclaim a God who does not give up on us, no matter how broken we are or what kind of mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, no matter how little breath is left in us or no breath at all: God does not give up on us. If there is one thing we can say about the healing love of God, it is that each and every one of us can trust it. Even when we are in the deepest pain, or grief, or loss, God’s healing comes through our faith and through the people around us.

In all the confusion of these weeks like all weeks, Jesus is there cutting a path through the crowd. Stick with him and somehow, we will all be healed.

Thanks be to God.

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Being God Together

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, May 17, 2015

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
John 17:6-19

Most of you will have gotten a letter from me this week letting you know that I am following a call to go back to school this fall, and moving to California. I will be with you through the beginning of August, and then I’m switching gears to return to full-time theological study. This is one of those momentous decisions that feels, to me, on par with choosing the twelfth apostle – although I guess it’s not quite as significant for Christianity as a whole.

But certainly we as a church are in a transitional moment now, just as the disciples were in these two moments on the eve of Jesus’ death, and then on the eve of Pentecost. And what they model and pray for us in times like these is an attitude of prayer, and of unity in God.

We as a congregation are in a season of transition, not just of leadership but also of your own identity and focus. A generous monetary gift might be the springboard for some of this discernment and refocusing, but the questions we’re asking in these times about who we are and what we value are bigger than simply deciding what to do with a chunk of money, even a very large one. In this changing cultural landscape, where churches simply don’t take on the same role they have in previous decades, individual churches like ours are faced with something of an identity crisis, right along with the big-C Church as a whole.

This week the Pew Research Center released their 2014 religious landscape study, confirming what many of us had probably suspected: the numbers of people in the US identifying with any Christian faith have dropped sharply even since their previous study in 2007. Our world is changing, rapidly, and we are not sure what to do about it. We are anxious, we are confused, we are scared – because the world we knew has changed, and we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to act in this new world.

I think the apostles, Jesus’ closest friends, might know something about that.

In our reading from John, Jesus is about to be arrested and killed, and he is saying his long and drawn-out goodbyes around the dinner table. In the reading from Acts, Jesus has been resurrected and then ascended back to heaven and left them again. The disciples are a bit at loose ends because Jesus is gone and the Holy Spirit has not yet come with a hope for new things and a new mission to send them out with.

So they decide to have an election. Because that’s productive, right? Or at least it’s familiar.

Jesus had come and shook up the world they knew – upset everything they had known and taught them a whole new way of existing in the world. And now he’s gone again! So now what are we supposed to do?? Do we go back to the world we knew, before everything changed, and just try to hold on tight while everything changes around us? Do we pretend the world hasn’t changed, and just do what we’ve always done?

Or can we trust that the Holy Spirit is coming and will lead us into something new?

* * *

In the midst of all that uncertainty, the disciples gathered to pray. Which is a great start! But look at the contents of their prayer – instead of asking, “Okay, God, what next? What should we be doing now?” their prayer is shaped entirely by the assumptions that they’re bringing. It becomes, “Okay God, we need to replace Judas as an apostle, and here are the criteria we’ve set out, and there are two of us who meet those criteria. Can you help us pick one of these two men?”

That’s a very different sort of prayer. They were only listening for one very particular word from God, one predetermined direction, rather than being open to the possibility that God might lead them somewhere entirely new. And it’s hard to say whether Matthias was the right choice for the twelfth apostle, because neither he nor Justus appear again anywhere in the scriptures.

I wonder if God cared as much as they did about filling that twelfth chair at the table. It’s hard to say, because no one stopped to ask – or at least no one bothered to write that part down.

So as we start to consider our own transition, in leadership as well as in the bigger picture of what our mission might be in this new world, perhaps one lesson we might take from this text is the challenge to be open to new possibilities. Maybe the comfortable default answers used to be, okay, we’ll hire a new full-time pastor and we’ll stick all this money in the bank. And maybe that is what God wants for us in this moment amidst a rapidly-changing cultural landscape, and maybe it’s not.

Our challenge is to recognize the times when God is leading us, and when it is we’ve already decided where we want to go and we’re just tacking on God’s name at the end like an ecclesial seal of approval. We’ve already seen over the past 3 years that the old familiar model of one full-time pastor is not the only one for this community. This model of shared leadership has been a great and life-giving one, and yet I think trying to run out and just find another young pastor to slot in to this Associate Pastor role is not necessarily the right answer either.

I’d suggest, instead, that what we need to do is to let the transition be uncomfortable and strange for a minute. And I don’t just mean our particular leadership transition – I mean also the shift in culture around us and the change in our place in the world. Our world has changed, and will continue to change. Trying to deny that won’t help, and trying to act in all the old familiar ways isn’t going to work anymore. The world around us is just different than the world we once knew; as dramatically as the disciples’ world was different before Jesus died and after.

Their world after Easter would never be the same again – and yet for them to long for the good old days when Jesus was alive would completely miss the point.

* * *

Our scriptures are full of stories of God defying humanity’s expectations. We like sameness and familiarity, and yet God insists on changing things and making us new.

Jesus knew before he died that his disciples would be sent into a turmoil. And his prayer on their behalf is a prayer for their protection; he asks God, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” He does not ask for their comfort or their security, that they might have resources for the future, but he asks for God’s protection and the people’s unity.

And this, then, is our reassurance in the times of change and uncertainty: looking for God’s presence with us, and being in relationship with one another as closely as Jesus is with his Father, our Creator. The promise is not that our lives will be easy or stable as followers of Christ – far from it. But our comfort and our challenge is being with God and truly one with each other. As close, as mysteriously one-yet-different as are the beings of God and Jesus, this is how Jesus prays we might relate to one another, all the believers and all those who might come to believe.

In this strange union, we know God as we know each other. We can seek God’s will for us, and we come to know God better as we draw closer together in Jesus. Our way forward is always in God, and somehow we find God in our being together.

Friends, in all the change and excitement and anxiety that the next year or so will hold for us, however the particular faces change, let us be together in God, in prayer, and in fellowship with one another. Because in that we will know God.

Amen.

Trusting the Resurrection

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35
John 20:19-31

Amidst all the hand-wringing about young adults leaving the church, there’s a lot of guessing and a lot of speculation. So church scholar Diana Butler Bass set out to examine this idea we hear frequently of “spiritual but not religious,” and to actually break down what people mean by it, and what this phrase means for the church. So she started to explore the meaning and history of these two categories, ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious.’

One idea that goes together pretty closely with ‘religious’ is the concept of belief. Now we use the word ‘believe’ a lot. You’d think we’d at least agree on what it meant. And maybe we do, mostly, but it turns out that what we we mean when we say “I believe this” has changed a whole lot since the time when Thomas talked about having trouble believing in Jesus’ resurrection.

She starts out telling a story of a young woman she met when guest preaching at a small Lutheran church, known mainly for its potlucks and its quilting bees. They sat down at lunch together, and at some point the young woman says to her:

“I love this congregation. The people have become my family. But I don’t know what to say to my classmates when they ask me what I believe. Whenever I say ‘I believe in Christianity,’ they look at me as if I’m crazy. Besides, I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to quilt and singing these hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being a Christian?”

This student had trouble articulating what it is she “believes” in part because our modern understanding of belief seems to be mostly about intellectual assent, as if God is a yes or no question: “yes, I believe that God exists,” or “no, I do not,” with very few options in between. But Diana Butler Bass argues that this is a fairly recent evolution in our language: that until the last few centuries, the word “belief” was not about evidence or intellectual choice, but it was “more like a marriage vow – ‘I do’ as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to and with the other.”

She quotes historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to him.’ … Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is “yes.” I judge God to be existent.’”

That’s quite a shift, isn’t it?! She suggests that we might be better off translating “believe” as trust, to capture this idea of belief coming from the heart rather than from the brain. “I trust in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. I trust in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord. I trust in the Holy Ghost, I trust in the forgiveness of sins, I trust in the life everlasting. Amen.”

* * *

Our gospel story today is known to many as the story of Doubting Thomas, as if he’s the one disciple who just doesn’t get it, the one stubborn guy, when really he just wants what everyone else already got: to see Jesus!

And it’s not like everyone else was doing much better. They had all heard that Jesus had been raised, and yet there they are on Easter evening, hiding themselves away in a locked house, afraid. And then, amazingly, Jesus comes speaking peace, moving through even those locked doors and the fear that overcame them. But then a week later, even after Jesus sent them out with the Holy Spirit upon them, there they are again behind those same closed doors.

And Jesus comes to them again. We know Thomas needed to see him, and apparently the rest of the disciples needed to be reminded as well. They’re certainly not acting like Christ is risen and they were sent out into the world to proclaim it.

Jesus came for Thomas, sure. But Jesus also came because it really didn’t seem like the other disciples trusted this good news either.

Thomas got the scolding, perhaps; that line which usually gets translated “Do not doubt but believe.” And yet in the Greek, those words really mean something more like, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” Or, maybe, “Do not be untrusting, but trusting.”

And then John’s summary sounds more like: “these are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through faith and trust you may have life in his name.”

“Distrustful Thomas” isn’t much better as far as Thomas’ reputation is concerned, but I do think that Jesus’ message to us can shift dramatically. We are not being asked to agree to the literal truth of the resurrection – even the first disciples and the gospel writers disagreed on exactly what happened and what Jesus looked or felt like after Easter! But we are told with Thomas to trust that Jesus is risen. To have faith. To profess our love for the resurrection of Christ.

* * *

And it’s a big deal to pledge allegiance to the risen Christ. This is much more about saying yes or no, or about checking a box on the to-do list for eternal life: yup, I’ve agreed that Jesus can be my Lord and savior if he wants to do that. Trusting that Christ is risen changes everything.

We get a little snapshot of what that might look like in our reading from the book of Acts. It’s a bit of a simplified portrait, to be sure, but think about what that might mean! “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” And they did this because they gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and they cared for one another as any of them had need.

And then the writer goes on to tell stories of some people living up to this ideal and some people having trouble with it, just like any community in the world. But what is held up is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus means caring for one another. And it means completely redefining the way they understood property and wealth, because it means completely reorienting themselves in the world.

Living into the resurrection of Christ, for them, meant really trying to live up to all the stuff Jesus had taught them about loving one another, in the very practical sense of caring for one another’s needs. “There was not a needy person among them,” because they had come to understand that living out their faith and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection was not just about what words they said or what they did on Sunday mornings; it meant living their whole lives through the lens of Jesus’ teachings.

Suddenly the astounding fact that their messiah had been brutally executed and then came back meant that all their assumptions about the way life was and how people were just supposed to live because that’s the way the world worked – suddenly everything changes. Suddenly death might not even mean death anymore, and so why should they let the world tell them that they should really be saving some money for themselves when Jesus has just turned that world upside down?

* * *

Well sure, we might say, that’s all well and good for them. They were caught up in the excitement of the newness of the church, and they didn’t have to worry about saving for retirement because they didn’t live as long as we will. If they’d seen Jesus during his life it’s no wonder they’d be excited! And didn’t they think Christ would be coming back soon? We know better now.

Maybe so, but let me assure you that this picture of the early believers would have been just as counter-cultural then as it is today. People still had the same motivation to look out for their own futures, their own families, their own security in a world where the future was even less secure than our own. I’m sure they got the same eye rolls from their neighbors about those darn hippies.

And they did it anyway, because they had experienced something amazing in their contact with Jesus’ teachings and followers. It wasn’t a well-reasoned explanation of how salvation worked, it wasn’t a logical exposition of the way that following Jesus’ teachings would lead to increased happiness. They had experienced the love of God and the love of a community, and they trusted that.

In the words of the Lutheran student who talked with Diana Butler Bass, it’s less about believing and more about living.

And in our belief-centric world, we’ve lost some of the passion that drove the early church to their radical change of life inspired by the resurrection. Sure, we might “believe” it. Yes, we can say with some historical certainty that there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, and that his followers afterward experienced him as alive again. But can we trust it? Can we pledge our hearts and souls to the resurrection of Christ? What does that even mean?

Like Thomas we have been separated from the experience of those who first met the risen Christ. We have heard testimony, but we are skeptical. Okay, Jesus is back, if you say so. We’ve heard stories, but we haven’t quite witnessed the power of the resurrection to change anything.

So what on earth does it have to do with me? That happened two thousand years ago, halfway around the world. I’m just going about my life, planning for things to happen the way I expect them to happen, saving for the future, because I certainly don’t expect anything miraculous to happen. The world just doesn’t work that way.

Until I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not trust this crazy story. I will not allow the risen Christ to change my life.

Friends, we have heard the testimony from believers through the ages: Christ is risen. The world has changed. Can we trust this amazing news?

How did that tomb get empty, anyway?

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, April 5 2015, at the Easter Sunrise service outside next to the cemetery

A cemetery is a strange place, isn’t it? Eerie, sometimes. Often for us it occupies an in-between space of life meeting death, death meeting life. We don’t like to think about what happens there, once the bodies get into their graves. Oftentimes we don’t even get that far – we leave the casket perched on its rollers, hovering above the emptiness, as we say one last prayer and then turn away to let the funeral staff take care of getting the body, finally, underground.

The same is true for that odd silent day called Holy Saturday. It is the nether space between the mourning of Good Friday and the rejoicing of Easter Sunday; and when it begins, Jesus is in the tomb, and then by the time we get back at sunrise on Easter morning, the tomb is empty and the graveclothes are folded, no longer needed.

And we don’t quite know what happened in between. We don’t know what was going on that day, under the earth in the deep cool stillness of the tomb.

Was Jesus weaving a silken cocoon around himself, to grow wings and burst out just before morning, renewed and transformed? Or was Jesus busy descending into Hell, as the creeds affirm, grasping souls by the hand and pulling them up out of torment, like some grand Renaissance painting? Was he observing his sabbath, lying there on the hard stone shelf, coming slowly back to consciousness as God painstakingly knit his flesh back together?

How do we get from the agony and despair of the crucifixion to the astounding joy and new life of Easter morning?

And the truth is, we don’t know, and we won’t know. But the mystery is one of the things I love most about Easter, when we get right down to it.

I don’t know how God brings life out of death; all I know is God does. I don’t know how broken places are healed or torn things get mended or despair ever becomes hope. All I know is that, sure as the night becomes day, healing comes. And the scars will still remain, but slowly the blood clots and the wound scabs over and the white blood cells work away, and the skin regrows.

Well sure, but most of the time dead things stay dead! Yes. Except this one time they didn’t.

And what Easter means for me is that God is life, and God is love, and God can do whatever God wants for God’s beloved ones.

And I know that there is one force pulling us toward death, whether you call that entropy or sin or just the way the world works; and there is something else pulling us back toward wholeness and life and love. I know I am caught in their tug-of-war, and I suspect we all are, most of the time.

* * *

And so this mystery – the sacred unknowing of these in-between spaces – that mystery means that God does not need us to be good enough or devoted enough or pious enough to “deserve” to be healed. That’s what grace is about. Somehow, miraculously, God finds us where we are, wherever we are, and tugs us back toward life.

Whether we’re feeling lost and alone, or mostly okay except for the nagging doubts in the back of our mind that we just don’t look at too closely, or like we might as well be dead in the tomb with Jesus, God is there with us. God has been there, God is there, and God brings life there too.

Sometimes it comes so slow we might not notice right away, and sometimes it’s a rush of warmth like a bear hug from a dear friend, and suddenly the weight lifts from your chest and the world is a little less broken. All these things that tug us back toward life – these are God and these are Easter, and sometimes there is nothing else to do but throw back our heads and shout in thanksgiving.

Christ is risen! Indeed! And so I lift my voice with the poet e.e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Justice on Good Friday

Preached on Good Friday 4/3/15 at Community Presbyterian Church, as one of seven meditations on the themes of the cross, along with Fear, Violence, Anger, Silence, Hope, and Redemption.

Mark 14:60–65

We are faced with a deep and difficult paradox on this day. Even the name we use – Good Friday – is provocative and it is difficult and it is controversial.

How can we possibly face the enormity of the truth of this day, the torture and derision and execution, and yet we call it “good”?! How can it be that we see the deep injustice of this story – that Christ who was and is innocent and blameless should suffer for us, his beloved ones – and yet believe that God has allowed it (or even caused it!) for our salvation? How far have we drifted into the abusive and death-dealing mindset of our world when we can remember the humiliation and death of an an innocent man and somehow call it “good”?

People of God, our redeemer may have worked through this violence and injustice as God works through all things, but if we truly believe that our God is a God of justice, then we must see this day for what it is. It is a day on which we remember pain, abuse, and mourning, like too many other days then and now. And as we remember this injustice that was inflicted on the very body of our God, let us remember in equal measure that God healed his wounds, raised him from the tomb, and said, “No more!” This death ends here.

So we are consoled in the injustices we face today. We are assured that even in our darkest nights, our deepest pain, that God is there and God is working through us. And as we can gather our strength back, we look around and see who suffers with us and around us. Out of our own struggles we draw power, we draw conviction to stand up and name injustice for what it is.

And that paradox is complex because the forces that bind us are complex. We each one of us are hurt and are struggling in our own ways, and yet we also have power in our own ways, whether it is power the world gives us or power we have to build up for ourselves, or a little bit of both. And so the pursuit of justice to which we are called as followers of Christ, the unjustly condemned, must also recognize that complexity. Our life depends on it.

For me, as a queer woman, as someone who battles mental illness, I have known persecution, I have known physical abuse, I have known what it is to be an outsider. And as a white person, as a Christian, as an educated person I am also an insider, and I must also face the reality that I am complicit in the suffering of others.

When I read the story of Christ’s last days, sometimes I see myself on trial in front of the religious establishment, sometimes I am with the heartbroken women at the foot of the cross; and at the same time I am Peter, warming my hands by the fire while my friend needs me at his side; I am the centurion, a cog in the machine of empire, realizing too late that I have killed the son of God.

The paradox of this day demands a counter-cultural response from those of us who would witness to a God of justice who worked through the injustice of this public execution. As we put our bodies and voices on the line for victims of police violence in these days, let us ask ourselves if we are speaking just as loudly for female victims, for transgender victims – or if we have retreated into the safety of white churches who will pay us comfortably, as long as we don’t stir up too much trouble.

Jesus died today for us and because of us. As we enter the darkness of the tomb tonight, keeping our vigil until Easter morning, let that sink in. God used this deep injustice for good. How are we, people of God, finding strength in our own suffering, putting down the crosses we carry, and standing up with those who suffer around us just as we stand up for ourselves?

The justice of God, the promise of new life which is just around the corner, and the gospel we preach with our lives depend on it.

Pom-Pom Sunday

Preached at Head of Christiana PC, Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark 11:1-11

The other day a pastor friend of mine shared a story of a conversation with her four-year-old daughter:
She asked, “Mom, when is the next Sunday?”
In two days.
“That’s when we get to do the pom-poms?!?”
What?
“That’s when we get the pom-pom branches at church? My Bible school teacher said so!”
Oh, no, honey, you get palm branches. It’s Palm Sunday.
“Not Pom-Pom Sunday?”
No. But that sounds fun. Maybe we can have that a different week.

Most of us who’ve spent any time in church have gotten pretty familiar with the imagery of Palm Sunday – of Jesus riding in on a donkey, while we wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!” And that’s how the story goes, of course, but for many of us it’s become so familiar that we’ve lost a sense of how strange it is.

Why are we waving palm branches?? Why not pom-poms? It might make just as much sense; or probably more sense in a world where cheerleaders are familiar – we know exactly what pom-poms mean! – but we have to order palm branches shipped in from Florida, making sure they get here on time but not so early that they’ll start to dry out before Palm Sunday.

And yet those who witnessed Jesus enter Jerusalem on that day would have known exactly what it meant for them to gather along that street, around a peasant country boy riding absurdly on a young donkey, his feet maybe dragging along the ground as they spread their cloaks out in a royal welcome for someone who was almost a parody of a king. In this occupied city with potential messiahs on every street corner, the people knew their biblical symbols like the backs of their hands, watching out for those prophecies that would mark the one who came to overthrow the Roman empire and save them from their oppression.

Zechariah had prophesied that the final battle between Israel and their enemies would be kicked off by a march into the city from the Mount of Olives, and the palm branches were a common way to celebrate the pilgrims coming into the city for Passover. They knew festival processions, and even holy processions, like the celebration in Psalm 118, the ark of the covenant returning to the temple, the rulers of Israel riding back into their city.

They knew what a royal procession looked like, too. Some biblical scholars have suggested that there might have been two processions into the city on that Palm Sunday, as Passover approached and the people of Israel got ready to celebrate the release of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Just as this revolutionary fervor was getting stirred up, it’s quite possible that Rome was sending in a parade of their own – a military cavalry, up on their horses, armed to the teeth, in their shiny matching armor, meant to intimidate the people and remind them exactly what they were up against. They were the ones who would have had cheerleaders, who could hire people to fake some enthusiasm.

And so, amidst all this symbolism and intimidation and carefully measured celebration, Jesus plans his own entry into the city. He chooses the colt deliberately – very deliberately, as Mark tells it, spending more time on the story of the disciples finding the never-before-ridden and therefore ritually pure donkey than on the parade itself – and the disciples spread their cloaks in a royal welcome for this unknown small-town preacher. While across the city, Rome flexes its muscles with trumpeters and intimidation, this upstart rabbi from the Galilee gets a royal welcome, lauded like their real king while his untrained donkey wanders in, shuffling where it wants; or not, like a cat on a leash.

It is absurd. A parody of kingship. Today it might be called a protest march, or street theater – the kind of demonstration that news outlets would cover with disdain, saying “they don’t appear to have any defined message,” and “wouldn’t identify any leaders of their movement,” and “the apparent instigator of this riot refused to comment.”

And what were they shouting? Hosanna? It comes from Aramaic and used to mean “save us please,” and yet they’re saying it like Alleluia, like it’s a word you use to welcome a king. But maybe that’s deliberate too, and maybe they’re saying more than we think. Maybe they do mean “save us,” and maybe they also mean “alleluia.” Maybe in their longing for something new, this is a word for someone who might save them – it’s not a plea, but more of a desperate, joyful hope.

Maybe you’re the one! Savior! Can you, this strange humble king, really be the one to change the world and save us from the all-consuming power of the ones who oppress us? Maybe you’re the one?

* * *

Friends, hold on tight. This week is going to be a tough one. We are called to follow Jesus on this walk into Jerusalem that is part parade, part demonstration, part funeral procession. As he does all he can, it seems, to anger and frustrate those in power, his closest friends will leave him, will betray him, until only two women and one man, under cover of darkness when no one will know him, finally take his broken body down from the cross to prepare it gently for the the tomb.

We call it Holy Week because it is that, but also because we can’t exactly call it “Jesus, what on earth are you doing?!” Week, “You’re going to get yourself killed” Week.

It is a week that ends at the cross, in the tomb. And that is a scandal for us who do all we can to avoid thinking about death, and torture, and suffering. Why would we follow Jesus there, of all places? Can’t we just go about our lives and come back next Sunday after all that messy business is done, and sing our Alleluias and not think too hard about what’s in between?

And yet Jesus’ path had to go through that tomb because for so many of God’s beloved children, that tomb is reality. That tomb and that suffering are part of what it means to be human.

For all of us who have suffered –
who have known the desperate sorrow of weeping for a beloved, lost too soon;
who have been abused and broken and longed for the safety of a nice quiet tomb to crawl into;
who have been betrayed by those we called our friends;
who have been beaten and tortured in the name of “keeping the peace”;
who have been swallowed up by the machine of power and forgotten their humanity;
for those dehumanized, again and again, by systems that have forgotten how to be human –
for all of these, all of us, Jesus says, I know. I’m sorry.

This is a week of complicated symbols and contradictory messages – death but life, betrayal and yet community – because we live in a complicated in-between time, when we, humanity, have known all the suffering and agony of the cross, in excruciating detail if we have ears to hear; and yet we still wait for a full Easter restoration. We catch glimpses of it, resurrection in flashes and bursts and quiet growing wholeness, but the true Easter redemption that we hope for is still, yet, another sunrise away.

And so for now, we wait. We work. And we follow Jesus through this week: this week of drama and pageantry, stillness and prayer, friendship and holy community, betrayal, pain, and loss. We walk his path because it is our path, and the path we so often force upon others.

Our savior is coming, both king and clown, regal and comical, humble and full of all divine power. And we follow him, not with pom-poms and simple cheerleading – yay, Jesus! – but with palm branches and all the complicated symbolism they bring. We walk with Jesus in his peace and in his suffering, and we are called to walk with one another, even when those paths lead to crosses and to violence.

Because, like it or not, that is the path that will lead to Easter. We can’t get to the empty tomb before we deal with the bloody and broken truth of the body in the tomb.

So let us join this odd procession, this motley crew of seekers and hopers, of broken ones and healing ones, shouting joyful, pleading Hosannas to the one in whom we place our trust. This way lies death. And only from there can we get to resurrection.

Snakes on a Plain

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, March 15, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

There is not much that scares us more than snakes. On any list of “Top 10 Phobias,” there they are, right next to spiders and flying and the dark.

When Samuel L. Jackson signed on to make the movie Snakes on a Plane, his agents wouldn’t agree until they added a clause in his contract that the actor could not be within 25 feet of a live snake. It’s a specific fear – and sometimes it’s a fear that makes good sense! – and somehow we use the image of a snake to stand in for all of our worst fears. All the way back to Eve in the garden, the snake is a symbol of nothing less than all the sin of humanity.

That’s a lot of baggage to put on one reptile, especially since a lot of them are harmless!

And so that story from Numbers makes us really uncomfortable, to say the least. We’re used to stories that start out with the Israelites complaining in the wilderness (there are a lot of those), but then God reacts by sending poisonous serpents, “so that many of them died,” and what are we supposed to do with a God who would send something so deeply terrifying after us?! There are enough awful things in the wilderness already, and isn’t God supposed to be comforting?

* * *

Last weekend, a few of us attended the annual Presbytery Beach Retreat, this year hosted by the Speer Trust. There were three speakers, and more workshops, around themes from evangelism to one called “Healing Historic Harms.” One of the speakers, Bob Lupton, is the author of the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How To Reverse It. We spent the weekend examining – or mostly resisting examining – the negative impacts of our words and actions, even (or especially) the well-intentioned ones.

It was a difficult weekend at some points, as we got close to some touchy subjects and started to ask one another to consider that some actions might not be as “good” as we thought they were. And it’s one thing when we’re talking about the actions of “the Church” as a whole, almost theoretically, but it’s a whole other thing to consider our individual work and the programs that are dearest to our hearts and identities as “good Christians” and the particular words that we ourselves have used. That hurts, because that feels personal.

“But I thought I was doing everything right!” “I didn’t mean to hurt you!” “Well if we’re not supposed to have a soup kitchen then what else is our church supposed to do?!”

These issues are many-layered and complex; too complex to be solved in one weekend or captured in one sermon. And they require some serious soul-searching for us – not just honesty but also the willingness to look critically at our actions and our priorities and to see the places that need to change.

And that’s kind of terrifying, if we’re doing it right. That means apologizing for things we didn’t even know were bad. That means recognizing that our whole worldview has gaps in it, and those gaps are not just neutral space, but those gaps in our understanding are often actively doing harm in ways we hadn’t even considered.

And even once we start to consider a new dimension beyond what we had seen before, suddenly there’s another dimension beyond that, and one connecting them slant-wise, and then layers of history going back beyond that, coloring present reality and circling back on itself in ways we never knew. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, and these conversations will push all our buttons sooner or later; because when it comes down to it we’re being asked to confess some very specific sins. We’re being asked to look straight at them, because as long as we continue to ignore them, we’ll continue hurting one another.

It is only by naming our sin, and the fear from which it comes, raising it up before our own eyes and to God, and looking straight at it, that we might be healed.

* * *

In this season in particular, we examine ourselves, we confess, we draw closer to God. And we do this not just because it’s a good thing to do – we journey through the wilderness of Lent because we know that this journey ends in Easter. That at the end of all this penitence is rejoicing; that this confession ends with forgiveness; that all this death ends in resurrection.

We are beset by vipers and snakes of all kinds, whether we are starving in the wilderness or lost in the middle of a crowd. Our deepest fears come after us, fears of not being enough and not doing enough, of not being able to provide for the ones we love and of not being good enough for the ones we love. And they come slithering after us with the faces of rattlesnakes and asps, and we are trapped like Indiana Jones dropped into the Well of Souls, face to face with a spitting cobra.

We can’t escape the snakes – not in this world, at least. But God, in whom we put our trust, brings us face to face with those fears and brings us safely through. God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up, and all who looked at it were healed. The very thing that was coming after the Israelites in the wilderness, that is the thing God uses to heal them, the people God had promised to protect.

It was their lack of trust in God, the story goes, that brought on the snakes to begin with. But it is their specific repentance, and the renewal of their trust that God will indeed provide, that ultimately saves them – not just from the snakes but all the way from Egypt out into the wilderness and all along their journey, even as they complain and whine and forget to trust that God really is with them.

We don’t like to think of a God who would send out venomous snakes to kill people who sin, and so we have difficulty with this story sometimes. We can tend to allegorize it as the gospel of John does, and claim that the snake on the pole prefigures Christ on the cross. Both are powerful images – shocking images – and we’re perhaps equally uncomfortable with both of them in the modern day.

And while I’m skeptical of readings that claim to find Jesus in texts written centuries or millennia before his birth, there is some resonance to be found in the image of a brutal fearsome death held up before the people which somehow – against all reason or logic – brings healing and wholeness.

Because the cross to which this season inexorably leads is just as scandalous, just as counterintuitive, as a God who would send venomous snakes after God’s own chosen people.

And yet we still, then as now, live in a world of crosses and snakebites. Many of those, in fact, have been brought about by our own sins, as much as we might not want to admit that. Our greed and our willful ignorance, our pride and our collusion with the powers of this world – these bring death as surely as any cross. Our actions and non-actions mean starvation, thirst, suffering, death for those in wilderness places.

Our repentance is needed, not just for us but for the good of all God’s people. Our heartfelt and specific repentance helps for the healing of our own wounds and of those wounds we inflicted, intentionally or not.

And we are invited into a new way of being. We are offered the gift of God’s grace, not just as some sort of Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, not an excuse to just keep doing what we’re doing, good or bad. But God’s grace is offered to us so that we might be able to look with honesty at the things we’ve done wrong, hold them up to the light and then be healed. It is a fresh start; a chance to recognize where we’re on the wrong path, and set off down a better path.

As the writer of Ephesians puts it: you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world. All of us once lived among them, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, has saved you by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, and not the result of your works.

For we are what God has made us, he says. We are not saved by our work, good or bad or unintended. But by God’s grace, we are offered an alternative to the world of backstabbings and betrayals, of poisonous creatures and petty grudges, of fears and anxieties and insecurity that tramples others in our desperate attempts to escape. God’s pattern is love, and trust, and the security of knowing that we are children of God no matter what happens.

We are saved not by being taken out of the world – we will still face wilderness times and times of temptation and hurt, and snakes both literal and metaphorical – but we are saved by placing our trust in God, over and over again, in the astounding and irrational grace with which God loves us, somehow both forgiving us and challenging us to do better.

Because that grace is the invitation to a new path. We can leave our old patterns behind, because God has set out a new life for us: a life of healing, of trust, and of doing God’s good work not because we are looking to get anything out of it, but because of sheer joy in God’s ways.

Friends, we have nothing to be scared of. We are loved by God with an everlasting love, no matter what we do or don’t do; we are loved.

Thanks be to God.

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