Eve Meets Mary

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Lately, as I’ve made my way home from work here at the church, I can see the stars in the sky. And it’s not because I’m here until 10pm.

No, the days are growing shorter… the air colder…
This is the time of year when we are preparing ourselves for the longest night, the winter solstice, and while the daylight wanes, we are clinging to reminders that better days are ahead.

Right here, in the midst of this season of darkness, we remember that it is in the darkness that new life comes.
The bulb has to be planted within the cold, dark earth to bring forth its buds.
Babies grow and are formed in the dark warmth of the womb.
And in this “bleak midwinter” we set out our evergreens and yule logs to remember that resurrection and eternal life are ours.
We are waiting, you see, during this time of Advent for the birth of the child spoken of by prophets… the Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World.
And… as people born on this side of his birth, life, death, and resurrection… we are still waiting.
Advent you see, is not only a season of remembrance. It is also a time to look forward. The fullness of that kin-dom that Christ came to bring has not yet fully been realized.
All we have to do is open the newspaper to know that God’s will has not been done on earth.
We are still waiting.

Earlier this week, I heard news reports that the Island of Puerto Rico still only has power for 46% of its residents. The devastation of Hurricane Maria was so severe that months after the winds and rain poured down, rural areas still do not have any access to resources.
But not only Maria… the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana are still being felt.
While it is not as present in the news, the continual onslaught of storms in Louisiana has had a doubled impact because of the simultaneous destruction of wetlands. The dead zone in the Gulf created by run-off farther up the Mississippi and the altering of the flow of the Mississippi for human habitation has devastated the area. The US Geological Survey now reports that nearly 1,900 square miles of land have disappeared in the last seventy years.
Sometimes, the sin and destruction and pain of this world is almost too much to bear.
Sometimes, it feels like we have been waiting too long.
Sometimes, it is hard to have any hope when we look out at reality.

Maybe that is why I find so much comfort in the words of The Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. He defines hope as a choice, “a self-imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity.”
Those words remind me that hope is not a naïve sentiment or wishful thinking.
We can look out unfiltered at the world that surrounds us… and we find hope at the intersection of what we see and our faithful trust in God
Hope doesn’t shirk away from problems or difficulties, but enters into them, confident that God will be there and will bring order, life, and joy out of the chaos.
That hope is not only for you and me. It is for all of creation. This whole world is waiting with us.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that “the whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”

Whatever was intended for creation, with the tree of life and fertile land and those first humans holding dominion over it all, is not what we experience today.  When we read through those first chapters of Genesis, there is no mention of rainfall or storms, no death, no decay, only life, and life abundant.

Our faith explains the brokenness of creation – the cycles of destruction, natural disasters, violence, and death by pointing to a single moment: When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden (Genesis 3:6-7).
At that moment, everything changed.
That first sin, that first rejection of God’s intentions, had an impact on the entire world! God confronts Adam and Eve and there is not only punishment for the snake and the two humans, but as Genesis tells us, “cursed is the fertile ground because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread – until you return to the fertile land.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
We acknowledge this pain of creation even in the songs we sing this time of year. We proclaim how “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy”…. But we also sing about the groaning of the earth itself and its longing for redemption… “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, UMH #246)

And as our Advent candle reading from Isaiah lifts up, it was not only the first sin of Adam and Eve that impacted creation, but as we continue to sin, the earth dries up and withers. (Isaiah 24:4-5)
Theologically, we are called to remember that our selfishness, our disobedience, our breaking of the covenant impacts the physical world around us. Because of our continued sin, the whole of creation is trapped in a cycle of death, enslaved by decay, and waiting to be set free.

So where is the hope that Paul writes of in Romans? Where do we turn for hope as we look out at the groaning of creation today?

maryconsoleseven

One afternoon I stumbled upon an image that took my breath away.

It was drawn by Sister Grace Remington who is a member of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey here in Iowa. It depicts Eve, clad only in the flowing locks of her hair and clutching that forbidden piece of fruit. Her leg is entwined in the grip of a snake; her head hung in shame. Evil, sin, and death are her legacy. It is our legacy.
But with one arm, she reaches out and places her hand on Mary’s womb.

Mary stands there full of grace and mercy.
She gently touches the face of Eve as if to tell her it is okay. She holds her other hand over Eve’s and together they feel and experience the life of the one who was coming to redeem and restore all the creation.
There is hope.
When Paul writes about the groaning of creation and all of God’s children, he describes that pain as nothing compared with the “coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
And then in verse 22, he uses the Greek word synōdinō to portray this reality; a word used only once in scripture to describe the agony of childbirth.
Creation is suffering labor pains.
Something new is about to be born.

In this season of Advent, this image of Eve and Mary fills my heart with possibility and invites me to hear the words of Romans 8 in a different light.
So often, I hear the frustration and groaning of the text, instead of diving in to see the good news.
Yes, the world around us is groaning, but they are labor pains. Creation itself is about to be delivered, to be release, to be set free to become what God fully intends for it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul keeps pointing back towards Adam, because in those first human beings, we see God’s ultimate intention for the human race.
Paul believes that in Christ, in that child that would be born of Mary, the human project finds it’s completion (Jospeh Sittler).
In the beginning, there was a part for humanity to play – tending the garden, carrying the image of God, helping all of creation to thrive.
And now, as Christ is born into our lives and we claim the Spirit of God that sets us free, it is our job to take up that role once again.
As this image conveys, in Christ, we find release from our temptations… that snake of sin that would bind us is being stomped on by Mary.
In Christ, we find forgiveness for past transgressions… the head hung in shame and guilt is gently touched, the hand is embraced.
The way we have lived on this world – using and abusing God’s gifts for our own intentions – doesn’t have to be the way that we move forward.

In fact, Paul tells the Romans that those who have been set free by the Spirit of Christ have an obligation to live as God’s sons and daughters right here and now.
Not for our sake.
Not for selfish reasons.
But because the whole earth is waiting for us to do so.
The love and mercy of Christ reaches out to us as the descendents of Adam and Eve and yes, we are offered forgiveness, but more than than, we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live differently.

Paul believed that God linked the restoration of creation with you and me, and so I find hope in this season of Advent in the possibility that people of faith can help to change the tides of decay.

All throughout this season, we will highlight some of those stories and ways we can make an impact, but these Christmas Trees here at the front of the church remind me of one…

 

In the midst of that loss of habitat and wetlands in the Louisiana delta, people are working to restore the wetlands and help mitigate the impact of storms by collecting used Christmas trees.
As they deposit them into threatened bayous, they become the basis for new marsh vegetation and they help to reverse erosion.

We have a choice of how to live on this earth and whether or not we will obey the call of God to care for all of creation.
Just like this image of Eve, may we be transformed by the birth of Christ into our lives, so that we might be the hope for the world.

 

NOTE:  This sermon is an adaptation from chapter one of my book, “All Earth Is Waiting.”

The Hope of the World is Us

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The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

Winter is Over!

Before our Christmas traditions took hold, there were other festivals in the northern hemisphere among folks who were tucked in for winter.  The crops had been harvested and stored, the work was done, and they celebrated…  But in one of the pieces I read this advent from a writer named Gayle Boss,  I was a reminded about a truth in those celebrations: “No matter how glad the party, they couldn’t keep from glancing at the sky… Each day throughout the fall they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken.  It made them anxious, edgy… When they had eaten up the crop they were fasting on, how would another crop grow?  Throughout December, as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear – fear for survival – crouching over them.”

I don’t know if there are any Game of Thrones fans here this morning, but one of the mottos of one of these houses is “Winter is Coming.” 

It is a reminder that dark and difficult times are ahead.  It is an echo of that primal fear of a long winter.  It is the sentiment that says nothing good happens after midnight.

It is the dread that overcame the people of Narnia as the White Witch took over power.  Her cold power overwhelmed the land and even her touch would turn people to ice and stone. 

The land of Narnia came to be known as the place where it was always winter, but never Christmas. 

And in that place, hope can be hard to find.  Anxiety grows.  Fears are plenty. 

 

The people of Narnia thought that winter might last forever.  Many thought they would never see Christmas. 

And yet some clung to the promises, the hopes, the prophecies to sustain them through the long, dark, cold nights. 

Folks like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver waited, they longed, they believed that Aslan would return to Narnia and that four children would sit on the throne and bring a reign of peace.

 

What I love about the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is that there are glimpses of the end of the witches power… the end of winter… long before Aslan ever appears in the story.

 The hospitality of even enemies like Mr. Tumnus.

The snow begins to thaw. 

Flowers start to bloom.

Father Christmas shows up to equip the children with the tools they will need in the upcoming battle.  

Aslan is near and winter is already disappearing.

 

A few days ago, the season of winter technically began in our part of the world.  The winter solstice marks the turning of the seasons and on that longest night, that darkest day, winter began.

And you know,  it was in the dark… At about midnight last night… or this morning… whichever you want to call it, that our Christmas Eve service wrapped up. 

And in the darkness, in the quiet stillness, in the bleak midwinter, something amazing happened. 

We welcomed Jesus into our lives. 

We proclaimed Hallelujah and celebrated the good news of Jesus birth. 

In that hour and season that represents the height of our fears, where nothing good is supposed to happen.  

 

My colleague Melissa Meyers wrote last night about that phrase, but then she went on to list all sorts of blessings of midnight: 

“Midnight is pregnant with possibilities… just waiting to be birthed…

Midnight gives you a chance to start over …

Midnight gives you an opportunity to forgive that person who has wronged you…

Midnight gives you the opportunity to ask for forgiveness…

Midnight gives you the possibility of something new…

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever”

 

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever. 

 

And it’s not only midnight… it is right now, in this cold, dark, time when everything else is stripped away and seems lost and full of fear that we actual glimpse the most profound sign of hope .

That longest night of the year… this season of cold and reflection and barren earth… it is not the darkness either, but a reminder that the dark will not last forever.

It is in that amazing moment when all seems the darkest, the coldest, the loneliest, that God creeps into our lives, our world, our hearts. 

The beginning of the winter season is actually the moment when the light begins to return to the sky.

It is the moment the days grow longer.

 

Gayle Boss reflects upon this, she notes that “to their and our abiding fear of a dark ending, the Church spoke of an advents: a coming.  Faith proclaimed, When life as we know it goes, this year and at the end of all years, One comes, and comes bringing a new beginning.”

Every midnight is a new beginning.

Every year end is a new beginning.

Every time winter begins with the solstice and the longest night, the reality is that the days are already growing longer. 

Winter is not coming. 

Winter is already over.

The power of cold and death and barrenness cannot remain. 

The White Witch is defeated before the battle has even begun in the land of Narnia.

 

Heidi Haverkamp writes in the reflections we have been reading this Advent and Christmas season that the power of the White Witch was “foiled by the faith and perseverance of a group of otherwise small and humble creatures who have been surviving under her tyranny… Their watching and waiting have prepared the way for Aslan’s coming.”

 

Today, we proclaim that God has come near. 

We celebrate that the Christ Child has entered our human lives to wipe away the despair and fear, the hatred and sin. 

But like those people of Narnia… although we know that winter is already over… although we know that in God’s time the powers of this world have already been defeated… still the final battle has yet to be fought.

We wait… still.

We hope… still.

We long… still.

Waiting for the final victory of Jesus.  Waiting for the second coming of our Lord. 

And living every single day as if the powers of this world cannot hold our hearts. 

 

As Melissa Meyers wrote in the wee hours of the night:

“Midnight is not the end of the story, but only the beginning…

Midnight invites you into the story of resistance, subversion, radical inclusion, and peace…

Midnight brings us a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices…

Midnight births a King of Kings that changes the world in ways that we continue to discover…

Midnight brings to us the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Emmanuel… “

 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Lamentations and Investments

I must confess it was difficult to pick just one passage from Jeremiah and in the light of the events of this week, I wasn’t sure that I picked the right one.

I wondered if I should have chosen from Jeremiah 8 and 9:

Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there? Why then are my people not been not been restored to health?  If only my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.

Or maybe Jeremiah 31:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and waiting.  It’s Rachel crying for her children; she refuses to be consoled, because her children are no more.

 

And I find it so hard to get back up in this pulpit every week with some new tragedy or terror that must be addressed.  But we have to do so.

We have to speak about the pain and suffering and loss of this world.  To not turn to our scriptures and prayer and ask where God is in the midst of what is happening would be irresponsible.  It is what we should do every moment of every day…  and if I can’t model that for you on Sunday mornings, then I’m not doing my job.

 

It pains me that a world that is so connected… 24/7… on every device at our fingertips… can be so divided and at war with itself.

I look around and see so much anger and hurt.  Here in the United States and all across this world.

#bluelives #blacklives #Muslimlives friends, they all matter. We all matter.  It’s not an either/or.  It’s a both/and.

And yet we take the pain and hurt and anger we feel and turn it back against one another for not being “on our side.”

There is only one side for us to be on.  The side of life and hope and peace.

 

It often feels like we are living in the worst times of human history.  Like things have never been this bad.

I could quote statistics about how violence… especially deadly violence is down in many different categories across this world.  That seems hard to believe, but its true.  But you know what… that seems to trivialize the pain that every death, every particular death carries in this day and age where we collectively witness and experience them.

 

I am in grateful to be preaching from Jeremiah this week because he lived in what the Jewish Study Bible calls “the most crucial and terrifying periods in the history of the Jewish people in biblical times: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon…  [he] grappled with the theological problems posed by the destruction of the nation, and who laid the foundations for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple in the years following the end of the exile.  In the course of his struggles to understand the tragic events of his lifetime, he tells the reader more about himself than any other prophet, including his anguish and empathy at the suffering of his people, his outrage at God for forcing him to speak such terrible words of judgment against his own nation, and his firm belief that the people of Israel would return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem once the period of punishment was over.” (p917)

 

It is strange to say that I feel like I’m living the lives of these prophets this summer, but maybe that’s what happens when you spend time in the scriptures.

So I’m feeling Jeremiah’s anguish and empathy when I look out at you… when I scroll through my facebook feed… when I turn on the news and see the heartbreak and frustration and hopelessness of so many people… in Baghdad, in Medina, in Baton Rouge, in St. Paul, in Dallas…

And I, too, have been crying out to God asking “How long…  how long will you let us turn against one another before you come and do something to fix this?”

Jeremiah turned all of the grief of his people into laments to God… he cried out to God and I think it is appropriate on a day like this,  in a time like this for us to do so.  For us to lament and grieve…

And so I want to invite you into a time of lament with me.  And together we will sing a response that is familiar to many… Oh – Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

O Holy God,  we have come here this morning from many places,

From east and west, north and south,

From pain and disillusionment,

From anger and confusion,

From grief and sadness,

Looking for hope.

We come together for one thing only:

To raise our hearts and voices and very bodies to God,

In the hope that the very act of raising them in lament yet in faith,

We might know the transforming and surpassing power of your love.

 

Oh Holy God, hear us as we cry out to you.  Our pain is more than we can bear alone.

Response: Oh— Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Unable to forget the violence and the loss of this past week, we cry…

Mourning the loss of the innocent, we cry…

Looking for justice where none seems possible, we cry…

Outraged by the actions of those who should have known better, we cry…

Lost, looking for your guidance and direction, we cry…

Weeping with families whose loved ones will never return home, we cry…

Standing with all of those who have sworn to protect us and who gave their lives, we cry…

Desperate for the courage to speak out against racism, injustice, and oppression, we cry…

Wanting to put all this behind us and live in wholeness, we cry…

Looking for the peacemakers, we cry…

( Liturgy of Lament for the Broken Body of Christ, adapted https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/Liturgy-plan.pdf)

 

O God, in mystery and silence you are present in our lives,

Bringing new life out of destruction, hope out of despair, growth out of difficulty.

We thank you that you do not leave us alone but labor to make us whole.

Help us to perceive your unseen hand in the unfolding of our lives,

And to attend to the gentle guidance of your Spirit,

That we may know the joy you give your people. Amen. (Ruth Duck, BOW 464)

 

Friends, we cry out “How Long…”

But I think the reminder of our scripture for this morning is that God turns that “how long” back on us.

And God is asking… what are you going to do, today, to be the answer?

How are you going to be a witness, an example, a living testimony of the firm belief that though this time is painful and brutal that YOU are on the side of life and hope and peace?

How are you going to personally invest in the future you pray for?

 

Jeremiah found himself in precisely that situation.  As he was proclaiming the destruction of the land he loved…  even as he was imprisoned by the very king he was trying to get to act differently… God asked him from his jail cell to buy a plot of land as an investment in the future of the land.  As a reminder that “houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

The armies are at literally at the gates of the city.  The siege has started.  And Jeremiah is buying property.

He was investing in the future he so fervently prayed for and so firmly believed in.

 

I’m tired of the loss of life in our world.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

We have to start investing in the future we long for.

We have to figure out what it means to “buy a plot of land” today.

 

And I think there are a few concrete things we can do, today, to invest in God’s future.

First, we have to invest in relationships with people who don’t look like us.

My friend, Jim, and his wife, Lori, have a son who is seven years old.  His name is Teddy.  And because he is adopted, his skin doesn’t look the same as that of his parents.

Jim wrote to me, “I’m keenly aware that I didn’t really ‘get it’ until I was invested in the life of my son; and all of the fear and trepidation I feel for him as he starts growing up to be a young black man in America.  So I know that compassion and grace towards those who don’t ‘get it’ is necessary because I was one of them in the past.”

The only way that we can ever start to live into a future of peace is to actually cross the street and talk with our neighbors who are people of color or Muslim or police officers or elderly or of a different political party.

We have to invest in personal relationships with people who are not the same as us.

 

Second, we have to practice humility.

We are not better than anyone else. We are not perfect. We don’t have all of the answers. And we need to create space for others to teach us, for others to lead us, for others to speak.

And part of that means that we need to look at all of the ways in which dominate conversations or perspectives and we need to step back and listen.

This past week, as the holy month of Ramadan was ending for our Muslim brothers and sisters, a bomb went off in the heart of one of their holy cities.  And we barely noticed.

We can be so focused on our own lives and our own experiences that we do not stop to let go of ourselves and make room for the pain and grief of others.

 

Third, we need to speak the truth in love.

The first part of that is that we have to tell the truth.

We have to stop spreading rumors or hyperbole. And we need to take a moment and pause and ask about the source and if it is trustworthy.  We have to take a breath.

But, we cannot be afraid to speak the truth when it is in front of us. We have to name injustice.  The only way that evil is overcome is when it is brought into the light for all to see.  So we cannot be afraid to name it. To speak it. To see it.

And we can do so in love.

We can disagree.

We can speak the truth and invite conversation and dialogue.

We can do so with our feet in protest non-violently.

But we should never resort to demonizing or attacking other people because of what they believe.

 

We have to start investing in the future we long for.

We have to invest in living differently in this world.

 

Just a few minutes ago, in the prayer I prayed that:

We come together for one thing only:

To raise our hearts and voices and very bodies to God,

In the hope that the very act of raising them in lament yet in faith,

We might know the transforming and surpassing power of your love.

 

And so I want to invite you in to a prayer with your whole body as we invest in the future God hopes for us:

Touch your forehead:

Put on the mind of Christ, a spirit of humility, encouragement, unity, and love.

Touch your ears:

That in the cries of the oppressed and grieving you may hear God calling you to another way.

Touch your eyes:

Darkened by tears, unable to see past privilege and power, blinded by hatred, that they may be brightened in the light of Christ.

Touch your lips:

Silenced by fear and the shock of news, that you might respond to the word of God and speak justice and truth in love.

Touch your heart:

Broken in pain and uncertainty, disappointment and grief, that Christ may dwell there by faith.

Touch your shoulder:

Weighted and heavy with sadness and sorrow, that your burden be eased in the gentle yoke of Jesus.

Touch your hands:

Wrung in anger and despair, that Christ may be known in the lives you touch.

Touch your feet:

That you may stand firm in faith and hope, and walk in the way of Christ.

( Liturgy of Lament for the Broken Body of Christ, adapted https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/Liturgy-plan.pdf)

Empty. #umcgc

So far at this conference I’ve been given a few nicknames.

Mama-Pastor.
Interloper.
Bridge-builder.

I feel called to be United Methodist and I have always felt called to hang out in the middle and help various sides hear one another.

Maybe that is why my subcommittee experience was so powerful.

We connected across cultures.
We shared from our contexts.
We listened more than we talked.

And maybe that is why today has been so terribly hard.

Yesterday evening, word started spreading about conversations between the Council of Bishops and various caucuses. They are trying to help us find a way forward and viable separation was on the table. As Bishop Ough said this morning (and this is a paraphrase): we risked being vulnerable enough to go there.

Last night was full of denial and shock.

We began worship with the room buzzing and a whole host of ecumenical guests.

Unity. Oneness. Unity. Oneness.

Oh, and an absolutely incredible and challenging sermon by Ivan Abrahams of the World Methodist Council.

I wept through most of worship.

My heart was broken.

The bridges seemed to be disintegrating.

And yet we were singing “I need you to survive.”

Bishop Ough came to the mic after worship and shared with us a letter from the Bishops. A word that they were committed to unity. And yet, it felt to me like they were also saying… whatever you decide to do, we’ll help you navigate through.

Except, we don’t know what to do.

Friends, our conflict is not about the lives of LGBTQI people. At this moment, their value, calls, and relationships are at the center of our conflict, but the church needs to grow up and say to our children: it is not your fault that we are so divided and torn.

My siblings are not issues and they are not the cause of our pain… although we are causing them pain.

Our conflict is that we have radically different ways of understanding what it means to be United Methodist. Across the connection, we view the primacy of scripture differently. Some of us see the Discipline as gospel and some of us see it as a living breathing document that helps us adapt to changing context. Some of our conferences are lay led, others clergy, other focus their power in the episcopacy. Some of us are in cultures that have forgotten the Christian tradition, others in places where the way of Jesus is barely taking root and trying to create space for Christianity. Some of are studying liberation theology and some of us can’t see our privilege when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Some of us have the freedom to make choices and others face scrutiny from their governments. Some of us are worried about kids spending too much time and energy on soccer camp and others are just praying for their five year old not to die from malaria.

We’ve found a way together before.

What I love about our tradition is that we hold together all sorts of both/ands… personal piety AND social holiness… making disciples AND transforming the world… potlucks AND fasting…

So I came to General Conference committed to finding a way forward… together.

I have to admit, however, that I need the church to change. Yes, to be more inclusive. Yes, to end the pain upon our LGBTQI siblings. But even more, I need the church to change because the Holy Spirit is calling and pushing and challenging us to step to the margins and let go of our rules and power and privilege and actually go do the things Jesus freaking asked us to do!

If the church refuses to change and adapt… well…  I have started to feel like maybe we can each be more faithful on our own.

Watching us celebrate the 200th anniversary of the AME Church, we lifted up how they thrived a part from us. We pushed out our siblings (in horrendous acts of racism) and they are  fine. God continues to move and work in both of our traditions. God is bigger than our denominations and conflicts. God can unite us even if we have different names for our churches.

So, friends, tomorrow we start the conversation again.

The Bishops might come back with a proposal. We might discuss it.

Only God knows what our future holds.

And tomorrow, having heard the pain and frustration, I don’t know where we’ll end up.

All I know is that I’m letting go of any desire to stay together at all cost, any stubborn clinging to unity in name only.

There is a way forward but I no longer pretend to have a “right answer.”

Lord, put us to what thou wilt… let us be employed for thee or laid aside for thee… let us have all things, let us have nothing… thy will be done.

Holy Pockets of Grace #umcgc

As I came out of my subcommittee meeting in Faith and Order tonight, I felt like we were finally doing it. We were finally embodying what it meant to hear one another, to seek understanding, to seek God’s will, and to serve God in this capacity.

We were reminded by our vice chair at the start of the afternoon, as he read Psalm 23, that we serve a dual purpose.

We look to our Shepherd who guides and sustains us.

But we are also called in this role to Shepherd and lead the church.

My subcommittee took intentional time today to listen deeply, ask questions of context, and to bring scripture to bear on our conversation. We brainstormed. We were honest. We asked about the Holy Spirit. We didn’t let parliamentary rules interfere. I believe every person around the table in our group of 30, save one or two, spoke and shared.

In particular we looked today at Paragraph 304.3 under the qualifications for ordination. While paragraph two lays out the high standards of expectation for clergy persons, paragraph three specifically names that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” can’t be ordained.

So, not an easy topic.

But we did so with grace and faithfulness, recognizing that scripture speaks from a context to a context, and trying to help us stay united while at the same time not hindering the mission of the church and helping the church make disciples.

It was awesome.

I am also aware that our experience was extra ordinary. That other groups did not have such a holy and grace filled experience.

And I’m apprehensive, coming out of the bubble, about what comes next in our larger committee and the plenary. How on earth do you convey the spirit or translate our profound understanding of one another?

Keep praying, friends…

Dirt, plants, and hope #gc2016

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In the Scriptures, Jeremiah buys a field as the Babylonians are on the doorstep. It is a symbol of hope, promise, and faithfulness.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land. – Jeremiah 35:15

One of the last things on my to do list before heading to General Conference was getting my garden in. Seedlings that had to get in the ground. Things that needed started before it was too late.

With all of the prep work… Which includes all of the pre-work at church so I can be gone for two weeks… I was a bit behind.

I found a few hours between yesterday and today to dig some holes and set some plants to growing.

And as I looked out at the garden… all bare dirt with teeny plants… I thought about Jeremiah. Knowing that after this time away, life will resume is a good feeling. Hope, promise, homes, work, all will be back.

The time away has a purpose.
But it is not an end.
It is not everything.

Life will be waiting.

And hopefully some lettuce and strawberries, too!