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Raleigh Mennonite Church
“To be a Christian does not mean knowing all the answers; to be a Christian means being willing to live in the part of the self where the question is born.”
-Wendy M Wright
It is not my constitution to stay awake late. But one night earlier this year I set my alarm for two a.m. Groggy, I shifted a blanket around my shoulders and shuffled down the hall to Tennyson’s room. I gathered her against my chest and whispered, “it’s time.”
We went out to the concrete slab that leads into our backyard. The warm heat of late spring had given way to a surprising cool here in the middle of the night. My daughter sat on my lap in a rickety lawn chair, staring at the sky. We waited for stars to fall from the sky.
Advent is the time when we make room for the dark, the time when we stay awake, making ourselves readying ourselves for the discomfort to see things anew.
Here in the dark shepherds will tend their flocks.
Here in the dark magi will gather for escape from King Herod.
Here in the dark Mary will wake, a new feeling, a tenseness rippling up her round belly as she wonders, is it time?
Here in the dark a family will flee to Egypt.
Here in the dark a woman stays awake, waiting for a thief, ready, waiting, waiting in the dark.
Each Advent we begin where we ended, each new year welcoming us into an apocalypse. This apocalypse is a disclosure, a revelation, something hidden that is revealed. But instead of something brought to light, we discover that we are feeling the outline of something we do not understand, trying to feel for the edges. We’re asked to wait a little while longer.
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
These are the words of the “little apocalypse” near the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a dizzying, confusing description, filled with passive verbs and unclear objects. There’s a cryptic reference to the few saved alongside Noah, the others swept into the flood. We hear that two will be in a field, one taken and one left. Two will be milling grain, one taken and one left.
The language is confusing. Is the one taken saved? Or taken into the flood? The one left – is she spared from death or does she remain on a desolate earth? How can we find ourselves within this confusion, not knowing whether we are staying alert to leave or to remain?
And what happens to the one who waits up for the thief? Is her presence enough to frighten him away? Does she confront the thief, fight him off? Or does she recognize that he isn’t a thief at all, that he’s a friend? Does she invite him in?
I wonder if this is the intention of the writer. The ambiguity of this prophecy makes it difficult to know which we are waiting for, impossible to align ourselves with end-time winners. There’s too much unknown, too much confusion. Instead we’re asked to sit here with the owner of the house, ready for the unexpected to greet us at any time. Perhaps the readiness in Matthew is that are willing to sit in this unknown, without having it worked out for us, without being able to stake a claim. Perhaps we’re asked to press deeper into the disorientation and terror of the text.
The ancient rabbis believed the Messiah would come in the night. Perhaps that was because darkness is the time when our senses are disoriented, because darkness is a time when we cannot help but see things in a different way. In the dark we’re not entirely sure who it is who stands on the stoop, picking at the lock, whether this one is here to aid or to harm, to surprise or to comfort.
In today’s Gospel, I’m drawn into the between time, when the owner of the house waits in the darkness, after everyone else has gone to sleep, before the thief arrives. In Advent I’m drawn into those long, sleepy hours where she waits, expectant, keeps gazing out into the night with nothing to be seen. We are there with her, watching shadows turn trees into sculptures, the night turnings friends into strangers, learning the different shades of dark, how, even with no moon, we are still, miraculously, able to see.
We see, but we also see differently in the dark. We rely on other senses. We must walk slower than we have, to give attention to our steps, the rise and root of the ground, to give careful attention to one another, to accept the not seeing fully, to make ourselves comfortable with knowing little, to situate ourselves in uncertainty.
The painter Jan Richardson reminds us that, “Advent challenges us to resist recoiling and instead to press into the insecurity and unsettledness of this passage—and of our lives. Advent beckons us beyond the certainties that may not serve us—those sureties we have relied on that may have no substance to them after all. Advent is a season to look at what we have fashioned our lives around—beliefs, habits, convictions, prejudices—and to see whether these leave any room for the Christ who is so fond of slipping into our lives in guises we may not readily recognize.”
If you have kept awake in the dark then you know how different the world becomes, how the world at night is both strange and familiar at the same time. Darkness makes space to see the world in a different way, to see each other, to see ourselves in new ways, to make space for “the part of the self where the question is born.”
We all know there are many kinds of darkness. John of the Cross, the sixteenth century monk, distinguishes between two types. One kind of darkness is the kind we should fear, from which we should rightfully turn. But there is another kind, oscura, which means “difficult to see.” John reminds us that God puts out the lights to keep us safe “because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going.” Only when there are no more maps, no compasses, no more lights to direct the way are we fully vulnerable to God.
Advent gives us space to be friendly with the dark, to see what emerges, to give ourselves over to God and to see what happens next. This lesson is brought to life in the tradition of Byzantine icons. Today, and in most post-Renaissance art, painters begin with a figure fully illuminated. Once the figure is painted, he adds on the details of shadow, always working towards creating atmospheric light.
But Eastern Byzantine art inverts this process. The writer begins with dark colors, a base of brown or black for the face of the saint they plan to paint. These paintings begin in shadow. Slowly and steadily, the artist, the writer as they’re called, adds lighter shades. Transparent layer by transparent layer, something begins to emerge.
It may be that a practice for you this Advent season is to spend some time in the dark. It’s easy to do, no late nights required, the sun setting so early here in late autumn. You can think about taking a little time each evening to be present in the dark world, the unsettled, unfamiliar world. Perhaps will discover that the one walking down the street, the one whose face we cannot make out, the thin outline in shadow is not a thief but the risen Lord.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark 146.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Christ the King – Luke 23
Crucifixion was expensive business for the Romans. This particular form of execution was not a commodity wasted on everyday criminals. Iron for the nails was costly and rare. If the Romans put someone on a cross it was because they wanted to make a spectacle. Crucifixion was reserved for revolutionaries. We’re led astray by a translation of today’s Gospel lesson that call the two men crucified between Jesus “thieves.”
What this means is that Jesus is on the cross between two political dissidents, between two people who challenged the legitimacy of the government of their day. Jesus belongs between these two people. The body of Jesus is put next to the bodies of radicals. Jesus comes to be like them, to find himself in their life, to show us that he is one of them.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth calls this scene at Golgotha–these three dying men–the first Christian community:
“Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?” Barth asks. Barth is preaching this sermon on Good Friday, to the prisoners in Basel. On this occasion he proclaims that, “Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested…, locked up and sentenced… And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken… a point of no return for them as for him. There remained only the shameful, pain stricken present and the future of their approaching death…”
Barth explains that the Disciples gave up this opportunity to be numbered with the transgressors, to form this Christian community when they fell asleep at in the Garden. The Christian community, the one Jesus enacts on the cross is for those who are of greatest threat to the powers and authorities of this world. The Christian community is enacted here, as those on their way to death.
Last week I said that Mennonites are good at testifying because we bear the realities of martyrdom in our bodies, we bear it in the spaces where we gather, in our history, in our theology. For a long time we used to teach the stories of martyrdom to our children. We gathered these stories in a giant book called the Martyr’s Mirror filled with graphic, detailed pictures of those who died for Christ.
This was bed time reading for many Mennonite children. My friend, Dave, told me stories about his grandparents reading the Martyr’s Mirror to him at night. Anneken Hendriks, Leonard Bernkop, Urusla of Essen. He heard the final words of Maeyken Wen to her children before she was led to the stake, “Love one another all the days of your life; take little Hans on your arm now and then for me. And if your father should be taken from you, care for one another.”
What we cannot forget is that, for the early Anabaptists, spiritual and the temporal struggles were one. The reason we came to embrace believer’s baptism is because infant baptism made a person a citizen. Baptism was an act of allegiance to the state.
The 16th century Anabaptists weren’t killed because they tinkered with established religious traditions. They were killed because their religious conviction took a revolutionary posture towards the state, because they believed in Christ we are free, free from the government, a people who are no longer able to be governed because our convictions are so contrary to state coercion and violence. Their cry, their cry from the midst of the flame, was the words of Romans 6: “No longer under the law, but under grace.”
The danger for Mennonites who are no longer persecuted–those of us who find ourselves comfortably situated within a system of white supremacy–is that we easily confuse “God’s in control” with “everything will be all right.” I’ve heard that fallacy echoed back from a variety of church leaders for the past two weeks. It may be true for those who are in positions of historic power and privilege. But the reality is that for the most vulnerable in our nation and in our world, the future is a menacing storm getting ready to break.
And what we learn from this Jesus hanging on the cross is that we are called into a Christian community in which everything is not all right. We are called to transform ourselves into a people so dangerous that it cannot be allowed to exist. We are called to make a community so threatening to the powers of this world that it must be destroyed, it’s failure put on display to warn others. That’s what it means to see ourselves with Jesus, between the two men on the cross, the first Christian community.
Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, when we will begin a new year, a world watching for a redeemer. But before that, before the swelling hope of God among us we are here, here at the cross. Wait for it. Wait here. Wait here at the cross. Stay here at the end, here with Christ the King hanging between two political dissidents, here on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
Christ the King isn’t marked by triumph and fanfare. There are no ticker tape parades, no Cabinet appointments, no calls from international dignitaries, no glasses of champagne. The story that marks this day is the crucifixion. This is Good Friday. It ends with death. And it begins with solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the exploited–a solidarity like Jesus’, where our bodies are put next to their bodies.
When we remember Christ the King we should have in mind those who registered as Jews during World War II, those who went to the camps and died alongside neighbors and friends and strangers. We remember those who put their bodies in the way, whose lives proclaimed that love is stronger than death.
The place in our life where we make this decisive, where we are asked to move to decision, is Communion. For the past few months we’ve added a new practice to our Communion, a practice that is actually old in our tradition as Mennonites. Balthasar Hubmaier called this the Pledge of Love. It’s a commitment we make to one another, to our neighbors, to our world.
We do this because Communion means something, because we become something when we take it together. We become Christ’s body. The real flesh of the meal is your flesh. The real blood is the blood of your sister, your brother, your neighbor, your enemy. And if we’re going to be one, together, we all need some time to think about what that means, how grace can make a way for you to be for someone in a way that you may not have been before.
Communion is an act of solidarity, a pledge of love. And as I’ve looked around our congregation this past week, I’ve been amazed to see the ways you are already doing the work of preparing for Communion. This week you’ve invited each other to a round table on policing and race relations. You’ve gathered others to attend inter-faith table groups so that you can listen to your Muslim and Jewish neighbors. You’ve started reading things that challenge you, books that challenge long-held perceptions about human sexuality, class, and race. We’re making space in Sunday school to confront the racist systems in which we wittingly and unwittingly participate. We’re looking into anti-harassment and non-violent resistance training that we can offer to those who want to be involved in direct action. I’ve seen you invite new immigrants into your homes, beginning to hear new voices, to build relationships.
That is the work of preparation for Communion. It is beginning to find the places of solidarity, to listen for the ways we can be in solidarity, preparing ourselves for the time when we are called by God to do more than listen, when we are called to devote ourselves to people our government wants to get rid of, to give our lives to their lives, to sacrifice what we have so that they might continue to be our neighbors, that we can share life together, a common life, in our city, in our schools and neighborhoods, in our playgrounds and community centers.
One of our earliest Communion liturgies includes these words: “Lead your lives before God and people as table companions of Jesus Christ.” I wonder what kind of pledge of love you want to make this week. What needs to be explored, what action do you need to be involved in? What work do you need to do within yourself? What needs to be confronted? What identity must you betray in order to do the work of solidarity that lies before us? What needs to die for you to find a place among the criminals and revolutionaries?
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Nov 13, 2016
Isaiah 61 and Luke 21
On Wednesday Wick and I went on his class field trip. I took his hand, and the hand of his friend, and we walked half a mile to the high school down the road to watch a play.
As we walked a man was parking his car on the side of the road. When he noticed this gaggle of four- and five-year olds, brown and black and white, he stopped. And then he wept, leaning against his car.
A friend told me she spent Wednesday morning holding her fifth grade students who wondered if their undocumented parents would be deported under the new administration.
I can’t sleep on Tuesday night because I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to tell my daughter in the morning, what I’m going to tell her about her immigrant friends, about bullies, about fear. I’m trying to guess how old she’ll be when someone shows her a video of her President laughing about his sexual assault of women. I’m trying not to think about the moment of reckoning, when it becomes clear what this means for her body, when she realizes that a lot of people chose this over her.
My friend Felipe is sitting at his kitchen table, waiting for his girls to wake up. He’s trying to figure out what he’s going to say them, how he’s going to explain this world. I read a story of brown skin children, children like Felipe’s children, greeted at school by a chant: “Build the wall. Build the wall.”
The first email I send on Wednesday morning is to Mohamed, the imam of the Islamic Center here in Raleigh. A few months ago he told me that Islamophobia is always a struggle for their community. He told me that most people think incidents of violence towards Muslims spike after terrorist attacks. It’s not true, he told me. Most acts of hatred towards Muslims happen during elections. That’s when the violence peaks. On the news I see a picture of a woman whose hijab was ripped from her head at the grocery store. I hear of Muslim children hearing slurs from white adults, being told that “their time is up.” On Wednesday I didn’t want Mohamed to think he was alone.
Our Gospel lesson today is about a time when the world is coming undone, when everything is falling to pieces. And in the midst of it, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
These words ring out from the page this week, words from the Gospel of Luke. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
I read these words over and over again. Wars and insurrections. Famines, plagues, being dragged into court. “Nation will rise against nation; kingdom against kingdom.” These will be the circumstances that occur, the situation that happens and you will testify. To testify – from the same root that we get the word martyr.
A martyr is someone who testifies with her life. Mennonites know how to testify, how far this testimony will have to go, where it can lead. And now is the time when we get to testify to God’s love.
I want to testify today. I want to tell you that God loves you, that God loves this world. I want to remind you of the quote from The Color Purple that Jeff sent us this week: “Listen, God loves everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t.”
We get to testify to this love. That’s the next step, that’s what we do now. We get to fall in love with all that stuff that we don’t love yet. We get to figure out how to love people who are different than us, to give our lives up for them. We get to wave a sign that says, “Over here! This is where love is! Love is right here!”
And today more than ever we need this. We need to hear, we need to see that someone loves us; we need to hear, we need to see that we are God’s beloved. People in our country need to know that you’re going to show up for them, that you are going to show up for one another, for people who are afraid.
The opportunity to testify, the one we hear about in Luke, now, after this election, we know who needs those words. We’ve heard people in our own congregation tell us how this election has traumatized them, how this election has made them feel that their lives don’t matter. We’re going to hear that more and more. Life is going to be harder for the disabled, and for people of color, and for Muslims, for the LGBTQ community. Life feels fragile for women, for victims of abuse, for immigrants, and the undocumented. The truth is that for many people this election was an earthquake, a famine, a nation rising against a nation, a nation rising against them.
And if we’re wondering what this testimony will look like, we’ve been given that today, too. It’s a prophecy found in Isaiah 65. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” Isaiah talks about a time when houses will be built and lived in, rather than destroyed. Isaiah speaks of vineyards that grow to maturity, rather than being uprooted before they can bear fruit. Isaiah speaks of prey and predator, lying side by side.
Friends, we must be the world that Isaiah describes. You must be homes for one another, your life the place where someone else will dwell secure. You must be the vineyard for me, and I must be the vineyard for you. We must make out of our lives the world of God’s promise. We have to stop waiting for it and start testifying, making our bodies doors marked with the words “you are loved.”
On some years, today’s prophecy from Isaiah appears in the lectionary as the Old Testament lesson for Easter. It’s the prophecy we read to bring us into the morning of resurrection, to the mouth of the empty tomb, after torture and death, when all are scattered–the morning when women show up to the grave, believing that terror and hatred have won. It is the word that greets us at the empty tomb where we come to discover that nothing overcomes love, that love wins and now love will win over and over again, and nothing can stop it.
Isaiah’s prophecy was for a people who experienced horrific persecution and political upheaval. It’s a prophecy for times of terror, times when you feel like the world is falling apart. It’s a prophecy for those of us who thought we understood the world, thought we knew the terrain of this country, for those trying to find steady ground, trying to find our way through the disorientation of this week.
I don’t know what the future holds for us or for a church in the new world that is dawning. But I do know we will have to be braver than we have been, that we will have to be ready to testify with our lives.
That means we’re going to have to be ready to love a whole lot of people. And if we have been unsure how to love, if we’ve been unsure about our Muslim neighbor, our transgender neighbor, our rural neighbor, our undocumented neighbor, our formerly incarcerated neighbor – now is the time to become sure, to become a sure place of love for them.
I want us to do that together. I know this can be a place where we figure out what that means, where we can figure out the work we need to do within ourselves in order to do the work that is before us, whatever that may be. I know that might sound hard. It may sound scary, and it will be. But I promise you this – you’ll never have to do it alone.
If Luke’s Gospel marks the beginning of this week, Isaiah stands watch here at the end of it. And Isaiah tells us that from now on you and I must become a home for one another, the vineyard, the sign saying “Love is here,” the open mouth of an empty tomb. You must become the place where God’s love dwells. There is no more time. We cannot wait.
Oct 24, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite C
It’s the loveliest thing about swallows,
The moment they come,
The moment they dip in, and are suddenly there.
For months you just never thought about them
Then suddenly you see one swimming maybe out there
Over our bare tossing orchard, in a slattery April blow,
Probably among big sloppy snowflakes
And there it is – the first swallow,
Flung and frail, like a midge caught in the waterskin
On the weir’s brink – and straightaway you lose it.
You just got a glimpse of whisker and frailty
Then there’s nothing but jostled daffodils, like the girls running
In from a downpour
Shrieking and giggling and shivering
And the puckered primrose posies, and the wet grit.
It’s only a moment, only a flicker, easy to miss –
The first swallow just swinging in your eye-corner
Like a mote in the wind-smart,
A swallow pinned on a roller of air that roars and snatches it away
Out of sight, and booms in the bare wood
And you know there’ll be colder nights yet
And worse days and you think
‘If he’s here, there must be flies for him’
And you think of the flies and their thin limbs in that cold.
I spent this week giving attention to birds. I’ve stood still by my window waiting for birds. I’ve stopped mid-conversation to see a bird on a bench tilting her head toward me. I’ve waited in the open spaces where there are no birds; I’ve observed their absence. I’ve looked at pictures, carefully drawn by patient hands, pictures of speckled eggs and spackled nests. I’ve leafed through photographs of grackles and cowbirds, nuthatches and waxwings, kinglets, larks, and ibises.
I spent this week giving attention to birds, because Jesus seems to think that’s something we should do with our time. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells the crowds gathered around him on the side of a mountain. Look. Notice. Give attention.
We’re in good company when we take time for birds. There’s a whole Christian tradition, though not well known, that has paid special attention to animals of all kinds, including birds. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to construct “books of nature,” called bestiaries. Christians at this time assumed that embedded in the natural world were lessons for people, that in the lives of animals we would discover lessons about who God is, that God is somehow revealing God’s self through things that creep and crawl.
Each animal unveils something about God and God’s desire for human life. This week the Scripture pulls our attention towards two birds in particular – sparrows and swallows. We hear about them in Psalm 84:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Sparrows and swallows share some things in common. In the psalm they are building their houses, their nests in the Temple. This isn’t surprising. Swallows and sparrows have lives that are near to ours. They are found where there are people because these birds build their homes in pre-existing structures. In order for them to survive, to lay their eggs they need us.
I learned a lot about these birds as I gave them my attentive regard. I learned that barn swallows pick pebbles of mud and clay from the ground, molding them into a cup nest. The birds will return to the same nests for some twenty years. In the ancient world sparrows were sold for pennies, the burnt offering at the Temple by the poorest of God’s people. They are ubiquitous. An author from this century describes sparrows “as a troublesome and impertinent generation, [that] nestle just where you do not want them. They stop your stove- and water-pipes with their rubbish, build in the windows and under the beams of the roof, and would stuff your hat full of stubble in half a day if they found it hanging in a place to suit them.”
Sparrows and swallows found refuge in the Temple. The Temple was the place where God’s life ran free. It was the place that gave shape for God’s spirit, the holy place, the place to which people drew near to draw near to God. Here God welcomes sparrows to pack the dirt of their nests, to line the nest with feathers, to brood patiently over a clutch of six eggs, always one egg noticeably lighter than the others. God gives them attention. And W\when we give attention to birds we are as God is. When we do this we’re enfolding our lives into God’s life.
God’s attention is attentive regard. God’s attention is delight. I read an interview with Mary Oliver, the naturalist poet, who told the journalist memories of her late spouse, whom she called “M”: “It has frequently been remarked about my own writings,” Oliver said, “that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
Mary Oliver’s words remind me of a friend who is an ornithologist. When we talk outside, every once in a while, he pauses, so I pause, and I follow his eyes to a tree, to a branch, to a flutter of movement, then he’d tell me about his surprise at seeing this bird, this particular bird, here in our neighborhood. As the bird hops from branch to branch, both of us become distracted by this dance in the tree, surprised by what we notice.
I imagine that God is like this, like my neighbor. The God who goes about, doing all the important things, important business, yet who can’t help but be distracted into attention for birds, the surprise of these creatures, the distraction of delight. What takes practice for me–this discipline of paying attention–is simply how God is. In God’s life all created things have weight, they cannot help but call attention. God cannot help but be drawn back to them. And in turn God’s love draws us into the distraction. God invites us to notice that there is a bird nesting at the altar, invites us to be drawn into the lives of other.
In the bestiary manuscripts I mentioned before everything is supposed to be a lesson. There are thousands of these texts and their accompanying pictures, each beast revealing a moral or spiritual lesson. I noticed that the manuscripts tend in two directions. Some quickly move from the description of the animal to the lesson discovered therein – this fish is like the Trinity, this pelican is like the sacrifice of Jesus, this rabbit holds a moral lesson.
But on some pages the monks are carried away by the depictions of the animals themselves. They get distracted figuring out the exact color of the swallow’s breast, distracted in describing the deep cross of the scissor tail, wondering about swallows who catch insects as they fly. After a while the writer catches himself in the distraction of these descriptions, manages to tack on a pithy phrase at the end about how God is like this or that. The writer forgets that the bird isn’t the thing itself. The writer is distracted by creation, distracted into attentive regard.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve met with many of you, I’ve enjoyed getting to know all the ways you are distracted by the things that distract God. In looking to birds I’ve become curious about all of you, those of you who have built into your lives a capacity for distraction. I’ve learned it by your attentive regard to those at the margins of our church, the people who are difficult to love. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in rocks, you stop to pick up something remarkable where I see ordinary gravel. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in our children, the one who spend Sunday school with my toddler, the one who gathers up a clutch of preschoolers from around our neighborhood. I’ve also learned it from those of you who have given attentive regard to yourselves—the ways you give your own life the attentiveness that reflects back a God who loves you.
As I gave my attention to birds this week, as I began to think about your attentiveness I started to notice that my attention was drawn more and more to other things, ordinary scenes in my life that I often overlook. At the public library I saw a woman hard at work, using a computer reserved for job searches, looking for employment opportunities. Her two children, toddlers, were crawling under the table, around her chair, jostling for the coveted spot between their mother’s feet. I saw another mom, gently rocking her stroller back and forth with one hand, her little one bundled inside, napping, while pecking at the keyboard with her free hand.
As I watched them all, I remembered the words of an ornithologist who described a species of sparrows that builds nests out of whatever is available, sparrows that make life out of whatever they can find. As I looked at these little sparrows, nesting under the computer table, I thought about other nests: the homes built for overlooked people. Tent cities and refugees in camps, shelters cropping up in the woods, the people who sleep in cars, on a friend’s couch, under the doorways of church buildings—and how God can’t help but pay attention to them, how they draw God’s attention, how God’s eyes turn toward them.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus points to sparrows because they remind us that God gives us what we need. But I do wish Jesus lingered here a bit longer, lingered here with the birds before turning to us, stayed where Psalm 84 gives attention. I wish that he’d lingered on those mama swallows whose babies chirp, mouths wide for insects; those thick, dark nests made pebble by muddy pebble; those freed bodies flitting about the open air of the Temple. This is the goodness, the unexpected and unasked for pleasure of simply being received as we are. What we learn from sparrows is that delight in the unexpected intrusion of another is to dwell in God’s life. What we learn is that God’s distraction for us is love.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
A woman. A vulnerable woman. A woman without social or political power. This woman finds herself up against a heartless bureaucrat who cares nothing about justice. And she pushes back. She nags and fights until justice prevails.
Today Jesus tells his disciples a parable. And when I heard it I thought, “this sounds so familiar.”
I realized why after Brenda mentioned the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” at a meeting we were at earlier this week. That’s where I’ve heard this story before.
“Pray The Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary about the end of the long civil war in Liberia. Liberia is a country that was settled by freed slaves at the end of institutionalized slavery in the U.S. Over time conflict arose between these American transplants and the indigenous peoples. Further tensions grew over the mixed religious landscape – both Muslim and Christian. The income gap widened, anger flared, joblessness was rampant, the ruling elite ignored the cries of the people. And in 1989 Liberia erupted into a civil war that lasted over a decade. Thousands were killed and displaced. Rape, looting, the recruitment of child soldiers, sectarian violence – all of this was part of the normal rhythm of life in the country side.
Until one day a group of women had enough. It started with a dream, a dream from God to gather women to pray. And that prayer became the force through which a peace movement began in Liberia, a women’s peace movement. It was a movement that required persistence, a movement that began with Christians who were joined by Muslim women. It was a movement that was dangerous, subversive, and demanding.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” isn’t a movie with a central confrontation between a group of women and a bunch of warlords. Instead, it’s a film about tenacity, about weeks of sitting in the fish market while President Taylor drives by without a second look. It’s about a peace movement that spans years, required adaption, travels across countries, a movement that grew to thousands of women refusing to be silent over and over and over and over again.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
The parable is about two things. First, it’s about prayer, about how God loves us and wants us to pray because prayer has something to do with justice. And second, the parable is about the way the world works, about the way justice prevails in the face of persistence. Somehow these two things go together. Leymah Gbowee and the Nigerian women’s peace movement unite this parable for us, putting the pieces together. Leymah shows us the faith of the persistent widow.
Luke has been taking us through this lesson of faith over the past couple months. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus’ teaching that faith isn’t a commodity, a paycheck you cash in. Instead it’s a disposition of life, a way of being and acting in the world. And today we hear more about faith. We get a template, a blue print for this faith, a few more details on this disposition. Jesus wants us to be like this woman: tenacious, resilient, relentless in our prayer as a pursuit of justice. “When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus wonders, will he find the faith of this woman, will he find women like this one on earth?
That’s why Jesus calls prayer a need, a necessity. Jesus doesn’t pass it off as something we do to make ourselves feel better. Prayer isn’t lifted up because it calms us down, distracting us from action. We need to pray because praying opens our lives and our imaginations to the justice of God. Praying keeps us aware that God is nothing like the wicked judge, God is nothing like one who scoffs at justice.
The believers to whom Jesus directs this parable are not just the disciples. This is a parable for us, for those of us who see injustice run rampant all around us. It’s a parable for those who need to be reminded that God is with us and for us, that God is with those who are broken, distressed, and disheartened by the evil we see.
I have been particularly disheartened at the shadow of the unjust judge that has loomed over our country. Over the past two weeks I’ve listened as Christians defend rhetoric of sexual assault. I’ve watched Christian women use the robust and rich theological language of sin and forgiveness to get a presidential candidate off the hook. I’ve watched as over a million stories of sexual assault poured in over Twitter. I’ve heard my friends publicly tell their stories about sexual assault for the first time. I’ve heard silence from many of my brothers where there should be a resounding condemnation. I’ve been told sexual assault is common, everyday speech for men, “locker room” talk, the kind of language I should expect and accept.
I suspect that Leymah Gbowee was taught to expect and accept the brutality of sexual violence that accompanied the Liberian civil war. As I watched the film about the Nigerian women’s peace movement, I was struck by the weariness of this endless violence. I was struck by how Leymah, a single mother with three children, a woman five months pregnant at the time she received her dream, a poor woman with no power—I was struck by how Leymah had a dream about praying her way into peace.
Leymah had a dream. She dreamed about prayer, and that prayer grew. It’s a prayer that brought together women from across her country, women brought together across religious lines. It was a prayer that started with the mouth, and the prayer got louder. The prayer grew feet. It grew arms. It grew a heart. It grew lungs. It was a prayer of persistence and organization, the prayer of a widow who is relentless, who will not cease her prayer until her demands for peace are met.
If we ever doubted that prayer spills out into protest against injustice, the persistent widow makes this plain. One of my favorite lines in this parable–apparently tamed for us, the gentle English-language readers–is found in widow’s outcry against the judge. A literal translation says, “This widow keeps bringing all this trouble, I will grant her justice so she stops giving me a black eye.” This is language borrowed from a boxing match, a “fearless macho, judge cornered and slugged by the least powerful in society.”
From judge’s perspective, from the position of power, this woman is trouble. She won’t leave him alone. She’s puts her whole life into her protest, all of who she is—showing up at his house, pounding on his door, crying out for justice. If she can’t sleep she won’t let her oppressor sleep. She doesn’t play by the rules imposed upon her by culture, by what others say women are allowed to do, by what others say women are allowed to be.
Sometimes we’re asked to do this, to act like this woman—to let our desire for justice lead us outside the bounds of culture, outside the bounds of pre-scripted roles, outside the expectations imposed upon us by the judges of social acceptability. What the widow displays is the actions of one acting outside her role. Those of you who are women and have found yourselves described as “aggressive,” as “angry,” in your confrontation of systems of coercive power—you have a very good idea of what is happening in this parable. The judge gives a sarcastic response to a woman who has gone outside her station to protest. Her power is her relentlessness, her willingness to do whatever it takes.
Echoing back from today’s parable are Leymah Gbowee and the women of the Nigerian women’s peace movement. Echoing back is every woman who has prayed for the strength to report a sexual assault, every woman who has told her story to help make others brave. Echoing back is every woman whose prayer has grown to a protest, whose prayer has become a movement, a black eye on a system of oppression – women who acted in the way women were not expected to act, women whose prayer grew legs and lungs, women who would not stop, would not rest until justice was done.
This week I am longing for a movement of prayer that erupts into protest. I am longing for my sisters and brothers to speak out against sexual assault. There is nothing braver than persistence of this kind in the face of evil. It is a bravery so intense it requires, it needs a God whose whole entire being, whose life even unto death is bound up in bringing the justice to the earth, whose life is bound up in your life.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
 Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (641).
Oct 9, 2016
2 Kings 5
Raleigh Mennonite Church
I knew it was only a matter of time before Tom and Malcolm were hit by a car. The brothers live up the street from us. Almost every day, shortly after one of our family vehicles pulls into the drive, I see the boys, nine and eleven, leap from their porch and onto their bikes. A smooth, long hill leads from their house at the top of the hill to our house at the bottom. But you have to cross one road to reach our front door.
It’s that road that always scares me. The boys seem to pay attention for oncoming cars but I always hold my breath as they near the intersection, as they careen through the stop sign.
Etta and I were getting out of the car when this familiar scene played out. I turned just in time to see Tom riding his bike, Malcolm standing on the pegs behind him. Tom couldn’t see. He couldn’t see the white car driving down Englewood.
There was a screech and a loud thump as I watched the car swipe the front of the bike where Tom was sitting. The white sedan smashed into his left leg.
This week I’ve been thinking about little lives, lives that pass by without much notice, lives like Tom’s, lives that declare their smallness, lives that are fragile in their smallness.
We hear about a life like this in the Scriptures today. It’s a life that passes by if we don’t look for it, if we don’t pay attention.
Namaan, is a wealthy, well-connected military general from Aram. And he has a humiliating problem. He’s got a horrible skin disease. It probably looked bad, itched terribly, and made it embarrassing for him to be in the company of others especially as an important person in his country.
We learn that in one of their recent military campaigns Namaan’s armies took some of the people as slaves. One of them was a little girl. In the original Hebrew, the verses emphasize how small she is, small of size and small of importance. She’s a “little little girl,” a nameless slave from a conquered people. Surprisingly, she speaks up. She turns to Namaan’s wife with a possible solution to his skin disease. “O, that my master was with the prophet in Samaria, then he would be healed.”
And then she seems to disappear from the story. She is given just one line, one sentence bravely spoken to the mistress of her house. It’s more than a request. It’s a longing, a desire for healing, healing for a military general who ripped her from her family, enslaved her, brought her to a land far from her home where her future is dim.
We have no idea why she responds this way, why the little little girl doesn’t leave Namaan to wallow in his sores.
We aren’t told anything about her story. The narrative moves on, doesn’t give us time to wonder. What happened to her family? Were they murdered in front of her? Were they, too, taken as slaves, a family torn apart by a politics outside their control? Was she afraid? Did she cry at night? Was she seven or eight or nine? Did she still play make believe games in those moments between carrying pans and gathering firewood? Did she gather scraps of cloth and cornhusks for make shift dolls?
The story passes by her without dwelling on any of these questions. The story moves on to more important things. Namaan hears of the little little girl’s exclamation. And, in his importance, goes about seeking his healing the way important people do. He relies on his connections to get him into Israel, a letter from his king to the king in Samaria. He gets payment ready – gold, silver, and expensive clothing. Namaan goes where important people go. Powerful people do powerful things, so he goes to the king of Israel assuming that’s where he’ll get this miraculous healing.
Of course, it isn’t the king who can help Namaan. It’s an easily excitable, kind of angry, bald-headed prophet who won’t even bother to come out to deliver a message to the great and majestic Namaan. That’s who has the power to offer God’s healing, not the king.
Namaan is mad and he’s about the get madder. The instructions from the prophet for this healing are not, as he anticipated, some hocus pocus, waving of hands. Instead Namaan is to bathe in the sewage filled waters of the Jordan.
As we enter this story we find that we think we’re being taken in one direction only to discover the prophet turning us around and telling us to go the opposite way. We read this text standing in the shoes of Namaan. He’s gone about this the way important people do. Namaan does what he knows. He employs the bluster of kingly affairs, pompous parades, cash gifts, and diplomatic exchanges.
Here at the end, he’s stripped of all of this. He’s reduced to a naked, scabby mess of a human being, bathing in a polluted river.
What comes out of the Jordan, what emerges, we find, is a person with skin like a child, with skin that looks like a little child. The Hebrew text offers hints, helping us along, using the same word to describe both the reborn Namaan and the little little girl who initiates this healing story. He has put on her skin. His body is like her body. All this time, God was turning the story back to the one we and Namaan passed over, the one we disregarded – a nameless slave child, a very little girl.
The ancient Jewish Rabbis have a saying. “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Namaan sees importance in political connections and wealth. And he learns that the God of Israel is the God to whom all are precious. God sees as God is.
I wonder if, standing naked on the river bank, wiping away the stinking mud, if Namaan realized that God loved him. I wonder if he found that his life meant something to God, that God loved him, all by himself. I wonder if, stripped of wealth and power, Namaan came to know that he was as precious as a little little slave girl.
This morning the street outside my house is quiet. The ambulance and fire engine are gone. There’s no trace of the crash that happened earlier this week. I’m thinking again about Malcom and Tom, how their little lives, so insignificant in light of the power and wealth of our world, how their lives are so precious to me, so precious to God.
When I heard that horrible crash, Tom’s scream, I started to run. It was instinct. I left everything in the street outside my car – my purse, my groceries, even my two-year old. I turned and I ran towards Tom.
And God is like that to, leaving everything behind to run after you, leaving her own child in the street to get to you. God does not see things as they are. God see things as God is. And when God sees you, when God sees the smallness of your life, when God sees you stripped of everything, with nothing left, God sees a beloved. God is always leaving everything behind and running towards you.
What we learn from Namaan is that wealth and privilege obscure belovedness. We learn that we try all the time at self-improvement, at putting on things to make us more loveable, worthier of love. It is only in the stripping, in the leaving everything behind on the shore of the Jordan, it is only when there is nothing else that could possibly give him worth that Namaan discovers he is truly loved, just as he is. This is the real healing miracle of the story. He is loved like a little girl, a slave, loved immensely, without measure, simply as he is. There is nothing he can do or own or say that could decrease or add to this love.
When I think about my children playing with the boys up the street I remember the precious things they manage to find and collect. Acorns and leaves, berries and empty containers, bright pieces of plastic, old beads. I’m always surprised by the things that children find interesting, the things in which they take delight. I can’t always see. And children help me look closer, to see things not as they are but as God is. Maybe that’s what the little little slave girl in today’s story saw when she saw Namaan – past the sores, past the wealth, seeing instead as God saw Namaan, seeing someone precious.
Because God is like this, too. God sees you, nothing more or less than you. God sees as God is. And God sees beloved.
Oct 2, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite Church
What is faith? That’s the question that animates the Gospel lesson today. What is faith and how do you get? How do you keep it? Get more of it? Or are those the right questions to ask?
Throughout Luke we see Jesus pushing up against an idea about religion assumed in these first questions. It’s a constant struggle because this idea of faith as a commodity was in the cultural water of the day. To treat faith as a commodity means that faith is like a possession—something that can be given and taken away, banked and used, stored up and spent. This way of thinking about faith was all around Jesus, but most noticeable in the religious conviction of the Pharisees.
It’s for this reason that the Pharisees are consistently the antagonists in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus spends a lot of time calling them out as an example of bad behavior, bad belief, a way of doing religion that misunderstands the Law and takes advantage of the poor.
If there is one thing Jesus cannot stand it is when his own disciples can’t break out of this framework, when they replicate the Pharisees position of faith as commodity and transfer it to him. And that is what our Gospel story is about today. “Increase our faith!” the disciples exclaim.
The disciples are mimicking what they see around them. For the Pharisees rule-keeping was the way to get more faith. You got points, money in your religion bank, by being good at following the rules, coming up with more rules, holding others to the rules. And the most important rule of all was to keep separate, to remove yourself from the stain of sin. That’s where you could really rack up dollars.
Piety as a value, something you earn, earned through separation from and exclusion of the vulnerable – that’s what Jesus doesn’t like about the way the Pharisees go about their religious lives.
Jesus’ disciples are part of this culture. People think about religion as being pious, of relating to the Law and to God as a way to receive faith, to increase it. The disciples take that same paradigm and turn it towards Jesus. Give us more, they say. We believe in who you are. You are the Lord, the Lord of the Law, the one whom God sent. So now you can switch the banking rules. You can give out the faith. And when we get some of it, then we’ll show those Pharisees who is truly pious, who is truly religious. We’ll be the ones who are honored.
Jesus is frustrated by this response. Guys, come on! we imagine him saying. Faith isn’t something you get. It isn’t a form of currency to be increased! Faith is a particular disposition in the world.
Jesus tells them faith is like taking a set place in a society where there are ways of life, particular work you are given to do because of the role you play. You don’t get a reward out of it. There’s nothing earned. To join with Jesus means you work for free because what you’re doing isn’t actually work, even when it’s hard, even when it demands. Discipleship is devotion. The disciples want a paycheck, but Jesus wants companions—people who will be by his side during his trials, and people who will gather around a table, who will draw near.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus shows the disciples what this means through his life, through his ministry. A disposition of faith means putting your body next to other people’s bodies, in particular the bodies of the most vulnerable. Jesus, God in flesh comes to earth and he puts his body in the vicinity of the bodies of victims, of sinners and tax collectors, of the sick and disabled, women and children, of laborers, of lepers, of sex workers, of the poor – all those whose bodies will not conform to the dictates of the Law.
It’s the opposite of what the Pharisees have lifted up as good religion. Instead of separation as a way of amassing faith, Jesus shows us that faith is putting our bodies alongside vulnerable people, drawing near to the people Jesus draws close to.
And when Jesus does this, it eventually gets him killed. In Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is put to death on the accusation of sedition – he draws so close that he ends up looking like a political zealot. “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place,” to Jerusalem, the capital, his accusers say. Jesus dies under Roman law because he looks like the oppressed. This is what faith looks like – proximity to the vulnerable, unto death.
James Cone takes this one step further. Cone is the father of black liberation theology. And for him God does not simply draw near to the bodies of the oppressed. Jesus is God put into these bodies. Jesus is enfleshed in the oppressed. For Cone, as a black man in racist America, this means that Jesus is black—as black as Cone’s own body, skin like his skin, flesh like his flesh.
I passed his text, A Black Theology of Liberation, on the church bookshelf this past week. As I picked it up and thumbed through the pages I was struck by how contemporary his words sound, how relevant they were in light of the videotaped shooting deaths of black men we learn about almost every week. Cones words, written in 1970 could be written today.
Cone tells us that, if we want to look for the body of Jesus today, if we want to try and understand the body to which Jesus drew near and entered 2000 years ago, we can see a Jesus who is black. Jesus, Cone tells us, is the “Oppressed one whose earthly existence was bound up with the oppressed of the land” (202). The body of Jesus is the body of Terence Crutcher, it is the body of Keith Lamont Scott.
What I have learned, what white people have learned, is that as we encounter this Jesus, in putting our bodies in proximity to the oppressed, we must make ourselves receptive to anger. I imagine that most of us are in line with a Jesus who turns away from a payment system of faith to a disposition of discipleship.
But the riskiness of the call of discipleship is that we will not resist the anger that comes from those to whom we draw near. Putting my white body in proximity to suffering, to those vulnerable to police violence, racial profiling, unfair drug sentencing, red-lining, voter discrimination – it means putting my life in the way of confrontation of our witting or unwitting participation in racism.
I think that often times Christians in the Mennonite tradition sense imminent danger in anger. We sense that anger should be stifled, that anger is inherently violent. I also sense that the Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel is calling us to a discipleship where we can receive the anger of another.
This is where Jesus words become difficult for me, when I am asked to “stand still and listen to another woman’s (or man’s) voice delineate an agony I do not share, one to which I myself have contributed” (Sisters Outsider, 128).
Audre Lorde has helped me give language to the challenge of Jesus to stand near to the anger of my black sisters and brothers, even as I find voice for my own anger in a sexist world. She reminds me, “it is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (130). When we turn away from anger, we are turning away from the oppressed and insights of these stories. Rather than danger, for Lorde, “anger is loaded with information.” Anger is a spark, a chisel, a flame.
Lorde sees anger as productive, as a kind of miracle of power and growth. We can hear the response Jesus gives the disciples when they ask to have their faith increased. Jesus tells them “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.” Somehow drawing near, putting our bodies in proximity to vulnerable bodies, not resisting the anger of the oppressed, making space for anger without hatred – somehow this disposition of life will actually do something, it creates something new through our difference. It could cause even a tree to flourish in the sea.
It is World Communion Sunday and I am reminded today not only of the beautiful diversity of the universal church, and of our common bond in Christ, but also of the oppression of Christians and their neighbors around our world. Today I am reminded of the anger that wells up in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as the U.S. continues its unrelenting campaign of drone strikes. I am reminded of our ignorance as tens of thousands of our sisters and brothers are killed by militant groups in Nigeria. I am reminded of those in our own country who continue to suffer from racism while the white church cowers in silence, refuses to draw near, or condemns the anger of suffering.
As we celebrate Communion with a world-wide church, we do this in remembrance of Jesus, the one who calls us not to accumulation of faith, but to bodies drawing near to vulnerable bodies, bodies drawing near to anger and hurt, a church ready to see how this kind of faith is, in fact, miraculous.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Today’s Gospel lesson wins the prize for slimiest story in the New Testament. It is a story that demonstrates a consistently bad economic system, top to bottom, and no one comes out looking very good.
There’s a wealthy man who has a manager, someone who handles his property. Being a manager was a good job, but it was a job for slaves, the best job a slave could have. It was so good, in fact, that freemen would sell themselves into slavery in order to become managers for the wealthy, to live under their patronage, to be the beneficiaries of this form of friendship.
This manager slave – he’s bad at his job. He starts to panic when he realizes he’s squandered the stuff he’s been charged to protect. He’s going to get fired. But the manager doesn’t want to work. He doesn’t want to beg. So he cooks the books, forgiving a serious portion of debt from a few of the people who owe his master money.
It’s a bad system. It’s a system that flourishes because of slavery, indebtedness, classism, and amassing wealth. It’s an economic system that grinds on, crushing the vulnerable who happen to get caught in the gears. It takes for granted the fact that the Torah specifically forbids charging interest as a form of usury. But here we have it, God’s people deeply embedded in oppressive economy.
Luke doesn’t imagine a way out of this. Everything that happens takes place from within, inside the system. There’s something tragic about this story. In Luke we don’t get a sense that economics can be reformed, that we can stop the machine from rolling along. It’s there. We’re all bound up in dirty money. We eat, live, work, breathe, and survive by it.
But every once in a while, every now and then, someone manages to throw in a wrench. Every once in a while someone manages to make mischief, a disruption that temporarily defies or ignores the economic rules everyone else calls just.
In this parable the reasons for changing up the rules are slimy. What the manager wants is to protect himself. He doesn’t want to be shamed by digging ditches. He wants to assure his future. And he’s smart. The manager knows how the system works, who benefits, what’s at stake, how to make the money work for him, how to get something out of it. He knows how money makes and then controls social arrangements, how it keeps everyone in their place.
Jesus looks at this scene and I imagine he laughs and shakes his head. Here’s a guy paying attention, he says to the disciples, to the crowds, to us. What if his disciples paid attention like this? What if Jesus’ followers actually knew how the system worked, and what if they caused some mischief.
A couple months ago a talk show host gave away $15 million–$15 million of medical debt. The show is hosted by John Oliver and on it he did a segment on the debt-buying industry. U.S. banks currently own 12 trillion dollars of consumer debt. That’s anything from car loans and house payments to college loans or medical or credit card debt.
These banks sell off our debt for pennies on the dollar to a collection agency. Those agencies do their best to collect the debt owed. If they can’t track you down, you don’t have a job, or you can run really fast, then the debt becomes less valuable. The agency will sell it again for even less after writing off its purchase price. At the bottom of this food chain, after multiple depreciations through sale, are unregulated, independent debt collectors–the last ones to buy. They purchase the debt at an absurdly low price and then try to collect it from those who owe, even if the statutes of limitation are up on those debts.
John Oliver created a company on-line to buy this debt at the very bottom. He called it Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP, like the fish that eats detritus. For $60,000 Oliver’s company purchased $15 million of medical debt. This was debt that was too old to be collected under state law, but a loop hole allowed for CARP to continue to try and collect.
Yet instead of harassing his debtors with late night phone calls, Oliver simply forgave the debt. In good TV theatrics he brought out a giant red button and said “are you ready to make television history?” And then he forgave the debt. Just like that. With a giant red button.
Something happens when debt is forgiven. The absurdity of a system is exposed. Because someone was paying attention, we get to see that absurdity, how oppressive economies devastate people’s lives.
But Jesus goes a step beyond this. He’s asking us to pay attention to the way dirty money operates in our economic system because the good news of Jesus Christ requires the disruption of those systems. Throughout the Gospel of Luke the good news is the reversing of social boundaries, boundaries maintained by economic disparity. It’s what Mary sings in Luke 1,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
And in today’s strange, sleazy parable we discover that something else happens when we engage in the mischief of dirty money. We become bound to one another. We become bound in some unspeakable way. It isn’t a legal matter. No papers are drawn up. No deeds signed. There is simply a recognition that something has been overcome. Something that forged a steely trap of enmity is broken. The forgiveness of the debt makes it possibly to see, even if just for a moment, outside the system of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, a system of reciprocity, of payback.
Luke’s Gospel lives close to the people around it, intensely focused on real life, its ear to the ground, attentive to the complexity of daily human life. Luke’s is theology in the dirt.
And so I wonder if Luke knew from looking around him that there are debts we forgive that bind us to one another. There are two types of patronage happening in the story we heard today. The first kind is the strong taking in the weak, the poor indebted to the rich. This kind of patronage is fickle. It depends on getting the job done right. It’s about keeping in line with the system, acting according to the rules.
But there’s a second type of patronage here, another type of friendship. This is the kind that forms between people at the margins of wealth, the periphery of power—between those who are casualties of the system, because they have to, because their lives depend on the dehumanizing system, and they can’t live without participating in it. Luke seems to point us towards these people, towards those who know the system and can find ways to play tricks, to act shrewdly and in the process to find one another.
I wonder if Luke saw, as he wandered the countryside behind Jesus, the ways people overcame social class through this kind of shrewdness. I wonder if he saw how dirty money can throw a wrench into economic systems. I wonder if he knew that, sometimes, we end up finding that we are bound to one another—we are bound together as we pay attention, as we make trouble within a system we cannot escape.
Jesus tells his story as a signpost of heavenly homes. He tells us there is something that outlasts oppressive economics, and that is the bond of love, the debt of love we cannot repay. I was reminded of this last week when getting an update on one of the members of my former church. Kate is dying at a faster-than-average rate from cancer. And Kate also recently learned that she lives in the same town as the doctor who discovered her rare, genetic form of cancer. The doctor who made this discovery won a Nobel Prize for the thousands of hours he spent in the lab discovering her genetic mutation.
Kate, for the debt owed to this man—this doctor who has made it possible for her to extend her life, for her to parent her child a bit longer, to be married a bit longer, to finish writing another book – because of this debt, Kate showed up at his office, and she gave him cupcakes.
The goods we possess, the work of our bodies, the wealth we gather – all of this exists within a relentless system. That’s what Luke tells us. It’s a system of death and destruction. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel isn’t confident that we can redeem these entrenched, tragic economic practices. But this Jesus has seen that every once in a while we have a chance to trouble old economic habits, even if it’s only for a moment. And when this happens, when we do this, when a brief interruption occurs, we participate in the hospitality of heavenly homes.
Luke also reminds us that there is no way to disambiguate our financial and personal lives. Economy is always personal. There are always people who are hurt, who thrive, who starve, who gain, who lose. And Luke pulls no punches when he tells us there is something that keeps us apart, something that creates barriers within the beloved community, something that keeps us from the service of God. When we yield to the system, when we refuse to engage, when we don’t pay attention we have been unfaithful.
Jesus, instead, welcomes us to peer into heavenly homes. At the door of the father welcoming home his wayward son, in the home of the woman rejoicing over her lost coin, in the sleepy flock together at last because all have been left to gather in the one – in each of these stories we discover that there are debts we cannot repay, and there is no way of ever coming to terms, to evening the scale. Instead we live in the constant debt of love, perpetually indebted, eternally giving what we have.
In Luke we are redirected to a life in which there are no strings attached, where we look out for places where, even within the vast corruption of Mamon, we are able to carve out moments in which we are bound to one another, where social barriers are eradicated, where we break the rules.
Brothers and sisters, we are all holding out cupcakes to the Nobel Prize winning doctor who discovered our cancer. We are always finding ourselves unable to repay another, clinging to the bond that forms us, one to the other. In these moments, Jesus says, you will find yourself in God’s home—dwelling in our bond of love, living into the gift of God’s love, heavenly love drawing us into a new world here and now, in our gifts of friendships.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Sept 4, 2016
A few weeks ago I was taking a writing class near St John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And while I was there I spent some time with Abbott John, the leader of the Benedictine community.
Whenever I’m at St John’s I make a point to attend morning prayer with the monks. In the choir behind the altar there’s a section for the brothers, and then a section for people like me. At exactly 7am the brother process in through the back of the sanctuary, robed in their identical black habit. We pray our way through the psalms, lift our chants, intercede for our world, remember the saints, and then we go to breakfast.
But something happens in between, in those short minutes between morning prayer and meal. Almost all the brothers change out of their robes. I pick out most of them in the cafeteria, talking to students, waiting for the timer on the waffle maker, ladling scrambled eggs onto a plate, all of them blending in with the rest of us, wearing suits and ties or sweatpants or t-shirts.
I asked Abbott John – what’s that about?
He told me that the habit functions to identify their community–and the place where they need to recognize each other is in prayer, because that’s when they are all together. That’s the time the habit matters – that’s when they are to remember that they are a body, when they look around and see other selves looking back at them.
I was thinking about the monks as I read today’s Scripture. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to his trial, to his death. And along the way he has found himself greeted and fed and believed by scores of people.
But eating with Jesus, walking with Jesus on the road – that isn’t the same thing as being a disciple. Being a disciple means something else. Being a disciple means constantly reassessing the core of your self-identity. It means being willing to reassign that identity based on the words of a ragged, homeless carpenter who, I must say, rather flippantly tells you to skip the next family reunion. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
In one way, Jesus’ difficult words in Luke 14 are a way to weed people out, to thin the crowd. This is like the organic chemistry course of med school. It’s there to show you how hard it can be and that this isn’t for everyone. Carrying the cross, whatever that means, has something to do with death, something to do with leaving behind family, friends, neighbors–the basic components that make up our identity.
But if discipleship is being called out of one place of identity-making, it is also being called into another. It is being called into a body.
Last weekend some of us were on the church retreat. On Saturday morning we gathered outside the main lodge to get ready for the low ropes course. I was ready to walk down with everyone, through the woods and to the area where we would be working together. But instead we were handed blindfolds.
The instructor told us that one of us would be the car, and one would be the driver. That translated to me being blindfolded while Kim stood behind me. She couldn’t speak but we came up with a system for communicating: right, left, brake, accelerate. And we were off.
The way was slow, over rocks and roots, slight rights, adjusting course. But Kim was a good guide. I trusted Kim. I trusted that she wouldn’t let me show up to worship the next day with a black eye from running face first into the limb of an oak tree. It was trust that grew as we walked, as I saw how attentive she was to rises in the root structure, how she slowed my pace or adjusted to keep me out of the way of the trees. She taught me what to do when we changed roles, when she couldn’t see anymore, when I was the one guiding her along a path filled with obstacles.
Along the way, through the trees, we became a body. As we walked, together, I was reminded that the church is also called out of familial identity and into a body, called into a life where we look out and see ourselves staring back. It’s a risky proposition because being a body is risky. Being a body means continuing on the way when a part of the body is sick, when a part of the body is weak. Being a body mean being affected by those who make up the body, to recognize that the health of the body is bound up within its parts. It means trusting that the part that can see is taking you to a place where you will be well.
We are a church, the body of Christ, and we are on the way, through the trees. And when it begins to matter that you’re a body, when that starts to become clear, is when you find yourself walking where there are obstacles, when roots and rocks and branches are on the path.
Dear friends, there will always be roots and rocks and branches on the path. If there is one thing Jesus assures us of, it is that our journey to discipleship will be marked by conflict. Conflict with each other, with our community, with our culture, with the world. There is no getting out of it. There is no way around it. It is the way.
What it means to be a body, to pick up your cross, is to walk along this rocky path and to trust the body with your life, to trust that, even as other relationships become tenuous and fail—to trust that we are figuring out a way through this, to trust that Jesus has brought us here, together, as a body, as part of one another.
I cannot guarantee you much, but I do know this – we will disagree. At some point you and I will find ourselves with political differences, or with different theological priorities. One of us will say the wrong thing. Probably me. We’ll mess up. We may hurt each other. We’ll forget that we’re a body, forget that we need each other. At some point we’ll have to do something hard, to make a difficult decision. We’ll feel our body groan. I know this because Jesus promises us that this is going to happen: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me,” he says, “cannot be my disciple.”
I also believe that Jesus promises us that we have everything we need to be a body. We have everything we need to tell each other how we are doing at the work of being one body, together. And we need to talk to each other, to figure out the signs to communicate when there are roots ahead, when we need to slow down, when our body is tired, when we need take more time, or when we need to take bolder steps to get further down the trail.
That’s what I’m hoping for us, for this part of the body of Jesus Christ that is made up of you and me. I’m hoping that when we disagree, when things are difficult, when we’ve fallen down, that we’ll let each other know we were hurt, that we’ll take the time to find each other, to say that something difficult happened and we need to make it right. I hope that we’ll take time to pay attention for the ways that the body is fragile, fragile in grief and sorrow, vulnerable to rejection, the times when we will need to be led by those who can see what we cannot see.
And when we count the costs and say yes, when we voluntarily give our lives over to being in this body, we do not simply become a sign of Jesus, a sign of peace, a sign of the resurrection. We actually become the risen body of Christ. We become Easter. This is why we sing those words, “we are each other’s bread and wine.” You become the broken body. You become the body taken into my body, a body always rediscovering itself, always coming to see itself anew, always in resurrection.
In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia wrote a rule for his monasteries, the Rule of St Benedict. One of my favorite sections is called On the Reception of Guests. I love that these brief paragraphs are squeezed between a chapter called “Brethren Who Go Not Very Far Away” and “Whether a Monk Should Receive Letters or Anything Else.” The Rule is a practical guide, a way for a body to function in all its minutia.
So when a Benedictine monk is greeted by a stranger, the instructions are precise and practical. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He (Jesus) is going to say,” writes Benedict, “ ‘I came as a guest, and you received me.’”
When a guest arrives, it is as if Jesus Christ has come, as if the body of God, the body of which you are a part, has entered the room. This guest should be announced so that everyone can greet her with charity. The monks are to lay themselves on the ground before her, because they are adoring Christ in this stranger. There is foot washing. If there is a fast it is broken to provide food for the guest. The poorest are to be received with the most lavish welcome because, it says, “it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
Can you imagine them, the monks opening the door for the old beggar woman who knocks, meekly, hoping for some table scraps? A brother looks back at her, surprised and delighted. Rejoicing, he calls to the others – Jesus Christ has come to stay with us. He looks back at the woman. He sees his face, another self, looking back. He falls down before her, in adoration, in devotion.
We are not a body for ourselves, constantly assessing who is in and who is out, always policing our boundaries. We are a body that is constantly being surprised by who we already are, by discovering who is already within us, discovering how we are always becoming a body, always reconstituting, always following Jesus’ call of discipleship to seek the body’s grace.
This makes us incredibly vulnerable. We are picking up a cross when we say that we will no longer place our identity in family relationships, but instead that we will be a body, that we’re open to being remade by others, returning again and again to a looking back and seeing each one as Jesus. It’s a risky proposition. We do not enter into this life lightly.
I also know that there is nothing else I would want than to be a body with you, to be the risen body of Jesus, to see myself staring back in each stranger, to see myself when I look at you. I know that you will be there when I cannot see the way, and that is enough. I know that at times we will be walking a long time, and you may think we’ve been forgotten me. I know there will be times when it will seem like we’re going to run face first into nettles. And then I’ll feel the tap on my shoulder. We’re together, because you are here. We are each other’s bread and wine. We are a body.
Duke Memorial 7/10/16
The priests I saw were men, all of them. In my head I have a memory as a little child of one woman among them, but then she was gone. Every Sunday, behind the altar, in the pulpit, hands raised above the bread and the wine – all of the priests were men.
In the church I grew up in I almost never saw a female pastor, and never heard a woman preach. It would take 19 years for me to hear the voice of a woman proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit. 19 years.
I have another memory from childhood. I was reading the Bible, 1 Timothy 2. Tears soaked the pages of my NIV Adventure Bible. “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” The words burned on the page.
For years I would come home from church and reenact the Sunday morning service, singing the words of institution for the gathered church of my stuffed animals. I had neatly arranged them in a semi-circle on my canopy bed, a few pieces of Wonder bread and a paper cup of water, the body and blood of Jesus for my beloved toys.
And those words from Timothy. They hurt. They hurt me. What could it mean for me? What could it mean for a little girl who felt this draw, these words of consecration spilling out into this little bedroom church, a little girl that would later become me, one of the pastors here at Duke Memorial, preaching before you today.
The good news is that my feminist, divinity-school-educated dad found me crying that day reading Timothy. He explained cultural context and local setting. And he hugged me. And he told me I could be anything I wanted to be.
But it was hard to believe. Because it’s hard to be what you can’t see. And that’s why I’m thankful for the window that preserves the memory of Tabitha, always here before us, always in our midst. Today I give thanks that, as I look back, I can see how Tabitha has always been preaching, always been proclaiming the Gospel in the pulpit of the world, even when she was blocked from pulpit of the church.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and to acts of charity.”
A disciple and her name is Tabitha. This is the only time in Scripture when we hear the name of a female disciple. Tabitha, the one who does good works, who gathers a church of widows, a church of the despised and disenfranchised. Tabitha a widow-priest. Tabitha, the disciple who stitches together tunics and robes, hands them out in the street, clothes others, clothes them in dignity and strength.
Widows in the time of Tabitha were blocked from every avenue available to maintain a financially sustainable life. Tabitha finds a way, uses her ingenuity and skill to create a cottage industry of clothing making. She gathers the widows around her, makes a new life possible for them. Tabitha was their pastor, their priest, the one whom God had sent to remind them of God’s love, to bind them together, to make possible the Good News of Jesus Christ among them.
This is what happens when Jesus comes into the world. All the sudden things are turned upside down. All the prophecies, all the promises begin to come life. You see them happening. The Good News of God’s love begins to move out into the world and to move in ways that people did not expect.
And in Tabitha we see this unfolding. Tabitha – a hybrid, both Greek and Jew; a woman; a disciple of Jesus – she is the juncture at which the Gospel begins to move beyond ethnic Judaism and to the Gentiles.
I cannot underscore the strangeness of this for the people in Tabitha’s time. Each morning faithful Jewish men of the second-century offered a morning prayer: Thank you God I was not born a women, a Gentile, or a slave. There was no less likely place for God’s spirit to erupt into the world than through Tabitha, no one less likely than this widow, this woman, this partial Gentile to be called God’s disciple, for her body and her community to empower the movement of the gospel, for her life to be the engine for the good news as it spreads to the gentiles, to the ends of the earth.
Of course, Tabitha is not the first the woman to follow Jesus. Many others came before, and many others would follow, women who stayed at the cross when men would run, women who drew near to the grave when men hid in fear. Junia and Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of Jesus, Susanna and Priscilla, Phoebe and Lydia. Against the sexism of the culture and religious institutions of the day, the Gospel goes into the world, to Gentiles, to the poor, through the lives of women. But something is different for Tabitha. She is a disciple. As the Gospel grows in Acts so too does the power and role of women in the church.
Over time the church has strayed from this founding story. Over time the church forgot that women had fueled transformation with their ministries and miracles. The prophetic word of women, some called to ministry, others cast into it by the circumstances of their lives, by disenfranchisement and the tragedies of their communities – the prophetic word of these women fuels the Gospels movement.
Over time the church began to look more like the world. And in the world the picture for women was bleak.
Worldwide 30% of women have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
1 in 5 U.S. women will be sexually assaulted on their college campus during their undergraduate years.
In United States white women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men with equal experience and education. Black women earn 64 cents on the dollar and Latina women 56 cents.
In 2015 102 unarmed black people were killed in police shootings leaving 102 widows and partners to pick up the pieces of family life, to provide financial stability, to grieve spiritual and emotional trauma.
The world is not a place where women thrive.
The church is not supposed to be like the world, but we’ve had trouble living up to the Good News of Jesus lived in the life of the disciple Tabitha.
Female pastors also experience the gender pay gap, earning 85 cents for every dollar earned by our male counterparts with the same experience and education.
While female clergy continue to grow in number throughout mainline churches, only two of the largest one hundred Methodist churches in the United States are led by women. Two out of 100.
Currently only 1/5 of the top leadership roles in U.S. Methodist conferences are held by women.
While women make up 58% of worshipers in the pews, 72% of ordained clergy are men.
This year we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the Methodist church. We celebrate the ways the church was led back to its original vision of women preachers, this original catalyst of the Gospel. We were led by Grace Eloise Huck, Marion Kline, Maude Jensen, and Julie Torres Fernandez, the first women to be ordained as elders in the Methodist church.
Over the past two decades this church has heard the call of Tabitha, has made space and place for those disciples of Jesus who would follow after Huck and Kline. This pulpit, this altar, have been the place of ministry for a cloud of female witnesses–Tabithas who have heard the call of God, who responded to the call of God on their lives through preaching, teaching, and leading. Ellen Metcalf, Ruth Harper Stevens, Lisa Brown Cole, Ginger Thomas, Laura Crosskey, Gair McCullough, Debra Brazzel, Laurie Hayes Coffman, Para Drake, Susanne Sartelle Priddy, Heather Rodrigues, me, Chelsea Johnson.
That’s why Chelsea is with us this summer. Chelsea is a high school student, a young woman who, like me, grew up without seeing women in pastoral ministry. This summer she’s one of our pastoral interns. She saw something different here. She saw week after week women in this pulpit. She saw Gair pastoring in our church. Week after week she heard female voices. And she believed. She believed that God could call her to be a pastor, could call her to the ministry of the church, the Good News, going forth into the world in her.
But we also know that women power the Gospel in the sanctioned space of the pulpit only because there is a long history – the history of Tabitha – of women preaching in unsanctioned space, preaching off the record. Tabitha reminds us that women have always proclaimed the Gospel in the midst of economic and social inequity. Some women sensed a call, were confirmed in that call, took hold of their office. But long before and still today women preachers proclaim the word because they are called through the circumstances of trauma to be both widows and priests, to face terror and there create space for liberation and justice. It is because of the leading of these women, the example of these women, overwhelmingly women of color, that women like me now occupy sanctioned space for preaching and teaching in the church.
We see women, Tabithas, growing in numbers in the pulpits of the street, in the pulpits of the kitchen, the pulpits of the neighborhood community center. These are the widow-priests, those, who like Tabitha, gather communities around them, who minister to neighbors and families quaking after times of grief, after the traumas of gun violence that plague our country. After each of these shootings, after each death, a community is left traumatized. Children without fathers and mother. Friends bereft. Family members in shock. A people ripped apart. Widows, the partners left behind, have become the gatherers of these grieving people, clothing the distressed and broken-hearted with garments of comfort.
They also call to us into the streets, preaching the prophetic word against our nation’s obsession with guns, preaching a prophetic word against our lack of political will. Widow-priests gather us, show us how to make our grief and our politics one, show us how to take everything personally, to refuse to let tragedies be silenced by time. We are called to listen as their cries of sorrow become cries of rage; as they demand an account for our silence.
We do well to heed their voices, to follow after Tabitha, to let her lead us. The partners of Pulse shooting victims. The mothers of Sandy Hook. The wives and mothers of Brent Thomas, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. The girlfriend of Philando Castile. The wife of Alton Sterling. The upending Gospel, the Gospel of peace is found here in their cries, the widow-priest who holds weeping children at the dinner table, the widow-priest with a megaphone proclaiming that black lives matter, the widow-priest that stave off her fear and despair by gathering others together, refusing to let violence silence love.
Diamond Reynolds found herself a widow-priest this week, a woman who watched her fiancé, Philando Castile shot four times, her child a witness in the back seat of their car. Her voice proclaims these words: “We are innocent. We are innocent. We are innocent people.”
She follows in a long line of strong black women who are Tabithas, priests of the street who hold up a megaphone to the Gospel. Diamond is a priest, in the line of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who tell us “I had to turn my sorrow into a strategy, my mourning into a movement.” Carr preaches, “I will walk, speak, rally, whatever it takes until justice is served.”
That saying, you can’t be what you can’t see? Because of widow-priests like Reynolds and Carr, because of Rev. Huck and Rev. Jensen and Rev. Torres Fernandez, because we continue to bring our little girls to see strong black women leading protests in the street, to see women preach in the pulpit – because of this a new generation of little girls will grow up knowing they are the engine of Jesus’ gospel, the turning point where good news for some becomes good news for the world.