Love Big

A Sermon for Sunday, June 16, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Trinity Sunday. Romans 5:1-5

When asked what inspired him to create the choral introit Earth and All Stars!, which our choir sang to begin this morning’s service, Dr. Herb Brokering, a Lutheran pastor and well-known poet, playwright and hymn writer, said:

I tried to gather into a hymn of praise the many facets of life which emerge in the life of community.  So, there are the references to building, nature, learning, family, war, festivity.  Seasons, emotions, death and resurrection, bread, wine, water, wind, sun, spirit…have made great impressions on my imagination.[1]

Brokering’s intent with the hymn is to encourage us to appreciate God for the marvelous things God has done in our ordinary lives, and to recognize God’s presence among us. And Earth and All Stars! is most appropriate for us to hear today on Trinity Sunday, in which we celebrate the unfathomable mystery of the one, eternal God’s being as Holy Trinity.

In his letter to the early church living in Rome—the center of a world-dominating Empire that paid allegiance to Caesar—the apostle Paul wrote these reassuring words to followers about this one God in three persons:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Paul’s message is one of many biblical passages that our Church ancestors in the 4th Century drew upon to develop a better understanding of God.  After much debate and argument, they devised what has been known through the ages as the doctrine of the Trinity.

This particular set of beliefs affirms that there is but one God who has three distinct ways of being and acting as God. My seminary theology professor, the late Shirley Guthrie, put it this way:

“The works of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are indivisible. We may distinguish between God’s work as Creator and Ruler of the world; as Reconciler, Liberator and Savior of needy, sinful human beings; and as Renewer and Transformer of the life of human beings and all creation. But the will and work of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be separated or set over against each other. They can be understood only in light of each other and in their agreement with each other, for Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God.”[2]

Make sense, yet?

In plain terms, the Trinity does not function as a hierarchal relationship where God the Creator is on the “top” as the person in charge and Jesus and the Spirit are on the “bottom” as subordinate or lesser divine beings.  But instead, all three are equal to one another in spite of the different works or roles we associate with them. Creator, Christ and Spirit are all God, working in unity to create, liberate, judge, redeem, restore, heal, forgive, inspire, feed and love the whole of creation.

Take a look at the cover art on the bulletin for a moment:

“Holy Trinity” by Mark Jennings

In the first painting is The Trinity by Mark Jennings, a mashup of Western Christianity’s traditional model of the trinity as a triangle and the ancient Celtic version as interlocking circles. The Western model represents one God with three “sides” representing Father/Creator, Son and Holy Spirit who are “equal in power and glory.” The Celtic version symbolizes the strength in unity and how the three cannot be disconnected from the other.

 

“The Holy Dance” by Faith Dance Art

The second painting, The Holy Dance, is a modern depiction of the Eastern Orthodoxy model and concept known as perichoresis. It comes from the Greek “peri” (as in perimeter), which means “around” and “choresis” (as in choreography) which translates as “dancing.” Thus, Creator, Christ and Spirit, says Guthrie, are like “three dancers, holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom.”[3]But it is important to remember that this doesn’t mean they are three independent persons. Guthrie says further:

“They are what they are only in relationship to each other. Each exists only in this relationship and would not exist apart from it. Father, Son and Holy Spirit live on in and with and through each other, eternally united in mutual love and shared purpose.”[4]

Make sense, now?

If you’re still confused and ready to tear out your hair, that’s ok.  Although the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most efficient ways to comprehend who God is and what God does, Trinitarian language is still insufficient because God is a great mystery that can never be fully grasped.

In other words, the Trinity doesn’t solve the mystery of God. But the Trinity does show us how God wants us to live in revolutionary relationships. Author and life coach, Rozella Haydee White, helped me grasp this truth in her book Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World. She writes:

The Trinity is a fundamental way of being that God has modeled for humanity. … The Trinity is the embodiment of relationship, of connection. God in the Trinity models revolutionary relationships in ways that show what life could be like when we fall in love with ourselves and each other. God is love, and the first act of this life-giving love was to create the world. When the Creator formed the earth and her inhabitants, the love of God was imprinted on every field and flow, within every creature and tree. …

 The second act of love that God enacts is that of liberation. …  Jesus is God as liberator. When God became Emmanuel—God with us—the Divine entered into the most intimate relationship with humanity, becoming us so that we could be known, seen, and loved fully. God chose a relationship with us defined not by hierarchy but by a challenge to any system of belief that divides people from each other.

In the third act of love, God makes good on an everlasting promise to never leave or forsake creation. The Holy Spirit was given to us to continually pull us out of ourselves and call us to practice presence in the world, with our hearts and souls turned in to the holy in our midst. The power of the Holy Spirit makes revolutionary relationships possible and sustains them. [5]

This active, far-reaching love of God is precisely what enables us to endure suffering and still have hope that God will never forsake humanity creation. This active love is what moves us to embrace the mystery of the Trinity during times of immense pain and to love big—for ourselves and others. The proof is all around us in this broken and fearful world:

Courtesy of CBS News/Google Images

In late May, more than 300 people in a community in Marietta gathered to throw a retirement party for beloved mailman Floyd Martin on his last day of work after 35 years of service. Their reason for celebrating was because of the unconditional kindness Martin showed the residents on his route for decades—lollipops for kids, snacks for cats and dogs, checking on folks who lost loved ones, carrying newspapers to the front porch of an elderly person’s home.

Martin, who doesn’t have children of his own and who has lost his parents and many friends over the years, also revealed that the residents were there for him more than they realized. He told them: “Thank you for caring about me. You were there when I needed you, even if you didn’t know it. I love you guys. I say that, I mean it. And that’s what the world needs more of now—is love and caring and compassion and taking care of one another.”[6]

Ryan Kyote used his allowance to pay off the lunch debt for his third-grade classmates at West Park Elementary in Napa, California.
https://app.asana.com/0/32923395333443/1126827038983710/f
Credit: Courtesy Kylie Kirkpatrick

A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Kyote, a 9-year-old boy in Napa, California, was stirred to compassion when he saw a news story about a 5-year-old girl who was denied lunch at school because she couldn’t afford it. Ryan wondered about his own school’s lunch money policy and discovered, with help from his mom, that while students aren’t turned away if they can’t pay, they can accrue debt.

Ryan then learned that his third-grade classmates owed $74.40 in lunch money debt and immediately decided to cover it with his allowance—which normally spent on sports gear. At the end of the school year, he walked into the school, gave the money to the secretary and said: “Can you please tell my friends’ families that they don’t owe any money for lunch?” It was as simple as that.[7]

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a dad named Howie Dittman and other parents made plans to attend the city’s Pride parade wearing T-shirts saying, “Free Dad Hugs” and “Free Mom” hugs for hundreds of people, many of whom have been disowned by their families for being LGBTQIA. In one photo, Dittman is hugging a young man who Dittman said “was kicked out at 19 when his parents found out. They haven’t spoken to him since. He cried on my shoulder. Sobbed. Squeezed me with everything he had.” [8]

When we allow ourselves to be guided by the doctrine of the trinity—God’s relationship with God’s self and us–we are able to create and maintain authentic relationships.

We are able to recognize the holy triune God within another human being and treat them as beloved—regardless of their gender identity, race, sexual orientation, culture, country, economic status and religious beliefs. 

We are able to see and provide hope to the hopeless, oppressed and downtrodden and stand up to injustice because of the peace we have been given by God in Christ and the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

We are able to partner with God in the building of a beloved community, a kindom that is counter to systems and kingdoms that foster hate, cruelty and division. We are able to join in the dance of the Divine and move in the rhythms of grace that make the circle expand.

We are able to love big.

Amen.


[1]https://hymnary.org/text/earth_and_all_stars

[2]Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Westminster John Knox Press. Revised 1994.

[3]Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Westminster John Knox Press. Revised 1994.

[4]Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Westminster John Knox Press. Revised 1994.

[5]Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World by Rozella Haydee White, Fortress Press. (2019)

[6]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/marietta-georgia-community-honors-beloved-mailman-floyd-martin-on-his-last-day-of-work-2019-05-28/

[7]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ryan-kyote-9-year-old-uses-allowance-to-pay-school-lunch-debts-for-3rd-grade-class-2019-06-11/

[8]https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/dad-gives-free-hugs-pride-184208396.html

Awakenings, Part 4: Waking Up to New Directions

Sermon for Sunday, May 26, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church, The Sixth Sunday of Easter. Acts 16:9-15

In the winter of 2006, NFL player Drew Brees was facing the prospect of being a washed-up quarterback. He suffered a serious injury to his throwing shoulder while playing for the San Diego Chargers which put him on the search for another team. The Miami Dolphins then showed interest, but ultimately declined to sign Brees because they weary of the shoulder completely healing.

The other team willing to try Brees was The New Orleans Saints. The team was coming off an abysmal 3-13 season, in which they couldn’t play on their home turf because of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. However, the Saints were determined to secure Brees under the helm of its newly hired head coach Sean Payton.

What sealed the deal—propelling Brees, the Saints and the city on the path of redemption—was an accidental detour by Payton who was giving Drew Brees and wife Brittany a tour of New Orleans during the recruiting visit. “I can recall it like it was yesterday, driving through the Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans near where the 17th Street Canal breached,” Brees toldThe Shreveport Times.

Payton was attempting to show Brees the neighborhoods that were still intact, but after coming upon a wayward tugboat in the middle of the road, he was forced to take a turn on an unfamiliar street. Soon they were lost and traveling past hurricane damaged homes. Payton became anxious because he thought he had blown his chance to nab the quarterback because he had gotten them lost on the streets of New Orleans.

But Brees said it was the best thing the coach could’ve done. Upon seeing the brutal storm’s aftermath, Drew and Brittany (who had been dozing off in the back seat before the detour occurred) knew that their purpose and calling was to help with the rebuilding of New Orleans.[1]

Brittany and Drew Brees open Royal Castle Child Development Center in New Orleans. Image from the Operation Kids Foundation: http://blog.operationkids.org/tag/brees-dream-foundation/page/3/

And while Brees instantly turned the team around and led the Saints to a Super Bowl win a few years later, it’s the work he’s done to help the city recover that has endeared him to residents. The Brees Dream Foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide after-school assistance, build athletic fields, rebuild parks, facilitate one-to-one friendships for adults with intellectual disabilities and restore child-care facilities lost to Katrina.[2]

One unexpected detour awakened Drew and Brittany Brees to pursue a new calling in their lives and to go in a direction they hadn’t considered previously.

According to that great Internet philosopher Anonymous: The best things in life happen unexpectedly. The best stories begin with ‘and, all of a sudden…’ The best adventures were never planned as they turned out to be. Free yourself from expectations. The best will come when and from where you least expect it. [3]

The apostle Paul, called to preach and teach about God’s love, learns to let go of expectations while traveling abroad. Convinced he is supposed to do ministry in Asia, the apostle and his friends make two attempts to land on the continent. But the Holy Spirit prevents them from entering and reroutes them toward southeastern Europe by giving Paul a vision of a man in Macedonia pleading for help.  Certain his services are needed in Macedonia’s most important city, the powerful and popular Roman colony of Philippi, Paul spends several days, presumably looking for folks who need help. But apparently, it’s a fruitless endeavor.

When the sabbath arrives, Paul decides to venture beyond the city to search for a rumored place of prayer since there are no synagogues to be found anywhere. Just outside the gates, they encounter a group of women gathered by the river for worship. And surprisingly, one of the women is Lydia of Thyatira, a city located in Asia where Paul had originally wanted to go!

“Lydia and Paul” by Jim Hasse, 2006

Lydia runs a profitable purple textile business and is head of her household, which means she is a woman of wealthy and independent means despite living in a patriarchal society under occupation of the Empire—a rare occurrence in those days. Lydia also appears to be a savvy businesswoman to come up with the idea of taking predatory sea snails that secrete the color of imperial purple, dying cloth and selling it to Roman nobility.

Additionally, she is a Gentile worshipper (possibly a polytheist) who is seeking to understand the God of Israel. Lydia acknowledges that the same God has opened her heart to hear Paul’s teachings about Christ and in doing so, she is also willing for her entire household to be baptized—a sign and seal that all belong as God’s children, not just the Israelites.

And then the discerning and decisive Lydia graciously invites Paul and his friends into her home. Paul is initially reluctant to accept the offer; he is not accustomed to accepting anything in return for his ministry, whether it be a payment of coins or a bed for the night. But Paul quickly realizes that he can’t say “no” to such a warm display of kindness.

None of this is what Paul expected. An unexpected detour awakened Paul to go in a direction he never contemplated when he first set sail from Jerusalem. And Paul, expecting to be the one who will influence another, is likely just as influenced, if not more so, by Lydia’s actions.

The encounter is also not what Lydia expected either, although she is probably aware that a force beyond her control is guiding her to something different and new. When she began the day by meeting the other women at the river, she never imagined meeting Paul and learning first-hand about the incarnate God. UCC minister and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Ronald Cole Turner observes:

The longing heart of a faithful woman is opened by the gracious impulse of faith-giving God in an action that, like the incarnation itself, is at once fully human and fully divine. God opens her heart and immediately she opens her home. …Lydia comes to worship because she is hungering for something more, and the restless Spirit is stirring up a holy longing in her soul.”[4]

It’s the restless Spirit—the breath and inspiration of God that is always on the move blowing where it will—that is motivating both Paul and Lydia as well as Drew and Brittany Brees.

Many have encountered the mysterious Spirit of  God, regardless if they were believers or people of faith, at unexpected times and places. Encounters that take us in new directions.

A friend recently told me that years ago she was bound for graduate school with a scholarship, but then suddenly gave it up so she could continue volunteering at a mustang rescue ranch outside Seattle.

Even though she had to get a job bartending at night, my friend said she never felt more alive and fulfilled caring for wild horses during the day. Working with horses gave her a sense of worth and purpose—lessons she kept near when she eventually continued her studies to obtain a masters and a doctorate.  She is now a lecturer at a university out west and the founder of an equine program that empowers teens and young adults to be better communicators and leaders, grow in confidence and resilience and become more connected to nature. My friend said the lessons she learned has made her a more holistic and empathetic teacher for her students. She wrote in a text:

I am forever grateful for that seemingly crazy choice to give up a scholarship to bartend in the city at night and volunteer my time to work with wild horses during the day.

When I graduated from Auburn University in 1998 with a journalism degree, I was positive that I was going to have a career as a journalist that would rocket me to fame as it had for Southerners like Margaret Mitchell, Lewis Grizzard, and Rick Bragg. And I was on a good track.

A month after I graduated, I landed a job at a small newspaper in my hometown: The Birmingham Post-Herald. I covered a variety of news that wound up on the front page: the first incident of murderous road rage; Alabama’s only prison for people living with HIV/AIDS; unprecedented workplace shootings, and the re-opening of the horrific 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case in which four little girls were killed while putting on their choir robes for worship.

I mostly covered the police beat and would respond often to shooting deaths that involved innocent bystanders. Because the Post-Herald was in competition with a much larger outfit known as the Birmingham News, reporters were encouraged to come up with a human angle on their stories. Whereas the News led with “a young man was shot on the street corner,” The Post-Herald would tell readers who the person was and what they had meant to their family and community. I wound up listening to many relatives, neighbors…and pastors share their memories and heartache.

I also happened to be volunteering as a youth group adviser at my home church of Shades Valley Presbyterian, but it was simply a role that fed my faith and gave me an opportunity to serve. I didn’t believe working in a church was a sustainable livelihood or that I was capable of doing full time ministry, no matter how many people told me I seemed at ease teaching about God’s love.

But in December 1999, a shooting occurred that unexpectedly led me to a career in the pulpit. Sixteen-year-old Jamelle had spent an entire day helping move furniture into the home of his older brother. Hoping to do more work the next day, the teenager stayed overnight. About 12:30 am, as Jamelle lay sleeping on the living room couch, someone kicked open the front door and began shooting. Jamelle’s brother and a cousin escaped without harm, but Jamelle was killed instantly.

Later, I visited the home of Jamelle’s dad so I could write a story about the senseless tragedy.  Sitting next to the father on the sofa, I heard wonderful stories about “a good kid” who loved building model airplanes, and cars, enjoyed music, had a pet snake named Polo and was looking forward to getting his driver’s license. The dad’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke about his son. Instinctively, I put down my notepad and placed my hand on his shoulder. “You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers,” I told him.

An hour later I left for the office to crank out the article. In that moment I discovered I’d prefer to hold the hand of someone suffering instead of simply writing their story and moving on to the next breaking news story. Thus, a new calling emerged and nearly three years after that visit, I entered seminary. But never did I expect that my path would change so drastically when I decided to cover the story of Jamelle’s death.

The author Shannon Ables says it’s fairly common to not know where you’re being led. She writes:

In the moment, you most likely won’t know how valuable such detours will prove to be, but life has a way of revealing the hidden magic in these moments down the road at the appropriate time.[5]

Like the apostle Paul, I felt absolutely sure that I was meant to be a famous journalist and author. I pushed back at the Spirit that kept nudging me in a new direction. But then one day, I woke up and realized it was time to be a part of people’s stories in a way I had never pondered.

Life is filled with unexpected moments. We believe we were meant to go one way, and God beckons us toward another path and a deep encounter with the holy. As a result, we are changed in ways that are unexpected and our souls are fed with an unimaginable amount of love by a faith-giving God who always knows what we truly need and who we are meant to be.

Amen.

[1]https://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/sports/columnists/roy-lang/2016/05/22/drew-brees-city-new-orleans-needed/84736120/

[2]https://www.si.com/vault/2010/12/06/106012891/sportsman-of-the-year-drew-brees

http://www.espn.com/nfl/columns/story?columnist=wickersham_seth&id=3407718

[3]Google Images

[4]Feasting on the Word, Year C. Volume 2

[5]Google Images

Awakenings, Part 2: Waking Up to Healing and Comfort

Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fourth Sunday of Easter. 

The harbor town of Joppa, which means “beauty” in Hebrew, was aptly named for it offered a breathtaking view of the deep blue coastal waters of the Mediterranean Sea during the day and the most glorious orange and pink hued sunsets at dusk. Joppa (or Jaffa, the southern part of Tel Aviv, as it is known today) was a prime port of the nation of Judea and afforded easy access to Jerusalem, 35 miles southeast.

The materials for the building of the first and second temples of Israel were brought through Joppa, and the town provided passageway for pilgrims coming to and from Jerusalem and a place for people to seek refuge. Folks in Joppa, those many centuries ago, relished telling a comical story about this scaredy-cat named Jonah who decided he would run away from God by stowing away on a boat leaving from Joppa, only to be thrown overboard by the crew and swallowed up by a whale!

Joppa was always bustling with activity: dockworkers loading and unloading cargo; merchants selling the finest goods; rabbis teaching the Torah to their students on the sandy shoreline; children running around playing in the streets; farmers laboring on a patch of land next to their home while their wives milked the goats and baked bread.

It’s here in Joppa that a disciple of Jesus, a woman named Tabitha, lived. Tabitha dedicated her life to serving others in her community. She would bring something cool to drink to the dockworkers as the late morning sun began taking its toll on their necks and backs. She would help some of the boys memorize their verses from the Torah in the evenings. She bandaged the skinned knees of the kids who took a tumble during their play. She kept other women company while they did chores around the house and would share her food with the families of farmers who were having difficulty growing crops. On occasions, she would tend to those who got sick and nurse them back to health.

Tabitha’s greatest passion, and what she was known widely for in Joppa, was her work as a seamstress. Whenever new shipments of textiles arrived, Tabitha would be the first in line to purchase the materials. Her skills were unmatched and the clothes she made were exquisite. She poured herself into every stitch so that poor widows and others in need would have something to wear.

But then late one afternoon, Tabitha unexpectedly became ill and after a few days, she died. The widows, whom Tabitha had helped, took great care to wash her body, clean her hair and put on fresh clothes before laying her down in her bedroom. Afterwards, they send for the apostle Peter who is staying in the nearby town of Lydda. The widows knew Peter was one of the original 12 disciples who ministered alongside Jesus and they wanted his pastoral presence as they grieved the loss of Tabitha—a faithful disciple who impacted so many with her kindness and compassion.

When Peter arrived a few hours later, the widows began weeping as they told him about Tabitha’s death and how much she meant to them. They gestured at their clothes, tearfully explaining that if it weren’t for Tabitha and her love, they would have nothing. And after Peter ushers them out of the room, the women remained in the hallway crying and telling stories about their friend Tabitha. [1]

This story is a familiar one isn’t it?

Everyone here knows or has known a Tabitha—a person who was a source of kindness, compassion, strength, courage and love that gave whatever they could of their time and gifts to the church and the community.

Many of us are grateful for the Tabitha who took us under their wing and showed us how to do things with grace and humility; who gave an encouraging word and celebrated our accomplishments; who modeled selflessness by serving those on the margins of society; who consoled us when we were sad; who picked up off the ground, and dusted us off when we were hurt or wallowing in our failures.

We’ve all been blessed by the life and legacy of a Tabitha who devoted themselves to loving others, particularly the poor, the lonely and the outcast. And we have also grieved their death and wondered who will continue their ministry.

We’ve grieved even as recently as last week when the world learned the news that two Tabitha-like figures—devoted saints to Christ’s work in the world, both writers and activists and powerful voices in the Church Universal—had died: Rachel Held Evans on Saturday, May 4 and Jean Vanier on Tuesday, May 7.

Jean Vanier, who succumbed to thyroid cancer at the age of 90, was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded L’Arche (The Ark) in 1964—an international federation of communities across 37 countries for people with intellectual disabilities and caregivers. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also assists the disabled, their families and friends in more than 80 countries.

An author of 30 books on religion, disability, normality, success, and tolerance, Vanier lived as a member of the original L’Arche community in France, until his death.

Vanier was living in France in the early 60s when he made his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Moved by their pleas for help and newly aware of the plights of thousands of people institutionalized with down syndrome and other conditions, Vanier invited two of the male residents to live with him, and soon L’Arche was formed. The guiding philosophy of L’Arche is Vanier’s belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon their families.

Vanier often emphasized the value that weakness, brokenness and vulnerability has in creating authentic communities. In his book Becoming Human, he wrote:

Weakness can open up our hearts to compassion: the place where we are concerned for the growth and well-being of the weak. …If we deny our weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live an illusion.To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other. Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging.

Similarly, Rachel Held Evans, who died at the age of 37 after a sudden illness was also a champion for belonging and inclusion in the Church; an advocate for those who were rejected by Christian communities. The author of four books, a regular blogger and Twitter user, mother of two small children, and a wife, Rachel believed Jesus made room for everyone at the table. She once tweeted: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works. The future’s in the margins.” As two of her best friends wrote in an essay for The Washington Post:

Rachel was “for” an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside. She recognized the real geometry of God. She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another and to the church. And in a world that covets power, cash and influence, she lavishly gave away all three. She centered the marginalized, quietly offering expertise, introductions, endorsements, speaking invitations, money and more.[2]

Her far-reaching influence was evident in the wake of her death as more than 100 articles have been written about her in the last eight days. More notable, however, has been the outpouring of grief on social media via the hashtag #becauseofRHE where numerous people have shared gratitude to Rachel using the refrain of:[3]

“Because of RHE, I am a female pastor in a church,”

“Because of RHE, I found a church that openly accepted me for being gay,”

“Because of RHE, privilege was set aside and space was created so my voice as a person of color could be heard,”

A familiar theme in many tributes was that Rachel privately encouraged writers and journalists in their work, notably when they were being attacked by judgmental and hateful readers. Rachel believed fervently that Christians were called to be in relationship with those who had been hurt and that the Church should be a place for healing and comfort. In Searching For Sunday, Rachel wrote:

There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to show the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome. …The thing about healing as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route. … The truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.

The first take-away of this ancient story from Acts is that Tabitha’s return to life is less about what Peter does and more about what God has done and is doing. Peter’s actions, while remarkable, are merely a quick fix, considering that Tabitha ultimately died again. The significance of her resurrection is that it symbolizes God’s power that conquers death and frees us from its fearful grip. It’s a sign, says one scholar, that, “The God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world, bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those in despair and life where death seems to reign.”[4]

The second lesson is that the church, the community of faith, is to be involved in the “slow and difficult work of healing” that is “messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching and never-ending.” The widows put all of their energy into preparing their beloved friend’s body for burial—conceivably crying, wailing and cursing the heavens throughout the process. And they don’t wipe away their tears and hold in their emotions when Peter visits. They loudly weep and share stories and show off the garments made by Tabitha’s hands.

It’s in the vulnerability of community that we encounter the presence of God’s grace. We grieve the losses of people who have impacted our life and we bear witness to their legacy so that hope and reconciliation may be known in the midst of pain.

The person dies. The work lives on.[5]We help keep it alive by sharing it with the world. And the work continues to impact people’s lives for the better, even after we are long gone from this earth.

We manifest resurrection and affirm the truth that while death comes for each and every one of us, God in Christ claims us in life eternal. One day, after much time has passed, we find creativity and renewal; we find comfort and healing again—for ourselves and one another.

We eventually wake up from the grief, we rise from the mess, we dust ourselves off and we carry on.

Amen.

[1]An attempt at doing some midrash: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/midrash-101/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-rachel-held-evans-really-should-be-remembered/2019/05/08/7fcf0f4c-71cb-11e9-8be0-ca575670e91c_story.html?utm_term=.27d717a4b716

[3]These are summarized from the scores of tweets paying tribute to Rachel Held Evans because she made the Church a safe and inclusive place for so many who had been hurt by churches, pastors and congregations.

[4]Feasting On The Word, Year C, Volume 2. Rev. Joseph Harvard.

[5]Many thanks to author Diana Butler Bass who wrote those words in a Tweet on Saturday evening, indirectly helping me convey the concept I had written about earlier in the day sound less convoluting and more to the point.

Awakenings, Part 1: Waking Up to a New Way of Life

A Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Acts 9:1-20

(Dedicated to the life and legacy of Rachel Held Evans, writer, preacher, teacher, prophet, woman of valor, beloved child of God)

Since last Sunday, the nation has been observing the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, an annual 8-day period designated by Congress in 1978 for civil commemorations that help people remember the mass genocide carried out by Hitler’s Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Before and during WWII, millions of Jewish people across Europe were systematically persecuted and murdered on the streets, in their home and in concentration camps, along with those who considered to be politically, racially or socially unfit. The atrocity left numerous communities destroyed and shattered countless lives.

One of the most alarming aspects of Hitler’s rise to power and his cruel and oppressive rule was that it was supported by many German Christians, like the prominent German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller. This may come as a shock to some because Niemoller has been known throughout most of history as an outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

In 1934, Niemoller and fellow colleague, the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, founded the Confessing Church a movement that defied Hitler’s attempts to nazify Protestant churches. And Niemoller also preached defiant sermons that openly questioned the fuhrer’s governance, which eventually landed him in prison on charges of misusing the pulpit for political reasons. Niemoller is probably best remembered for the widely quoted post-war poem, First They Came,which he wrote a few years after WWII ended:[1]

First, they came for the socialists,

and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Over time the poem has rightly become a message about the importance of speaking out against oppression and injustice in the world. But Niemoller’s motivation for writing the poem and sharing it in his post-war lectures was to confess his own sin of supporting Hitler’s regime, and remaining silent when the Gestapo was arresting socialists and Jews. The poem also expressed his belief that Germans, especially Protestant pastors, had been complicit through their silence in the imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions by the Nazis.

It is important to note that Niemoller wasn’t a young, rash idealist when he voted for the Nazi Party in 1933. He was a 41-year-old father of six with two decades of professional experience who had read Mein Kompf and understood Hitler’s viewpoint. Even after Hitler abolished the national parliament, banned political parties and trade unions and punish his opponents, Niemoller still refused to deny radical nationalism and anti-Semitism.

It was only when Hitler tried to take control of the Protestant churches in Germany a year after coming into power that Niemoller began to oppose the government. However, it would take imprisonment in 1937 for him to fully recognize how wrong he had been in voting for the Nazis, welcoming Hitler’s rise and showing contempt for groups he deemed anti-Christian and anti-German.

Niemoller shared with one of his cell mates, Jewish physician Leo Stein, the defining moment that nearly caused him to have a nervous breakdown:[2]

“When they whipped the Jews and I heard these poor creatures cry out like wounded animals, I knelt down and prayed to God. I never prayed so fervently before in all my life. I almost collapsed. Without my prayers, I could not have lived through rough the next day. But the Lord gave me new confidence and faith.”

Niemoller remained imprisoned for seven years until Allied Forces liberated the concentration camp where he was residing. After WWII ended, he encouraged people to speak out when others were being harmed, regardless of their race, religion or political beliefs. Soon, according to one historian, Niemoller’s name became linked with “anti-Nazi resistance and the moral imperative to come to the defense of persecuted minorities.”[3]

As I was doing research on Martin Niemoller, I started wondering if the Lutheran pastor ever felt a kinship to the apostle Paul whose transformation on the road to Damascus resonated with his own story.

Paul was born of the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin; a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee who knew the Torah frontwards and backwards; a Roman citizen and a Greek who was fluent in three languages—Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He had both a Jewish name, Saul, and the Greek and Roman name, Paul.

In many ways, Paul was actually worse than Niemoller. As Saul, he stood guard over the coats of those stoning Stephen, a Jewish follower of Christ that had been falsely charged with blasphemy; and he approved the brutal execution. Then, while Stephen is being buried, Saul sets out to persecute all of the Jewish and Gentile members of the new growing Jesus movement called The Way—storming into each of the house churches in Jerusalem to drag men and women to prison.

Saul is filled with so much anger and vengeance in his heart that he decides he will travel to Damascus (a leading commercial center of the Roman Empire and home to the largest population of Jews) to capture disciples of Jesus who have settled into neighborhoods, becoming a perceived threat to the synagogues.

Calling Saint Paul by He Qi

But during the journey, a blinding light forces him to the ground and the  voice of Christ says to him from heaven, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?…get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Saul’s traveling companions graciously lead him by the hand into Damascus where he is cared for by the disciple Ananias. And after spending several days with the disciples of The Way, Saul preaches in the synagogue that Jesus is the Messiah. Later, upon his commissioning for ministry as an apostle, goes by the name of Paul as he seeks to spread the good news of the gospel “before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

These astounding experiences of conversion in the stories of the apostle Paul and pastor Martin Niemoller remain relevant for our lives and faith today. Not because of anything Paul and Martin did, but because of the transformative work that God had done and will continue doing for humanity and all of creation. God is continuously shaping the world with the love and light of Christ.

I realize, though, that seeing light and love can be challenging in our current climate. Over the last six months alone, there has been a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October; mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand in March (where the death toll was raised to 51 this weekend); the burning of African-American churches in Louisiana from the end of March through mid-April; the bombings of Christian churches, hotels and neighborhoods in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday**; and a shooting at a synagogue in California and another on the campus of UNC Charlotte this past week.

There’s a lot of hate and violence in our nation and world, a pervading darkness that threatens to consume. And it’s not just within the hearts of white supremacists.

It’s in TV newscasts and the Internet and social media. It’s in politics and government buildings. It’s in offices, schools, shopping malls, neighborhoods, homes and, yes, even churches. It’s in both physical and verbal actions. It’s the balled-up fist that strikes another piece of flesh. It’s the toxic mouths that tear apart a person’s dignity and humanity.

Concerned about the dire consequences of hate and violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once preached that we must be vigilant in our efforts to keep the darkness at bay:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. [4]

While it is unlikely that anyone here has been hateful or violent toward another human being, many of us—including me—have become complacent about acts of hate and violence at some point in our lives. At the very least, we have taken detours on our faith journeys that do emotional harm, according to the author of a commentary on Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road. They write:[5]

We have all been on wrong paths that have been injurious to ourselves and others. We have been headstrong, stubborn, blinded to our own need, caught in addictive behaviors and oblivious to the true costs to others or ourselves. 

It in those moments that God knocks us down a peg or two—forcing us to re-examine our priorities and re-orient ourselves toward a better path.  Each and every day, God prods us to open our eyes and wake up to a new way of life in Christ Jesus.

God beckons us to join in the renewing and transforming of all things. No one or no-thing is incapable of being changed. If God can transform an instrument of death into a symbol of liberation or choose a notorious persecutor to be the leader of the Way…then God can change everything.

If God can change the life of a Nazi sympathizer like Martin Niemoller, God can change the life of a devout racist living in Florida who attended the deadly and violent Unite the Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Ken Parker, a member of an American neo-Nazi group and former leader of the KKK came home from Charlottesville with a lot of doubts after receiving care for heat exhaustion from a female Muslim filmmaker who was making a documentary on hate groups.

For months, Ken questioned why he spent most of his life hating people of other races and religions. And then one day, he spotted his neighbor, William McKinnon III, an African-American pastor at All Saints Holiness Church, having a cookout near the pool of the apartment complex where they lived. Ken shared his struggles with William and the two struck up a friendship. Soon after, William invited Ken to the church’s Easter service.

Image of footagefrom the Emmy-nominated Fuuse film ‘White Right: Meeting the Enemy’ on Netflix.

Two weeks later, Ken decided to share his testimony before the mostly African-American congregation. To his surprise, they didn’t express any anger toward him: “After the service, not a single one of them had anything negative to say,” Ken recalled. “They’re all coming up and hugging me and shaking my hand, you know, building me up instead of tearing me down.”[6]

If God can call the disciple Ananias and the community in Damascus to care for Paul—the man who was coming to persecute them—through acts of radical and risky hospitality, God can call pastor William and the All Saints Holiness Church congregation to welcome Ken—the man who once hated people with black and brown skin—through acts of compassion.

If God is at work in the lives of people out there, God is at work in our lives here—bathing us in light and love and inviting us to envelop others with light and love. This even occurs on the darkest days when hate and violence (and death) seems as if it will never end. Thus, there is always hope. As renown author Rachel Held Evans, who died yesterday, put it in her recent book, Inspired:[7]

What I love about the Bible is that the story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the Resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.

Amen.

**I inadvertently left out the tragedy in Sri Lanka when I preached this sermon, but include now so that the horrible event is not forgotten and the victims are remembered.

[1]https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists

[2]http://marcuse.faculty.history.ucsb.edu/projects/niem/njm415/NatJewMonthly415.htm

[3]https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/martin-niem-ller-nazis-finally-came-him

[4]Dr. Martin Luther King, Strength to Love, collection of sermons, 1963

[5]https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/50833-strength-to-love

[6]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ex-kkk-member-denounces-hate-groups-one-year-after-rallying-n899326

[7]Rachel Held Evans, Inspired, 2018

A New Creation

A Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18

My 5-year-old son Davis has been going through a big coloring phase over the last few months. The best gift you could give him is a box of crayons and a coloring book. He’s currently working his way through two books, one with pictures of animals and one with superheroes. Davis is not exactly meticulous with his coloring. He exuberantly attacks the page with his crayon and, usually in under a minute, the entire page is covered in a rainbow of scribbles without a single thought given to staying in the lines of the image.

Sometimes, as part of his occupational therapy work to strengthen his hands and motor skills, Elizabeth and I tell Davis he has to do one page in the lines. He then gets a sad look on his face and says, “Can I do the rest of them my way?” Davis is fully capable of coloring the way grown-ups tell him or what society considers to be the right way, but it isn’t much fun for him. The joy is gone; his heart isn’t in it when he is constrained by the pre-existing lines.

Because of this newfound love for coloring, Davis is eager to share his art with the family. In recent weeks, after joyfully finishing a page in his book, he waves the picture in the air and says enthusiastically, “Daddy, can we put this up in your office?!?!?” Thus far, I have three pictures. However, I’m expecting more to show up because I think his goal is to plaster my entire office with art just as he’s done in his bedroom at home.

Jesus, whom we proclaim as the One who has risen from the dead, has always colored the page in his own way—going outside the lines to bring splashes of peace, joy, hope, mercy and love to a broken world where many people are told to stay on the outside of the margins. Throughout his ministry, Jesus defied traditions, expectations and beliefs about God’s identity and purpose. He flipped the order of things (the first shall be last and the last shall be first); denounced the self-righteous religious leaders (you brood of vipers! How can you speak of good things when you are evil?) and refused to play the theological game by their rules (you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.); and ministered to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned (as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.)

For all of this he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, and killed by those who feared his revolution of love. But as we know from the story—and thus our reason to celebrate this Easter morning—the powers and principalities couldn’t defeat God nor could death contain Christ. The grave stone has been rolled away and the linens have been laid aside. Jesus is risen. The truth of love and grace is on the loose. God is on the move.

This incredible turn of events is what Howard Thurman, the civil rights pioneer and preacher referred to as the glad surprise. He wrote:[1]

There is a deeper meaning in the concept of the glad surprise. This meaning has to do with the very ground and foundation of hope about the nature of life itself. The manifestation of this quality in the world about us can be witnessed in the coming of spring. It is ever a new thing, a glad surprise, the stirring of life at the end of winter. One day there seems to be no sign of life and then almost overnight, swelling buds, delicate blooms, blades of grass, bugs, insects—an entire world of newness everywhere. ..This is what Easter means in the experience of the (human) race. This is the resurrection! It is the announcement that life cannot be ultimately conquered by death, that there is no road that is at last swallowed up in an ultimate darkness, that there is strength added when the labors increase, that multiplied peace matches multiplied trials, that life is bottomed by the glad surprise.”

The first to receive the glad surprise is Mary Magdalene who initially discovers that Jesus’ body is no longer in its resting place. Her sadness is understandable. Her friend and teacher was murdered before her eyes and now it seems that the body has been stolen.  Mary, her vision blurry from weeping, is so distraught that she doesn’t recognize Jesus. And then, in what I consider to be one of the most touching encounters in scripture, Jesus says, “Mary!” and she replies, “Teacher!” Glad surprise, indeed.

Mary and Jesus’ reunion, says theologian James Cone, highlights how God’s salvation “is a liberating event in the lives of all who are struggling for survival and dignity in a world bent on denying their humanity.”[2]This beautiful moment that we’ve heard told on many Easters reminds me of the song “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” an old Spiritual about liberation and hopethat’s been covered by the likes of Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen:

Oh Mary don’t you weep no more,
Pharoh’s army got drownded,
Oh Mary don’t you weep. ..

Mary’s weeping immediately ceases when she hears Jesus’ voice and recognizes her Lord, for now there is only the joy of resurrection and life to be found in the lush green garden that stretches beyond the dark and dusty confines of a tomb.

Jesus, though, cautions Mary as she seemingly opens her arms to him: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  The instruction may sound strange, but Jesus is teaching Mary (and us) an important lesson, according to former Candler associate dean and professor Gail O’Day who died in 2018. In a commentary on John’s gospel, she explains that the Greek verb for hold has a wide range of meaning:

“To hold onto something is to control, to own, to define, to manipulate, to manage, to co-opt for one’s own ends. … Jesus cannot and will not be held and controlled. … Jesus cannot be contained or identified through our labels and categories. … We come to know who Jesus is when we allow Jesus to be Jesus and stop holding him to who we want him to be.”[3]

A religious studies professor notes that Mary learns quickly that “she is caught up in a larger drama that includes Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. This is not merely a story about reunion…case solved. It’s about ultimate destinies: Jesus and Mary’s—and the disciples’ destinies too. … the story hasn’t concluded; it’s still unfolding. She must relate ‘that’ to the disciples.” Another theologian suggests that: [4]

Resurrection narratives are really commissioning stories, sending believers out into the world to tell everyone that death is not the last word. Otherwise, no one would ever know what happened, and Easter would be just a reunion story with tears and hugs all around.”

The famed novelist Anne Lamott is fond of quoting one of her favorite authors who once said,“We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.”During an interview with NPR, Lamott explained that this became a reality for her decades ago while shopping with her best friend Pammy two weeks before Pammy died from cancer: [5]

“She was in a wig and a wheelchair. I was buying a dress for this boyfriend I was trying to impress, and I bought a tighter, shorter dress than I was used to. And I said to her, ‘Do you think this makes my hips look big?’ and she said to me, so calmly, ‘Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.’

And I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that, ‘You don’t have that kind of time,’ you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back.”

Life is a miraculous gift, and Easter reminds us repeatedly that we don’t have to fear death. As such, we recognize that life is also precious and fleeting and thus we must use it wisely.

Spending the years by being unkind and hateful toward others because of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, country of origin, and low economic status robs us of the time we could be using to value the unique life of another human being.Toiling away the hours on social media by acting selfish, pretentious, indignant and judgmental squanders opportunities to be the merciful and empathetic people God created. We don’t have that kind of time to waste.

We only have time to cultivate love and compassion and to let go of the things that keep us from investing every minute of every day in loving relationship with God, our neighbor and the planet.

We are, after all, Easter people. Resurrection people. Called by God to embody the story of unconditional, transforming love and grace in a Good Friday world. Because of the amount of hurt and pain that surrounds us, fulfilling this task can be challenging. It would be much easier to do nothing and simply spiral into despair and hopelessness.

But the brilliant Howard Thurman implores us to not give up and to keep coloring outside the lines like Jesus: “Don’t ask what the world needs” he once told someone seeking advice.“Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

We are Easter people. Resurrection people. Invited to share the glad surprise, to do as Mary Magdalene and the disciples did—letting everyone know that death and violence and evil doesn’t have the final say.

The artist and teacher, Hannah Garrity, who created the exquisite art for today’s Easter bulletin offers this reflection on her painting:[6]

It is through simple acts of humanity that we continue to reveal God’s presence in the world. We listen to one another. We choose kindness. We achieve integrity. We build justice. Our daily striving to deliver God’s love to the world is depicted by Easter lilies in this painting. Fragile, yet strong, the flowers represent God’s new creation in the world through the hands of Her children. Shadow and light in the background portray the empty tomb.

This year, what path are you called to walk with Jesus from the tomb? Which are the gifts of new creation that God is presenting to the world through your precious hands?

As we walk that path from the tomb and embark on another Easter journey, let us remember the importance of being spiritually fed along the way. Whenever we pause on the trek to gather at table for the sharing of communion or the Eucharist (as we will shortly), we hear again the story of what God has done in Christ Jesus for the world. And we remember our role as Easter people. Resurrection people. The body of Christ.  New creations. The author and pastor Rob Bell writes this:

“The Eucharist is ultimately about what we do out there, in the flow of everyday life. …Our destiny, our future, and our joy are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessings we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills, and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place. The Eucharist is an invitation to be the new humanity. To suffer, to bleed, to open the heart, to roll up the sleeves, to have hope that God has a plan to put the world back together, and it’s called the church. In the Eucharist, there’s always hope.”[7]

 This is and always will be the good news of our faith. Let us go forth proclaiming and living that message as the new creations we’ve all been resurrected through Christ to be.

 Amen. 

[1]Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, 1999

[2]The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, 2011

[3]Encounters with Jesus: Studies In the Gospel of John by Francs Taylor Gench, 2007

[4]Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, 2009

[5]https://www.npr.org/2011/04/18/135517274/beyond-bunnies-the-real-meaning-of-easter-season

[6]A Sanctified Art, LLC. http://www.sanctifiedart.org

[7]Jesus Wants To Save Christians: A Manifesto for a Church In Exile by Rob Bell, 2008

The Stones Would Shout Out

“Colt” by Hannah Garrity, A Sanctified Art, LLC

A Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Palm/Passion Sunday, Luke 19:28-40

I always cherished Palm Sunday when I was a kid. An usher would hand all of the children luscious green palm branches to wave around as we processed into the sanctuary. The youth would ring hand-bells, and the Adult Choir would lead the congregation in the singing of “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

The festivity filled me with such joy that I knew, at just any moment, Jesus would come through the church doors on the back of a donkey, waving and smiling at the folks in the pews. The feeling would stay with me all the way through Easter Sunday, a much bigger celebration.

As a child, though, I didn’t fully grasp what was happening to during the Sundays in-between. Seemed to me that this was a week-long, happy party for Jesus.  Once I became a teenager, I gained a little more understanding of the Palm Sunday event that marks a dramatic shift in the story and precipitates the messiness of Holy Week. However, I would be an adult in seminary before I truly appreciated how Jesus’ act subverted the authority of the Roman Empire and Israel’s King Herod of Antipas as well as the nation’s religious leaders.

And it only during my years in ordained ministry that I’ve discovered Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem was a peaceful, non-violent, political protest that happened simultaneously with the annual visit of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

This wasn’t just a rabbi and his students making a pilgrimage to the city for a religious festival as I had previously thought for a long time. No, this was Jesus, God incarnate, showing up on a humble farm animal in the epi-center of the Domination System to dismantle the power structure and free everyone in its clutches. Albeit not in the way anyone expected, which we’ll touch on later.

Every detail of Jesus’ arrival, even down to the timing, is deliberate so that it reveals precisely how God’s rule is not like the Empire’s. Providing some historical context from a scholarly book on Jesus’ life, Rev. Amy Butler, a pastor in New York, explains:

Pilate usually spent most of his time in a beautiful palace on the Mediterranean coast.  But every year when Passover approached, the governor always came back to Jerusalem.  It was just basic necessity, Pilate’s annual show of power.  Because of all the political undercurrents of Passover, it was always Pilate’s aim to make sure the Jews didn’t get ideas of liberation in their heads, and maybe even to get them to buy into the Roman illusion of peace—to vote against their own interests, in other words. And so, every year Pilate would parade into Jerusalem with a show of military power— cavalry on horses, columns of soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, drums. As Jesus and his little band of protestors made their way from Galilee into Jerusalem from the north, right across town on the west entrance of the city, Pilate was doing his best to make a show of force, to rile up a crowd and give them a political purpose.

Renown scholars and theologians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg sum it up this way:

One was a peasant process, the other an imperial procession. … Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus knows the way of Pilate and Herod—men who wield power with riches, weapons and violence.  Jesus and the poor of Israel have been surrounded by these oppressive powers for most of their lives.

Many in Israel expected Jesus to follow in the footsteps of the great warriors of Israel and violently conquer the Roman Empire.  They thought Jesus would brandish a sword like the ancient priests Judah and Jonathan Macabee who led the brutal Maccabean revolt against their Syrian oppressors. Upon victory, the Israelites under the Macabee brothers, cleansed the temple, previously desecrated by the Syrians and “entered it with praise and palm branches and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”

Dr. Chuck Campbell, preaching professor at Duke Divinity School and author, reminds us that Jesus has a different idea in mind for defeating the powers:

Jesus is turning the world’s notions of power and rule and authority on their heads. His theater is a wonderful piece of political satire. In his triumphal entry, Jesus lampoons all the powers of the world and their pretensions to glory and dominion, and he enacts an alternative to the way of the Domination System. He comes not as one who lords his authority over others but as one who rejects domination and comes as a servant. He comes not with pomp and wealth but as one identified with the poor. He comes not as a mighty warrior but as one who refuses to rely on violence. Jesus enacts the subversive, nonviolent reign of God in the midst of the city.

Luke’s Palm Sunday account intentionally reminds readers of Jesus’ identity and purpose by echoing the Christmas narrative in the beginning of the gospel. Shortly after Jesus’ birth (which occurred during the oppressive rule of Herod of Antipas’ father, King Herod the Great), the multitude of angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest heaven,and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”Now, as Jesus rides a young donkey into Jerusalem, coming closer to his death, the people sing: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Furthermore, the exuberant singing a and Jesus’ mode of transportation reflects the Hebrew scriptures that the crowd holds dear to their hearts: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”is from Psalm 118. And Jesus’ ride upon the colt fulfills the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9: Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

All of the symbolism in Luke’s gospel emphasizes the underlying point that God in Christ has entered the world to bring peace and love to all, and no amount of self-centered human power is going to thwart that mission.

The Pharisees learn this first-hand when they angrily say to Jesus: “Order your disciples to stop.”  Jesus tells them that if the disciples and the crowd were silent, “the stones would shout out.”

Stones play a valuable and durable role in the stories of faith:

They’ve been used as a pillow by a young man who found himself homeless and on the run after he stole his brother’s blessing.

They’ve been gathered and stacked by freed slaves to make memorial honoring the exodus from Egypt.

They’ve been thrown from a mountain ledge by a prophet to smash the golden idol that was fashioned by impatient and selfish wilderness wanderers.

They’ve been slung around by a ruddy, shepherd boy to topple a fearsome giant on a battle field.

They’ve been carried by exiled men, women and children to rebuild a temple once destroyed during a period of war and conquest.

They’ve been spoken about to inspire an image of how God’s people should build themselves into a spiritual house and holy priesthood.

Stones are also some of the most exquisite pieces of art to be seen in nature:

Layer upon layers of rock that have formed themselves into towers pointing high into the sky.

Cliff walls marred with damage from natural disasters but that have held together for centuries.

Massive mountains of granite that are bigger than we could dream and intricate tunnel like structures that create a view more beautiful than we could imagine.

Stones, these marvelous works of God, the very foundations of the earth, would shout out praises to God because creation itself, like humanity, longs to be set free from brokenness and decay and to be renewed and transformed by God’s love.

The amazing phenomenon never happens on Palm Sunday because the disciples refuse to be quiet in the face of the Pharisees and the shadow of the Empire. They keep shouting loud Hosannas and proclaiming that Jesus, not Pilate or Caesar or Herod, is Lord of heaven and earth. In spite of their decisions to abandon their rabbi later in the week, the disciples, in this moment, are doing what Jesus has asked of them. Rev. Amy Butler powerfully expressed this notion in a sermon a few years ago:

Going beyond words, acting out of the radical inward transformation of the gospel message, Jesus asked his disciples to step up—to stand up with their cheers and their actions and their very lives—to step up and speak out against the brutality and violence and oppression and injustice—right on the other side of town!—that stood in stark contrast to the radical message of the kingdom of God.Our question today is the same.  Can I step up?

That is also our question for today, tomorrow, the next and every day after. Can I step up and speak? Can we as the church boldly step up and speak against the injustices that cause so much destruction and brokenness across the globe?

Can we, in the spirit of our Lenten theme, cultivate a life that courageously steps up and speaks for God’s peace and love? Can we  let go of complacency and fear that prevents us from saying and doing what is right?  Can we shout our Hosannas together in the darkness of betrayal, denial, hate, violence and death on a cross?

Even when we can’t—and those times will occur—Jesus assures us that hope is not lost and the story isn’t over yet.

Because when we fall silent, the stones would shout.

Amen.

 

Cultivating and Letting Go, Part 5

A Sermon for Sunday, April 7, 2019, Emory Presbyterian Church, The Fifth Sunday of Lent, John 12:1-8

“Anointed” by Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art, LLC. sanctifiedart.org

Last week, while sorting through the leftover fabric that was used to create our Lenten fig tree, I found a few strips that had been written upon but not tied to the limbs. So, I took them over to the sanctuary to put on the display. As I was adding the material on the tree, I read the messages on all the pieces of cloth about what you hoped to cultivate and let goof during this season, and a common theme emerged. Many of you expressed that you want to cultivatepatience and self-confidence and let go of anxiety and worry and the feeling that you’re not good enough and not doing enough.

I admire you for your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. It’s not easy to express what is stirring within the soul, however you do it with open hearts, minds and hands.  You are also extremely generous and extravagant with love, gratitude and hospitality, which I’ve seen first-hand in how you’ve welcomed me and my family and helped me get settled since becoming your pastor a month ago.  You might not fully realize it, but you are much like Mary from today’s story in John’s gospel.

Mary and her siblings, Martha and Lazarus, who live together in the town of Bethany have much to rejoice. Lazarus, who had been gravely ill and died, has recently been raised from the dead by Jesus! To celebrate this miracle and give thanks to God for Lazarus’ newfound life, they invite Jesus and the disciples to their home for dinner. While everyone is gathered around the table, Mary’s sister Martha serves what I can only imagine was a feast of figs, grapes, dates, nuts, legumes, bread, fish and mutton.

And then Mary serves what is just as extravagant as the food on people’s plates: an expensive jar of perfume, so delightfully potent that the fragrance instantly fills the entire house. She then kneels and pours out the entire contents of the bottle onto Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. The fragrance lingers long after she finishes her task, a free gift that is received by all who breathe in the air and the moment.

However, in this act of anointing, Mary has knowingly broken four social customs of the day:  1) she has let down her hair in a room full of men, 2) she has poured perfume on the feet 3) she, a single woman, has touched a single man and 4) she wipes his feet with her hair.

That is of no concern to Mary. She loves Jesus too much to let stuffy customs get in the way of her caring for her dear friend and Lord who brought her only brother back to life. Nor will she let him die without offering gratitude for his presence in her life. As Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor once preached in a sermon on this event:

“Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God—not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance—Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard—wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral? —and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.”[1]

It’s worth noting that Mary shares her lavish gift publicly while Jesus is alive. Whereas after Jesus dies, two men who are afraid to publicly express their faith will sneak out into the middle of the night to anoint the body for burial.

Her actions also models discipleship. In the next chapter, Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples, telling them to care for another in the same way that he has cared for them. Mary comprehends what it means to be a disciple before Jesus even gives verbal instructions to disciples who have worked closely with him.

Mary’s actions bother Judas so much that he rebukes her. Judas could care less about giving money to the poor, of course, but he’s angry because he’s seeing potential profits for himself disappear.

Jesus, aware that his death is near, responds by telling Judas that occasions like the one they are currently experiencing are precious and fleeting. And Jesus reminds his future betrayer (and the disciples) that they will have plenty opportunities to minister to the poor for the rest of their lives; his words echoing God’s instructions to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 15:1-11, which says:

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you … If there is among you anyone in need … do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought … and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing …Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

The needy neighbor, the poor that we always have with us—some theologians deduce—is Jesus, who lived a life of poverty. It is to Jesus and the poor and suffering that our extravagance is to be given. Thus, to be the Church means that followers of Christ should always have the poor in their midst, treasuring the life of those in need.  It’s why missions is so central to a church’s ministry and the reason that EPC, like many Christian communities, participate in numerous endeavors: dinners at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, Mad Houser Huts, Decatur Emergency Assistance, CHOA Meal bags, MLK Day of Service house building project, the Change the World jar and other efforts that improve the lives of people in Haiti, the One Great Hour of Sharing, etc.

The message of Deuteronomy is that God asks us to always practice an open-handed way of life toward any neighbor who is in need. God calls each generation to plant the seeds and fulfill the vision God has for there to “be no one in need.” God invites us to live generously and lovingly in all that we do, although we may never live to see all of the fruits of our labor.

God doesn’t demand that we do everything perfectly or judge us for not doing enough. God only desires for us to open our hands and hearts and minds to simply do.

The concept is lost on Judas. He questions what Mary is doing because, in contrast to her open heart and hands, Judas has a hardened heart and a tight-fist toward his neighbor. His mind is closed off to God’s vision of the kingdom.

In her book, God, Improv and the Art of Living, the Rev. Maryann McKibben Dana suggests that we have to risk saying “yes,” and take a leap of faith to fulfill God’s vision for our lives, even if it means falling flat on our face or being scorned by others. She writes:

“Yes is a hollow response if it doesn’t come with the possibility of everything going catastrophically wrong. Yes is infused with curiosity, mystery and a hint of danger. We don’t know how life will turn out. It cost us something to step into that ambiguity. …Many self-help books talk about creative risk in glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down, with hurtful impact. The gamble doesn’t pay off, and hearts get broken. As C.S. Lewis wrote: Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully ‘round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements…To love is to be vulnerable.”[2]

Mary practices a “yes” life and lives by the Deuteronomy 15 code. She doesn’t worry about the “but” as in “but…it will never work, its too expensive, and I don’t have the courage to try this.” She doesn’t fret about the “what ifs” like, “what if I fail or plans fall through or people respond with mean words and actions.  Mary just plunges in with all that she has—all of her heart, mind, body and soul.

Even when Judas mocks her, Mary doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t apologize nor offer a snarky rebuttal or eye-roll. Mary keeps washing Jesus’ feet with her hair in spite of the scrutiny she’s receiving. Mary cultivates generosity and compassion, and she let’s go of anxiety, doubt and the fear of being enough, of being perfect, of being ridiculed.

To love is to be vulnerable.

In their weekly blog post on the lectionary readings, the folks at The Salt Project make this observation about Mary’s act of anointing:

“Being generous to neighbors and moving toward a society in which there is “no one in need” should be our overarching goals – but along the way, there are milestones when special acts of generosity, moments of extravagance-in-love, are beautiful and fitting. Burying the dead is one of those moments, and Jesus, Mary perceives, is on the precipice of death. This is no ordinary dinner gathering. This is farewell.[3]

Mary recognizes the importance of honoring Christ in the present moment amid this larger call to serve those in great need. She is, after all, preparing her friend for burial, and she wants Jesus to know he is loved. Mary makes time to anoint Christ–the God-in-the flesh that comes bearing mercy and hope for a world that desperately needs to be freed from its ruling powers and principalities. She cares for Jesus just as Jesus has come to care for humanity. She pours out love on the One who, in life and death, pours out love onto the entirety of creation.

Put another way, Mary cultivates an extravagant amount of love, and also let’s go of an extravagant amount of love. She knows as you do that God’s love is such a powerful force that it can never be contained or hoarded, only shared with open hands and hearts.

In a short amount of time, I’ve already seen this congregation do the same as Mary. And that gives me great joy for what lies ahead for this church who faithfully responds to God’s call to love abundantly despite the vulnerability it brings.

Making ourselves vulnerable to love will seem quite impossible as we come closer to the shadows of the cross and a bleak time for our lives and world. But that is not the time to harden our hearts or tighten our fists or close our minds. The Salt Project writers eloquently reminds us:

The good news of the Gospel this week is that God calls us toward this personal and communal vision of a generous, wisely structured world – and at the same time blesses each of us … with the wisdom and discernment to follow Mary’s example, opening our hands in ways that honor one another in love and grace.  We stand on the verge of Holy Week. The house is filled with the fragrance of perfume. The hosannas will come, the lamentations will follow, and the promise of Easter morning – that radiant new world, dawning even now, where crying and pain and poverty will be no more – beckons from the other side of the tomb.[4]

Amen.


[1]The Prophet Mary, sermon by The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College and Columbia Seminary. John 12:1-8, 5th Sunday of Lent-Year C, March 21, 2010.

[2]God, Improv and The Art of Living by Rev. Maryann MckIbben Dana, 2018. Eerdmans Publishing

[3]http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/4/2/the-poor-wont-always-be-with-you-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-5

[4]http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/4/2/the-poor-wont-always-be-with-you-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-5