Our Money Story, Part 4: Restore

A Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Fourth Sunday of EPC Stewardship Season. John 21:1-19

God, 

We cannot do the work of restoration without your Word. 

We cannot do the work of remembering, 

releasing, or reimagining without your Word. 

We need you like the earth needs rain and a sailboat needs wind. 

We come to you in prayer to ask that you breathe new life into us.

Grant us the clarity needed to hear your Word anew. 

And as you do, restore us to your breath. 

Restore us to your Word. 

Restore us to one another. 

Gratefully we pray. 

Amen.

Helen Keller, the American educator, political activist and advocate for the blind and deaf, wrote: 

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

The quote has stuck with me ever since I saw it printed on the back of a T-shirt for a Middle School Mission Trip in Asheville that I attended several years ago with half a dozen teenagers. Keller’s words are a constant reminder to me that despite the enormous amount of suffering that exists, there is still a lot beauty and hope in the world. There are still people who refuse to give into distress and who continue to work hard for a better world. 

Life is painful and messy and God is with human beings in the muck. God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it this way in a speech he gave at the National Cathedral in 2011: 

When we fallGod picks us up, dusts us off and says, ‘Try again.’”

We jump back into the work we are called by God to do, knowing that we will get bruised, battered and knocked down along the way. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to avoid suffering as Tutu reminds readers in the book, God Has A Dream: 

 “In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”

Author and pastor Rob Bell pontificates further on the effects of suffering in his book, Drops Like Stars:[1]

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or betterclosed or openmore ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

Bell then shares an illustration on suffering from a recent novel he has read, in which a theologian and sculptor talk about the nature of God. The theologian offers elegant and complicated thoughts about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor provides a different and simpler perspective based on her experience of making art:[2]

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.

Over the last four weeks, we’ve been immersed in the season of Stewardship at Emory Presbyterian Church, specifically focusing on the meaning of Our Money Story in light of God’s money story of liberation and justice or God’s economy.

Our money stories have moments of agony, and some of you have bravely shared your fears and struggles in our special Stewardship class on Sunday mornings via Zoom. I’ve had similar experiences—times when I foolishly wasted a lot of money on frivolous purchases or had to pay late fees more than once on the power bill. I’ve also incurred expenses I hadn’t planned on having due to bad life decisions. 

In mid-December 2001, when I was 25 years old, I did one of the dumbest things someone could do and that was driving home from a Saturday-evening Christmas party after imbibing several drinks.  A couple of miles from my home in Alabaster, Alabama in the Birmingham Metro Area, I swerved slightly over the median of the road while putting a CD into my car’s CD player. Flashing lights immediately appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and within minutes found myself spending the night in the dungy cell of the Alabaster city jail. The next morning, I was given breakfast from McDonalds, however I chose only to drink the coffee because of a massive hang over and the misfortunate of having to hear the police officers discuss a great-tasting sushi place, which I’m pretty sure was concocted to teach me a lesson. 

I felt awful physically, but more so emotionally. I was weighted with a humongous amount of guilt and embarrassment. I could’ve harmed myself or someone else with my drunk driving, and I had caused a lot of worry and grief for my mother, brother and grandparents. I also disappointed the youth at my home church because I missed the Christmas party that they were having in their newly remodeled youth room. Furthermore, I temporarily lost my license and had to pay my family back for bail money and getting the car out of the impound, plus the cost of a fine and DUI & Defensive Driving School classes that, once completed, would reduce the DUI charge to a minor traffic violation for swerving. 

Because of this one incident and mistake, I believed I was a terrible human being who wasn’t worthy of going to seminary the following summer. Adult mentors of mine, Presbyterian ministers and Christian educators, who taught me about Jesus’ love and inspired me to hear God’s call to ministry, wouldn’t let me beat myself up for long. They reminded me that I also was deserving of second chances, worthy of grace. Their love and support—as well as that of family, friends, my home church and seminary classmates like Elizabeth—carried me through the mess. With God’s compassion, they restored me.

When we’re down and out, family and friends and the church, comes to our aid and pulls us out of the gloomy pits of despair and into the sun. 

Our scripture reading for today finds Simon-Peter in a dreary state. After hiding behind locked doors of their meeting house with the disciples, Peter decides to go fishing and the others join him. All night long, they cast their nets but come up empty. At dawn, Jesus appears on the beach and instructs them to cast the net one more time. When they do, they catch so many fish that they struggle mightily to haul it to shore. Minutes later, they are reunited with their teacher and enjoying a delicious breakfast of fish and bread. Once, Peter and the disciples were lost, but now they were being fed. Even though they had previously abandoned Jesus and denied knowing him as he faced persecution, the disciples were forgiven. They were restored.

So then, how does this miracle text relate to our present fear? That is the question Hannah Garrity of A Sanctified Art, wondered about during the beginning of the pandemic in March as she created the art that appears on today’s bulletin cover. She writes:

Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, people are dying, people are losing their livelihoods, people are isolated, people are going to run out of food, people are going to run out of money, people are going to lose their family members, people will lose their homes. This moment in our story delivers scarcity in ways that we have not seen in living memory. Our whole precious global society could unravel.  Can we be the safety net?

Three weeks into stay-at-home orders, our local food banks are being tapped more heavily than normal. Economic stimulus checks are arriving in American bank accounts. Factories are retooling to build medical equipment. The public is following the stay-at-home measures. Legislative consensus should ensure that unemployment will be enough for many to survive on. All of these miraculous actions are funded by each of us.

In the artwork, patterned fish represent the miracle that Jesus performed that morning so many years ago. This miracle convinced the disciples that they must tell the story of Jesus and act out the love Jesus modeled. This miracle continues to inspire us to contribute and act as God’s disciples in this critical time for humanity. We are the safety net.

As I worked with this text, I contemplated that money has a lot to do with saving lives. Therefore, the background of this piece is woven with a guilloche pattern, reminiscent of currency. It portrays the flow of financial resources from government support, to charities, to crowdfunding, to church missions that are the fabric of the net that will catch us all. Jesus inspires us in this text—and in this moment—to weave God’s safety net.

Weaving God’s safety net, fishing for people, feeding the sheep, caring for the hurt, the sick, the broken and the vulnerable, requires faith in God’s ability to transform…redeem…restore.

Nearly a decade ago, while serving as an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Duluth, a parishioner who was employed with a non-profit that provides water purification systems to villages in the Dominican Republic told me a remarkable story about restoration.

In the village of San Joaquin, less than 10 miles northeast of the capital city of Santo Domingo, Pastor Alejandro ministers to 1,200-1,500 Haitian refugees, about 200-300 families. While the community is now one of the most calm and peaceful in the country, it had suffered for many years from the existence of a bar/drug-infested prostitution den where girls as young as 12 could be seen dancing out front.

One day, Alejandro stood defiantly in front of the bar and shouted at the drug dealers who owned the business, “This land belongs to God and you must leave!”  While the chronological details of what happened next are fuzzy, the drug dealers cleared out and Alejandro eventually reclaimed the land and the building where horrific abuse, violence and oppression occurred. With a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs, the space has been transformed into a place where children can joyfully play without fear of being harmed. The building is also used as a trade co-op for San Joaquin residents to sell clean water and manufacture their own shampoo and soap for purchase. Pastor Alejandro and the villagers of San Joaquin restored their community and they continue that restoration by weaving God’s safety net and tending to God’s sheep. 

We too are called to do the same with the gifts of our time, talents and money, no matter how often we cast into empty waters or fall down in the mud or neglect to help someone with the resources God has given. 

We keep listening to Jesus on the shore. We keep looking up to God who picks us up and dusts us off. We keep on following and weaving and feeding and loving, knowing that at any moment God will surprise us with more than enough for us to carry and share with one another.

Amen.


[1] Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell, Zondervan Publishing, 2012

[2] Ibid.

Our Money Story, Part 3: Reimagine

A Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2020. All Saints Day and EPC’s Third Sunday of Stewardship Season, Leviticus 19:9-10 and 25:8-12

Prayer of Illumination by Rev. Sarah Are, A Sanctified Art, LLC

Holy God, 

We want to see what you see. 

We want to see what you see, 

But we stumble through roadblocks of bias and narrow perspective, 

Fear and limited information. 

We are too small to imagine the type of love and beauty you can sow. 

So in this moment, we ask that you would clear the roadblocks that keep us from you. 

Blow the dust out of our ears.

Thaw out the frozen parts of our hearts. 

Tell the logical arguments we form about what will and will not work to take a backseat. 

And as you do, 

Breathe fresh air into our lungs and fill our minds with endless possibilities. 

We want to see what you see. 

We want to reimagine this life we’re living. 

Clear away the roadblocks. 

Amen.

My fondest and most favorite experiences of Church life throughout the years are fellowship gatherings with food. The opportunity to sit at table with others to share a meal and stories and the chance to play and laugh bring an abundance of joy to my heart. 

Those events are rooted in love and imbued with generosity—people giving all that they have from God in time, talents and financial resources to build relationships and imagine anew what the beloved community can be in the world.

The last time I was with the majority of the Emory Presbyterian congregation in the church building was just before the pandemic, when we met in the fellowship hall for our “Breaking Bread Together” luncheon, where upon I shared my faith story and was presented with a lovely coconut cake to recognize my one-year anniversary as your pastor. It was a wonderful day, and I’m so grateful to have marked that special occasion and for all the meals we shared throughout my first year, which helped us get to know one another better.

Since mid-March, we haven’t been together as often, not even worship in the sanctuary. Though, I have taken great solace in the smaller gatherings for the monthly Sunday afternoon “Garden Party” in the outdoor sanctuary, especially during Labor Day weekend when we enjoyed a delicious Frogmore stew and good conversation.

Dearest to my heart are the meals that I’ve shared with the most vulnerable in places like Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and The Dominican Republic. A few years ago during a mission trip to Guatemala with members of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church of Duluth, the group and I were treated to two extraordinary meals that humbled us to our cores. 

The first meal occurred early in the week as we took a long and restful lunch break after digging the foundation for a large rock wall that would prevent flooding on the road leading to a birthing clinic. Within minutes of setting down, the villagers brought food to the table, and it was way more than we expected and more than we needed. Stacks and stacks and stacks of home-made tortillas. Large plates of avocados, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and chicken that kept coming and coming and coming until there was hardly a spot left on the table. And it was all for our team of 17. None of the villagers ate the food that was brought out—food that they spent a majority of their time and all of their money on to make sure we had a plentiful lunch. We initially felt guilty about eating. We wanted to return half of it so the Guatemalans had something to eat; after all it might be their only meal for the day or several days. But Emerson, our Guatemalan guide and translator, insisted that we savor the feast and that it would be insulting if we gave any of the food back. “For them, this is what they feel they can do to serve; these are their gifts that they want to share abundantly with you, just as you are sharing the gifts of work with them. It would be disrespectful to not honor and receive their gift.” 

The second meal happened on our last day in Guatemala. After working in the morning, we trekked our way through the rain and mud to a small two-room adobe that belonged to a family of five. Again, we were treated to an extravagant meal of vegetables, tortillas, soup and chicken. According to Emerson, it was the equivalent of a wedding feast—an extremely expensive endeavor that families save a lifetime for and that was now being used on Americans who were not blood relatives and whom they would never see again.  

These particular experiences are a testament to several studies conducted over the last decade that show that the poor and those with less tend to give more than those with ample resources. The reasons for such generosity seems to be that those with less are more intimately understand the needs of others, thus they tend to be more compassionate and sensitive to people’s plights for help. Those with less are also not as attached to their belongings or have an over-abundance of stuff that would make them attached. They also live in the present and strive to attain basic necessities that will get them through the day or week; they’re not focused on accumulating wealth and things for the future. 

I’ve further witnessed that those with less, like the folks I’ve met in impoverished countries and in the U.S., have a deep faith that underscores a strongly held belief that all they have belongs to God and that God calls them to give and share all they have to those with much less than them.  

Those of us who follow Christ and have basic necessities met on a daily basis, good-paying jobs, insurance and retirement savings also believe that all we’ve been given is from God and that we are to use what we have in time, talents and resources to serve others with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Churchgoers, in general, are very generous.

However, I also think Christians who are blessed with many belongings and who are acutely invested in the global economy are more acceptable to fears and insecurities about money and having enough for now and years into the future. Christians tend to give charitably, but largely out of a legalistic computation instead of from the sense that God has entrusted us to be stewards of the assets given to us and that God invites us to joyfully give back to God so the beloved community can be strengthened and ministry to the poor, sick, lonely and oppressed can be done.

In a recent stewardship article, Robert Hay Jr., a ruling elder in the PC(USA) and a senior ministry relations officer for the Presbyterian Foundation, writes that the question he is asked most often is whether a 10 percent tithe is pre-tax or post-tax. He says:[1]

In my experience, the motivation of that question is the asker wants to know exactly the amount they have to give to get into heaven. That is not my theological understanding of how heaven works, so I typically respond that the 10% tithe is a model that can be helpful to the discipline of giving. Further, I subscribe to the belief that every church has plenty of money; it’s just still in its members pockets. So, I typically answer the pre-tax/post-tax question by saying, if everyone gave 10% post-tax then the church would have plenty of money. Because what I know is that the average percentage given is closer to 2% and the most popular gift in the church is $1,200, or $100/month. If $1,200 represents a tithe of 10% then that equates to annual income of $12,000. And whether that is pre-tax or post-tax doesn’t really compute in my Presbyterian context made up primarily of middle class and upper-middle class church members. …But what I believe is more important is understanding that everything we have was given to us by God. Tithing is one of the important ways that we give thanks to God. … It should be a joy to give, not a chore.

Tithing shouldn’t be a chore, another item to fret about on our busy to-do list. Tithing should be an act of reimagination and part of the sacred practice of rest just as it was for the Israelites during the period of the Book of Leviticus. The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman explains in a statement on today’s bulletin art, “Jubilee”:[2]

In the Year of Jubilee, God offers rest—a break for farmers, relief for those experiencing economic injustice, and Sabbath for the land. This radical rest is counter to the rhythm of our lives; it resists valued ideologies like efficiency and productivity and has broad economic implications. Jubilee has remained a theoretical, hopeful concept tucked away in scripture. This kind of radical slowing down is difficult to imagine, however… so is a global, economy-halting pandemic.

Rest feels unnatural in a pandemic, but it’s available to us if we are willing to receive it. Rest slows our vision and illuminates gifts that normally whirl by us. While sheltering in place, I’ve searched for positivity, and during such great loss, I’ve found more—more time, space, and color. I found a patch of mint in my yard, and the scent became my soul’s balm. Rest offers recovery. The earth is thriving with a break from humanity. Scientists are seeing significant decreases in air pollution and animals are returning to previously uninhabitable waterways.

Rest offers perspective. God does not want us worn ragged, reaping the maximum extent of our harvest. God wants new eyes for us to recognize broken systems so we can enact change that sustains everyone: “You shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God” (v.10). God is found in the connective tissue of our relationships to our neighbor—particularly those most vulnerable.

Rest reminds us of our interconnectedness. Despite physical distancing, people are rediscovering one another while longing for and celebrating every moment of connection. Despite future insecurity, people are finding innovative ways to support one another. Rest uncovers the enoughness in our lives, and as my dear mentor used to say, “Enough is abundance.” What will we glean from this time of rest?

These sentences at the end of Lauren’s statement are key: 

“Rest offers perspective.”

“God wants new eyes for us to recognize broken systems so we can enact change that sustains everyone.”

“God is found in the connective tissue of our relationships to our neighbor—particularly those most vulnerable.”

“Rest reminds us our interconnectedness.”

“People are finding innovative ways to support one another.”

In the last eight months, we at Emory Presbyterian have gained fresh perspective due to slowing down and changing our routines and focusing on what’s most important in our lives. We’re been opening our eyes to broken systems and enacting change. We’re finding God in our connections and relationships with others, both in the congregation and the neighborhoods around the church. We’re exploring innovative ways to support one another. 

And none of it is possible without God and the gifts that God has given us. Worship, and faith-enriching gatherings for all ages on Zoom; the monthly Garden Party; the Drive-Thru Blessing of the Animals, the meals for Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, the racial justice protests; the contributions of snacks for Emory University Hospital employees and for the Precinct Chaplain Project on Election Day; and the work of the church staff and Session and core volunteers that organizes, oversees, plans, guides and ensures that the church remains vital and functional and that people grow in their relationship with the Holy. There is amazing, imaginative ministry that is occurring in these strange times. 

What else can we reimagine for our church and city, for children, youth and adults, through the cheerful giving of our time, talent and financial resources? What else can we reimagine if a few more people pledged at least 10 percent of their income toward God’s vision for the church’s building of the beloved community? What else can we reimagine if a few more people were invited to participate in the church’s ministry? What else can we reimagine if we commit again and again to being stewards of God’s gifts so that the marginalized can be cared for and loved? 

What might happen if we reimagine and harmonize what seems dissonant between the definitions of our current economy and God’s economy? What might happen if we consume more trust and mercy? What might happen if we profit more through transactions of unconditional love? What might happen if we invest more in being selfless, humble and empathetic? What might happen if we receive power from sharing and creating with others? 

Well, we just might reimagine and have… a jubilee!

Thanks be to God,

Amen


[1] https://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/calculating-your-tithe/

[2] Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, “Our Money Story” Stewardship curriculum, A Sanctified Art, LLC, sanctifiedart.org. 

Our Money Story, Part 2: Release

A Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Second Sunday of Stewardship Season. Matthew 19:16-22.

Please join me in prayer as I pray the words written by the Rev. Sarah Are, from A Sanctified Art’s Our Money Story Stewardship materials:

Gracious God, 

We release our hearts to you. 

First, we remove the pressure, 

For release requires the freedom to be moved.

Then we allow our hearts to return to their original resting position— 

In sync with you, with the rhythm of summer cicadas, and this whole wild creation.

Then, we pray that you will find our hearts available— 

Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. 

So like the mockingbird releases her song, 

We release our hearts to you. 

Move in them. 

Stir us awake. 

Speak to us now. 

We are waiting. 

Amen.

In 2009, I attended the annual Festival of Homiletics—a week-long preaching and worship conference—when it came to Atlanta. Sitting in a room at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, I listened to a lecture by pastor, author and activist, Brian McLaren on the intersection with faith and economics. Toward the end of his presentation, McLaren offered a nuanced interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler that I hadn’t previously considered. He said:[1]

A rich young ruler comes to Jesus. The only way you can become a ruler is by working with the Romans. And the only way you can become rich is by figuring out how to work the Roman system to your advantage, especially to become rich at a young age. So this is a guy who is deeply embedded with everything that is wrong with the economy of Jesus’ day. … What if what Jesus is saying to the guy is this:

 “Listen. You’ve already made it. You’ve got a lot of wealth. Your part of a corrupt system and it’s worked for you. (If) you really want to be part of life of the ages, you understand that obeying the Ten Commandments, which focus on personal morality, that’s not enough. You’ve got to go beyond personal morality and you’ve got to be concerned about social morality. Because the kingdom of God doesn’t just focus you on worrying about your own moral score card. It actually invests you in caring about your neighbor. So, stop working for the kingdom of Caesar that is all about climbing to the top and achieving riches, and instead join me in the kingdom of God, join me in working for the poor. Join me in leveraging your obvious intelligence and gifts and moral rectitude. Invest that with me for the sake of the kingdom of God for the people who are most in need. Switch sides.”

For the longest time, I’ve always thought the takeaway message in this encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus was that anyone with wealth, possessions or means was supposed to give away everything to the poor less they be considered too selfish, greedy and imperfect to follow Jesus. Thus I have avoided preaching, up until now, sermons on this story because it seemed awkward and guilt inducing—a mismatch with our reformed Presbyterian beliefs about God and God’s call of us. God doesn’t view the possession of money or things purchased with our finances a sin. Nor does God consider us to be unworthy if we don’t give away all of our possessions, or even ask us to do such a thing to be a disciple. Remember that Joseph of Arimathea, who helped bury Jesus, was both a rich man and a disciple.

What God asks of us is that we have right relationships with God and other human beings. Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Loving our neighbor (whether they live next door or in another neighborhood, state or country) means we are to love and care about others as much as we care for our own welfare and as much as God loves and cares for them, especially the poor and vulnerable. This is what it means to be a disciple, a Jesus follower, a Christian. As Christians, our identity is not defined by our socio-economic status or the things we possess but by how we love in the name of the One who calls us beloved and loves us unconditionally—something that the rich young ruler is having difficulty grasping.

The late biblical scholar and seminary professor, Douglas R.A. Hare observes that the rich young ruler wasn’t concerned about giving more of his wealth to the poor. He writes:[2]

“What he minded was giving up all that wealth means: privilege, status, and economic power. He was not ready to surrender his comfortable and secure world for the unknown, frightening world into which Jesus was calling him. He was identified by his wealth; he did not want to find a new identity. He knew what we was ‘worth’ in this world, and by those standards Jesus and his disciples were ‘worth’ nothing.”

This story is a cautionary tale about how, if we’re not careful, we can become wrapped up in the wealth and possessions we have obtained and lose sight of who we are and who God calls us to be with the gifts we’ve been given.

It’s no secret that we inhabit a consumeristic society that centers on having the most and the best. The mobs of people that descend upon stores on Black Friday, resulting in brawls and sometimes death over the latest “must-have” toy, smart device or flat screen TV; and the hordes of people buying up all the toilet paper at the outstart of the pandemic are just two examples of the economic behavior that is baked into civilization. Those whose basic necessities (food, clothing and shelter) are regularly met often waste an inordinate amount of energy, time and resources acquiring too many things—things that only get used once if ever at all.  

How many pieces of clothing or shoes do you have in your closet that haven’t been worn more than one time since you bought them two, three or seven years ago? How many appliances do you own that have never been plugged in? How many books do you have on your shelves that you’ve never read? How many coffee mugs do you have in your cabinets that hold little to no sentimental value? How many superfluous, “this looks really neat” or “I’ve got a coupon for this!” type items are laying around in junk drawers or your garage? How many items have you upgraded like a car, TV, computer, or furniture because you saw the same product at your brother-in-law or friend’s house? How many barely used purchases were made during a moment when you felt sad and needed to do retail therapy? 

I raise these questions rhetorically because if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of us—at one point in our lives—have had (and still do) the tendency to want and consume more than what we need because we believe it will make us happier, increase our self-worth or give us better standing. 

Granted, there seems to be a shift in the past 10 years toward ridding ourselves of the stuff we accumulate and adhering to the philosophy of tidiness expert Marie Kondo who says, “keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy.” And I suspect numerous people are committed to this practice, which is wonderful. 

But as we discard the things that don’t bring us joy and that we haven’t used in a while, are we also reducing the number of things that we purchase and don’t need in the first place? Are we simultaneously putting time, energy and resources toward assisting neighbors or giving to churches and non-profits who seek to do ministry for those on the margins and share love, hope, and peace in our community? 

Living as disciples requires that we constantly work toward claiming our identity as God’s beloved over society and culture’s demand that we be defined by our wealth and possessions. We have to release ourselves from those notions and expectations that solely obtaining money and possessions leads to happiness, and alternatively embrace the reality that sharing what we have with others is what brings true bliss.

The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, artist and member of A Sanctified Art, focuses on this idea of release in the “Our Money Story” Stewardship resources that various churches, like Emory Presbyterian, are using this Fall. In an entry regarding her painting of the rich young ruler entitled “Finding Release,” Pittman reflects:[3]

As I write this in the midst of a global pandemic, we are collectively grieving countless losses and desperately seeking answers to quell our fears of what’s to come. The economy is nosediving and many face grave illness or even death. Some can’t see past the fog of new living restrictions and are calling to reopen the economy because they believe it will save us. Others are choosing to stay home, risking economic fallout, to protect the lives of the vulnerable.

When afraid, we turn inward. I see fear and loneliness in the rich man. He’s focused on an individual path, leading to his personal salvation, while missing the full picture. The man’s wealth may cause him comfort, but it does not exist in a vacuum. His wealth affects the lives of others—particularly those at the margins of society.

Jesus offers the rich man spiritual grounding that completely threatens his financial stability, but it’s good news just the same. Jesus reveals to the rich man the truth that we are all connected. Jesus chooses to name commandments concerning interpersonal relationships and community. Jesus offers the rich man freedom from his entanglement with wealth, and gifts him belonging and a way forward. The rich man feels the weight of this truth. To “enter this life” he must recognize his responsibility for his neighbor, because our lives are interwoven.

Instead of grasping to Jesus’ lifeline, the rich man turns away because he cannot fathom losing everything. His grief feels palpable in this time of upheaval. I meditated on his grief, layering dusty purples, muted greens, and chalky blacks. I imagine the rich man isn’t turning away from Jesus altogether. Perhaps he’s taking space to feel his grief, processing all he will lose so he can truly find release.

Jesus invites us to enter into a life of generosity and gratitude, recognizing how we are designed to care for and love our neighbors to whom we are connected. Jesus reminds us that we are not identified by how we consume but by how we too release.

            Amen.


[1] Festival of Homiletics 2009, Atlanta, Georgia. Lecture by Brian McLaren—”Preaching and the New World Reality: The Seismic Economic and Social Shift Happening Now” 

[2] Interpretation Series: The Gospel of Matthew by Douglas R.A. Hare, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009

[3] Artist’s Statement on “Finding Release” based on Matthew 19:16-22. “Our Money Story” Stewardship Curriculum by A Sanctified Art, LLC. sanctifiedart.org

Our Money Story, Part 1: Remember

A Sermon for October 18, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Children’s Sabbath in the PC(USA) and First Sunday of Stewardship at EPC. Exodus 16:1-18

Please join with me in prayer as I share words written by the Rev. Sarah Are of A Sanctified Art LLC, a worship & arts consortium who has created the Our Money Story themed materials that we are using for this year’s Stewardship Season at Emory Presbyterian Church:

Holy God, 

There is something about scripture that stirs us awake. 

For when we hear of a deep love that made room for everyone at the table, We remember that we are hungry. 

And when we hear of manna raining down in the desert, 

We remember that we are lost. 

There is something about scripture that stirs us awake, 

And it feels like hunger and it looks like hope. 

So stir us awake, oh God. 

Remind us that this story starts with love and ends with love. 

We are hungry, which is to say, we are listening. 

Amen.

It’s Fall. The temperatures are cooler. The leaves are turning orange and brown. The smell of pumpkin baked goodies are wafting from the oven and filling the entire house. Football is in full swing (more or less). Halloween is a couple of weeks away and soon we’ll be turning our clocks back for Daylight Savings Time. 

And for many churches in the PC(USA) it’s Stewardship Season—a time when we make our annual promise or covenant to be good stewards of the resources we’ve been given to use for the work of God’s kindom—ministry that affirms and recognizes what God is doing through God’s people to help the Church and the community grow in faith through worship, education, mission, pastoral care and fellowship; ministry that offers love, liberation, nourishment, healing and support to those who are hurting and in need. Ministry grounded and nurtured in the practice of gratitude for God’s gifts; and selfless, loving acts of giving to others in need.

That ministry we do shapes our relationship with God and the world; it shapes our story as God’s people, as followers of Christ. Woven into that large story is Our Money Story—a theme we will explore together over the next four Sundays of Stewardship. A Sanctified Art says the impetus for the theme is this:

We all have a money story, whether we recognize it or not. Perhaps we are living from a story of fear or shame. Or a story that the church is dying and no longer relevant. Or a story that our actions won’t have an impact. Or a story that we don’t have enough. Where might God be speaking a new narrative into the limited ones we have told ourselves? 

This theme invites us to discover and tell our money stories in light of God’s money story of liberation and justice. This series encourages us to transform our stewardship practices into more full expressions of who we are and what we believe. 

This theme is intentionally direct—it invites us to name exactly what we’re talking about and not skirt around it. To speak of money is to invite tension into the room. We so quickly want to avoid it. But it’s time we reframe this. Money and possessions are one of the most common topics in scripture, and Jesus talked about money more than faith and prayer. Our money story, therefore, is a spiritual story. Thinking about God’s money story should be liberating, inviting, and transformative. This stewardship season, we invite you to remember,release, reimagineand restore your money stories so that we can write the one God is begging us to live into.

So, this week, we begin with Remember. The Our Money Story Stewardship Study Journal asks participants to recall their first memory of money as a child and their first memory of money in the Church. Here are the stories I remember…

Growing up, I remember playing the board game Monopoly with my father when I was in upper elementary school. I got the coveted role of “banker” —the one who presides over the money that is doled out or taken away as players move shiny game pieces around the board in an effort to buy, trade and develop properties. I thought it would be a fun and exciting role to assume at first, until I realized how over-competitive and obnoxious my dad was when it came to board games. He was quite boisterous about the process of conquering his opponent, much to the dismay and hurt of a 9-year-old.

Worse, he would become easily irritated if I as the Monopoly banker didn’t give the right amount of paper dollars for property purchases, taxes and rent. He attempted to teach and reinforce the math skills I had been learning in school, but it didn’t make sense to me. I got jittery when he would ask me to do large subtractions and percentages…without a calculator or pencil and paper. And his criticism of my inability to understand and do the math correctly caused more distressed, to the point that I quit playing the game with him. From then on, whenever I played Monopoly with family and friends, I declined to be the banker. The role was filled with too much pressure and pain. Furthermore, the experience became the source of the anxiety and fear I’ve had about math and money and check books and bank statements and budgets for decades.

At Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where I was raised in the faith, I remember as a 4th grader, the small ceramic globe-shaped money banks that adorned the tables during Wednesday evening fellowship suppers. I loved the sound the coins made when dropped into the tiny slit at the top of the globe—plink, clink, plink. The best part, however, was when an adult gave you loose change to put in by yourself. It filled me with joy knowing the pennies and nickels and dimes that went into those globes would be used to feed hungry people in another part of the world who didn’t have enough food to eat or means with which to purchase food.

Around that same time, I recall learning, from Shades Valley’s Director of Christian Education, about Heifer International—an organization that provides animals and agriculture training so farmers in impoverished countries can be self-sustainable for their families and communities. It was always a treat to choose animals from the Heifer Christmas Catalog to send as a gift to a farmer and their family: goats for people in India, llamas for folks in Peru, and cows for neighbors in Kenya. 

Experiences with how money was viewed at Shades Valley—the lessons I learned early on about generosity and the impact of giving and sharing resources with others—instilled in me an understanding of how God’s economy works. Every Presbyterian church I’ve attended and served since then has deepened and enriched my view of God’s money story of liberation and justice through various acts of service, from working in soup kitchens and food co-ops to assisting with home-building projects in Honduras.

Today’s reading from Exodus is evidence of God’s money story. The Israelites were part of Egypt’s slave economy, brick makers for an Empire who were treated less than human. God, with Moses as spokesperson, liberates the people from this oppression and sends them into the wilderness. The Israelites complain about their new situation, convincing themselves into believing that though they were brutalized by their Egyptian task masters, they could at least hang out by the food pots and get their fill of bread. But despite their whining, God gave them manna and quail, enough for each person for several days. And the Israelites didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to deserve this gift. They didn’t have to work for it nor did they have to be on their best behavior which clearly, they weren’t. 

Erin Weber-Johnson, a consultant and co-collaborator on the Our Money Story curriculum, keenly observes:

The theme of God supplying enough found here in this text is a recurring theme throughout the bible. … Here we see a people enslaved for generations moving from an economy of fear and deprivation to one of provision in the wilderness. Strikingly, God provides a concept for what “enough” looks like and guides the faith community into claiming a day of Sabbath, a practice that simultaneously provides rest and guards against hoarding.

I remember 15 years ago, while studying at Columbia Theological Seminary, when a group of classmates and I volunteered at Central Presbyterian’s Night Shelter downtown, where we served a meal, helped guests get settled in and also stayed overnight in case there was an emergency. Following dinner, I was tasked with overseeing the shower procedure, which meant I stood near the door of the shower area and handed out towels and hotel bars of soap as several men came through to wash off in one of the shower stalls. After they finished bathing and got dressed, they would grab some free dollar-store shaving razors and travel-size shaving cream and deodorant on their way out. One middle-aged guy with thick stubble and thinning black hair, who owned nothing but the clothes he was wearing (a T-shirt, jeans and socks and sneakers) turned to me and said, “You always leave with more than what you came in with.”

For someone, who lived a life of scarcity and fear and deprivation on the streets of Atlanta to suddenly be given a towel, soap, a shower and some toiletries, it was enough.

God always provides enough. We must simply remember our money stories of scarcity and bountifulness and the moments when God surprised us with manna in the wilderness. We must remember again and again to share the ample amounts of what God has given without anxiety, fear, criticism, judgment and complaining, but instead with an abundance of love and grace. 

For with God, it will be enough. Amen.

Keep on Doing

A Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Philippians 4:4-9.

Raise your hand if you’re tired. 

Now, nod if you’re feeling tired of being tired.

Adjusting to life in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 213 thousand people; heightened calls for racial justice; weather disasters that have destroyed communities, a contentious presidential election and growing distrust in our nation’s leaders is wearisome.

We’re all weary and some more than others. If you’re a health professional or scientist or a schoolteacher or a student or a firefighter or in law enforcement or someone with a job in the financial sector or you’re caring for someone who is ill or facing health challenges, or if you’re elderly and not able to go out much or you’ve lost a home, a job or a loved one, you are likely exhausted.

If you’re one of the half-a-million of our most vulnerable citizens living on the streets or you’re marginalized because of your gender, sexual orientation, race, culture or religion you are probably feeling worn down and just plain fed up.

Our nation and world is filled with fatigue and pain, which is not exactly new given the course of history. However, right now it feels especially overwhelming and too much to bear. 

Every day seems to come with the possibility that if there is one more piece of bad news, one more disaster, one more occasion when we can’t gather and hold one another, one more Zoom meeting, one more video to watch, one more technological mishap, one more cancelled in-person event, we might explode. 

Or we might shrink further into our shells—burrow deep beneath the bed covers and the recesses of our minds to be forever consumed by anxiety, doubt, fear and terror.

God knows, I’ve felt like receding more than once since March. I’ve tried to convince myself on several occasions that it’s all such a mess I might as well stay in the murky confines of my room with the blanket over my head, the door shut and the windows closed. 

While that initially sounds safe and cozy, it turns out that it’s nothing more than a tomb—a self-made place for death instead of life. And it’s something I and others have mentally created when it’s impractical to physically retreat into the shadows of our home. Many of us, and more so even now, feel like we’re walking through the gloom, expecting at any minute that the vile Dementors from Harry Potter will suck our souls clean.

Valarie Kaur, renown Sikh activist, filmmaker and civil rights lawyer, suggests that we consider a different view. In speaking engagements over the last four years and in her recent book, Kaur says: [1]

The future is dark. Bu what if—what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, ‘You are brave?’ What if this is our nations’ greatest transition? …

What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push, we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die.

Kaur says further in her memoir, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, that the only way we will endure the brokenness of the world is if each of us shows up to the labor. Revolutionary love, she emphasizes, is how “we stay in the fire.” Kaur writes:[2]

‘Love’ is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. ‘Revolutionary love’ is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us.

Revolutionary love is what the apostle Paul urges followers of Jesus to hold onto in the midst of occupation and persecution from the Roman Empire. In Chapter 4:4-9 of his letter to the Philippians, today’s scripture reading, Paul declares:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

To give some context, the church in Philippi to whom Paul is writing was the first Jesus community that Paul founded in eastern Europe. A Roman colony in ancient Macedonia, Philippi was full of retired soldiers and known for its patriotic nationalism. 

Paul encountered resistance from the Romans when he proclaimed Jesus as king and ruler of the world because it was in direct opposition to the authority of the Roman Emperor.  After Paul left Philippi to do ministry elsewhere, those who chose to follow Jesus continued to suffer resistance and persecution. Yet they also remained a vibrant community who remained faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

Paul is writing the letter from jail, imprisoned in another part of the globe for affirming that God in Christ was greater than Caesar. The letter consists of a series of short essays or vignettes, which all center around the “poem” in Chapter 2 which retells the story of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the essays, Paul draws upon key words and ideas from that poem to show how “living as a Christian means seeing your own story as a lived expression of Jesus’ story.”[3]

In Chapter 4, Paul challenges the community to continue living out the story of Jesus. Paul encourages the Philippians to not give into their worry and fear, to not be consumed by terror. Instead, he advises that they express all of their concerns, vent all of their worries and fears, to God, who will give the gift of peace. A peace that centers our minds, hearts, and bodies on “whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable.”

Put another way by a video resource on Philippians: “There’s always something you can complain about, but a follower of Jesus knows that all of life is a gift and can choose to see beauty and grace in life’s circumstances.”[4]

There is a lot of truth to that statement. We can complain endlessly about wearing masks and practicing social distancing and not being able to see the latest block buster at the movie theater or attend a rock concert, etc. Or we can do what we have to do to lessen the spread of the virus and lovingly protect our neighbors while simultaneously looking for instances of beauty and grace. 

I realize, though, they are not easy to find when we’re surrounded by so much hurt and animosity. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we go through these days with rose-colored glasses, acting as if everything is hunky-dory and we just need to channel the powers of positive thinking to make it all disappear.

The pain and misery isn’t going away anytime soon. The virus is not going to suddenly vanish. A miraculous vaccine is not going to come into the market and be distributed to millions of Americans within a couple of months. Racism is not going to be completely eradicated. Weather disasters are not going to cease. Our nation will not suddenly be healed of raunch divisiveness after the election. There is a lot of work to do.

Labor is messy. Love is messy. Being vulnerable is messy. Acknowledging that difficulties exist is messy. Perseverance is messy. Creating something wondrous and good is messy. Following Jesus and embodying God’s peace is messy. It’s draining and it will require us to make time for Sabbath and to keep returning to God’s well to be filled up again and again. It’s depleting to keep on keeping on, and it’s wonderous and holy too. 

Even in the midst of the messiness and difficulty, there are breath-taking moments to embrace as we keep living and doing the work God calls us to do as human beings and people of faith. I’ve been reminded of this often during our protests for racial justice on the church’s front lawn that have been occurring twice a week since June. 

I find myself getting distracted by all the negativity in the news and I wonder sometimes if we’re making much of a difference by holding up signs for two hours as cars whizz by on North Decatur Road and folks in the neighborhood stroll along on the sidewalk. And then a white red-haired child holds a sign out of the window of their backseat that reads: “Black lives matter too!” or African American women who walk up to us and share how moved they are to see white people and churches taking a stand. Or an African American bus driver gets out of his seat and says to a church member, “You’re changing the world…one person at a time.”

Last Monday, it was all I could do to not say something rude to a white couple who, while sitting at the traffic light, incessantly said negative things to our group regarding our signs. I nearly let my anxiety and frustration about the couple prevent me from missing the second driver—a white woman, who pulled up in front of me, rolled down her window and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing.” 

Beauty, grace, goodness, kindness and mercy are all around. And, as you are quite aware, it’s not solely in efforts to dismantle racism. Beauty and grace is visible in a variety of places:

–Engaging in 10 minutes of uninterrupted play and laughter with a child in between their virtual classroom assignments.

–Tending the garden in your backyard, taking walks in the neighborhood and listening to music on your couch.

–Preparing and sharing a meal with your family, talking to a friend on the phone and participating in church fellowship gatherings that are safe and also good for the soul. 

–Providing food and resources to people in need, driving someone to chemo treatments, sending a card to someone who is lonely, advocating for other’s rights, and ringing bells on a Sunday afternoon to remember the people who’ve died of the coronavirus.

Whatever it is you are doing in the midst of all the chaos to show goodness, kindness, mercy and revolutionary love, keep on doing it.

Keep on doing what you are doing. 

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, says Paul, “and the God of peace will be with you.”

Amen.


[1] See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, One World/Random House. 2020. Breathe-Push Speech by Valerie Kaur: https://valariekaur.com/2017/01/watch-night-speech-breathe-push/

[2] See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, One World/Random House. 2020.

[3] https://bibleproject.com/videos/philippians/

[4] https://bibleproject.com/videos/philippians/

Caring For God’s Creatures

 

Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Genesis 1:26-31

A few weeks ago, I introduced our six-year-old Davis to a children’s book adaptation of the cleverly rhymed Bob Dylan song, “Man Gave Name to All the Animals” from the legendary musician’s 1979 album, Slow Train Coming. Like his Bob Dylan fan of a dad, Davis loved it instantly:

 Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning.
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, long time ago.

He saw an animal that liked to growl,
Big furry paws and he liked to howl,
Great big furry back and furry hair.
“Ah, think I’ll call it a bear.”

Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning.
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, long time ago.

The song is quite the earworm, particularly if you listen to it on repeat like Davis did, for several nights as he fell asleep.

Davis and his older sister have a tremendous love for animals. They adore the family pets, Nigel the cat and Wally the dog, and are always thrilled to go on an adventure to the Atlanta zoo or Georgia aquarium. Their faces light up with excitement whenever they see birds or deer or other critters roaming around. They are also mesmerized by animal books and documentaries, and probably retain more facts about animals just as much if not more than anything else they are taught at home and school.

Through their learnings and experiences with animals, they’ve come to understand quickly the value of caring for them. Davis is quite adamant that he will grow up to be someone who rescues endangered animals and helps creatures who are sick or hurt. Due to recent storms that have flattened the 7-foot-tall butterfly plants in our backyard, he has become concerned that the butterflies won’t have a home, though we have reassured him that they’ll find other places to go before we can grow some bushes for winged friends. When I asked Davis on Friday evening about why we should tend to animals, he said simply: “All animals help the environment and it makes me happy.”

Davis’ affection for animals and desire to be in relationship with them is a living out of God’s plan for creation in Genesis 1:26-31:

“’Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

Now, the word “dominion” carries a lot of baggage for today’s hearers. It sounds as if God means for us to rule over animals and creation with a tight fist or do whatever we want as long as our pockets are padded and our bellies are full. And certainly, there are many who fervently live by that interpretation in how they view and deal with creation.  But in the context of a story that is about God’s call of humanity to be good stewards, what the Divine is actually saying is, “Let them have custody of” or “Let them have responsibility for.” One biblical commentary notes that the first 25 verses of Genesis lay out what kingship and rule looks like: “the gracious creation of a beautiful home, and a household of creatures meant to live and thrive and multiply.”[1]

God creates so that all of creation can be in relationship with one another and flourish as God’s creatures. Relationship that is grounded in respect, reverence, compassion, mercy and love. Now, granted, this doesn’t mean that we can keep a lion in our living room, an orangutan in the kitchen, a seal in the bathtub and an elephant in the backyard. Nor can we have the same relationship with most wild animals as we can our domesticated friends like dogs, cats, birds, horses and rabbits. But we can be in relationship in so far as we recognize the value of creatures of all kinds—from the beetle to the humpback whale—and express our gratitude for their existence and their impact on this planet we share. We can recognize their holiness.

During this pandemic, many of us have been given the opportunity to pay attention more to what’s around us. An article published recently in National Geographic revealed that citizen science websites have seen significant upticks in data because more people have been going outside and documenting what they see in their neighborhoods and surrounding area—birds, insects, spiders, sea turtles, flowers, and the luminance of the night sky. iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society, expects to hit a record 50 million observations by October.  All of these volunteer contributions are vital for scientists who have been forced to cancel or postpone their fieldwork because of Covid-19.

One professional researcher, Caren Cooper, an associate professor of public science at NC State, said, “More people are seeing the citizen science approaches and collective effort toward discovery as our best hope toward figuring out how we live together on this planet.”[2]

We have a lot to figure out about living together, don’t we? The fires and floods are literally surrounding us. And that’s on top of a global pandemic, heightened calls for racial injustice, a precarious presidential election, the deaths of historical and iconic figures in American life and the personal day-to-day battles.

My hope and prayer is that in the midst of all that is swirling around, we can find moments to become centered in God and focus on our responsibility as human beings to be stewards of the good creation God has entrusted us—animals and people alike. That is how we survive and live and thrive.

The late author and activist, Rachel Held Evans, wrote: “There are so many new things to see, so many gifts to give and receive, so many miracles to baffle and amaze, if only we pay attention, if only we let the Spirit surprise and God catch our breath.”[3]

May it be so.

Amen.

[1] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/4/20/earth-day-climate-action-and-the-bible?rq=Genesis%201

 

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/09/citizen-science-increasing-pandemic-insects/

[3] Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Books, 2015

God of the Differently Abled, Part 2

 

Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. I Corinthians 11:23-25; 12:12-13, 27 

Today is the second sermon of a two-part series, The God of the Differently Abled that focuses on the theme of disability inclusion and faith.

Before I begin, I wanted to give a special thanks to our guest liturgist Martha Haythorn, the daughter of two Presbyterian pastors in Atlanta. Martha, who was born with Down Syndrome, is a special education teacher, an advocate for people with disabilities and a stage actor with Jerry’s Habima Theater. Martha has been featured in numerous news stories and broadcasts over the past couple of years, highlighting the incredible work she does in the community.

Also, next Sunday, September 13, we will observe Disability Inclusion Sunday in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which worship will be led by our friends from L’Arche Atlanta, a non-profit, house-based community that celebrates the gifts of people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Now, please join me in a word of prayer…Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and redeemer and sustainer. Amen.

This summer marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. The law has had a profound impact for anyone who is deaf, blind, intellectually disabled, mobility impaired, diabetic, diagnosed with cancer or mental health behaviors, among other disabilities. A more equitable, tolerant and accommodating world has been designed as a result.

However, difficulties remain for the 60 million Americans who live with impairments. Disparities in employment and earned income, and limited access to technology, transportation, housing, education and healthcare persists across the nation. Also, people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience poverty as those without a disability. [1]

Further complicating matters for people with impairments is the covid-19 pandemic:

Direct support professionals don’t have access to PPE because they’re not designated as essential workers; and many with disabilities have temporarily lost in-person care and therapeutical support in their living environments.

Numerous family caregivers are not provided with paid leave and sick days to help a loved one at home with a disability.

Mitigation efforts like social distancing is challenging for several of those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities because they rely on physical closeness to their professional and family caregivers. [2]

If that wasn’t concerning enough, people with disabilities continue to be the targets of hate and abuse. One horrendous example is the “New Teacher Challenge” presented by a popular social media network a few days before the new school year. The intent was for parents to prank their children by pretending to FaceTime their child’s “new teacher” with a mugshot or an image of someone making a silly face. But more often than not, the photos were of people with genetic conditions and bone disorders.[3]

People with visible physical disabilities being used as a source of entertainment by parents who wanted to scare their kids; it’s vile and it breaks God’s heart to see people treat others so cruelly.

And, of course, the negative views and behaviors that adults show toward people with disabilities gets passed down to younger generations. Exploratory studies on bullying shows that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than students without disabilities.[4] Additionally, a general stigma and lack of understanding of people with disabilities that still occurs in society often has deadly repercussions. One report in 2016 indicated that 20-40 percent of police shooting victims are disabled.[5]

I share these issues, not to point a shaming finger or induce guilt, but to help create awareness about what people with disabilities confront on a regular basis and how they are not always seen as ones who’ve been made in the image of God.

I share also as a reminder that the God of the differently abled considers each one of us to be unique and beloved creations who are dependent on one another to survive and thrive in this world. I share because we have a lot of work to do to ensure equality and equity for all of God’s people. The work requires the continuous practice of compassion.

Like I preached last Sunday, the priest Henri Nouwen, who spent a decade of his ministry with intellectual and developmentally disabled persons through the organization L’Arche, wrote:

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

For followers of Christ, the source of compassion comes from Jesus himself, God incarnate. And that compassion meets us again and again at table in the celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion. Partaking in the meal of bread and cup in remembrance of Christ’s body, broken and redeemed for all, fuels us with compassion for another human being—enables us to embody God’s mercy for someone else, regardless of the abilities they’ve been given.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the early Christian community in Corinth, says that we have been entrusted by God to be the compassionate body of Christ. A body made up of many parts that all function together so the body can live and breathe and move and serve and love.

The body is not made up of just one part, but many. Not all of us are the ear or the arm or the leg or the hand or the heart or the brain or the eyes or the arteries or the veins or the lungs, but we are many different parts. The God of the differently abled empowers each of us with a role to play in forming the body.

And what we do affects all the other parts. Paul says, in between the verses that our guest liturgist Martha read, that, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” If someone is experiencing pain or joy, that should affect us. We can’t be the whole or holy people of God if we don’t express empathy and care to the person who is hurt and delight and encouragement to the person who is happy.

In a 1992 interview, Henri Nouwen was asked about what he learned during his time with L’Arche. His answer evokes Paul’s message and theology in I Corinthians 12. He said:[6]

L’Arche is not a service institution or a group home. It is a community that exists to reveal God’s love. Our people are given to the world to tell others about peace and forgiveness and celebration, to make them aware that in the midst of their brokenness, there is joy; in the midst of their wounded nature, there is healing.

Nouwen’s statement can be applied to a lot of religious institutions, worshipping communities and non-profits. Simply remove “L’Arche” and insert a different name. As disciples of Jesus, we are tasked with being communities whose purpose is to reveal God’s love, to tell others about peace and forgiveness and celebration. Some are called to be advocates while others, teachers. Some are called to be helpers and caregivers and others, friends. Some are called to be dreamers, and others, doers.

All of us are called through our various abilities to be the kindom and beloved community that the God of the differently abled so desires—to be the body of Christ that embraces a world with joy, healing and grace….

[Video of The King’s Singers and The Soundabout Inclusive Choir singing, “Amazing Grace”, August 30, 2020.]

And all God’s people said:

Amen.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americans_with_Disabilities_Act_of_1990#cite_note-FR-7

 

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/30-years-after-adas-passage-what-it-means-to-these-americans-with-disabilities

 

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/pandemic-means-americans-with-disabilities-arent-getting-the-services-they-need

 

[2] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/americans-with-disabilities-need-more-support-during-pandemic-say-advocates

 

https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/28/health/covid-19-intellectual-development-disabilities-impact-wellness/index.html

 

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/16/875944357/people-with-disabilities-find-the-coronavirus-has-cut-them-off-from-their-caregi

 

https://ga.thearc.org/2020/08/14/congress-adjourns-for-recess-failing-to-address-needs-of-people-with-disabilities/?fbclid=IwAR2moHFJbIfZpC5uHYyduye5M0RgiBq9_Z7UA-ag1vAWFNHXFp5E25qLw3U

 

 

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/30/us/tiktok-new-teacher-challenge-bullying-trnd/index.html

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/08/9987054/new-teacher-challenge

 

[4] https://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/students-with-disabilities/

 

[5] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-disabled-lives-matter

 

https://www.vox.com/2016/10/4/13161396/disability-police-officer-shooting

 

[6] https://www.liguorian.org/interview-father-henri-nouwen/

 

God of the Differently Abled, Part 1

A Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Exodus 3:1-15 and 4:10-16. 

Today is the first of a two-part sermon series, The God of the Differently Abled that focuses on the theme of disability inclusion and faith. On September 13, we will observe Disability Inclusion Sunday in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which worship will be led by our friends from L’Arche Atlanta, a non-profit, house-based community that celebrates the gifts of people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Now, please join me in a word of prayer…Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and redeemer and sustainer. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago, Elizabeth and I began watching a new sitcom on Apple TV called Ted Lasso. Based on 2013 NBC Premiere League commercials, the show centers on Ted Lasso, an American college football coach who’s hired to coach a struggling team in England’s Premiere League, the fictional AFC Richmond. Ted is a goofy, kind-hearted, optimistic guy who knows absolutely nothing about soccer but is extremely passionate about sports and believes wholeheartedly in others, flaws and all. The show is funny, endearing and real—it makes you laugh out loud one minute and pulls at your heart strings the next. Ted Lasso may just be the type of joyful and poignant entertainment we need in these trying times.

One of the most adored characters in the series is Nathan, AFC Richmond’s equipment manager or “kit boy.” Nathan, a young Brit of Indian descent, is a gentle soul who is socially awkward and lacking in self but has tremendous knowledge about the sport. Because of his quirks, Nathan is bullied by some of the other players. The bullying stops after Coach Lasso convinces one of the veterans on the team, Roy, to be more of a leader in the locker-room and on the field. When two of the players are about to give Nathan a wedgie before practice, Roy tells them to stop, and they do immediately. Roy speaks up for Nathan whose voice is being ignored.

While watching this particular scene, I was reminded of my middle school boys-only P.E. class which included some special education students. One of them whose face pops in my head every so often was a kid named Dan. Dan was severely autistic and much of his body was contorted; his head hung to the left, one of his elbows turned inward and one of his legs turned outward. He frequently mumbled to himself and rarely was he able to get complete words and sentences out. Dan was shy and easily rattled, making him a target for bullying.

There was a certain sound, a silly word, “ba,” that if said close to Dan’s face would make him agitated enough that he would dart over to a set of metal bleachers and curl up beside them in an attempt to hide from the taunts. Dan would repeatedly say, “No, ba, no, ba, no, ba!” and try to cover his ears with his hands while clumsily running away, causing raucous laughter from the boys who jeered him incessantly and the rest of us witnessing this act of cruelty.

None of us ever did anything to stop Dan’s mistreatment. It was an appalling source of delight in a middle school world where everyone was trying to figure out the strangeness adolescence and where they fit in the social hierarchy.

While it is tempting to look back and say, “Well, there was a lot more stigma toward people with disabilities in the 80s; boys will be boys and we were just dumb pre-teens who didn’t know any better” the truth is: we did know better.

More importantly, I knew better.

I was a good kid who never got into trouble and made decent grades. My family and I were active at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church. We attended Wednesday night dinners and Sunday services every week, and I participated in our middle school youth group on Sunday evenings. A youth group that included Catherine, a girl with an intellectual disability whom we loved and adored—a wonderful individual who I defended whenever an older teen would snicker at her. I spoke up for Catherine when her voice was being ignored.

I knew better.

But when it came to Dan, I failed miserably at being a voice for him. I don’t know exactly why. I suppose it was due to being affected by herd mentality and also being afraid to confront the popular kids and end up being the new target. Ironically, I was teased sometimes in middle school. The ridicule didn’t happen as frequently and it wasn’t as incessant as what Dan endured, but I knew what it was like to be made to feel less than. Yet, I saw Dan’s plight more as relief that it wasn’t me being picked on. Plus, I thought it was funny too.

I knew better.

The teasing of Dan finally stopped after a few weeks when our P.E. teacher, the school’s football coach, sat us all down on the gym floor one morning and talked to us about autism and the struggles Dan copes with on daily basis. While my eyes were opened that day, this mistake from my childhood has bothered me for more than 30 years. I suppose that in hindsight, it’s one of the many reasons I have been compelled to do better and strive to be a voice for others who have been harmed because of their differences.

That’s our calling as humans, as God’s own cherished creations and as followers of Christ—to be a voice for those whose voices are being ignored and to help create space so the voices of the outcast can be heard. Furthermore, it’s a moral obligation and biblical imperative to recognize the divine spark in another person and acknowledge that God calls them—regardless of their abilities or lack thereof—to serve, liberate, love, imagine and create the beloved community into existence.

Although Moses had a speech impediment, which he feared would make him a terrible leader and liberator of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God didn’t cast him aside and look for someone who spoke fluidly. Instead, God invited Aaron to help his brother Moses speak out against Pharaoh’s oppressive ways.

God says to Moses during their conversation at the burning bush on Mount Horeb, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. …I AM WHO I AM.”

In the Hebrew language, it is “Ehyeh aser ehyeh” The word ehyeh is the first person singular imperfect form of the word hayah, which means “existed” or “was.” So “Ehyeh aser ehyeh” literally means, “I will be what I will be”

God—the I AM WHO I AM, the I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE—gives extraordinary gifts to all human beings, and God invites each and every one of us to use those gifts to make an impact through acts of compassion—both small and large. Not a single person has to be perfect and have it all together to accept the invitation to serve, nor are we expected to do the work by ourselves. Just as God chose Aaron to assist Moses, God chooses you and your voice to assist someone else in setting others free from oppression and marginalization.

The late Henri Nouwen, renown priest, spiritualist and author, who spent a decade working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the organization L’Arche, once wrote:

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

The God of the differently abled enables each of us with the ability to show compassion to those who are ridiculed because of how they look and move and talk and process thoughts and express emotions.

The God of the differently abled enables each of us to see value in the differences we have with others instead of viewing them as misfits or freaks to be mistreated for our own merriment.

The God of the differently abled enables each of us to treat the encounters we have with someone unlike us as if we were standing on holy ground and in the glowing presence of God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the Mouth

A Sermon for Sunday, August 16, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Matthew 15:10-28.

We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded by words in a variety of formats, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year: social media, live-streaming video, podcasts, texts, emails, radio, newspapers, Post-It notes, postal mail, flyers, magazines, books, e-readers, billboard advertisements, TV and film. That’s in addition to the numerous daily conversations we have with people via the phone, video conferencing and face to face, while standing six feet apart and wearing masks.

Words are essential. Without them, we’d be at a loss as to what do with our lives. No verbal and written communication. No way to fully express and embody ideas, dreams and aspirations in the world.

Words are a precious commodity that should always be appreciated and never misused. In the popular Harry Potter films, the wise Professor Albus Dumbledore says to Harry: “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” [1]A year ago, I purchased a piece of folk art with this quote to hang in my office because I treasure its meaning and need the visual reminder.

Despite the wonderfully countless ways in which we can use words to articulate our thoughts and feelings (or to connect with one another), we often take our ability to use language for granted. The various mediums and opportunities for sharing words has ironically taken away, more often than not, our ability to filter out or discern what words should be shared and which words shouldn’t. These days, many of the words we read in print or hear from an audio speaker or see on a screen are empty, arrogant, condescending, angry and hateful. Words meant to discredit and dehumanize another person.

Nearly everyone—politicians, political pundits, celebrities, comedians, athletes, talk show hosts, religious leaders and the average person on social media—wants to inflict injury with their harmful and insulting words. The irony of the quote from Albus Dumbledore is that even the renowned J.K. Rowling, who penned the phenomenal Harry Potter book series and co-wrote the film transcripts, has recently been using her words, via the social media platform Twitter, to inflict injury or shame transgender people.

No one is safe from malicious rhetoric, however it’s those on the margins of society who endure hurtful words—slurs, curses, labels, stereotypes—the most often: women, people of color, LGBQTIA + persons, the differently abled, the homeless, etc. The Canaanite woman, a Gentile whose identity evokes an ancient enemy of Israel, is one of the marginalized who endures discrimination in the story. Except that the injury-inflicting words hurled at the woman don’t come from just anyone. They’re cast by Jesus! God-incarnate, the embodiment of Love, savior of humankind, calls a woman a dog, which is shocking and disturbing. My friend and colleague, the Rev. Denise Anderson, former co-moderator of the PC(USA)’s 222nd General Assembly, offers insight in a 2016 video commentary on this story:[2]

“It’s important to understand the nature of Jesus’ insult toward this woman. Jesus’ social identity is that of a First Century Jew who hails from Palestine. That’s how he and his disciples understood themselves. The setting of this story is in the region of Tyre, Gentile country. This is Gentile territory and they understood Gentiles to be dogs. Calling someone a dog is bad enough on its own. But consider for a moment that to Jews, dogs were unclean animals because they were scavengers. They aren’t these beloved household family pets. They are dirty. They are untouchable. They’re unwanted. This is a slur. With one word, Jesus likens this poor, vulnerable woman to something that is unclean, untouchable. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He’s “othering” her. Not at all unlike those who share his social identity. This is a classic example of explicit othering. If she were viewed as a fellow, as an equal, her pleas for help would’ve been met much, much differently.”

Scholars and preachers have expended many words to explain why Jesus initially ignores the woman’s pleas before insulting her, and it’s typically interpreted two different ways. One interpretation says that Jesus is trying to prove a point—giving his disciples and the religious leaders a real-live example of how the words that come “out of the mouth”—which proceed from evil intentions held in the heart—are what truly defiles the body (and soul); not dirty hands eating a plate of food. A commentary on the passage by The Salt Project suggests that Jesus deduces that the woman will help with the illustration by pushing back against the prejudice she already experiences on a regular basis; the woman will be living proof that she is included in God’s kingdom. The Salt Project writers observe:[3]

“It’s as if he says, ‘But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs?  Isn’t that what everyone says?  What do you say?’  And sure enough, the woman adroitly turns the metaphor on its head: even the dogs gather the table’s crumbs; the logic of abundance implies that God’s grace is for all people, right here and right now.  Jesus immediately concedes the point… thus establishing the woman as an exemplar of faith, a model theologian, an outsider who understands better than the insiders do.”

The alternative interpretation is that Jesus intentionally “othered” the woman and also learned from this egregious error. Jesus leaned too much into his humanity and degraded someone else, and yet he also changed his mind when confronted by her courage and persistence—an attitude God displays before Abraham and Moses in the Old Testament. The Salt Project again notes:[4]

Like every human being, Jesus learns and evolves.  And the Canaanite woman herself therefore stands in that ancient lineage of lamentation and struggle with God.  Like Abraham and Moses, she argues, and stands her ground, and prevails.  Like Jacob, she’s not afraid to wrestle with God and insist on a blessing.

Sermons on this passage commonly ask the hearers to choose one interpretation over the other, which is a perfectly reasonable request. But either way, Jesus’ words to the woman are still unsettling to hear. Though he may have meant it satirically to create a teaching moment for those around him, Jesus’ words are still cruel. And as we are all aware, acting cruel to show that cruelty is wrong, is not an ideal teaching method. Plus, the Canaanite woman had no way of determining whether Jesus was sarcastic or serious. Jesus’ pedagogy is certainly questionable, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. The gospel writer doesn’t explain Jesus’ motivations, leaving us to simply accept that we have no idea what Jesus was thinking when he called the woman a dog.

And as uncomfortable as it may be to feel and hear, it’s not about what Jesus is saying as much it it’s about this fearless and faithful woman who knows she is a beloved child of God and who is deserving of the scraps of the bread of life, if that is all to be thrown her way. Her bold faith leads to transformation and healing. Her words are not bitter or mean; they’re matter of fact and also, diplomatic: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The woman speaks gracious words of hope, of love, of peace, of comfort.

Interestingly enough, my friend Denise, who is the coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice in the PC(USA), makes and sells vibrant face masks, on the home-craft website Etsy, that are adorned with the phrases: SPEAK LIFE, SPEAK HEALING, SPEAK PEACE, SPEAK HOPE, SPEAK LOVE, SPEAK COMFORT[5]. I cherish my SPEAK COMFORT mask; it’s so well-worn that the strap is thread-bare on one side.

But mind you, I don’t always speak comfort. My words aren’t always comforting. My words aren’t always kind. I’ve abused the magic and sacredness God puts on our lips and fingertips many, many times. I’ve inflicted injury on others with my words, including dear friends and loved ones, and made them feel less than. And I’ll more than likely do it again. I am, after-all, a human work in progress. But by the mercy of a God who speaks love into existence, I am given another chance each and every day to speak with compassion and valor like the Canaanite woman—like the person whom God created me to be.

May we all continue to use words in our church, home, workplaces, community and world that lift up others and that recognize the spark of God in another. For doing so is useful for the building of God’s kingdom and is grace to one’s ears.

Amen.


[1] Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Warner Brothers Pictures, 2011.  Art by Folk Art For Loners on Etsy.com.

[2] Theoacademy Presents “We Walk Together” Episode 3—Love An Other written and hosted by Rev. Denise Anderson and produced and directed by Rev. Landon Whitsitt, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=290&v=OZQJ4hbE0xI&feature=emb_title

[3] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/11/faith-is-a-kind-of-courage-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eleventh-week-after-pentecost

[4] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/11/faith-is-a-kind-of-courage-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eleventh-week-after-pentecost

[5] Masks by Rev. Denise Anderson can be found on Esty at SankofaScraps

Seeing Injustice

A Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Genesis 37:1-29, 36

One of my favorite items of clothing as a teenager was a knit shirt made by Structure, a popular 1990s men’s apparel company. The brand was super popular because of its unique designs. Instead of shirts with a solid color, stripes or plaid, Structure shirts had large colorful panels on them. I bought my short-sleeve hot pink, lavender blue, forest green, and canary yellow paneled Structure shirt to wear for my first day of 10th grade because I knew I had to look cool and make a good impression.

I did get some nice compliments from teachers and classmates about my style and was feeling on top of the world that day. Until I arrived at my last class that afternoon, Government with Mrs. Mellnee Edwards. Mrs. Edwards was an exuberant, candid and humorous teacher who delighted in playfully joking with students. She would create nicknames and phrases to help her remember each person in class. Upon taking roll, Mrs. Edwards looked at me and loudly said, “Ohhhhh, look at you. Your shirt is like Joseph’s coat of many colors! Whooo-weee. Joseph’s coat of many colors! Ha-ha!” My face turned brighter than the hot pink panel on my shirt. My classmates snickered. I wanted to crawl under my desk. I was embarrassed.

In spite of this, I didn’t stop wearing the shirt to school, and every time she saw it, whether in the classroom, hallway or cafeteria, she would shout: “Joseph’s coat of many colors!” I even doubled down and got a long-sleeve version with hot pink, royal blue, emerald green and goldenrod yellow panels, to wear during the winter! Mrs. Edwards would make the same comment about that shirt too: “That’s beautiful! Joseph’s coat of many colors!” Though still a bit embarrassing, I had grown accustomed to her boisterous accolade and realized it was a term of endearment.

Much of the embarrassment I felt when Mrs. Edwards initially adorned me with the label was fear and anxiety over being teased by my peers, particularly the few bullies at school. I knew the Joseph story well, and I didn’t want to get thrown into the proverbial pit.

I really had nothing to worry about because I didn’t do what Joseph did to receive my garment. I didn’t snitch to a teacher about my classmates’ bad behavior so to garner favoritism. And in Mrs. Edward’s case, every student in her class was given a ridiculous nickname; we were all mortified and secretly proud of the attention.

Joseph seemingly accepts the gift of a wonderous and luxurious robe from his father Jacob with a great deal of excitement and pride. He doesn’t appear to feel an ounce of guilt or shame as he should for delivering a scathing report on how his older brothers were derelict in their shepherding duties. Joseph is being rewarded for being a beloved son and tattletale, which gains him more favor in his dad’s eyes. And truthfully, it’s not completely his fault. Joseph is 17 years old and doesn’t know any better. And how could he when Jacob is playing that only family game of favorites?

One would think that Jacob had learned a lesson from his own childhood when his parents Isaac and Rebekah pitted him and his brother Esau against each other. It was quite a messy ordeal that led to jealousy, anger and estrangement; and since Jacob and Esau reconcile, readers might expect the rest of Jacob’s family to live peaceably.

However, verse 2 of Chapter 37 indicates it won’t be so as it beckons us to sit up and pay attention: “This is the story of the family of Jacob.”

As in, this is the family of Jacob, the guy who tricked his brother out of the family blessing as their father lay dying.

As in, you thought the family disfunction was bad during Jacob’s childhood, look at what happens among Jacob and his sons.

Presumably, Jacob has, for much of his adult life, avoided the follies of favoritism with his sons. Clearly, they are a tight group of guys, who all feel love and respect for each other and from their father. Then, Joseph comes along and suddenly, Jacob, in his old age, is waxing nostalgic about the comfort of being favored. Not remotely trying to hide his preference for the youngest, Jacob flaunts his love for Joseph in front of the brothers, causing deeply hurt feelings.

Emotions that are mistakenly directed at Joseph instead of Jacob who is truly at fault. To makes matters worse, Joseph, who is probably naïve and self-absorbed, obnoxiously tells the family that he’s been having special dreams where he is ruling over them.

Sure, it’s offensive and annoying. But wouldn’t it have been more fruitful for Jacob and the brothers to have had a firm and honest conversation with Joseph as opposed to the father rebuking him and the brothers becoming more jealous and angrier at him for sharing those dreams? Maybe it was as likely to happen as a sit-down chat between Jacob and Esau when Jacob wronged his brother.

Some things never change in families, I suppose, and generation after generation keeps making the same blunders. For me, that’s what makes the outcome of this story so devastating. If the family had stopped long enough to talk, perhaps Joseph wouldn’t have been brutally attacked, thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his siblings.

Now, many interpreters of this text—because they have the benefit of knowing Joseph’s destiny and that his visions will become true—claim that the violence committed against Joseph had to happen so that he can become the second most powerful man in Egypt and responsible for saving the people of Israel from perishing during years of famine. But who’s to say that Joseph still wouldn’t have ended up in that position by another set of circumstances that didn’t involve his brothers trying to get rid of him?

Certainly, the trajectory of Joseph’s life from enslavement to his high position in pharaoh’s court is a testament to how God can lift up the suffering from lowly places and lead them through many trials so their gifts are used for the greater good of humanity. And Chapter 45 demonstrates the beauty of God’s mercy as Joseph forgives his brothers years later for their treachery.

It’s also natural and common to see ourselves as Joseph. Several of us have experienced mistreatment and “been thrown into a pit,” or have been trapped in suffering. Knowing God’s present strength and love during horrendous times is valuable. I recognize that it is especially important to hear as we all try to carry on during this global pandemic.

But just for a moment, I want to encourage you to focus on Joseph’s ten brothers and their actions. Because if we just point to God’s sovereignty and Joseph’s destiny, we let Joseph’s brothers and even ourselves off the hook for the harm we do or allow to happen to someone else.

I want to urge you to contemplate how we as human beings are, more than we care to admit, are like the brothers and less like Joseph in this story.

I understand that it’s not a thought that we want to entertain. Who wants to consider that we are the bad guys? Most of us would never plot with our siblings to kill the youngest of whom we despised … nor would we do so with a family member or friend or stranger. And yet, more than enough of us, myself included, give into that mob mentality that certain people whom we hate warrant punishment and should get their just desserts.

How many times do we duck our heads or turn away when an individual or group of people are suffering from violence and oppression? How many times do we refrain from speaking when injustice and abuse occurs? How many times do we justify our inaction by convincing ourselves that our lives are worthier and better than the one who is being harmed? How many times does our anger and jealousy lead to another person’s suffering? How many times do we walk away and fail to stand up for what is right?

When I read this story, I see myself in the brother, Reuben.

When the brothers see Joseph from a distance and the murmurs of murder begin to spread, Reuben is the only one who tells them it’s wrong. And immediately, Reuben offers an alternative plan: “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness but lay no hand on him.” Reuben’s desire is to buy some time for his brothers to cool down until he can return Joseph safely home.

Seems fair, except that for whatever reason, Reuben then leaves, and the brothers do lay hands on Joseph, ripping apart his robe and ruffing him up before tossing him into the pit. A few minutes later, they sell their brother into slavery. Reuben returns to find the pit empty and tears his clothes because he is wracked with grief and guilt for not protecting Joseph.

So many times, in my life, I’ve not said enough about injustice and I’ve walked away from other people’s suffering only to come back later to discover that whatever small efforts I made previously to prevent pain were insignificant and for naught. I could’ve been stronger, could’ve been louder and could’ve risked more to do what is right and to protect the vulnerable.

Roger Nam, acting professor of Hebrew Bible at Candler School of Theology, suggests that this text for today might compel Christians to examine how they’ve been complicit in matters of injustice presently and throughout history. He writes:[1]

“Yes, we know that God is sovereign. But this passage ends with Joseph sold and being sent to a lifetime of servanthood. We cannot let the sovereignty of God rescue us from moral responsibility. The sovereignty of God does not invalidate the present pain of oppression. The passage ends with Joseph in suffering with no justice in sight. Many in our faith communities will relate.”

My hope and prayer for each and every one of us is that we recognize—in these unprecedented times, and all the rest of our days—the pain of the world and our role in it, and that we also recognize we are to pull others out of the pit, and even try to prevent them from ever being mistreated and knocked down to begin with. Because God’s presence, God’s sovereignty, demands nothing less from us.

Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4546