Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, Part 5: When Dreams Unravel

“New Roots” by Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art, LLC

A Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Jeremiah 29:1-11

The ancient Israelites have gotten themselves into quite a mess.

For more than 40 years, the prophet Jeremiah warned that God was furious with them for showing a lack of concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourners in the Kingdom of Judah. The Israelites had been told repeatedly for centuries that “concern for the marginalized was the determining reality for any nation that would claim to be great.” [1]

Because they continually failed to listen and obey God’s command, Jeremiah informed them that exile and destruction were in their future. And he was right.

The Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the temple in the capital city of Jerusalem and burns down the city.

Soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon, including Jeremiah.

Once they are in Babylon, the people begin to wonder how long they will have to stay with these horrible, pagan Babylonians. Some false prophets among them fill their heads with dreams and notions that God will soon rescue them and return them home, and therefore, they should resist Babylonian rule with all of their might.

But then Jeremiah sends a powerful and radical letter to the people that says otherwise. Within the letter, Jeremiah counsels the exiled to not listen to the prophets who are spouting lies and saying only what the people want to hear; he encourages them to listen instead to what God says.

And that message is not one the people expected to hear or ever dreamed of doing:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill my promise to you and bring you back to this place.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Instead of saying, “pack your bags, time to go home,” God tells them to make themselves comfortable and settle in for a couple of generations. Furthermore, God instructs them to care for their new city because the Babylonians are God’s people too. Biblical scholar and pastor, John Holbert explains:

Rather than hold their noses in horror at the pagans who would taint them, YHWH says they must pray for them, because all are in the world of YHWH together. This is nothing less than a call for the exiled to open their lives and hearts to the people among whom they now have been forced to live. Rather than close their lives to the Babylonians, Jeremiah asks them to open up their lives and to learn and grow in the new reality of Babylon.Jeremiah concludes this portion of his brief note by warning the exiles not to listen to other so-called prophets and diviners who speak a different word, words presumably that would urge them to keep to themselves, to insist on their own rightness and righteousness, to attack any who would dare to act and believe differently than they do.

Clearly, the dreams the Israelites had for quickly returning home and wiping their hands clean of the Babylonians have unraveled along with their identity. And yet, there is a vision of possibility in the harsh reality of exile. There is hope. Even though God ensures there are consequences for the Israelite’s wayward behavior, God also assures the people that their welfare and safety is a priority and as such, God will not abandon them

And while they are in exile, which is always disorienting and challenging, God through Jeremiah reminds the people that compared to Egyptian slavery, this circumstance is not that bad. The Babylonians are giving them freedom to own property, build homes, have families and produce food. Thus, God advises them to make the best of the situation and promises that they will get out of the city what they put into the city. If they open their lives and hearts, they will receive the lives and hearts of the Babylonians. If they “build” and “grow” by showing kindness and hospitality to their neighbors and devote themselves to being concerned for the city’s welfare, the Israelites and Babylonians will have created authentic community with God’s love at the center.

But what does the Babylonian exile of the Israelites mean for us today in the 21stcentury? Church worker and theologian, Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon offers this observation:[2]

The text calls for a movement away from the privateness of the church and into the world, into the public space to address issues affecting people, especially those on the margins, those that suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination. Margins are the space of God’s visitation, for God is discernible and present in the margins. We are called to journey from the centers of power to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms, because God is present in the disturbing and unsettling questions raised by experiences at the margins. Our theology needs therefore to be transformed into a public theology if it seeks legitimation from and by the wider society.

(The text also) calls for commitment to seeking shalom (life in all its fullness) and well-being for our cities and our neighborhoods. … Staying together to work for and praying to God for the well-being of our cities and countries are our imperatives. Our well-being and the well-being of our churches are bound up with that of our cities and our immediate locales.

Considering Melanchthon’s insights, the question for Emory Presbyterian, located on 1886 North Decatur Road in Atlanta, then becomes: how is the welfare of our city (and state)?

The short answer: not so well for a place that is home to several Fortune 500 companies like Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola and the center of a booming film industry that has had a $9.5 billion impact on the state.

According to recent data, there are 3,572 homeless people living in the city of Atlanta, both sheltered and unsheltered. And there are 460 living in Dekalb.  Atlanta’s poverty rate is at 24 percent meaning that nearly 1 in 4 people live in poverty. Atlanta also has the worst income inequality than any city in the U.S. About 18 percent of Atlanta households earn annual income of $150,000 or more compared to 9 percent who make less than 10,000 per year. To even be in the top 1 percent of Georgia earners, you’d have to make $345,876 annually. And the “housing wage” needed to pay for a modest two-bedroom unit is $21.27 an hour (Georgia’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour).

Throughout metro Atlanta and in north Georgia, 1 in 7.5 or 755,400 people turn to food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families each year. More than 164,000 are children and more than 64,000 are seniors. The Atlanta Community Food bank reports that it serves more than 80,000 people each week. Additionally, 13.4 percent of Georgians or more than 1 million people are uninsured. [3]

I realize that’s a lot of troubling statistics to absorb. You’re also probably wondering how we could care more for the city when we’re already stretched thin as a small church and doing what we can to serve others.

Perhaps there are some dreams that need to unravel and die in our life as a congregation and our individual lives so that communities within the city can prosper. (After all, our well-being is wrapped up in their well-being.)

And maybe (if we let some of those dreams unravel), then we could do just a bit more to seek the welfare of the city and open our lives and hearts to other Atlantans.

 

For instance, could we help dismantle the system of poverty by advocating for better healthcare and affordable housing for the lowing income and working poor while continuing to serve a meal at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, make donations to Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry and do home-builds for the MLK Weekend of Service?

 

Could we make regular trips to have worship and conversations with the homeless at Mercy Community Church on Ponce de Leon?

 

Could we spend time with the Friends of Refugees organization in Clarkston by assisting teen refugees with the planting and maintaining of gardens?

 

Could we have dinner in the city with our Muslim neighbors who typically come into our space every spring to make meal bags for CHOA?

 

Could we organize the medical professionals from the congregation and community to provide a free clinic once a month to the uninsured?

 

Could we visit neighborhoods in Atlanta and talk with local leaders about how their communities have been uprooted, disempowered and marginalized?

Could we have a big BBQ with our brothers and sisters from Trinity Presbyterian Decatur; Hillside Presbyterian Church, Druid Hills Presbyterian, and Shalom International—on any one of our front lawns?

I know these questions are overwhelming to consider. And I suppose that’s because they require us to leave what is safe, reliable and familiar in this place. They even demand that we might need to let other dreams unravel—big wishes like having more people pack this sanctuary, become members and make financial pledges so we can have unlimited resources like other churches and a deep bench of volunteers to serve.

It’s not bad to dream of more people joining Emory Presbyterian. What we do in these church buildings and on this property is important and sacred. We want more folks to be a part of the ministry here. And we need people to dedicate their time and money so that staff gets paid, the A/C and lights stay on, and to do all the work that needs to be done to nurture faith.

However, we must also never forget that our well-being is inextricably bound with the well-being of our city. And if we don’t physically journey more often from our comfort zone in this place to be in authentic relationships with people out there around us and on the margins of Atlanta, then there will be no shalom or fullness of life here or anywhere.

Lauren Wright Pittman share this wisdom in a statement about her Jeremiah 29 painting “New Roots” which serves as today’s bulletin art:

I moved to a new state. As I write, I’m living out of boxes, the trunk of my car, and a storage unit. It’s a jarring experience to move, even when it’s a conscious choice. I’ve found myself in a place that resembles almost nothing like what I’d envisioned for my life. I left a city burgeoning with opportunities and culture; now I’m in a small town where I’d be thrilled to find one decent, local coffee shop. I’m beginning to realize visions about the future I wasn’t even aware of. These unrealized dreams took root in my being in a way that feels defining to who I am.

Something happens deep in our core when we feel out of place. The day I moved my immune system failed and I became sick and disoriented. The Israelites were forced into exile, ripped from their homes, places of worship, and way of life. They find themselves in Babylon where they dream of the day they’d return to where they belong. Jeremiah’s words are comforting, yet painful. They are told to stay, plant gardens, and allow their families to flourish in this strange land.

I’m sure this was disappointing, but when you hold onto the past, you miss the richness of the present. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” … Maybe when our lives unravel in transition, the loose ends of our dreams, the friends we leave behind, and the paths untraveled can become the roots that stabilize us in the new place where we find ourselves. These threads can create grounding that nourishes and transforms us into something new. This new place can be a gift—a place of flourishing and a conduit for deep, authentic connection with self and community.

While seeking the welfare of the city and opening our lives and hearts to strengthen community can be scary and intimidating, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see how God is present in the steps we take toward a future with hope.

Amen.


[1]Pray for the Shalom of the City: Reflections on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 by John Holbert, October 13, 2013 

[2] Seeking the Peace and Prosperity of the City: The Politics of Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7 by Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon

[3]Homelessness & Poverty Statistics:

https://www.ajc.com/news/local/atlanta-has-the-worst-income-inequality-the-bloomberg-report-finds/BsUkLHtoLEZEwI504r9oeM/

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-10/atlanta-takes-top-income-inequality-spot-among-american-cities

https://atlantamission.org/the-hidden-homeless-what-youre-not-seeing-in-the-statistics/

http://www.acfb.org

https://www.p4bg.org

https://www.wabe.org/georgias-uninsured-rate-up-by-a-fraction-report-says/

 

Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, Part 3: Public Grief That Inspires Action

A Sermon for August 25, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. 2 Samuel 3:7-8, 21:1-14

“Rizpah:” by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art, LLC

October 31, 1992. I was nestled in deep slumber like most teenagers on that Saturday morning of Halloween when my teary-eyed mother shook me awake to explain that a real-life nightmare had occurred shortly after midnight. My friend at school and in my church’s youth group, Bonkey Nezariah McCain, died at the age of 17—a victim of a drive-by shooting on the previous Friday evening.

I staggered out of bed in utter disbelief. A member of Shades Valley High School’s football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been celebrating their win over another school by eating at a nearby Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.

Bonkey’s death was devastating to many. He was a remarkable person with an abiding faith who, along with his mom, siblings, aunt and cousins, had persevered through many early struggles in life. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was an extraordinary singer who stirred our souls once with an a cappella version of a Boyz II Men song during a high school youth retreat. Most of all, Bonkey possessed that unique ability to make friends and connect folks quickly to one another regardless of their background and differences.

Nearly 30 years have passed and there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of my friend or wonder who he would’ve become as an adult. That singular horrific event opened my eyes to the reality of gun violence that permeates so many cities and countries, and that claims the lives of many young innocents who are caught in the crossfire of a gang hit or dispute between two armed parties. Bonkey’s death also made me more aware of injustices that are so prevalent in society, especially when I worked as a newspaper reporter after college and as an ordained minister for more than a decade.

The loss of Bonkey definitely changed his mother Carmen. A student in nursing school, she was already known for driving around inner-city neighborhoods with a sound system and microphone in the trunk of her car to preach about Jesus to gang members and drug pushers. When Bonkey died, she began a new crusade to combat gun violence on the streets, and to be a voice for numerous moms whose kids were killed by stray bullets. The last time I saw Carmen was when I visited her at home in April 2000. While we were catching each other up on our lives and mourning the recent death of her sister, killed in an act of domestic violence, she told me that God’s strength helps her through the tragedies in her life:[1]

I don’t stay laying in tears. You get up, dust yourself off and swing at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming…You have to instill with people that life must go on. Things are going to happen unforeseen; you can’t up and move away every time a tragedy occurs. You still have to carry the torch for other people to see…God always allows you to go through something so you can be a help to someone else. I know the force behind my message is pain.

Upon reading Rizpah’s story in 2 Samuel in preparation for today’s sermon, I immediately thought of Carmen and Bonkey. And when I gazed at the striking art, which is featured on the cover of your bulletin, I saw Carmen’s face.

I continue to see in the image of Rizpah, the faces of strong, courageous African American women from the harsh days of slavery and racial segregation weeping on the ground while their sons hung from the lynching tree. And I see the faces of countless brave women who, throughout history, have mourned children lost to brutal acts of violence and injustice in various situation.

Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till, mourning the loss of her 14-year-old son who was beaten, murdered and lynched after being falsely accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store.

Mothers like Mamie Till, Gertrude Wesley, Alpha Robertson, Alice Collins, Maxine McNair, Judy Shepard; JoAnn Brandon; Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr, Lucy McBath, and Felicia Sanders. Mothers in New York City; D.C.; Shanksville; Newtown; Las Vegas; Orlando; Parkland; Pittsburgh; El Paso; Chicago; Los Angeles; Birmingham; Atlanta; Honduras; Haiit; central Africa; Israel and Palestine.[2]

And some of those women and many others see Rizpah as an example of valor when they are experiencing injustice in their lives.

In a book about the women of the Old Testament, the Rev. Wilda Gafney, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, says: “Sermons about Rizpah are not unheard of in black churches; she has a following among womanist preachers, who remember, lament, and are strengthened by her strength.”[3]

In the same commentary, Gafney also reflects on the circumstances that required Rizpah to possess an incredible amount of fortitude in the midst of tortuous grief:[4]

Rizpah bat Aiah watches the corpses of her sons stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into the stench of the decay. Apparently, she is denied permission to bury her dead. Denial of proper funerary rites was a common means of cursing and punishing an enemy and their people in and beyond death in the ancient Near East. Rizpah fights with winged, clawed, and toothed scavengers, night and day. She is there from the spring harvest until the fall rains … sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness.

The story of Rizpah is agonizing to comprehend. I imagine that many of you may be feeling a mix of emotions about this faithful woman’s plight. It is even tempting to simply close the eyes, turn the head and think of more pleasant things. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I had the urge to do the same and pretend that awful incidents like this don’t occur.

The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, acknowledges the challenge of trying to grasp and make sense of Rizpah’s story:[5]

I don’t know what to say. This story leaves me without adequate ways to fully process the searing pain and utter wrecking of the life of this woman, Rizpah. She is a “low status” wife of Saul. She is raped by a man who denies his actions. Her two sons are sentenced to death as a king fumbles to rectify wrongs that cause a famine in the land.

She gathers her sackcloth and climbs the mountain of God to defend the bodies of her children and their half brothers. She spends day and night for up to six months fighting off birds of prey and animals of the night from ripping apart the bodies of her children and what shred of hope she has left.

David hears of her passionate, radical, public grief and is moved to delayed justice. He calls for the burial of Saul and Jonathan, but also sees to the proper burial of the seven sons that he carelessly offered up to appease God. Justice in this scenario looks like sheltered, buried, dry bones. Rizpah’s public unraveling causes the unraveling of David’s distorted version of justice. God doesn’t require a human sacrifice for the end of the bloodguilt. God ends the famine when David listen to the voice of this strong, fierce, unraveling woman.

Over the past two years, Elizabeth and I have become supporters of the justice work being done by attorney Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. The author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson has dedicated his life to helping the poor, incarcerated and the condemned.

Under his leadership, the EJI has “won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.” Stevenson also spearheaded the creation of two significant cultural sites, which opened in 2018: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—national landmark institutions that memorialize the victims of slavery, lynching and racial segregation and chronicle the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.[6]

Stevenson and EJI’s efforts have been chronicled in the powerful HBO documentary released in June and available to watch for free online called True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Elizabeth and I were watching the film this weekend and about midway through, Bryan Stevenson ponders how it can be overwhelming and difficult to represent people on death row and be fighting against the system. To this, he says:[7]

Photo Credit: HBO’s “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” June 2019

The truth is that if you stand next to the condemned, if you fight for the poor, if you push against systems that are rooted and heavy, if you keep pushing and fighting, you keep doing, you are going to get broken. What I realized is that I am part of the broken community. And when you realize that, you don’t have a choice in standing up for the rights of the other broken.

Hearing Bryan Stevenson speak those words, I thought to myself: That’s the best description I’ve ever heard about the Church and what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.

The scriptures and our faith teaches us that we are beloved children and creations of God who, in spite of our flaws and imperfections, are sent out to demonstrate acts of love in a broken world. When we serve the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the imprisoned, we recognize our own vulnerabilities and shortcomings. We become aware of the brokenness in our lives and attuned to how our hearts break when injustice occurs.

And if we are to be the Church and the body with its many parts, we don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye, remaining silent and walking away when we see the Rizpahs of society. It’s been disturbing to me to watch how many people, particularly those in positions of power, quickly dismiss another person’s Rizpah-like anguish and pain with an insulting 280-character Tweet or a video rant or belittling words in front of the press.

But it’s our calling, as it was David’s, to see injustice, listen to the cries of the hurting and the voices of the marginalized like Rizpah and then help create space where stories can be shared, people can be comforted, and peace and justice can be established.

Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman offers this blessing as we leave this place today to live out our calling to stand with the broken and do what is right by them:[8]

I pray that we learn from Rizpah. When we see injustice may we, like Rizpah, climb the mountain of God and defend those who cannot defend themselves. When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.

May this too be our prayer today, tomorrow and always.

Amen.


[1]Her Fight Against Violence Hits Home by Andy Acton, The Birmingham Post-Herald, April 13, 2000.

[2]Mamie Till, mother of 14-year-o;d Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi on August 28, 1955; Gertrude Wesley, Alpha Robertson, Alice Collins and Maxine McNair, mothers of the Four Little Girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, September 15, 1963; Judy Shephard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, October 6, 1988; JoAnn Brandon, mother of Brandon Teena who was raped and murdered for being transgender on Dec. 31, 1993; Sybrina Fulton, mother of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was killed after leaving a convenient store in Florida on February 26, 2012; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner who died from police brutality in New York on July 17, 2014; Lucy McBath, mother of 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was killed while he and his friends were listening to music in the parking lot of a gas station on November 23, 2012; and Felicia Sanders, mother of Twanza Sanders, who was killed when a white supremacist opened fire at Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Mothers in New York: DC; Shanksville: 9/11 Tragedy; Mothers in Newtown, Los Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, Pittsburgh, El Paso: mass shootings; Mothers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham and Atlanta: cities with high homicide rates; Mothers in Honduras, Haiti, central Africa, Israel and Palestine: places where homicide, political and military conflict, genocide and war is ongoing.

[3]Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 206). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2017.

[4]Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 201-202). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2017

[5]Resources for Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, A Sanctified Art, LLC

[6]https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson

[7]https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/true-justice-bryan-stevensons-fight-for-equality

[8]Resources for Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, A Sanctified Art, LLC

Unraveled-Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, Part 2: Unraveled by Uncertainty

“Into the Swell” by Lisle Gwynn Garrity, A Sanctified Art

Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Matthew 14:22-33

In the sweltering days of August 1993, prior to the beginning of my senior year of high school in Birmingham, Alabama, which I was extremely excited about, my parents went through a messy divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent a couple of days doing nothing more than watching TV and reading comic books, although neither brought me much joy. They were just distractions from the chaos swirling around me.

One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I got up to open the door and there were two of my dearest friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey, standing on the front stoop, grinning from ear to ear. Before I could say “Hello” or “What are you doing here?” they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”

A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. We never talked about the storm that was swirling around my family, the great unraveling that was happening in my life. Comforting words and advice weren’t necessary. There love and care for me was evident in how they reached out to me when I felt like I was drowning at home.

Fast forward eight years to Friday, September 7, 2001. I’m bidding farewell to my co-workers at The Birmingham Post-Herald where I had been a reporter and assistant metro editor for three years. I had decided after a lot of prayer and conversation with family and friends that I was being called to be an ordained minister. And my home church of Shades Valley Presbyterian had offered me a part-time temporary job as the co-youth director so that I could make plans to go to seminary the following summer.

But a few days after I drove away from the newspaper office for the last time, the events of 9/11 occurred. It was quite a convicting moment for me because I realized I had no desire to be in a news room covering the most devastating story of the new century. All I could concentrate on was ministering to the middle and high school youth who would soon be gathering at their first Sunday youth group meeting of the year.

Five days after 9/11, the other co-youth director and I gathered on the red carpeted chancel steps of Shades Valley Presbyterian with about 20 distraught youth (some of whom had parents serving in the National Guard or stuck in airports) to have an open, honest and grace-filled conversation about the attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In an effort to ensure all voices would be heard and to illustrate the value of being in community, I required that each person could only talk if they were holding a ball of yarn. Whenever they finished speaking, they had to hold onto a string while tossing the rest to the next person who wanted to speak.

At the end of an hour-long discussion, we were all holding on to this beautiful, intricate web. In the midst of a colossal storm that was unraveling our lives and our perception of the world, we were reminded that God reaches out and binds us together in love.

Life is so fascinating and unpredictable, isn’t it? One minute, you are full of confidence and certainty, so much so that it feels like you’re walking on water. But then something beyond your control happens and you become inundated by uncertainty and doubt and fear, so much so that it feels like you’re drowning. And it doesn’t have to be a major incident like 9/11. Most of the time it’s smaller, more common circumstances.

Like a parents’ divorce. Or your car breaking down while you’re traveling along a mostly empty highway at night.

Or maybe it’s that project idea you feel great about because you’ve toiled on it for weeks and it has the potential to change the world. But then you walk into the board room and you see all those serious business people in their serious business suits looking at you with solemn faces. So, you panic and start stumbling over your words and sweating around your collar. Eventually, you manage your way through the presentation and then later you collapse in your chair, feeling humiliated and rejected, believing it will be impossible to rebound from such a #epicfail.

Or perhaps you’ve had a wonderful visit with a long-time neighbor, and you go to bed with gratitude and joy for the day and the friendship. But then two days later, you learn the news that they were in a car accident or had a heart attack. Your once strong and sturdy legs stop working and you crumble onto the floor. Suddenly you are convinced that life can’t be done without them, which both scares and saddens you to your very core.

When you find yourself unraveling at the seams and sinking into the abyss, you might wonder if you lack the faith in God to push through the unexpected circumstance. If you can just keep your eyes on Jesus, you will be able to walk on water and not drown. That’s the meaning we’re supposed to glean from this story about Peter and Jesus, according to many preachers who’ve delivered a sermon on this text, right?

Well, not so much. Lutheran minister and author Nadia Bolz-Weber sums up that no-so-good news with this analysis of how the story is often reduced to a “moral about having more faith”:[1]

If you in your life are not God-like in your ability to financially prosper or overcome all your failings as a human or defy the forces of nature and walk on water then the problem is that you don’t have enough faith and you should really muster up some more because the thing is, it’s all up to you to make your way to Jesus.  So, don’t be afraid.  Get out of the boat but be better at it than St Peter and don’t take your eyes off of Jesus. You can do it if you really try. End of sermon. And good luck with that. OK, this is a cynical view even for me, but it’s honest.  Yet I know that having a preacher tell me that the solution to my problems is to just try and have more faith – so I can make my way to Jesus never sounds like good news to me.  It reminds me of The Simpson’s episode where square jawed newscaster Ken Brockman made a set of motivational tapes called “get confident stupid!”. In the end, I just don’t know how helpful it is to say “get faith sinner”.  It doesn’t work.

It’s just not realistic or practical to presume that we just need more faith in God to “walk on water,” make it through life’s challenges without a scratch and receive favor from God. And that kind of thinking also misses the point of the story. A preaching commentary on the passage says this:[2]

Peter walks, becomes frightened by the wind, begins to sink, cries out to Jesus, and is rescued. This familiar sequence of actions needs to be understood in light of the obedient act that put Peter on the water in the first place. It is not the story of the skeptic who habitually doubts, but the story of the faithful follower who becomes overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him, who begins to lose his nerve when he discovers the odds stacked against him, but who from Jesus finds a steadying, delivering hand.”

Peter has the courage to step into the swell, to try something different and daring and out of the ordinary in the midst of the chaos. The winds are simply too much for him and he sinks like any human being would.

Even though we are faithful and courageous, we can still be afraid and uncertain. Afraid of the circumstances surrounding us because there are definitely a lot of terrible things happening whenever you scan the daily headlines. Uncertain about the gifts and abilities we’ve been given to live out our calling; and whether we will survive the winds of life that knock us down. As a result, we can and will stumble, fall and sink. Even if we have all the faith and courage there is in the world.

But despite the fear, uncertainty and despair, Jesus walks toward us and reaches out a steady hand like he did to the disciples and Peter. Usually in ways we least expect.

This past Tuesday, the Perches Funeral Home in El Paso, Texas posted on Facebook a photo of a man kneeling next to a large arrangement of flowers and the following words:[3]

This is Antonio Basco.
His wife of 22 years, Margie, was murdered in El Paso.
Mr. Basco says he has no other family so he’s inviting anyone, who wants to come, to attend his wife’s services in El Paso:
Friday, August 16th
Perches Funeral Home
5-9pm

Antonio Basco has been drowning in grief. The life he had known for 22 years came unraveled when his wife Margie left the house for her job at the Wal-mart in El Paso on a Saturday morning earlier this month. And last week, he wasn’t sure anyone would come to Margie’s visitation.

Not long after the Facebook post was created, the director of the funeral home learned that attendance might exceed its 250-person capacity so arrangements were made to move the service to the larger La Paz Faith Memorial and Spiritual Center.

When Basco walked into the sanctuary on Friday, he was greeted by more than 400 mourners. The La Paz building was at capacity and another 700 waited outside in the 100-degree heat to pay their respects. People from different faiths and cities walked toward Basco and reached out their hands to him when he was at his absolute lowest.  After the service, Basco told reporters:

“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I love El Paso and [I’m] glad to be your family. Thank you very much. I got the world’s largest family.”

When life is unraveling, Jesus walks toward us and says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Despite what little faith we have in ourselves and how life will turn out, Jesus walks toward us. In the midst of the raging storm, Jesus reaches down and pulls us up from the deep. Then he returns us safely to the boat where together as a community we hold onto one another, and we give praise to the God who never forsakes us and who always meet us, wherever we may be.

Amen.


[1]https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2011/08/hello-world/

[2]Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995. 441-2.

 

[3]https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/16/us/el-paso-shooting-margie-reckard-funeral-trnd/index.html

https://www.npr.org/2019/08/17/752006060/el-paso-shooting-hundreds-of-strangers-come-to-mourn-with-widower-at-wifes-funer

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/17/el-paso-funeral-strangers-margie-reckard-antonio-basco

https://abcnews.go.com/US/thousands-expected-attend-funeral-el-paso-shooting-victim/story?id=65014173

 

 

Unraveled-Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, Part 1: Unexpected Joy & Surprise

A Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

“What happens when your world falls apart?

How do we press onward when our tightly-knit plans unravel into loose threads?

What do we become when our identity—or the path we’re on—comes undone?

What if all of this is not the end (that) we fear it will be?

In our unraveling, sometimes life surprises us with unexpected joy, love and hope—with a new beginning we couldn’t have imagined.

Sometimes we need God to unravel us, for we long to be changed.”

This is the impetus behind the new series Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, which we begin today and continue through the middle of September. Using resources provided by A Sanctified Art—a collective of artists in ministry who create resources for worshipping communities—we will explore seven biblical stories of unraveled shame, identity, fear, grief, dreams, and expectations.

However, before we delve into those stories and the theme for the next two months, it’s important to note that as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Reformed tradition, we don’t believe in and worship a God who loves human beings conditionally; who moves people around like pieces on a game board; and who causes suffering to teach a valuable lesson or because faith is lacking or the check list of good deeds isn’t completed.

Instead we, like many mainline Christians, believe in and worship a God who loves all people unconditionally; who gives humanity the gift of free will; and who is not the source of suffering but who is present amid tragedy, restoring and transforming each of us.

It’s also vital that we remember that the encounters with God in holy scripture don’t perfectly mirror our own stories and faith experiences. God engages with the ancient people of the Bible in a much different way than God relates to us in the present.

This is particularly true for today’s scripture passage from Genesis regarding Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy. What God does for Sarah is not indicative of what God will do or not dofor any post-modern woman who has experienced the pains of infertility and miscarriage. Author and theologian John C. Holbert offers this pondering for 21stcentury folks to consider[1]:

Surely, we are not to argue after the historicity of the thing, how old women in our day can give birth at increasingly advanced ages, how Invitro science has changed so much for many infertile couples. So, why could Sarah not give birth at 90? I cannot go there, nor I think can many of you. Let me suggest that the famous line— “Is anything too astonishing for YHWH”—may be the focus here, but perhaps not in the way you think. I do not think that this line calls us to forget all we know of science and history, and to claim that anything can happen when God is around. The danger of that idea is palpable when some couples are helped in their desire for a child and some are not, though each prays fervently to the same God.

I want to say that the line suggests that God still matters in the ways of humanity, that we are not on our own as we live our lives, that we do not make decisions alone, wholly apart from a loving deity. YHWH does not give us whatever we ask for, but YHWH is with us in our struggles to discern what YHWH wants from us and from our world. Nothing is too astonishing for a God who made it all and loves it all.

The stories of Sarah, Abraham and other biblical figures are examples of how God is in our midst to provide love when life unravels for the worst; joy when life unravels for the best; and hope when we need to be unraveled from the deep seeded fear, selfishness, greed, pride and anger that we’ve allowed to tangle up our life.

Several complicated and messy events have occurred in the lives of Sarah and Abraham before they receives the news that she will have a child in old age. And God is with them throughout their journey.

God instructs Abram to leave his home land of Ur and travel with his wife Sarah to the land of Canaan where he will make of Abraham a multitude of nations (Genesis 12, 15 and 17). During their travel, they enter Egypt where Abraham decides to pass off Sarah as his sister and a gift to the Pharaoh so that Abraham’s life would be spared (Genesis 12). Much later, after many years of being unable to conceive, Sarah abuses her servant Hagar and forces her into surrogacy, which Abraham allows. And thus, Hagar gives birth to a son and names him Ishmael (Genesis 16). Then, after God appears to Abraham more than a decade later to tell him that he, a 100-year-old man, and Sarah, a 90-year-old woman will bear a child, Abraham falls down laughing in disbelief (Genesis 17).

Sarah and Abraham are not the sublime, morally upstanding couple you might expect God to choose to establish a great nation. But despite their actions, their imperfections and flaws, God never abandons Sarah and Abraham nor retracts the promise made to them. Nor do Sarah and Abraham lose their faith and belief in God. After a century of living through hardship—whether their own doing or not—the couple had come to terms with the reality that they will not be the ancestors of a great people. And they still welcome God into their home. In a commentary on Genesis, renown biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that:[2]

Once again, this story shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal.’ The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness. . . . Beyond the etymological explanations which link Isaac to ‘laugh,’ and beyond doubtful embarrassment, Sarah laughs because ‘God has made laughter for me.’ By (God’s) powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21; John 16:20-24). Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift—underived, unwarranted. Barrenness has now become ludicrous. It can now be laughed at because there is ‘full joy’ (John 16:24).

For most of their lives, Sarah and Abraham’s plans haven’t gone the way they quite expected and just as they have begun to resign themselves to Sarah’s barrenness and disbelief that God will give them descendants as countless as the stars, the unexpected happens. They are unraveled again with the message from God—appearing as three strangers in front of their tent no less—that Sarah will give birth to a boy. Sarah’s disbelief unravels into joyful laughter. The couple’s perceptions of God and whether God could keep a promise and do the impossible unravels as Isaac is born. Sarah resignation of a childless life unravels into a child-filled life.

Of course, this unexpected joy doesn’t mean that Sarah and Abraham’s life from this point onward remained unraveled for the best. There are some cruel and harsh events that occur in the years following Isaac’s birth, as the subsequent chapters attest.

“The Heir” by Hannah Garrity, A Sanctified Art, LLC. http://www.sanctifiedart.org

And there’s also the pain and suffering that common sense tells us Sarah experienced as a new mother caring for a newborn, although it’s not written down. Hannah Garrity, one of the members of A Sanctified Art and a mother, explains further in a statement about her painting of Sarah and Isaac:

A new mother’s emotions run the wide gamut from overwhelming joy, to emotional pain, to previously unmet fear, and to lack of control. They extend from postpartum depression to baby blues. The experience is nothing like anything I have ever felt before or after, a paradigm shift in life. The deep and painful multiplicity of new motherhood is often summed up in perfectly constructed highlight reel photographs on baby announcements. In this painting, I depict Sarah putting up a front of pure joy. It’s honest, but it’s only one small sliver of the real story. As women we stand at once in vulnerability and beauty, in strength and love, in pain and joy. The moments of our lives envision God’s grace in deep complexity.

Life is messy and painful. Every day (or at least every week) we are presented with a challenge, often not of our own making, that tests us our resolve. And we’re all aware that we are broken and flawed and incapable of being perfect and right all the time. Like Sarah and Abraham and every human being who is ever walked the face of the earth, we have experienced and are going to continue experiencing an unraveling of some sort.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Author and pastor Rob Bell shares an insight from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who once pointed out that “Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because they believe that’s where the spirit enters.” Bell then reflects further[3]:

I can relate to the rugs. I want desperately for things to go “how they’re supposed to.” Which is another way of saying “how I want them to,” which is another way of saying “according to my plan.” And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works.

But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening, again and again. I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find, in that place of powerlessness, a strength and peace that weren’t there before. I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters. The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God, which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables but in pain and anguish and death.

It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own. It’s in that place that we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.

 We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. We will become more or less tuned in to the thousands upon thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day. This too will shape me. The only question left is, how?

How will we and our life and plans be unraveled for the worst and the best in these coming weeks?

How will it look for our disbelief and despair to unravel into joy, love and hope?

How will we be shaped by our unraveling?

How will we seek God in the midst?

Let us find out together.

Amen


[1]https://www.patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2017/06/laughter-and-its-consequences/

[2]Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 158-9; 182.

[3]Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Sufferingby Rob Bell, 2012. Harper Collins Publishers.

For Such A Time As This

A Sermon for Sunday, August 4, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Esther 4:8-17

Last month, I had the opportunity to serve as the co-director of the 2019 Montreat Middle School Youth Conference—a four-day event held in Maryville, TN. The experience was the result of nearly two years of planning. In February 2018, our planning team of six adults and four high school youth met for the first time and were tasked with coming up with the conference theme. After a couple of hours of brainstorming and discussion, we chose “For Such A Time As This,”a gripping phrase from Mordecai’s powerful message to Queen Esther in today’s scripture reading. The conversation, which occurs in the book of Esther 4:8-17, puts us in the middle of the story. For those unfamiliar with what has happened up to this point and what occurs after, here’s a summary:

The Israelites are under the rule of the Persian Empire.

The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, holds a huge party over a span of six months to show off his greatness and splendor.

On the last day of the festivities, Ahasuerus gets drunk and demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, show off her beauty in front of everyone. Vashti says, “no,” and is banished from the kingdom.

Then, Ahasuerus holds a beauty pageant to find a new wife. A Jewish orphan named Esther, raised by her cousin Mordecai, enters the competition. Hiding her Jewish identity, Esther gains favor from Ahasuerus and becomes queen.

Afterwards, Mordecai overhears some soldiers plotting to overthrow Ahasuerus. Mordecai tells Esther who informs the king. The plot is thwarted and Mordecai is praised for saving Ahasuerus’ life.

Soon, Ahasuerus promotes Haman, a descendant of the Canaanites, to be his second in command. A power-hungry Haman immediately insists that everyone kneel before him. When Mordecai sees Haman, he refuses to kneel. Mordecai’s act of resistance sends Haman into a rage. And upon learning that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman persuades King Ahasuerus to commit the genocide of all the Jewish people living in the Persian Empire.

Photo Credit: Mordecai and Esther Illustration, Google Images

Mordecai learns of Haman’s plans and encourages Esther to advocate for the Israelites by convincing the king to reverse the decree.

And Esther succeeds. She saves everyone by bravely taking a stand and speaking out for what is right. She says NO to the ruthlessness of Haman and YES to liberating her people.

The Book of Esther is unique in the biblical cannon because it is the only story that doesn’t mention God, which would seem odd at first glance. But actually, it’s an intentional choice on the writer’s part to explain how God is actively present even when the Divine doesn’t physically or spiritually appear nor has its name evoked.  A commentator on the book says the author makes“an invitation to look for God’s activity, and there are signs of it everywhere. The story is full of coincidences and ironic reversals, and it all forces you to see God’s purpose at work but behind the scenes.”[1]

The story of Esther resonated with our planning team because it captures how God works mysteriously in our lives even though we can’t physically see or hear God like ordinary human interactions. Our world is filled with a lot more uncertainty and ambiguity about where God is and what God is doing (or not doing), especially when injustice and tragedy occurs.

We are compelled to see God’s activity in those whom God chooses to say NO to the human sin that seeks to destroy humanity, and YES to the love, mercy and justice of God that lifts up the broken, the hurting, and marginalized.  And “those whom God chooses” includes every one of us.

In a reflection on Esther, religious scholar Sidnie White Crawford says: “God, though unseen and unacknowledged, works through human instruments…  Human action is the key to achieving God’s purpose in the world.”  As the popular singer India.Arie expresses in her most recent single, “What If”:[2]

What if Martin didn’t stand up?
What if Rosa didn’t sit down? …

What if Maya didn’t speak out? …
(What if) Harriet never went underground?
Where would we be now?

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for
We can change the world…

With our love…
Right now, this is our moment
We are a people of motion
Our love’s gonna change the world

It was evident to the high school youth on our planning team that perhaps young people were born for such a time as this to courageously change the world with love. That first meeting where we felt God in the Spirit guiding us to choose the theme occurred only 21 days after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida and in the midst of school walk-outs and the March For Our Lives rallies to remember the victims and protest gun violence.

We all believed, and still do, that throughout history, God chooses human beings to be instruments for God’s work–specifically at this moment when our world seems more divided and dangerous than ever. And it would seem that many of the people being called “for such a time as this” are youth.

Photo Credit: Naomi Wadler, Google Images

During one of the conference’s morning keynotes, more than 500 middle schoolers heard the story of 11-year-old Naomi Wadler who delivered a moving speech at the March For Our Lives rally in D.C. after leading a walkout at her Virginia elementary school a week prior, in which she confidently stated: [3]

“I represent the African-American girls whose stories … don’t lead on the evening news. … I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, to say their names … People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be eleven, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know.”

Photo Credit: Yusa Mardini, Google Images

The middle schoolers also learned about Yusra Mardini, who fled from Syria with her sister Sara in August 2015 after their house was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War. After traveling through the middle east, they boarded an overcrowded dinghy departing for Greece. A few minutes into the journey, the boat’s engine failed. Yusra, a professional swimmer at 18, was determined to keep the vessel from capsizing. Yusra, Sara and two others jumped into the water and swam for three and a half hours till they arrived at shore, saving the lives of 20 people. [4]

A year later Yusra became a member of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team and competed in the games in Rio. After turning 20, Yusra was appointed as the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nation’s Refugee Agency. She travels the world advocating for refugees. During an interview with the media, Yusra said: “Sports actually gave me this really strong voice. I am using it to help refugees to get them to better places; to get them shelter; and to just let the people understand that they should open borders for them.”[5]

The truth is that there are many young people who are being a voice for change, like:

Photo Credit: Greta Thunberg, Google Images

Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish activist who, in 2018, created a movement against inaction by world leaders to address climate change concerns—inspiring more than one million students around the globe to conduct protests.[6]

Photo Credit: Malala Yousafzai, Google Images

Or Malala Yousafzai, who was 13 when she spoke out against the Taliban regimes’ attempts to prevent young girls in Pakistan from getting an education. Though she was nearly killed by the terrorists, Malala kept using her voice to fight for children’s education rights and in 2014, at the age of 17, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.[7]

And there are the youth at the middle school conference who raised their voices. During a Saturday morning keynote, a dozen who were involved in stage leadership, held up signs they created that named the issues people need to say NO toward, like:  Racism, Violence, Closed Mindedness, Exclusion, Sexism, Abuse, Hate, Lying, Selfishness and Fear” They even took the signs and arranged them on a large back drop so that it spelled out the word “NO.”

That afternoon, in one of the small groups where conferees reflect on the messages in keynotes and worship, 20 middle schoolers, ages 10-14, studied the story of when Jesus flipped the tables in the temple to call out the exploitation of the poor. Then they were asked to make a list of things that Jesus might speak out against today. They came up with 23 injustices that would cause Jesus to become upset, such as:

–people who don’t have access to clean water and food

–bullying

–human trafficking

–body shaming

–racial discrimination

–gun violence

In a Facebook post, the small group leader shared the entire list with the comment: “Amazing. Don’t ever think that kids are not noticing and watching the wrongs in the world.”[8]

The children are seeing the wrongs of the world, and they are wondering what adults are doing to address them? Those in our churches, who are learning about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, are asking how we as adults are being the body of Christ in the world.

There are many adults who are saying NO—like Esther, Jesus and the young people I mentioned earlier—to the many injustices that occur. But there still remains too much silence, as the pastors of The Washington National Cathedral recently expressed in a letter regarding the President’s bigotry:[9]

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? … As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words.

Similarly, there are people of all ages saying that silence and inaction about remedying the gun violence epidemic, some of which is connected to racism, needs to end.

Just a week ago, on a Sunday afternoon, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old were killed by a white supremacist at The Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. And yesterday, 20 people were killed and 26 were injured in another mass shooting by a white supremacist at a Wal-Mart in Texas. And then, at 1 am, after I had gone to bed, nine people were killed and 26 injured by a shooter wearing body armor in downtown Dayton, Ohio.

These are the latest in a string of horrendous shootings that have been plaguing our country for years, and yet nothing changes in regard to sensible gun laws.[10]How many more lives and communities have to be destroyed until we say, NO—Enough!

When does it all end? The gun violence. The racism. The exploitation of people. The marginalization of anyone who is different because of their religion, culture, country of origin, economic status, sexuality and gender identity. The devastation of the earth and apathy about climate change. The injustice. The destruction. The hate. The fear. When. does. it all. end?

The answer may be found in a message that a Presbyterian pastor and friend of mine posted on social media, hours after the tragedy in El Paso:

Our voices of hope must be louder than the voices of fear. Our dreams for a more diverse world must shine brighter than the nightmares. … Our love must overcome their hate.[11]

On the last day of the youth conference, Sunday morning worship, that same group of middle school stage leaders, took the signs that made up the giant “NO” and flipped them over to reveal various colors of paint splattered on the back. The youth then reassembled them on the back drop to create a giant “YES.”

Moments later, the preacher, the Rev. Joann Lee, shared these words to close out her sermon:

For such a time as this, we are called go forth and to say YES to God, YES to love, YES to standing up and doing something. Though we certainly aren’t omnipotent, we must recognize that we are also not powerless.  … We must take action on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed. On behalf of those who are forgotten and silenced; we must take action. Sometimes we won’t have all the answers, and sometimes we won’t be sure if what we’re doing is what God’s planned.  But even with our doubts and our uncertainties, we must choose to say YES and to be agents of peace and justice in this world.  The good news is, we don’t do this alone. Remember, Esther did not do this alone.  Rather, she had a community who helped discern with her, pray and fast with her and advise her through Mordecai.  [12]

We are not alone. We have each other in this community of faith and beyond. And we have Jesus who leads us in the way of saying NO to what divides, dehumanizes, and destroys and YES to the love and mercy that brings healing and wholeness.

Every time we participate in the sacrament of communion, as we will shortly, we are reminded of that very purpose God has for human beings.

Friends, we are the body of Christ, and as such, we’re not created to be complacent and silent about injustice. We’re not designed for violence and hate. We are chosento make manifest God’s love in word and deed, voice and action. Let us not be afraid to do so with every ounce of breath and life that we have in us.

For perhaps we were born for such a time as this.

Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1]https://thebibleproject.com/blog/esther-secular-sacred/

[2]https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/indiaarie/whatif.html

[3]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqKy7TXKO8c

[4]https://www.yusra-mardini.com/

[5]https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/09/sport/yusra-mardini-syrian-swimmer-rio-2016-olympics-spt/index.html

[6]https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/0e9e80de-62cb-4782-a26f-1cd480d28f26?fbclid=IwAR3e9gTQC9_E6GaLze4XzTVKRTl911TPuxBdZxlv4pitn2dPs55TBWi4iog

[7]https://www.malala.org/malalas-story

[8]Hannah N. Facebook post, July 20, 2019

[9]https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html

[10]https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/

[11]Rev. Steve Lindsley. Twitter post, August 3, 2019.

[12]Rev. Joann Lee, preacher for the 2019 Montreat Middle School Conference. Sermon for Sunday, July 21, 2019.

 

 

Summer Saints Series, Part 3: Searching for Meaning and Purpose (Tom Hanks & Richard Rohr)

A Sermon for Sunday, July 7, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Ephesians 4:1-3, 14-16; Hebrews 11:1

In Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4, which has dominated the summer box office the last few weeks, there is a pivotal moment where Sheriff Woody the loyal vintage cowboy doll is confronted by the some of the other toys about his behavior.

Photo Credit: Disney-Pixar Toy Story 4 movie poster

They don’t understand why Woody has been spending all of his time and energy protecting the anxious Forky—a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and pop sickle stick feet—who was made in kindergarten by Woody’s owner, Bonnie.

Woody, the reliable and caring leader who has always felt a deep calling to look after all of the toys in his owner’s care, has been sadly left out of Bonnie’s playtime for several months. But when he encounters Forky, who is reluctant about being a toy, Woody sees an opportunity to be useful again by mentor to a talking utensil.

Throughout much of the film, though, Woody hides his feelings about being covered in dust bunnies in the corner of the bedroom closet. He doesn’t want to admit that he no longer has worth as one of Bonnie’s toys.

So finally, when his friends, who he’s dragged into a crazy adventure to help rescue a spork, question his motivations, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) blurts out: “Because it’s all that I have left to do!”

This deeply embedded human need to connect and belong, to find meaning and purpose from forging substantial relationships, is the central theme in theToy Story series and so many of the movies of Tom Hanks, who is a legendary common man actor and national treasure—Forrest Gump (which is celebrating its 25thanniversary and was shown last evening for “EPC Goes To The Movies”); Saving Private Ryan; Philadelphia; A League of Their Own; Castaway and The Post, just to name a few. In November, he will portray the esteemed children’s television icon and Presbyterian minister, Mister Rogers, in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

Hanks, a regular worship attender in the Greek Orthodox Church, has said that he is captivated by films and roles that focus on the value of connectedness and the human condition, of flawed human beings who are struggling to do what is moral and right. “The characters remind us that we’re part of a greater humanity,” he told Oprah Winfrey during an interview in 2001. “And we can actually affect the world by the choices we make once we leave the theater.”[1]

Hanks was painfully shy and lonely growing up. His parents divorced when he was 5-years-old, and he and his two oldest siblings lived with their dad, an itinerant cook. And he didn’t have a lot of friends or caring adults in his life, although he managed to make decent grades and stay out of trouble. As a teenager, Hanks often enjoyed going alone to the theater to see plays. Soon, he felt a passion for acting and quickly discovered a community where he belonged.[2]

The pains of isolation and desire to fit-in, to feel useful and be a part of something bigger than himself is what fuels Hanks in both his career and everyday life. In a 2013 interview with Psychology Todaymagazine, Hanks said:

“We have to inch closer to brotherhood…or else we are missing out on a great opportunity in the only place in which we get to change our lives and the world…There’s a line in the song Amazing Grace:  ‘Through all life’s dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come.  ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace shall lead me home.’ Grace … it’s a healing acceptance that says…’You’re going to be okay.’[3]

Hanks understands that suffering and persevering through hardships is part of what it means to be human. And he realizes that it is God’s love and grace manifested in community, in the body of Christ, that helps us endure tough challenges and make difficult choices in life. The words of the apostle Paul to the early church in Ephesus is evident in several of the movie roles Hanks has played over a 40-year career.

As you hear today’s scripture from Ephesians read again, picture in your mind Captain John Miller from Saving Private Ryan or Woody from Toy Story or Forrest Gump. Consider how Paul’s message might be reflected in each character:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. … …speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

What were some of the images that came to mind as you heard the passage read?

Perhaps you thought of Captain Miller encouraging his unit to keep searching for Private Ryan so they could deliver the news that his two older brothers had died in action and bring the young soldier home—all while trying to fend off Nazi bullets and tanks.

Photo Credit: Saving Private Ryan, DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Amblin Entertainment/Mutual Film Company

Or maybe you recalled that scene in every Toy Story movie where Woody attempts to rescue the other toys from imminent danger, even the toys who are broken, rejected and considered misfits.

Photo Credit: Disney-Pixar Toy Story 4

Or quite possibly, you remembered how Forrest Gump carries every member of his squad to safety in the jungles of Vietnam; how he sticks by his Lt. Dan’s side even at his lowest moments; how he keeps his promise to Bubba; and how he cares for his beloved Jenny

Photo Credit: Wendy Finerman Productions and Paramount Pictures

Each of these characters, whether they realize it or not, functions as a member of the body of Christ. They acknowledge that they are meant to be joined with others and that they must reach out in love and compassion when someone is suffering.

Photo Credit: Google Images

Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, the renowned author and Christian mystic—whose theological insights can also be seen in the characters played by Tom Hanks—says that being in solidarity with others who suffer helps us avoid self-pity and self-absorption. He writes:

We know that we are all in this together, and it is just as hard for everybody else. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. When we can make the shift to realize this, it softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one—in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can. Some mystics even go so far as to say that individual suffering doesn’t exist at all—and that there is only one suffering, it is all the same, and it is all the suffering of God. The image of Jesus on the cross somehow communicates that to the willing soul.  …If we have never loved deeply or suffered deeply, we are unable to understand spiritual things at any depth. … And if you allow this process with sincerity, you will soon recognize that it is actually love and suffering that are dealing with you. … Even God has to use love and suffering to teach you all the lessons that really matter. They are God’s primary tools for human transformation.[5]

 While it is true that joyful fellowship brings people together and establishes bonds, those ties only grow stronger when we open up to one another about our personal struggles and pain, and also when we experience something heartbreaking together.

There is something immensely profound and beautiful when we celebrate the life of a person who has died, like longtime member and church matriarch Ann Hughes or when we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 or gather for the Good Friday Tenebrae service to remember Jesus’ betrayal and death. Or when we feed the hungry at a soup kitchen or help build a home for a family in a third-world country. Or when we rally to collect supplies and funds to give to the victims of a natural disaster three states away.

Being a part of the body of Christ means that when one suffers, we all suffer, no matter who it is or where they are. We share in our sufferings together and by doing so, we remember that we’re not alone and that we have one another and God to lean on when life is messy.

We are broken, flawed people who come together through acts of love and grace to be made whole by the ever-present, healing God who identifies with suffering. We are people who have faith that all is not lost and God’s hope is promised to all, even when we are unable to fully see it in moments of despair.

Tom Hanks echoed this sentiment a decade ago while discussing God and belief in an interview about his movie The DaVinci Code, the actor affirmed this truth about the Church universal. He told the interviewer:

“The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer.”[6]

“The Lord’s Supper” by Sieger Koder, late German artist and Franciscan priest

Every time we practice Holy Communion and share the bread and cup of Christ that is broken and poured, we affirm that God has chosen each of us to be the Church—to be the various parts of Christ’s body: the mind, eyes, heart, hands and feet that go out to serve a fractured and hurting world. Rohr, whose work focuses on Christian identity, spirituality, compassion and justice, offers this insight:

“When Jesus spoke the words ‘This is my Body,’ I believe he was speaking not just about the bread right in front of him, but about the whole universe, about everything that is physical, material, and yet also spirit-filled. …

In the Eucharist, we move beyond mere words or rational thought and go to that place where we don’t talk about the Mystery anymore; we begin to chew on it. Jesus did not say, “Think about this” or “Stare at this” or even “Worship this.” Instead he said, “Eat this!” … We must keep eating and drinking the Mystery, until one day it dawns on us, in an undefended moment, ‘My God, I really am what I eat! I also am the Body of Christ.’

The Eucharist then becomes our ongoing touchstone for the Christian journey, a place to which we must repeatedly return in order to find our face, our name, our absolute identity, who we are in Christ, and thus who we are forever. We are not just humans having a God experience. The Eucharist tells us that, in some mysterious way, we are God having a human experience! …Who we are in God is who we all are.[7]

This, my friends, is our meaning and purpose.

May we live into it with humility, gentleness, patience, peace and love.

Amen.


[1]https://www.oprah.com/omagazine/oprah-interviews-tom-hanks/all

[2]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvR9uZ0URyA

[3]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/alive-inside/201303/talking-tom-hanks-about-what-really-matters

[4]https://web.archive.org/web/20090328131701/http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/41996

[5]The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, 2019. Convergent Books

[6]https://web.archive.org/web/20090328131701/http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/41996

[7]The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, 2019. Convergent Books.

 

Summer Saints Series, Part 2: Embracing Vulnerability and Empathy (Isabel Wilkerson and Brene Brown)

A Sermon for Sunday, June 30, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalm 10:17-18; Isaiah 1:17; Romans 12:9-13; Philippians 2:15 and Hebrews 13:2

We are in the midst of our Summer Saints sermon series here at EPC, where we draw wisdom about faith from modern-day saints like Isabel Wilkerson and BrenéBrown—flawed, imperfect people who are grounded in God’s love—striving to do what is right and to work toward the betterment of humanity. But as it sometimes happens while I’m writing a sermon, the Holy Spirit spoke a bit louder in my ear and insisted I add a third saint, the residents of Gander, whom you will hear about momentarily. First, please join me in prayer:

 Holy, Holy, Holy One, your words feed us,

The Word frees us,

And the Spirit gives us life.

Grant our ears an appetite for hearing

and our spirits strength for loving you.

Amen.


Last Thursday evening, Elizabeth and I went to The Fox Theater to see the award-winning Broadway musical Come From Away—the true story of 38 international planes that were suddenly diverted to the small island town of Gander, located in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada on the tragic morning of September 11, 2001. The arrival of visitors from afar instantly doubled the population of a town that has six traffic lights, its own time zone, town roads shaped like the head of a goose and more than 100,000 moose.

Although unequipped for such a great emergency, Gander’s residents immediately sprang into action to prepare to house, feed, clothe and comfort 7,000 passengers and 19 animals, including two chimpanzees. As those preparations were being made, the pilots, flight attendants and passengers remained on the planes for 28 hours under orders from the FAA—forcing everyone to deal with confusing and conflicting information about why they were grounded.

Keep in mind that in 2001, there were few cell phones, poor signal reception, and no smart devices, high speed internet streaming and social media. Beverly Bass, the first ever female captain for American Airlines, knew from air traffic control that there had been a terrorist attack but didn’t know any details. She simply explained to her passengers: “There has been a crisis in the U.S., and all airspace is closed.”

Those who had cell phones either couldn’t get a signal or only ascertain bits of information. For more than a day, the “plane people” as the Gander residents called them, didn’t know what was happening. Once they were allowed off the planes and taken to various emergency shelters around Gander, the flight crews and passengers learned the truth by watching the constant replays of the 9-11 attacks on the TV. Frightened and lonely, the passengers attempted to contact their families using landlines and pay phones but with little luck.

The townsfolk in Gander worked throughout the night and the following five days to help the passengers get settled into their new surroundings. They soon opened up their homes for folks to stay, regardless of their guests’ race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. And the one town veterinarian also took care of all the animals in the cargo hold.

Volunteers from the Salvation Army and Red Cross made lunches and the Gander hockey rink became a walk-in refrigerator. The passengers came from 95 countries, including Zimbabwe so kosher and vegetarian meals were required as was an area for Muslim travelers to pray. Gander residents provided for every need and even took their visitors sightseeing, moose hunting, berry picking and barbecuing.

Photo Credit: The Fox Theater, Atlanta

The “plane people” —initially surprised by their hosts’ hospitality—slowly let their guards down and began to bond with the quirky residents of Gander and one another. And although the “island people” refused to accept any money, the grateful guests still stuck $60,000 in the town’s suggestion box, and later began a scholarship fund that wound up netting $1.5 million to send Gander’s high school youth to colleges and trade schools.[1]

One of the “plane people,” Robert Steuber, who was stranded with his wife and elderly father-in-law after their Paris to St. Louis flight was re-routed, told the media that he never felt like an outsider in Gander:  “That whole community is the poster child for how hospitality and just a sheer act of humanity should be because they had such a high level of open arms, and come in and welcome and here’s my house. It just absolutely floored me.”[2]

Human connection, the ability to empathize, belong and love —which the residents of Gander demonstrated so beautifully during the week of 9/11—has been the focus of Dr. BrenéBrown’s work for many years. A renownauthor and research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, Brown (who has done TED Talks and a recent special on Netflix) has spent more than a decade studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame.

During a 2012 episode of the radio show On Being, host Krista Tippett asked Brown to expound on a quote from one of her books: “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experience.” Brown, who attends an Episcopal church with her family and considers the Christian faith an organizing principle in her life, explained:

Photo Credit: BrenéBrown.com

“To me, vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up, I think those are the most powerful, meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are. …It’s all about our common humanity, and when we own our stories and we share our stories with one another and we see ourselves reflected back in the stories of people in our lives, we know we’re not alone. And to me, that’s the heart of wholeheartedness, it’s the center of spirituality. To me, that’s the nature of connection, to be able to see myself and hear myself and learn more about myself in the stories you tell about your experiences.”[3]

Making connections through stories is what motivated Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson to write the critically acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicles the history of the Great Migration—the movement of African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West between 1915-1970. On her website, she writes:

Photo Credit: isabelwilkerson.com

“I began this work because I wanted to pull readers deep inside perhaps the greatest untold story of the Twentieth Century. The goal was the convey the lives of the people who had dared to make the crossing from the South…I wanted readers to imagine themselves in a hot, open field facing endless rows of cotton needing to be picked, having to bear the arcane laws of an arbitrary caste system and having to labor over the decision of their lives — whether to stay or whether to go.”[4]

Wilkerson points out that the Great Migration literally changed the cultural and political landscape of America, putting pressure on the South to change and paving the way toward equal rights for the lowest caste people in the nation. It brought jazz, Motown, rhythm and blues and hip-hop, and notable figures like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Toni Morison, Jesse Owens, Diana Ross, Prince, Shonda Rhimes, Venus and Serena Williams, and Denzel Washington—all children or grandchildren of the Great Migration.[5]

The granddaughter of a Baptist preacher and daughter of a pilot who trained the Tuskegee Airmen, Wilkerson is also a product of the Migration. And because of the 15 years of research she did for her book, Wilkerson has become an unexpected voice on the enduring human drama of immigration and race relations.

In another episode of On Being in 2016, Krista Tippett asked Wilkerson about her thoughts on the importance of knowing and seeing strangers as our neighbors and being neighborly toward people who are vastly different from us and whom we might fear. Wilkerson, who has deeply rooted beliefs in God, replied that empathy and recognition of the common humanity in another person is what is required to bridge divisions. She said:

Empathy means getting inside of them, and understanding their reality, and looking at their situation and saying not, “What would I do if I were in their position?” but, “What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing from the perspective of what they have endured? … And it calls for radical empathy in order to put ourselves inside the experiences of another and to allow ourselves the pain, allow ourselves the heartbreak, allow ourselves the sense of hopelessness, whatever it may be that they’re experiencing.… It’s an act of love and an act of faith to allow yourself to feel the pain of another.[6]

Elizabeth and I were given an opportunity to put ourselves inside the experience of another when we were leaving the theater after Come From Away ended. As we walked toward our cars, with a throng of other theater-goers, we saw a woman in her late 30s sitting on the sidewalk with three children next to her. “Can someone help us out with a few dollars?” she asked as people passed by. Initially, we kept walking too but only for a few feet before I stopped in my tracks.

My gut was doing somersaults. I had $8 in my wallet. We had just seen this incredible story about helping complete strangers. And over the last week, I’ve been posting to social media about the plight of immigrant children and families on our nation’s borders. Neither Elizabeth nor I could pretend as if this woman and her family didn’t exist—a woman who recently came from Alabama to look for better opportunities for herself and her children, who happened to be similar in age to our own.

So, we turned around, and I handed her all my cash. Then, Elizabeth asked Fiona if they had a safe place to sleep and any resources for assistance. Fiona told us she had managed to scrape up enough money to pay for one more night in an inexpensive hotel, but being new to Georgia, she didn’t know where to go for additional help. Elizabeth told her that Intown Collaborative Ministries on Ponce, which has a partnership with Druid Hills Presbyterian, had beds available. Fiona’s face beamed upon hearing the news and while Elizabeth wrote down the address and phone number, I played with the kids—making faces and acting silly.

I share this story not to make anyone feel guilty or blow my own horn, especially since I typically don’t stop when someone asks for a hand-up. I mention this recent experience because it reminded me once again of how I, and so many more of us, need to stop in the midst of our busy, hectic lives to embrace vulnerability and empathy.

With all the despair around us in the world, we need to commit acts of faith and love so that we may feel and quite possibly understand the pain and hardship of someone else—whether it’s people living on the streets or neighborhoods plagued by abject poverty and violence or parents and children fleeing from terror in Honduras.

It is the biblical imperative, God’s constant command to take care of those in need, to embrace vulnerability and empathy, as our scripture readings this morning attest to:

Love the foreigner as yourself.

The Lord your God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and

loves the strangers.

 O Lord, you will incline your ear to do justice for the oppressed.

 Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed

 Love one another with mutual affection.  

Regard others as better than yourselves.

 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.

In a short video called “Love Made Flesh,” BrenéBrown is asked why Jesus makes complete sense to her. She responds with the following:

Photo Credit: Google Images

This is my whole thing. I believe God is love; it’s that simple and it’s that complicated. And if you try to express love to human beings and just came down and said: “I am love, love each other,” we automatically, because we’re so afraid of hard things, would go to unicorns and rainbows. So, you would have to send someone to show what love in the flesh looks like. … Otherwise we would romanticize it. We would make it easy because that’s who we are as people. … Then Jesus comes and says, “I am love. I sit with the people you’re not allowed to talk to. I do all the hard things. I make all the hard choices. I love the people who are unlovable. I feed the people who are not supposed to be taken care of. I don’t tolerate shame. I don’t tolerate attacks. I am love. It’s hard and messy and dirty, and if you really love—fierce, big love—you’ll become dangerous to people. There’s no way that most of us could understood what love was without seeing what love looked like. God is love and Jesus is what love looks like made flesh. Love is about choosing what’s right over what’s easy.”[7]

Amen.


[1]https://comefromaway.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Come_from_Away

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/stuck-in-gander-newfoundland

https://www.ajc.com/blog/music/real-life-subjects-come-from-away-discuss-the-fox-why-the-musical-shows-the-best-mankind/hgSi4VLyIc0FvVFOXypx6K/

[2]https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/09/08/gander-newfoundland-september-11-terror-attacks-kindess-come-from-away/631329001/

[3]https://onbeing.org/programs/brene-brown-the-courage-to-be-vulnerable-jan2015/

[4]http://isabelwilkerson.com/the-book/the-making-of-the-book/

[5]http://isabelwilkerson.com/the-book/

[6]https://onbeing.org/programs/isabel-wilkerson-the-heart-is-the-last-frontier-jan2018/

[7]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOLI_2-DKvw