This week in Lent

Matthew 11:28–30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

From A Room Called Remember by Frederick Buechner
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness — especially in the wilderness — you shall love [God].

I recently told a friend, “Nothing will make you pray to Jesus like having a baby.” And it’s true. Not always in some profound way, but often like “Dear God make him sleep” and “Lord have mercy, I don’t know if I can keep nursing him with all these teeth,” and “Keep me kind, keep me sane.”

In these weeks of teething, rocky sleep, and small but strong opinions, parenthood is breaking me, sapping me of what I thought I had to offer, what I knew, what version of self there was before, what capacities for accomplishment were wrapped up in my life and work. I’m deep down in my bones and deep down in my spirit tired. I haven’t done laundry, much less checked in with God beyond those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace.

In the above passages, two of this week’s readings for Wednesday Eucharist, there was so much deep acceptance for those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace. The difference between my tired efforts and the efforts of God in me is blurred, brokenness and wholeness together all at once. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are reminded, “to dust you shall return,” and I am dust and dirt, all broken up and low, and at once rich and full of life, more promising and complex than meets the eye, nurturing the next things in myself and in S.

God made known in generosity and courage

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Harriman, TN
15th February
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38–48

Epiphany is that season of the liturgical year when we crane our necks and peel our eyes for all the ways that God is showing up around us. We are invited to see the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, to wonder at the proclamation of God’s glory written on creation, and today, we are asked to consider how God could show up in the way we treat one another.

Now, I know a lot about good behavior. I grew up in North Georgia, just a couple of hours from here, and was raised to have good manners and be a good girl, a nice young lady. In my little Georgia city, when we were about 12 years old or so, those of us from certain families found ourselves stuffed into our Sunday best and shuttled off to the gym of the United Methodist Church for afternoons of what they called “Junior Cotillion.” Do you all have this in Harriman? Did some of you poor souls undergo the same trial as children? It was excruciating! I can think of twenty things I would have rather done on a Saturday afternoon. And while we were beginning to like the idea of liking boys, to our horror, when we got up close, the girls realized that by and large, they didn’t know what they were doing any more than we did. They were all a head shorter than us and had terrible sweaty palms. And while the abilities to do a basic waltz, write a thank you note, and know my dinner utensils have served me well, being a nice girl has not.

Here’s the thing about being a nice girl, about niceness in general. Nice is too often a poor replacement for loving. Nice is too often silent in the face of injustice. Nice is so accommodating that it begins to fear any confrontation. Nice keeps to itself. Nice cannot discern when, for the love of God and neighbor, we can no longer afford to be nice, and our love needs to be fierce and creative and courageous, rippling out from us to impact the world.

Today’s scriptures are about so much more than nice. This gospel passage is God’s invitation to a holiness that is huge, a move toward making ourselves and our world whole. In Leviticus, the law tells us not to hate anyone in our heart, but then situates this inner love is in our culture, society, and economy. This is a love far beyond nice. God’s love and justice are about setting our relationships and community right, and God is calling us now to gather courage and participate in this work. The Old Testament reading offers us first a vision of proactive love, courage, and generosity. The Gospel reading gives us a way to think about responsive love and courage in the face of oppression or hurt.

Stay with me this morning. This is hard and demanding and runs counter to most of the values of United States culture in our time. But it is also more creative and fun and satisfying and joyful than any other vision of ethics I’ve seen.

So first we have this call to proactively care for the vulnerable.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”

Do you remember Ruth? Hers is the story behind this commandment. She was a widow and a foreigner in need, who went out gleaning in the fields, taking the bits of grain and produce left behind from the harvesters. Her story is a story of hope because Boaz, her late husband’s relative, kept this law of Israel and recognized that what was seconds to him could be more than enough for someone in need.

Leviticus is reminding us that there something more important than maximizing the profit margin. God’s telling us that our fields and our harvest are not really ours. We don’t possess any of this. Let the anxiety of owning nothing wash over you. Feel the precariousness of all we think we have sit for just a moment, and then notice if there is an inkling of relief along with the nervousness.  We are called to build in a margin, a gap between what we need and what we could take.

This generosity takes foresight and thoughtfulness. It sees that the laborer, the one living check to check, needs their wage sooner than later. This generosity takes the disabled person into consideration, seeking to make the community accessible.

And so we see that love, the creative, courageous love that God is inviting us to practice, moves from the state of our hearts outward and back again. We tend to our inner circle of a loving heart, then move from there to just work in the world. Then we come back to home base, think about what we have seen, what we have been doing. We meditate, consider, cultivate deeper thoughtfulness and compassion.

The laws go on to say, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” and this brings us to the Gospel reading.

We know from Jesus’ teachings on the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is rarely someone easy for us to love as ourself. Neighbor ends up being all kinds of people we’d rather not deal with. And here, Jesus is talking about how to respond to acts of aggression and violence in the context of Roman occupation. The way that we face unjust leaders and laws, the way that we respond in the face of vitriol is the response to a neighbor. More than ever, separated by partisan politics and the cloak of facebook comments, we need the reminder that we are connected, that our responses to one another aren’t just a bomb we get to set and walk away from, that the conclusive mic drop doesn’t exist.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

These instructions deserve a look at their cultural and historical context. First, turning the other cheek. Most people are right handed. A blow to your right cheek from a right handed assailant isn’t a punch in the face. This is a backhand slap of humiliation. If I’m hit like this, to turn the other cheek doesn’t mean that I’m being a doormat—saying, “Ok, hit me twice.” It means I’ve turned to look them in the eye. If they hit you again on the other cheek it will be after seeing your face, your humanity, and to hit you on the left side, your assailant would have to hit you as an equal.

If someone is suing you for your coat, that means that they are pressing you in court for resources you don’t have. You don’t sue someone for clothing, you sue them for money, for payment to right the wrong. Jesus is condemning the exploitation of taking someone to court when all they have is the clothes on their back. To give not only the coat but the cloak is to strip yourself naked, right there in the court. You are saying, “See me! See that I’m a human like you! See what your injustice is doing, stripping me of everything!”

Under the rule of the Roman Empire, a soldier could force a subject to carry his gear for one mile. It didn’t matter what you were doing, going about your day. If a soldier wanted your help, he could command it, no questions ask. You can imagine that this experience would range from an aggravating inconvenience to a humiliation that drains the last of your time and strength when you’re just trying to hold things together. But imagine, won’t you, the soldier who’s conscripted you to walk his gear. He stops and says, “Ok, that’s your mile.” But you don’t stop. You grimace under the weight of the work and keep trudging along. “Wait a second! Stop! That’s your mile!” Now he’s jogging to keep up with you. Maybe other travelers on the way have stopped to watch, surprised and laughing. By continuing on, you are confronting the soldier and the unjust practices. You have forced him think twice about his behavior and the harmful system without moving toward violence or detraction in your confrontation.

I recently heard a story about Martin Luther King Jr., when he was marching in peaceful protest alongside the community in Chicago. This was during the same time that he was hit with a brick. As they were marching, they passed one of many angry counter-protestors, a white man there to harass the marchers, screaming profanity at them. Dr. King looked at him and said, “You’re too smart and too good looking to be filled with so much hate.” The Civil Rights protestors saw that the hatred and racism was eroding the souls of white antagonists who were so bent on racial segregation and oppression. Calling for a more just world meant calling out the humanity even of the most hateful and harmful people.

And this is how we go, in the path of a Christ who drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but put his whip not to the human beings, but to the tools of oppression. We follow his footsteps, with our eyes on the grace and goodness of the Father, accepting the invitation of the Holy Spirit to deeply notice ourselves and one another, the invitation to move beyond nice, to take the sacred risk of generosity, love, and courage.

I want to leave us this morning with a few questions.

What is your field and harvest?

Are you stripping it bare, keeping the plenty and resources all for yourself?

Who is the neighbor who could be nourished by your abundance?

How are you experiencing that backhanded slap?

Where do you see the abuse of empire at work in your community?

Who is looking you in the eye, inviting you to see their humanness?

Whose eye must you look into, to commit that brave act of vulnerability and asking that your humanness be seen?

May the God who created us, lived among us, and breathes in us now, be made known through our treatment of one another, glorified in our generosity and courage. Amen.

The Refugee God and the Work of Christmas

New Year’s Day Sermon
Isaiah 63:7–9; P
salm 148; Matthew 2:13–23
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville

Howard Thurman: “The Work of Christmas”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Well, here we are, soaking in the Christmas season and bringing in the new year together in worship, looking ahead to our resolutions and hopes, the return of school calendars and normal work schedules. We don’t get to stay in the stable with the heavenly host and the mind-blown shepherds, the gift bearing magi, and the blissed out new parents. The sweet scene of the nativity that we so love to see enacted by our children in the pageant and maybe adorning our mantles through the holiday season is brought to a sudden stop—no, not by New Year’s Eve parties—but as Matthew’s gospel continues the story with a dark turn. Quick, we move to the next chapter after the magi leave, the angel appears again in a dream.

Pause. Breathe. Hear. Let us listen to these verses in a fresh way. Let us sit and be mindful of how quickly life shifts from birth to death, from joyous to horrifying.

Imagine waking up in the night in a cold sweat, mamas and daddies, from a nightmare that a tyrant was coming for your baby.  Doesn’t it make your chest hurt and your pulse quicken? Imagine that this nightmare is so vivid that you can’t get back to sleep, that you have to get up to look at your boy and see that he’s ok. Imagine that your partner is disturbed by your tears and your restless tossing and turning, and now, both awake and terrified, you stay up talking till morning and finally decide, “We have to go.”

Matthew puts this story in the legacy of the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” God has always been showing up in the brutal journey of the refugee, the tired eyes of parents leading their children to an unknown future.  And this story is also connected to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to the destroyed and occupied Jerusalem. God has always been showing up in the aftermath of human violence.

Over the holidays, I took some time to catch up on books, tv shows, boardgames, and movies with my partner, friends, and family. One thing on my list was the documentary short released on Netflix earlier this year, “The White Helmets,” which portrays the work of civilian rescue workers on the ground in Syria. I watched the film. Then I did some research.

I’ve been hearing about the air raids in Aleppo, the ceasefires that fall apart, the children and civilians who are being targeted, and felt that wave of despair, practically palpable through the radio news. And unfortunately, reading up on the history of the current civil war didn’t bring much political clarity or a sense of how to do my part to change or improve anything. The civil war is a hot mess, with local conflict becoming a proxy for foreign governments, continued destruction of civilian homes and hospitals, and more than 11 million people have been killed or displaced.

Not much has changed about war and empire over two thousand years. King Herod presided over a system that benefited a few elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Wars and empires, then and now, privilege the comfort of a few over the lives and safety of many.

Each morning, the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense gather at their center, and then suddenly, as they sit chatting over breakfast, the sound of a jet rushes in, slicing through the calm morning, and the men abandon their plates and rush out. They discern the direction of the next bombs, and head to the site in a cargo van. They leap into action, pulling the wounded and incapacitated out of bombed out homes and alleys, before the next overhead pass ends hope of rescue. They carefully remove the dead from piles rubble, treating bodies with the tenderness fitting someone’s child, parent, dear sibling, closest friend. One man said that he tries to rescue every last one when they’re called to a scene, because it truly might be his family one day. There is a deep personal urgency to what is happening—there’s no space to distance themselves from the work.

And there’s not much space to distance yourself as a viewer of this short film. It was hard for me to watch. I could only take it in 5 and 10 minute segments, taking a break to breathe and gaze at my healthy, safe family. But turning it off wasn’t an option. The white helmets, these dedicated, devoutly Muslim, family men, blue collar workers turned everyday heroes, drew me in. They save the vulnerable, clear bombed neighborhoods, bury the dead, comfort the suffering, console the grieving, inviting me to witness as they proclaim gospel: “All lives are precious.”

And this is the gospel, the work of Christmas. We see God born to peasants, lying in a feed trough, recognized by all sorts of folks, and then on the run from a violent system, far from home and familiarity.

Matthew shows “God with us,” God’s saving presence, at the peak of human vulnerability, right in the crosshairs of violent power structures. And Jesus doesn’t affirm what is happening—his very presence as a prince of peace, made known to shepherds and magi alike, is a threat to the powers that be.

We have a working class, unhoused, refugee savior who calls us to notice Emmanuel, God with us, in and among the people we understand to be the “least of these.” We have a story of God made like us, but not all of us—God dwelling in a particular way that signals to us that in a profoundly practical way, brown skinned politically marginalized lives matter.

And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, how do we now live into the work of Christmas and set our eager new-year-resolved hearts to the task? How do we put ourselves in fellowship with the refugee who bears the image of God, with our weeping mother Rachel?

When we think about the refugee, I want to be careful that we don’t over-spiritualize this in a way that turns our attention from the real refugee crisis happening right now.

But it can be overwhelming—Where do we go from here? What can be done a world away?

We lament. We pray. We contribute to global relief and new social enterprise to help the displaced. We make our city and neighborhoods and homes places of sanctuary for those in need of home and safety, whether displaced from Nashville or Aleppo. We keep our eyes peeled for the toxic self-preservation of Herod at work in our communities and in our own hearts. And like our brothers at work in Syria, we keep the faith, keep showing up one day at a time.

In the midst of stories of suffering, the white helmets share the story of Mahmoud, a baby who at one week old, was rescued after 16 hours under the rubble. The men in the film follow up with him, now a chubby, active toddler. He is perfectly clueless of the grace and hope he holds in his life, in his very body. But the white helmets talked about him again and again, the sign that their work is meaningful. The story of this life spared, this possibility of a proper future beyond the death of the civil war, keeps them moving.

So like the prophet Isaiah, may we  keep telling the story, recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. Keep telling the story of how God brought us into freedom, and stay mindful of those who are still fleeing, still wandering, still in need of safe refuge. May we be transformed from discouragement to resolution, from despair to engagement, from apathy to intentionality, from helplessness to creative courage. And may the strength of the knowledge of the God’s redeeming work and the rise and fall of those beautiful words, telling the story of Word made flesh, become the steady rhythm of the Spirit leading our steps into the work of Christmas:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Amen.

Snakes and Babies


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When I come to the readings for the second week of Advent, familiar as they are from year to year, I am reading them with fresh horror and inspiration as a new mom. Prophesying the Kin-dom of God, Isaiah writes, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

Whoa, now! Not on my watch! My nursing child is almost always at my side, and when my five month old is with his other parent, beloved grandparents, or a carefully vetted babysitter, part of my mind is trained on him, often preoccupied by neurotic nightmares of all possible harm that might befall him. Stepping into parenthood as a young adult is no cakewalk. I have a million anxieties and insecurities of whether I’m a good enough mother. I worry for his well being.

But after sitting with my gut level reaction to these verses, allowing myself to lean into that horrified response, aversion is transformed to hope.

What would it be like to let my rolypoly baby play outside in Tennessee woods with full confidence that no harm would come? I tick through my mental safety list of reminders and checks, and think, “What if this was a world where I could let those go?” “What would it be like to parent without worry of these dangers?” 

What a beautiful motherhood that could be!

Even beyond the physical dangers of being human, these are frightening times to have a child. I fear for my son in a world with so much uncertainty and hatred, the spiritual violences that sting the unsuspecting innocent. I worry about the daunting task of trying to raise a good white man in a society that would have him believe he can run roughshod over women and people of color. But my hope in this Advent week is deepened when I read on to Matthew’s gospel, in which John the Baptizer is preaching repentance in the desert. “You brood of vipers!” he exclaims to the Pharisees, whose closed hearts and anxious spirits led to spiritual legalism and wielding power over others.

The brood of vipers—ah, much scarier serpents. These are the ones who poison with a fear twisted into anger, bite with anxiety the hand that offers peace. But what if this Kin-dom of God is also a world where I might release fear of these social, spiritual snakes? What would it be like to parent without worry of the powers and principalities, in confidence that hope and love protect the hands and hearts of babes?

What a beautiful motherhood that could be!

Yes, says the prophet, the earth will be full of the knowledge of God, and God’s dwelling shall be glorious. What a vision of peace and play! We work toward this Kin-dom of courageous love and community that overwhelms the anxieties of alienation and temptations to power. We await the coming of our humble peacewager.

Valor II: ylang ylang, coriander, bergamot, spruce, frankincense…