Remember Ash Wednesday?

Turns out Ash Wednesday was only [checks notes] three weeks ago. I don’t know about you, but it sure feels to me more like three years ago. I mean, what a world we were living in way, way back in February. Think of all the things we did that month: I saw a movie…in a theater…with a bunch of friends. About 100 of us gathered to celebrate the wedding of two amazing people. Our kids had sleepovers. My 80+ year old mom and I went out for lunch whenever we could. Oh, and we all got together for worship. In person. In the same building and everything. Those were the days, man…

But on Ash Wednesday at Woodridge United Methodist Church where I am one of the pastors, we tried something a little different. (Different for us at least.) We tried to weave together a tapestry of scripture readings, songs, reflections, and silence. Isn’t that what we do every week? Yes…but also, no. Sure, we always tie those elements of worship together with a theme, but that night it felt as if we had, however briefly, achieved a new level of integration. It could very well be that “night” is the operative word in that last sentence. Gathering at a different hour than our usual Sunday morning with intentionally dimmed lighting on a day ripe for introspection and reflection…well, somehow it resulted in one of those rare, rare moments when everything seemed to really come together in an almost magical way.

I have no idea if that can be replicated here at all — but being in the midst of this time of social distancing and online-only worship sure seems like the right time to try by sharing the audio recording of that night.

A couple caveats first: The recording doesn’t include the music. But my sense of it is that the music is a vital part of the whole experience. So I’ve added videos of those songs, along with the script we used that night so you can read the intros and outros for those songs. However, as you might expect, what is written on the script isn’t always exactly what you’ll hear on the recording.

Another stylistic note: the scriptures you hear on the recording were read from the back of the sanctuary rather than up front. In other words, the congregation couldn’t see who was reading or from where she was reading. (Although, it was our Lead Pastor, Rev. Danita Anderson reading. A familiar voice, so it’s not as if the “who” question was any big mystery.) Her voice just emerged from the ether like the very voice of God. It was, I dare say, pretty cool.

The scripture readings tonight are meant to provide some snapshots of our relationship with the world, our relationship with each other, our relationship with God…and the surprising role dust and ash plays in all those relationships. 

Astrophysicists teach us that the atoms that make up our bodies are made of the remnants of stars, some of which was present at the beginning of the universe, in what we call the Big Bang, almost 14 Billion years ago. So perhaps a more accurate rendition of the common Ash Wednesday phrase would be: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.”

Our spiritual ancestors, those who told the stories that would eventually be written down in the form we know as the book of Genesis, those ancestors were pre-scientific…at least in the way we understand science. And yet, they seem to already have a sense of their connection to the universe and its stardust. Let’s take a listen…

[Gen. 2:4-9]

Like we said: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.” Isn’t that description of the world in Genesis so incredible? So much goodness and life and beauty right there in the garden of creation! So what happened? Well, we know what happened: we messed it up. 

We forgot who we were and from where — and from what — we came. We forgot we are all stardust and instead fought with each other, fought with our siblings. We created enemies just so we could fight with them. We made scapegoats just so we could banish them and feel better, feel superior. In truth, the whole time we were fighting with ourselves. Over and over and over again, we fought with ourselves. 

And yet, every once in a while, we catch ourselves in the midst of throwing yet another punch —physically, verbally, or metaphorically — and we stop and think, “what in the world am I doing??” Too often we wait until we are on the very brink of extermination before we stop, but, so far at least, we stop and seek forgiveness. And that’s a big tent “we” there: including our enemies. Here’s a word about that…

[Jonah 3:5-9]

There’s that dust again. This time partnering with contrition and repentance — a turning away from our destructive ways and a turning toward the ways of God in peace and hope and love. And because this is the book of Jonah, we know that the dust also partners with a knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. How does the story wrap all that together? In ash. 

Sometimes recognizing our propensity to exclude and hate and sin results in deep and amazing stories like the book of Jonah. Other times, recognizing our propensity to exclude, to hate, to sin against God and against one another results in deep and amazing poetry. Like this…

[Psalm 32:1-5]

As the Psalmist says, perhaps God forgives us in order to enable us to repent and change our ways. As it turns out, we have a song for that…

[“Change My Heart O God” All the versions of this song I could find play it much slower (and cheesier) than we do at our church. Here’s the best one I could find…but no lyrics, so…”Change my heart o God. Make it ever true. Change my heart o God. May I be like you…You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.” ]

Ok, so God changes our hearts and we rise up out of the ash. Now what? Jesus shows up, that’s what! Jesus, who spoke and taught and loved like no one else. Jesus, who in mostly mysterious ways, was so intimately connected with God he actually was the literal embodiment of God who up and moved into our neighborhood. This Jesus he told us things that somehow are completely sensible to the point of being almost obvious…and yet also simultaneously near-impossible for us. Ideas like this one from Matthew chapter 6…

[Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21]

I have no idea who first began the tradition of reading this part of Matthew’s gospel on Ash Wednesday, but I’m so glad they did. Hearing this reading on this day carries on the good work of the book of Jonah. Because hearing this reading on this day is also a deep and knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. You see it, right? Every year on Ash Wednesday, Christians of many types and stripes gather and hear Jesus say, “pray quietly; don’t make a big showy deal out of your devotion to me; don’t try to show off how pious you are.” And then, almost immediately after hearing that, what do we do? We PUT A GIANT MARK IN THE SHAPE OF THE CROSS…ON OUR FOREHEAD!

Friends, if part of the ritual of Ash Wednesday isn’t to laugh at ourselves a little bit, I think we’re doing it wrong.

I think it is a wonderful reminder as we strive to follow of God in the Way of Jesus to not take ourselves too seriously. Yes, we mean what we say, our contrition is real, our attempts at piety are real and important, our work to make the world more just for the least, the last, and the left out is real and so important. (As Dr. Cornell West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”) Yet, this reading on this day? That’s a reminder to us that in the midst of our real and important work, we still mess up. Yes, we are loved; we are forgiven; we are trying our best…and we get it wrong. Regularly. We still need to be more like Jesus. Turns out, we have a song for that too…

[Wow. Turns out videos of “More Like You” by Scott Wesley Brown are even harder to find. Ugh. Here are the lyrics: “More like you. Jesus, more like you. Fill my heart with your desire to make me more like you. Touch my lips with holy fire and make me more like you. Lord, you are my mercy. Lord, you are my grace. All my deepest sins have have forever been erased. Draw me in your presence, lead me in your ways. I long to bring you glory in righteousness and praise.”]

So how do we do that? How do we become “more like Jesus”? Our tradition and experience tells us that prayer is one of the best ways. Further, our tradition tells us that silence is one of the best ways to experience God in prayer. But we live in world saturated in noise. How do we even find silence? And if we mange to find it, how do we, who are always on the move, sit still long enough to experience silence? Enter Taize. Prayers that are songs, songs that are prayer; song-prayer meant to lead us into silence. We will sing a few times through. Bow out when you need to; the rest of us will carry you. Come back in when you can. After the song and several minutes of silence, a poem-prayer will lead us out of the silence and into the present. May this time of silence be whatever you need it to be: thanking God for stardust; sitting in ash like the Ninevites; seeing how to be more like Jesus; or just simply being in the presence of Triune God. Let’s sing…

[“Come and Fill Our Hearts” Again, really tough finding a good sounding version of this song. Just listen to the first 45 seconds of this and you’ll get the idea.]

[We offered nearly 10 minutes of silence.]

[Poem-Prayer by Adrienne Trevathan, a Native American United Methodist in Evanston, IL]

Cover me with ashes,

the thick-smoke soot of the earth.

Make my breathing like the journey

from death into life — second by second,

prayer by prayer.

Cover me with a cloak — bring me low to the earth,

your justice whispering to me like the gleam of red rocks,

the colors dancing in the darkness.

Let me know the power of sage and cedar in my bones,

not that I may trap them there,

but bring them forth in words.

Cover me with darkness —

with the presence of my elders, their tears falling around me,

reminding me of why we are here —

sighing, groaning with our singing, longing to hear us into being,

stretching us beyond breathing and praying and weeping.

Cover me with mercy —

let the bones you have crushed rejoice,

like the woman who channeled every ounce of courage and dignity

to touch your cloak and find new life.

Breathe unto me life anew,

of possibility,

of beauty,

of balance,

of grace.

Cover me with mud —

bring me to my lowest state, so that in my weaknesses

I see your strength —

the reflection of your eyes in the brokenness around me,

the fullness of your love in the depths of our hearts.

Cover me with ashes —

the ashes of my grandmother,

who in living her days knew no strangers,

worked tirelessly with worn hands

and lifted grandchildren high into the air.

Cover me with mercy —

let my cheek come to rest on the cold earth,

its faithful presence a call to walk humbly

beyond myself

beyond my fears

and ever on to the red road that leads to your love.

Changer,

Cover me.

Cover me with ashes.

Change me.

Why am I in the Washington Post this week?

The short answer?
Because I joined 99 other clergy — two from each state — in signing an open letter to Congress. That letter ran in Thursday’s (October 17th) Washington Post.

The more complete answer?
I know there are hundreds (at least) of incidents of injustice in our communities, our states, our country, and our world. I know most of those involve our president and all of them make us want to scream, cry, swear, tear our hair, and Do. Something. Until recently, the situation in Yemen was not on my list of things to care about. Maybe that’s true for you too.

So why do I care about Yemen now? Why do I think you should care too? Why did I sign this letter calling on Congress to end US arms sales for the war in Yemen?

The honest truth is, I know effectively nothing about Yemen.
Basically all I know about Yemen is that it occasionally shows up in a headline on p17 of the newspaper. You know, that part of the paper I’m more likely to skim the headline than to actually, you know, read the article. (Yes, I still get a physical newspaper. Yes, I know this makes me old.) 
And I know Yemen was played for laughs when Chandler went there on an episode of Friends, like, 20 years ago. Other than that…I don’t know anything about Yemen or Yemeni politics.

But I do know Bread for the World. And I trust them. After about 15 years as a Bread member and participant in many Offerings of Letters and other campaigns, I trust Bread to offer well-reasoned, theologically sound analysis. When Bread says an issue is important, I listen. 

Yemenis are trying to survive the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Twenty-four million people – 80 percent of the country’s population – need some form of humanitarian assistance and protection…By the end of the year, the UN estimates that the conflict will have directly or indirectly killed over 230,000 people…More than one million children suffering from malnutrition.

Bread for the World

I don’t know much about Yemen or Yemeni politics, but I do know that if Jesus is, as we Christians purport, the Prince of Peace, then 230,000 deaths due to the war in Yemen is 230,000 too many.

I don’t know much, but I do know that If Jesus is the Bread of Life as we Christians claim, then 1 million children hungry in Yemen is 1 million too many. 

Over more than four years of war, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used US bombs and missiles to repeatedly target innocent civilians, bombing schools, hospitals, homes, and markets, and the war has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Bread for the World

I signed this letter because I believe our ultimate calling is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Partnering with Bread for the World helps me do that…helps me love neighbors better than I can on my own.

I encourage you to contact your Congresspeople too. There is so much injustice in the world, I know. But now I also know that #YemenCantWait

#YemenCantWait

Answers to questions you never asked

Then again, doesn’t that pretty well describe a majority of blogging??

Probably in much the same way as, say, September 22nd is, apparently, National Hobbit Day, and March is, among other things, National Frozen Food Month…October is Clergy Appreciation Month. However, this year the church I serve decided to expand that idea and so declared this past Sunday as Staff Appreciation Day. It was a lot of fun — and probably more than a bit uncomfortable for a couple of our staff who do amazing work, but generally prefer to remain well outside the spotlight.

We had a lovely catered lunch and the church bought each staff person flowers and a gift card. It was very kind and thoughtful. We were also asked to complete a “Get to Know Your Staff” questionnaire that a member of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee created. It was silly and fun and thus right up my alley. Even though you, dear reader, never asked or in any other way indicated an interest in hearing my answers to these questions, I thought I’d share them with you.

1. What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?

Seeing our family participate in their passions: Joann running, our son playing baseball, our daughter singing and acting, and my mom traveling. And of course reveling in my geekdom, reading comics, watching shows, and talking about those comics and shows.  

2. Do you live in Woodridge or another community? How long?

Joann and I have lived in Naperville since we got married in 2004. 

3. How long have you been with Woodridge UMC?

I’m on my third job title here since [gulp] September of 1995. It’s a long story, but the shorter version is I started as Assistant Pastor, then was Minister of Education & Youth until my current title of Koinonia Pastor. Duties and responsibilities have shifted several times over the years.

4. What do you think is the best thing about WUMC?

The passion we have for outreach and the many amazing, dedicated, loving adult volunteer Youth Ministry leaders. 

5. What is one thing you would change if you could?

If this means changing something at WUMC: We are great at direct help outreach, but I would have us do more justice work (i.e. stopping evil at its source) — and do it more consistently. Also, I would have lots more people understand what a good and vibrant place WUMC is to worship and serve the world.

If this means changing something in the world at large, then clearly it is to undo the disastrous effects of climate change. Followed by getting the destructive lunatic currently occupying the White House out of there.

6. Which sport teams do you root for?

White Sox (just wait until next year!), LA Angels (because Mike Trout is the best player of my lifetime), and Blackhawks (despite their racist mascot).  

7. What’s your favorite dish to eat?

Tacos! Honestly, have you ever been unhappy with a taco in your hand? Of course not. It’s impossible not to be happy when you have tacos.

8. Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry?

Chocolate with mint, chocolate with peanut butter, or even chocolate with strawberry, but definitely chocolate.

9. Do you have a pet?

No, nada, zilch, nope, nope, nope, not gonna happen…despite our kids’ best efforts. 

10. DC or Marvel?

Oh man! I feel like my entire life has been built to answer this very question! However, I will spare you the full dissertation and just say this (though this will undoubtedly be more than you ever wanted to know):

Marvel Studio (aka Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies are easily the best comic book movies.

But the DC animated movies are really well done — way better than their live action movies.

Marvel puts out more comic books that matter to me. Jason Aaron’s seven-year run on Thor is absolutely amazing. It’s a masterwork in long-form storytelling. I’m quite sad that his work on Thor ends in just three issues. It’s really hard to imagine anyone else writing Thor after him.

However, I think DC takes bigger, bolder risks with their books — and especially with their major events, such as Rebirth. That said, both Marvel and DC tend to try too many Big Events so most end up being mediocre. But back to DC’s bigger, bolder risks: Tom King’s run on Batman is my favorite there. Apparently enough people dislike it and sales are down slightly, so they’ve reduced King’s issues from 100 down to 85. It seems King’s Batman is not for everyone. But I find it terrific — a delightfully weird, deep dive into what truly motivates Batman.

‘She Who Laughs Last…’ a sermon on Genesis 18

From 8th grade through the end of high school, I was always in a school where one of my parents was a teacher. That’s probably the main reason I never skipped a class in those years. Fast forward to college and, well, that record didn’t last. But I didn’t skip many or often because I discovered that once I skipped, it was easier to keep on skipping. While I had many flaws then (and now), I truly did not want to get into the habit of skipping class. So I kept it to a minimum.

As a fully formed adult, I’ve found that same principle to hold for going — or rather not going — to both the gym and church. Both seem to be at least somewhat beholden to habit: go regularly and it is easier to keep going. Skip once and it is easier to skip a second time; easier still to skip a third time. I suspect the relationship may even be exponential. So I keep going. Even — especially? — when I don’t feel like it. (Plus, going to church is, you know, my job.)

It seems that same idea applies to my blogging. Stop posting and it is easy to keep not posting. Even when I have something to say. Even when I cut out a newspaper article because I want to react to it. (Yes, I am old.) Even when I have easily-usable “content” like a sermon recording. Hell, right now I have [checks docs] ten — ten! — sermon documents open on my word processor because I intended to post the audio for them.

And yet.

Nada, zip, zilch from me on here since [checks website] January! I actually thought it might have been since Christmas, so…yay me?

Anyhoo, how about audio from my sermon last week on Sarah and the important subversive nature of laughter?

Here are my thoughts on Genesis 17 & Genesis 18.

The Mayo Clinic on the healing power of laughter.

The Abraham Joshua Heschel quote:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

Here’s the audio. And here’s hoping it is at least slightly better than word salad non-sequiturs.

 

Featured image photo by Guille Álvarez on Unsplash

‘Temptation Wilderness’: a sermon on Matthew chapter 4

This is probably a bit odd, but despite the sermon title, I never did make a connection between the temptations Jesus faced in chapter 4 of Matthew’s* gospel and any of the recent TV shows that play on that theme. Boy howdy, did I make a slew of other references and winks, though. ‘Cause, you know, gotta be me.

My thesis was Jesus used his power to care for others and lift them up. We’re called to do the same. As always, I’m interested in knowing how what I intended to say compares to what you hear. All the visuals I used (plus a bonus one or two) are below, after the audio.

The many faces of the Devil/devil/tempter/tester…or could it be…Satan??

 

devil angel wings
devil with angel wings

 

devil bat wing
bat wing devil

 

devil shazam
Shazam! devil

 

devil ghost
ghost devil

 

devil sith lord
Sith Lord devil? Or is it tall Jawa devil?

 

devil dante lovitz
Dante-Lovitz devil

 

devil black lagoon
WTH??

 

Maps! We’ve got maps. I know I struggle to remember where to find all the places mentioned in the story, so these help me.

zebulun & naphtali map

 

galilee capernaum

 

 

Bonus image! I didn’t think of this in time, but I should have shown the congregation what Spider-Gwen looks like. (I couldn’t re-find the devil image that reminded me of her.)

spider gwen

 

Obviously didn’t show this during worship. But still. Seriously, see. this. movie. “It’s amazing. You could even say it is spectacular.”

 

*Fun aside…thanks to the absolutely fantastic Marvel/Neflix series, Daredevil and its tantalizing and fun companion, The Defenders, every time I say or write “Matthew,” I hear Elodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios distinctively intoning that name. Every. time. You can get a sense of it in this video. But, seriously, watch those shows. Luke Cage too. I’m really ticked they are all cancelled.

Featured Image photo by Andrew DesLauriers on Unsplash

‘We’re Related to…Them??’: a sermon on Matthew 1

Brevity. Not a quality for which many pastors are known. At least not when we’re in preaching mode. We tend to like to talk. A lot. The truth is (at least in my experience both listening to sermons and giving them), a short sermon that is also a good sermon is much more difficult to achieve than a longer sermon. The easiest, most natural path for a preacher to take is to just keep talking.

I don’t know if this sermon here on Matthew 1:1-17 from December 30th is good. But clocking in at about eight minutes, I say it qualifies as short. It is half as long as many of my sermons. (Even approaching one-third as long as when I am most verbose.)

At the very least, it should make the students in our Confirmation class happy. Earlier this year, analyzing and critiquing their worship experience, they determined what we really need is shorter sermons. Or, as they put it, “shorter long-talk talk time.” If that’s not the perfect description of how 13 year olds (or, honestly, most people regardless of age) consider sermons, I don’t know what is. Love it.

I attempted to communicate: Whatever skeletons are in your family’s closet, you’ve got nothing on Jesus. One parishioner told me that idea really helped them better accept the way their family sometimes fails them. That’s better feedback than I often get. Maybe I should aim for shorter more often? I’m always interested to know what you hear and how that compares to what I thought I said. What message (if any) comes through to you?

With help from the commentary embedded in the version of this scripture in The Voice translation and from Professor Gerald C. Liu at Working Preacher, here then is my shorter long-talk talk time*:

 

*Please forgive the nasally quality of my voice in this recording. I was fighting a bad cold that day.

‘Now for Something Completely Extra’: a Christmas Eve sermon

I know it’s New Year’s Eve, but let’s get in the WABAC Machine and set it for…one week ago. Way back when it was Christmas Eve. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Christmas Eve is kind of a big deal in (most) Christian churches. It certainly is in our congregation.

Christmas Eve at Woodridge United Methodist Church is full of candlelight and carols — even at our early worship gathering (this year at 5pm, so after dark). That service usually has plenty of children too. It feels like a momentous night: expectations of a good-sized crowd; a desire for everything to go just right — but trying to convince myself that no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, we will worship as faithfully as we are able. Plenty of potential too: for seeing people and families who have drifted away; for welcoming first-time guests; for surprises along the way. (All of which moved out of the realm of potential and into the actual!)

Even though I know better, some part of me thinks that if the evening can just be perfect enough, people will be impressed, will see that ours is a down-to-earth congregation doing our best to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the real world as it as even as we work to bring about the world as it should be where all people experience love and justice. If they can see and feel that, perhaps they will join us on this journey.

All of that combines to make for an exciting and nerve-wracking night. Not unlike when company comes over or taking a final exam. I’m nervous and excited because I know it is important and a lot can be riding on the result. I feel it as the college student bores holes into me with his stare. I feel it when the 11 year old pays no attention whatsoever. I feel it when the grandmother laughs. I feel it when the long-time member gives me the slightest nod or smirk. I feel it when a different long-time member drops his gaze into his lap. What does that all mean? Am I simply projecting import and reaction? I can’t say for certain.

How does one approach preparing a sermon for such a night? It’s a bit of a conceit for me to post that question in that way. As if there is a universal answer. All I can tell you is how it went for me.

Our texts for the evening were the usual ones for Christmas Eve: portions of Isaiah 9 and Luke 2.

During my preparations, my wife requested, “Teach us something.” Our kids implored me, “Don’t be boring!” Me, being me, desired to be funny, to get a reaction or five. As with all sermons, I want the hearer to learn something, to feel something, and to have a way to respond, to carry the message on into their life. The hard truth is that not all sermons live up to that. But I think this one was pretty good. Of course, it is ultimately not up to me to say to what degree I was successful.

I can tell you without doubt or reservation that I had fun writing and giving this sermon. I hope that comes through. Let me know what you hear* and what you think.

 

Singing and praying and working until all people are treated like the image-bearers of God that they are? That’s good news. God calls us to start with those our society shoves to the bottom. That’s the extra good news. That’s the extra love God births into the world through you and through me and through us. That’s what Christmas is all about, friends. 

*If you want to play Dave’s Sermon Bingo, here are a few things for which you can listen:

References/homages to (or at least slight nods toward):

  1. Monty Python (as one parishioner suggested, what I really needed was a giant animated foot to drop)
  2. Peanuts
  3. Doctor Who
  4. Dodgeball
  5. Old School
  6. Home Alone (actually this is a sight gag, so you might not be able to catch it in the audio)

Plus one swipe each at:

  1. Trump
  2. Michael Madigan
  3. Climate change deniers

How many did you notice?

 

 

 

‘Everybody Move’: a sermon on Luke 2 & ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’

The fourth and final Sunday of Advent happened the day before Christmas Eve.* So it was already a challenge to separate Sunday’s message from one to give the next day. Add on the bonus level challenge of the same scripture reading as Christmas Eve (Luke 2:8-20)…and the result is one confused preacher. Fortunately, I had the African-American spiritual, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” to pull me out of my own mucked up mind.

As previously noted, our church used Mary Had a Baby by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Marilyn E. Thornton for both our Advent study and the focus of our Advent worship.

Mary Had a Baby

Eventually I figured my best course of action was to simply admit it and lean into my confusion about both what day it was and how to differentiate that day from Christmas Eve. Baptizing a baby named Brandon during worship that day helped. You’ll hear him referenced. There’s also a slight nod toward Lord of the Rings.

I think I was trying to say that as tempting as it is to want to keep things the same, we don’t grow that way. God calls us into the present and future to increase justice in the world. Top moments, as I see them:

Today is full to the brim with potential energy. Just waiting to burst forth. But that’s also the problem. Too often we’re content with the potential. Too often we convince ourselves that staying put is for the best.

And, quoting Mary Had a Baby:

“Go Tell it on the Mountain” reminds us to tell the story about a child who faced homelessness, poverty, lack of documentation, injustice, possible imprisonment, and death.

What do you hear? How should we go and tell this gospel story?

 

*The day my kids would call “Christmas Eve Eve.” Because they, like so many others I’ve encountered, think “Eve” means “the day before.” I disabuse them of this notion in my Christmas Eve sermon. Ok, I had to disabuse myself of that notion too.

 

‘Time to Go!’: a sermon on Mary’s song, Joseph’s census, & ‘Children, Go’

If that title suggests to you that this sermon might be trying to do too much…well, I probably can’t argue with you. It’s probably not my best. Still, though, I thought the conclusion was actually pretty good. Poignant, even. I’m not sure my congregation agreed. Maybe it was too on the nose? (If so, just wait until you hear my Christmas Eve sermon!)

For Advent this year, our study groups read Mary Had a Baby by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan & Marilyn E. Thornton (photo above). So we based our Advent worship gatherings on the book too. That’s why our readings didn’t follow a lectionary (neither Narrative nor Revised Common) — we used the scripture and the spiritual referenced in each chapter. This week those were Luke 2:1-7 and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” But I also wanted to talk about the original Advent song: Luke 1:46-55.*

My intended thesis (quoting author Arundhati Roy),

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

came as a result of reading Fred Clark’s Advent series.

Info on the route Mary and Joseph might have taken came largely from Adam Hamilton’s book, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem.

Here’s the audio:

What did you think, was the conclusion over the top?

We can hear this new world breathing every time we become aware of those movements into freedom and justice too.

This new world, she takes a breath every time a parolee puts on a new suit.** 

This new world, she takes a breath every time a person experiencing a mental illness receives support and treatment. 

She takes a breath every time a lonely child is welcomed at a lunch table.

She takes a breath every time a grieving person is comforted. 

She takes a breath every time a woman is believed when she reports abuse. 

This new world, she takes a breath every time a hungry child gets a free meal at school.

This new world, she takes a breath every time a person experiencing homelessness receives not just a meal and shelter but a kind word.

She takes a breath every time a refugee or asylum seeker finds a safe place to stay like Mary & Joseph & Jesus did.

She takes a breath every time a law or an accepted practice meant to keep an African American “in their place” is repealed or dismantled.

She takes a breath every time one of us sees the humanity in someone who is different from them.

She takes a breath every time one of us recognizes that those we oppose are struggling too.

She takes a breath every time we break down a barrier or reach across an aisle of divide.

 

*Yes, we read that one from The Message. I really liked the way it rendered verse 52: “knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.” Seemed the best way to reckon with Trump’s America.

**That’s a thing, I’m proud to say, Woodridge UMC is helping to make happen.

An arresting thought

“Some things are worth losing for.”

I was driving, listening to a podcast (my current preferred in-car entertainment) when I heard that statement. It was arresting. Almost literally. I was so struck by that thought that I had to pull over to process it for a moment.

“Some things are worth losing for.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite authors, said that in a conversation with Chris Hayes. With the 2019 Special General Conference just two months away, those words loom ever larger. As ridiculous as it is that this still needs to be said; as ridiculous as it is that this is a “controversial” thing to say in church, let me be clear:

I and we (meaning our congregation at Woodridge UMC) believe LGBTQ+ people should have all the rights available to heterosexual, cisgender people both in civil life and in the United Methodist Church.

That should just be a given: as followers of Jesus, advocating for the humanity of all people and treating people the way we want to be treated should be first and foremost how we define ourselves. And yet, especially in the UMC right now, that is anything but a given*. In fact, no matter how well the Special General Conference goes, we are unlikely to achieve equality in 2019. Worse, we may even lose some of the gains we’ve achieved toward inclusion. But if we do, it will be worth it to stand with marginalized people for justice. “Some things are worth losing for.”

Last week the Reconciling Ministries Network offered an inspiring statement, “Called, Committed, and Faithful.” I recommend you read the whole thing. Here’s a taste:

We tirelessly dedicate ourselves to living the reality of our baptismal vows: resisting evil, injustice, and oppression. We do this by seeking justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities….

We witness the lives of many of our friends who have not felt welcome inside the doors of United Methodist churches. Their calling, their ministry, and even their baptism have been questioned. But we still believe in the best of what The United Methodist Church can be: a movement where social and personal holiness blossom in a wide variety of contexts including in communities outside of the United States.

We have much to learn together.

 

*Truthfully, supporting full LGBTQ+ inclusion was certainly not always a given for me either. I had a conversion experience — in seminary of all places! — after leaving the white evangelical subculture. I most recently shared that story as part of a sermon called, “Ruining Our Good Name.” You can listen to it here.