Liturgy, Prayer, The People Pray

Maybe we didn’t sleep much

Holy One,

Maybe we didn’t sleep much last night.
It’s a familiar feeling
from the last time,
and all the other times
when the news holds headlines
that shake our comfortable worlds.

We need shaking, Lord.
We need it so we don’t forget.
We need it so we speak up.

We see the sour fruit of violence
when we see the way the strong,
the armed, the militarized,
treat the undefended.

Give us courage
to say the things
that need to be said,
to walk the walk
that needs to be walked,
to live the lives
you call us to live.

Help us, please,
for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Photo by Tito Texidor III on Unsplash

I wrote a version of this prayer during the protests after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. I wish it didn’t bear repeating. You’re welcome to use the prayer or the image in whatever way is useful this week. 

I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.

Matthew 13:31-33, Reflectionary

Good Trouble

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." (Matthew 13:33, NRSV)

In looking at this week’s gospel reading, my focus has been on Matthew 13:31-33, the mustard seed and the yeast. As I wrote last week, we may be tempted to assign allegorical roles to the movements in these very brief parables, but instead let’s look at the overall image created. A tiny seed is sown and grows to an unlikely size, thus making a home for many birds. A woman leavens a huge amount of flour that when baked can feed many people. What is the kingdom of heaven like? Something small and hidden does its work and creates something new that is greater than expected and beneficial to many. 

I spent time this weekend reflecting on the life of Congressman John Lewis, whose courageous and faithful actions over his lifetime influenced and benefited many. I’m wondering today, what if the kingdom of heaven is like good trouble? It was a phrase he used repeatedly, in speeches and even on Twitter. 

Despair is a familiar feeling when we watch video of protestors assailed by federal police in camo and wonder what we can do, or see the COVID-19 infection rate climb in many communities across the U.S., or moderate conflicted conversations among church leaders about returning (or not) to in-person worship. The cure comes in our God-inspired actions.

As the poet Eve Ewing writes, “‘good trouble’ is powerful as a shorthand for the idea that disrupting the rules in pursuit of the greater good is honorable & righteous.” So, how is the kingdom of heaven like good trouble? It’s a powerful question for individuals but also for the church as a collective. These times insist we disrupt the rules that have worked for us in the past.

What greater good are we growing? What seeds will we sow as we reinvent what it means to be the church? What spreading network of care and habitation can we build even while our worship takes place at a distance? St. Paul’s UCC in West Milton, PA, had just taken over a local food bank when the pandemic hit and had to immediately expand its reach as area residents faced layoffs and economic uncertainty over the past four months. 

What are we nurturing? The yeast in the parable is not like the packets we have shared with each other during the Stay-at-Home orders but rather an old-fashioned sourdough. It takes time and dark and quiet to ferment and reach its full capacity, and it requires continued care to stay alive. This image connects for me to the Wall of Moms who joined the nightly protests this weekend in Portland, Oregon, making their own good trouble and setting an example for anyone who thinks that protesting is for someone else. 

(Bev) Barnum, who is Mexican American, teamed up with Don’t Shoot Portland, a Black-led advocacy group that has been fighting for social change in Portland since 2014. They are currently demonstrating for justice in the July 10 shooting death of teenager Shai’India Harris.

“We are just amplifying their message,” Rebecca, another mom that joined Barnum, told CNN. “Parents have always been out there protesting. Black mothers have been doing this forever trying to get justice for their children.”

From Dozens of Moms formed a human shield via CNN

“We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, reflecting on both parables.*

Our leadership plants the seeds. Our actions incorporate the needed leaven. Our collective care keeps the movement alive. It’s good trouble, and necessary trouble, and I hope it’s an expression of the kingdom of heaven.

I’m influenced this week by re-reading the work of Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Harper Collins, 2014, pp. 166-167. Levine reviews classic Christian interpretations of the parables, then offers a different lens both from her own Biblical scholarship and the context of Jesus’ time.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Who works for us?

So he said, "I am Abraham's servant." 
(Genesis 24:34, NRSV)

As Revised Common Lectionary preachers continue to work through the multi-generational family history of Genesis, this week we meet an unnamed servant of Abraham who is tasked with a dynasty-making errand, to find a bride for Isaac. I’ve read this story many times, and my reflections on it in the past were more familial and less political. We can see the fairy tale element in it. The “right” young woman is at the well, and in the end, she will marry a man who loves her and who, though not a literal prince, is the heir to our faith heritage. And they lived happily ever after… (until next Sunday). I am also influenced by my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney‘s reading of the story in Womanist Midrash, particularly her description of Rebekah’s strong character nurtured in a matrilineal culture. Her family sends her with Abraham’s servant only after she consents to go. (v. 58)

We find systems of social status in this long ago story that still exist. The meeting at the well with Rebekah is told twice, once as it happens and then in this retelling by the servant. The segments of chapter 24 chosen by the lectionary minimize Rebekah’s experience and focus instead on a negotiation promoting the profile of the father of the potential groom by highlighting his wealth. The rich man’s son doesn’t have to travel and be put at risk. A servant will bargain for his bride.

Isaac is a son of privilege.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests against racial injustice point us toward interrogating privilege, both Isaac’s and ours. Who works for us? Whose work supports us and our way of living? Who goes out into the world and risks life and health so that we have what we want? This angle will feel different if you have essential workers in your congregation. They are like the servant who travels to get what his master wants. 

Next week this system of privilege will come to us again in the struggle between Jacob and Esau. I am having a staycation and won’t be writing text reflections for July 12, but I encourage you to read those texts, too, with our current times in mind. The struggle between the two brothers is the same conflict at the root of our sin of racism. Where there is jealousy and competition there is a fear that there will not be enough to go around and a belief that we must win at all costs. This theology of scarcity fuels White Supremacy. We are all captive to it until we are all free from it.