Mark 10:17-31, Sermons

That Would Be Enough

It’s that most wonderful season of the year, when we gather together all our financial information not only to meet with our accountants or tax preparers, but for those of us with college students, it’s time to do battle with the almighty FAFSA and its elitist cousin, the College Profile. Mind you, we are extremely grateful for the financial aid our daughter receives. Doing the paperwork is well worth the trouble in the end, but there are always moments in the midst of it when we wonder how anyone could be expected to keep track of all these things.

And we often reach a point of mild hysteria along the way.

This year it came as we researched the value of our cars. Kathryn drives a used-when-she-bought it 2001 Honda Odysse, thus called because the “y” in Odyssey long ago dropped off the back of the van. She asked, “Want to hear how much my car is worth?” “Sure,” I said. “$942.” Let that sink in. “And yours…” she said while typing, “is worth $517.”

“What?!??!!! That can’t be right,” I insisted.

I drive a 2005 Volvo V70. It has to be worth more than her Honda. The tires cost more than that!

I don’t think of myself as someone who gets wound up about the value of cars, but I didn’t like hearing mine be devalued. And as it turned out she had the year wrong; mine is worth a whopping $1702.

If we were to follow the counsel of Jesus to give up our earthly goods and use them to care for the poor, these two cars would not go very far, although at least they’re long since paid for. Would that be enough?

What *would* be enough?

This gospel story asks all of us that question. It’s a warning to the faithful, not scolding but loving. The riches of this world get in the way of our relationship with God.

It’s hard to hear that even when we consider ourselves to be fully committed people of faith, and it’s no coincidence that this is the story of a person who defined himself the same way, a striver in his religious practices who wanted to take it all one step further.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He went away grieving. Jesus didn’t ask him to tithe a full ten per cent, or to set up an endowment fund for widows and orphans to be managed carefully by a board of trustees. He didn’t ask him to go to a state college instead of the Ivy League and give  the difference to a deserving poor student. He told the man to sell it all and give the money away and follow him.

What would be enough?

One of the suggestions for a Lenten practice floating around on Facebook features a picture of a big black garbage bag, the idea being that you spend Lent picking out one thing each day from your closet that you no longer wear or need, then at the end give away the bag with forty items of unwanted clothing…

I’m not against giving away clothes to those in need, but please note the key phrase in that description is “no longer wear or need.” Give away your excess and at the end you will be rewarded with a more manageable closet! That’s a fine life practice, to pare down the unnecessary, but since this suggestion has been adopted by fashion websites urging people to get rid of their old and out-of-style clothing for their own sake, it’s easy to see how far from Jesus’ intent this can get, quickly.

Valentine's Day is hard in Lent.
Valentine’s Day is hard in Lent.

Lent has traditionally been a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We take on practices or try to give up habits with the intention of becoming closer to God, making space not between clothes hangers but for spiritual pursuits outside of our ordinary schedule. We make space for prayer and contemplation, space for cultivating a deeper awareness of God through some new or renewed spiritual practice, space for hunger and desire we ordinarily slake with chocolate or wine or whatever one’s pleasure might be. Perhaps we create space in our budget to save money and give it to those in need, even space created by the lack of the thing from which we fast. These activities come at a cost; we give up something we like or enjoy or even zone out on in order to make more space and time for relationship with God.

The first Sunday in Lent usually brings us a passage about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness. Mark’s is the shortest:

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

It’s Peter he calls Satan later on, in a passage we read on Ash Wednesday. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus says, when Peter tempts Jesus to think of a scenario in which things are easier, an end to the story that does not result in arrest and torture and death. Peter wants to keep his beloved teacher with him. We can understand that. We are tempted by the things we want, the things that make us feel secure, our sense of the value of things we have purchased.

Volvo’s bringing sexy wagons back and the new 2017 V90 proves it. You know you want it.

The other day we saw a “leaked” picture of the new Volvo wagon, a V90 described by one car website as “one hot family hauler.” It looks so shiny; the version pictured is silver.

I immediately said, “But it’s not just that it’s pretty. You feel so safe in them, with all the air bags.”

Get thee behind me, Volvo.

It’s a danger for preachers and readers that we want to narrow this story and make it only about the Rich Young Man. *He* had a lot of money, and clearly that was *his* problem. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus goes on to assure the disciples that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. How can anyone be saved, they wonder?

“…for God, all things are possible,” Jesus tells them.

Peter, who is never afraid to get himself into more conversational trouble, says, “But seriously, man, we already gave it all up to follow you.”

What *would* be enough?

Jesus goes on to say some things we may find a little obscure: he makes it pretty clear that following him in this life doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be poor and have nothing. That we should listen carefully is signaled by the beginning of this speech, “Truly I tell you.” Listen up! Here it comes.

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

It all sounds great until we get to “persecutions.” We won’t necessarily be poor, or lose our families forever if we follow him, but there are going to be some ramifications, some consequences, some persecutions. If we accept the invitation to follow him, we have to be ready to lose what matters to us.

Mark 10:17-31 Agnus Day copy
From Agnus Day

Jesus made sure the Rich Young Man knew the basics: we show love for God by following the commandments that keep us in good relationship with others. He looked at the Rich Young Man not with scorn but with love. It’s important to remember that. Then Jesus told him the deeper truth: he needed to do more than fulfill the basic requirements. Doing his best meant giving up the things and the status that made the Rich Young Man feel secure.

He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

What *would* be enough?

Maybe it’s enough to try our best. We don’t know what that means for other people; sometimes it’s hard enough to know for ourselves. Trying our best means being prepared to be wrong sometimes, as Peter was. Trying our best means giving it all we have. Trying our best means giving up whatever keeps us from following Christ.

God took human form in Jesus and told us the truth: it’s going to be hard to follow me, but try your best.

We build it right into our covenants with God and one another. When we are baptized, or when we join the church, we affirm that we want to follow God, but because it’s hard we say, “I will, with the help of God.”

*That* would be enough. That would be enough.

And it’s a lot.

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

Thanks be to God, who is enough. Amen.

((A sermon for Lent 1, NL Year 2 – February 14, 2016 – Mark 10:17-31))


The Book of Hope

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Yesterday we started a re-watch of the Star Wars movies, with the real *first* movie, Episode IV, A New Hope. It’s been almost 40 years since I first saw it, since I watched the iconic credits roll and heard the soon-to-become famous lines spoken by the actors who will always be associated with their characters. The people who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away were in trouble, and they pinned their hopes on a young man who had only just learned about The Force, Luke Skywalker.

Manasseh sacrifices his son.
Manasseh sacrifices his son.

I suspect his story is better-known to most of us than that of the central character in our readings today, although his tale could make its own interesting chapter in an epic movie series. Josiah came from a long line of mostly wicked kings who ruled in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh was the Emperor Palpatine of Judah; he reigned 55 years and “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” shedding much innocent blood. Josiah’s father, Darth Amon, was so terrible that his own servants killed him and put an 8-year-old child on the throne in his place.

Somehow, despite the evil of their leaders, there were still people who wanted to follow God, who wanted something better. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they thought there was a possibility of change. They looked at the child, Josiah, and somehow they saw a new hope.

In a world of confusion where do we find answers?

In the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, which was all over TV this weekend, you hear the presumed heroine say, “There were stories about what happened.” After a moment’s pause, a voice responds. “It’s true. All of it.” Of course we feel relieved to hear the familiar voice of our old friend, Han Solo, and to see his face, offering her these assurances. Why, it’s only been thirty years, if I’m reading the ads the right way! Are you telling me people don’t know what happened?

Yes. Yes. Somehow the story has been lost, but it is not lost beyond all hope. Surely if they remember the story, things will get better, right?

Josiah became king at age 8, and scripture tells us he did what was right. The description of him says “he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”

He was unusually faithful, and his supporters must have been, too, or it’s hard to imagine he would have survived to adulthood. We meet him eighteen years later, when he decides it’s time to rebuild the Temple. His grandfather let it fall into disrepair; this was one more thing to set right.

Josiah sent his secretary to visit with the High Priest, to give him all the money that will be needed to repair the damage and rebuild what cannot be fixed, and the High Priest, a kind of Obi-Wan, tells him that he has found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.

Now, it sounds strange to us that the book of the Law might have been missing, and it’s not clear whether it was actually lost, or whether the high priest has been keeping it safe until a trustworthy king came along again. But whether by strategy or accident, the book of the law has been lost. There were stories, but were they true?

It’s easy to forget in our age of information that stories were lost, and that history was written by the winners, that treasured documents might be hidden away carefully and not seen again by human eye.

Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.
Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.

Josiah had been on the throne for 18 years. It took that long for the high priest to risk it. We believe that scroll held the core of the book of Deuteronomy, the laws carried from the wilderness into Jerusalem and kept in the Temple. The laws warn at length against idol worship and pagan practices, set up dietary restrictions, establish the practice of tithing and marking the Passover, give justice into the hands of priests and judges and set limits on the power of kings, and institutes some measure of fairness in dealings with family members, neighbors and enemies, as well as some measure of brutality that we would consider primitive today.

The results were dramatic. Josiah tore his clothes, a sign of repentance. He realized that although he was a good person, with the best intentions for his kingdom, he was completely ignorant of God’s commands. This discovery could change everything!

Josiah called together his advisors and sent them to a prophetess for confirmation. Then Josiah brought together all the elders in his kingdom and went to the Temple, and he read them the words of the book of the law, and together they affirmed their covenant with the Lord. Josiah would depose all the idol-worshiping priests and bring about the first real celebration of the Passover since before the first king ruled in Israel. He hoped this would make things right.

This is where I would like to say “The End” and bring down the curtain on a scene of the refurbished Temple. (Sort of like the party with the Ewoks.) But Josiah died in battle, and his son, Darth Jehoahaz? Did evil in the sight of the Lord. Things got darker for the people of Judah, until a few kings later, they lost their struggle against Babylon. The Hebrew elite traveled to exile, while the less interesting and valuable stayed behind to live in occupied Jerusalem and witness the dark day when the Temple was destroyed.

In a world of darkness where do we find light?

See what I mean about a movie? Josiah seems like a perfect hero, but instead of overcoming evil forever, he dies a mortal death. Sometimes one good guy – or gal, it looks like it’s a gal in the new Star Wars movie – but sometimes one good guy isn’t enough.

Well, really, one good guy is never enough unless that guy is more than human.

We have a tendency to put our hope in each other, to make heroes out of mortals, and to engage in our own desperate and wrongheaded idol worship. Whether they are megachurch pastors, popular speakers, athletic prodigies, billionaire businesspeople or winning politicians, our society often puts its faith in whatever looks shiniest at the moment.

Everything is a popularity contest, with polls and surveys and statistics used to determine agendas, styles and flavors. It’s a vicious circle.

The Hebrew people had their own vicious circle. They didn’t like the results they got with God, so they worshipped other gods. If there was no rain, they worshipped Ba’al. If one sacrifice didn’t work, they made a bigger one. They made their situation worse with each terrible decision.

I’ve stood here a lot of times in the past year and said words to the effect that things can’t get much worse, but I imagine they can. Our general disregard for one another, our obsession with weapons, our prejudice against people who look different or think differently continue to collide until we cannot listen to the stories anymore. The stories get lost, because there are so many of them.

We see these cycles play out again and again. Josiah ruled for thirty-one years out of 347 years of kings of Judah. Eight were good, and he was the last of them. He could disrupt the cycle, but he couldn’t end it. The people of Israel and Judah fell out of relationship with God; no one person could fix it.

And there is no one person, male or female, who can get us out of this mess in which we seem bent on breaking every kind of code God has set down for us, for treating our families, our neighbors and even our enemies.

There is no one human person who can do it.

A new hope?
A new hope?

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Our hope is in the Lord.

And every Advent we hope – WE HOPE – that the cycle will be disrupted. We practice anticipation. We wait for the One who is coming, God breaking into the world, the Word of God, coming into the world to save us from isolation and despair, to show us how to love each other the way he loves us. And that sounds good, but it is not enough. Those words, the ones meant to guide us, are already written down. We are not waiting for a new story this Advent; we are being prodded to behave as if we have already heard the old one, to put down our weapons and outgrow our fears and remember the stories and gather together as one people, God’s people.

The Living Word, Jesus Christ, is our Book of Hope. It’s time to renew our covenant with him.

In the name of the One God coming into the world, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark 2:1-12, Sermons

That’s What Friends Are For

I’m terrible at artsy-craftsy things. Terrible. But I understand why we do crafts in Sunday School, because making the image of a story has the power to imprint it on us in different ways. There are some stories I remember because of the pictures in a book or a children’s Bible, but there are others that became part of my life through folding paper or coloring or gluing things together or twisting pipe cleaners or some combination of the above plus or minus popsicle sticks and string (although I prefer yarn).

It must have been a group project. I want to think it was, because it’s hard to imagine I constructed the three-dimensional paper house with the removable roof and the man on the stretcher alone. I also hate to think of the poor teachers who might have been supervising a classroom full of kids all working individually, with scissors (I forgot to mention those before) and crayons and string and all that paper.

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-4, NRSV)

I remember the house, and I remember how fragile it seemed, and I can see the flat little man on the paper stretcher. I think the edges of the paper folded around a string on each side, the long ends used by the friends to lower the paper man into the house.

We children, of course, lowered him ourselves.

We were the friends who removed the roof.

Now I tend to identify with the man who was paralyzed. I have lived through times when I was stuck, and unable to help myself, and only a friend’s love and care made a difference. I can feel the story from the perspective of a person lying down, carried through town on a mat, hearing the sounds of other people’s voices on either side and wondering how your friends were going to get you into the place where they expected to find help and healing.

I’ve only been in an ambulance once, but I remember the feeling of helplessness and disorientation. I had an attack of vertigo during a middle school poetry reading – my son Peter was a 7th-grader – and a teacher who was also a friend from church called 911. It was scary to be so dizzy — the room actually appeared to be spinning around me, but the more frightening time began as paramedics loaded me onto a gurney and into the ambulance. The ride was rough. They were taking my vital signs, and on the radio I heard a blood pressure number that sounded high. Was that mine, I asked? I had no idea what was happening, maybe I was having a stroke! No, no, they reassured me. But when they finished taking mine, it was even higher; it was going through the roof!

Even after we got to the hospital, where I knew help would come, it was hard to get my bearings.

Imagine the care with which the four friends carried the paralyzed man up the stairs outside the house. That’s how those houses were built, with a roof you could use as outdoor space, and a staircase along the side of the building. Imagine the confusion of lying there, paralyzed, your safety in the hands of people you trust, but not knowing quite what they will do next.

You may remember the song, “That’s What Friends are For” –

Keep smilin’ keep shinin’
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for

It was written for a movie, but it became better-known when Dionne Warwick recorded a cover with her friends Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. The record was a fundraiser for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It was the mid-1980s. Awareness of AIDS and HiV began to spread, but before many people understood how the *disease* was spread, there was an enormous amount of fear and misinformation in the world. It may be hard to remember that now, thirty years later, but it’s the truth.

Warwick told the Washington Post, “You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friend die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt.”

Those four friends raised over $3 million for AMFAR, but they did more; they helped remove the roof of closed minds, digging through misconceptions to bring about healing.

That’s what friends are for.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  

I don’t remember that part from when I was a little girl. I only remember it was his friends who made sure he got to see Jesus.

They removed the roof of a house. Listen to that! Don’t just pass it by. Read it out loud.

They removed the roof!!!

“And after having dug through it”…dig that!

I have an unsurprising tendency, as a liberal Christian who also majored in English, to suck the reality out of Bible stories and teach them as metaphor. And there are surely many metaphors to be explored. But we need to hear this story literally.

(Make a note of the date. I asked you to read something from the Bible literally. This won’t happen often.)

We need to hear this story literally.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

A group of friends helped me through another time of difficulty, of emotional paralysis. I had a postpartum depression so severe that I spent almost a week in the hospital. When I got home, I was flat and sad, and not sure how I would manage to take care of my three little children. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out what exactly. Then the women in my Bible study group decided that in addition to bringing my family dinner for several weeks, they would pay for someone I knew to come and clean my house.

When one of them called to tell me, I cried. This was such a kind gesture, but the house was a wreck. And I am well-trained. You pick up the house before you let someone else clean it! I didn’t see how I could do that myself. The task was beyond me.

My friend on the phone said, “Don’t worry. I’ll come pick up the house with you.”

With each toy we put away, each stray sock we placed in a hamper, each piece of clean laundry folded and placed in a dresser drawer, I felt a little better; I moved a little more easily.

We have the power to do this for each other,

to do this for our friends,

to do this by being friends to one another.

That’s what friends are for.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

Remember what the scripture said:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is when Jesus forgave the man.

Jesus Mafa - the friends who removed the roof
Jesus Mafa – the friends who removed the roof

This is when Jesus healed him:

when Jesus saw the faith of his friends,

a faith that gave them courage to take the roof off a neighbor’s house,

a faith that gave them courage to put him down right in front of God.

We have the power to do this for our friends. Maybe someone has done it for you.

That’s what friends are for.

In the name of the One who heals and forgives, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(This is week #2 in a series on Favorite Bible Stories; the story is one of my particular favorites. This sermon is drawn in part from a blog post I wrote in 2012, when this text was not in the lectionary. It only appears in years when Easter is late.)

Favorite Bible Stories, Sermons

How will we feed all these people?

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9, NRSV)

I always seem to start in a new ministry position on a Communion Sunday, and it always calls up memories of my nervous anticipation about presiding over Communion at my ordination. There were about 300 people there, six times as many as we see on a Sunday here, and yet nowhere near the numbers who followed Jesus out onto that grassy plain. (John 6:1-14)

He had been healing people and challenging the authorities, and something about him made a huge group of people want to get closer to him. If nothing else they were curious about what would happen next. 5000 people is a lot of people. There were 3000 or so at the United Church of Christ General Synod in Cleveland, and I didn’t see half the people I hoped I would. I only ran into members of the Penn Central delegation once!

On our way back from Cleveland, we talked about camping vacations and wondered why campsites were appealing. I’ll admit to growing up in a family where camping never happened. I like the idea in theory, but I can’t help thinking that for moms especially, camping means packing all your stuff so that you can spend time preparing a meal in a more primitive setting, and then cleaning up the meal and starting on the next one.

Now imagine you are at a campsite with a lot of other families, and no one packed any food, and they are coming by to check out what’s in your larder.

A crowd of thousands stretches patience and resources quickly, especially when no one has prepared properly.

How will we feed all these people?

It is admittedly a set-up, the question Jesus asks about getting provisions for all those people. He knew something like this would happen. In John’s gospel, he is never surprised. John doesn’t spend time making the case that Jesus is human and divine. His Jesus is always and in every way God, from the prologue (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…) to the epilogue’s many post-Resurrection appearances.

We don’t know so much, cannot be sure of things in advance.

At my ordination, in my home church, we had Communion by intinction the way they always did it. I helped once as a student, holding a chalice, but the Communion logistics were otherwise opaque to me. On the big day, got through the words of the liturgy without stumbling. Now it was time to serve the people. I held the one plate of bread while the two Associate Pastors of the church stood on either side of me, each holding a chalice.

First my kids came up; Lucy was seven. It fills my heart up to remember it. Then the next few pews came, full of friends from my home church. Farther back somewhere was a group from the church that had called me to be their pastor, but I couldn’t see them.

It was a big church, and it was pretty full. I smiled and kept trying to call people by name, and tried not to count how many came forward, but I couldn’t help it. I worried about the provisions made for the day. As the loaf got smaller, the line got longer and the people got taller. No, really. I could not see past them. Each new face seemed to loom over me.

That kind of anxiety rules when we are excited or tired or overwhelmed.

Last December, you may remember, we drove to Massachusetts right after church one Sunday to hear Lucy sing in the annual Vespers service at Smith College. On that long car ride we discussed Christmas and in particular the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus. Like the disciples, we wondered how we would manage when the whole family descended upon us, and we upped the level of difficulty by inviting the choir from my wife’s church to a party between the later services. Did we have enough dishes, pots, pans, crock pots and punchbowls?

It’s possible we had the silliest argument ever.

The disciples have a real problem. They are out in a field. They don’t even have inadequate serving dishes. They have none whatsoever. Even if a town were close by, what store would have enough food for thousands of people? It’s not like they had the money anyway. Even six months’ wages would not feed such a crowd.

Providentially, Andrew noticed a kid who packed a better lunch than the string cheese, pretzels and applesauce my ten-year-old tends to put together. Apparently other people in the crowd did not plan ahead as well. And thanks be to God Jesus did not have to multiply those little drinkable yogurts.

Bread and fish were staple foods in the community.

How will we feed all these people?

This story is the Communion story in John’s gospel.

On the night we think of as the Last Supper, they share food, but the primary ritual enacted was the washing of feet, no “this is my body, broken for you.” This miraculous feeding of 5000 people – imagine it! – gives us the taking and breaking of bread, and the giving thanks for it. It is the beginning of a section in which Jesus talks more than once about being bread.

“I am the bread of life,” he says, “the bread come down from heaven. Those who eat this bread will never be hungry.”

Some of the best stories are only found in John, or they are a different version of a vaguely familiar story. John elaborates, creates characters, makes us feel like we’re not just reading a story. We are in the story. We get to know the disciples: Philip is dubious; Andrew is paying attention. There is a young boy. We picture a child with some sort of bag; maybe we think of the mother who packed his lunch. We might remember illustrations from children’s Bibles or Sunday School pictures, the robed groups sitting on the ground, and the baskets – where did they get the baskets? were they big ones? small ones? – and the baskets used to collect the leftovers.

Cerezo Barredo
Cerezo Barredo

And we picture Jesus, who knew this time would come, who knew that after he was gone many things would be different, but there would still be groups of the faithful gathering, and they would still get hungry, and they would still break bread. To remind them, in the great story from John 21, when the risen Christ appears to the disciples on the beach, he cooks breakfast for them over a charcoal fire, a breakfast of bread and fish.

He is God all along.

I believe in the power of God, who makes something out of what seems like not much.

Jesus gave thanks for the little boy’s packed lunch, for the five loaves and two fishes. And in the giving thanks, the miracle happens. Suddenly there was enough and more than enough. The disciples carried the food to the people, and no one left hungry. Jesus appeared to them and cooked breakfast himself. He left the disciples with the instruction to feed his sheep.

How will we feed all these people?

I wonder how the disciples felt after everyone had been fed. John tells us the crowd named Jesus as the prophet who was coming into the world, a way of describing the Messiah, the Son of God. A healing might help one person or one family, and be noticed by one neighborhood, but feeding 5000 people, with just five loaves and two fishes? Amazing. Disturbing.

Perhaps every miracle resides somewhere between anxiousness and wonder.

On my anxious and wonderful day of ordination, as the loaf began to approach the level of crumbs, an old friend and longtime Deacon appeared at my elbow. He was holding another plate, and on it was a fresh loaf.

I began to see the light at the end of the aisle.

How will we feed all these people?

The demands on the church feel overwhelming these days. There are so many needs in the world, needs for all kinds of feeding, both material and spiritual. We may feel like we have nothing to give, or that if we give what we have, there will be nothing left.

I believe in the power of God, who makes something out of what seems like not much. We will feed all these people, we will find our miracle, by giving thanks for what we have and sharing it beyond all the limits of our usual expectations.

God will multiply whatever we bring to the table. Amen.

(I am off-lectionary this summer, preaching a series on Favorite Bible Stories. This is #1.)


That Moment When

(A sermon on Mark 4:35-41)

That moment when lightning strikes.

Lucy is babysitting about a six-minute drive from our house, for a family living on the hill that looks out toward the Upper Allen ball fields and beyond, a place where you can see the storms coming in from the West. As I felt a storm building up last week, I hoped her employer would be home soon, and sure enough a text came saying she was on her way. I hurried over to their neighborhood to get Lucy, watching the sky get darker and feeling the thunder rumble across the valley.

And on the way home we saw the jagged brilliance of lightning, close to home.

It’s happened to me. Well, not actual meteorological lightning. Sometimes it comes in words we read, or a song we hear, or in prayer, or in conversation, or in the touch of a hand.

Sometimes the shocks are more palpable. This past week the house where Lucy babysits was hit by a car missing a turn in a middle of the night rainstorm. A few days before that, a Little League mom we know died in a car accident in the same neighborhood.

Suddenly the world is changed, illuminated, as full of electricity as a bolt of lightning.

That moment when you realize you can’t stay ahead of the storm. 

It was a dark and stormy night at the end of a long, tiring day. In these first chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus draws more and more attention to himself. First he creates a stir in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then he heals people: Peter’s mother-in-law, a man with a withered hand, a leper, a paralytic. He casts out demons. He argues with the Pharisees and even the disciples of John the Baptist about fasting. He flouts the Sabbath laws.

At the end of Chapter 3, his family comes to take him home, fearing he is possessed by demons. He rejects them and claims a new family, those who do the will of God.

At the beginning of chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel finds Jesus teaching a crowd so large that he gets into a boat and teaches from the Sea of Galilee. People are following him. In today’s lesson we read that other boats were with him, so we can picture a scene with crowds on the shore and boats gathered around, everyone listening to the man who has done such amazing things.

They must wonder what will happen next?

After a long day of trying to teach the people through parables, Jesus withdraws with his disciples. And the other boats follow. Exhausted, he goes to the back of the boat and falls asleep.

And that’s when the storm comes. Maybe the disciples see they can’t get ahead of it. Certainly the waves break up and into the boat, because they are swamped. The wind and the waves may have been enough, but I have to think the next moment that came was electrifying.

Nine victims of the Charleston church shooting.   Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton middle row: Daniel Simmons,  Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson
Nine victims of the Charleston church shooting.
Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
middle row: Daniel Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders
Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson

That moment when the storm is upon you.

His middle name is Storm, not a name his parents gave him, but a name he chose, calling himself Dylann Storm Roof. He walked through the door of Emanuel AME Church last Wednesday evening and asked to see the pastor. He was invited to join with the Bible Study, and sat with them for almost an hour, before the storm of violence would break. They were pastors, teachers, a librarian, a young man, an elderly lady, a coach, a recent college graduate, the faithful among the faithful who stayed after a long meeting to have a regularly-scheduled Bible Study.

Together they read verses from the Parable of the Sower found earlier in Mark, Chapter 4:

“Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”

I’ve thought a lot this week about the group of people who used to meet with me on Wednesday evenings, in my upstairs study at the first church I served, seven or eight of them each week: two nursery school teachers, a member of the Air National Guard, a young woman who grew up in the church, a mechanic, a retiree, a medical devices salesman. What would they have done, what would we have done, if a stranger had appeared and asked for the pastor, as Roof did on Wednesday night? Would we have invited him in? Knowing that particular group of faithful people, yes. They had a gift for welcoming people, a warmth that sometimes ended in advantage being taken, but we all agreed we would rather be kind than cynical. I feel safe in saying the race of the person coming to the door would have mattered less than the neediness of spirit.

Of course I can’t know this for certain, but isn’t that who we want to be as Christian people? It’s who the men and women gathered at Emanuel AME were.

Many of the reports and leaked quotes may turn out not to be true, but one I heard on Friday was that Dylan Storm Roof said he almost didn’t fire his weapon, because the people were so nice to him.

But he had a mission to complete.

We’ve heard that one young man stepped in front of his elderly aunt to protect her, while the other fired a weapon at people he never knew before, who were kind to him, who welcomed him.

What happened in that room will be reconstructed for the courtroom and the media, and yet we will never know fully how these faithful people responded to the violence unleashed upon them. We may hear the specifics, as we did in the Boston Marathon case, about injuries and causes of death and the order in which things happened, but we won’t know what was in the hearts of these new victims of domestic terrorism: fear, disbelief, a desire to protect those around them, an unyielding faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot know for certain what was in the heart of Dylan Storm Roof. The closest we can come is murderous anger, and the terrible sin of a cold, calculated and death-dealing act of racism and terror.

God cares that people have perished, are perishing. Do we?

That moment when you realize who was sleeping in the back of the boat all along. 

“Peace! Be still!”

Once he’s awake, Jesus solves the problem of the storm, but the disciples are still afraid. And who wouldn’t be? After all, what do they really know about Jesus? They’re still fairly new to each other. They know he’s smart. He can out-argue the scribes and Pharisees. They know he’s gifted. He can heal the sick of all sorts of ailments. They know he’s committed to his purpose. Even the arrival of his family does not deter him. He is breaking all the accustomed boundaries. He assures them they are his new family, if they do God’s will.

And he is sleeping through the storm, so they plead with him to do something.

“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

He scared them more than the storm did. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Who then?

No wonder they were frightened. It’s a lot to take in. Their teacher wasn’t just a religious revolutionary. He wasn’t simply a shaman with a good sense of timing. The disciples begged Jesus to wake up and save them, so they must have believed he could do something. Sail the boat better than they could? Keep them safe from life-changing lightning and the heart of the storm?

Instead he showed them his real power.

Who then was this? This Jesus was God.

That moment when you realize God is in the boat with you.

I wish I could say the disciples had a lightning bolt moment in the boat that day.

I wish I could say that from that moment forward the disciples understood Jesus completely, and that they then collected stories and writings that made him perfectly easy for us to understand today.

I’m afraid we know better. The gospel has forever been subject to human interpretation. Some read it and see a list of rules that shut people out; others read it and see a savior who invited people in, if they were willing to come.

Sometimes opening the door sounds easy, but more often it challenges our sense of who we are and even our sense of safety. It has to be true that in many African-American churches today, worshippers will look around carefully to see who is unfamiliar. Some have called for security to be put into place after bomb threats.

But our strength does not come from guards or guns. Our strength comes from Jesus, whose power is God’s power. It is the power of embrace, of love, of mercy, of forgiveness. Above all, it is the power of grace, God’s desire to be in relationship with us, a desire so deep and real that God lived into it, literally, in the human body of Jesus.

We are deeply tied by that desire for relationship, tied to other people who live in that relationship with God, and tied to all the people God loves. The color of their skin means nothing. We are all in the boat with Jesus. I wonder when we will let him quiet the storm instead of stirring it up ourselves. I wonder when we will let him still the thunder instead of throwing each other overboard.

Why are we afraid? Have we still no faith? The wind and the sea obeyed. When will we?

That moment when we all finally believe it.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermons, When I was a little girl

A New Family in Christ

After the service. (I had a much-needed stool for preaching.)
After the service. (I had a much-needed stool for preaching.)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at the church where I grew up and was baptized, Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. My childhood pastor, the Rev. Dr. L. Wilbur Kersey, is still active in ministry there, and he offered a generous welcome as well as some remarks that reminded my of why I loved being Baptist. He encouraged the congregation to be open-minded about women’s leadership in ministry and pointed out that although some would say Southern Baptists do not ordain women, there are thriving Baptist churches in Virginia led by women. In Baptist belief, there are no absolutes! (This may be why I was such a good Congregational UCC person, too.)

I preached on Ephesians 1:3-10 and Mark 3:31-35, reading both from the Common English Bible.


When I was a new pastor, serving my first church in Portland, Maine, I was amazed to find how many of the passages I preached reminded me of my hometown and my first church family. I was 40, and had lived away from Portsmouth for 25 years, but memories of the sidewalks of Olde Towne and the faces of Court Street Baptist still demanded my attention. And quite a few of the sermons I preached in that church began a little something like this:

“When I was a little Baptist girl growing up in Virginia…”

Sometimes I elaborated; I was a little Southern Baptist girl, or a little girl in Portsmouth, Virginia. I used that opening so many times in the first year that I worried it would grow tiresome, so I stopped it and looked for other ways to say things. Then one day, a dear lady said, as she shook my hand after a service, “Why don’t you ever tell us those stories anymore, about when you were a little girl in Virginia? I loved those.”

Across time and distance, those stories preached. And here I am, a grown woman, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, standing in a place that child never imagined standing, and that’s the way I’m going to start today.

Court Street Baptist, with unusual snow.
Court Street Baptist, with unusual snow.

When I was a little Southern Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I learned that Jesus loved me, and I learned it right here. I learned it sitting on a little chair in Sunday School. I learned it from Margaret Harrison and Charlotte Munday and Mary Trimble (who greeted me at the door this morning!).

It’s a comforting truth I have carried through my life, no matter where I lived or where I worshiped, when I was a stay-at-home mom or a commuting seminarian or a small church pastor. It’s an encouraging truth I have remembered through joys and sorrows and surprises and disappointments, in all kinds of health and every kind of weather, through changes in circumstances and revelations of self-understanding.

I’ve carried that truth and trusted it because I learned it at the knees of dear spiritual mothers, as I learned so many things from the spiritual parents who helped raise me in this church. So many people who gave their time and their good efforts to the children and youth of this church in the ‘60s and ‘70s left their marks on me and many others, through words spoken and smiles given and stories heard. Just like family events and stories, those interactions formed the children of this church.

Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to call our families part of our church. I know one of the joys for me in ministry has been worshipping with my children, who loved hearing those “little girl in Virginia” stories, especially when they included my impression of my father’s famously slow drawl – but those are stories in case I ever go visit at Monumental, where the other side of my family were members. You see, I never grew up associating *my* family with *church* family, because under our roof we represented two denominations that lived well together, and we claimed ancestors who founded Trinity Church down the street, and had a whole bunch of Episcopalians for cousins and friends, too. I knew there were a lot of flavors of Christians, and I understood us all to be part of one larger family.

But sometimes it goes back the other way, and our faith is a thing that gets in the way of having our earthly family relationships. We believe something differently – and the disagreement about the details or the practices or the lack of agreement in general – comes between us and the people who, in the world’s terms, should be closest to us. This may surprise us, but it really shouldn’t, not if we have paid attention to the story we heard this morning about Jesus and his family.

In the first three chapters of Mark, Jesus builds quite a reputation for himself. He is on the move from town to town, healing people, casting out demons and declaring the Kingdom of God is *at* hand. To the less spiritual eye it looks more like things are getting *out* of hand. Wherever he stops, so many people gather that they have to crowd around the houses where he is eating, peering in at the windows, hoping someone will move so they can slip through the door and get close enough to talk with him or touch him.

My favorite story in these first chapters come in Mark 2:1-12, which reminds me of a long ago Vacation Bible School lesson, where we built the house and made a paper stretcher on strings for the man whose friends literally took off the roof to get him into the middle of the house where Jesus was eating dinner. They let him down through the ceiling. Just imagine. And not only does Jesus heal him, he does it by declaring the man’s sins are forgiven. Then, “Take up your mat and walk,” he says. And the man does.

It’s shocking.

It’s wonderful and shocking, and it’s attention-getting.

The stories people spread about Jesus get the attention of the religious authorities, and they declare he must be a demon himself, since he has power over them. The word starts going around that he is crazy. In the lead-up to the passage we read this morning his family turns up, to try and take him home. Maybe they hoped to hush up the whole situation. We get embarrassed when people say our loved ones are crazy. We don’t know what his family thought Jesus would say or do, but I am guessing they expected him to come quietly and keep them safe from further humiliation.

Because most of us care what our families think about us. I know I spent most of my young life trying to figure out how to be the best kind of good girl I could be, with some success and a lot of failures. I felt the double pressure to be a good Christian girl and a gently-raised daughter of the Spong and Galliford family. I held dual citizenship, and I took both parts of it very seriously, hoping to please God and my parents and my grandmothers, too. It’s not just a Portsmouth phenomenon, is it?

I’m guessing we don’t read this particular part of the story to children much, or have them build this other crowded house in Vacation Bible School, or draw a picture of Jesus’ family standing outside waiting, because Jesus isn’t worried about what his family thinks of the ministry he is doing or even what they think about his state of mind or the way he lives his life. He does not respond when they call. Instead, he declares he has a new family.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35, CEB)

“Whoever does God’s will.” I fear this is a harder set of terms to define. Most of us can readily say who our mothers and brothers and sisters are, whether we love them or struggle to get along with them. We know who they are. They are defined by their relationship titles, not their actions.

But how do we know exactly who Jesus meant?

Christian history is full of disputes between groups – groups of Christians! – who disagree about what it means to do God’s will. They disagree on big things, like how to baptize, and smaller things, like which translation of the Bible to use, and in-between things like whether it’s okay to say Alleluia during the season of Lent. If you observe Lent, that is. I can tell you from personal experience as recent as the day before yesterday that these are not old arguments. I am the Director of an ecumenical ministry to clergywomen and, as part of that work, I oversee a Facebook group for 2500 clergy from many, many denominations. My rule for the group is pretty simple: it’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to be insulting about it. I think I came to that understanding as part of my dual citizenship training. It’s not enough to be tolerant of others and the way they interpret Jesus’ instructions to us. If we can listen respectfully instead of reacting and rejecting, we may learn not only something about why other people do things the way they do, but we might also gain a deeper understanding of why we do things the way we do.

I’ll tell you a secret.

Even though I’m a minister in a tradition where we baptize infants or adults, I like it best when the person who wants to be baptized is old enough to be asking for him or herself. I’m half-sad that we only sprinkle and half-relieved that I don’t bear the responsibility immersing people larger than I am. I’m always inclined to get as much water on the person being baptized as possible. I don’t think my new denomination is wrong; it’s just that I can see both sides.

Stained glass windows in the balcony.
Stained glass windows in the balcony.

The day I was baptized here remains lively in my memory. Forty years later, I recall that combination of exhilaration and anticipation and a little bit of fear of the unknown. I was 13, and being baptized had been on my mind for a long time as I waited for the moment that I felt ready. I remember the view that day, as I came down those stairs and could see the people I knew and loved in the congregation, a strange mixture of Court Street folk and a larger circle of family and friends you wouldn’t see here on other Sundays, gathered to mark our common understanding that baptism creates ties deeper than our social ties.

It’s nice to have our families with us in church, but Jesus is talking about a new kind of family, one that transcends blood ties.

I arrived at this church in 1961 as a newly adopted child. My mother, who had been a social worker, read up on how and when to tell your child about being adopted. The trend at the time was away from secrecy and toward telling children early. We had a copy of the book, “The Chosen Baby,” and I turned those pages over and over again even when nobody was reading the words to me.

I can’t remember not knowing I was adopted or ever feeling I was in the wrong family, other than the usual stresses and strains of growing up that might make anyone feel that way! It was a shock to me in high school when a classmate heard me talking about being adopted and got a strange look on her face. She asked me, genuinely concerned, “Do you always talk about it?”

It hadn’t crossed my mind that it might be something to keep secret.

We read in Ephesians that God intended to adopt us even before Creation occurred, and perhaps because of my own story, I do believe this. I believe that whatever the circumstances of our lives, God’s care for us began before the beginning.

We have a place in God’s family; it is God’s plan and God’s good will to make a place for us.

At the time this letter was written to the church at Ephesus, adoption had a common meaning different from the assumptions we might make about it. In 20th century America it became a means of rearranging the fates of children whose biological parents were unmarried, and to place them confidentially with unrelated families. In more recent years, we’ve reinvented adoption to incorporate more openness and communication, and we’ve widened our scope to include international adoptions.

But in the 1st century, people understood adoption differently. In the dominant Roman culture, adoption served a dual purpose. The Pater Familias stood at the top of the pyramid of power, the Father of the Family, able to define and redefine his family and who might be part of it. If a family lacked an heir, the Pater Familias would seek a child to elevate into the family. The child’s family could gain the advantage of having their child become part of another, while this served the needs of the richer or more important family by providing an heir.

This is the way the Ephesians would have heard the claim being made on their behalf. The Heavenly Pater Familias, the Divine Head of Household, wanted them to be part of the Ultimate Extended Family, with all the rights and privileges and inheritances of a natural Child of God.

What an immense assurance of God’s love for us! We are part of God’s family, not by birth, but because of God’s desire to bring us together in Christ.

Yet we still struggle to agree on who gets to be in that family, and we – and I am guilty of this myself – we make assumptions about who is “in” or “out” by the standard Jesus used in our passage from Mark.

“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

We live in a time of dispute and division, and we tend to think it’s never been worse than it is now, but I suspect that the human tendency to choose up sides and condemn the opposition is no worse now than it has ever been. We just have more ways and more venues for being cruel, bigger weapons and louder sound systems and faster means of communication. We live with the temptation to assure we are right by defining other people as wrong.

I learned a different way to live, and I learned it right here in Portsmouth, right here at Court Street. I learned it by the example of kindness and understanding shared in our Sunday School rooms and in the ministry of Dr. Kersey. Some of those lessons were obvious at the time, but others took years to become apparent.

It took a long time for my legal adoption to be final, about 18 months from the time I was placed with my parents. They went to court to affirm the legalities, but they wanted to do something more to mark my new status and the assurance that no one could come and take me away from them. They decided to have me christened. I was one-and-a-half, and I don’t remember, but there are pictures taken on a November day, those little black-and-white prints I strain to see with my middle-aged eyes now. I am wearing a matching coat and hat, and my parents are dressed up, and they are standing outside Monumental with me and with the Methodist minister, and in that picture you would also find a very young Mr. Kersey. And I give him all the credit for being there and being a pastor to my parents and to me, both then and when I came to him at age 13 and asked to be baptized, not quite understanding that some people would think it had already been done and others would say it never counted in the first place.

God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. (Ephesians 1:5-6, CEB)

I believe this. I believe it’s a more complex way of stating the much simpler idea I learned sitting in a little chair here in Sunday School. Jesus loves us. God loves us. I believe we are called to be the family Jesus described and the family Paul described, a new family in Christ that honors God’s grace.

Whoever does God’s will, said Jesus. I don’t feel qualified to say with certainty what God’s will is in each specific question about how we worship or baptize or share the Lord’s Supper, whether we say “debts” or “trespasses,” and who we welcome into our church families. I hope I’m getting it right when I draw on the lessons I learned here, in this downtown full of churches, in that little wooden chair, believing Jesus loves all of us, believing God calls all of us to be part of a new family in Christ. Amen.

After church, The Boy explores the balcony while Mrs. Trimble and I hope he doesn't fall overboard.
After church, The Boy explores the balcony while Mrs. Trimble and I hope he doesn’t fall overboard.
Advent 1B, Sermons

Hope in the Dark

(A sermon for Advent 1B – November 30, 2014 – Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37)

Last Sunday, long before the sun rose, our Boy was up and conducting an early-morning Google search for the amount of sales tax that would be added to the cost of a $30.99 video game he wants. Despite our efforts the day before to coax him into waiting for Christmas, to see what presents might be under the tree, he wanted to make the case that he had enough money to buy Skylanders right now.

As he Googled in the early morning dark, he hoped.

Advent hope has its genesis in the dark. Advent literally means coming into being, and for the church it marks our anticipation of the incarnation, of God’s own self becoming one of us. We prepare for an amazing event. We await new life as the days grow shorter. At first it feels like keeping a secret, like a pregnancy in the first trimester. Even before the mother suspects, life is taking new form in the dark of the womb.

All the way to church last Sunday, our Boy tried to convince us that Christmas was still very far away. Meanwhile, he calculated 7 cents times 31 dollars, and 31 plus 2.17, minus 1 cent equals $33.16. He is good at math. Later in the day, he counted out $35 from his careful savings and put it in an envelope, writing “Skylanders” on it.

We continued to put him off, even as he told us, “I will have $35 to give them at the store, and then I will get change.” $1.84 to be precise. Still, we said to him, “It’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you wait?”

We had a break from the discussion when he went to his dad’s house for Thanksgiving while we got out of town for a couple of days. By the time we were headed back, we were of course discussing Christmas presents, as parents do, and also what to say on Sunday, as preachers must.

On the way home from Maryland,
we passed a white church,
with that sign you sometimes see,
“We preach Christ crucified.”
And usually I smugly comment,
*I* preach Christ resurrected.
So I did.


But as the road continued to bend,
as we moved from the coastal highway
to a land of strip malls
and onto park land we admired,
then to cornfields seemingly unending,
and to the crossroads where
a young Amish man stood
on an old-school Segway,
a primitive chariot,
pulled by horses
dragging a sledge of hay –
two horse power said my wife –
I thought about that sign.


“They” preach Christ crucified,
and I preach Christ resurrected, I claim, but
crucified and resurrected are both ways
Jesus leaves us,
moments that disconnect him by taking him down into the dark of death,
or raising him beyond our limits.
They take him beyond our capacity to touch and know.

We need to know Christ incarnate, I thought.

We need him badly right now. Where else can we find hope in a week full of images of fires burning, and local police dressed out in riot gear standing under a lighted city sign proclaiming, “Season’s Greetings” – where else? Because there has to be some way to make sense of all this violence and hatred and just plain meanness directed at people we think are different from us.

One day last year we took two of our boys to Washington, DC, for a day of touring the Smithsonian. The American History Museum was our last stop, where I was eager to see America’s Doll House. After my patient family watched me ooh and aah over the contents, I took off on my own to look for the book.

In the gift shop, I approached the cash register and waited while the person ahead of me made his purchase. He was about my age, or a few years younger, dressed, like me, for a day of sightseeing, in nice but casual clothes. He had grey in his hair, but not as much as in mine. He bought a shot glass decorated with a TV show’s logo.

When he handed over his credit card, the clerk solemnly asked one thing, to see his ID. He hesitated for a moment, and then he complied.

Immediately, I opened my wallet, readying my driver’s license, which surely I would be asked to show alongside my Disney Princess Castle-themed credit card.

Shot glass wrapped and bagged, the gentleman departed. I presented my book for purchase, and my credit card, and got ready for the ID question, but the young lady smiled broadly and asked something entirely different:

“Are you a Smithsonian member?”

“Oh!” I responded, surprised. “Well, yes, but we just joined–“

“So you have one of those cards that will give you the discount today,” she prompted.

“Yes,” I replied, looking around vaguely, “but I left it with another family member.”

“No problem!” she enthused. “I’ll trust you.”

She rang up the purchase, with the discount, as I reflected on the fact that the grey-haired gentleman in line ahead of me was African-American.

And I know the world is like this. I read up on it; you know, in the newspaper and on blogs. I am here telling you I know it happens. But I rarely see it play out so close up to me, in the flesh like that.

In Mark, we hear Jesus trying to get the attention of his closest disciples. It’s a real “Come to Jesus” moment, a shoulder-shaking truth-telling. The time is coming, and no one quite knows when, he says, and God is going to set things straight. It’s the same hope Isaiah spoke. It’s the same wish the Psalmist cried out to see. Restore us, O God, let your face shine and light up the world again, because it is dark here in the 21st century wilderness, with tanks on city streets and wartime gear on cops and protesters throwing stones and setting fires to get us to take their pleas seriously.

It is dark here. Where is our hope?
We need to know Christ, incarnate,
touchable, knowing, enfleshed.
What other hope do we have?

Some say they preach Christ crucified,
Focused on the death he suffered and the belief it somehow paid for our sins.
But is our hope in forgiveness of the long lists of wrongs done by us, done to us?

I’ve said I preach Christ resurrected,
Focused on cycles of renewal and God’s victory over death.
But is our hope in the vision of life renewed, or life beyond this world?

How do these hopes help us in a season of darkness, of grieving our losses,
despairing of our future, identifying our wrongs against God and each other?

someone's babyThis week, all week, voices have been calling out for justice. My friends both black and white who are the mothers of black boys fear for their sons: babes in arms, little boys of 6 and 7, young men of 15 and 20. A powerful image circulated in social media, an infant boy on the pavement with a chalk outline around his body. “When does he stop being someone’s baby?” asks the caption.

If you have children, you know the truth. They never stop being our babies. Yet “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime,” according to published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association.[1]

I live in a world of privilege. My grown sons are out in the world; my stepson walks to school every day. I never wonder what a policeman will think of them. I never worry they are at risk from the people who I expect to serve and protect them. I can take it for granted, but I am trying not to, because I have too many friends, I know too many mothers, who are afraid for their sons to leave the house.

I cannot believe this is what God wants for the world.


We are still trying to convince our Boy to wait and see if he doesn’t get that game for Christmas. That’s a waiting game he can win; we won’t let him down. But if our Boy insists, and he goes to the store with his $35, to buy his own video game and collect his change, no one will wonder where the money came from, or whether it is really his. No one will ask a question.

It is dark here. Where is our hope?

We need the embodied God who walked the earth, who healed the lame, who ate with sinners, who broke down barriers, and electrified the crowds but alarmed the authorities, and turned the world upside down without wielding a sword, or carrying a gun. We need the embodied God whose life was an action, political and spiritual, but most of all human.

We are waiting for God, but it is not enough to dream or pray away the time. Jesus cautions us to keep alert, to be aware. Are we? Can we see the ways our lives would not match God’s desire? How can we make things better while we wait?

We need to know Christ,

We need to know Christ,
incarnate, in each other.

What other hope do we have in the dark?