Wednesday, May 27, 2015

God loves you. You are free. Go tell everyone else. (Acts 2:1-21)

On Monday afternoon, Jonathan and I were walking through Berkeley for lunch, and he casually asked—as he kindly does when he knows I’m preaching—“What’s your sermon about?” 

I said, “Pentecost!” And he, as a secular Jew, rightfully said something like, “Right. Whatever that is…?”

I tried to explain, loosely, that it’s the 50th day of Easter and we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the Apostles. This slough of church words did not unfurrow his eyebrows.

I tried again: The apostles were all gathered together for dinner—it was 50 days after Passover—and were locked in their upper room in Jerusalem again because they were still afraid. Things hadn’t quite settled down with the powers that be, and the apostles were struggling to proclaim the Gospel that Jesus had given them.

The thing is, I think, they were so used to Jesus being around, providing direct instructions day after day, that once left to their own devices, they realized how much they’d relied on him to do the work of the church. They felt lost.

Before he died, Jesus had told the apostles, “I will not leave you orphaned…God will send you an advocate to be with you…” (John 14). As usual, I imagine that what Jesus said and the disciples heard were not exactly the same. They likely expected some…person to show up and take the lead. Have you ever felt like that? Like in a “Jesus take the wheel” kind of way? You and Peter both.

So in this Acts story, they’re behind closed doors, whispering the good news to one another, paralyzed with fear. And for good reason! The leaders that killed Jesus are still the leaders. Politics are tenuous, and nobody wants to be made an example. The apostles face a tough choice—stay safe and quiet or take the risk and go public? “Will the movement be ruled by fear? Will the apostles be contained and confined? Rendered timid and silent? Pentecost comes with a bold answer—no.”[1]

Herein lies the deep subversive nature of the Pentecost event and of the early church.

Pentecost was and is a public display of our freedom from fear, found in the liberating power of Christ crucified, emboldening us to speak the truth of the Gospel aloud.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the powers and principalities are wary of this freedom to speak. They try to discredit this revolutionary act by claiming that those bold enough to speak are crazy or drunk.
No earthly power can match this empowered community of believers—preachers, fishermen, widows, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, women, children.

The promise that Jesus made to the apostles—that they will have this power—is of course tied to conflict and persecution. Remember when he warned them that they would be persecuted for being associated with him (John 15)? Welp, this is it. But he also said that in those scary times, the Holy Spirit would empower them to speak their truths even more boldly.

Pentecost means the apostles can go into their community and say “Jesus the Christ is risen—alleluia! You are free from sin! You are free from bondage! Get up—walk! Be healed! You are my sister, my brother—eat at my table! Drink and be filled! You are the beloved child of the living God! No high priest, no king, no excuse for a civic leader can chain you anymore. You are free.”

Here, now, in 2015, where are we? Are we locked in the upper room, fearful of where our truths may lead? Are we cautious to identify ourselves as Christians? Are we cautious to say “God loves you” when we meet someone who clearly believes otherwise? Are we cautious to say “come eat at our table”?

Because here, now, in 2015, it’s not hip to dig Jesus. It’s not hip to say “God loves you” in public. And the Religious Right has commandeered so much of our precious holy language that when we say “My faith informs my politics” we have to explain really hard what we don’t mean.

Proclaiming liberation is still unpopular in our world of war, mass incarceration, police brutality, racism, sexism—we have much to fear.

But after today, after the Pentecost has come, we are free. We are free to be bold. We are bold to proclaim that Jesus the Christ is risen—alleluia! We are bold to proclaim that we and every living thing are free from the power of sin and death.

When we see or hear the “good news” being used to exclude, hurt, control, or otherwise disempower our sisters and brothers, we are bold to say enough now! No more!

When we see or hear the name of Christ used to justify violence, oppression, racism, misogyny, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, patriarchy, war, slavery, or silence—in our churches, schools, government, families—we are bold say enough now! No more!

The question I leave you with, dear sisters, is not “if” you will boldly proclaim the liberating truths of the Gospel –but when, where, and how.

May you be emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit this day and always. Amen.




[1] Bill Wylie-Kellerman, “In the Boldness of the Spirit: Fellowship and risk before the authorities” Sojourners.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's a good life.

It has been a minute since I had a minute to write something. April was an absolute doozy and May is following suit! I was in several cities for several reasons, which I imagine you know because of all my social media action.

In my Passion Planner (get one) this week, I wrote "deep breaths" as the focus.

Boy, was that prescient.

I've been moving so fast, I hardly noticed I wasn't taking time to breathe.

My parents visited this past weekend, and while most/many/some (?) people may say that's exhausting or overwhelming, I am #hashtagblessed to have parents whose presence is overwhelmingly positive and helpful. My mom and I got some more of my apartment organized (that's one of her specialties as far as mom powers go) and Daddy made excellent puns and continued J's cribbage education. We ate good food and drank good wine and laughed good laughs.

I feel like a lot of the pondering I do when I get to take deep breaths always comes around to "it's a good life." That's such a deep gratitude to arrive at on such a consistent basis.

I do work that I love (and continue to learn every day!) and have the world's best people a phone call away. My life has been, these last four months, nothing short of absurd. I haven't stepped back to see the truth nearly often enough.

This blog post is sort of all over the place (as is my brain), but I just wanted to put out into the universe once more that it's a good life. Things go nuts here and there (I'm never without anxiety) but it helps to know the underlying radness is still going strong.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dream big.

I feel a pull to produce words. I feel a pull to put words on paper--to write with a pen on a lined piece of paper, and have "written something" at the end.

Part of my job is to facilitate vocational discernment with young adults. I used all the three-dollar church words on purpose, because, on the surface, that may not mean anything to you, probably--or if it does, it may not necessarily sound fun.

But this week, I sat across from a sunny 22-year-old woman who beamed about following a dream. She hadn't always had this dream, but she has had time this year to take stock of her passions and imagine how they work together for gainful employment and spiritual fulfillment.

She wants to move to a city she's never visited, into an industry she's never worked in--not sounding ultra practical, right? That won't stop her from imagining that potential version of herself.

It excites me to be in this place--literally, figuratively--where young minds and hearts have permission to chase, follow, blaze, invent--I couldn't decide what, exactly, and neither can they, sometimes!

Ministry is cool, you guys.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lent/Borrowed

Six weeks ago, after reading this post, I pledged to spend my Lenten season fasting from white media. This was daunting, because most media is white media. I am white, and so most of what I come into contact with is white. That's the nature of our world, today.

In the past six weeks, I have not stopped learning. And if you know me, you know that learning is my number one love. It has been exhausting and by no means exhaustive, but I have been changed. Here's how:

Reading

You, dear reader, know that reading is so dear to me. This seemed like the obvious foray into my Lenten fast. I decided that I would read only the words of people of color--books, blogs, news, poetry, journalism, you name it.


I started with Saeed Jones' newest poetry collection, Prelude to Bruise. If you're not familiar with Saeed, he used to be Buzzfeed's LGBTQ editor, but was recently crowned their literary editor. He's what's up. This collection was challenging to me--Saeed and I have not lived the same life, you know. Prelude to Bruise is bold and beautiful. If you're thumbing through it, I scribbled the most on "Ketamine & Company" and "Highway 407".

After I ripped through that poetry in a day and a half, I sat down to re-tackle a seminary textbook that I was assigned sections of and struggled with--A Black Theology of Liberation. James Cone does not mince words, y'all. I felt a lot more comfortable being uncomfortable hearing him, this time around. I've been getting better, the last few years, at understanding that the black church does not owe the white church any niceties. If you're a theology student, read this. If you're not, maybe don't start with this. 

Fortunately for my Lenten discipline, the book we read at work in anticipation of this year's St. Augustine lecture was Holy Currencies. The Rev. Dr. Eric Law is an Episcopal priest, the son of Chinese immigrants, and the founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute--an organization committed to multiculturalism (not lip service to multiculturalism) in congregations and faith-based organizations. If you're a leader or a member or a neighbor, read it. He's also written six others, so check those out, too.

I am really bummed that I only read one book by a woman in this Lenten season, but I somehow only read four books. (Commence eye rolls, I know.) Zadie Smith, fortunately, is no small feat. This collection of essays, Changing My Mind, is appropriately subtitled "occasional essays" because it's an amalgam of things she wrote for a variety of publications on a variety of occasions. Some of them (the literary criticism) are hard to access; some of them (movie reviews) are laugh-out-loud-can't-underline-fast-enough hi-lar-ious. Read it, and her other books, as soon as you can get your hands on 'em.


Tweeting

Yes, twitter. It is its own category, because it is a crazmazing place for racial justice and racism and words and wounds to coalesce. I started the season by going through the list of users I follow (nearly 900 people, yikes) and unfollowing all the white men I couldn't remember why I followed. So. Many. White. Male. Journalists. I consider myself an informed member of the electorate, and so following a zillion political journalists is like, in line with that. But when an overwhelming majority of them are white men who write for the same-ish publications, that's not news. That's an echo chamber. So, goodbye those guys.

Next, I was fortunate to come across a list called something like "the best black journalists you should be following on twitter" or something seriously that specific. So I clicked, and clicked. As the #BlackLivesMatters movement has continued to grow, I have been following more activists and making sure that I get as much info from folks on the ground as I get from folks at 30 Rock. I also looked at who my favorite black voices were lifting up, and followed as instructed. It's been helpful. Do it.

You're expecting some handles, I can tell. My real entry into black twitter has come through the great people at Buzzfeed, so follow these people and everyone they tell you to follow: @theferocity @brokeymcpoverty @heavenrants @hayesbrown @aaronmedwards. Oh, and definitely follow @ismashfizzle even though she doesn't work there anymore. 

Ayesha Sidiqqi is a Muslim woman who is fascinating and relentless in her pursuit of all things just and feminist. Follow her @pushinghoops.

If you scroll through #BlackLivesMatter you'll find some gems; I love following @deray @bdoulaonlongata @ReclaimHolyWeek (which may be less relevant now, but there's one every year, haha) @keenblackgirl, and everyone they interact with. You just have to dive in, I think.


Listening

This Lenten season invited me into the noughties (that's what Zadie Smith calls 2000-2009 and I'm so into it) via the world of podcasts. I tabled my NPR-or-bust lifestyle and sought out black, female voices in particular. [Sidebar that's maybe also the thesis: I noticed that black women's voices in particular were still the hardest to find in "mainstream" media sources.] Y'all, I have found black female excellence in podcast form.

Black Girls Talking is literally four black girls talking to each other. Alesia, Fatima, Aurelia, and Ramou spend an hour or so every couple weeks or so (if there's a rhyme and reason, I haven't figured it out yet) talking about what's happening in the culture around them. They are dedicated fans of black girl excellence on television--their "How to Get Away with Murder" and "Empire" recaps make it so I don't think I have to actually watch. Their takedown of the Jessica Williams imposter syndrome article lady was so informative to me about how white feminism does such a disservice to black women. I learn from them every episode.

On Call Your Girlfriend, Aminatou and Ann (50% black female excellence, 100% fantastic) chat from across the country about their jobs, the state of the world, feminism, and periods. They're long distance BFFs like me and most of my BFFs, which makes me feel great about them. They are unabashed women, which makes me feel great about them. If you like laughing about being an adult but not really being an adult, and learning about awesome feminist documentarians here and there, listen in. 

A late addition to the game, but a new forever favorite is Another Round, hosted by Heben and Tracy, easily my favorite Buzzfeed ladies, easily the greatest combination of things that make black female excellence. They host other rad black women, Tracy tells corny jokes, they drink margaritas, they tell stories about what had happened...it's so good. You have to listen. They're only three episodes in, so you can easily join the club.

Oh, and Conversations about Conversations About Race should be on this list, too, even though it's also not exclusively black female excellence (it includes two dudes, one of whom is white) and is brand new. Their first episode came out last week, so they weren't necessarily part of my Lenten learning experience, but they're part of my lifetime of learning. 


Watching

Tonight, #BlackGirlsRock was on BET. Fortunately, excellent black girls (@iSmashFizzle, for one) live in other time zones and so alerted me to what was going to be on my television a few hours later. I am so glad. 

For the season of Lent, I have been increasing my consumption of media by people of color and black women in particular as best I can, and fasting from the redundant whiteness that appears in front of me. The Black Girls Rock Awards 2015 felt so appropriately like the Easter of that. It reminded and continued to teach me about the voices of black women who are overpowered by white/male voices in my everyday life. 

Thanks be to God and to the amazing women (and men) of color who have carried me through on this journey. Certainly my Lenten discipline has ended, but it has opened my eyes. I have been changed by the experiences I have been privileged to read about and hear about these past six weeks. 

Sure, I have still been immersed in whiteness, but I feel like I am noticing how white my world is in a different way, and intentionally replacing some of it. Not just tabling it until the end of Lent, either. I don't need to "catch up" on the things that I "missed." (Full disclosure, that was my original plan, and I had a handful of articles tabled to my Reading List for this moment. No more.)

This fast gave me an excuse to dive into the rich world of authors, filmmakers, journalists, musicians, politicians, theologians, and human persons who are all around me and yet whose voices I do not hear. I am listening, now. Are you?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Question -- John 18:1-19:42

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. Amen.

I ask a lot of questions. My hospital chaplaincy supervisor wrote in my final evaluation that I was “naturally curious”—he was the recipient of a lot of my questions. I ask questions of my self, my friends, my pastors, my professors, my family, my government, my God. My main man Martin Luther asked a lot of questions, too. One of his most-asked was “What does this mean?” A lot of the time, he was asking as a rhetorical device and had an excellent answer. Sometimes, though, it’s a mystery. I think I excel at this aspect of being Lutheran.

The gospel narrative we enacted for Good Friday is full of questions—including some big ones.

“Whom are you looking for?”
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
“Are you not one of his disciples?”
“What is truth?”
“Shall I crucify your king?”

Good Friday seems to have a lot more questions than it has answers.

And preaching on Good Friday is always an extra challenge—every other occasion is preaching the “good news” and Good Friday, in and of itself, is not good news. We first entered into this Lenten season of death on Ash Wednesday, when we remembered that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We know that everything that lives also dies. Death and the return to dust ends every life.[1] Even the life of Jesus.

But the good news is that Good Friday is not in and of itself! Good Friday is part of the whole story of God. Without Good Friday, there would be no tomb, so there would be no empty tomb!

Good Friday raises a lot of questions about who we are and how we live out the good news. Today, “we are invited to accompany Jesus very closely in this, his long-awaited hour, and to pray for the grace to be able to understand these events”—and ask these questions. They “invite us to become their witnesses in our own lives.”[2]

One of my favorite questions for Good Friday is “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” It’s an old spiritual, do you know it?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?Were you there when they crucified my Lord?Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
This haunting piece of music and history invites us to the foot of the cross. It asks us this question to which of course our literally true answer is no, I was not there. But what evil has been done right in front of my face that I have watched, trembling? What evil do I confess has been done in front of my face and I have turned away?

Dr. Shawn Copeland is a black Catholic theologian, and she says, “On this Good Friday, let us kneel before the broken, crucified body of Jesus. Let us kneel before the disappeared and murdered bodies of thousands of peasants, workers, vowed religious sisters and brothers, ministers and priests in Latin America;the raped and abused bodies of young boys and girls and women who have survived sexual assault by clergy and church workers; the torn bodies of prostitutes forced to trade themselves for survival; the rejected bodies of gays and lesbians; the swollen bodies of children dying in hunger; the scarred and bruised bodies of women, men and children suffering with AIDS; the despised bodies of red and brown and black and yellow women and men. To kneel before these bodies is a first step in grasping our collusion in their suffering and death; it is a first step in grasping the gratuitous love of the crucified Jesus. Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving for the wondrous love of God.”[3]

There is so much beauty that happens in our world that we thank God for, but there is so much violence that we cannot thank God for. There is so much that goes on in our world that we need to look at, need to really see, really engage, not ignore, not pass by, and most importantly ask big questions about.

The message of Good Friday is not that God endorses violence. It is not that God needed the blood of Jesus spilled in order to be powerful. We did that. Humans did that. Humans spill the blood of other humans in order to feel powerful. The message of Good Friday is not to continue to live and die in this way.

Interfaith Youth Core published a blog post about how “Good Friday…makes plain how much we have bought into the myth of redemptive violence, and how wrong we are to do so.”[4] When Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus says “no more of this” so we must also say “no more of this” to violence and evil in our communities.[5] As Christians, we are “here to testify that redemptive violence does not bring peace, but more violence, and that Easter shows us that another way of doing things is possible.”

The message of Good Friday is not “Crucify him!” but rather “Woman, this is your son” and “here is your mother.” These words of Jesus remind us that, even in the midst of his own torture and death, Jesus was connecting his family and friends to one another, reminding them of their inextricable link—life together in the family of God.

What death and violence can we renounce today and instead remember that each broken body we encounter is the body of Christ?

On this somber and holy Friday, “May the Lord bless you with holy anger, with discomfort with easy answers, and with the foolishness to dream of another way of being.”[6]

Amen.




[1] McEvenue, Sean. “Violence and Evil in the Bible” in International Bible Commentary, 298.
[2] Okure, Teresa. “John” in International Bible Commentary, 1494.
[3] Copeland, Shawn. “A Reflection for Good Friday” Pax Christi USA, 2014. http://paxchristiusa.org/2014/04/18/holy-week-2014-reflection-for-good-friday/
[4] Suckstorff, Hana. “Is Good Friday a Misnomer?” Interfaith Youth Core, 2012. http://www.ifyc.org/content/good-friday-misnomer
[5] Hunter, Rhashell. “Good Friday” in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice, 190.
[6] Suckstorff.