In the words we heard today, the prophet Amos has a fourth vision come to him from the Lord. It’s a bowl of summer fruit set before him. The fruit would be ripe at the end of the season just before the coming of Autumn, and it signified the end for the people of Israel whose time was now ripe too. Their time was drawing to a tragic close because they didn’t engage in the work God had set before them.
I’ve not posted much on Facebook or Twitter since early December. And frankly, I haven’t missed it much.
Yes—to answer the inevitable question—I haven’t seen some updates from family and friends. I don’t know the latest on the lives of those I’m not in regular contact with otherwise—but most of those were food posts or pictures from vacations or their thoughts on the political climate (I’ve definitely not missed these).
I began my seminary studies on September 4, 2001. One week later the World Trade Center Towers fell.
Since I attended classes in New Haven, CT many of my more experienced colleagues went down to serve as chaplains. Melissa taught classes at a high school at a nearby town not many people had heard of at that time—Sandy Hook, CT—and many students had relatives or family members that had been in New York that day.
I remember a general sense of gathering together and facing this together as a nation at that time. Gatherings for prayer took place frequently. Signs of support appeared in yards. And then one day, I drove behind an SUV which had a duct-tape message on the back window.
Darkness permeates are time both atmospherically—the sun sets earlier each night for a couple more weeks—and ideologically. Terror attacks, racial profiling, xenophobia have flooded the news cycles recently. Rather than talk about this darkness (yet again) I wanted to share messages of the light with my congregation this week. This sermon comes is based on Luke 1:67-80.
When I was a kid we used to play the game of who could be the quietest the longest. As every parent can guess, my mom would be the one to suggest the game on long road trips or even short jaunts to the store as we drove in our station wagon. My sister or a friend in the car would make goofy faces at one another to try to make each other utter some sound first. My tactic was to look out the window until someone else caved. We’d last a long time, at least two or three minutes, and would play a couple of rounds more. All told there might have been 5 minutes of silence—it was golden for some in the car, I suspect.
A good nine months of silence was endured by Zechariah. He happened to be a priest and, as Luke tells us, he happened to be the one selected by lot to make the offering of incense in the sanctuary of the Lord one day. As he went in to the sanctuary by himself, the rest of the assembly gathered outside waiting for him. In the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared. “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the angel proclaimed, “for your prayers have been heard!” The angel went on to say, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Continue reading 3 Snatches of Light in the Darkness
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I like having things figured out on my own rather than relying on others to teach me. It’s a control issue, of course. Going it alone means I don’t have to depend on someone else. But I’ve also learned that having a guide really makes things so much better. Advent is a time to release my grip on circumstances in my life and find ways to let God in to guide me.
A sermon based on Psalm 25.
Taking a cue from REI, I opted outside this Thanksgiving weekend. As you may know, I’m not big into the retail crush in the run-up to Christmas. We’ve only just lit the first of our Advent candles, even though the Christmas decorations have been out in most stores since well before Halloween, and I think Christmas is about more than consumerism. Hiking has become a passion for me, so Melissa and the kids and I headed up to Mt. Watatic near the New Hampshire border for a classic New England hike on Friday, and then yesterday I joined a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club to hike Pack Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire.
Thoughts on recent world events and what it means to followers of Christ. Jumping off from John 18:33-37.
Over the course of the past couple of weeks, events in Paris—and, as many of us discovered afterward, also in Beirut—have grabbed ahold of our minds and hearts. This week we add to it Mali, a country I’d suspect most of us couldn’t place on a map unless we have visited West Africa. Additionally, we have the Syrian refugee crisis and our own hyper-politicized run-up to a presidential election next November adding to the frenzy. Fear and bombastic rhetoric and calls from varying positions on how to respond have flooded the airwaves and the web. The noise is overwhelming, and the issues are reduced to snappy soundbites.
What’s a faithful Christian to do? How do we follow Jesus and think about these complex issues in a way that reflects Christ’s kingdom?
Today we celebrate the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday or simply The Reign of Christ. We’ve reached the very end of our Church year and next Sunday we’ll be flipping the calendar to begin again with the First Sunday of Advent. On this Sunday we focus on the future hope that we have when Jesus reigns forever, and how we can embody that kingdom in the here and now. We’ll be reminded in the weeks ahead about what Jesus’ first coming looked like as we welcome him again.
A sermon on Proverbs 31.
It’s obvious that whoever wrote Proverbs 31 was a man. “A capable wife, who can find,” the writer asks, and then gives us a litany of what the perfect woman looks like which sounds an awful lot like an Old Testament Martha Stewart. She collects wool and flax and spins them. She gets up while it is still dark to get food for the household. She goes out and buys a field in order to plant a vineyard herself, and her garden produces a magnificent bounty. She’s strong, getting in her daily workout, and also is a businesswoman with a savvy knack for buying goods. She stays up later than the rest of her household keeping busy with her many tasks. She’s generous. She’s a planner, having winter coats prepared before it gets cold. She’s an expert seamstress, creating luxurious clothes for her family, and her husband is a mover and a shaker himself, known at the city gates. She’s got enough time to make extra fashions and sell them at the marketplace. She has an air of dignity, when needed, and erupts in joyous laughter too. She’s wise and kind and is never idle. Her children praise her as does her husband, telling her she’s the best among all the women.
I’m exhausted just reciting that list. And I wonder who could do all that and be sane? Had to be written by a man. No woman in her right mind would ever pen those words.
But they’re the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. And there must be good news in there somewhere. So let’s unpack these verses a bit and see what we can uncover.
First, the obvious one. No single woman can — or should — exhibit all these traits. After the writer of Proverbs asks this question, he gives us a picture of the ideal. And, interestingly enough, it sound an awful lot like Lady Wisdom who appears again and again in the book of Proverbs. We heard from her last week calling out to the simple, and in Chapter 8 we learn that she was created by God at the very beginning before anything else came to be. She declares, “Whoever finds me, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but those who miss me injure themselves.” (Prov 8:35-6). Proverbs takes its shape as advice from a father to a son, and so after warnings against being seduced on many different levels, it makes sense at the end of the book to describe the woman this boy should marry in the form of a poem—in the Hebrew the first stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second and so on. Find a woman who embodies the traits of Lady Wisdom, Dad says. Don’t be enticed by those who wouldn’t live a life shaped and molded by Wisdom. Wait for a wife who will enhance your life, rather than take it away; wait, my son, for the one who is like Wisdom.
Second, notice that the ideal is a woman who is not dependent on her husband. She has her own life and excels at all she does. Now this might not be a big thing today—more on that in a moment—but this is being written during a very patriarchal time. Daughters were often viewed as property, and a groom had to pay a bride price in order to marry. Solomon had some 700 wives which came to him primarily as alliances were formed—if the king marries my daughter, he’s less likely to invade me. And yet, the advice Solomon (the presumed writer of Proverbs) gives to his son is to make a wise choice in marrying a woman who exhibits strength across a number of areas in life, who has herself listened to Wisdom.
Why this is so exceptional is that we still deal with issues around the status of women in our culture. We know about the pay gap here in America, where women are paid 79% of what men make in equal jobs—and this is unfortunately true even for those of us who are clergy. Women are more often than not the ones who take time away from work when children come, or deal with the guilt that comes when a maternity leave is up feeling they are somehow “failing” as mothers when they drop the kids at daycare. Many women still choose to be “given away” at marriage ceremonies—when asked by me about their preference most brides select “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” even though I (and the Prayer Book) offer alternatives. Of the G7 countries, only three have ever had elected female leaders: the UK, Canada and Germany. Notably they each have had a female leader only once, and Germany is the only country of the G7 currently with a woman leading them (although currently there are a record 22 women heads of state in the world out of 196 countries).
The fact that Proverbs extols the beauty of a strong woman should be lauded. This ideal wife isn’t sitting in the corner waiting to be spoken to. She has fortitude, resources, strength, courage, and is clearly portrayed as a partner. Many of the things she does wouldn’t be seen as merely “women’s work.” She’s a change agent in her community, and she and her husband are presented as equal in this text. The strengths they have are used for the building up of both their family and their community.
Probably most significant of all is what is missing from this text. In a culture saturated with images of women that have been airbrushed and presented as the real thing, in a society where a woman’s worth is linked to her looks, where— according to one study—80% of 10-year old girls fear being overweight, there is not one comment made on how a woman is to physically look. The only mention is the 2nd to last verse: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The singular reference to appearance by this dad to his son is that he should pay no attention to it. True beauty is found elsewhere.
We cannot say or hear this enough. Most of us have likely seen the videos of what a professional can do to the picture of a model with Photoshop. (And let’s be clear: kids, every picture you see in a magazine is not an accurate photo. It has been significantly touched up. Every. Single. One.) Last year we Americans spent more than $12 billion on elective cosmetic surgeries, and of the 10 and half million procedures done, women accounted for 90% of them. But physical appearance does not determine your true worth. Let me say that again: Physical appearance does not determine your true worth. No matter how many times our culture says otherwise. True beauty can only be found in the depths of your soul. And that comes from the wisest person who has ever lived.
To the girls in our congregation, I say this: don’t be bullied into believing the lies that come at you all the time from our culture. Jesus loves you for who you are. There is nothing you have to do, no way that you have to look in order to “earn” Christ’s love. You are beloved. Look to the strong women in your life—your mom and grandma and coaches and teachers and a whole host of others—who embody the ideals of Lady Wisdom and let them guide and mentor you. Be strong and not afraid. You are beloved and cherished by the Almighty, and you have so much to offer this world.
To the women of this congregation, the ones who have been swimming in our culture for a long long time, enduring the self-doubt, the questions about how good you are, the pressure to measure up: come to this table and find healing. You are beloved. No one can live up to the crazy wonder woman ideal our society puts forward or the one some people misread into our passage from Proverbs. Rather, hold onto the truth that God created you just as you are and that your beauty radiates when you share your gifts of strength with the world, whatever those gifts may be. Be strong and courageous. Model the truth of this to our girls and young women who so desperately need role models like you.
To the boys of this congregation, hear this: do not believe the lie that all that matters about girls are their looks. Our culture will tell you that again and again and again. Our culture is wrong. Treat girls with respect and as equals, because they most certainly are. Search for the beauty to be found beneath the surface in those you seek to date, you will be delighted and amazed. And know this: You are beloved. You are much more than what society tells you. Look for Wisdom.
To the men of this congregation: cherish the women in your life and love them. Encourage them to be all that you know they can be even when they have listened too often to the voices telling them they can’t. Repent when you’ve followed the lead of our culture and objectified women, needing to delete the history on your browser. Share in the responsibilities of your common life with your spouse. Love without fail. And know that you are beloved by God.
To all of you I say this: search for Lady Wisdom even though at times it seems that she is elusive. Fear the Lord. Live with a desire to find God in all areas of your life. And trust above all else that you are beloved by the Almighty and nothing can ever separate you from God’s love. Amen.
The parish I serve, St. Mark’s in Southborough, was founded in 1860 by a local business man Joseph Burnett. Joseph gave land and money to build our church building in 1862 with one stipulation: it had to be free to all without regard to wealth, color or station in life. Some businesses that are local sometimes use advertising flags to get customers from pavement traffic. In other words, if you wanted to worship with us you were welcome.
Yesterday we had two special guests worshipping with us. Lani Peterson of the City Mission Society of Boston came to talk about the BostonWarm program, our open plate offering recipient of the month (we give all undesignated money that comes in the plate to a worthy organization). But rather than just sharing about the program, Lani thought it would be best if an actual recipient shared about the impact. So we met Tom.
BostonWarm began due to the bridge leading to Long Island in Boston Harbor was closed amidst safety concerns. This led to the closure of a 500 bed shelter for the homeless and a more than 200 bed facility for those wanting to get sober. The most urgent need according to those impacted was a warm, safe place to go during the day. Two churches opened up their doors for this purpose through BostonWarm.
And Tom benefited.
During our announcement time, Tom stood in front of our assembled congregations talking about his normal day. Getting up between 4:30 and 5 to pack up his things and move on before someone forced him off the bench or from the location on which he had bedded down for the night. How he must carry 80 lbs of stuff—all his earthly belongings—with him wherever he goes, even the things he might only need once a week. He and other homeless folks can’t be in one place too long without being told they have to keep moving, that they don’t belong and aren’t wanted.
Tom looked out over the people gathered and said, “I can’t go to a mall and sit on the chairs provided there. You could, of course. You could go and sit all day if you’d like. If I sit for more than a couple of minutes, I’ll be told to leave because of how I look.” He then explained how the program gave him a chance to get in out of the cold, to be treated with dignity and respect. He could talk about issues of the day—like the problems with the local transit due to all the snow—and also leave his things in a locked portable storage locker. “I’m not told that I’m not wanted or welcomed,” he told us. “I can come in and get warm and have coffee and maybe a peanut butter sandwich. What more could I need?”
I’m not sure if Tom is the first homeless person to worship at St. Mark’s, but I do know he’s the first who came and was given a microphone to tell his story. I know for certain he’s the first homeless person I’ve had over for a meal at my home even though the Bible is pretty clear I should be doing that regularly. Tom reminded us all that he’s just another human being on this journey of life needing companionship and conversation like any of us.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see Tom again, or what he’ll be doing tonight when the temperature once again falls below zero. But I do know this: he reminded me of the power found in Joseph Burnett’s words. All of us are God’s children regardless of the ways we label people in our world. All are welcome into God’s loving embrace. And I know that on a snowy Sunday morning for a few hours a group of parishioners got to know an intriguing and caring man who just happened to no longer have a place to call home. He became Tom to us, a beloved child of God. And I suspect that would make Joseph Burnett proud.
This past weekend I had the great honor of baptizing a little girl, welcoming her into the Christian faith. Elizabeth wore a baptismal gown made from her mother’s own wedding dress, a gown her older sister wore at her own baptism. I met many of her aunts and uncles and proud grandparents, and a great great uncle who had come out to see this amazing event.
This past weekend former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin stated, “If I were in charge, [jihadists] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” She spoke at an NRA gathering in Indianapolis and served up red meat to a group raring to eat it. They devoured her words.
Christians around the world are celebrating the great 50 Days of Easter, a time when many are baptized into the faith. Not even a full week into Eastertide, Palin described the joyous rite of new birth as a means of torture for our enemies. Overtones of the Crusades were not hard to miss.
This past Sunday I prayed these words over the water in our font before baptizing Elizabeth: Continue reading On Enemies, Baptism and Fear: A Response to Sarah Palin
This past Monday, World Vision, a Christian relief organization, issued a statement that they had revised their employment policies and would now begin to hire Christians in same-sex marriages. Richard Stearns, World Vision’s President, stated, “Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.” He went on to say, “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”
World Vision struck out to find middle ground recognizing that faithful Christians are not in agreement on this issue, and that as a Christian organization they wanted to reflect that diversity within the Christian community.
The last few days have seen a flurry of responses. More progressive Christians applauding the decision, more conservative denouncing it. Folks like Franklin Graham and other Evangelicals issued statements claiming World Vision had clearly turned their backs on biblical faith. Reports emerged of more than 2000 sponsorships of needy children had been pulled. Rachel Held Evans and others online encouraged new people to step forward to fill the gap. In short, a fire storm was taking place.
Yesterday, World Vision changed their minds.
My family sponsors two children through World Vision, a boy in Swaziland and a girl in Burundi. We get letters from them and we send them postcards and small gifts throughout the year. Each Christmas we send a larger donation, $100, to help them get something they desperately need. This past month we got a reply from the young girl telling us how grateful she was and explaining how she and her mother bought many things including a dress outfit for church, metal sheets for their roof, some soap, basic food supplies and a goat. We got a picture of her standing near all these things. $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world.
I couldn’t imagine ever pulling my sponsorship of her over any issue I had with World Vision. And that’s the thing I just can’t get over in the midst of the last few days. 2000 children and their communities lost sponsorship and a connection with a family here in the US due to this issue.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement, people on Rachel Held Evan’s blog said things like, “As a gay Christian, while I cannot help but feel betrayed by World Vision’s sudden reversal, I won’t take my sponsorship away. I made a commitment to a young boy, and I want to honor that.” There were many of these responses.
I’m not naive enough to think that only conservative Christians would pull sponsorships and only progressive ones would honor the commitments. I suspect that there will be some who feel betrayed in this week’s change and then change back who will cancel new sponsorships (although they more than likely haven’t even finalized the paperwork), but I get caught by that number of 2000 kids losing sponsorship.
All too often I hear evangelical Christians proclaim to “hate the sin and love the sinner” as the answer to tough issues. But this week many didn’t show any love at all. Kids in the Third World became pawns to be played in this issue, even though certainly they had done nothing wrong. Many conservatives claimed that they would switch to another relief organization, but still the particular child they sponsored would be left in the lurch.
In the end it comes down to whether you understand faith as incarnational or not. For many evangelicals it’s about right belief. Either you are right or wrong (although issues they focus on shift as time goes on—see women’s ordination and divorce). Many believe this is the last great defining issue on biblical authority and if it falls, so too will fall the foundation on which they stand.
But to me it really is about how to live faith in real flesh and blood. Pulling money from a child in Burundi goes against the biblical injunction to care for widows and orphans as the only way to gauge pure religion (James 1:27). The policy change came about certainly because of real Christian people who wanted to work at World Vision (or currently work there) and are married to another person of their same gender. Dismissing both the children and those employees refuses to see them as God’s children, as valuable to God.
Biblical faith isn’t about policies, it’s about relationships. Jesus came and lived among us. He got to know us. He had deep compassion. What this week showed deeply is that for many Christians it’s all about being right regardless of anything else. In the biblical narrative, Jesus had a tendency to denounce people like that. When sinners came in to do acts of compassion—like the woman who washed his feet—he praised her for it.
This week exposed a deep truth: we still have much to learn from Jesus.