Ash Wednesday: Let Us Return To God – Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe

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“It is Ash Wednesday: the day we are called to be reminded of our mortality by receiving ashes – the symbol of mourning and repentance – in the sign of the cross on our foreheads…

From dust we came and to dust we shall return…

And it is on this day that we begin our Lenten path: our journey through the wilderness and toward the cross… Our time to retreat from the busyness of life, to reflect on what it means to be human and children of God, and to open our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways in which God is present in our lives and around us.

It is our time to recognize that life is short, and therefore to reevaluate how our own lives have and can have meaning in this world…

Let us be intentional this Lent. Let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts. And as we do so, let us equip our youth to do the same and walk alongside them in this journey.

1. How do you feel called to return to God with all your heart during this season of Lent?

2. What are some of the things you are giving up and/or taking on this Lent?

3. How are you equipping your youth to make extra space during this season of Lent to return to God and walking alongside them in this journey?”

Read full article here.

“Loving our Enemies, A Golden Rule, and A Messed Up Story of a Giving Tree” – Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

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“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” – Luke 6:27-38

“Love your enemy,” we hear Jesus saying this morning. “And if anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer the other also.”

At the campus ministry I was involved in during college, Shell Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree was used a lot as an example of how the ideal Christian was to emulate Jesus’ selfless love that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel this morning.

It was not until I was studying feminist theology in seminary when I realized how incredibly messed up this was.

You see, in Shell Silverstein’s book, there is a boy and there is an apple tree, who – of course is a female. As a young boy, he climbs the tree, eats her apples, and carves Me + Tree with a heart around it on the tree’s trunk. But as the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and only comes back to visit her when he has something to gain from her. He brings his girlfriend to the tree and carves a heart into her trunk with his and his girlfriend’s initials; he takes apples from the tree in order to make money; he takes the tree’s branches in order to build a house; he takes her trunk in order to build a boat.

The tree loves the boy, and at every stage of giving pieces of herself to him in order to make him happy, she is happy. At the end of the book, the boy comes back to her as an old man, and the tree is sad because she has nothing left to give him. But the old man says: “All I need is a quiet place to sit and rest.” And so this tree, who has given up almost every piece of herself, offers all that is left of her – a little stump – as a place for the old man to sit. And as he sits on her, she is happy.

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“Don’t be angry when someone wrongs you,” my college campus ministry leader told our women’s Bible study Group. “Instead, love selflessly like the Giving Tree does, forgive, and turn the other cheek, as Jesus commands us. This is what a good Christian woman is called to do.”

One of the reasons I have had a really difficult time with this morning’s Gospel passage is that throughout Christian history, it has been used as a means to tell victims of abuse – whether it is physical, spiritual, emotional, or verbal – to take the abuse and stay with their abusers. It has been used as a means to tell victims of sexism, slavery, racism, and other forms of hate to put up with hateful laws, systems, and treatment and to not resist. It has been used to keep people who are on the margins in their place.  

And the message that is being taught through this interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke is that in order to offer Jesus’ selfless love, including to our enemies, the oppressed must forgive their oppressor by not feeling or expressing anger and by taking the abuse.

But the thing is, I do not think that refraining from expressing justified anger and from resisting abusive systems and treatment is actually an act of loving the enemy or the oppressor.

And I don’t think Jesus is saying that this is the case in our Gospel this morning, either.

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You see, throughout the Gospels, Jesus condemns hate and injustice and proclaims a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He calls out and challenges abusive individuals and systems that oppress and marginalize and explains that he has come to release those who have been held captive and to let the oppressed go free. And while it may rarely be talked about in college Bible Studies and sermons: Jesus often does all this by expressing his anger about the injustice he sees. The thing is, he does not allow his anger to keep him captive.

I also think we need to look closer at what Jesus was really saying when he tells his disciples to turn the other cheek.

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, he specifies which cheek he is talking about, saying: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

 When I taught our youth group about this passage, I told them to find a partner and to pretend to hit their partner on the right cheek with their fist. Then I asked them how they would naturally hit their partner’s right cheek.

The youth answered that they would have to hit the right cheek with the left fist.

Then I explained to them: that in Jesus’ time, the left hand was used for only unclean tasks… and I mean… really unclean, natural every day human bodily tasks, if you get my drift. And so if you used your left hand for something other than those tasks, you basically would be seen as contaminating whatever or whomever you touched with your unclean hand. Thus, you would be excluded from religious gatherings and would have to do penance.

So, I told our youth that they had to put their left hand behind their back and pretend to hit the person’s right cheek again. When asked how they could do it, they said they had to do it with the back of their right hand.

Now, when a person hit someone else during Jesus’ time with the backhand, they were not doing it to cause injury. Instead, the backhand was a way to insult and humiliate the other person. And a backhand slap was not done to someone who was an equal. Slaves would be backhanded by masters; wives would be backhanded by husbands; children would be backhanded by parents.

The purpose of the backhand was to keep a person who was inferior in their place and to make them submit to their superior.*

So Jesus goes on to say that if someone backhands you, then turn the other cheek.

In doing so, the recipient of the slap makes it impossible for the person in power to use the backhand again. The recipient’s nose is in the way. The only way to hit that person would be with the right fist. But the problem with this is that only equals fought with fists, and the last thing a person in power wanted to do is acknowledge his inferior’s equality.

As theologian Walter Wink explains in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: “This act of defiance makes the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship… By turning the cheek, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

By turning the cheek, the “inferior” would expose the evil acts of the superior and forces the superior to make a choice to either shame himself by continuing this wrongdoing or to stop this wrongdoing altogether.

You see, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus is not saying that we should roll over and allow people to abuse or take advantage of us. He is saying quite the opposite. He is telling us to stand up to the bully. He is calling us to holy resistance.

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Another reason I have had difficulty with this morning’s Gospel passage is Jesus’ whole bit on loving our enemies.

Most of us likely feel we have at least some enemies – whether they are people we know personally or people we only hear about in the news. Whether they are enemies because they have caused us – or our loved ones – great harm or because we had some kind of falling out with them. Whether they are our biggest competitor who always seems to get our clients, our harsh boss who constantly takes advantage of us, our roommate or neighbor who gets under our nerves, or that facebook friend who just cannot stop trolling all of our posts.

And it’s easy for us to sit around and loathe and even sometimes hate our enemies. They deserve to be loathed and hated, don’t they?

And yet, Jesus does not only ask us to stop loathing and feeling hatred toward our enemies. He asks a lot more of us!

Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Do good, lend – expecting nothing in return… do not judge or condemn, for you do not always know what is going on in another person’s life. Rather, forgive, and give.”

This is all really really difficult, and maybe even feels impossible. Sometimes we just want to sit around and stew in our loathing and our hatred!

But the thing is, how many of us are actually perfect? How many of us can raise our hand when asked if we were never the one who did anything to create an enemy? Even if we have repented and changed since then or even if our wrong was unintentional or even if we wronged someone while going through an incredibly difficult time, many of us have created an enemy at some point in our life.

And yet, we have a God who forgives us again and again after we have wronged God and others. We have a God who offers us new life and chance after chance to be restored into the God-image bearers we were created to be. And most likely, we have received this grace from others we have wronged, as well. So don’t some of our “enemies” deserve just as much as we do the kind of grace and opportunities to change – that we have received?

“Be merciful,” Jesus says, “Just as your Father was merciful to you.”

*****

Now, please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this is easy at all. This is a difficult process. And as I spoke about earlier, I am not saying that all our enemies deserve the same kind of response to the harm they may have caused us or our loved ones or that we even owe them any kind of response at all. Boundaries are important and will definitely differ depending on the kind of harm one has caused.

But what I am saying is that even if our enemy really does deserve our loathing and hatred, isn’t it worse on us when we sit around and stew in it?

I think Desmond Tuto, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first black Archbishop in South Africa, explains this well in his book: The Book of Forgiving that many of us read last year during Lent.

He says: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor. When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”

But Tuto also reminds us that “forgiveness is not easy… it is not forgetting… and it is not quick – it can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.”

*****

But no matter how difficult it may be, this – I believe – is what Jesus is calling us to do in our Gospel this morning when he asks us to love our enemies. He is calling us to enter into the difficult journey of loving our enemies by first loving God and ourselves and by finding healing through the journey of holy resistance, boundary-setting, and forgiveness. So may we choose to begin this journey, so that we – too – can be free.

 


 

*My description about the backhand comes from the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by theologian Walter Wink.

“An Upside Down Kind of Story” – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26

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“He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.'” – Luke 6:17-26

In our society, we have been trained to understand the world in the binary: people must fit into one of only two boxes. Right or Wrong. Good or bad. Democrat or Republican. Conservative or liberal.   Black or white. Male or Female. Gay or Straight.

So it can often be difficult to understand anyone or anything that does not fit into one of two boxes and rather falls somewhere on a spectrum.

I do not like the binary. Because I do not fit into only one of two boxes in most areas of my life, and I know many other folks who do not either. For one: as a bisexual woman, my sexual orientation falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. And it can be painful to feel invisible when it is constantly assumed that I fit into only one of two boxes or when my bisexuality is actually placed into a tight box where all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about bisexuality are assumed about me.

I also definitely do not like to be placed in a box when it comes to my world views or my beliefs. This leaves no room for me to be a complex and unique human being who is constantly a work in progress.

And to see people only in the binary is not just problematic and harmful when it comes to sexual orientation, world views, or political or religious beliefs. People do not always fit into one of only two boxes when it comes to race, gender roles, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity, and the list goes on.

Seeing the world only in the binary and thus placing people into boxes is incredibly harmful because it puts parameters on what it means to be in one of these boxes and it limits and erases those who do not fit into these boxes.

Michelle Obama shares how this binary lens can be harmful in her memoir “Becoming”:

“The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope. I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility.

I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-grandaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.

Later in the book, she explains: … “Hamilton (the musical) (has) touched me because it reflect(s) the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in… So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American – that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong.

That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”

****

Today we hear Jesus giving Luke’s version of what we often call the Beatitudes. Here – at the beginning of his ministry – while preaching a sermon on a plain – Jesus gives four blessings that compare with four woes.

Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, and you who are being excluded, reviled, and are experiencing acts of hate.

This sounds pretty good, right? But then Jesus continues: But woe to you who are rich, you who are full, you who are laughing, and you who are popular or who have gained the respect of others and are only spoken well of.

If we look at these Beatitudes through the lens that our society has trained us to have, it sounds a lot like Jesus is speaking only in the binary. And it seems quite harsh. People fit into one of only two boxes: and depending on the box you fit into, you are either good or bad. You either receive a blessing or a curse. You either belong to the kingdom of God or you don’t. And for many of us, this is not exactly good news, as we may actually be woe receivers in at least one of these categories at some point in our lives.

But I don’t think this is what Jesus is trying to say here.

You see, the author of Luke is very clear throughout his Gospel and its sequel – the book of Acts – that Jesus’ message is one of inclusion, not one of exclusion. The good news Jesus proclaims is not only for the Jewish community, but it is also for the Gentiles. It is not just for the religious elite, but it is also for the common laypersons.

It is not just for the powerful and the privileged, but it is also for those on the margins: the women, the widows, the children; the poor, the sick, the blind; the immigrants, the oppressed.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus is reigning in is offered to ALL people – and it is especially offered to those most vulnerable.

It is an upside down Kingdom of God, both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

This was a radical concept – especially in a world where it was those who had religious and societal power who were seen as worthy of receiving blessings, and where those who were poor, sick, or had any physical ailments were believed to be sinful and thus cursed for their sins.

It seems to me that what Jesus is doing here is what Michelle Obama says is: daring to start telling the story differently.

You see, here in Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus comes to level the plains. Heck, he actually comes down into a level plain.

After praying in solitude in the mountains, he calls the twelve disciples, whom he also called apostles, comes back down the mountain with them and goes into a level place, where all people – especially those on the margins – can have access to him. There, he joins a multitude of people who had traveled from all over to hear him preach, to be healed of their diseases, and to be cured of unclean spirits. And so Jesus meets the people where they are at, joining them in the midst of their suffering, and stands with them on common ground.

And after healing them, he looks at his disciples and begins proclaiming these radical blessings and woes.

He has come to proclaim a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He has come to bring good news to those who needed it the most.

You see, for Jesus, it is not that the rich, the full, the joyful, and the popular are not also in need of God’s love, and Jesus is not saying that they will not be included into the Kingdom of God. It is just that there are other people who need the extra attention and care right now.

This reminds me of a metaphor that I have shared before when explaining the importance of proclaiming that black lives matter. I think it is a helpful metaphor, so I’m going to share it again:

It’s like if your neighbor’s house is on fire. The firefighters are going to go to that neighbor’s house and try to put that fire out. And – if they are any good at what they do – they will not stop at your house to have a cup of coffee while they are on their way. This does not mean that your life does not matter. It just means that your neighbor (who’s house is currently burning to a crisp) needs a lot of extra attention and care right now.

Similarly, those who are poor and hungry, those who are weeping and grieving, those who are being excluded and experiencing hate are in need of extra care and attention – and maybe some blessings that offer hope – and they need it right now.

Toward the end of her book, Michelle Obama explained:

“Sitting on the inaugural stage in front of the U.S. Capital for the third time, I worked to contain my emotions. The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableaus I’d encountered so many times in my life – especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments – from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley and Austin to hiring staff at the White House – is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.”

Sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.

This – I believe – is what Jesus is doing in Luke this morning.

He is making a thoughtful effort to counteract the sameness that harms and oppresses those who do not fit into the boxes that society uplifts.

And as he looks up at his disciples when he offers his blessings and woes, he is also looking up at us, calling us to follow him in counteracting this harmful sameness, as well.

Through Jesus’ woes, he commissions us through some warnings. And he makes clear that those of us who have more than enough, who are in power, who are privileged, or whose lives are going well at this particular time must not worship our worldly power, wealth, and status. And we must not hold tight to our current situation and our privilege while ignoring those around us who are suffering and vulnerable.

This means that those of us who are on top and have been centered have to come down from the mountain and step backwards, allowing others who have been lowered into the margins to be uplifted and centered. It means that those of us who have excess need to give up some of what we have and share with others who are in need.

It means that those of us who are joyful and doing well right now must not be so consumed with our own lives that we fail to see the needs of others around us.

It means that we don’t just sit around watching the firefighters put out the fire in our neighbor’s house. We actually join them in offering our neighbor the care and attention that they need.

*****

You see, here on this level plain at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has dared to start telling the story differently.

So may we choose to follow him in this holy work.

Guest Post at RevGalBlogPals: “The Pastoral Is Political: Let’s Talk About Bisexuality”

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I have honestly been very nervous about writing and posting this. However, I believe it’s incredibly important… Below is an excerpt. You can click the link to read the rest of the article: “The Pastoral Is Political: Let’s Talk About Bisexuality” on RevGalBlogPals here.

“Bisexuality is incredibly misunderstood, even in some of the most LGBTQIA+ affirming churches and communities. And while bisexuality is becoming more accepted within society, biphobia and bi erasure are still alive and well…

I keep going back to the question I have often received when coming out: “Why does it matter?”

… It matters because it is a part of who I am. When I denied this part of me or kept it silent, I carried a lot of shame and withheld a big part of who I am from God, others, and myself. Yet, I was created in God’s image, I am beautifully and wonderfully made in all of my bi-ness, and God loves me just the way I am. And nothing and no one can take that away from me: not even another person’s disapproval, discomfort, or lack of understanding.

It matters because I do exist. And I should be free to feel proud of and celebrate the person God created me to be, rather than be made to feel so ashamed about who I am that I must keep it a secret.

It matters because there are many others who are not out due to their fear that nobody would understand or accept them. I want them to know that they are celebrated for who they are and that they are not alone.”

https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/01/30/the-pastoral-is-political-lets-talk-about-bisexuality/

Jussie Smollett, Homophobia, and Racism

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What happened to Empire star Jussie Smollett in Chicago last night is absolutely sickening and horrific!

Folks, racism and homophobia are alive and well.

This is why we cannot stay silent.

This is why we cannot allow those racist, homophobic (and all other hateful) comments to go unchecked.

This is why we must listen to our LGBTQIA+ siblings and siblings of color and take them seriously when they explain their own experiences of racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia (and not brush them aside, wondering to ourselves if they might be overreacting or exaggerating.)

This is why we must deconstruct and denounce racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. theologies and teachings in our faith communities.

This is why we cannot elect and/or defend political leaders who uphold these kinds of isms/phobias.

This is what happens when we fail to acknowledge and work to eliminate the white supremacy and heteronormativity that still prevail in our country.

We are complicit when we are silent.

To my black and LGBTQIA+ siblings: I am so incredibly sorry. You are loved and beloved. My heart breaks with you and I stand with you.

Guest Post at Bold Cafe: “A God Who Shows Up”

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Today I’m writing over at Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA.
“This first Christmas was not a magical holiday homecoming story full of family turkey dinners, carol singing and football games. It did not involve decorating trees, baking cookies and opening wrapped gifts.
Rather, the first Christmas is a refugee story.
And it tells of a young, poor, homeless asylum seeking couple who fearfully flee their country and become residents in a foreign land in order to save their child’s life.
And yet, this story is also a story of hope. It is in the midst of this violent and fearful event when God shows up in the flesh: not as a king who has worldly power, and not as one who is distant and does not understand the plight of the marginalized. Rather, God shows up as one of the marginalized. God shows up in the flesh in a dirty stable, as a vulnerable baby, to a terrified young homeless couple on the margins of society.”
You can read the full article here.

Guest Post at RevGalBlogPals: “The Pastoral Is Political: Be Alert this Advent

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Today I’m writing over at RevGalBlogPals.

“Jesus says: ‘Be alert at all times.’

In other words: wake up and stay woke. And when you see the suffering and injustice of this world, look for the ways God is calling you to proclaim justice and peace and to offer God’s love to those in need. And then rise up and act.

This can be daunting when our news feed constantly updates us on one horrific tragedy after another. The world’s needs just seem too great.

Yet, Jesus does not end here.

‘Hold onto the hope of my return,’ he says, ‘so that your hearts are not weighed down with worries of this life.’ Raise your heads so that you might also see signs of the Kingdom of God that are already present and sprouting up like leaves on a fig tree. Look for signs that God is with us now and that the reign of God is near.

You see, it is necessary for us to find hope as we look for the signs of how God’s Kingdom is already present in this world. No, we must not ignore or downplay the injustice and suffering around us. However, in times such as these, we will not be able to rise up if we only focus our eyes on what is terrible.

So this Advent, may we slow down and choose to be alert. 

You can read the full article here.

“A Place at the Table” – Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

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They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” – Mark 10:46-52

Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd that had been following Jesus are in Jericho. And they are about to leave town and continue their important journey toward Jerusalem. As they are getting ready to leave, they pass by a man named Bartimaeus, who is sitting alongside the road. He is a beggar, and he is blind. And when he hears that it’s Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by him, he begins to shout out: “Jesus, son of David! Have mercy on me!”

Now many in the crowd sternly order him to be silent. And it’s no wonder they do. This man is marginalized in many capacities. He is blind, which many at that time believed was due to his sin and his lack of faithfulness. And he is poor – and most likely experiencing homelessness. And therefore, he is deemed one of the lowest of the lows, an outsider who doesn’t deserve to participate in the life of the community and must be pushed to the complete outskirts of society.

So who does this man think he is, shouting out in a public place at a respected Rabbi and his close disciples: his devout and faithful students? He needs to be put in his place. He needs to be silenced.

*****

In the past several weeks we have seen many examples of people attempting to silence and erase others around us – particularly those on the margins. At the end of September, we saw Dr. Christine Blasey Ford bravely share her incredibly painful and traumatic story of being sexually assaulted as a teenager, only to have her story be brushed aside. And, instead of fully respecting and listening to her story, many – including those in powerful positions in this country – have questioned her integrity and her honesty, have mocked her, and at times have even called her a liar.

And this silencing of Dr. Ford shines light on the incredibly deep-rooted problem we have in this country of not believing and of silencing sexual assault and rape survivors (particularly those who are women and non-binary persons.)

This week, we are also watching the migrant families desperately caravaning on foot across Mexico toward our border, seeking a place where they will be freed from oppression and violence. Seeking safety for themselves and for their children. And yet, while this is a horrific humanitarian crisis, these asylum seekers are being demonized. They are constantly being depicted in the media and by many of our national leaders as a mob that is full of “very bad people” and that is invading our country and therefore needs to be silenced and stopped.

And last Sunday we got wind that the Dept. of Health and Human Services is attempting to change the legal definition of gender, determining gender only on biological traits that are identifiable at or before birth, which would erase trans and non-binary persons and will take away many of their civil rights.

And – as Rev. M Barclay, the first transperson who is openly non-binary to be ordained as deacon in the United Methodist Church – stated: “The spiritual trauma of being perpetually told who we are isn’t real, that others shouldn’t believe us or support us, and that our well-being isn’t of collective significance is doing so much damage.”

*****

As the crowds surrounding Jesus tried to silence the poor, blind man named Bartimaeus, so too are the crowds in our midst today trying to silence and erase those around us who are already on the margins and are most vulnerable.

And I think it can be easy to want to silence those around us who’s experiences and insights are different than our own or whose views make us uncomfortable and are difficult to understand… It’s often our tendency to silence those who’s stories and insights call for change, because that change often affects us. When change that requires inclusion of all persons takes place, it means that those of us who already have places at the table must make some changes within ourselves, too.

Because when we make room at the table for those who have been excluded, it means our space at the table gets a little smaller and we may feel a little more cramped and a little less comfortable than we did before. And when we offer platforms for those who have been silenced to speak their voice, that means the time we get to speak lessens and it means that there are other insights that we need to listen to, sometimes ones that will challenge our own perspectives and actions.

And this kind of change can be hard because it means we will likely need to give something up: whether it’s our pride, our comfort, our social status… our need to always be right, our constant use of space in the world, our positions of power.

*****

And I wonder if this was the case for Jesus’ disciples and the crowds surrounding him when they sought to silence Bartimaeus. I wonder if they sought to silence him in order to maintain their insider status and their positions of power.

I wonder if they feared that if they gave these things up, they would be valued and loved less. But even though Jesus loves and values his disciples and those in the crowds, he is not going to put up with their silencing, dehumanizing, and excluding of one of God’s beloved children. And he is not going to allow them to continue to hold onto their societal power and privilege that uplifts them while pushes others to the margins.

Because for Jesus: there are no hierarchies. There are no outsiders or last and least. For Jesus, ALL are beloved children of God, beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image. ALL deserve to be listened to, treated with dignity, and are worthy of equality and justice. For Jesus, there are no walls or borders that keep people – particularly those most vulnerable – out. And ALL are welcome at Jesus’s table.

We saw Jesus calling his disciples out when they sought to maintain a hierarchical status last week in our passage in Mark. When James and John ask Jesus to grant them seats next to him in his glory, which basically is asking for high societal status and power for all eternity, Jesus tells them that whoever wishes to be first must be last. And whoever wishes to be greatest must humble themselves and serve others instead. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he explains, “And to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And Jesus continues to proclaim who he is and who he calls his disciples to be in our passage this morning. Instead of brushing Bartimaeus aside, continuing on his journey, and allowing him to be silenced, Jesus stops in his tracks, stands still and tells his disciples to call Bartimaeus to him.

And when Bartimaeus comes to him, Jesus does something that is surprising and so different from the cultural norms of his day. Jesus asks what he can do for Bartimaeus.

I think Jesus’ question here is so surprising because so often we feel we know what is best for others… even when we don’t identify with those individuals or know what it’s like to be in their shoes…

And we often tend to speak on their behalf, without having their voices centered at the table, even if we don’t know what it’s like to be them: even if we don’t know what it’s like to be blind, to be poor, to be experiencing homelessness. Even if we don’t know what it’s like to be a youth today, to be a person of color or an immigrant in our country, to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Or to be whatever blank we can fill in…

So often we try to determine what life is like for others and what is best for them without even listening to their stories, experiences, perspectives, & what they say they need.

I think a good example of this took place earlier this week on Megyn Kelly’s talk show. She invited a panel to come on her show to discuss whether or not it is racist for white people to wear black face when they dress up for Halloween. Megyn’s argument was that it wasn’t racist because she said when she was a kid, it seemed to be okay.

But Amber Ruffin, comedian and one of the writers of the Late Night Show with Seth Myers pointed out that there was a big problem with what took place on Megyn’s show. Amber immediately noticed that all the people on the panel who were sitting around the table were white.

“How are you going to have a bunch of white people sit together and figure out what’s racist?” Amber asked. “White people don’t get to decide what’s racist. If I punch you, I don’t decide if it hurts or not. You do.”

And this scenario is so common. We tend to do this often. Whether it’s a bunch of men talking about what women need or experience or a bunch of people who have never experienced mental illness talking about those who do, and the list goes on.

*****

But this kind of silencing and exclusion from the table is unacceptable to Jesus. And in our passage this morning, he shows us another way.

He asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?”

You see, Jesus does not insist that he understands Bartimaeus’ experiences or knows what he needs and what is best for him. Rather, Jesus asks Bartimaeus to share his story and to state what he needs.

Jesus offers Bartimaeus – a person who had been ostracized and silenced for so long – the same kind of dignity all persons should have: the ability to speak for himself. Jesus makes room for Bartimaeus at the table and offers him a platform to share his story and his perspective. Jesus makes room for him to demand justice and equality that he has been denied. Jesus listens to him, believes him, and acknowledges his suffering. And then Jesus praises Bartimaeus for his persistence and resistance. “Your faith has made you well.”

And when Bartimaeus asks Jesus to restore his sight, and thus release him from the systemic oppression he had been experiencing because of his blindness, Jesus offers him healing and freedom and invites Bartimaeus to follow him on his way.

*****

Brothers, sisters, siblings: this story is good news. In our passage today, Jesus reminds this poor, blind man who he is and who’s he is. And Jesus reminds us of this, as well.

You see, Jesus loves us, and claims us as his own: beloved and sacred children of God: Each with our own stories and insights that deserve to be heard and held with care and love. And he calls all of us to follow him on his way of making space for and offering compassionate arms, listening ears, and believing hearts to those who have otherwise been silenced. And THIS, my friends, is where we will experience freedom and healing.

And for those who have been silenced or pushed to the margins: there is good news here, too. Because no matter how much the crowds may try to take away your dignity and worth: Jesus affirms it and marks you with his unconditional love.

Because you are beloved. You are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image. You are a cherished child of God. You deserve to be listened to and to be believed, and your story is sacred. And no crowd or individual that says otherwise can take that away from you.

When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, “have mercy on me,” Jesus stopped in his tracks and with compassion he invited Bartimaeus to share his story and what he needed, asking: “What can I do for you?” And through his listening ear and loving care, Jesus offered Bartimaeus freedom and healing.

And he offers this to you, as well.

Amen.

 

ELCA Youth Gathering 2018: E.C.T. Youth Group Posts and Media Coverage

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Want to read up on the ELCA youth Gathering 2018 in Houston?  Below are links to all of the E.C.T. (Edgewater Congregations Together) Youth Group daily blog posts during the trip, a link to the ELCA Youth Gathering youtube channel with videos of speakers, worship, etc. from the youth Gathering, and some media coverage of the Youth Gathering.

ELCA Youth Gathering Youtube Channel (with videos of speakers, worship, recaps, etc.)

E.C.T. blog posts from the ELCA Youth Gathering and Multicultural Youth Leadership 2018: 

Day 1 of the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event

Day 2 of the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event

Day 3 of the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event

Day 4: Final Day of the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event & First Day of the ELCA Youth Gathering

Day 5: ELCA Youth Gathering Synod Day #familiesbelongtogether

Day 6: Service Learning Day at the ELCA Youth Gathering

Day 7: Interactive Learning Day at the ELCA Youth Gathering

Day 8: ELCA Youth Gathering Closing Worship & Exploring Houston

Sermon I Preached Sunday, July 8 (following the ELCA Youth Gathering):

“This Changes Everything” – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13

Media Coverage of the ELCA Youth Gathering:

Coverage of the Families Belong Together Rally and Action Led by our E.C.T. Youth & a Few Other Chicago Youth:

Christian Teenagers in Houston Protest Immigrant Family Separation – Houston Chronicle

Protesting Christian Youth Ask, Who Would Jesus Detain – Houston Chronicle

General Coverage of the ELCA Youth Gathering:

30,000 Teens in Houston For Lutheran Youth Conference – Fox 26 News (Houston)

Lutheran Youth Gathering with Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Youth Gathering Director Molly Beck-Dean – Fox 26 News (Houston)

30,000 Youth to Descend on Houston for Lutheran Gathering – Houston Chronicle

Lutheran Youth Gathering Helps Teens Relate to Harvey, Maria Disasters – Houston Chronicle

Teens Tackle Human Trafficking in Houston – Houston Public Media

“This Changes Everything” – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 #elcayg2018

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“He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  – Mark 6:1-13

Many of you might know that last week Pastor Michael and I were in Houston with 13 youth and 2 young adult leaders for the ELCA Youth Gathering, where 30,000 youth from all over the country and even across the world gather once every three years for worship, to hear speakers, to participate in service learning projects with local organizations, to learn about multiple areas of injustice and how our faith calls us to respond, and – of course – to also have a lot of fun.

This year, our youth group also gathered with about 700 other youth and adults for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is a pre-Youth Gathering event that seeks to empower youth of color and multicultural youth groups to grow in their faith, develop as leaders, and build awareness and acceptance of one another’s cultural backgrounds and differences.

During the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is the most diverse gathering of Lutherans in the ELCA, our youth and leaders had so many powerful experiences as we sang and danced to global worship music together, talked with and heard the stories of people from all over the country and some from across the world, shared our own personal and family stories – some which included painful stories about our youth’s experiences with racism, and our group started a community garden for refugee families who are new to the Houston area.

Once the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event ended, the main ELCA Youth Gathering began. The theme for this year’s gathering was: “This Changes Everything,” and throughout the week we heard so many inspirational and challenging stories and messages about how God’s radical love, grace, and hope do – in fact – change everything.

While the worship we experienced and the messages we heard were remarkable, what was most powerful for me was seeing how our youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they created a safe and caring space for one another to be truly themselves, as they befriended and encouraged youth from other church groups, and as they organized and led 300 youth and adults from our Metro-Chicago synod in a rally and march calling for an end to the separation and detainment of families at the border. Several of our youth spoke – both in English and Spanish – led chants and songs, invited youth to call and write letters to their legislators, and two of our youth were even interviewed by Telemundo and the Houston Press. This was not easy for them to do for multiple reasons, esp. in times like these. Yet, despite the opposition they could have faced, these youth believed this was important, and for some of them, this was personal. So they proclaimed this good news. They were so courageous and they did a phenomenal job! I am extremely proud of them! They were an amazing representation of Edgewater!

After hearing and experiencing God’s love, grace, and hope last week in a variety ways (many of which were through our own Edgewater youth), we were then challenged to continue to share this good news when we returned to our home communities.

On our last night of the Youth Gathering, we heard from 11 year old transgender activist Rebekah Bruesehoff, who said: “I have a lot of support, but so many transgender kids don’t. Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported… Hearts and minds can change. And I can change the world. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us. I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated. We can make it happen… And you – each and every one of you – made in God’s image, are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”

And we heard from poet Joe Davis, who said:

“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope. You are here for a reason: Not just for the future, but for the here and now. Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you… You are a generation that’s teaching us that enough is enough. Radical hope is when we celebrate not just what we see now, but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and we must practice this hope every day. This hope changes me. This hope changes you. This hope Changes Everything.”

Now, while many of the 30,000 youth and adults were inspired and transformed by the good news we heard and experienced last week, the call to share this good news when we return to our home communities is not always going to be easy. For we know it is not always going to be welcomed and accepted, even by those we are closest to.

And this was the case for Jesus’s homecoming in our Gospel text this morning, as well.

You see, in our passage in Mark, Jesus has just returned to his hometown – along with his disciples – and has begun teaching in his home synagogue. And yet, while this synagogue is filled with people who knew Jesus’ family, had hung out with Jesus when he was a boy, or had watched him grow up, they did not respond to his homecoming with welcoming arms.

When the Nazarenes hear him teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, many soon become astounded… And if there was any good sense of this word, it doesn’t last very long… as the Nazarenes soon take offense at him. “Where did this man get all of this?” they ask.

“Isn’t this the poor carpenter we’ve known all these years? Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t these his sisters sitting right here? Isn’t he the son of Mary?” they sneer, as they remind each other of Jesus’ shameful origin: that he had been conceived by an unwed teenager. “How could this guy – this poor, carpenter with ordinary siblings and a mother with a disgraceful past teach with authority? How could his teachings and his actions have any sort of power at all?”

Now our text does not say what it was about Jesus and his teachings that offended this crowd in his hometown synagogue so much that they discredited and insulted him. However, if we look back at the preceding chapters in Mark, we could probably take a wild guess.

In the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, we see that even from the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry is not what would have been seen as ordinary.

He’s cast out demons and stilled a storm. He’s performed miracles… on the Sabbath day. He’s touched and healed those who were deemed “untouchable”: the sick, a leper, a woman… who had been haemorraging… for years. He’s called twelve disciples to follow him – most of whom are just common fishermen and one who is a tax collector. He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near and tells those who follow him not to keep anything hidden, but to bring all their secrets into the light.

He eats with the sinners and the tax collectors and then tells the religious – the righteous ones – to confess and repent of their sins.

Jesus was changing everything!

And he was already seen as such an offensive radical rule-breaker that by the time we get to Mark chapter 3, many of his followers say he is “out of his mind,” some of the religious leaders accuse him of being in line with Satan, himself, and even his very own family questions his abilities and rush to where he is teaching and try to restrain him.

And now here we are a few chapters and several radical teachings, actions, and miracles later. Jesus has definitely shaken things up a bit, and it’s only the sixth chapter in Mark.

And here in our text for today, after all the backlash he’s already received, Jesus has the nerve to come back to his hometown and to his home synagogue. And here – in the midst of the ones who’ve watched him grow up, he comes preaching this same kind of message. This same message that treats the outcasts and those who were “untouchable” as if they are equals and calls the religious and righteous to bring their secrets to light and confess and repent of their sins.

Who does this ordinary carpenter with a shameful family past think he is?

But the insults don’t stop Jesus. He lays his hands on a few more of those “untouchable” and cures them. And then – as he and his disciples leave Nazareth and go out into the villages, he gives his disciples authority and commissions them to go out into the world vulnerably – two by two – with nothing but a staff, the clothes on their backs, and the sandals on their feet.

They must rely on the people they meet to feed them and to provide them with a place to sleep. And yet Jesus tells them they must go out boldly, proclaiming that all should repent, and they must confront evil, cast out demons, anoint those “untouchable” with oil, and heal the sick.

*****

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the disciples – who had just watched Jesus get opposed, insulted, and publicly shamed in his hometown synagogue, I would have probably thought quite hard about picking up all of my belongings and running in the opposite direction.

Because I’m sure it would have been very difficult for these disciples to give up their food, clothing, and social status – the things they were privileged to have and could rely on for their safety, comfort, and well-being. And it would have been very difficult for them to go out vulnerably and proclaim Jesus’ radical good news, with no confirmation that they could find people who would accept them and provide for them.

Sometimes I wonder how these disciples had the courage to follow Jesus and to go out risking so much, when it would have been much easier for them to ignore the cries of those around them and just go on living their normal every day lives, without having to face the suffering and injustice around them.

I think I wonder this about the disciples because sometimes I wonder this about myself. To be quite honest, there have been many times when I just want to pick up all of my belongings and hold tight to my own privilege and just pretend that the systemic injustice that continues to prevail throughout our country and world and the suffering it causes so many people do not exist.

Because this is the easier way. Because this way allows me to live in my comfortable bubble that I have the privilege of living in. It allows me to avoid any kind of shaming and opposition that those who speak out often face. It enables me to deny my own participation in and benefits from the unjust systems in our country that still privilege those like me while deeming those who are not as “less than.”

Because as a white, cis-gender, educated, middleclass, woman who is married to a man and who is a U.S. citizen with documentation, I have the privilege of being able to just shut everything around me out and to live my life without fear.

I can just go to my safe home – without ever being pulled over in my car or stopped and frisked on my bike ride home because of the color of my skin. I can walk home without fear that I could get jumped or called a derogatory name because of my religious affiliation, gender identity, or because of the gender identity of my spouse.

I can go to sleep every night knowing that my sister’s children will never be forcibly taken from her or that my parents will never get deported. I have the privilege of just getting to turn off the news and going about living my own comfortable life without having to think about those around this country who have to live in fear every single day.

And yet, this is not a privilege I get to hold onto when I follow Jesus. Because this is not Jesus’ way.

Because just as Jesus called out to the twelve disciples and commissioned them to acknowledge and let go of their grip on their privilege and to go out into the world boldly, he commissions ALL of his disciples to do so, as well. He commissions each one of us to share God’s radical love and to BE the hope that will – indeed – change everything.

Because when one member of our human family suffers, we ALL suffer.

*****

During our last worship service at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, we heard Chicago Pastor Yehiel Curry explain that it is when we immerse ourselves with others who may look, speak, talk, believe, worship, and act differently than we do and get to know them, that we will begin to realize that we are more alike than we are different. And THIS IS WHAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!

He saw this taking place a lot at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event this week. (And so did I. And wow: was it ever a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God!)

Pastor Yehiel went on to explain that we are one in Christ, because it is Jesus who brings down the walls of hostility that divide us. However, we – as the body of Christ – are called to bring down these dividing walls in our world, as well. And yet, in order to make change, we need to start within ourselves.

“When you change your heart, you can change your mind,” he said. “When you change your mind, you can change your community. When you change your community, you can change your city. When you change your city, you can change your state.

When you can change your state, you can change your nation. When you can change your nation, you can change your world. When you can say this is my brother, this is my sister, [this is my sibling], this is my family: THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!”

And then we are truly ONE in Christ.

Amen.