Short Essay

Responding to the prompt of "scrap," I wrote the following, which was published in Christian Century's April 8, 2022 print magazine.

Because I am determined not to waste anything I bring into my kitchen,  I dilute yesterday’s  icing with today’s milk, add a pinch of salt, and stir in some leftover brown rice. The first bite is amazing; the next few are a bit cloying. But I am still glad to have practiced the art, the responsibility, of seeing possibility in the guise of scraps.

As I finish that bowl of sweetened rice, I think back to my childhood aspirations of actually and literally  saving the planet. As I’ve come to appreciate what a knotted ball of yarn the world is, my heart and mind grow weary of grand plans, and I find myself making rice pudding out of remnants from my fridge. It’s not redemption; it’s not kingdom come, no choirs of angels cooing at lions and lambs, no drastic change from the hurting world that I woke to. But the world never asked for a savior. I think the world only asked for listeners, for lovers, for reverence.


I have no plans to join the ranks of the clergy (said the pastor's kid), AND I relish the chance to contribute to my church as a member of the Worship Committee.  Below are four full-fledged sermons, plus one shorty piece.

God the Good Shepherd

Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 | linked directly to the start of the sermon

Themes: first-century sheep herding, God's thoughts on scattering, and what we can learn from our bodies (a lot!)

Text here in case it helps to read vs. listen.

 I have no doubt that the prophet Ezekiel would find the sermon I am about to give quite strange. I am fairly confident that the meaning I have gleaned from his words is quite different from that which he set out to express. And with all due respect to him, I think that’s okay. As we say in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” I take this to mean that God remains active, and alive, and keen to be in relationship with us. I also take it to mean that interpretations which are creative, and inclusive, and oriented towards expansive understandings of the sacred have not always been accessible to the forebearers of our tradition. New meanings from old words honor our still speaking God.


So, let’s take a look at this passage. It’s about sheep, and scattering, and a beautifully caring shepherd. I think it’s also about embodiment.


Before we jump down that rabbit hole, though, let’s level-set around the metaphor of God as the Good Shepherd since it’s so central to this passage. God wears many hats and has many faces. Each one gives us a glimpse into another dimension of holiness, and I would argue--if we take seriously the assertion in the Genesis poem that we have been made in the image of God—that learning about the nature of God teaches us something about ourselves, or at least a tendril of our possibility.


So, who is this Good Shepherd? I have very limited experience with sheep and shepherds, but I do have some. When I was 16 I got my first job at a small, family farm. I spent my Saturdays washing eggs, pricing meat, and harvesting cherry tomatoes—which is to say, I didn’t go into the barn very often. But inside said barn was a sheep rotund with wool, and her name was Lady Ba-ba. Following college I lived in an agricultural community and worked on the botanic side of things—but three times every day I was privy to a gaggle of farmers walking about 20 cows up and down the main road of the village, leading the cows from pasture to milking barn and milking barn to pasture. They would call to the cows in this super distinct way, walking alongside, and in front of, and behind them: “Come on, cooooome onnn.” We would hear them all throughout the community for a good 15 minutes just before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


What, though, did it meant to be a shepherd in the time of Ezekiel when we encounter this metaphor of the Good Shepherd? I am grateful for the context that Flora Slosson Wuellner provides in her book, Enter by the Gate. She explains that shepherds held full responsibility for the well-being of their sheep, but they weren’t the only ones who contributed to their care. Enter, the gatekeeper. Flora explains that a shepherd and his sheep would venture out to the pasture for a few days, then return to the community. It was cost prohibitive for each household to build their own sheep pen, so neighbors built communal, walled enclosures “to defend against the constant danger of thieves, wolves, and mountain lions. There would be only one entrance to the sheep pen, closed by a gate and usually watched by a guard, a gatekeeper. At night this gatekeeper would lie down by the entrance so no one could leave or enter without stepping on his body.” At dawn, or just before, shepherds would arrive to lead their flocks to pasture. Flora continues, “Each shepherd had his or her own special call, song, whistle, or other sound that the sheep knew. The sheep would come to their shepherd, ignoring other voices and calls. As the sheep came one by one out of the enclosure, the shepherd would count them, usually touch each one, and perhaps speak its name.”


In a world of #MeToo and COVID-19, touch has become undeniably complicated. Acknowledging this, I also think that there’s something incredibly tender and settling about acknowledging each other’s presence with a hug, or a pat on the arm, or a squeeze of the shoulder. This is what I see God the Good Shepherd offering to each member of Her flock upon greeting them every day at the gate of the sheep pen. In this metaphor God shows Herself to be gentle and attentive—She’s also not understood to be particularly holy.


Flora points out that because their charge was to consider the well-being of their sheep before all else, because this entailed working weekends and getting dirt underneath their fingernails, shepherds of the first century were unable to fully observe the Sabbath laws and the strict rules around ritual cleanliness. They were, consequently, to borrow Flora’s phrase, deemed “uncouth and unorthodox.” We’re going to get back to Ezekiel soon, I promise, but I want us to linger here in our crash course on first-century shepherding just a moment longer. Because God the Good Shepherd is one of the most commonly invoked metaphors for the Holy One in our tradition—and shepherds were not recognized as holy. May that be invitation to expand our imagining of who God is and what Her priorities are.


Let’s return to Ezekiel. It’s clear that these sheep have been having a hard go of it. They’ve been scattered by stormy weather and “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted with horns until” they were “scattered far and wide.” And being scattered is not good for sheep. With gratitude to an entry in the Merck Veterinary Manual I can relay to you that “sheep display an intensely gregarious social instinct that allows them to bond closely to other sheep and preferentially to related flock members. Flock mentality movements protect individuals from predators. […] Separation from the flock can cause stress and panic. Isolation from other sheep can cause severe stress and should be avoided.” Yet that is precisely the state in which we meet the sheep in Ezekiel. And God is not okay with it. The very first words we hear in this passage of scripture are: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. […] I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered […].” God is deeply protective of that which should be together. God starts naming the ways that She will offer care—and every one of them has to do with the physical well-being of the sheep: “I will feed them with good pasture; […] I will make them lie down. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”


I am intrigued by the qualifier that describes the food God will provide. “I will feed them with good pasture.” This promise has a very different feel than “I will make sure they receive a sufficient intake of calories.” This is a God who cares about life and about having it to the full. 


Another piece of this litany of care that catches my attention is “I will make them lie down.” This is distinct from I will offer rest if the sheep really can’t manage to journey any further. This isn’t in order to fortify them for optimal productivity in their tasks as sheep, I am willing to let them take a break. Hearing these words today, “I will make them lie down” is the phrase of a God who knows Her sheep are beleaguered by all sorts of ugliness pertaining to capitalism, and transphobia, and racism, and a multitude of noxious narratives about meritocracy and worth. “I will make them lie down” is the promise of a God who speaks to us through our bodies.


Does that sound strange? Unfamiliar? For much of my life I’ve felt separate from my body—not antagonistic towards it, just like it was beside the point. The Christian tradition has maintained some pretty harmful ideas about a supposed binary split between mind and body, the former being pure and the way that we connect with God, the latter being a base distraction that leads to all sorts of trouble. I think that this passage in Ezekiel—with its emphasis on caring for bodies through rest, through food, through bandages—is an invitation to embrace ourselves as embodied creatures. That is, to consider our bodies not as incidental sacks of bones, but rather to honor that bodily knowledge is a way that God speaks to us.


In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren offers a framework for the various ways we come to know things: through our intellect, our emotions, our visionary spirit, and our bodies. These aren’t four separate paths of arriving at understanding. Rather, these are four interconnected elements that collaborate and depend upon each other to bring us valuable insights. And this gets tricky because our culture does not value all four of these elements as sources of knowledge. This means that the one that we have cultural permission to use—our intellect—goes into overdrive. As Karla puts it, “The psyche doesn’t function properly when the intellect is in charge. Instead, it spins and whirls into endless planning, scheming, ‘what-if-ing,’ and obsessing.” When we only have access to one of our four elements, “they can only escalate their own process, which unbalances our system even further” (54-55).


Did you know that when we encounter a threat—real or perceived--, our body is flooded with biochemicals? This initiates the human stress cycle. It sends us into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Did you know that these biochemicals will stay stuck in our bodies until we are able to complete the human stress cycle? Did you know that such stuckness is sometimes named overwhelm, or anxiety, or numbness, or dissociation?


In her book, How to Live in a Chaotic Climate, LaUra Schmidt notes that “[i]f animals in the wild cannot fight or flee, they will shake or tremble to discharge the stress locked in their bodies after the threat has passed.” She continues, “We humans could do this too, or we could dance, yell, cry, express ourselves creatively, experience a big belly laugh, connect with others, or go for a run when we are no longer at risk” (60-61). Said another way, we sheep could find our flock. Or delight in some good pasture. Or lie down and take a nap.


These are all reactive ways to help ourselves come down from a state of stress, and they’re important tools to have. Relatedly, I’m on a low-key mission to make cultural space for us to proactively honor our bodies all the day long: stretch and twist your body when you wake up; wear clothes that don’t pinch; pop outside for some fresh air at lunch time; bring a mug of tea to your meeting; get up amid the busyness of your Outlook calendar and go to the bathroom.


Why? Because we are embodied creatures, and we are worthy of care. And also because when we’re supporting our bodies, it’s so much easier to notice how God is nudging us, or winking at us, or worried about us. I’ve come to realize that God tells me important things about what is mine—and what is not—by where my energy levels are. Put plainly, if I’m routinely energized by something, I trust it. If I’m routinely depleted, I start wondering which piece is out of alignment. And as I’ve come to learn what it feels like in my body when I am overwhelmed, or nervous, or angry, or calm, or hopeful, or joyful, I can discern my own feelings more precisely when I’m experiencing them in new situations—this helps me to trust my gut about what’s going on and not overtax my mind into spinning out and gaslighting my own grasp on what I already know.


I am gobsmacked by the interconnectedness of our bodies, spirits, and minds. When we’re unable to engage with one part of our being, the others do overtime, but, really, they just end up scattered like sheep. And the Good Shepherd wants to keep us all together–body, mind, and spirit. Can’t you hear Her? Listen, she’s calling for us…come on, cooomme onnn!

Resisting Empire

Matthew 21: 1-11 | linked directly to the start of the sermon (BONUS: I did a children's talk, too!)

Themes: the nature of empires; inverted symbols as a form of resistance; and context, context, context (that is, Jesus as Jewish in first century Jerusalem)

It's a long one!  I provide the text in case you prefer it over audio.  

Palm Sunday is a weird one.  The language of our tradition has primed us to recognize Jesus as king, lord, savior, messiah, prince of peace, son of God--as the rightful centerpiece of Christianity.  But when Palm Sunday happened in ancient Israel, Christianity didn’t exist.  And I think that’s hard for us to remember.  And I think it’s really important that we do. 


It feels important to state plainly that Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion.  It feels important to state plainly that Jesus was Jewish, a peasant in territory occupied by the Roman Empire.  It feels important to state plainly that Jesus wasn’t the only messiah recognized in his day, and he certainly wasn’t the only one who was crucified.  It feels important to state plainly that crucifixion was the response of Empire to dissidents, to rebels, to anyone who threatened to interrupt smooth running of the Machine of Rome.  It feels important to state plainly that the gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death, that what they tell us in their stories is truth rich with symbol and absolutely influenced by the moment in which they were written.  It feels important to state plainly that misunderstanding these truths has fueled antisemitism and  that in 2022 there were 3,697 incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assaults targeting Jewish people and communities, an increase of 36% from the year prior, and the third time in five years that the tally has been the highest number ever recorded since the Anti-Defamation League began collecting data in 1979.  This all feels important. 


When I was a child in Sunday School, the answer to every question seemed to be Jesus, so Palm Sunday felt to me like a celebration that the people of ancient Jerusalem finally caught on and recognized Jesus for who he was—the Son of God and the answer to our every question in Sunday School.  The palms were festive.  The hosannas were cheerful.  The donkey was a nice hat tip to humility, a tasteful foil to the hubris of Roman emperors on their shiny, white horses. 


Dear church, what an impoverished reading.  So much else is going on in this text.


What I’d like to do this morning is slow down our reading of this story.  Let’s examine that which seems familiar, and let’s ask what it means within the context of empire.  Because this context is absolutely critical to recognizing the radical, revolutionary nature of Jesus when he proclaimed that the kingdom of God of is both already here and forever coming into being.


Let’s start by considering empire, writ large.  Its defining features are threefold.  First, the goal of an empire is to accumulate power and control.  Second, the structure of an empire is to have a center and a periphery.  People who live in the periphery are not seen as true citizens, thus they are denied rights and denied protection.  This inequality is the mechanism of theft that creates abundance for those in the center.  It is an inherently exploitative system, which means that it is inherently unstable; dishonest systems always are.  Which leads us to the third feature of empire; empire is always resisted, and that resistance is always met with military force. 


The Jewish people are no strangers to occupying forces, and, indeed, Jerusalem had been under the rule of many different regimes. In 63 BCE the city fell to the control of the Roman Empire and was subject to the rule of local, Jewish elites who were selected by the Roman authorities.  These local administrators—referred to in our gospels as “the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes”—had a twofold charge: to keep the peace and to deliver taxes to Rome—that is, to transfer resources from the periphery to the center. 


But what did it mean to keep the peace?  Essentially, it meant quelling rebellion.  And by rebellion, I mean any activity that potentially interrupted the dominance of the Roman Empire.  It’s worth pointing out that when the Roman army conquered a new territory, it was standard practice to kill anyone who resisted their rule.  Those who were killed were killed as enemies of the state, and the method of their murder was crucifixion.  It was very public, and it was very common.  And when they had been murdered, when there was no one left to speak against the Empire, the Empire put out an official notice of the conquest, deeming it peace through victory.  The official name for this notice was “euangelion,” meaning “good news” or “gospel.”       


The second charge of the chief priests, elders, and scribes—delivering taxes to Rome—was one of the primary reasons the Jewish people would want to rebel against this empire.  In their book, The Last Week, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan note that changes in the structure of land ownership during the first century—namely the concentration of wealth and a shift away from small-scale, subsistence farming—meant that while “peasant existence had always been meager, it had been adequate.  Now, for many, it no longer was.”  Which is to say, taxation under the Empire was grueling. 


This is Jerusalem in the first century.  Rome rules from afar through proxy leaders who ensure adequate tribute tax back to Rome.  This tax impoverishes the masses and creates plenty for the few.  And for those who speak out, for those who are even suspected of speaking out, Rome does not hesitate to crucify. 


Borg and Crossan also point out that throughout the four gospels, the only city that Jesus ever visits is Jerusalem, which he enters on Palm Sunday.  From this, they offer two important insights.  First, “Jesus saw his message as to and for peasants”—the people with whom he broke bread and shared parables in small town after small town in occupied territory.  Second, Jerusalem was no generic choice of a city.  For over 1,000 years it served as the capital of ancient Israel and “the center of the sacred geography of the Jewish people.” 


Because Jerusalem was the longstanding capital of ancient Israel, because it was the center of sacred geography for the Jewish people, it was where literal hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descended during Passover.  Passover, of course, is the most sacred holiday in the Jewish year.  It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Chosen People from slavery under Pharaoh into the freedom of the Promised Land.  So, this holiday was something of a powder keg for a people now oppressed by yet another empire.  And the empire knew this.  As Passover drew near, the Roman authorities instituted an annual military parade, replete with warhorses and cavalry, signals of authoritarian power intended to frighten and intimidate anyone who might otherwise consider challenging the injustice. 


Raj Bharat Patta, a Lutheran minister and contributor to the Political Theology Network, pushes back on the framing of Palm Sunday as Jesus’s “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” Reading the text from Matthew, he reflects, “I understand the text as Jesus’ contestation of political triumphalism.  I would also call this passage “Jesus’ anti-empire procession”, or “Jesus’ counter-hegemonic ride.” 


The emperor’s proxy leader, Pontius Pilate, enters the Damascus Gate on a warhorse.  Jesus enters through a gate on the other side of the city on a borrowed donkey.


Pilate is surrounded by armed soldiers.  Jesus is accompanied by throngs of people who lay down their tallit—their ritual prayer shawls that represent the 613 commandments from God to the Hebrew people that are expressed in the Torah, the law code that calls for decentralized power and economic justice.


The emperor would be greeted with palms after military victory.  Jesus is greeted with palms because the kingdom of God is already here.


The emperor would force people on the streets to greet him, “Hail, Caesar!”  Jesus hears the people’s cries, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us!”


The contrast is sharp.  But it’s not just a series of contrasts.  It’s a strong political statement that’s impossible to recognize without context. 


A feature of first-century storytelling is that powerful leaders always have unique origin stories.  Sometimes it’s a virgin birth.  Other times, its lineage from the gods.  Roman emperors were no exception.  Caesar Augustus, for example, was said to hail from the god Apollo, and the consequent understanding was that Caesar ruled with the power and favor of the gods.  With this divine lineage, the son of a Caesar was accordingly referred to as “the Son of God.”  The dominant narrative that the Roman Empire purported was that Caesar was brought to Earth to bring about a universal reign of peace and prosperity.  Caesars referred to themselves as “soters” or saviors, messiahs. 


Reign of peace.  Salvation.  Savior.  Messiah.  Son of God.  Virgin birth.  Crucifixion.  Good News. 


These are all hallmarks of our Christian narrative.  But first, they were hallmarks of the Roman empire. 


Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion.  He wasn’t preparing a rebel army to take down the Roman Empire.  He was performing street theater.  He was protesting.  He was speaking truth to power by resisting the empire’s dominant narrative of peace through victory.  And—in the context of empire that legitimated its violence and overreach by deeming itself divine—Jesus was reclaiming what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant. 


Speaker, writer, and former pastor, Rob Bell, illustrates that the tenets of Jesus’s teachings were all rebukes of the way that Rome maintained power.  Instead of crushing one’s enemies and calling it good news, Jesus said we should love our enemies.  Instead of marginalizing the poor, Jesus said we should move toward them.  Instead of undertaking coercive military violence, Jesus embodied the logic-defying possibility of sacrificial love.  These are not new thoughts.  These are part and parcel of the Jewish tradition.  And they were utterly at odds with the Roman Empire. 


Such ideas—of disrupting cycles of hate, of centering marginalized experiences, of refusing to embrace violence that maintains stolen power—these ideas are our inheritance as participants in the Jesus tradition.  We are called to practice them in ways small and large each and every day.  This morning I offer two suggestions of how we might disrupt empire as it manifests in the very connected systems of capitalism and white supremacy. 


The first is to reconsider how we relate to the dominant narrative of scarcity.  Capitalism denigrates our well-being by insisting that we may survive only if we produce.  Or hoard.  Or steal.  Or align with those who do.  Remember that a feature of empire is the transfer of resources from the periphery to the center, from those who are deemed not fully human, not a full citizen to those are.  Does this sound like slavery?  Like colonialism?  Like sweatshop labor?  Like migrant labor?  When we eat chocolate, when buy a new cell phone, when we plan a party or a vacation or a holiday, when we hire someone to complete a task for our benefit, when need to replace our winter coat, when we invest our retirement savings, these are all invitations from the Holy One to honor relationship.  Maybe we pay more.  Maybe we share or borrow.  Maybe we go without, or with less.  Maybe we recognize abundance in new places. 


Being able to recognize abundance in new places requires the time and space to do so, which leads me to my second suggestion—to simply slow down.  Just as capitalism denigrates our well-being by tying our self-worth to our ability to produce, urgency robs us of the space we need to reflect, and consider, and understand things in their fullness. In 1999 Tema Okun wrote an article that identified fourteen characteristics of white supremacy.  Each and every one of them surprised me because I had previously learned to recognize them as norms of professional culture.  Of the fourteen characteristics that Okun shared, the one that resonated most deeply with me was “a sense of urgency.”  Urgency makes everything an emergency, puts everything at the top of the list.  Which means that we’re constantly frazzled and fearing that we’re a hairsbreadth away from disappointing someone or falling short on our responsibilities.  Okun explains in an extended version of the essay penned in 2021 that “a constant sense of urgency makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think and act long-term, and/or to consider consequences of whatever action we take.”  Instead of focusing on how we can repair past harms, how we can do something more life-giving, we default to what we did last time because it is known and can be reproduced quickly—which means that any injustices baked into the status quo merely get repeated.  Slowing down is requisite for hearing that still speaking voice of God.  Please do not discount it. 


All of this together makes me think of Tricia Hersey, Bishop of the Nap Ministry and author of the book Rest Is Resistance. Her central argument is that to rest is to interrupt systems of both white supremacy and capitalism.  I appreciate her work immensely, and I trust it because it’s coming from a queer, Black woman who has lived in poverty.  Her conception of rest is based in community care, imagination, and liberation.  She says, “Rest is our divine right.  It is not a luxury or a privilege.  Rest is as natural as breathing and waking up.  Rest is part of our nature.  Resting is about getting people back to their truest selves.  To what they were before capitalism robbed you of your ability to just be.  Rest is anything that slows you down enough to allow your body and mind to connect in the deepest way.”  She shares a list of places we might begin to practice rest daily:


1.  Closing your eyes for ten minutes.

2.  A longer shower in silence.

3.  Meditating on the couch for twenty minutes.

4.  Daydreaming by staring out of a window.

5.  Sipping warm tea before bed in the dark.

6.  Slow dancing with yourself to slow music.

7.  Experiencing a Sound Bath or other sound healing.

8.  A Sun Salutation.

9.  A twenty-minute timed nap.

10.  Praying.

11.  Crafting a small altar for your home.

12.  A long, warm bath.

13.  Taking regular breaks from social media.

14.  Not immediately responding to texts and e-mails.

15.  Deep listening to a full music album.

16.  A meditative walk in nature.

17.  Knitting, crocheting, sewing, and quilting.

18.  Playing a musical instrument.

19.  Deep eye contact.

20.  Laughing intensely.  


A beautiful list, huh? 


My dear church, I pray that in these coming days of Holy Week, we might rest.  We might resist.  We might recognize empire as it lives among us.  Let us borrow donkeys.  Let us ask for help.  Let us wave palms and proclaim that the goodness of God is here and ever arriving.  Amen. 

It's Not About Leprosy

2 Kings 5: 1-14 | linked directly to the start of the sermon

Themes: obscuring labor of "the other," the power of narrative, and how change gets made

Not so much an auditory processor?  Read the sermon, instead.

I want to start with a moment of recognition for the people in today’s scripture who are not given the dignity of a name.  Thank you, Holy One, for the young Israeli girl, for the wife of Naaman, for the messenger who relayed Elisha’s instructions, and for those servants who encouraged Naaman to wash in the River Jordan despite his vehement protests.   


There are, of course, named characters in this story, also: Naaman, commander of the Aramean army; the King of Aram; the King of Israel; and Elisha, the man of God, the prophet, the protégé of Elijah.  All four are powerful men. 


I want to examine this story closely, both in what it says with the words of the text AND in what teaches us by what it fails to name explicitly.


By way of context, Aramea and Israel had a long history of land disputes.  At the time of our story, there wasn’t an official war between the two lands, but there were many border skirmishes happening, and this is when we meet the young Israeli girl who had been taken captive during a raid by the Aramean army.  She was then expected to serve Naaman’s wife, and in her proximity, she learned that Naaman was suffering from leprosy.  Her response upon this recognition was to tell Naaman’s wife that she knew someone who could heal him.  Specifically, she says, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.” 


I don’t know what to make of this girl, or of this line.  She is a child who has been kidnapped as a prop of war.  She has been pressed into servitude by her captors.  She notices Naaman’s leprosy, and our text suggests – replete with an exclamation mark – that she wishes to help him gain access to healing.  What are we to make of this?  Is this an admirable example of selflessness?  Is it a strategic move on the part of the young girl, a ploy to get herself back to her home country?  Or could these be the words of an unreliable narrator who seeks to diminish the violence of the situation by painting the young girl as a willing supplicant? 


Regardless of her motivations, regardless of if someone falsely imprinted loyalty where it did not reside, this young girl is the keeper of important information.  She knows that Elisha can heal Naaman, she tells Naaman’s wife, Naaman tells the King, and the King sends him to Israel in pursuit of a cure.  Naaman balks at what Elisha’s messenger instructs him to do, but – with the cajoling of other unnamed servants – he does, eventually, wash in the River Jordan seven times, and he does, indeed, come up healed of his leprosy. 


The young girl is cited as the person who first knew that Elisha could heal Naaman, but she is never named, only identified in relation to those who have power over her.  She is portrayed as having concern for the well-being of the one who oppresses her.  And when Naaman is healed, there is no mention of gratitude for, nor even plain acknowledgment of, her role in facilitating this miracle.  The text uses just about every tool at its disposal to obscure her relevance to the miracle of his healing.


I think that’s really important.  I think it’s a key feature of oppressive power structures to simultaneously depend upon and disregard the labor of others.  There are myriad ways to disregard labor while also depending upon it:


Call the labor “unskilled” in the same breath that you deem it “essential.”  These laborers are the ones with hustle, the ones who have multiple jobs, each demanding them for nearly, but never more than, 32 hours per week. 


Refer to the labor as a gift, a talent, or a passion.  Think of whoever it is in your family that likes to cook, loves kids, is good with computers, has such fun tinkering with cars. 


Identify an entire demographic as uniquely suited for a particular kind of work.  Ascribe it to their nature.  Think women and emotional labor.


Emphasize the physical nature of the labor at the exclusion of recognizing any sophisticated knowledge to inform or facilitate the work.  Did you know that rice is grown in the United States?  Michael W. Twitty, an African-American Jewish writer, culinary historian, and educator, writes: “The journey of rice to the US is the journey of the people whose labour and knowledge led to its successful cultivation. Between 1750 and 1775, the bulk of more than 50,000 enslaved Africans were kidnapped from the aptly named Rice Coast, the traditional rice-growing region between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau and the western Ivory Coast […]. Because rice was not indigenous to the Americas and plantation owners had no knowledge of how to grow it, enslaved Africans were brought to fuel its husbandry […].  , In the antebellum South, if cotton was the king of commodities, then rice was the queen. And the queen brought incomparable economic power, transforming Charleston, and later Savannah, into thriving cosmopolitan ports.  The women who brought this know-how were precious cargo. In their heads rested more than four millennia of experience, from the days of rice being gathered wild to its domestication around 3,000 years ago.” 


The cultivation of rice in the antebellum South would have been impossible if not for complex systems of dykes and dams, and deep horticultural knowledge – if not for the knowledge, technology, and labor of enslaved Africans. 


I move beyond our scripture reading and into environmental history because I am a little bit haunted by the young girl who purportedly wants nothing more than her captor to be free of his skin conditions.  I move beyond our scripture reading and into the history of enslavement, and capitalism, and agriculture because it is important for us to recognize how violence is obscured with the omission of a name, how violence is obscured when we make someone else’s knowledge a quick aside. 


This text isn’t about leprosy.  It’s about how stories get told and what gets obscured when certain people tell them, what gets diminished, what gets set aside as irrelevant. 


This text isn’t about leprosy.  It’s about the nature of change. 


Naaman has leprosy.  Biblically, “leprosy” refers not to Hansen’s disease, but, rather, it’s a catch-all term for any number of skin conditions of varying severity.  Biblical society feared lepers, yes, for reasons of physical contagion, but also because of a cultural value on purity and a perceived connection between spiritual and bodily cleanliness.  Lepers were understood to be impure and unclean.  It was widely perceived that lepers were the living dead, and that healing leprosy was a task equivalent to raising someone from the grave.  Those who had leprosy were excluded from the community and made to warn others of their presence.  Leprosy was a big deal. 


Through the grapevine of his household, Naaman understands that there is a prophet in Samaria, in Israel, who can heal him of his socially debilitating condition.  The King of Aram supports Naaman’s quest and sends him with a letter to the King of Israel.  The letter reads, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of leprosy.” 


Sometimes in the Bible, we suspend logic and make room for loaves and fishes and arks and archangels.  This is not one of those moments.  This is an outrageous letter.  At the time of our story, Aramea and Israel are not in an active conflict, but they have a long history of one, and smaller, unofficial fights along the border continue to happen.  It is within this context of a tentative truce that the King of Aram sends a letter to the King of Israel and asks him to cure Naaman, that is, the head of the opposing army, of leprosy, that is, a disease feared so extensively that the mandate of lepers was to stay away from other people.  But instead, one opposing king presented another opposing king with a leper and a mandate to heal him, a task on par with raising someone from the dead. 


It’s no wonder that the King of Israel tore his clothes!  He was certain that he was being provoked into another conflict by being given an absurd command at which he was bound to fail.  Interestingly, Naaman did not follow the instructions of the young Israeli girl.  He did not seek out the prophet of Samaria.  Instead, he went to the King of Israel, who had no idea what he was talking about but felt deeply threatened by his presence. 


This is when we meet Elisha, the prophet that the young Israeli girl referred to.  Elisha tells the King of Israel to send Naaman to him, and the King does, and Naaman packs up his “horses and chariots,” and then something funny happens.  Elisha doesn’t receive him.  The young girl has said that Elisha can heal Naaman.  Elisha has told the King of Israel that he can cure Naaman.  And then Naaman shows up at Elisha’s gate with his ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, ten sets of garments, his horses, his chariots, and…Elisha sends a messenger to relay his instructions.  The unnamed messenger tells Naaman, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.” 


Let’s rewind; why has Naaman rolled up with hoards of gold and silver and clothing and horses?  Is it meant as a gift of gratitude for the healing which he anticipates?  I would suggest that it is nothing of the sort.  I would suggest that the piles of riches are a way of maintaining control, laying the foundation to take credit for the healing that he hopes to receive.


Earlier we reviewed various ways to disregard labor while also depending upon it.  I humbly submit that Naaman is introducing us to one more: Make it a transaction, and the labor becomes an expectation, rendering gratitude gratuitous.  You owe them no recognition for their labor because compensation neutralizes the whole interaction. 


Naaman didn’t write up a contract with Elisha, but he came prepared to maintain authority in the situation by bringing with him an enormous amount of wealth to be shared upon his healing.  We are vulnerable when we need help.  Naaman is trying to diminish his vulnerability by making a huge display of power and status.  If he can “pay his debts,” or far surpass the market price of being raised from the dead, then he can move the balance of power back into his court. It’s less of a miracle and more of something that he made possible. 


Elisha sees right through it, and he’s not having any of it.  This healing, in the words of Elisha, is to happen so that Naaman “may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” – it must be clear that the healing is God’s doing, not Naaman’s.  As such Elisha sends a messenger out to relay simple instructions: wash in the Jordan seven times, and you will know healing.  But that’s not what Naaman does.  Upon hearing these directions Naaman “turned and went away in a rage.” 


Naaman doesn’t even try the simple cure.  He is living with a condition that makes him an outcast.  He has received special dispensation from the King to approach what is often enemy territory to seek healing.  He is given straightforward instructions, and he refuses to consider them.  “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’”  I find his response quite telling.  Naaman is being offered a miracle, and he refuses it for want of a showy miracle.  It is not return to society that he seeks.  It is a return to social standing at the top of the pile that he desires. 


Seeing that he was ready to leave, Naaman’s servants approached him saying, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to have done something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more when all he said was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  Naaman chooses to listen to them, in the way that people with power sometimes choose to follow a whim.  He “immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God,” and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” 


Some problems are overbearingly complex.  But I wonder how often we discount the cumulative impact of small offerings because it seems impossible that one small [fill in the blank] could possibly matter.  And  we’re right.  One cloth bag doesn’t solve the climate crisis.  One ballot doesn’t repair the mess that is our country.  One day off doesn’t revive a deeply weary soul.  But Naaman didn’t dip into the River Jordan one time.  Naaman washed seven times, and in the Bible, seven carries significance of eternity, of completeness, of fullness.  I wonder if social movements are slow-motion miracles.  I wonder if big change happens because of choices that we make, and make again, and make again.


I do not mean to be unduly simplistic.  But washing in the River Jordan cured a man of his leprosy. 


The young Israeli girl instructed that Naaman could find healing with Elisha.  Instead, Naaman went to the King.


Elisha told a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times.  Instead, Naaman shouted and began to turn his mobile display of wealth toward home, toward that which was familiar to him, toward that where he could maintain his supremacy and control.    


The unnamed servants pointed out that if he was willing to do something onerous or dangerous or expensive, Naaman might as well not discount the possibility of something small and simple and easy. 


This text isn’t about leprosy.  This text is about privileging the knowledge of people whose names we do not know and whose instructions we do not want. 


In this story Naaman finds healing because of the insight and the persistence of those whom our narrator deems so trivial that he doesn’t even give them names.  I wonder where in our lives – personally, professionally, collectively – we are ignoring the simple requests and instructions of people who have been denied full access to power.  I wonder what public safety would feel like if we listened to the voices of Black communities.  I wonder what reproductive care and abortion access would be like if we listened to the voices of women, and non-binary people, and trans-folks who have uteruses.  I wonder how our workload would shift if we believed support staff when they told us that they were at capacity and couldn’t do anymore.  I wonder how our curriculums could respond if we listened to neurodivergent students when they told us what it was like inside their minds.  I wonder what it would be like to navigate landscapes if we listened to the concerns of disabled people, chronically fatigued people, old people, caregivers ambling through the world with children.  


I wonder what might be possible if we listened, if we tried, if we washed – again, and again, and again – not in the Abana and Pharpar, but, for reasons beyond our understanding – in the River Jordan.  Amen. 

The Light Shines in the Darkness

 John 1:1-18 |  linked directly to the start of the sermon 

Themes: lightness, darkness, metaphor, and the work that is ours to do

Please feel welcome to read the sermon text if that suits you better.

I believe in caveats as way of honoring complexity.  So I’m going to start with a caveat.  As I explore this first chapter of John, I am drawing upon one way of looking at light and darkness, and this way of looking at light and darkness conceives of darkness as disorientation, fear, oppression, and of light as warmth, nurture, justice, clarity.  And I think this is valid.  Sometimes darkness is no windows, it’s a power outage, it’s fearfully putting your hands against the wall to steady your feet that are intent upon tripping into the abyss of the unknown.  But sometimes, darkness is the moist soil that welcomes a seed out of dormancy and nurtures its cotyledons into existence so that it can begin participating in the wonder that is self-care.  I think that too often we get lazy with our metaphors.  Metaphor is a game that has no interest in fixity.  And I think precisely because we can’t pin metaphor down, because metaphor literally only works when it’s not literal, metaphor is an incredibly useful way to consider this shape-defying being we call the Holy One.  And I think we have lots to learn from darkness.  But today, I draw upon the image of light as goodness, and dark as not-greatness, as bad, as wounding, as deeply unjust.  Not because that’s what darkness is always and everywhere. But because this morning, in my reading of John, that’s a useful way to understand it.


Early on in our scripture passage, we hear that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  My first impulse upon hearing these words is to cheer for the victory of light over darkness.  It seems like a poetic and succinct way of assuring us that love wins.  That good triumphs evil.  That in the end everything will be alright, and if it’s not yet alright, then it’s not yet the end.  But this first chapter of John doesn’t say that light overcame dark, it says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


In the immediacy of a single point in space, light can displace darkness.  But, on the whole, darkness remains.  And I think that’s instructive.  This line isn’t about light vanquishing darkness.  It’s about light shining, small, flickering flame that it may be, amidst the darkness.  This is a line of observation-come-celebration.  It does not claim failure because darkness remains.  It subversively notices that the darkness has not overcome the light. 


Progress isn’t linear, and sometimes that’s frustrating, that’s frightening, as Hell.  I wonder, though, if this line from John, if this notion of the light shining amidst the darkness can call us to courage, can call us to open our hearts so that we might love the world into being. 


Every morning when I was little and on my way out the door to catch the bus to school, my mom would say to me, “Let your light shine.”  During Advent I came upon a blessing by Rev. M Barclay, a portion of which reads:


neither a new way nor a new world

will come to us all at once.

not quickly.

not without failures.

not without patience and determination,

but through holy repetition –

radical rituals of hope and curiosity,

mending and repairing,

inventing alternative habits of power

that construct life anew. 


I wonder if this is all related.  I wonder if letting our lights shine each day is a holy repetition of hope and curiosity that helps to usher in a new way, a new world. 


Later in our scripture passage we learn that “[t]here was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  Again, I think a careful reading behooves us.  Identifying John by what he’s not, i.e. “not the light,” sounds like a disappointment, a dig, but I think it’s more of a clarification, really, a blessing, an invitation, to be who he is, to do his work.  Before John was introduced as “not the light” he was first identified as a man sent from God.  A man sent from God to be the light?  No.  A man sent from God to testify to it.    


There is a strong cultural valuation upon leaders.  And leaders are super important.  But leaders without followers, leaders without supporters, leaders without collaborators?  They’re just individual people with great ideas that will never be realized.  We need leaders.  And we also sorely need people that are content playing second fiddle, people that will steadily and gently testify that light exists, even as so many point to the darkness. 


It’s not about denying darkness.  It’s not about exaggerating light.  This is about calling the light into being by insisting upon its presence again and again.


My mind wanders to the words of Fulton Sheen, the late American theologian and bishop of the Catholic Church.  Trying to convey that love does not endure because it is strong but rather because it is perennially renewed, he speaks to the example of the church, saying, “The Church is not a continuous phenomenon though history.  Rather, it is something that has been through a thousand resurrections after a thousand crucifixions.  The bell is always sounding for its execution, which, by some great power of God, is everlastingly postponed.” 


The bell is always sounding for the snuffing of the light.  And, yet, the darkness does not overcome it.  I wonder if what we’re actually doing when we testify to the light -- when we so boldly declare that goodness is possible -- is renewing the light, tapping into the great power of God that everlastingly postpones domination by darkness. 


We, ourselves, are not the light.  That is not our work.  And when we take on work that is not ours – work that is noble, work that needs doing, work that others ask of us, demand of us, assume of us -- we grow weary.  When our dear selves are so desperately tired, our bleary eyes struggle to see the light.  And if we can’t see it, we can’t testify to it. 


There are endless ways that we can testify to the light – in the way we comport ourselves with strangers, with those who serve us, with those we love, with those who hurt us.  In the way we leverage our words, our dollars to create a more vibrant world.  In the way we offer care.  In the way we accept new information.  In the way we practice self-restraint.  In the way we encourage.  So many ways with our words, and our bodies, and our votes, and our dollars, and our humor, and our food, and our art, and our protest, and our op-eds, and our volunteering, so many ways to testify to the light, to witness to the world that justice is possible, that love is not a waste of time, that the future is a choice, and we choose one of inclusion, and equity, and kindness, and curiosity.  So many ways!  It can actually be rather overwhelming.  Several years back, the pastor and writer Rob Bell offered on a podcast that the voice of Truth is always speaking, but She will not yell to be heard.  I say this because I want to suggest that to pick apart the shoulds from the coulds from the woulds from the cans from the wills of how we each are called to testify to the light is a process that requires rest and quiet.  When we rest we cede control, and in ceding control, we make room for mystery to do its work. 


As we embark upon a new year, I invite each of us to set an intention to be mindful of our lights.  To reflect upon how they breathe, and rest, and play. To notice what depletes, and what satisfies.  I invite each of us to remember that darkness abides, absolutely, but so does the light, and the darkness does not overcome it.  I invite each of us to nurture light, know our piece, and testify it joyfully to the world.  Amen.

Innkeeper Sermon Riff

I want to talk with you today about the innkeeper in the Christmas story.  When I sat down to read it, though, I realized that no innkeeper is mentioned.   Instead, the Gospel of Luke simply says, “And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”   The construction of the sentence highlights the absence of welcome, the absence of room, but it does not specify who the human behind these actions is.


So that got me thinking, what did the encounter between Mary and the innkeeper look like?  Was it an overtly classist or bigoted rejection?  Was it simply the reality of a small town whose hospitality infrastructure was overwhelmed by a new census law?  Was it an apologetic, “I’m so sorry, I know it really isn’t enough, but I can let you stay in the stable?”  Does the distinction matter, if, in the end, it meant that Mary, young, tired, scared, and ready to literally deliver the incarnation of God into the world, had to do it without support, and without the benefit of a quiet, clean space? 


When I hear that line, “because there was no room for them in the inn,” I lose my patience – of course there was room.  There had to be room.  This was the Mother of God, make room.  But, when I think about it a bit more, I don’t see Mary and Joseph before the innkeeper as some kind of divine riddle, like, “Oh, can you identify this holy child without the benefit of a heavenly host?”  The whole point of Jesus coming into this world was not for him to be recognized as a singular deity, it was for us to recognize that God dwells among us. 


And if this is so, if God dwells among us, what form do our “no vacancy” signs take today?  Mary and Joseph were traveling.  They sought lodging at the inn, that is, they sought accommodation for the evening.  I think that’s a powerful word, “accommodation.”  Beyond its usage as a synonym for lodging, it signifies some kind of intentional modification from the status quo to make a service or space or object accessible to someone else whose needs were not originally prioritized.  I read a fantastic memoir earlier this month by a woman named Rebekah Taussig.  She writes about her experience as someone who navigates the world by way of wheelchair, and she illustrates very clearly that our world is built for some bodies and not for others.  That’s just it, though; the world has been built for some bodies.  Accommodations have already been made for most of us.  When someone else needs an accommodation, they’re only asking for what most of us have already received. 


As we seek to join in the justice work of creating a safe, equitable, bountiful, beautiful world for God’s queer kids and disabled kids and kids whose first language isn’t English and kids who have experienced the trauma of poverty or the ongoing legacy of white supremacy, let us find better words of response to our fatigue, to the strain of finances than “there is no room in the inn.”  Let us be honest about the accommodations we already have access to.  Let us celebrate new and creative accommodations for others.  Let us recognize the Holy Family without the benefit of a heavenly host.