Maundy Thursday: Who Do You Say That I Am?

Genesis 12 ; Gospel of John 13, 18

I miss read the lectionary for today. I went to Genesis rather than Exodus. But that is when I realized something I had never thought of before.

It occurs to me that Sarai, the wife of the patriarch Abram, has something in common with Jesus. Both had their identities betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.

Earlier in this Lenten season we found ourselves confronted by the call of God to Abram to leave Ur, when we follow that narrative to Genesis 12 we find Abram and Sarai called again to leave for a new land. This time they are traveling from Haran into Egypt. Verses 10-20 are often left out of the lectionary which stops at verse 14. It’s almost as if the lectionary is trying to avoid the issue of true identity as it is fully raised in the text. You see, in the narrative Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. Thus, Sarai briefly becomes one of the wives of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh discovers this he returns Sarai to Abram and sends them on their way richer than when they arrived. So the patriarch seems to pimp his wife for wealth and power. Why would the lectionary avoid that!?

We don’t hear Sarai’s thoughts on these events. We can imagine what a wife might say to a spouse who asked her to pretend to be a sibling rather than a spouse~I’ll share my popcorn we can watch the show. But that is not in the text. What is in the text is that Sarai’s husband had to the power to change her identity, to say who she was. Furthermore we see that the redefinition of Sarai’s identity leads her to yet another whole identity completely.

It is Maundy Thursday, one of my favorite days of the Christian year. (Should I offer a prize for the reader who can guess my other favorite?) Jesus has gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover feast, to wash their feet, to proclaim that his body and life are given for them (and us), and to proclaim his coming betrayal. The text tells us that it is as Jesus does these things that the decision is made in Judas’ heart to betray the Master. Jesus even tells Judas to go and do what must be done. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, one of Jesus’ trusted friends is the one who betrays him. It is Judas who must decide who he thinks Jesus is, and then Judas based on that decision will collude with the powers that be. It is Judas who will signal Jesus’ identity with a kiss in the garden.

In both these texts the issue of personal identity are the key issues. In both of these texts someone else decides whom the other is and takes action that will radically alter the both the life of the other, the life of the decider, and the unfolding of history.

As a woman with disabilities, many of which are hidden, I know what it is like to have others decide who I am. I know what it is like to be “in the closet”, having relationships in which there is little knowledge of my disability, and the anger others show when I come out of that closet and let my full identity be known. I know what it is to be vulnerable with others to let them know the depths of my experience and have to trust that they will know with whom and when to share that knowledge. I know what it is like to feel that trust betrayed. To watch at the annual school-house parent night as your parent outs you sharing with the teachers about your disabilities in front of classmates and other teachers. I know what it is like in the workplace when co-workers sense there is something different about you, but not knowing what it is decide they will name it–and I know what it is like when others redefine your identity so far from your known truth that it disrupts and utterly re-routes your own sense of self. With disability it is not so much identity politics as it is identity of individuality/self that is intertwined with experience of living in a body so different from the norm that with world around you is rife with barriers that disable. Life with disability is asking each individual you encounter, in some way–who do you say that I am?

Loving God, You who know me better than I know myself. You who created me to be fearlessly and wonderfully made. Help me to know myself, to share myself, and delight in the friends I break bread with. Empower me to raise my face even when others define me in ways that threaten my identity or life. Grant me Your strength and love, to always know myself, and to do Your will. Amen.

Lent Six: In the Crowd

Reflection on Matthew 21.

This year as I hear the Palm Sunday texts, I find myself wondering about the people who were there welcoming Jesus. Who were they and what were they thinking? There were likely a variety of people there as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Many had gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. The city was full.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, as the people prepared for the major religious festival of the year, it has been said that something else was going on as well. The Roman Governor was entering the city from the other gate (Rev. Jerry Lawritson, New Testament Scholar/preacher). If this is so, it tells us a lot about the people who laid palms at Jesus’ feet and sang Hosannas.  The people who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were the people of little to no social standing, who would not be missed at an official welcome of the governor.

I wonder who the people who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palm and song thought Jesus was. Did they think he was the Messiah come to meet the Roman occupier/governor? Did they think him a spiritual leader come to the temple for the holy days? It hardly matters for whichever of these the people believed,  the end result is that they recognized that a change had come, the world was about to shift. And they were brave enough to proclaim it.

The people who welcomed Jesus were a people who hoped. Who believed that occupation and oppression could not last forever and were brave enough to say so. They were people who believed that God would respond even to those whom the world did not respond to.

This holy week I think of the people who may not always be missed at the major social functions. I think of the people who live on hope. I think of the people who risk all they have to proclaim that another way is possible. I marvel at their faith.

 

 

Living Does Not Lead To Death–Lent Week Five

John 11: 1-45

The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.

I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…”  They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always  bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges  humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.

John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.

That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.

I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

John 9

Preached at New Hope UCC, Deland,FL on January 19, 2014

 

I want to start by thanking you, and your pastor, for inviting me to speak today. I recently meet your Associate Conference Minister, Sara Lund. When she learned I would be in your Conference, she asked if I would willing to preach and speak about UCC Disabilities Ministries, the UCC Mental Health Network,and the UCC’s  commitment to be “Accessible to All” or A2A. I told her that I would.

I bring you greetings this morning from the UCC Disabilities Ministries Board. I also come to you as a person born with mild cerebral palsy, which mostly manifests as a mild speech impediment; as a person who has acquired disabilities; as a person who has been a caregiver for people with disability; as one who has been a support system for persons with mental health concerns. And I come to you as an ordained minister, a hospice chaplain, an activist, a scholar, and yes, there is yet more they I could say. I share these aspects of myself not to toot my own horn, not only to give you some introduction of who I am but also to show you that no one person can be described in any one way.

When it comes to our text for this morning the notion that people are very complex and have many attributes to share with the world is something we want to keep in mind. Our scripture this morning is a very complex text. It was traditionally a text used to teach about Baptism in the early church (1). But what kind of text is it? Is it a healing story? Is it a miracle? Is it about a sinner being being saved? Is it about blindness? I think those are all good questions. However, I do not think those are questions I will strive to answer today. Instead I would like to talk with you about who the people in this text are. The man born blind, the Pharisees, and Jesus. All of these persons are complex, just as we are.

Let us start with the man born blind. We know more about him than we do about most of the people whom Jesus encounters in the gospels. We know he was born blind.

We know that he was at least of an age to be considered an adult. We know both his parents were alive—they too appear in the text. We know that he begged for a living.

We know that he was known to the community even though he was excluded from the community because he lived with blindness, thus his need to beg. And we also know that through this encounter with Jesus this man had a spiritual conversion and came to understand who Jesus was.

But there are also some important things that we do not know. We do not know if he had ever heard of Jesus before this event. We do not know if he wanted to be sighted–This is one of the few instances in which Jesus heals a person without first asking permission, or being asked, to do so–and we do not really know what happened to this man after he became sighted.

For many people with disabilities, the things we do not know about this man are very important to think about. In the UCC we talk about churches becoming “Accessible to All” and while this means that we want our worship spaces to physically accessible, it also means that we want our church congregations—our people to be accessible, and welcoming to people with disabilities as well. In this sense A2A is as much about the understanding and hospitality with which we greet one another as it is about our buildings.

One of the mottos of the disability rights movement which you will hear in the UCC is “nothing about us without us”. This means people with disability want to be consulted about the things that affect them. So we wonder how did the man born blind feel about becoming sighted? He was not consulted before hand. We do not know how it changed his daily life,the text does not tell us that we only know how it changed his spiritual life for he proclaimed Jesus a prophet to the council of Pharisees. Which was a very bold thing for someone of his social standing to do. Some say his response to the Pharisees shows his wit and intelligence traits he had that were not related to his disability or that he developed as survival mechanisms living with blindness. (2) Perhaps one of the most important things this text tells us about the man born blind is that it was his encounter with the person of Jesus, and not his physical healing that led to his conversion and understanding of who Jesus was.

It is through the man born blind’s discussion with the Pharisees that his understanding of who Jesus is made clear. So who are these Pharisees? The Pharisees in the text are the religious authorities who are expected to uphold the laws and traditional customs. They question not only the man who had been born blind, but his parents.

It seems strange to us that after talking with the man himself the Pharisees call for his parents but it may be according to social custom. There are many places around the world where to this day people with visual impairments are not qualified to be legal witnesses because they are blind and it is assumed they cannot identify the perpetrators of crimes against them (3). This may play a role in why, globally, women and girls with visual impairments are statistically the most likely to become victims of sexual violence. (4)

Certainly this group of Pharisees is behaving as a legal board, for they call the man born blind back a second time. This is when the story turns sour—at least as I read it.

After the Pharisees question the man and his parents, this time they start with an imperative command “Give Glory to God!” It is a statement which puts a knot in my stomach not because the man is being asked to Glorify God, but because it sounds like a self-righteous command. It was the role of the Pharisees to see that all things glorified God, but the text bothers me because there is no dialogue here. In the text, it is a council of authority ordering around a person whom the community considered to have no legal standing, because he was blind, to do something.

This interaction of the man and the council of Pharisees reminds me of a youth in San Diego who maintains a blog and documents each time someone comes up to him in public lays hands on him, prays, and demands that he stand to walk. (Most people don’t realize this still happens, it does.) Not only when the Pharisees issue this command but when they go on to suggest that the man born blind was born in sin we should feel uncomfortable. For this is a clear example of bullying a person because of their disability and the text tells us it done by the religious structure itself.

To often we sit in church, we read parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and we think, thank goodness we don’t do that in our church. The problem is we do. Well meaning church going people too often find themselves bullying others especially people with disabilities. One Sunday, when I was still using a cane and preaching at my home church one of the trustees, who I’d know for years, came up to me and said “stop using that cane, you don’t need it”. He did not know the specifics of my medical needs. He was a bully.

Last summer I was on the delegate floor at the UCC Synod. One of the resolutions we were to vote on at Synod was becoming an anti-bullying church one of the other delegates who knew I was representing UCCDM at synod said to me “you don’t really have a disability, but its nice that you speak up for those who do.” I told him I did have a disability his reply was “no you don’t”. So we had to have short tense conversation. I told him he was a bully.

It did not feel good to me to have that conversation at church. But it reminded me that even in our churches we are not as aware of the hidden disabilities of our church members as we should be. When you know the small needs of another you are truly in community.

There is another person in this text—its Jesus. It seems to me that in this text we see one of the stranger things Jesus does, it is a Sabbath day when no work is to be done, Jesus walks up to blind man and puts mud on his face and tell him to go wash in the pool known in Hebrew as “sent” (5). We understand why the early church may have used this text to talk about baptism.

But then Jesus disappears for much of this text. It is not until after the man born blind has been questioned and driven out of the  community that Jesus reappears. And what Jesus does is sit with the man who had been born blind Jesus welcomes the man and sits in community with him to tell him about the Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus soothes the stings of exclusion. Jesus’ words about the those who see becoming blind seems to be an admonition to not be so self assured, to not be so self-righteous that one becomes exclusionary.

It is Jesus in this text who shows us the way to be church, the way to be loving and community minded. It is Jesus who is not only welcoming but seeks out those excluded because they may have a history of disability, or any other reason. It is Jesus who reassures the man that he too has a place in the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus has come into the world to assure him of this.

It is Jesus my friends who calls us to radical hospitality and radical welcome. It is Jesus who sends us all in search of new vision. It is Jesus who comes to be with us when we feel we have been driven out for following proclaiming his work in our lives.

So my, friends, it is because of Jesus’s work in our own lives that UCCDM seeks to encourage all settings of the UCC to be “accessible to all”, to include people with disability and mental health issues, not only in our building but in our fellowship and leadership. It is because of Jesus that I ask you to join in this work to open the way to full inclusion in your local church for the local church is the heart of the church. This where inclusion welcome matters most.

So thank you for including me today, thank you for thinking about your building, and thank you for considering all aspects of accessibility (A2A) and joining in this journey to inclusion with us.

####

Endnotes:

(1) Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. (Abington: Nashville, 1996.) 76.

(2) Ibid, 72.

(3) Ibid, 70.

(4) Women with disabilities presentation at the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network Pre-Event, General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, October 29, 2013.

(5) Black, 68.

 

Third Sunday in Lent: Busy Woman Called By God, Again.

 “How is it that you ask….?” John 4:9

Life is hectic. Life can be down right hard. Life is also full of the holy. Life is full of the unexpected. And occasionally the ordinary tasks of life are holy and unexpected, for it is the midst of daily life that God finds us.

In the narrative that we hear from the Gospel of John this week we hear the Samaritan woman asking Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me to get you a drink” (John 4:9). Yes we know the next line of the gospel almost by heart it is an explanation that Jews and Samaritans don’t speak to one another. This is confirmed later in the text when the disciples return and are flabbergasted to find Jesus not only speaking to a woman but a Samaritan woman!

I am sure that most of this has been pointed out from countless pulpits today. I, myself, however, I want to just slow the whole reading at John 4:9. I want to simply turn over and over the words “How is it that you ask me?”.

Many people, but particularly women, know what it is like to have a person come up and ask you for something. It sometimes seems that we do so much to care for so many persons. Life can lead us to think that we simply don’t have time for one more thought or one more task…and always someone will appear to ask. And then we have to reply.

As I read this text I wonder at the tone of voice the Samaritan woman used. The tone of voice of voice she used would have contributed much to the meaning of the conversation. Was she snappy? Was she annoyed? Was she exasperated? Was she using a question to tell him to buzz off? We don’t know her tone, we can only guess. It does seem she is a little amused–this man wants water from a deep well but brings no bucket.  I almost cannot help but hear her insinuating that  Jesus is simply being silly, at the very least she seems to indicates she believes he is ridiculous.

Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who saying to you…” (John 4:10). “If you knew…” ok, let’s stop the text right there. Jesus knows all the worries and pressures on this woman, as is confirmed later in the text. She is a busy woman, with many people in her life, she comes to draw water from the well which can not be simple because it is a deep well. Her life is about existing in both practical and social terms. She is a woman of ethnic identity who is looked down upon by others. She knows oppression. She knows manual labor. She has not sent a servant to fetch the water so she may very likely be poor as well. And here is Jesus interrupting her busy life, getting her attention, to tell her about the One who can provide living water.

Yes, the text is about living water and racial strife and getting to the Truth of the matter…we hear that each time it appears in the lectionary and all of that is important. But in the quiet of this text, if we stop to hear Jesus say, “if you knew….” Then we may also find God, and the Son of Man, coming to find us where we toil. Coming to interrupt our work…interrupting our gathering of basic needs to say there is more to living than toil, I, God can provide what you more deeply need. This is not to say that basic needs such as food and water and shelter are not important they are and God is concerned about these. But God is concerned with the spiritual aspects of our lives that are much deeper than our physical needs ever can be. And Jesus finds this woman at her toil to teach her this.

We know how the narrative ends. The woman is converted by her encounter with Jesus and goes out to proclaim his holiness to her village. She proclaims Jesus as a prophet, That is the ending of this narrative. We all have encounters where we feel God is with us, teaching us. When God comes to us to offer depth and meaning and we find ourselves busy with the daily tasks of life how do we respond?

Oh God who inspires all things. Grant me discernment so I may head your call and your meaning no matter what task I may be involved in, when you arrive. Grant that in my busy-ness I may hear you and seek what you have to offer in that moment. Grant me your peace and courage to respond to you, even if social taboos would have me shy away from doing so. Refresh me and send me out to my community anew.  Amen.

Lenten Graces–Second Sunday in Lent

“If Abraham, by what he did for God, got Got to approve him, he could have certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”  ~Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993) Romans 4:1-5

It seems exceedingly difficult, this text. There is the message that there is some inherent goodness in our being who we are over and above all of our anxious human doing. (It must an important lesson, we read it over and over throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis.)

It seems nearly impossible to those of us living in a consumer-driven commercial world. This notion that you can not do anything to earn all of what God has to offer. It’s an affront to American culture and a reversal of the American Dream.

We can do nothing for God’s approval, nothing to gain merit or entrance into the Kindom* of God. Paul is commenting on that old struggle between works and grace.

It is a difficult text, but an important one as we move through the Lenten season reflecting on how we long for a deeper connection with God. As we give up the barriers to our spiritual life, give up our creature comforts, or as we take up practices we hope will enable us to walk closer to God’s will, we are very much consumed with the  doing aspect of living out this text.

There is something about grace which the post-modern world seems intent on annihilating. We are told if we work hard we will have all we need; that has not been true since 2009 and possibly before. The idea that we get the material goods we deserve based on our hard work in the world is roughly equivalent to the 1980’s notion that neon colors were fashionable. 

The NRSV words verses 2 and 4 as  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”**  Here, Paul seems to come down squarely on the side of grace.

Paul’s teaching in this text brings memory to my mind many of persons I interacted with as a hospice chaplain. At some point in life we all reach the stage where the most we can do is simply exist. [This is particularly true for persons with dementia and the other brain disorders associated with aging.] At some point in our adult lives we may need others to feed, bathe, and clothe us just as we did at life’s beginning. Being is a form of Grace. Being as Paul reminds us is all God asks of us is to do. Some religious and mystical traditions insist that there are spiritual lessons which can only be learned in the later stages of life. I know that as I spent time with persons who had become too ill to care for themselves towards life’s end, I learned that how they continued to interact and how they continued to teach others was through a subtle way of being who they were as they were in the world. It is a way of being that trusts and relies on God.

This way of being ourselves and being in the world as we find it is a type of trust and type of remembering that in the end it’s not about us. There is certainly our part, but in the end it is God’s story. Perhaps being us enough to discern God’s story from our own is the ultimate Lenten practice. Learning to accept grace~practice that.

*”Kindom” is a well-known feminist respelling of Kingdom designed to highlight the mutual relationships in the Kingdom of God rather than the hierarchical relationships of the patriarchal system; see the work of A. Isasi-Diaz and Rosemary Reuther.

**from http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+4 [on-line] accessed, March 15, 2014.

Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.

What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.

The Ordination Paradox

Amanda Kersey just got ordained and is singing I'll Fly Away

“How does it feel, Rev?” “What’s it like?” “Are you used to it yet?” These are just a few of the questions I have been asked within the last couple of weeks after my ordination. To be honest I feel a mixture of emotions and think I will for some time. After the first week at the surface I felt relief, excitement, happiness, contentment, confidence and to be honest a little sadness. However, after my second week there was new deeper emotion and I couldn’t name it. It was bothering me so badly I actually had to stop blogging to figure it out. To put it simply, I feel that a wrong has been righted. And with that there is new found stillness in my mind, soul and body. A stillness that in some way feels distantly familiar.

Listening to all of the human interest stories from the Olympics helped me articulate what was going on for me. Hearing some of the inspiring stories and sacrifices the athletes made over the years—something I can halfway understand as a former USS and collegiate swimmer. However, for me the swimming analogy is a little deeper. I’m still not really sure what happened to me as a swimmer and to be honest I’m not sure it was just one thing. It’s more like it was a perfect storm. It’s not something I totally regret, because I truly and deeply feel like I am exactly where I need to be in my life and the bad and the good attributed to me being where I am. I do, however, feel that what happened to me as a swimmer had a good chance of repeating itself in my professional career and calling. I felt that old urge to settle, buckle under, back off because my drive upset others (having moms of my teammates yell at me in the locker rooms) and do “just enough.” I gave in for a while allowing myself to be walked over, overworked and underappreciated in my marriage and in the church. As a kid I was at the mercy of others, but as an adult it was all me and this time enough was enough. I thought about the words of Christ that we are to forgive seventy times seven. I also recalled the biblical examples of where people parted ways without cross feelings, but with an understanding that it just wasn’t working. For me I worked hard to forgive not only others, but myself for allowing myself to be used in those ways. I had to make the decision to walk away from my spiritual tradition in 2008 in order to do what I know I am supposed to do now and set myself up for the future. It was an excruciating and yet beautiful process, one I have both hated and loved.

I ignored the pulling in my life towards ordination for years for many different reasons. I knew my life would have to drastically change—I knew it would expedite the end of a significant relationship, bring some dissension within my family and force me to break ties with a religious community that once loved and nurtured me and I it. However, the scariest part of ordination was the internal dialogue I had to engage with myself and God as I had to consider what it meant to follow a God that I felt was calling me out of and against everything I had been taught and believed for so long. When God lives in a box and Gods actions and motivations can be surmised in a nice tightly wrapped systematic theology it’s easy to get comfortable and dare I say arrogant. This process broke me in new ways as I had to come to the realization my two degrees in religion speak more to the fact that I enjoy academia than my understanding of God. God has once again shown me that the truth of the words of Isaiah, “God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). I was once again reminded that when God calls us out into new places there are critics on all our sides, encouraging us to doubt and question and even at times suggesting our faith is immature and misguided. However, I have once again been reminded to claim the truth that the voices of the many do not outweigh the whisper of the One. I’m not saying I didn’t listen to others. In fact I believe others are a way in which God speaks to and through us. However, it felt too reminiscent and I had given in before, but not this time.

July 22, 2012 I was ordained in the UCC after having hands laid upon me both literally and figuratively affirming the call of God on my life and having a church promise to support me. This public affirmation for me once again brought a deep sense of healing making visible something I had only been able to imagine. I have known the call on my life since I was 17, but to have it confirmed in front of witnesses transforms the internal into the external causing something mystical and supernatural to happen. The wrong had been righted. After years of being denied job applications, having to have checks from the church written to my ex-husband instead of me for the work I had done and even having churches offer to pay for his seminary and not mine all that injustice has been righted. Now, I am not one of those who believe that the past is somehow magically erased, but I do believe it can be shelved. I don’t want to forget, because it is what drives me to look for others who have had similar experiences and creates in me a new found sensitivity.

There is no anger or resentment (anymore). I am truly grateful for a religious upbringing that introduced me to God, taught me so much about spiritual discipline and gave me a love for scripture. I’m forever thankful for the roots, but sometimes plants are uprooted and replanted in order to fully grow. The sadness of ordination has been that there has been very little acknowledgement from people in my past—the tradition which I left. I’m sure it’s because some think I have lost my mind or at least temporarily gone insane. Perhaps some think maybe if it’s not acknowledged it does not exist. However, the support I have received has been amazing and for right now that is enough. It’s already opened up some interesting opportunities to meet others. All in all I’m pretty excited about the future, but also feeling grounded in the present.

Ordination on YouTube

Here is the final playlist of videos from my ordination. There are five videos that will play straight through if you let it, or you can use the advance button to get to the next video.

  1. Thoughts before the ordination
  2. Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas’ sermon
  3. Special music: Lois Myers sings “Be Strong, Take Courage”
  4. Ordination liturgy including laying on of hands
  5. Unedited complete service