Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lost and Found

Luke 2:41-52
Prescott Baptist Church
December 30, 2012

When I was two years old my mother got sick with tuberculosis.  My father said he could take care of my three older brothers but he needed help taking care of a baby girl. So the church women took turns caring for me for two weeks at a time. A year and a half went by while my mother was sick and recovering. During that time my mother says that I had a blue overnight case that went with me from house to house. Mrs. Nalls took me to her house. They had a nice backyard with a playhouse that their daughter, Helen, had outgrown. Mr. Nalls liked to play games with me and I thought he was handsome. Mrs. Booth took me for two week stays and I loved it there because there were three daughters in the Booth family (Yvonne, Joanne and Dian) and they had so many dolls and tea sets and tables and good toys to play with. Besides, Mrs. Booth was one of the most loving people I ever met. Mrs. Haufler took her turn at keeping me for two week intervals. The Hauflers owned and operated a big farm.  They had cows and horses. The men in the Haufler family wore cowboy hats and boots. They worked in the field growing peanuts, watermelon and cantaloupe. Mrs. Haufler took me with her when she delivered lunch and cold water to the men in the field. My mother was sick but I did not lack for love or nurture. Our faith community saw to it that I was cared for.

 Each household where I stayed was a Nazarene household, a family I was familiar with from Sunday worship, Sunday school, Monday night Bible study, Tuesday night visitation of sick and shut-ins, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and Saturday work days at the church. Fall and spring revivals. Camp meetings. We knew each other well. And while there was nothing perfect about my own family or any of the families that helped to raise me, it was a perfect example of how it takes a village to raise a child. I went from house to house but the faith tradition of each household was the same.  I was deeply steeped in the life of my church and the principles and practices of the Church of the Nazarene. I belonged and I understood that it was more than church women who claimed me. I belonged to and was claimed by a faith that would care for me always. 

The faith that claims me now is no longer limited to a particular denomination although the Nazarenes, Methodists and United Church of Christ have all contributed mightily to making me whole. I’ve also been given gifts from my relationships with American Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics and Unitarians. These days if anyone asks me what church I belong to, I have my answer ready: I belong to the Church of Jesus Loves Me This I Know. And I do know. I started knowing it back when my mother got sick with TB and I was not abandoned. I saw for myself, while I was totally dependent on others for my survival, that there were matters of faith that belonged to me. I saw that I could count on being claimed and cared for. I recognized the abundant gifts of our faith.

Being a community of faith means more than coming together in a building on Sunday morning. It involves more than administrators in nice offices in big cities, more than monthly slick magazines. It touches us more deeply than doctrines and creeds can touch us. As a community of faith we travel together. We belong together. And as people of faith we create a better future together. 

Luke wants us to know that Jesus was a true Israelite. He was steeped in the traditions of his faith community. Circumcised on the eighth day, dedicated to God at six-weeks when his mother was purified, bar mitzvah at age twelve as well as the Passover pilgrimage to the temple. It was after the seven day festival and on the return pilgrimage, when Mary and Joseph suddenly realized, after a day of traveling, that Jesus was not among the friends and family as they had thought he was. In such a caravan it was not surprising that a boy among friends and family would not be missed by his parents. He belonged to the faith community and was claimed by many mothers and fathers in the crowd. 

Hillary Clinton wrote her book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, in 1996. She describes her childhood as ideal but not perfect.  She was born in Chicago and spent her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois where her father owned and operated a plant that screen-printed and sold drapery fabrics. Hillary’s father and mother dedicated their time, money and energy to their children and made sacrifices to give Hillary, Hugh and Tony the tools they would need to live a better life than the previous generation had lived. They were Methodists and Hillary writes, “The church was an important presence in our lives.” The church exposed her to a world beyond her all-white middle-class suburb. She learned that prejudice against other people was wrong in God’s eyes and God created different kinds of people on purpose, to enjoy a world with diverse gifts and beauties. 

Clinton writes about our nostalgia for the past, for the 1950’s. We look back longingly as if everything back then was ideal. But, she says, ask African American children who grew up in a segregated society, or immigrants who struggled to survive in sweat shops and tenements. Ask women whose choices were limited by the men in power. Ask those who grew up in picture perfect houses about the secrets they desperately concealed. The 1950’s were not as ideal as we wish they were. We look back with rose colored glasses and that backward longing keeps us from belonging to the possibilities and gifts of our present life and community. In fact that backward look locks us into a focus on the deficiencies of our present life and community.

Memphis is home to a staggering number of churches and religious buildings. The Greater Memphis Metropolitan area contains more than 2,000 churches in total, with all major religious beliefs and denominations being well represented in the city itself, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims. We are all in this city together and our children need to know that they matter, we claim them and they are invited to belong to something greater than themselves. They are not alone or abandoned.

While it is true that 39% of our children in Memphis live in poverty, it is also true that those children belong to us as well as to the mother and father who gave them biological life.  The percentage of Memphis children living in poverty is double the national rate and steadily increasing.  That is true but there are unlimited possibilities for those children and for each one of us when we stop wringing our hands and wishing that someone else would come up with a solution that would meet the basic needs of Memphis children.

What does it mean to value the family? Is the family defined only as those who have blood kinship? Only the few who share a mailing address? And can we value a family when we have diminished them down to nothing more than a troubling statistic?

Jesus was born in a stable, homeless at birth. And then his parents became fugitives and headed for Egypt in an effort to save their son’s life from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  In the midst of these profound challenges the boy understood himself as a valuable member of a life giving, nurturing faith community. Judaism claimed him and carried him. 

It’s so beautiful to me, this story about the Passover pilgrimage. Mary and Joseph walked along toward home for an entire day before they wondered if Jesus was in the crowd. There were any number of mothers and fathers who might have been walking beside him and Jesus’ parents trusted their community to claim and care for their son. Discovering Jesus’ absence frightened Mary and Joseph, of course, and forced them to retrace their steps. 

Remember, Jesus was twelve. And when his parent found him he was in the temple with the elders. Listening. Talking. Receiving wisdom. Giving wisdom.  Jesus’ understanding of his identity was deepening and growing wider. His distraught parents stare. “Why have you treated us this way? Didn’t you realize we would be out of our minds with worry?” And the tensions become obvious as the boy looks blankly at his parents, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

He was so lost in belonging to the faith that it was the only place he could be found.  His family was already larger than his biological parents, his world already wider than the place where he lived. 

You may have read the editorial in yesterday’s Commercial Appeal, the one written by pediatric surgeon, Kurt Newman. Dr. Newman is chief executive of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC and he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the larger issues that affect children and their ability to reach their full potential. He urges us in our various cities and villages to form task forces, forums and expert panels to respond to the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. We must ensure the well-being of our children, he says, or we will have failed the children who were killed on December 14th and those we are still fortunate enough to have in our care.

Where do we begin to keep our children cared for and safe? How do we restore our communities into places of possibilities and generosity? How do we nurture our children with the gifts we’ve been given and show them the abundance of good things in life? How do we help them belong to something more meaningful and rich with faith?

Peter Block has helped to answer those questions in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging. He says each one of us needs to take responsibility for our own part in making the future what we want it to be. Our community (this city, this particular church) will be restored when citizens and church members recognize the value of the gifts they have been given and use them to create safe places for children to be born, grow, play, learn and become contributing members of the restored community. 

When we recognize that although we have been lost as a people we can be found in the faith we cherish- our children will be less afraid and less focused on the deficiencies in their lives. When we begin to live into the abundance of good things we claim, good things like God’s grace that claims us, when we learn to celebrate our gifts rather than to bemoan what used to be the good old days—our children will long to belong to the faith that lights the way. They will travel with their elders: parents, teachers, neighbors, coaches and friends. We will belong together. 

We will all find ourselves lost in the goodness of our faith. And once we are lost in faith we will be able to find Jesus there-answering our prayers, listening to our wisdom, affirming our gifts and giving grace back to us in abundance.


Interpretation/ Luke, A Bible Commentary, Fred Craddock, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1990
Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, San Francisco, 2009
It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, NY, NY 1996

Sunday, December 23, 2012

She Said, "Yes!"

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
December 23, 2012
Luke 1:39-55

If Mary, the mother of Jesus, wondered why she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus, (and she did) the angel Gabriel said it clearly: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

So that—when Mary’s friend and family member, Elizabeth, asks, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of our Lord comes to me?” we already know the answer. God is in charge and the tables are starting to turn. The winners and losers will no longer be determined by the culture but by the presence of a loving and living God among us.

And then Mary sings this song: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …”

Several years ago the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville sponsored a sermon writing competition. The men in their academic offices were thinking that too many good sermons get preached and then get no notice from esteemed colleagues. It was determined that good work should be rewarded with praise, public recognition and some sort of cash prize. The request for submissions was published and the deadline drew near.  Submissions would be anonymous.

Sermons came in from far away and from only a few miles distance. The sponsors of the competition read the sermons and put the best ones to the side. One sermon came to the top in every man’s pile. It was clear, powerful and effective.  The men were happy to be in agreement on the winner and they laughed and slapped each other on the back as they gave the winner a call. 

A woman answered the phone. "Hello?"

“Yes! This is Dr. Significant from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Can we speak with the reverend, please?” 

“Yes! This is Reverend Somebody Too. Can I help you?”

So it turns out as you have probably already guessed that the writer of the award-winning sermon was a woman. Her name is Rev. Molly Marshall and she has preached for this Prescott congregation in the past.

This winning sermon was a problem for the significant Southern Baptist academics and church leaders. According to the Southern Baptist understanding of the Reign of God, women cannot preach and they certainly cannot receive awards for sermons that compete favorably against sermons written by some of the best men preachers around the country. 

It’s not just Southern Baptist men who have problems realizing the power and potential of women for good in this world. There is a Hebrew prayer: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” 

And Mohammed stated, “When Eve was created, Satan rejoiced.” 

The writers and leaders of the Christian faith created an institution and assumed the same pose of contempt for the female. Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy: “Let the woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to hold authority over a man. She is to keep silent. For Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.”  

Church men have continued to do their best to use religion to lock women further into the role of passive and inferior beings, and thus the more easily controlled property of men. 

The women talked together and visited in Elizabeth’s home. Two women visited in a Judean town in the hill country. As soon as I say that women were talking there is an immediate assumption (not by all but by too many) that whatever was being said was not significant. Some of us, men and women, will inwardly shrug, dismissing the talk between women as meaningless. What could Mary have to say that would be worth remembering two-thousand years later?  She was fifteen and pregnant. Not married and pregnant. You can hear the neighbors tut-tutting for shame for shame. And what could Elizabeth have to say that we would be interested in hearing even now? She was an older woman, past her prime and now she was pregnant too. The same neighbors tut tut  for shame, for shame. Women stand vulnerable to all passing opinions and judgments cast by neighbors. 

Women feel that lack of value and they begin to blame their bodies. They are too fat. They are too thin, too tall or too short. Their skin has blemishes. Their faces are wrinkled. They are too hairy. They cannot be on the cheerleading squad so they might as well crawl into a corner and let all their hopes and dreams die.

We have been trained to think that girls and women are less rational than men and therefore less likely to say anything of significance.  Female bodies are objectified and valued while female voices are silenced as men talk over them, dismiss their words or fail to invite them into the important discussions.  And every young woman feels the challenge. She can accept the dominate culture’s attitude toward her and be submissive. She can rebel against the dominant culture and be labeled strident or worse. Or she can choose to stop reacting to the culture around her; she can choose to respond to the power of God’s redeeming love in her longing to be whole and free. Mary said, “Yes!”

This is amazing to me. 

Where did a fifteen year old girl get that kind of courage, faith and self-assurance? Maybe it was the longing within her own heart to be recognized as a person of power and significance in God’s eye. God respected the longing in the young girl’s heart. And God responded to the longing in a young girl's heart by saying, "Yes!" in return.

Joan Chittister is one of my sheroes. A Benedictine sister and best-selling author, she is also a well-known lecturer. She points out that too many religious people think that to be holy is to be set apart from this world and its longings, its desires, its pleasures and power.  St Augustine’s theory of original sin required the rejection of the world as a vital element of the spiritual life. Joan Chittister calls this a theology of negation and wonders why Jesus came to earth and became flesh if all things earthly and fleshy are something other than holy. *

She remembers an experience when the Catholic sisters were changing from the traditional habit to contemporary clothes. Joan found herself in an elevator with a charming middle aged man who made conversation with her, riding down to the lobby from the fiftieth floor.  

“And what do you do, young lady?” he asked as they approached the lobby level.

“I’m a Benedictine sister,” she said quite easily. 

The man’s face changed; his brow furrowed. When the elevator door opened he stood and blocked Joan’s exit. “Do you realize,” he faced her with anger, “I could have made a pass at you! Why aren’t you dressed in a habit?” 

A much younger Joan Chittister looked straight into the man’s eyes. “And what difference does a habit make? Are you married? And if you are then why would you be making a pass at anyone at all? And if you are not married then why would you treat a woman on an elevator as if she were an object for your consumption?” 

He stalked across the lobby and did not look back. Joan stood there and watched him leave the building. She was thinking about all the women in the world who have been raped while the men who raped them have gone free from any charges because of “what the woman was wearing.” The length of a woman’s skirt has become an object of morality just as great as or even greater than the immorality of sexual assault. 

“What was she doing wearing that skirt if she didn’t want to be raped? What was she doing out so late at night if she didn’t want to be attacked?”

The women I work with in the county jail know that they are up against that kind of prejudice and injustice when they report a rape. They know that their fathers, brothers, husbands, neighbors, teachers and preachers can easily take advantage of them. They know how hard it is to find someone who will believe them when they say, “I am being abused.” These are ordinary women, many of them poor. Many of them addicted to drugs and accustomed to working the streets for a living. Who would believe them or treat them as significant? They are ONLY women and poor women too, easily silenced by power.

Mary would listen and believe them. She respects her poor sisters and so does her son, Jesus. That’s what Mary’s wonderful song is all about: the turning over of the tables. Those who have not been heard, believed or valued will be chosen and lifted up to places where their deepest longings are met with divine respect, God’s partnership. 

Mary wanted something more for her life. She longed to have her courage and her great faith put to good use. And she partnered with God to make something good happen to elevate the status of all women for all time. 

Redeeming love came into this world through the body and flesh of a woman named Mary.
So it is that we are not surprised that it is the women in Jesus’ life who had the necessary courage to stay with him at the cross while he suffered and died. It was the women in his life: Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James who walked boldly to the tomb and found that it was empty. The women took the news to the men and the men, Luke tells us, thought that the women were telling an idle tale and they did not believe them. It is ONLY women talking. Who cares to listen?

In their unbelief those men set up an institution that would silence women.

Yet we hear the voice of Mary singing: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me!” The mighty one, the Mother God, embraced a poor ordinary girl and respected the longing of her heart. “Let me make a difference in this world,” Mary prayed to a God of inclusive and compassionate love.  

The star that burned brightly over a stable in Bethlehem led the way for wise men to find the Christ child. But the light in that star had already led the way for a young girl to discover the power of God’s redeeming love and power in her longing to be Somebody. 


* Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, Joan Chittister, Sheed and Ward, 2004

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prepare the Way

Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
December 9, 2012
Luke 3:1-6

In October, my partner, Anna, and I took a week of blessed and beautiful vacation time with our friends, Michael and Steve. The four of us stayed in a condominium in Palm Springs, California. Palm Springs is a desert town at the base of huge sharp desert mountains. Rock, sand and cactus greet you everywhere. Desert palms adorn the city and line its streets. 

We took a day trip and drove about an hour to see Joshua Tree National Park. The park covers 800,000 acres of desert: the Colorado Desert on the east side of the park and the Mojave Desert on the west side. The Mojave Desert is where the Joshua Trees are found. The park is surrounded by tall mountains and covered with huge rock formations. Dry, sandy, hot.

But we rounded a corner on the highway and were stunned to see an oasis. They really exist! We got out of the car and walked under tall green palms that shaded huge areas. There were lush green bushes and flowering plants. So many birds sang and flitted from branch to branch. A refreshing pool of water sat in the shade under palm fronds.  An oasis like that is formed by a crack in the earth’s mantle, a broken place.  The rock beneath the surface splits and water springs forth, nurturing life right there in the middle of the desert. Amazing!

The Word of God came to John in the desert, a wilderness around the Jordan. The Word came to John and set him free to focus on a baptism of repentance as a way to prepare for what was coming, as a way to make room for perfect love. The desert seems like a good place for encountering the word of God. “Prepare the way!” A place full of open spaces and surprises.

I have wondered all week what it would take in my own life to make room for the entry of perfect love. I need to let go of my self- doubt and insecurities. There’s something inhospitable about my fear that I am not worthy of hosting perfect love in my life. Part of my preparation needs to be not only creating time for love’s arrival but also opening my heart to trust that the light in my life shines just as brightly as the light of any other human life, beckoning to love and inviting love to make its home with me. My preparation for the birth of Jesus includes repentance for my own sense of personal unworthiness. It is starting to feel like a wall between love’s presence and me.

I grew up in a home where humor was cruel and laughter had a hiss and a sneer attached to it. Humor was always at someone’s expense. Dinner time was seen as an opportunity to make fun of people: church people, school people, neighbor people, each other. The way people walk, talk, eat and how they dress. People were mocked and ridiculed at our house. There was the ever present terror that I might be the next target. So I learned to make fun of people too.  It was a defense, a desperate effort to avoid becoming the target myself. But my best efforts were not always successful. My brothers had several names for me besides the name I was given at birth. My brothers called me Blimp, Petunia and Fatty. These same names were attached to my friends when they came over.

I remember once when Debbie Griner came home from church with me. We were eating Sunday dinner and someone knocked on the front door. My oldest brother jumped up from his seat and pointed at my friend saying, “Don’t open that door until we hide her! We wouldn’t want anyone to think that pig belongs to us!” My parents laughed as though that was very funny. But Debbie ran to my bedroom and sat on my bed. She refused to come back to the table. She couldn’t quit crying so she called her parents to come and take her home. I was angry with her for being what I called “too sensitive!”

There was no tenderness in our house, no grace. And I internalized a sense of unworthiness. This happens to so many of us. We are mistreated as children, before we have developed the capacity to see our lives from any perspective that comes with age and experience. We think it is our fault that we are mistreated. And we learn to mistreat ourselves. And others.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Make paths straight. Fill the valleys and level the mountain peaks. Straighten the crooked; smooth the rough places. So that all flesh might see God.

Somewhere and someday it becomes the next thing for each one of us to clean house and get rid of the clutter that keeps us from inviting perfect love into our lives.  There was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph because people had not paid attention to John. A crazy man crying out in the wilderness and they ignored him or made fun of him because they were looking instead for a man in a nice business suit, a powerful and dignified guy who walked with his back straight, looking like he owns the biggest bank in town. They might have paid attention to a man who owns Fed Ex.  But most people ignored John because he looked like somebody too many people were afraid of becoming: a lunatic, a weirdo, the next target for cruel humor. 

We don’t recognize the sacredness and the dignity of all human beings because too many of us have not yet repented for the ways we devalue ourselves. Too many of us have been willing to tilt the toxic cup and drink from it. We believe that we are not good looking enough, not smart enough, not wealthy enough, not cool enough. And we don’t prepare for the arrival of amazing love in our life because we don’t really expect it for us.

We no longer need mean older brothers to feed us this kind of poison. We have television advertisements blaring at us loudly like fog-horns in the night: Stand back! Keep away! You have not yet purchased the high priced products that would allow you to enter the gates of joy, peace, hope. You do not belong to the family where love comes to live.

The evangelist, John, says “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Free from what? Free from fear. 

Sooner or later it is the job for all God’s children to wash their ears out, purge the poison from their self-esteem and forgive: Forgive the past for its pain. Forgive others for their failure to respect our need for nurture, kindness and affirmation. Forgive the present for its full schedule that pretends to keep us from discovering new ways to connect with and nurture our own soul. Forgive ourselves for taking so long to let go of injustice and old wounds. Let go of our fear of being absolutely authentic before God. 

My father was a Nazarene preacher. Every Sunday evening the worship service concluded with an altar call. Sinners were urged to come forward and repent. I understood sinners to be people who smoked cigarettes, drank beer, got divorced, stole money or killed somebody. We were always hopeful that sinful outsiders would attend worship on Sunday evening, somebody we could bring to their knees and pray through to victory. We knew nobody in our church family was a real sinner. There was a hypocrisy that kept us from being real with ourselves and with each other. I think that hypocrisy is what made it easy for us to be cruel to each other. We were not capable of being vulnerable with each other and we had no way of knowing that other people could be.

It’s interesting to note in the third chapter of Luke that there were emperors, governors, rulers and high priests named. The rich and powerful people were all around in their palaces, dressed in royal robes and eating fine foods with gold utensils. But the Word of God came to John, the lunatic in the desert.  A man described in the book of Matthew as one who ate locusts and wild honey, a man who wore camel’s hair, a man worthy to receive the Word of God, a man who knew what his gifts were and what his purpose in life was. He was a man called to prepare the way for love: a Savior, a king, a baby who would be nurtured and grow up to model for us what it looks like to live in love, to be perfect love on earth.

All of us are worthy to welcome the love of God in our souls, our daily lives and our relationships. And all of us are broken in some way. And it is in those broken places where God tends to arrive and make a home.

For me—I know that my passion for social justice, my drive to nurture those people who have been abandoned by our society, my undying energy to give voice to the voiceless at the county jail comes from the wounded place within me. I know what it feels like to be dismissed and humiliated. I also know what it feels like to be redeemed from that kind of experience.

I’ve grown and healed in therapy sessions. I’ve grown and healed by seeking education. I’ve grown and healed by having good friends, supportive people in my life. But I look back and mark the beginning place of my deep healing on the day I found First Congregational Church here in Memphis.  That’s when and where my soul began to shift from a place of unworthiness. I was seen and treated as a person of worth. My gifts were acknowledged. I was invited to tell stories at church. My light began to shine and pointed me toward a new way of being in this world.

I came back around to my best self, to that innocent place back before the cruel humor at my family’s table made me so afraid. Faith communities can be authentic and affirming. They can be part of the healing circle in life. I was surprised and delighted to discover that truth. I began to let go of my unworthiness and I am still letting go and finding light for my life.

The Celtic theologian, John O’Donohue, says that the one who created the universe loved circles. Our longing and our belonging are fused in never-ending circles, he says. We live our lives in circular cycles, going around and coming back to where we started over and over again. Yet every life, every soul has a broken place, a fracture, a secret opening in the soul’s circle. This brokenness makes us vulnerable and human. Our prayer, creativity and joy come from this place. 

Once again we have come around to the season of Advent and we wonder how can we prepare our souls and lives to receive the gift of perfect love? 

Look to the broken places in your soul, the fracture where the heart has been broken before. That’s where the oasis will spring up, where the blossoms will bloom in a variety of colors, where the green will provide shade and the birds will sing. There will be refreshing waters to drink. It will be the place where the Word of God comes.  In this place your own light will shine most brightly.

Walk in that light, carry that light and chase away the shadows of fear and doubt. You will lead yourself and others to a manger in Bethlehem, to the miracle of birth and new life in love.