…and the midwives knew God

Exodus 1:7-20

Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference

July 22, 2018

My grandmother’s grandmother was named Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn. It’s a big name, and it comes with a big story.

Mary Boggs Stiltner O'quinn wife to John w O'quinnThat’s Mary Ann there, third from the left

Actually, Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was not my “GRANDMOTHER’s “GRANDMOTHER”: she spent her life in Grundy, Virginia and Elkhorn County, Kentucky – climbing mountains and moving across state lines through Appalachia. It’s where I grew up, too, a place full of coal miners and moonshiners, yes, and also full of the loyalty, heart and humor forged by living in the cracks, crevices and hollers of the Blue Ridge. In those mountains, you won’t hear many folks call anybody “GRANDMOTHER.” Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was really my MAMAW’s MAMAW.

Mary Ann was born on July 26, 1855. She married my great-great grandfather (my Mamaw’s Papaw), Matthew Stiltner, and had SEVEN children. When Matthew died in 1897, Mary Ann was left a widow with seven children, a little bit of land and no money. What do you do if you’re all alone and have seven kids to feed?

In the late 19th century, in the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky, a widow didn’t have many options. One characteristic of Appalachian culture that I inherited is a fierce loyalty to family and neighbor: when tragedy strikes, you take care of your people. The community bands together. This is a great attitude, in some cases – it keeps people together, knits support systems and networks of care, and assures people that they are loved and surrounded. I wish more communities knew how to do this the way my home community does.

But this fierce loyalty also has its downfall: sometimes, it means that folks are unlikely or unwilling to look outside their immediate community for opportunity or to extend their care to people who are not like them. I say this lovingly, because I am describing myself. I imagine that Mary Ann’s friends and family opened their homes to her, made space for her. I imagine that they were urging her to find another suitable man to marry, there in Elkhorn County, and quick – because she would have needed safety and security and they wanted to surround her, hold her close, and enfold her in the community.

But Mary Ann did not choose any of those things. She did not duck her head and allow her family or community to keep her safe. She did not seek refuge with her own people. Instead, she opened her eyes and her heart to a larger understanding of the world. What she decided to do became the stuff of legend: Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner sold what land she had for a horse and a shotgun, parceled her 7 children out to friends and family members, and became a midwife, riding through county after county, over the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky to deliver babies. She would mount her horse, shoulder the shotgun for protection from mountain predators, and leave her home and her people to ride over a ridge or two in order to safely usher baby after baby – from families entirely unknown to her – into new life.


Our scripture this morning is about midwives, too. The Israelites have made their way into Egypt – a small band of people from the country who have ended up in the city, under the rule of a Pharaoh. At first, the Israelites had an in with the people in power – Joseph had gotten in good with the ruling class and made sure that his people were safe and taken care of. But we hear in the beginning of the book of Exodus that a new king came to power who didn’t know Joseph – meaning that he didn’t acknowledge the Israelites as people who belonged in his kingdom – and he started to get nervous about them.

“There are so MANY Hebrews,” the new king complained. “What if they start rising up against us? They’re not from here, and I think they’re dangerous. We need to limit them. We need to keep our own people safe, first, and not waste resources on people who aren’t from here, the ones who don’t belong here.” I can hear, if I listen to this new king’s words closely, echoes of my own white, Appalachian, American bringing up: take care of your people, the ones to whom you belong, first. Loyalty is important.

But the new king didn’t stop there. No, the new king outlined a plan to get rid of the Hebrews all together: he would make all the Hebrews do the worst jobs available in his kingdom, the hardest, most difficult, manual labor jobs, the ones no one else wanted. Then, surely they would all die off and stop having more kids. The king had a LOT of riches – food and treasures and unbelievable abundance. He decided that instead of sharing it with the Hebrews, he would force the Hebrews to build storage facilities: that way, they’d have to see all the resources but have zero access to them. Surely that would convince them to leave.

But the hard work didn’t stop the Hebrews from multiplying, and it didn’t drive them away. They stayed in Egypt, and they kept having hearty, healthy children. Their numbers increased even more. The king was terrified. He was frustrated that his plan wasn’t working, so he implemented phase two of the campaign against the Hebrews: The king began talking very badly about the them, calling them evil, criminal, godforsaken. He turned the whole country against them, and the entire Egyptian people started to see the Hebrews as less-than-human, looking at them with disgust and dread, calling them names and telling them to go back tow here they came from.

Eventually, because they came to believe that the Hebrews were of less value than Egyptians, that they were a plague on their country, that they were dirty and criminal, the Egyptians enslaved the entire Hebrew nation. They forced them to do the hot, dirty, dangerous work of making bricks, tilling the fields and all kinds of other backbreaking and cruel work, with no pay, no safety, none of the country’s riches, and no rights to citizenship.

And still, the Hebrews multiplied.

The king could not contain himself. He was obsessed with ridding his country of these outsiders, these slaves who didn’t belong, these dangerous immigrants who were going to take over his nation if nothing was done. But making them do the worst jobs wasn’t working, and even turning an entire people into slaves wasn’t working. So the king sent word to the midwives, Shiprah and Puah:

“When you are helping Hebrew women give birth, and you see that it’s a boy baby being born, kill him. You can let the girls live, but kill every baby Hebrew boy.”

Shiprah and Puah had spent their entire lives helping women give birth – they were dedicated to life, in every way. They knew, because they’d spent so many years seeing it up close and personal, how miraculous and holy birth was, and how precious and beloved each and every child was. They’d committed themselves to bringing LIFE and they knew – deep in their bones – that there was absolutely no way that they could obey the king’s command. There was no way that they could participate in killing.

The midwives, the text tells us, KNEW GOD. That doesn’t just mean that they’d heard of the guy or that they would acknowledge God in worship; to KNOW GOD means that these midwives had a relationship with God, participated in God’s holy work on earth, respected the God who created them and who they knew created every single mother and baby that they helped enter the world. The midwives KNEW God. And because they knew God, they KNEW that the King was wrong.

And the text tells us: “The two midwives KNEW God, so they did not obey the King’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.”

The king was furious, and called Shiprah and Puah into his chambers. “Why are you doing this?!” he fumed. The midwives turned to the king and said: “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger, and so they give birth really fast. By the time we get there, the babies are already born and we don’t even have a chance to kill them.”

Shiprah and Puah knew God, and they knew that the king was wrong. The midwives chose to follow God instead of following the king. And the midwives not only saved scores of baby boys; their work saved an entire people. These midwives became the first deliverers in a great big, grand narrative of deliverance.


One of the most fascinating parts of the story of Shiprah and Puah is how little we actually know about these women. We don’t know, for instance, whether or not they were lying to the King when they told him that Hebrew women gave birth too fast for them to kill the boy babies. Maybe that was true, maybe it was a fib. Maybe – and this is what I like to think – the midwives simply dallied a little while when they got the call: “Hello, yes, my wife is going into labor, please come quick! What’s that? Oh, yes, we’re Hebrews. Just get here soon!” And, hearing that the woman was a Hebrew, the midwives would sit down, have another cup of tea, and eventually mosey on over to the house, where a healthy baby boy was already birthed, cleaned, and squalling.

But another fascinating thing about this story is that although Shiprah and Puah clearly worked as midwives among the Hebrew people, we don’t actually know if they themselves were Hebrews. The way it’s written in the text could mean that Shiprah and Puah were “Hebrew midwives,” part of the slave class, but it could also mean that Shiprah and Puah were midwives who worked among the Hebrews – Egyptians whose work took them through different communities, helping both slave and free women deliver their infants.
I can’t stop thinking about this. Of course, if Shiprah and Puah were Hebrews, they’d know exactly how awful life had been for the Israelites in Egypt. They would have experienced the backbreaking work, the horrors of slavery, the insults and hatred from every Egyptian they encountered. They would have known the accumulated pain of microaggressions, the generational trauma of oppression, the economic tragedy of never being allowed to earn or to own. If Shiprah and Puah were Hebrew, then they would have grown up and been formed by a people who trusted God over Empire. They would have known the stories of their ancestors who chose God even when it was risky. They would have known that following God was always – ALWAYS – more important than following the King.

But if Shiprah and Puah were EGYPTIAN – if they were part of the empire, if they had grown up in privilege, taught by their parents and their government to look down on the Hebrews, formed in a culture that treated Hebrews as less-than-human, doing it without even thinking about it – well, that’s a totally different story. Shiprah and Puah would have had to come to KNOW GOD without the benefit of their own communities teaching them. They would have had to have experienced a powerful kind of transformation. They would have had to have learned, somehow, that their King was awful, that what he was doing was contrary to everything God imagined, that they, themselves, were implicated in the sinful behavior of their own nation.

If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, learning to KNOW GOD and to obey God instead of the King would have been hard. It would have meant that they had not only encountered the living God of Israel and been transformed, but that this transformation led them to care deeply about people who were not their own.

Shiprah and Puah refused the King’s orders because they knew God, and they knew that God loved every single baby, every single person – whether they were Egyptian or Hebrew. If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, what they did was a testament to a God who calls us beyond the borders and boundaries of Empire, beyond the false dichotomies and fake differences that we humans erect to keep ourselves safe and others out.


The story of Shiprah and Puah is powerful for me, in part because of my own formation as a white American woman from Appalachia. All three of those things – being white, being American, and being from Appalachia – have the capacity to limit my understanding of the world as belonging only to people who are like me. And, to be honest, all three of those things HAVE limited my understanding of who belongs, who is worthy, and who I am responsible to and for.

For me, learning to KNOW GOD and trust God instead of the Kings of this world is requiring a powerful transformation. Because of who I am and how I was formed, I assumed for a long, long time that I was only responsible to and for a specific set of people. I didn’t know how my life was or could be intimately connected to people who were not like me. I’m still learning this, still being led into this salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit, but I want to share with you one particular moment in this process of becoming redeemed:

A couple of years ago, I went to hear Rev. William Barber speak. You might have heard of Rev. Barber lately, because he’s leading what’s called the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival. When I heard him speak, though, Rev. Barber was the head of the North Carolina NAACP – that’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I knew that Barber was a powerful preacher and a force for justice in North Carolina, but I had also felt stuck on the outside of his movement, as a white person newly arrived in the state. I’m not a part of the black church tradition that formed Rev. Barber, I’m not really the target demographic for the NAACP, and even though I was attracted and intrigued by the ways he was witnessing across the nation, I still felt like an onlooker, an outsider, a hanger-on.

But I went to hear Rev. Barber speak, and he told this story: he talked of being invited, several years ago, to preach out in Western North Carolina. You might have read about Rev. Barber being threatened and arrested in various contexts – notably kicked off an American Airlines flight or arrested in front of state capitals for his advocacy on behalf of the poor. But this story that he told was about traveling into a tucked-away mountain county in western North Carolina where he knew the Ku Klux Klan to be active, and where he – a black man – was quite literally scared for his life. His church sent extra people with him, and the group that invited him took extra security measures.

Western North Carolina is Appalachia. It is mountain country, full of the same kinds of hills and hollers that I grew up in. It is also filled with the same kind of fierce loyalty that is able to take care of its own with an unparalleled beauty but sometimes struggles to identify with outsiders, the ones who aren’t like us or don’t belong.

When Rev. Barber got up to speak out in western NC, he said that the crowd was mostly white, just as he expected. He was glad, he said, that he had brought extra people and that the host group had posted security outside the venue. The crowd was also filled with mostly women – white, mountain, Appalachian women. Rev. Barber preached his standard message about justice and fusion coalitions, connecting people across lines of race and politics to advocate a moral agenda on those in power.

After he spoke, he said, this group of what he called ‘old white mountain ladies’ got so excited about what he’d said, so caught up in the message of different kinds of people working together, so on fire with the biblical principles of caring for the poor, that they begged Rev. Barber to start their own chapter of the NAACP right there in the mountains of Western North Carolina – made up of members who would be mostly old white mountain ladies.

No kidding.

Rev. Barber’s message of cooperation and justice, mercy for the least of these and accountability for the powerful was so convicting – so full of the the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ – that these white mountain ladies wanted to start their own chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

That story convicted me, not because I want to join the NAACP, exactly, but because I am from a long line of old white mountain women. I thought, immediately, of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, who was called to expand her heart from her own place and her own people in order to love and be of service to ALL of God’s children. Rev. Barber laughed a hearty laugh when he told this story, but when I heard it, some door opened in my heart. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there is a place for me in this movement, too. Maybe I – a white lady from Appalachia, inheritor of both the fierce loyalty that binds people together and white supremacy that tears us apart – can work together with all kinds of different people to make a new world possible, too.


Here’s what I want to say to you:

Our God – the God of the Hebrews, the God of the midwives, the God of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, the God of Rev. William Barber, the God of me and the God of you…
our God does not stand for smallness.

Our God does not endorse petty human boundaries, hateful racism, sinful white supremacy. Our God is not satisfied when we barricade ourselves in places with people who look like us, talk like us, and experience the world like we do.

Our God is calling us, inviting us, convicting us, compelling us, insisting that we come to KNOW him, and that in knowing him, we will come to act in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the exiled.

Shiprah and Puah didn’t disobey the King just because they could. They disobeyed the King because in coming to know the God of the Universe, they realized that they had been called and commissioned and equipped to follow her, in every relationship and every circumstance.

Their hearts had been filled with a love so extravagant that it could not be contained by racial or ethnic divisions, political or social expectations, cultural or religious formation. Their hearts had been filled with a love so enormous that they couldn’t imagine doing anything other than what they did.

The midwives KNEW GOD, and so they disobeyed the King.

May each of us be granted the kind of relationship with the Creator God that compels us to follow in the way of love and mercy even at great risk, even across great divides. May it be so. Amen.


a PARAble

Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Bible Study

Luke 18:9-14

Friday July 6 2018, 8am


By the end of this conference, you will know good and well what a PARABLE is. You might even get tired of hearing about it, with morning bible studies and evening worship all centered around these stories from Jesus. This morning, we’re going to do a little bit of Greek.

“Parable” is made up of two Greek words: para and ballo. Ballo means “to toss” and para means “alongside.” Mostly. But more about that later on.

A parable is, in other words, something cast alongside the truth – tossed out as a way toward better understanding.


Parables tell the truth. But they don’t tell it straight. Parables are not one-to-one correlations, they are not codified behavior laws, and they usually do not answer the question that we think we should be asking.

An Emily Dickinson poem might help us:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Jesus taught in parables. He told stories, because he knew that his disciples – then and now – would be more likely to understand if he served the truth in the form of a story, inviting his hearers into the conversation, engaging their imaginations and their spirits. Like Emily Dickinson says in her poem, parables tell the truth, but they tell it slant. Tossed alongside.

Our job, as Jesus’ listeners, is not to decipher the parable. Our job, as faithful followers, is not to figure it out and apply it immediately to the very next thing we do. Our job, as people who have covenanted to life together in Christ, is to PAY ATTENTION. Jesus longs for us to hear him – let all who have ears to hear, listen, he says, over and over. Our job is not to solve some sort of riddle and run around victorious at how clever we’ve been…our job is to immerse ourselves in the parable and pray that the Holy Spirit might inscribe it in our hearts and interpret it through our lives.

So. Here’s a parable, a truth tossed out alongside. Don’t try to solve it, don’t try to FIGURE IT OUT, just pay attention. Just immerse yourself in it. Just let it wash over you, cover you, invite you, surprise you, take root in you.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Okay. If I was actually leading a bible study and not sitting up here on the stage so far away from you, I’d ask you what word or phrase caught you when you listened. I’d want to know if when you heard this familiar parable for what surely must have been the seventy fourth time, you noticed anything that you hadn’t heard before. I’d want us to read scripture the way our Brethren tradition has formed us: in community, with the power of the Holy Spirit directing our interpretation.
But, alas, I am here and you are there. If you’re sitting close to someone, turn to them and share a single thing you noticed. Just a sentence – not a paragraph. Just share what the Spirit spoke to you in these verses. I’ll wait a second.

Okay – okay.

I’m all alone up here, and I have the microphone, so here are a few things that the Spirit spoke to me – and to some biblical scholars – as I read and studied this passage.


First of all: when we hear “pharisee” and “tax-collector,” we have immediate images and assumptions filling our imaginations. We’ve been conditioned to think of Pharisees as “bad guys.” Did any of you sing that kid’s song in Sunday school or summer camp: “I just wanna be a sheep? [Baaaaa]” It has a couple of verses about what we DON’T want to be, and one of them is “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee, ’cause they’re not fair, you see.”

The kid’s song stands on pretty solid ground in dissing the Pharisees. In English, we’ve even turned them into an adjective: if you’re “pharisaical,” then you are hypocritical or self-righteous. And this characterization shows up in scripture, too. In Luke’s gospel the Pharisees are usually a little shady. They aren’t very quick to welcome Jesus’ teaching, they seem to want to keep the status quo in place, they are generally reluctant to shift their perspective or give up the power they wield. The Pharisees, in Luke and in modern-day caricature, are not fair, you see.

But both our modern-day understanding and Luke’s characterization are not exactly true to what we know for sure about Pharisees. Pharisees didn’t write much themselves, so the only historical record we have of them comes – aside from Paul, who was a deserter of the Pharisaical tradition – from people writing ABOUT them. We don’t know what Pharisees believed, we don’t really know a lot about how they functioned. But I’ve learned a bit about what they did not do.

Pharisees were not in charge of the Temple. Instead, they worked in the villages, among the people. They were teachers, not priests. They didn’t have particularly strict purity standards – they just observed Jewish law like everyone else. They were, apparently, some combination of scholars and special interest group, a predecessor to the later role of “rabbi.” They studied Torah and taught the law, but they also were not the ones in charge of the system of sacrifice or polity. They were, as far as I can tell, a group of local pastors who loved the Temple and their God but who spent more time with the regular people than they did with those in power.

Unlike us, who have several millenia worth of baggage attached to the idea of a Pharisee, Jesus’ first audience would have had a different image. For them, according to scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk.” It would have made sense to them that a Pharisee was praying in the temple – the temple was a place of healing and grace.

Now, a tax collector, on the other hand, would NOT have been likely to show up at Temple. Tax collectors were employed by the Roman Empire, and their allegiance was to Caesar, not the God of the Israelites. They worked for the empire, and they dealt in money, and they had easy access to skimming off the top for themselves, cheating people, stealing, getting whatever they felt themselves entitled to. In Luke’s gospel, tax collectors turn out to be a pretty good group of guys: Zaccheus did an about face and followed Jesus after he was found up in that tree, Matthew became one of Jesus’ most trusted friends and disciples. But that character trait – being willing to change their life and follow Jesus – was NOT what Jesus’ first hearers would have thought of when they heard about a tax collector in the Temple.


For the people Jesus told this parable to, tax collectors were lying, cheating charlatans who would have been to scared to set foot in such a holy place as the Temple for fear that their evil deeds would have sent them up in smoke as soon as they crossed the threshold. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables would probably have been imagining either – depending on your political disposition and based on my observation of social media since the 2016 election – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton walking into your home church sanctuary on a random Sunday morning.


The tax collector showing up in the Temple was unheard of. Those Jewish folks listening to Jesus tell this story would have probably let out a collective GASP, and whispered curses under their breath. They would have immediately wondered what they would have done if they’d been there at the Temple that day: shout curses or insults, demand they remove themselves from the premises, refuse to look them in the eye or engage them in any kind of conversation other than heckling or hateful talking points.


And so, here we are, in the Temple, with a respected, benign, regular local pastor kind of guy who everyone would expect to be praying in the Temple and a stealing, cheating, reviled enemy kind of guy that everyone would be horrified to find praying in their Temple.


Even the Pharisee himself isn’t immune to the hateful prejudice that surrounded tax collectors: “Thank you, God, that you didn’t make me like THIS GUY,” who is clearly sinful and beyond hope. It wasn’t that the Pharisee was particularly arrogant, really, he had just soaked up the common wisdom of the day and fallen in with the accepted characterization of tax collectors as too far gone to be recipients of God’s grace.


But the tax collector isn’t paying attention to anyone else in the Temple. He’s not there to make comparisons. He’s not there to point fingers or to build himself up by putting others down. The tax collector is beating his breast, confessing his own sins, pleading with God to have mercy on him, to forgive him for what he’s been doing.


The Pharisee, in other words, does all the right things but can’t stop himself from pointing fingers and judging others. The tax collector, on the other hand, does plenty of bad things but has also learned to practice humility and repentance.


And then Jesus tells the listeners: I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.

Except this is where we encounter a pretty serious problem. That word, RATHER – as in the tax collector went home justified INSTEAD OF, RATHER THAN the Pharisee, is, in Greek, a word that we’ve heard before. The word that is translated into English as “rather” is actually the Greek word “para,” as in paradox, parallel, Paraclete, and…parable.


And you remember what the “para” in parable means, right? Not RATHER but ALONGSIDE. It turns out, that Greek word can mean both. And it turns out, choosing the other translation changes the entire parable.

If the tax collector, after going up to the Temple, beating his breast and begging for mercy goes home justified alongside the Pharisee and not instead of the Pharisee, we are freed from having to choose a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in this story. If both the tax collector and the Pharisee are able to return home in the grace of God, forgiven, loved and free, then we do not have to participate in the heresy of putting limits on God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus is not telling this parable to help us differentiate the good guys from the bad guys – he’s telling this parable to demonstrate the nearly unimaginable depth of God’s grace, the wideness of God’s mercy, the striking heights of God’s love. Grace is not a zero sum game. Just because the tax collector repented and received grace does not mean that the Pharisee is no longer eligible for it.

The Pharisee is a child of God who spends his life doing good, praying, following God’s commands. He is not perfect. He stumbles into self-righteousness and hypocrisy – it’s so easy to do. But his mistakes do not remove him from God’s care. His shortcomings do not rip God’s grace away from his life. His prejudice and unthinking hatefulness do not set him outside the reach of God’s mercy.

And the tax collector’s evil deeds, his lifetime of serving Caesar instead of God, his track record of lying, cheating and stealing: neither do they render him ineligible for forgiveness. He begs for mercy, and God grants it, pours it down over him, wraps him up in grace.

And the two, both broken, both mistaken, both taken in by the hateful customs of their government and their culture, both human beings susceptible to greed and self-righteousness, the two of them walk down from the Temple, brothers, both forgiven, both justified, both loved more deeply than they can imagine, ALONGSIDE one another.


This parable is not about who is right and who is wrong, and it’s not about who is good and who is bad. It is a little bit about the dangers of self-righteousness, and a little bit about the power of repentance. But it is also about the incredible depth and width and breadth of God’s unending and unlimited gifts of mercy and grace. It is a reminder to us, mere human beings, created as children by an all-powerful Creator God, that we can not be the arbiters of grace because we humans will always erect bad boundaries and false fences and judge people who are not like us simply because they are not like us. God’s grace is so much bigger than you or me or our ideas of who is worthy of inclusion and who is not, who is able to get God’s attention or not, who has standing in our Temples or not.


God does that, all of that. And thanks be to God, our God is much more tolerant, much more forgiving, much more willing to believe in the goodness and potential of even the worst of us, the worst in us.


Thanks be to God.

an Easter sermon on horticulture

In John’s gospel, the resurrection is…confusing. Everyone who encounters the risen Christ – Mary, Simon Peter, the rest of the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors, even, later, good old doubting Thomas – everyone who encounters the resurrected Jesus is confused about who and what he is.

And really, that’s no different than the rest of John’s gospel, is it? We’ve been walking with Jesus through this Gospel story for months, now, and we know that no matter how hard he tries to explain himself to his friends, his disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds…everyone pretty much responds with disbelief and confusion.

Resurrection does not make sense. There’s no logic to it. For those of us who operate in a world of observable phenomena, fact-based research, in a world where we are more and more on guard against fake news and propaganda, resurrection is…confusing. Just like those first friends of Jesus who encountered him alive after they had watched, with their very own eyes, as he was arrested, tried, crucified, killed and buried, we have trouble understanding how this story could ever be real.

It is, at the very least, confusing.

John’s gospel bears witness to that. Unlike many of our Easter hymns and celebrations – even our worship here at Peace Covenant – that moves speedily from the last supper and death at crucifixion straight to the inexpressible JOY of Easter Sunday, in the gospel and in our own lives resurrection takes a much more winding path. It is not something we jump to acceptance of, not something that *snap* changes our lives immediately.

Resurrection is confusing.


There is this random bush in the median of my apartment complex parking lot that has been captivating me this spring. It’s gigantic – wrapping around a tree – but fairly nondescript. If it hadn’t done this weird thing that I’m about to describe to you, I never would have noticed it. But this spring, as the trees started to bud out and the flowers began to bloom, this bush sort of…transformed.

It’s regular color is a deep, dark green with oval leaves – very bush-like. But as its new growth began to sprout, the new leaves were BRIGHT green – almost yellow – and not quite as oval as the old ones. I don’t know a lot about plants, but I assume that the new growth was appearing in relation to the exposure to sunshine that it got, so that the side of the bush that was exposed only to weak morning sun took longer to sprout new growth than the other side that got full-on afternoon level vitamin C sunshine.

What ended up happening is that the old bush looks like this: as if it is being overrun, consumed, engulfed, devoured by new life. The new bush is something altogether different than the old one.

resurrection is re-creation

I was so compelled by this random parking lot bush that I asked around about what kind of plant it might be. I shared a photo on Facebook and asked people who are better with plants than I am. No one could quite believe that it was a single species: surely that new growth was a foreign vine overtaking an old plant. There was no way, my friends said, that it could be the same, since the new leaves were SO different in color and even in shape than the old ones. I conceded that I, knowing next to nothing about plants, must have misconstrued the situation and resolved to believe my more experienced friends. Two plants, one taking over the other.

Fran and I walk by this bush every day, though, and it won’t stop captivating me. I stopped in the office to ask the groundskeeper what kind of bush it is, but he didn’t know either. I walk by every day, and stop and marvel at what is happening. I’ve inspected more closely, too. I think my gardening friends are wrong – I think their confusion is warranted, but I think they are wrong.

Those new, yellow leaves are sprouting on the same vines where the old dark green growth is living. This is one single plant, being taken over by new life.


I think resurrection is like this nondescript parking lot median bush (which is called, ironically, given its quiet and unassuming presence most of the year, a “burning bush.”). I think resurrection is confusing and unexpected and something that is really, really hard to explain: even when you consult the experts.

When Jesus appeared to Mary at the tomb, she thought he was the gardener. She didn’t recognize him because resurrection is, as Karoline Lewis says, nothing short of re-creation.

Even after Mary ran to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord, the disciples huddled together in a room and locked the door behind them, unable to believe what she was telling them and sure that there was no way that this person Mary had seen could in fact be the same one they had known and followed. It took Jesus appearing *inside* the locked door and showing them his nail-scarred hands and sword-pierced side for them to believe it was really him.

The stories of Jesus’ first resurrection appearances make me wonder how often we refuse to see or believe in resurrection in our own lives. It makes me think about the disciples, about Mary, about how experiencing the resurrected Jesus changed them…or didn’t.


For Mary, experiencing resurrection must have led to a different kind of life. She’d been so close to Jesus – she loved him so deeply, followed him and argued theology with him and yelled at him when he didn’t show up soon enough to keep her brother from dying, knelt and anointed his feet with perfume and her hair.

Mary loved Jesus deeply. When he died, she wept…and wept, and wept and wept. She showed up to the tomb weeping. She answered the angels who appeared there through tears. When Jesus, who she assumed to be the gardener, asked why she was weeping, she wept even more. Mary loved Jesus. She was one of his best friends. What would it have meant to her to lose him?

What would it have meant to her to find him again?

I wonder what happened to Mary after she witnessed the resurrection. She runs to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and with that, she becomes the very first preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I wonder if Mary was able to live into that new identity: a disciple of Jesus Christ, a preacher of his good gospel. I wonder if, in her experience of resurrection, she discovered that she herself had been re-created. I wonder how her life changed, whether she would even recognize her old self when all the newness of resurrection descended over her.

When Mary realizes who Jesus is, after he has called her by name, she shouts, “Teacher!” and runs to him, grabbing on, holding on, trying to prevent him from ever leaving her again. But Jesus speaks kindly to her: “Do not hold on to me. I still have to ascend to my Father.”

That moment of resurrection, of re-creation, of experiencing the risen Christ doesn’t last forever. In resurrection, in being re-created, we are asked to let go of things: the old bodies, the old growth, the old way of understanding the world. If we are to be created anew, if we are to participate in resurrection ourselves, Jesus tells us gently, too: “do not hold on. There’s more to come.”


Resurrection is confusing because Jesus asks us to let go. Resurrection doesn’t make sense to us because we think the world should operate with logic and observable patterns. But resurrection is also confusing because we do not want to let go of the ways we understand the world. Resurrection is confusing because it threatens us, the old us, the conventional wisdom and the ways we’ve always done things.

We look for other explanations – any other explanation – that the new creation is really another thing altogether, that the man in the garden is just the gardener, that if we lock the door and huddle together then we’ll escape the transformation awaiting us in encountering the risen Christ.

But Jesus calls us into encounter, into belief. Jesus has been offering himself to us, over and over, showing up in the unexpected places of our lives, reminding us that God is with us and that God is for us. The resurrection teaches us that God’s love is unending, unstoppable, bent on transforming our old growth into new creation, stronger even than our disbelief, stronger even than death.

Resurrection is confusing. But we need not be afraid of that – confusion is natural. Just like Mary’s weeping at the tomb was a natural, human expression of her love for Jesus, our confusion at what resurrection is, what it means, how it could possibly happen or continue happening is to be expected.

But Jesus does not leave us in fear and confusion. Jesus will not allow us to remain in grief or shut up behind locked doors. Jesus arrives in our midst, and brings greetings of peace.

“Peace be with you,” he tells us. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” You are confused now, yes. You are wondering what all this could mean, yes. You are struggling to process all that has happened and all that is about to happen, but I have a job for you. This is not the end of the story. You’ve experienced resurrection and now your job is to go tell about it.

I know you are scared, Jesus says. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. But there is something deep inside you that understands, that longs for this truth, that is celebrating this victory, this illogical resurrection and unbelievable re-creation. And, he says, you are not alone.

Just like he did with those first terrified disciples, Jesus breathes into us and says, “receive the Holy Spirit,” the comforter, the companion, the one who will intercede when you cannot find the words and the one who will guide you in your work and witness.

Resurrection is confusing. But we are not alone, we are not abandoned, and even death cannot overcome the truth of the gospel:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

May it be so. Amen.

lift me up to the light of change

Sermon 2-25-18

John 8:12-20

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

One of my very favorite books – of all time – is A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Did any of you all read that when you were younger? L’Engle was a Christian writer, whose best-known books are still the Wrinkle in Time series – a 5-part science-fantasy story written for young adults. The books have it all: magical creatures, a universe in trouble, time traveling kids, and an uncertain teenage heroine discovering her great capacity for awesomeness who is surely the prototype for every modern-day Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen. If you are one of those people who are into The Hunger Games or the Divergent series – currently popular dystopian fiction for young adults – you should totally be reading the Wrinkle in Time series. It’s just as incredible andfar more theologically grounded.

The movie version, directed by Ava DuVernay, comes out on March 9 and I am contemplating dressing up and attending a show on opening night – I am excited.

wrinkle poster

A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of a young girl, Meg Murray, whose father has gone missing after working on some kind of secret, serious project called a tesseract. We find out later that Tesseracts have to do with space-time travel, but for the sake of the story, what we know is that Meg’s father is on a super-secret mission, and he’s gone missing. Meg, her odd but gifted little brother Charles Wallace, and and their friend Calvin meet some strange old women living in an abandoned house nearby who turn out to be supernatural beings. Ms. Who, Ms. Which and Ms. Whatsit take Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin on an incredible journey to find and free her father – learning about cosmic battles between good and evil and the power of redemptive love along the way.

It seems that the universe is being attacked by some big, dark Thing. Some planets have succumbed to the darkness, some are fighting it valiantly, and some are what they call “in shadows.” Earth, as Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace learn when they visit another planet and meet someone called the “Happy Medium,” is significantly shadowed. The darkness covers a good portion of the planet. But, the Medium and Mrs. Which assure them, the fight is being waged, and by many:

And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right form your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”

Still, even though the universe is waging such a grand and exciting battle against the darkness – which Meg eventually learns to name as the Powers of Evil – it turns out that her father is trapped on a planet called Camazotz that has given in to the darkness. Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must journey to Camazotz to find and free him.

In the course of their quest, the children encounter all kinds of darkness, pain and evil. It comes in all forms: physical pain, mental injury, despair, loss, bitterness. It seems that the darkness is everywhere, and indeed, on the planet that has succumbed, it IS.

wrinkle book cover


In our text for today, Jesus is offering us another one of his “I am” statements. This time, it’s one that we know: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Often, when we think about the metaphor of light and dark, we think of them as interchangeable with “good” and “evil.” This gets problematic really quickly: if dark = evil, and if that’s how we think of the world, what does that mean for the ways we think about people, particularly people whose skin is dark? It is too easy for us to hear Jesus say “I am the light of the world” and assume that darkness only = evil, that if Jesus is LIGHT then only things that are light-COLORED are good.

This is a modern problem. Jesus wouldn’t have talked about lighter-colored people being more moral or ethical or holy, since he himself was a dark-skinned man. When Jesus calls himself the “light of the world,” he does not mean that light-colored things are good and dark-colored things are bad.

And, if we think about it, we know that, too. We know that darkness is not always evil – the darkness of a womb is where we are created and formed and nurtured before birth. The darkness of the soil is where seeds germinate and sink roots and find strength for growing. The darkness of night is when our bodies relax into rest, and find rejuvenation. Darkness is not evil, it’s just one way of helping us to understand how evil works.

Even in Meg’s story, where The Dark Thing is the name of Evil, darkness also operates as healing. The children do end up finding Meg’s father, though that does not solve all the problems, and he is able to tesser (bend time and space) them away from Camazotz. In order to escape, however, they have to go through the dark shadow that is covering the planet. The journey almost kills Meg. She lands on another planet paralyzed, barely breathing, and in agonizing pain. The inhabitants of this planet are strange creatures, with tentacles and no facial features. In fact, these beings don’t even have eyes. The entire planet is in grayscale – since seeing is not one of the senses of the beings that inhabit it, light and color simply don’t matter. But here, on the gray planet where beings live in what we humans would call utter darkness, but who have no way to even understand what that means, Meg is loved, healed, and nurtured back to health. In darkness, she finds wholeness.


So, if Jesus doesn’t mean that Light = Goodness, what does he mean when he says “I am the light of the world”?

If Jesus is not telling us to run as fast as we can from darkness and live only where things are light, white, and pure, what IS he telling us?

Light doesn’t always mean color. Light also illuminates. Jesus is not giving us a convenient metaphor to justify our racist tendencies – Jesus is inviting us to have all our sinful, evil propensities illuminated, made visible, exposed, brought into the light.

When Jesus makes this I AM statement, he is not talking to his disciples. He’s not talking to the crowd – like last week’s statement about being the bread of life – either. In this passage, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. That is, the people who are hell-bent on having him arrested, tried, and killed. In this passage, Jesus is giving this clue about his own identity to his enemies. The pharisees are gathered around him, questioning him about who he is and where he has come from, declaring that he has no one to vouch for him (even though we already know that people as diverse as Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman have been witnessing on his behalf all along). When Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” he is doing so in the presence of the pharisees, his enemies, who are actively plotting to destroy him.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals himself and offers everyone who encounters him a choice: believe in me, follow me, or don’t. Judgement, in John’s Gospel, is not about punishment or eternal damnation – judgement is about making a choice here and now. Jesus reveals himself – by signs, by confession, by the witness of others – and expects everyone who experiences the revelation to decide whether or not to believe in him.

Here, among the Pharisees who are plotting his destruction, Jesus is offering an alternative. He is revealing himself for who he is – the Son of God, the Light of the World – and inviting them to believe and follow him.

The problem is, in order to believe and follow, these Pharisees have to admit that they are wrong. They have to confess that what they are doing right this minute – testing and plotting against Jesus – is misguided, hateful and full of sin. They have to allow their own darkness to be illuminated, to be honest about who they are and what they need, where they’ve failed and what needs to change.

Jesus is the light of the world – and that means that in him, everything gets revealed, uncovered, illuminated. Dishonesty and hatefulness don’t stand a chance, since they thrive in secret and there is nowhere unknown to Jesus.

Jesus being the light of the world doesn’t mean that the darkness doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean that the darkness is bad. It means that in him, the truth of what is is made clear. It means that in him, all our own failings and faults are brought to bear, uncovered for what they are, extricated from the pool of shame and guilt, exposed to the illuminating light of grace, forgiven and transformed.

The Pharisees could not bear the intensity. In the moment of recognition, when they encounter Jesus for who he is, they cannot muster the courage to respond with belief. They can’t overcome their own guilt and shame and anger in order to follow him into the light of vulnerable truth telling.


In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg experiences one of these crisis moments. She discovers the hidden shame and anger in herself and is forced to confront it one way or another. Toward the end of the book, after she and her father and Calvin have tessered off Camazotz, they realize that Charles Wallace has been left behind – and, worse, he is under the spell of the Dark Thing. Meg herself is still in the frozen state from going through the Darkness, and she is so angry she cannot stand it:

She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Dark Thing pushed her down into hate. ‘You don’t even know where we are!’ she cried out at her father. ‘We’ll never see Mother or the twins again! We don’t know where earth is! Or even where Camazotz is! We’re lost out in space! What are you going to DO?!’ She did not realize that she was as much in the power of the Dark Thing as Charles Wallace.”

In the book, Meg manages to come to see her own anger and disappointment for what it is. She acknowledges, eventually, that she is wrong. She apologizes to her father. And she decides to accept that there is more to do and that she is the one who has to do it.


If Jesus is the light of the world, what does that mean for us?

What in our own lives do we need to have illuminated? Where are we screaming and stomping our feet, like Meg, or refusing to confess or admit, like the Pharisees?

What would it be like to allow our whole lives, our whole selves, to be illuminated in the love of Jesus, the light of the world?

And what keeps us from it?

God refuses to be kept out of the dark spaces of our lives. The darkness exists, continues to persist, in our own lives and in the life of the world. But the light shines in the darkness, illuminating all that wants to stay hidden, and the darkness – the secret and the shame – does not overcome it.


(On Sunday, we welcomed guest musicians Chris and Jenna Horgan in worship, and this was the final hymn that they taught and led us in – a perfect response, confession, and offering):

against economies of loss & waste

Sermon 2-18-18

John 6

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Last Saturday, fifteen of us worked for a couple of hours at the Food Bank in Durham. We helped to process gigantic pallets of onions, onions that had been donated by a grocery store because they didn’t meet the standards to be sold on their floors. But the onions weren’t all bad, and with a couple of hours’ worth of work, we managed to salvage over 4,000 pounds of them that the Food Bank will distribute to our hungry neighbors across 34 counties in North Carolina.

What strikes me every time we go to the Food Bank is the tonnage of good food that would go to waste if not for the Food Bank and its volunteers.

This is a direct result of the way our food system works in America – a system that relies on corporations, cross-country transportation and far too few local and sustainable farmers and artisans. Our food systems are built to withstand a certain percentage of waste – the calculations of supermarkets and producers are created with waste included and expected. The USDA reports that between 30-40 PERCENT of the food supply ends up as food WASTE.

Our systems are built to expect and account for this. And the systems don’t just expect and tolerate loss of material goods – they tolerate and expect loss of human life. Our food systems leave 40 million Americans unsure about where their next meal is coming from. That’s 13% of our population, and it includes 13 million children. We have plenty of food – we just can’t figure out how to share it in a way that values people over profit.


In our text for today, Jesus declares “I am the bread of life.”

During the season of Lent, we’re going to spend some time with Jesus’ declarations about who and what he is. In the Gospel of John, Jesus utters seven of these “I am” statements – that is, seven statements that have a predicate nominative – or a thing or image that comes after the verb.

We’ve been hanging out with Jesus in the Gospel of John for the last few weeks – hearing about how he called the disciples, how he turned water to wine at a wedding, turned over tables in the temple, met with leaders of the Jews in the middle of the night and went out of his way to encounter a single Samaritan woman in the middle of enemy territory.

We’ve learned a lot about who Jesus is in the Gospel of John. But over these next few weeks, as we walk through the season of Lent and anticipate Jesus’ final days – the last meal with his disciples, his trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection – we’re going to dive into the ways that Jesus defined himself, the ways that he talked about who and what he is.

My hope is that as we explore these “I am” statements, we’ll find ourselves ushered into a new kind of relationship with Jesus, the one who deeply desires to be in relationship with us.

Today’s clue about who Jesus is comes just after the story of feeding the five thousand.

This is the only story about Jesus that occurs in all four of the gospels. Mark and Matthew and Luke all tell this story, too, but there are a couple of differences in the way that John tells it.

You know the story:

Jesus has been traveling across the region, teaching and preaching. He’s just sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and a big crowd is following him, now. Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples – we assume that he’s looking for a bit of rest or respite, after long days of travel and preaching. But the crowd has followed him – a large crowd. He turns to Philip and asks, “Good grief! Where are we supposed to go to buy bread for all these people?!” Philip sighs, and says “Oh, Jesus, six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to buy food to feed this many people!” Andrew, having surveyed the crowd earlier, pipes up: “There is a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish. Maybe we could do something with that. But that’ll feed, like, maybe 20 folks and we’ve got thousands here.”

Jesus tells them, “Make everybody sit down, and give me the loaves.” He blessed them, giving thanks to God, and then Jesus himself started handing out lunch to every one of the five thousand people who had gathered. He did the same thing with the fish and people ate until they were full.

When everyone had eaten their fill, Jesus told his disciples: “No, go gather up whatever’s left – all the leftovers. Keep every last crumb so that we don’t lose anything.” They obeyed him, and they had twelve baskets of leftovers.

What’s different about John’s version – as opposed to all the other writers telling this same story – is that the disciples don’t distribute the food. Jesus himself take it, blesses it, and then goes through the crowd himself, offering men and women and children the basket of bread and the packet of fish. Jesus himself looks each person in the eye and gives them what they need.

After the feeding, Jesus recognizes that the crowd is sort of worked up into a furor and wants to kidnap him and force him to be their king, so he sneaks out to the boat with his disciples and crosses to the other side of the sea.

In the morning, the crowd, distraught that he has left them, sails across the sea to find him. They do, of course, and badger him with questions: “Why did you leave? How can we do these kinds of miracles that you do? What sign will you give us so we can believe that you’re telling the truth? Moses gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness, remember?”

Jesus looks at this crowd, desperate to believe him, to believe in him and to live with him, and he says “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven – it is my Father who gives true bread from heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Yes,” they said, “give us this bread always!”

And here it comes – Jesus says,

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

You hear what Jesus is saying: the manna in the wilderness was a harbinger, a taste, an example of what God will do to sustain and nourish God’s people. Jesus is saying: I am the manna. I AM the bread from heaven. God is sending ME here to feed you, to nourish you, to save you when you find yourself hungry and lost. I am here to do God’s will – and God’s will is that I “should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”


A mosaic in a church in Tabgha, Israel

In this food system – this divine system of feeding and being fed, growing and producing and distribution – there is no waste. Nothing is lost. No crumb of goodness is left behind. In the system of God’s Kingdom, there’s no built in calculation for loss, waste, or write-offs. In this system, every single thing is accounted for – every single person, every single relationship, every single interaction. It all counts. Nothing is lost. Every last crumb will be recovered and raised up.

And, more than that – the food is good food. The people there with Jesus ate until they were full. There is plenty, and it is good, healthy, nourishing. Jesus says that “whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” This food system that Jesus is describing does not produce junk. It doesn’t load people up with sugar and carbs and send them on their way, only to crash from lack of protein in an hour. This is food that satisfies, that fills, that perpetually sates what can feel like an inexhaustible hunger.


Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life does mean that a spiritual relationship with him will be the most nourishing thing we can encounter. It does mean that, just like bread nourishes our bodies, his love nourishes our souls. It IS about the spiritual reality of being human beings in relationship with a God we cannot see or hear, but whose love feeds our hungry souls.

But Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life also means that he is invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all people, the eradication of hunger, the practices of feeding everyone, even when that seems nearly impossible. And I think, in our encounter with this kind of Jesus, we are encouraged to be those kinds of people, too.

Jesus is inviting us into a relationship with him. He is telling the crowd gathered there and he is telling us that in the economy of God’s new order, we will be fed until we are no longer hungry with the gift of relationship in Christ. He is assuring us that this reality, this relationship, will keep us, will grow us, will nourish and sustain us.

And Jesus is also inviting us to be people who are invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all; people who are deeply covenanted to a relationship with this Messiah will be people who are deeply interested in feeding the hungry.

I think, in our context, that might mean working at the food bank to ensure that thousands of pounds of onions aren’t thrown out. It might mean adjusting our own cooking and eating habits to keep fewer of the billions of pounds of American food from ending up in the trash. It might also mean working for an entirely new food system that refuses to tolerate loss and waste – of food AND of human life.

This week, I can’t help but wonder what God’s economy means in the wake of yet another loss of multiple lives to an attack with an assault rifle. Jesus tells us in this passage that he is the bread of life, that he has been sent to do the will of the Father, and that the Father’s will is that nothing will be left behind, nothing will be lost, that there will be no waste and no tolerance for systems that operate based on a huge tolerance for loss.

Our economies in America assume, account for, and become callous to a certain level of waste and loss – 30 percent of our food ends up in the trash and we walk on by and assume that is the way it has to be. Seventeen people are murdered with an assault rifle and we move on to the next news article because we assume that is the way of the world if we want to remain free.

Jesus teaches us that there is a system, an economy, a kingdom where we do not have to tolerate this kind of loss. Jesus gathers up every crumb, produces abundance from even the scarcest bit of bread and fish, and preaches to us that God does not tolerate allowing resources or people to be lost in the careless ways we do.

How can we follow Jesus into these ways of abundance and reclamation? How can we work for systems and economies that refuse to tolerate loss as collateral damage? How can we become people of God’s peace, people who declare that there is a way for all – ALL – to live abundantly?

that time Jesus broke Billy Graham’s rule

Sermon 2-11-18

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

John 4

The story of the woman at the well doesn’t make sense without the story that comes right before it – the story of Nicodemus. This woman – unnamed though she is – becomes a powerful figure in Jesus’ ministry. She is the first evangelist beyond Jesus’ own disciples, proclaiming her belief loudly to all her friends and neighbors, inviting them to “come and see” this Messiah for themselves.

This fact – that a nameless Samaritan woman becomes the first preacher for Jesus – is utterly and completely absurd. To our modern ears, ears who’ve heard the story over and over, it might not seem that way at first glance, but for John’s first hearers, this plot twist wouldn’t just be strange – it would be essentially impossible.

The story that would have made sense – that makes more sense to us, even – is that Nicodemus, teacher, pharisee and leader of the Jews – would have become an ally for Jesus. He knew the scriptures, he saw the signs, he suspected that Jesus was the Messiah and he was set up as a person of power and influence in the community. It makes sense that the leaders of the Jews, the people from whom Jesus came, the ones schooled and versed in God’s relationship with God’s people, the ones who knew the long salvation history and spent their days praying and sacrificing in service of God’s presence with God’s people would be the ones to recognize Jesus for who he really was, to support him and advocate for him, to become his allies and his evangelists.

But that is not how things play out. Nicodemus can’t manage to bring his suspicions to bear in the real world. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, stutteringly asks about his suspicions, has them confirmed but then retreats back to his power and his privilege, living out the rest of his days with this knowledge of major missed opportunity.

Things do not happen the way they should happen.

Instead, immediately after Jesus preaches the gospel of eternal life to Nicodemus, he sets out for Galilee. The text tells us that “he had to go through Samaria,” which makes no logical sense. Samaria is situated right in between Judea and Galilee along the Jordan River, but Jesus wouldn’t have needed to wander through the countryside, as the text here implies – he would have taken the road by the river, a straight shot that barely grazes the Samaritan territory. Still, for some reason, Jesus decides to wander his way north through the Samaritan countryside.

This is not just an odd decision – it’s a dangerous one. Jews and Samaritans are enemies. They’re both descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they both worship the same God, but they have serious theological disagreements about how that worship was supposed to happen. The Jews worship, remember, in the temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans didn’t buy into the primacy of the temple worship and centered their worship on Mt. Gerazim. This divide between the Jews and the Samaritans was not a new one – it went back generations and generations, such that the Jews thought of the Samaritans not only as outsiders, but as idolators.

Jesus is intentionally detouring through enemy territory. Why?

As they make their way through Samaria, Jesus and his disciples become weary. They stop, by a well near a city called Sychar, and Jesus sits down to rest while his disciples continue on into town to find dinner for them all. While he rests, a woman approaches the well, carrying two huge buckets. It’s mid-day, not the usual time for women to be drawing water from the well – they would have come early in the morning and early in the evening, two taxing trips each day, women’s work to keep the households running. Why is this woman here in the middle of the day?

It could be that her household ran out of water early that day and she, the woman with the least status in the house, drew the short straw for the hot lunchtime trip. It could be that she was not on good terms with the other women of the village and chose to make her trips when she wouldn’t have to endure their sarcasm and insults about her life (she’d been widowed over and over, and had now ended up living in her last husband’s brother’s household, a last resort for a woman without husband or sons to care for her, but not, as we so often hear, the equivalent of “shacking up.” This woman has endured loss after loss and she has sought the only shelter and protection available to her by law – levirate marriage, which required a man’s brother to take in his wife and children when he died.)

Whatever her reasons, this woman shows up to draw water from the well, and Jesus is there. This is…awkward. Have you ever heard of the Billy Graham rule? It got a lot of publicity last year because our Vice President subscribes to the practice – basically, because of his theological understanding of gender, Billy Graham vowed never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. There are allllllllll kinds of problems with this practice, not least of which includes the assumption that any adult woman is a threat to a man’s marriage and integrity simply by existing, but the rule is helpful to understand how awkward Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well would have been.

Jews would have practiced an INTENSE form of the Billy Graham rule. Women and men who were not married would NEVER have been in conversation with one another at some isolated place like this well outside the city. The Samaritan woman meeting with Jesus at the well is the equivalent of Billy Graham finding himself in a private hotel room with a strange woman he’s never met before. This would have been considered beyond scandalous, beyond accidental – this was forbidden.

And we haven’t even gotten to the mortal enemy part of the situation. Not only was this situation all sorts of wrong, it was also dangerous. Jesus wasn’t just a man alone at a well, he was a JEWISH man. The Samaritan woman knew that Jews did not speak with Samaritans (remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Priests, rabbis and community leaders simply refused to acknowledge the existence of a Jew on the side of the road.) Jews and Samaritans DID NOT INTERACT.

If we want to stick with the Billy Graham example, this meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well would be something close to the equivalent of Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, who confirmed last year that he follows his father’s rule about never being alone with women who are not his wife and who has also been loud and persistent about his opinion that Muslims are “infidels,” “followers of a very wicked and evil religion,” “controlled by fear and intimidation” out to “behead, rape and murder in the name of God” finding himself alone in a private hotel room with a Muslim woman draped in hijab.

Except Jesus didn’t “find himself” in this very awkward, scandalous situation – he deliberately put himself here. He chose to meander through Samaria, which he knew to be dangerous enemy territory. He chose to stay behind, alone at the well while his disciples went into town. He chose to speak to the woman, asking her to draw him a drink. When she questions him (“uh, really? You’re a Jew and you want ME, a single Samaritan woman, to get you a drink? Isn’t that kind of…inappropriate?”), Jesus chooses to engage her further. He insists that he does mean to talk to her, that he knows every reason why it should be forbidden, and that he is choosing, even so, to engage her.

And engage her, he does. (Actually, that verb choice is not unintentional. The well was a site of betrothal – it functions in this text as a symbol of intimacy and relationship. Jesus having this personal conversation with a strange, single, Samaritan woman at the well, a place where deep relationships are cemented and commemorated, is full of meaning and implication. This woman, he will tell her later in the conversation, has been married five times, and is now unmarried, living in her brother-in-law’s household, in need of protection and family, in need of a source of water that will never run dry, never leave her or forsake her. Jesus offers her exactly this.)


From a 12th century illuminated Gospel of John

They have a deep, theological conversation. This is important: this nameless, single, cast-off woman not only responds to Jesus’ inquiry: she critiques him. She asks him theological questions. She engages with him deeply. She is a full participant in this scene, with autonomy and agency. And that’s important, because her response to Jesus is going to require some serious action.

While they are still talking, Jesus’ disciples return from grabbing dinner in the city. They are…not amused to find him talking so intimately with this strange Samaritan woman. The text says that they were “astonished,” but, having learned that Jesus was one to keep them on their toes, none of them questioned him or her. She picked up her water jugs and went home. And that’s when she becomes the first evangelist: when she gets home, she tells everyone she sees – “Come and SEE! I’m pretty sure this guy is the Messiah!”

And, wonder of wonders, all her neighbors heard her and believed her. This woman, remember, had the least status in the neighborhood. She was an unmarried, quintupally widowed and/or divorced woman with no sons, living on the charity of her brother in law, making her trips to the well in the middle of the day’s heat to avoid interacting with all the other women who would make fun of her, but when she comes back so full of excitement and transformation – they can hear it in her voice – they not only believe what she’s saying, never mind that the man she’s talking about is a stranger, a Jew, and a dude who has obviously broken all kinds of boundaries to talk to her, they accept her invitation.

They go out to the well to meet Jesus for themselves. They’re so compelled that they invite him into their town to stay, and he spends several days and several nights there. When he leaves, they all go to the woman who invited them in the first place and they say to her, “It’s not that we didn’t believe you – we really did – but then we MET the guy, and saw him for ourselves, and we’re convinced that he IS the Messiah.”

And there it is – this woman, this single, cast-aside, no-status, Samaritan woman – becomes the first evangelist, the first person to invite others into relationship – deep, intimate, transformative relationship – with Jesus Christ.

It was not Nicodemus. The first evangelist, the first sharer of the gospel, was not the high status preacher with plenty of power and concern for appearance. The first evangelist in John’s gospel is this woman – the one who ought not have been talking with Jesus in the first place, the one whose existence should never have come into contact with his.

And yet, Jesus went out of his way to encounter her, to engage her, to assure her that she was just as worthy and important in this new kingdom full of springs of living water as any other human being. Jesus’ message that God has sent him for the entire world is coming to bear in this story: he is the Messiah not just for the Jews, and not just for the powerful or the learned or the ones from good families; he is the Messiah for the entire world. And in this new world, where this Messiah reigns, it is the least likely people from the least likely places who get to become co-workers, co-creators, evangelists and disciples. It is the people we least expect who are the ones bearing good news, inviting friends and enemies into encountering Jesus, sharing the invitation to come and see as far and wide as their voices can carry.

So, who is it that is inviting you to come and see, recently? Are you paying attention to the right people, the right places, the right voices? Are you dismissing the invitation because it hasn’t come from a place that is fully vetted or credentialed? Jesus does not care about those things – in fact, when the credentialed, vetted leaders show up in his story, they are unable to bear the gospel very far at all. In this story, the invitation to encounter Jesus comes from the very least likely place. What is that for us, for you? Where should we be focusing our gaze and opening our ears?

If we learn much from this story, it might be that listening to the church leaders is not a great strategy for encountering Jesus – at least, if our church leaders are, like Nicodemus, too caught up in appearances and so-called “integrity” to proclaim the good news. Instead, we might consider turning up the volume on the witness of those on the margins, the ones who have deep, intimate relationships with Jesus, who have no compulsions about sharing it, who are not worried about being seen in a “compromising” situation because they are so compelled by Jesus’ existence that they cannot help but stick close to him, whatever the cost.

what exile feels like

Sermon 10-8-17

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

God’s people are really having a tough time of it. They’ve been promised a land of their own, but that land keeps getting annexed, conquered, claimed through eminent domain, tossed from one Empire to another.

Last week, remember, Isaiah was warning King Ahaz about the dangers of allying his kingdom with the Assyrian Empire. Ahaz, of course, didn’t listen, and God’s people came under the thumb of Assyria. Not so many years later, Assyria was defeated by the Babylonian empire, and the Jews were handed off as part of the spoils. The Babylonians definitely didn’t honor any of the Assyrian agreements about the Jews being able to remain on their land and be semi-autonomous in their own government. No, the Babylonians didn’t want anything to do with God’s people. They kicked them out.

Jeremiah had been a prophet in Israel for years, and he’d been warning the leaders of God’s people that this was coming. Jeremiah wasn’t very popular – who wants to hear that they’ll be defeated by yet *another* world power or that they’ll be summarily removed from their homeland? Jeremiah got ridiculed, ostracized, imprisoned and ignored. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

But you know how it goes with God’s prophets: even if no one listens to them, their prophecies tend to ring true eventually. When the Babylonians finally took over, they deported all the Israelites from Jerusalem and into other parts of the empire. The deportations happened in three waves: 597 BC, 587 and 582. Jeremiah, in today’s reading, is writing to the first exiles – the elders, priests, prophets and people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, and sending word to his neighbors who are not.


I don’t know about you, but when I try to put myself in the position of those exiled Israelites, the kind of letter I’d want from home wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of letter that Jeremiah sends.

And, to be honest, it is difficult for me to put myself in the position of the exiled Israelites. I have only ever left my home as a result of my own, autonomous decision. Some of those decisions were easier than others, but I have never been forced from my home. I understand, intellectually, that this is a privileged sort of existence in this day and age.

But I know – and so you do – sisters and brothers who HAVE been forced from their homes. If we stop for just a minute and think about folks we know who might have vivid experiences of physical, geographic exile, the list could grow very, very long:

  • I think of the S. Family – the refugee family from Syria (one of many new neighbors) that I had the joy of getting to know earlier this year, forced from their home and their country because of civil war;
  • I think of Gloria M., the Nigerian girl from Chibok who was abducted from her classroom by Boko Haram fighters in 2014, who this congregation spent years praying for, and whose return we had the privilege of celebrating this spring.
  • I think of Wildin Acosta, who I heard speak at a DCIA event a few months ago, a young man who graduated from Riverside High School here in Durham after spending nearly a year in a Georgia immigration detention center, who has been fighting deportation to Honduras, a place he fled because he was a target of the M-13 gangs there. This week, his case has been continued until December.
  • I think of Eliseo Jimenez, whose family entered sanctuary this week – voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside the Umstead Park UCC church in Raleigh in order to avoid deportation while their immigration status makes its way through the courts, a family that has been chased from one home already and is desperate not to be deported from this one.
  • I think of sisters and brothers in Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, forced from their homes after this season’s hurricanes destroyed houses and towns.

Who else do you know who has experienced the physical, geographic reality of exile?

Even if we ourselves have never been forced from our homes, we know people who have been. We can imagine what it might feel like. We know people. We love people. We empathize with and live among people. I also think that even if we have never been physically removed from our homes, we might still know what exile feels like. I was part of a women’s retreat several years ago where we considered this question: when have we felt exiled?

The responses to that question were really powerful. There were women in the group who had been forced, physically, from their homes. One woman shared that she had been living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and even now, over a decade later, she could still feel the depth of that loss and terror and trauma.

But others in the group connected those emotions to experiences of exile that were not quite so physical or geographical: One woman talked about what it felt like to have both of her parents pass away in the same year. Another shared about the way her life’s journey had led to her to a place that was very different politically and theologically than her family of origin, and how she felt so far away from the people that raised her. And another woman shared about how, when she told her church that she had had an abortion when she was young, they shamed her, condemned her, and excluded her from the community.

We are gifted with imagination, compassion and empathy, so even if we have never been forcibly removed from our own homes, we can begin to develop a compassionate imagination for what that kind of loss might feel like. We might not have known exile, but we have felt the tips of the tentacles of emotion that being cast out, ostracized, and exiled might call up. We can begin to imagine what sort of care and compassion we would long for. We can begin.

When I try to do this, to summon up all my own small experiences of “exile” and attempt to put myself in the place of the Israelites who have been deported from the only home they’ve ever known, it seems pretty clear what kind of compassion and sympathy I would want from the people around me.

I would want to scream and rage and cry and then wrap myself up in a cozy blanket, close my eyes and fall asleep until the nightmare was over. I would want people to agree with me that this would be the best option, and bring me another pillow to keep my neck from seizing up while I slept.

But that’s me. Maybe you are calibrated differently, and your response would be something else. Maybe you would want to scream and rage and cry and then fight with all your gathered resources to change the situation. Maybe you would mount an army and instigate a revolt against the people who forced you from your home. Maybe you would be driven to swift and immediate retaliatory action.

But neither of these responses are included in Jeremiah’s letter of “comfort” and instruction to his fellow Israelites exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah does not write a letter telling the exiled Israelites to huddle up and wait it out, and he does not write a letter endorsing forcible resistance to the enemy powers.

What Jeremiah writes is, I imagine, a rather unwelcome note to those exiled Israelites.

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah says: unpack your bags. Settle in. Get used to this place, to this feeling. Your don’t have to despair, and you don’t have to revolt. Your response can be something else: your response can be to LIVE, to flourish, to build and plant and marry and celebrate. You can live HERE, too.

And I don’t know about you, but that advice would be pretty hard for me to swallow. Trauma is exhausting. It takes time to process, to feel, to move through. Getting out of bed, planting a garden and building a new house would NOT be on my initial to-do list. Jeremiah’s letter with instructions for the exiles feels like…stage 2. Maybe a very distant stage 2.

And some of the exiles never made it there. They didn’t all heed Jeremiah’s advice. Some of them refused. Some of them fled – to Egypt, of all places, where their ancestors had escaped slavery so many years ago – and they took Jeremiah with them.

But others stayed. They built houses, planted gardens, celebrated wedding feasts and the births of new babies. I imagine that those practices of tilling soil and hewing boards and baking cakes and soothing infants were what enabled the Israelites to heed Jeremiah’s continued instructions:

Because Jeremiah doesn’t stop at this insistence on picking back up and living life as if they were at home. Jeremiah also insists that part of life as God’s people – even as God’s people in exile – is also to “seek the welfare of the city where you are; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will you find your welfare.”

The Israelites, driven from their homes and their families and what they understand as the land that God has always promised them are instructed not only to keep living and breathing and celebrating life, but also to get engaged with their community. Jeremiah instructs them to seek the welfare of the city – THIS city, the one they probably hate, the one they did not choose, the one they have been forced into. Jeremiah instructs them to pray to God – the God of Israel, the God they thought they could only know in Jerusalem where the temple was and the priests were making sacrifices and all their ancestral history resided – to pray to God for THIS hateful, unfamiliar place.

If planting a garden is Step 2 in Jeremiah’s trauma healing process, helpful after the initial grief and processing, THIS – to embrace the current circumstances in such a way that the exiled Israelites would even become good Babylonian citizens, productive members of Babylonian society, good neighbors and co-workers and praying even for these people that conquered them and removed them from their land and cast them out of the one place that they had been certain they could worship God in the way that God wanted…that feels like Step Number 539. But Jeremiah says that this is Step #3.

Here, in Jeremiah’s Trauma Healing Program, there are 3 steps:

  1. Move.
  2. Plant/Build/Celebrate/Live.
  3. Pray for THIS place.

God’s promise has not been forfeited. Jeremiah goes on, in the next few verses, to assure the Israelites that God is still planning to gather them all back together. These are familiar verses for us, ones we trot out whenever we are uncertain about the direction of our own lives, ones that we have probably unwittingly made trite with the lack of context. You know these verses:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Yes, God says, I have plans. They are revolutionary plans, plans for your good, plans for a future that is full of hope. You are exiled and dispersed now, but I will bring all of you back home. That will happen. Trust that it will.


It probably won’t happen in your lifetime. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” God says. This exile is going to last a long time. The hope of my promise of return is not an immediate thing – this is a long, slow-burn of a promise. Your children’s children may be the ones who get to return home. It probably won’t be you.

That’s some cold “comfort” for exiles, for people who’ve been uprooted from all they’ve known and all they trusted.

But then, when I think about those sisters and brothers we’ve named who are experiencing exile, who are living this ancient reality in real time, I realize that Jeremiah’s wisdom is…not worthless.

The S. Family, the Syrian refugees I got to know last spring, are learning English: painstakingly, slowly, with great difficulty. It is necessary, yes, to survive here in America, but the language is also a way for them to build their home here. Z, the father of the family, probably won’t ever be fluent. The alphabet is too foreign, his life has been filled with too much trauma. He is, rightly, more worried about getting a job than mastering English grammar. He won’t ever be fully integrated into this new country of his. But A, his son, translated every word I said. He’d been in the US for three months.

I don’t know much about Gloria M’s family in particular, but I do know that her church family in Nigeria has lost 70% of its buildings and over 700,000 of our sisters and brothers have been displaced by the violence of Boko Haram. And I know that those same exiled people have worked tirelessly to build new homes, new churches, to plant gardens and celebrate the birth of new babies – even those babies fathered by Boko Haram fighters. This has not been easy. It is not intuitive. But Jeremiah’s word to the exiles – to find a way to LIVE in this foreign place – is coming alive.

You’ve witnessed the resiliency and doggedness of friends and family who’ve been cast out decided to LIVE, even in exile. You know what it looks like.

What does it look like for us? Where, in your own life, are you experiencing the beginnings of that experience of exile? What relationship or situation or place in your own life feels a little like exile? And then, what is it that you can do in that situation, that relationship, to build, to plant, to celebrate, to live as if this strange, unknown, unpleasant and unfamiliar place were actually home?

And if you aren’t feeling or being exiled right now, what is it that you can do to enable someone else to do this hard work for themselves? How can you be a supportive neighbor? Can you offer a garden plot, some building supplies, the raw materials a sister or brother needs to make some strange new place into a home? Can you attend the party, help them celebrate or pray alongside them for this place – THIS place, where our welfare is bound up together?

God is gathering us, all of us, back together. May we open our eyes and our hearts to witness to the truth of it. Amen.