Saturday, February 24, 2018

Carrying Our Cross Alongside Those Denied of Themselves: Discipleship in a Despairing World

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). 
I have read and preached on numerous occasions about Jesus’ invitation to cross-carrying discipleship. Yet when I recently wrestled with these words in the safe and comfortable confines of my local coffee shop, I paused. I have never been threatened with the fate of a cross. The ancient Roman symbol of criminality and treason has not been hoisted upon my shoulders or public record for any reason, let alone my faith. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made marginal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. Even my choice to participate in occasional activism has been a free decision with minimal consequence. My story of discipleship encounters little resistance from outside authorities and is framed by privilege not persecution, which occasionally creates dissonance when I read Jesus’ words.
For most in the Western world, this is our story. We do well to acknowledge such positions of assumed comfort, especially as we pray for and become more aware of those for whom the cross is more than a devotional exercise but a daily burden carried as it intersects with the their race, orientation, economic class, the laws of the land, and encounters with oppressive systems in this nation and those abroad. Their voices and witnesses must be elevated as those most credible to speak to the depths of discipleship.
But my privilege is not the end of my struggle with Sunday’s gospel narrative. I also wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ invitation to the denial of ourselves as a prescriptive measure for discipleship.
Since the beginning of Lent, my newsfeeds have been dominated by stories of young people rallying around the country in light of the horrific events that unfolded on Ash Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They are calling attention to how, in light of yet another mass shooting that has claimed the lives of our youngest citizens, they are regularly denied the very protection and security of themselves. While adults spin wheels in partisan debates about gun laws and how to make their schools safe and secure versus domestic war zones, youth are taking to streets and microphones to demand immediate action that improves their condition and eases their plight right now. I lament that grown-ups have made it so youth feel the need to act as their own advocates, but I am grateful they are doing just that. They refuse to be denied themselves and their right to life. We would do well to join their cause. 
The same could be said of those most marginalized by pervasive and systemic racism, women whose stories trended the #MeToo movement and underscored the reality of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse, and others most susceptible to pipelines to prison that exploit young people of color in ghettoized communities that lack access to necessities like grocery stores, clean water, and quality education. Their very selves are being denied and their cries for a more just society frequently become exploited as pawns in abstract rhetorical games.
Again I hear Jesus and pause, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I then wonder, what does it mean to deny ourselves and follow Jesus when so many have had their selves denied not as a mark of discipleship but as victims of a broken, divisive, violent, and wounded world?
One answer may lie in our willingness to embrace the call of Christ to deny anything that isolates us from the concerns of or increases the risk of harm to our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, we walk, possibly even march, alongside any and all whose selves are being denied. We do so no matter the cost to our personal well-being or the life of our institutions, preferring the divine thing of steadfast commitment to God’s concern for those on the margins over human things of privilege, power, insulated self-interest, and right to bear arms (Mark 8:33). This is the bedrock of Jesus’ words and witness that we are neither to be ashamed of nor deny in the midst of this “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38).
Over the last three years of my call to serve alongside the faithful of this Presbytery of Philadelphia, I have been deeply moved by the cross-bearing, self-denying witnesses of our churches and related ministries. Congregations and worshipping communities have constructed T-Shirt memorials for victims of gun violence, attended judicial hearings for detained immigrants, provided hospitality for refugees, and written grants for mural projects created alongside artists previously incarcerated who work collectively towards restorative justice and the reform of the prison system. There are faithful saints who developed programs to provide nutrition for children in at-risk and neglected urban neighborhoods and other congregations partnered with local agencies to combat the opioid epidemic that continues to deny their neighbors wholeness and health. In all of these faithful expressions and more, isolated categories of conservative or progressive have been cast aside and minds set not on human things but the words of Christ, who was always on the side of the marginalized and oppressed.
As we continue to move through this Lenten journey, which began with an all-too-familiar reminder of the brokenness of the human and social condition, may we ponder what it means for us to deny ourselves for the sake of all those whose selves are being denied. May we continue to listen to the cries and concerns of our neighbors, especially the youngest disciples among us, in efforts to imagine how Jesus is inviting us to carry crosses either alongside or on their behalf. May we cling to and fix our minds on the words and witness of Christ versus any other human thing, to include partisan agendas. In so doing, may our discipleship begin to bear fruit of solidarity and hope in even the darkest and most despairing of places, no matter the cost.

*This post originally written for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Artwork by Betsi Moise. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place: Modern Psalms for Lent 2018

Each year I develop a soundtrack for Lent titled, Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey.  Usually they are weekly songs from varied contemporary artists, which I post here and pair with a biblical text. This year, I may only need a single album. 

“The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place,” by Explosions in the Sky.*

Purely an instrumental album, each piece moves between haunting and hopeful, mysterious and soul stirring. Even the track titles bear a sacred significance, seemingly liturgical in label. 

And the best part, there are no words. Because the condition of the world in the twenty-first century is in need of something more than lyrics and nuanced rhetoric. Words serve a place, especially when put to paper in efforts to organize communities, draft legislation, lobby for signatures, cry out in prayer, and call neighbors near and far to action on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors. But our words are not enough, we need another kind of rhythm to move our souls and bodies, to link arms for causes that demand safety in our schools, enhanced legislation related to the reduction of access to firearms, fair economics, disrupted pipelines to prison, dismantled systems and institutions fueled by racism, universal provision of healthcare, gender equality, hospitality extended to immigrants and refugees, the end of sexual assault and harassment- especially in the workplace, and the stymying of wars started and sustained to pad the pockets of the 1%. 

The list could go on and on related to aspirations for social jubilee…but that’s where I put on this album to center my spirit and imagination, to draw me into the Lenten story for the next 40 days. It forces me to move beyond the limits of language and towards something and Someone completely Other. Still more, I am reminded that amidst all that is wrong with the world- and there is so much that is so very wrong- this planet is still that which God so loves. So it cannot be purely a cold, dead place. There is beauty to be found if we have the eyes to see and the ears to ear. And this beauty just may be the Spirit’s nudging us to press on in our work and witness as those called out of dust and towards resurrection hope. 

Paralleled Biblical Text for this Album: Genesis 1 (The Full Creation Story)

*I first discovered this album as a part of Rob Bell’s interview of a former seminary classmate of mine, Caleb Wilde, who wrote a book, Confessions of a Funeral Director. A collection of anecdotes that explores the sacred amidst death and dying, this book also makes for a great Lenten read. The podcast is fantastic, too. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Can Anything Good Come From ______? (What I Would Preach This Sunday)

The lectionary strikes again. 

As if we needed another affirmation that the Spirit is always a step ahead of the foolishness of the powers that be and the chaos we create as a civilization, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson ponders the possibility of goodness, even the incarnation of God, coming from a place written off by prejudice and ignorance. 


“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

This is the knee jerk response of Nathaniel, one of the earliest disciples. Nathaniel was a fervent student of the Hebrew Scriptures and was waiting for God to act in a definitive way. When he finds out God has indeed acted and in a place like Nazareth, he dismisses the possibility. He reduces Nazareth and the people who call the place home to less than capable of bearing the fullness of the image of God. 

It would be an overreach to make a direct parallel to Thursday's comments made by the president in the midst of bipartisan immigration talks, equating countries throughout the continent of Africa and Haiti as a $#!^hole. Frankly, there are few comparisons to this sort of insensitivity, bigotry, bravado, and ethnocentric and racial hate. There is no place for this kind of rhetoric, let alone the White House. The remarks of 45 presumes the absence of goodness in parts of the world and among beautiful people who have been making brilliant contributions in all aspects of human life for much longer than the United States. Lest we forget, this nation was (forcefully and oppressively) built on the backs of those from the very parts of the world targeted by these slanderous remarks. 

If any nation’s present and past would be worthy of comparison to fecal depositories...

But I digress. 

The very incarnation of Christ, especially in a place like Nazareth and in the region of Galilee, is yet another attestation to God’s preferential option for those on the margins. It could be said, God has a fondness for those who live in cities and neighborhoods, rural communities and distant nations who have been written off as $#!^holes. Even more, God putting on the skin of one from Nazareth affirms the goodness of the bodies, culture, and heritage of those Nathaniel (or anyone) initiailly deemed unworthy.  

I have always wondered about the real relationship of Nathaniel with Nazareth and its residents. Had he been there? Did he know anyone, as in genuine human interactions with, those who called that northern part of Israel home? Was his opinion rooted in a real experience or merely perpetuations of racial-ethnic stereotypes? I wonder because Philip’s response to his minimization is, “come and see.”

What I have loved about the fall out from the president’s bigotry has been the way both ordinary citizens and those in the media have elevated their relationship with individuals from both African nations and Haiti. Instead of retaliating with varied metaphors aimed at the one who spoke such repulsive words, many have spent their energies to elevate the dignity of their Haitian and African neighbors, friends, spouses, children, community leaders, educators, artists, and activists who trump $#!^hole status. I could add my own personal anecdotes to these litanies of friendship and love, which mirror Philip as they invite us to come and see the goodness and wholeness in those slandered and shamed. 

It is a twist of irony that these words were spoken on the cusp of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, this being fifty years after his assassination. As if we needed another reminder, the dream has yet to be fulfilled and much work is still to be done as it pertains to dismantling the divisiveness of our nation and stymie hatred that still occupies prime seats at tables of power and privilege. 

And so our call, in such a time as this as with every age, is to be Philip. We are to be those who invite others, especially our children, to come and see the alternative we know to be true about where and how God is being incarnated in those all-too-frequently written off and dismissed as less than good (and worse). We are to be those who point to the beauty and brilliance, wholeness and hope, joy and generosity, courage and faith of those targeted by hate, victimized by injustice, and reduced to vile imageries of offense and ignorance. These are the places where we encounter the holy traffic between heaven and earth, the greater things of which Jesus spoke (John 2:50-51),

"Come and see,” Philip said. 

I pray we do just that, no only this weekend, but also and especially every day that follows. After all, real human relationships and incarnations of diverse human fellowship are a primary way we, as both church and broader society, can overcome the excrement coming from the mouths and policies, twitter feeds and backroom conversations of those in power. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Dreams of Resistance, Refuge, and Return: Epiphany and a Sermon on Matthew 2:1-22

Given today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, it is only appropriate to share of my recent experience as a wondrous traveler in search of a great mystery…in IKEA. The treasure in pursuit was Minde, the product name for the full-length mirror I was to pick up when there to purchase our table, Jokkmokk. I traveled from the East, or Mt. Airy, to the town of Plymouth Meeting, where the light in the sky led me to the sacred Swedish home decor store. I went there for what I assumed would be a 15-minute stop.


I walked into the marketplace, determined that I would find what I needed rather quickly. And I did find Jokkmokk. But I still needed Minde. I asked the nearest salesperson who pointed me to the show room, where I could see a number of mirrors and even other tables, if I’d like. 

I walked into the showroom and immediately was overwhelmed but still committed. So I began to follow, not a star in the sky, but arrows on the floor that weaved me through the endless display rooms like a hamster in a glass-covered maze. And there was only one route, or so I thought- follow the arrows. And Minde, according to the next nearest salesperson, was at the end of the route. 

Needless to say, 45 minutes later, I found Minde, placed on my shopping cart with those 360 degree wheels that made me feel as though I was traveling on ice in bowling shoes, and headed for the checkout. I had overcome, but I was spent. I didn’t know the journey for such a simple item would be so complicated. It was supposed to be simple, quick, and easy. 

The story of Epiphany begins with what appears to be a harmless and holy venture of three Magi from the eastern lands following a route prescribed by a single star in the heavens. While we are accustomed to hearing the first half of the Epiphany story and all the imagery fitting for a seasonal carol, the latter portion is far from what you would want for a holiday jingle for the last day of Christmas. This may be why the prescribed reading in today’s lectionary cuts the narrative short,* leaving off the aftermath of the Magi's thwarting of Herod's orders. 

Yet today’s gospel story must be engaged in its fullness. Much like an IKEA marketplace, we cannot shortcut our way through; we have to weave through it all. Ok, for those seasoned IKEA veterans, maybe you can, but then you miss so much that’s on display. So, too, you cannot begin to understand the fullness of epiphany if you stop with the Magi returning home and tuck under a Swedish rug what happened in the verses that followed. So we won’t do that. Instead, we will briefly engage the full story by way of the common thread throughout Matthew’s Epiphany story: unsettling dreams.