Thursday, June 28, 2018

Arch of (in)Justice: Reflections on a Pilgrimage to St. Louis for #GA223

Last week, my days were spent with over 1,000 Presbyterians from around the country who gathered in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly.

For those unfamiliar, the General Assembly is the national gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Commissioners and delegates representing over 9,000 churches, 170 presbyteries, and 16 synods nation-wide worship, study, discern, and decide on theological positions, business items, budgets, investments, and public witness related to a wide range of social issues. The Assembly is also a chance to (re)connect with friends and colleagues, some whom I only see every two years at the event. In many ways, after perusing the schedule and overtures to be discussed, I presumed this year would predominantly be about networking. 

I did not expect #GA223 to erupt into a week-long revival and participation in God’s justice. 

More on that in a moment. 

First, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 

On one of my morning runs (yes, I am that guy now... never intended to become that guy; used to loathe that guy), I paused and snapped the picture above of this 630 foot national landmark. Because, you know, instagram.  Intended as a symbol for westward expansion and a “gateway" to American glory, the arch casts a shadow over an old cathedral and a historic courthouse along the Mississippi River. What makes for a beautiful picture on a sunrise run also serves as a (unintended) reminder of how the church and state were (are) bedfellows in these expansive quests for glory at the expense of Native Americans whose land we stole and people we displaced and killed. 

The arch indeed casts a shadow upon both church and state, which sadly lingers still.

Then I returned from my run and landed on Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the king of glory may come in.” 
What would the psalter have to say for this icon of empire? What about the church?

Whose glory do we usher in through our religious and political gateways? At what cost? 

Back to General Assembly. 

The week at #GA223 was both a reflection on and praxis of the kin-dom of God. We talked to great lengths about the infinite scope of God’s grace and the wideness of Christ’s embrace. As we discerned and decided together, we also committed to following our words with our feet, our statements with our activism, and our worship with our public witness. Yes, even a march down the St. Louis streets took place as we advocated for #endcashbail (see below). Say what you will about organized religion and the decline of the mainline church, Presbyterians demonstrated in St. Louis that we are indeed a called, sent, and resurrecting people committed to more than institutional preservation. We are disciples gathered and scatterered to engage our time and place(s) with relevant and liberating incarnations of the gospel.  

Sure, there were decisions made and voices lifted of which we may have disagreed. It must be said, not all of the actions taken were/are unanimously received with a sense of jubilee; neither were we lured by a belief that the church has arrived once and for all at what it means to be a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity and the created world.

Certainly not. 

Yet, as we worshipped and marched, fellowshipped and debated, elevated concerns for the incarcerated and victims of abuse, responded to ongoing realities of racism and the discrimination of LGBTQIA+ persons, exposed the exploitation of creation and prayed for nations torn by war, and even called out the realities of American empire that marginalizes people looking for refuge, there was an energy in the convention center within the shadows of an Arch that dared us to lean into the stirring of God's Spirit. It was evident, something new and different and faithful and messy and maybe a bit controversial was emerging from this body of believers; we were being reformed and still reforming

We were becoming all the more aware of the shadows cast by archways of despair, confessing our own past and present complicity in oppression; we were also being attentive to the echoes of Scripture, which dare us to live into the sacred story as we fling open the gateways to God’s kin-dom of justice and peace, reconciliation and liberation, and a concern for our neighbors most vulnerable to imperial pursuits of vain glory and expansive conquests of power. All this because we affirm this to be gospel work; this is discipleship; this is the Way of Jesus as guided by the Holy Spirit. 

And this, as mentioned, was not what I was expecting at this particular Assembly. 

As we continue to live in the past and present shadows of empire, with stories of struggle breaking every minute, I pray what we were a part of last week would move all of us to increased public witness of the Gospel between St. Louis and Baltimore, near and far, here, there, and everywhere.  May we move beyond these shadows cast and through the gateways of God’s kin-dom. May we even usher in others who have been relegated to the margins for too long.

May we also be reminded that death and despair have not the last word; God is doing something new and we are being invited to come along for the ride- together as the kindom of God. 

Lift up your heads, O church!
Be lifted up, O ancient people. 
That the Spirit of the Living God may come in
to open a gateway to justice
an arch of hope
for all who bear the sacred image,
creation that lingers for liberation. 

Here are just a few of the ways our the priestly institutional church participated in the prophetic movement of the gospel. As Rev. Cedric Portis, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church noted in worship, the Spirit is thawing out the frozen chosen. You can also check out a summary of actions the Presbytery of Philadelphia developed, aware there is much more left to say…and do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Intrapreneur or Entrepreneur? Prophet or Priest? The Whole Church Called to Innovation.

When I was in seminary, one of the critical differentials discussed for ministry leadership was between the prophet and the priest.

A prophet is one who is willing to work outside the bounds of a given (religious) system and institution for the sake of work they discern to be of value to a community and in rhythm with God’s mission to reconcile the whole world. A bit reductionist, I know, but bare with me. This involves variable risks and the willingness to speak truth to (religious or social) powers when they were at odds with that very mission. Even more, these prophets are willing to create alternatives, i.e. grassroots movements, newly organized communities, etc., to those very systems and institutions. Prophets refuse to wait for the change they long to see. Prophetic work is hard, sometimes lonely, and can possibly put a leader at odds with the very hands that feed them.

There is plenty of room to nuance more and better, but the point is we need the prophets among us. Institutions without an ear tuned to the voice of the prophets can become oppressive in function, perpetuates of injustice, and breeders of despair within the systems that sustain them. 

Then there is the priest. A priest is the face of both the institution and the people, even a mediator between the two. In the biblical story, a priest even mediates among the people, the institution, and God. The priest serves a vital role in the community, intended to be an arbiter for God’s justice and reconciliation. Priests wear the garments of the (religious or social) systems, speak the language of the institution, and are charged with moving the sacred and shared narrative forward for the sake of the generations to come. In a word, priests are also charged with the work of sustainability. This call is not for self-preservation alone, rather because the story is so good that it must be told and retold, shared and proclaimed from the holiest of holies to the outer courts and the margins of society.  

And we need the priests among us. Prophetic work without priestly partnerships are more vulnerable to isolation and even death. In this sense, if the priests have their eyes an ears attuned to the good word and witness of the prophets, daring to partner together, these movements and alternative communities can be sustained and effect change in the larger institutional narrative and corporate witness in the world. They can even minimize (eliminate?) oppression.

Full stop. 

Over the last few weeks, I have stumbled into numerous conversations that have highlighted the word, “intrapreneur.” I was familiar with the buzz word, “entrepreneur,” being waved as a banner among ministry innovation circles, but this one was new to me.  Yet it made sense. 
“You will be familiar with entrepreneurs, those individuals who set out to create something special, generally via a start-up business model. They are the ideas people, the disruptors, the individuals who have seen an opportunity and are out to make a difference. You may not be aware that key individuals within your organization display the same traits. These are the intrapraneurs, the individuals who are not content to sit back but who have a burning desire to help their organization to succeed and the imagination and drive to carry change along with them. Intrapreneurs are the organization’s natural innovators, comfortable with navigating uncertainty and exploring new terrain. They apply entrepreneurial thinking and actions to the role which they play within the organization and that means that above everything else they embody the fact that innovation is everyone’s job” (Building a Culture of Innovation 162). 
There it is, live and in the world of corporate innovation. Prophets as entrepreneurs and priests as intrapreneurs. Together called to ministry innovation in and through grassroots movements and religious institutions able to effect sustainable change in the neighborhoods, communities, congregations, and larger world God so loves. 

Here I also found a little nugget of self-discovery. In the midst of all the pressure to be entrepreneurial as a minister, community leader, and presbyter, I found renewed energy in the possibility that my gift set was more intrapreneurial (for now). As an intrapraneur, I am called to collaborate and innovate within the systems (read: presbytery and church) that can be good and must always strive to be better. Intrapreneurs are also able to energize, empower, equip, implement, and work to sustain new possibilities within a given organization and to strive to serve as partners with those more entrepreneurial in nature. While there are quibbles about who is more innovative, risk-taking, and faithful to the collective story, we need both. Prophet and priest. Entrepreneur and intrapreneur. They are each vital vocations with their own quirks and pitfalls, hopes and aspirations. They are not to be opponents or binary tracks. There's actually great overlap.

This is where Anna Mazzone drops knowledge:
"Suits or sneakers? Suits AND sneakers! While intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs both try to to solve a genuine problem, the level of chutzpah or mannerliness, the risk and reward, the degree of freedom, the resource opportunities, the network, and maybe most prominently the environment in which they function, are different. They do share having that entrepreneurial DNA, and so it’s no wonder that we see a growing number of people switching roles from being an intrapreneur to becoming an entrepreneur- and vice versa. In a future workplace where one will pursue several careers in one lifetime, it’s probably best to focus not on the title per se, but on further developing the underlying personality and mindset and improving the environment for accommodating both in your organization.” (“Suits vs. Sneakers,” Nitzan Merguei, Academy for Corporate Entrepreneurship Blog. Aug 19, 2016). 
Would love to see more discussions in the church related to both offices and calls. I am barely a beginner in this learning lab. But I do believe this conversation could help leaders in varied places be more collaborative at grassroots and institutional levels of the church as we share the work of ministry innovation. 

After all, innovation is everyone’s job.

Helpful Reads:
Beswick, Chris, Derek Bishop, and Jo Garaghty. Building a Culture of Innovation: A Practical Framework for Placing Innovation at the Core of Your Business. Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2016. 

Merguei, Nitzan.  “Suits vs. Sneakers,” Academy for Corporate Entrepreneurship Blog. Aug 19, 2016: 

Myler, Larry. “Intrapreneurs Are Just Like Entrepreneurs…NOT!” Forbes. Jan 15, 2014: 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Parading on a Pack Animal of Justice: A Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018

**A sermon on John 12:9-19**

We come to this familiar Palm Sunday narrative and encounter what many headers in Bibles unfortunately label as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” While we may be tempted to turn this parade of palms into victory lap of the Messiah, this is a more subversive picture John aims to paint.

The Gospel of John is potentially the most intricate of the four gospels when it comes to creative literary patterns and allusions. Likely written towards the end of the first century, the writer, possibly the beloved disciple, has had time to reflect on and refine his telling of the impact of Jesus’ ministry not only on the Jewish people, but also and especially the whole world. The writer wants to ensure the movement continues beyond his final stroke of the pen.

One of the ways John goes about this is through the art of inclusio, creating parallel imagery on opposite sides of a short story that eventually move you towards a center, where you find the real focal point and charge of the narrative. In this morning’s reading, John intentionally draws the reader from the outer layer of the Chief Priests and Pharisees, moves inwards to the crowds, and ultimately zooms in on Jesus and his movement into Jerusalem, which is where the entirety of the gospel has been headed all along. 

We begin with the outer layer and the presence of the Chief Priests and Pharisees.  They arrive on the scene with one goal- to put Lazarus to death. We often miss this detail, as the lectionary drops us into the triumphal entry just after this vital framing anecdote. Yes, rather than rejoice in the unbinding of one who was once dead but now alive, they become enraged by their cynical envy and invade the crowds on a covert operation to squash this gospel that has become their greatest perceived threat to religious power and interpretation of the law. Yet, when they encounter the crowds, their mission is thwarted, leaving them to cross their arms in disdain for a gospel far too inclusive for their liking. As John writes on the bookend of today’s reading, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”  The world- as in the light has come into the world, for God so loved the world, the cosmos has gone after him. 

As I read this text this week, I found myself wanting to yell at the pages- of course they did! Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Death was exposed as fickle in the work of this one named Jesus, how could any cross arms in judgment and wish the end of the long-awaited fulfillment of their story’s greatest hope: newness of life! 

Then I paused. In many ways, religious communities have not changed since that first Parade of Palms. When movements of liberation begin to rise up in the broader world, the church often either stands on the sidelines as jealous bystanders, frustrated by witnesses to resurrection happening beyond our control, or undercuts movements as judgmental cynics. Yes, there are fragments of faith communities who participate in social revolutions and protests, often led by marginalized peoples and then labeled as rebellious, activist, leftist, outside the norm, etc. Meanwhile, the dominant (white) American church, in the broader scope of our history, is apprehensive in our public witness and tends to trail behind at the eleventh hour of these movements that intersect the gospel with the pressing issues of our day. We rarely are the networks of people on the forefront of mobilizing change despite the fulfillment of our greatest hope: God has raised both Lazarus and Jesus from the dead!

Then there is the second layer to John’s story. The crowds. While initially tempted to turn their response to the raising of Lazarus from the dead into a romanticized celebration, praising their lifting of palms as if, yes, they get it, John’s unique approach to this story is to paint with a bit of irony as the only of the four gospels to reference the branches as palms. These palm-laden celebrations were akin to a parade of champions greeting political figures and war heroes as they returned from conquest, a version of a military procession less the tanks and soldiers and add some chariots and horses. The aim of at least portions of the crowd, in light of the resurrection of Lazarus that rightfully stoked their longings for salvation from an oppressive Roman empire, is to leverage Lazarus for a new political movement with Jesus as their national hero and revolutionary war leader. With palm branches in their hands and Psalm 118 cries of “hosanna, save us” on their lips, John illustrates with a satirical tale of nationalized religion with an undercurrent of aggression we may be tempted to drape around a reduced gospel.

Again, while it would be easy to engage with a layer of judgment, we are not much different still. How often do we allow our discipleship and Christian witness to be co-opted by agendas both progressive and conservative and used to leverage political leaders we mistakenly believe can save us? We even parade our version of Jesus as one who has conquered all others. While we have been transformed by the good news of resurrection, a story we genuinely long to embody for the sake of our more vulnerable neighbors near and far, we give evidence that we are still bound by death as we demonize those with whom we disagree and leverage our motives as absolute and most “right.”  In this sense, the watching world often sees the church on opposite sides of the same road along Jesus’ parade route as we wave our palms of power and chant epithets of dominance that reflect more of our political allegiances than those aligned to Jesus, who rode into town on a pack animal. 

This is where we find the center of John’s alternative narrative of allegiance. Instead of a chariot or a horse, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” Other translations use another, more “traditional” word, to describe Jesus’ impromptu discovery of this four-legged creature whose sole purpose is to carry the heavy loads of the traveler. Upon this pack animal, the Messiah cuts through the parades of power and pokes fun at the Pharisees threatened by the message of compassion, grace, and welcome. Then, borrowing the words of the prophet Zechariah, John underscores the function of the imagery, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” 

This is what John’s story has been building to and moving out from in this morning’s gospel lection. The gospel writer declares, to cynics like the Pharisees, others who lust for violent opposition and political power, still more to you and me, do not be afraid. Christ has come as the very presence of God among us who carries the burdens of the whole world now gone after him. This is what mobilizes the witnesses of the crowd "to continue to testify" to the subversive and humble witness of the One able to resurrect new life and alleviate their long-standing fears.

It is no secret that the condition of the world these days is saturated in fear. When we consider the on-going realities of white supremacy and police brutality, sexual harassment and assault, the events in Austin Texas, and more: we are a people afraid. In light of all this and more, there have been a steady stream of rallies, marches, and digital parades, each a modern cry of, “hosanna, save us.” Each with strong critics and those questing to leverage the campaigns as means to garner political power and possible theological conquest.  

Yesterday’s March for Our Lives was no different. As thousands of youth sought to resurrect new life out of the death that threatens to bind them and their peers, many cynics sought to squash their movement through name calling and false assumptions about being paid actors; others, for sure, looked to leverage the movement for their own powerful gains. All the while, courageous young people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rode into Washington as if on the back of a youthful colt in a quest to alleviate fear. The youth, many who are Christians, declared #enough and #neveragain as their own hosanna demands for immediate action related to gun laws the adult realm has been too cowardice to confront. As I marched in the Philadelphia rally with my family, including four young children, I read signs and heard stories from thousands of youthful organizers for change. Along the way, I heard the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred for his witness among the poor in El Salvador, “We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us. I also thought of both the words of Jesus, “the kingdom of God belongs to children,” and those at the end of today’s gospel, “Look, the world has gone after him.”

Then I thought of the call of the church. In a world strained by fear and crying out, “hosanna,” we are to be a people mobilized, neither by cynicism nor conquest, certainly not the myth that politicking alone can save us. Rather, in light of the reality of resurrection, we are to embody the humble posture of Christ who rode upon the back of a pack animal and carried the heavy burdens alongside the broken and oppressed, anxious and afraid, children and youth, near and far. What this may look like will vary from person to person, for some it may mean marching, others community organizing, and others something totally different. This is where I find encouragement in the words of the late church planter, innovator, and faithful activist, N. Gordon Cosby, who said just before he died:

“At this point in my life, and at this point in our world's life, I am asking what is to be my focus- to what am I to be giving my limited time and energy? What is the new thing, the genuine thing, that God wants me to be learning, doing, being now? For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected? What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?” 

In many ways these are the questions posed neither by the Pharisees nor the crowds, but by Jesus who found a young ass and sat on it as he made his way to Jerusalem.

Friends, as we begin our Holy Week pilgrimage, hear the central message of John’s gospel: do not be afraid. While the journey ahead is laced in sorrow, it is also framed by resurrection hope- the same God who raised Lazarus from the dead will also do the same with Christ. This is good news worth chasing after in a fearful world. Actually, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the world is already doing just that. So may we respond to their parades of hosannas, not by way of cynicism or quests for dominance, but saddled upon our donkeys as we humbly shoulder the real pains of the world and dismantle whatever powers stand in the way. And if you are not sure what this looks like, I suggest you ask the kids. Amen. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Agitation as Public Witness and Mark of Discipleship

This is the fourth time in our second home. You would think we would have learned by now. 

Whenever the self-proclaimed "Maytag Man” comes over, I watch and learn as though his apprentice. I now am at least slightly above amateur status when it comes to the disassembly and reassembly of a washing machine; yet I still do not know how to keep tiny socks from clogging the drain system. 

In between the generational rants about how they "don’t make appliances like they used to in the olden days," I pick up a few things that just may make it so I do not have to call the Maytag Man every time the machine stalls mid-cycle. 

This time around, I learned some new terminology: the agitator. 

This tall stem in the center of the drum of washing machines rotates and spins, occasionally gets tangled with an old t-shirt or sweater, and is vital to the wash cycle. The agitator's movement, which may appear abrasive, dislodges the grime and creates the right amount of soap suds to get the clothing clean, soft, and free of that late-night-run-and-sweat smell. If there is no agitator or agitation, there is no change to the condition of the clothing. The dirty clothes merely sit in standing water and the detergent remains at the bottom of the drum. 

As our Maytag Man described this central component to the spin cycle, I began to think of all those modern-day agitators who refuse to allow our social fabrics to remain undisturbed in the standing waters of injustice and despair. 

I also thought about how I was paying by the hour as I entertained this mental sidebar. 

I thought of those who protest in the middle of major intersections, arms in tubes linked with immigrants, as they agitate as advocates alongside those in pursuit of a better and safer life for themselves and their children. I thought of others who put up t-shirt memorials on the front lawns of churches to agitate and draw attention to victims of local gun violence. I imagined the faces of friends around the country who form human shields in communities like Charlottesville to agitate the plans of white supremacists with torches in hands as they chant racist and anti-Semitic phrases. I thought of those who join the New Poor People’s Campaign and cry out for economic and racial justice to agitate systems bent towards the rich and privileged. I thought of all who post their #metoo stories as a way of agitating silence about the vile realities of sexual harassment and abuse that continues to perpetuate a culture not-yet-free of misogyny. I thought of artists whose works agitate our social conscience as we consider how the prison industrial complex feeds off systemic racism, the ghettoization of America, and neglected public education in our urban centers. 

This week, I also thought of the young people who have said #enough, #neveragain, and #marchforourlives in light of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that took the lives of 17 young people. Their youthful agitation just may be what finally, albeit abrasively, removes the filth of broken gun legislation that makes it all-too-easy for mass shootings to occur in schools and at concerts, shopping malls and move theaters. 

In each of these movements, and many others, there are people of faith who join the efforts to ensure the cries and concerns of our most vulnerable neighbors are rallied behind as the very cries and concerns of God. Their discipleship, manifested through public demonstrations, agitate the powers that be so to remove the filth of oppression and stench of injustice that makes the human condition unbearable. In many ways, this is what Jesus, the greatest agitator of both political and religious dysfunction, meant when he called those to follow and carry cross. 

I also believe this is akin to what Karl Barth wrote:
"This is our hope and our need both as Christians and as members of society. But do not expect me to provide a solution! None of us may boast a solution. There is only one solution, and that is in God himself. Our task is only the candid, absolutely thorough, and- I should like to venture the expression- priestly agitation of this hope and this need, by means of which the way to the solution, which is in God, may be made clearer to us” (The Word of God & the Word of Man). 
This Lent, as I make my way through the 40-day pilgrimage, I am leaning in to how the Spirit is calling me to holy agitation. I am pondering, aware of such freedom to wonder being yet another sign of my privilege, the ways I am being dared to carry cross and follow Christ through advocacy and solidarity alongside my neighbors. 

I am even opening myself to be agitated, confronting my own entanglement in systems and cultural narratives, some propped up by religious institutions and traditions, that stray from God’s dreams for the world Go so loves. 

After all, agitation is the holy, reformed, and redemptive work that disturbs the standing waters of despair just enough to lead us to restorative and resurrected hope. 

A sermon delivered at The First Presbyterian Church of Norristown on March 11, 2018.