Debra Recommends

This Shared DreamAfter the BeginningTo Say Nothing of the DogThe Girl With the Dragon TattooA New Beginning for Pastors and Congregations: Building an Excellent Match Upon Your Shared StrengthsThree Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace...One School At A Time

More of Debra's books »
Book recommendations, book reviews, quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists


Tuesday's Election is for All the Saints

Sermon Preached November 6, 2016
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Feast of All Saints

On Friday in Fayetteville, North Carolina, President Obama was speaking at a campaign rally for Secretary Hillary Clinton when a Trump supporter appeared.  The crowd began yelling and booing.  President Obama repeatedly said to the crowd “focus,” “settle down.”  And, once he got the crowds attention – which took some doing – he proceeded to defend the Trump supporter saying first, “You’ve got an older gentleman who is supporting his candidate . . . We live in a country that respects free speech.  . . . It looks like maybe he might have served in our military – we’ve got to respect that.  Third of all he is elderly and we’ve got to respect our elders.”
I don’t know about all of you, but I am pretty stressed out about what is going to happen in this country on Tuesday and, perhaps even more so, in the days to follow.  This has been the ugliest presidential campaign season I have ever experienced and many of you with more years of experience have remarked that it has been the worst you’ve seen as well.  Jazmine Steele, writing for Sojourners describes our environment as one in which we are all “bracing [ourselves] for one of most tumultuous presidential elections in recent history” and that we are all “living on the edge right now.”[1]  Does that feel real to anyone here this morning?  Well, it certainly does for me.  And here we are. Gathered together on this last Sunday before the election. Gathered to celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  And I’m thinking, we have a celebration of saints and we have an election that feels anything but saintly.  How are we to live in that space together not only for this hour but for days and weeks to come?  Because no matter the outcome of Tuesday’s election, if the polls are right, then close to 50% of the voting population is going to be very unhappy with the results.  We are living in a very divisive time.  I know this is not news to any of you.  But, sometimes for me it helps to just say it out loud.  To point to the elephant in the room and say, yes, we do see this thing.
And then, yesterday, I saw that video of President Obama and I remembered a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with Scott.  Once a week, Scott and I meet for a theological reflection, usually focusing on the texts for the coming Sunday.  This week Scott drew my attention to a question and answer from our catechism that I had forgotten about.  If you want to read it with me, you can find it on page 862 of the prayer book in the pew.  Go ahead, flip to it if you’d like.  “Question:  What is the communion of saints?  Answer: The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”[2]  The whole family of God. Living and the dead.  And, here’s the part that caught my attention – “those whom we love and those whom we hurt.”  Do you hear that?  The communion of saints includes everybody that I love and everybody that I hurt. Everybody that you love and everybody that you hurt.  And if that is the case, then it is also true that the communion of saints includes everybody that loves me and everybody that hurts me.  Everybody that loves you and everybody that hurts you.  Yes, the whole family of God.  I’ve been letting that reality sink in a bit deeper these past few days. 
And then I saw the video of President Obama and I remembered two questions from our baptismal promises.  The first, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” And, the second question, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  Both of those questions ask us if we will do these things for ALL people.  Those people who are living along side us – some of them known, most of them unknown.  Those we agree with and those we disagree with.  Those who treat us with love and those who treat us with disregard. The enthusiastic Clinton supporters.  The energetic Trump supporters. Those who wish they could vote for Bernie but are not feeling very enthusiastic about anyone. Those we love and those we hurt.  All of those living saints.  Whenever we renew our baptismal vows, we say, “I will with God’s help.”
And here’s the truth of the matter – the Gospel Truth.  It is that very baptism that binds us together in the first place.  It’s right there in the catechism.  “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament – the water in that font; the bread and the wine which we share – by prayer and by praise.”  God has chosen us to be saints.  God has elected us to be saints.  And unlike our national elections, we do not get to pick and choose our running mates.  God has already chosen them too.  Those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament.
This Tuesday evening, most of us will find ourselves glued to a television set or a favorite website listening as pundits report the election results.  We don’t know if it will be a short night or a long night.  But we do know that for most of this nation it will be an anxious night.  And so I have a simple request for all of us. I ask that each one of us, at some point during the evening – maybe at multiple points in the evening - takes a moment to pray.  Not a prayer for the outcome of the election.  This isn’t the 9th inning of the 7th game of the 2016 World Series!  Not a prayer that others around the country might have had the wisdom to vote the way you voted.  But a prayer that you might be given the strength to fulfill your promises, no matter the outcome, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.  

[1] Jazmine Steele, “Processing the Spirit of Fear Pervading This Election Season,Sojourners (November 3, 2016).
[2] Book of Common Prayer, 862.


The Gospel: I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it

Sermon for Proper 21C
Luke 16:19-31
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

In today’s gospel we have a familiar story – a rich man feasting in his mansion each day which, at his gate, a poor man named Lazarus sits hoping beyond hope that he might be fed even scraps from the rich man’s table.[i]  Even if you’ve never heard the gospel story before, you know the set up. First, the gate.  The rich man lives in a gated community, a community designed to do one thing – keep the insiders in and the outsiders out.  Second, the location of the gate. It is right outside the rich man’s home.  Presumably the rich man passes in and out of that gate on a daily basis as he conducts his business.  Therefore, he cannot say, “I didn’t know about this poor man’s plight.”  He cannot say, “I did not see.”  Because the poor man, Lazarus, is literally right before his eyes.
Scott Bader-Saye in his commentary on today’s gospel writes, “Our global network of communication allows us to be more aware of the world’s suffering than ever before, but we have become adept at ignoring the suffering that is right at our doorstep.”[ii]   For me, this morning’s gospel text tells me something else – our awareness of the world’s suffering is not a new phenomenon at all.  Jesus is telling a story about it in the 1st century – our ability to see has been an issue for at least 20 centuries.  The rich man is aware of the suffering outside his gate.  What has changed is the distance we are able to see. 
Today, in a matter of an hour or less, we can click our way through the headlines on the internet and can see the suffering of 5-year old Omran, a Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance in [click] protestors in Charlotte, North Carolina in the wake of yet another police officer shooting of an unarmed black man (his name is Keith Lamont Scott) [click] an oil spill causing a state of emergency to be declared in Shelby County, Alabama [click] devastating flooding in eastern Iowa causing evacuations [click] contract negotiations between teachers and school board at a deadlock in our own city of Evanston [click] someone sitting in the pew next to you whose hurts are expressed in a quiet post on Facebook. 
the aftermath of an airstrike in Aleppo last month
My friends in Christ, we know of the suffering outside our gate and we cannot say, “I didn’t know.” We cannot say, “I didn’t see.”
In the gospel story the rich man, after his death, is in Hades where he pleads with Abraham to please send Lazarus to his father’s house “that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”[iii] And Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them . . . if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[iv]  We cannot say, “I didn’t see” and we cannot say, “I didn’t know” because like the rich man’s family we too have “Moses and the prophets” and we have the testimony of Jesus – a testimony of words and action.  Jesus is not bringing forth a new thing in this gospel story.  He is reminding us of a very old ethic – an ethic grounded in a God who seeks to bring the outsiders in and who asks nothing less of you and me.  An ethic that may be at odds with our culture; but which every Christian is called upon to live into.  In a prayer written based on this gospel story, the intercessor writes, we have a “God who sits high but looks low.”[v]  That is the ethic we are called to live into, an ethic that says we must break down our gates, our walls of indifference, our walls of fear, our walls of excuses - and not only allow, but invite, the outsiders to come in.
We live in a culture that allows us to hide behind ill-conceived fears.  Just this week, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a photo of a bowl of skittles with this caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”  He then went on to say, “This image says it all. Let's end the politically correct agenda that doesn't put America first.”[vi]  Donald Trump, Jr. wants us to live in fear.  But the Gospel of Jesus tells a very different story.  And if we need to hear the Gospel in contemporary language, we have at least 2 places we can go this week.
First, comedian and podcaster Eli Bosnick wrote this dialogue in direct response to Trump, Jr’s tweet:
"If I gave you a bowl of skittles and three of them were poison would you still eat them?"
"Are the other skittles human lives?”
"Like. Is there a good chance. A really good chance. I would be saving someone from a war zone and probably their life if I ate a skittle?"
"Well sure. But the point-"
"I would eat the skittles."
"Ok-well the point is-"
"I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single . . . skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.
Because your REAL question...the one you hid behind an . . . inaccurate, insensitive, dehumanizing racist little candy metaphor is, IS MY LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF MEN, WOMEN, AND TERRIFIED CHILDREN...
... and what kind of monster would think the answer to that question... is yes?"[vii]
And, the second and perhaps more compelling version of the Gospel in contemporary language is this letter from 6-year-old Alex from Scarsdale, New York:
“Dear President Obama, 
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it. 
Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!
O, God who sits high but looks low, help us to see who is sitting outside our gate as we leave this sanctuary and do not permit us us to say, “I did not know.”  For we have Moses and the prophets.  We have Jesus.  We have Eli Bosnick.  And we have Alex.

[i] Luke 16:19-21.
[ii] Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective on Luke 16:19-31,” Feasting on the Word:Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, Season after Pentecost2 (Propers 17 – Reign of Christ), eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Kindle Edition, location 4495.
[iii] Luke 16:27-28.
[iv] Luke 16:29, 31.
[v] “Prayers of Intercession for September 25, 2016,” Sundays and Seasons Year C 2016: Guide toWorship Planning, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2015), 285.
[vi] Donald Trump, Jr., Twitter Account, @DonaldJTrumpJr, accessed here, September 24, 2016.
[vii] Eli Bosnick, Facebook post, September 20, 2016,  accessed here, September 24, 2016.
[viii] Alex’s Letter in Rachel Kopilow, “A Six-Year-Old's Letter to the President: "We Will Give Him a Family" The White House, September 21, 2016, accessed here, September 24, 2016.


Indict us, Convict us, Provoke us. . . . with a Parable

Luke 10:25-37 / Proper 10C

Let us pray: God, in your mercy, show us our complicity in injustice; convict us for our indifference; forgive us when we have remained silent; equip us with a zeal for righteousness and never let us grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness. Amen.[1]
I don’t know about you, but after a week of news focused on the death of two black men by police officers and then 5 police officers killed by sniper attack during a rally that was intended by its organizers to be a peaceful protest,  I’m not sure I’m ready for more provocation.  I’m not ready for more Ferguson, more Cleveland, more Baltimore, more New York City, more Chicago.  In fact, I’m a bit tired of it all and I suspect you may be too.  So, we gather here on a Sunday morning – perhaps seeking some comfort and some solace – some rest for our tired and broken hearts.  But you know who else is tired? You know who else wants comfort and solace?  Our black brothers and sisters.  Our black brothers and sisters who are tired too but who have been fighting and fighting and fighting and, asking God, "How long? How much longer must we wait for justice?” And so those of us here today wanting rest must pray now the words that will be a part of our Eucharistic Prayer later this morning: 
“Dear God, deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[2] 
And today, we have a parable – a familiar tale – often called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is a story that many of us learned in Sunday School and the lesson that most of us learned was that we, as Christians, are the Good Samaritans – or, at least, should strive to be like the Good Samaritan – helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves.  But here’s the deal.  The parables aren’t meant to tell us something we already know.  Of course, we should help someone on the side of the road who is beaten and lying in a ditch!  Any sensible person knows that.  But Jesus didn’t tell this story because he thought his followers – in the first century or in the 21st century - might want to hear a story about something we already know! No, he told the parables to indict his followers, to indict us – to provoke us; to provoke us to change. 
I had an opportunity a couple of months ago to hear Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School speak at Bexley Seabury’s Spring Convocation in Chicago.  She is a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominately Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt” and is perhaps best known for her dedication to eliminating anti-Jewish, sexist and homophobic theologies.  In her keynote address to the Convocation she spoke of how our misunderstandings of Jesus’ Jewish culture can create misinterpretations of the parables he told and how a fresh understanding may provide new and provocative messages applicable for today. 
According to Levine, the word “parable” means to set side by side things which do not go together.  She goes on to say that if our interpretation makes us more comfortable or more complacent then it is probably not a good interpretation.[3]  So hearing the story of the Good Samaritan and saying, “ah, yes, I am like the Good Samaritan” and stopping there . . . not such a good interpretation.  So what do we really have at work here? What two things are being set side-by-side which do not go together?  Let’s start with a little context.
Jesus tells this story to a lawyer who asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.[4]  This lawyer already knows what the law says – “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”[5]  And Jesus says, YES, YES, you are EXACTLY right and then goes on to tell him this simple story about a man in a ditch, a simple story about the men who pass him by, and a simple story about one man who ultimately comes to his aid.  And he tells them this story not to demonstrate what a good man this lawyer is but rather to indict him – to indict him for being like the priest and the Levite, good religious men in the story, who pass by the man in the ditch and who do nothing, who say nothing, who change nothing.  And what makes the story so provocative is that the hero in the story is a Samaritan and the first century Jews hated the Samaritans.
This enmity between Samaritans and Jews dated back more than 5 centuries – to the time of the Babylonian exile.  Both Jews and Samaritans shared the same scripture but they interpreted it in very different ways.  “The split between the Jews and the Samaritans gradually widened until eventually . . . the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim” about 30 – 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem.[6]  The Jews, on the other hand, maintained that the Jerusalem Temple was the only place to worship God. 
Now hate is a strong word and yet, in the 1st century it was an accurate way to describe the relationship – or lack of relationship - between Jews and Samaritans.   So, what did the lawyer think after hearing Jesus’ story about the “good” Samaritan ---hearing this parable – this setting side by side two things which do not go together --- good and Samaritan--- and hearing Jesus conclude by saying, “Go and do likewise?”[7]   And what are we to think? 
On Friday at noon, I had the privilege of attending a prayer vigil at Second Baptist Church in the wake of this week’s violence.  I say I had the privilege to attend because it is true.  I have privilege just about everywhere I go because of the color of my skin.  I grew up being able to ride my bike all around the neighborhood without fearing for my safety.  I grew up being able to wander the aisles of the local candy store without being followed because I looked like I might be the sort of kid who steals things.  I grew up knowing that studying hard would get me into the college of my choice. Today I don’t need to have a talk with my nieces or my nephew about what to do if they are pulled over by the police because in my experience when people with white skin like mine are pulled over it is because we have actually been speeding, driving the wrong way on a one way street, or really do have a taillight out.  I can reach into my glove box for my insurance card and registration and not fear being shot.  Today I do not fear for the safety of my nieces and my nephew.  Today I do not fear that I may be next.  And this is what it means to have privilege. White privilege.
It is tempting for those of us with white skin to get defensive when hearing about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice . . . do I need to continue the litany of brown- and black-skinned martyrs? It is tempting to reply to the declaration that Black Lives Matter with a shout of ALL Lives Matter or, in the wake of Thursday night’s sniper attack in Dallas with a cry of BLUE Lives Matter.  But here’s the truth.  While we may want to live in a world where ALL Lives DO Matter – after all that is what our baptismal covenant says – that we will respect the dignity of EVERY human being - the fact is, that today – and for at least the past 400 years – White Lives have mattered more.  That’s called White Privilege and it is at the root of the Systemic Racism on which our society was founded and built.  I want desperately for ALL Lives to Matter; but, until they do, I must add my voice to the cry that BLACK Lives Matter.  And what about blue lives? What about the lives of the men and women who are sworn as police officers to “well and truly serve . . . without favor or affection, malice or ill-will. . . [to] see and cause our community’s peace to be kept and preserved?”[8]  What comedian Jon Stewart said so eloquently in 2014 remains true today:
“You can truly grieve for every officer who's been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards."[9]
So, again, to be clear: Black Lives Matter.  Period.  And that may make some of us uncomfortable.  And that’s o.k. 
Today we have a parable – a setting side by side of things which do not go together.  What are we to think when we hold up the light of the good news as told in this parable to the news of another black man killed?  What are we to do?  What are we to say?  As a white skinned person, it is tempting – and easy – to declare, “I am the Good Samaritan in the story.”  But the truth is, more often than not, I am the priest or the Levite who looks the other way – saying nothing, doing nothing, changing nothing – because at the end of the day, I can go home to the comfort of my bed and wake up the next day with my privilege, my life still intact. 
This story – this parable - is meant to provoke us.  Our worship is meant to provoke us.  Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are dead this week.  Five Dallas police officers are dead this week.  Who is the man in the ditch in our modern day news cycle?  Who are the priests and the Levites?  Who are the Samaritans in our society?  Who are you in the story?  And is it who you want to be?  Is it who God is calling you to be?
I want to close this morning with the words of one of our African-American brothers.  His name is Bernard Little and he is a minister at Second Baptist Church.  This is what he posted on his Facebook page on Thursday morning – words that were read at an Evanston prayer vigil on Friday and again at an Evanston Black Lives Matter protest last night:
“Facebook Family and Friends,
I pray it not be the case but want and need your help if it were the case. If I am next, please let my daughters and my wife know that I truly loved and adored them. Let them know that I wish my life wasn’t taken by a senseless killing, but for whatever reason it was. Let them know that regardless of what the media says, I tried every day to be a good man but a better father and a loving husband. Let them know their father loved the Lord and prays they do the same.
If I am next, hug Krystal Pernell Little for me. Let her know that I believe in her and wish I was there to support her but I know that she can make it in the end. Make her laugh. Wake her up in the morning and ensure she remembers where her glasses are and to take her allergy medicine. Love her for me. Buy her a sweater because she gets cold easily and every now and then make sure she has a steak. She doesn’t like red meat, but if cooked well-done and seasoned properly, she will appreciate it.
If I am next, buy Peyton books every now and then. Listen to her dreams and answer as many questions as she has. She has a lot of them. Let her lay with you, and ensure her that she will be alright. She will miss her daddy. Please ensure that she overcomes her emotions and remembers that daddy loved her. Make her eggs in the morning with a side of avocado and tomatoes. Roma tomatoes. She likes those the best. Don’t let her food touch each other on the plate and make sure she pushes herself to achieve great success.
If I am next, encourage Parker in every way but allow her to be quiet and come around. Ensure her that no matter how loud the world is, she is safe and secure. Watch her in large crowds, she hates them. But she is getting better. Make her chicken and make her noodles. Never together though. And give her chocolate frosting. When she’s up to it, let her help you cook. She really loves slicing vegetables. But she doesn’t eat them all the time. Don’t force her. And make sure that her mother doesn’t give her too much candy.
If I am next. Take care of my girls. Love them. Fight for them. Keep pushing for equality and a better world that they will rule one day. Teach them to drive. Peyton really wants to learn. Attend their sporting events and recitals. Hug them before they are baptized and let them know that God loves them. Give them flowers on prom night. Scream too loud on graduation. Walk them down the aisle for me if and when they choose to do so and love whoever they decide to love. And sing. Because it annoys them but they know that daddy always had a song in his heart.
If I am next, please just love my girls.”[10]

Look around you.  We are all God’s beloved.  Who among us will be a good neighbor? 

May the souls of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamrippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens rest in peace and rise again in glory. Amen.

God, deliver us from the presumption of coming to your Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Amen.

[1] Adapted from the concluding prayer by Yolanda Pierce from “A Litany for Those Who Aren’t Ready for Healing,” Kinetics Live, accessed online, July 7, 2016.
[2] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer¸ 372.
[3] Amy-Jill Levine, “Of Pearls and Prodigals: Hearing Jesus’ Parables,” Telling It Fresh April 28: Chicago Convocation 2016, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Federation Inc., April 28, 2016.
[4] Luke 10:26.
[5] Luke 10:27.
[6] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 530.
[7] Luke 10:37b.
Jim Heitmeyer, “Police Officer's Oath,” Law Officer Connect: Police and Law Enforcement Network, March 29, 2010, accessed online, July 8, 2016.
[9] Jon Stewart, “A Single Factual Error,” The Daily Show, December 8, 2014, accessed online July 8, 2016, [warning: strong language].
[10] Bernard Little, July 7, 2016, accessed online July 8, 2016.