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Midwives of Change: A White Priest Responds to Ferguson

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Proper 16, Year A

I read an article in the digital news outlet, Quartz earlier this week. Written by a woman named Janée Woods – a former attorney who now works for a nonprofit focused on supporting community engagement, strengthening democracy and fostering racial equality.  The article was provocatively titled, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson”.  Perhaps some of you saw it as well. The title certainly caught my attention and quite frankly, many of Ms. Woods’ words called me up short.  She had noticed that after Michael Brown – the unarmed teenage boy who was gunned down by the police in Ferguson, Missouri – her Facebook feed was filled with words of anger and grief about his death.  But, when she looked more closely, she noticed that the majority of those posts were written by “black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, [and] Arab American Muslims.”[1]  And, when she looked to see what her white friends were writing about she saw instead, video after video of the ALS ice-bucket challenge and messages about the suicide of Robin Williams.  Ms. Woods has nothing negative to say about those who are posting about ALS and suicide; but, she did wonder why “an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?”[2]

Before I go any further, I’m going to say that I do not pretend to know what took place in the interaction between Michael Brown and the police officer Darren Wilson.  But I do know that whatever it was resulted in the death of a teenage boy.  And that had that same teenage boy been white, he would most likely be alive today.  Did Michael Brown do something wrong?  At the end of the day, that really doesn’t matter anymore.  Because what does matter is that another black male’s life was cut short in Ferguson, Missouri 15 days ago.  And Ms. Woods’ comment about her white friends’ Facebook status updates called me up short.  Because I looked at my own posts:  pictures of vacation, updates about a book I was reading, and yes, there it was, August 11, my own post about the tragic death of Robin Williams. 
I cannot claim vacation ignorance.  I was aware that Michael Brown had been killed.  I was aware of the mounting tensions in Ferguson, Missouri.  And I chose to remain silent.  And the more I thought about my silence, the more I realized my silence contributes to the problem – the problem of the persistent divide in this nation between black and white.  And the more I thought about my silence, the more I recognized the reason for my silence – fear.  What if I say the wrong thing?  What if I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth and upset the members of this congregation who are black?    So here is where I begin: I confess that I often say nothing because it seems safer than inadvertently saying the wrong thing.  I confess that I often do nothing because it is easier than putting myself in harm’s way.  Perhaps some of you can relate to this.  And if not, I hope you will bear with me this morning because I think it is something to which this morning’s reading from Exodus speaks to quite clearly.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women . . . if it is a boy, kill him.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”  Upon hearing this, the king of Egypt, proclaimed, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.”  But when one little boy was born, his mother and sister did not throw him into the Nile to die; instead, they hid him in a basket placed among the reeds along the bank of the river.  And this baby was found by the king’s daughter and lived. And he was called Moses.[3] 
The midwives saw injustice and did not stand silently by; no, they found a way to creatively live according to God’s ways.  The mother and sister, risked their lives when they ignored the king’s edict and instead hid the newborn infant in the reeds along the bank of the river.  I sometimes imagine myself in the stories of our faith.  When I was a child, I often imagined myself as Moses’ sister, waiting alongside the bank of the river “to see what would happen.”  As I’ve grown older, I like to imagine that I would be one of the midwives who defied the king or perhaps the mother who hid Moses among the reeds.  But, the fact is, I know better.  More likely than not, I would have been afraid – as these women no doubt were.  But, unlike the women in this story, I would more likely have been one of the perhaps hundreds of mothers who did not find a way to defy the king, one of the hundreds – perhaps thousands - of mothers who instead grieved the loss of a child and carried with them the guilt of that child’s death for the rest of their lives.  Not because they did anything wrong, but because they couldn’t find another path forward in a system that was broken.   
We must find another path forward in our system that is broken. A system that left unchanged, according to the NAACP, will incarcerate one in three black males born today at some point during his life time.[4]  A system where, according to an article in Mother Jones,  “black people are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience a police officer’s threat or use of force” and where, at least  six unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police so far this month: Eric Garner, age 43, Staten Island, New York;  John Crawford, age 22, Beavercreek, Ohio; Ezell Ford, age 25, Los Angeles, California; Dante Parker, age 36, Victorville, California; Kajieme Powell, age 25, St. Louis, Missori; and Michael Brown, age 18, Ferguson, Missouri.[5]
We must find another path forward.  We must not be silent. Because as Janée Woods points out in her article – and as we know in our own community of Evanston  – “People are literally dying.  Black people are dying.”[6]  The Pharaoh of our land is sentencing these young boys to death – our young boys.  We must stand together as midwives, as mothers, as sisters, as fathers and as brothers to dismantle the racist system that continues to infect our churches, our communities, and our world. 
This morning I close with this reminder from our Bishop Jeff Lee, “At every baptism we ask, ‘Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?’ Let our answer today and everyday be a clear and compelling ‘We do!’ Let our lives be the answer.”[7]

[1] Janée Woods, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” Quartz (August 17, 2014) accessed online at August 22, 2014.
[2] Woods.
[3] Exodus 1:8-2:10.
[4]“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP accessed online on August 22, 2014.

[5] Jaeah Lee, “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?” Mother Jones (August 15, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014. Josh Harkinson, “4 Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police in the Last Month,” Mother Jones (August 13, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014. Taylor Wofford, “New Video Emerges of Plice Shooting Kajieme Powell in St. Louis,” Newsweek (August 20, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014.

[6] Woods.
[7] Bishop Jeffrey Lee, “A Call to Prayer and Action,” Telling Our Stories, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago (July 17, 2013) accessed online on August 22, 2014.


Rebekah and the Camels: A Model of Faithful Action - Or, Why Story Problems Matter

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Proper 9A

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Today I want to tell you a little bit about camels.  A camel can travel about 30 miles per day while carrying between 400 and 600 pounds.  They can travel for about 100 miles – or just over 3 days without water.  When they do need water, a camel can drink 30 gallons in about 13 minutes![1]  And then they are ready to go again.  So, when I read this morning’s story about Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac I did a little math.
The distance from Canaan, where he began his journey, to Haran, where Abraham’s family was living was about 960 miles – or about a one month journey. Presumably along their desert journey the servant had found some source of water for himself and the camels.  But, by the time they reached the well where he would encounter Rebekah his camels were thirsty! And, no doubt, Abraham’s servant was too exhausted to draw water for them to drink.  So, now, not only is he in search of a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, he is also hopeful that someone will come along to draw water for his camels – all 10 of them needing about 300 gallons of water to drink!  No wonder the “test” he devises for finding a suitable wife for Isaac involves finding the woman who is willing to draw water for all of those thirsty camels!
And along comes Rebekah with her 5 gallon water jar on her shoulder.  And who wouldn’t want to marry a woman who, after drawing water for this thirsty man, offers – without first being asked – to draw water for the camels?!  61 trips to that well! --- 60 for the camels plus the initial one for the servant.  And you thought story problems weren’t important!
Here is Rebekah, a woman who is kind – provides water to the servant; thoughtful – offers water for the thirsty animals; and strong – carries more than 300 gallons of water.  And it is this woman who is the center of this story in Genesis. 
This may not seem particularly remarkable but, when you consider the time and place in which she lived – the second millennium BCE in the ancient near east.  A time during which women were largely regarded as property with little or no value beyond their child-bearing potential –and by child, we do mean male child.  A time during which women were confined to the private rather than the public realm.  That a woman of this time and place should find her place in Scripture alongside the great male heros of our faith – Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the like – it is truly remarkable.  Rebekah, unlike the wives of other patriarchs (for example, Sarah or Rachel), is lifted up as an ancestor of our faith.  It is Rebekah’s story – not her soon-to-be-husband Isaac’s story – that is lifted up in parallel to the story of Abraham, the father of our faith.
·        Earlier in Genesis, the Lord says to Abram,
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.”[2] And in today’s passage, it is Rebekah who leaves her country, her kindred and her father’s house to go to the land that God has shown to Abraham, the land of Canaan.
·        When Abram was ninety-nine years old, God appears to him again and blesses him again this time saying, 
“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. . . . I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. . . .  And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
And again, we find a parallel in today’s reading when Rebekah’s family sends her with this blessing: “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.”[4]
And so it is Rebekah who is lifted up in this and subsequent stories in Genesis as the active ancestor of our faith. 
The message I take from this story – this counter-cultural raising up of a woman as hero in the story of our faith – is that God’s purposes unfold in and through the actions of the most ordinary human beings.  Each and every one of us – from the famous, powerful and rich to the nameless man or woman we bump into on our way to work , the grocery store, or the playground –from the well-educated adult to the child who has not yet learned to walk – from the CEOs and Presidents of major corporations to the downtrodden, underpaid and undervalued laborers – each and every one of us can be an agent for the unfolding of God’s purposes in the world.  But, like Rebekah, we need to be willing to do the work.  We need to be willing to lift the  300 gallons of water.  We have to be willing to say, “yes I will go.”  We have to be willing to take tremendous risks.  In short, we have to be willing to put our faith in God into action in our lives, in our households, our neighborhoods, communities, and world.
And isn’t that what our baptism is all about? In a few moments we will welcome Colin Robert Nesburg into the community of the faithful.  His parents, Kevin and Pam and his godparents, Stacey and Kristine, will make promises to bring Colin up in the Christian faith and life.  You and I will make promises to help him grow into the full stature of Christ and then all of us together will renew our own baptismal promises, recommitting ourselves to putting our faith in God into action – action that involves fellowship and prayer, sharing bread, turning away from sin, proclaiming the Good News, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace among all. 
These promises take us back into the stories of our faith – the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs – of Abraham, of Rebekah and the stories of those first disciples – stories that span centuries leading all the way up to this day when our own stories of faith are being written so that God’s purpose of new life for all of creation can be fulfilled.  Grant, O Lord, that all who have baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection. Amen.

[1] “The Camel” in The Story of the Weeping Camel, accessed July 2, 2014 at
[2] Genesis 12:1-4.
[3] Genesis 17:4, 6, 8.
[4] Genesis 24:60.


Insist on Nothing Less than the Kingdom of God

Easter 2014
Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Last weekend, I was walking my dog Gabby past Penny Park at the corner of Lake and Ashland. There is a smallish hill in the southeast corner of the park and kids love to run up and down that hill – perhaps some version of the “King of the Mountain” game that was popular in my own childhood.  In any event, I looked over and there was a little girl probably two years old at most – pretty knew on her feet, if you know what I mean.  She was holding a ball bigger than her head and began running down that hill – full speed, not knowing – not caring even – whether she would fall or stay upright but, rest assured if she did fall, she’d be back up again running at that same full speed down the hill.  That is the kind of excitement and energy Matthew’s account of that first Easter morning brings to my mind. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake” – “go quickly and tell his disciples” – “so they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples” – “Suddenly Jesus met them” – suddenly, quickly, running.

Cameron Murchison of Columbia Theological Seminary nails it on the head when he declares there is nothing “subtle” or “quiet” about this Easter dawn – it is “disruptive, powerful, earth-shaking!”[1] Literally, the earth shakes as an angel of the Lord breaks through from the realm of the divine, arriving on the scene to roll back that stone.  If there is one thing that the Gospel of Matthew wants to make very clear it is that SUDDENLY EVERYTHING changed!  

  • Everything changed for the two Mary’s who arrived just as the darkness was changing over to the first light of early dawn. 
  • Everything changed for the guards at the tomb who, when the women left to go tell the disciples, themselves ran off into the city to tell the chief priests what had happened.  And the greatest cover-up of the Bible (which appears only in Matthew) unfolds before us as the gospel-writer tells us:  “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ . . . So they took the money and did as they were directed.”[2]
  • Everything changed for the disciples who soon would be hearing the news from the women and then from Jesus himself who would command them to continue his work in the world – as Matthew puts it, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that” Jesus had commanded them.[3]
  • And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, everything changed for you and for me on that first Easter morning.  Suddenly, everything changed! Do you believe it? Are you living it?

Change – Karl Deutsch who “was one of the world’s foremost social scientists” of the last century “devoted his life to the study of war, peace, and national cooperation. He commented that the single greatest power we possess is the ‘power to change,’ and the most ‘reckless thing we can do in the future would be to go on exactly as we have in the past.’”[4] But, oh, how we hate change.  We cling to the familiar, the comfortable because . . . well, because they are familiar and they are comfortable.  But we have arrived at our celebration of Easter and there is nothing familiar or comfortable about what has happened.  The women arrive at the tomb, an earthquake occurs, an angel of the Lord tells them, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”[5]  He is not here and, as a result, “there is deep hope for the world.” Deep hope for the world.’

But this deep hope is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. Because the disciples are reminded of Jesus’ promise to meet them in Galilee. The angel tells the women to deliver this reminder to the disciples.  Then, Jesus himself meets them on the road and tells them “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[6]  Why Galilee? Because this is where Jesus lived. It is where Jesus called the disciples. It is where Jesus offered rest to the weary, fed the multitudes, blessed children, challenged a rich man, spoke in parables, and taught any who would listen.  Galilee represents all the places the disciples are to expect the risen Jesus – “the places of his once and future ministry . . .those places of grace-full endeavor.”[7]  And the place where Jesus will issue his final command to his disciples, “Go” and do as I have done. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[8]

In light of the resurrection, will you and I dare to go on exactly as we have in the past?  Or will we take Jesus’ challenge to “go and do” with the utmost of seriousness recognizing that with these words Jesus has instilled us with the single greatest power we possess – the power to change.  And on this day, I want to take that challenge a step further.  I want to be daring and risky with you. I want to borrow the title of Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor’s book and suggest that it is the risen Christ’s invitation to us:  A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity. Yes, heretic.  I want us to begin right now, right here in Evanston to live our lives as heretics.  Before you panic or begin to worry that your pastor has gone off the deep-end, let me say a bit more about what I mean.  In the introduction to their book, Burke and Taylor write: 
“. . . we need heretics today. . . heresy can be a positive rather than a negative force in our spiritual journey. . . . Whereas the medieval heretic created ruptures in the existing order, contemporary heresy is a means to a new end, a way out of what no longer works. . . . . Every age needs heretics – people who will push past and beyond the accepted conventional wisdom of the dominant group and pull us across sacred fences that hold us back and keep us tied to perceived orthodoxies.”[9]
This is what I’m talking about – Matthew’s account of that first Easter morning has an earthquake announce that the old order has passed away.  Everything that once was true had been turned on its head permanently.  The resurrection plays the trump card – even death is defeated. And isn’t that what Jesus had been demonstrating all along? “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[10]  Jesus was his generation’s heretic. “Christianity was Judaism’s heresy.”[11]  And in the resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus invited them to be the next generation of heretics and they, in turn, invited a next generation and a next and so on down the centuries until we arrive at 2014 when you and I gathered here together at the corner of Ridge and Grove in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on the eve of our sesquicentennial celebration are invited to be our generation of heretics – a generation that will stand up and question the status quo.[12]
We are the disciples that are invited through the resurrection of Christ to stand up and question the status quo.[13]  

We are the generation that must see the homeless men, women, and children living on our streets and not look away but instead look into one another’s eyes with nothing less than the love of Christ.  Two years ago this month, Mayor Tisdahl prepared an open letter to the citizens of Evanston. In it she wrote:
“Evanston has always been a community that has prided itself on its compassion, diversity and depth of services to help those in need. Yet. . . the problem of homelessness is getting worse. . . . It is time not just to ‘manage homelessness’ but to move forward in solving the issues creating and sustaining it.”[14]
St. Mark’s has been housing the Interfaith Action of Evanston’s Hospitality Center which offers a safe place for our homeless brothers and sisters to gather five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.  We have housed this center for more than two decades.  But we have to ask ourselves, Is that enough?  What can we do to prevent homelessness? What can we do to end homelessness? And, more importantly, what will we do?  Will we fight alongside our homeless brothers and sisters to increase the amount of affordable housing and rental subsidies in Evanston – even in our own backyard?  Will we support local businesses that are creating job and vocational training opportunities? I dream of a time when the Hospitality Center closes its doors – not because St. Mark’s says “no more” but because there are no more homeless neighbors to serve.  That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. That is what resurrection living is about.

We are the disciples that are invited through the resurrection of Christ to stand up and question the status quo in our generation.[15]  We are the generation that must see the young people in our community and not look away but instead look into one another’s eyes with nothing less than the love of Christ.  Each year in the United States there are approximately 30,000 firearm-related deaths, 20,000 of these deaths are of children and youth under age 20 and approximately 11,000 of those deaths result from homicides.[16] These numbers are considerably higher than in any other developed, industrialized nation.[17]

Nine months ago Illinois passed its controversial concealed-carry gun law and the first permits were issued at the end of February.  Under the law, those with a concealed carry permit are prohibited from bringing their guns into casinos, airports, schools, hospitals and courthouses.  But they are not prohibited from bringing them into houses of worship. For this reason, St. Mark’s vestry will be voting Monday night on whether or not we will post state-approved signs which will ban guns from our property. I think we all recognize that putting up a sign will not deter someone who is intent on committing a heinous act of violence from doing so but it is certainly a statement that says to the community that we refuse to accept the status quo.  But again, we have to ask ourselves, Is that enough?  What can we do to prevent gun violence? What can we do to end the senseless deaths of young people on our streets? And, more importantly, what will we do?  There is no single policy or solution to ending youth gun violence, but accepting the status quo is reckless and un-Christian. Will we talk to our children about gun violence and commit ourselves to knowing whether guns are in the homes of our children’s friends?  Will we actively support legislation that regulates guns as consumer products so that safety features on guns are regulated and evaluated for effectiveness? And, because poverty, discrimination, and violence are often linked, will we work to address economic inequality and social injustice in our community so that young people no longer feel the need to arm themselves for self-protection? Will we commit ourselves to our young people? I dream of a time when we don’t need to ask these questions because the senseless violence has stopped.  That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. That is what resurrection living is about.

When we refuse to accept the status quo, when we refuse to accept the world as it is and insist on nothing less than the Kingdom of God then we too are living the resurrected life that is demanded of us even as we celebrate the triumph of life over death once and for all in the resurrection of Jesus.  “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”  He is not here and, as a result, “there is deep hope for the world.” Jesus promised to meet the disciples in Galilee where his work of offering rest, feeding, blessing, challenging, teaching and healing continues.  And the risen Christ meets us in all of the places of grace that we inhabit – our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, our places of work, and our places of worship and rest.  Jesus meets us and commands us to “go and do” as I have done “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Alleluia. Amen.

[1] D. Cameron Murchison, “Easter Vigil,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching theRevised Common Lectionary, Vol. 2 (Lent through Eastertide), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[2] Matthew 28:12-13, 15.
[3] Matthew 28:19-20.
[4] Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 227.
[5] Matthew 28:5-6.
[6] Matthew 26:32, 28:7, 10.
[7] Murchison.
[8] Matthew 28:20.
[9] Burke and Taylor, xxiii.
[10] Matthew 11:5.
[11] Burke and Taylor, xxiv.
[12] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[13] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[14] Elizabeth Tisdahl quoted in Jordan Graham, “City Council Agenda: Five-Year Plan to End Evanston Homelessness,” Evanston Patch, April 16, 2012 online at
[15] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[16] Barack Obama, “Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services,” (Washington, DC: The White House, January 16, 2013) online at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Kathleen Reich, Patti L. Culross, and Richard E. Behrman, “Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations,”  The Future of Children 2002: 12(2), 1.
[17] Robert A. Hahn, Oleg Bilukha, Alex Crosby, et. al., “Firearms Laws and the Reduction of Violence: A Systematic Review,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2005:28(2S1) online at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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