Make Us A House

Advent 4B 

As Christmas approaches, talk around living rooms and around dinner tables often revolve around traditions.   When does your family open gifts? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?  Which church service do you attend? The one with the pageant, the one with candle light, or the one on Christmas morning?  Do you hang stockings for Santa to fill?  What is the traditional Christmas feast at your house?  Ham? Stewed Oxtail? Curried Goat?  Something else? 

Our churches too are filled with such nostalgic conversations about tradition.  “We will dim the lights and sing Silent Night in the candlelight, won’t we?”  “We will have poinsettias again this year, won’t we?”  “The pageant will be the traditional story, won’t it? – with the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen?”  “We will have a carol sing this year, won’t we?”  These are just some of the questions that I have heard at and around St. Mark’s as Christmas draws near.  And, the answers for those who just can’t wait – yes, yes, yes, and yes! 
In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David announces to the prophet Nathan his desire to build a house – a temple – for the Lord.  It seems wrong to David that he should live in a great house built of cedar and that God should still dwell within a tent.[1]  During the night, however, Nathan receives word from God saying that this is not what the Lord desires.  In fact, God tells Nathan, never have I asked for a house of cedar; moreover, God continues, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”[2]
So what do the Israelites do? They build a house of cedar – a temple – for God.[3] A temple so elaborate, in fact, that it takes 7 ½ years to complete.  To be sure the building of the temple doesn’t take place until the reign of King Solomon some 10 to 20 years after King David’s reign ends; but, there is no indication that God has, in this interim period, changed God’s opinion on the matter.  Moreover, this is not the first time in the history of the Israelite people that the people ask God for something, God says “no” and the people do it anyhow. In fact, that’s how Israel got their first King!  But we’ll save that story for another time.
In the building of the temple a deep and rich tradition around ritual worship begins.  Chapter upon chapter of Scripture focus on the right way to worship God: who can approach the throne of God in the temple, who can serve as temple priests, what the priests should wear, what sacrifices are appropriate for various occasions and circumstances, and so on. This tradition of “how to” worship God is one that carries into our present day whenever congregations engage in conversation – or sadly sometimes debates - about how we should worship, the “right” way to worship, or, as it is frequently heard in churches, “the way we’ve always done it.”  And there are two times of year when these conversations reach a climactic pitch: Easter and, you guessed it, Christmas!
Psychologist Michele Brennan suggests that the reason holiday traditions become so important is that they help build
“a strong bond between family and our community. They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family. . . . They keep the memories of the past alive and help us share them with newer generations.”[4] 
And so, when someone decides to try something new or different, it can feel as though a part of our identity is being stripped away.  Rationally, we know that is not the case:  my family is still my beloved family even if this one Christmas we eat dolmades instead of ham and my church community is still my beloved church community even if this year my favorite Christmas hymn doesn’t get sung.  But on an emotional level, such small things can really move us.  And so, the way we do things becomes a habit, becomes an expectation, becomes a tradition.
And, I LOVE tradition.  When our Confirm not Conform students gather for class, our session begins with a series of statements and an invitation for students and leaders to stand on a line in the room. One end of the line represents “Strongly Agree,” the other end represents “Strongly Disagree.”  Last Sunday night, one of the statements was, “I like things to stay pretty much the same.”  When I moved to toward the “Strongly Agree” side of the line, I heard one of the students exclaim, “Pastor Debra! That’s really bad!”  Now I can only assume that the reaction had to do with the fact that I am constantly encouraging all of us to accept change as a normal part of how we do things – in fact, I would love for us to make a tradition of change!  But here’s another fact: I too find change incredibly challenging.  I, like most people, when it comes to traditions – especially around the BIG holidays – I like things “the way they’ve always been.”  But I also know that when I give in to that desire, I run the risk of closing myself off from God’s invitation to new life.
King David wants to build a temple for God.  And God says “No!”  God tells King David, through the prophet Nathan, that it is God who wants to make us a house.  God wants to set the parameters for our life with God.  God does not want to be boxed in – by a temple, by our church walls, by the way we’ve always done things.  God wants to make us a house, God wants to dwell in us and reshape and reform us again and again.  Can we make room in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls for that sort of transformation – room to receive God’s gift - even amidst the candlelight, the poinsettias, the pageant, and the carols?

[4] Michele L. Brennan, “WhyHoliday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think,”  Living a Balanced Life published by PsychCentral and accessed on December 17, 2014.


Because We Can't Wait . . .

Sermon Preached on Advent 1B

In the wake of the announced decision of the Grand Jury to not indict Officer Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, our nation has erupted with countless responses.  The most volatile of which have made their way into our homes through reports and commentaries on our televisions, through our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and around many of our Thanksgiving dinner tables. 
And today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season when we focus on hope and begin looking forward with anticipation to the coming of the Christ child.  As we fill our calendars and our lives with festivities – caroling, shopping expeditions with friends, decorating Christmas trees, hanging colorful lights, radio stations sent to all Christmas music all the time.  It is a season of great joy!  And so, it is tempting to put all of the talk of Ferguson, Missouri aside – at least for this one hour that we share together – to focus instead on the coming of Christ. Can’t we just wait?
Waiting until tempers cool down or until the season feels more appropriate – really, which season would that be?  And waiting, I was reminded this week, is really a white privilege; for our brothers and sisters who are persons of color, waiting has been the cry for too long.  Our history books could be filled with stories of “waiting” for the right time.  And when circumstances around us are already filling our homes with conversation and questions, waiting to address those circumstances can only send a confusing message.  We cannot wait for a better, more opportune time.  Writing for a group blog for educators, contributor David Cohen wrote:
“If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown, Jr., then we miss an opportunity to help our students understand and develop a connection to their country’s living history. That’s not something we cherish – the recognition of seemingly perpetual conflict – but if we ignore it, we don’t equip students to deal with it any better in the present or the future”
and, “if we don’t talk about this . . . we’ll have to explain why this particular event – and the tragic pattern in which it fits – that mattered so much to [our students] was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant.”[1]  And so it is in our churches.  If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown then we too miss an opportunity to help one another understand and develop a connection between our faith and our lives.  To this end, The Very Rev. Mike Kinman, Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis who has been in the midst of this unfolding incident since August has asked Episcopalians across the country “to take at least one Sunday during Advent [to] talk about the issues the events in Ferguson have raised and where those issues of race, class and the oppression of God’s children are present in their own communities.”[2]
In order to move us in this direction, I have invited Motoko Maegawa to facilitate such a conversation with and for us after the 10:30 a.m. worship next Sunday [note the date has since been changed to Sunday, December 14].  Motoko is known to many here as “Tyler’s Mom” or as a middle school principal at a Jewish Day School in Chicago but another hat she wears – and, indeed, a gift she has been given is as a Leader for the National SEED Project for Inclusive Curriculum.  SEED stands for “Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity and it is a non-profit organization which encourages conversations about how our own stories relate to social systems and about how we can turn both oppression and privilege into agency and action. 
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he began by giving thanks to God “because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In the rest of his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul lambastes them for the many things that were not going so well in their community – for their chaotic assemblies, because of their abuses of the Lord’s supper, and their struggles to sort out what to do with gentile converts to the faith.  But Paul begins with thanksgiving.  Some have suggested that Paul is being sarcastic in his opening remarks; but I don’t think that is the case at all. I think that Paul is truly thankful for the spiritual gifts that God has given them and, by raising this up in the beginning, he can through the rest of the letter tell them of the great things that are expected of them.  There are no good excuses – they have every gift they need – in speech and in knowledge.  They have all that they need to transform their community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are a community, poised on the edge of what we now call Advent  - a season of hopeful preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ.
What might hopeful preparation and waiting look like for us in the wake of all that has taken place in Ferguson, Missouri?  Here are just some suggestions – you may have your own to add to the list[3]:
1.      Listen deeply.  Learn from persons of color how we ended up here by listening to their stories.
2.      Do not police others’ reactions. I’ve heard a lot of comments this week about the need for peaceful responses.  But, remember that much change has taken place in our country through protest from the Boston Tea Party to Women’s Suffrage, from the March on Washington to Stonewall.
3.      Know the history. Take time to understand the history of racial violence in America.
4.      If You See Injustice Occurring, Do Not Stand Silently or Walk on By
5.      Imagine a future without racism.  Learn about and look for the ways systemic racism is a part of our institutions – all of them, including our church.  What alternatives can you imagine? If our churches – if St. Mark’s – were to be built anew how might we more fully use all of the gifts we have received from God to transform our community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
6.      Come be a part of next Sunday’s conversation led by Motoko.  This may be the most difficult challenge of all.  Because it is sometimes hardest to have honest conversations with those we care about most deeply, with those we are committed to being in community with.  And yet, isn’t that what being church is all about – deepening our relationships?  To help us begin thinking about the conversation, Motoko has suggested that we might spend some time this week considering how you might complete these two prompts:  “A hard and scary thing in talking about racism is. . .” and “A good and useful thing in talking about racism is. . .”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season when we focus on hope and begin looking forward with anticipation to the coming of the Christ child. Maybe this is, after all, the right season to talk about Ferguson, about race, and about the transforming power of God’s love at work in our lives and in our community.  God has given us every gift we need – in speech and in knowledge.  We have all that we need to transform our community into one that waits with anticipation and hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Will you take this opportunity together with me?

[1] David B. Cohen, “Time and Space to Learn and Reflect,” InterACT, August 19, 2014 accessed online  on November 29, 2014.
[2] Mike Kinman, “Episcopal Cathedrals commit to talking about  Ferguson, race, and their own communities,” Christ Church Cathedral accessed online on November 29, 2014.
[3] Some of these appear in Janée Woods, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” Quartz (August 17, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014.


Here for you

Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Proper 25A

note: my apologies for the informal text. I preached with some notes and simply tried to flesh them out a bit here for the handful of folks who requested a copy of today's sermon.

For the past 30 years, a group of clergy called “Positive Presence” have been involved in the lives of teenagers at ETHS.  Either before or after school or during lunch hours, one or more clergy person arrives at the high school to stand outside on the sidewalk or to walk through the cafeterias.  Sometimes there is an opportunity to have a conversation with a teen – if the teen initiates it - but more times than not the purpose of this presence is quite simply, as the name of the program implies, to be present.
Fr. Bob Oldershaw – now an emeritus priest at St. Nicholas - has been involved in this ministry of presence since the very beginning and earlier this week he shared this experience. 
One morning, standing on sidewalk outside of the high school before school began, a student came up to him and asked, “Haven’t you heard of the separation of church and state? What are you doing here?”  The question was, of course, intended to trap Fr. Oldershaw; perhaps to engage him in some sort of debate or controversy.  But, Fr. Oldershaw didn’t take the bait.  Instead, he responded simply: “I’m here for you.”  With that the teen walked away, somewhat perplexed. 
Positive Presence.  That’s all it is. It’s not about preaching the gospel (at least not with words). It’s not about teaching church doctrine.  It’s not about inviting a young person to get involved in one’s church.  It’s not about doing.  It’s about being. 
Last week and this, our Gospel readings have been stories of the religious authorities trying to trap Jesus; trying to get him in one way or another to break the law – either the religious law or the law of Rome.  These two stories are not unique in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, there are several such stories.  In chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees and Jesus are in the synagogue on the Sabbath:
 “a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked [Jesus], “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” . . . . [Jesus] said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:10-13)
A few chapters later, Mathew’s gospel records an incident in which the Pharisees ask Jesus why it is that his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat.  Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees why it is that they break God’s commandments in the things that they do. (Matthew 15:1-9).
This pattern of questioning punctuates Matthew’s gospel:
-       Chapter 19:  The chief priests and Pharisees question Jesus about the divorce laws.
-       Chapter 21:  the Pharisees ask Jesus by whose authority he is acting
-       Chapter 22 brought us last week’s question of the lawfulness of paying the tribute tax to the Roman Emperor
-       And then today’s reading with its question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
As I reflected on this series of tests and challenges to Jesus authority and as I reflected on the Confirm not Conform commitment that our young people would be making this morning I began to think differently about the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and the scribes, and about all those around us who would question the authority of Jesus.  Because, at the end of the day, accepting the authority of Jesus is the central aspect of our faith and, quite frankly, that can be a tremendous stumbling block for some people – and, if we are honest with ourselves, I think that at least some of the time, it can be a tremendous stumbling block for even the most devout among us. 
The questions take a variety of forms:
-       Fr. Oldershaw’s encounter with the high school student – “Why are you here?”
-       The mother or father who has lost a child – “Why would God do this?”
-       The gay man or woman who has been hurt by the church – “How can you belong to a church?”
-       The person in the seat next to us on the train or airplane who sees us reading a Bible or a book about theology – “Do you believe that stuff?”
-       The young person about to embark on a two year commitment to the Conform not Conform program – “What does this have to do with my life?”
When I hear questions like these, my gut reaction is sometimes to get out of the situation as fast as I can.  I don’t like debate. I don’t like controversy . . . and, if I want to get real honest, I don’t have all the answers and so my desire to flee is really a desire to save face.  By what authority?
And, if I look to Jesus for the answer – in that “What Would Jesus Do” kind of way that so many like to talk about – what I get doesn’t feel all that helpful.  Because when Jesus is confronted with challenges to authority he is quick on his feet.  He can tell a story that cuts to the heart of the matter.  He knows Scripture inside and out and can quote it right back to those who would challenge him.  He’s witty and insightful and he’s confident.  And me? . . . on a good day, as I’m drifting off to sleep, I might think of what I wish I had said to the person who needed an answer; but, in the moment of confrontation, I often fall short. 
But perhaps the invitation we receive as faithful persons is not to be ready with the witty answer, the relevant story or the right response.  Perhaps the invitation we receive is simply to be present.  To answer, like Fr. Oldershaw, “I’m here for you.” 
This morning, [Names of Teens] have signed a commitment to fully participate in the Confirm not  Conform program at St. Mark’s.  They have said, “I will show up.”  “I will be present.”  “I will come with an open mind and an open heart.”  And we, in turn, have said to them, we will listen to your questions and concerns with open minds and hearts, we will take your contributions seriously and treat them with respect, we will expose you to the fundamental questions of faith and explore them with you, we will provide a mentor who will share their faith experiences and questions with you, and who will respond to yours, we will offer help when you need it, and we will keep you in our prayers. 

[Names of Teens] have said, “I will show up.”  “I’m here for you.”  And we, in turn, are invited to respond – not with the right answers, the right beliefs, the right way of being in the world – but with our real selves.  We are invited to respond, “I’m here for you.”  It’s a ministry of presence.  And we need one another – it’s not about doing.  It’s about being.  Being the Body of Christ with and for one another.  Being able to say to one another – through our words and our actions -  nothing more and nothing less than, “I’m here for you.”