The Landscape of Liturgy: Liturgy and Saying Goodbye

The Landscape of Liturgy: Liturgy and Saying Goodbye

We receive your thankfulness, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now leave to minister elsewhere. We express gratitude for your time among us. We ask your forgiveness for our mistakes. Your influence on our faith and discipleship will not leave us at your departure.

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We Need More Cowbell! And Communion and Baptism, Part 2.

 

Note: This is the second post in a 2-part post on a UCC clergy gathering on the sacraments. Part 1 on communion is here. 

Background:

In September I went to Cleveland, the city that rocks, for a UCC clergy conversation on the sacraments. I was invited by my beloved liturgical co-conspirator, Sue Blain, who I met while I was at Union and worked at The Riverside Church.  Sue had just left Union as the Director of Worship to head-up worship at Riverside and working with Sue was part of my work-study job. One of my tasks–organize Sue’s paper files!

Sue is now the Minister for Worship and Formation for the UCC, working in Cleveland at the UCC’s Church House.

Sue and Ivy Beckwith, Faith Formation Team Leader, gathered about 10 UCC clergy for a 2-day conversation on the sacraments.

We noticed in our conversations in Cleveland that talking about communion came first and foremost. Baptism seemed secondary.

Clarification moment: We do communion more than baptism at Pilgrims so of course it’s on my mind more.

Follow-up clarification: We need more baptism.

Not just the baptism of human beings…the renewal of baptism, water in the font, the touching of the water, singing about the waters of baptism, the story of baptism, telling our own stories of baptism.

This is how we added baptism into 3 of our liturgies at Pilgrims this fall.

These are the communion trays we use for communion on the streets during Capital Pride. We used the trays for our Stewardship Sunday.

These are the communion trays we use for communion on the streets during Capital Pride. We used the trays for our Stewardship Sunday.

All Saints: We pulled our font, which lives right at the entrance of the sanctuary, right up against the communion table.

We gathered around the table to share the bread and cup (next time–cup and bread) and to share the memories of those who had died. What we added this year was marking ourselves with water from the font after the sharing of a name/memory.

As the person marked themselves, we all said, “remember your baptism.” The ethic behind this action is that the baptism of the person died hasn’t ended (contrary to what we say in the funeral liturgy “their baptism has been made complete in death.”

Not quite. That’s a really linear way of seeing baptism and death. Start. Finish. Done.

As we marked ourselves with water, we were saying that we now take that person’s baptism and live with the sacramental waters. We carry that person’s baptism forward. Their baptism is now part of us in a physical, kinetic way with the marking. Friends: There is no beginning or end with baptism.

Stewardship Sunday: Our Stewardship Sunday was the Sunday before Advent. For the past several years, we’ve had an at-table service on this Sunday. We drag a bunch of tables and chairs into the sanctuary, have a simple meal, share in the bread and the cup.

This year we added a renewal of baptism into the service as a way of re-committing ourselves to the life of Pilgrims for another year. We modified our baptismal liturgy including the sharing of hopes and dreams. During baptisms, people are able to share a hope and dream for the human being baptized. After a hope/dream is shared, the sharer pours a bit of water into the font. The human is baptized by those waters of hopes and dreams.

On Stewardship Sunday we asked folks to share their hopes and dreams for Pilgrims for the upcoming year.

As people shared, two people stood around the font and poured the water. Then we took lavender and rosemary, dipped the branches in the font and flung the baptism water over Pilgrims. Remember your baptism!

Advent Prayer Station: We have prayer stations as a part of our prayers of the people for Advent. Each station is based on our Advent candles: groundedness, healing, becoming, and new beginnings.

One of our stations is at the font and uses four big pieces of slate that were back in the trash area of Pilgrims. The font is full of water and folks are invited to dip a paintbrush in the font and paint on the slate, responding to a prompt at the station that asks you to ponder becoming.

As you paint, the water almost instantly starts to evaporate into the air. Your becoming comes and goes, you can paint over it, others can paint on the same piece of slate. The prayers seem to ebb and flow on top of each other with the slate, water, and brush as you paint with the waters of the font.

We Need More Cowbell! And Communion and Baptism, Part 1.

This is a two-part post. This post focuses on communion. Second post focuses on baptism. 

Entrance into the UCC National Offices

Entrance into the UCC National Offices

In September I went to Cleveland, the city that rocks, for a UCC clergy conversation on the sacraments. I was invited by my beloved liturgical co-conspirator, Sue Blain, who I met while I was at Union and worked at The Riverside Church.  Sue had just left Union as the Director of Worship to head-up worship at Riverside and working with Sue was part of my work-study job. One of my tasks–organize Sue’s paper files!

Sue is now the Minister for Worship and Formation for the UCC, working in Cleveland at the UCC’s Church House.

Sue and Ivy Beckwith, Faith Formation Team Leader, gathered about 10 UCC clergy for a 2-day conversation on the sacraments. Christopher Grundy, Associate Professor of Worship and Preaching at Eden Seminary, led us in an initial conversation about the words of institution. Prior to gathering, he sent us this article to read: “Is There A Liturgical Text In This Gospel?: The Institution Narratives And Their Early Interpretive Communities” by Andrew Bain McGowan.

Here are some takeaways from the article:

  1. The earliest Eucharistic prayers might not have included the words of institution at all. The Eucharist of the Didache and Justin Martyr, both of the second century, have extended prayers of thanksgiving but do not include the words of institution that we find in the words of Paul to the community of Corinth.
     
  2. The words of institution need to be looked at as form and function within the Corinth community. What role did those words play? What was their function? How do the words of Paul show the interplay between text and ritual within community? How do we look at those words of Paul, the words of Jesus at the last supper in the context of ancient communities of interpretation? Asking these questions, according to McGowan, allows us to approach the words of institution and the narrative with a broader viewpoint.
     
  3. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ?”(10:16). This indicates Paul offering the cup before the bread, as did the Didache which is a different narrative than the last supper.  

    Paul presents these words as a reminder, not as something new, which can lead us to imagine the community at Corinth had already been hearing this narrative from Paul, different than the meal narrative described in the Gospels.
     
  4. Justin Martyr’s prayer was an extended prayer of thanksgiving over bread and cup, not a recitation of the institution narrative. For Justin and his community, the institution narrative was not so much a narrow liturgical function. The institution narrative operated as more of tool of teaching with regard to liturgy.

Takeaway: The words of institution that we read in the last supper narrative probably aren’t the exact words of Jesus. The early communities took those words and re-shaped them to form, teach, and interpret their own communities.

Communion Table for our UCC communion

Communion Table for our UCC communion

How do we keep our connection to the most ancient of words and the sacrament while forming the words that teach and interpret our own communities?

What would it mean for us to tell the Road to Emmaus story as the words of institution in addition to the Jesus narrative? What if we didn’t have these clear cut moments in communion–“He poured the cup.” Pour! “He broke the bread.” Break! That’s one way of sharing the story. Telling the Road to Emmaus would create new choices, new interpretations of when to pour, when to break.

Which then led me to wonder about what makes the bread and cup move from ordinary to sacramental? We had a conversation about the Epiclesis, the invocation or calling down from the most high of the Holy Spirit and for some that is the vital moment in the act of preparation for communion. I know there isn’t “the” moment, there isn’t “a” moment for Protestants when poof bread and cup go from ordinary to holy.

Amistad Chapel in the UCC National Office Building

Amistad Chapel in the UCC National Office Building

But we’ve put SO MUCH emphasis on the words of institution as “the” moment AND these words seemed to be tied to who can be at the table to break bread and pour the cup–ordained or non-ordained. If the early church took the freedom to stay close to the narrative of Jesus yet transfigured the words as a means of teaching about participation in the ways of Christ, then why do we sometimes feel so cemented to those words and that moment in the communion liturgy?

We had communion as part of our gathering. After gathering around the font, we moved our way to the communion table and did this communion liturgy. Our words of institution were improvisational, flowing out of the thanksgivings that came out of the prayer. Sue created this prayer for another setting and we adapted it to our gathering.

 

Come to the Table

Leader: This table offers nourishment we need to grow in love, in Christ, in Community.

This is an open table, no exceptions.

All are welcome.

This communion liturgy creates space for all of us to build the Communion Prayer together. It follows the format of a classic communion prayer, beginning with thanksgiving to God for Creation and covenant community, then moving on to thanksgiving for the life, death and resurrection of God-with-us, Jesus, and then calling on the Spirit to transform the elements and us who share them into one body in Christ.  The leader prompts the outline of the prayer, but the prayer takes it shape from the way the people gathered remember and tell the story.

Leader: Let us tell the story of God:

In this world God made, we give thanks for…..

Congregation calls out thanksgivings for creation.

After thanksgivings are shared, the musician leads the song:

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Leader:

Let us give thanks to God

for the prophets that God sent in ancient times and in our time….

Congregation calls out prophets of long ago and now

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Leader:

And let us give thanks for the radical one, Jesus, who…

Congregation calls out deeds and acts of Jesus during his life and ministry

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Leader:

And on that night before Jesus died he took bread

Congregation finishes the story and the words of institution for the bread including breaking the bread

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Leader:

And in the same way after supper, Jesus took a cup…

Congregation finishes the words for the cup including pouring the cup

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Leader:

And let us give thanks for the power of the Holy Spirit

who will use these gifts to transform our lives

Congregation calls out gifts of the Holy Spirit

Song:  Bread is bro-ken, eyes are o-pened, ris-en life, O Je-sus Christ!  (2x)

Sharing of the Bread and the Cup (the table was full of cups and breads, we all served each other). 

“Bread is Broken” from Sing! Prayer and Praise.  Words:  Sidney Fowler; Tune: Richard Bruxfoort Colligan.  Reproduced under OneLicense #A-719582

Service adapted from “Yes, Let’s”!: An Intergenerational Service of Communion, written by the Rev. Ashley Goff, an ordained UCC minister serving at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), Washington, DC.

Safety Pin Sunday

Church of the Pilgrims incorporated safety pins into our worship on November 13th.

The safety pin as a symbol of disruption and inclusion took off after the presidential election.

There were lots of opinions and thoughts on wearing a safety pin.

We went with this:

  1. Symbols matter. As Jesus people we are a people of symbols--bread, cup, water, cross, rainbow, ashes. At Pilgrims, we organize our community life around symbols. Symbols shape identity, connection, and mostly importantly....
  2. Action. Wearing a safety pin means you act upon what the pin symbolizes. As Jesus people we are to disrupt injustice, take risks for the sake of creating safe, brave space. We are people of the bread and cup.  We people of the font.  These  sacramental symbols demand action in the public square. In living a sacramental life, we are to embrace ancient and current symbols and create an ethic (choices, action) of justice and love. A Christian ethic without actions is nothing. Period. End of scene. So...if one is taking communion and then keeps silent about the possibility of 3 million people getting deported well....then...you might want to also re-think wearing a safety pin. You might want to re-think a lot of things.

We used safety pins during our prayers of the people which happens near the end of our liturgy.

We did this:

We had six little glass candle holders filled with safety pins on our communion table. During prayers of the people we are all gathered around the table in a circle.

I said something about the safety pins--meaning, purpose.

I invited people to share safety pins with one another. I modeled the way we did this after the way we shared communion in September.

Six people (six candle holders) needed to come forward and take a jar. I didn't ask anyone to do this beforehand--folks needed to initiate this moment themselves. Those who took a safety pin candle holder walked to someone in the circle and asked, "do you know anyone who would like a safety pin?"

I modeled this language of asking after the question our Pilgrim families ask when they take bag lunches up to Dupont Circle to share food with hungry folks-- "do you know anyone who needs a bag lunch?" Our Pilgrimage groups do the same when they take out bag lunches to parks throughout D.C.

This language gives choice.  If claiming to be a people of safe ways, the last thing we want to do is slap a safety pin on someone without consent. In our ask, people were invited to take a pin and put it on themselves, giving space for their own agency to be part of the prayer time.  The person who received the pin would then walk to someone else in the circle.

As music played, people moved through the circle, sharing safety pins.

After we were all pinned up, I framed our sharing of prayers around disruption.

How can we disrupt moments of white supremacy, misogyny, Islamophobia?

What if you hear a co-worker make a racist joke? How do you respond in the moment?

Folks were invited to picture a place in their life where they had witnessed supremacy in action. Folks shared that place/experience with the person standing next to them. I reminded them we are still in prayer, still praying as we shared with each other.

After sharing, I invited folks to share their out-loud prayers as our not yet disruptive actions breaking into the here and now.

"I told my co-worker to knock it off with the racist joke."

"I stood next to my female co-worker when a male colleague tried to physically intimidate her."

I invited folks to pray AS IF their actions had already taken place. As if their prayer for justice had been manifested. As if they had already acted in a disruptive, prayerful way. As if we DO have the power to knock racism and sexism off its pedestal and place our bodies in the space where justice is needed.

This is another improv tool---you claim how you acted before a scene takes place. "I was super confident in that improv scene."

Speaking actions into existence was hard for folks. It showed me we have work to do.

A handful of folks used the prompt:

"I hosted people during inauguration weekend to protest."

"I spoke up against bullying in my office."

I also trust that people were imaging situations in their heads. It took a lot of risk and vulnerability to share in this way inside your head and outloud.

After the calling out of prayers, we went right into the Lord's Prayer, skipping over our usual part where folks ask for prayers of healing.

During the last hymn, a church member came up to me and asked if I was doing the benediction. Nope--Jeff is. This church member had a prayer request for another member. She shared with Jeff.

Jeff shared the prayer request after the hymn. Then other people started popcorning their prayer requests.  I loved how people created this moment--we aren't quite done yet! They went "off script" and shared their prayers--not letting liturgy end without getting in their prayer requests. That itself was an act of disruption.

Communion Without A Center

Church of the Pilgrims has been having conversations the past two months focused on race, racial identity, and anti-racism work.

By anti-racism I mean work that moves us in and out and through the lethal knot of white supremacy--the belief that white people are superior to all other races.

Our worship services have also been part of our anti-racism work. As we planned our Homecoming Service, the service that is our liturgical marking spot for the beginning of fall, we looked at how we were going to serve communion in a way that modeled the creation of more just and loving social structures.

This is what we did.

We followed our usual pattern of singing ourselves to the communion table after our choir sang the anthem.

Folks gathered in a circle around the table and usually the folks who are leading the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving stand behind the table.

We work hard at having three people at the communion table for the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving--usually me, Jeff, and a non-ordained person. Sometimes it can be me and two other people. Sometimes Jeff and two other people. At times two or three people whose names aren't Ashley or Jeff.

This time no one was at the table.

We did this to deconstruct the center.

In anti-racism work we are disrupting the center, breaking through that lethal knot which binds us to a horrific and violent racial structure.

Our work as Followers of the Way is to create a moral imagination where we can begin to see our trust, our actions, our voices flowing out of the ways of Jesus rather than the ways of white supremacy.

Our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving was done with multiple voices, voices coming from various parts of the circle.

Empire/Imperial Ways/Supremacy wants us to listen to one voice, the loudest voice, the what appears to be the most powerful voice. With multiples voices, we had to look, listen, and find the voice of the prayer. We had to turn our bodies to locate the voice.

Before the service I asked two people to hold the bread and the cup anywhere in the circle. The bread and the cup that we were going to break and pour was somewhere in the circle rather than sitting on the table.

When we got to the breaking of bread and pouring of the cup, I called out "who as the bread!?" Cody, our new Young Adult Volunteer, called out "I do!" Jeff walked over to Cody and together they broke the bread.

I called out "who as the cup?!" Kathleen McBride and her kids yelled out "We do!" I walked across the circle and poured the cup with Kathleen and her kids.

For serving the bread and the cup, we usually pass baskets of bread and cup around the circle. One person after another the bread and cup get passed. It's predictable. You can anticipate when the bread/cup are coming to you. You know who is going to serve it to you.

This time we crisscrossed across the open space of the circle. People were given the invitation to walk across the circle to share the bread and cup. Once shared, that person would take the bread and cup and walk to another part of the circle.

In this way, people had to pay attention to each other. They had to ask "have you been served?" If someone said yes, the person with the bread and the cup moved on to someone else, still asking the question "have you been served?"

Imagine....if we did this out in public. Excuse me, are you hungry? Do you know someone who is hungry? Do you need some food? We have some food to share.

I had some fear and anxiety in thinking this through. What if we left someone out? What if someone got ignored?

Then I got over myself. My fears. My anxiety. Trust Pilgrims. Trust the Spirit. Trust this body of Jesus people.

In sharing the bread and the cup in this way, we had to take some risks. Asking "have you been served" has a level of vulnerability to it--you don't know. You had to ask. A connection was created. Empathy was present. The Spirit in her improvisational ways moved through us.

We made eye contact. We paid attention to each other in a new way. We had to look around. We moved in unpredictable, non-linear, multi-directional ways. This counters the linear, one directional way that supremacy seems to work--listen to the white voice, the white body, the white power structure.

Instead, we listened to the voice of the Spirit, the body of God's people, the structure of sharing in order to shape and interact with each other.

Liturgy is the work of the people. Liturgy is NOT the work of a status quo people.

Liturgy invites us into a new kind of work, a new way of imagining, a powerful way of disrupting and dismantling the center.

Tiara Sunday!

May 24th is National Tiara Day. Andy Thomas, Pilgrims PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer at the time, came into my office late in the day on May 24th, a bit peeved that he just found out it was National Tiara Day.

Andy quickly put this day in his 2017 calendar. He sent me a Snapchat to me later on in the evening showing he had properly celebrated National Tiara Day.

I mentioned this to Pilgrim Leisha Reynolds who immediately started strategizing---on Andy's last Sunday at Pilgrims we will wear tiaras in his honor, keeping the tiaras a secret from Andy.

And so we did.

Leisha fired-up Amazon Prime and ordered 50 or so tiaras.

July 31st became "Tiara Sunday" at Pilgrims. During our final hymn we were still gathered around the communion table for our prayers of the people and two of our Pilgrim kids handed out the tiaras.

While one Pilgrim kid was handing out the tiaras, he turned to another Pilgrim and said, "don't ask any questions, I don't know what's happening, just put on the tiara." Then Pilgrim kid looked at Andy and said, "you had something to do with this, didn't you."

Ha!

By the time the hymn ended, we were all wearing tiaras. We gathered around Andy, and Rachel Ford, our summer intern, who was also having her last Sunday, laid hands on them and prayed them off into the world.

Rachel, a now last year student at Vanderbilt Divinity, wrote several "case studies" during her internship. Rachel's last case study focused on "Tiara Sunday" at Pilgrims.

Here is what Rachel wrote:

Looking around the sanctuary, it was impossible to miss all the men in tiaras. Women were wearing tiaras but it was the men in pink and purple tiaras that prompted this reflection. What a bold subversion of traditional understandings of masculinity!

Men wearing tiaras and being vulnerable in a community, all while crowded around a young, sobbing, openly gay religious leader. There were older men in the congregation who had been members for 30+ years who weren’t afraid to show solidarity with Andy, even if it meant donning a tiara for a prayer. There was no hesitation; they didn’t even think twice.

It has caused me to pause and reflect on how those men got to this point. Where did they learn about masculinity, and how did they come to move beyond societal expectations? Who were the role models that paved the way for them? I was also touched by the Pilgrim kids statements (just put on the tiara!) and the presence of all the children in the service.

The older members of the congregation are creating a safe space for those kids to learn and grow. They are the role models, and those kids will grow up better for knowing them. Although not always the easier path, those kids will grow up more open and socially conscious than many of their peers because of their involvement at Pilgrims. The passing down of love and awareness from one generation to the next gives me hope for the world.    

May liturgy be an experience of the passing down of love and awareness from one generation to the next.

Young Pilgrim celebrates Tiara Sunday by placing a tiara around his favorite "lovie".
Young Pilgrim celebrates Tiara Sunday by placing a tiara around his favorite "lovie".

#Blacklivesmatter Liturgy

On July 5th, Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police while selling CD's outside a convenience store. That same week, Philando Castile was killed by Minneapolis police after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her young daughter, were in the car at the same time.

On July 10th at Church of the Pilgrims, our liturgy proclaimed #blacklivesmatter.

Our liturgy at Pilgrims has as solid structure--prelude, call to worship, sharing of thanksgivings, sharing the peace....

Yet we are a nimble bunch. When something horrific happens during the week, we are able to tell the horrific story by making last minute changes to the liturgy. While the structure might stay the same, the content or actions or songs might shift to reflect what's happened to the planet.

This is what we did on July 10th.

We scrambled around that morning, placing 12 candles on the table, filling the font with floating candles, making two #blacklivesmatter banners. One banner went around our communion table. The second one hung from our choir loft.

We had 12 candles on the table to name 11 African-Americans who were killed by police. While the list of African-Americans killed by police is longer than 11, I picked 11 names that were listed in a Washington Post article in early July. We added a 12th candle to represent the many others who have been killed.

Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.
Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.

During our prayer for illumination, two of our youth, Sam and Emma, helped to light the candles while I read the names. We read a few names, sang a song, read a few more names, sang the same song again, read a few more names, closed with the song. This moment was slow and contemplative.

Rachel Ford, our summer intern, was set to preach on excerpts from the Book of Job. Rachel kept the Job texts, pulling in more of her own story of naming, claiming, and resisting the social construction of whiteness.

During prayers of the people, we read the names again. Eleven people in the congregation took turns calling out a name and this time we added the object that was connected to their death.

Alton Sterling, CD

Philando Castile, broken taillight

Eric Garner, cigarettes

The list continued....

We also read the names of the five police officers killed in Dallas during a peaceful #blacklivesmatter march.

I asked two of our elementary aged kids to read two names of African-Americans killed by police during prayers of the people.

This is what happened with one of our kids.

I asked Pilgrim kid to read a name during prayers of the people. Pilgrim kid said yes. Pilgrim kid then went to the bathroom and

turned his shirt inside out. His shirt had a Super Dino cartoon on it and Super Dino was holding a gun.

Pilgrim kid thought it would be inappropriate for him to read a name while wearing the t-shirt. He turned the shirt inside out.

When we include kids in liturgy, when we ask kids to participate in meaningful ways in liturgy they have something to react/respond to. Inviting creates a structured moment, giving kids the experience of making a choice and a decision about how they will respond to the invitation to participate.

In Pilgrims nimble state, we were able to organize our religious life around the killings of Sterling and Castile.

In inviting people to read names, especially two of our Pilgrim kids, folks were able to interpret their individual lives and Pilgrims around #blacklivesmatter.

We're baptized in these waters (baptized in these waters) And in each other's blood (and in each other's blood)

-from American Skin (41 Shots), Bruce Springsteen.

Our Pilgrim kid was given the experience to interpret his clothing and actions in relationship to #blacklivesmatter. This is how our liturgy constructs identity and worldview, and how liturgy can give us the choice to enact those identities and worldviews in order to create a world made new.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #5

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences.

Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week.

The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Friday was “Be the Difference In the World.” This sermon is from evening worship on Friday, the fifth and final day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here.

My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

My third sermon on Pentecost can be found here.

My fourth sermon on Breakfast at the Beach can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Friday).

Exodus 2:1-10

Our stories this week have us beginning and ending with water.

Water is Creation’s bookend to stories that showed us how our Biblical ancestor’s lives were disrupted, turned upside down by God.

In our stories, each person took risks to create a thread of collective voices that gives us a picture of the life of faith.

This is how we want to look at our stories from the week—as a collection of voices and lives that were disrupted, turned upside down, people who were stopped in their tracks, sought a place of belonging, longed for a new type of family, a radical type of love that would accept and nourish them.

What these voices from the week give us is a way to live out our faith.

Paul was blind, couldn’t see or care about how he destroyed lives and relationships.

The young man born blind was healed and could see.

The Pentecost church showed us that in relationship we are called to look, listen, and feel.

Jesus and his disciples showed us that we need to die to certain ways of life in order for new life, the resurrection to take hold of us.

God wants nothing more than for us to be included in God’s story of dying and rising, death and resurrection.

Today our subversive, radical, freedom-bound women in Exodus call us to act.

Pharaoh is trying to prevent the growth of the Hebrew people who are slaves, he’s trying to prevent revolution. If there are more slaves that oppressors, Pharaoh knows the Hebrew slaves will rise up and demand freedom.

Enter the young people. Enter our subversive women, our women who end up disrupting

Pharaoh’s plan and set in motion the liberation of the Hebrew people.

In a prophetic act designed to save Moses’ life, or at least let him live a few more days, Moses’ mom sent him down the river. Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes over once mom places Moses in the Nile River, watching over him, witnessing him float down the river, acting as Moses’ guardian angel as was said this morning. Enter Pharaoh’s daughter, an Egyptian princess. We know what the princess’ dad would have done—Pharaoh would have tipped over the basket.

That was the law.

By law, the princess should have at least just pushed the basket down the river and let someone else deal with the baby.

As Rodger mentioned this morning, the Nile River was a place of death, with thousands of male babies dying in its waters.

The princess, for a moment, subverted the River, turned it upside down as a place of life and new beginnings.

The princess acted, she took a huge risk, broke the law, her father’s law, for the sake of saving baby Moses’ life.

Blindness with Paul and the young man.

Seeing. Looking. Listening with Pentecost.

Feeling. Dying and Rising on the beach.

Now we act.

Those are crucial elements to the life of faith. When we are blind, not paying attention, asleep, numb to the world and those around us….we are called to see, to look, to listen, to feel, to die and rise in order that we can act and be a difference in the world.

On our last night together, I wanted to leave you with some thoughts on how you might transform your Montreat experience once you get back home.

How you might see, look, listen, feel, die, rise, act once you get home.

First: what is critical to be the difference is this--

You are stronger together. You are stronger as a community.

The one voice, the hero voice, the individual has some power.

When you act as a youth group, as a church you increase your power, your ability to make change.

Picture one person from your youth group goes to Session or committee with an idea about something that needs to die in order for new life to begin again at your church.

That’s just one voice. One person. Honestly one voice can be dismissed when you stand in front of those in the room with power.

Now picture your youth group going to Session or committee all of you packed into one room. It will be hard for that group of people to ignore your voice.

One thing I always tell my co-workers, I tell myself this all the time too---you need to come to power with a proposal. Don’t go to your committee with words like “we just wanted to get your feedback on something” or “what do you think of this idea.”

No. Go to Session or your governing body with a proposal.

We want to do this. This new idea needs to happen. This is the plan.This is our hope, our dream for our Church in order  that our church can create space for the resurrection.

With a proposal, a plan, your Session, those in charge, those with power have to react to you.

You are showing them while they have power as far it goes with the structure of your church, you have power with your hopes, dreams and the size of your group.

Always go to power with a proposal. Be organized.

Know that when you go to power with a proposal, you are going to bump up against risk and vulnerability.

You need to take risks to create change. You need to put yourself out there. And that can feel really vulnerable.

People can disagree with you. That disagreement might rattle you. It might rattle a relationship. And we are called to take risks for the sake of new beginnings.

Remember—all you need to do is tell your own truth, like our young man born at birth. Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. Be passionate. Use the religious language you’ve experienced this week. Disrupt ideas. Call for death and dying in order that God can shape new life. Nourish relationships.

Create a place of belonging and welcome. Love difference.

Another way to create change:

Invest in your worship.

Eric, Amanda, Nathan and I have been planning worship for this week since January.

We’ve had numerous conference calls to bring an intention and focus to our worship services.

I learned this in seminary: if you want the world to change, you need to experience change in worship. If your worship stays the same week after week, then really what you are saying is that you don’t want the world to change. How we worship reflects how we see and dream for a world made new.

You’ve experienced new music this week, probably experienced new ways of doing a benediction, new ways of praying like we did last night with silence. These experiences were intentional so you could experience what change feels like.

If your worship is the same week after week—you need to tell your worship folks that when God says to sing a new song, God actually meant a new song.

Another thought on creating change….

Dinner as a family.

Meals with family are crucial. We have a busy schedule in our house and we try to sit down together as much as we can, even if one night we are all eating cereal.

We start off with highs and lows—our kids, Sam, Maddie (12) and Ryan (9) usually groan….why do we always do this….

Maddie and Ryan always offer a high and low to the day. Sam usually passes and listens.

One night we sat down and Ryan asked his dad for a high and a low.

Bob works with homeless folks, and there have been times when Bob has known someone who has died because they frozen to death on the streets or overdosed on drugs.

One night Ryan asked his dad for a high and low.

Bob paused.

Ryan said, “what’s up, did someone die?”

Yes, Bob said. Someone did die today. Tears started to come down Bob’s cheeks.

Maddie kicked into blunt caregiver mode and said, “alright dad, let’s get right to it. Do you need to talk or not talk about. Do you need to be alone or around us.”

Meals are crucial to our sense of belonging as a family, as a community.

We see each other. We can look, listen and feel. This is why Jesus shared breakfast on the beach.

One way of being a difference is sharing meals, even if you are eating together at 9pm and dinner is ice cream.

Creating change idea #3:

Come to The Pilgrimage.

Come to Washington, D.C. to look, listen, and feel the stories of the homeless and poor.

Come to reflect, take risks, step out of your comfort zone, have your lives intersect with the most vulnerable in the nation’s capital.

We have $500 grants our Pilgrimage groups can apply for—we call these grants SEED grants and they are given to Pilgrimage groups who want to start something new, be part of change in the community.

We’ve given out grants to help start community gardens, build picnic tables for a senior citizen center, create blankets to hand out to those on city streets.

Come to The Pilgrimage to be the difference.

Change idea # 4

Take bag lunches out to homeless folks in your city and neighborhood. Our youth and kids at Pilgrims do this—kids like 4 year old kids do this.Our Pilgrimage groups do this, too.

It sounds like no big deal.

We pack up some bag lunches with a sandwich, granola bar, fruit and walk around together, sharing a lunch with those who need one.

But when you share a bag lunch with someone, you share your name, a conversation starts, stories are shared…even for a few minutes….our kids are impacted and remember the experience.

Our confirmation group last year did this, Sam was part of the group.

As we walked along and handed out some lunches, Sam could barely stop asking me questions and Sam is a kid of few words.

Sam asked:

Where do people go to the bathroom around here?

Is there a place for them to shower?

Do the police bother them?

How many homeless people have a job?

Does dad know any of these people?

Sam was seeing Pilgrims neighborhood in a new way and the walk was getting him to ask really important questions about what it means to be homeless in D.C. You want to see your neighborhood through the eyes of those who are hungry, homeless, seeking shelter and clothes. You don’t want to assume what’s going on with the least of these. You and your youth group, your church need to see the streets of your city/town through the eyes of the least of these.

Last thought on how to create change: if you see guacamole in your church refrigerator with an expiration date of 2007, toss it out. Don’t hold on to it. Don’t wonder if someone else will take care of it. The guacamole isn’t serving you anymore.

Montreat:

Everyone in our stories this week took some incredible risks for the sake of a world made new.

And in every story a community, an individual died to ways that weren’t serving them anymore. They participated in God’s invitation to dying and rising in order to create a world made new.

In that dying and rising with Paul, young man born blind, Pentecost community, breakfast at the beach, women in Moses’ life, they were part of a ripple effect, a movement forward, they embodied the Spirit, they lived out a holy welcome and belonging for everyone.

Keep looking, listening, feeling, seeing; let yourself be disrupted, let yourself be healed; let yourself be loved so you can be more loving.

Die to those ways that aren’t serving you, in order that you can be part of God’s story of dying and rising. God wants nothing more for us than to be made new, than to be resurrected for the sake of the planet, God’s home, which is deeply broken and in need of healing.

Montreat: you have been changed. So as you go . . .back to your homes, back to your churches, back to your schools, back to your families and friends,

May you be led into this new truth, this new understanding, this new way of believing, this new way of loving, so things will change, so lives will be different, so you will not return to where you once were.

Because God’s Word is within you.

Amen.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #4 Breakfast on the Beach

Energizers with Eric Wall, Rodger Nishioka, Nathan Proctor and 1200 youth.
Energizers with Eric Wall, Rodger Nishioka, Nathan Proctor and 1200 youth.

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Thursday was “Be the Difference With Your Peers.” This sermon is from evening worship on Thursday, the fourth day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here. My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

My third sermon on Pentecost can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Thursday).

John 21:1-19

Jesus invites us into the risen life, a resurrected life.

This Jesus story in the Gospel of John invites us into a story when everything feels like it’s over, and something entirely new begins again.

When has that been for you?

When something felt like it was over and something entirely new begins again?

Our breakfast on the beach story takes us to death and resurrection, that the resurrection of Jesus means God is always doing a new thing.

God is always with us, God is always around to show us beauty in the present moment, God is always there to show us love in one another and in the neighbors and companions God has given us.

This story today is about death and resurrection, it’s about faithful dying and discovering resurrection, or new life, is always around us.

This is my faithful dying and resurrection story.

My dad died almost four years ago.

My dad had been living with Parkinson’s for about a year. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system that affects movement, slowly, over time.

Parkinson’s is similar to Alzheimer’s in that it creates a very, very long goodbye.

My dad had also been living with arthritis in his spine which made it painful for him to walk.

In moments when humor was needed with our dad’s physical struggles, my twin brother, John, along with our older sister, Paige, would describe our dad’s body as “a hot mess.”

I got the phone call from John, my twin, on a Sunday afternoon.

Dad fell in the backyard. He had a massive heart attack. The paramedics revived him, he’s at the hospital, he hasn’t woken up.

I flew to Columbus early the next morning to be with my mom, Paige and John.

Our dad was in a hospital bed with lots of machines and tubes that went beep over and over again. He was on a ventilator, unable to breath on his own. He could open his eyes, he could hear. But we weren’t sure what he was hearing or seeing.

He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t move. His fall had left him paralyzed.

Within 24 hours it became clear to us that we needed to take my dad off the ventilator.

Our dad was always clear about his wishes for the end of his life—he had it in writing, he had told us verbally what we wanted.

My dad’s hospital room turned into a steady stream of friends and colleagues coming to say goodbye.

I was so taken, so thankful for their courage to come to his bedside, stand next to his dying body, grab his hand, touching the last of him.

My dad’s body wasn’t serving him anymore after his heart attack.

He couldn’t breathe on his own.

His body was paralyzed from the fall, and he had Parkinson’s. My dad’s body wasn’t serving him, his body unable to stay alive without machines.

We needed to let our dad die.

And that’s what we did.

Grief is hard, it’s very hard work. It’s hard emotions.

My 14 year old son, Sam, I mentioned last night, who said it’s easier to look away has told me before that he doesn’t like feelings, his feelings make him feel uncomfortable.

In my grieving, at one point, I told my spouse, Bob, I felt like I spent my days wanting to punch people in the face.

People would ask me simple questions and I would just look at them like “seriously, you have a question about the church database? My dad just died. Back off.”

Bob reminded me that I wasn’t walking around punching people.

My thoughts hadn’t become actions. Yet I knew I was suffering, and I needed some change.

My mind would go back to my dad’s hospital room, picturing his body all hooked up to those machines that went beep, remembering how his body wasn’t serving him anymore.

A question finally came to me “what isn’t serving me anymore?

What in me, in my life isn’t serving me anymore?

What did I need to let go of? What did I need to release? What did I need to die to in order that I could rise, I experience newness?

What did I need I need to die to in my life in order that I could experience a more authentic me?

What did I need to die to, let go of in order that I could love more, share more love?

What did I need to die to in order that I could be transformed, I could be made new, create a new beginning, participate in a risen life now, a resurrected life where I let go of fear and live more boldy for the sake of Jesus.

Let me be very clear about how I am using the words “What I need to die to.” I didn’t think I needed to physically die in order to be experience the risen life.

By using the words “what do I need to die to” I’m not taking about physically dying.

Jesus wants me to live just as Jesus wants you to live. Jesus wants to meet me in this life just as Jesus wants to meet you in his life. Jesus wants me and you alive on right now, right here

There have also been some of us who have been told “I wish the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender part of you would die.” Or “I wish your struggle with gender identity would die” or “I wish your skin that’s black and brown would die.”

This is exactly what happened in Orlando—a man wanted people to die because they were LGBT folks with black and brown skin. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say “what did I need to die to.”

Those things are of our essence, those things are part of our being made in the image of God.

Before my dad died, I had already done some death and dying.

When I was in Atlanta I had to let go of, die to the future I had envisioned for myself.

I had to die to the ways I thought about what it meant to be successful. I had to die to the ways of thinking I had to have all the answers and be perfect.

The Apostle Paul had to die to how he was living in the ways of the Roman establishment. Paul died to the ways of violence in order that he could rise, be made new in God’s love.

The young man born blind at birth had to die to the reality he wasn’t blind anymore, he had a new identity of follower of Jesus.

The crowd around the young man had to die to the young man’s old identity, rise to his new identity. The same with the young man’s parents.

The football team from Olivet, MI from the video this morning in keynote….had to die to what it meant to be a football team.

They had to die to what it meant to score a touchdown.

Justice Miller, the wide receiver died to his own ways of being himself—he said that before that series of plays on the field, he was concerned about himself.  After that, he wanted to make everyone’s day.

What in your life do you need to die to? What in your life is keeping you from loving, from caring for those around you? What needs released?

Maybe it’s you thinking your love doesn’t matter to someone else, that you don’t matter to other people.

Maybe it’s thinking you matter too much, your sense of entitlement needs to die.

Maybe what’s needs to die is the thinking you have nothing to offer yourself, your friends, those around you.

Maybe what needs to die, needs to be released is you think you will look uncool for loving the world.

Maybe what needs to die is the image of yourself, how you look and dress because your image preserves your ego, your sense of self. A lot of times we focus on our image, how we look in order to wall ourselves off from the fear that we’ll be rejected.

Expectations? Priorities? Fear? Anxiety?

Internal voice that tells you to look and be like everyone else. Maybe self-hatred needs to die because you don’t feel you are worthy of God’s love?

Almost on a daily basis, I have a conversation with my internal voice, my inner critic that tells me to stop.

My inner critic tells me that idea I have for worship might make me a target for conflict, I’m not that creative….remember that idea of being a doctor or a lawyer might voice might say……maybe I should have done that instead. You’d probably be better at it.

I know that the dying I have done in the past few year,  the letting go of things that aren’t serving me  like letting my inner critic drive my choices, is connected to my dad’s death.  Silencing my inner critic are moments of resurrection for me.

There are parts of us that we need to die to, die to thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs that aren’t serving us anymore.

We die to those ways in order to create new ways to serve in love.

Why is this dying so important? Why do we need to let go of these parts of ourselves?

Our breakfast on the beach story is about Jesus’ resurrection, and it’s about Jesus death.

You can’t get to Jesus resurrection without claiming the horrific way he died.

God is pushing us to walk right into this story that is about Jesus’ death and dying because God wants so much to include us in God’s resurrection. We can’t get to new life, new beginnings without the experience of some type of dying and God wants nothing more for us than to be resurrected.

After Jesus’ died, as Rodger mentioned this morning, the disciples went back to what they knew—fishing.

Jesus asks for fish—the disciples initially had none. Jesus gives them a bit of instruction because the disciples were fishing on the wrong side of the boat.

This was Jesus way of saying, “ok, when God says to do a new thing, God means a new thing so get on the other side of the boat.”

Once they catch a net full of fish, Jesus immediately invites them to come, have breakfast.

There was a charcoal fire with fish and bread—a really beautiful image.

With the sun rising, Jesus tends to a fire to make a breakfast of fish and bread.

As the disciples are learning to fish again, fishing from the other side of the boat, as Peter is naked, putting his clothes on, jumping off the boat, as the disciples are learning to see Jesus, see him as the resurrected one, as all of this change is going on….

Jesus invited them into a moment of nourishment, of community.

The meal of fish and bread has Jesus was teaching the disciples, yet again, how to be companions, friends with each other.

As I shared in last nights sermon, “companionship” means “with friends” or “with bread”  in Latin.

This is how we are the difference with our peers, our companions, our church members, we stop, we sit down, we share a meal to tend to the ties that bind us. We take care of each other with a meal and conversation.

Considering change is part of who we are, how we are made up as humans and as people of God’s way, nourishing, feeding, caring for each other is crucial.

We need to die to, release, let go of the ways we skip over listening, looking, and feelings the emotions of who and what is around us.

When we skip over moments to be tender and loving and kind, we miss turning towards love.

We need to die to the ways that keep us from realizing Jesus is in front of us and the ways Jesus call us to be companions with each other.

As a Church we can get consumed by keeping the church alive. We can obsess over how many new people members we get in a year, how many are in a youth groups, are we entertaining you all enough.

We can spend all our time on agendas that stay focused on the building and budgets and making sure worship and the choir sounds perfect.

But really…that’s not our work as the Church.

Our work is death and resurrection, dying and rising.

As the Church we are called to practice loving and being loved.

And we need to die to the ways that keep us from loving and being loved.

Montreat—Churches love nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Maybe you’ve heard things like “oh, years ago we used to do this” or “remember when we used to do that….that’s when people loved coming to church.” Or when suggests a new idea, a change in worship and someone says “oh, we can’t change that, that’s not how we do things.”

Jesus death and resurrection tell us that dying and rising is the least comforting way to new life.

Death doesn’t take us to the point where we can finally feel in control of our lives.

It actually does the opposite.

Both death and resurrection toss out the familiar, our comfortable hopes, and re-fashions a future, unhinges us from the past that we cling to.

The disciples went back to fishing on one side of the boat.

Jesus said, “it’s a new day, a new time, time to fish on the other side.”

This is why Montreat the Pentecost story has you all as the ones to dream and envision a world made new.

The way you make a difference as peers is when your church peers stays stuck in the past, consumed with doing the ways of yesteryear over and over again,

Your work is to disrupt those ways, your work, your visioning and dreaming means asking your church why do we do what we do, what we are doing and is what we are doing practicing loving and being loved?

One Sunday at Church of the Pilgrims, my son, Sam, and I were looking for something to eat in the church’s refrigerator.

As we rummaged around the refrigerator, Sam pulled out a thing of guacamole and read the expiration date. Sam said, “Mom, the expiration date on this is 2007.”

After I almost barfed in my mouth, Sam said, “wow, I was 6 years old when this guacamole expired. Then Sam said…. I wonder what I was doing when I was six years old….

Ok, so when your 14 year old starts to get all nostalgic about expired food in the refrigerator….the church refrigerator might just need to die.

We can fear the future of our churches, it can be very hard to let go of the past.

Sam tossed the 2007 guacamole into the trashcan. In an incredibly simple physical act, Sam showed what is needed in so many of our churches—that we need to die to some things, let things go in orderto make room for something new that is needed now….and what’s needed now and always is to live in the ways of God’s love.

Montreat:

Once again, this is why the Pentecost story calls you, the youth, to envision and dream.

Because the adults in the Church are clinging to 9 year old guacamole, clinging to the past, fearful of change and what change might bring.

Sometimes children, youth are more courageous than parents, adults.

Sam’s the one who tossed out the guacamole. He didn’t ask permission. He said this is gross. Tossed it. Done. Finished.

Goodbye guacamole from 2007—you aren’t serving us anymore.

What need to die in order for new life, for us to experience and witness the resurrection?

I asked that question to Pilgrims Session, our governing body, this past March.

So, what here at Pilgrims needs to die in order  to create space for love and compassion to rise up, come alive in us?

Rob Nelb, who is an elder on Session, immediately raised his hand and said,

“I think we need to move coffee hour that we have after worship from the community room down the hall to the sanctuary.”

Rob had noticed that few people were going into our community room down the hallway from the sanctuary after worship, people were staying in the sanctuary. Rob said let’s have coffee hour in the back of the sanctuary after worship.

Rob said, we have all these beautiful and creative and vulnerable experiences in worship—we need to stay in the sanctuary, drink punch, eat salty snacks, and be together in this space that has given us so much life.

Two weeks later coffee hour was in the back of the sanctuary.

And we are much more of a community.

Pilgrims died to a 30 year old way of doing coffee hour for the sake of love, for the sake of strengthening and nourishing relationships at Church of the Pilgrims.

This was Rob being Jesus like, saying we are fishing on this side of the boat with coffee hour in the community room, while everyone is on the other side of the boat in the sanctuary.

And now after worship, with coffee hour on a couple of tables behind the last set of pews, we savor our worship experience and we savor the relationships that have been created and been made new during worship.

What has to die in your church in order for more love to happen?

Something has to die in order for love to happen, there has to be a death in order for love to rise up, come alive, be resurrected.

That’s the story God so lovingly wants for us.

We are called to die to those ways that push us to obsess over things as a Church like longevity and security, significance and being the most popular church on the block.

Remember that Jesus went from having a few thousand in feeding of the 5,000 to a handful of followers to Maundy Thursday when he gathered to share the bread and the cup to Good Friday when he was put to death with 2 others and a handful of people, mostly women, looked on.

Jesus—not exactly the cool kid on the block.

We are called to die to ways that keep us from loving and being loved in order to live into God’s resurrection because God wants nothing more for us than to include us in God’s story of death and resurrection.

The hard part about the work of love is that our part is the dying part. The resurrection is God’s work.

When we moved coffee hour into the sanctuary we didn’t know how it was going to go.

When the Apostle Paul was transformed, the young man healed, the Pentecost community disrupted by the Holy Spirit….something came to an end.

Something died in order that Paul could live in the ways of love, in order that the young man could be part of a new community, in order that the Pentecost church could come alive after the death of Jesus.

My dad’s death called me to ask “what isn’t serving me anymore” and now I’m preaching at Montreat.

Almost two years ago, Mary Goodnight Thomas, one of our co-directors, sent me the email asking me to be the preacher here at Montreat.

First I almost deleted the email because I thought it was a pitch to come to church camp and why would I want to do that?

I called Mary and said “you know I preach to about 80 people on a Sunday.”

Yes, we know said Mary.

You know we have a rainbow flag over our sanctuary doors that says “All Are Welcome.” Yes, we know that.

You know we’ve been ordaining elders who are lgbtq and doing marriage equality before all of that was legal right? Yep, we know.

You know I’m UCC not PCUSA. Yep, know that too.

Ok, let me talk to my spouse Bob and run this by him, thinking oh Bob will shut this down. Who wants to parent three kids solo for 2 weeks?

I tell Bob and he says, “wow that sounds like a great opportunity, you should really do this.”

At that point, the only thing stopping me from saying yes to this was my own fear and anxiety. So I died to that and here I am with you.

We are here to nourish and love, serve and feed, care for each other.

Montreat you can be a difference for your peers, your Jesus companions by trusting that God is doing something new with you, God is doing something new with your peers, your neighbors. You can make a difference by being about love, the dying kind of love.

The kind of love when we step back, take a breath, and we can say, something is dying here and my God it’s still beautiful.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #3 on Pentecost

Glow sticks as Pentecost chaos light up Montreat sky.
Glow sticks as Pentecost chaos light up Montreat sky.

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Wednesday was “Be the Difference in Your Church.” This sermon is from evening worship on Wednesday, the third day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here. My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Wednesday).

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost for us Montreat the day we name dreams and see visions and this Holy Spirit of ours is no tame spirit.

Our Holy Spirit is less than predictable in order for God’s dreams can be released through us.

Here is my Pentecost story: I celebrated Easter while I was in Atlanta with the Open Door Community, the community I worshipped with while I lived in Atlanta during my JVC year.

Open Door is an intentional Christian community that shares meals and clothes with the homeless of Atlanta, makes visits to those in the Atlanta jail and on Georgia’s death row.

When I worshiped at Open Door, I worshiped with middle class folks, people whose stomachs rumbled with hunger, people who used to be in jail and prison, family members of those on death row in Georgia, and those who were homeless on Atlanta streets.

That Easter morning, while I was in Atlanta, the Open Door had a breakfast for close to 500 homeless folks in downtown Atlanta—that was Open Door’s Easter worship…living out the resurrection by sharing food with the most hungry.

There I was at 5am with volunteers and homeless folks. I was given the job of boiled eggs. I would hand out one boiled egg to each person to go along with their coffee, sausage, and grits full of butter and cream.

As the Easter sun was coming up, hundreds of homeless folks were gathered for breakfast.  Those who had made the food for hoping for enough eggs and sausage and grits.

The energy was palpable as people who came to eat were hungry, volunteers were rushing around non-stop, trying to keep on top of tasks and stay organized.

It was chaotic and lovely all at once.

I was busy at my boiled egg station—very determined to be the best boiled egg hander outer of all time. Place egg on top of grits in Styrofoam bowl. Egg on top of grits.

I placed eggs on top of grits for 2 hours. As things were winding down, as the late comers came to the line for the last of the food, as my body and brain started to slow down, a guy came to my boiled egg spot, asked for an egg,

I placed it on the bowl of grits. I looked up. We made eye contact.

The man said, “Happy Easter.”

And I just froze in place. Stopped in my boiled egg tracks.

Happy Easter I said back, almost stunned.

Right. It’s Easter.

For 2 hours I had been super focused on my job as the boiled egg woman in the chaotic scene of sharing breakfast with hundreds of hungry folks.

My homeless friend stopped me in my tracks, like Paul with that light from the heavens, and my friends 2 words scorched my heart.

Yes. It’s Easter.

The day when love and connection and community and the radical act of sharing things like boiled eggs show that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

My homeless friends two words created a connection—I was so busy handing out eggs I forgot about the people in front of me.

I remember leaving that Easter breakfast realizing I had just felt (not just thought about), felt the resurrection.

Just as the parents in our story from yesterday missed the moment to say “We love you” to their son, I was missing the moment with the other 499 homeless folks who came for a boiled egg.

I wonder……when you’ve been in a place, where chaos and noise and confusion were everywhere and all of a sudden you got a crystal clear message.

Something just stopped you in your tracks.

When you realized that you weren’t paying attention to the loudest message, you were hit in the face with the clearest message.

The Apostle Paul was stopped in his tracks, blind, couldn’t see until the scales fell off his eyes and he was able to see Jesus’ message of love, sharing and non-violence.

The parents and crowd of our friend the young blind man were stopped in their tracks, confused, agitated over the healing sight received.

Now we are at Pentecost, the day we not only see, we see and we hear and feel the Spirit.

When my homeless friend said “Happy Easter” those words went through me. I felt them. We made eye contact. We heard each other. And I felt his words in me, my heart, my brain, my spirit.

And I just went that Easter morning to serve some boiled eggs.

What I got, again, through the words of my homeless friend, was God turning me upside down, dumping me on my head, and saying pay attention—share that boiled egg with some love, some compassion.

Not just plunk goes the egg on the grits.

In our Acts story, people had gathered together for a spring grain harvest, a Jewish celebration called Shavout.

These friends of Jesus were still heartbroken over his death.

Yes he had been resurrected yet Jesus physically wasn’t there anymore. And that must have been really sad.

For those of us who have gone through loss and grief, community gatherings and predictability after a death can be important.

This would have been their first Shavout without Jesus.

Shavout was going to be a predictable experience—something the people had done over and over again, something they could count on.

Jesus’s friends weren’t gathering because they knew God was going to blow the doors open and this incredible Pentecost Day was going to happen.

A simple, planned feast of grains turned into an experience of confused, chaotic, multi-lingual, Spirit-driven outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Where have you been and the unexpected happens?

Have you been somewhere, expecting and needing things to go “as planned” and everything was disrupted?

Where all of a sudden you realized you had no idea what was going on?

When you thought you were in charge, or you were the one in control or you knew what to expect?

Do you see and hear the patterns in our stories this week?

When did you think you had it all figured out, when did you think you knew where life was headed, when the notion of family was disrupted to mean the body of Christ?

The Holy Spirit was let loose on Pentecost in order to for those Pentecost folks to hear these prophetic words from Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, your sons and daughters shall prophesy, they shall tell God’s truth, your young ones shall see vision, your older ones shall dream dreams.

 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophesy.

Our God is a dreamer and God has been dreaming since the beginning.

From chaos to order at Creation God dreamed of beauty and community for all of life.

After the flood, God dreamed of life again. God dreamed for our Biblical ancestors who struggled to survive in the ancient middle eastern desert.

As the Israelites imagined liberation, God dreamed for their freedom.

As Mary and Joseph prepared to become parents, God dreamed for family and love.

As the baby Jesus grew, was presented at the Temple; as Jesus found his own voice, after Jesus almost got run off a cliff, God dreamed.

God dreamed for life as Jesus died on a cross, and when God did an amazing thing and made Jesus alive again, God kept on dreaming.

Paul’s life was transformed by God’s dream of a community of Jews and Gentiles.

The young man born blind had dreams as he begged on the streets, he had more dreams after he became a Follower of the Way.

I love what Rodger said this morning about who these words are directed to: the youth, sons and daughters (youth again), older folks, and slaves.

The directive to see visions, dream dreams and prophesy didn’t come to the powerful and in charge.

The task of dreaming, visioning, prophesying wasn’t given to royalty, the military, or those we typically think of being in-charge and being the experts on visions.

Again, as Jesus can flip our lives upside down, Jesus and the prophets flip upside down our understanding of power, our understanding of who is powerful in the name of Jesus, how we see communities organized—

Dreaming for the sake of God starts with those we most often overlook.

And these dreams, God’s dreams….. aren’t just happy go lucky dreams.

These aren’t magical, far off and away dreams like a Disney movie.

God’s dreams are for a world made new. Our planet is broken—fractured, polluted, impoverished, starving….

God dreams for a world made new where there is healing and wholeness, love and sharing, where Creation can breathe without filling out lungs with pollution.

The Holy Spirit scorched those Pentecost folk, tossed out the original plan for their festival, tossed it all into the air, pushed everyone out of their comfort zone in order to tell the truth about God’s dream and vision for the planet, in order to get folks dreaming about a world made new.

And that truth is this: the seeing, the knowing, the hearing, the feeling that comes to us from the Holy Spirit as we live as followers of the Way are not for ourselves alone.

What does a world made new look like? It means that my homeless friend in Atlanta wouldn’t have to go to a parking lot on Easter morning to get a boiled egg.

God’s dream for my friend would be he’d have his own home where he could cook his own egg, possibly with his family; my homeless friend would have a job that paid well and an apartment that he could afford.

Everything got tossed up in the air on that Pentecost Day, got set on fire because God’s dreams;

God knows we need to be turned upside down, our doors need to be blown open and our hair needs to be set on fire to get our attention, pull us out of our routines, out of our places of privilege and power in order that we can dream in the ways of God.

The Pilgrimage is the primary outreach ministry of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. where I am one of the pastors.

The Pilgrimage is set-up like a hostel inside Pilgrims building and we welcome youth and college groups all year round to do service learning and reflection around urban poverty and homelessness.

8,000 folks are homeless in DC on any given night. Almost 500 of those folks are homeless youth—young people your age living on the streets or in someone else’s home.

So take all 500 or so of you and put you on the streets of DC for the night and that’s our homeless youth.

When groups come to The Pilgrimage we tell them right away to listen, look, and feel.

Listen to the stories of the poor and homeless. Look for the ways the Spirit is at work on the streets of D.C. caring for those who are neglected and rejected.

Our Pilgrimage groups open their eyes, their ears so they can hear and feel stories of folks they might otherwise walk past on a daily basis.

We want our Pilgrimage groups see how the Spirit comes along and breaks things wide open, our wild, fierce Holy Spirit that comes to places of brokenness and seeking and longing and incredible emptiness and that Spirit rushes in like a mighty wind in the shape of a bagged lunch, a hot meal, a warm, dry blanket, a meaningful conversation.

Our Pilgrimage groups listen to the stories of the poor and homeless while they are with us.

Listening to stories is crucial to disrupting myths and stereotypes about homeless folks—the myth that homeless folks are lazy, uneducated, don’t want to work, are choosing to be homeless.

Our Pilgrimage groups hear stories like these:

They hear from David, the Pilgrimage’s own Poet-in-Residence, and his work of tending to his depression and caring for his heart disease.

David lived on a bus stop for several years while homeless in D.C., living with depression and health concerns. David now has his own apartment and a team of doctors at Georgetown Hospital who care for him.

Pilgrimage groups hear the story of John who lost his job at the same time his home burned down.

He lived in his car in a shopping mall parking lot for a while before he started living on the streets. For John, homelessness was an exhausting experience. “it was hard to look beyond whatever day it was.”

They hear the story of Steve who was involved with drugs and alcohol at a young age. His mom was incredibly abusive. In 2005 Steve became homeless. Steve says, “As I walked down the streets of DC, I saw people on every single park bench, and it hit me: They’re homeless, and I am too.”

Steve found a bench and stayed there for 18 months. He met a volunteer from a homeless care and outreach van who asked Steve, “Would you allow me to help you?” Steve said yes.

As our Pilgrimage groups hear and feel these stories of homelessness, you can see the scales falling from their eyes. You can see the mud getting washed away and clarity coming—our Pilgrimage groups start to see Steve, David, T, John are people with faces, names, families, people with hopes and dreams for their lives.

It’s a Pentecost moment when our Pilgrimage groups ideas, myths, stereotypes, assumptions get tossed into the air like the chaos of the original Pentecost day.

I was driving to a soccer tournament with my 14-year-old son, Sam a couple of weeks ago. We were at a stop light when we saw a woman holding a cardboard sign that read, “Homeless. Please help.”

Sam turned his eyes away from the woman, looked at me and said, “Mom, it makes it easier if I don’t look, if I turn away.”

Yep. Sam’s right. It does make it easier.

When we turn away, don’t see or look for the hungry and homeless, it does make it easier to ignore homeless folks.

When have you looked away?

When have you looked away because you didn’t want to hear or feel the story of someone who was hurting?

When have you looked away because someone who was homeless, hungry, sick made you feel anxious or uncomfortable.

When has your church looked away to the homeless and hungry—those living on your streets, those hungry in your city and living on someone else’s couch?

When has your church said “it’s easier if we don’t look, if we turn away.”

Our Pilgrimage groups hear and feel the dreams of David, T, Steve, and John.

Dreams of a job. Dreams of a healthy body. Dreams of medication for depression. Dreams of a home. Dreams of a world made new where folks aren’t living on the streets, kids aren’t living on someone else’s couch, dreams where families love rather than hurt, dreams of living a sober life.

God dreams for a world where all have homes, all have food, all have enough.

Groups come to The Pilgrimage to practice dreaming—we can get out of practice in dreaming with God.

We plod along in our routines, conforming to the ways around us.

We can be the difference in our churches when we dream.

Montreat: This is the difference you can make in your back home church.

Let’s picture this:

Your youth group goes back to your church, you all go to a committee meeting and an adult will probably  have a nice, typed out agenda of the meeting, everything will be in order and then your youth group blurts out

“God has dreams for hungry folks to have food. God has a dream for everyone to have a home. God has a dream for everyone to be cared for when they are sick. What First Presbyterian Church of “our city” are we going to do about those dreams?”

If those committee folks stumble with their words, say that’s not on our agenda, and act like the parents of the blind young man and say, “Um. No idea, go ask that other committee. They meet tomorrow night” you keep telling God’s truth about God’s dreams.

Your youth group can be the difference, make a difference when you disrupt how your Church conforms to the ways we ignore the poor by telling them:

We dream of a church where everyone is welcome.

We dream of a place we all can call home. We dream of a world where justice is flowing, with hope and peace growing, God's will is done. Make it so, make it so Church.

We bring our dreams for a world made new to the communion table tonight.

Our table where we will share in the meal of bread and the cup is a place for us to dream.

It’s free drink for the thirsty. It’s free food for the hungry, healing for the broken and hurt, love for the outcast, a gentle touch for those we’d rather not touch.

The meal of bread and cup is rest for the weary. Like we’ve been saying all week, everyone born belongs at the table.

When we gather in Jesus name we gather as companions which in Latin means “with bread” or “friendship with bread.” The table lets us embody that companionship and belovedness.

This is Jesus’ meal where we proclaim like a scorching fire, like a powerful wind blowing doors and windows open, that we all have dreams for a world made new, that a new world is possible.

Every time we come to the table, we are made new and we proclaim it all in the name, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul was made new. The young man was made new. I was made new and will continue to be made new.

You have been made new and will continue to be made new. Your families have been and will be made new with a Pentecost Spirit.

New life, fresh life, full life is always God’s story for the Church and each of us.

And for that we give God thanks.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Young Man Born Blind"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Tuesday was "Be the Difference in Your Family." This sermon is from evening worship on Tuesday, the second day of the conference. My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Tuesday).

Matthew 1:1-16

John 9: 1-34

Jesus gives us another story of life getting turned upside down.

Yesterday we had the Apostle Paul whose life was flipped upside down while on the way to Damascus.

I told part of my story of Jesus turning me upside down. I wonder what story came up for your yesterday of life disrupted, life turned upside down.

Our story today gives us a young man, probably around the age of 14 or 15, who was blind, he was homeless, begging on the streets.

Jesus cakes this young man’s eyes with mud and in an act that seems quite similar to baptism, the young man was sent by Jesus to wash the mud off his eyes in the pool of Shiloam and, like Paul, had sight restored.

Like Paul, our young man was born anew with the waters of Creation.

Many stories with Jesus, when Jesus initiates a moment of change, when someone or something is transformed, when there is a new beginning in Jesus’ name, a crowd of people usually get very nervous, and uncomfortable and anxious.

I wonder if you’ve ever had that?

When you are part of something hat is changing and your heart starts to race, brain starts to jump with thoughts, anxiety starts to kick in.

Anxiety starts to kick in the crowd in our story because our young man had changed.

The young man was known around the city as being blind, being a begger.People have known this young man, who doesn’t even have a name in the story, all his life as blind.The crowd and his parents have known him as “the blind man” and “the blind begger.”

That’s how people talked about him, how they referred to him—the blind begger. Those two words shaped and formed our young man’s identity. Those two words “blind begger” shaped how people knew him, talked to him and interacted (or didn’t interact) with him.

The young man was in a box when it came to who he was and how he was known to others.

I wonder if you’ve ever been put in a category, placed in a box of how you are known? You feel like you’re seen as just one thing.

You’re just the football player. You’re just the musician. You’re just the kid to be bullied. You’re just the smart kid, the gay kid, the liberal kid, the conservative kid, the artistic kid,  the kid who lives in “that part” of town, your just the Christian kid. Or you’re the kid who tripped on the field in marching band. Or the one goalie who missed the penalty kick.

Or the one with divorced parents, or the uncle who drinks too much at the bar down the street, or the one who has an estranged cousin.

For lots of reasons, most of them not helpful or healing, we can get boxed in, only seen by others as one thing.

As if people just call you “the smart kid” and act as if you don’t have a name or that there’s anything else about you.

In keynote this morning, Roger said this morning we can’t live compartmentalized lives. We can’t live fully when we are put in a box, when people define us by one thing.

Then what happens when things shift and change.

What happens if your conservative or liberal shifts. Or you are no longer the football player or swimmer, you’re no longer a musician. You’re the kid whose parent are no longer married.

This happened to the Apostle Paul in our story yesterday.

After his call to follow Jesus’, people in Damascus didn’t know what to do with him.

“Isn’t he the one who was wreaking havoc among those in Jerusalem who called on God’s name?”

How can this be the same man?

When I was coming to realize that Jesus was the way for me.

I wasn’t the Ashley that my family and friends knew growing-up.  They had to let go of who I was and embrace the change I was going through.

Has this ever been for you?

That was our crowd today after our friend, the young man, was able to see.

In this deeply unsettling moment, the crowd reacts with questions: Is this not the man who used to be a beggar? Isn’t this the blind man? How were your eyes opened? Who are you? What I love about the young man in this story is how he responds to these questions.

He just kept telling his own truth.

Folks kept asking “what happened, what’s going on” like they are trying to collect data for a research project and the young man’s response never seemed to satisfy the people’s need to know.

The young man just kept telling his own truth. The crowd kept asking “is this the same man?”

The young man kept saying Yes, it’s me. It’s true. I am the man.

He had to say this over and over again.

High school has come to an end for some of you, it will come to an end at some point for the rest of you.

You might be getting questions, “what are you doing after graduation?” or “what school are you going to?  or “what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” You may be getting these questions over and over again.

That’s when you tell your own truth and that truth might be “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.” And that’s OK because it’s your truth.

Do you see what the Gospel is giving you permission to do? The Gospel is giving you permission to be yourself, no one else.

The young man seems to be pretty annoyed at one point just proclaiming, “one thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see.”

When questions would fly at me when I started to change, I would get really frustrated with myself because I never seemed to have enough words to explain what was going on with me.

I would get questions like, “what’s going on?” “why are you doing this?” “do you really have to do this Atlanta thing?”

Those questions were tough for me to hear in the moment.

When I look back I can have some compassion for those questions because I know at times when I’m face-to-face with something that is beyond my own experience, I can scramble for some sense of security.

And in those moments of scrambling for security, a sense of control I can lose a moment of connection with the person in front of me.

Even if someone is having a different experience than our own, even if it appears we can’t even relate to what’s going on with the other person we can still have a connection.

I wonder what it would have looked like or felt if someone in the crowd would have asked the young man, “what is it like to see now? Is this a big shock? What was it like to see your mother’s face? What was it like to see and touch your father’s brown skin?

What are you going to miss about being blind? You aren’t on the street corner begging anymore, now what do you hope to do?”

What question would you want to ask the blind man, a question that would create a connection?

Healing like with the blind man, with the Apostle Paul, with me…. was change.

Healing with Jesus usually means change and change is always hard, especially with those who are closest to us like family.

The parents of the young man are included in this experience of change, the escalation of tension and questioning.

“Is this your son?” they were asked.

The parents respond with “We know that this is our son, that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees. Ask him; his is of age. He will speak for himself.”

This sounds pretty awesome. Parents saying our child is old enough to tell his own story. Ask him! The parent’s words sound so empowering!

And then we find out the young man’s parents said “go ask our son” because they were afraid, afraid because people were already getting kicked out of the synagogue for following Jesus.

The young man’s parents were afraid that if they spoke about the change their son was experiencing AND Jesus in the same sentence, they might get kicked out of their synagogue.

I picture my own parents trying to explain my movement towards living in Atlanta, then going to Union Seminary in New York City to try to figure out this thing called ministry.

I picture my parents at a party and their friends ask, “so we heard Ashley moved to Atlanta?

And now she’s going to seminary? What’s seminary and what’s that about?”

I see my parent’s faces becoming flushed, anxiety rising and them blurting out “No idea what that’s about! Go ask her!”

Their response rooted in their own unknown as parents, their insecurity about what I was doing, who I was becoming, that they really didn’t have much of a say any more about the path my life would take.

I picture a parent in their neighborhood grocery store, standing there examining the price of milk when someone comes up and asks “Hey, is your son is gay? That’s what I’m hearing. Is that true?”

In a flash the words start to fall in that parent’s mind “don’t tell the truth. What will people think of me, our family? How am I to even explain him being gay?

“Will my son be safe from harm which is a real fear considering 50 plus parents in Orlando are grieving the death of their child.”

The parent in the grocery store really responds, “Go ask him” after stumbling through words.

There are times when parents don’t have as much courage as their children.

There are times when as parents we let our own fears and anxieties get in the way of being supportive.

Being a family is hard especially when change and identities of how we are known to each other shifts and gets disrupted.

Just ask Jesus. Jesus knew what it meant to be family.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went back to his hometown only to find his family and friends having a really hard time adjusting to the radical nature of his life and work.

Jesus’ family had such a hard time with who Jesus had become they tried to run him off a cliff.

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus looks around a crowd and says “here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever loves and hopes and dreams with God are my brothers, sisters and mother.”

Jesus casts a net wide when it comes to what it means to be family and it means that for everyone born, there is a place at the table, Jesus draws each of us deeper into his community of welcome and love.

This is what Jesus did for the young man born blind. While Jesus restored sight to the young man, the real healing was the young man now being part of a community that was going to love and welcome him.

This is what Jesus did for Paul—Jesus took a violent man who disregarded human life and brought him into the community of love and welcome.

The young man’s community and family structures weren’t giving the young man the support, the love he needed. Jesus was creating those structures to welcome and love those whom the structures were failing.

Like the young man, Paul was able to see again. Paul’s real healing was Jesus loving and accepting Paul.

We see this wide circle, sacred, incredible embrace of family in Jesus’ family tree, in the genealogy of Jesus.

Forty plus generations of people are claimed in Jesus family tree and as we talked about this morning, it isn’t a perfect Instagram picture of love and acceptance. In Jesus tree we see a loving family (possibly biological, possibly not), a messy and complicated family, a broken family, a mixed-up family.

Jesus’ family tree has it all: those who suffered from violence, those who were violent, those who loved, those who were rejected, those who dominated and those who were dominated.

Jesus’ tree includes five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.

It is significant these women are included because they can easily be dismissed and ignored. In our keynote this morning, Derek, from Montgomery Ohio noticed there are only 5 women in the family tree of Jesus. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary, represent those in family trees who have been silenced.

Picture your family tree right now. Picture those who are loving. Those who are struggling. Those who are broken and suffering.

Those who have been forgotten, those who have died, those who embrace everyone in the family. Those who have a tendency to judge and question. Picture your kinship, your kinfolk right now. Jesus gives us a family tree that is full of people’s whose lives were turned upside down by God and faced rejection and questioning, people who wondered about who they belonged to.

Just like Paul. Just like the young man born blind. And we can’t get to Jesus,  we can’t have Jesus without this tree of imperfect, faithful, messed up community of people. We can’t have the story of the young blind man without his parents.

I can’t tell my own story without talking about my imperfect, broken family. My grandfather was abusive to my grandmother. When my grandfather died, my dad and his sisters couldn’t muster the strength to have a funeral. As much as I don’t want to think about that, my grandfather and grandmother are part of my story.

Can you tell your story without talking about your family? You can’t. There is no you without your family tree. What it means to follow Jesus means seeing family in a new way. That was the real healing in this story of the young man—he found a new way and community to be loved.

And Jesus’ family is where Jesus initially learned about the bonds of kinfolk, his family taught him to cherish the connection and bonds of kinship.

Jesus knows what it means to be family. Roger brought that up this morning—families shape us in all kind so of ways.

I imagine young man’s experience with the crowd, with his parents shaped his welcome and acceptance of others.

Later on, in life, when someone came up to the young man and said, “you’ll never believe this, I was blind and now Jesus restored my sigh.” I would like to imagine the young man saying “oh that is beautiful, come on into our worship, we are gathering in this house to share a meal and sing songs and pray together.”

Rather than “really? You can see? You? Please. I didn’t see it myself so must not have happened.”

Our own experiences of rejection and heartache can give us strength to follow someone like Jesus and can shape the communities we are part of.

Paul did this—he knew God trusted him even with his past as a violent agent for Rome. Paul experienced in an incredible way what it means to be trusted,  to be welcomed, to accepted. Paul continued that work as he organized Jews and Gentiles to be one body as the early church. We can take our differences, and we all have something that is different about us, and allow those differences to shape us to be the followers of Christ we want to be.

That’s our work as Jesus’ family—to claim our differences, to allow those difference to shape how we welcome and love each other. That’s the work of the kinfolk of Jesus—the community we call Church.  Can we talk about our faith story, our relationship to the Church without talking about the 40 generations of those in Jesus family tree?

We can’t. Our faith stories are part of those 40 generations and those stories teach us about the faith.

In the keynote this morning, Jane from South Bend, Indiana said the genealogy shows that Jesus is related to generations of important people. That’s our family. If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us.

Can we talk about our churches the stories of our Churches without talking about those in Jesus family tree? No. We can’t.

In our keynote this morning, Jackson, from Gulf Breeze Florida said the genealogy is like a prologue to a book, the gets your ready for what’s to come. And Jake from Knoxville, TN said it’s important to understand where Jesus came from because all those stories tie into Jesus.

If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us, then kinfolk to the Church.

Which means as a Church it isn’t perfect and orderly relationships that shape us.

As Rodger told the genealogy this morning, your “ooh” and “aaah’s” and “oh’s” and “boo’s” sounded out the mess of these relationships.

These relationships that are a mess are the ones that guide us in our faith.   There’s pretty much no way around this. It would be nice to have a Church where the relationships looked like a present covered with unicorns and glitter, tied together with a pretty bow.

Sometimes we do that to our churches. We try to look perfect. Be perfect. Hide our imperfections.

Do you ever find that with your families or your churches?

Folks try to hide the hard stuff, the struggles.

When Roger told the story this morning of his grandfather dying and the conversation Roger had with his own dad.

It was time for Rodger’s dad to tell that story to Rodger the time had come, and with that story Roger had a more truthful, more expansive, more honest story of his family.

Jesus is about truth-telling. Jesus is about expanding whose lives and stories are included in family trees.

Bottom line is this: All stories are welcome, no exceptions. Jesus calls us to create a family, the Church, out of imperfections, out of brokenness, out of our vulnerabilities because that’s who we are.

There’s pretty much no way around that either.

We are a Church of the young blind man. Of Paul. Of the 40 generations of people in Jesus’ family tree.

Jesus is calling us to create a church that embraces and welcomes all the us—the joys, differences, and brokenness.

That’s how love enters. The parents of the young man missed the moment to say “we love you” when he regained his sight, when he was healed and transformed.

Instead they got all wrapped up in fear and anxiety.

We have those people in our lives, too, those who have missed moments to show love and support.

Can you picture that person?

Someone who missed the moment to share love with you when life was changing and shifting.

When someone is hurting in our churches, Jesus wants us to ask “how can we love you?

How can we support you?” The same goes for our families.

That’s how we create space for love to enter people’s lives in their brokenness.

And that’s what the parents missed in our story today—they missed that moment as their son was changing and shifting and being healed by Jesus—they missed the moment to share love. The young man’s parents instead conformed to fear and anxiety.

This is like Ananias and Paul. Paul had to let go of conforming to the ways of status quo and establishment. Ananias trusted God that Paul was to be welcomed into Jesus’ family, the words “you are my brother” affirmed Paul’s leadership, showed Paul’s transformation was of value.

You are my brother said Ananias. You are my kinfolk.  You are now family. In a way Anaias said “if you are kinfolk to God, kinfolk to Jesus then you are kinfolk to me.”

Last night I asked you to think about your Ananias. Who was your Ananias who loved and supported you when life turned upside down? We can bring that person into this story, too. Like Ananias to Paul, that person treated you like family, like kinfolk.

Now picture the person(s) who have put you in a box, seeing you as just that one thing.

Now picture the person who missed the moment is offering love and support during a time of change.

All 3 of those people---that’s family. Add those folks names to Jesus’ family tree.

Who is my family? To whom do I belong?

Jesus had a long family tree full of promise and deliverance, with misfits and adoptions, betrayal and reunion, love and hope.

We can be a difference in our birth families, in our church families, in Jesus’ family tree when we tell the truth about the imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power struggles.

We can start living with the truth, we can tell our own truth, empowered to use our voice to testify to the love found when we live as God’s family.

May we see with new eyes to see the person in front of us as a companions in Christ.

May it be so.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Call of Paul"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 the second week. The theme was "Making a Difference" with a sub-theme each day. I preached this sermon the first evening of worship. The liturgy for this evening can be found here. 

Acts 9:1-22

The Call of Paul

Theme: Making a Difference. 

Montreat Youth Conference 2016

Weeks 1 & 2

What strikes me about the Apostle Paul is how his life was so on track.

Paul seemed so sure about his life before his call to follow the way of Jesus, so sure of himself. Paul was a man on a mission as he moved his way through the ancient Middle East, and he moved through the city and desert landscape like a one-man wrecking crew.

Paul was violent. Incredibly violent.

As Paul would go into cities, he would gather up followers of Jesus, followers of The Way, and haul those people off to prison, or worse.

Paul would write about his early life later on in the Book of Acts:

I threw believers into jail, left and right, voting for their execution whenever I could. I stormed their meeting places. I bullied them into cursing Jesus. I was a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating those who believed in Jesus.

Paul was driven, violent and living life in one way and one way only.

I wonder if you have ever had an experience like this. Minus the supreme violence.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like your was life tracked? So sure about the way your life was going. So certain that what you were doing was the way, the one way, the only way.

As I was growing-up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, I was certain I would be a doctor.Or a lawyer. I would be a professional that made a lot of money, would go to our country club, have a profession that eventually I could quit so I could stay at home with kids who I would have with my husband who would also be a doctor or lawyer or banker.

That was the dream.

And this was my community—a place full of wealth and status and nice cars and expectations that this was the way to live.

This was my track. My focus. My certainty.

This was the dream that my community, my family, my parents imparted upon me.

The image of my future was shaped at an early age giving me little room to imagine or envision anything different.

People were doctors. So I could be a doctor. People were lawyers. Maybe I’d be a lawyer.

Why would I ever want anything else?

Like a huge flash of light, certainty can be disrupted.

As the Apostle Paul was walking the road to Damascus, on his way to round up more followers of Jesus and haul them off to prison or worse, he was struck to the ground, light flashing all around him.

Paul heard this voice, “What in the name of Lord are you doing?” Paul dropped to his knees, practically unable to move until some kind strangers came along and helped him to Damascus.

I wonder what those 3 days in Damascus were like for Paul when Paul’s certainty got pulled out from under him.

I wonder if Paul was shaking or scared or gasping for breath or just in a deep bewilderment about what was happening to him, his body, his mind, his “what’s next.” What questions were rushing through Paul as he sat in Damascus, blinded and taken down by the Holy Light.

I wonder if you’ve ever been stopped in your tracks? Your certainty disrupted and turned on its head.

As if you were knocked down by a light, gasping, wondering, shaking, thinking “what is happening.”

The flash of light from the heavens that encircled me, knocked me to the ground came in the form of the religion department at Denison University where I went to college.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. I went to church but I kind of hated it. I was a shy kid in a 2,000 person church. I felt horribly uncomfortable most of the time in youth group and in worship. The thought of going to a place like Montreat? Forget it.

At Denison I stumbled upon the religion department and there the light flashed.

I discovered the stories of Jesus. I became curious about how theology is part of social transformation. I realized what I was learning about our liberating, God and Jesus was impacting how I saw the world and my place in it. I started to find that God was becoming a way for me to find my own voice, my own path, my own way.

And it wasn’t the way of a banker or a lawyer or a doctor. That image of my future was disrupted, tossed up into the air and I found myself wrestling, struggling, gasping for air as I started to realize all the change that was going on with me.

It was just that I didn’t want to be a big time professional anymore. I was struggling with who I was, feeling uprooted with belonging and connection.I had grown up thinking my life was going to be a certain way and now all those thoughts and dreams and images were all jumbled up.

My parents were appalled at the theology, the God-talk, I was learning. They were baffled at why my life was changing, why I was changing. Who wouldn’t want to be a doctor and go to a country club?

They were certain that Dr. Woodyard, my theology professor, was brainwashing me.

During my senior at Denison I told my parents that after I graduated I was going to do the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, JVC, a domestic peace corps type program similar to PCUSA’s young adult volunteer program.

When I shared this news, my parents flipped out.I still remember the phone call. I was anxious, excited to tell them. Hey, I’m going to do this JVC thing, live in Atlanta, Georgia, live in community, make about $75 a month, work with poor and homeless folks. It’s going to be great!

No. I heard. No, you’re not doing this. Why don’t you just be a banker they said.

With those words, I dropped to my knees in a puddle of tears. In comes Sara, one of my roommates. Sara comes in, asks what’s going on.

I tell her. Sara says,“Oh, you are going to do this alright. You’re going to Atlanta.”

I went to Atlanta.

Sara was my Ananias. She hugged me, tenderly, and said “Go. Do this JVC thing.”

Ananias gently loved Paul as Paul was on the threshold of moving forward in the ways of Jesus, leaving the life of violence and destruction behind. In that moment in Damascus, Ananias gently laid his hands on Paul and said “Brother Paul, Jesus sent me so you could see in a new way and let you know you are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

With that Paul could see.

Sara told me to go to Atlanta, go live in this new way, so I could learn to see the world through the eyes of Jesus.  Ananias said to Paul go now in the ways of love and compassion, go in the ways of the Spirit, love the poor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothes to those without. Sara with her hug and words of affirmation, told me to do the same.

Who is your Ananias? Who is that person who has loved you when life has came to a grinding halt, when life took a new turn, a new way?

When I was doubting and scared in my puddle of tears, Sara’s words let me see and know “yes I am going to Atlanta and yes I will still be loved.”

Who is that person who has loved you when you had a plan and life got turned upside down?

Who is that person you told your parents were divorcing and that person said “your parents are divorcing and you are still my best friend.”

Who is that person when you big time messed-up, gave you a hug, a reminder you weren’t alone. Who is that person you told that you were really struggling with who you were said “thank you for telling me.”

We all need a companion like Ananias, like my friend Sara.

Ananias was a stranger to Paul and Paul was open to this strange person who became the one to confirm a new way of life for Paul.

Are you, Montreat, open to that friend, that companion, the stranger, that strange one, who might be telling you that as life comes to a thunderstruck halt, as life takes a turn, God might be calling you to get up and walk even more deeply in the compassionate ways of Jesus?

When your someone looks at you and says “actually not this way, your life is now going that way” can you trust that voice might be God claiming you?

Before Paul was called on the road to Damascus, he was conforming  to the ways of those in charge at the time.

The establishment, the empire of Rome, expected Paul to be a violent, awful person. And that’s what Paul did. He bended to the ways of Roman authority.

I grew up conforming to the ways of my childhood community. My community, with the best of intentions, groomed me to live a certain way.

As Stephen said this morning in keynote: there was a conformity issue with the tower of Babel. But the Jesus stories of justice and love and kindness that I was learning drew me in another direction.

When we try to conform. When we wear clothes we think we need to wear. When we long to fit in with a certain crowd.  When we act like a bully because we think we will feel bigger by making someone else feel smaller are we open to the one who might just be the voice calling us to be more of ourselves and less of someone else?

As the scales started to drop off my eyes and I could start seeing how I wanted to live my life, my heart started to ache more. I shed more tears. The transformation and change I was undergoing was profound and painful.

How would I explain any of this to my high school friends who knew me before Atlanta? How do I talk about this to my family? How do I tell people that instead of figuring out what law school I was going to apply to, I was now trying to figure out where the best soup kitchens were in Atlanta?

Instead of trying to one-up my friends with the next best job plan I was sitting on the streets of Atlanta listening to stories of the hungry and homeless.

Paul was blind even before he got hit by God’s holy light, blinded by the ways of the status quo that had him acting like a violent wrecking crew. After the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, when he could see, he got up and right away was baptized, the waters of new beginnings, of community, of belonging washing over him.

Before Paul could say “I have been an awful person. I’m a murderer. I’ve destroyed lives and relationships, I am not worthy of this call, this way of living with God” Paul received the waters of baptism.

History doesn’t tell us who baptized Paul and for the sake of the story let’s imagine Ananias.

With the muddy, dirty waters of an ancient world’s river, Paul received the water of baptism from Ananias, covering Paul and his heart seeking to be made new, baptismal waters claiming that  Paul wanted to begin again.

Paul’s baptism symbolized that even a violent guy was made in the image of God, that even Paul bore God’s name in his very being. Baptism didn’t make Paul perfect. He was still kind of a mess. Paul was still insecure, he didn’t work up enough miracles for those around him, he was getting in trouble, getting beat up, in and out of jail, rubbing people the wrong way.

And God still trusted Paul. Pauls’ baptism was a marking point, a disruptive shift in identity, when Paul could let go of his violent life, and embrace love.

Holy baptismal waters let Paul feel belonging—a belonging to community, Followers of the Way. Paul needed to feel that belonging because his work ahead was going to be rough—he had to convince people he was the real deal. He had to stay focused on the ways of Jesus in order not to fall back into the horrific ways of the Roman establishment. Baptism was to be Paul’s reminder as he went forward that he could not do the work of building community with Gentiles, Israelites, and Kings alone.

I was baptized as a one-year-old with my twin brother, John, at the First Presbyterian Church in Washington Court House Ohio. Twenty-years later the waters of baptism were coming alive in my life, the waters re-affirming in how Jesus was jostling me around and mashing up my life with the homeless in Atlanta.

The waters of life were pulling me to a life of peace, justice and mercy; the waters of life were turning me upside down to find truth and healing, laughter and joy in my relationships with the poor and homeless, sick and broken of Atlanta.

The Jesus community, the Church, welcomed one whose past was full of horrific events; it welcomed one whose bourgeois life got yanked apart in order to share a meal with a homeless woman on an Atlanta street corner.

And that Montreat is how God calls us to be different.  The church isn’t a country club with a membership fee and other social status type criteria.

We’re not a gym that wants you to have a perfect body.We’re not a school that wants you to stress out about grades and projects and prove how smart you are.

We are the church.

No matter what you belong to Church. You belong to God. You belong to Jesus.

If you have failed Algebra 3 times and now you are in summer school, you belong here. If you’ve been kicked out of school, you belong here.If your body has curves, lumps, and bumps you belong here.If you belong to a country club you belong here.

If you have been bullied you belong here. If you are straight or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender,

If you have the loudest laugh; the most purpleish of hair, if you are questioning everything that has to do with the faith; if you are questioning everything that has to do with you, if Montreat is the first time you’ve ever been to anything that has to do with Church, you belong here.

That part of you that doesn’t conform, that is unique, that part of you that looks different, sounds different, and we all have something that is different, is the part of you the church needs the most.

Church needs our differences the most because as shocking as this might sound…..Sometimes the church has a one-track mind.

The church conforms. The church becomes the face of the status quo, tempted to follow the crowd.

That’s not the way of our God. We are to open our blind eyes, unclog our ears.

Let God startle us, surprise us, disturb us, call us, set us on a path to follow the one who flips life upside down, Jesus Christ.

In a minute or so, we will have an Affirmation at the Water as part of our worship.

As Paul baptism reminds us, water is a way we encounter the sacredness of God and are reminded of God’s love and acceptance.

For many of us, this water may remind us of our baptism.

For all of us, this water points us to a God who created, called, delivered, and blesses us with water.

It’s a reminder that we can begin again, we can be made new, we can the resist the ways that push us to conform and silence that what makes us unique and different.

Like the Apostle Paul, those who thirst for God’s love will be invited to come forward during the Affirmation at the Water to receive a blessing, a reminder of your belovedness.

Like Ananias did with Paul, you will be marked with water, a gentle touch with the waters of life, the waters of creation.

Montreat:

We follow a God who turns our lives upside down for the sake of justice and freedom, to create a Church that is full of a bunch of upside down people. May we see our upside-down-ness, our difference, as our belovedness.

May it be so.

Death and Resurrection of Coffee Hour

We are re-forming and re-shaping at Pilgrims again. This time--coffee hour! Here's the context:

From this past fall until the end of February, our Pilgrim young adults have been part of a discernment process made possible financially from the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). We received a $10,000 grant from FTE to do discernment work with our young adults who make up 40% of our congregation.

We did some pretty amazing things that focused on Belovedness.

  • Discernment through the natural voice: We worked on freeing our natural voices by working with Andy Wassenich, a member at Pilgrims and an actor/producer/director of stage in D.C. Andy used voice building techniques from Kristin Linklater that focuses on finding your authentic voice and finding your authentic self. We've heard "no" in many ways when it comes to expressing power. That "no" along with trauma and emotional scars get trapped in our bodies, causing our voice to get stuck and silenced. Andy worked with us to free our natural voices. Think yoga, relaxation, weird noise making, therapy.
  • Discernment through formal art: We worked with the Phillips Collection in Dupont to use formal art as a means of discernment. We visited the Phillips twice. Once we engaged in a personal response tour where we were given a prompt (example: what painting depicts risk for you? why?) and to find a painting that connected to the prompt. We then went on a tour of the Phillips based on the paintings we picked. The second visit was engaging in their contemplative  tour. This tour had us sitting and listening to a guided meditation based on the Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Praying around table, community, liturgical art during Epiphany at Pilgrims.
Praying around table, community, liturgical art during Epiphany at Pilgrims.
  • Discernment through liturgy: We dedicated the season of Epiphany to this grant and our young adults. They planned worship with our planning process. They preached. They told personal stories of being beloved. They told Biblical stories by heart. They made liturgical art. We reflected together for 15 minutes after each worship service on what we observed and noticed in the service. Our young adults cracked open the sacred space with their truth-telling, prophetic imagination, and vulnerability. It was fucking amazing. So friggin' proud.
  • Discernment through a beach retreat: We went to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and had this swanky-ass house (picture remote controlled fire places) and told Biblical stories, told our own stories. Did yoga, more voice building. We shared tears, beers, and Hungarian moonshine. Rehoboth in Hebrew means wide open streets, spaces; a place of enlargement or flourishing. It was the perfect place for us. A question throughout the retreat was "what do you need to die to in order to resurrect a more authentic self and story?" {insert tears and beers here}.
  • Skipping ahead a few weeks....

    Our young adults came to the next Session meeting to share their stories of this entire process.

    At the end of our sharing, I asked the entire group the same question: What do you need to die to in order to resurrect a more authentic self and story?"

    Then I asked, "what needs to die at Pilgrims in order for us to resurrect a more authentic self and story?"

    Pause. Silence. Stillness.

    Our elder for congregational care raised his hand (love that!) and said, "I'm wondering if we need to move coffee hour into the sanctuary? I notice that a lot of us are hanging around in the sanctuary for a while after worship, talking to each other, and not doing down the hallway to coffee hour."

    Here comes my jumpy heart.

    Just days prior at a worship meeting, Jeff brought up the same observation. I wonder....

    Then people started cooking with the thought. Yes! And...I wonder if we could have a prayer corner for those who need to keep praying....I wonder if we could have a meditation circle over in that corner....I wonder....

    That's when I tossed my planner pad into the air.

    Well, hello Holy Spirit. We see You. We hear You. We are awake and paying attention. 

    Two weeks ago we brought coffee hour into the sanctuary.

    I love all of this. I love all of this because it's about vulnerability, community, and spatial analysis.

    When we stay in the sanctuary after worship, we stay in the space where vulnerability and community and relationality came alive. Conversations were coming out of that experience.

    When we'd go down the hallway to the coffee hour room, all that died, and we'd go back to our normal scripts of "hey, how was your week. What's up."

    It's as if we still needed the structure of liturgy for those intimate conversations to continue even after the formal structure of liturgy has ended. It's as if we were saying, "keep this liturgy thing going, only in the shape of coffee hour." It's as if we need some support and help in still being in the experience of kindness and compassion which liturgy creates.

    It's as if we need the support to stay in this way before we go back to our regular selves--we want this kindness and love to last a little bit longer. We need support to do that.

    Now our coffee hour treats get rolled down the hallway, placed on a table in the back of the sanctuary during the final hymn and coffee hour happens.

    One of the questions in the mid-year report for the grant was "how do you plan on sustaining the grant?"

    For me, this is how we sustain and transform the grant experience. We take the theology, the ethic, the liturgical experience of the grant and infuse those elements into our congregational life. We gave ourselves permission to let something die (coffee hour in another room) in order for more life to be experienced (sanctuary coffee hour).

    Now our FTE grant looks like goldfish crackers and cheese slices on a table in the sanctuary with community gathered around, embracing the experience of each other, our Biblical stories, and liturgy.

    This is discernment.

    Rehoboth indeed.

    Improv and Confession

    I'm taking a foundations of improv class through the Washington Improv Theater. It's a 8-week or so class that meets every Monday for 2.5 hours. It's pretty sweet and our teacher, Lisa Kays, is great. Check her out here. Also taking this class with my beloved Casey Wait Fitzgerald. One of classes focused on emotional commitment. Emotional commitment is when you start an improv scene by leading with an emotion. Game on with this class. I'm full of emotions!

    In this class, we created scenes leading out of an emotion.

    Now....let me say something about starting a scene. To me, it's like Harold in the books Harold and the Purple Crayon. That little, white, Pillsbury-like- dough-boy takes his purple crayon and creates a scene out of nothing.

    The first mark that Harold makes in the book starts on a blank slate. Eventually, Harold builds off each line and circle to create something out of nothing.

    That's an improv scene. You create something out of nothing. It's very Paul-in-the-Book-of Romans-like: God creates something out of nothing.

    In this class, we created something out of our emotions.

    Here's an exercise we did:

    Lisa created 4 squares on the floor. One for anger. One for happy. One for sad. One for fear.

    In pairs, we would step into a square to start a scene (again, blank slate). I'd step into one square and my partner in another square.

    I stepped into a square and started a scene linking the emotion of the square with emptying the dishwasher (a favorite improv go-to for me....it's never about just emptying the dishwasher). Lisa could prompt us to step into another square and instantly my emotion to the scene would reflect the emotion of that square. At the same time, my partner is stepping into another emotion square and his yes....anding...would reflect that emotion.

    Picture that game Simon Says.

    In the fear square, my partner eventually revealed that he didn't want me to leave him over emptying the dishwasher. That changed the entire scene....because it wasn't about the dishwasher....the scene became about confessing a real fear in a relationship. 

    Lisa commented at the end of class that when in doubt in a scene make a confession....unload deepest of fear, sadness, love, anger because it shows something at stake. I'm really fearful right now.....really fearful....because I'm afraid you are going to leave me.

    Lisa said when in doubt in a scene, make a confession. That's where the juice is.

    Confessions....juice....Casey and I just looked at each other.

    This past Epiphany, at Church of the Pilgrims, our young adults have preached, told the Biblical stories by heart, and told their own personal stories based on the theme of "Being Beloved." This liturgical work comes out of a grant we received from The Forum for Theological Exploration to do discernment work with our young adults.

    This past Epiphany has been a season of beloved confessions.

    Each week our young adults shared their fears, their deepest vulnerabilities. They shared heartache and shame. And they did this not in the abstract but through their own stories as linked to the lectionary, Gospel stories of Epiphany.

    They all, indeed, brought the juice. The juice-- the Spirit, the life-blood, the community....it all happens in many ways in liturgy.

    This past Epiphany our young adults preached, told the Biblical stories by heart, and were our personal storytellers during liturgy. Their work and the focus on Epiphany comes out of a grant we received from the Forum for Theological Exploration to do discernment work with our young adults.

    Throughout Epiphany, our young adults, through sermons and storytelling, shared their fullest selves. They shared their loves, their joys. They shared their heartache and shame. They shared their deep self-doubts. They shared their belovedness.

    It was incredible. It was the juice.

    Communion Table at The Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.
    Communion Table at The Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.

    That story you are holding on to because you wonder if anyone will love you, think you are beloved after sharing? Even as you tell that story is your body shaking? Our young adults released those stories to Pilgrims this past Epiphany.

    Our young adults embodied church and what church is for: a place to bring the ugly, the feared, the what-feels-shameful. Church is the place to bring those stories you wonder if you can tell anyone else.

    Pilgrims, in return, became a vessel, a cup to hold, share, embrace those confessional stories. Pilgrims received those stories and said, "we love you. Period."

    Confession and juice.

    In Epiphany, Pilgrims became an embodied communion cup, holding and carrying those beloved confessions.

    Vomit and Ashes

    We took ashes out into Dupont Circle this past Ash Wednesday. At 8:30am on Wednesday, Jeff and I roamed around Dupont Circle, stopping at the Dupont Metro for awhile, letting the strangers we were among know that it was Ash Wednesday. “We have ashes for Ash Wednesday. Would you like to receive?” In the evening, we went back out again before our Ash Wednesday service. I went on this shift with Andy Thomas, Pilgrims Young Adult Volunteer, to share ashes in the dark and freezing cold.

    Andy and I walked up P Street, stopping a few folks along the way, asking if they’d like to receive ashes. At one point, we were two for two.

    That quickly changed as we parked ourselves at the south end of the Dupont Metro. People just blazed past us. It was ear-bud-palooza out there in the evening commute. Don’t want to interact with your environment? Wear ear buds while walking around. Need an excuse not to make eye contact with another human being? Ear buds.

    After getting a whole lot of “No’s”, Andy and I walked up to Dupont Circle, traffic circle + public space + resting place for many among the benches that encircle a large, stone water fountain. In reasonable weather, the benches can be lined with bike messengers, homeless folks, folks wearing ties, folks wearing pencil skirts, folks playing chess.

    With the temperature around 25 degrees, the benches looked empty until Andy and I noticed 2 figures sitting on the outer circle of benches. We headed over. As we approached the two guys, I noticed one leaning over. As we got closer, we realized the guy was puking.

    Stomach bile. Chunks of food. Mouth spit.

    First thought–This is fucking gross, turn around and head back to Pilgrim.

    Second thought–This is fucking gross, share the ashes.

    I asked one of the bench buddies if he’d like ashes. He looked at me with eyes glazed over, slowly rocking back and forth. Somehow he gave a “No.”

    I turned to his companion who at this point was sitting upright and wiping puke off his mouth.

    I asked him, “Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?”

    With the same type of glazed over eyes, with the same type of rocking back and forth, this guy said, “yes.”

    I looked up at Andy as if to shore myself up for this moment. Then I blurted out to Andy, “remind me to wash my hands after this.”

    Clearly not the most pastoral of words. And true.

    I started to lean in to our friend on the bench and he slowly, I mean slowly, lifted up his winter skull cap to make room for the ashes.

    “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return” and plunk went the ashes on his skin kept warm by the winter hat. He slowly pulled his skull cap back in place.

    Andy and I hustled back to Pilgrims for our 7pm in-the-building worship.

    **********************

    Ritual and liturgy on the streets creates a mash-up of people. Strangers get knocked-up against each other. Separated out from the liner, sequential movement of an in-the-building type of liturgy, ashes on the streets expose ritual’s power. Gone are the pews, the communion table, the font. Gone is the church architecture that sets the context and initial meaning of the ritual.

    On the streets, ritual gets blown apart from the confines of Church walls and can be interpreted a million different ways with no one in a robe or a title or ordination status to define.

    I have no idea what our friend on the bench was thinking when I asked him about the ashes. What we did see was the lifting of his skull cap. Even though this guy was completely inebriated, he had enough awareness/memory/body memory to lift his hat to make room for the ashes. Does he even remember?

    Dupont Circle isn’t too far where the million dollar row houses of Dupont and Georgetown exist. Embassy Row is right up the street. The gardens and front stoops are Southern Living beautiful. The neighborhoods are images of stability.

    Dupont Circle absorbs the grid of the city street architecture–Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues come together to create this circular public space. public street space goes from linear and grid-like to circular; the Circle itself being a shape that has no beginning and no end.

    Grid of Dupont Circle. The green dot is the Circle.

    An experience like our friend on the bench vomiting, and then saying yes to ashes, tells me that the sheer unpredictability of ritual on the streets makes it near impossible to assume the direction of God’s Spirit. We’d like to think faith and Church life move in a grid-like, sequential way: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral.

    Out on the streets, God’s Spirit gets vomited up all over the place, the Spirit symbolized in a circle of puke on a public sidewalk and incarnate in the one who vomits.

    Improv and Empathy

    I had my second improv class this past Monday at the Washington Improv Theater. Focus this week: Physical Arrangement

    Physical arrangement in improv is when you use space as structure for improv.

    This is an example of physical arrangement.

    One of our first exercises had us all in a circle. Our teacher, Lisa, tossed us an invisible, red ball. She held the ball in her hands. While the ball was invisible, the ball was real. We treated the invisible ball as if it was a real red ball. We tossed the ball around the circle. Key observation: we could NOT say no to the ball. Lisa created the reality that there was a red ball. Therefore, we honored the space Lisa created by tossing this very real, very invisible ball around our circle.

    My favorite exercise was physical mirroring. This is when you have a partner and you mirror each other's physical movements. I stood facing my partner and moved my right arm up and in a circle. She moved her right arm up and in a circle--mirroring my exact movement.

    I loved this exercise because it was slow and our movements were simple. Empathy seems to drive the slowly, simple movements. My partner wanted me to be able to follow her movements. In order for me to follow she had to go slow. She had a sense of what I was going through as a follower and what it took to merge movements.

    We built off this exercise by both moving as the same time--taking turns leading and following each other's movements. While we took turns leading and following each other, there was this mysterious merger we had with each other. The boundaries between who was leading and who was following were clear and blurred all at the same time.

    Empathy and improv are connected. This connection seems to break through the binary of right and wrong. In improv, there is not right or wrong. There is only risk. There only "is."

    Examining right and wrong is crucial when it comes to liturgy and the experience of liturgy.

    In theory, the Church can embrace the truth that as humans we are a mess, we are fallible, we aren't perfect. Jesus embraced imperfect people. Therefore I/we will, too! Except we don't have too because I/we are always right.

    Embracing the reality of imperfection seems to get blown out the sanctuary door when imperfection (our humanness) is part of the liturgy.

    • Sing perfectly.
    • Sermon must be consistently right.
    • Your kid(s) are making noise in worship which must mean you aren't right in your parenting.
    • This liturgy is making me uncomfortable which means there must be something wrong with me and/or these worship leaders are just wrong.

    When our internal landscape of rightness rears its non-empathetic head....when we cling like hell to our rightness, we literally create our own reality on top of the reality we want to reject and ignore. The consequence--we miss out on the invitation to share in Jesus-like-empathy. We miss out on being human together.

    • Someone stops singing because tears are coming down their cheeks.
    • A parent struggles to parent their child(ren) in worship and feels helpless and lonely.
    • Preacher give crappy sermon because they are preoccupied with a family matter.
    • This liturgy made you uncomfortable? Say more about that....

    Improv and empathy. It's real. And it's not just for the theater or the Church. It's for everything.

    This mirror exercise is lifted up in a Science Friday podcast with Alan Alda, the actor, who started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Sciences at New York's Stony Brook University. This center trains doctors and scientists in improv in order to become better communicators by accessing empathy.  An example was given of a doctor, who had been trained in improv at the Center, was giving a patient the news she had 6 weeks or so left to live. The mirroring exercises that the doctor had participated in allowed the doctor to sit, listen, feel, and notice the patient as the doctor delivered the news. Mirroring allowed the doctor to access empathy, and in turn, be present with the patient in her own grief, confusion, and questions.

    Here's a link to the podcast.

    Foundations of Improv Class

    I'm a big fan of improv, especially its connection with liturgy. I've taken several improv classes over the years, mostly 2-hour classes here and there.

    Casey Fitzgerald over at Faith and Wonder found a Foundations of Improv class through the Washington Improv Theater and we signed-up for the Monday afternoon, 8-week class. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is taking the same class at another time during the week. Looking forward to reflecting with my improv peeps.

    The class was advertised like this: Discover a new sense of freedom and play. Meet fun and other interesting people. Get away from the grind of the scripted city. Unleash your creativity and learn more about yourself.

    Thinking that could be a new PR language for Church of the Pilgrims.

    Our first class was this past Monday. Here are some my take-aways, including some insights from our teacher.

    • Mistakes are where the magic happens. 'nuff said.
    • We did a game called "Bid-did-it." It involved snapping fingers along with calling out one word that built upon the person next to us. Basically everyone is snapping and words are going around a circle. I found myself trying to plan ahead for my word. "When it gets to me, I'm going to say THIS WORD." Funny. Turns out it's hard to listen to people if I'm trying to control the crap out of my mind. Casey commented later that you can't listen to anyone else when you are thinking about your next step.
    • Our teacher added later in an email: If you are listening fully, you cannot be thinking ahead and therefore your response is almost guaranteed to be based on what you heard.
    • Snapping got my out of my head, used another part of my brain. Harder to obsess over my own thoughts when snapping.
    • In the spirit of listening, our teacher shared this: I am also a big fan of the adage someone else said of, "Listening is the enemy of anxiety." It is physically impossible for our brains to be anxious and to be listening at the same time. Truly. So if you find yourself ever freaking out or anxious, in any situation, try to gently remind yourself to listen to whatever is happening. You cannot freak out and listen at the same time. Suhweet! Instant anxiety cure! 
    • We did a game that invited us to call out something about ourselves, others either stood next to you if they had the same experience or stood at the other side of the room if didn't have that experience. Someone called out "I like processed cheese!" Most of us laughed. When we bring our personal experiences into the circle, and when we are specific, we bring our true selves to the space.
    • The work of improv involves dissolving the instinct to just waiting around in a conversation to have space to share your own thought. "Boy, can't wait for this person in from of me to stop talking so I can share my own shit."
    • Improv is training ourselves to have ideas and be ready to let them go.
    • We did some basic scene work. Our task in a scene is to listen and agree. And trust what our partner is going to bring to the scene.
    • Our teacher offered this up: If character 1 says, "The sky is orange," the sky IS orange. We cannot refute or argue this. However, that doesn't mean that we have to like that the sky is orange. For instance, it can make our character sad, or confused or scared. We can react to the sky being orange in any way, even with anger, but we just can't dismiss the idea or argue with the premise itself. This is agreement. 

    Did I mention our teacher, Lisa Kays, teaches improv AND is a therapist. Geez.

    Class #2 next week...

    Underground Queer Hymn Verse!

    You know you're off to a great start in a worship planning meeting when your guest music director says, "Do you all include the gay verse in that hymn?" The hymn: "In the Midst of New Dimensions."

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    The fuller question from Billy Kluttz, our guest music director on November 22nd: Do you all include the gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" that has been edited out of the version used currently in the PCUSA, UCC, and Methodist hymnals?

    Here's some history of the hymn:

    The hymn was written in 1985 the  by Rev. Julian Rush (b. 1936), a United Methodist minister who served churches in Dallas, Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs for 17 years, until he came out as a gay man.

    When Rush came out, the United Methodist church in Boulder where he was appointed decided he was no longer fit to be their minister, and stopped paying his salary.

    "In the Midst of New Dimensions" has beautiful imagery from the Hebrew Bible: pilgrim people, olive branches, God of rainbow, and fiery pillar.

    What's been edited out of the hymn is this original verse:

    Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized. 

    Here's what Billy has to say about this underground hymn verse:

    I think Rush’s hymn, and its adoption/adaptation by mainline denominations, speaks to the tenuous relationship between queer people and the institutional church. For LGBTQ folks, church music offers a rare point of connection and refusal. In church music, the systems of religious heterosexism/transphobia and the realm of queer imagination collide. Even in this transformational space, however, queer people must sing in code—or be silenced.

    There are several types of “gay hymns”. Perhaps most often there are the hymns we creatively claim. We make use of the political theology in broader hymns about inclusion. We change, or improve, existing lyrics. Hymns written by people of all gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations are claimed by queer communities as reflective of our experiences of God’s expansive grace. Perhaps less often, we also dare to write the specifics of our relationship with the Divine in hymn form, such as in Rush’s hymn. Sadly, these hymns are often sterilized during their adaptation by the broader church.

    How do we sing as about relationships with the Divine in hymn form? What happens when a hymn or a verse goes underground in order to support the Church's status quo? What does  it mean that a culture has been created within the Church that queer folks sing in code or be silenced? If the role of liturgy is to create transformation, how can music sit outside that expectation?

    The Church can have lots of conversations about music. Electronic keyboard vs. organ? Piano vs. organ? Hymnal vs. projected screen? Old hymnal vs. new hymnal?

    Those conversations can get really narrow and limiting by playing into our cultural and structural individualism--that singing is for ourselves and exists only within the space between the walls of the sanctuary. "I like this music. I like that music. I don't like this music. Will people like us if we do "x" style of music?"

    Creating a beautiful sound together is a beautiful experience.  Billy asking us to sing the underground gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" took us beyond what we sound like. Billy's question was a reminder to me of the purpose of our singing at Pilgrims-- we sing in order to build an alternative community in the name of Jesus, for the sake of the healing of the planet. We can talk keyboard, piano, organ, hymnal, and screens all day long. And that seems to focus on the sound within the building.

    We are singing God's holy welcome, God's justice, God's love into existence.

    Leave out the gay verse in "In the Midst of New Dimensions" and God's welcome gets sterilized.

    There are few places left on the planet where a community can consistently gather to sing as one voice and sing in order to shake up the world.

    When we sing as a congregation, we participate in an ancient, subversive practice. The early Church would sing to defy Empire and construct an alternative to Imperial violence and war. I can imagine the sound of music coming of house churches, an auditory sign of belonging and community to Jesus rather than Caesar. Music in the early Church was a sign of an alternative, safe space.

    When we sang the words, "Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized" on November 22nd our Pilgrim voices created a safe space. If you were new to Pilgrims that day, you would instantly get a sense of our values in our singing of those words.

    When we sing as a congregation, we are singing about Who we belong to. When we sing, the words we sing just aren't words connected to a pretty melody. When we sing, we are proclaiming a world as it is in order to create a world as it should be.  As we sing, we are proclaiming our trust in the Holy One and the way in which we live together as people of God's Way.

    Inviting Kids Into Biblical Storytelling

    Last spring, we killed of Sunday school at Church of the Pilgrims. That means we are being more intentional about how to form our kids around the faith within already existing structures at Pilgrims.

    Pilgrims already has stations set-up throughout our sanctuary for kids. These stations are based on our liturgical principles that in worship we tell stories, we see things in new ways, and we make connections. At each station are age appropriate books and quiet toys (even though kids can make anything loud) for kids to engage with during liturgy.

    The idea is that when kids need to move, because that what kids do....they move around, they can go to a station, and engage in what's happening in liturgy on their level.

    Some might think the kids aren't paying attention. But they are.

    And they are engaged in play which is a research driven vehicle for promoting self-regulation, language, social competence, and  cognitive learning. Meaning--play is essential for kids to learn about religious language, how to be in community, and how to learn and be formed around the faith.

    Pilgrims used to have a children's sermon--when we'd ask the kids to come forward and listen to one of us deconstruct the sermon. It worked. It was fine. Adults giggled when the kids were being themselves.  Eventually the children's sermon faded out of our liturgy.

    Now that we don't have Sunday school, parents are having conversations about how to be intentional about experiences for our kids. One comment was "how can we have more structure?" Structure is important for kids and what does intentional structure look like without Sunday school?

    Maybe we should pull the children's sermon back into the liturgy?

    After reading some stuff on children's sermon (like this) I had one of those A-ha moments--- there is no data that says children's sermons are an essential way to engage kids, teach them the faith, etc. Children's sermon definitely hit the nostalgia button and since bunches of churches do children's sermons that means they must be effective. Right?

    Casey Wait Fitzgerald is a master biblical storyteller plus a beloved friend.  Casey and I were chatting about storytelling one day, pondering the role of a sermon in light of biblical storytelling and Casey said something like, "I think telling the story by heart is enough."

    Pilgrims does Biblical storytelling. So.....

    What if our kids were invited forward for the telling of the Biblical story? What if they had this moment in the liturgy where they were together as a small community? What if they were invited up because a story is about to be told that is so important we want to make sure they are part of that telling?

    For the past few Sundays, the kids have been invited up practically sit at the feet of the storyteller.

    Story is told. Kids eyeballs are locked in on the storyteller. They listen. Some squirm. One little 2 year old eye spies the candles on the table and starts to chat about the idea of  blowing out the candles. The storyteller keeps telling the story.

    At the end of the story they head back to the pews with their parents or go back to a station.

    After we did this the first time, a child-free, kid-loving adult commented, "why haven't we thought of that before?" Jeff said, "I wonder what other parts of the service the kids can own....coming up and listening to the choir during the anthem?"

    Here is what the kids experience with Biblical storytelling:

    • Scripture in the ancient church was an oral tradition. As the kids participate in this storytelling moment, they are re-connecting to that oral tradition. As they sit at the feet of the storyteller, they are part of the tradition and how stories were passed down through the generations.
    • Storytelling builds relationships. As the story is told, those listening are connected to the storyteller. The storyteller is connected to those listening. Storytelling inherently involves intimacy, vulnerability, and connection. These are essential elements of faith formation and liturgy. The kids are part of these elements in the telling of the story.
    • Ownership. The kids have a moment to own in worship. This is one reason why we have stations---so the kids consistently experience ownership of the liturgical space. This space is for them just as much as the adults.
    • Creating storytellers.We can use the kids proximity and experience with the storyteller as a starting point to teach the kids how to tell stories.
    • Biblical storytelling is anti-gimmicky-crap. Lord have mercy there is so much awful shit out there that is supposed to make our kids become perfect Christians. The tradition, in it's imperfect ways, has given us a the gift of something like Biblical storytelling. When we engage kids in these ancient invitations of faith formation , we invite them into a sacred, communal experience that is thousands of years old. It is in the depth of the tradition, in the ancientness of the practices, that kids will be drawn into the radical nature of the Holy One and Her followers.