I run, but I’m not a runner.

On Saturday, I will run my first half marathon.

And then, I will never run again.

Just kidding. But no, I am not going to become a long-distance runner. I have said for years, “I run, but I’m not a runner.” I’m sticking to that even with over 170 miles logged in the last 12 weeks.

As it turns out, I hate running. OK, to clarify: I hate long-distance running. I know some people love it and find it relaxing, but I am not one of those people. My 10-miler this past Saturday was sheer torture. 1 hour, 41 minutes, and 24 seconds of torture (that put me at 10’08″/mi, and literally my only goal in this process has been to stay under 10 minutes a mile, so that made it worse). I called my boyfriend about something else right afterwards and surprised myself by bursting into tears.

So I can’t wait for Saturday–less because I’m excited about the race and more because I’m glad it’s almost over. I only have to run 2 miles tomorrow. 2 miles! Child’s play!

But my griping of late makes it all the more important that I remind myself: this has been an incredible process, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve done things I never thought I could do, demonstrated a capacity for commitment and discipline I didn’t think I had, and racked up some wonderful experiences.

At the end of August, I shocked myself by signing up for a half marathon. I had never run more than a few miles at a time, and in fact had sworn up and down that I never would. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was some of my friends in Durham training for a race, or my roommate doing the same–but one day, I found myself on the website for the Mistletoe Half Marathon, and I just went for it.

Maybe some part of me knew that a few things in my life would completely unravel at the beginning of September, and when that happened, I would need something. My training started in an emotional whirlwind, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I channeled grief and anger into my runs and cross-training. I took a feeling of helplessness and turned it on its head to show myself I was strong and capable. A sense of disempowerment was transformed into proof that I am powerful. I put my obsessive-compulsive side to work crafting a carefully balanced workout schedule. I gave myself a goal and started working toward it.

And work toward it I did. Discipline has never been my strong suit, but the only times I missed training runs in my 12-week program were a weekend when I was on a mission trip in Haiti and one day when I went on a 15-mile hike instead.

And these are some of the gifts I was given in that time:1538668_10100847695578074_427137662845372790_n

  • I discovered that I am capable of far more than I think.
  • I watched the leaves change around beautiful Salem Lake.
  • I shared training runs with friends.
  • I ran races with my mom and brother (both actual runners), including a nighttime trail run at the US National Whitewater Center (which I actually LOVED and would totally do again).
  • I bonded with unexpected people over the experience of training for a run.
  • I participated in races benefiting local charities.
  • I got to watch my roommate and boyfriend (non-runners like me) train for a 5K they’ll run the day of my half.
  • I found the balance between discipline and grace that has always eluded me.
  • I poked a giant hole in my idea of what I can and can’t do.

So I will run this race on Saturday and pray it doesn’t take me 3 hours. I will rock my “13.1: only half crazy” headband to reassured the world that no, a full marathon is absolutely NOT in my future. I will share the morning with thousands of people, including friends and family, all out to stay healthy, have fun, and fight childhood obesity. Afterwards, I will be able to say that I ran a half marathon.

And then, I will get back to doing the kinds of things my body, in all its 5’2″ shortness, is actually built to do. I will keep running, but only short distances, maybe a 5K or 10K here and there. I will get more into biking like I started to do before I signed up for this race.

And I will know that the next time I think, “There’s no way I could ever do that,” chances are pretty good I’m wrong.

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Who Are These, Robed in White? (All Saints’ Day Sermon)

festival_of_lights_450This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 2, 2014, All Saints’ Sunday at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Scripture used was Revelation 7:9-17.

The American gospel hymn turned jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In” was arguably one of the biggest hits of the 20th century. It’s hard for me to believe that it was written in the last 100 years, because it seems like one of those songs that has always existed. Whether you are Christian or not, whether you know jazz or not, it is extremely unlikely that you’ve never heard this song.

“When the Saints Go Marching In” sometimes shows up in a strange place: at funerals—usually at jazz funerals, common in New Orleans. The band will play the song as a slow, sad dirge while the coffin is being carried to the cemetery, but when they turn to leave after the internment, they switch to the upbeat Dixieland version. And so a single song bridges the tension between mourning the one who has passed and celebrating the promise of resurrection and the new life to come.

In today’s Scripture reading, we see countless people streaming to the throne of God, shouting and singing and falling on their faces. I can imagine them waving their palm branches, dancing, and belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the top of their lungs.

Today is All Saints’ Day. Today, we remember those who have gone before us in the faith, those whose journey in this life has ended. This reading from the book of Revelation is commonly used to celebrate All Saints’ Day—the great multitude represents for us the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, the body of Christ that is not bound by space or time, not even by life or death.

“Who are these, robed in white?” The color white carries a great deal of symbolism. It might make you think of weddings or baptisms or a general concept of purity and innocence; in the church, white is the liturgical color for Christmas and Easter.

Many other religions use the color white in particular ways. In Judaism, it is the custom to wear white on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, white symbolizes purity and reminds worshippers of the promise in Isaiah that our sins will be made white like snow.

In Islam, simple white garments are to be worn on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This again symbolizes purity, but it is also a sign of shedding wealth, social distinctions, and vanity for the sake of the pilgrim’s devotion.

In Asian cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism, white is the color of mourning. This might seem odd to us, since the Western world tends to make black the color of mourning. But if you have ever been to a funeral here at Centenary, you may have seen white paraments just like the ones we’re using today.

In The United Methodist Book of Worship, there isn’t actually anything called a “funeral”—it’s “A Service of Death and Resurrection.” White, for us, represents the resurrection, the new life to come. It holds us in the tension between mourning and celebration in the same way that a jazz funeral might.

“Who are these, robed in white?” They are the ones gathering around God’s throne to sing and to worship, but not before going through “the great ordeal.”

One of the tricky things about the Christian faith is that it promises new life, but not before the passing of the old. Resurrection—living again—requires first that one must die. In our society, we tend to look at death as the end—and it is, in fact, the end of many things. But death is not the end of all things.

If we believe that, even subconsciously, we will find ourselves sorely disappointed in our understanding of God’s providence. Often, we think of providence as safety, as protection, as God preserving us and the people and things we love just the way they are. But this is not the witness of Scripture. Scott Bader-Saye says this: “Providence does not guarantee protection; rather, it assures us of God’s provision (making a way for us to go on) and redemption (restoring what is lost along the way).”

Whatever is lost along the way, it is not the end, for there is always a way for us to go on. Death means the end of relationships as we have known them, of daily habits of living, of practices and feelings and experiences we once depended on. But it is not the end of all things. Bader-Saye says, “Christian trust in God’s providence tells us that if things haven’t ended well, then, well, they haven’t ended.”

The book of Revelation falls into a genre known as “apocalyptic literature.” This kind of writing is found throughout the Bible, and it represents the revealing of things not formerly known. Often its subject is the end times.

Many Christians over the centuries have used the book of Revelation to try and parse out the details of the end of the world—when it is coming, how we can recognize the signs, and most importantly, what different people’s fates will be when it arrives.

Revelation does seem to provide some specifics. For example, in the verses at the beginning of chapter 7, before the passage we read today, we read that 144,000 names are sealed in the scroll of the Lamb: 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Some readers have taken that number to heart, saying there is limited space in heaven. One article about the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” even points to that verse in reference to the line “O Lord, I want to be in that number”—that is, I want to be one of the 144,000.

But such a narrow reading of Revelation is a mistake. For one, numbers in the Bible almost always have a symbolism of their own. But more importantly, it misses the fullness of the vision in Revelation 7. It would be easy to look for “that number” and stop when you see 144,000.

But if you keep reading, you come to these words we’ve already heard: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

When we use the word “saint,” we are often referring to someone we see as particularly good or holy, more so than the average person. But the image in Revelation 7 is not one of excellent Christians being rewarded for their good Christian behavior; it is of those who have suffered finding comfort and shelter in the God who provides the way through if not always the way out.

This is not a select, elite group chosen for their many brilliant qualifications. This is a motley crew, a gathering of all different kinds of people from many different places. The image of the multitude challenges our narrow definition of the word “saint.”

American writer Flannery O’Connor penned a short story about a good Christian woman whose narrowness was broken open by a strange experience and a bizarre vision. The story is appropriately entitled “Revelation.” It invites the reader into the world of Mrs. Turpin, a clean, well-to-do, God-fearing woman who is thankful for her good husband, her good home, her good disposition, and most of all that God made her neither a black person nor white trash.

You see, Mrs. Turpin is very attached to differentiating people by class. She often rehearses the hierarchy in her head: blacks and white trash occupy the lowest rung, then homeowners, then those who have more than they need (that would be her and her husband), and above them the very wealthy. Mrs. Turpin is kind to all sorts of people, but the reader knows her kindness is always a little patronizing. It comes more out of pity than out of humanity or compassion.

After a jarring experience in the waiting room at her doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin finds herself rethinking her identity and status before God. A girl in the waiting room flies into an inexplicable rage and attacks Mrs. Turpin, calling her “a warthog from hell.” Mrs. Turpin is rattled by this, because she believes the girls’ words were a divine message meant just for her.

And so she asks God, what was this about? How could she be both a good Christian woman and also a warthog from hell? If she really were that bad, why hadn’t God just made her white trash or black to begin with? Her categories turned upside down, her faith shaken, Mrs. Turpin goes out to take care of some chores on the farm, and it is then that she sees a strange vision:

“There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. […] A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized as those who, like herself and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. […] In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. […] In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Theologian Brian McLaren suggests that there are two different ways of thinking about the Christian community. The first way, the most common, is to think of it as a bounded set—that is, the community is defined by the lines and boundaries drawn around it. The question when considering a bounded set is, Are you in or are you out?

But McLaren pushes us to look at things differently. He says that the Christian community is not a bounded set but a centered set. A centered set is not defined by its outer boundaries but by its center—in this case, by its relation to God. So the question is not, Are you in or are you out? but, Are you moving toward or away from the center?

Mrs. Turpin’s vision shows her that her bounded set pales in comparison to the centered set that is God’s kingdom. When the identity of the saints is revealed to her, it does not come in the form of a membership roster; rather, it is embodied in the chaotic movement of all the saints marching in, moving toward the center, rumbling toward the throne of God.

Our new vision here at Centenary is “Go—The Kingdom of God Is Right at Your Doorstep.” The kingdom of God is not defined by borders but by movement toward the center. Entrance into the kingdom does not require a citizenship test or a photo ID but movement toward the center. For salvation belongs not to us or to a particular social class or even to the church; no—“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a mission team from Centenary on a trip to Haiti. We experienced wonder and horror, inspiration and despair, beauty and suffering. We learned that in Creole, God is called “Bon Dye,” which means “Good God.” It’s never just “God”—it is always “Good God.”

We got to have the incredible experience of worshipping with our Haitian brothers and sisters on Sunday morning of our trip. We came into the church at Terre Noire and found our seats in the sanctuary. The church seats 1,000, and it was packed by 6:00 in the morning.

The entire service was in Creole, so we understood very little of what was happening. But the spirit of worship was palpable, inviting, and infectious. We all felt that it didn’t matter that we didn’t understand the words—we were truly worshipping with our Haitian brothers and sisters.

But there was a remarkable moment for me where I understood something—not the words, but the music. The congregation began singing, and I suddenly realized—I know this song! And so, with a thousand Haitians singing in Creole all around me, I joined my voice in singing in English:

Jesus, be the centre
Be my source, be my guide, Jesus

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Jesus is the center, and among that great multitude where I was the one from a different tribe and language, we were all moving toward that center together. Our citizenship in the kingdom of God had no regard for our ability to speak a certain language or to be a certain color or class or nationality—it was defined solely by our movement toward the center.

Those who have gone through the great ordeal take solace in God’s ruling from the throne. This rule does not consist in conquest but in comfort, not in drawing lines but in drawing us all in.

Our Methodist membership vows provide us with tools for moving toward the center. When you join a Methodist church, you promise to support it with “your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.” This is not a checklist or a test. These are ways in which we bring forth the kingdom, ways in which we move toward the center together.

And whenever we take even the smallest step toward the center through prayers, presence, gifts, service, or witness, we never do so alone. We move in the footsteps of the great multitude that has gone before us, that “vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven,” “shouting hallelujah.” Amen.

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Fruits of the Kingdom

‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21:33-46

No political figure or corporate executive today could hold a candle to Jesus’ ability to avoid a question. Jesus almost never gives a straight answer, either to his friends or to his enemies. Instead, he answers a question with another question, tells a rambling story, or writes in the dirt.

But time and time again throughout the Gospels, the problem is not that Jesus doesn’t give an answer. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t give the answer his questioners want to hear. He knows this will happen, and so Jesus does what Emily Dickinson said in a poem: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Jesus stands in a long line of prophets who speak truth to power by way of parables. A parable is a story that illustrates a point. And these stories are told, not to avoid the question, but to draw the listener in so they can hear the answer.

More often than not, the point to be made is one about the person asking the question. One of the best Old Testament examples of this approach comes in 2 Samuel 12. King David has had his affair with Bathsheba; he has had her husband Uriah killed. So God sends the prophet Nathan to David. But instead of condemning the king outright, Nathan tells a story.

Nathan describes to David how a rich man with many flocks of sheep took the one lamb that a poor man had raised from birth. This so he could prepare a meal for a guest without taking an animal from his own herd. When David hears this, he is outraged at the injustice and declares that the rich man should be put to death.

Nathan is ready for this. David is blind to his own sin but is more than ready to condemn that of another man. Nathan says to David, “You are the man!” And David stands condemned by his own words and must confess his sin before God.

Nathan told the truth and told it slant—the only way David could hear it. And so it is with the parable of the wicked tenants. The chief priests and the elders have challenged Jesus’ authority, asking him from where does it come? Jesus responds by telling them this story—which, of course, is all about the chief priests and elders. They are the ones who have beaten and killed the servants of the lord, who have not produced the fruits of the kingdom, who have succumbed to greed and violence.

Many interpreters are tempted to take this parable as an allegory for the history of Israel. The wicked tenants, they say, are the Jews; the landowner is God, and his son is Jesus. The Jews kill God’s prophets and eventually God’s son, and so they are thrown out and the vineyard is given to another people—the Gentiles.

Let me make this clear: this interpretation of this passage is not only wrong but also dangerous. This reading of Matthew 21 has fueled anti-Semitism over the centuries, leading to the pogroms, the Crusades, and the Holocaust—all in the perverted name of a Christian God. If anyone invites you to interpret this story as a story of Jews vs. Christians, I would encourage you to politely decline that offer.

Because Jesus wasn’t drawing a line between Jews and Christians. Jesus was drawing a line within Judaism itself (see Susan Grove Eastman, “Matthew 21:33-46” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4). Jesus was speaking to his community, the Jews, God’s chosen people, those who had been entrusted with the vineyard of God’s creation and God’s coming kingdom. Jesus was drawing a line between those who honored that responsibility and those who did not.

We can draw such lines within Christianity today. If we think about it, we may find that the greatest enemies of the faith are not nonbelievers but believers who pervert the teachings of Christ. Misrepresenting Jesus for selfish means is a far greater rejection of him than unbelief.

The wicked tenants in Matthew 21 reject the landowner’s representatives repeatedly and violently, all so that they might have the landowner’s riches for themselves. Their brutality is startling in how unabashed it is and in how it escalates.

But there is something perhaps more puzzling than the tenants’ violent behavior, and that is the behavior of the landowner. There is an obvious question when reading this story: why does the landowner keep sending slaves to these people?

The Brick Testament is a somewhat irreverent illustration of parts of the Bible using Lego figures. I love to check in with it as part of my exegetical work, because it often represents Scripture in a way we wouldn’t immediately think to read it. This parable is one of the stories you can see represented by Legos. The Brick Testament’s retelling of the story points to the near insanity of the landowner’s approach.

In the Brick Testament’s version, the landowner sends first one servant, and then another, both of whom are beaten and sent away empty-handed. As he sends the third servant to give it a try, the Lego landowner calls out, “Good luck!” And that servant is killed. Later, as the landowner sends a whole group of servants after multiple others have died, he calls out, “Don’t forget to get a receipt!”

The comments are so absurd as to be morbid. But that is exactly how ridiculous the landowner’s actions are. You would think that after one servant was beaten by tenants who refused to pay their fair share, the landowner would march down to the vineyard and evict them himself. But instead, he keeps sending men to ask for the harvest. He doesn’t even equip them to defend themselves or to fight back. Again and again he sends unarmed servants to gather the fruits of the vineyard, until finally he sends his own son.

Maybe this story isn’t about the tenants at all. Maybe it is about the landowner. Jesus does warn of the coming judgment, but even in this story that hasn’t happened yet. God still comes to us again and again, asking to see the fruits of the kingdom, foolishly sending his servants one after the other to be rejected, not because God is crazy or stupid but because God loves us.

If we serve a God whose servants, whose own son is rejected, then we will see Christ most clearly in those who are rejected by this world. The parable of the forbearing landowner, as I’ll call it, comes right at the end of Matthew 21. Chapter 22 opens with the story of the wedding banquet. A king throws a party for his son’s wedding, but everyone he invites either has something more important to do or mistreats the servants who bring their invitation. The king is outraged and sends his servants out with a charge to invite anyone and everyone, right off the street, and so the banquet is filled with guests.

What is offered at the communion table is not offered in a vacuum. We are called to extend this table to everyone, to all who are rejected and outcast, to everyone out on the street. Our youth will put this into practice today with Love Thy Neighbor as they share a meal with our homeless neighbors. And on Thursday, a mission team will travel to Haiti to share life with people who have been rejected by their government and by most of the world.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. If you pay attention to the produce available in supermarkets, you will find a great deal of uniformity in the size, shape, and color of the fruits and vegetables available for purchase. But if you’ve ever had a garden, you know most food doesn’t look that way. Every years, literally tons and tons of perfectly good food is rejected and thrown out because it doesn’t fit these aesthetic specification.

And so, in response to this fact and the EU’s declaration, French grocer Intermarché

What a sweet potato actually looks like, sometimes.

What a sweet potato actually looks like, sometimes.

started a campaign called Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables. They purchased produce that was misshapen but perfectly good to eat, gave it its own packaging, and marketed “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.”

Today, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, all across the globe, Christians are celebrating this sacred meal that offers undeserved grace to everyone. The fruits of the kingdom grow wherever we seek our rejected God among the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, wherever we find something lovable in the grotesque, the ridiculous, the hideous, the failed, the disfigured, the ugly, and the unfortunate in each one of us.

Our Methodist theology affirms what we call prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us. That is, God’s grace is at work in us even before we know it, even before we can respond. God’s grace is always working in us t to make us ready to move from rejecting God’s love to accepting it, and from accepting it to extending it.

Jan Richardson offers this blessing for World Communion Sunday. I’ll close with her words:

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.

And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.

And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

The table is wide. All are welcome to partake of the inglorious fruits of the kingdom. Everyone is welcome, and everywhere is the feast. Amen.

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What Comes Out

This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, NC on Matthew 15:10-20.

Marc Chagall, "The Fiddler"

Marc Chagall, “The Fiddler”

In the fall of 1964, the musical Fiddler on the Roof came to Broadway, and five years later it became a movie. Set in early 20th-century Russia, it tells the story of Tevye, the father of five daughters. Tevye strives to defend his family and their Jewish religious traditions from threats from within—the willfulness of his own daughters—and threats from without—the persecution of Jews in imperial Russia.

In the opening number of the musical, Tevye acknowledges that he and his way of life face many challenges. But, he says, there is one thing that holds it all together: Tradition! Tradition is what helps him keep his balance. “Without tradition,” says Tevye, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Tradition in belief and practice binds us to one another across time and space and gives us a shared center of balance. Tradition is one of the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral consists of four fundamental ways of doing theology in the way that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did.

In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture is primary, and then there is reason, experience, and tradition. This image doesn’t quite work since Scripture bears more weight, but imagine for a moment the quadrilateral as a four-legged stool. Without tradition, our way of understanding God is shaky and off-balance—like a fiddler on the roof.

The word tradition comes from Latin roots meaning “give” and “across”—tradition is that which is given to us across the centuries, that which is handed down by those who went before. Christian scholar Jaroslov Pelikan calls it “the living faith of the dead.”

But Pelikan contrasts tradition with something that often passes for tradition, and that is traditionalism. Traditionalism is tradition for tradition’s own sake. If tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” then “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees are practicing the dead faith of the living. In their obsessive attention to tradition for tradition’s sake, they have fallen into traditionalism.

Most of chapter 15 shows Jesus debating with the Pharisees about the value and application of their religious rules. In the verses before the passage we just read, the Pharisees accuse the disciples of breaking the elders’ rules because they do not wash their hands before they eat. Jesus reprimands them for prioritizing their own religious customs above God’s commands, asking this question: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus pushes back when adherence to religious custom is given more importance than the needs of real people. Seven times in the Gospels, he breaks the Sabbath by healing the sick, the lame, and the blind. He allows his disciples to break religious rules because they are hungry. And he chastises the religious leaders whose purity codes would keep them from interacting with those who are sick or those who are simply not like them.

Jesus turns traditionalism on its head to remind us why tradition is there in the first place—not to make us feel good or important but to keep us in balance, to keep us connected to God and to our neighbor.

Many of us Christians feel the need to protect ourselves from bad influences. We make Christian friends, listen to Christian radio, shop at Christian businesses, and eat Christian chicken sandwiches (just not on Sundays).

None of these things are bad. Having community with those who share our beliefs is indispensible to spiritual growth—it’s part of participating in tradition. But it’s not the whole picture.

The insularity so typical of Christianity is lightyears away from Jesus’ example. Jesus was constantly hanging out with the wrong people: Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, even women! He spent most of his time not with the religious elite but with sinners. Jesus’ closest companions were all the people that no one wanted.

And Jesus never seems worried that they will be a bad influence on him. Of course, this is Jesus we’re talking about, and he does have the unfair advantage of being sinless in the first place.

But over and over, Jesus does things that by the religious standards of the day should make him unclean. He touches a woman with hemorrhages. He visits men with leprosy. And in the part of Matthew 15 right after what we read today, he speaks with a Canaanite woman, a foreigner of the wrong gender. And never does Jesus seem concerned that any of this might contaminate him. Jesus is not concerned with what goes in, and so what comes out is compassion and healing.

Jesus is showing us that God’s command to honor life is more important than our fear of becoming unclean. That fear has not completely gone away with improvements in medical technology, the invention of hand sanitizer, and the development of a cure for leprosy.

Recently, two American doctors were infected with the Ebola virus while fighting the epidemic in western Africa. The devision was made to bring them to the United States for treatment at Emory. The public reaction was mostly negative, even cruel. It showed not only widespread ignorance about Ebola itself but also, more disturbingly, our tendency to let fear decide.

In response, Susan Grant, the chief nurse for Emory Healthcare, wrote a letter explaining why they decided to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S. Most of her letter includes reassurances about the health precautions being taken and underscores the importance of what we could learn from these patients, but the part that stuck with me was her final sentence: “We can fear, or we can care.”

These are the same options that Jesus implicitly names for us: “We can fear, or we can care.” If we allow our fear of what comes in to drive our words and actions, then what comes out will be anger and hate. In the immortal words of Yoda the Star Wars Jedi master, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” “We can fear, or we can care.”

Hospitality has recently become more and more of buzzword here at Centenary, as at many churches. Hospitality covers many, many things, from greeters to ushers to bulletins to fellowship folders to coffee to signage to donut holes. I’m very proud of how far Centenary has come in being a more welcoming and hospitable church, and since we’re doing such a great job, I want to challenge us to take it one step further.

Yesterday, I heard pastor and evangelism professor Elaine Heath speak at a conference. She reminded us that welcoming people here at the church is only part of the story of hospitality. The other part is about going out there, immersing ourselves in the messy world beyond the walls of the church.

Many churches, including ours, are getting better at saying, “Come.” But Jesus has something else to say to us. A few weeks ago, our guest preacher, Brian Combs, reminded us that the word Jesus uses most often in the Gospels is, “Go.” In the coming months, you are going to start seeing the word “Go” everywhere here at Centenary as we encourage ourselves to become the hospitable, Christlike church that we are both within these walls and without.

But, of course, the going and the messiness can be difficult and uncomfortable. When we get outside of our bubbles, what we encounter might challenge us. It might even trouble us. We will be tempted to crawl back into the safe zone of our Christian friends and Christian chicken sandwiches and stay there, keeping everything else out. How do we engage in the messiness of the world without simply becoming messes ourselves?

The answer may come in the form of a game. Comedian Tina Fey describes the rules of improvisation, starting with the first rule: say, “Yes.”

So, for example, if your improv partner points her finger toward you and says, “Freeze, I have a gun,” don’t say, “That’s not a gun, that’s just your finger.” If you do that, you’ve ruined the game. But if, instead, you say, “Oh no, not the gun I gave you for Christmas!”, then you’ve created a scene and started telling a story. Say, “Yes.”

The second rule of improvisation is this: say “Yes, and.” If your partner says, “It’s so hot in here,” don’t just say, “It sure it.” That’s saying yes, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead, say, “What do you expect? We’re in hell,” or, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Say, “Yes, and.”

Tina Fey applies these rules to real life, but there is also an actual theological term for what she’s talking about. Sam Wells uses the same rules of improv to reframe an approach to Christian ethics. He says that whenever an actor is given an offer, she has two options: accept or block; say, “Yes” or “No.”

Too often, religious adherence becomes about blocking, saying no to any offer that seems like a threat to the established order. These are the fruits of traditionalism. The tradition that was supposed to keep us in balance has given way to the rules of tradition for tradition’s own sake. Blocking, or saying, “No” leads us to turn down what in many cases may be gifts from God in disguise.

But accepting, saying, “Yes” all the time is no better. Some offers are legitimately evil. Some of the messiness of this world can and will hurt us. The decision to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S. was not done without deliberate, intentional planning and preparation. Simply saying, “Yes” may not be enough in every case.

But Wells suggests a third way between accepting and blocking, between saying, “Yes” and saying, “No.” He calls it overacceptance. It is saying, “Yes, and.”

Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus overaccepts. Again and again, he says, “Yes, and” to the law, saying, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.” He does not negate the spirit of the law but takes it one step further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”

The ultimate overacceptance is the resurrection. Jesus is offered death, and he does not block, he does not say, “No.” But neither does he merely accept. Jesus dies, really dies, accepting the death that is offered to him, but he doesn’t stop there. He rises again from the dead, overaccepting the horror of the crucifixion and turning it into the salvation of the world.

Overacceptance is possible only because it is done against the backdrop of a bigger story. Tradition is how we learn that story in the first place, but the Pharisees have traded this collective memory for their traditionalism. They have forgotten that the tradition intended to balance and guide us is first and foremost a story about a God who created and loves everything that is. This God does not make rules—this God makes dirty things clean, calls the people no one wanted children of God, and turns death into life.

The children’s book The Tin Forest tells the story of an old man who lives in a place that is full of other people’s garbage. It is “filled with all the things that no one wanted.” Every day, the man looks in despair at this forgotten wasteland, wishing it were instead a lush forest filled with plants and animals and color and light.

The man has some choices. He could say, “No” to this place. He could move away, or he could have all that garbage cleaned up and put someplace else. Or he could say, “Yes” and simply accept his unhappy circumstances.

But instead, he begins to see that this pile of “things that no one wanted” might just be a gift. A little bit at a time, he begins to take the scraps of trash and metal and put them together. One tin flower, one aluminum bird, one steel tree at a time, he creates the forest he always wished for. It is beautiful, even if it is made of tin.

When we go, when we head out into the messiness of this world, we may see at first simply a wasteland, a pile of things and people that no one wants. But we are called to receive all of that as a gift, to open our eyes to the unlikely beauty of this world, and to get a little creative—to overaccept; to say, “Yes, and.”

For the good news is that God has already overaccepted us. We come before God with our sin, and God does not turn us away. God accepts us, but that’s not all. God meets us where we are, but God does not leave us there—God sees us, all of us, all the good, all the bad, and God says, “Yes…and?”

We cannot earn God’s overacceptance by being good or by following the rules. Poet Mary Oliver dares to claim, “You do not have to be good.” Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christian ethics isn’t at all about figuring out what is good. Rather, it is about God’s reality becoming real among God’s creatures. We are not called to be good; we are created good and called to live into that reality.

And God’s reality is not catalogued in a rulebook. It is built and beautified in a kingdom. As you start to hear and see Jesus’ command to “Go” in the coming months, you will hear with it this verse from Matthew 10: “The kingdom of God is right at your doorstep.” We are called to go, to immerse ourselves in the messiness of the world, because Jesus brought the kingdom not into holy temples but out among the fields, in the streets, in the homes of the most unlikely people. We are called to be less concerned with what goes in and more attentive to what comes out.

For this is what it means to be holy: not to be ritually pure in what we eat or how we wash our hands, but to let God’s reality become real in our hearts and in our minds. Eugene Peterson says, “[Holiness] is not moral fussiness. It is not being nice. To understand and participate in holiness we go to the source: God is holy. Holiness, therefore, must refer to what is alive, whole, vibrant, personal, and relational. Maybe even a little reckless. All of which God is.”

Our rules would keep us safe, but God calls us to be a little reckless. God calls us to go out into the world, to say again and again, “Yes…and?” God calls us to build the kingdom out of the things no one wants, alongside the people no one wants. With the story of God’s creative love to give us balance, we can release ourselves from the fear of what goes in and glorify God with what comes out—even if what comes out is the trembling melody of a fiddler on the roof.

Amen.

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A Blog Post About Music #5

Featuring several acts I’ve seen live recently!

1. Lucius – Wildewoman (2013)

My first exposure to Lucius was through live videos of some of their performances. The tight female harmony vocals are made that much eerier live by the fact that their singers dress identically for shows. The style is sometimes rock, sometimes minimalist, and sometimes sounds like it’s coming straight out of the 50s. The showmanship is great–I got to see them open for Sara Bareilles last week, and they rocked out. Favorite tracks on this album include “How Loud Your Heart Gets,” “Don’t Just Sit There,” and the one you’ll see live below, “Go Home.”

 

2. Lowland Hum – Native Air (2013)

I first saw Lowland Hum at a house concert, before they were Lowland Hum. The duo is Daniel Levi Goans and Lauren (Plank) Goans, and when I first heard them, they had been married maybe 2 weeks. Lauren was mostly singing backup to Daniel’s music. Now, these Greensboro natives are a full-fledged musical as well as marital collaboration, and the result is stunning. The surprising but inviting melodies and lyrics and minimalist yet broad dynamics have the effect of making you lean in to listen and then step back to experience thematic and musical crescendos. Daniel and Lauren’s voices are in tune and embody the sound of two people in love. And, hey, they did a Tiny Desk Concert!

 

3. The Collection – Ars Morendi (2014)

This is another example of a group I first saw in a humble setting and later got to see after enormous growth. On stage, The Collection looks like a sound engineer’s worst nightmare–I don’t actually know how many members it has, but it’s at least a dozen. It looks like the natural-family-planning-love-children of a folk act and a grown-up version of your middle school band/orchestra. I first saw them at the Wild Goose Festival in 2012 and responded positively, but I mostly thought it was sort of a gimmick to have this insanely large group of people making music together. But when I went to their album release in Greensboro recently, I was proven so, so wrong. Frontman David Wimbish’s songwriting is stellar, the lyrics poignant and profound without trying to prove anything, the music catchy yet not predictable, the arrangements amazingly tight for using such a palette of instruments.

 

4. Susan Werner - The Gospel Truth (2007)

Susan Werner is a delightfully introspective yet sassy songwriting with a voice dripping with character and soul. I got on to her album The Gospel Truth and am still digging into the lyrics. She challenges established religion and beckons us further into a way of life based more on love and compassion than on rules and being right. Also, she’s apparently scoring Bull Durham: The Musical…frankly, I didn’t much care for the movie, which was a disappointment as a 7-year Durhamite, but who knows. Anyway, I got to sing her song “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small” in church recently, and it was pretty freaking cool.

 

5. Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear (2014)

I first heard of Sia at the Sara Bareilles concert where I saw Lucius. Sara does a mind-blowingly awesome cover of Sia’s song “Chandelier.” Apparently, Sia has worked with a ton of really big names in pop and R&B. You know, David Guetta’s “Titanium” and Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones.” Not that I particularly love either of those, but it turns out Sia has a habit of avoiding the spotlight (she performed live on Ellen with her back to the audience), and people who are low-profile like that always fascinate me. What’s more, the music video for “Chandelier” (below) features child dancer Maddie Ziegler, and it’s weird and amazing in the best way. I don’t love Sia’s whole album, but I’ve had “Chandelier” stuck in my head for a week, both the original and Sara B.’s cover.

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The Last Trumpet

This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 11, 2014. The Scripture was 1 Corinthians 15:51-58.

Throughout the history of philosophy and theology, there has been debate about the relationship of the body and the soul. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that the soul and body are separate entities. According to the Greeks, the body is nothing more than a container that holds the soul. The soul is our real self; the body is just a shell.

This way of thinking is exactly what Paul was writing against in his letter to the churches at Corinth. The Corinthians are Greeks, some of the early Gentile converts to Christianity. It seems that they have been preaching about a resurrection only of the soul. Paul reminds them that Jesus’ body was raised from the tomb.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say this: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” If you ask most Christians what that means, they will say it means that Jesus’ body was raised from the dead. This is true, but it’s not actually what the creed is talking about. The creed is talking about our bodies being raised at the last day.

The resurrection of Jesus’ body was not a party trick; it was the first fruit of the general resurrection. It flies in the face of Greek thought that would separate the body and the soul, and as it turns out, it is wholly consistent with the Biblical account of the nature of humanity. We are not souls that happen to have a body; we are bodies enlivened by a soul.

Let’s go back to the creation story in Genesis. Here is how James Weldon Johnson retells what happened on the sixth day of creation, after everything had been made except humanity:

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

Then into it He blew the breath of life.

God does not make a soul and then stick in into a body. God gently molds a body in God’s image out of the dust of the earth, working patiently like a potter at her wheel, motherlike in her tenderness and attentiveness. And then, God breathes life into the clay.

We are not souls that happen to have a body; we are bodies enlivened by a soul.

One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 131, and not just because it is very short. Psalm 131 is about peace and hope. It has a beautiful image of the soul with God like a child with its mother:

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”

The way the Psalmist speaks of the soul is so tangible and embodied. Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell said, “love is touching souls”—our souls long for touch because our souls are themselves embodied.

Many studies have shown that physical touch is integral to human development in the earliest stages of infancy. In 1946, “Rene Spitz…observed that infants who were raised by…young mothers in a penal institution were better off than infants who were provided with sufficient nutrition in hygienic [orphanages].”

We are not souls that happen to have a body; we are bodies enlivened by a soul.

Today is Music and the Arts Sunday as well as Mother’s Day. The arts speak to our souls, but they do so only with the help of our bodies. Art is to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. Our bodies enable us to feel the goodness of God in a tangible way.

Psalm 34 says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” We are not called to metaphysically sense the presence of God in some disembodied, ethereal way. We are called simply to taste and to see. We are called to feel God’s embrace and to quiet our souls in the arms of our Mother.

It is in our bodies, and not without them, that we find resurrection. Whether our bodies are strong or feeble or broken; whether our ears can hear or have been deadened by age or illness or accident; whether we can speak or sing or mumble or only stand mute; whether our minds are sharp or clouded by dementia; whether our eyes are bright or blinded, whether our tongues can savor or have grown dull with time, we will all taste and see that the Lord is good.

I have a neighbor named Walker. He is cute, sweet, a great conversation partner, and he really likes me. He is also 3 years old.

The other day, Walker shared the gospel story with me, and he was right on point.

Walker and I were getting ready for a neighborhood event, and his grandmother was working with other volunteers at the kitchen while also trying to keep him occupied. I decided the best way for me to be helpful was to distract him. With the help of his grandmother, Walker started telling me about the Easter play he had gone to see recently. His grandmother prompted him as he explained to me how Jesus died on the cross, was in the tomb for 3 days, and then rose from the dead.

But then Walker got really excited and took over the narrative.

“And guess what?” he said. His little body curled up as if he would physically burst from anticipation.

“What?” I asked.

“Guess what’s gonna happen when Jesus comes back again?” He could barely stand the excitement.

“What?!” I repeated.

Walker was actually trembling now, and finally he flung his arms wide and shouted, “He’s gonna take us all with him! EVERYBODY!!!”

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, he’s gonna take us all with him. Every body. Amen.

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Learning to Make Mistakes

If you’ve talked to me for more than 2 minutes or gone anywhere near my Facebook profile in the last few months, you’ll know that I have started my first garden and am pretty excited about it.

But the other day, I made a mistake that cost me almost all of my plants.

I had noticed some bugs had been munching on my kale and broccoli, so I got insecticide. I knew this particular product was also good for fungus control, so I put on my straw gardening hat (which I bought ironically but am now totally, unabashedly in love with) and set about spraying down not only the brassicas but also my brand new transplants.

I finished treating most of my 14′ x 24′ plot, wiped the sweat off my brow, and looked at the bottle of the product I had just been using.

My heart sank at one word: “CONCENTRATE.”

This little bottle in my hand makes 16 gallons of spray when watered down. I had just coated my plants with the undiluted solution.

A quick phone call and a Google consultation revealed that this product was nothing but organic oils, so it’s not like I had just doused my yard in chemicals. Maybe the plants would be OK?

But after a few days, it became clear that they would not be OK. My baby tomato and squash plants, and even my big, previously healthy kale and broccoli, all looked like they were dying.

I was pretty proud of my initial reaction, because I did not immediately burst into tears. Instead, I thought about it and put a plan into action. Most of the young plants had only been in the ground a few days; I could easily replace those. The kale and broccoli were a lost cause, but I could tear them out and plant other things in their place.

I set off for Webster Brothers Hardware, feeling very pleased with my happy-go-lucky, not-at-all-anxious-or-self-deprecating attitude. I was rolling with the punches! Take that, tendency to be too hard on myself!

But then, that little voice in my head started talking. You are an idiot. You know you should always read the instructions. You never pay attention. You are careless and stupid.

Suddenly I was back in familiar territory. This is how I usually handle making mistakes–by seeing them as further proof of what an awful, useless person I am. I should have read the directions. A halfway intelligent person would have read the freaking directions.

I just finished reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. In it, she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt, she says, is feeling appropriate remorse for something you did or said and taking action to remedy it. Shame, she says, goes beyond that–it becomes about your worth as a person and your ability (or lack thereof) to connect with others.

In this example, guilt sounds like this: “I didn’t read the instructions. That was a mistake. I know that’s something I tend to do, so I’ll be more attentive to that from now on. I will do what I can to fix this, and next time, I will read the instructions.”

Shame (courtesy of the little voice in my head) sounds like this: Only an idiot does something stupid like that. You should know better. Everyone who has been so interested in and impressed by your garden is going to be disappointed when they find out you screwed everything up.

Shame, Brown says, is the fear of disconnection. My garden has been a source of connection for me–to the earth, to myself, to other people–and suddenly, I was imagining all the ways this would ruin that. My roommate had been looking forward to juicing the kale. My dad had been so impressed by my big, leafy plants. A friend had helped me start the garden and had given me or helped me select all the plants I had just murdered. I had let all those people down, and now they would all know that I was an idiot.

I wanted to quit. I wanted to give up. That’s what I usually do when I realize I’m not good at something.

But I didn’t quit. I tore out everything that had been damaged. Fortunately, the sugar snap peas, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, and carrots were safe. I replanted my tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant. Without the kale forest taking over the big bed, I was even able to rearrange the placement of my plants so that the tomatoes had more space when before they had been a little crowded. A small victory.

And this was my bigger victory: I added watermelon and cantaloupe to my garden. I hadn’tphoto-2 had room for them before. I will definitely miss the kale and broccoli, but I’ll just keep buying them like I’ve always done.

The next time that little voice in my head calls me an idiot, I have a rebuttal:

Would an idiot have watermelons in her garden?

I don’t think so.

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