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Like His Brothers and Sisters: A Sermon on Hebrews 2:14-18

I grew up in a small, private school, which means there was no mistaking whose family I was a part of. I had four siblings who had gone before me, three brothers and one sister who all told me who was the best teacher to have in each grade and what classes I should take. Inevitably at some point in the school year, I would get a comment from a teacher that I was “just like my brother” or “just like my sister.”

I can remember distinctly as I was looking at colleges wanting to cross every college my siblings had been to off my list because you get to a point where you just want to be your own person not such and such’s brother or sister. It didn’t happen that way. I chose Furman where my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, and two of my brothers attended because sometimes even when we want to step out, we have to acknowledge that there’s a reason we are like our brothers or our sister, because we actually are.

Our passage today is part of the readings in the lectionary for The Presentation of the Lord in which Jesus is presented in the temple 40 days after his birth. Now, it might seem odd in our baptist tradition that we would even mention this holiday or feast day called Candlemas, but this is significant because it has been 40 days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus. 40 days, the same number of days that the people of God wandered in the desert. 40 days, the same number of days that it rained while Noah was on the ark. 40 days, the same number of days that Jesus will be tempted by the Deceiver in the desert. 40 days, a signal that of a time of trial and tribulation.

What have your last 40 days been like?

Not only is the number of days significant here, but the fact that Jesus was indeed presented in the temple, something that Jewish families would have done regardless of whether their child was the son of God or not. This is a tradition and ritual that reminds us of the very humanity of Jesus. The fact that Jesus as a baby did the things that babies did at that time. Jesus was like us.

Hear now this reminder of Jesus’s humanity from the book of Hebrews chapter 2, verse 14.

2:14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,

2:15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

2:16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.

2:17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.

2:18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

I don’t know about you, but this week, I needed to be reminded that Jesus suffered just like his brothers and sisters that is to say you and me. I needed to mark this 40 day journey passed the birth of Jesus in which we all celebrated with hopeful hearts with this reminder that although Jesus was born with angelic declarations, he also suffered whispers and plots of death from the political leader of the time. He and his family had to flee for safety because of these whispered plans. I needed to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into a time where there was a guarantee of safety, comfort, or ease.

Jesus was born like us.

The problem is that so many of us have accepted the truth that we’ve heard somewhere or another that life is supposed to be easy. That for some reason or another if we are suffering than we are doing something wrong, not living the way we are supposed to be living or living for ourselves and not for Jesus. Somewhere we have picked up on the idea that to be a follower of Jesus means to be blessed without trials and tribulations, but our understanding of being blessed is to have an easy comfortable life.

I can’t find that in God’s word. What I find is this reminder that the son of God came and walked the earth as a child, as a teacher, and as a messiah and in all of those things there was suffering. There was suffering of being persecuted with words and ostracized by religious leaders. There was suffering and temptation in the desert hungry, tired, and thirsty. There was suffering from the weight of responsibility of teaching and leading. There was suffering in betrayal of his closest confidants, his disciples.

There was suffering in all aspects of Jesus’ life, so then to be a follower of Christ is not to be without pain and suffering. But I’m not talking about the pain and suffering that we share in our community of faith during a time of prayer. I am talking about the pain and suffering that finds you in the night. The pain and suffering that crucifies you, leaving you only able to cry as Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”  If you are suffering right now, it does not, absolutely does not mean that you are not following Christ. In fact, if you are suffering, it might mean you are closer to walking in Jesus’ footsteps than you have ever been before.

It took my until two years after I had graduated college and I was in an apartment in Germany alone depending on the hospitality of strangers that I realized even though I was like my brothers and sisters, I didn’t have to follow in their footsteps or in the footsteps of my parents or in the footsteps of the community of faith who raised me and who believed that women shouldn’t be preachers. It took me being across an ocean alone to realize that all the times that I followed in my family’s footsteps, believing wholeheartedly that that is what I was supposed to do, I was missing an opportunity to be who God created me to be.

When I stepped out of that path of certainty and stepped into the wilderness that God was calling me to, I truly didn’t think there would be a community of faith who would want me to preach or walk beside them in their suffering and in their pain and also in their joy and hope because the path was so very foreign to me. But here we are trying to be Christ followers together.

I’ve lived my whole life in fear…fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of disappointing my family, my community of faith, my friends. Fear  of falling outside the will of God, this mystical concept that I couldn’t ever seem to grab hold of, but others saw so clearly. Fear of alienation. Fear of being alone. Is this where you are? Do you feel like you are wandering a foreign lonely path? Fear brings death not life. In order to  live, we must let fear die.

God is with you, just as God was with God’s son as he walked and ministered, stopping on his journey to see people in need and meet those needs. You are not alone for Creator God sent God’s son to this earth to share flesh and blood, trials and temptations, pain and suffering, hopes and fears, with you. Creator God sent God’s son to earth to free you from the temptation of believing you are not good enough, you are not strong enough, you are not smart enough. You have the freedom of a new path, not one that is absent of suffering, but one that follows in the footsteps of Jesus who knows that very suffering and can offer you the strength you need on this journey.

This is the word of the Lord.

A Case of Privilege: A Pastoral Confession

There were reasons to believe that one of my students need to be referred for testing to be considered for additional resources. There were trainings engrained in my mind that told me as a third grade teacher part of my responsibility was to catch these types of situations to give students the best opportunity to access their potential and their abilities.

And so I did what teachers did and scheduled a parent teacher conference. I knew that there was something that had happened to my student during his mother’s pregnancy. I knew that the symptoms I was seeing were textbook examples of fetal alcohol syndrome or a drug-related infiltration from mother to child.

I knew.

She filled out the paperwork and when the question asked, “Was your pregnancy normal?” she checked yes. As I watched her glide over the form, my eyes bore through the little check she had just made. As I tried to keep my demeanor welcoming, my anger flashed. How could she say she had a normal pregnancy? There is absolutely no way that her child was not exposed to some kind of drugs or alcohol. It’s just not possible. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to confess to what she did while she was pregnant. 

I knew I was right. I knew she was wrong.

I told colleagues my righteous indignation flaring. How could we do what was best for her child if she didn’t answer honestly? How could we get anywhere if she lied to us, the very people trying to help her child?

And suddenly I was sitting in a chair at Transitions Homeless Shelter across from a woman who was pregnant. A woman who was pregnant and homeless. A woman who was pregnant and starving. A woman who was pregnant with no healthcare, no access to birth control, and with very limited access to prenatal care. A woman so consumed with the exhaustion of survival of finding food every day or finding a place to sleep each night that she could not even consider what was best for the child growing within.

My God, forgive me. I confessed.

My privilege was so blinding in that first year of teaching that I couldn’t imagine a woman who was pregnant who didn’t know any other community, but a community with alcohol and drugs. I couldn’t imagine a woman, a mom who didn’t know how to best care for her body while she was sustaining another life. I couldn’t imagine a woman who couldn’t read or research to find out about what her body needed to help her child. I couldn’t imagine a woman so scared of losing her child that she filling out of form in front of mandatory reporter overwhelmed her with anxiety. I couldn’t imagine because of my vast amount of privilege.

Instead of peace, I offered her anxiety. Instead of hope, I offered condemnation. Instead of scaffolded learning, I offered her resentment and belittlement calling her ill-informed. Instead of love, I offered her disdain.

Thanks be to God for second chances, years later.

Quarrels Among Us

When I share with people that I come from a family of six, one of the first things they ask is, “Did y’all get along?” I always answer yes and no. There were six of us, which multiplied the possibilities of people you could quarrel in what I am sure felt, to my parents, like an unending roll of the dice.

There were certainly times that we had trouble getting along: a phenomenon not unique to our family, which I know because of the invention of the Our Get Along Shirt that I’ve seen on Pinterest. You take one big shirt and put both kids heads through the neck hole and then the each get one arm out. Parents, there’s a little practical advice for you this morning!

There’s always a point when you are living in community together as families or communities of faith or friends that there is going to be some sort of quarrel or bickering or picking at each other. It’s how we examine our own perspectives and how we develop empathy and sympathy for someone else’s point of view. The quarreling brings up issues that are important, but eventually if you want to survive and thrive as a community who is walking through life together, there has to be a resolution to these quarrels.

And this is the point at which we hear from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 1 beginning in verse 10.

Hear now the word of the Lord.

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[b] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[c] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I have to admit that there’s part of me that is suspicious of Paul’s claim here in 1 Corinthians. Doesn’t it kind of sound like Paul is just saying that the people of the church of Corinth should simmer down with the allegiance to different people so that they are faithful to him? Sure, he uses the argument that we all belong to Christ, but isn’t he trying to undo the power of Chloe and Apollos and then throw himself into the mix just to appear humble?

It would be easy to interpret this passage with that understanding, but there’s something more to these divisions. This is not a Clemson/Carolina or more importantly, a Duke/UNC division.

These are deep quarrels. Quarrels that turn to us vs. them. Quarrels that turn to factions and groups standing on opposite sides unwilling to even hear the other side. Quarrels that divide. Quarrels that can’t be solved with a get along shirt.

Paul isn’t suggesting that there should be no quarrels, but rather that there should be no divisions among us as followers of Christ. We should quarrel. We should discuss. We should live together in community, which means that we have to struggle to be together and be there for each other. When we don’t quarrel and pretend as though we all believe and agree to the same things, then we are missing a huge part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The cross.

The cross as Paul recounts in verse 17 loses it’s power when we cling to our own side of the story or tenaciously adhere to a specific teacher or a political party or yes, even a sports team, because we aren’t willing to sacrifice ourselves as Christ did.

And that’s what Paul is encouraging this community of faith deeply divided to wrestle with. For being a follower of Christ cannot occur until we, like Christ, are willing to sacrifice our body and yes even our blood for someone else.

You know one of the things that inevitably happens when you find yourself in the Our Get Along Shirt with someone is that you have to consider the other person’s needs. If the other person is thirsty, you have to go with him or her to the sink to get water. If that person is tired, you have to sit with them and beside them. Your time and your plans are not your own because you are walking so closely with someone else.

If we did think of others before ourselves, if we looked around us and wondered how can I meet someone else’s need today, then I’d be willing to bet, we wouldn’t have much time for talking and debating whether we liked Chloe or Apollos or Paul better. We would be too busy being the hands and the feet of Jesus, the hands and feet that were crucified on a cross, to others in our communities of faith and in our communities who are in grave need.
Perhaps getting along, or being of the same mind and purpose as Paul puts it, has a lot more to do with walking and living with each other in community, touching shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip and understanding that everyone needs community.

A Year of Healing

I found myself lying on the floor staring at the ceiling next to a basket of unfolded laundry unable to believe that 2016 is almost over. The day had started with a celebration at Transitions with the youth of New Hope Christian Fellowship and our three kids where we sang carols, drank cocoa, and ate cake together. We fellowshipped and celebrated making it through Christmas, one of the hardest holidays for the homeless population we have been working with over the past seven months. I was thinking about the forty people we had crammed into the big day room and wondered what was going to happen if our numbers continued to grow at the rate we have been growing. This was already the third room we had been moved to because we had outgrown the space in the other two rooms.

But even as I reflected and breathed a deep peaceful breath that all of the planning from Advent and all of the celebrations with family were concluded, the overwhelming thought that kept repeating itself was, “I never thought I’d be here.”

Even though I haven’t been vocal about it, I make a commitment each year to concentrate on a mantra or discipline, something that will stretch and challenge me, something that I hope will bring me new insights and new understandings.

In 2015 I concentrated on new life and on rebirth as I stepped fully into the role of pastor without being a student/pastor. I concentrated on nurturing and feeding the baby that grew within me. It was a beautiful time of recognizing and practicing resurrection helping my first community of faith to see that there is always a new start and a chance for joining in creating alongside of a Creator who walked with humanity in the cool of the evening. It was a year of anticipation and excitement.

2016 has been one of the hardest I’ve chosen because it’s been a year of healing.

In January, I had to acknowledge the impact nine months of pregnancy, hours of labor, including back labor, two attempts at an epidural before one actual took had taken on my body. I learned what my grandmother meant when she said she was “bone weary” as we navigated cluster feedings and growth spurts nurturing and caring for a mini human trying to wake up to the world around him. It’s been a year where I have had to accept more help than I’m comfortable and leave more things undone than I’d like.

It’s been a year that I have wrestled to understanding my story, one that includes spiritual abuse and will always include people who would rather me not tell my story. It’s been a year where I’ve had to say goodbye to a community of faith so influential in my journey as a follower of Christ and pastor.

It’s been a year where we’ve had to wrestle with the question of what’s next for months and months of uncertainty and fear in a contentious presidential election and then attempt to find our footing after the results came in.

It’s been a year when I’ve finally felt strong enough to start running again: running a long race, running old paths. And just when I started to feel my body heal, we were confronted again with how our whole lives can change in a week as our journey of healing moved from me to Sam. I’ve wondered how it be so tiring to give your mind and body time to heal. Isn’t it supposed to be a peaceful and restful process? And the image of Jacob limping away from this wrestling creeps into my mind knowing what the long journey of healing he had ahead of him looked like. 

As I got up and reached into the basket and started folding clothes dividing them into three stacks for our three sleeping kids, I wondered why I had made those late night promises to God to take time to heal in the early part of this year. Why hadn’t I chosen a different word, a different journey for this year? But even as the questions came to my mind, I knew that this time of cocooning ourselves and trying to give ourselves time to heal has been so important.

And as I look to next week, next year I can’t help but wonder has this all just been a part of the metamorphosis to come?

What will 2017 hold?  

On Finding Sure Footing Again

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Just yesterday, I wrote to our BWIM SC newsletter list how the election results had left me off balance and unsure of what we could do, what we should do. I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t ever been here before and although I had a pulse on the influence of our president elect in more conservative congregations and communities, I still didn’t think his voice would be enough to drown out all the other voices who had come together.

And I’ve been in a state in which hands have been offered and I have stood up, but much like Ben when I’ve tried to get him to walk holding my hands, I’ve sat back down pursed out my lip and pouted. I wasn’t ready to walk yet. I wanted to be carried.

Then today, I saw the pure joy in Ben’s face as he took three unprompted steps from the coffee table to the chair, something we have been seeing off and on over the Thanksgiving break, but this time it was different. He was doing it on his own. He was stepping out. I guess it’s time for me to do the same; to admit that even in the midst of uncertainty, still I am called to write, to study, and to preach.

I have no doubt the road ahead for Ben will be filled with bumps and bruises as he gets his sea legs. I know the same will be true for me, but I hope like him I will step joyfully and courageously into this next phase and stage of ministry and motherhood as we walk together.

“I’ll Keep Getting Stronger”

I know some of you were left nursing reopened wounds in light of the presidential results and the discussions and rhetoric that has followed. I certainly was knocked off balance, but sometimes you’re watching your one-year old dance to a Sesame Street song and you recommit yourself to the work of reconciliation that you have been called to do.

“I’m never going to give up…I’ll keep getting stronger.”

“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean, pastor”

“This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.”

“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean pastor. Thank you, pastor.”

As the older gentleman put the bread soaked in juice in his mouth, I smiled.

This is what we need: self-correction, self-awareness. We need the simple acknowledgement that language that demeans and oppresses women creeps into our conversation and our interactions because language patterns are learned. Learned patterns that quickly and often unconsciously become habits. Habits that create a toxic culture of sexual assault, spiritual abuse, and violence against women.

Habits that can change without defenses or arguments, but simple acts like this one of self-awareness and self-correction. Self-awareness and self-correction that leads to hope and healing in those of us who have lived and swallowed these language patterns as we have pushed and strived to become who we are created to be.

This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.

Thanks be to God.

When We Forget Natural Disasters, We Forget the Need That Surrounds Us

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This morning I took the puppies to the running trail we used to frequent once a week only to find that the majority of the trail was closed because of damage. I tried to remember the last time I had gone to this trail. I knew it was before Ben was born and then remembered that when we went to take newborn pictures a a part of it was closed as well. Had there really been parts of this trail closed for over a year off and on and I had no idea? How was that possible?

Certainly I have thought about the ongoing impact of the historic flood, especially in light of Hurricane Matthew’s recent visit. I have been involved in relief work off and on in my capacity as a local minister, but no matter how involved we are, if we are not directly impacted by natural disasters, then they slowly fade from our newsfeeds and slip from our minds.

In an effort to regain a sense of normalcy, we push the suffering of people out of our consciousness. When we do, we forget and by extension ignore the need that surrounds us. It’s a coping mechanism that is innately human and innately inhumane at the same time.

It’s not until our schedules, our routines, and our plans are impeded and have to be altered that our eyes are reopened. Thanks be to God for this reminder this morning.

When Church Walls Prevent Us From Being the Church

As Ben and I were enjoying our afternoon Panera coffee break (he just had water), we met an Assembly of God minister who was interested in what we were doing at ministrieslab. He explained that church starting had started to be a conversation in the AG church and church starters were encouraged to find a theater or a school to meet in. Then he asked, “Where are ya’ll going to meet?”

I responded, “We’re not going to have a place. We’re going to be the church and pop up in the midst of need.”

He considered that for a minute and then drew the connection to the early church movement. I smiled as he continued to reflect on the changes in church and the emphasis on having bigger and bigger congregations and buildings. He concluded his reflection by saying, “But a lot of those churches don’t have missions as their center. They just want to have more people.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Whether we like to admit it or not, having church walls has changed our perception of church. Most people believe church is a place to go to and not a way to live your life.”

In working with the homeless population in Columbia, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have invited the clients to church, but they can’t go to church because of their limited mobility. It made me think of the number of times I have been invited to church and these invitations have always been to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day, but didn’t Jesus command us to go?

Church walls confine our ability to dream about the future of the church. Church walls ask us to label and separate children, youth, and adults into age-based Sunday School classes. Church walls confine our ministers to office and office hours limiting their ability and mobility in the community.

Church walls limit our creativity in thinking about the future of the church. Perhaps it’s time to break down some of those walls that exclude and label and dream of what we could do if we were the church instead of if we went to church.

Because ministrieslab doesn’t have a building, Ben and I met a fellow minister at a coffeeshop. A fellow minister with whom we got to fellowship and who also provided a donation to the work we are doing.

Want to join us in our mission to pop up in the midst of need? We’ll come to you.

When Ministry Is Hard

 

Ministry is hard when you have to stand beside and pray on behalf of a mom who has lost her 7 and a half week old reminding her that she still has to take care of her postpartum body that hasn’t even healed yet.

Ministry is hard in a political climate that is divisive, filled with name calling, and high stakes.

Ministry is hard in the midst of decline church membership, declining budgets, and increased expectations on time and responsibilities.

Ministry is hard when you feel called to serve, but can’t find a place to call you to serve.

Ministry is hard when you see over and over again the hurt and pain the church has caused so many people.

Ministry is hard when you are ministering to the homeless and hear people remark about how people who are homeless are just lazy because there are jobs available everywhere and you know it’s not true.

Ministry is hard when you find your privilege exposed and your assumptions revealed.

Ministry is hard as our culture looks to our churches for guidance on how to interpret the violence we experience much too often.

Ministry is hard as you navigate what it means to be someone who is called God’s word to God’s people.

Thanks be to God for those men and women who are ministers, especially when ministry is hard.