13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 13:3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
This week’s lectionary from Hebrews has struck me deeply as it provides such a contrast to the divisiveness that exists within our country right now. There is no mutual love. We have kids and parents who are our neighbors imprisoned and instead of identifying with them, there is often defense for why they deserve to be there. This is not the kind of community the author of Hebrews envisioned for those who were seeking to come together to work out what it meant to live following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
As I reflect on why and how we arrived at this place, I find myself wanting to blame leadership, those who voted for the current leadership, and those who continue to defend the decisions of the leadership. By blaming, I am able to detach myself from the responsibility of where we are. It provides me relief, but not relief for those who are suffering.
We can’t offer mutual love to our neighbors of to those who are imprisoned until we find love for ourselves. We know that we are not at home or at peace with ourselves because of the opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of so many individuals and so many families. Right here in South Carolina, lies the center of this crisis. A recent study revealed that 3 out of every 4 Americans are considered overweight or obese, increasing the occurrence of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and heart disease.
We are not well.
We do not love ourselves. We overmedicate and try to find self-love in other places only to realize we are hungry for more and deeper meaning in our lives. We want to be connected to each other and to the Divine, but we settle for something surface-level and fleeting.
Mutual love begins with finding a way to love ourselves wholly and fully recognizing that we are beloved children of God where the Divine breath resides. When we fully accept this, then we simply can’t look at others the same way. We feel their suffering. We feel their loneliness and once we feel these things, we find ourselves overwhelmed with love for them.
When I first started preaching, I received advice from women preachers who had been preaching for years. Much of that advice centered around what to wear and what not to wear.
“Wear black suits because it will make you look more professional. If you wear lots of colors people won’t take you seriously.”
“If you are going to wear earrings make sure they’re stubs and nothing too flashy.”
“Wear your hair back because it will make you look more like a man, which people will be more receptive to.”
As a woman raised in a culture that constantly comments on appearance and bodies, I was used to hearing this kind of advice. I was raised at the height of the purity movement and was raised to believe if a boy made an inappropriate comment about my body it was because I was wearing something or doing something that tempted him. I didn’t think much about these comments that were centered on my appearance and wardrobe choices.
That is until I found myself in the middle of a worship service critiquing another woman preacher’s wardrobe choice. Even as I was listening to her message, my thoughts wandered to, “She shouldn’t be wearing…” Those comments and “advice” I heard had not only impacted the way I viewed myself in the mirror before I preached and was now creeping into my reception of other women preachers. It’s when I knew I had to stop the cycle.
Being on platform bringing the word of God to the people of God can become a competition, especially at denominational gatherings or conferences, particularly when there are stipends involved. Stage presence can easily turn into stage performance. Being called can easily turn into being heard.
The best piece of advice I ever received about preaching had nothing to do with what to wear or not to wear or how to present myself.
“If you ever enter the holy desk and are not nervous, then perhaps you are speaking on behalf of yourself and not from God.”
Yesterday, the alternate reading for the lectionary was Psalm 5:1-8:
5:1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.
5:2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
5:3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
5:4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
5:5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
5:6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
5:7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
5:8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.
I was drawn to preach this psalm this week even though it asked me to wrestle with the misinterpretation of an Old Testament God who is full of wrath and encounter an Almighty God who does not delight in wickedness and hates all evildoers. Even as I preached this psalm and reflected on the mass shooting in Orlando, I knew what was going to happen. I grew up in a community of faith that turned passages of scripture into justification for theological dogma regardless of their historical or literary contexts. This community of faith did the same with current events. Nothing would shake the dogmatic teachings they believed in, not even death, not even 50 deaths, not even the deadliest mass shooting in American history. I knew even as I preached that there would be people who would take to social media and spread their message fueled with spiritual abuse to anyone who would hear it, disregarding the lives lost and the families mourning. I knew there would be people who claimed that those who had been murdered somehow deserved it because of their sexual orientation.
This is spiritual abuse.
Clinging so tightly to dogma that it prevents compassion, grief, and love in the midst of death does nothing to spread God’s love and bring the kingdom of God here on earth. Instead it excuses us from loving our neighbor or welcoming those who have been systematically discriminated against and numbs our hearts and souls to the point of reducing human life to a lesson to be learned. This kind of biblical interpretation frees the believer from any action and encourage hate-filled judgement recited like a trained parrot.
But even in the midst of this spiritual abuse that tries to claim that these lives lost were worth nothing, there are voices rising up, voices full of creativity and love, full of the resurrected Christ that offer new life. May I be one of those voices that proclaims loudly that those 50 people held the divine breath within them as a creation of Creator God. May I continue to wrestle with my own dustiness that threatens to convince me that this life is too fleeting to offer any real change or hope to the world acknowledging the divine breath within my own soul that promises transformation if I but breathe deeply.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.
This week was the celebration of Pentecost, a time in the church calendar where we remember God sending God’s Spirt to the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus. Many churches celebrate by wearing red, a symbol of the tongue of fire that rested on each of them when the Spirit came down.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The tongue as of fire reminds us of the fire that guided the people of God as they wandered in the desert. The rush of the violent wind that filled the entire house reminds us of the wind that swept over the waters in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. And we remember that the Spirit of God is a powerful force, one that has the power of giving of life, but also one that has the power of destruction like the rain of fire on Sodom and Gomorrah and the fire of the Lord that answered Elijah’s prayer and consumed a whole altar licking up all the water surrounding the altar.
This Spirit of God refines us into new creations. We have been invited as co-creators with this powerful Spirit of God, but when we forget that we are new creations, we can use this powerful Spirit of God to harm and hurt rather than to heal and transform, especially those of us who who are called to lead and guide God’s people. We are the ones who are to ask God’s people to look up and see the flame and the cloud walking with us as we journey in the wilderness toward the promise land. We can claim that the Spirit of God rests on us, as it did with the apostles, and ask God’s people to follow us rather than the Spirit of God who is indeed with us. When we do, let us be certain that we are speaking with tongues of flames and not with our own words that seek to self-promote and self-protect. Let us remember that if we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are only resounding cymbals clamoring for attention, missing out on the powerful Spirit of God that is able to do miracles.
I can tell you whether the outfits in the diaper bag are clean or dirty. I can tell you the last time Ben ate and the last time that his diaper was changed, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where my work bag was. This is becoming more and more important as my work bag contains my preaching Bible, and this Sunday, I am preaching.
It has been six weeks since I stood behind the pulpit to deliver a word to God’s people and now the last Sunday in Advent, it’s time for me to become pastor again. I should clarify that being the pastor of a people doesn’t just disappear when you become a mom and take maternity leave or when you take sabbatical, but it does fade or become minimized for a time. It is this fading and minimizing that allows you, as the pastor, to be more fully who you are with the grace and understanding of your congregation. It’s an understanding that you, too, are a human being who has a family, or in the case of being on sabbatical, needs rest and inspiration. It’s this understanding that allowed me to put aside my work bag as we waited and then celebrated Ben’s arrival.
As I ponder what this new life will look like as I prepare to add back the full weight of responsibility that comes with being called pastor, I have all the questions that any working mom does. How is this going to work? Am I always going to feel like I am giving halfway to both or is there some way that being a parent of a newborn and being a pastor can enrich and deepen our journey as a community of faith?
Even when I do locate my work bag, I know that the answers won’t be contained there, but what I do know is that being community together means understanding that all of us have are trying to understand what it means to be committed to follow after Jesus in the midst of being mothers, fathers, spouses, employees, and friends.
And the only way that we can understand how we can be more fully and wholly ourselves is by fellowshipping together around the table, around the altar, and around the Christ child born into human form just like us.
At each stage of this journey of pregnancy and preaching, there have been physical adjustments that have altered my sermon preparation. First trimester: How much ginger ale can I consumer before 9 am? Will four or five saltines be the winning number for keeping something on my stomach, but not too much. Second trimester: Is it time to highlight the baby belly or is a flowing top a better option? How many breakfasts is too many breakfast before 9 am? Two? Three? Now in my third trimester as the weeks get closer and closer to 40 weeks, I approach Sundays a bit differently. My Sunday morning routine has changed from, “I think this outfit looks most like a pastor” to “Ok, what fits?” My water intake has to be a little more mindfully timed in order to make it through the service and my delivery has to take into account this almost 7 pounds of life that is pressing into my lungs, making phrasing and breathing more difficult.
But it’s not the physical ramifications of the pregnancy that have been weighing on me most heavily. Now my heart and mind as I prepare are concerned over whether this Sunday will be the last Sunday I will be able to stand before my people and offer a word from God before I go on maternity leave. I wonder is this sermon powerful to sustain and challenge them while others so graciously step in a step up to fill the pulpit.
I wonder as a single-staff pastor whether the time we have planned during my maternity leave will be meaningful and challenging and continue the work God has called us to. Can you really plan that work as far in advance as we have and still make it relevant and responsive to the needs of the community? Should it really be ok for the pastor and preacher to not be there during Advent on of the holiest seasons in the life of the church?
But what if this new life is the gospel message? What if the hope and anticipation along with the physical adjustments are what new life is all about?
Perhaps this is the most powerful lesson of the last 40 weeks. New life doesn’t come without it’s discomfort. New life doesn’t come without work. New life doesn’t come without sleeplessness and restlessness.
New life changes every aspect of who we are and how we view the world.
I grew up in a baptist church, and I can remember having revivals, not every year, but every couple of years. These revivals were not times for people to come back to the church and catch up with each other, but a time for the church to reignite their faith and mission to the gospel. When I went to Furman, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that not all churches celebrated revivals in the summer. What also became clear was there were other baptist churches that celebrated something called Homecoming.
Having attended two small schools, Homecoming was a big deal, but only if you knew your friends were coming. If your friends weren’t coming, then there was really no point in making the trek. But my perception of Homecoming wasn’t really what Homecoming was in these smaller baptist churches. No, Homecoming was something you made the trek back to your home church for every year. It wasn’t something you missed because it was a time when people who had been a member of the church and who still were members of the church got gathered over good food and caught up.
It’s something I love about pastoring a small church. We have a similar tradition in our anniversary dinner every year. Because of our size, we literally have to reorganize most of our church in order to celebrate our birthday, but the time we spend getting the church ready and getting the food ready all makes it worthwhile as we gather around interconnected tables to eat and catch up.
These traditions that many of us remember from our baptist roots are often disregarded in moderate and progressive baptist congregations. Mentioning the word “revival” or “altar call” or “invitation time” would bring together almost every committee in most of moderate and progressive congregations pretty quickly. I understand the hesitation because so many of us have hurt and pain associated with these times, and yet so many of us would mark these times as one of our first encounters with the gospel. I know that’s true for me.
I just wonder if in our efforts to be open-minded and affirming if at times if we miss opportunities to invite others to be a part of God’s amazing work in the world. To me God is not a God of rationale exposition, but a God of movement and miracles. Would people encounter that aspect of God in our congregations?
A year ago today, Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship was celebrating its 10 year anniversary and as we gathered around lots of good food, we also celebrated my ordination. For my ordination to be a part of Advent will always be special because I spent a lot of time waiting and wondering, hoping there would be a congregation who would affirm my calling to preach and serve as pastor of a church. That longing to be able to step fully into what God was calling me to do was something I didn’t always believe was a possibility.
Today as a congregation, we will celebrate the second Sunday of Advent. I will robe up as their pastor to prepare for our worship service to celebrate this high holy season. As I walk towards the sanctuary, I will see two coat racks collecting coats for the families at Victorian Lakes Mobile Home Community and the The Cooperative Ministry (who we just found out has no coats to hand out.) I’ll see a little tree with ornaments on it with numbers of residents at the Leaphart Place, an apartment complex for adults with special needs, so that we can throw them a Christmas party in two weeks. I’ll also see a red bin collecting household goods for the Agape Senior Center’s new Alzheimer Unit, which one of our friends from Leaphart Place told us about.
I’ll see the Luke passage we are studying this morning coming alive:
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
And I’ll sing with Mary because I have been able to answer the call of God:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
If you are in the Lexington/Columbia area and you are looking for a place who welcomes and affirms all people, come join us as we work together waiting for the miracle of the Christ Child’s birth.