relinquish voluntarily

I’ve been thinking about kids and guns, because there are kids killing people with guns in the news. All the time. White boy kids, specifically. Kyle Rittenhouse, whose mom dropped him off in Kenosha with an assault rifle in order for him to kill two people. Ethan Crumbley, whose parents helped him buy a handgun and then ignored his blatant pleas for help before he killed four other kids. These kids are on my mind.

Mostly, I’ve been angry at the parents of these children. Teenagers are *children.* They should not have unsupervised access to deadly weapons. They should not be dropped off in the streets alone, left to defend themselves. They should not be ignored when they scream for help. They should not be raised in situations where adults in charge endorse violence, stoke rage, teach hatred and then abandon their children when the children emulate them.

There’s a racial lens here, too, that I’m trying to at least be aware of in myself: I am formed to see these white boys as children even as I am formed to see Black teenage boys as adults. I know that is true. I know it is evil. I am working – not to insist that these white boys ARE adults and should be treated as such – but to extend my outrage and care to Black boys, Black children, too, especially the Black boys who are detained, injured, shot and killed because other white people like me are incapable of recognizing that they are *children.*

I’m not a parent. I’m not an expert on gun control or public policy. I’m just a participant observer, over here noticing that we are explicitly raising kids to kill people and giving them open access to the means of doing it. For years, The Hunger Games has felt like a terrifyingly prescient fable; now it just feels like present-day reporting.

Youths take part in a National School Walkout anti-gun march in New York City, New York, U.S., April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A 1978 Church of the Brethren statement on “Violence and the Use of Firearms” calls people who follow the Prince of Peace to “relinquish voluntarily our own handguns.” There are all kinds of caveats to this contribution to the discourse: statements are flimsy snapshots of a moment in time and have no binding power; 1978 was so long ago that assault weapons weren’t even considered part of the conversation; nobody, not even people who still claim to be part of the Brethren movement, actually cares what a 45 year old statement says.

But one piece of the moral calculus that this document reasserts for me is that while policy change and legal protections are vastly important as backstops and boundaries for what we, as a society allow and endorse, my morality is not defined by any set of laws governing any nation.

That is to say, being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good, moral, compassionate, faithful person. In this season of life in America, it’s abundantly clear to me that choosing right and good and life-giving ways forward have little to nothing to do with whether or not I obey or break the rule of law. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges, an outcome that was legally valid and morally repugnant. The Supreme Court is allowing states to impose tyrannical laws on the bodies of people who become pregnant, opening up wide swaths of potential compassionate, healing, pastoral behavior subject to prosecution.

Time for us to double down on our convictions, to talk amongst ourselves about what IS good and right, what SHOULD be guiding our choices, what kind of people we are called to be. Time to remind one another that Christianity has nothing to do with asserting individual rights in an empire, but with finding ways to live together in mutual care and protection here among society’s ruins.

I wish the parents of Kyle Rittenhouse and Ethan Crumbley had better sense. I wish they had a fuller picture of what “survival” meant, of how we are all interconnected and bound to one another, how violence is rarely productive and always disastrous. I wish those families had been part of communities that shared practices of mutual care and compassion and insisted on extending that kind of grace to everyone they encountered. I wish the possibility of “voluntarily relinquishing deadly weapons” was something that made sense to them in their moral understanding of the world.

A friend reminded me yesterday that the answer to the world’s crumbling is not to sit back and wring our hands, but to join in where people are already building and creating joyful, generative, peaceful alternatives. To put our hands to the plows and insist that another way is possible, that things DO NOT have to be this way. For me, that commitment has begun to look like divesting from systems that are not actively working toward mercy and justice and reorienting my time and energy into spaces that are closer to home, whose work is clearly bringing people together, meeting needs, and pushing communities toward mutual care.

What does it look like for you?

intergenerational

Both of my grandmothers died this year, which has really messed with my sense of generational place. I’ve had grandparents actively involved in my life for 39 years. I have young parents who also had young parents; I know what a gift and rare thing it is to get to be this old and just now be moved up the living generational ladder.

Intergenerational relationships is something I am regularly grateful for and rarely talk about. My friends are just…my friends, you know? But I had regular, intimate conversations with my grandmothers until they died. I got to hear stories and ask questions and be connected to parts of who I am in ways that my parents can’t fully explain to me and that I won’t otherwise have any access to.

I have a writing group that has been meeting monthly and retreating annually for almost 9 years now, a group that is currently made up of three grandmas and me, women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who somehow don’t mind my relative immaturity and just keep sharing their experience and wisdom and love. It is simultaneously comforting and discouraging to know, intimately, that life’s big questions and challenges don’t ever seem to disappear or dissipate, just morph and, maybe, soften a little with time.

And church is almost necessarily intergenerational, my congregation in particular. We have toddlers and nonagenarians and everyone in between. For a tiny congregation, we’ve got some serious life-stage diversity, including college students and retirees and young adults and kiddos. A couple of weeks ago, ahead of a conversation together about a new documentary on Pauli Murray, who grew up here in Durham, our post-worship conversation was an incredible example of intergenerational learning. A couple of older people asked for help with using pronouns in ways that are inclusive and respectful, confessing that they wanted to get it right and practice hospitality and care, but that it was difficult to re-train their brains. A young adult piped in and gave a gracious, clear, succinct summary. People asked questions, we practiced together. Beautiful.

Recently, I’ve been struck by my new place in the line of generational succession. I don’t have children of my own, which is maybe how other people sense this shift, but I do know and love a lot of young people who are, as they say, coming into their own. In addition to my own grandparents dying and shifting the family dynamic, the young people are speaking up, asserting themselves, and *teaching* me things. So many things. I had the privilege of hosting a podcast episode of some folks who are calling themselves Young Adults on Fire a couple weeks ago, and if you care about the church, then you should listen. You should really just start listening to young people in general, wherever you are, whoever you’re close to, because they are sharp and wise and not willing to put up with any more of our bullshit. Thank God.

It’s a joy and a gift to know and love and learn from people who are both older and younger than I am. Those relationships expand my awareness and reassure me of my place in the family of things. I am a granddaughter without living grandparents, a nearly-middle-aged adult without children of my own, but I am nevertheless held firmly in place by these connections and conversations and friendships filled with grace.

booklist

I finished reading my 100th book of 2021 yesterday. 100 books a year is a stretch goal for me – I usually end up with around 75. But I hit 100 with an entire month of reading still ahead of me. There have been an unusual number of mysteries and romance novels this year, as my reading life trended toward comfort and avoidance. 100 still feels big to me, and I will definitely be rewarding myself with the traditional Reading Goal Prize, a pepperoni personal pan pizza.

When we cleaned out my grandmother JoJo’s apartment this fall after she died, I found a treasure: her handwritten reading log, which picks up in 2004. We think she had been keeping track since my grandpa Bobby retired in 1987, and this log begins at #1736.

This log starts in 2004 at 1736 and ends in 2018 at 3335. That’s an average of 107 books each year. ONE HUNDRED SEVEN. I knew she was always reading. We talked books every time we talked – she liked to give a detailed outline of whatever plot she was in the middle of at the time. We traded recommendations. I know that she read more books after this log ends, because she saw Amy Jo Burns’ “Shiner” on my Instagram and asked me to send it to her through the mail last year, which of course I did. Because she was my grandma, she got the book and promptly put $20 in a card back to me to cover the shipping cost. Reading was one of JoJo’s big losses over the last couple of years as her eyes and her mind slowed, and I know it hit her hard. No wonder. She read ONE HUNDRED BOOKS A YEAR for over thirty years!

JoJo read a lot of pulp fiction – Danielle Steele, James Patterson and David Baldacci. I knew she would read whatever I recommended to her, would at least try it even if she ended up hating it. I once gave my Grandpa Bobby a book on the Creed by one of my seminary professors, because he was always asking me what I was learning in school, and bless Bobby’s heart, he hated that book. But he read it! “I read it, Dana Beth. Now, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about most of the time, but I did read it.”

But this log tells me that JoJo wasn’t just reading supermarket check-out line fiction. Her librarians knew and loved her, and they pressed literary fiction and classics into her hands. She knew what was on the NYT bestseller list, and she wanted to read it. If she saw a book mentioned in the newspaper or on TV, she downloaded it to her Nook. In addition to all the Sandra Brown and Sue Grafton, JoJo read Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett, August Wilson, Colson Whitehead, Isabel Allende and Neil Gaiman. I didn’t know until after she died that she had been reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, dear to my own heart. And it wasn’t until just this minute, reviewing her list again, that I discovered she’d already read the entire Nevada Barr National Parks mystery series that my friend Meredith just told me about this year.

I guess this is what good grief feels like – simultaneous delight and despair. I am DELIGHTED to learn that JoJo was even more widely-read than I knew, and slightly chastened to think of all the times I shared a recommendation with her complete with content warning, when she’d been reading hard-hitting literary fiction for decades before I even knew what that meant. But I am also gutted that I can’t call her up and ask why she never TOLD me she had read Louise Penny, what she thought about Anna Pigeon solving murders in national parks, who told her to put Isabelle Allende on her TBR pile, and what she’s reading right this minute.

We never have enough time with each other, do we?

a failed experiment

Today is my 6th anniversary with the people of Peace Covenant Church!

And I am looking forward to celebrating more anniversaries here, too. That’s a rarity right now, a testament to the grace and grit of my congregation. In the last year, 46% of pastors under 45 have seriously considered leaving ministry. I know at least a dozen who actually *have* left, and twice that many who are still seriously considering it. There are a million reasons for this exodus, and Melissa Florer-Bixler captures several in her article for Sojourners this week.

I spent about four years writing and directing a grant-funded program aimed at supporting part-time pastors. In the Church of the Brethren, more than 2/3 of all pastors work in part-time roles but every institutional practice, procedure and assumption has been based on the myth of a full-time, professional, seminary-educated pastor in every congregation since the 1950s. You hear that decades bandied about all the time as the heyday of the American church, but I can actually point you to documents – seminary theses and journal articles from the tradition – that argue for paying pastors as professional, cultural workers in order to “keep the church relevant.” In the ’50s, Brethren were making decisions explicitly based on how we could keep up with other, larger, more powerful Christian denominations. “Everybody else has got professional, educated clergy! We need it, too!”

The outlines of that argument are basically cribbed from the Bible, but not in a good way. When the Israelites burned through as many judges as they could, leader after leader trying to drag them back onto God’s path for their community, they got entirely exasperated and DEMANDED that God give them KINGS. “Every other important people group has got one, God,” they whined. “GIVE US A KING, TOO!” “We want to be LEGIT, a real, serious, earthly NATION.” (Seriously. Read 1 Samuel 8 – it’s all right there.)

That’s essentially what happened in the Brethren movement around mid-20th century: “we want to be a LEGIT denomination, like something that the National Council of Churches will take seriously. We’ll need infrastructure and commissions and legal standing, God, and while you’re at it, GIVE US SOME PASTORS, TOO!” For Brethren, at least, full-time, salaried, professional clergy was, at best, an interesting experiment that lasted 2 generations. Of course pastors are leaving. The experiment failed.

Churches don’t NEED pastors, particularly full-time, professional clergy – and we’ve got the historical chops to prove that. Especially in our low-church tradition of communal ecclesiology, there is no sacramental or hierarchical need to plop a professionally educated person into every small group of committed people who long to follow Jesus’ instructions together. For Brethren, at least, that is a manufactured desire, borne of a 20th century demand to be like everyone else.

Congregations DO need spiritual leaders, though, wise people versed in the complicated dynamics of people and power, committed people who promise to show up and keep showing up, prayerful people who can point to God at work in our midst, hospitable people reminding us that our call is to be living testimonies to the mercy and justice of Jesus. It’s just that we don’t need all those gifts to co-exist in one measly human being with a title.

Nancy Heishman, Director of the CoB Office of Ministry, says that if we were serious about noticing and naming the spiritual gifts of one another in our congregations and communities, we would discover that we already have all the leadership we need. I agree with her. Church is changing. The ways that God’s people live together in the world already looks different than it did 70 years ago. Institutions are crumbling and, like Melissa Florer-Bixler says, it was never our job to keep that from happening. God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and the Church will not disappear just because our human structures are forced to change.

Yes, all the pastors are quitting. And I, for one, think that’s great. Young people aren’t settling for this decades-old manufactured desire or the unhealthy labor practices of the church. Churches aren’t going to get away with outsourcing their discipleship much longer. We’ll have to put some real time and energy into understanding what, exactly, Jesus is calling us to do and to be, right here and right now. Which is, as I understand it, the whole, entire point of discipleship in the first place.

hope is the thing with groaning

In my congregation, the preacher preaches and then immediately asks the congregation to share their reflections and responses. This practice preceded my arrival six years ago, and it is one of the best things about our worship together. Interpreting scripture isn’t the sole responsibility of one person; discerning *together* it is how we follow Jesus faithfully. Over the years, my preaching has been affirmed, questioned, repaired and made irrelevant by the discussion that immediately follows whatever I say, thanks be to God.

This week, we began an Advent season focused on the theme of “Close to Home,” using beautiful resources from A Sanctified Art. The creators of the resource invited us to think about HOPE, which is the theme of the first Sunday of Advent, and homesickness – what does it feel like to long for something that doesn’t really exist anymore?

“Awake to Wonder,” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I told the story of my false-start at going to college: raised in a close-knit family in a close-knit church in a relatively small town, I had never, in all my life spent time away from my family. We’d traveled a lot, and I had friends and activities and a full life, but almost everything happened with my family involved. When I moved into a dorm room across the state that fall of 2000, my homesickness overtook me. I remember being excited and curious and totally taken by the classroom discussions, but the sense of being set adrift, far away and alone overpowered all of that. I knew what community felt like, and this wasn’t it. I hadn’t yet learned, I told my congregation, that you can create community in new places with new people. I wanted to go HOME.

And hope is sort of like homesickness: longing for what is yet to come sometimes feels like longing for what has been. We know what is possible because we were created in love and created for love, and when we live in a world that cuts us off from living that love, we feel the pain of it. We long to live the primordial love of our creation.

I finished preaching, and was immediately corrected. “Sometimes,” one person said, “home is not a safe place. Sometimes you do not ever, ever, ever want to go back there. Sometimes you never get homesick because there’s not much at home to miss.”

And someone else said, “you know, I can understand the message of this sermon because I do long and hope for things to be different. But I’ve always felt like I was searching for a place where I belonged, so the feeling was never really ‘homesick.’ My longing is for the future, hoping for the thing that hasn’t arrived, yet.”

And just like that, we broke the fourth wall and tore apart the provided resources and moved ourselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to hope. Hope is not nostalgia. Hope is not wishing the return of what once was. Hope is bigger and more complicated and more painful than homesickness. Hope does not feel like I felt that first semester of college. Hope is rooted in a much bigger crevice between what is and what will be, anchored deep in the wells of pain we all carry around with us.

Paul writes to the Romans that the WHOLE CREATION has been groaning in labor pains with hope of redemption. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” he says. “Who hopes for what is seen?! But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

And sometimes, he goes on, we can’t even find words to wrap around this feeling. It’s not homesickness, it’s not nostalgia, it’s not just patient waiting. It is a deep and unintelligible groaning that only the Spirit can interpret, with sighs too deep for words.

I’m so glad that my congregation corrected me and deepened my understanding, so relieved that the not-quite-right sermon was righted and amended and turned around so that we could all learn to hope, together. Hope is not homesickness or nostalgia, it is longing forward, groaning for release and redemption, acknowledgement that we live in a world where things are all wrong and confidence that the Spirit is translating our pain into divine sighs too deep for words, divine sighs that God knows, hears, and is, even now, acting upon.

every angel is terrifying

Angels in scripture love to tell humans not to be afraid when they show up on the scene. In her devotional for today, Angela Finet notes that “Don’t be afraid!” is the first line of dialogue in Luke’s gospel, spoken by the angel Gabriel who shows up to tell an old priest that he’s going to have a baby. The angel has to lead with that line, even though he’s got some serious news to share, because he can tell that Zechariah is freaking terrified.

And Zechariah is freaking terrified because in scripture, angels are not rosy-cheeked babies or glowing orbs of light. In scripture, angels are bizarre beings with mismatched parts and too many limbs. Some have four faces, some have six wings, a bunch of them have FAR TOO MANY EYES.

scripture, not sci-fi.

There is a whole thing called angelology which is not, despite my first impression, the hobby of collecting Precious Moments figurines. Angelology is all about categorizing and classifying kinds and types of angels because, well, there are a lot. Scripture’s got all kinds of weird and cringe-inducing heavenly beings in its pages. Ezekiel is particularly graphic, with cherubim (way too many faces) and ophanim (WHEELS. They are WHEELS WITH EYES: “Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.” -Ezekiel 1:18).

Ezekiel’s Vision

Gabriel was, according to some angelologists, the archangels of the cherubim. He was not a wheel with eyes, but he maybe had four faces? And some of those faces may or may not have been human-looking. He definitely had some amped up wings and was very, very large. The number of eyes is up for debate.

Whatever Gabriel the angel looked like, it was not the sweet Christmas tree topper that my mom made years ago out of old quilts sewn by her grandmother. (Kira Austin-Young is crafting an Accurate Angel Tree Topper this year, which inspired a lot of this post.) The angels who sing on high do not look like the children’s choir on Christmas Eve. Every angel is terrifying.

Yes, God is known in some circles as The Comforter. And we sing about comfort a lot during Advent, which also happens to be hygge season in the Northern Hemisphere. But the scenes that begin these stories – that is, the story of Jesus, the story of Christ, the story of God incarnate – are the opposite of cozy. The scenes that begin all of this are chaotic and confusing and filled with terror. Angels don’t translate well to the earthly realm, and they assault the senses. Their messages might begin with “don’t be afraid,” but their presence says otherwise.

What to make of that? Stand up. Raise your heads. Pay attention, even when the thing in front of your face is face-meltingly horrifying. Zechariah, the old priest, overcame his initial shock and held a conversation with Gabriel, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what the four-faced creature was trying to tell him. He refuses, so the angel renders him mute until his baby is born. Mary gets a visit from Gabriel, too, but she responds differently: she pays attention. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sometimes, the stuff that looks the most terrifying on the surface turns out to be our salvation. Sometimes terror is just terror, sure. Our exquisite human bodies know how to send up flares when danger is afoot and our limbic does its best to keep us alive. But sometimes, if we’re paying attention; if we are fully present to the many-eyed abomination in front of us, if we calm our fight or flight response long enough to listen to what is happening beyond the adrenaline…well, we might find buried underneath all that fear an invitation to become a god-bearer, like Zechariah, like Mary.

stand up and raise your heads

I’ve been writing these little daily posts during Advent and Lent for several seasons now. I decided I wouldn’t do it this year: too much trauma to process, too little grip on the overflowing chaos of the world to feel like anything I have to say is worth sharing. Plus, who even writes BLOGS anymore? If I wanted to be relevant and accessible, I’d be making TikTok Advent reflections, right?

Mostly, it has felt like my ability to make connections and see patterns and understand what is happening under the surface of things has disappeared. That part of me feels burnt out, oversaturated. The breaker got overloaded and flipped off, and I can’t seem to figure out how to flip it back. My brain is stuttering, stopping and starting, and it is hard to know where to look for verified information or trustworthy perspective. I don’t want to blather on out here in public about things I’m not yet certain about – things I am not even reasonably sure of. We’re just all here in the mud and the muck of it, together.

But I woke up this morning, on the first day of Advent, and read the first page of a devotional and finished the last paragraph of my sermon, and realized that a) I had something to say and b) I still can’t convince myself to join TikTok.

Advent always starts with apocalypse. If you haven’t heard by now, “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “utter destruction,” it means “revelation.” This year, we get the “little apocalypse” from Luke’s gospel:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Jesus says that when chaos begins to reign, the thing to do is not RUN AND HIDE. It is not TAKE COVER. We are not advised to run to the prepared bunker we’ve been working on outfitting these last 20 months, or grab the arsenal of machine guns we’ve been stockpiling. We are not instructed to hold fast to what we’ve got – whether it be money or houses or privilege or power – and go down fighting.

When chaos begins to reign, when people are fainting from fear and foreboding, when institutions break down and the old order begins to defend itself by any means necessary, when there is distress among the nations because new variants keep emerging and the only possible solution powerful leaders can imagine is to further isolate ourselves from one another even though viruses do not give one shit about international borders or locked down airports, when politicians are issuing death threats agains their colleagues, when global supply chains get stopped up and teachers can’t bear to face their classrooms one more day and nurses are so overburdened and burnt out that they are walking off the job and children get hurt by ricocheting bullets from gang fights in the mall, when the community that taught you how to live a good life starts turning against you, issuing threats and lining up behind abusers because they think that will keep them safe, when money becomes a problem instead of an opportunity, when grief arrives in wave after wave and just keeps coming, when everyone around you seems to be reeling from one trauma or another and everything – everything – feels tenuous and unsteady…

Don’t curl up in a ball. Don’t shut down. Don’t stick your head in the sand or get lost on Instagram.

Instead, Jesus offers another possible chaos response:

Stand up. Raise your head. PAY ATTENTION. It might not make any sense at all, but redemption is – apparently – drawing near.

I’m going to try it, this paying attention thing. You are welcome to come along.

beware the scammers

Sermon 11-7-2021, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Mark 12:38-44

My Mammaw had Alzheimer’s, and the last couple of years of her life were confusing – for everyone. She lived alone in her own home until just a couple of weeks before she died this summer, and my mom and aunts walked through a long season of slowly taking control of different parts of Mammaw’s life that she couldn’t manage on her own – cooking, cleaning, mail and finances.

Somehow, Mammaw got on all the non-profit, elder-scam mailing lists. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? A flier in the mail with a photo of a sad child, begging for money. A phone call from a representative asking for funds. There’s an entire industry built arounds scamming elderly people out of their money, and my Mammaw wandered her way square into the center of it all. She wanted to help, and she couldn’t tell what was reputable and what wasn’t. All she saw were people in need, and she wanted to do the right thing. Mom would go over to Mammaw’s house and see photos of strangers on the fridge, ask who they were and learn that it was some child who had asked for money through the mail. Mammaw ended up writing checks to false front orphanages, buying regular supplies of algae pills, and in a strange, confused trail of illogic that I can’t understand, a pro-fracking organization…which she somehow believed was feeding hungry people.

Mom and my aunts knew what was happening, and were able to safeguard most of Mammaw’s savings. But she insisted on writing checks to the people who asked her for help, even when those people were clearly scamming her. It happens all the time – charlatans scamming old, kind-hearted poor people out of the few resources they have. It is both sad and kind of gross, thinking about all the ways that people take advantage of the vulnerable among us.

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In her reflection on this passage – which we often call “The Widow’s Mite” – Barbara Brown Taylor says that the widow dropping her last two coins into the Temple Treasury is something like what happened to my Mammaw. She says that this story is a story of powerful people taking advantage of vulnerable ones.

This is NOT how we usually hear this story of the widow and her two coins. If we’ve heard the story told before, it might have been as an encouragement during stewardship season – if even a poor widow would give up her very last coins in contribution to the temple, how much more should we, people of means, be giving? Giving to the church or the temple or whatever institution it is that safeguards our religious practice and devotion is GOOD, right?

But in Mark’s story, Jesus never praises the widow. He does not say “look, you should be more like her!” Instead, this little glimpse of the widow and her mite acts as a counterbalance to the scenes that surround it. Jesus has just finished WARNING his disciples about the ways that some religious leaders use their positions of power to cheat and oppress the poor: 

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And immediately after he points out the widow, one of Jesus’ disciples marvels to him about the grandeur of the temple where they’ve been hanging out: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” But Jesus, not missing a beat, says “Yeah, you see these huge buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

The story of the widow and her mite – two coins which amount to about a dollar – literally, as Jesus says “her entire life” – is not meant to be read as an affirmation of sacrificial giving. It is sandwiched here between warnings and prophecies about the destruction of oppressive religious systems that “devour widows’ houses” and, because of their abusive practices, will not survive in God’s new realm.

Jesus points out the widow because he wants his disciples – and us – to see what things look like from the underside. He is dragging our attention – as he does so often – away from the people and places that the world tells us are the most important toward the ones that Jesus himself declares are important. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus points out the widow to his disciples – this widow who no one else bothered to notice at all – in order to turn our expectations upside down. 

“If he had taken a Polaroid snapshot of the temple that day,” she writes, “and handed it to the disciple with one question written underneath – “Where is Christ in this picture?” – they would never have guess the answer. There were MAJOR CHARACTERS in that room, after all – doctors of the law and patrons of the arts, rich people and smart people, people with names and faces – any one of them a better bet than the thin woman in the widow’s weeds, a minor character if there ever was one. “she’s the one,” Jesus tells them when their time is up. “The one without a penny to her name, she’s the one to watch.”

Jesus is saying “look. Do you see what the religious leaders of this system that is about to be obliterated are doing to people? Do you see how hungry she is, how without resources, how alone? And she believes that giving her last pennies to this temple, which we know treats her like dirt, is the right thing to do.”

The moral of this story is not “be generous like the poor widow.” It is, instead, “beware the religious leaders who like to walk around in fancy clothes, insist on being greeted with respect and invited to the seat of honor at dinner and reserve the best seats in the synagogue, the ones who prey on the poor and weak and demand that they sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of the abusive system.”

Watch, Jesus is saying, what happens to the pure in heart when these systems devour them. Pay attention to this, he says, because the very same thing is about to happen to me.

It is important to name that Jesus wasn’t critiquing Judaism, and he was not implying that ALL the scribes were selfish and abusive. He’s just had an encounter with a scribe that goes very well – the one who hears Jesus teaching and asks him about the greatest commandment. Jesus says, well, of course the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all you are, and the second is really similar: love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe approves, and says, of course, you’re right. Loving God with your whole life is much more important than any kind of offering or sacrifice. And Jesus recognized that he was someone on the same journey and said “you are not far from God’s kingdom.”

Jesus isn’t condemning Judaism; he is condemning powerful religious leaders who oppress the poor and pure in heart. He is issuing a prickly warning about preachers who want to be seen more than they want to serve. He is affirming what he has already taught: in God’s world, the last are FIRST and the ones we think are first in this world, well, they’re often last.

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Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question about this story that’s helpful for us to reflect on as we try to turn our own perspectives about who to watch upside down: “Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was is right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would that be admirable, or scandalous? Would it be a good deed or a crying shame?”

What do you think?

I tend to fall in the “crying shame” camp, once I read around the passage and consider all the ways that Jesus got so angry and promised judgement on the religious leaders who ignored and oppressed and abused the people in their care. “Crying shame” is how I feel about my Mammaw sending money to all those scammers, thinking she was doing good. No judgement for the widow or my Mammaw – just like Jesus didn’t pronounce judgement or praise on the widow in the text. Just attentiveness to how twisted the system is, and what a shame it is that the most vulnerable are the most taken advantage of.

Jesus rarely gets angry in the gospels, but when he does, when he pronounces judgement, when he warns of the wrath to come, he is almost always aiming that anger and judgement at hateful, dishonest, scamming religious leaders who mistreat the people in their care. Jesus is crystal clear that cruel religious leaders – the abusive, selfish scribes and the scamming Pat Robertsons and the church bureaucrats who sacrifice vulnerable people in favor of institutional survival – these folks will receive “great condemnation.” 

This interpretation of the story asks us all to upend our assumptions and expectations. It is not the priests and scribes that we should be paying attention to, and it is not the wealthy, big givers who deserve the lion’s share of our respect. Jesus, in this story, is asking us to turn our attention upside down, to prioritize noticing the least, the last, and the ones who are caught and chewed up by the gears of a religious system run by those leaders.

If we read the story this way, we might hear Jesus asking us to organize our common life together not around the decisions and desires of the most powerful, but instead to organize our life together around the needs and accommodations of those least likely to be noticed. What does this mean, practically?

This week, I have seen SO MANY beautiful pictures of brave kids getting their COVID vaccines. And one theme in the comments that their parents shared has been that these kids are being brave and getting the shot not so much for themselves but for their dear friends who are immunocompromised: so that they can eat lunch with their best friend who has asthma; so that their cousin who has health issues, might be able to come to their 8th birthday party in February; so that they can hug their elderly grandparents. That is an example of centering the most vulnerable in decision making, straight from the mouths of kiddos.

During the pandemic, we have tried to make decisions in this way at Peace Covenant, too. We are still wearing masks in the building, even though almost all of us are vaccinated, because we know that there are some among us with compromised immune systems. And we know that our beloved kids have not had that privilege up to this point. The mask-wearing is an attempt to center the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Another, non-Covid related example: I know of a congregation in Pennsylvania that learned so much about white supremacy and racism in the United States that they collectively decided to make it a regular practice in their classes, meetings and worship to make space for the Black women in the congregation to speak first. Knowing that Black women live at the intersections of multiple kinds of oppression in American society, they decided to prioritize their perspective and their voices in their fellowship. They have actually trained themselves to wait until one of these church mothers has spoken for the rest of the discussion to continue.

What would happen if those selfish scribes decided to do their jobs with people like the widow as their priority? What would it mean for us, here at Peace Covenant, to center the opinions and needs of the most marginalized among us? 

What would it mean for us to follow Jesus’ nod and pay attention to the widows among us? How would our life together change if we prioritized the perspectives and needs of the most vulnerable? I’m curious to know what you think.

[With gratitude for Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection “The One to Watch,” in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993).]

sell all you have

I preached this sermon several weeks ago, immediately before Stewardship Sunday, when the congregation is invited to consider what their contributions – both money and time – will be for the next year. It was unplanned, but the lectionary serves up fastballs on occasion, and you gotta keep your eye on the ball.

Sermon 10-10-2021

Mark 10:17-31

Today’s text is so rich and complicated – and difficult – that most preachers over the centuries have tried to wriggle out of taking it at face value. Jesus is teaching against wealth in straightforward, difficult ways – difficult, that is, for those of us who have some amount of wealth. Nobody who owns their own car or house or business or pantry full of food wants to hear that following Jesus requires “selling everything we own and giving it to the poor.”

But Jesus does not relent, even after he tells the rich man to do this. Everybody standing around who hears Jesus’ instruction is rattled, so Jesus keeps going: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

And again, when Jesus’ own disciples clap back at him, reminding him that THEY have already left everything to follow him, Jesus responds by saying “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now – houses and brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – and eternal life in the age to come.”

Then he sums it all up by saying “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

For entertainment’s sake, here are a few ways that preachers through the ages have tried to wriggle out of this instruction to the rich young man that Jesus – and Mark, in his telling of the story – are very careful not to let us wriggle out of:

Some preachers say that the instruction to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” was only SPECIFIC to this PARTICULAR rich man – not something meant to be taken at face value for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

But Jesus literally says, right there in the text, that it’s harder for ANY rich person to follow him than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle!

Well, said some preachers, you see, some historians think that there possibly maybe might have been this one gate into the city of Jerusalem where the traders and travelers entered. This particular gate was very, very, very narrow and kind of short, to boot. So when the rich merchants tried to enter the city, they had to remember to first stop and unpack all their goods and jewels and merchandise from off of their camels so that the camel would fit through the door. Jesus didn’t really mean that rich people can’t get into heaven, they say, he was just using that narrow gate as a metaphor….like, maybe you should set your riches down for a little bit in order to get through the door…but you’ll get them back! Don’t worry!

But Jesus is pretty clear: it’s not just holding riches more lightly, it’s about leaving them entirely. “Whoever has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news” will receive a hundredfold back.

In fact, Jesus says, y’all have this whole idea about wealth and virtue mixed up. In God’s reign, it’s the first who end up at the back of the line and the last who get first dibs. The poorest of the poor are God’s own beloved, first in line for entry into the new kingdom. And the ones we think are farthest ahead here in our earthly virtue/worth calculators, well, they’ve got a hefty surprise in store if they think that’s how God’s accounting works.

It’s impossible to wriggle out of what Jesus is teaching in this passage. Mark meets each caveat with a doubling-down of Jesus’ insistence. And this teaching against personal wealth is shot through the entirety of the New Testament. This isn’t – by far – the only time Jesus or the early Christians taught and lived in ways that refused individual wealth. We learn in Acts that the first Jesus followers lived in an economy of sharing, where they pooled all their resources and shared with whoever had need. When Ananais and Sapphira tried to secretly keep some of their personal wealth to themselves and then lied about it to the church, they get struck down dead on the spot.

So, it’s probably worth reading this particular passage – which includes the story of the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refuse Jesus’ invitation to follow him – a bit more closely. How are we like this rich man? How are we like the crowd, confused and awed at Jesus’ insistence? How are we like Peter, upset because we’ve already given up so much to follow Jesus? How can we follow this teaching in the midst of a society built on unjust economic practices and assumptions?

Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus is “on the way.” In Mark’s story-telling, that means that we are supposed to register that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, yes, but also toward the cross. He is on the way – and we know what lies at the end of that journey.

And, on the way, a man runs up and falls at Jesus’ feet. Both Matthew and Luke tell this story in their gospels, but they attach some identifying adjectives to the guy – a “rich young ruler” or a “young man.” But here in Mark, he’s just a guy. We don’t know anything about him. But he runs up to Jesus, can’t get to him fast enough, and falls at his feet. Clearly, he knows who this is. Clearly, he already worships Jesus. He is eager, excited, begging Jesus to tell him how to live.

“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus, who is rarely distracted from what people are really saying and what people are really asking for, replies:

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus heard in this guy’s question an assumption. He heard the assumption that DOING something, BEING GOOD, checking off all the appropriate boxes and working one’s way into God’s favor is the way to inherit eternal life. Jesus heard whispers of the Protestant work ethic, a works justification theology, a sinister confidence in human ability & achievement.

“No one is good but God alone,” he says, reminding the guy from the very start that eternal life is not earned or achieved or locked in by anything that humans can do.

Then he goes on: “you know the commandments, right? You know what it is you’re supposed to DO: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

And the guy, who is desperate for some direction says, “yes, of course, I learned those when I was a kid and I’ve kept them all my life!”

And Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at him and loved him.

Let’s just stop there: Jesus looked at him and loved him. 

There are ways to tell this story that make rich people into evil, unlovable, beyond-hope pariahs. Plenty of preachers tell the story that way. It’s tempting. But that’s not how Jesus works. He looked at this man and LOVED him. He heard the man’s struggle, and his deep desire, and witnessed his devotion and his faithfulness and his curiosity. Jesus knew all about him. He looked at him, and he loved him.

And then he said: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “go burn up all your fields and barns and possessions in a big bonfire so they don’t tempt you or anyone else.” He doesn’t say “drop out of the economy and let whatever happens to your riches happen.” He asks the man to take responsibility for his wealth, to do the work of divesting himself from its hold, to take on the labor of selling it himself. He instructs the rich man in a practice of wealth re-distribution. He asks him to figure out who the poor people are in his neighborhood and give them cash gained from sale of his own property. Jesus is not anti-money, necessarily, or entirely anti-possession. But he knows that the inequity of the economic system means that some people have far, far too much while others have far, far too little. Jesus asks this one rich man to be accountable for his excess and do his part to balance the scales.

But when the man heard this instruction, he was “shocked” and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

We never hear anything else about the rich man. We have no idea what he did, whether he gave up on his dream of following Jesus and let his possessions rule him, or whether the next day or week or year or decade he came to his senses and did what Jesus asked of him. But we know that here, in this moment, Jesus’ request feels too much. He is shocked, grieving, bitter, angry, unable to comply joyfully. 

And everyone else standing around seems to be equally shocked. Wealth was a sure sign of virtue and worthiness then, just like it is now, and the crowds couldn’t believe that Jesus would turn away such a rich man: wouldn’t his wealth be a huge boon to the organization? Couldn’t all those riches REALLY facilitate a HUGE expansion, scaling up, multiplying the reach of Jesus’ own ministry? Why in the WORLD would Jesus say something so upsetting and off-putting to such a fantastic potential donor?!

So Jesus tells them that rich people have a really hard time following him. And they are GREATLY ASTOUNDED, and ask, “well, then who CAN be saved?” And Jesus says “for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Even camels going through eyes of needles. Even filthy rich people discovering an ability to sell it all and give the money to the poor in order to follow Jesus.

Many who are first, after all, will be last in God’s economy. And the last WILL be first.

Jesus is both gracious and demanding. He is clear that it’s very hard for people of means to follow him. And he is also clear that God does completely unexpected things, even when we think those things are impossible. He makes no bones about this rich man needed to sell all he has and give it to the poor in order to join in the work of God’s reign, but he is equally clear that this man is seen, known, and beloved. 

Money is hard to talk about openly and honestly. Jesus offers us a way in: with both grace and clarity, always remembering that with God, all things are possible. I am so curious what you make of this story and these teachings, and I invite your reflections and responses.

a remembrance

Ten years ago, in October of 2011, I agreed to drive my grandma JoJo to Camp Bethel for the Northern Area Virlina District Women’s Fellowship Fall Rally. I wrote about the day back then, which is the only way I remember that what I thought was going to be a breakfast meeting with my grandma actually turned into a delightful day-long excursion as chauffeur to three of my favorite older ladies, who bickered and bantered and cackled all the way there and back, telling me stories of Pearl Harbor and meeting their husbands at illicit card games. 

The presentation at the meeting was about Brethren Volunteer Service, and someone asked for a show of hands of those who’d done BVS before. I raised my hand along with just a couple of other women, and the emcee directed the ladies to see one of us – Judy or Carol or “whoever that girl was in the back” – to hear more BVS stories. 

JoJo, standing up on her way to the restroom at the back of the room, raised her hand and shouted out, happily interrupting the program:

“Now, I want you all to know, that is my granddaughter, Dana Beth Cassell!!” 

This was, I admit, slightly embarrassing for me, especially because at the time, I was interviewing to be a pastor here in the district. Having your grandmother interrupt a meeting to make sure everyone in the room knows your name is not exactly the most professional way to network.

But it was not embarrassing for JoJo. It was all joy.

JoJo with me, a while ago

JoJo grew up in a single parent household in the 1930s and 1940s. Her father left when she was tiny, and her mother, Junia, moved the two of them back home from Ohio to Virginia, where they had family to lean on. It’s not easy to be a single parent today, so I can only imagine what it was like back then. Junia and JoJo moved all the time. JoJo moved from one relative’s house to another, some of whom treated her well and others of whom decidedly did not. She attended FIVE (maybe?) different elementary schools across the city of Roanoke. 

JoJo & her mom, Junia

In the midst of all that change, it was the church and the library that became enduring places of refuge for JoJo: she was baptized at age 8 and remained a dedicated, involved matriarch of First Church of the Brethren for all her life. Until recently, she was still in charge of the prayer chain emails. She was a lifelong patron at the Melrose Branch of the Roanoke City Library, and her beloved librarians there left really gracious condolences on her online obituary. I am a grateful heir of her love for the church and her love of reading, and I’m pretty sure that having one’s favorite librarians sharing condolences at your death is now one of my #lifegoals.

JoJo at the Melrose Library in 2017

JoJo didn’t talk a whole lot about the trauma of growing up the way she did – shuffled around from one house to the next, changing addresses and schools and never quite sure if she’d be welcomed or sent away when she showed up on someone’s doorstep. She didn’t talk a whole lot about it, but somewhere along the line, she decided to live HER life differently.

She married Bobby – a living, breathing definition of stability – and, as if by sheer force of will, she engineered a family so close-knit that when I graduated from seminary, the entire lot of them showed up in Atlanta wearing matching t-shirts out on the town & thought absolutely nothing of it.

Bobby & JoJo’s wedding day at First Church of the Brethren in 1953

JoJo and Bobby SHOWED UP for people. They didn’t talk about how or why they did that, they didn’t write blog posts or preach sermons about the importance of showing up, they just DID IT. I would be hard pressed to remember a childhood softball game or swim meet or awards ceremony that my grandparents didn’t attend. When I came home from Illinois in 2009 to have some major surgery, I walked into the hospital pre-surgery waiting room at 5am and there they were, waiting on me, showing up for me in the awful parts as well as the good ones.

Bobby & JoJo at my nephew Tyler’s basketball game a few years ago

Family was really important to JoJo, but her persistence in showing up with and for people wasn’t limited to her blood relations. She knew firsthand that sometimes the most important kinds of care and stability come from outside family circles, and insisted on showing up for her own family AND for anyone who needed someone to show up for them. 

She wanted people to know that they were cared for and wanted and welcome, and she cared about people by learning to know them. JoJo had a huge intellectual capacity, but she didn’t use that capacity studying philosophy or theology or esoteric ways of understanding the world: she applied the whole of her intelligence to PEOPLE. My sister, Leah, remembers that JoJo knew every golfer, tennis, football, baseball, and basketball player on the TV at any given time – just like everyone she saw in person, too! She could trace your family lineage back to the fourth generation, and she remembered the surgery you had five years ago and the struggle your mom was having when she last talked to you. She wanted to KNOW you, to learn all about you. Because she wanted you to know that you were important, loved, and known, that somebody had your back, that someone was in your corner.

JoJo letting her great-granddaughter, Elysee, know that she’s got her back

JoJo was not always nice. She inherited the Bostwick temper, the same temper that hobbled her own mother, her aunts and uncles, too. Her temper hurt people, and she knew it, and she regretted it. Once, Bobby had to go into the hospital for some surgery, and I told him beforehand not to worry, that I would be spending the night with JoJo and watch out for her, unless, of course, she got mad at me. “Well,” Bobby said, “she gets mad at lots of people. But she gets over it.”

JoJo never mastered her temper – its fire probably singed several of us here, today. But I’m convinced that it was that same fire that gave her the wherewithal to live the life she lived: to carve out a space for joy and delight for herself, to commit to showing up for people she loved in ways that she struggled to access when she was young. 

JoJo was a sway-er. Some of her grandchildren have inherited this habit, swaying back and forth on our feet whenever we’re waiting in line or singing in church. Leah reminded me that JoJo didn’t just sway alone, but would also come up behind us, with her arms draped over our shoulders, singing or humming a hymn, and swaying side to side. 

“Which is,” Leah says, “how I will continue to feel her with me, even now, having my back, sharing side eye glances with me and swaying to the song of life.”

It’s a chaotic, confusing time in our world. There is plenty of anger and violence and trauma – all of which JoJo knew, firsthand. I had the gift of living here, on earth, with JoJo as my grandma, in my corner, on my side, announcing my beloved presence anywhere and everywhere she got the chance. JoJo taught me a lot, including the utterly vital necessity of being someone who shows up for people, someone who has peoples’ backs; that not only is there is no other way for us to survive, but that this is also a surefire straight line to unspeakable joy.