hope is a discipline

I owe a lot to Twitter, believe it or not. I joined Twitter reluctantly 12 years ago when I was recovering from surgery and in need of distraction. My friends made fun of me – what kind of stupid stuff was I getting myself into? Twitter has changed and grown since then, and some of it is gross and ugly. But one thing has remained the same: Twitter opens doors for me to listen to important conversations and learn about them before wading on in like a fool.

On Twitter, I can follow and learn from people who do all kinds of fascinating work, like Gerald the English gardener and a local lawyer who unravels ridiculously twisted legal scandals and MacArthur Geniuses (also local, and I heard her speak in person before the dang panini descended. Seriously, I live in Nirvana, here). It’s like slipping into the back of a lecture hall or festival of curiosities and filling up to my heart’s content. Of course, I follow a ton of preachers and church leaders, which is both professionally helpful and often very, very dull. The good stuff is learning from people who do wildly different things than I do, and are willing to share their wisdom with the world.

One corner of Twitter that I stumbled into somehow a few years ago is Abolitionist Twitter. Did you know that abolition wasn’t just a 19th century movement but actually alive and well in the United States? The modern movement is called “PIC Abolition,” which stands for “prison industrial complex.” I am not an expert. I barely even know what I’m learning about, but I am learning. My favorite person to follow on Abolitionist Twitter is Mariame Kaba. She has some strict privacy controls on her account, and I don’t fully understand how I managed to be randomly accepted as a follower, but I’m really, really grateful for her presence and insight.

Kaba has been doing this work for decades, and she’s committed to it. She also knows how to use Twitter for good. She is funny. She resists drama. She intentionally supports young people. She shares about her organizing projects and makes fun of herself in charming ways. I bought her book, and am reading it now.

In the first essay of the collection, called “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist,” Kaba manages to pack a ton of beauty into just a few lines. The essay is only four pages, and you can read it here.

Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question ‘What do we have now, and how can we make it better?’ Instead, let’s ask, ‘What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?’ If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.

When we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform.

I know that there is a whole world of abolitionists doing work out there – some I even know and love. I understand that I am following tiny threads of a massive movement, that I am just dipping my toes in a wide ocean. I’m mostly sitting in my house and reading, and haven’t yet managed to put this learning into action. But I confess that what I am reading and learning feels like gospel work to me, far more than anything that is emerging from the church structures to which I am required to pay attention.

I should say that the abolition movement includes people of varying faith commitments and many who have none. It is not a “Christian” community. But the work – freeing captives, setting the oppressed free, confessing the ways our own hearts are tangled up in the mess of it all – and the ways it gets explained as a holistic vision of another way…well, it feels like Jesus to me.

Kaba has a refrain that folks have painted, cross-stitched and worn on their shirt: “Hope is a discipline.” In a world where the structures that taught me to hope and work for a world that was already but not yet here are crumbling, I am grateful to find the Spirit soaring and making herself known in other, unexpected places. I am grateful for the reminders that transformation is both personal and structural. I am glad for examples of how to live life holding tightly to conviction and lightly to ego. In the midst of this Holy Week, as we remember Jesus’ unjust arrest and sham of a trial and tragic death at the hands of the state, I’m deeply moved by the witness of folks who name these persistent evils in their present-day form and remind us that we are called to live in other, more merciful, mutual and just ways.

thank god for the donkeys

Everybody’s talking about the donkey, this year. Palm Sunday comes every spring – we remember the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowds who’d heard about his healing and thought he’d arrive as a great, imposing, military leader draped in weaponry and followed by phalanxes of soldiers. Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week, the days we spend living Jesus’ last week on earth along with him.

It’s a weird day, because it invites us to consider how fickle we are as humans: ecstatic and shouting HOSANNA, SAVE US as a possible savior parades through the streets one week and totally dejected and pissed off just a few days later, demanding that the same guy be crucified alongside thieves and crooks.

There’s some grace in Palm Sunday’s annual return, because there is no way to capture the fullness of this truth about complicated human nature in a single sermon or hour. This year, everybody’s talking about the donkey.

Jesus was a masterful teacher – he used weird little stories to teach hard truths, he turned every situation he participated in on its head and left everybody else scratching their heads, he wielded scripture and tradition in incredibly creative and provocative ways. And just because he’s headed to his own death seemed to be no reason to give up his pedagogy.

Jesus knows that those giant crowds have heard about his teaching and preaching and healing (oh, and raising dead people back to life – he’d just resurrected his beloved friend Lazarus the other day). He knows that they have heard these stories and started to believe that he is the One, the Savior, the Messiah, the one that all the old texts have prophesied for so long. Jesus knows that those crowds have a very particular idea about what the Messiah will be: tall, dark, strong, commanding, IN CHARGE and unafraid to use deadly force to free God’s people out from under the thumb of the exhausting, violent, profane, obscene Roman Empire.

Jesus knows what people are expecting, and he also knows that he is not that. He knows that he’s not draped in weaponry. He knows that he has zero soldiers – just a few cowardly dudes struggling to follow him into Jerusalem and a few faithful women who would refuse to fight, anyway. He knows that he is not going to march into the halls of power and assassinate an emperor or take down the Roman’s local agent. Jesus knows that his work is far more elemental and far more powerful than any act of war. He knows that his life and death are actually going to expose every empire in all of human existence, every violent act, every power grab, every unjust administration, every oppressive force for what they are: flimsy, worthless, evil attempts at stealing the divine power of life and death.

So, Jesus, who remembers the ancient scripture about a king arriving on a colt, finds the nearest donkey – the old English translations call it an ass, and that’s so much more appropriate. Asses were no more noble then than they are now: stubborn, kind of ugly, beasts of burden who definitely do not denote Most Powerful Messiah Entering Town to Overthrow the Government.

Through the Palms, by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman

Jesus made his grand entrance into Jerusalem to expose the forking ROMAN EMPIRE on a slope-backed, braying ASS. You can laugh: that’s what Jesus intended. Monty Python understands Jesus better than most preachers.

Anyway, this year, everybody’s talking about the donkey. It was all over Preacher Twitter, it was in the art for our Lenten series, and it ended up in our service yesterday, too. Mary Oliver’s poem is really lovely:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

I love the beginning of the last stanza, there: “I hope, finally, he felt brave.”

I suppose that is really the most any of us can hope for: to be like the donkey whose entire existence was on the outskirts, never quite regal enough to be taken seriously, mostly living lives that are small, dark and obedient. Jesus LOVES these creatures, the ones who quietly and faithfully live their small lives, the ones whose persistence and love exposes – by virtue of its very consistency and compassion – the lies of the world’s empires.

We love to talk about platforms and likes and numbers of views. We assume that upward mobility and professional promotions and larger audiences are the obvious choice for moving further in faith. But that is not what Jesus taught, and it is not how Jesus lived, and it is not who Jesus chose to hang out with or commend.

Jesus’ kingdom, he says, is not of this world. It does not play by the rules of this world. It is not draped in armor and weaponry, and it does not deal in warfare and violence. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is small and sly, wise and wily, finding cracks and crevices in the grand facades of hatred and power and leveraging the smallest leeway to topple those oppressive structures onto their heads.

Jesus’ kingdom is made up of unexpectedly tiny things, and it trades in humor. Thank God for the donkeys.

love never ends

My mom and dad came to visit this weekend. They’ve been fully vaccinated for a few weeks, and I think they were chomping at the bit to GO somewhere. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas, and while three months isn’t the same as the year and a half that other people have been waiting to hug their parents during this pandemic, it’s plenty long.

Of course, the pandemic is still raging and I’m only half-vaccinated, so we didn’t do much. But I did take them to the garden with me yesterday morning, where they got assigned the task of stringing trellises for the rapidly growing peas.

It took a while. There are three raised beds, and their trellises evolved from one to the next. Mom was unsatisfied with her first attempt, and tried a couple of times to revise it…but once you unroll all that jute string, it’s sort of hard to adjust the web. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “we’re just going to tear it all down in a few weeks!” She did not appreciate my reassurance.

But it’s true: those peas are shooting up and they will bud and flower and produce delicious snap peas in a few weeks’ time. We’ll harvest and share them, and pull the finished plants out so we can succession plant something else in those beds. The trellises are super important (last year, the pea tendrils tangled all up in themselves and bent the plants over into an impossible nearly-flat mess). But they aren’t permanent. They’ll do their job and then we’ll take them down.

I spent most of the morning pulling out collards and cabbages that were going to seed, harvesting the last over-wintered leaves and making room for new zucchini babies that were outgrowing their seed starting boxes on my porch. I thinned out rows and rows of radishes, uprooting plant after plant that an enthusiastic middle school kid sowed abundantly a few weeks ago. The radishes need space to grow their fruit, so even though the uprooting feels like destruction, it’s actually the only way we’ll see any radishes at all.

This is the way of the garden, I’m learning: all of our labor is temporary. We create conditions for plants to thrive, temporarily, and then we dismantle them.

The artist Andy Goldsworthy has spent his entire career creating this kind of temporary beauty:

I watched a documentary about Goldsworthy’s work 12 or 13 years ago, and I still think about it regularly. His work depends on the earth’s materials – rain, leaves, twigs, ice, petals, wind – and it lasts only as long as the earth allows it to stand: a mandala of petals is blown away by a breeze, an outline of his body as he lay on the ground in a rainstorm is gone as soon as he rises, ice melts and mud washes away.

I’m not a visual artist, but preaching sometimes feels like art. And if preaching is an art, it’s this kind of temporal, contextual, dependent and sort of ephemeral kind of art. A sermon depends on the raw materials of text, congregation, and Spirit. It lasts as long as I am speaking it, or as long as someone hears and remembers it, or whenever someone happens to click a link to read a manuscript, if I’ve saved it. Conditions of the day and the space and the people present and the Spirit’s movement change it, boost it, enliven or subdue it.

I find this way of thinking about my work and labor to be effective and profound: all our labors are temporary. Even thinking about “legacy” work – through raising children or making gigantic monetary donations or tending to heirloom tomatoes – even these things will eventually pass away and be forgotten. We’re only human, after all, and just like the snap peas growing in those beds, we will produce our fruit, whatever it may be, and then join in the eternal compost pile.

We might take this knowledge and decide, then, that nothing matters, that we might as well quit trying, that the peas will be just as fine folded over on themselves as they would be if we constructed an intricate trellis for them to grow tall and sturdy. We might decide that nobody needs to hear what we have to say right now if it can’t live on in perpetuity for future generations. We might receive this truth of our own limited, contextual, time-bound natures and just…give up.

That’s one option. And, honestly, we could all probably do with giving up some of the things we tend to invest so much time, energy and anxiety in. But there are other options, too. We could receive the truth of our human limitation and decided, like Andy Goldsworthy, to create some beauty with it. We could accept that all our labor is temporary and choose to invest ourselves in it, body and soul, in ways that delight and comfort the others around us. We could acknowledge that nothing we do or say or create or tend will last forever and find freedom in that fact.

We can choose to do it all with love.

Paul says all this way better than I can:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

showing up, again & again

I’m swimming in Holy Week preparations, and thinking about how lonely that time must have been for Jesus. I expect his whole life held an edge of human loneliness, given that he was both fully human and fully divine, always both fully invested in the moment AND aware of its implications.

But that last week, when he pours himself out: explaining, again and again, what is about to happen only to have his disciples refuse and resist; caring for crowds of demanding people who all want something from him when he knows that his death will crush them; kneeling down to wash the feet of friends who will leave the room and sell him out; eating a holy meal with his beloveds who will, in the next 48 hours, deny that they ever knew him.

Jesus gets whitewashed (literally and figuratively) in our telling of it: “oh, he was so close to God – he WAS God – that none of that mattered. he had set his face and knew what was coming and only anticipated reunion with his Father. he was DIVINE, and DIVINITY doesn’t feel pain.”

Except none of that is in the scriptural record that has passed along this story. Jesus wept with grief for his dead friend Lazarus. He said his soul was troubled even as he tried to explain what was about to happen to his friends. On the cross, he cried out an ancient psalm, feeling forsaken.

Jesus wasn’t a superhero, and he wasn’t a cyborg without feeling. Jesus was a PERSON, a human, a beloved being who felt all the things that humans feel.

And this week, I’m thinking about how much of those feelings must have been adjacent to loneliness. I’m thinking about how it was the women who stayed at the foot of the cross – most of the men high-tailed it out of there, but Jesus’ mom, his aunt, and Mary Magdalene stayed until the bitter end, bearing witness and refusing to leave him alone.

The women are the ones who care for the body, and the ones who discover the empty tomb. The women stay. They refuse to look away. They will not abandon their beloved son, friend, lord and teacher. They show up, again and again.

I’m thinking, this week, about how lonely the end of Jesus’ life must have been. And I am also thinking, this week, about how many opportunities we have to show up, to stay, to refuse to look away from the pain of our own friends and neighbors. I’m wondering about the times I have abandoned others to their loneliness, and the times that I have mustered enough courage to stick around and bear witness to it. I think sometimes courage is simply choosing to show up, again and again.

the faint glimmer of another way

Spring is in full force and the birds are living it up. Yesterday, I discovered the neighborhood hawk’s nest around the block. The crabapple tree outside my window is a playground for wrens, chickadees, cardinals and the occasional woodpecker or bluejay (those guys are stinkers). On days when the pollen isn’t prohibitive, I wake up to the bird chorus streaming in my open windows.

A couple of days ago, one of those punch drunk wrens flew into the breezeway of my building and found its way upstairs, where it got stuck. I don’t know much about birds, but I’m guessing that “down” is not their preferred method of escape. This little wren spent HOURS peck-peck-pecking at the skylight out in the hallway, trying to escape through several solid layers of steel and plexiglass.

This has happened before, so the racket outside my door didn’t alarm me as it might have otherwise. I knew that sound of desperate bird taking desperate measures. I peered through the peephole in my door and got a glimpse of the trapped wren swooping back and forth a couple of times.

How do you save a bird pecking its way through a plexiglass skylight? How do you convince it to go DOWN instead of UP? It was far too high for me to try to catch, and I was pretty sure that no amount of coaxing or logic would convince it to go down the stairs and out the front entryway. I turned to the internet. “If a bird is stuck in your house,” the internet told me, “close all the windows and blinds except for one – and take the screen out of that one. Darken the house as much as possible, and wait.” The bird would, presumably, find its way toward the light and out the window.

Well, there are no windows in the hallway, and I certainly wasn’t going to let this bird into my HOUSE in order for it to find a window. I contemplated calling maintenance or the animal control number, but figured I’d better get a good look at the thing before I tried to explain it to another person.

I cracked open my door, and craned my neck to see what I could see. Within seconds, the wren caught wind of either the draft or the shaft of light created by the thin opening of my door, and SWOOPED from the high ceiling directly in my direction. I slammed the door shut.

But the desperate pecking noises stopped. I waited a few minutes. Nothing. Opened the door again, carefully: no bird. Lots of debris on the floor from its escape attempts, but no sign of avian life.

I think what happened was that when I opened my door a tiny crack, the bird saw another way out. My door is right by the staircase, so when it swooped my way, it finally found the tunnel downward and launched itself toward freedom.

I don’t know what to make of that – all I did was crack my door open to see what was happening – but apparently that was all it took. All that poor bird needed was the faint glimmer of another exit plan. One barely visible glint of an alternative light source gave it enough oomph to get free.

So, I don’t know: I hope, if you are stuck and in search of a faint glimmer of an alternative, that someone opens a random doorway a tiny crack so you can see another way. And I hope, if you are trying to figure out how to ease someone else’s escape, that you’ll manage to open your own doorway an infinitesimal sliver – that might be all it takes.

time to rest

This is another week filled with online evening meetings. The evening meetings are good ones: a forum for people serving as seminary student mentors, fellowship time with my congregation, a conversation about supporting pastors of color, visio divina lenten devotionals, and a gathering of congregations committed to healing racism. I get to do so much rich work with so many creative and committed people. I love what I do, even though sometimes the meta-context of being a churchwoman gets messy and gross.

Next week is Holy Week, and it is shaping up to be filled with evening and early morning commitments, too, as my friend Pastor Anita and I plan, prepare, lead, record and share 5 worship services together over the course of the week. This, too, is good and rich and life-giving. I’m so grateful for the partnership that opens doors to a broader liturgical tradition than I can host by myself in my very low-church context, and excited about walking the Holy Week journey with our neighbors.

I have vacation scheduled, and strategic weekdays and Sundays off in the coming months, but the next week and a half is going to be hard and full. And with a schedule that stubbornly refuses to fit into a 9-5 workday container, I struggle to figure out where and how to find real rest in this kind of working life. Living and working exclusively at home for the last year – having very thin boundaries between work hours and leisure hours, workspace and relaxation space – makes the effort even more complicated.

And: I know it is essential.

I joined a virtual mid-year retreat for Brethren Volunteer Service volunteers yesterday: sat down at the same desk I sit at every day, opened up the same laptop I am writing on now, and joined *another* Zoom call. Nothing about my physical reality or bodily posture indicated that I was participating in a RETREAT. I am so glad to get to connect in this way with so many people and groups, but yesterday’s event made me especially long for the real restfulness of actual retreat.

I wished I could fly out to Illinois – read a novel on the plane and get some Intelligentsia coffee from the ORD food court when I landed – and hop in a friend/colleague’s car for the hour drive out to Dickson Valley Camp. I wanted to curl up in a ratty old armchair by the fireplace and finish that novel while folks chatted leisurely together around me. I wanted to sit in the cafeteria, fill my plate with mediocre camp food from the buffet, and linger over our coffee as we told story after story. I wanted to practice silence and prayer and lectio divina together sitting in a circle in the lodge basement. I wanted to take a chilly walk by the river in the midwestern muddy spring.

I wanted a change of scenery. I wanted to forget about the piles of undone tasks stacked up on my makeshift home office desk. I wanted to ignore my phone because the lack of service & wifi meant that no one could reach me, anyway. I wanted to REST.

I asked those volunteers, yesterday, what their perfect day of rest and retreat would include. If you had an entire day to rest – no pandemic restrictions apply – what would you do? The volunteers would go biking, hiking, crochet, spend the day outside with friends, engage in a day-long tour of their favorite restaurants.

I’m asking myself that question, now, and marking out a day on my post-Easter calendar to make it happen. It’s time to rest. Hope you can find some, too.

from death into life

I scrolled past this post (click for the whole thread) from Alicia Crosby on Twitter and Instagram yesterday, shared it, and woke up thinking about it this morning:

The church in America, particularly the white protestant church (that’s my tradition, other people can speak to their own) – evangelical, mainline and anabaptist – is terminally ill. It’s incredibly compromised, teaches hate, and disciples people into selfishness, violence, spite, and nationalism. There is no way around this – just read the headlines or pick up a book. (If this sounds like a lie or half-truth to you, I’d recommend Robert P. Jones’ “White Too Long” or Kevin Kruse’s “One Nation Under God.” I’m also looking forward to Anthea Butler’s “White Evangelical Racism”.)

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize at least every other day about quitting. Usually, this thought experiment is focused on quitting my grant-funded denominational job, since that is where most of the terminal illness makes itself known in my life. My congregation is a joy and a light, and even though we are complicit in so much, we are, at least, attempting to confess it. But the fantasy of quitting is really about distancing myself permanently from the putrid stink of American Christianity that graces headlines and my inbox on the daily.

To be clear: I love church. I love the realities of mutual aid and communal discernment. I love that I was raised and formed into a system of belief and practice that prioritizes compassion and service. I love that peace-making and justice were part of my understanding of faith from the beginning. I love potlucks in church fellowship halls and congregational singing and the way that people find love and care and freedom in congregational life. I love Jesus, and I will forever desire to live life with other people who are determined to follow in the ways of truth and beauty that he displayed. Church is a gift, a grace, a movement of the Spirit’s generosity.

And so much of what we’ve made of it is so, so gross.

And yet, here I am, fifteen years into a professional career as a Churchwoman. I have not quit. I know plenty of people who have left, either cast out or completely disgusted. I’m not judging any of that. Your health and wholeness as a child of God is paramount, and only you get to decide how to live in that place of grace.

But I will say that it irks me, big time, when people who refuse to engage persist in lobbing insults and critiques. You want the church to change, but the only thing you’re willing to do about it is yell insults from the sidelines? Sorry, bud, that’s not how this works.

It’s like that old story, where the church leader shows up at the temple to pray and mostly filled his prayer with gratitude that he was not like other people – that he hadn’t turned out to be a thief or a cheater. His prayer was mostly filled with self-congratulatory relief that “I am not like them.” Another guy showed up to pray, a tax collector who knew that his work was compromised and unjust, and his prayer was short and simple: “God, have mercy on me, because I’m a sinner.”

Jesus says that the tax collector was justified, and not the church leader, because “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Sounds a lot like the song Jesus’ mom sang when she found out she was pregnant, actually.

I use “we” language when I talk about the church, both its gross parts and its beautiful ones, because I am part of the church. I am complicit. I am part of the problem. I am here, and even if I quit all my jobs and denounced all my faith, white American Christianity would still be part of who I am and I would still be part of it. It annoys me when siblings in faith point fingers at one another and say “those” awful Christians! “They” are so wrong. Thank you, God, that I am not like “THEM.”

You are. We are. This is our problem, and our responsibility. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can get to work at some required communal confession and repentance.

The church is dying, and thank God for that. This week, I preached about Jesus’ reminder that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

God doesn’t abandon us, even if our human institutions and structures and systems do. Every little leftover piece is woven up into the new thing that God is already, even now, birthing into existence. I don’t know about you, but I want to be around to witness the transformation.

collective inability to care

Next week is Holy Week. Yesterday was the 5th Sunday of Lent. Someone on Twitter said that this has been the fastest Lent, ever, but a friend said their therapist said it’s actually the 57th week of Lent – over a year of penitence and fasting.

I wrote last year about missing Love Feast at the beginning of the pandemic and being unable to participate in virtual substitutes. There are more substitutions available this year, from people I know and respect. But I’m still unable to participate. It hurts too much.

2 years ago

Actually, it feels worse, now. I’m fairly confident that my tiny congregation will figure out a way to wash one another’s feet in October. The pandemic is starting to recede. In another month, I’ll be fully vaccinated. I know that there is hope on the horizon.

But this year has been an apocalypse. So much has been revealed for what it truly is. Our collective lack of care for one another has been front and center – in the country and in the church. Why do we wash feet? Not because it’s a cool ritual to host twice each year that creates some inside baseball language and confuses outsiders. We don’t wash feet for the sake of washing feet; we wash feet in order to learn, again and again, to live as people who understand our role in the world as sharing and receiving love.

I have been so deeply disappointed in the amount of energy that churches have dropped into technology and equipment when it is compared to the amount of energy we’ve spent making sure our neighbors are well and cared for. For a year, my inboxes have been filled with webinars about streaming platforms and online funerals. For a year, the church has watched millions of people get sick and die, millions of people fall into poverty, millions of people struggle to find housing or food and, instead of gathering our resources to join in with those who are working their tails off to create alternatives and serve with grace and mercy, we have spent our time and money on BETTER WEBCAMS.

Of course this is not a zero sum game. There are ways to innovate with worship practices AND be deeply engaged in loving our neighbors. But the number of stupid articles I’ve read about How To Livestream Your Worship Service far outnumbers the stories I’ve heard of congregations who decided to give more, serve more, get more deeply involved in local outreach or politics or community organizing.

And it has been an entire year, and we are going to miss another Love Feast because of our collective inability to care for one another (which is the irony of all ironies), and I am just flat out of patience for prioritizing institution & industry over living, breathing, suffering human beings.

Enough, already. Enough.

what kind of death?

Sermon 3/21/2021

John 12:20-33

Earlier this year, our congregation hosted a series called “The Art of Dying.” The name came from Brother Aaron’s history knowledge: in Latin, it’s “ars moriendi” a 15th century Christian text that taught faithful people how to “die well.” The text was composed in the wake of the Black Plague, a pandemic that killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people.

In the shadow of so much death, people were seeking ways to die well. The book was published in two versions – the shorter one composed of just 11 woodcut images that people could easily understand and memorize. What did it mean to “die well” in the 15th century? In the short version, it meant resisting five big temptations: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice.

We don’t talk a lot about what it means to die a “good” death, these days, though that series we hosted over the winter was a great opportunity to consider some usually taboo topics. Our culture doesn’t like to talk about death at all, really. But, like in the 15th century, the last year’s plague has forced us to confront some of those questions. We have done some thinking, together, about what it might mean to die well.

What does it mean to die a good death? We spend so much time trying to avoid death altogether that we miss out on the opportunities to understand that there might be different kinds of death, different ways of dying, different meanings behind different endings.


In our text this morning, Jesus is talking about death. In John’s gospel, Jesus is kind of obsessed with “the hour.” He puts people off again and again when they try to compel him to reveal his divinity or tell more of the story saying that his “hour had not yet come.” But here, in chapter 12, Jesus is clear: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

And he follows that up with a strange little parable: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going to die. But he is also telling them something important about the KIND of death he will die: this will not be a worthless death; it will bear much fruit.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus is perfectly serene, facing his own earthly end. He says, immediately, “my soul is troubled, but I am determined to allow God’s name to be glorified.” And here, at this confession, a voice speaks from the heavens – just like at Jesus’ baptism, just like at Jesus’ transfiguration – and says “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Some of the people standing there heard the voice, others heard what sounded like thunder.

Jesus sees their shocked faces, and says “the voice is for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

And John lets us know: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

The kind of death he was to die. Jesus spent a lot of time trying to explain to his disciples that he was GOING to die, but this line from John tells us that he also wanted them – and us – to understand the KIND of death he would die.

We don’t often think about different KINDS of deaths, do we? Even the idea of a “good death” or the “art” of dying is sort of hard to get our 21st century heads around. Our culture spends more time avoiding death altogether than it does sifting through the different kinds of deaths – good, bad, tragic, pointless, fruitful…

Can a death be…fruitful? Jesus seems to be saying that his own death will be this kind of dying. And, more than that, he also seems to be inviting us to consider signing up for it: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” he says.

Rev. Denise Anderson, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that “change, even when welcomed, means death.” She tells a story about having the “unenviable task” of pastoring a congregation that was on the way toward being dissolved – the end of its life together. “We realized,” Anderson says, “that change would either happen with us or tow us. We could die to some things so that we could live to others, or we could hold onto what is and die with it. Only one of these is a faithful way forward.”

Our theme for this Sunday is “again and again, we are being reformed.” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples that he is about to lose his life – and that this is both inevitable and FRUITFUL. And he is also inviting his disciples, then and now, to understand that dying to some things is the only way to live.

I do not think that Jesus is asking us, here and now, to become actual flesh and blood martyrs – although following Jesus is costly, and we have no real way of knowing where faithful discipleship will take us. I do not think that Jesus is asking us to hate ourselves. But I DO think that Jesus is telling us that unless we surrender all of our selves to God’s transforming love, we will not find the truth of abundant, eternal life.

There’s this weird part of Jesus’ comments in this passage, where he says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Jesus is not talking just about Pilate or the Roman Empire when he talks about “rulers of this world,” and his words are not only referring to Donald Trump or other selfish world leaders who drag us into war and poverty.

The word “world” in this verse is “kosmos” in Greek, and it doesn’t mean the whole natural world that God created; it means the human hierarchies and structures that we impose on God’s creation. Some scholars say we might translate it as “the System.” Jesus says, as he invites all of us to learn how to die to some things in order to become fruitful followers: “Now is the judgment of this System; now the ruler of this System will be driven out.”**

The System imposes a structure of dominance, violence and death onto God’s good creation – it happened then, and it happens now. The System is not some conspiracy theory, hidden away in basements and back rooms; it is the powerful structures of society that govern how we live, act, and interact. In 2021 America, the System is better known as White Supremacy.

White Supremacy isn’t just an evil philosophy that attracts skinheads and neo-nazis, it is the operating principle behind nearly every one of our government agencies, societal institutions and habitual social customs. It isn’t just a few evil people pulling strings; it is an essential piece of the DNA of the American history, narrative and identity. Our nation was built on white supremacist assumptions: that all men are created equal (unless you are not white or don’t own property); that declares life liberty and happiness as the rights of man (unless you were a “merciless Indian savage,” as the Declaration of Independence names Native Americans. It has been present through slave labor, Japanese internment camps and police brutality, and it has been present through “voluntary” segregation, unjust hiring practices and centuries of economic inequality. The System is what some of us began to see as police murders of unarmed Black people began to fill the headlines over the last several years. The System of white supremacy is what motivated a young white Baptist man to kill eight people this week in Georgia spas, six of them of Korean and Chinese descent.

White supremacy is The System that governs us and that lives in us. It is what Jesus came to judge and drive out. And it is what Jesus asks us to die to.

I struggled for several days to say this in a way that made sense, and of course Rev. Dr. Barber said it so much better at a rally in Georgia yesterday:

Jesus told his disciples about The System, John tells us, because he wanted them – and us – to understand what kind of death he was going to die. Jesus consistently refused to participate in the System of his day – over and over again, he refused to retaliate with violence. Over and over again, he refused to inhabit roles of abusive power. Again and again, Jesus refused to participate in the System’s insistence on domination, violence and death.

And again and again, Jesus sets us free to die to the system, ourselves.

Our congregation has been working at exposing the System in our world and in our own hearts. We have been learning ways to recognize the System at work when we see it – and this is no small feat. For those of us who are white, the System of white supremacy is so deeply rooted that it often FEELS like dying when Jesus judges and drives it out of us. I know you know what I mean: that moment of defensiveness when someone confronts your prejudice, that feeling of shame or guilt when God convicts you about your own contributions to oppression. It does not feel good. It hurts. We want it to stop.

And there’s really good reason for this: it hurts because it is a death. Death of the System that is rooted inside of us. Death of pieces of ourselves that we were pretty dang attached to. Death of certainty. Death of being centered. Death of being right. Death of understanding the world around us.

This is what Jesus asks of us: to die to the System so that we can be set free to live for love. To move beyond our wants, beyond our fears, beyond the safety of the System into the truth of the gospel: that Jesus will draw all people to himself.

It is tempting to keep the System hidden, to make excuses, to distance ourselves from it in order to keep living these blissfully oblivious lives that we love. But Jesus is inviting us to come and see what is real and true, to peek behind the curtain and see for ourselves what is really happening. Jesus invites us to recognize the ugliness of the System’s ways and learn to hate them, so that we might learn how to live with love eternal.

Thanks be to God for those invitations, even when they hurt, even when they demand that we lose parts of ourselves. Thanks be to God, the one who knows us fully and wholly, in whose wisdom we can trust to cast out what needs to be cast out and hold fast what needs to be held fast. Thanks be to God for the example of Christ Jesus, dying in order to live, a grain of wheat falling to the ground in order to bear so much fruit. Amen.

**with gratitude to Charles L. Campbell’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2


I am a bibliophile. I’m always reading, always reading about reading, always thinking about what to read next. Reading is education, escape, comfort and challenge. I can’t really remember not reading – even before I could do it on my own, all the adults in my life read to me.

Right now, I’m about to finish Lisa See’s novel “The Island of Sea Women,” about women haenyeo sea divers on a remote Korean island called JeJu during the Korean War. Lisa See’s writing style is not my favorite, but her books tell me stories that I have never encountered, stories about real history and imagined people from across the world. I can’t get enough of them. I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane a couple years ago and images from that novel live, still, in my imagination.

The main character of The Island of Sea Women is a sea diver named Young-sook. The book follows her through the span of her long, full, rich, exhausting, tragic, triumphant life. On Jeju, haenyeo divers are known to be strong, tough, and in charge. They make fun of their weak husbands for sitting around under trees debating philosophy while the women dive deep into the sea to harvest sea urchins, abalones and octopus. The women in this world bring home the <seafood> while the men tend the home-fires.

But Young-sook, like most girls, never learns to read or write. Women didn’t need to be literate to be leaders, there, and the girls in her family needed to become divers and earn money – not waste their time sitting in school rooms.

I know that reading and writing are tools of liberation. I know that for most of human history, women didn’t get to wield them. As recently as 1820, only 12% of the world’s population could read and write. In the United States, teaching an enslaved person to read or write was punishable by a huge fine, imprisonment or whipping.

Things are different today: now, only 14% of the world’s population *can’t* read or write. But the reality that this thing I love so wholeheartedly would have been inaccessible to me had I been born in any other age never fails to shock me. What would I have done? Would someone have taken pity on me, seen my desire and taught me phonics? Would I have written in secret, like Lady Whistledown from Bridgerton or taken a male pen name like George Eliot? I cannot imagine a life without books. I don’t want to.

Today is my sabbath day, and I just booked a private book buying appointment at one of my favorite local bookstores, where I will spend the gift certificate my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas. It’s not like I need to add anything to this teetering To Be Read stack, but oh, the JOY of browsing stacks and shelves, of discovering some new novel or that book I’ve been meaning to read for years. There’s so much to learn, so many stories to fall into.

Take a look: it’s in a book.