Monday, July 18, 2016

BOTH Martha AND Mary

Preached at Ascension on July 17. 
I don’t know if you grew up in a family like mine, but here’s how a typical Thanksgiving went at our house. My mom was up before the sun to get a humongous turkey in the oven, and then she spent the entire day in the kitchen, enlisting help from us kids or other female relatives. She worked toward the big moment when all the food was transported from the kitchen to the dining table and the feasting began.  
And then, after we finished stuffing ourselves well beyond the limits of our stomachs, all the men retired to the living room to watch football on TV. while the women cleared the table and did the dishes.
Somewhere in my high school years, I began to notice that there was something wrong with this picture. How is it that my mom and the women worked themselves ragged all day on this meal, and then when it was finally over, they got stuck doing the clean-up, too, while the men just sat around on their duffs watching TV?
After I started college I became even more aware of gender roles, and I decided that I could no longer participate in this oppressive system of injustice. That year when I came home for Thanksgiving, after the meal was over, with a shot of defiance coursing through my veins, I took a stand.
As the women scurried about clearing the table and washing the dishes, I retired to the living room with the men. I thought I’d get some grief for doing this, but no one seemed to notice or care. So, I sat on the sofa between my brother-in-law and my uncle with the football game blaring on the TV. And, guess what? In no time, I was the only one awake.
There I was, basically alone, watching a game on TV that didn’t interest me in the least, sitting between a couple of snoring old geezers. All the while I could hear chattering voices and explosive laughter coming from the kitchen, and I couldn’t stand it. What were they talking about? What were they laughing about? Enough of this. I was back in the kitchen before the end of the first quarter.
I decided that I made my point, to myself if to no one else. I could go with the men, or I could go with the women. And I went with the women. Not because it was expected of me, but because it was my choice. And, let’s face it, the women were a lot more interesting, and a whole lot more fun!
When I read the story of Martha and Mary, I have flashbacks to my childhood Thanksgivings. Here’s Martha, scurrying about, waiting on everyone and running herself ragged like a good woman should. She was doing exactly what was expected of her in that time and place.
It reminds me of the second miracle of Jesus recorded by Luke in the 4th chapter. The story is just two verses long, and it goes like this: After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. (And then listen for what comes next) Immediately she got up and began to serve them. Seriously?
Well, that’s what was expected of her. Not only was it a gender expectation, but it was also her house and there were definite cultural hospitality standards.
This was also true for Mary and Martha, who were hosting the gathering with Jesus in their home. So, there are layers of expectations at play in this story.
Mary is a woman after my own heart because she bucks the system. She doesn’t seem to give a rat’s petutti about expectations. She wants to hear what Jesus has to say. Jesus is in her house. What an opportunity! She’s not going to waste it in the kitchen. She’s going to sit at his feet and take in every word he has to say.
Now, in fairness to Martha, we also need to consider this story from her perspective. She’s justified to be outraged by her sister’s behavior. Why should she get stuck doing all the work? Maybe she’d like to sit at Jesus’ feet, too, but somebody has to serve all the guests. It’s really not fair. She’s hoping Jesus will notice that and see it her way.
But he doesn’t. He’s actually a little harsh with her. He says, “Martha, you need to chill. What your sister Mary is doing is a lot more important than what you’re doing.” Ouch! Those words had to hurt.
I suppose most of us can identify with either Martha or Mary in this story. Martha, the one who’s busy doing, serving, making sure everyone’s taken care of. And Mary, the one who takes time to be--listening, learning, growing in her relationship with Jesus. How many Marthas do we have with us today? And how many Marys?
If you were here last week, you heard the parable that immediately precedes this story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s narrative -- The Good Samaritan. It’s a story that’s all about doing, serving, and making sure our neighbor is taken care of. Jesus praises such behavior.
And then, *boom* we’re in the story of Mary and Martha, where Jesus praises the one more concerned with being in his presence than the one who’s doing for others. What gives? Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? It’s either important to be out there doing for others, or it’s important to grow closer to Jesus. So, which is it?  
Well, here’s the deal. The life of faith isn’t an either/or proposition. That’s what we call dualism. You’re either this or you’re that. You’re either a Martha or you’re a Mary. You’re either good or you’re bad. You’re either a saint or you’re a sinner. Jesus was either human or he was divine.
Dualistic thought gets you into trouble because the life of faith isn’t that simple. It’s not a matter of either/or. The life of faith is about both/and. It embraces paradox. Jesus is both human and divine at the same time. We’re both saints and sinners. We’re both good and bad at once… And we’re both Mary and Martha.
As people of faith, we long to serve others. We want to help out with Vacation Bible School. We want to sing in the choir, volunteer during the week. We want to help people in need in our community. We want to speak for those who have no voice. We want to stand up for those are being treated unjustly. Following Jesus is all those things, and we want to be people who do.
But we’re often inclined to do, do, do, without taking time to be. There is both an outer life of faith, and an inner life of faith. And in fact, a full life of faith includes both. If we do, do, do without taking time to go inward, not only do we burn out, but we lack direction. We spend all our time running from one project to the next, setting the agenda for our ministry without really taking the time to listen to what God’s calling us to do.
I felt myself struggling with that the week before last when our country was experiencing one senseless violent act after another. More black men were killed by law enforcement officers. Then in the midst of a peaceful demonstration, a crazy man opened fire on the police. It was too much. I’ve been so upset and angry about this stuff that I wanna scream. Enough! Enough! Enough! I can barely catch my breath and then the horrific violence in Nice, France.
My first thought is, what can I do? What can I do to make this stop? When I hear people concluding that all we can do is pray about it, I can’t stand it. We’ve got to do more than just pray! My Martha comes out big time.
But then, I also think about how these acts of violence are calling me to go deeper into myself. How is it that I might also be a part of the problem? How is fear of the other and racism a part of me? How can I listen to people of color and better understand their experience? That’s my Mary.
It’s not a matter of one or the other. The life of faith is both/and. And in fact, the outer life of doing flows from the inner life of being and vice versa. We act and we reflect on our action and based on our reflection we act, and it goes back and forth.
Notice how Jesus was constantly moving from an outer expression of faith to an inner expression of faith throughout the gospels. He recognized that he needed to spend time being in the presence of God. He went inward. And that strengthened him to continue teaching, healing, and proclaiming God’s reign in the world around him.
I think also about a central message of John’s gospel where Jesus tells us again and again the importance of abiding in him. We abide in the vine so that we can bear fruit.
This is certainly true for us as a congregation, as we move forward. Are we drawing upon both inner and outer expressions of faith as we strive to fulfill God’s mission for us? If we neglect one way or the other, we’re not all here. We’re not completely experiencing all that we can as God’s people.
This is also true for us as individuals. If you feel like you’re missing something in your faith life, this may be a key for you. You may be living your faith in an either/or way—either inwardly or outwardly. And when you do that, something’s definitely missing.
Strive to live as a both/and person of faith. Spend time listening to Jesus, sit at his feet, join him at the table, savor his presence. And follow him into the world, serving him by serving others. If your natural tendency is to be like Mary, spend some time cultivating your Martha. If you tend to be more of a Martha kind of person, don’t neglect your Mary.
In today’s lesson, Jesus stuck up for Mary. Within his culture, that was necessary. Mary needed permission to sit at the master’s feet. For us as a congregation, and for you as individuals, what’s the expectation we bring to the life of faith? If you expect it to be about doing, give yourself permission to be. If you expect it to be about basking in the presence of Jesus, give yourself permission to do.
Then you’ll experience what it means to be all in as a follower of Jesus. You’ll be on your way to discovering the breadth, the width and the depth of living fully in Christ.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The most dangerous moment of my day

I was warned repeatedly about this before I came to Ascension, Towson, and now that I’m in my first week, I know beyond a doubt that the warnings were justified!

Before I decided to come here, I’d ask people from the congregation, “Is there anything else I should know about Ascension if I should come to serve as your pastor?” Because there always seem to be a few things in a new congregation that I wish someone had told me before I started, I had to ask.

So, what was the big cautionary tale at Ascension? “If you’re crossing the street to get to the church and the light says Walk, don’t trust it. Wait until the traffic has come to a complete stop before you go.” Really? I couldn’t imagine how crossing the street to get to the church could be such a big freakin' deal.

The church parking lot is on a very busy street that must be crossed to get to the building. Years ago, the church had a traffic light and crosswalk put in. You know, the kind where you press the button to cross the street and the sign lights up saying, Walk or Don’t Walk. Well, they were right. When the sign says, Walk, don’t you believe it!

The light turns red and the cars completely ignore it. I’m not just talking about a few that squeak on by after the light changes. I’m talking about cars that continue speeding down the street driven by people who are absolutely oblivious to the fact that there is a traffic light at all. Although it’s been there for years, they don’t see it!

This morning, I parked my car, went to the crosswalk and pushed the button. The light turned red and the Walk sign lit up for me to cross. I waited for the traffic to stop. And it didn’t. It kept going and going so that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cross the street at all. Finally, I stepped off the curb and waved my arms pointing to the red light. Another car whizzed by. Then I started yelling at the cars. Eventually they stopped. I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for a traffic light in all my life.

As I crossed the street, I thought about how safe my world usually is. When I leave the house in the morning, I don’t worry about being in danger. I expect to be unharmed as I cross the street, especially when there is a traffic light on my side. But when I cross York Rd. to get to Ascension, I can never let down my guard. I can’t trust the law to keep me safe. It’s scary.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to go through every moment of every day feeling unsafe, never really sure that the law will protect me, fearing for my own life and for the lives of people I love. I realized that just a few miles away from me, people were living in such a world.

And then I turned the key in the door to the church building and I was inside, safely ensconced in an air conditioned office, checking my email. My brief ordeal crossing York Rd. was all but forgotten and I was enveloped in the comfort of my privileged life.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Living in Liminonium

Geographically, I now may be located in a town called Timonium, but spiritually, I’m in liminal space—a place between. When we’re neither here nor there, standing in the threshold between one room and another, it’s a liminal space for us. Although this unsettled state can be a bit unnerving, it also has a beauty of its own, and I’m relishing it.

I’ve taken three weeks vacation between my call to Holy Trinity, Charlotte, and my call to Ascension, Towson. The first week was hell. I packed my last few boxes and watched the moving company load them all onto a 24-foot truck. After spending a sleepless night trying to get comfortable on the floor of an empty house, Pooky, Guido and I drove away from our old home and toward our new one. It would have been a lovely drive if I had shared it with traveling companions who appreciated it. Lovely it was not.

For four straight days I ripped open boxes and found a place for all my stuff. Clothes unpacked, books shelved, pictures hung... in addition to transplanting some flowers in the yard and painting a room. Four days! And did I mention I charged up my drill and hung my own curtain rods. I am woman, hear me rrrroar!

Of course, it would have taken me much longer if I hadn’t had so much help from the people of Ascension. They were on hand in the beginning to help me with heavy lifting, putting stuff together and unpacking my kitchen. And they brought me food. I didn’t have to cook for a week. Not only was I well fed, but I also saved a lot of time that I would have spent on preparing meals. What an incredibly caring congregation! Something tells me I’m not going to have any problem loving them.

So now I have some time to relax and reflect. I’m detached from the congregation I once served and not yet attached to the one I will soon begin serving. And I’m not feeling like a pastor. I’m just me. I putter around the house, I walk around the neighborhood, I explore my foreign surroundings, I read, I cook, I sleep, I watch TV, .

And I’m praying these days in a way I can’t remember ever praying before. All the buzzing in my brain that I typically struggle to shut down isn’t buzzing. I'm not distracted with a list of things I gotta do, people I need to talk with, sermons I need to prepare. In this liminal space, contemplative prayer is easier, it’s freer, it’s deeper. I don’t know that this will continue after I step into my new life, but I’m treasuring it now.

Tomorrow company arrives from NY. Gretchen, Jon and Nick are driving down to see my new place. I’ve never shared a liminal space with them before. I wonder if they’ll notice the difference as much as I do. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Mistletoe-free Zone

My final sermon with God's beloved saints at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte. 

There are pastors who keep a running list of all the stuff they plan to say to their congregation on their last Sunday. You know, those kinds of things that you might have been holding in all along and then, when you know you won’t get fired for saying them, you just let it fly. It can be particularly unnerving for a congregation to wait for the final sermon from a pastor they’ve given a rough time.

You may have heard the old story about the pastor who had gotten nothing but grief from her congregation the whole time she was there. When it came time for her final sermon, they all held their breath because they knew it was coming. She was really gonna let ‘em have it.

But then, it didn’t happen. She was kind and gracious. She was so sweet sugar wouldn’t have melted in her mouth. She went through the entire worship service exuding words of love and support for this congregation that had made her life a living hell for years.

The closing hymn began and they all breathed a sigh of relief. But then, as their pastor recessed down the aisle, something was hanging from a string down the center of her robe in the back. And there it was, the pastor’s final word to her cantankerous congregation, dangling just above the place where she sat—a sprig of mistletoe.

You will see no mistletoe hanging from my robe today.

Before I came to serve Holy Trinity eleven years ago, I was finishing up seven years of pastoral ministry at Advent in University City. I dearly loved that congregation, but for a variety of reasons, I knew it was time for me to move on. I was pretty fragile then, and I didn’t think I had it in me to go to another congregation and become emotionally invested in a whole new community, so I made the decision to leave parish ministry.

And then, Holy Trinity came along. I had long admired you for standing boldly on the side of love in a way that no one else in our synod was. And I saw that it was all a flush away from going down the toilet. Other people were looking at you and saying, see there’s what happens when you let gay people in your church. That can’t happen, I thought. They have to succeed. They just have to. And it occurred to me that I could help you do that.

I was on my way out anyway, so what did I have to lose? So I came here, for the sheer love of it. And I wasn’t particularly afraid. My goal was to walk with you and hang in there with you until the day when people would no longer be pointing at us saying, “We don’t want to be like Holy Trinity” and would instead be pointing at us saying, “Why can’t we be more like Holy Trinity?” And, guess what? That day is here.

Our worship attendance has gone from somewhere in the thirties to well over a hundred on a typical Sunday. We’ve welcomed a couple hundred new members. We’ve made a difference for people who’ve come to us for healing in their lives.

And I’m convinced that those scary days when we didn’t know if we’d survive as a congregation have shaped us as a community of love and healing. We know what it means to be damaged and to hold on by faith when that’s all you can do. I’d been through some similar struggles in my personal life, and it seems that we were brought together as fellow survivors, both pastor and congregation, to do ministry in a world that is filled with people struggling to survive.

I had no idea what God had in store for you, or for me, when I first came here, but I just knew it was going to be good. And it has been. There’ve been all kinds of surprises for us along the way.
·        I remember the first time we broke 100 at worship. It was my first Christmas Eve. In the middle of worship we heard a loud boom coming from the narthex. Laura was our usher. She went up into the balcony to count heads and she was so excited that she fell coming down the stairs. (Fortunately, she was okay.)
·        I remember the gradual surprise that came from having children in our midst again after our nursery wasn’t used once during the first three years I was here.
·        I remember the sudden surprise of welcoming displaced brothers and sisters from St. Andrews Episcopal Church into our midst.
·        And the joyful surprise of celebrating the full inclusion of LGBT folks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and then marriage equality for North Carolina.
None of us could have foreseen any of that on my first Sunday.

I want to thank you for giving me the adventure of a lifetime. Few pastors ever have the opportunity to experience what I’ve experienced with you here at Holy Trinity. This is an extraordinary congregation and I know that God’s going to send you an extraordinary pastor to serve you in the future. As congregations go, this is a sweet, juicy plum.

Do you know what the best thing about serving Holy Trinity has been for me? Our mission of Loving Not Judging. We’ve grown a lot in understanding what it means for us to be loving not judging as a demonstration of living the Jesus Way in the world and with one another. As your pastor, I’ve benefited from that because I’ve experienced your love toward me in a way that’s freeing.

So often, pastors are fearful of the judgment of their parishioners and it’s stifling. Particularly in preaching. They’re afraid to say what they’re feeling called to say because their congregation might not like it and they don’t want to cause trouble, end up having people leave the church, or maybe even lose their jobs. And so they do a lot of tap dancing in the pulpit, never saying what they really mean, for fear of judgment.

Let me tell you, tap dancing in the pulpit is exhausting. And I’m thankful that I’ve never had to put on my tap shoes at Holy Trinity. I know you don’t always buy into what I have to say, but I also know that no matter what I say, you will continue to love me. There’s a freeing power in that kind of grace. It’s allowed me to say exactly what I’ve felt called to preach, and I can’t thank you enough.

I also know that I’ve made mistakes while I’ve been with you. I’ve done some things that aren’t all that smart, and I’ve said some things that aren’t all that kind. But I know that you love me anyway, just as I love you. Within a loving not judging community, forgiveness and reconciliation are the way we roll.

That’s why the most important thing we do together happens around the altar. It’s where we gather weekly to open ourselves to receive the grace of God into our lives. As I place the bread in your hands, and I look into your eyes, it’s more than a mechanical act for me. We have history. I know your stories; for many of you I’ve been a part of your stories. I know what the presence of Christ in your lives means to you. And I know what it means for us to do this together, week after week, within our community. It defines who we have been. It strengthens who we are. It shapes who we will be. Together. The Body of Christ in this place.

When we planned my final day at Holy Trinity, I told the leadership of the congregation that I didn’t want to have a dinner after worship, which is what you might expect on an occasion like this. But I wanted us to have an opportunity on Saturday evening to gather and celebrate our time together. And then I wanted the last thing I did with my Holy Trinity family to be the celebration of Holy Communion together. That’s as it should be.

When I announced to you that I would be leaving five weeks ago, I talked to you about being open to the Spirit. One of you joked that we all know darn good and well that if the Spirit had called me to Georgia I wouldn’t have listened. And it may be true that in my case the Spirit has been calling me through a two-year-old grandson named Nick. But that’s how the Spirit works, too, isn’t it?

From as long as I can remember, I’ve been open to seeing where God is leading me next. A door opens and I feel compelled to walk through it because if I didn’t, I’d always wonder what might have been. That’s the way it was when I first felt called to be a pastor as a college student at Bowling Green State University, and it’s certainly the way it was when I came to serve you as your pastor here at Holy Trinity. I think it’s a good way to go through life. It means facing our fears, being ready for adventure, expecting to be surprised along the way, and holding on for a wild ride.

My prayer for Holy Trinity is that you’ll experience the same thing in this adventure of faith that God has called you to be a part of. Be open to where God is leading you next. Don’t be too quick to decide what you’d like to see happen, what might meet your greatest desires. Instead, be open to seeing what God has in store for you as you strive to walk the Jesus Way. Be on the lookout for doors that open. And, when you see them, have the courage to walk through those doors. Be ready for adventure, expect to be surprised along the way, and hold on for a wild ride.

Let me leave you with the words of W. H. Auden as we close this wonderful chapter we’ve shared and prepare to begin a new one, this time separated geographically, but always connected within the Body of Christ… and through the magic of Facebook.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.