Showing posts with label sermon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sermon. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2018

To Thine Own Self Be True, Said Jesus Never

This sermon was part of the "Said Jesus Never" sermon series at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. It was preached in The Way on July 15, 2018.

Genesis 1:27 Common English Bible (CEB)
God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Romans 12:1-2 Common English Bible (CEB)
Living sacrifice and transformed lives
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

            To thine own self be true. Sounds pretty biblical, right? That use of thine and the inverted sentence structure is pretty King James-y. It’s probably somewhere in all that small-print, red-letter text. Yeah, well, it’s not actually in the Bible, like at all. 
            It sounds King James-y because it’s Shakespeare. (You think the pastoral team assigned this sermon topic to the literature professor on purpose? Yeah, me, too.) Anyway, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, says this to his son Laertes as he sends him off to France (Hamlet I.iii.55-81). Bummer that it was Polonius and not Jesus. It’s still good advice, though, right? Yeah, wrong. 
            Jesus never said this because it’s terrible advice, and if we consider the context, if we look at the rest of Polonius speech, the reason becomes clear. Among the other pieces of sage wisdom this father has to offer are: neither a borrower nor a lender be; give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. There are further warnings against seeking out new friends and against making one’s thoughts known too soon.  If Laertes follows this advice, he’s going to come back from his study-abroad year in Paris without having expereinced much of anything.
            The person who follows this advice, be they Laertes or one of us, will find themselves disconnected from the community. This advice creates people who exist in isolation from one another. Neither a borrower nor a lender be—do not admit when your resources fall short and you need help, do not offer your bounty to neighbors who are in need. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice—listen even when you disagree, don’t let anyone know what you think. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable to the potential of new relationships. To thine own self be true—put yourself first, look out for number one, take what you can get. 
            Let’s also remember that Polonius’s story does not end well. ***spoiler alert*** He fails to follow his own advice, involves himself in the queen’s business, and is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a tapestry in the royal bedchamber. And then Hamlet is like “sorry not sorry.”
            To thine own self be true, said Jesus never. 
            What does our scripture say then? Like so many of the rebuttals to ‘said Jesus never’ phrases in this sermon series—it’s complicated. 
            On the one hand, we have the passage you heard from Romans this morning. “Do not conform to the ways of the world.” On its surface, this advice from Paul to the church at Rome might seem to suggest the sort of independent individuality that Polonius is talking about when he—not  Jesus—says, “to thine own self be true.” But Paul also says that we are to be transformed as living sacrifices to God. 
            As Christians, we are not called to reject the values of the world in order to be true to something that is interal to each of us as individuals. That way lies hedonism and egoism and narcissism, self-righteousness and neo-liberal exploitation of the other. Rather, we are called to reject the individualistic values of a broken world in order to turn our faces to the image of God. Which leads us to the other scripture you heard this morning—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” God created all of us, collectively, in God’s own image. No single one of us alone can be the image of God. Our ability to embody the image of God is predicated on our connection to the community. 
            As Christians, we are not called to the sort of rugged individualism that Polonius’s ‘to thine own self be true’ speech recommends for Laertes. We arehowever, called to be in community with one another, to allow our minds to be transformed in the pursuit of God’s vision for the kingdom here on earth, to be God’s partners in the continuing project of the creation. 
            What does that even look like, though? Well, it looks an awful lot like Jesus. When he was ready to begin his ministry, Jesus did not strike out like a rugged individualist to go it alone—he found the twelve disciples plus a lot of friends to do the work with him. Notably, the people with whom he chose to assiciate were not the most powerful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He healed outcasts—lepers, women, Samaritans. Jesus dedicated himself to that vision from the Genesis creation story that all of humanity is created in God’s image. 
            Our call, like Jesus’s call, places us in tension between the recognition that each of us individually have been created by God as unique persons. We have a variety of life experiences. We have a variety of gifts and talents. We do not all contribute to the ongoing work of creation in the same way, and we do need to recognize the value of our variety. However, we also need to recognize that these individual gifts, talents, and experiences do their best work in concert with one another. It takes all of our talents, all of our skils, all of our life experiences to embody the image of God. 
            The thing of it is, though, it’s really really hard to work together with all sorts of different people and respect all their different sorts of talents. Our very human egos get in the way, our very American values of independence and self-sufficiency get in the way. I’m going to tell you a hard truth about myself. I don’t always like all of the people I interact with. I don’t like some of the people I interact with here at Mount Olivet. That’s a hard thing to say out loud looking at all of your faces. I’m sure there are some of you in this room who don’t particularly like me. Or maybe you’re thinking of someone else in the congregation whom you don’t particularly like. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way. The dislike we feel for our fellow congregants might be specific—related to some past harm—or it might be a general pet peeve. The challenge we face, our call as followers of Christ, is to love each other anyway. To look at that person whom we don’t enjoy and recognize that, like us, they are a piece of the image of God. They are our partner in God’s ongoing project of creation. We have little control over our feelings, but love is an action. The kind of love that God calls us to is a choice to act for the benefit of those around us. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says. And also, love your enemy, do good to those who hate. And, I would add, also to those whom you don’t particularly like, regardless of how they may feel about you. Love them, too. 
            In here we have rituals that help us to love each other no matter how else we might feel. In a few moments, we’re going to celebrate one of them. Jeff is going to lead us in the communion liturgy and then we are going to break bread together. This ritual of eating from the same loaf and dipping in the same cups, and, I would add, partaking from our hospitality ministry, means that for this one day each week our many individual bodies share the same fuel. The very stuff that keeps us going we hold in common. 
            Outside of these walls, it gets even harder. Most of us don’t share communion with our coworkers or with our classmates or with the people who live in our neighborhoods. When we have to interact with people who are not like us, who don’t pray like us, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look like use, who don’t vote like us, our insticnt is to be true to our own selves, to look our for number one. Our call as Christians is to love them anyway. Our challenge is to discern what love looks like. That process of discernment is a topic for another whole sermon, but for today I’ll just say that it starts with listening humbly and without judgement or rebuttal as people who are not like us tell us the stories of their lived experience. 
            To thine own self be true, said...Jesus...never. 
            What Jesus did say was to be love, to be true to our individual contributions to our collective embodiment of the image of God.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Suffering and Joy

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The revised common lectionary text for Year a, Proper 6 (Second Sunday after Pentecost) was Psalm 100 and Romans 5: 1-8. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website

Often in the American church in the twenty-first century, we focus on the call to praise, like the one we heard in Psalm 100 this morning. Many churches, many evangelists, many congregations spread the message that life in Christ is a happy life. That if you just believe with faith the size of a mustard seed, your life will be good. Have you seen this message? I have. And it annoys the crap out of me.
            Although we are called to praise, God does not promise us a good life. In fact, in the revised common lectionary Gospel lesson, which I did not ask our liturgist to read this moring, God promises the disciples hardship as they go out into the world. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves [....] Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Not a happy clappy life in Christ. It’s an odd thing that the lectionary does here, putting the praise of Psalm 100 side by side with this warning about hardship to come in the ministry.
In the church, we don’t talk enough about the fact that suffering is part of life. It is the shadow side of our knowledge and our free will. In fact, the presence of suffering in human life is one of the few things that most world religions agree on. (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism). I admire that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism put this idea first: “All life is suffering, pain.”
Our reality is that we live in a broken world, and this brokenness is visible at all levels. In our personal lives we experience the grief and loss, illness, and poverty. In our communities, we experience systemic racism and bigotry toward minority groups on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, ability, and ethnicity. American politics have never been more divided, and this week, in our community, political disagreement became physical violence. If we look further afield, we can see large-scale, ongoing armed conlfict that destroys communities just like ours and turns people just like us into refugees. Indeed, the very planet under our feet is broken. Global climate change is disrupting the natural systems that life on this planet depends on. All of this brokenness fills our newscasts, and it we share it on social media. We see five people shot in Alexandria, and hundreds affected by the fire in London, and thousands in Syria or in Iraq wondering when the next air strikes will come. We see all this brokenness, and we are overwhelemed. 
We are not very good at dealing with suffering. And I think we get it wrong in two ways: Either we turn away entirely, refusing to acknowledge the suffering that is there in our own lives or in the lives of our communities; OR, we try to rush through the brokenness.
Let’s start with the way that we refuse to acknowledge suffering and brokenness. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” What is the correct answer? “Good,” or “Fine.” This is a ritual that we each participate in dozens of times a day with coworkers, with bosses, with neighbors, with friends, with customer service personnel. Although the question in the ritual asks how we are, we’re actually not allowed to say anything other than “good” or “fine.” Don’t believe me? Break the rules this week. Tell someone you’re wonderful, or tired, or that you have a headache, or that you are overwhelmed by the brokennes of the environment. I will lay odds that the reaction you get is discomfort. Giving any answer other than the expected one in this ritual communication is just not done.
            Now sometimes, the people close to us actually do want to know how we’re doing. When the question goes beyond participation in the ritual to express actual concern, it sounds different, “how are you?” “how are you, really?” In this case, the person asking the question will make eye contact and lean toward you.
This “how are you ritual” might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that its ubiquity in American life, and the rigidity of the requirement that we respond to the question with a positive answer are evidence of the way we focus relentlessly on the positive. We publicly affirm that we are good and fine even when we are not, and when we get home, we distract ourselves with the many media available to us on our variety of devices, , with food and medication, with alcohol and drugs.
            The other way that we get it wrong is by rushing through suffering.  Romans 5:3-4 tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Passages like this one, lead us to platitudes like “every cloud has a silver lining” and “God has a reason” and “God does not give you more than you can bear.”
While I think that these platitudes point to an important truth—that living through tragedy changes us in profound ways—our eagerness to emphasize the reasons and the silver linings lead us to rush through the suffering in unhealthy ways. We need to slow down. We need to recognize that we are in the moment of suffering and let it be okay that we are not good. We need to take the time to actually feel our feelings.
In my experience, there will be a lot of feelings. Not only the sadness and pain of the event that caused our suffering, but also uncertainty, and fear about that uncertainty, and doubt and confusion. It is not easy to let ourselves feel these feeling. But you’ll notice that Romans doesn’t jump straight from suffering to hope. The intermediaries are endurance and character.  Sitting with our feelings long enough to recognize them and name them is an important step.
I have a couple of disclaimers. What I have said here is not a call to tolerate abuse or ongoing trauma. If you are in a relationship that is causing you ongoing harm, get help and get out safely. Reach out to the staff of Mt. Olivet, reach out to someone you trust. Reach. Out. This is also not a call to inflict pain upon ourselves in the ways that some in the history of Christianity have done. No self-flaggelation, no hair shirts, no beds of nails for us. We encounter sufficient suffering in our daily lives without seeking it out or inventing it.
Suffering is not a contest. We should not cry matyr to show that our own suffering is the worst, but neither should we minimize our own experience because someone else has greater suffering.
Each of us reacts to the suffering in our lives and in our world differently. And the process of moving from suffereing to endurance to character to hope is not a linear one. There are setbacks and delays and repetitions. It can take months or even years. In the mean time, though, life goes on. Even as we are learning to live with suffering, there will also be moments in our lives worthy of celebration.
And this, I think, is the greatest challenge: holding in tension the awareness that our broken world is full of suffering and the conviction that this same world is also beautiful and worthy of celebration. I’ve noticed this coming to a head lately in activist spaces on social media. One member of the community will say to another, “How can you care about new bike lanes when children are dying in the streets?” This question presumes that suffering and celebration are a zero-sum game, that we can only be engaged in one at a time. By this logic, if we are in a state of grief or trauma or brokenness, life can only be sad and dark and unhappy.
When I was widowed four years ago, I chose to wear black. That fast from color was a reminder to myself to slow down and make space for the pain and doubt and confusion. It was important to me at that time that my outward appearance reflect the dark wilderness that I felt like I was navigating, and I kept choosing black for about six months. In the early days especially,  I remember seeing shock, and sometimes judgement, on other people’s faces when they saw me laughing and smiling. As with the “how are you” ritual that expects only a positive answer, there was an expectiation that I as a widow wearing black would be perpetually sad and weepy.
Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration. We can welcome it to the table as a ligitimate element of our experience of this earthly life.
I’m asking you today to pay more attention to the suffering in your own life, in the life of your community, and in the world, but I don’t want you to wallow in it or be incapacitated by its magnitude. Recognize that in our broken world, suffering exists alongside joy. And recognize that God is present with us equally in suffering and in joy.
When we are able to do this, when we recognize that suffering is a part of life that we should experience rather than one to escape, when we are able to be aware of both suffering and joy at the same time, it changes the way we relate to suffering in our own life  and in the lives of others. Often when we encounter suffering in the life of someone we are close to, we jump into fixing mode. We offer solutions, we reach for the platitudes and start naming the potential silver linings of the dark clouds. While I am a strong proponent of the idea that good things can come from bad things, I also know that this mental leap is one that the suffering person needs to make in their own time. As people giving moral support we need to be able to say, “This is awful. I am sorry you are going through this. I am here to listen.” And we need to stop there, before we start solutioneering.
It also changes the way we pray. Rather than praying, “Lord, make it stop,” we can pray, “God, be with us. God, help us see. God, give us strength.” Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2016


This interview was conducted in lieu of a sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2016 at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) during their Let Your Light Shine Stewardship campaign. This interview has been lightly edited to remove verbal ticks and to firm up sentence structure and add clarity as needed. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website.

Kathleen: We are in the middle of our fall stewardship campaign "Let Your Light Shine," and we thought it might be a good thing to share stories of generosity with each other and for all of the congregation to overhear these stories. So this week and next week we'll be interviewing members of the congregation instead of a more traditional sermon. And this morning it's a joy to welcome Kate.

Kathleen: So, Kate, what brought you to Mt. Olivet?
Kate: Friends brought me to Mt. Olivet. When I moved back to the area with my teenagers about a year and a half ago, I reconnected with some college friends who are long-term members here at Mt. Olivet. It's been a joy to go to church with them, and I've met more friends like you and Amanda and decided that this was a good place to be.

Kathleen: So what makes you stay, besides me being fabulous?
Kate: Well, you're pretty fabulous, so..... One of the big things that makes me stay, actually, is the multigenerational ministry that happens here. We lived in rural Michigan for a long time, and there were a lot of years and more than one church where my kids were the Sunday school. There were no other children, there were no youth for them to look up to. The congregations were aging, so it's nice to be here where there are families and people at lots of points along the spectrum of age, and a robust Sunday school, and confirmation class, and youth group.

Kathleen: So our theme for stewardship is Let Your Light Shine, and when we talked about this question before, we couldn't settle on one ministry or mission of the church that really stands out for you, so what are the missions and ministries of this church that stand out for you, and how do you let your light shine through them.
Kate: The mission of the church that I'm the most excited about is La Cucina, downstairs, the activity that we host in our kitchen. When I first learned about that ministry, I asked some questions and tried to see if there's a way I could get involved, and the answer is really no, so I support La Cucina by staying out of the way: respecting their space in the refrigerator, not messing with their stuff, putting their kitchen things back where they belong when I'm done using them. And also, the funds that I give to Mt. Olivet are undirected, so if La Cucina needs money, then hopefully some of the money I give to Mt. Olivet can go there.
     In terms of the ministry of the church, I really enjoy worshipping with the way. There is a lot about that service that I like, and I let my light shine there through participating. I help with hospitality--in fact before I came up here for this service today, I helped Marsha with the snacks downstairs--and I have preached and offered children's sermons in the way.

Kathleen: We're talking about generosity, and I'm curious: where did you learn generosity?
Kate: I think I learned generosity in the church, particularly in confirmation class when I was thirteen. We talked about the vows we were going to take, that we were pledging to support the United Methodist Church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. And now we've added our witness to that pledge.
     And the church that I grew up in was a rural church in Pennsylvania the size of a one-room school house. While I was a teenager, we were raising the money to build a new building, which was a big stretch. And we started to raise that money three dollars at a time buying cinderblocks for the foundation. Every time we raised another three dollars, one of the women in the church would glue a sugar cube to a model of the foundation of the new building until we had enough money for all the necessary sugar cubes. And then we moved on to studs--they were more expensive than three dollars apiece--but the studs were popsicle sticks. It took years for us to build this sugar cube and popsicle stick model of the church, but at the end of the process, we had the money we needed to actually build the building. And so it was watching the members of this congregation be generous with each other and give beyond their normal giving to do this next thing that taught me a lesson in generosity.
    I also think that generosity begets generosity. When you commit to give and then you practice that commitment, you're like, 'Oh, hey! I can do this! Maybe I can do more.' Giving becomes self-reinforcing.

Kathleen: And how do you personally practice generosity?
Kate: In terms of giving my gifts to the church?
Kathleen: Sure! Or just in your life.
Kate: So a lot of times in a campaign like this and in the church at stewardship time what we're focused on most is the money, which is important, but it's not the only way to practice generosity. There have been times in my adult life where I didn't have a tithe to give to the church. But I was able to sit down with my checkbook and the pile of bills and make decisions about money prayerfully: how am I going to honor my commitments? am I going to have anything left to give financially to the church?
     I also think bigger about the idea of our gifts. The oath we make to the church is not only our money. It's our prayers and our presence. Just showing up is keeping your oath. And our gifts are not just the monetary ones. We can give our time, our talents, all of those things, too.
[I wish I had thought to talk about my support of American University's United Methodist Chaplaincy, the Kay Spiritual Life Center, and Friendly Planet Missiology here.]
Kathleen: Can you tell the offering basket story?
Kate: Oh! The offering basket story.... For a couple of reasons, sometimes in my life, like I said, I haven't always had financial things to give to the church. Sometimes in my life [even when I do have a tithe to give] I just always forget to bring the offering. And now, I give to Mt. Olivet electronically, so I don't have anything to physically put in the basket. The habit that I've gotten into in the past when I didn't have anything to put in the basket was to still touch the offering plate. So, even if I don't have anything to put in it, I hold the offering plate in my hands, and I think about what I'm giving that week. Sometimes it's just I remember that I've given online, and sometimes its that this week I'm giving my time, or this week I'm praying for a congregant, or this week I'm doing some work for the church. Right, so using that moment of the offering plate moving before me to concentrate and think, 'What am I giving this week?'

Kathleen: Do you find that practicing generosity brings wholeness to your life?
Kate: What do you mean by wholeness?
Kathleen: Does practicing generosity make you feel like the person God created you to be?
Kate: Yes. Yeah, I think so. I think generosity isn't wholeness all by itself, but it definitely is an important component--that idea that we are created and called to give as well as receive.

Kathleen: And now the six million dollar question that you and I have spent a lot of time talking about, and I'm really excited for you to share your thoughts with the congregation: What goes through your mind when you look at that pledge card?
Kate: I do not like the pledge cards. Having been the lay leader of a small church, I understand the desire on the part of the church leadership to know. I understand the desire to have numbers, to be able to say, 'In the next year, our congregants are going to give us X amount of dollars.' At the same time, one of the small churches I was involved with in rural Michigan did not do pledge cards because at some time in their past, pledge cards--and arguments about pledge cards--had caused a schism in the church. We didn't have that as a tool, so we looked at our patterns of income and our patterns of expenses over the last year, five years, ten years, and those were the numbers that we used to plan our budget. We were pretty successful at that. Using those numbers worked for us and allowed us to not bring up the hard feelings associated with pledge cards in that congregation.
     As a congregant myself, when I'm faced with a pledge card, I do one of two things: Either I just avoid it, and I never turn it in, and I feel kind of bad because the church asked me to do something, and I didn't. Or, I write down a very low number. That's in part because the pledge card presumes a constancy of income that I haven't experienced in my adult life. Although I know that no one in this church, no one in the office is ever going to chase me down and say, 'You pledged us three hundred dollars this year and you've only given us ten'--that's not going to happen--at the same time if I write something on the pledge card and I sign it and I put it in the offering basket, that feels like a covenant now. It feels like something that I have to do. I am more able to give with a joyful heart if I don't feel that sort of weight associated with the giving. So I would rather not participate in pledge cards.

Behold the pledge card I will not be filling out.
Ironic that it appeared in my mailbox the day after this interview. ;-)
Kathleen: But not participating in the pledge cards doesn't mean that you don't practice generosity.
Kate: Right. Right, I absolutely give. Not using the pledge card doesn't mean not giving. It just means giving consciously and adjusting the gift as the circumstances of my finances and my family's situation change.

Kathleen: I think when we talk about money in the church, sometimes we forget that it's a communal thing. There are those among us who are definitely in the situation to sit down and fill out the pledge card with our graphs and our pie charts and our Excel spreadsheets. Some of us lead different kinds of lives, and it's something that we do together as a community.
Kate: Yeah, it is something that we do together as a community, and I think that the continuation of the use of pledge cards in the Methodist church as a whole is tradition-based. We've done it for a long time, and so we keep doing it, but it doesn't work for all of us.

Kathleen: Is there anything else you would like to share about Mt. Olivet and your time at Mt. Olivet or generosity?
Kate: I'm just really happy to be in a church that has as much variety as Mt. Olivet does. There's a lot that Mt. Olivet has to offer because all of us bring our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness together to the community.

Kathleen: Thank you. Amen and amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Follow the Directions

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, October 9, 2016. The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Proper 28 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost) was 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17: 11-19

Follow the Directions: Two Passages about Being Healed

The two passages of scripture we heard this morning tell parallel stories, one in the Old Testament book of Second Kings, and one in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. Although there are differences, each story is a case of those who are ill seeking healing. Both Naaman, the Old Testament warrior, and the ten unnamed people in Luke suffered from leprosy, a disease that turned its sufferers into outcasts. Scholars disagree about whether the Biblical-era disease whose name we translate as leprosy is the same disease we know as leprosy today, but whatever disease Naaman and Luke’s ten people had was one that no usual remedy worked on, one that made healthy people shun the sufferers, one that made the sufferers ritually unclean according to Jewish law.
In Luke, the ten lepers recongnize Jesus’ power as he comes into the town. They call to him for help from a distance in deference to the social rules about those suffering from leprosy. They are made clean as they follow his simple instructions to show themselves to the priests.  These lepers follow Jesus’s instructions without question because they have nothing left to lose; living as outcasts, they had already hit rock bottom. They recognize Jesus’ power, they ask for help, and they are  healed.  Hallelujah!
The Old Testament story is more complicated. Naaman comes to Elisha for healing because an Israelite servant girl in his household suggests it. Naaman, a powerful warrioir,  sends a letter asking for help to his weaker neighboring nation because a servant, a female servant, a female Israelite servant suggested it. The letter in itself is an act of humbling. His supplication from a distance, however, is not enough to heal him, and Elisha summons him to come to Israel.
So Naaman goes to Israel expecting  to be heled with pomp and circumstance, expecting an act of healing worthy of his rank and station.  When Elisha gives him the simple instructions to bathe in the river seven times, Naaman is outraged! “What did I come all this way for?” he thinks.
A servant says – and I love this next part – a servant says, “Dude, if he’d asked you to do something difficult, you’d have done it. Why not just bathe in the river?” The servant is right. If Elisha had demanded a feat of strength (moving a giant boulder) or  a feat of endurance (climbing up a mountain and coming down without resting) or delivery of a magical object (three drops of slime from the Great Pink Sea Snail), Naaman would have moved the boulder, climbed the mountain, and found that snail. The simplicity of the instructions to bathe in the River Jordan, a tiny trickle of  river in the desert, seems disproportionate to the magnitude of Naaman’s disease.  Naaman, humbled, follows the directions, and is healed. Naaman and his servant teach us to follow the directions, even when they’re weird.
This is a conversation I have with my students all the time.:
“Dr. Koppy,” they say “what do we have to write?” 
And I say, “Read the description in the syllabus.”
“Dr. Koppy, do we have to print this out and bring it to class?”
“What does the syllabus say?”
“Dr. Koppy, when is the essay thing due?”
“Did you check the syllabus?”
My colleagues and I take great care to lay things out clearly in our syllabi, especially our common syllabus for freshman composition, from which we all teach every semester. The students, somehow, don’t think it can be as simple as reading a piece of paper I’ve already given them. *sigh* They need servants like Naaman’s. They need someone to say to them, “Dude, it’s in the syllabus.”
I shouldn’t snark on my students though. Every senior scholar in my field says the same thing about research writing: Do it every day, write every day even if only for 15 minutes, write every day even if you don’t feel like it. The key to making progress is consistency and repetition. And yet....what do dissertation-writing graduate students and junior scholars like me do?  We procrastinate, we faff off on the Internet, we avoid writing for days and then stay up all night chasing the lightbulb moment that will transform a rough draft into a polished piece. And it does not always come.
We fail to follow the directions.
In both of the stories we heard this morning, the lepers were healed simply by following the directions they were given. Following directions isn’t always such a tidy process. Following the directions, for example, doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to you. Bad things happen to faithful people. Tragedy happens to good people all the time. Bad things happen to people even though they follow the directions.
You’ve all heard the platitude, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Perhaps some of you have even said it. It’s often trotted out in the face of tragedy. People who don’t know what to say to the victim or the victim’s chief mourner’s say this, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and it’s close corrolary ‘God has a reason.’ As someone who has been the chief mourner, I have to say that this is one of the most insidious lies that Christians tell each other.
The Old Testament lesson this morning seems to be supporting this idea. At the end of Naaman’s story, he returns to Elisha and praises God, saying “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” A tidy interpretation would be to say that Naaman got leprosy in order to bring him to Israel so that he could see God’s power. It’s tempting somethimes to think this way.
Here’s why that lie is so bad: If we believe that God protects the truly faithful, then those to whom bad things happen must not be truly faithful. Our reality, though, is that tragedy strikes good people, faithful people, devout people every single day. Church membership does not come with a ‘get out of tragedy free’ card.
On NPR last week, I heard a Story Corps interview with TerriRoberts, the mother of the man who shocked the world ten years ago this month when he barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and started shooting, “killing 5 girls, wouding the others, and committing suicide.” The Amish community shocked the world when they forgave the man and embraced his parents. Roberts talks about the Amish families who came to the private funeral for her son and surrounded the family in a crescent that emanated love. She also talks about her ongoing relationship with the victim’s families, including acting as a part-time caregiver for one girl who was profoundly disabled by her injuries. Roberts reports that one of the Amish fathers told her “None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it … you can’t put a price on that.”
All of the families connected to this situation experienced tragedy that day. The family of the shooter might have become outcasts in their own community, made  unclean by their association with a person who would kill children in their school. The Amish community, however, followed directions. They chose to turn the other cheek, to love the people who some might see as their enemies, to forgive.
In the end of today’s Gospel story, Jesus expresses surprise that only one of the nine lepers came back to praise God after being healed. Now, you might be thinking that returning to offer praise was not part of the directions. Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He did not say, “then come back here and offer praise.” Jesus probably thought he didn’t have to. Praising God is in the syllabus. Over an over, the Old Testament scriptures instruct the faithful to praise God. The lectionary offered two different Psalms of praise that we are not reading this morning, but our music has filled that role for us. The first two songs we sang this morning were full of praise. Jesus expected the lepers to know that they should offer praise for their healing, and he expresses shock that only the foreigner among them does so. Jesus tells this man that his faithfulness, his following directions, has made him well. Not just healed, but well.

Following directions is not a spell that protects us from harm. God does not promise us invincibility. The thing about the directions, though, is they make us resilient. The platitude that says everything happens for a reason has it backwards.  It is our work as Christians, not God’s work, to make meaning from the broken situations in which we find ourselves. The connection we forge with God when we follow the directions changes our perspectives. It makes us bend like the grass and not fall over like the trees when hurricane force winds overtake us.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Purple is Hard

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016 was Acts 16: 9-15. 

16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

The passage we heard from Acts this morning opens with Paul feeling called to leave Turkey where he  had been traveleing to cross the Aegean Sea to Macedonia. The few times I’ve heard sermons on this passage, they’ve focused on Paul’s response to the call. The theme of those sermons is that Paul’s obedience to God’s call should be a model for the way we live our lives. Then we sing some “Go Where I Send Thee” and some “Here I Am, Lord.” It’s a great plan for worship!
That’s not the plan I’m following this morning.  I’m not preaching that sermon because Paul is not the only person named in this passage. I want to focus on the second half of this passage; I want to focus on Lydia.
Acts doesn’t give us a lot of information about Lydia, but the details provide three personal attributes, and three things that Lydia does.
            First, Lydia is a named woman in the Bible. You might be thinking, “well, that’s obvious,” and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Most of the people we meet in the Bible are never named. They are labeled: the leper, the paralytic man, the Samaritan woman, even Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts Moses, is not named. A personal name in the Bible is a signal that this person is important, and we should pay attention. Lydia is in good company: Biblical scripture is full of powerful, named women: Esther, Ruth, Mary the sister of Martha, Miriam the sister of Moses.
            The second attribute Acts gives us is that Lydia is not Macedonian. Verse 14 tells us that Lydia is from Thyatira, which is another city in Turkey, the place where Paul had been prior to coming to Macedonia. The beginning of this passage tells us that i
n his dream, Paul was called by a man from Macedonia, but when he arrives in the city of Phllipi, there is no synagogue because there is not a minyon, the group of ten Jewish men who constitute a quorum for formal worship. So, Paul has come all this way, following a call to this city, and although “they had been there for some days,” the events that occurred on those days are completely glossed over. The first meeting about which Acts gives any details is with another foreigner, a person who is from the place where Paul had just been.
            Okay, third attribute: Lydia is a worshipper of God. Verse 14 also tells us that Lydia is a worshipper of God, and that “The Lord opened her heart to to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” So, Lydia is already a religious person who has a relationship with God. Paul is not introducing her to faith generally, he is converting her from mainstream Judaism to following the way of Jesus.
So, that was three things that Lydia is: a named woman in the Bible, a foreigner in the land, and a worshipper of God. Now, for three things she does.
            First, Lydia speaks with her own voice. There’s a popular myth that women before the modern era were powerless chattel without voices. One of the things I’ve found in my academic research about medieval and early modern literary texts is that often women’s voices are present, but not in ways that we modern readers understand as powerful. We let our ignorance of the dynamics of power in other times and places blind us. We fail to recognize the differences between our context as readers and the context of the writers. If, however, we pay close attention to the details, we can see the dynamics of power that are present in the text. The last two verses of today’s passage tell us that Lydia listened, she chose baptism, and then “she urged [Paul and his companions], saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon [them].”  She does not apologize for speaking while female. She directly and clearly issues an invitation, which Paul accepts.
            Second, Lydia leads a household. Not only is Lydia herself baptised after her conversations with Paul, her household is baptised, too. Acts doesn’t tell us how big Lydia’s household is, but in mentiontioning a household at all, this text makes us aware that Lydia does not come to support Paul alone. Acts also doesn’t say that this is Lydia’s husband’s household or Lydia’s father’s household. It is her household.
             Not only does Lydia have a household, Lydia has a business. Lydia deals in purple cloth, which is arguably the most important thing she does. Cloth production is a laborious process. Lydia’s cloth was possibly wool, maybe sometimes silk, but most likely either linen or cotton. For argument’s sake, let’s say cotton. The process of creating cotton cloth starts with growing the plants, so Lydia needed someone to be good at gardening. Cotton is usually a low-growing bush, so someone has to bend over again and again to harvest the bolls from the plant. Only the soft fluffy part is good to use, so someone has to remove the stem and the seeds, which are tiny and like to hide.
Once the cotton had been harvested, Lydia needed someone, probably many someones, actually, to spin the cotton fibers into singles. They needed a tool for that, and spindles in the Mediterrannean during the first century probably looked something like this. Once the spindle was full and no more could be wound on, the singles needed to be plied together with one or more other singles, which requires another spindle. It's a lot of work.
 Once the thread had been spun, Lydia needed someone to weave it. Looms in the ancient world commonly consisted of a large frame with two parallel rows of wooden pegs laid out on the ground. The warp threads were carefully measured and stretched from one row of pegs to the other.  The weft threads, wound on a shuttle, were passed back and forth, over and under the warp threads. Changing the sequence of overs and unders changed the pattern of the finished cloth, and the possibilities ranged from simple and relatively quick to intricate and time consuming. Did anybody else have one of those pot holder looms as a child? The plastic square with teeth around the edges, and you stretched the fabric loops from one side to the other and then used the metal hook to pull other fabric loops through? These looms were kind of like that. How long did it take you to make a potholder? Now imagine weaving enough cloth from fine thread to cover your body.
So that takes care of how Lydia got her cotton cloth. But how did she get purple? In the world of natural dyes, the easiest colors to make are browns and yellows. Lots of plants make yellow, and lots of tree barks and nuts make brown. Red comes from the roots of the madder plant, blue from woad. A true, vibrant purple is hard. Mixing madder and woad doesn't really work. Archeologists tell us that the people of the ancient Mediterranean extracted purple dye from sea snails, like the murex family (Barber 113). In her book Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber notes that “We have their shell heaps from the early second millennium on to prove it. Each little mollusk produces only a single drop of the splendid dye, so purple-dyers had to catch and slaughter hundreds [of snails] to tint a single piece of cloth” (113-4). This color was so precious that it became the royal purple that Roman emperors reserved for themselves. In the church, purple has become the liturgical color of our seasons of fast. During Lent and Advent, the textiles in the sanctuary, some pastors’ stoles, and, here at Mt. O, Pastor Kathleen’s shoes are purple. Purple time in the contemporary church associates the color with the introspection and discomfort of fasting and with the anticipation of Christmas at the end of Advent and Easter at the end of Lent.
It’s such a small phrase in the passage, “and a seller of purple cloth.” We almost read right over it, but Acts is really telling us more than we hear. I actually love the way that the King James translation renders this, calling Lydia a “seller of purple” because the cloth matters less than the color. As a dealer in purple, Lydia is a dealer in her society’s mark of prestige. She interacts with both the legion of (mostly) women textile workers who produce her purple cloth as well as the elite who consume it. Lydia is well-connected in her world, and her extension of hospitality to Paul and his companions brings them into her network. Note that the end of today’s passage doesn’t say that Paul accepted her invitation gratefully or that he was happy to have a place to lay his head. It says, that “she prevailed upon them.” The King James version is interesting here, too. It says, “she constrained us.”
Because of my own experience with textile production and my academic work on women who make their voices heard through textiles,  I am fascinated by Lydia because it is textiles that make her powerful. Her textile business produces sufficient wealth to support a household and to welcome a party of strangers into her home.
That’s not true of most textile workers in the twenty-first century. Synthetic dyes mean no color is inherently more expensive or prestigious than any other color. Mechanization of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing means that most clothes are mass produced in factories at a far faster pace than in Lydia’s day. Globalization means that these factories move around the world, chasing in search of the workers who will accept the lowest wages and the loosest regulations for personal health and safety.
Acts doesn’t tell us how Lydia treated the gardeners and the spinners and the weavers and the dyers in her production network, but it does tell us that she extended hospitality to the wanderers in her community. Even as she participated in and benefitted from the business world of her day, she opted out of participation in Roman religious rituals. Rather than worshipping with the powerful elites who purchased her cloth, she was by the river with the Jewish women, and she joined the fringe group of believers following Paul.
And I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. We have the choice to opt out.
The more that I’ve learned about textile production over the last ten years, the more carefully I’ve looked at the clothes my family wears. Where did the cloth come from? Where did the raw materials come from? What are the working conditions in the facotry where the clothes were assembled? The questions can be overwhelming, and the answers can be hard to find. These days we are purchasing fewer things and keeping them longer, we are looking for quality and durability more than trendiness or low cost. I’m still not sure we’ve changed our habits enough, though. I would like to clothe my family without exploiting my brothers and sisters in China and Bangladesh. My discomfort with the twenty-first century commercial textile production, has become my own ongoing purple time of discomfort.

Today is May Day. In many countries around the world, today is a national holiday that celebrates workers, like our labor day on the first Monday of September. I think it’s fitting that the lectionary gave us Lydia on May Day.

For more on textile production in the ancient world, see Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years.
For more on the issues related to textile production in the twenty-first century, see The Ethical Fashion Forum.