sermons, etc.

  • a sermon on grief and care

    maundy thursday

    the gospel of john 13:1-17, 31b-35

    for St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square, April 18, 2019

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    Tonight, Jesus shares a meal with his friends and washes their feet. These are some of his final acts of ministry, before he is handed over to Roman and religious authorities. After being handed over, Jesus will be executed by the state, because his way of love is too dangerous. Jesus knows this is his ‘last supper’, and that his work of healing, teaching, mending, feeding, and subverting has always led him to the Cross. He’s tried to tell the disciples this, many times, but they deny the truth of Christ’s inevitable death.

    Because while we all know death, and grief, and loss, we don’t always know what to do with those realities. How to care for each other and ourselves in the midst of them, or how to care for each other when we know grief is coming, or when grief has written itself onto our bones.

    Jesus knows the disciples aren’t prepared for his death. They aren’t ready. And that doesn’t matter. We are often caught off-guard by death, or by feelings of grief.

    There are days where it feels like I can’t fully inhale when I am struck by the fear and reality of climate loss, or police brutality, or how many people the system has deemed expendable. Even losses that I imagine I’m ready for, like the death of a loved one after a long and painful illness, catch me off-balance. We are mortal, and we know this, our cells know this, but we deny this reality, and are unprepared.

    But Jesus tries one last time to prepare the disciples, modeling that in the midst of grief, of loss, of pain, the most worthwhile thing to do is spend time with community, offering mutual and vulnerable care. That’s how Jesus spends his last night, instituting rituals of welcome, blessing, and thanksgiving.

    He washes the disciples feet. This is a shockingly intimate act, because our feet are vulnerable, and we’re often embarrassed by them. They tell us about our health, the type of job we hold, our social status. They can show poor circulation, trauma, or nerve damage. Foot wounds take longer to heal, and are at a higher risk for infection. For those without shoes, feet pick up dirt and debris and cuts. Feet are especially tender in wilderness spaces, on dirt roads, on farms.

    In Jesus’ time, footwashing was a necessary action before being welcomed at the table for a meal. It was a matter of hospitality and inclusion. Usually, this action reinforced a social hierarchy. Those who are said to be of much lower status wash the feet of those said to be more important, and only those whose feet were washed could take part in the meal.

    But Jesus had already experienced this action as one of radical love, not hierarchy. Earlier in his journey, Jesus had his feet washed by Mary with costly oil and her hair. She understood that in the face of death, sometimes the best action is one of sacred celebration and service. Jesus, by turning around and washing his disciples feet, upsets the social hierarchy. He breaks down the barriers between those who are welcomed and those who aren’t.

    Simon Peter is still surprised by Jesus. Even after witnessing the full arc of Jesus’ ministry, Simon Peter is taken aback at the thought of God’s Anointed washing his feet – shouldn’t it be the other way around? His reaction betrays the ways systems of oppression weave themselves into our bodies. They entangle themselves in us, making it harder for us to live into the abundant life of community God so desperately wants for us. Simon Peter’s reaction embodies the ways we try to put limits on God’s love, on God’s actions, and God responds simply: washing your feet is exactly the role of God’s Anointed. Live into my example.

    And then Jesus continues to share a meal with his friends. After breaking bread and blessing it, after washing feet, removing all barriers to participation, and commanding us to love, Jesus passes the cup, promising grace and forgiveness.

    I can’t imagine this meal as a somber affair. And some of that is my own bias, that even in the face of death, and grief, and loss, there has to be laughter and breath. There has to be celebration and renewal. But some is also born from reflecting on how Jesus lived. So many of the stories we remember and retell about Jesus’ life and ministry center restoration, abundance, community. Those are joyous, if hard, things. And that joy is resistance against the forces in the world designed to separate us from each other, and from God. Breaking bread, sharing the cup, these are actions of solidarity. These are acts of love so radical they threaten those in positions of power and privilege, acts of love that hand Jesus over to the Cross.

    This bread is not ours. This cup is not ours. They are God’s, given freely and joyously to us so we can be with each other in celebration and mourning. This transformation, of everyday objects into sacred ones, allows us to imagine ourselves and our lives also being transformed into the sacred. Into being blessings for each other. How we pattern our lives can either glorify God or glorify power. Jesus, again and again, calls us and the disciples to follow God. To follow love. Especially when that love is so strong that it comes with risk.

    On the night Jesus knew he was going to be handed over, he practiced hospitality and thanksgiving. He spent time with his loved ones, knowing some would disappoint and betray him. He reclined, and ate, and talked, and worried and laughed. He knew that old systems and old ways needed to be handed over and buried for new life to sprout and grow. He knew that as we don’t know how to pray, we don’t know how to grieve. We have forgotten how to be blessings, how to offer radical care and welcome.

    Every year, we remember Jesus washing the disciples feet, scandalizing Simon Peter, and commanding us to love. Every week, we remember the meal he shared. We center the physical, embodied nature of water and bread in our worship and faith practice. These simple, sacred actions are meant to be carved daily into our spirits, replacing and renewing those parts tangled with oppression and harm. Because as often as we embody Christ’s love, we betray it. Jesus tasks us to care for each other, in our sorrows and our celebrations. Jesus loves by tenderly washing and feeding us, nourishing our whole, embodied, spiritual beings, and by commanding us to do the same.

    Tonight, Jesus institutes rituals of welcome, blessing, and thanksgiving. They allow us to imagine a different possibility for the future, where our everyday, domestic care for each other is how we live into the work of Christ. Where death and grief are known to us, are coming, but are not the end.

    But no spoilers. Tonight, we break bread and care for each other, with Christ.







  • a sermon on wilderness and honest spaces

    lent 1

    the gospel of luke 4:1-13

    for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, March 11, 2019

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    This sermon was originally preached at St. Paul’s House, a Lutheran Life community on March 10, 2019, and was adapted for the LSTC community.

    Yesterday was the first Sunday in Lent, a season in our Church year that is specifically focused on renewing our relationship with God. On re-centering ourselves and our lives in the overflowing love and mercy of God. We are given this time as a gift, and as a reminder.

    Because we are surrounded by forces that draw our attention away from God. Forces that encourage us to seek power and prestige. That privilege self-reliance over reliance on God and community. That set up systems of wealth and resource hoarding. That alienate us from each other in our shared belovedness, perpetuating abuse. We are made to feel like failures when we aren’t busy, and we are overwhelmed with images and noise and distractions.

    This isn’t an exhaustive list – we all have stories about times we couldn’t rest in the presence of God. When we were distracted, or intentionally moved away from God, because the abundant love of God was too much, too vulnerable. The devil’s temptations are easy.

    It’s all too easy to say yes when our fears and our social structures reinforce these distractions. Power, wealth, independence – we are taught to covet these things. They are heralded as the point of our finite lives. And they are things that can drive a wedge between us and God, as they are intended to.

    But God wants so fervently to be with us that God sends their Holy Child, incarnate in human flesh, to live among us.

    And in the flesh, Jesus encounters these same distractions from the devil – temptations to move away from God. Jesus is in an extremely tender position by the time we enter the story. It is forty days into his testing and fasting. And now, after being led by the Holy Spirit to this wilderness place, Jesus is faced with three final tests. These are temptations that challenge Jesus’ sense of self, his relationship to power, and challenge him to claim the way he will live out his baptismal vocation as the Holy Child of God.

    The wilderness is an honest space. When I think about wilderness I think about the desert, harsh and unforgiving, yet beautiful and mystical. I think about the depths of the ocean, with sea creatures we have yet to know or name, entire ecosystems that exist with the barest hint of sunshine. I think about Survivor, the reality TV show (that’s still going strong!). Players come in with ideas about how they’ll play the game, but after day 5 of limited food and wilderness conditions, that all falls away.

    Wilderness spaces aren’t pretending to be anything they’re not, and require the same of humans who venture into them. Any illusions of power or control are erased in the wilderness. Any illusions of greatness are washed away in the wilderness. Pretense is gone, replaced with our honest selves, and the presence of the Divine.

    Jesus responds to the temptations in the wilderness, these tests, by rooting himself firmly in the grace and the Word of God. His responses are from Deuteronomy, and his experience in the wilderness mirrors the ancient stories of Moses and the Israelites, wandering and discerning in the desert after being led to liberation through God. Jesus is not experiencing these tests in a vacuum, and, similar to the coming-of-age-rites in some American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes, this time physically apart from community is meant to prepare Jesus to return to community as his full self.

    At the end of his forty-day journey, Jesus declares the kind of Holy Child of God he will be. Rejecting worldly power, rejecting splendor, rejecting the easy (and socially acceptable) temptations from the devil. After forty days of fasting and tests, Jesus is resting in God’s promise, with the Holy Spirit. He claims his identity as the Holy Child of God, a God who is loving and expansive and asks us to exist in wilderness spaces, being no one but who we are.

    This rooted-ness in God is what we are being called to in the season of Lent, and throughout our lives. Historically, the practices of this season are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, practices to re-center ourselves in God. Many people give up harmful vices during Lent, rejecting distractions and temptations. Others add in spiritual practices and recommit to actions of justice and love. Any impulse to compare ourselves to each other is another test from the devil. Personally, I am spending more time on creative projects, and memorizing Psalm 148. That’s all, and that’s enough. Lenten practices should be healthy and faithful for you. This time is a gift, to draw nearer to God, as God draws nearer to us.

    The Lenten wilderness is an honest space. It isn’t inherently positive, or negative, but truthful. The devil shows up, but God does too. There is gratitude in wilderness, expansive beauty, suffering, connection, fear. In the desert, after forty days, Jesus is left with nothing but the grace of God, and he holds fast to that promise. He rejects the devil’s temptations, remembering again and again the presence of God. He does this when he is in a tender space – assured of his baptismal vocation as the Holy Child of God, assured that he is starving, and tired, and tested to his limits, and assured that God and the Holy Spirit are with him.

    We were reminded on Ash Wednesday that we were formed from dust and will return to dust, always surrounded with God’s love. Like this wilderness, this isn’t a space to fear, although fear can be an instinctual reaction. Like the wilderness, the reality of our mortality is honest. These past few months have been a time of loss for our community. I would invite us to continue to honor that – mourning and grief are holy spaces.

    Times of trial and temptation will happen. Even Jesus isn’t exempt from them. There are forces that alienate us from God moving in this world. And God is simply asking us to be no one but who we are, in all the messiness and sacredness that holds. As Jesus was tested and rejected the devil in the wilderness, rooted in God, so too can we reject the forces that divide us from God, trusting the ways that God draws nearer to us – in our hearts, in our prayers, and in each other.


  • a sermon on transformative shame

    epiphany 7

    the gospel of luke 6:27-38
    psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 

    for St. Paul's House, a Lutheran Life Community, February 24, 2019

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    Beloveds, grace and compassion to you from God our Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    Today’s Gospel text is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon on the plain. Last week, we heard blessings for the marginalized and woes for the privileged. Jesus has been setting up a series of reversals - upheaving the social order of the day in favor of God’s compassion. Leveling the playing field by raising up those dismissed by society – people who are poor, who are weeping, who are hungry. The good news Jesus is bringing, news of God’s expansive and radical love, applies not only to the rich, to those society has blessed, but to all, and especially to those society has not blessed.

    Jesus continues calling for reversals in today’s text. He tells the crowd, the disciples, and by extension, us, to react to violence with non-violence, to give generously without expectation, and to pray for our enemies instead of to curse them. These are unexpected reactions.

    Jesus is asking a lot of us here. He is asking us to act in ways that center God’s compassion working through us. Jesus is calling us to act in God’s image, to go beyond the good things that ‘even sinners’ do. Jesus is teaching us to do the hard thing, to not only reciprocate good with good, but to reciprocate bad with good.

    I wrestle with this teaching.

    Unlike the blessings and woes of the Beatitudes, this section of Jesus’ sermon on the plain hasn’t help up as well historically. This passage has been used to justify abuse, to encourage people to passively accept violence, to love those who have no respect for their full humanity, loving those who are actively perpetuating harm and who aren’t willing to be accountable or work towards transformation.

    I don’t believe that those misuses are the core of what Jesus is teaching here, though. This is an extension of the blessings and woes. God wants us to live into the full glory of God’s Kingdom, to be in community, and to be in relationship. God is not teaching us to passively accept abuse or marginalization. We can love people in ways that ask them to do better, and can love people in ways that respect our own boundaries and safety.

    And text can also be read as a text of resistance. Broderick Greer, a contemporary queer, Black, Episcopal priest writes: “”turning the other cheek” is going to whatever length possible to force your oppressor to look you in the eye and acknowledge your humanity”. In Christ’s time, ‘turning the other cheek’ would force the person to strike for the second time with either a closed fist, which is the mark of fighting an equal, or with the left hand, which would be culturally inappropriate. And if you give your shirt after your coat, the person taking from you would witness you naked, which was a shameful act for the viewer.

    Jesus is calling us to responses that assert our full humanity in the face of oppression. Those on the margins might be considered less-than-human by those society has blessed, but Jesus knows and teaches that in God’s good creation, we are all beloved children of God.

    Here, the reversal is that the shame is transferred from the marginalized who are experiencing harm to the privileged who are enacting it. Contested identities, poverty, mourning, hunger – those things are not shameful for those who are experiencing it. Those who perpetuate the violence and dehumanization, and who allow it to happen, carry the shame.

    But in order for nonviolent and creative responses to violence to be transformative and an act of resistance, not just for those who are claiming full humanity, but for wider society – those with power and privilege need to be able to experience shame, and to let that shame change them. Sometimes, when I experience shame, my first reaction is to keep it to myself, to avoid engaging with the hard work of transformation, instead of letting shame be a pivot point to acting in line with God’s compassion. Unlearning systems of power is hard, and the feeling of shame can be a driving force, if we let it, to learn and internalize that those we might consider on the margins are just as human, just as complex, just as blessed, as those with some security and power.

    For people who have been marginalized, it is an act of faith to trust that our nonviolent responses can provoke change, when it seems like the weight of history is against that belief. Putting good into the world with the assurance good will come through God is an act of faith. Giving freely with the assurance that abundance will come through God is an act of faith. Believing that people’s preconceived notions and prejudices can be transformed through God is an act of faith. One way of embodying our faith is acting with compassion for others, even those who harm us, as God is compassionate. This compassion can heal us.

    Encountering this text, I find that Jesus is asking us to respond with transformative nonviolence, to bring forward the sins of the oppressor, and that he’s also encouraging us to ‘pay them no mind’, a quote from Marsha P. Johnson, one of the transgender women of color who sparked the gay rights movement at Stonewall. Jesus wants us to spend our energy on community, to forgive, to act non-judgmentally, to give abundantly to bring about the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t want us to get all tied up in the violence of oppression, or to respond in-kind instead of responding in faith. This is reflected in our Psalm as well: “Do not fret because of the wicked…for they will soon fade like the grass. Trust in the Lord and do good.”

    This Gospel of ours, the story of a God who became fully human, a God who moves in breath and flesh, can be messy. This is one of the messy passages. It can be a text of resistance and compassion, and it has also been sorely misused. It is a continuation of Jesus’ teachings on blessings and woes, at the core raising up the oppressed and bringing down those who abuse their power.

    Turn the other cheek, love abundantly, so that the person harming you is made to consider you a full person, to consider their own actions against a fellow child of God, transforming, and spend your energy on your community of care.

    I am grateful to be here in community with you all as we practice Godly compassion, allowing ourselves to be changed through God’s love, transformed so that we can meet each other’s full, complex, beautiful humanity.

















  • transphobia is a sin

    transphobia is a sin

    As a non-binary seminarian in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), I know that #transpeoplearedivine and #transphobiaisasin.

    support the #blacktransprayerbook!

  • a sermon on god's hospitality

    epiphany 2.

    the gospel of john 2:1-11.

    for St. Paul's House, a Lutheran Life Community, January 20, 2019.

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    Grace and peace to you through God who is Creator, Christ who is Resurrected, and the Holy Spirit who is still and always moving in our world.

    As many of you know, I am interning here as part of my Clinical Pastoral Education unit – a requirement for many denominations in their ordination process. Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE for short, is a process-based program where the focus is on presence, active listening, and developing your pastoral identity. As part of the unit, which includes both our field placements, like St. Paul’s House, and an educational cohort, everyone discerns a spiritual theme – a guiding story, image, or concept that helps focus our time.

    Initially I settled on a theme thinking about productivity, pushing against the notion that every interaction needs a goal, dreaming towards a space where genuine time spent reflects how God asks us to care for each other. I was considering this through the lens of the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus, which asks us to sit and share time in addition to being productive. This theme was working for me, but it felt incomplete. Recently, I shifted themes towards hospitality. It felt both more specific and broader than my original intention, and includes considerations of productivity, cultural teachings, and abundance.

    Today’s Gospel narrative, the wedding in Cana, is one of the best-known miracle stories of Jesus’ ministry, and is directly tied to God’s hospitality. Weddings, in the Biblical world, are multi-day affairs, with abundant food, drink, entertainment, and company. Being able to provide these things in abundance was a mark of honor for the wedded couple, their family, as well as their guests, who brought gifts of food and drink. Running out of wine on the third day of the wedding celebration implies that the family and friends of the wedded couple are not necessarily well off. This is not a wedding of princes, or religious authorities, or the wealthy. Galilee was known as a city of rebels, thieves, and Gentiles – this is a wedding of two everyday people, who would be hard-stretched to sustain a 5-7 day wedding feast, as was custom.

    Jesus’ mother, Mary (though she is unnamed in the Gospel of John), notices that the wine ran out, which would lead to shame and alienation for the family, according to custom, and goes to her son. At this point in the narrative, Jesus has not revealed himself to be the Messiah. As far as we know, he has done no miracles, yet his mother has unconditional trust in him – she is the first disciple. And as an aside, in the Gospel of John, the only two times we see Mary are here, at the wedding in Cana, and again at the foot of the cross – bookending Jesus’ earthly ministry before his Resurrection and Ascension.

    But Jesus is not at this wedding to perform miracles. He is there to be in community, to celebrate alongside his friends – not to start his journey towards the cross. And yet, there is a need. Borders need to be broken down, between shame and honor, between scarcity and abundance, between our logic and God’s logic – and that border-breaking hospitality defines Christ’s ministry.

    God responds to this need in Christ. Jesus calls for the purification vessels to be filled with water, 120 to 180 gallons of water, and transforms this abundant amount of water to an abundant amount of good wine, enough for the remainder of the celebration and then some, and then some more. It is an abundance beyond what we can imagine, and it is a transformation that defies our human logic and reason – a miracle story.

    I want to state very clearly here that the wine is a metaphor. Our relationships with alcohol can be complicated, and this passage does not say that this is the only miracle to experience God’s abundance through, nor does it exclude the possibility for alternate transformations – the message of Christ is the same when water is turned into wine, or when five barley loaves and two fish are transformed and can feed 5,000 people, and then some.

    Jesus performs this miracle of God’s abundance quietly. He does not announce himself as the Messiah, doesn’t make a big deal of transforming water into wine, he is simply is alerted to a need of the community by his mother, and fills that need. The characters we would expect to be central in a wedding story, the newlywed couple, don’t know where the wine comes from. The headwaiter, who holds a position of relative authority, doesn’t know where the wine comes from, and is astonished by what he sees as the hospitality of the hosts – saving the good wine, serving it even when people are already a little tipsy, when they might not notice the difference.

    Instead, it is the hospitality of God who gifts us with good things in abundance when we least expect it. The witnesses of this grace in this story are the lower-class servants, and Jesus’ mother Mary, and the disciples. The disciples are convicted by this miracle, believing through it that Christ is the Messiah even as Jesus points towards the cross. This transformation of water into wine, a miracle of scarcity to abundance, shame to honor, our logic to God’s logic, sets up Christ’s ministry in the world as one of surprise, and border breaking, and quiet hospitality.

    I encounter this passage as a beautiful invitation to notice where God is showing up abundantly in our lives, even when we least expect it. Where is God working subtle but powerful transformations? Where is God filling the needs of our community in unexpected ways? Where is God making Godself known to you and your beloveds?

    May we lean into the knowing of God’s abundant hospitality in times of pain and uncertainty, knowing that as God meets our needs in celebration, as at the wedding in Cana, God is with us and meets our needs in lament, as at the cross.










  • five transformative books i read in 2018 (in the order i read them):

    Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Kelly Douglas Brown)

    Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Adrienne Maree Brown)

    Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (Eli Clare)

    Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha)

    What About the Rest of Your Life (Sung Yim)

    Honorable mention from 2017: Queer Virtue (Elizabeth Edman)

    First on the list for 2019: Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year (Linda LeGarde Grover)

  • a sermon on challenge and joy

    advent 3.

    the gospel of luke 3:7-18.

    for St. Paul's House, a Lutheran Life Community, December 16, 2018.

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    Grace and peace to you, beloveds, from God who is justice, Jesus Christ who is redeemer, and the Holy Spirit who is with us all. Amen.

    John the Baptist is a prophet living in imperial Rome, under the reign of King Herod. John lives in the wilderness, on the fringes of society, outside of Temple walls. In this passage from Luke, he is probably in his late twenties, but no more than thirty. John’s mother, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin, and so I imagine that John and Jesus grew up together, the son of a priest and the son of a carpenter. Right after this passage, John baptizes Jesus. At some point, John left home to be a prophetic witness of God, drawing crowds in anticipation and longing for the coming of the Messiah.

    John baptizes with water, and calls for the crowd to “produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives”. The ritual action of baptism, in John’s witness, isn’t enough on its own to bring God’s Kin-dom into being. It is an action, a sign, which marks out an active promise.

    For John, what actions demonstrate that we have changed our hearts and lives, committing ourselves to God? He answers this question for the crowd three times.

    The first answer is for anyone with abundance of food, or clothing, that they share freely with those in need.

    The second answer is for government agents, that they shouldn’t abuse by exhortation and over-taxation.

    The third answer is for law enforcement, that they shouldn’t harass or harm anyone.

    Those responses feel pretty relevant for our current imperial power structure.

    Wealth is hoarded by a few, and individual tax returns are withheld, because if they were released, the vast gulf in wealth between the few and the many would be brutally apparent. Clothing companies destroy their surplus goods, instead of sharing with those who can’t afford to buy them, so that they don’t ‘tarnish’ their brand.

    Corporations that are making billions while their employees are on food stamps to survive, are not being taxed equitably, or sometimes at all. Collections agencies and ticketing systems target those already in the margins, who are usually unable to pay.

    Police brutality and violence are real threats to disabled bodies, to Black and brown bodies, to trans and queer bodies. Just this week, a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin died while she was in custody of the US border patrol.

    Our world today cries out in longing for us to embody the answers John the Baptist is giving to the crowd. In what ways can we nurture and grow the fruits of the Spirit of abundance? And if we committed ourselves to those fruits, what would happen? All would be fed, all would be clothed, government agencies would support the needs of the people, and we wouldn’t need to fear the people charged to protect us.

    That imagining of the world-as-it-could be is so filled with tender joy. And the steps to get there are a harsh cry and challenge for change. John isn’t telling the crowd to think about repenting, or repenting in word but not in deed, he is telling the crowd “these are the things you must do to follow God’s will in the world”. These are the actions that will affirm your baptism.

    John names structural sins and oppressions that are hurting people. He lays out a new type of social order, laying the path for Jesus’ future work. He gives concrete and challenging answers of ways to embody God’s Kin-dom.

    And the crowd responds with expectation and delight. Even though John is asking them, and us, to do a hard thing – to change our relationships to power and each other, to give freely, reduce harm, increase equity and real, sustainable safety.

    These changes ask that we act even after the holiday season of generosity is over. They might make us uncomfortable, because power and privilege thrive in superficial comfort. But they will bring us closer to our neighbors, and to God, in a deep, authentic, way.

    The final step in this sequence is for us, the crowd, to go and live out these actions of justice, now and always anticipating the coming of Christ.

  • a sermon on david's dance

    2 samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

    for "preaching the plenary" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, December 2018.

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    The carnival, a festival of reversals, where the oppressed celebrate as kings, has unclear but ancient origins. It is connected to early ritual gatherings marking the rebirth of the world in winter, to Roman Saturnalia celebrations, to medieval Catholic pre-Lenten festivals. In the modern era, indigenous and enslaved communities primarily celebrated carnival, and we perhaps know it most intimately in the United States with Marti Gras in New Orleans. In carnival, there is dancing, and deep erotic energy, and abundant food, and music that reverberates through bodies and streets. Carnival is a pressure-release valve, a day of uninhibited freedom to embody class and social roles usually off-limits, with the following days returning to entrenched power structures. By allowing carnival, powerful elites reinforce their domination by permitting a day of subversion, knowing that carnival ends.

    But what if it didn’t?

    The return of the ark of God marks a festival of carnival, enacted by King David. He returns, not with a warrior’s victory march, not with a kingly procession, but with a mighty dance. King David is returning the ark of God, which we encountered earlier when Samuel received his call, and which was then stolen by the Philistines, to a place of glory. The ark as an object has incredible energy – it is not a neutral object. There are blessings and joy pouring forth, but also death. The gap in the pericope of this text includes Uzzah simply steading the ark on the cart and dying from the contact. Earlier in the narrative 70 people died upon contact. The ark is a contradiction, unable to be fully understood, an object of God on earth.

    There is so much power in the ark, and in it’s return, sanctifying King David’s reign. And he dances in response, turning his back on Saul’s model of dominion, joining with his community in the dance. There is an element of queerness in this dance. The rejection of Saul’s dominion is a rejection of the systems of oppression, and God is with David in celebration. David and the crowd are still dancing for God, even after Uzzah’s death, and the death of the seventy, even in the midst of harmful structures. It reminds me of gay club culture. Spaces to be joyful, to dance, to sweat, to mourn, are an act of resistance when we are surrounded by death. In the United States, clubs were the origin of the LGBTQ rights movement – they were some of the only spaces we could exist in the fullness of our complicated joy, and were regularly raided by the police because the oppressive structures couldn’t hold our dancing. Those raids led to resistance, and a new way of being in society, sparked by trans women of color who said ‘enough’, and turned their backs in dance and riot against the systems-as-is.

    Michal recognizes the subversive nature of David’s dance. She is Saul’s daughter, from a vastly different class background than David. His dancing opposes her views of what power and masculinity are. We don’t get their full exchange here, only that she saw him dancing and despised him. But going further in the text, we learn that she despises him for lowering himself in front of God, for not behaving as a king ‘should’. She reprimands him, and David responds that he has been chosen by God, and was dancing for God. This is not the last time he will debase himself in the eyes of those around him, and this time, it is a subversion of power and for the glory of God, not for human sin.

    David is playing with traditions of masculinity in his dance. Here he is a priest, and a king, but he has rejected the flaunting of power and strength that can come with those roles. He “dances with all his might”, which has an erotic connotation, and in dancing he has more in common with lower class sex workers than with King Saul. He is secure enough in his role and masculinity that he doesn’t need to posture, but instead can dance, and play, and be joyful. In this fleeting moment, in his sweat and breath, David is in full communion with God and his community.

    A heartbeat of this passage is celebration, a celebration filled with joy in the return of a stolen sacred object, filled with dancing for the glory of God. A detail I love in this story is when David distributes food to everyone in the crowd. This food didn’t need to be earned, or bought, but was freely given, in the same way God provided manna in the wilderness, in the same way Nehemiah’s people freely shared food in celebration, in the same way Joseph opened the storehouses to sustain his people. King David first sacrifices to God, giving firstfruits of a fatted calf after only six steps in the journey, dancing in his priestly clothing. He gives burnt offerings and fellowship offerings at the end of the journey, still dancing, and then gives to his community. He gives abundantly, so that there are no barriers to participation in this joyous day.

    David is a carnival king, who rejects the dominion of scarcity, and embraces the dancing kingdom of God. As he upends the propriety of a traditional king, he also upends modern and historic class divides, centering generosity and joy. He doesn’t act out of fear, but delight. In this passage, David lets go of historic fears – he returns the ark without holding onto the fear of more death. He dances for God without fear of what he looks like, and without fear that it will reduce his masculinity, or his anointing. By dancing, David is sharing intimacy with God, and God delights in this dance.

    He dances in mourning, in celebration, in anticipation. His dance is resistance, a prayer for the world to come. The percussion beat, loaves of bread, linen garments are blessings. I can imagine David in this moment, coated with sweat and dust from the journey, heart pounding in celebration and hope, muscles sore, leaving everything on the table for God, eyes slightly unfocused in wonder and worship, knowing that he danced but forgetting the details because he was so caught up in the moment, in full communion with God and his community, blood pounding with blessing. And that feels so holy, and so subversive, and so tender.


  • a sermon on the spirit and recovery

    romans 8:5-8

    for "pastoral care and mental illness" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, November 2018.

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    Grace and peace to you, beloveds of God.

    This excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans sets up a duality of flesh and spirit. Flesh is meant as aspects of the body; short-term gratification; an inward focus. Spirit is meant as of God; an outward, spiritual focus; balance. Paul is not using these terms as a Greek mind-body separation, as two distinct parts of one person, but instead as two types of people. We all have flesh and we all have spirit, intertwined, and what defines us, in the words of the letter, is which aspect we set our minds to. Leaning into the flesh puts the Spirit to death, while leaning into the Spirit brings abundant life.

    Paul’s epistles serve as instructions – best practices for specific, dispersed, Christian communities to live as Christ did. In his letter to the Romans, he is writing to a church that is a mix of Jewish and Gentile members, and historians suggest that there were multiple churches in Rome at the time, so this letter was written across congregational differences. I want to reiterate that Paul is writing about where we put our energy. It is impossible to separate flesh from spirit, and God coming to us in a body, in Christ, points to a centrality of the flesh, in a physical sense. The same word has been used in the Eucharistic language of The Gospel of John – this is my flesh, given for you.

    Flesh has also been translated as ‘selfishness’ in the Common English Bible. Referring to humankind, fleshy-ness is a risk of self-involvement at the expense of the Kin-dom of God. It is allowing worldly structures and systems of alienation to control our lives. The solution to these death-dealing forces, according to Paul, is to instead, “set the mind on the Spirit.”

    And that is true. Leaning into the Spirit, the abundance given by the grace of God, witnessed through relationship, growth, moments of tenderness, can counteract the forces of flesh that are rampant in our world today. I would much rather put my energy into the Spirit, and the promises of the Kin-dom of God. Promises that everyone will be fed, everyone will be cared for, and everyone will know that they are made in the image of God, and made good.

    Those promises are life-giving, in contrast to the scarcity mentality we are surrounded by – that we aren’t enough, that we need to do more, make more, be more. Messages of scarcity are embedded into every aspect of our day-to-day life, and it can be hard to push them aside for the promises of the Kin-dom, when those promises don’t always answer our immediate survival needs.

    That’s why Paul’s statement, that we have agency in setting our minds on either flesh or spirit, that we choose either an attitude that is hostile to God or an attitude that is welcoming to God, feels simplistic. If it were simply a matter of individual choice, and that individual choice is literally a matter of life or death, why are the forces of flesh and death so strong?

    Paul recognizes this tension earlier in his letter to the Romans. In verse 7, he writes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” This points to a more complicated theory than individual choice in the matter of flesh and spirit. There are external factors that impact how we make choices, and how effective those choices are in taking root in our bodies – how many of us have tried to change a habit that was less-than-life-giving, only to fall back into our unhealthy patterns less than two weeks later? Despite wanting so deeply to change, to move closer to God?

    The tension between wanting to move closer to God in our lives, and the factors that prevent us from making that move away from flesh, is similar to the relationship between mental illness and recovery.

    It’s estimated that one in five people either currently have, or will have, a mental illness diagnosis in their lifetime. With the increasing rate of climate change and degradation, those numbers are only set to get higher. Our brains and spirits are impacted by the world we live in, and it often feels like we are tied to the flesh, despite yearning for the spirit.

    I have a clinical depression diagnosis, and the symptoms that come with a depressive episode are very much in the flesh. It is nearly impossible to center God’s goodness in creation when getting out of bed and leaving the house takes up half of your energy for the day. When every news report about a new cruelty, a new repeal of basic human rights, a new decline hits you in the chest. For me, panic often accompanies my depression, and I feel deeply Paul’s frustration at doing what you hate instead of what you want to be doing. I am acutely aware of how the lens and impact of mental illness can alienate me from God, because it is sometimes hard to feel God’s presence when the world of the flesh is so strong, even as I deeply believe God is present.

    It’s impossible for an individual to choose turn away from the flesh to the spirit alone. To recover. If it was up to me, I would choose to never have another depressive episode or another panic attack, but that’s not how it works. And I have a relatively privileged relationship to my mental illness. I grew up in a cultural context that didn’t stigmatize therapy, with a mom who is a mental and behavioral health professional, and have had reasonable access to sliding-scale and insurance-based healthcare.

    Yet I still feel the pressure to choose to be well. To choose the spirit. Fully knowing that there are environmental, biological, and social factors that inhibit that choice. Sam Dylan Finch, a transgender, mentally ill writer, often reflects on the pressure to be a ‘good’ mentally ill person. One who presents as ‘high-functioning’, as ‘well’, as ‘in control’ of their mental health. Adapted to our text today, it’s the pressure to recover, and to be of the spirit. Oftentimes, if friends or the medical system thinks you aren’t doing ‘enough’ for your recovery, you are written off as non-compliant. As ‘choosing’ the flesh. This binds us into oppression, treating those who aren’t ‘model minorities’, who aren’t making the choices we think we would be able to make, as lesser. When in reality, in the middle of a rough patch, when symptoms are so severe that it impacts the day-to-day, there is nothing that you want more than to feel God’s healing presence in community, instead of present suffering and judgment.

    Recovery is not easy. It takes real work, and systemic change, beyond a simple choice to ‘be well’. The work of the spirit is not easy. It also takes real work, and systemic change, beyond a simple choice to ‘set [your] mind…on the Spirit.’ And yet that’s often how we respond to illness and flesh, by offering surface advice, by asking people to jump through the hoops we think they need for wellness, to pressure people to ‘just choose to be happy’. Full-well knowing that individual choice only takes us so far – again, I think of New Years Resolutions and how many of those fail.

    We can learn from mental health recovery in our reach towards the Spirit. God is with us, even in flesh. God loves us so deeply, and wants us to live abundantly, and so asks hard things of us for the sake of transformation. Encourages us to be accountable to our communities, ourselves, and Godself. Knowing that we cannot simply choose to break out of toxic systems, but also knowing that we do have agency in our lives. It isn’t all personal choice or all external, it’s both. In my experience of depression, it doesn’t help when I try to wish myself out of it, but it also doesn’t help when I sink into thinking I have no control.

    Because it takes community, and mutual accountability, and supportive systems to lean into the Spirit. In a way, Paul is laying out a framework where we all need to practice recovery tactics from the sinful, fleshy structures of the world. Just as we cannot dismiss those whose embodiment and experience of mental illness doesn’t match what we consider a ‘good’ mentally ill person to be, we cannot dismiss those deeply engrained in the flesh. For some, yes, they are willfully choosing the flesh, and that requires a more challenging response. But for many, being stuck in the flesh is accompanied by reaching towards the Spirit, trying but never making contact. In a depressive cycle, reaching towards recovery, always falling short.

    God is found in relationships. Relationships that are based on the Spirit, that enable us to collectively move away from the flesh, while honoring our bodies as holy. Relationships that encourage us to affirm each other’s healing and liberation. God has made us in their own image, to work towards the Kin-dom. The personal and structural are entangled, and God calls us to push both towards the Spirit.

    And if you are just beginning or not yet ready to move towards recovery? If the real-life survival implications of the flesh-systems have what feels like an impossible hold on your choices and agency? God is with you and calls you beloved. Stay tender, stay accountable, and stay reaching for the Spirit.