God Goes on Dreaming (Sermon)

My Old Testament professor at seminary said not to shy away from the difficult texts, the passages in scripture that you’d rather not deal with, the words that perhaps are easier to abandon than others. And this is one of those Sundays where it’s easier for the preacher to talk about the psalm or the epistle, but if I did that, we’d all be left wondering what is going on in the gospel.

Today’s lectionary manages to pair two texts that have been used for centuries as moral codes, as justifications for laws that undermine the worth and dignity of some people, especially women. This passage in Genesis has been used to say that because Eve was made from the rib of Adam as his companion that women are subordinate to men—that man was made first because he is the greater one. And Mark’s text has been used to say that divorce is impermissible under any circumstance, even in the case of abuse and dysfunction.

And this context is what makes me ask where the gospel is in this text. How can we talk about this as the good news when it really doesn’t feel like good news?

To answer this question, I think we need to go back to the beginning, “when God began to create the heavens and the earth”. To answer this question, you need to remember that Genesis is not a monolithic account of creation. Scholars have identified Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as being written by two different people with two very different perspectives. In Genesis 1, we find the repetition that God saw that it was good. In Genesis 1 we have the creation of humanity “in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them”. This writer sees God as all-powerful, able to speak life into being, to make order out of chaos. Meanwhile, in Genesis 2 we have God creating Adam out of the dust of the earth, and today’s lectionary reading where Eve is created out of Adam’s rib. The writer of Genesis 2 is the writer who brings us the image of God walking in the garden, a God who has human characteristics, and is in relationship with humanity.

Knowing this about the Genesis narratives is important, because in today’s gospel, Jesus quotes both accounts instead of just one, rewriting the narrative a little bit more. The Pharisees ask him about divorce, and instead of answering immediately, Jesus says, well, what do the laws of Moses say? They answer correctly—a man can dismiss his wife with little more than a certificate. What they don’t say, but what is implied is that the man, as the property owner would likely dismiss her with nothing more than the clothes on her back, leaving her to beg on the streets or become a prostitute. There were very few options for women not under the protection of a man for much of the world’s history.

I picture Jesus getting frustrated with this idea, with this answer—it’s not quite enough. Yes, Moses allowed you to do this because of your hard, unloving hearts that see a woman as nothing more than an object. But that, Jesus says, is not the dream of God. This is not the whole picture. The dream of God is that God created us male and female, in the divine image. Jesus quotes Genesis 1 here—he doesn’t say that “eve was made from adam’s rib, sooooo maybe you should be a bit kinder to her…” NO Jesus reinterprets the creation account in this moment and says that we’re not talking about hierarchy or who is first in the kingdom. We are talking about the fact that women and men are created by God in God’s divine image. And the dream of God is that we will not be separated by our inability to value the image of God in other people.

The dream of God is that we would see other people as God sees us—not with labels or other markers of identity floating above our heads like we’re in some video game where points are counted. Jesus takes Genesis chapter two and turns it around and says that it’s not really about the rib or the dust or the naming but it is about two people, created in the image of God to be in community, in relationship with one another. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What does this mean? What does this mean for us in a world where even the very dream of God for us be united in relationship with one another feels broken? Most of us have had to deal with the heartbreak and exhaustion of divorce, directly, or even indirectly. It is unavoidable—sometimes things just don’t work out, sometimes two people cannot be in relationship with one another, sometimes we harm each other—this is a part of the human condition.

Where is the hope? Where is God’s dream in this?

I think it’s that we tend to read this passage as law, as a text that has to be followed to the letter. And yes, we can read it that way, but what if this moment is about Jesus simply raising our standards? I think Jesus recognizes that we cannot follow this law to the letter, but what if Jesus asks about Moses’ law not to affirm it but to remind us that this was not the original plan? That brokenness and pain was not God’s dream, and if the Pharisees thought they were being clever by saying that a cruel, inhumane divorce that left one person destitute was God’s dream, then they were wrong.

The dream of God is that we are in a community no one can tear apart. The dream of God reminds us that sometimes our legalistic standards are too low, that there can be more. Jesus says let the little children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. When we are children, we dream and hope in a way unfettered by the laws of the land or even of gravity. When we are children, our community is bigger, our relationships less fettered by labels and hierarchy. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs, to those who can dream of a more perfect, hopeful future—together.

We live in a world where the dream of God is not fully realized. We still cannot see the image of God in every person, whether they’re at our borders, or at our door, or testifying to our lawmakers. We cannot quite dream the dream of God all the time, or most of the time, because we’re quick to judge one another, we’re quick to fall into the brokenness and divisiveness of our world.

But, Br. James Koester, a friend and mentor of mine writes that “in spite of everything, God goes on dreaming. And we come here, [to church, to this community] to remind ourselves that God’s dream is real.” (source)

In spite of all of this, in spite of all of us. Because of all of us, created in the image of God, God goes on dreaming. And so should we—at church, in our work, in our homes—we should dream the dream of God, the dream of community—for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018, or may be found below.)

narratives and self

What are the narratives we choose to tell about ourselves? To whom do we tell them? I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I ran into a professor in the mail room on campus, who asked how I was. I’d just come from Eucharist, where I told my friends I was “good”. To this professor, my intonation of “good” was not particularly compelling (“that was a very American answer”), and I admitted for the first time that morning that I was fighting the beginnings of a cold and wasn’t feeling my absolute best.

This is a trivial, somewhat inconsequential moment, but it’s made me wonder about how we talk about ourselves. There is the level of self-revealing that occurs when people ask how we are–do we answer with a socially acceptable response? Or do we probe a bit deeper into how we are, and perhaps why we are that way in that particular moment?

My example is very much focused on the politics of greetings and the cultural intention of asking “how are you”, which could get into a discussion of cultural norms and politeness vs. oversharing. But I’m more interested at the moment in the ways that we represent ourselves to others more broadly. What is the story we tell others when meeting someone for the first time? What are the things that we want others to walk away from our meeting(s) knowing? Is this desire intentional or unintentional?

I find for myself that this year’s conversations are very different from last year’s. Last year, I spent a lot of time at seminary talking about age in an attempt to convince myself (unconsciously) and others (consciously) that I was supposed to be here. This year, my conversations have shifted to discussing vocation and call. The narrative I wanted last year was that I was young but I still had valuable things to contribute. The narrative I find myself talking about this year is that I’m in discernment, I’m not sure about whether I’m called to parish priesthood, and I’m really okay with that.

I suppose, in many ways, thinking of self-narratives makes me wonder to what extent we allow those narratives to change when they need to. If speaking something to another person has the power to cement something inside of ourselves (which I believe is true), then how can we shift these stories? How do we live into an evolving self-narrative (discernment) in a world that demands static narratives and fixed, certain identities?

And with that–happy Wednesday!

a season for everything

Happy Friday, friends. It is a beautiful fall morning, and I’m sitting in the basement of the library watching a breeze rustle the not-yet-changed leaves outside.

I’m also thinking (shocking!) about the ways that we talk about time. I recognize in myself a deep desire to be able to say that yes, in this time, I want this particular, specific thing. For instance, I want to be able to say what my vocation may call me to in the future, I want to identify this in order to take steps to make that thing happen.

This is the pressure, I think, that our culture puts on us, and for many of us, we respond by internalizing that pressure and placing it on ourselves. If you can identify with this, then you know that it is exhausting to have both inside and outside forces demanding specificity, productivity, and any other number of -ivities that we could name.

This morning’s lectionary reading is from Ecclesiastes 3–that famous proverb that reminds us that

There’s a season for everything
    and a time for every matter under the heavens” (v. 1)

And I wonder what it might mean to acknowledge that while there are specific times for things, for events, for relationships, for futures… there is also time for the process of becoming. What we miss when we talk about time in concrete ways, when I demand change and clarity of myself within a certain timeframe, is that “there’s a season for everything”, and this everything must include a time for becoming–unscheduled and finicky as becoming may be.

To live with this is to live with ambiguity and no small measure of patience, but I wonder if this fluid understanding of time is simply what it means to be at peace.


Even When (Sermon)

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Track 2.

Today’s gospel lesson is all over the place. It begins with the confession of Peter. It’s one of the first moments in the gospel when we’re all able to say that yes, the disciples are getting it! Someone understands who Jesus is! “You are the Christ… the Messiah… the Holy One”

A plus, Peter. You passed that exam with flying colors.

But, what happens next is where things get tricky. Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, and Peter says wait. I think I studied for the wrong test. that’s definitely not how this works.

Imagine. Standing with Jesus and saying that yes, this is the Messiah. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. We got that answer right, we’re dusting off our Christian VIP pass. Then everything is wrong. Wait. Suffering? Death? That’s not how this is supposed to work! The Messiah is supposed to save us from the horrors of Rome, from the bondage of slavery. The Messiah is supposed to be King David incarnate, bringing Israel and God’s chosen people back to life. He’s not supposed… to die?

And here we are, hearing the story of Peter’s best moment, and his worst moment. You are the Christ. Yes! Get behind me Satan. No!

But isn’t it true that sometimes, these moments happen simultaneously? Isn’t it true that we can say the best thing, the most thoughtful idea we’ve ever had to precisely the wrong person? The person who doesn’t want to hear it, the person in our lives who won’t acknowledge the epiphany we just had. Or maybe we think it’s the best idea, and someone shoots it down, and you realize that hey, maybe they’re right.

Or maybe the day has been perfect. The meeting that you were nervous about? Well, that went so much better than you could have hoped. The sun is out. You just got a promotion you’d been hoping for. You had your favorite food for lunch. And then the phone call comes. A dear friend has died, and suddenly the day feels almost worthless. The wave of grief washes over you—it’s harder to notice the sun outside. It’s hard to breathe.

One of the questions that always comes up for me with this text is a question of why the heck did the church choose to honor Peter? From a story perspective, he’s the most flawed character in the gospels. Frankly, we hear more about Peter’s misdeeds and misunderstandings than we do about Judas’ betrayal of the Christ. Why did Christ choose to say that “on this rock I will build my church”. Peter? Really?

I’ve heard plenty of answers to this question, and I’m sure you have too. Well, Jesus calls us, regardless of who we are. Or, Peter redeems himself, that morning on the beach after the Resurrection. Or, Peter’s supposed to be like all of us flawed human beings. And while I think those answers are true, I’m not sure they really get at the heart of the question.

Why Peter—wrong one minute, right the next? Why us—wrong one minute, right the next?

I think the psalmist of 116 brings us closer to an answer. Today’s psalm is only half of Psalm 116, and the verses right after the lectionary ends say that

I have remained faithful, even when I said,

“I am suffering so badly!”

even when I said, out of fear,

“Everyone is a liar!”

The psalmist says that even when it hurts, even when the pain is so bad that you say the wrong thing, have faith. Even when you are depressed by the state of the world, even when it’s all lies and fake news and suffering, the Lord still hears my requests for mercy. The Lord is still compassionate. I can be at peace again, because the Lord has been good to me, to us.

What if the hope of the gospel is that Jesus is still Messiah, even if he’s not the Messiah we envision? Everyone is a liar. Humanity feels hopeless. My friends… family are homeless because of Hurricane Florence. My friend, my brother, my sister is dead.

We want Jesus to be the Messiah we envision. Jesus who raises our dead, diverts our storms, gives our world peace. But as Peter found out, salvation is a messy thing that doesn’t arrive exactly how we want it to. Sometimes Resurrection is taking up our cross, remaining faithful even when we’re suffering so badly that all we want to do is give up.

That’s the tension of the gospel, that the cross is the way to life, that suffering can lead to faith. May we all be wise enough to stand in that tension, saying like Peter that you are the Christ, even in the midst of suffering.


(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018)