Thursday, June 30, 2016

Be Vibrant!

Galatians 5:22-25; Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016
It’s easy to romanticize the various stories of the call of Jesus’ disciples. After all, the scenes are fairly bucolic in most of them: seaside fishing villages, small towns along the way. It all seems so in keeping with the notion of “gentle Jesus, mild and good.” From the point of view of the affluent, suburban church of so much of North America – including, if we are to be honest, right here – most of the call stories strike us as sweet affirmations of the decisions we have already made.
They provide a middle-of-the-road mythology for the middle-of-the-road church, but by the middle of the story the author of Luke is having none of that. At this point in the story, Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and a direct confrontation with the economic, political, and religious powers that be. He has neither time nor patience for those who are not prepared to follow what he must know is a road to the cross.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, we don’t have time for the middle-of-the-road concerns of the middle-class. The hour is very late. Now is the time. This is the fierce urgency of now.
I have to confess that this passage terrifies me. Jesus is speaking to us, if we have ears to hear. We live with the dawning reality that, as our Brief Statement of Faith put it, “we threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.” If we do not change the way we live, our children’s grandchildren will inherit a planet barely habitable for human beings.
And yet, most of us, most every day, put our hands to the plow and keep on working our jobs never disrupting the way things are for the sake of a better way. We are not fit for the kindom of God. We are not building the Beloved Community.
I wrote some of this last week while flying back across the continent from general assembly in Portland. I deeply appreciate the opportunity, and remain in awe of the miracle of living in an age when I can begin the day less than a hundred miles from the Pacific Coast and end it roughly the same distance from the Atlantic.
In the midst of a cross continent flight that leaves a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint we applaud ourselves for recycling plastic cups. Meanwhile in Portland, the assembly is more worried about the denomination’s portfolio that it is about the consequences of our fossil-fuel addiction.
The hour is very late. Now is the time. There is a fierce urgency to this moment.
The assembly elected my friend and National Capital Presbytery colleague Denise Anderson as co-moderator, and she becomes the youngest person ever elected to the highest office in the denomination. It was nothing short of remarkable to see an African-American woman wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt presiding over the opening plenary Wednesday morning. While I was flying home, the assembly elected J. Herbert Nelson, a truly prophetic African-American man, to the office of stated clerk.
Nevertheless, we remain a church that is more than 90 percent Anglo. We stand on a centuries’ old history of white privilege. Our assembly met – as do most of our congregations – on land taken by force or coercion from the people of color who lived here before us.
As Pastor Annanda Barclay puts it:
The hierarchal system of race creates an inherent inequality of the worthiness of a human being, based on white supremacy. Notice, (she writes) I say human being, because I firmly believe white supremacy and racism oppresses white people as well. The idea that whiteness is inherently better automatically creates a false sense of entitlement, control, power, and even a false sense of godly righteousness.[1]
The hour is very late. Now is the time. There is a fierce urgency to this moment.
We gathered in Portland, of course, in the shadow of Orlando, where the toxic stew of homophobia and religious fundamentalism exacted its horrible toll just a few weeks ago. Rabia Terri Harris, founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship and resident scholar at the Community of Living Traditions at the Stony Point Center, suggests that religiously motivate violence bubbles up when “we insist that our religion defines the holy, rather than humbly approximating it: that our image of ultimate reality is ultimate reality.” [2]
She goes on to suggest that “When we accept each other in God, we learn to recognize God through other names – names God has taught to people other than ourselves, to creatures other than ourselves. Might our time require that we learn to honor the immensity of the divine names?”[3]
The hour is very late. Now is the time. There is a fierce urgency to this moment.
Both Harris and Barclay wrote their words in essays for Rick Ufford-Chase’s new book, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire.
About five years ago, I challenged the session here to think about a new model of ministry for Clarendon. A few months later, we claimed as our yardstick the idea of “a more vibrant congregation.”
I did a bit of word study back then, and discovered to my deep joy, that the word “vibrant” shares a root connection with the word “agitation.” They both have to do with vibrating, and the agitation that comes from vibrancy depends upon resistance in order to be noticeable. That is to say, to make a difference, there must be resistance.
To make a difference in the world, the church must practice resistance.
I am increasingly convinced that if the church is to matter at all to even one more generation, much less to some imagined future, that congregational life must become about resistance, that congregations must become centers of resistance to the dominant culture. If we do not, we risk becoming what so many think we are already: chaplaincies to the comfortably middle class, articulating theologies that buttress the American empire and that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet I do not despair. Indeed, I see signs of hope all around me, and I know that our sacred texts already provide the story in which this hope is grounded.
The text from Galatians tells us that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruits of the restless Spirit of the living God. In other words, when we center our community’s life on God and open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we discover at our disposal all of the gifts we need to resist values of materialism, militarism, racism, and the rest.
I spent most of my time in Portland working with a small group of young women serving as GA interns for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Their energy, enthusiasm, imagination, deep thoughtfulness, intelligence, and love inspire me and give me hope. They are not naïve – they’re much too smart for that – but neither are they nearly as cynical as the generations immediately preceding them have been.
One of them, Annika, a twenty-something who lives in Portland shared with us a Tweet from a 24-year-old friend – a church critic who nonetheless was watching with interest the goings on from the assembly. When GA gave final affirmation to the nearly 10-year effort to add the prophetic Apartheid-era Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions, Annika’s friend tweeted out that he could get excited about #aChurchThatDoesntSuck.
Friends, I, too, can get excited about a church that doesn’t suck!
The hour is very late. Now is the time. There is a fierce urgency to this moment.
Amen.
Following the sermon, ruling elder Travis Reindl offered this prayer:
God of this day, God of all of our days...
We come to you this morning delighting in the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self control - and the places they show up in our lives.  We bask in the warmth of the sun, the warmth of an embrace, the love of family and friends, the bounty of food and shelter.
But gracious God, we also come to you with heavy hearts, weighed down by the times we have pushed that fruit away or poisoned it by our own hands.  We do this with fear and anger that stretches from Samaria to suburbia, with hatred and violence, with our idolatry of contemporary culture.
Lord, call to us.  Agitate us to reclaim the fruit of the Spirit, give us the courage to leave our boats on the shoreline to follow you, to move from being the "frozen chosen" to being a "storm of reform," to live as the people you have called us to be.
Amen.



[1] Annanda Barclay, “Dismantling White Supremacy,” in Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance (Unshelved: 2016) 43.
[2] Rabia Terri Harris, “Learning Nonviolence in a Multifaith World,” in ibid., 75.
[3] Ibid. 79.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Broken Pride, Broken Promises, and Apologies


Luke 7:36-50; 1 Kings 21:1-21
June 12, 2016
Let me share an additional reading for the morning, from 1 Kings, as rendered by Eugene Peterson in The Message: 1 Kings 21:1-21
* * * *
In the bulletin, this homily is called “Broken Pride,” but it would be more accurate to call it “Broken Pride, Broken Promises, and Apologies.”
The texts we’ve read this morning are all about brokenness, from the personal sin of the woman in Luke’s story to the systemic sin that would keep her in her place, from the personal sin of Ahab’s greed to the systemic sin that allowed his household to act murderously to satisfy his greed.
The stories, however, are also about accountability, and, ultimately about grace and forgiveness.
In the story from Luke, Jesus offers extravagant grace to a woman whose brokenness if never named, but is acknowledged as significant. Jesus offers grace and never shames the woman. She responds with extravagant love that raises the ire of the proper leaders of the traditional faith community who would, it seems, rather see the woman punished than forgiven.
Rather than judgment, Jesus shows forth a forgiveness that challenges not only the Pharisees, but, honestly, me, too. This story makes me wonder if I can show the kind of grace that has been shown to me. Do I have the kind of compassion for those with whom I disagree or for the ones I find disagreeable?
That kind of grace and that kind of compassion have the power to transform, not only individuals, but communities, and entire systems, as well. If you doubt that, think back to the truth and reconciliation process that Nelson Mandela initiated upon assuming the office of the presidency in South Africa. He launched that public process while, at the same time, personally forgiving the individuals who had unjustly imprisoned him for almost 30 years. Imagine.
I certainly have never experienced transformative forgiveness and grace on that kind of scale. Few of us have, but we all have opportunities to share such transformative power on more personal terms.
You may be wondering why I’m wearing this old t-shirt this morning. Well, it’s not merely because it’s summer time, nor has the household gone to hell in a handbasket with Cheryl out of town last week, nor is it because my nice clothes are dirty – they’re not. No, it’s because this shirt reminds me of something important.
Most of you know that every summer for the past decade I have spent a couple of weeks serving as pastor-in-residence at Camp Hanover, the Presbyterian camp outside of Richmond in the Presbytery of the James. Camp Hanover sits on almost 600 acres, of which a bit more than 500 are mostly woods. Given that, it may surprise you to hear that a common phrase at camp is, “let’s meet at the tree.” Sounds pretty unhelpful as directions go, right?
But such directions work perfectly well because, on the field that greets you when you drive in, stands a lone tree whose branches spread out in a tangled warren casting delightful shade across a circle easily broad enough to gather several dozen kids in its cool.
For many years I’ve called it “the forgiving tree,” because beneath its boughs I learned an important lesson about brokenness, accountability, forgiveness, and grace.
It all began at a morning devotion that I led for the older campers – middle-school and high-school kids. I have no recollection of the point I was trying to make that morning, but I’ll never forget the lesson I learned when I made an off-hand crack in the midst of the back-and-forth with the campers.
I know it shocks you to hear that I might make an off-hand joke, but, yes, I did. Alas, I made the crack at the expense of the middlers. I didn’t intend to be mean-spirited, but I came off that way, and following the devotions one of the counselors called me on it.
I thanked him for pointing it out, and at lunch time I invited all of the middlers – probably 30 kids and counselors – to meet me at the tree right after lunch. I apologized to them for my words that made them feel excluded or belittled, asked them to forgive me, thanked them for the grace of that moment, and sent them on to rest time.
What has any of this to do with Pride, with the texts of the morning, with any larger concerns?
It has to do with gifts and shadows, and what I’m calling broken pride.
We all have gifts. Our particular gifts shape what we do with our lives. From time to time we justifiably take pride in those gifts. Personally, I’m good with words, and, sometimes, with word play. It’s a gift that has shaped my vocation both as writer and preacher, and also, to some extent, as one who tries to lead with good humor.
But our gifts also come with a shadow side that tends to be exposed when we don’t balance gifts. That morning at camp, the shadow side of leading with humor and a facility with words was exposed when I didn’t balance it with compassion and thoughtfulness.
Giving him the benefit of a doubt, I’d suggest that King Ahab probably rose to power both as a son of the former king and because he had leadership gifts, including a desire to make Israel great. The shadow side of such desire is marked by materialism, greed, and egocentrism.
Working within a system shaped by others before him who shared similar characteristics, Ahab’s greed is unbridled until he encounters Naboth and his vineyard. As Carolynne Hitter Brown points out,
Naboth’s response to Ahab went much deeper than a simple refusal to sell a piece of land. Naboth specifically told Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” With this response, Naboth stood for righteousness in the face of a powerful and corrupt system. His words pointed straight to the essence of Ahab’s and Israel’s problem. As a nation, Israel had turned away from God’s covenant and was serving foreign idols. In his heart, Ahab knew the truth, but after a lifetime of blasphemy, his conscience was seared. Naboth’s words convicted Ahab of deep sin.[1]
Contrast Ahab’s situation with the one I found myself in. We were both confronted by truth-tellers who spoke a simple prophetic word calling us to account for our actions. Ahab was cut to quick, and refused to eat. Then the household of Ahab responds by murdering the truth teller and stealing his land.
I didn’t follow that path, but it’s not because I’m somehow fundamentally different and better than Ahab. No, I didn’t follow that path because I was in the midst of a community that, for decades, has worked to find and carve out other paths. I had plenty of options, and well-worn paths to follow to get to places of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
In other words, I could take the gifts I have been given and in which I take justifiable pride, and, by grace, use them for building up relationships and communities, rather than allowing their shadow sides to rip apart relationship and undermine communities.
At their best, celebrations such as Pride remind us of giftedness – what have we done today to make us feel proud! They challenge us to accept ourselves and one another – I am what I am! – and to own up to the fullness of who we are, as well.
God’s grace opens space for us to be honest with ourselves. It opens space for accountability, for forgiveness, for restoration of right relationships, and for community to grow and prosper.
It’s a happy coincidence – or perhaps just a logical choice – that the image of a tree figures prominently in scripture as a symbol of peace and the security that comes with justice and right relationships.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel, even in the midst of their exile:
“You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Micah promises that,
“In the days to come the mountains of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains … that they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; national shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
In other words, the tree of life shall belong to everyone, and we will all be welcome to gather in its shade, enjoy its fruit, and rest beneath its branches. As the old spiritual promises, we all have a right to the tree of life.
We come, as we are, bringing our gifts and their shadow sides, because we are all rooted and grounded in the same life-giving source of grace. So come with pride in your giftedness, come owning up to the shadows, come as you are to take your place beneath the tree.
We have our own little “tree of life” this morning, decorated with some rainbow bling, We also have some rainbow paper, and some pens. You’re invited to come and write your gifts on the paper. This will be our prayer today, as we give thanks for the gifts we have been given, and as we own their shadow sides, we pray for wisdom and courage to use what we are – all of what we are – for building a wider world in which everyone born finds a place in the shade of the tree of life.




[1] Carolynne Hitter Brown, in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012) 277.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

How Now?

How Now?
June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17; Psalm 146

The lectionary today cuts off the text from Luke at a crucial and unfortunate point. Immediately following the healing story we just read, we get this central passage concerning a brief exchange between John the Baptist and Jesus. Listen, again, for a word from God:

Luke 7:18-50

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 
The blind have new sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead have new life, the poor experience good news! That is how you know God is present. That’s how you know that Jesus is in the house. That is the gospel. That is amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
And yet … and yet we live in a world where the blind stumble and fall, the poor remain destitute, the dead remain dead. Where is the good news in that? How do we proclaim life in the midst of death? How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Capital Pride is underway in metro DC, and we’ll join the celebration as part of the annual Pride Parade next Saturday afternoon. Isn’t proclaiming life in the midst of death precisely the point of such celebrations as Pride?
If it doesn’t exactly feel that way late on a summer afternoon walking through the craziness of DuPont Circle, let memory take you back to a Pride parade in, say, San Francisco, in, say, 1986 or thereabouts, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the depths of the larger society’s indifference to it.
Most of us are familiar with the history: Pride commemorations grew out of a memory of resistance. In particular, Pride celebrations mark the resistance of queer folks to the police raids at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on the last weekend of June in 1969.
When I find it hard to imagine such a time of – and sometimes, thank God, I really do – I simply think of our friends who are raising a transgender daughter in rural Virginia. I hope and pray – and work – for the best for that child, but I also know that almost 2/3 of GLBTQ teens feel unsafe at school, that they are twice as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide, and that one in four transgender teens will attempt suicide.
It’s really not that hard, in light of such statistics, to recall a time when gay men were routinely harassed by police because they went to a dance club. When I can’t imagine such a time, I read the Twitter feed from Black Lives Matter, and remember that I do, in fact, live in just such a time.
In one sense it’s an odd thing to remember and celebrate such a time – police oppression, threats of humiliation, job loss. Even insisting that the celebration lifts up the resistance to such horrors rather than the horrors themselves still recalls the horrors. How do we proclaim pride in the midst of humiliation? How do we say, “black lives matter” when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary? How do we proclaim life in the midst of death?
We do this, in part, of course, by way of saying, “never again.” We remember resistance and proclaim that we will continue to resist. That is, in part, why we commemorate. We also remember in gratitude to honor the work and sacrifices of those who have gone before us, and we remember, also, in order to be inspired by their examples. We celebrate and remember resistance, and, in doing so, we place ourselves in the same tradition, commit ourselves to continue the work, and renew our spirits for the journey ahead of us.
That’s why we remember. It’s certainly important to understand why we do these things, but that’s not the question that pressed in on me as I wrestled with the text and our context over recent days. I’m still struggling with the “how” questions. How do we proclaim pride in the midst of humiliation? How do we proclaim life in the midst of death?
There are clues in our texts this morning, including a well-known one from 1 Kings that we didn’t read. In that passage, the prophet Elijah is on the run fearing for his life after pronouncing a prophetic word sharply critical of the powers that be. God instructs him to go to Sidon where a widow would care for him.
Jesus, in his first public sermon in Luke’s gospel, recalls that moment in Elijah’s story, and the people of Nazareth take him out to throw him off a nearby cliff.
Why? Sidon was the wrong side of the tracks, the home of infidels, and other outsiders. A widow in Sidon would have been among the least of the least and the last one upon whom God would grant favor – if, that is, God grants favor in the same way that the powers that be grant favors.
Imagine, in our time, suggesting that our national leaders turn for advice on immigration or economic policy to a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, That’s not quite right: imagine consulting with a street person in Mexico City for advice on immigration or economic policy.  That’s the widow of Sidon.
We only grasp this reality – and allow ourselves to be grasped by this story – if we read it from the perspective of the widow. My friend and colleague Aric Clark, writing in a recent issue of Presbyterians Today, suggests a “rule of the last” for our reading of scripture. Augustine famously offered the rule of love – any reading that does not enhance our love of God and of one another is a misreading. Aric suggests, similarly, that reading from any perspective other than that of the marginalized will miss the point.
The key to the Elijah story, then, is not the named prophet, but, rather, the unnamed widow.
Elijah follows God’s instructions, even though the widow is none too thrilled to have him show up asking for food when she has only enough for herself and her child to survive the day. Yet she trusts the prophetic word and offers costly hospitality to a stranger. She doesn’t do so knowing in advance that things will work out for her and her child. She does so simply living in response to the call of God embodied in the prophet’s presence. Living faithfully involves giving extravagantly, and trusting the outcomes to God.
I think that’s how we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, how we celebrate pride in the midst of humiliations, how we insist that black lives matter, how we proclaim life in the midst of death.
Such proclamation does not deny the reality of suffering and death, but it does situate us clearly on the side of those who suffer, those who are humiliated, those who are sick, imprisoned, poor, oppressed, marginalized.
Perhaps it helps to recall the traditional words of the communion liturgy: “so long as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
Faithful living does not deny suffering and death, but neither does it embrace them. We remember, we call back to mind the horror and humiliation of Jesus, to affirm his humanity and our own. Yet we recall at the same time, in sharing bread and cup, Jesus’ “fierce commitment to heal and overcome the evils that afflict humanity,” and thus reaffirm, also, our own commitment “to confront and alleviate all human suffering.” (From Donald Senior’s Why the Cross?)
The table is central to our common life, because this is how we proclaim life in the midst of death, this is how we sing the Lord’s song, this is how we resist.
Come to the table of life, the table of remembrance and resistance, come to the table of grace. Amen.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Hold On

 

Revelation 22, selected verses; Acts 16:16-34
May 8, 2016
Paul and Silas was bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Paul and Silas began to shout, jail doors opened and they walked out. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Only thing that we did wrong, was staying in the wilderness a day too long. …
Only thing that we did right, was the day we rose up and started to fight. …
Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
You have a right to the tree of life, and you can come on into the city of God by way of the main gate. No walls nor prison bars will hold you back. Neither your race, nor your gender, nor your sexuality, nor your economic situation will keep you out. The one who testifies to these things – the Alpha and the Omega, surely he is coming soon. Hold on. Hold on.
This is essentially the proclamation that Paul and Silas are making as they travel. Along the way, the text for today tells us, they pick up a fellow traveller who, it turns out, is annoying. Now this is interesting, because the slave girl who attaches herself to Paul and Silas is not contradicting them. In fact, she’s pretty much gives an “amen” to their testimony:
“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
I supposed that might have been alright at first, but, apparently, after several days, it got bothersome. The text is silent on the precise nature of the annoyance, but if we pay attention to the details of the story it begins to make sense, and, I believe, it begins to speak to us anew for our own time.
To begin with, the interruption comes from a slave girl whose owners are making a good deal of money off of her special spiritual gift.
As Luke A. Powery, dean of the Duke University Chapel describes it:
A gifted girl is enslaved for the economic gain of the enslaver. Her gifts produce profits. W.E.B. Dubois notes that such profiting stems from the gifts of the vulnerable and powerless, particularly the “gift of sweat and brawn.” And he asks the poignant question, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” What he says of Africans in America is true for all of those oppressed under the mighty hand of pharaohs to build an empire in which they are deemed second-class citizens or perhaps not human at all.[1]
Paul becomes annoyed, the story tells us, after several days. In that time, apparently, he discerned the reality of the girl’s condition – a reality the Dubois would have recognized and understood well. Would that we might discern such realities in so little time.
The girl’s owners were clearly more interested in the profits than in the person. We know this because, as soon as Paul orders the spirit out of the girl, her owners turn on Paul and Silas, bring false charges against them, lie about them, turn the crowd against them by painting them as foreigners and aliens, and, then convince the civil authorities to imprison them.
Thus Paul and Silas are seen as disturbing the peace by interrupting an ancient tradition that remains an ongoing reality: the powerful profiting off the labor and the gifts of those who have no power within the economy or politics of their society.
As Powery goes on to say:
Paul and Silas resist the social status quo due to the “way of salvation” that they are following. Their resistance to the status quo, even unjust economic systems, is not cheap. They engage in costly discipleship. Their discipleship of resistance is serious risky business, a matter of life and death.[2]
As a result, they wind up in jail.
Somehow I imagine that their time in jail was not quite the same as my own. I’m guessing the civil authorities who imprisoned them did not ask if being shackled would hurt their shoulders, and the jailers probably didn’t take much care to not muss the prisoners’ clothes. Clearly, Paul and Silas were not processed in a couple of hours and set free with polite good-byes and promises to “be on your side when I retire next year.”
No, they are pretty much left to rot in jail. The cost of their discipleship was steep, and certainly a higher price than I have ever been called to pay. So what do they do?
They sing. I cannot hear that story of singing in jails without thinking of the freedom songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. Now obviously, Paul and Silas were not singing the songs that African Americans sang in southern jail cells in the 1950s and 60s. The chain runs the other direction, back to whatever songs of liberation were sung in the ancient middle east. But I like to think it went something like this:
O freedom. O freedom. O freedom over me; and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.
No more hunger. No more hunger. No more hunger over me; and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.
There’ll be singing. There’ll be singing. There’ll be singing over me; and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.
This too, of course, is part of the proclamation of “the way of salvation” that Paul and Silas are preaching. Their proclamation is, ultimately, an invitation. “Come, come within the gates of the holy city; come, come to the tree of life and rest in its shade; come, all you who are thirsty, and drink from the wells of salvation.”
A friend of mine is working on a book on the improvised life, under the working title Improvising with God. The key to improv – the first principle, as I understand it – is “saying ‘yes … and.’” In other words, whatever life throws your way – the given reality of the moment – is accepted, but only as the starting place for a collaborative project of moving ahead.
In improv comedy, for example, one player might say to the other, “that is a seriously hideous shirt you have on there.” To which the second player might respond, “yes … and it smells terrible, too.”
Improvising with God is about listening for the invitation, the intimations of the divine, that still, small voice that whispers, “come and follow me,” and responding with, “yes, and I’ll bring my best to this moment.”
It’s about holding out, holding on, and reaching for more. It’s about holding out a hand to receive an invitation. It’s about holding on to the given moment – though holding it lightly, because it’s ultimately about reaching for a transformed reality.
My writer friend put out an invite the other day for stories about such experiences, and I thought back to the summer of 2000, when, on a family vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast, I heard that still, small voice agitating me about speaking out on an overture then before the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Amendment O, as it was called, would have barred all Presbyterian clergy and elders from participating in any service that approximated a wedding for same-gender couples, and would have barred sessions from approving the use of church property or facilities for any such services.
While visiting Civil Rights historical sites in my birth-state of Alabama, I was pondering the issue – not how I would vote when it came to my presbytery, for that was a no brainer. No, I was pondering whether to cast a quiet vote and keep my mouth shut, or to stand up and speak my convictions.
During the trip we visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Dexter Avenue dates back to the immediate post-Civil War era. It’s exterior was constructed, in part, with bricks gleaned by freed slaves from the rubble of the former slave-holding cells just down the hill from where the church stands.
The founders of the church said, “yes, those were slave cells, and we will build from them a house of worship to the God of liberation.”
Dexter Avenue was the first congregation that Martin Luther King, Jr., served. It’s a small church, with a cramped fellowship hall in its basement, and, in 1954, the community gathered in that small space and said, “yes, one of our own has been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the city bus, and now we’ll all give up all the seats and boycott the whole system.”
Dr. King, himself, said, “yes, I am young, inexperience, frightened, and I will give my all to serve my people and our God.”
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come.”
This is our invitation to a new way of living. It is the same invitation that Paul and Silas proclaimed. It is the same invitation that Dr. King proclaimed. It is the invitation proclaimed by those who have sought and made justice and peace in all times and places, in ways both grand in scope and deeply personal. It is the invitation that Jesus offered, and offers still.
So hold out your hand, and hold on to promise and invitation, to faith and to hope; and say, “yes.” Amen.




[1] Luke A. Powery in Andrews, Ottoni-Wilhelm, Allen eds. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012) 244.
[2] Ibid. 245.