Pastor Amy's Blog Homepage
Yesterday on my way to take my ten year old son to camp, I was telling him my plans for the day. I was driving to Harrisburg from Philadelphia with a van full of Mennonites (white and non-white, citizens and undocumented) to oppose the attempts of some State Representatives to make it a crime to be undocumented.
My son’s response was surprising, and a little funny—“Mom, who invented power? And I’m not talking about electricity here!” I’ll admit that I was proud of his question and his outrage. I’m glad that he can recognize that power is being abused, and used to perpetrate violence and hate.
I reminded my son, who is prone to violent flashes of anger, that power is neither good or evil, what’s more important is the way you use the power you have. Case in point, a ten year old raging about needing to practice his cello certainly wields a lot of power in our house. So can his loving response to his little sister who just needs some big brother hugs.
I’m not the kind of person that meets with my state representative or writes letters to politicians. It’s not my style—I’m not articulate under pressure. I do better with some time to craft a statement, or in one on one conversation. But yesterday, I went to the Pennsylvania State Capital to support the Dream Act, and to oppose the attempts of legislators to make it more difficult for my undocumented friends to live in country we all love. I sat in hearings where we heard testimony from law enforcement, and from tea party activists, who called my friends “aliens”, “illegals”, and “those people”. They said that my friends didn’t care about this country, but only wanted to drain our welfare and social security system. They said my friends were murdering, raping, and stealing from citizens. The testimony was so distorted, so shockingly racist—I couldn’t make it up if I tried.
During the hearing, I sat next to an especially smug Tea Party representative from the Tea Party Immigration Coalition. After his disgusting portrayal of undocumented people in his testimony, he returned to his seat next to me. It took all I had to maintain my respectful composure as I sat next to him, especially when a woman who grew up in North Philadelphia testified about her experience as an undocumented person. As she shared her story, he huffed and puffed, he groaned and mumbled under his breath. It was worse than sitting next to a bored teenager in church. I took it on as my cause to love the hell right out of him, and to remember that even angry, racist, fearful people needed Jesus.
In Exodus 3, Moses saw the burning bush, and turned off the path to get a closer look. When he heard God calling him from the bush, he responded with three of the bravest words you could say to God—“Here I am.” While Moses had his issues—stuttering for one—he certainly was in a unique position to speak to Pharoah. As a former member of Pharoah’s royal court and as a Hebrew, he was poised to be able to speak to the Egyptians in their own language, and from their own shared experiences.
I had one of those “Here I am” moments yesterday. Sitting between a tea party activist and an undocumented activist, I realized that I can contribute to this conversation. I have the power—as a privileged, white ally, to speak. I don’t like using my power—I certainly don’t feel especially articulate (Moses and I have that in common!)—but in the face of the Holy One, the God of my ancestors (who themselves were immigrants), how can I not speak out about injustice? How can I not cry out to the Pharoahs of this world on behalf of my undocumented brothers and sisters?
I don’t know who invented power, but I know I have some. And I know I have to do something good with it. I may have to start going to the state house more often, I might need to start writing more letters—I don’t like doing those thing, but I have power, and my voice has an impact on these conversations. I have power—it’s time I start doing something good with it.
August 28, 2011
Exodus 3: 1-6
There was not worship on August 28, due to Hurricane Irene, but this is the sermon for that day. After the text, there's also a link to You Tube, where you can view the sermon (delivered from my home during the height of the storm) via youtube.
I’ll ask you to indulge me in a bit of hypocrisy this morning.
Part of what I do in my role as pastor is to encourage others to look for God, listen for God speaking, but I struggle to take my own advice. I run around, my mind abuzz, I schedule, organize, prepare, and tend. I move at the speed of sound.
I find that all that moving around helps me to ignore the voice inside that tells me to slow down. To stop. To listen. Perhaps the moving around that I do will hush the still small voice. Perhaps the constant activity is an attempt to lessen it.
So, for you who are—like me—afflicted with business, with too much to do, and too much on your list…this is for you. But, of course, this sermon is most especially for me.
We meet Moses today he’s already experienced a lifetime worth of excitement. Moses, born to a Hebrew slave family, was adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter, but nursed by his mother. He knew he was a Hebrew, born of slave parents, but he had an Egyptian name, and was treated as a member of the royal family. But when he tried to help his Hebrew people, he accidently killed an Egyptian man, and Moses fled .
He fled 200 miles south, across the Sinai peninsula to Midian. There he met a Midian woman, who mistook him for an Egyptian. He married this woman, and they had a child together. And Moses began a new life with a new family. He helped his father in law, Jethro, with the family business—Moses went from being a member of the royal court to being a sheep herder, and the son in law of a local priest.
It’s hard to know how long Moses was in Midian, but I’d imagine that it was long enough for those difficult memories of Egypt to fade some, memories of confused identity, of an accidental murder, memories of an enslaved people.
While Moses was herding the sheep for his father in law, he came across an angel who appeared to him in the form of a burning bush. Seeing a bush on fire in the desert was probably not that big of a deal—it’s hot and dry. Things catch on fire. But what was shocking about this bush burning was that it didn’t consume. The bush was on fire, but the leaves weren’t burning up, the twigs were not combusting. This was something worth stopping for—this was something worth Moses turning off the path—turning aside—and getting a better look.
It’s then, when God saw that God had Moses’ attention that God called out to Moses. God called Moses by his name, and Moses responded, “Here I am.” Now, based on my experience with the text, I think that the words of Moses—Here I am—are three of the bravest words anyone in the scripture can say. “Here I am” are the words spoken by Samuel when he heard God calling him in the night. “Here I am” are the words spoken by Mary when the angel spoke to her. (check that) When you say “Here I am” to God, you are declaring that you are fully present, you are opening yourself up to be used by God. And, as we know from scripture, that can be dangerous stuff.
And then God identifies God’s self. And in this identifying—it is so complete, so undeniable. God says, “I am God”. And since God—YHVH means “I am who I am”, it is as if God says to Moses. “You know who I am.” It’s not a statement that you can ask for clarification.
Notice here that God also identifies God’s self as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses knew the stories of his ancestors from his mother. This was no simple burning bush. This was the bush that was burned but not consumed by the God of his people. He could not run from the God of his ancestor, those who were enslaved by Egyptians.
This is how God called Moses. With an angel disguised as a burning bush. With a flash of nature that took Moses out of his everyday shepherding routine.
The really nice—and really terrifying--thing about being part of the Anabaptist tradition, is that we believe that God calls all of us to follow. Which means that all of us can face our own burning bush. Of course the only ones in this community that have faced an actual burning bush are the children in Jay Gemberling Johson’s Sunday school class. A few years ago, Jay demonstrated what the burning bush might look like by setting some brush on fire in a trash can. In the Sunday school room.
But besides those children we all face our burning bushes. Those things that cause us to turn aside, turn our eyes from the path we thought we knew, to the path God has in mind.
There are always a few things that have a way of getting to me—of causing me to turn aside and notice. One is in Wissahickon park, specifically the path from kitchen’s lane to valley green. For those of you who have walked in the park in this area, you’ll know that there are actually two ways to get from Kitchen’s lane to Valley Green. One is on Forbidden Drive, that wide path where people can walk, run, bike or even go horseback riding. It’s a beautiful two mile stretch. I like to take that path with the kids—it’s level, and wide with plenty of room for darting and dancing around, as those two are prone to do.
But there is another way to get from Kitchen’s Lane to Valley Green. Just before you cross the bridge at Kitchen’s lane, if you make a right, you’ll take a foot path that follows the water. On this path, you often have to climb over or under trees that have fallen in the path, or jump puddles, or avoid a rogue stream that is winding its way through to the river.
It’s one of those places where you have no idea what time it is, how long you’ve been there, and—honestly—those questions don’t even matter. You can’t hear horns, or voices, or any unnatural sounds. You only hear nature—birds, secada, trees rustling, the water moving down the river. It’s almost unnerving. Nature burns with sound but is not consumed.
It’s a good 45 minute hike from Kitchen’s lane to Valley Green, but it’s not the direct route. You have to choose to turn aside, to look at the park that is alive with sound and sight. Beautiful as forbidden drive may be, it doesn’t compare to that treacherous hike on the other side of the river.
On this narrow path—there also happens to be a site of great importance to this congregation and to our tradition. It is the site of the first Anabaptist baptism in the hemisphere—there on that narrow, muddy, tree strewn path, if you keep your eyes low and facing the river, you can turn aside and see a bit of our tradition, and our story.
But the thing about this path is that I have to choose it. I have to choose this beautifully treacherous route from Kitchen’s lane to Valley Green. I have to choose to turn aside.
There are two things that happen in this story of Moses and God—first Moses sees the bush burning, and then Moses chooses to get off his path and pay attention to it .
It’s no wonder those of us who are inclined to busy ourselves don’t want to slow down. If we stop, notice things around us, God might call our name. If we slow down, perhaps God will think we aren’t doing anything important, and put us to work. If we stop and notice the world around us, then perhaps we will experience the profound—a relationship with the holy one, the God of our ancestors.
It’s one thing to notice that burning bush, but it’s another thing altogether to turn aside, to really pay attention to God’s work. Because when you do that, you lose all control. God takes over. God calls your name, identifies God’s self to us. And, brothers and sisters, when that happens, it’s all over.
I do get a chuckle from the people of God that get on the news declaring that the latest earthquake is a sign from God that we’ve done something wrong. The hurricane that devastated New Orleans was a warning about sexual immorality. Apparently the earthquake also brought similar warnings to the eastern seaboard. God must only want to say something to us about our sexual sins using the power of the earth, water and wind.
But it has me thinking this week about the power of nature to—sometimes literally—shake us up, wake us up, cause us to turn aside. Just look at what happened this week. This earthquake this week, mercifully had limited damage. But it shook us out of our regular ways of thinking. In fact, at least two people from this congregation emailed me and said, something about that earthquake shook me up, and made me wonder about some things. They weren’t existential questions per se, but it shook something loose in people.
The hurricane—happening right now, right outside my window—forces us out of our routine. It may force an internet and cable outage. We may even lose electricity. Our regular ways of interacting and being in the world are forced to change. We must turn aside and notice this storm.
My life is guided by my calendar, my to do list, and my smart phone. These things lay out for me the course of my day and my week. But my smart phone doesn’t work very well in a hurricane. My to do list is meaningless when I can’t accomplish those things because of weather. I have to turn aside from what I’m doing. I have to look up from my screen, my list, and notice what’s happening around me. God is happening all around me.
The question is—what do I do with this burning bush in front of me? Do I simply notice it? Do I get off of my path—do I turn aside—and shift my focus towards this thing that is happening? Do I allow that thing that is burning this bush, but not consuming it—do I allow it to burn in me too?
That was a choice Moses had to make—Moses noticed it, but he had to respond to it. He had to say, “Here I am.”
Are you—am I—willing to say to God, “Here I am”? It was the bravest, riskiest thing Moses could have ever done. That bush was only the spark—Moses’ openness to God was the ignition of the flame inside of him. Moses noticed God, Moses turned aside, Moses said, “Here I am.” And he never returned to his shepherding path again—well, I guess he did. Just not as the quiet shepherd he hoped he’d be.
I hope this sermon was more than an exercise in hypocracy. I hope—that I have and you have—the courage to stop, to turn aside, and to allow God to burn inside us.
May God set you on fire today. AMEN.
Click here for to view the sermon on youtube.
Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21
July 31, 2011
When our kids were born, we labored a long time with their names. Every name—first middle and last—was important and had significance. We connected our children’s names to important people in our lives, people we wanted our children to be like. We connected our children’s names to historic events, as a way to remember things that happened in our family, and as a way to share those moments with our children’s children.
Charlie and I put a lot of thought into our children’s names, as did your parents when they named you. But the way that naming happened in the Hebrew scriptures weren’t just the beauty of a name, or who possessed the name in the past. It was a descriptor, an indicator of a person’s character. For example—the name for God—YHVH—means in Hebrew “I am”. That is a name not to be trifled with.
Jacob ‘s name had significance—Yaccov in Hebrew means “heel holder”. When he was born, his twin, Esau came out just before Jacob, entitling Esau to all the benefits and responsibility of the first born child. But, Jacob was born right behind Esau, and held onto Esau’s heel. Thus the name—Yaccov. Heel grabber. Jacob the heel grabber. Jacob the heel.
Esau’s name was also significant. He came out of the womb covered in hair, so he was called Esau, which means “Hairy” or “Rough”. So, Esau the hairy, rough one.
What started out as a strange birth set the stage for a strange relationship between these twins. These brothers lived into their names. Jacob was a heel—he did whatever he could to gain access to that birthright. He cheated and tricked his brother Esau into trading a meal for his birthright, the blessing that was a right belonging to his older brother by culture and custom.
And now, in today’s story, Jacob, along with his wives and children, was on his way to meet Esau and his family—these brothers hadn’t seen each other since the “birthright incident” and Jacob was anxious to meet his brother and kin. He’s anxious, but not in that “I can’t wait to meet my brother” kind of way. He’s worried that his brother was still holding this grudge, and that his brother would try to kill him. Jacob knew he’d been a heel, and he deserved the wrath of his older, rougher brother.
The night before Jacob was to meet his brother again, he sent his family across the river called the “Yabbuk”, (which means “Crossroads”), and he returned back to the empty camp. There he encountered someone. The word for this someone has been interpreted as “angel”, “God”, “human”. Truly, the literal translation of this word is “human” or “mortal”, but over the course of the encounter we come to know that it is more than just a human that Jacob has encountered at the empty camp.
And there—at the camp—Jacob engaged in an all night wrestling match with this being. And Jacob and this being are pretty equally matched. They struggled all night. And when dawn was coming, and this mortal saw that Jacob could not be defeated, he hit him in the hip, and dislocated the hip while they wrestled.
This word “hip” as we have always had it translated, may not be the most accurate word for where Jacob was actually hit. Hebrew is full of euphamisms, and double meanings. We’ve already heard that in the names given to Jacob and Esau, in the name of the river Jacob had to cross. And here’s another one.
The word used here for “hip” means in Hebrew anything below the waist. It’s often a word that is used to refer to the genitals. This word also is used to refer to a person’s power, to the core of their being. And since the seed of life is located here, in the genitals, it is very likely that this person who was wrestling with Jacob actually kicked him in the “core” of Jacob’s being. He broke something in Jacob’s core.
And still—after being overpowered by this character—Jacob would not let go. Wounded and hurting, he continued to hang on. Until finally, Jacob’s adversary said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.”
But, Jacob—for the second time in his life—seized this opportunity to ask for a blessing. He said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
Clearly Jacob is obsessed with this idea of blessing. Why is he always trying to get one? Why is that the prize for him? It seems so dysfunctional, doesn’t it?
But, perhaps, he seeks a blessing from this godly stranger, because he has known all along that the blessing he took from Esau was never his. He could not possess something that was not for him. This certainly fits with the anxiety and fear he’s displaying about his upcoming visit with his brother. He knows that blessing, that birthright taken from Esau in a moment of extreme weakness for Esau, was tainted. He had been a heel to take it, and had lived fully into his name.
But God gave him a new name. A new blessing. A new reputation to live into. He was given the name “Israel”, which means “Wrestles with God” and “God wrestles.” Another name with multiple meanings. And another name for this new man to live into—this man that was transformed by his encounter with the Holy one. And from his seed—seed that has just encountered divine righteousness in that overnight wrestling match—the people of Israel descend.
The other story we encounter today is of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This is a much beloved story, but what makes it so juicy is to know what is happening before this. Just before Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes, he heard that his cousin and friend, John the Baptizer, had been beheaded by Herod, and his head delivered like a trophy to Herod’s daughter.
This was terribly devastating news to Jesus, who went off immediately to be alone. John the Baptist was dead. The one who baptized Jesus, who recognized the work of God in him, who recognized Jesus’ mission in the world. If John the Baptist was dead, what did that mean for Jesus, whose name means “God is with us”. How does Jesus live into this name, and into this role to which he has been called?
And, while Jesus was trying to be alone, to understand what had just taken place to his dear friend, his was pressed by the crowd in Nazareth to heal their sick. And with the weight of John’s death still heavy on him, Jesus, he took bread and fish, he divided it and blessed it, and something incredible happened. It sustained all of those people that were there.
This act of blessing is not something that we do much. We pray for people. We cook for those who are sick or transitioning. Do things for people. But do we bless them with our word? And do we accept blessing from people?
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about blessings in her last book, titled, “An Altar in the World.” She says that blessings are a way for us to recognize God in the world and in each other. It’s an acknowledgement of the divine all around us, even in the midst of terrible suffering.
She writes, “Blessings do not overlook the complexity of the pain and suffering that can accompany it. They simply decline to adjudicate it. Rightly or wrongly, they decide that given a choice between a blessing or a curse, a blessing will do more to improve air quality.”
Several years ago, some friends of mine had some marital problems. Things happened and were said in their home—they made a mark on the space. You could feel the pain when you walked into the house. And so, we decided we were going to do something about it. We did not know the future of this family, but we were going to bless the house. So, we walked around the house, going to every room with candles, and we blessed it. We claimed the house for good things. We welcomed God’s presence into the house. We welcomed love back into the house. We blessed the house with good smells from the kitchen, with sounds of love in every room. We blessed the house with reconciliation.
It felt strange to do it at first. We felt silly, and we kindof giggly about the whole things at first. But as we continued through the house we could believe that blessing thing might just work. Just like Jacob begged for his blessing, begged God to give him a new name and turn him in a new direction, we begged God to show up, to make a change in this family, to give it a new direction.
There were no fishes or loaves the multiplied, but there was loved multiplied. And the family was able to make a turn, to move in a new direction, to accept the blessing that God longed to give them.
And in this world—where relationships are fragile, and human love can be so fleeting—we could witness together the miracle of hope and reconciliation.
So, let us bless each other. Let us say to each other—God bless you. May God give you a new name. May God give you new vision. May God heal you. Those are powerful, prophetic words to throw around, and we should feel free to do it. Partly because the blessing is already there—we’re just naming it, and giving it power to be seen.
And we should feel free to do it, because we have experienced the blessings already. We have—each of us—experienced suffering, and received a blessing in the middle of it. We have demanded a blessing—even though we didn’t think we deserved it—and have seen God at work in our lives.
And, in our blessings, we are moving from the lost to the found, the blind to the seeing, the alone to the united, those who are named by our reputation, and those who are named children of God. Our blessings—no matter how we give or receive them, remind us of God’s power to work in the world, and the loving name God has given each of us.
What can I do?