Ecology, Sermon

our host, the earth: a sermon

I had the honor of sharing my sermon with a church plant I’ve been part of for the last few months in NYC. 

Psalm 93 
God rules justly, robed in beautiful majesty;
the Mighty One is robed, girded with strength.
God has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!
Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore.

Revelation 12:13-17 
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the Earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the Earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

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Please pray with me: O God, the oceans are rising, during our lifetime entire species of animals have become extinct, and climate refugees increase every year. O God, our world is burning, may you burn brighter. Amen.

Today’s subject on ecology and environmentalism is close to my heart. Too many times though I’ve watched preachers or speakers take over lecterns or pulpits to talk about plenty of subjects that they do not know anything about! I myself am no climate scientist but have a few friends in the fields of geology and climate science, that I’ve bounced what I’m going to share about with them.

As for me a few my credentials, within the Presbyterian world last Spring I planned a  weekend retreat for Young Presbys. Our theme was intersectional environmentalism. As well, I’m part of Fossil Free PC(USA) which encourages the denomination to divest from fossil fuels. It has unfortunately failed the last two General Assemblies, but we will not give up!

Last but not least I got into this work after I spent two weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan on a peace delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. We heard stories from villages across Iraqi Kurdistan who do not have clean water or fertile land to farm because oil companies extract crude oil using toxic chemicals. A brief historical side note, Saddam Hussein hated the Kurds and would not allow oil companies to enter Iraqi Kurdistan. This was to make sure that their economy would suffer. It wasn’t until US troops invaded the country in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom that Iraqi Kurds tasted the abundance of black gold. Oil companies started to enter villages promising hospitals, schools, and jobs, yet sadly, none of it came about. More than just their land and water being toxic, their roads have destroyed by tank trucks carrying oil back and forth and these companies did not hire anyone from IK. One other note, in 2011, one year after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the disgraced CEO of BP, Tony Hayward created another oil company Genel Energy that has been in IK ever since. It’s as if he thought, where’s the next place, people, and creatures I can exploit…

Ok so those are some of my more recent environmental credentials. Yet, my childhood was full of nature adventures. I was born and raised in Western Maryland and just went back for Thanksgiving with my family. Western Maryland is a thin part of state and the Appalachian Mountains go through it. In a way I grew up hickish, but because of the internet and my music preferences I began to dissociate myself with the culture in my teens. Yet when I was a child, I loved playing in our small creek, (or as I used to call it a crick) next to our house. There I made friends with crayfish, worms, turtles, and dragonflies. I loved that area so much that every summer I used our farming tools to cut down the thorn bushes next to the creek. Looking back on it, I think I wanted to help clean up “the house” of my creature friends. Sadly, since then, every time I go back to the creek, the thorn bushes have taken over.

Now this seems like a good segue into stewardship, to care for our common home. But it’s too dang easy to do that. Honestly, I’m tired of those kinds of conversations. Stewardship seems to focus on the individual instead of the entire system. Yes, yes, please keep up the work of reducing, reusing, and recycling. And as my grandmother taught me, “Think about your need of an item three times, before you purchase it.” Or maybe today it should be updated to say something about not going on shopping apps late at night to tiredly or drunkenly order items.

Stewardship, for me, portrays the same idea that I get from servant leadership. Both believe that because one person changes their actions to be more conscience of how they treat the Earth or one another that things will change. Just because you can be friends with your boss now that they practice servant leadership doesn’t mean that the system is not still inherently oppressive. Rather in a way both of these ideas point to feeling good about yourself. Not that you shouldn’t, but really that’s not the life Christ has called us to.

One other small rabbit hole about stewardship: we have come to think of ourselves as consumers and others treat us as so. Nowadays stewardship seems to be tied to consumerism. I’m sure you remember after that wretched day on 9/11. To comfort US citizens, President Bush said to continue shopping or to even go to Disneyland. In other words, live care-free and keeping buying! But Thank God, we are more than consumers.
We are called by God to be a spirit empowered community!
We are called to follow a Jesus who taught abundance, not scarcity! We are called to be in the Way of injustice and to lift up love! Thanks be!
So if I’m not going to speak our ethical and moral obligation to one another and to God, what am I going to speak on? Interdependence, of course.
These past two weeks we saw a full display of environmental interdependence.

At the beginning of last week, we learned that the Mid Atlantic experienced smoke from California’s wildfires. Even if we think that we are exempt from this tragedy, think again.
Nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed
84 people have died, so far
605 people are still missing
And around 52,000 people have been displaced.
May God be with them!

On Thanksgiving, after eating my meal, I was scrolling through Twitter, and saw Mari Copeny’s tweet “Went through a 40 pack of water cooking Thanksgiving Dinner.” Flint, MI still does not have clean water.

Then on Black Friday, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released. President George HW Bush signed The Global Change Research Act of 1990 which mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years. This Administration purposely posted the fourth report on Black Friday in hopes that it would be buried by other news.

This report is stark, showing how “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”
When I listened to NPR interview one of the scientists on this project, he said, “It’s no longer about how climate change will affect our children or grandchildren. It’s happening now.” And to that I say God help us all.

And a little more news about Black Friday, much shopping was done. One shopper was shot and two were stabbed in disputes over items. This is disturbing, but sadly not surprising.

Today’s passages seem to be conversation partners about the Earth.
In Psalm 93, we hear of a God who is majestic and in control. Today in the Christian Calendar is Reign of Christ Sunday, so it makes sense why this passage would be chosen.

The middle section reads:
“God has established the world;
it shall never be moved;

your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.”

In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Canaan, divine kingship was established by victory over the sea and the deep. Our passage speaks of a God who not only controls the world and waters, but that they are roaring and lifting up their voice to God.

I think it’s beautiful to bless God’s majesty, but I think this passage is referring to a bit more. The water speaks, shows kindness and love, and even praises the Creator. As a child I think I was more in tune with that. In tune with how at my parent’s flower shop, dish gardens could liven up when I’d sing to them, with how the clayfish stopped pinching me after they got to know me after a while, how the tree I planted on Arbor Day in the mid 90’s grew and grew on the side of my hill because I would visit with it every day. 
The seas and Earth worship God. Are we paying attention or are our headphones blocking out such adoration?

Our second passage from Revelation is a doozy. I remember reading it for the first time in seminary in a class dedicated to Revelation and being blown away.

Let me give you a little context. When we think about Christmas narratives, we often head to Matthew or Luke for the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. The writer of Revelation though has a different idea. A cosmic woman, who we can assume is a Mary-like figure is in heaven and she’s pregnant. She starts to go into labor and the dragon, Satan, is also in heaven waiting for the baby to be born. This starts Revelation 12. Cosmic Woman and Dr. Dragon. This sounds like a band that I’d go watch. Anyway, as she births the male child, he is snatched away by an angel and taken to God’s throne. A war then breaks out in heaven. The cosmic woman heads to Earth for refuge. And here’s where our verses begin. 

Every time I read this, I am in awe. The cosmic woman is nourished in the wilderness. One note about the wilderness in books attributed to John. The wilderness functions as a place of witness (John 1:23), salvific healing (3:14), provision (6:31, 49), and protection (11:54). All of these are present in this passage. The cosmic women bears witness to God’s glory and protection, by resting in a place God had prepared, and she’s offered protection.

The Earth fights for the woman. Often when we read Scripture or think generally about the Earth, it’s always passive or reactive. We have more intense hurricanes because of climate change. The Earth is not doing it; rather we have created this situation.

Yet it’s time for us to think of the Earth, not as only creation, but as a creature. A creature that speaks, reacts, fights, and heals.

Our lives are intertwined with the Earth, whether we know it or not. The Earth is not just our home, but in a way our host. The Earth has everything that we need to survive and thrive.

I was listening to the rather strange philosopher Slavoj Zizek earlier this week. He’s written tons on ideology and was sharing about when he debates with others on environmental issues. He said that all they do is quote disparaging facts to him. Then, he says something I’ve never him his say before, “The function of Ideology is no longer to paint an idealized image, like that the world is not as bad as we think or that things can get better. Nor is ideology even used to oppress much, state power already does that. Today ideology kills hope.” May we not allow our hope to be killed by being overwhelmed by facts and figures.

Fight for the Earth.jpg

All sermons are fragments. Pieces of a puzzle in a box without a picture. This certainly stands true for my sermon. Out of this mess though I have a few conclusions:

I. Be vigilant
As I said earlier keep up with reduce, reuse, and recycle. Try not to buy as much. Discern each purchase.

II. Be proactive
The Historian Howard Zinn was right. It’s not always the lawmakers who change the world, but it’s those who take to the streets.
He said, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

III. Promote the commons
I took a train from my parents’ house back to Philly yesterday. A trip that I’ve made many times, but during my layover in DC’s Union Station, I noticed that the benches I used to sit on were all gone. The only places to sit were ones where I had to buy a meal or coffee. We need to create spaces where one does not need to buy anything! Let’s not privatize any more of the world.

IV. Fight back
Communities of color are on the frontlines of climate change. Need I remind you of New Orleans, Puerto Rico, the droughts in Somalia and other countries in Africa. We must amplify their stories and struggles. Climate change refugees have been created because of us. May we open our arms wide in hospitality and love.

As we continue to do our part to struggle against this Administration’s lack of compassion. May we remember that God always stands on the side of the poor and oppressed, that means the Earth too. May we stand as a community with God, no matter the risk. Amen.

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Scripture, Sermon

it is not about whether or not you love your neighbor, but how you do so: a sermon

I preached this sermon at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC on Sunday, August 20th.

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself,
The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers,
who stripped him,
beat him,
and went away,
leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him,
he passed by on the other side.
So likewise, (by chance), a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him,
he was moved with compassion.
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal,
brought him to an inn,
and took care of him.
Then the next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
‘Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him (and to us), “Go and do likewise.”

He Qi, The Good Samaritan

He Qi’s The Good Samaritan

It can be difficult trying to hear with fresh senses this well tread passage. Hearing the phrase “The Good Samaritan” brings up childhood Sunday school lessons for some of us or our favorite television episodes where the main character acts with Good Samaritan compassion. And these starting points color how we hear this parable.

For me, it was when I was called a Good Samaritan after I picked up three hitchhikers at a gas station in my hometown, provided them with a meal, and a shower. Then drove them to their friend’s house two hours away. And really I was only called a “Good Samaritan” the next day after a night of being remed out by my parents. But honestly, I did it, because I was bored and wanted a disruption in my own life. In the parable there’s no sense of boredom, only honest to God compassion.

This is what I love about the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s straightforward.

Clearly there are those who are morally corrupt: the robbers.
The morally ambiguous: the Levite and the priest.
And the moral hero: the Samaritan.
Unlike other parables too, it’s not about God’s Realm, but about the flesh and blood of this life.

When I was rereading our passage this week, I was struck by all the times the Samaritan touched this bloodied man.

And a quick but important side note: the robbers were not just stealing this man’s wallet, but attempting to take his life.

Now back to the compassionate Samaritan:
First, upon seeing the half dead man, he bends down, wraps up his bloodied body, pouring oil and wine on the wounds.
Next he puts the now bandaged man onto his animal or donkey and ride to the Inn.
At the inn, they stay the night, probably in the same room.
I can’t imagine that the Samaritan slept much that night, since he was probably checking in constantly on the man. Like a parent spending the first few nights with their newborn.
The next morning, the Samaritan gives the inn keeper money to take care of the man and that he would repay him any extra expenses.

In a way, this doesn’t sound like the parable I grew up with. I was taught a bloodless parable on felt board with characters who wore oversized Middle Eastern like clothing. And maybe this parable isn’t meant for kids. Because after spending the last two weeks with 8-11 year olds at Vacation Bible School, I can tell you that they don’t need this lesson. They’re just fine caring for those around them. It’s really for us adults.

So who is my neighbor according to Jesus?
It’s those who are within reach, who are within arm’s length.

Before I get too ahead of myself. Make no mistake about this: Jesus is calling us to be neighbors to those who are along our paths in life. It’s who you are sitting beside now. It’s who you will run into on the sidewalk after church. THEY ARE THE ONES WE ARE CALLED TO BE NEIGHBORS TO!

I stress this because often I get caught up in my own social media world. A world, that’s still real, but is not within arms reach. I can show compassion by texting emojis, but there are still men who sleep on the front steps of our church. I can send direct messages on Twitter to those in difficult life situations, but I often keep in my earbuds when I see an acquaintance who I don’t want to speak to on the sidewalk. I’m Timothy, I have other big important things to do, not just getting to know the name of the person ringing me up at Westside Market for my meatball parm sub. Because I am more often than not the priest and the Levite in this parable.

Is it because I consider myself a New Yorker now, fast walking, head down, and becoming more egocentric. I’m not sure, but Jesus is clear on this point: Know and love your neighbor.

But there’s more to this story that I’ll only touch on. You see the Levite and the priest, in a way, do nothing wrong. They’re bad neighbors, yes. Apathetic, very. But were they actively harming the man? No, of course.

The stark problem though that confronts me every time I read this passage is with our dismissal of the robbers. Why doesn’t anyone talk about why the man was in the ditch, half-dead in the first place?!

It’s complicated because you have to go back to the system.
There are robbers because they have a need.
They have a need because there’s inequality.
There’s inequality because the system was created like this.

Martin Luther King Jr. was onto this holy logic in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech when he said: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Amen, but woah. Timothy are you trying to tell us that it’s not just about acting kind to those we pass by each day or that it’s not good enough to care only for my family, but that I need to challenge the system? In short, yes. But in long form: no, but also.

No, keep in touch with those around you, but also make sure if they are feeling hopeless that you comfort them.

No, don’t stop reposting articles about Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist but also live in such a way that celebrates our diverse world and keep naming white supremacy as a sin and enemy of humanity.

No, continue giving money to good organizations that fight for human rights, dignity, and a more just world, but also show deep, deep love to those struggling financially, emotionally, and physically.

This tension of living like the Good Samaritan and changing the Jericho Road is not easy. Nor is following Jesus supposed to be easy. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be the same person as you were, but transformed by a God who loves and comforts us and expects the same from us.

I’ll end my sermon just as Jesus did:
Go and do likewise.
Go, as in leave your place of comfort and enter places where people have lost all hope.
Do it, not to be called good, since the phrase “Good Samaritan” is not found in the text itself, but do it to further bring God’s Realm on Earth.
So Go and do likewise, Amen.

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Sermon, Spiritual

thirsting for dangerous memory: a good friday sermon

I was invited to be one of the preachers for the Last Seven Words Service at Church on the Hill AME Zion Church, NYC. I took the fifth phrase: “I am thirsty.” 

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Crucifixion by an unknown Ethiopian Artist

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)

I can remember a time when it was popular for pastors to preach a sermon series on the “I am” statements found in John’s Gospel. To name a few of the “I am” statements in John:
I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life

These statements point to the divinity to Christ, since in the book of Exodus when Moses asked for God’s name, the response from the burning bush was “I am that I am.” And so every time Jesus says. “I am,” we are to recall the God of Exodus. The God who liberated a people out of slavery. A God who guides through the wilderness.

And yet, the same one who said “I am the bread of life” also said “I am thirsty.” Though “I am thirsty” as an “I am” statement has been overlooked. Perhaps because of how concrete it is.

Jesus is dying, bleeding, gasping for breath, and has the most essential human need: thirst.

This is such a potent moment in John’s Gospel. This is the first-time Jesus eats or drinks anything in John. While in the other Gospels, Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors, the unclean, and sex workers, John’s Gospel saves this moment while Christ is on the cross. In a way, John’s Gospel is making these words have so much more depth.

 

It takes nearly the entire book of John for Jesus to show his humanity. But better late than never.

And in this moment of suffering and thirst, I think it’s important to incorporate what is called Dangerous Memory.

This idea was created around the time of the Holocaust by Jewish cultural critic and theologian Walter Benjamin, who wrote “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” In other words, history is the story we tell ourselves, but then we must be intentional to ask “Who’s story is being told?” Walter Benjamin focused on the underclasses of society and told it from their perspective.

On this Good Friday, how can we not, but stand back and ask who else in our world thirsts? And I do not mean this in an abstract way, but actually who is parched, looking for water.

It has been 1085 days since there’s been clean water in Flint, MI.
1085 days of children not being able to drink out of school water fountains.
1085 days of pregnant women using bottled water to clean themselves.
1085 days in a city of almost 100,000 people trying to survive.
And still. And still. And still. The people of Flint thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

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Placards posted above water fountains warn against against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, in May, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, I went on a peace delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan. We met with villages where oil companies had come in and started extracting oil. The extraction had destroyed their land and water source. At each of these villages, they showed us where they had wells and how they’re now full of extraction chemicals unworthy to consume the water. Some of these villages had kind neighbors let them use their water source, but many of them have to go into the cities and buy bottled water. My group visited a merely 3 villages out of 800 who are the affected. The villagers of Iraqi Kurdistan thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

In the desert that connects Arizona and Mexico many migrants die in hopes of a better life. They die of starvation and thirst. In the 90’s, an organization was created called No More Deaths, which sets out gallons of water for these travelers. Yet, they cannot get to every desert hopeful. The migrants from Latin and South America thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

After listening to moments of current thirsts, here’s what I propose: “I am thirsty” should be included in canon of “I am” statements. We must not disconnect Christ’s reality on the cross to those who thirst in our world. But this also means that we cannot sit idly by while others thirst.

I too find it peculiar that it in our reading it says “they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth..” It doesn’t say that it was the soldiers or the women who quenched Jesus’ thirst. Its ambiguity almost seems to say that it could be anyone close enough to Christ who could have aided Jesus in his despair. And maybe just maybe we are called to be the “they.” Was it not Jesus who said in Matthew’s Gospel:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

So let us continue to thirst after justice. For justice in all those places who have been forgotten and oppressed: Flint, Iraq, Mexico, and Arizona. Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts. Amen.

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Bible, Justice, Sermon

i can’t do this without you: a sermon on james 5:13-20

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 27th at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC.

Prayer: O God who continually loves us, I am grateful. I am grateful that no matter how we’re feeling, you stay the same. I am grateful at your faithfulness even when we’re not faithful. May your spirit linger in this place and may our hearts hunger after your Word. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Over the years I’ve been part of several denominations, but the one service I attended faithfully until I moved to Philadelphia was a Wednesday Evening Prayer Service. It was a combination of testimonials, hymns, prayers, and something like craigslist. Once I needed a stove, mine was beyond repair, and I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. After I raised my concern, an older couple said they had an extra one in their garage that worked just fine. Other times folks who needed to go to doctor’s appointments would ask those in the service for a ride and rides were offered. That service embodies today’s passage from James.

In the final verses of James’ letter, he spells out what community looks like. He writes, “Are any among you suffering?” “Are any cheerful?” “Are any among you sick?” He implicitly assumes that the answer to these questions is yes. James knows members of communities do not act, feel, or even think in unison.

Because James knows this, after each question he offers a way one can act during the service. For those who are suffering hardships, pray. For those cheerful, sing a song. For those sick, and here James doesn’t give a short response, James writes that they should be anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of the church. My interaction with these verses was present from birth until my preteens. I attended a church that had an anointing oil odor. And I, at least once a month, was anointed with oil, whether I was sick or not. Now I’m pretty sure this is not what James meant by anointing with oil.

So let’s segue into a quick history lesson into the world of ancient Israel and Judah. Anointing with oil was mainly meant for authority figures. Some prophets were anointed and most kings were. It set them apart. Even the word Messiah and the Greek translation of the word Christ means Anointed One. One of my favorite anointing stories in the Hebrew Bible is when Elisha in 2 Kings 9 gave instructions to a younger prophet to anoint Jehu, who was a macho warrior. Elisha told him to find Jehu in this group of military people, separate him from the group, tell him that he’s going to be king over Israel, anoint him, and then run like hell.

Translating the Hebrew Bible idea of anointing as mainly for kings and prophets, this becomes very peculiar in James’ community. In essence, he’s saying it’s those who are ill in the community that should be treated with the dignity of dignitaries . It’s the ones who are losing their eyesight who should be queens and kings. It’s those who pray for their scabs, their diseases, and their depressions who are royalty among us. Except that’s not how sick people are treated. We hear more stories about people like Martin Shkriel who raised an AIDS and cancer drug from $13 a pill to $750, a 5000% increase.

Yet, in James’ community, healthcare was not based on who could afford it. It was based on who was present. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy, penniless, or somewhere in between. Those who were sick were treated with dignity, respect, and honor.

Through the rest of these verses, we hear a parallel notion about those who wander from the truth. The community is called to bring them back. To bring them back to where they can be themselves: happy, suffering, or sick.

Related, there is this strange little story in Galatians 2 where Paul calls out Peter. The story goes, Paul and Peter are eating together in Antioch with Gentiles believers. When some Messianic Jews from Jerusalem arrive instead of Peter continuing to eat with Gentiles, he eats exclusively with the Messianic Jews. Using the words of James, Peter wandered from the truth of the gospel and Paul called him out and brought him back.

What I’m trying to get at is this: Everyone belongs. Everyone belongs. No matter what. Yet, it’s not that simple.

Belonging to a community requires that we are honest with one another. We are upfront with how we’re feeling. Are any among us joyful? Are any among us indifferent? Are any among us struggling to find your voice?

And in this honesty, we become vulnerable. Sharing with the community our mistakes, our struggles, and our dreams. Are any among us regretting your past? Are any among us afraid of our future? Are any among us not ready to move on?

On the front of the bulletin, there’s a quote by Lilla Watson “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This, my friends, is community.
This, my siblings, is what James and Jesus are calling us to.
This, my friends, is the gospel.

May we open ourselves in being honest, truthful, and treat one another, especially those society deems the outcast, with love and dignity. Amen.

Later in the service, the congregation participated in prayer stations.

Prayer Stations

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#BlackLivesMatter, Justice, Sermon

leaving our nets behind: sermon on discipleship

[I preached this sermon last Sunday at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC. I’ve included the passage, prayer, and sermon. It was written between overnights at the shelter, a Student Senate Retreat, and supporting another friend who preached earlier that morning.]

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherfolk.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John,
who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them;
and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

brick testament Jesus

Prayer: Oh God, we can be a stubborn people. We like things the way they are. We depend on being comfortable. But you, O God, search for us, and push us in directions that some of us would never have imagined. This morning, open us to hear a tender and vital word from you. We ask this in the name of the one who calls us to follow. Amen.

This past week has been exhausting, exciting, anxious-ridden, and surreal all at the same time. With Martin Luther King Jr. day, the start of classes, and the Emergency Shelter Network Annual meeting, it couldn’t be anything, but less. What I want to highlight is the Annual Meeting of the Emergency Shelter Network (ESN). It was held on the third floor of the Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church. 30 people were present, representing about 40 churches in the 5 boroughs. The deputy commissioner of Homeless Services shared some of the ways the city was helping house people, along with some overwhelming statistics, including that NYC in 1983 14,000 people were in shelters or on the street. In 2008, when ESN became a non-profit, 35,000 people were homeless, and the count in December 2014, our city has over 60,000 people without homes. After hearing these statistics, a hush swept through the room. A shelter coordinator piped up and asked, “Is anything we are doing actually alleviating poverty?” No answer was given that night. We moved onto other subjects and eventually spent the rest of time discussing ways to recruit volunteers. Because unless your church or synagogue that has over 1,000 members and hosts a shelter once or twice a week, you are probably scrambling to find people. Needless to say it wasn’t the most uplifting meeting I’ve ever been to. As I made the trek back to 1 train, I just couldn’t get out of my mind, the purpose of a volunteer.

Before I became the volunteer coordinator at Broadway Community, for years I volunteered at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. I volunteered because it made me feel good, which is how some of the other coordinators at the meeting told us to pitch it to those wanting to volunteer. “It will warm your heart to help those in need” and “build your resume.” Or even “just doing a little can go a long way.”

And with the backdrop of American Christianity, I can hear some of these same reasons for why one would want to call themselves Christian. “Follow Jesus, my friend. It’s easy; just say a prayer and you’ll be right with God.” Or “read your devotions in the morning, I do, and it’s like they last the whole day.” And often, this is how we read the discipleship stories. Jesus comes walking along this beautiful beach, happens to run into some fisher folk, calls out to them, “Hey, follow me.” It doesn’t take them a second to think about it and they’re following Jesus.

But reading our passage today, it seems more complicated than just Jesus moseying by the Sea of Galilee calling for disciples. Our passage begins with, “Now after John was arrested.” Let’s just have that sink in. In the ancient world, prisons were full of rabble-rousers, people who struggled economically, political prisoners, and those who didn’t abide by the Roman Empire. John the Baptizer fits all of those descriptions, as well, according to Mark, baptized Jesus forty days earlier. These are the kinds of people Jesus hung out with and even was baptized by.

Mark’s Gospel seems to point out that it was because of John’s arrest that Jesus’ ministry began. That there was sense of urgency.

And thinking about world history, there always seems to be something catastrophic that happens, that builds momentum for a movement. For us last year, it was the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner that lead to the movement Black Lives Matter. It happened in El Salvador in the 1970’s when Archbishop Oscar Romero’s dear friend was killed that he started to side with the oppressed. And it was the drought in the Caesarea in the 4th century, that St. Basil the Great emptied his barns, giving to those in need.

Jesus’ ministry starts in turmoil. During a time when everything wasn’t okay with the world. It wasn’t Bible Play Land, where the mountains are lush, the fishermen are always smiling, and Jesus’ hair is blowing in the wind.

John had been arrested and Jesus starts to proclaim the good news of God. Now we need to stop right here because in ancient Rome, this phrase good news was usually paired with Caesar, not God. The good news of Caesar included the Pax Romana, that if you didn’t assimilate to Rome’s ways you would be killed or enslaved. Additionally, it was written in several places in the Empire, “the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him; therefore let a new era begin from his birth.” These were the kinds of proclamations Jesus had to compete with. When we proclaim the good news of God, we are proclaiming that no person, nor political or economic system can hold a candle to God’s Realm. This is what Jesus is declaring.

Then Jesus exclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” God’s Realm is so close we can taste it. We saw a glimpse of it at Jesus’ baptism. God is ready to take reign of the world bringing true justice and equality. I get so excited by these words, “the kingdom of God has come near.” It fills me with hope, but Mark wastes no time. He immediately has us walking beside Jesus along the Sea of Galilee.

There we meet two sets of brothers who also happen to be fisher folk, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. But here’s the weird thing. Rabbis, in the ancient world, would not go after potential students. Rather, students would follow the Rabbis around, trying to gather as much wisdom and hopefully they would be included in the group too. As well, the disciples who usually followed Rabbis were fairly educated themselves. Jesus goes against the business as usual Rabbi and disciple relationship. He goes out of his way to find those who were as John Calvin called, “rough mechanics.” Jesus could’ve called anyone, but he chose those who were not the elite.

As Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

And in the case of fisher folk, they were nearly in the lowest class of society, the artisan class. The Roman Empire also made sure that they stayed there through heavy taxation to the tune of 80% of fish they caught. Those fish would then be dried and salted at a factory, which was owned by the Caesar at the time. Then the fish sold would contribute to the benefit of the Empire, never the fishermen.

I wonder some of the thoughts going through the brothers’ minds when Jesus asked them to the follow him. Were they happy to give up the family business to follow this stranger? Had they seen Jesus hang around John the Baptizer and assumed that he was one of the good ones? Or were they frightened, not knowing what would happen next. Scripture doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine it being an easy decision. Simon and Andrew left behind their nets. James and John left behind their father. Following Jesus changed the course of their lives.

In 2009, I read many stories of saints of old who after hearing the Gospel message gave everything away and dedicated their life to helping those in need. I felt that this was what it meant to be a disciple (and still do). So during winter break, I donated most of my clothes to the shelter, and kept two pairs of pants, five shirts, and one coat. Mostly because after reading the words of St. Basil the Great,

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes.”

I wanted to make sure that I wasted nothing. And there was something freeing about that experience. I felt closer to God and worried less about what to wear. A few months later though, I got a job at a Thrift Store and started to swap out clothes and things went downhill from there.

To follow Jesus, in a way, means to me to be less distracted. To not let petty concerns eat up your time.

We are not called to be volunteers for God’s Realm.
We are not called to add an hour or two a week to our lives, so that we can feel good.
Jesus disrupts our lives from the ordinary ebb and flow to an alternative way of life.
We are called to be disciples and to follow Christ wherever he may lead.
To leave behind those nets in our lives that hold us back from doing so. Whether that be our self-doubt, or anxiety about what others may think,
or that we do not feel worthy enough to do something like that.
Christ still calls over and over, yet never away from world, but into it.
May we listen to that call and leave our nets behind. Amen.

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Beliefs, Christainity, Scripture, Sermon

the baptism of jesus and a tree tornado: a sermon

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Psalms 29:1-11 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.

Everyday we hear many voices. We hear intercom announcements from the MTA telling us that we need to hold onto our personal belongings because there is always someone willing to take them. Or that we need to be on the lookout for suspicious looking people and packages and if we see something that we need to say something. We hear weather reports that inform us in what to wear that day. And we hear and see advertisements telling us that we are inadequate in our dress and that we should buy this piece of clothing to be with the in crowd. And on top of that, we have our own internal voices that compete. Arguing with ourselves with where we should go, what we should watch, what we should order to eat, or if we should call this person because the last time we talked with them they had me so upset, but right now we know that they are struggling with some big.

Needless to say we are bombarded with voices.

In our text today, we hear three voices. The first is the narrator, the Gospel writer. The other two voices are John the Baptizer and God.

The narrator sets the scene. We are in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. We hear this man making proclamations, but he’s clothed, not like us. He’s wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt. This man is John the baptizer. He’s performing a baptism of repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It should be understood as the changing of one’s heart and mind. Or as one commentator puts it, “to be transformed and turned around; to have your heart made over; to now be playing a new tune, returned.”

And with the rest of the people from the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem, we confess our sins and are baptized in that Jordan River.

Then John, with excess honey dripping from his beard, shouts out for all to hear, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The wild man has spoken.

Out of the crowd comes Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee and he too is baptized by the locust-eater. But he doesn’t say a word. He could have declared then and there that he was the one who John was just talking about. He could’ve pointed to himself or raised his hand showing to the crowd that it was him who John was not worthy enough to untie his sandal. But he doesn’t.

When Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens tore apart and like a dove the Spirit descends on him. And a voice came from heaven declares, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When this baptism narrative sits next to our Psalm reading, they seem to have a similar landscape. Both reference the wilderness. In the Psalm, God’s voice is powerful, strong, and can break the cedars of Lebanon. God shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. God causes the oaks to whirl and leaves the forest bare.

With some biblical imagination, I wonder if this is what God’s voice sounded like. As the heavens were being torn open, the cedars were being uprooted creating a tree tornado around the crowd. God’s proclamation about Jesus would’ve been impossible to miss.

tree tornado

But with the many voices that we hear on a regular basis, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted from God’s voice. It’s not an everyday occurrence that the heavens tear open or God’s voice becomes audible for all to hear. Thankfully, we have services like this one to quiet the voices inside ourselves and to listen deeply for God’s voice. But quieting those internal voices takes practice and discipline.

Let me finish with this, God tells Jesus that he is beloved and that God is pleased with him. There’s not much context for it. It comes out of blue, since in Mark’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first scene. He hasn’t done much. In this way, God is proclaiming, unlike the advertisers, that Jesus is adequate. I believe God comforts us those same words too:
we are God’s children,
we are beloved,
and God is well pleased with us, just as we are.

(This was originally preached at Riverside Church, NYC at the Morning Light Service)

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Liberation Theology, Sermon, Spiritual

an epiphany sermon

This sermon was preached on January 4th, 2015 at The First Reformed Church of South River, NJ. 

McKenzie, Epiphany

A few summers ago, I lived at St. Joseph’s Catholic Worker in Rochester, NY. For those who do not know about it, the Catholic Worker was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930’s. They wanted to build a new society in the shell of the old. So they created houses of hospitality. Essentially, it consisted of a soup kitchen, shelter, community center–sometimes with a farm–all built into one. In Rochester, I was in charge of the clothing closet, meal tickets, and  laundry sign up sheet. When I wasn’t busy gathering toiletries or pants, I would sit, talk, and play card games with the guests. The work was exhausting, but inspiring and made me who I am today. Toward the end of that summer, I wanted to do something meaningful and very spiritual. So a few of us got together and planned to take a pilgrimage to a monastery 30 miles south of Rochester, called the Abbey of the Genesee. We knew about this place because they would donate bread to us every week. So on a Tuesday, after we were all done our shifts at 2pm, we began our pilgrimage walk to the Abbey. We took with us water bottles, flashlights, one cell phone, and a prayer book. Every other half hour we would walk in silence. By the time it hit 4:45am, we were all tired, worn out, and extremely cranky. We found some large boulders and rested there for a quick 10 minutes. When we got back up, I started to hum the lyrics Precious Lord Take my Hand, Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am lone. The others joined in. As we sang, it turned 5 o’clock, and we could hear the bells of the Abbey chime. We made it! Although, most of us had blisters on our feet, we started running. It was a joy to finally arrive to our destination on our pilgrim journey.

When I think of other pilgrims in Scripture, the Magi quickly come to mind. They travelled for months and not just for 15 hours as we did. When they arrived to Jerusalem, they assumed that they had made it, but later found out that they still had 6 more miles to go until Bethlehem, where the Messiah was born. Scripture doesn’t tell us the kinds of conversations the Magi had, but I’m sure there were some stressful ones. Some of them probably questioned if they really saw a star in the sky or if they were just delusional. I can imagine, since after 12 hours of being with the same people on the journey, you can start to wonder if you’re doing the right thing.

Last week, our Gospel reading from Luke was about the circumcision and celebration of Jesus as salvation enfleshed.
This week, we hear not of older men and widows, but of Magi.

The root of the word Magi means magic. In Acts, we read of Simon the Magician or Simon Magus in chapter 8, then another magician in the 13th chapter named Elymas. Translators in both cases either use the word magician or sorcerer. But when it comes to the birth story of Jesus, more often than not they’re called wise men. Or as we began our service, we sang “We Three Kings,” which is also just located in our Christmas imagination and not in Scripture itself. Because we don’t know how many Magi there were. But we can know by other translations that these were some kind of magicians or sorcerers, not kings or wisemen.

When they arrive in Jerusalem, they go straight to King Herod. And this makes total sense. Jerusalem is the seat of power. It has the Temple, the priests, the money, and this is where King Herod reigns. When the Magi show up, they were expecting to see the newly born King of the Jews.
But did the star take them to Jerusalem or were they just assuming this because this is where all the power comes from?
Did the star lead them there or were they questioning the star’s guidance?
Did the star guide them there or did they need to stop for directions because clearly the star is lost?
We’ll never know for sure, but there is something curious about them stopping in Jerusalem.

When the Magi shared with King Herod that they travelled so far to pay homage to the new born King of the Jews, Scripture says “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why was everyone frightened? Because this is not how thing are suppose to go. Kingship is about being born into the family line. When these foreign sorcerers came into Herod’s court and told him that someone other than his child was going to rule, he would’ve had the overwhelming feeling that he is no longer in control.

Immediately, King Herod gathers his court of the scribes and chief priests and asks, “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They answer by quoting the fifth chapter of Micah to Herod, saying that he was to be born in Bethlehem.
After Herod knows the location, he calls a secret meeting with the Magi to learn when they exactly saw the star appear in the sky. He then tells them that they should send word back to him so that he too could pay homage.

Once the Magi left Jerusalem, they could see the star before them again, guiding them to Bethlehem. Then like that, the star stops above the house, not manger, to where Jesus and his family were. The Magi were overwhelmed with joy.
After this extremely long journey, they finally get to see the Christ-child.
When they entered the house, little baby Jesus was with Mary. They bowed before him and offered him those traditional (baby shower) gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
A few verses later, we hear of Herod’s horrible act of the killing of the innocents, all males two years and younger. So I wonder with the information given to Herod by the Magi, if Jesus was a little over 1 year of age.
Maybe Jesus was already walking by the time the Magi arrived.

And if it was over a year since they saw the star and started to follow it, the Magi must’ve given up a lot.
They would’ve forfeited relationships with significant others.
They probably didn’t always have a roof over their heads to stay some nights.
They probably thought about using their gifts for the Christ-child to get their necessities, but didn’t.
In a sense, the Magi were one of Jesus’ first disciples.
As the bearded adult Jesus will say later in Matthew, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

This is exactly what the Magi did. And at the end of their journey, they received an Epiphany. Their journey was not in vain.

So what kind of journey are we willing to take this New Year?
One of my favorite Christmas songs is “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
In the last verse, we sing,
“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man (or Magi), I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
Knowing that not everyone is called to take a pilgrimage, or bear gifts.
We are, although, all called to discipleship: to follow Christ
sometimes in the most uncomfortable situations
sometimes in bearing a friend’s burden although it might keep us up at night,
and sometimes in loving our enemies, even if we have never met them.
Let us make our New Year’s resolutions, alongside the Magi, to go deeper into discipleship wherever Christ may lead.

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