in celebration of earth day, mary oliver’s “the sun”

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

– Mary Oliver

ELF flag

Happy Earth Day!

Plant a tree,

fight environmental racism,

and embrace the Earth

today and everyday.

on the cross hung jesus, the historical materialist

Holy Week opens the space for us to be sad, mad, and lonely. We can look to the blooded Christ, abandoned by his closest friends, and recognize that hope’s flame has been extinguished. Unfortunately, too many churches over-spiritualize the cross showing how Jesus knew the events surrounding his death. Even the letter to the Hebrews seems to say something similar: Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). Through all the pain and anguish, Jesus knew, hanging there, that this was not going to last forever. Was the writer to the Hebrews saying that Jesus transcended pain altogether? I don’t know, but certainly the Gospels do not try to hide the flogging, crown of thorns, carrying a heavy cross up a hill at the weakness point of his life, then being hung and nailed to it. That’s just gruesome.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, was a victim of history. 

It matters that he is seen as such.

Between the two world wars, Walter Benjamin lived as a Jew in Europe. He was interested in art, culture, history, politics, literature, philosophy, and theology. And they were never separate categories for him, but would mixed together into beautiful essays and theses. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he wrote that each generation has a “weak Messianic force” (Thesis II). We have the power to remember the victims of history. He commanded Historical Materialists to “brush history against the grain” of the elite and victors (Thesis VII). As well, we cannot understand time linearly as the “beads of a rosary,” but that we must “establish a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time” (Thesis XVIII A). In other words, when we remember, recall, re-historicize the victims of history, we are giving them another chance in the present. In this way, we are weak Messiahs because its only the Messiah(s) who can re-member these victims, to restore their bodies and lives.

When the criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross asks him to remember him, he’s asking Jesus to become a Historical Materialist. He’s asking him to not let the victors dominate the story. He’s asking Jesus to not forget him, to not forget those who have been killed by the Empire, to re-vive his life through stories although it may be nothing compared to world history.

It matters how we remember the victims of history, whether it’s Jesus, Michael Brown, the Trail of Tears, Laura and L.D. Nelson, Andy Lopez, Aiyana Jones, and the millions more oppressed through slavery, colonization, and killed by the powers-that-be.

Let us remember them that we might change the present. 

salvation: theology and theopoetry

Someone gave me some insight once in how to read theology: theologians only answer the questions asked. Augustine answered certain questions that we’re not asking today. The same is true for Death of God theologians and many contemporary theologians do not incorporate #BlackLivesMatter or push against transphobia in their theologies.

So why do we hold onto an outdated salvation narrative, when clearly we are not asking these same questions?

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.
Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

As Americans, we have been trained to hear a particular salvation story. God created the universe, placed people in a Garden, and had a close relationship with them. They sin by not obeying God and are cast out of the Garden and into the world, away from God. Because of them, the cosmos became tainted with sin and humanity totally deprived. Consequently, we cannot do anything good, unless God does it through us. To rescue us from this plight, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ and dies on a cross for our sins. And with this action, God’s anger is appeased and God loves us once again. If we recognize that Christ died for us, then we are forgiven, and will live with God forever after we die.

This is a nice logical framework, if one can call it that.

When church folk start to question this narrative, they either give up Christianity or are kicked out of the church. This happened to many of my friends in undergrad.

There are theopoets, like Catherine Keller, who present us with a possible alternative formulation: Jesus as a Parable and Deconstructor. Jesus does not allow our logic to be the final and last word, but disrupts theo-logic with parables and stories that reset our way of thinking, again and again. The common salvation narrative that I described above is not found on the lips of Jesus. Jesus preached that the basileia (commonwealth or kin-dom) of God was crashing to Earth and we should be ready. Not that Adam and Eve were the first sinners or that he would die on a cross to appease the FATHER’s anger.

Dr. Keller also writes elsewhere in On the Mystery, that salvation is rooted in the word ‘salve’ meaning ‘an ointment to promote healing’ or to ‘soothe.’ If understood like this, salvation is not found away from the world, but in it. Salvation happens when relationships are mended, when prisoners are released, and racism eradicated.

Christ’s life was full of salvation moments, not just his death and resurrection.

Ethiopian Jesus healing

middle class economics and the industrial reserve army

During his State of the Union address, President Obama coined the term “middle class economics.” Days later a blog post appeared on the Huffington Post further explaining what he meant. He opened by asking

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and rising chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

These two generalized questions demonstrate our economic and political discourse. He softly recognizes that the wealthiest 20% people in the country own 85% of the wealth and resources. If the economy does not change, they will continue to increase their wealth. Additionally, he insinuates that if one works hard that our government and capitalist economy will assure that one is rewarded with by her or his efforts. Yet, those President Obama missed in his address are ‘the industrial reserve army’ and those who work hard at several part-time jobs making minimum wage only to scrape by. Karl Marx describes this underclass as a symptom of capitalism.

The economy in capitalism must grow and multiple or it cannot survive. Marx in the Communist Manifesto described that capitalists continually must revolutionize their technology, labor, and other modes of production to make a higher profit. As well, competition among businesses is often a zero-sum game with larger companies absorbing smaller ones. In this way, “the big capitalists grow bigger and fewer.”* For example, in the US, two cable companies, Time Warner Cable and Comcast, dominate one’s ability to access the Internet. Like wayward lovers, they’ve created territories with what city each one can occupy. As a result, the underclass suffers as these companies gain more business.

Marx wrote that the finished is not the only commodity, but also the labor of the worker. He would go on to theorize this as the fetishization of commodities. And as capitalism forcibly travelled around the world, it exponentially created more commodities. Call centers were set up in India providing customer service and paying workers small wages. Sweatshops landed in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh providing slave wages for the underclass and children (in those countries who turn an eye away from this horror). Answering phone calls half way round the world, sowing fashionable clothes by people who cannot afford to wear them, and child labor became commodities within the last fifty years. And these all affect the lower classes.

Karl Marx wrote on, systematized, and enlightened the world when he described the destructive nature of capitalism, yet few listened. Today’s discourse of middle class economics blatantly ignores the industrial reserve army. It tries to inspire people to work even harder to achieve the mythical American Dream. Until the monster of capitalism is slain, we will continue to have unemployment, people without homes, peopleless homes, people without healthcare and refugees.

poor of the world

*Wielenga, Bastiaan, Introduction to Marxism, Centre fro Social Action (Bangalore, India) 1984, p. 62

st. marx and st. basil: distributing according to the needs of others

From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!1

St. Marx

You begrudge your fellow human beings what you yourself enjoy; taking wicked counsel in your soul, you consider not how you might distribute to others according to their needs, but rather how, after having received so many good things, you might rob others their benefit.2

St. Basil the Great

The famous Marx quote above positions his social and economic platform. He was critiquing the Gotha Program, which was the political and social program created by German socialists, who wanted Marx’s opinion (although they never took heed of his words). The program emphasized one’s ability to work and the importance of work itself. Marx opens his critique with “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values…” In other words, labor should not be emphasized over the Earth and her resources; rather, labor and the Earth should balance one other. We should only use what is necessary and not exploit the land.

Later in the Critique, Marx writes of the different phases of communism. In the higher phase of communism, he writes, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” This quote summarizes the preceding paragraph, showing that not every person has the same physical or mental ability. Every one has different gifts and talents, so we cannot be the same kind of worker. Additionally, at some point in our lives we will be unable to work. For example, children and the elderly in our society should not work, but they still have needs. As well, people who have the ability to work some days/weeks cannot function because of depression, injuries, or grieving the loss of a loved one. For this reason, Marx makes it clear that it’s not labor that gives one value: a person has familial ties, talents and abilities that lack ‘market value’, but we are breathing, living creatures (it that not enough?).

Sharing is Caring

I write of Marx’s position first because he has been more influential (and the most misunderstood) in social and economic movements than Basil. Although, I believe Basil represents a far more radical camp than Marx.

Basil was the Bishop of Caesarea living in the fourth century. He was raised in a very wealthy family and later abandoned the upper class to become a monk. He even wrote a Monastic Rule. After many years as a monk, he was called to serve the Caesarea community as their bishop. Basil used the tools that he learned as a monk and applied them to his ministry creating a community center/church/doctor’s office. This center was called Basiliada.3 In this way, Basil brought the most important aspects of monasticism to urban life. The top-of-the-post Basil quote is from his sermon titled, “I Will Tear Down My Barns.” Some pretext: Caesarea had been hit with a drought, killing off crops and animals, and the wealthy were hoarding resources while others were dying in the street. Basil has already taken initiative, emptying the barns that he inherited and distributed food to those in need. In his sermon, which there were several on this topic, he condemns those hoarding their God-given resources. And here’s why this is radical: BASIL NEVER DEMANDS LABOR! I believe this to be at the heart of Christian anarchism. Unlike Marx who included both statements, “from each according to their ability and/or need.” Basil writes elsewhere,

“If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”

Basil transcends class and labor, theologically constructing utopia. And as I am reminded over and over again, that if we are not thinking, creating, and building utopia, what are we doing? What do we have to hope for?4 Basil states in another sermon, “To The Rich,” that if you are waiting to give to the needy after you have died, why would you not do it while you’re were alive? Why squander and live in luxury while others die in the streets?! And Basil, like a good anarchist, implies that giving of one’s self is voluntary, never forced.

St. Basil’s subversive theology is rarely, if ever, mentioned in churches across America. Our theology is shaped by political ideologies and discourse in terms of voting, legislation, and representative democracy. Imagine what it would look like if Basiliadas popped up across the world with free services for all. Imagine if one didn’t have to worry about the necessities of everyday existence: a place to stay, food to eat, merry friendships, and free utilities; instead, one could focus on caring for the community. We already have an abundance of resources (!): more than enough houses for those without, more than enough food to feed the world, more than enough medicine to cure the sick, and certainly more than enough love to go around. It’s time to leave behind worn-out political discourse and try on St. Basil.

Wealth in the US
1. Located in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ written in 1875, but it’s conceptually based on Étienne-Gabriel Morelly’s 1755 text Code of Nature.
2. This selection is from Basil’s sermon “I Will Tear Down My Barns” found in On Social Justice (p. 62), translated by C. Paul Schroeder.
3. Sadly, not much is written about it. I first read about it in On Social Justice (pps. 33-38).
4. When others describe heaven, does it not sound like a utopia?

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.

re-radicalizing scripture

Holy Scriptures endure, partially, to disrupt the lives of its adherents. This seems to be true for all religions. Of course, in each of their texts, there are a few voices that advocate for rich and powerful*, yet overall religious texts point toward justice and caring for the neighbor. In this way, Scriptures are dangerous. They demand the impossible and it’s impossible to get people to actually read them. Or maybe they have, but don’t fully understand its implications.

Here’s a few examples: Mary, Jesus’ mother, sang that the powerful should be removed from their thrones, so the poor can be lifted up (Luke 1:52). The Prophet Isaiah declared that even if you are penniless, you should still eat and drink for free (55:1). And lastly, in the earliest times of the Hebrews, womyn were leaders without question (Judges 4-5).

These examples fly in the face of current economic and political systems. 

Here’s some secondary texts that have led me to a radical understanding of Scripture:

Deryn Guest, Robert Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (Editors) The Queer Bible Commentary

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire

Musa Dube’s Post-Colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives

Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire

Robert E. Goss and Mona West (Editors) Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination

Wes Howard-Brook’s Come Out, My People!”

In making Scripture dangerous again, I wanted to practice re-radicalizing it by contemporizing Psalm 146. This Psalm, in particular, spells out a distrust of princes and royalty. For the psalmist, the point was to follow God who cares for the stranger, oppressed, widows, and orphans, since the status quo have never been concerned with such matters.

A wonderful homiletician taught me that when reading a text, verbs bring us closer to our reality, while nouns keep us at a distance. In other words, Jericho or Judges do not incorporate much meaning in our everyday lives, but “testing,” “lived among,” “they took,” and “they gave” can render endless possibilities.** With the Psalm, I updated a few verbs, but mostly focused on nouns.

Anyway, I hope you like it!

Praise God, our Agitator!
Praise God, from everything that is within us!

We will praise God as long as we live;
we will sing praises to God for the rest of our lives.

Do not put your trust in capitalists, CEOs
or in politicians, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they will return to the Earth;
on that very day their wealth becomes rot.

Blessed are they whose help is the God of the marginalized,
whose hope is in the God who suffers with them,

who is the creator of the universe, Earth,
oceans, and all the creatures in them;
who is faithful forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free;
God transforms the parts in our lives that we are afraid to speak of.

God lifts up the humbled;
God loves justice-seekers.

God watches over strange ones;
God upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the powerful, God brings to ruin.

God will reign forever,
our God, O Earth, for all generations.
Praise God!

jesus of maryknoll

* I’m thinking here of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that promote the authority of priests, especially Nehemiah and Ezra, who command post-Exiled Hebrew men who married non-Jews to divorce them. In the Christian Scriptures, patriarchy is upheld through Household codes and Paul seems to call for a respect of the State (Romans 13). As well, slavery is rarely questioned, in pseudo-Pauline letters womyn are told to keep silent, etc. Other religious texts such as Confucian texts continue hierarchy and patriarchy.

** These verbs were gathered from the first few verses in Judges 3.

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)

a prayer for justice

Clarissa Explains White Supremacy

 Oh God of this world and universe,
You constantly surprise us.
You bring about life where there is only death.
You sing to us sweet melodies that comfort those despairing.
And you guide us with hope.

The horrific acts these past few days have made our hearts heavy.
There was a bombing of a Colorado Springs NAACP office.
A group of armed men killed a whole staff of magazine writers in Paris.
And a kosher supermarket hostage situation ended in four deaths.

We are overwhelmed and frustrated.
These terrorists attacks distract us from dealing internally.
As in the US, we need to call out and end racism, white supremacy,
police brutality, economic inequality, homophobia, trans*phobia,
and so much more.

We are overwhelmed and angry
that national news cycles barely covered the NAACP bombing,
that our own President sent condolences the same night the two NYPD officers were killed,
but took days to say a word on Michael Brown.

We know, O God, that our world is unjust.
We are not asking to be rescued,
we are asking for the courage to speak out and act against injustice.
We are not asking to be more “heavenly-minded, that we are no earthly good,”
but that we are a people who show others the alternative life of your Reign.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, who stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, Amen.

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.