There is no Safety: Sermon on Philippians 4

I was so humbled, and thankful, to share this sermon at Binkley Baptist Church on October 15th, the church my father and his wife attend. It’s a bit longer than usual for this Episcopalian, but “when in Rome” and all that 😉

Text: Philippians 4:1 – 9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Loved ones, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

 

Our Scripture today begins, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown stand firm in the Lord. Beloved, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntche to come to an agreement in the Lord.”

Did you catch it?

It’s easy to miss, just one sentence about two people with rather complicated Greek names, who had an argument 2000 years ago.

Well, I should say, two women had an argument. Two women who had, as Paul writes, “struggled with me, Paul, in the ministry of the Gospel … as coworkers, as co-laborers in the ministry of the Gospel.”

This notion – that two women – two women! were named ministers of the Gospel was so shocking, so unbelievable to medieval biblical scholars, that for generations many insisted that Paul had written a first-century typo, and Euodia was not a woman but a man!

And despite the misgendering of Euodia for centuries, the simple fact of the matter is the church in Philipi was brought to birth in partnership with another woman: Saint Lydia. The book of Acts tells us that Lydia was a wealthy merchant. She, like Euodia and Syntyche, is not mentioned in relation to any man – husband or father. She was “enabled by the Lord to embrace Paul’s message,” and immediately following her conversion she invited Paul to stay with her. In fact, after Paul was freed from prison the first time, he “left the prison and made his way to Lydia’s house where he … encouraged the brothers and sisters.”[1]

When Paul was freed from prison he returned to Lydia’s home to preach, and it is in HER HOME that is the church, her home is their sanctuary! And in this women’s home-made-church, Euodia and Syntyche are important enough to the community that Paul calls them by name.

Why does this matter?

Because the way we tell our history matters. I don’t mean to paint rosy portrait of the early church, or to excuse Paul’s other writings on women that, well, would have a preacher like myself be silent in church. But if we gloss over these women, we erase the history that women were preachers and teachers and movement-makers right from the start.

So what is the explicit reason Paul mentions Euodia and Syntyche? He wrote, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord.”

Whatever the role these women had in this church, what we primarily know is that they had an argument, and that their argument was intense enough that word of it has reached Paul who – once again – is in prison, this time far from Philippi.

Even in the church that was Paul’s “joy and crown,” even in this brave and beautiful woman-led church, there was division.

Division between friends and families, coworkers and strangers – this is not new to us. We are living in an age of heightened anxiety and division, where our communities and country are not only politically divided between conservative and liberal, but when we who consider ourselves to be more progressive have serious in-fighting. Maybe this was the kind argument Euodia and Syntyche were having. We are compelled to do the painful reckoning with racism, with homophobia, with sexism, with ableism. Some of us are clamoring for our rights until our voices are sore. Some of us are trying to learn how to listen, how to lean in when the conversation is tough. Some of us are doing both.

And that tension isn’t all that produces anxiety. There is a seeming litany of hurricanes and fires plundering life and limb. There are more and more reports of powerful men sexually assaulting women seemingly without consequence. There’s the legislation that is threatening away healthcare for millions, forcibly deport the Dreamers, and strip away the inch of protection from discrimination LGBTQIA+ people have.

And there are the still-fresh memories of that horrific night in Las Vegas.

It is a grim world to behold.

But the reality is, it has always been a grim world to behold.

The world has never been accommodating to people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people who live on the margins. So many of my friends of color speak more of their exhaustion than their horror, though the horror is certainly there.

In my work as a research assistant, I transcribed sermons preached by women in Duke Chapel over the last fifty-or-so years. As I sat transcribing a sermon on a day of particularly bad news, I listened to a woman preach about the hold fear had over the nation, how sibling seemed to be turning against sibling, how the world did not feel safe. She was preaching in 1978, but it could have been said today.

So I did some more digging. Sermons from the 1960s, and the 1970s, and the 1980s, and the 1990s, and the 2000s – sermons preached by white women, black women, brown women – university chaplains and distinguished theology professors – all of theme had this running theme: the world does not feel safe.

I do not share this to diminish the present pain you are facing, or hurting people everywhere are facing. Nor do I mean to say that the reasons we argue with one another like Euodia and Syntyche can be “reduced” to generalities.

Pain is always particular. And we should never diminish the power of pain in our selves or each other simply because pain is common or repetitive.

The world has always been insecure. And we have always been called to seek God’s peace, not our security.

There are times when it is easier to believe the lie that the world is safe. But the prophet Isaiah reminds us that we worship a God “who makes ruthless nations afraid” and who is a refuge to the poor and the needy.[2]

And yet even when we have faith in God, living in such an insecure world still causes profound anxiety. Anxiety that is incredibly legitimate – because desiring safety for ourselves to flourish, for children to be free, for love to be nurtured is a good and Godly thing to want. Anxiety is powerful, and real, and so often beyond our control, because this world makes no promises to us that it can keep.

So this is what Paul says to do with our anxiety: “do not be anxious about anything; instead, bring your fear to God, and give thanks. Then the peace of the God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”

Will keep your hearts, and your minds, safe. Safe in Christ Jesus.

In a world where there is no safety, what does it mean to seek safety in God?

Notice, Paul does not say, “God will keep you from bodily harm,” nor does he say “God’s peace will give us national security and a safety from the threats that seek to dehumanize and harm us,” nor does he say “and this is really easy to do.”

God’s peace is beyond all understanding, because God’s peace is not about our security. This is a radical call to let go of our fear – real, painful, deep fear. It is a call to be dispossessed of all that we think gives us power over ourselves, and over others. [3]

So how do we let go of our fear? How do we seek this peace? “From now on, if anything is excellent, and if anything is admirable – focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.”

This is not a concrete plan to reassure us that things will work out, nor is it an easy template for conflict resolution. It’s quite the opposite: in a world that is not holy or lovely or pure, choose to see the life that is thriving in spite of this present darkness. The Lord is near.

This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to just be happy and blind to suffering; remember, Paul, a brown Jewish man imprisoned by the state for speaking against injustice. Lydia risked her wealth and her status and her privacy to open up her home to the church in Philippi. Euodia and Syntyche trusted their community enough to love them even though they were angry.

Knowing our hearts and minds are held safe by God might lead incredibly dangerous places.

But if there was no joy to be sought, nothing lovely or pure or good or holy to be seen – then there is no point in having any faith at all.

So, yes: Seeking God’s love, seeking God’s joy, can never be separated from seeking God’s justice. So as we see all that is true, we learn to recognize the lies worldly power and security allure us with. As we see all that is holy, we see dehumanizing words and actions as fundamentally unholy. As we see all that is just, we remember those who are hungry for justice.

But also we are told: seek all that is lovely, seek all that is pure, seek all that is worthy of praise. Living with anxiety is exhausting, and brutal, and if we do not give ourselves reprieve, if we do not seek peace – genuine peace – we are not giving God space to remind us that God is still at work in this frightening world.[4]

For God will keep your hearts and minds safe.

Safety, real safety, is an emptying. Safety is an emptying.

I don’t mean emptying like an erasure. A blind belief that all we do is wait for God to fix it. Nor do I mean that we are to seek safety by erasing the parts of ourselves that make us too much for the world. “Silence is no safety.”[5]

Being safe in God is not lying to ourselves. Safety is telling the truth because we are not afraid of the cost.

Being safe in God is not trying to control who is worthy of love. Safety is trusting that God’s love is not possessive; God’s love is expansive. It only makes room for more love.

Safety in God feels like letting go of everything we are holding – everything that is in fact holding us down.

Being safe in God is letting go. Letting go and “letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” who chose to be dis-possessed of all of his power, of all of his might, and faced the death of a criminal.

Being safe in God is knowing even in the darkest valleys we shall fear no evil because God is with us.

Safety in God is putting down all the bags we carry, the alarms we set, the to-do lists we write, the walls we build – because we know we don’t have to carry them anymore.

Being safe in God feels like having open hands. Emptying ourselves looks like opening ourselves up to trust – even when trust seems improbable.

Safety is knowing that the world is not safe, but choosing to live and love and seek God, anyway.

 


 

[1] Acts 4:40

[2] Isaiah 25: 1 – 9

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (1983), p. 86 – 87 “To be followers of Jesus means that we must become dispossessed of all that we think gives us power over our own lives and the lives of others … [for] our possessions are the source of our violence. Fearing that others desire what we have, or when we are stung by the seldom acknowledged sense that we have we do not deserve, we seek self-deceptive justifications that mire us in patterns of injustice which can be sustained only by coercion.”

[4] After all, Emma Goldman once said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution”

[5] William Stringfellow

 

 

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The Opposite of Fear is Faith, a Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22

All readings from the day can be read here. Preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

1 Peter 3:13-22 Common English Bible (CEB)

13 Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.

“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do good?”

So opens our reading from 1 Peter today.

“Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”

While this letter is attributed to Peter, the Apostle famous for denying Jesus and then walking on water with wobbly feet, this letter is from the first century – some fifty years, or so, after Jesus’ resurrection. Continue reading

Trans-Figuration of the Lord

Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Petimg_1625er and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”


“Six days later,” our story begins.

“Six days later.”

If this were a novel, the prologue would go something like this: Jesus has been sparring with the Pharisees and Saduccees, the religious elites of his own native Judaism. They’ve heard wind that he might be a prophet. They want to see for themselves.

And Jesus does his usual thing, of telling them exactly what they already know and exactly what they don’t want to hear and generally mystifying everyone.

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Peace in Revolt

IMG_2097To every person who has shown up for protests, who has engaged in painful conversations: thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Jesus was a refugee when his parents had to flee Bethlehem; Jesus is the refugee babe in the ambulance too shocked to speak.

And to everyone who cannot protest: thank you, too.

I mean this with all humility and love: showing up matters, but showing up doesn’t always look like being physically at the protest.

There are infinite legitimate reasons why people cannot always march. PTSD. Anxiety. A shift you can’t miss for risk of losing the job. A shift you need to pay the rent. A paper to write in a class that is doing the slow and steady work of transforming your spirit to be ready for constant revolution. Schoolwork that needs doing because you’ve been so eaten up with anxiety it has sat untouched for so long. No babysitter. No money for a babysitter. Children who are too young to know this isn’t the time for a tantrum. Children who are sick. Parents who are sick. You are sick. Your body isn’t cooperating today. Your body is one that wears faster during long walks and standing outside. Your body is not welcome.

By the looks of things, we are going to be praying with our feet a lot these next four years. As my friend Jes Kast said: “This is not a sprint. Run the race with endurance.”

Taking time to be ready is not disengaging. Taking time to be present to joy is not uncaring. Taking time to rest is not a lack of resilience.

It moves me beyond words to see how “thoughts and prayers for those affected” has transformed into people showing up in the streets to pray with their bodies.

But as a person of faith, i still affirm the power of prayer. Contemplation needs action. And so prayer is absolutely protest. But it is also stillness, and furious dancing, and time apart, and presence.

Our hearts are being challenged and pushed to grow wider, which means there is more room for heartbreak, more people to love and hurt for. This is leaning into our calling to welcome the stranger and love our neighbor and walk humbly, love mercy, and do justice.

Giving yourself permission to seek peace is not the same thing as being at peace with the status quo. 



 

Mary Did Know

Maybe it was my middle school crush on Clay Aiken, or maybe it was a bent toward feminist theology at a tender age, but “Mary Did You Know?” always makes my top 5 for Christmas songs.

(And, yes, i know it’s barely day two of Advent, you snooty Christians. I need a little Christmas, right this very minute, okay?)

A couple of weeks ago i was leading a Bible study on the Magnificat and the encounter in Luke 1 between Mary and Elizabeth. Our deacon then commented that if you were only to have the first chapter of Luke, one might presume that this promised Messiah would go on to be a great king, an uprooter of worldly power through his own majesty. Mary’s song, after all, falls in a great line of Biblical womyn singing praises to God for giving them sons, sons who would go on to do stuff quite like that.

We wondered then about what, exactly, Mary knew.

And, worryingly, what she consented to.

Gabriel doesn’t say precisely what “overshadow” means, nor does he detail how God will protect Mary from being, say, dying in childbirth or being abandoned for her indiscretion. We know she will give birth to one who will be called God’s Son. But God doesn’t detail that Jesus will die, gruesomely, as a criminal. Before her very eyes.

Maybe that’s because God didn’t know; maybe this is evidence for free will, that it was not some magnanimous gesture of wrath on God’s part that killed his kid, but humanity’s fear of what God on earth looks like, acts like.

I really like to think God asked Mary. That consent was required for the conceiving of such a gift, and such a curse.

But what becomes clearer and clearer to me is how much Mary knew. No, she probably didn’t know Jesus would “calm the storm with his hand” and give sight to that particular blind man, but did she know that her baby boy was going to be “Lord of all creation”?

“Surely,” she sang, “all generations will call me blessed.”

 

 

In other news…

Ya’ll, there is just so much right now. I’m not sure i’m ready to talk about Jesus and this election. What i’ve been trying to do is stay present, and hopeful, and to do so by being plugged in with people i love and art that nourishes.

So a few weeks ago i finally launched a photography business, because apparently, i just can’t do one artistic thing at a time. And right now i’m running a sale of goofy Christmas card photos. You can read more about why here

But just in case you’re as mired in the muck of sadness and anger and resignation and rebuttal as i am, here’s a picture of our step-dog, Tupelo:

img_4201

Love you. Here’s to laughter!

God, the Persistent Widow

In the Gospel of Luke, there’s this parable. (I originally wrote: “this bizarre parable,” but i realized that was redundant.) And in it, there is a judge who “neither fears God nor respects people,” and there is a widow seeking justice.

Widows are kind of a big deal in Scripture; they are one of the few categorically specific people whom God tells the people over and over they must care for.

Widows were also the most commonly targeted people in medieval witch hunts. Widows were women bereft of a patriarchally-sanctioned identity – that is, a husband or father to claim her.

Widows, too, are an emblem and embodiment of grief: as much as they threaten power structures with their liberty, in this parable her namelessness seems to speak to the cavern of loss. She is a spare, an excess – a bereaved excess. Maybe she loved her husband; maybe she didn’t. But in this story she is known only by the absence – widow – and her grief is no less significant than her gender or her powerlessness.

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From The Flawless Project: Why I Love My OCD

I’m over on The Flawless Project today, writing the scariest thing i have hit “publish” on. Here’s a sample:

Content warning: discussion of OCD, suicidal ideation, mental illness, familial and child death

Author’s Note: This is my story in learning to live with and love my OCD – but this is in NO WAY a universal experience or sentiment. Writing this has been cathartic – and painful – for me, and it’s my hope it will be a connection, a validation, a balm for others. But no one lives with mental health/illness/neuro-atypical-ness the same way. None of what i say here should be essentialized as something all people living with OCD feel. No one should act on my story without consulting a doctor, therapist, or professional.

If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

I was diagnosed with OCD three years ago, in the worst season of my life.

My aunt, uncle, and two cousins died in a plane that failed to make it off the runway; on the other side of the family, my grandmother’s last of a dozen or so strokes took her away two hours before my international flight landed – a flight taken to make my good-byes to her; my parent’s divorce was finalized; my dog of ten years had to be put down; and i had been suicidal for months.

The months before my grandmother dying, the plane, crash, the divorce, the dog dying.

There was a stretch of some three odd weeks where my brothers, my then-fiancé, and i were driving down to Greenville, SC, every couple of days for another funeral. My family was from Greenville, and had been vacationing with another family from Greenville. Two prominent doctor families, one town. So many wanted to honor them, to grieve them; there were so many services – i have glimpses from the Episcopal K-12 school where all the kids had met, the internment at Newberry College, and – the most painful – the Boy Scouts ceremony where they talked about 14-year-old Connor being just one project shy of his Eagle’s badge.

And, hours after one service and days before another, it’s all a humid blur – i stood out under the deck in their backyard, clawing at my nicked-up arms and screaming at my fiancé about an argument we’d had in April.

It was July.

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Turning Twenty-Four

I get a little squirmy these days when people ask how old i am. Actually, scratch that; i’ve always gotten squirmy.

When i was fourteen, people outside of school regularly mistook me for a first-year college student. And on my wedding day, the woman who did my makeup made a tutting noise and told me i looked way too young for this. Last week, someone asked me what kind of music i grew up with; i made the usual pinch-nose, bracing for the exclamation that i was too young. She said she’s guess my age, and guess lower than she thought; she aimed for 29.

Maybe it’s my fat face, maybe it’s my premature sass, maybe it’s that we love to classify youth as this measurable and identifiable thing but, like basically every label, it’s all socially constructed consumerist nonsense. I don’t mind the guessing, usually. When the 29-guesser laughed, i delighted. She made me feel old and mature, like i would always eat all the groceries i buy instead of finding a few soured grapes in the corner of the bottom fridge-shelf after wondering for two weeks what that stink was.

So i’m 24 years and a few days old.

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On Our Anniversary

 

l&j - bridegroom-128

By Urban South Photo

“Right now, I love you forever. I love you for the hardest mile we walked together.” Andrea Gibson

I don’t know if i can in good faith call it my most favorite part of our wedding day, only because i can’t choose a slice of the whole cake and call it the most sumptuous.

But this is definitely the story i love most today.

We woke up on August ninth to a downpour. My mother had always told me how they had wrapped her train and head with trash bags as she walked to the church, to keep them from soaking. Saran held my hand and told me it was good luck.

Jonathan and i had always loved the rain. I told our photographer – who had managed to sneak engagement portraits in between drizzles some nine months prior – that this was just our lot. We learned to love in the downpour; we’d been engaged just two months when a plane crash took four people from our family forever, when i was in biweekly therapy for clinical OCD and anxiety, when we looked at each other and said, “are they right?”

“Are we too young?”

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