Sense Memory

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

It is finally spring. The blooming flowers witness to it. The increasingly visible and active wildlife attests to it. My nose confirms it. My nose confirms it not so much because I smell wafting fragrances of spring but because my escalating hay fever serves as a telling indicator that spring has sprung. I am amazed at our senses. Not only do our senses engage us with our present reality, but our senses catapult us into our past, too.

Recently, I traveled to a conference in Durham, North Carolina. A short portion of the conference was held one afternoon on the campus on Duke University. I graduated from Duke nearly a decade ago and have rarely been back since. In fact, it had been more six years since my last visit to the campus. Yet, upon walking through the front doors of The Divinity School, my senses kicked in.

The heavy wooden doors felt the same. The hallways looked the same. And, the building smelled the same. Yes, smelled the same! That same mix of old construction plus youthful vigor stirred with academic anxiety was there. In reality, I do not know exactly what the smell is that makes The Divinity School smell like it does. But, whatever that smell is, it was present.

In a moment, my nose transported me to my days as a student and my stomach began to turn and knot as if I had a test to take that afternoon for which I was ill prepared. Sense memory is incredible in its both potency and viscerality.

I imagine a similar sense memory shaped the gospel writer as he penned the above text. All of the gospels were written after the fact. The gospels are not some chronicler’s notations of the “days of Jesus.” Rather, the gospels are recollections of the acts, stories, and events of Jesus’ life compiled long after the original events to convey a larger theological narrative about life, death, resurrection, and love. This is true for all the gospels, including John’s gospel.

At that future moment as the writer of John scribed this passage, I imagine him in a room somewhere, squirreled away, jotting down his account of Jesus’ narrative of salvation. John would sit next to an open window for better light. While reflecting on the life of his friend and Lord, unexpectedly, a familiar scent wafts through that open window. Carried on a warm spring breeze, the smell of nard from the perfumery in the marketplace below sparks a distant yet still personally present memory.

Ever since the events of that earlier day, when John smells nard he cannot help but recall the powerful events of that long-ago week that began so triumphantly only to end so crushingly. This smell seemingly suspends time and vanishes space, transporting John from his current room to another time and place altogether.

There John was back in that day now some distance in the past. He finds himself, again, in Bethany just outside Jerusalem with Jesus and many of his followers sharing a meal prepared by Martha. The group was still trying to process what had happened a few days before when Jesus raised Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Now, at their table, Lazarus was sitting with them eating. It was during this same meal that Lazarus’ other sister Mary ran into the room and poured out the expensive, fragrant nard oil onto Jesus. That was not the first time that John smelled nard, but all of the emotion and excitement of those days coupled with Mary’s impetuous and lavish anointing sealed that moment in his memory, locking that memory tightly to that pungent smell. If not a new smell, he certainly smelled nard in a new way after the events of that day and the days to follow. Therefore, in some respects, it was as if he was smelling nard for the first time.

In that initial instance, the disciples did not really know what to do with Mary’s actions. What she did was a bit curious, as the nard oil was both expensive and usually reserved for anointing the dead. However, now, with many years between these past events and his present reality, John had managed to reconsider many of Mary’s actions. Back in his present world, Mary’s actions made much more sense.

To buy nard oil, Mary spent her life’s savings. Her action was a complete and total “cashing in” of her life in response to the new life Jesus declared when he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Just before raising Lazarus, Jesus shouted, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Mary seemed to perceive that the kind of life necessary to have this new, resurrected life demanded complete sacrifice, the cashing in of everything. And, as John and his fellow disciples would soon learn, Jesus’ week would end with just such a complete sacrifice, a total offering of all that he was, nothing held back, nothing reserved.

This kind of total giving of his life in exchange for our lives of service and personal commitment does not leave room for proportional giving or partial commitment. A life of faith is not as much as a set of propositions believed but a way of life we are willing to live, to live sacrificially and completely without reservation or withholding. Like Mary’s oil, our lives must be poured out fully and luxuriously for God and for others.

Imagine the gospel story if Jesus had only gone part of the way to Jerusalem, turning just before the cross. Imagine if Jesus had decided that the life of faith did not require personal investment of his life and actions but simply his intellectual assent to the notion that the kingdom of God, resurrection and new life, and liberation of the oppressed and healing of the world was only a good idea not an expected, active existence. Imagine such a gospel. Would it be good news or merely news about another philosophy or ideology we choose to believe if convenient?

The gospel writer constructs the narrative so that Mary’s lavish and total giving was both a harbinger of Jesus’ total self-giving that was to come and our total self-giving that must follow. Mary, it turns out, is the very model of faith, i.e., a life committed without reservations to God’s kingdom, a life devoid of withholdings and half-commitments and qualified confessions. Mary, as she proves repeatedly in the gospel stories, gets it. Mary is the first, total convert to the resurrection kingdom because she willingly cashes in all that she has and, in effect, is for Jesus’ resurrection kingdom. Moreover, in her actions, Mary serves as proxy for God, anointing Jesus and making him Christ, Messiah (i.e., the “anointed one”, the king) to ride into Jerusalem as the king of his people, of his new, re-created world.

John cannot help but remember this moment and breathe in Mary’s actions. It is the nard. The nard does it every time. The smell of that oil always transports him back to that moment, reminding him of Mary’s complete and lavish outpouring of self on the one who would pour out himself for the whole world just a few days later. For the gospel writer, the nard becomes but a metaphor for our total, active engagement in a kingdom of love and selflessness, of generosity and abundance. Its smell remains a pungent reminder, a sensual trigger.

The gospel writer seems intentionally to have retained this story to compel us to ask, what sense memories would our lives of faith trigger? If the smelling of nard would transport others to some part of our lives of faith, what would they see; onto whom would they see us lavishly and generously pouring out our lives? Would our lives of faith be more akin to a series of intellectual calculations and appropriate confessions, or would our lives of faith be lives of abundant, selfless, generosity as we anoint with our love those whom Jesus touched: the marginalized, the discarded, the despised, the disempowered, the despicable, the displaced, and the disregarded?

Jesus’, Mary’s and our touching herald the in-breaking of a new, resurrection kingdom.
As we begin Holy Week, may our retelling of these stories become more than simple reminiscing but the declaration of our manifesto to an active living of the kingdom not for ourselves but for others through our own lavish, loving outpouring.



Let the Children Come to Me

. . . Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ (Matthew 19.14)

Today, in Georgia thousands of children are trafficked to work in fields, to work as sex slaves, or to be transported from one city to another. Advocacy groups like Shared Hope estimate that more than 200,000-300,000 individuals are trafficked within the United States each year. Many of those trafficked are children and teenagers. Whether grabbed while walking home from school or sold by parents in exchange for drugs, children are being exploited all around us, and we often do not recognized it. Within Atlanta, The Juvenile Justice Fund estimates that, monthly, 200 to 300 children and teenagers are trafficked for sex. That estimation solely includes Atlanta! Moreover, as the current statutes read in the state of Georgia, law enforcement officers have little option but to arrest children that are trafficked for sex. Once arrested, these children are not liberated from their captors but charge as prostitutes and held captive to a system that forces them to the margins, often out of the reach of care.

Georgia anti-trafficking advocacy groups like A Future. Not a Past. and StreetGRACE note that once convicted of prostitution, these children are ineligible to receive state services for victims of sexual abuse. These groups are working to help state legislators provide alternative paths for children picked up for prostitution. Through SB 304, these alternative paths would allow children not to be charged as criminals but placed in a victim’s advocacy and rehabilitation services stream.

As the above gospel passage reminds us, Jesus rejected social convention and intentionally reach out to children. In this particular gospel story, the disciples did not want to waste Jesus’ valuable time because, in Jesus’ day, children were considered property of their parents. Not being considered fully persons, children, the disciples’ eyes, were not worth of Jesus’ time. Yet, Jesus saw the children as co-equal inheritors of the good news of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom was for all, especially those previously left out. Jesus’ desire to upend social convention to help a marginalized and underappreciated—and, therefore, easily exploited—group placed him in a long line of agitators-for-a-greater-good, i.e., advocates for God’s kingdom.

In answering his own rhetorical question as to what proper faith requires, the prophet Micah said, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Faith, it turns out, is as much as what we do with our hands and our heads for the transformation of the world as much as it is about what we believe in our hearts.

I challenge us to be just such a people of faith. May we, also, be a people committed intentionally to reaching out to children as Jesus did, especially these children held captive in human trafficking. May we, like the prophet Micah challenges us, seek to change systems that perpetuate exploitation by being advocates for justice while, also, caring for the immediate needs of those exploited through acts of merciful kindness.

May we act!

And to the Little Ones
By Lisa Sharon Harper

Swiped from her village
sold for a dime by poor parents
to a rich global market
Taka’s 10-year-old bones rattle with fear.
bound to earth – chained.
Beaten down to size in small back rooms
Spirit broken by westerners who promise the world
and leave her a lump of mud.
No breath…
No breath…
Can’t breathe in this tomb.
Taka’s humanity
her dignity
her soul
is battered and bartered
on the black market for a dime.
And pundits predict her body will be found
in a ditch in an alley
some – day.

Vacant eyes wander her neighborhood
She is “Sold!” for a dime bag
by her crack head momma
to suits and briefcases with Jersey plates
Takisha’s 10-year-old bones rattle with fear.
from school
and dreams
and friends.
Her lifeless body puts food on the table
She eats the devil’s dinner
And her humanity
her dignity
her soul
No breath…
No breath…
Can’t breathe in this toxic corner of the world.
And pundits predict Takisha’s vacant body will be found in an ally or a trash can
before her 18th birthday.

And thus says the Lord,
“Come from the four winds, o breath!
And breathe upon the slain!
That they may live!”
That they may live!
That they may run and play and lay in the streets and look up at the stars
That they may dream of romance and significance and peace for their families
and their people.
That they may breathe and stand and live…
And to Taka and Takisha
to their rattling bones
to the little ones
who bear God’s image
The Lord God says,

Are We Awake or Asleep?

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ (Matthew 26:36-46)

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes some of his disciples with him as he prays and prepares for the next day, the hardest day of his life and the costly climax to his confrontational ministry. Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake and pray with him, but while Jesus withdraws for a time of private prayer, the disciples fall asleep. Three times, Jesus returns to find his friends and companions in ministry sleeping rather than vigilantly praying. Three times, Jesus confronts them. After the confrontation, Jesus declares, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

How often might those convicting words be applied to us, too? The metaphorical power and depth offered by this moment in Jesus’ ministry is profound. The disciples—having been called by Jesus, taught by Jesus, invited by Jesus to begin and see the beginnings of his new, radically rearranged kingdom—cannot stay awake long enough, cannot focus long enough, cannot attend to the in-breaking moments of God’s kingdom long enough to recognize the significance of the time at hand. Jesus, through his shared life and work, has offered the disciples intimate insight into the expectations and ambitions of the kingdom. In addition, here, in this moment of prayerful preparation and struggle, Jesus invites these particular co-workers in the kingdom to share in his struggle, primarily by staying awake!

What does it mean to stay awake? Physically, staying awake is merely not sleeping. Often, staying awake is more easily said than done. (I am well aware of this reality while writing these words after a weeklong mission trip coupled with the loss of an hour’s sleep that the jump to daylight savings time brings!) When we are physically weary, staying awake is not that easy. Yet, there is another time when staying awake is equally difficult. When we do not want to deal with something unpleasant, staying awake is inconvenient and, therefore, avoided. Like a new parent hoping their crying child will simply go to sleep, avoiding engaging the situation is easier than pealing yourself out of a warm bed groggily to attend to your plaintive infant.

As metaphor, sleep is not just about exhaustion but, also, about avoidance.

Jesus’ words to his disciples seem to represent just such avoidance. We, the readers with two thousand years of insight, know what the next few days hold. We know the story of arrest, trial, torture, death, and resurrection. The disciples do not have the privilege of our vantage. However, they had been with Jesus for several months if not years. I think they might have had some inkling as to what was coming. This possibility leads to another set of questions.

What if their sleep was more about not wanting to be responsible for hearing Jesus’ prayer, his concerns, his fears, his struggles, or his uncertainty than about mere exhaustion? What if the disciples were sleeping because they did not want to carry the burden of expected action incumbent certain knowledge? What if the disciples were hoping that by not knowing what was to come and what might be expected of them they could operate with “plausible deniability”? What if “sleeping” is code for not wanting to know and to be responsible with the weight of that knowledge and if “staying awake” is code for vigilance and action?

This possibility puts a new twist on Matthew’s story, a twist particularly relevant for us. If staying awake is a way of describing a life of faith that does not avoid being vigilant to the expectations of God’s kingdom and the needs of God’s children and if staying awake is a way of describing a life actively committed to acting on that knowledge, then life in the kingdom just became a lot more demanding and complicated than many of us hoped!

The difficult good news is that the kingdom requires just such attentive waking.

This past week, nine of us from Young Harris College traveled to Washington, DC as part of our spring break mission trip. The purpose of the trip was to transition faith into action by studying human trafficking, to inspire us to act, and to empower in some concrete manner those actions.

The knowledge gained in DC jarred us awake.

The statistics about the number of people trafficked around the world and within the US is astonishing. The average age of a person trafficked for sex in the US is appalling. The centrality of Georgia for national and international trafficking is disturbing. If any of us on the trip were asleep because of exhaustion or avoidance, this knowledge shook us awake and defies us to return to the comfort of our slumber while millions of others remain in a perpetual sleepless hell.

Having arrived back on campus, we feel it our task to jar others awake, too. Over the coming weeks, we will educate the campus on this horrific, secret world all around us. We will look for ways to inspire our hopes for change in both the conditions fostering and the laws related to human trafficking. We will strive to empower those within the Young Harris College community to pair faith and knowledge with action, embodying the kingdom’s demand that we remain awake by proclaiming release to these modern day captives.

We are fully aware that this embodiment will not be easy. As Jesus’ prayer in the garden that night reminds us, lives committed to the liberating power of the kingdom might have to sacrifice more than they planned or wanted. We might wish that this cup of knowledge and its accompanying responsibility had not been offered to us. Nevertheless, the cup has been. Are we to accept it, or are we to pass it off to others, hoping they will take it and the burden it brings? Jesus accepted his cup. May we accept ours, and may the knowledge held in that cup stir us from our slumber and motivate our action.

Who Am I?

I am a young man.
I am an old woman.
I am tall,
I am well educated.
I am a high school dropout.
I am raped.
I rape.
I am bought, burned, sold, beaten.
I am ashamed, astounded at how little is known.
I am discarded.
I am depressed.
I am elated.
I am uncertain.
I am helpless.
I am lonely.
I am curious.
I am frightened.
I am important.
I am hopeful.
I am ready for change,
to be change,
to enact change,
not to be exchanged.
I am your daughter,
your brother,
your mother,
your uncle,
your offender,
your victim,
your song,
your joy,
your life,
your love.
I am your child.
I am God’s child.
I must be freed.


As we make our final preparations to travel to Washington, DC on our spring break mission trip next week, I offer these expectant verses offered by Billy Cattey. Mission trips present an opportunity to change the world and to be changed.

What is happening to me?

Just beyond my reach
Is something I should know.
The quiet whispering of new senses
Murmur in the back of my head.

There is something important out there.
Comprehended only in fragments,
It speaks of profound mystery,
And suggests resolutions.

Like a blind man learning to see,
I am presented with random patterns
That convey new knowledge
When put together properly.

Stumbling about in the dark,
I should be able to find my way.
The information is all there,
But I do not yet know how to use it.

Across an abyss of unknown,
I feel a new bridge under construction.
When will it be finished?
How soon may I cross?

When that time comes
I will plainly understand
Things that existed outside of me,
Things that I could only guess about before.

Seeing Leadership Anew

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

As we enter these 40 days of Lent, it is no accident that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose the above story from Jesus’ ministry as yesterday’s gospel reading. The parallels between that story of wandering through the wilderness and our own wandering in a wilderness of sin are clear. The notion of Jesus’ fasting and our doing without during Lent are similar. The theme of introspective discovery governs both Jesus’ story and our Lenten one. With all this in mind, today, I want to consider another aspect of this temptation story.

John Calvin, one of the early Protestant Reformers, described Jesus’ vocation as threefold. He said that Jesus was called to be a prophet, a priest, and a king. Taking up this vocational description, Stanley Hauerwas has used that vocational description to interpret this temptation story. When Jesus is challenged to eat, Hauerwas notes how Jesus cites the prophets’ call to live by the words that come from God. When challenged with the allure of all the kingdoms, Hauerwas notes that Jesus rejects Satan’s kingdoms for another, heavenly kingdom. When taken to the temple, the center of faith for the Jewish people, Hauerwas notes Jesus’ resistance to replacing God’s holy agenda with another, more self-serving one. In this story, Hauerwas believes the threefold nature of Jesus’ vocation is encapsulate.

Moreover, as it turns out, that call is not limited to Jesus but imbedded into the very character of his kingdom. In other words, here, we see the call of the kingdom transferred to us. We are to be a people who lead like a king, who seek the eternal truth like a priest, and who lead the people in telling that truth to power like a prophet. Without faith, that calling is much more easily identified than fulfilled. Within our lives of faith, rarely do we manage to combine all three characters of the kingdom simultaneously. More frequently than not, we are lucky to develop just one of the three. Yet, on those rare occasions when the true leadership of a king, the truth seeing of a priest, and the truth telling a prophet coalesce, we gain a glimpse at the kingdom Christ inaugurating in his coming.

It is our aspiration in this season of Lent to identify those rare occasions of coalescing and labor to emulate them. That is why we read this story of Jesus’ temptation during this season of the year. We read this story to remind us not only that in Jesus a threefold vocation manifests but that our Lenten challenge is not just to admire such a manifestation but to seek it out in our everyday wildernesses, too. As the journey of Lent reminds us, we are (being transformed into) God’s kingdom. Therefore, we must regularly seek the kingdom and claim it for our own.

Most recently, Bishop Peter story of the Methodist Church in South Africa offered just such a rare, transformative manifestation of this threefold character of Jesus’ kingdom. Below, I include his remarks as he boldly seeks to name truth, tell truth, and lead Christ’s church truthfully. By identifying the kingdom through his witness, we may become better practitioners of it ourselves.

Address at a Service of Solidarity to mark the Trial of Rev. Ecclesia de Lange
Rev Prof Peter Storey DD.LLD.DHL
Rosebank Methodist Church, Cape Town, 8 February, 2010

There comes a time. It’s as simple as that.
There comes a time when a new mind settles over the human family, when almost imperceptibly, people begin to think a new and different thought, making the old thought no longer thinkable and the world a kinder place to live in. One of our hymns – used often in the apartheid days – reminds us that to every person and nation- to all of us -there comes a ‘moment to decide.’ One of its lines is particularly apposite today:

‘New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.’[1]

Jesus brought a new mind to our world. It included a radical hospitality of the heart that threatened a host of ancient shibboleths. Broken and needy people heard him gladly but his wide open love was resented by the religious of his day; for them it was more important to be right than to be good. They didn’t understand that being good becomes the ultimate right. His love was too big for them – too big for any of us. Even the way he was killed nailed his arms forever in wide embrace. After his Resurrection, his first Jewish followers struggled with the breadth of his welcome; his Holy Spirit had a relentless hospitality that left them punch-drunk. He seemed to want to include everyone. The Acts of the Apostles became the story of one barrier after another tumbling before this relentless hospitality.

The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to haunt us, to confront every prejudice of the devout, no matter how respectable or how carefully wrapped in dogma. Time and again since, the Spirit has taken the Church, sometimes gently, more often by the scruff of the neck, and shown us that what was once revered as an ancient good has become uncouth and untenable. The Spirit still has lessons to teach and we have lessons to learn. When we have listened, the Spirit has used the Church to be the conscience of the world – as some churches were used in the dark apartheid years – but when we have been obdurate and blind, then God has used the world to be the conscience of the Church. Right now is one of those times because, when it comes to how we treat people of different sexual orientations, the Constitution of South Africa seems to be more in tune with the mind of Christ than the attitudes of the Methodist Church.

So, let me say now that there will come a time when the Methodist Church of Southern Africa will declare its ministry open to persons in faithful same-sex relationship. It will honour and bless their love with the same blessing given to all marriages everywhere. That is as certain as day follows night. When this will happen, we do not know, but when it does, it will not be primarily because of Constitutions or grand declarations; it will be because of the courage and faithfulness of people like Rev.Ecclesia de Lange and her spouse Amanda. Alan Walker says, ‘Always advance comes by a man here, a woman there, being faithful in a particular situation to a great truth.’ Ecclesia, your simple words of witness have moved us deeply. You have said:

‘I desire to serve Jesus. I desire to be true to myself. I desire to minister within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa with integrity and to be faithful to God’s call on my life …’

What could be more simple, or more honourable? But we know strong forces resist this simple answer to God’s call. You have also said:

‘I have reached the point where I can no longer be silent. I have come to see that it is better to be rejected for who I am than to be accepted for who I am not …’

I wonder if you know how close those words are to the words of Anne Hutchinson, put on trial by the 17th Century Puritans of New England for being a Quaker. As she exited the church where the trial was held, she said: ‘Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ’

Which is why … there comes a time …

The Holy Spirit has waited long enough. It is time for the Church to recognize, repudiate and reject what William Sloane Coffin calls its ‘last respectable prejudice’[2] – homophobia. If that is too much to digest all at once, then the time has come for at least a full place at the table for people with a new and different mind. As a well-wisher wrote to Ecclesia, ‘Gay ministers are not going to go away and more of us will want to be married[3].’ So today we are here to say to those who differ from us, ‘Hold your views if you must, but we are not prepared to see one more person – this person – sacrificed on the altar of wrongful exclusion.’

Before going further, because this gathering is not just about opinions, but about real people who have been – are being – sacrificed, we must make confession:

Some years back I was speaking at a conference on inclusiveness in a church in Lancing, Michigan. The day was enriched by a magnificent choir – the Lancing Gay Men’s Choir. As he introduced their first item, the Choir Director said that he had had to work very hard to persuade most of his singers to agree to perform in a church. Too many of them had been hurt by the churches they had grown up in. He then apologized for being late. At the last minute, he said, when it came to actually passing through the church doors, two or three of his choir had simply frozen. They couldn’t take that step. The trauma of what they had suffered at the hands of the church was just too much. ‘So, we’re short of a few voices today,’ he said. ‘We apologise.’

But it is we, the church, who must apologise. This apology must be a wide one, embracing every person who has been hurt, rejected, excluded and wounded by the Christian Church because of his or her sexual orientation. It must be deep, reaching down into centuries of wrong. The church’s long compromise with slavery, our blind acceptance of racism, our stubborn exclusion of women from leadership and ordination – these are sins from which we have had to be delivered, but John Cobb would remind us that in this particular, we may have done worse: whereas in most forms of suppression the church has given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexual persons, the church has been the leader in the oppression[4]. I confess this sin on behalf of my church – the Methodist Church of Southern Africa today. We stand in need of forgiveness – from our God and from those we have hurt.
Ecclesia and Amanda, I see your action, which has brought us together today, as a gift: it is an opportunity for the Church I love and serve to right a great wrong.

Sadly … though I pray it will do so, I fear it may not. There are many reasons for this, but I want to lift up just one. It takes clear vision and great courage to recognize and reverse a centuries-old, deeply rooted prejudice. It takes an even greater leap of bravery and conviction to repudiate what has been given to us as sacred teaching and to declare that, ‘time has made that teaching uncouth. We need to move on from it.’

I recall the electric moment at the Rustenburg Conference of 1990 when Prof. Jonker of Stellenbosch Kweekskool, made his historic apology on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Churches for their collaboration with the wrongs of apartheid. We knew that his courageous turn-around would bring difficulties for his church, but we had no idea how great. The backlash was ferocious, and one of the most common protests was from devout Dutch Reformed members who accused their leaders of betrayal : ‘You are the ones who taught us that apartheid was Biblical, moral and Christian. How dare you suddenly change your minds, making sinners of us all?’ You will recall that Prof. Johann Heyns, who shared with us in the writing of the Rustenburg Declaration, was assassinated soon after. If some of us are tempted to denigrate those who cannot agree with us, we need to pause and remember how hard it is to abandon a life-long prejudice, especially when you’ve been told that God shares that prejudice too. And lest any of us ‘straight’ supporters here be tempted to self-rightousness in our critique of more conservative Christians, perhaps we ought to recall that most of us held similar views once, and our journey to greater openness doesn’t makes theirs any easier.

I hope that we will stay in conversation with those who differ from us. Past experience tells us that a way forward may be found – together. Remember those words from another time and another struggle, written by black and white Methodists after Obedience ’81?

‘We have experienced how hard it is to abandon long-held prejudice and long-felt bitterness. But we have seen God work this miracle in us. It happened because we continued to search for each other even at our time of deepest division and despair.’[5]

So, there is hope, but hope is not enough: there is also urgency, because … there comes a time.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has acknowledged that we are divided between two opinions. That is true. The difference can’t be papered over:
• Those who defend the closed door cannot open it without believing they betray Scripture.
• Those who have opened the door cannot close it without believing we betray Jesus, the Lord of Scripture.
Our minds are unlikely to meet soon and the Methodist Conference has therefore invited us to ‘journey together’ in a way that ‘both respects and holds in tension differing views among our ministers and people.’[6] Well and good, but if this journey is to have integrity there is one important condition: the same rules must apply to both travellers on the road. Our Church cannot claim to respect our views, and then punish those who, like Ecclesia, live out those views in practice. Holding the conversation open must not be another way to keep the doors of Christian marriage and Ordination for married gay people slammed shut.

Because there comes a time …

Let me say this very directly to our friends who differ from us: we will be patient in debate but no longer in suffering. You must understand that your opinion has real-life consequences for colleagues who we have come to love and honour. The pain and rejection they suffer is inflicted by the opinion you defend. Hold onto it if you will, but we cannot let you hurt people anymore. ‘‘There comes a time,’ said Martin Luther King Jr., when the cup of endurance runs over.’[7]

To our bishops and spiritual leaders, let me say this: Your task is not easy: in this matter you preside over a divided church. In the days of apartheid our leaders faced similar divisions, but while they wrestled with difficult debates, they were crystal clear about what was right and what was wrong – that the most damnable thing about apartheid was that it hurt people for something they could never change – the color of their skins – and for that alone it stood condemned in the councils of God. That was the bottom line. The rest was detail.
Today, we long for you to lead. You do not have to wait for any Conference to say what is right and what is wrong. We long to hear you declare lovingly and firmly that our beloved church cannot and will not any longer reject gay people for something they have no power to change. Please lead us. Let no more Ecclesia’s suffer. It would be a glorious day if at this time, because of your lead, God’s Ecclesia, God’s called people, were able to spread wide our arms and our hearts – before the Holy Spirit had to prize them open.
There comes a time … and the time is now.

Simon’s Town, February 2010.
[1] ‘Once to every man and nation,’ James Russell Lowell, MHB 1933, No 898.
[2] William Sloane Coffin, Homophobia, the Last Respectable Prejudice, the 1997 Schooler Institute Lecture, Methodist Theological School in Ohio (unpublished).
[3] E-mail from Rev.Suzanna Bates, British Methodist Church, 14 December, 2009
[4] Ibid. Quoted by Coffin
[5] The Charter of Obedience ’81, adopted by the most representative gathering of Methodists ever held in SA – Auckland Park, 1981
[6] MCSA Yearbook 2008, p81, para 2.5.1
[7] Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can’t Wait, Signet Books, 1963/4, p.82

Ash Wednesday

I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology.
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Walking through the woods this weekend as the snow fell, I heard the brittle branches of last summer’s undergrowth crackle underfoot. Each step’s snap sank twigs and leaves deeper into the earth that they were becoming. I found myself amongst those trees looking for suitable wooden arms, selecting the right shaped stick, stripping off the excess to prepare my find for its place on our snowman. To make a well-shaped body, preparations are necessary. Changes are needed.

Similar to how a blanket of snow temporarily transforms our tired winter landscape into a quiet, fresh stillness; this Wednesday we enter another temporary yet transformative time. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day period of preparation and change, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. These 40 days of preparation and change is called Lent. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ.

Fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new.  Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt. They breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence.

Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives. For the church, that shared spring begins with Lent.

Our word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word lecten, meaning spring. Over the years, this Lenten time of stripping away and introspective change has expanded to include not just those catechumens but all those within the church. Lent is a time for us all to step back from who we are and consider what must change within us to enable us to be who we must become. That change of the larger body begins first (and uniquely) within each of us.

As I enter my first Lenten season with you, I am reminded that for me to help foster what might be possible among us, first, I must be willing to be broken down. I must regularly remind myself that I cannot assume that I bring with me all that is necessary to make ministry happen. I cannot assume that I have all the answers to every unanswered question. I cannot assume that I know what is best or better. If God’s vital and vibrant kingdom is to be cultivated and propagated, first, preparatory, humbling work must take place. Like those leaves, I must change and risk dying to myself and my expectations and my assumptions if a new spring of possibilities is to come.

In Luke’s discourse on discipleship, Jesus challenges his disciples to engage in such an act of self-humility. There, Jesus declares, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:23-24, NRSV). His challenge is for his disciples to break away from past expectations about themselves, their world, and their God. This is no easy task, but it is an essential task commended to all who struggle to be followers of Christ.

It is my prayer that during this Lenten season of preparation and transformation that as individuals and as a community we are willing to risk letting go and being broken down, being made ready for what is to come. It is my hope that out of the humus of our lives God’s kingdom may come; God’s will may be done in this place as in heaven. As all Lents end at a tomb’s door promising new life , may our journey together this Lenten season arrive at the door of our new life, a new life of new possibilities for this college, its work, it mission, and its people.


A Full-bodied Experience

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)

Several years ago, I went on a mission trip to Bosnia. I traveled with a group connected to UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief), rebuilding barns and giving farm animals to families who had lost nearly everything during the civil war that ravaged Bosnia in the 1990s. Before the trip, I had never been to that part of Europe. I was excited about what I would see, where we would travel, and what we were going to do. Although, I was not excited about one particular aspect of the trip: coffee!

I do not drink coffee. The idea of sitting down to drink a hot cup of black bitterness is not my idea of a good time. If I am going to sit down to drink anything hot, I prefer something chocolate.

To my alarm, we were told to expect lots of coffee. It is part of Bosnian culture. OK, saying coffee is part of Bosnian culture is a significant understatement. It is a central and frequent part of Bosnian culture. Regardless of the weather—hot, cold, sunny, or rainy, Bosnians stop many times during a day to share a pot of coffee.

Now, the coffee Bosnians drink is not your standard, American coffee. The coffee Bosnians drink is Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is served in small, espresso-sized cups filled with a substance having a consistency closer to syrup than water. Turkish coffee is strong, dark, and full-bodied. When you drink it, the coffee seemingly slides down the back of your throat the way milkshakes do. What makes it so viscous? Sugar and foam.

Turkish coffee is not only strong, dark, and full-bodied; it is sweet! And, the coffee is foamy because brewing Turkish coffee involves several steps, including re-boiling the liquid two or three times.

Therefore, the first time we sat down to share coffee with our hosts and beneficiaries, I was a little uneasy. Yet, as Alisa passed out her cups and we settled ourselves under a large shade tree, even though I do not like coffee and do not fully comprehend the attraction of drinking hot liquids in the middle of a blistering late-summer’s afternoon, I recognize generosity when I see it. I understand the importance of hospitality and of receiving hospitality. I appreciate the significance of sharing life together. Under that tree, drinking unseasonably hot, tooth-dissolvingly sweet coffee, I remembered that the first (and possibly most important, transformative) part of any endeavor is being willing to participate.

When Jesus arrived on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and asked Simon to put his boat in the water, little did Simon know how true this notion about participation was to prove for his life. Simon’s first encounter with Jesus did not involve intellectual assent to doctrinal postulates. It did not involve confession of belief in who Jesus was or what kind of life he was committed to pursuing. No, that first encounter with Jesus for Simon involved, principally, the simple willingness to participate. Moreover, this new participant was not the most respected, influential, or effectual of men. Rather, Jesus asked Simon—a confessed, incredulous, impetuous, under-qualified sinner—to respond when asked.

Despite Simon’s feeble resistance—“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”—Jesus persistent request confirmed that the most important part of faith is not first about a perfect fit but about willing participation. The whole of scripture affirms this conclusion.

Think of Abram and Sari—the old couple who laughed at God. Think of Jacob the trickster, Joseph the arrogant, Moses the murderer, Rahab the prostitute, David the adulterer, Mary the pregnant teenager, and Paul the persecutor. Repeatedly, the scriptures witness to a faith populated and promoted by a less than ideal bunch. When it comes to the work of the kingdom, this witness from scripture reminds us that God does not wait for someone better to come along. God does not wait for a better opportunity. God does not need the perfect candidate to start the in-breaking of the kingdom.

God requires participants.

We see this in the encounter between Jesus and Simon. When Simon protests, Jesus prompts. And, as we know from the stories about Simon to follow, this is not the first or last time Simon proves less than the perfect ambassador of faith. Think of Simon’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Caesarea-Philippi or attempt to walk on water or denials at the crucifixion. Time and again, Simon falls short of perfection, yet, regardless of these shortcomings, Simon remains a participant. Faith, it turns out, is far less about adhering to right doctrine or possessing perfect credentials or holding the right office than about willing participation.

In addition to the importance of participation in the journey of faith, we glean from Simon’s encounter with God that faith is not a onetime commitment but a repeated proposition. In this story by the lake, Jesus asks Simon three times to respond to different requests. Each time, Simon affirmatively responds, despite lingering hesitancy and some incredulity. With the final request to “leave everything,” we witness a microcosmic summation of our macrocosmic journeys of faith. Faith demands all of us, not just a partial commitment or a general adherence or just-this-once confession.

Rather, a full-bodied faith is a faith that demands an engagement by and transformation of all that we are. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this “costly grace.” Costly grace is grace that costs us our whole lives. This wholeness is what makes faith full-bodied! A successful journey of faith is one to which we regularly and intentionally attend. John Wesley called these regular, intentional commitments disciplines. Like an athlete in training, disciplined living reworks who we are into who we must become.

Returning to my experience with Turkish coffee, the coffee’s strength of flavor and complexity of texture only come from the repeated boiling of the brew. A onetime action is not sufficient. Simon’s life is an illustration of this need regularly to rehearse his place and function in the story of salvation. If we do not regularly rehearse our own commitments to the journey of faith, then our faith commitments become artifacts of who we were at one time and not a present expression of who we are. Like any artifact, a faith that is an artifact is interesting to examine but not presently efficacious or useful to who we are, what we do, and who we are to become.

Finally, the story of Jesus and Simon’s encounter at the lake reiterates the importance of God’s meeting us where we are but not leaving us there. Frequently, in the gospel stories, Jesus meets people in midst of their lives. He meets a woman by a well, a tax collector in a tree, a woman caught in adultery, John in the wilderness, the faithful in the synagogues, the paralytic by the city gate, and Simon by the sea. Imbedding this very point in the story, many commentators see the process of fishing described in the story as illustrative of how God does not first call us to some other life but initially meets us in the life we are living. The method of fishing described in the text is a type of fishing that does not use lures to entice fish but, rather, is a style of fishing that reaches fish in their home habitats. In other words, God initially seeks us. Yet, once caught, everything changes, as must we.

As I sat there sipping my coffee, listening to us chat about the mundane and the immediate, I began to consider the profound and transcendent character of our conversation. We were an interesting bunch: Christians and Muslims, Americans and Bosnians, Bosniaks and Serbs. Like Simon who said “yes” to a request by an unexpected stranger for a seat in his boat, in sharing this coffee our lives would never be the same. Our beneficiaries would have a new barn, providing a means for a new livelihood and life. We would have new perspectives on life and faith and war and grace.

Yet, also, to be transformative, I know that those memories cannot be left alone but needed regular remembering and sharing. As the liturgy of the church reminds us, this rehearsal can be transformative, changing everything about who we are and making our lives of faith full-bodied experiences. Such transformation begins simply by our willingness to meet each other were we are: in my case, around a pot of coffee under a shade tree.

Being transformed under a tree seems like as good a place as any. If I remember correctly, scripture begins and ends with life changing under a tree. It might be asking too much for our shade tree coffee break to be so comprehensively transformative, but odder things have happened. Simon was just finishing a day of fishing and look how his world changed. If we are willing to lift up our eyes from our daily work long enough to greet the unexpected, we too might have the chance to met God in the unexpected, i.e., a friend, an opportunity, an idea, an event–changing our world too!

Have a wonderful week!