I Will Seek Them Out

If you’ve been in class with me, or if I’ve taken one of your classes, you may have noticed that I am a knitter. Some people doodle, some people twiddle their thumbs… I make fabric by tying elaborate knots in fiber string with two sticks. This week, I’m knitting a yellow hat, but I usually work on socks. Socks are utilitarian objects, simply constructed, and crazy comfortable. You can make socks out of stuff called sock yarn, which is shockingly thin to people who don’t knit socks. You can use “regular” yarn, which is what sweaters are knit from, and you can even use really thick, bulky yarn if you want a big, cozy pair of slipper socks.  My favourite kind of yarn to knit socks is wool yarn that has a little bit of nylon twisted in for added strength and stretch.

Wool yarn itself has a pretty cool story — it starts out as fuzzy curls on sheep, and goes through a giant process of being clipped off the sheep, then cleaned, washed, brushed, brushed, brushed, and eventually spun into yarn.

I am a tiny bit embarrassed to confess to you that I never really held together my affinity for all things knitting and wool with my affinity for Scripture until I spent some time with this week’s lectionary reading. I don’t know if this admission will get my either my Seminary or Pro Knitter Membership cards pulled. But I’ve learned some interesting things about sheep.

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The sheep metaphor is strong throughout the Old and New Testaments. Back in the day, this might have been a really useful tool for teaching about God considering that shepherds and sheep were known throughout the many cultures in the Bible. Using sheep to teach about God and the church is probably the equivalent of telling a sermon story about Facebook or the many orange barrels that dot the highways in New York State. But for us today? Sheep are not super relevant.

Sheep are social animals. They stick together in groups called flocks, because sheep are prey, and there is safety in numbers. If one sheep is threatened, its only reaction is to flee the situation, and when one sheep flees, the rest of the flock follows it. When one sheep is isolated from the flock, it becomes stressed immediately. This stress can be so intense and overwhelming that the sheep will quickly become sick if the stress levels continue at a high rate. Not only can an isolated sheep not protect itself, it also is at risk of death from stress.

The flocking instinct can be positive for the group of sheep, but it can also be dangerous. In Turkey in 2006, every single sheep in a 400-member flock plunged to their deaths when one of the flock fled off the edge of a ravine. Sheep cannot be guaranteed to lead themselves well; they require a shepherd.

Shepherds can prevent unmitigated fleeing. Shepherds can guide their sheep away from land that has been thoroughly grazed, away from piles of stool infested with mites and parasites. Shepherds can lead their sheep into the shade when it is hot — sheep will not relocate to escape the heat. They will lay down and die of heatstroke. Shepherds can ward off predators, and take steps to keep their flock peaceful and stress-free. Shepherds notice when the sheep arrive back at the pen out of order. They know that there’s a problem when the sheep who is usually toward the front of the flock is walking at the back of the flock.

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Can you see the parallels? Humans are social animals, even those of us who identify as introverts. We stick together in groups called friends, families, and co-journeyers. Humans are predators, yes, but we are just as often prey. We have a couple more reactions to danger than just fleeing — we also fight and freeze. When humans are isolated from other humans, we become stressed, sad, and lonely. Sometimes entire groups of humans become isolated from their regular habitat, or their communities, and I think we all know how horribly damaging that can be.

Humans need shepherds, too. We need shepherds to walk with us as we travel; we need a shepherd in times of stress. We need shepherds to make sure we have adequate food and water, and to lead us into shelter in times of storm. We need shepherds when we lose our footing, or step out of line, or when we find ourselves dangerously close to the precipice.

The shepherd is concerned with the well-being of the whole flock, it’s true. But which of the flock receives the bulk of the shepherd’s energies?

The answer is in our scripture from Ezekiel 34:16, then verses 20-22: 

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

The lost. The strayed. The injured. The weak. The ravaged.

I WILL SEEK THE LOST. I will feed them with justice.

Friends, this is the story of the Incarnation of Christ. We are here today, teetering on the edge of the season where we celebrate the Advent of our Saviour, where we fill our time with extraneous activities that we have been conditioned to believe are meaningful, so much that we often miss the entire point of why that baby was in that filthy manger.

The magic of Christmas is that Christ came to earth as the God-Man to seek the lost. The magic of Christmas is that Christ who always is God, and had always been the Logos became a man, and existed simultaneously and fully as God and Man for one reason: to go out into that far country (to quote Karl Barth), so that all the lost would be found.

The magic of Christmas didn’t happen in a barn. It didn’t happen in that little town of Bethlehem. It really happened somewhere inside a closed-up cave outside Jerusalem, sometime between Good Friday and the Resurrection. It happened because Christ joined our flock, and became a sheep like us, and gave himself over to the Predator to pay the price for that time we used our horns to push another sheep out of the way, or used our hooves to trample one another on the way to the top of the heap. He didn’t flee, or trip one of us up so that we could be the prey. He knew his role, our loving Shepherd-Sheep-God-Man, and not only did he fix it so that we don’t have to be the prey any more, but he also showed us how to see the lost, the strayed, and the weak. He modeled how we should love our flock.

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What does it mean to model how we ought to love our flock? First and foremost, it means we need to know how many are in our flock and who they are, and then we need to identify the ones who are lost or lagging behind. Where are they: the lost, strayed, injured, weak, and ravaged? Not at the center of the flock. And they are definitely not the ones at the head of the flock.

They are the ones on the edges, in the margins. The ones who are hungry and need food. They are thirsty and in need of water; naked and needing clothing. They are the ones who are sick, and imprisoned, and need to be visited. And whenever we come alongside the marginalized and buoy them with deeply needed resources, we are not only shepherding well, it’s as if we are shepherding Christ. And when we shepherd like Christ, we become the hands and feet of Christ, and we tell the story of the Incarnation with our very lives.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Here’s the thing, though. Sometimes the margins seem really far away. It’s so much easier to go the same places you always go, and to leave the margins to someone else. It’s so much easier to blame the people who are on the margins, for being in the margins, than it is to help. 

Therefore, God, the Master, says: I myself am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep.  Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills,  I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 (The Message)

Just as Christ entered the wilderness alongside us, to bring us to himself, we need to go out from our comfortable places. We need to get up out of our pews, walk out the door, and meet the people who are lost, in the places where they are.  We need to come armed with food for the hungry, and drinks for the thirsty. We need to stand between the plump sheep who force their way with shoulders and rumps and horns, and the weaker ones who are getting pushed around. If we are to imitate the Shepherd, we need to get out of the barn.

This is the Gospel of Life. This is the euangelion. This is the legacy of the Jesus Way. And if we learned anything by studying the life of Jesus, we know that it is not an easy path. Jesus was on the road for the entirety of his ministry. Jesus walked that road even unto suffering, and into his death.

And he asked us to walk with him, and to live our lives as a gift, just as Christ lived and died.  I invite you to spend some time in the wilderness this Advent season, and to take on the mantle of the Shepherd. Let’s travel out across the hills to seek the lost and live like we really believe in the miracle of Christmas.

me, too

It was a beautiful mid-August day. The Doctors Burke, brothers who shared a dental practice, returned to their office after lunch in midtown Manhattan. The word on the street was that the war with Japan might be over. Their assistant offered to walk to Times Square to get the news on her lunch break.  Like every other day, Greta Zimmer was dressed in her white nursing uniform — white dress, white stockings, white shoes — she removed her white nursing cap, and quickly walked the couple blocks from the Lexington Avenue office to investigate. The news ticker that wrapped around the Times Building at One Times Square exclaimed V-J DAY! V-J DAY! V-J DAY!!! Greta, who was 21 at the time, said she barely had time to register the cacophony around her when she was grabbed hard by a sailor — “a very strong man” is how she described him — bent backwards and kissed full on the mouth. Unbeknownst to both Greta and the sailor, this moment was preserved for all time by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. In a 1980 interview for the Library of Congress’s Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project, Greta Zimmer Friedman described it as a silent act. She said, “And the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded.”

A young woman, all alone in a big city, was grabbed and kissed by a random man who thought that forcing himself on her was a good way to thank all the nurses who cared for the wounded in World War II. It was a silent act in the middle of a celebration in crowded Midtown Manhattan.

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It’s the sentence, “It was a silent act” that gave me pause. With all the noise of New York City, plus the noise of the celebration of V-J Day, where did that silence come from? How did it happen? Why is it that silence is a character in stories of abuse?  How is it that so many women and girls are assaulted in silence?

It’s not that silence is inherently bad — it’s absolutely not.  Silence, when it is used well, can create space for growth. It can stand in for the many things that need to remain unspoken. Silence can be meditative, it can accompany rest; silence can bring healing. Silence has power. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, the First Baron Acton, was an English Catholic historian and writer, and is best known for giving us the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Saying that silence has absolute power is going a bit far, but I believe that silence has enough power to at least accompany corruption.

Last week the story broke about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct. I’m not going to get into the heartwrenching details — I’m certain you all know how to consult the Googles for all the news that’s been deemed fit to print — but a common element in many of the stories I’ve read is the use of silence to reinforce power. People were encouraged to not speak up or complain about Weinstein’s crimes for fear of losing their jobs or being blackballed completely from the movie industry. In addition to enforced silence, many victims were dismissed with comments that suggested this behaviour was the sort of thing one should expect from such a powerful, wealthy man, which calls to mind a phrase that’s absolutely forbidden in my home and around my sons: Boys will be boys.

Boys will be boys in the movie industry; boys will be boys on Wall Street; boys will be boys in the locker room, boys will be boys outside the locker room; boys will be boys in academia; boys will be boys in the church.

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Judges 19-21 tells the story of a Levite and his concubine who were traveling through Israel. They arrived in a town late one night and none of the townspeople took them in. This was a major violation of the code of hospitality that everyone was expected to adhere to. Finally a local man arrived home very late, and offered hospitality because he was embarrassed by his neighbors. You’d think that this would be a happy ending, but this is where the nightmare started. The rest of the men of the town demanded that their neighbor turn out the traveling man, but the neighbor would not. Instead he offered the crowd his daughter and the traveler’s concubine. The crowd was displeased, and the situation deteriorated. The story says that the traveller opened the door and gave his concubine to the crowd. There were no words spoken. It was a silent act. The crowd destroyed the concubine and left her on the doorstep. The next morning, the traveller speaks. Did he ask her if she needed water? If she needed help? Did he apologize for throwing her to the pack of human wolves? No. He told her to get up. The traveler was completely silent about the woman’s obvious suffering and about what had happened the night before. She was unable to even move, so he threw her over the back of his donkey, took her home, and cut her into twelve pieces, which ultimately started a very enormous intertribal war. Did he kill her? Was she already dead? It’s unclear who caused her death, but it is very clear who was responsible. The traveler used silence as a shield for himself, to preserve his own life and to assert his power over the concubine.

The last verse of Judges 21 says: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. In second Samuel 11, we read the story of King David, who did what was right in his own eyes when he forced Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite to have sex with him, and he did what was right in his own eyes when he created the perfect scenario in which Uriah lost his life. Silence and power worked together to allow Bathsheba to be raped and become pregnant. Nobody spoke up for Bathsheba. Nobody said to David, “This is wrong.” David did what was right in his own eyes, and it wasn’t until after the whole mess had played out and Uriah was dead, did Nathan the prophet call King David out.

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My friends, I hope you know these things still happen. We have a President who has been named more than 13 times as perpetrating sexual assault, and was voted into office (many thanks to my fellow white women) even after a widely circulated video clip where he proudly claims to have assaulted women by grabbing them.  You know the one. This kind of power harms, and silence intimidates, and when someone does have the courage or enough frustration to speak out, they are forced to repeat their stories again and again and again until the people with the power are satisfied that, yeah, they are probably telling the truth. But what were you wearing, and what did you have to drink, and why didn’t you say no and why didn’t you file a complaint with HR and why didn’t you call the police and why didn’t you behave differently and why do you hate men and why do you expect me to do something about this so long after it happened… why, why, why.

There was some big drama on Twitter last week. Actress Rose McGowan was put in Twitter Jail after a series of tweets condemning Weinstein’s actions, and one of the responses to this drama was the suggestion by a women’s rights non-profit to tweet #metoo if you experienced sexual assault or abuse. Perhaps you saw statuses and comments on your social media feeds that said “me, too.” The oft-quoted statistic is that one in three women are sexually assaulted in the United States. And maybe it’s true, maybe it was only a third of my Facebook friends and a third of the people I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who said “me, too;” I was too horrified to count and do the math. But I know two things: 1) Silence is powerful, and I know there are people who are not interested in sharing their pain and their shame in a public forum. And 2) NOT ONE WOMAN SAID, “This has never happened to me.”

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Isaiah 61 says: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 

This is the scripture on the scroll Jesus read to introduce himself at the synagogue. This is the scripture that Jesus declared fulfilled after it was read. As the Body of Christ, we need to acknowledge that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we need to lean into the power of the Spirit and reclaim the power that oppressive silence steals from us.  It is our mandate to bring good news to the oppressed. Good news like “I believe you,” and “You didn’t deserve this,” and “There wasn’t anything you could have done to change the situation.” It is our mandate to bind up the broken-hearted, to share the oil of gladness, to wrap the broken-hearted in a mantle of praise. This means providing health care that does not consider rape a pre-existing condition. This means providing emotional and mental health support, recognizing that assault victims experience PTSD, and destigmatizing depression and mental illness. It is our mandate to love, and that love will create space for the healing and restoration of the broken and vulnerable among us.

And finally, to those of us who are broken-hearted, who are mourning, who feel faint in spirit, who have said “me, too,” whether it be in an act of silence or an act of defiant solidarity: The Spirit of the Lord is also upon us. There is healing and restoration available to us, and it is us who will be called oaks of righteousness and who will continue to display his glory. And for THAT, I say thanks be to God.

it’s another banner day in washington

Today, the House of Representatives pushed a shiny, new healthcare bill on through to the Senate. No hearings, little analysis. This bill has been called “a monstrous act of cruelty,” and has been denounced by pretty much every medical-related field except big pharma.

The list of pre-existing conditions includes CRIMES.

Rape is a CRIME.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

Domestic violence is a CRIME.

And instead of offering embrace and support, victims can now be penalized for seeking medical attention for those three crimes against them. All this happened while the President of the United States made statements saying that women want to be sexually assaulted, and abusers in the entertainment industry were awarded Oscars and given multi-million dollar severance packages.

AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THE JOHNSON AMENDMENT.

What today’s executive order accomplished is to make it legal for churches to tell their congregations which way God wants them to vote. Nobody’s First Amendment rights were violated by the Johnson Amendment. No pastor has been sanctioned for looking at sociopolitical current events through the lens of the Bible. No priest has been reprimanded for asking, “What would Jesus do about _______?” No pastor has been fired for preaching about how the church should interact with refugees or the poor, or about issues of race and gender.

But.

Now no pastor’s tax status will be on the line for preaching the Gospel of Trump. No church will lose its 501(c)3 status for bowing to the idol of America. No house of worship will be in hot water teaching the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism.

Because that’s why we have church, right? To hear about how great the government is, and to have someone tell us what is God’s perspective on our political climate. It’s too much work to look at the critique of government provided throughout the Bible, and compare those situations to what we face today. And besides, Revelation is so dramatic and confusing and HARD.

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I took Introduction to Preaching this semester, and Tuesday was my turn in the pulpit. I preached from Jeremiah about prophets, and about the responsibility we have to speak truth to power.

Here’s some truth:

This administration does not care about its constituents. It does not care about women; it does not care about children. This administration does not care about the disabled or the people suffering from mental illness. It does not care for our elders. It does not care about the land, the water, or the air. It does not take seriously nuclear war, nor does it care about the blood already on its hands. It does not care about the poor or the oppressed.

Lifting the Johnson Amendment might accomplish one of the to-do items on the Republican Evangelical’s to-do list. But more importantly, it built a pulpit that allows the rest of us to call them out.

Thanks for holding the door open for us, Mr. President.

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Jeremiah 5: 26-29

“My people are infiltrated by wicked men,
    unscrupulous men on the hunt.
They set traps for the unsuspecting.
    Their victims are innocent men and women.
Their houses are stuffed with ill-gotten gain,
    like a hunter’s bag full of birds.
Pretentious and powerful and rich,
    hugely obese, oily with rolls of fat.
Worse, they have no conscience.
    Right and wrong mean nothing to them.
They stand for nothing, stand up for no one,
    throw orphans to the wolves, exploit the poor.
Do you think I’ll stand by and do nothing about this?”

debacle

I turned the television to watch the election results at about 8:30 p.m. We are in the Eastern time zone, and I was looking forward to watching Hillary Clinton be declared president. An hour later, my gut told me the election was going the other way, and by 10:00, I knew the results were not going to turn out how I expected.

I thought about the people I know. I live in an extremely red town, in a red county, in a red section of a blue state. I thought about how excited many of my neighbors must be; I thought about the people I love who are not straight and white and Christian. My friends whose marriages may come under attack from a White House where the second in command believes in one-man-one-woman marriage, and advocates for electroshock therapy and conversion therapy to fix the gays. I thought about all the teenagers and twenty-somethings I know who are discovering that who they are is quite different from what their parents believe is good and correct. I thought about the Native people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the sacrifices they are making on a daily basis. I thought about Ana and the rest of the Buffalo 25, who were arrested in an ICE raid in October.

Wednesday morning I woke up, and saw a message from the parent of a Black son who was assaulted on the school bus by other children, because he was Black and because he was not born in this country. Nobody helped. Nobody stood up for this child. All day long, more and more reports of racist-fueled attacks came out via social media. A colleague of mine got a phone call from their children at school, asking to please be picked up because they were being harassed for their family’s politics. I could link every word in this blog post to separate incidents of hate-fueled crime and not run out of examples.

Last weekend I read that 66% of white women voted for Donald Trump. Sixty-six percent of white women think it is better to have a president who speaks with disdain and disrespect about women, and brags about sexually assaulting women, than it is to have a woman president. I don’t understand this, but as the days slip by I realize that the things I don’t understand are many, and that nothing is every only white or only black. I wonder if what we consider to be white is really a million different shades of grey. Or is it an asymptote? Is the path of things just a curved particularity that get closer and closer to its definition, but never quite gets all the way there, even after it exceeds infinity?

Or are things exactly the opposite? Do they begin near their definition, and then follow a trajectory up and out and away, always recreating, doubling down, becoming caricatures of what they originally were?

Two years ago, our President-Elect tweeted, “Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?” and now he is the president, and his list of cabinet appointees is a swamp of incompetence. The latest, education secretary Betsy DeVos, has never taught, has no personal experience with public education, and appears to be a Ken Ham-level science denier. But she’s rich and white and Christian, and has fulfilled the Trump Trifecta.

“Just wait! It will work out! Everything will be fine!” Yes. Everything will be fine for the people who are CHRISTIAN, WEALTHY, and WHITE. If you meet the criteria, you could plug your nose and bury your head in the sand and completely ignore the storm that is brewing in Manhattan. You could come up for air right before the next election.

But hear this. The president-elect is already placing limits on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, and he’s not even in office yet. He’s going to make America great again by making sure nobody is around to report on his daily activities, by doubling down on the militarization of police, by closing the gap between Church and State, and by trimming the Bill of Rights. Oh, and so what if it costs a million dollars a day for his wife and child to live in Manhattan from now until June? And so what if he is making money by being the landlord to the Secret Service members who are protecting his family? And so what if he is part owner of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and has a vested interest in completing that project?

So no, I’m not going to get over this. And neither is America.

a confessional lament

Another assignment from my Psalms class.

Oh, Lord, my God
I approach your throne with a heavy heart and tears on my cheeks
You are the protector of the land, you love the people you created.

I repent for my ancestors, who stepped off the Mayflower on to Wampanoag land.
I weep that while they explored, they desecrated a burial ground;
they stole corn buried safely for spring planting.
They extended a hand of smallpox instead of a gesture of peace.

My ancestors took the land, reviled the sacred, and polluted creation.
Greed, and war, and rape, and torture became the standard,
and slowly genocide was enacted.
I am ashamed that my ancestors created reservations.

My people stole their children, discredited their spirituality.
We enforced their poverty, we spend millions of dollars with businesses who
make their living by exploiting caricature,
Exploiting their culture because we are addicted to colonization and power.

And now they rise, and they stand in prayer and we beat them with clubs.
We burn their eyes with gas and spray and force them into kennels.
we shoot them with guns that leave them alive and traumatized.
I repent for my ancestors. I cannot scrub colonizer privilege from my skin.

Creator, they are oppressed, and yet they remain peaceful,
and yet we beat them back, and yet they remain.
Protect the ones who would protect your work.
Protect the ones who love the land you made,
The ones who are your true children, who honor you by honoring your creation.

You have punished armies, ended conflicts.
You take power from oppressors; you restore the oppressed.
You heal the brokenhearted; you set prisoners free.
You bring suffering to those who do not love;
Lord God, make us pay for we know exactly what we do.