Prophet Daniel & the Leather Oxfords – a sermon.

In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.

Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.

In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.

Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.

Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.

How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it.   I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.

How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.

It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.

We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?

It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.

This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.

My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.

Trinity & Unity

I had two best friends in elementary school; Sarah and Maggie.  Sarah and I lived just 10 houses apart, and we were born 10 days apart–as 9-year-olds, we thought this was very significant; Maggie lived in another town.  Maggie and I both had younger brothers and therefore shared the suffering of older sisters–a unique and very heavy cross we bore; Sarah was an only child.  Sarah and Maggie had been going to the same school together since pre-K; I was new in the fourth grade.  Though we three were devoted to each other and loved each other, there always seemed to be one of us on the outside; a pair of us was always a little bit closer than the other.

Three seems to be one of the most challenging numbers for a group of people to navigate; with two, you’re just a pair, with four, there are two pairs, and once you get to five or six, it’s really just a party.  Three is an awkward number when it comes to close relationships, and yet, that’s exactly the number that God chose to use to communicate to us who he is.  The most challenging of all numbers for a relationship to succeed–that’s the number God uses to reveal to himself to humanity.

Though it’s wrong both to say that God is more unified than diverse, or more diverse than unified, both angles are a bit much to cover in one morning–or at least are beyond my ability to capture succinctly, so I’ll focus on God being three-in-one.

There are many images, or analogies we’re given in our daily lives to help us try to understand how God is three and also one; marriage, though between two people, not three, is a picture of more-than-one-becoming-one.  In Genesis it says “the two became one flesh.”  Some of you know well the challenge of being unified with someone who is very different from you; many of us have seen the beautiful results of a couple who have consistently, for decades, put their unity ahead of their own individual ways. Another picture we see of many-being-one-body is the church.  Now, I don’t have to tell you that we haven’t done a great job of staying as “one” over the last many centuries.  Even before the Protestants and Roman Catholics split off, the Eastern church, the Orthodox Church, split off back in the 11th century, and another branch of churches left in the 5th century–we’ve been doing this all throughout history.  What has happened more recently in the lower part of our state is nothing new. There’s been a lot of upheaval here in the last months, and people have gotten up from the table, they’ve left the room, they’ve removed their presence from us.  We’re left incomplete without them, our church body isn’t whole because we’re missing them.  All our “persons” aren’t here.We worship a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three person, one unified God.  The first thing we learn about God in Genesis is that God is singular–it wasn’t, “in the beginning ‘gods’ created the heavens and the earth.”  The three persons of our Triune God aren’t grabbing for the spotlight, crazed to be heard, insisting on their own way or their own distinctiveness.  In the first words of the first book in which God tells us about himself, we meet a creative, compassionate, life-giving, self-sacrificing God.We live in a time and culture that emphasizes individualism.  Our grades in school, our paychecks at work, our email addresses, and our cell phones have one name on them, they belong to one person individually–each of us.  It’s easy to forget that we can’t rely on ourselves, that thinking of individuals as the building block of society is a rather modern notion.This week, Jordan and I are leaving for a trip to see cathedrals in Northern France.  We’ve been doing research and I’ve been calling on my Gothic Cathedrals class from undergrad to prepare.  Did you know that most of those famous cathedrals took more than 100 years to complete?  Not only was life expectancy shorter then, but people who were masons, working hard on the building wore their bodies out even sooner – even 3 and 4 generations might pass before the work was done.Most of those cathedrals are known for the town in which they’re located–Chartes, Cologne, Amiens–the identity is based not on a particular architect or stone mason, but on the community, the whole.  The whole church and community as one.  The name of every person who worked on the building isn’t written down or remembered – what they knew themselves to be working toward wasn’t their own glory or their own kingdom or for the importance of their particular voice, but to glorify, point toward, lift up God’s name, God’s identity.

The church, God’s people on earth, Jesus’ hands and feet in the world–us–existed long before we came along, and will be around long after we’re gone.  Our work is not to be heard or to be remembered or to be concerned and proud and angry about what makes each of us so terribly unique, but to do as Paul exhorts us in this morning’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians,

“11 Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

13 All the saints greet you.

14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” (13:11-14, NKJV)

No Longer a Trickster – Sermon

In honor of the day for tricksters; First preached at Christ Church, Cooperstown NY, around October 2010.

“Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’” Genesis 32:28

Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight. My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.
When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock. In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.” This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories. The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game. A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time. In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother. Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important. After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town. That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.
No wonder Jacob was so nervous. He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man. Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong. This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself. The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act. A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one. In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people. We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.
Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now. In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling. We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God. This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules. Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again. This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles. We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others. These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.
In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name. What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called. In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.” The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face. For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching. They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing. Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”” Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction. As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed. Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again. Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past. Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.
Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.

A Spiritual Brunch, for Saturday Morning

“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

-Hebrews 13:20-21

Fumble! (too soon, Duke fans?)

Only about 30% of people even make New Year’s Resolutions anymore.  Of them only 20% manage to make a lasting change, having kept their resolution for 2 years (  On this, the third day of the new year, we’re probably already struggling with the resolutions, or intentions, or goals we’ve set for ourselves in this auspicious year of 2014.

What happens in our minds when we fumble?  When we eat  that extra helping of dessert we didn’t really quite mean to eat, or binge-watch shows that make us feel like we’d like to dip our minds in some bleach; what we say to ourselves when we fail?

Most of us (me, for one!) live under a very stressful fallacy that we can perform perfectly.  That we really can not-fail, not-fumble, not-trip-up.  We fail.  To focus on failure and on shortcomings can be debilitating.  What if we brushed the mistake off instead, took a deep breath, and bravely turned around to do something else?  So much energy is wasted in lament and guilt and self-punishment–what if we learned that we would indeed fumble and that when we fumbled, we should simply pick up the ball and try again (I think that football analogy doesn’t quite work…)?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)