Jesus Promises They Will Hate Us

 

Walking into Oceti Sakowin Camp with the sun rising, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

A sermon preached on Luke 21: 5-19 and Isaiah 65: 17-25, on November 13, 2016, at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.

As I think you all know by now, last week I traveled to North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I had been watching the news for more than a month, learning about the multiple Native tribes who had come together to camp out on the prairie to protect the water of the Missouri River, where a company from Texas has been making its way across four states with an oil pipeline (called the Dakota Access Pipeline), including plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. I had read about the original route for the pipeline, which was supposed to cross under the river north of Bismarck (about an hour’s drive north of the reservation). But the people in Bismarck thought that sounded dangerous and risky to them and their water, so the plans changed to avoid that town – but not to avoid the risks to water contamination all together. I had read about the peaceful prayerful protests and about indigenous people from all over the globe traveling to North Dakota to support and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Since last April, thousands of people have been camping and protesting and trying to protect the water. In the last month, a highly militarized police and security force began shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and at even at their horses. A private militia hired by the oil company set dogs on protestors, some of whom were mauled. Authorities in riot gear have used pepper spray and sound cannons on peaceful, prayerful protestors exercising their first amendment rights – protestors and water protectors who are bathed every day in prayer and who pray daily for those officers. Authorities have locked up journalists who have tried to cover the events and have thrown over 400 people in jail on contrived charges in attempts to intimidate them into stopping and disbanding. In jail they have needlessly strip-searched people in order to humiliate and further intimidate them. They have shipped some of those in custody to jails several hours away, to make it harder to get back home again or find rides when they are eventually released, sometimes on bail as high as $1500 per person. When their court dates come around, they will be required to travel hours back to those other towns to appear. Police are using helicopters and drones constantly circling overhead and they have road blocked the main highway between the reservation and Bismarck. They constantly stand guard at the roadblock with additional forces keeping watch from the nearby ridges.[i]

As things came to a head and became violent in this past month, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other Native groups I’ve been following began asking explicitly for more people to join them. We need numbers, they said. We need them to see we won’t go away and we aren’t alone. Please help us. I kept reading and following and praying. I didn’t really think about going. It’s the middle of the semester. It’s a really long way away. Wouldn’t it be better to send them money for winter supplies? It didn’t seem reasonable or feasible. Then Rev. John Floberg, a feisty crusty old Episcopal priest who’s been serving in the communities on and near the Reservation for 25 years, sent out a call to clergy. It’s time to come, he said. I know it’s inconvenient and this is short notice but this is it. They need us. We can provide a protective witness for their struggle. He was hoping to get 100 clergy and over 500 of us answered the call. But I told colleagues and friends who were going “no” at least twice before I changed my mind. I told God “no” more than that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. All the same “reasonable” things popped up – money, time, effort, inconvenience, family commitments… As I pondered and said “no” and delayed, the airline tickets kept going up. Wouldn’t it be better to send them $1000 for food and warm clothes and winter camping supplies? What am I going to do? But the Holy Spirit would not leave me alone and the people of Standing Rock kept saying, We need help. We need you to come. At some point in that epic week of wrestling with God about this decision, I realized that, unlike so many many things in the world, this is something I am qualified to do. I am a person who prays; I am a visible sign of the church; I have a body and I’m able and well enough to travel. I don’t know what to replace pipelines with or how to implement renewable energy plans. I don’t know how to map an alternate route for this pipeline. I couldn’t convene a meeting with President Obama or film a documentary about this struggle. But I was absolutely qualified to put on my clergy garb and say “yes” to my far away neighbors who needed help I could provide, and spend some money and travel in the middle of the night and stand in the middle of the prairie with them and pray.

I am not telling you this so you will praise me or come tell me after worship how amazing it is that I went. I do appreciate the support and prayers from Wesley folks and others in Charlottesville as I answered that call, but that’s not why I’m telling you this now. I’m trying to let you in on, as best I can, how inelegant and clumsy and wrestling-match-like my discernment was – and how blessed I was by choosing to go where and when I was asked, to offer what was asked of me, and not to rationalize or monetize my way out of it.

Most importantly, I am telling you this in the hopes that when you hear someone’s request or see someone in need of help and solidarity, you won’t take as long as I did to wrestle it out.

The pipeline may or may not be stopped or re-routed and you may or may not think pipelines are a bad idea – but there are not “two sides” to this situation. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being beaten and jailed and harassed and intimated without any just cause.

This sermon is not about the election, exactly. It’s about how Christians are called to act no matter who is in power, no matter how prosperous and peaceable the times, no matter how war-torn and uncertain.

Luke records Jesus saying, as the disciples admired the stonework and the architecture of the temple, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” When Luke writes down those prophetic words of Jesus the temple’s destruction is already 15 years ago for Luke’s own audience.

Jesus says, This is impressive and beautiful but it will be dust. It will not stand the test of time. It will be destroyed. He stands in the shadow of the empire and the religious institutions of his day telling his band of followers that everything will crumble and war will break out and they will be arrested and persecuted – but that, even in the midst of all that, God is still counting the hairs on each of their heads. By enduring, holding tight to God alone, they will “gain their lives” (v. 18).

Jesus does not promise wealth or peace between the nations of the world. He does not promise that the institutions and the things they love about the current regime will be spared. He promises natural and human-made destruction, famine, health epidemics, kingdoms collapsing, prison, religious persecution, and betrayal by loved ones. Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him.

 

Since Election Day incidents of hate speech, graffiti, and intimidation, targeted at Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, and women, have increased. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and as of 5pm on Friday night, there were over 200 such incidents since Election Day. People have been approached in the street, found graffiti on their apartment doors, been directly put down and threatened in school cafeterias, and more, told to “get out of our country” and “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” A Black woman was standing at a traffic light in Louisiana when a truckload of white men pulled up and shouted at her, “F*** your black life!” They laughed and chanted “Trump!” as they drove off. According to Inside Higher Ed, at New York University’s engineering college someone defaced the door to a designated Muslim prayer room, by scrawling “Trump!” across it. Even before Tuesday’s results, we here at UVA have experienced a spate of hateful speech and harassment directed towards Jews, the LGBTQ community, Black students, Muslims, and women. We have seen enough of this here that a collection of student organizations has come together under the name Eliminate the Hate and they are sponsoring a week of activities and events on Grounds this week, to speak out and up against this rising tide.

In the middle of another tumultuous and destructive time, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 65: 17-19):

For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

 

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.

 

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,

and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

or the cry of distress.

 

Isaiah wrote these words to the war-torn remnant of Israel who were finally returning home after 60 years as captives in Babylon. They are words of hope but they must have been a teary and anguished hope to the people’s ears as their eyes took in their destroyed homes and vineyards and towns. Nothing was intact or as they had left it. They had to start over again. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”…”be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”…It must have seemed impossible to those returning exiles that they would forget what had happened, that standing in the rubble of their former lives they could ever forget the world-shifting loss or that moment or any of those long 60 years. It must have seemed insane to stand in that situation in that moment and be told to “rejoice” in what God was creating. Where, God? Exactly where in this mess is your beautiful handiwork?

But God promises that the houses and vineyards they build will not be in vain. They will make it through to live in them and to harvest the fruit. Their hard and faithful work of rebuilding will not be in vain. God promises to answer before the people even ask, before they call out again.

Spoken into a broken time of uncertainty and great fear, Isaiah proclaims that even though you may not be able to see it yet, God is still working. What looks ugly and destroyed is the fertile soil for what grows next. Hang on and hope, because here’s what you will see soon.

Sunrise over Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

One of the things I noticed at Standing Rock was how the Native people referred to others as “relatives.” There is a loudspeaker in the camp and as the morning was getting started around the sacred fire, someone came on and said, “Good morning, relatives!” When indigenous people from around the world arrive at Standing Rock, they say, “Our relatives from New Zealand and Hawaii are here.” This deep recognition of their connection as indigenous people, across country and landscape, is the basis for this huge gathering of tribes (nothing like this has been seen in more than a hundred years).

Since I returned home, I’ve been following Lyla June Johnston, a Navajo woman who spoke to the clergy group and joined us in our prayer and protective action. She impressed and humbled me when she described the Walk of Forgiveness she was organizing for the Sunday after we were there. She talked about how important it was for all of us to join them in their stand and encouraged those of us who are white, descendants of colonizing settlers, to be proud of our own family lineage but also to admit to what our people have done. She said, “Your job is to acknowledge what happened and Native peoples’ job is to forgive.”

This week after the election she posted this prayer to Facebook:  “Creator may you bless my dear uncle Donald Trump. May you help him to heal. May you help him to feel Your Love. May you help to ease his fears and help him to sense Your True Blessing. Help him to forgive himself and others so he may be free. And most of all, just give whatever blessing you would have for Your son, and my uncle. May we continue to retain our nature in the spirit of Your unconditional and restorative love and forgiveness. May we continue to work for health and justice with love for the unhealthy and the unjust. #NotMyPresident #JustMyUncle #Ké” [K’é means kinship]

This is the result of seeing one another as relatives. This is what a Christian prayer ought to sound like. This prayer has meat on it and it’s more daring and courageous and faithful than the mere lip service we sometimes give to the theological understanding that we are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. This is the kind of prayer that seeks to create connection and solidarity with some people – and might also make others hate you. Just as Jesus promised.

I don’t think it is a surprise to many of us that we live in a divided country. But it seems this week that we were surprised by just how divided. Almost no one thought Trump would win the election. No one thought the vote would be half and half.

However you voted, half of our brothers and sisters, our relations, voted differently than you did. What I’ve heard most Americans saying this week is “They” didn’t know how many of us there were, or, “They” didn’t know how dangerous their vote was. I have not heard most Americans this week confessing that we have been just fine up until now not knowing or caring about those other relations in that other half. Those aren’t my neighbors.

Rev. John Floberg, who called us out to Standing Rock, reminded us on the night before our protective witness with the Native people, that the police officers we would see across the divide, that barricaded highway bridge, were not our enemies. He reminded us that on the cross Jesus did not rebuke, he forgave – with his dying breath. So, John Floberg said, “We greet the officers with prayer and love and compassion, too.”

This is hard.

Those stones are beautiful but they will be rubble one day. This will not stand.

My life is not in the Democratic Party or even my personal shero Hillary Clinton. My neighbor’s life is not in Trump or the Republican Party or Bernie or any candidates or parties. Our lives, patriotic and democracy-inspired as they may be, are not in these United States. Or in the dream of moving to Canada or making this country “great again.”

Our lives are in Jesus Christ.  They will hate us because of Jesus. Keep going. All this destruction and despair? Raw materials for the beautiful new creation of God.

This is not the time to keep your head down and wait for the uneasiness to pass. This is not the time to think I’m not a racist/ I love Muslims/ I don’t sexually assault women/ I welcome immigrants / I care for the disabled and then be done with it as if you have completed your task. This is not the time to think I’m happy with my vote and I’m nice to people and that’s enough.

The election may or may not have gone in the direction you hoped for – but there are not “two sides” to this situation of increased, targeted hate crimes and speech. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being harassed and intimated simply because they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or people with disabilities or women or….

This is not the time to put your head down in prayer and hope it will pass. This is the time to lift your head up, take in the destruction you see, and stare straight in the face of hate while you proclaim and enact and witness to Love.

Love in these times means refusing to eliminate half of our country when you consider who your neighbors are. That means you don’t have “elite” and “uneducated” neighbors; you simply have neighbors with different life experiences than yours and if you don’t understand those, it’s time to learn and to meet some new people, and work on loving them. Love in these times means resisting and standing up to hate in its many insidious forms. Speak out, stand with, and offer to walk alongside those in this community who are targets of bigotry. Literally, offer to walk with students in unsafe situations around Grounds. Use the Just Report It system. Call for help. Keep watch when something seems off. Do not remain silent when people are degrading and demeaning and intimidating and targeting others in speech or action. State unequivocally that hate speech and “us” and “them” commentary is not OK with you. Attend the Eliminate the Hate teach-in to learn about your own blind spots and to walk across some of our community’s divides to meet your relations.

No matter how uncertain and fearful the times, no matter how unfamiliar the landscape, no matter how unknown and un-relatable our neighbors, our relatives – God is creating a new heaven and earth, right now. In the middle of this huge mess. Believe it.

The only temple that will not fall – not even in the face of death itself – is Love. Let’s work with God to build it.

Thanks be to God!

 

*

Photos are my own.

 

Endnote:

[i] This is a compiled account from months of reading and following the news. A few good places to learn more and follow the ongoing stand are: https://www.facebook.com/Indigenousrisingmedia/

http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access

http://standwithstandingrock.net

http://ictmn.lughstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/DAPL-Magazine-2016_PREVIEW_r1.pdf

http://westernjurisdictionumc.org/wjumc-bishops-send-letter-to-president-obama-in-support-of-standing-rock-sioux-nation/

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-showdown-at-standing-rock-20161108-story.html

 

 

Who am I to stand in God’s way?

A sermon preached on Acts 11: 1-18, on April 24, 2016, at Wesley Memorial UMC.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

It’s always fun to preach on a passage full of the word “circumcision.”

But, let me quickly add, that it could be almost any word. The point in mentioning circumcision here is not to see how uncomfortable the pastor or the people will become during the sermon. The point is this: there’s a way we do things around here.

In this passage from Acts we are at the cusp of changes the disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t expecting. At this point, almost everyone who followed Jesus was Jewish. For them, this Jesus stuff wasn’t a casting off of Judaism but the next step in their faith journeys. It follows that the norm for men in the community was still circumcision. All Jewish baby boys went through this religious ceremony and there was no reason to expect that would change. After all, Jesus was also a Jewish man and circumcised.

But at this point in the story, the radical gospel message lands on the fertile soil of other people from other backgrounds. The Holy Spirit Jesus promised whooshes into locked rooms and Gentile hearts and rustles up new followers without asking permission or checking to see who’s a card-carrying Jew.

Those are the first three verses of our passage from Acts: Throughout Judea even the Gentiles are beginning to hear and believe. So Peter is interrogated when he gets to Jerusalem – the seat of religious authority – by “the circumcised believers.” These Jewish Christ-followers at home in the seat of religious power and tradition have a few questions for Peter. They accuse him of going into the homes of the uncircumcised and then eating with them. Explain that! they say. Explain to us how you can get all tangled up with these non-Jewish people, going so far as to be received into their homes and eat at their tables!

Right up there next to circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity were the Jewish dietary laws dictating what was clean and unclean. Other people didn’t keep these laws, so eating with them, in their “unclean” kitchens, sharing their strange and “unclean” foods, was outside the bounds. You’ll remember it’s one of the things people commented on the most when taking offense at Jesus’ behavior – we even preserve the notion of his outlandish behavior in our Communion liturgies, remarking each time we feast that he “ate with sinners.”

Starting with verse four, we’re told Peter offered his explanation “step-by-step.” He tells the Jewish critics that he was praying in Joppa and had a dream, a vision. He saw a large sheet lowered down from the heavens and on the sheet all sorts of animals were depicted – wild beasts and birds and reptiles and four-legged animals of all types. And a voice told him to Get up, kill, and eat! Being a good Jewish boy, Peter snapped back, Absolutely not! I know what’s unclean and I don’t eat things like that – never!

You may remember Peter usually needs the reinforcement of a threefold repetition. The night Jesus was betrayed, he is asked three times if he used to hang out with Jesus and three times he says Absolutely not! Never seen that guy! Two weeks ago in our readings, Peter enjoys a fish breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ and three times Christ asks if Peter loves him and then, three times, commands Peter to feed his sheep (John 18: 15-27; John 21: 1-19).

Three times is a thing with Peter.

So, as with those previous stories, here staring at the sheet of various and wild and unclean animals, the Voice tells Peter three times to eat the things he sees in the vision. Never consider unclean what God has made pure (v.9), it says, then the sheet is pulled back up out of sight into heaven.

In the next moment, there’s a knock on the door. Peter finds messengers from the Gentile Cornelius and, as Peter tells it, The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. When he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Cornelius shares his own dream-message, when an angel told him to send for Peter so that Peter could tell him and the entire household how to be saved.

So Peter starts to share the gospel in this stranger’s house. And the craziest thing happened, he tells the Jerusalem rule-following crowd of critics (vv.15-17): “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift [God] gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

When the crowd of believers and skeptics hear this, they back off. They give praise to God for this amazing news – and, they conclude that God is changing Gentile hearts and lives (just like their own hearts and lives) so that they might have new life, too.

Some hearts and minds were changed and some rules broken and released that day. But it’s going to take another four chapters in Acts before these early Christians stop worrying about circumcision as a prerequisite for joining the Christ-followers. Some things don’t change all at once, but in fits and starts.

Some habits die hard.

I’m sure you can think of church arguments in your lifetime about who we eat and spend time with, about who’s truly welcome in our sanctuaries and our communities and who needs to jump another hoop, show they really mean it, look more like those of us who are already at home in religious places and traditions.

What I find puzzling is not that we argue or come at something from different angles. What I find puzzling is when we fail to acknowledge we’ve done this since the very beginning. With the hot breath of the Holy Spirit still warm on the backs of our necks, we were drawing dividing lines to determine who’s on which side. And… we shared stories of surprise and strange visions. We’ve listened, changed our made-up minds, opened wide our doors, praised God for the new vision.

If God gives them the same gift God gives us who already believe in Christ, then who am I? Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Here’s the Good News: it’s not up to us. “The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision…” (Preaching Helps at GBOD online). We aren’t the gatekeepers. We’re invited guests who’ve been given the mandate of love. We’re encouraged to look for the Spirit of God rustling up disciples we weren’t expecting. We’re allowed and expected to invite them into the fold, to feed those sister and brother sheep, to eat strange foods from strange other traditions along with them.

God does not seem to be recruiting bouncers to keep out the undesirables. In fact, God seems to like to bring home new brothers and sisters from prison and shelters and recovery programs. God seems to want a big family – from east and west, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poor and rich, mentally ill and mentally well, minimum wage earners and retired millionaires, those who slept peacefully last night and those who were kept awake with worry or loneliness…

Little things like who eats what and who’s been circumcised and who’s memorized scripture and who uses which bathroom and who is married to whom don’t seem to count with God the way we sometimes still try to make them count when we forget and think we are the ones in charge.

God is creating a family and the invitation is open. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

That’s the way we do things around here. Don’t forget it.

Thanks be to God!

*

photo credit: “Sheep blocking way at Miranjani top,” © 2014 by Naryneroz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How long?

IMG_1221

A sermon preached on Mark 5:21-43 at Wesley Memorial UMC, at the end of an extraordinary week.

It’s interesting to me how time feels different, depending upon who you are and how you are.  Like the way “just a minute” sounds like a scam when you’re a kid, waiting on a parent’s attention.  Like the way “just a minute more” with a departed loved one sounds like a blessing beyond imagining.

In Mark’s gospel, we hear two stories of healing, both involving 12 years of time:  Jairus’s twelve-year-old sick daughter and the woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years.

When you’re a parent, twelve years is not nearly long enough for your child to live.  Twelve years old means she’s on that cusp of childhood and adolescence.  Though she may think she’s more grown up than she is, she’s still a child.  To be contemplating a funeral for a twelve-year-old is unthinkable.  It’s not enough time.

When you’re a woman with a medical condition, twelve years is a very long time.  Twelve years without relief from menstrual bleeding.  Twelve years of sickness with no cure and no more money left to spend on one if she found one.   Twelve years outside the norms of family, and religious and cultural rituals.  Twelve years with a lifetime more sickness and isolation in sight.

Both of these stories are about Jesus giving more than what was asked for.  Jairus comes asking for healing for his daughter, who’s very sick.  When Jesus is interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman, on his way to Jairus’s house, the daughter dies in the meantime.  The men who came with Jairus to find Jesus say We can leave this teacher alone now.  It’s too late.  She’s dead.  The time for healing is past; it’s time for mourning now.  Let’s go home.  But Jesus goes along anyway and ends up not only healing her but restoring her to life, resurrecting her.  Jesus gives more than Jairus even knew how to ask for.

At twelve-years old, Jairus’s daughter would have been entering into marriage soon, as it was customary to marry off young girls between 12-15 years of age.  She was just about to enter into her next important roles and relationships, as wife and mother.

At twelve years into her continual bleeding, the woman would be without any regular social connections, religious life, or male contact.

Life held limited opportunities for women at the time of Jesus – to put it mildly.

Girls were expected to marry young and bear children, especially male heirs.  Girls and women had very few rights and Roman law placed women under the custody or control of men, first your father, then your husband.  If a young woman wasn’t married by the age of 20 or if she didn’t bear children, she’d incur penalties, a state tax to be paid by her family for the drain of her life.  For enslaved women in that culture, it was even worse, of course.  They were considered property, and could not marry at all, though they were subject to any and all desires of their masters and of male slaves, with the master’s permission.  Any children born to them were the property of their masters.  Jewish women were subject to both Roman laws and Jewish purity laws.  Regular monthly menstruation was considered an “unclean” time and had to be followed by a seven-day purification each month.  During that whole time of a woman’s monthly period and the purification that followed, she couldn’t leave home, sleep in the same bed as her husband, sit on the same furniture, or go anywhere in public, including the synagogue.  (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fifth-sunday-after-pentecost7)

That’s the way it was for women.  So consider what it was like for this woman.  It’s likely, if she’d ever had a husband, that he was long gone – they wouldn’t have been able to even touch each other for twelve years.  Bleeding continually for twelve years would have put her so far outside of normal, she probably couldn’t imagine ever getting back.  She never had much power in the culture of her day and now she had nothing at all.  Really think about the state of mind she must have been in by this point, funds exhausted with no cure in sight, body exhausted with no comfort to be found in society’s regular interactions, spirit exhausted enough to reach out in faith so desperate and hopelessly hopeful that it was the only thing left to do.

Time couldn’t have felt more different for Jairus and the bleeding woman, before they got to the point of seeking out Jesus.

Jairus was a religious leader in the Jewish community.  He was a man, wealthy, connected, important.  He had a daughter about to be of marrying age so he was almost ready to hand her to the next man in her life, a husband.  For twelve years, Jairus felt secure in the course he was on and what lay ahead for his family, his daughter.  Meanwhile, for twelve years, the woman who never had much power to begin with, helplessly watched her relationships and connections and possibilities for life seeping away with the flow of her blood.

Whatever the previous twelve years were for each of them, the moment they come to Jesus they are each in the same spot at the same time – desperate enough to try even this.

And faithful enough.  Did you notice what Jesus says?  The bleeding woman left the confines of her “unclean” house and reached out to touch Jesus’s cloak as he passed by.  Standing in the midst of “clean” folks in a place she’s not meant to occupy, she fesses up when Jesus realizes someone’s touched him.  She falls down at his feet and tells him everything.  And Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease” (Mark 5: 34).  Daughter.  He not only heals her illness, he redeems her standing in the community, claiming the woman whom moments before no one would touch, much less claim as their kin.  Her entire life is redeemed.  This is not just a stop to the blood, it’s a start to her future.

Jairus’s desperation and faith are evident in the fact that he himself goes to seek out Jesus.  He’s the kind of man who would have been accustomed to sending people to do his errands and carry his messages.  But this request couldn’t be entrusted to anyone else.  He wanted it that much.  He was willing to forego his powerful position and act as his own errand boy.

The power of this story is that these two were always in the same position, though neither they nor their communities nor the disciples knew it.  They were both, always and everywhere, desperate enough to need Jesus and the wellness/wholeness/saving only he can give.  At twelve years in they came to the same desperate fork in the road, gave up on convention, neighbors’ advice, self-reliance, and gave themselves over to faith and hope.

This is a week when we have known forks in the road.

This time last week I was about to leave Annual Conference in Roanoke.  I was packing my suitcase to go to Roanoke when I heard about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.  All last weekend, I carried my phone around so I could keep up to date on news from Charleston.  When I saw the online petitions asking South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag, I supported the sentiment but wondered if we were distracting ourselves from the pain of the shooting.  I wondered if removing that hateful symbol would do much to remove hate itself.  I wondered if some of our more stubborn states would ever do it.  A week later and Wal-Mart has stopped selling them.

A century and a half is a long time to hold onto a symbol of hate and oppression.  One week is a short, powerful time in which to forgive and insist on another way.

Twenty-four hours is a short time between seismic Supreme Court rulings.  It’s a lifetime when you’ve been waiting to marry the one you love.

2000 years is a long time to spend explaining why women weren’t treated well in the time of Jesus.  It’s even longer to be holding onto beliefs like that – two minutes today is too long to endure or accept second-class treatment.

Time feels different, depending on who and how you are.  So does healing.

Healing began in some new and unexpected places in our country this week – praise God!  There’s more to do.  There are miles to go.  But it feels like more of us are heading in the same direction together.  It feels like the bleeding has stopped and we aren’t alone and outside of the crowd anymore.  We suddenly/at last noticed we are in the same place as every single one of our neighbors.  Equally desperate and in need of healing; equally blessed.

This time last week, marriage was legal for all our citizens in some states but not in others.  Today we can all marry the one we love.

This time last week our Virginia Annual Conference was voting to petition the General Conference to remove language from our Book of Discipline that refers to homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  When I got in the car to drive home, the vote hadn’t been tallied.  By the time I reached Charlottesville the news was out that Virginia voted to ask General Conference to take the language out.

How long, O Lord?

One day, one drive, one week, one lifetime…

The genius in Mark’s storytelling is that this is all one story:  Jairus (and his daughter) and the bleeding woman; rich, male, power and poor, female, powerlessness.  In Mark’s telling they are interwoven into one whole story.  They are brought to the same spot – desperate hope – and taken to the same place – healing and redemption.  This is the Good News of Jesus Christ:  we are all in the same story of healing and redemption, no matter how else we are tempted to see it.  No matter how we count the time.

It doesn’t matter whether you think twelve years was the blink of an eye or a long time coming.  What matters is recognizing Jesus when he calls out to bring you back into the fold of the family, back to life.  It feels like healing beginning in the place of deep woundedness and sickness.  It sounds like “Daughter,” “Son.”  It looks like we are all in this together.

Thanks be to God!

Trust. Remember. Go.

Baccalaureate sermon on Acts 1: 1-11, preached for the Wesley Foundation during UVA’s graduation weekend.

There are certain times in the Christian year when we never get to be together as the Wesley community.  The 4th Sunday in Advent and the entire Christmas season, being a prime one.  Every year in our community worship, we jump from the 3rd Sunday in Advent right into mid-January, the season after Epiphany.  I realize many of you may not have noticed this since Christmas is a busy time of year and you are worshipping, back together with family and friends at home.  I realize this is mainly a pastor’s lament, because we’re geeky and into the liturgical cycle, and because it’s a little weird, from my point of view as a worship planner and preacher, to fast forward through one of the best parts of the Christian year.

The Ascension and Pentecost are times like this, too.  I think I was a good six years into campus ministry before the school year made it to Pentecost, and that was only because it fell the day after our baccalaureate worship so I claimed it as Pentecost Eve.

Today is Ascension Eve.  And because we rarely make it to this point in the Christian year together, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly the story of Jesus’ Ascension fits with the leave-taking of baccalaureate and graduation weekend.

Right at the end of the passage we just heard, Jesus is lifted up into the sky and beyond the clouds.  The disciples just stand there staring.  And the two men in white robes show up and ask, “Galileans why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” (v. 11).

Does that question ring any bells for you?  Ascension is the end of the forty days of Easter.  Remember a similar early morning question back on Easter day?  In Luke’s gospel, when the women find the empty tomb, they are terrified and just stand there, staring and immobile, looking into the place where Jesus was.  Two men in white robes show up and ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).

These questions are bookends for us to the Easter season:  Why do you look for the living among the dead? … Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?  Each time, Jesus’ disciples want just a little longer to stare.  It’s like they think he’ll come back or they will see something new when the clouds shift.  If the white-robed men didn’t show up with their questions would they have all stayed frozen to those spots, staring and waiting indefinitely?

Maybe this is a temptation you’re feeling this weekend.  To stay and stare.  Wait for a clear sign.  Bask in this place and these years and this Wesley family of faith.

I get it.

You are looking at a mighty marvelous sight…  Wesley friends who have become family – people you had never met just four years ago, without whom you can no longer imagine life making sense.  You are looking at Christ-centered community that’s made your time at UVA soul-nourishing and character-forming.  You are staring at a place that has become one of your most important places.  You are standing still on ground made holy by your time in this community of faith.  It’s worth another long, lingering look.

Take it in.

Then take it with you.

The disciples didn’t want to leave that empty tomb or that locked upper room.  They wanted to stay rooted to the spot where they last saw Jesus, even after the clouds had shifted.

But the gifts he gave them didn’t end on either of those hard, unimaginable, blessed spots.  He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spread of their witness to the ends of the earth, and his eventual return.  He gave them himself, each other, and a mission.

You have the same gifts.

Your time at Wesley has been God-infused and blessed in ways you probably didn’t imagine before you arrived, and which will make you hungry for more wherever you go from here.  Let that hunger be your guide.  Don’t stand rooted to one spot, starving and staring.  Leave here knowing you are as full as can be right now and that God will keep feeding you “out there.”

God is not done with you yet.  You are not just graduating from UVA, you are being sent from Wesley, too, on a mission to witness to the incredible, stare-inducing love of Christ.  Whether you think you know what you’re doing or not.  Your degree, honors of honor that it is, is not the most important thing you got here.  You got discipleship training in being and becoming the body of Christ.  You received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit dancing among us, pulling us together in just four short years, into one family, one body, against all odds.

The Good News is now you know how to do it and what to look for.  Now you know it can happen in some other unexpected lonely first-time place.  The leave-taking is both beautiful and painful.  So is your mission.

The Good News is there’s nowhere to escape God or outrun that Love. God always gets there first and calls you on.  Just like when you left home and showed up at UVA to a puny dorm room with no friends, and parents about to drive off, wondering how in the world you would make it.

And look what happened.

Go ahead, take another look.  Drink it in.  Feel the fullness and the hunger.  Trust it.  Remember it.  And Go in peace, dear ones.

Thanks be to God!

A Thin, Thick Place

A sermon on Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-31, and Psalm 133, preached at Wesley Memorial UMC on April 12, 2015, during weekend festivities for the Wesley Foundation at UVA’s 50-year Celebration and Groundbreaking.

woman holding freshly baked Communion loaf

One of the Wesley bakers, with dairy-free, gluten-free bread fresh from the oven.

In my twenties I often concocted dream visions of communal living.  Visiting with Wesley Foundation friends or Appalachia Service Project friends, we would revel in our reunion weekends, drink up the goodness of being together again, and plot our Someday dreams…a retreat center and intentional community in a big farmhouse with a huge kitchen table, a garden, and a writing shed for me, a little removed from the bustle….a self-sufficient community where we could grow our own food, make our own furniture, create all the pottery for our kitchen… These were dreams born from tight communities of faith formed at pivotal times in our lives, and that remained touchstones for all of us, no matter the time or distance.  Whenever we got together we just wanted more.  Not to go “back” exactly, but to create again that sort of Spirit-infused, life-defining, deeply communal expression of faith and love.

In none of these scenarios was I thinking explicitly of today’s passage from Acts.  In all of these times I was remembering how good and full a community I had left, how lovely it was to dwell together in unity (to quote the psalmist).  We had come together in a thin place – what Celtic spirituality calls those spaces where heaven and earth seem to be closer and more permeable to one another than usual – and in that thin place, we’d made thick, substantial, meaty community.  We had seen glimpses and flickers of God’s kingdom made manifest and those were enough to sustain visions and lives.

When I think of the book of Acts, this is the passage I most often think of, though, we have to acknowledge, this idyllic time didn’t last that long.  This time when no one held private possessions and no one was needy didn’t last.  But it was thick and real while it lasted.  It was important enough to describe and include in scripture so no one would think Did that really happen?  Was I merely dreaming?

There are many thin places in the world but we are often too busy to notice them.

There are fewer thick communities and they can be so rare that we’re tempted to think we dreamt them.

We’re celebrating 50 years of ministry at the Wesley Foundation this weekend.  It isn’t 50 years total but 50 in our current building, which we’re renovating and showing some TLC this year.  Thanks to Ed for inviting me to preach here in the midst of this weekend as part of the celebration – how fitting, since Wesley Memorial has been our partner in campus ministry since the beginning.  We had 200 people worshipping and celebrating here yesterday, alumni from at least as far back as 1963, “Wesley legacy” families with parents and children who’ve all made Wesley home, the Bishop, our district superintendent, students, and tons of friends.

Those of us celebrating yesterday and many of you here know the Wesley Foundation as a thin place.  It’s holy ground, a thin place that’s home to a thick community with permeable boundaries, always being re-formed as people graduate and matriculate.

A couple of weeks ago the Wesley Foundation’s Student Coordinating Council (SCC) met for its “changeover” meeting, our peaceful transfer of power from one group of student leaders to the next.  One of our practices at that meeting is to offer words of gratitude for those rotating off the SCC.  At one point, in the midst of a long list of wonderful attributes and things she would miss about departing a student, one student stopped herself and blurted out,  “How are you real?”

In some ways this is what Thomas needed to know and see and feel for himself, when he met the resurrected Jesus.  How is any of this real?  Do you remember what Jesus does?  He does not refer to Thomas as a doubter or chastise him in any way.  He simply offers up the most visibly wounded part of his body and invites Thomas to stick his hand all the way in and get a good, tactile feel for it.  Thomas doesn’t even have to ask; he just has to reach out in the direction of the living, very real Christ.

How are you real?  Here, see for yourself.

At its best, this is what campus ministry is:  an invitation to see for yourself, in the midst of a community thick with the Spirit of the living Christ.  It’s the kind of place where people are transformed, where they become more fully who God is calling them to be and, though it may only last 4 years, it’s enough to sustain a vision for the future.

Let me hasten to add, about that early Christian community in Acts and about the Wesley Foundation, that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the people involved.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me some Wesleyanos!  But what I mean is, those early Christians weren’t somehow the cream of the crop, and though UVA students are the cream of the crop in many ways, Wesley folks aren’t the cream of the cream.  That’s not what makes the community faithful or memorable or life-transforming.  What makes both the Acts community and the Wesley community thick communities is the presence of the living Christ.  It’s not the prefect storm of personalities and skills, dreamers and engineers.  It’s Jesus.

How are you real?  Jesus.  The “thickening agent” in this recipe of love is the risen Christ.

The point of highlighting this long-ago and short-lived community from Acts isn’t to show what exceptional people they were.  It’s to show what’s possible when the center of your life and community is the living Christ.  The point is not that they were particularly un-needy people but rather that living with Christ at the center meant they prioritized the needs of others, they treated one another like family.

As I read our scripture passages this week I was struck by how physical and tangible the images are in each one.  The risen Christ offers the wound in his side to Thomas.  Surely the Acts community prays and worships together but we hear how they “bear powerful witness to the resurrection” (v. 33) by sharing things, the tangible goods they owned; they sold houses and properties and gave the proceeds to the group, to be used to purchase what they needed; people were housed and fed and clothed.  And Psalm 133 offers us the messy but luxurious image of Aaron’s long, thick, bushy beard, claiming that living together as one is like expensive oil poured over his head and running through that big beard, soaking it through.  Like I said, it’s messy, but it’s hard to read that and then think that spiritual things are separate and apart from physical things.

It’s also hard to read these passages and think that being faithful, being Christian is merely “between me and God.”  Part of what is real and tangible about God in these stories is that God is made manifest in Christian community….in living together as family…in making sure no one among us is needy…in offering breath, touch, forgiveness, sharing our vulnerable and wounded selves with one another…

The reason we had 200 people here yesterday is because this is a place and a people who have embodied life with the risen Christ.  People from across the decades are still savoring the thin place and space of their time at Wesley.  Students are fed here, literally, every Thursday night.  They stay up late together in Study Camp, offer rides home in the dark.  They take each other to the hospital, offer hugs on hard days, and water on hot mission trips.  Some meet their future mates here.  We welcome strangers – every fall when new students arrive, and many other times when someone comes in crisis, or when other religious groups fall short and they are looking for a faith community where they can be and become all of who God made them to be.

One of the clearest recent examples of “no needy persons among us” is our Communion bread.  At the 5pm worship service we celebrate Communion every week, gathered around the Table, offering the elements to one another around the circle.  It’s a highlight and an orienting moment in each week.

But in the past few years we noticed we were meeting more and more students with gluten sensitivities, celiac disease, and some folks who both gluten-free and dairy-free.  We struggled along for a while, using a little side plate on the Table to feed those who needed special bread at Communion.  It seemed like the best we could do.

Until a student asked if she could try making a loaf we could all eat.  There are two very important things to say about this endeavor:  1) It took her and a few other dedicated bakers experimenting for several weeks before we settled on the recipe we now use.  Those early loaves were not all pretty or as tasty as what we have now.  So, it wasn’t “perfect” from the start.  And 2)  The second thing to say is the one who offered to bake was not one of the students who had food allergies.  She herself didn’t need the bread to change for her own health – she wanted to do this so that there would be no needy persons among us.

These are the moments I hear students and alumni recount decades after their years here.  Deep spiritual moments expressed in physical ways, in the context of community…She remembered my name, he gave me a ride, they listened when I vented about my roommate, they didn’t laugh when I said I was thinking of going to seminary, they made bread I could eat, too…

Real, tangible bread, offered so that all could eat.  That’s what a community thick with Christ looks like – that’s what it tastes like!  That’s how love ends up looking like a round loaf of bread glistening with coconut oil on its crust.  That’s the simple but extravagantly grace-filled type of thing that keeps this a thin place thick with the love of Christ.  That’s why four years is a short time but long enough to send us out into the world and the rest of our lives, with the beacon of this community to orient us and the taste of heaven on our tongues.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2015 Aaron Stiles.  Used with permission.

Emmanuel

 

An Advent homily, preached 12/7/14 at a Wesley Foundation at UVA & Wesley Memorial UMC joint worship service.

If we can’t find the connections between what we do here in this place and what’s happening out there, we aren’t really trying.  In this messy, desperate, trauma-filled semester at UVA and in our country, if we wonder what Advent and Christmas have to do with all that, then we aren’t thinking at all.

This is the time of year when we sing and pray, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus…Come, O Come, Emmanuel…..Come and be with us.  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

And even though we use royalty purple as the color for Advent, the Prince we got came without an army.  The Prince of Peace entered defenselessly, in the dark of night, naked, unable to take care of even himself at first.

The Savior of the world came as a despised Jew, born in poverty in a borrowed barn.  When God decided to come down here Godself, it was to an unexpectedly, shamefully pregnant teenager.  Right from the beginning, God incarnate – Jesus – chose an inexperienced, poor, minority, female teenager to be the first one to hold him.  A nobody, easily overlooked.  A girl, with no power, who was lucky her fiancé Joseph believed in his dreams enough to marry her and be part of God’s strange plan, rather than leaving her disgraced.  (Because some things haven’t changed nearly enough in 2000 years, one of those being our inclination not to believe what women tell us about their own lives.)

Jesus is still showing up in places just like this.  Who’s paying attention?

If I say to you Jesus is as interested here and now in sexual politics and violence towards women as he was when he chose to be born to an unwed teenage girl, does it seem like too much?

If I say to you Jesus is showing up right now in Ferguson and New York, looking like a black teenager wearing a hoodie, does it seem out of line?

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear again those beautiful words Mary sang when she and her cousin Elizabeth met, both pregnant and full of promise (Luke 1: 52-53):  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The sides are not as simple as some of us want them to be:  frat boy/ first year woman…real threat/ police officer….protestor/ law-abider … white/black …reporter/subject…

And yet, this is the language Mary sings…powerful/lowly…hungry/rich.

I can’t hear her song this year and not also hear echoes of the old protest song Pete Seeger sang in the 60s, “Which Side Are You On?”  The sides are not as simple as we sometimes think but Jesus’ side is always the same one.  Lowly, powerless, poor, hungry, vulnerable, defenseless.  The nobodies everyone else ignores.

In the past I’ve leaned heavily on the waiting imagery of Advent, the tension of this time when we’ve tasted and glimpsed the full reign of God but we’re still struggling, waiting, for it to come in all its fullness and glory.  That’s all still true and Adventy.

But this year I can’t stand here and encourage you to wait, if waiting means the status quo…if waiting means more of the same…if waiting means blind trust in the ones with all the power…if waiting means not looking too closely at my own power and my reticence to use if in service of the powerless…

One of the best things we Christians do is re-tell our stories.  There is no way to hear all they have to say in just one telling.

This story bears repeating.  We may have occasionally gotten a little too cozy, fuzzy-focus, Hallmark about hearing and telling it again, amidst our decorated homes and churches and trees and holiday parties.  We may have replaced our religious fervor with uncomplicated nostalgia, gazing at the familiar manger.

Don’t settle for cozy when God’s offering emancipation.

Where is God calling you this season?  “To the manger” is not the answer, unless you are an especially metaphorical person.

Where is God calling you?  Always, again and again, to the places and people who are hungry, powerless, poor.  The overlooked and unimpressive nobodies, by the world’s standards.

Don’t wait to meet them.  Don’t wait for things to settle down.  Don’t wait for that sweet manger-baby to turn into a nice young man.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, is here for nothing less than a revolution – and he thinks it’s worth dying for.

What we do here is meant to carry over out there.  It may not look the same in my life as in yours.  For some of us it may look like volunteering with a sexual assault support group.  For some of us it may mean becoming reporters and reforming ethical journalism.  For others it may look like a “die-in” or a march on Washington or crossing over the color lines at UVA to meet someone on their own turf and terms.  For others, it may begin with paying attention to our own language and the ways we abuse our own power and injure others without meaning to or realizing we’re doing it.

There are a million ways to choose to see and support our neighbors as fully human brothers and sisters.  There are a million ways to meet God in the process.

The story we tell and re-tell – the one we long to hear and live out in its fullness – is a story about God-with-us, Emmanuel.  The long-expected Jesus who came into a real body in real time and a real place – who still comes, and who will not stop coming, no matter what.

Come and be with us!  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

Thanks be to God!

 

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photo credit: “Black Lives Matter,” © 2014, Gerry Lauzon , CC BY 2.0

 

 

When did we see you raped?

uva rotunda at dusk

A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46, preached 11/23/14 at the Wesley Foundation at UVA. 

The Fluvanna prison we visited last week is about a half an hour away, on a rural two-lane road.  When you pull into the parking lot you see a series of low, one-story buildings arranged in a campus and surrounded by tall fencing.  The buildings are in good condition but have that generic unimaginative school look to them.  When you go in, there’s a small lobby with a guard’s desk and a metal detector to walk through, and an X-ray scanning machine like they have in airports.  Everyone and everything has to go through those devices.  After that we step into a space between two locked doors, 5 at a time.  One door locks behind us and then the other door opens to let us out into an outdoor passageway, locked on the other end and surrounded by that tall fencing.  The groups of 5 keep going into the Sally port and then into the outdoor cage until we are all standing outside.  From there, it’s about a 10 minute walk through another building, back outside into “the yard” between the cell block buildings, and then into the final building at the far end of the prison campus.  We walk all the way to the far end of that building and we set up for worship in the gym.

After “count,” when every prisoner is in her cell and counted to be sure all are accounted for, the guards’ shift change happens, then the women are brought for worship, one cellblock at a time.

It’s virtually impossible to get movie and TV images out of your head before you go in for the first time.  If there are women in the yard, it’s easy for your mind to think, in language you might not ever utter in real life, “I hope she doesn’t shiv me.”  When the women start coming in for worship, some of them look tough or scary but many, many of them look like neighbors, grandmothers, or as young as first year UVA students.  We have a lot of time on our hands as they file in and we wait for worship to begin and mostly we just watch them come in and take their seats.  Even before worship begins, just watching them, it’s already a little hard to keep the movie images in our heads.

Last year, by the time we walked the length of the campus and entered that last building – before we even encountered any of the women – one student said, “My whole idea of what prison is like is already changed.”

This is what happens.

This is what happens when we go where Jesus calls, expecting to be a little nervous and unsure of ourselves, but also expecting to encounter sisters (or brothers) in Christ.  This is what happens when we don’t take the word of Law & Order or Oz or Prison Break but go and see for ourselves.  This is what happens when we stop saying, “I don’t know those people.  Those aren’t my people.  I’m just a student.  That issue is too big for me to do anything about.”

 

I really don’t know what happens when we die.  I have hopes and mostly uninformed ideas about what it might be like, but who knows?  Even when I read something like this passage from Matthew, where Jesus is describing the judgment that will occur when he returns, I don’t quite know what to make of it.  But it doesn’t seem as hard to figure out what he’s saying in the rest of the passage.

He’s talking with his disciples and this comes immediately after the Parable of the Talents, which we read last week in prison.  In that parable, Jesus describes two slaves who take unexpected gifts and make use of them, versus another slave who is so racked by fear that he hides his gift underground.  At the end of that parable, Jesus says that fearful slave is thrown out into the darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Then he tells another story about action and inaction, faithful versus fearful living.  It’s this sheep and goats story and it comes immediately after the parable.  To those sheep he separates out and puts at his right hand, Jesus/the king says Come and receive.  Come and inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.  I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear.  I was sick and you took care of me.  I was in prison and you visited me (Mt. 25: 34-36).

Those right hand sheep have no idea what he’s talking about.  When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?  When did we see you and offer you help like that?  (vv. 37-9)

Jesus/the king says, When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me (v. 40).

And the opposite happens with the goats on his left.  He tells them to get away from him and go suffer in fire and eternal punishment because when he – and his brothers and sisters, the least of these – were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, they did nothing.  They did nothing for the least among them.  They did nothing for those who were vulnerable and powerless.  And when they turned their backs or walked the other way or were too busy to help, then they turned their backs and walked the other way and were too busy to help Jesus himself.

When did we see you?  Both groups of people – the right and the left, the sheep and the goats – are surprised to hear they’ve seen Jesus before that.  No one is smug and self-righteous – Told ya that was Jesus who was sick that time!  No.  Everyone – the ones who saw and tended to their brothers and sisters and those who didn’t – is surprised to hear their actions described this way by Jesus.

It’s hard to tell where and when Jesus will show up and who he’ll look like when he does.  It’s never up to us to decide who needs or deserves help.  It’s up to us to assume they are all Jesus.

In a week and a semester like the one we’re experiencing here at UVA, we need this message.  Most of us are outraged by the Rolling Stone article and there are petitions and demonstrations and SlutWalks and demands for policy change and justice.  Statistically speaking, most of us are not implicated in the specifics of the article or in the Greek party culture or in perpetrating or experiencing sexual violence.  Statistically speaking, some of us are.

Theologically speaking, we all are.

I know it’s hard to see friends at other schools pronounce on social media, “I’m so glad I never went to UVA.  At least I feel safe at my school.”  It’s hard to hear this about a school you love when you yourself have felt safe and loved here, when the atrocious violence described in the article hasn’t touched your life directly.

But it’s also hard, knowing what we know now, to ignore it.  It’s hard not to look for Jesus in the messy midst of this.

How is “Jackie” our sister?  How are those fraternity brothers our brothers?  When we find ourselves in a sheep and goats separation scene, will we be surprised at how we saw and tended to Jesus?  Or will we be surprised and ashamed at how we looked right past him and left him hungry, thirsty…raped?

Once you have visited prison, it’s hard to watch prison movies the same way.  Once you know Jesus was gang raped across Grounds and might be sitting in class with you, the choice to be involved in this is still yours, but the decision is much clearer.

We cannot say, “I don’t know those people.  Those aren’t my people.  I’m just a student.  That issue is too big for me to do anything about.”  We also cannot merely say, “If I ever saw an assault happening or found someone who’d been hurt and left alone I would help her.”  We have to start saying and doing more than that.  We have to start looking into the faces we see every day and insist on seeing Jesus there.  We have to notice the woman who seems teary in class and doesn’t talk to anyone.  We have to speak up when the guys in the dorm are telling “bitch” jokes.  We need to believe someone who comes to us, scared and shaken saying, “Something happened.  Something bad…”

Wesley’s recent rape culture conversations were a good start but where will we go next?  How will we be part of transforming the current culture?

When did we see you, Jesus?  Where are you, Jesus?  How can I help you right now, Jesus?

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  “Rotunda-dusk”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons  (UVA Rotunda at Dusk, taken by Todd Vance March 25, 2007)

Full-On Fire Hydrant of Grace

fire hydrant spraying on city block in philadelphia

A sermon on Matthew 25: 14-30, preached 11/16/14 at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

I’m not sure we’re meant to know all the answers when it comes to Jesus’ parables.  I am sure I don’t have the key to unlocking all the wisdom of this one.  But I know that when Jesus starts talking in parables, he wants his disciples to pay attention.  He’s saying, Listen up, because this is how God operates and it’s not what you expect.  It’s never what you expect.

Parables are funky, surprising little stories he tells and they almost always start, like this one does, with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  The kingdom of heaven is like the man who sold everything he had to purchase the one pearl…The kingdom of heaven is like the woman who swept the entire house until she found the coin she’d lost…The kingdom of heaven is like 10 bridesmaids who fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to show up… (Mt 13: 45-46, Lk 15: 8-10, Mt 25: 1-13) 

…The kingdom of heaven is like… a man who is heading out on a journey and he calls in his three slaves and gives them astronomical amounts of money.  To the first one he gives 5 coins, to the second he gives 2, and to the third he gives 1. 

It’s helpful to know that all together those coins were worth 120 years of daily wages.  120 years!  Let that amount sink in for a minute.  120 years worth of daily wages, handed over without instruction, to slaves who probably didn’t even earn a year’s worth of normal wages in a year.

Then the man goes away.  Right away, the 5-coin slave and the 2-coin slave start investing their money.  Using money to make money, as they say.  Maybe they lend some of it out and charge interest.  Maybe they buy things that increase in value and then sell them for a profit.  Whatever they do, both of them double the amount the man entrusts to them.  And that third slave digs a hole in the ground, puts his one coin in, and leaves it there until the man returns.

I’m just going to say right here that the only one who did the sensible thing is that third man.  No one in Roman or Jewish culture at that time would have given this kind of extravagant fortune to slaves to manage.  And we’ve already been told that the man gave them amounts in accordance with their abilities, though it’s unclear what abilities, exactly, those are.  Anyway, it makes complete sense that a slave who would probably never see this amount of money in the course of his entire life, would be scared of having it stolen or of losing it.  How would he know anything about investing?  Especially since he’s considered to have the least ability of the three?  

The man is gone a long time.  When he comes back, he comes looking for his slaves and asking about the money he left with them.  The first two show him how they’ve doubled his money and he’s very pleased.  To each of them he says, “Well done!  You’ve been faithful over a little.  I’m going to put you in charge of much more.”

A little??!?  Those two slaves were given over 100 years worth of wages between them.  That’s a little??!?

Anyway, then he invites them both, “Come celebrate with me.”

Then he comes to the third slave who hands back the one coin he was given and says to the man, “Master, I knew you were a hard man.  You harvest where you didn’t plant.  You gather up crops where you weren’t the one to plant seeds.  So, I was afraid.  And I hid my valuable coin in the ground.  Here it is.  Have what’s yours.”

The man is furious.  He says, “If you knew I would harvest crops I didn’t plant, then you should have turned my money over to bankers so when I came back you could have given me the coin plus interest.  You’re an evil and lazy servant!”

Then he gives the one coin to the slave who already has 10 coins and he says, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need.  But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.  Throw this worthless slave out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I have to say, he does kind of sound like a hard man, doesn’t he?  Even though what he says, makes sense – if the slave really knew that’s how the man would act, he should have at least put the coin in a bank.  That behavior would have matched what the slave says he believes about the man.  But still, throwing this slave out where he no longer has a home or work or anyone to care for him?  Calling him evil and lazy?

It’s hard to hear, isn’t it?

It’s hard to hear that those who have a lot will get more and those who don’t have much will have it taken away.  It’s hard to hear the man yell at this slave.  I mean, he’s already a slave and he’s the one in the bunch who has the least ability and now the very little he has is being given to the 10-coin slave and he’s being thrown out into the street.  Maybe that seems like a good deal – the street part – but unfortunately, it doesn’t mean he’s free now.  He’s just a slave without a home or food or work.  He has no means at all and the man who still owns him has disowned him.

It’s hard to hear.

And the kingdom of heaven is somehow like this story?  Really?  Jesus is the one telling this story?

Really.

The kingdom of heaven – the way God sees the world and all of creation, the way God intends things to be…on earth as in heaven – the kingdom of heaven is like this.  How?

Listen to the story again.  The kingdom of heaven is like…

…Like a rich man who can give away 120 years worth of daily wages and consider that “a little” money.  And he gives it away to the people considered slaves.  Not to investment bankers but to people who have nothing and have never seen this kind of wealth.  And he gives it to them with no instructions and leaves without saying when he’ll be back.  He’s gone a long time.  While he’s gone, two of the men he’s given money to use what’s been given.  They go out and double the amount.  They seem to have fun doing it.  When the rich man returns they’re proud to show him how much they have now.  And the rich man is proud and happy.  He praises their accomplishments and invites them to celebrate – come to party and let’s feast.

But that third man, with the one coin, is afraid from the start.  He assumes the worst will happen.  He assumes the worst about the wealthy man – even though he’s just handed him 15 years worth of daily wages.  That extravagance doesn’t compute with the third man.  He doesn’t know how to live in that kind of world, where owner trusts slave and deals generously with him.  So that one-coin man chooses fear over a leap of faith.  That one-coin man chooses safety and sameness over the hard-to-believe generosity and trust of a new path.  He chooses to hide his gift in the ground rather than making use of it.  And everything that happens from there, happens because he lives from a place of fear.  Even when he hands back over that one coin when the rich man returns, he doesn’t apologize.  He doesn’t say “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more but I was so afraid.  I couldn’t see straight.  I didn’t know how to do any better than this.”  No, he turns all that fear out in anger and accusation toward the rich man.  Remember, the last time he saw the rich man was when he gave him this amazing, crazy, over-the-top amount of money.  This is the very next conversation or interaction they have.  And it’s like he spits on the man and his gift, blurting out his fearful hateful words and throwing a dirty dug-up coin at him.

I believe in the God of second-chances.  And I have to believe that, even if the one-coin slave had done just as we’ve read and had only 1 coin to show for his time, if he had said to the rich man, “I’m sorry.  I messed up.  I didn’t know a way out of my fear.  Please show me how to change and do it better next time…”  If he’d said anything like that, I believe the parable might have ended differently.  Without the darkness and weeping and teeth-gnashing.

I believe this because I believe in the God who loves each one of us enough to be born into a human life and live it amongst us and die painfully for us.  I believe in the God who is dying on the cross and uses one of his last breaths to say, “Forgive them.  They don’t know what they’re doing.”

That’s the kind of God who entrusts each of us with unbelievable gifts, way beyond what any of us deserves or could get on our own.  The grace of God flows into our lives with extravagant abundance – not a trickle of grace but a full-on, living water, fire hydrant of grace!  And God lets us choose what to do about that – every day.  And when we choose well and try to live out of love rather than fear, God says, “Well done.  Come celebrate with me.”

It’s never too late.  It’s never too late to dig up the coin you’ve hidden, to get honest about fear, and to trust love.  It’s never too late to hear those words, “Well done.  Come celebrate with me.”

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  By Kwanesum (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Competes with the Gospel?

St Catherine church at St Malo Colorado

A homily on John 20: 1-18, preached on November 8, 2014 at the Charlottesville District Conference.

It’s a little strange for me to be preaching on this passage indoors, without my hiking boots.  For Easter sunrise, we Wesley Foundation folks are most often found on top of Humpback Rocks, huddled together in the early light – and sometimes the snow, misty rain, or fog.  It’s almost always cold.  Sometimes the guitarists have to whip off their gloves at the very last minute before playing a hymn and then stuff their numb hands back in again as soon as the last chord rings out.  Depending upon when Easter falls and where we are in relation to the spring time change, we have left town in our caravan of cars as early as 3am.

Maybe there are preachers who find worshipping outside to be distracting.  Like my high school teachers who almost never let us hold class on the spring grass because they were afraid they’d never get our attention again, maybe there are preachers who are irritated by the competition with God’s boisterous creation.  It can be hard to project on top of a mountain, with no walls to corral the sound.  At Easter sunrise worship, everyone’s looking out past me, to the brightening sky to the east, behind my back.  When I look out at them while preaching, I can sometimes see the rosy glow reflecting on their faces.

But here’s the thing:  if we’re worried about what competes with the gospel, I think we might be worried about the wrong thing.  If what I’m trying to share on Easter morning in the great glorious rest of creation singing God’s praise – if what I’m sharing at that moment can’t sing along, can’t chime in, or doesn’t hold up to the show unfurling behind me – well then maybe I’m not preaching the gospel after all.

We don’t have a better story of renewal than the resurrection at the heart of all our stories.  There’s no shining that one up to something more or better or relevant or nimble or attractive to young people or authentic or actionable or radical or effective…

You know where I’m going with this one?

That Sunday morning Mary didn’t know what she’d find.  She wasn’t looking for renewal or the next chapter in her story.  She was heartbroken, convinced that the life-changing story she’d been living with Jesus was cut short on Friday.  End of story.  In the past.  Done.

So she stands at the gaping maw of that tomb, weeping and wondering, newly wounded with this affront – someone has taken all that was left of Jesus.  Standing at the edge of death, she hears her name.

“Mary.”

A moment ago she thought the story was over.  She thought death had won.  Now she hears her name and opens her eyes.  She immediately wants to cling to Jesus, hold on for dear life.  But, as Jan Richardson writes,  “Where holding onto him might seem holy, Christ sees—and enables Mary Magdalene to see—that her path and her life lie elsewhere. Beyond this moment, beyond this garden, beyond what she has known. In going, Mary affirms that she has seen what she needed to see: not just Christ in the glory of his resurrection, but also herself, graced with the glory that he sees in her…on this day, the Magdalene we meet in the garden is simply one who has learned to see, and who goes forth to proclaim what she has seen” (“Easter Sunday: Seen” by Jan Richardson).

Right now, today, in the midst or our incessant worrying about attendance and membership and decline and money, God is speaking our names.  Are we listening?  Can we see?  Are we ready for the path that lies elsewhere, in the direction Christ leads, out away from what we’ve come to expect and all that we want to cling to desperately?

Who knows?  Maybe that call comes even through the things we’ve labeled “competition,” like soccer games on Sundays.  Maybe that call can redirect our gaze from the maw of death to the rest of the story unfurling into the now and the future.  Maybe we’ll see our selves and our church for the first time, if we listen.

Are we listening?

We’ve been entrusted with the best news there is – Love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love… (Song of Solomon 8: 6-7).  The end of the story is never our own failure and violence but is, always, in God’s hands.  We don’t have a better story to tell because this one is enough. More than enough.  This one is Life.

It starts, strange and wondrous, by getting up in the middle of the night to look death in the face.  In a garden at a tomb, on a mountain in the cold, tomorrow in your own home.  And then, it comes on the wind… the whisper of our names, revealing the story we long to live, the one that’s a long way from over.

Thanks be to God!

 

Unexpected

A sermon preached on Mark 10: 17-22, delivered during Wesley’s baccalaureate worship the evening before UVA graduation.

There are certain things we think we know.  Like what success after graduation looks like and the right path to achieving it.  Or how Jesus is supposed to act. 

So sometimes, when we come across a story like this one from Mark, we aren’t sure what to do with it.  Isn’t Jesus supposed to run after this man and make it easier for him?  Convince him he’s really the Way?  Give him one more chance?  Force him to follow?  It can make us uncomfortable when things don’t go like we think they will or should.

Maybe this is why so many graduation speakers sound alike and why those books you can buy for graduates also sound alike.  As a culture, we want to send you all out there with marching orders and a firm, believable, reliable path for getting exactly where we think you’re supposed to go. 

The problem with this is we often don’t know where we are going.  Or why.

While many of you were at the beach last week, light-writing and beach-combing, I was reading a book called Dirt Work by Christine Byl, a writer I was introduced to at the Festival of Faith & Writing I attended last month in Michigan.  Byl graduated from college with a plan to get a PhD so she could teach and write.  Her whole life had pointed her in the direction of academic life and indoor pursuits – the life of the mind, as it’s sometimes called.  There wasn’t a question in her mind about the goal.  But she wanted to spend a year or so taking a break in a beautiful place with her boyfriend before she dove back into the next degree.

So they moved to Montana.  And the plan started to unravel.  Or take shape.  Depending upon who you ask.

On a lark, Byl signed up late in the summer season to work on a trail crew in Glacier National Park.  These are the folks who repair trails, build walls, remove downed trees, and generally make hiking enjoyable for the rest of us.  There is little that had prepared her for this work.  She describes herself as 125 pounds soaking wet and she’d spent more time in libraries and in front of computers than she had using chainsaws or hauling heavy things.  Before the trail job, she hadn’t done much outdoors other than hike.

But like all good teachers, trail work showed her what she was missing.  Rather than seeing academics as higher and more desirable and manual labor as lower and less prestigious, she realized they had different things to teach and that she was in need of learning what the woods could teach, too.  The seemingly offhanded decision to join a trail crew late in the season ended up becoming the start of an entirely new education.  From the beginning, she knew she was on a journey but she didn’t know where she was headed.  Eighteen years later she’s still doing trail work.  The place, the people, and the work transformed her and showed her a new path.  Something completely unknown, unseen, and unexpected when she set out for Montana.

Unexpected, like Jesus giving the man what he really wanted and needed, though not what he asked for.  Mark tells us the man is getting ready for a journey and wants to nail down the unexpected – Here’s the list of all the commandments I keep now what else should I be doing?  I want to have my bases covered.  Jesus gives him something else, an invitation.  Come, follow, untangle yourself from the possessions that tie you down, live courageously and with transforming risk…  This is, of course, not what the man wants to hear.  He wants a list.  He wants tried and true.  He wants to have his expectations met, not overturned.  If he were walking the Lawn with you tomorrow he’d have one of those graduate books and a five-year plan up his sleeve.

Whenever I read this story I wonder what happened next.  All we’re told is the man went away sad and that Jesus let him go.  Did he sleep well that night?  Did he catch up with Jesus later?  Did he ask another rabbi the same question?  Did he write off Jesus as crazy and live the way he intended all along?

Maybe that unexpected encounter with Jesus bore fruit in the man’s life eventually.  Maybe not.

For the man in the story as we have it, he misses his opportunity.  For Christine Byl, she seized her opportunity and was seized by it.  She let it lead her on a path she had never considered – one that revealed her calling and her most authentic self.  She writes, “…I believe that the surprising turns our lives take can bring us to our unexpected selves” (Dirt Work, pp. xxi-xxii).

I hope your time at UVA has been unexpected and I hope at least part of that has been because of your involvement in the Wesley community.  Maybe being part of Wesley overturned Sunday school assumptions and easy answers, helped you form deeper community than you thought possible, rerouted your major and your direction from here…  Maybe it’s been as simple as the realization that the most important part of college wasn’t the college itself but what you did, who you did it with, and who you’ve become while you were here.

I have seen you take steps in the direction of your unexpected selves.  Keep going.

Count on the blessings of the unexpected.  Know that whatever paths you take – loopy roundabout paths or five-year-plan paths – God has surprises in store for you.  God will bless you with the unexpected over and over again.  God is not done with you yet.  And though you may come with only the patience for the answer you want to receive, God will give you what you need.  Every time.  In every place.  On every path.  The ones that lead into the woods and those that lead back out again. 

The God who met you here and transformed your college years in an unexpected place like Wesley will meet you on any path you chose from here – including the paths that seem to choose you.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!

Trying to Tell You Something about My Life

You know those songs that perfectly capture an era or a relationship?  The ones that take you back to that moment in a flash and you can feel who you were back then?  guitar headstocks

For me, one of those tunes is the Indigo Girls’ Closer to Fine.  Amy, Emily, and this song have traveled with me through many years, stages, and places.  But I every time I hear it I can remember singing I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was free, while still yearning for that paper.  For a certain group of my friends and countless others from my generation, that song is emblematic, galvanizing, community-making.  Name this song to one of us and we’ll tell you about the first Indigo Girls concert or where we were when that album came out.  With its iconic first line – I’m trying to tell you something about my life – the confession and the invitation begin…

 [Click here for the rest of the story at the National Campus Ministry Association blog.]

Dwell

A sermon preached on Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11: 1-10 at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.  (Due to icy weather last week we revisited the texts from the second week in Advent last night, for Advent 3.)  

carpenter's shop wood shavings

John the Baptist is attractive and repellant.  The Duck Dynasty guys wish they had beards as long and unruly as his!  He wears camel’s hair and eats locusts and warns everyone to repent – turn around, now!  He’s a wild visionary who’s made camp in the desert.  I find those images attractive.  I can picture him with a kind of charisma, speaking the hard truth people crave hearing, baptizing people and saying Wait it out.  He’s coming.

But he repels us, too, doesn’t he?  He’s way out past the edge of civilization, and hanging out with him seems a little risky.  Who’s coming after him, exactly?  And will it be someone as edgy and scary as John?  He seems especially angry with the Pharisees and Sadducees – how do we know he won’t turn on us next?

Then there’s the passage from Isaiah, which makes me scratch my head and ask where the parents are.  A child young enough to still be nursing is playing right over the hole of an asp?  Really?  Who thinks that’s a good idea?  And are we really supposed to believe wolves and lambs are going to get all snuggly with one another?  Cows and bears will go out into the field together to graze – on grass?  Lions will be satisfied feasting on straw?

Artists have depicted these mixed up unlikely scenes in religious art for thousands of years but they are still hard to imagine, aren’t they?  Are we meant to use these as guides to life in the future?  Or is this “just” poetry? 

We read about strange desert prophets and unimaginable peace between creatures we know to be natural born enemies – and we read this in Advent as we prepare for Christmas and as we remember and anticipate Christ’s promise to come again.  What does it mean to spend this season waiting?  To hear the prophet’s words and see the artists’ renditions and wonder if we are any closer to these promises being fulfilled than we were last year?

It’s easy to get confused about exactly what and who we are waiting on.  Lately Twitter and Facebook and the rest have been abuzz with tales of Pope Francis and his critics.  People who’ve given up on the church or been hurt by its scandals see in the Pope’s passion for the poor another way of being Christian.  It’s actually the original, Jesus-like way, but so many of us have done such a poor job of imitating him that many people no longer recognize this as “normal” Christian behavior.  In fact, some folks are so unfamiliar with the Jesus who was born to unwed, poor parents and spent his life overturning tables and expectations, that they fear maybe the Pope has gone astray somehow.

What are we waiting for?  Who is coming to be with us?

Here’s what I know:  it is never what we expect.  We, who like to put our faith in conservative or liberal, will be confounded.  We, who like to think we are getting pretty good at pulling up on our own bootstraps, will be surprised when we are lifted up.  We, who feel like failures, will find failure is one of God’s favorite materials to work with and transform.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid… (Isa. 11: 6)

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…(Mat. 3: 8-9)

It might be “just” poetry, but it’s interesting to me how specific and physical Isaiah’s images are.  We don’t hear about unicorns or ewoks – it’s known enemies like lions and lambs, cows and bears.  Real creatures we have seen with our own eyes – behaving in strange, “unnatural” ways.  Scary-attractive John does this too, out in the desert.  He doesn’t sit around looking “spiritual” and talking in vague unachievable non-physical ways.  He says prepare.  Turn around.  Bear fruit.  Don’t think you know where you come from so you’ll be fine.  See these stones?  Feel this water, be baptized.  Wait and watch for the one coming next.

Isaiah promises “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  On that day …his dwelling shall be glorious” (vv. 9-10).   God’s dwelling shall be glorious.  To dwell…to remain for a time; to live as a resident; to live in a particular place.  Not generally, euphemistically alive – living in real time in a particular place.  Like a stable in Bethlehem in the middle of a census.  Like Nazareth, amidst the sweet-smelling curlicues of wood in your father’s carpentry shop.  Like Galilee, hanging out with fishermen, feeding throngs of people with a few measly scraps of bread and fish.  His dwelling shall be glorious.  His dwelling.  His living in a particular place, in a particular body.  Jesus of Nazareth.  Fully human, fully divine.

We weren’t expecting that. 

Sometimes we still aren’t.  It’s a little too mysterious and unnatural for our imaginings.  How could God confine what’s God to a body like this?  Why would God want to get that particular?  This whole incarnation thing puts a real cramp in our tendency to want to separate body and spirit.  If God – the ultimate in Spirit – finds a human body worthy of dwelling in, who are we to question it?  Who are we to find human bodies less worthy?

Who are we to ask God to be a little less particular?  When Jesus said visiting the sick and imprisoned is the same as visiting him, he meant that in a spiritual way, right – we can pray for prisoners without visiting the prison and shaking their criminal hands, right?  We can love the poor from a distance, can’t we?  Isn’t it enough to give to the Food Bank without actually sitting down for a meal with our hungry neighbors?

We don’t get to have a “spiritual,” disembodied Advent or Christmas – or life.  Our job is to dwell in this uncertain, mysterious promise, to inhabit our imperfect maddening bodies more fully as places of divine presence and revelation.  Our calling is to look for Jesus in each face we see  — Pope, Palin, pauper, prince, people right next door…

The One we call Emmanuel – God with us – is always ready to be born and revealed in new ways in the midst of our lives and established routines.  And it’s never what we expect.  So we read strange poetry and listen to strange prophets and try to prepare.   

It’s an attractive and a repellant message.  It’s a promise that means no escape from here and now.  These bodies and this world were good enough for Jesus to dwell in and they are the things through which the Kingdom of God comes near.   

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2008 Rob ShenkCC BY-SA 2.0