A Peaceful Thanksgiving

This is a sermon preached on November 18, 2018 at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, MD. Isaiah 36:1-3,Isaiah 36:13-20,Isaiah 37:1-7,Isaiah 2:1-4

There has been a saying going around on social media the last few years, one that gets shared a lot this time of year. It says, “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

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I love family meals. My family still sits at the dinner table regularly for an evening meal. There’s nothing better than the two of us, the four of us, and especially the six of us gathered around the table.

There is laughter, there is conversation, there is gratitude and sharing. It’s loud and rambunctious, it’s sometimes messy, and always entertaining. This week I will extend my table and put all the leaves in. I will round up extra chairs from the house and get out my great grandmother’s dishes and my grandmother’s crystal. We will use cloth napkins and I will make a dinner of love and care, a dinner of tradition and lots of butter.

For some of us, these are the sounds of Thanksgiving’s past, perhaps even its future, but not its present. For some of us we will gather together at our family’s dinner table, extended with all its leaves filled with anxiety and dread.

What will be said, who will be there, will we be able to avoid the landmines of “differences?” “Can’t we all just get along?” we will wonder to ourselves. “Can’t we put aside this warring madness for just one day?”

There are arguments that maybe we shouldn’t, that this is our chance to “turn the other side” and “bring them over to our side”. There are arguments that we should go into thanksgiving with our guard up, ready to fight the good fight.

So I had to laugh when I opened the narrative lectionary reading for today and it was about war and peace. As I contemplated changing it for our thanksgiving service to a psalm proclaiming gratitude to God for all our abundance, then I thought otherwise.

Maybe we should talk about war and peace, it may not be the most gratitude filled text, but it may just be a practical “how-to” guide to handle the American holiday of thanksgiving! The land of Judah is in the southern part of Israel. Israel was divided into two after Solomon’s son was defeated in war.

Hezekiah is the thirteenth king of Judah living in 700-600 BCE. He lives in the capital of Jerusalem, and like his sister country Israel the Assyrians have defeated his army and lands, an unstoppable force in this time. After defeat the king of Assyria sends a messenger to mock and scold not only the people of Judah but their God as well.

The King through his messenger declares that he is mightier than all the other gods of all the other lands he had defeated, and therefore is mightier too then this God in Israel. “Where is your God now?!?!”

When Hezekiah heard this he tore his clothes and covered himself in sackcloth. In other words, he mourned and grieved. When the prophet Isaiah gets wind of this he says to the king and his priests to not be afraid, that God will help them, but it will take time. God has not abandoned them.

The narrative lectionary does an interesting thing at this point. It has us turn back to Isaiah chapter two all the way from chapter 36 to remind us how we are to respond, what was foreshadowed for the people of God for this very moment. The people are to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.

The representative of the king of Assyria has just mocked not only the people and their king, but their God as well. This political war isn’t just one of land and kingdoms, but of power and domination over the very souls of the people, their very religion. This is very, very personal. You didn’t just insult my official representative; you insulted my God as well. Today in America we are not at war with each other, and I think it’s important to remember that.

However, I do not think it is a far stretch in today’s political climate to draw some parallels here. Poll after poll tells us that Americans are more divided today then ever before, if there is a comparable time, it is civil war era contention. Can we ever get along? Will we ever end this warring madness?

I bet the people of Judah were wondering the same thing.

Two weeks ago SNL’s Pete Davidson mocked then Texas republican nominee for U.S. House of Representatives and former Navy Seal, Dan Crenshaw for losing an eye in “war… or whatever”.

As you can image the interwebs went crazy. In an opt-ed for the Washington Post, now member-elect Dan Crenshaw said this:

I woke up on the Sunday morning after the show to hundreds of texts about what Davidson had said. A lot of America wasn’t happy.

I agreed. But I also could not help but note that this was another chapter in a phenomenon that has taken complete control of the national discourse: outrage culture. It seems like every not-so-carefully-worded public misstep must be punished to the fullest extent, replete with soapbox lectures and demands for apologies. Anyone who doesn’t show the expected level of outrage will be labeled a coward or an apologist for bad behavior.

I get the feeling that … Americans sigh with exhaustion — daily.

Was I really outraged by SNL? Really offended? Or did I just think the comment about losing my eye was offensive? There is a difference, after all. So I didn’t demand an apology and I didn’t call for anyone to be fired. That doesn’t mean the “war . . . or whatever” line was acceptable, but I didn’t have to fan the flames of outrage, either.

SNL reached for with an invitation for Mr. Crenshaw to appear on the show and on November 10 he did alongside the man who insulted him, Pete Davidson. Pete apologized and Mr. Crenshaw said they agreed that certain things, like Veteran’s wounds were off limits. As I read the article and watched the video this week I couldn’t help but hear Isaiah’s words echo in my head. “turn swords into plowshares”.

Turn a weapon of war into a tool for peace.

Why is a gardening tool a tool for peace is a wonderful and very long discussion for another day and one I very much enjoy having.

They are both made from metal, metal mined from the same mines, thrown into the same fires, the difference is how they are molded and shaped. To turn a sword into a plowshare will take time and energy.

It will take literal transformation but it can be done. In a time and place where our words can seem like war- I ask you, what would it take for you to show up at Thanksgiving dinner with a plowshare instead of a sword?

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What would it take to meet your families with compassion instead of condemnation? Mr. Crenshaw continues in his opt-ed:

How, then, do we live together in this world of differing ideas? For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much.

…People too often attack not just an idea but also the supposed intent behind an idea. That raises the emotional level of the debate and might seem like it strengthens the attacker’s side, but it’s a terrible way to make a point.

Assuming the worst about your opponents’ intentions has the effect of demonizing their ideas, removing the need for sound counter-reasoning and fact-based argument. That’s not a good environment for the exchange of ideas.

When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it.

Friends, we all have a choice to make, not just this week, but every day. We can show up with swords ready to fight, ready to tear down and destroy the other, or we can turn those swords into plowshares, ready to do the hard work of peace and prosperity for all.

May it be so for you and for me.

To listen to the audio recording you may do so here.

God is Watching

This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on August 20, 2017. You may find the audio file on the church sermons page.

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Psalm 139:7-12

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

There is nowhere we can go to escape God’s sight.

This is one of the most comforting and terrifying sentences of my life. God is always with me, God lives and dwells among us, God is now here. I hold to these statements in the deepest darkest moments of life.

Moments when I felt my life was in danger, moments I was in pain, moments I thought nothing could every get better. God is now here, I am never, you are never, we are never alone.

Jesus is sent to earth and is named Emmanuel, literally God with us. We are the Beloved’s and the Beloved’s is ours. And not only does scripture tell us that there is no where we can go to hide from God, there is also no earthly thing, nothing in all of creation to separate us from the love of God.

“38 For I am convinced” Paul says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You are fully know, unconditionally loved, and partnered with the one who adores you. Is there anything better news than that?

And then there are the other times… The times in which I wish I could escape God’s sight.

A colleague reminded me that while this Psalm’s references to “hand” (vss. 5, 10) can be comforting and serve as a guide, they can also weigh heavily. “Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful.”

The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee (vs. 7) from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm (vs. 11). Why would we flee from something beautiful? For me the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places might be burdensome.[i

When there is no where I could go, in all of creation or even inside myself that I can hide from God it means I am fully known. It means each thought, each sin, each terrible flash of judgment is known to God

God doesn’t just see the thoughtful, put together, ordered life I present to the world, my perfect selfie taken from just the right angle with just the right amount of smile. God also sees the me I attempt to hide from the world. The messy, chaotic, even hateful self that exists.

Last week I watched as white supremacist marched through the streets with torches and were threatening to burn down a church where clergy were holding worship.

The clergy had concluded a non-violent activist training event and were praying. The mob surrounded them, reports and tweets that said, “we are not safe.” When the police tried to get them to their cars through the back door a few were taken and beaten, these young white men with torches were protesting the removal of a monument of Robert E. Lee, violent and hateful from the beginning

They were Nazi’s, they were KKK, they were white supremacist.

They no longer felt the need to wear hoods, as they felt that their government would protect them, because their government, the president’s top advisers was one of them.

This is the moment where I say, God sees you. God sees every hateful moment of your sin, God sees your heart and weeps, and is angered.

It is one of those moments where I wished I believed in a vengeful God. The one my southern Baptist pastors used to talk about. I wished I believed that God would forced them to answer for their crimes as a harsh Ruler, a judge and that when their day comes they would be sentenced to burn in the flames of hell.

And there it is. Right there.

That’s my sin.

Because there is nowhere I can hide from God, but sometimes, occasionally, I wish I could.

Truth is we all want peace but in the face of conflict we want to fight. We sat here last November and talked about our awkward Thanksgiving tables and all the people that said, “how much damage can a president do?”

Some of us here marched in the streets in January and proclaimed slogans of love not hate.

But friends, when I saw White supremacist marching in the streets without hoods, I had hate in my heart in a way that made me want to fight, to throw stones, to turn into some shadow of darkness vigilante and end this now. My sin is, I wanted them to hurt. And this time it was easy, who doesn’t want to fight literal nazi’s and bring them down?

The truth is, I want to spew messages of hate right back at them. I want to use violence on them just as they used on an innocent crowd, I want them and their way of life gone.

But God is watching.

Thank goodness, God is watching.

Praise Jesus there is nowhere I can hide from God.

The path God has laid out for us is a difficult one. The path God has laid out for us is one of painfully slow, incremental changes, because the path God has laid out for us is peace. You got yourselves into this mess, and you have to do the work to get yourselves out.

God is watching.

Over the last week we have relived articles and conversations about the past. About the civil war that ended 152 years ago, conversations that compare modern day America to Nazi Germany and quoting great and inspiring civil rights activists from the 1960’s. And yes, let us learn from our history, but it’s time for us as a society to admit that we cannot hide our sins from God anymore. The sins of yesterday, are still the sins of today.

We can no longer talk about race issues as if they were something in the past. We can no longer look at white supremacy and over 200 registered groups of well armed, self-trained militia carrying assault rifles in the streets and call them fringe groups. They are here, we are a society that helped create them and God sees our sin, it’s about time we did too.

We are asking where God is in all this, and God is asking us where we are? We cannot pretend and say God is nowhere to be found in this, for God is now here. In and among us. Working through us to choose peace, to link arms and sing “This little light of mine.”

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God is in the hard work of leaving sin and hatred in our hearts and not fighting fire with fire. It’s not that being angry itself is wrong, we should be outraged, it’s what we do with it. God is using us, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, to work all things for good.

Rene is not here this week, he is on a much needed vacation. When he is here Rene blesses us with his faith and leads us in the prayers of the people. He is heartfelt and sincere.

Rene starts the prayers proclaiming that God is good, all the time. And each time we discuss a tragedy he reminds us of what? God works all things for good.

What that looks like, I don’t always know. But I know it happens one person, one relationship at a time.

Diana Butler Bass, a church historian and speaker was in Charlottesville yesterday. Her daughter is a student at the University of Virginia and she gave this update on her FB wall:
When in Charlottesville, we went to the memorials for Heather Heyer. On the street where the car attacked the marchers, there exists an eerie holiness, a sacred sense born of sacrifice and suffering.

We walked mostly in silence. A pilgrimage to the pain of our own time.

At the top of the street, on the downtown mall, a preacher — one of those evangelistic sorts — was proclaiming the Gospel of Mark through a bullhorn, trying to convert passersby.

As we approached, he was nearing the book’s end, reading from chapter 14:

“She has done what she could to anoint My body in advance of My burial. And truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

And so, the Spirit moves. An unintended grace. In memory of her.

There is nowhere we can go that is not in God’s sight. And thank goodness. With God watching I am given the strength to meet violence with peace, to whisper words of love, which speak louder than hate.

God is now here, working all things for good. May it be so…

 

[i] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2329

2015: The Year of Shalom

The word of the 2015 is Shalom. Despite the fact that my Brother-in-law was hoping for falafel. But alas, it’s Shalom – Wholeness, Peace. It is both a greeting and a farewell.

Peace with what?

Specifically: Me.

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I’ve lived for a long time in a shadow of trying to conform. Conforming to a world, to another’s expectations, to wanting. I want more than anything to be understood, accepted, beloved, cherished.

Guess what? I’m not perfect, but I am learning to move past rejection and be at peace with me. I like who I am – I’m strong, I’m confident, I’m imaginative, creative, smart, talented. I cast a large shadow myself, thank you very much, and I’m tired of apologizing for it. Truth is there are only a few people asking me to, and you know what? They don’t need to matter as much as I allow them.

I deserve to be at peace with me.

I also deserve to be at peace with the respect that I deserve.

I want to be at peace with the times that I can only be “good enough”. When life didn’t do me any favors I want to be at peace with the capacities I do have. I want to be at peace with the fact that I deserve better. That I am enough, myself, that I am a whole person who has the right to be with someone she loves, and that person not be in love with someone else and trying to decide if he “wants” to be with me.

I want to live a whole life this year.

I’m a good mom, it’s different than I wanted, but I am a good mom, I want to be at peace with the way I parent, for myself and for my kids. I want to be at peace with how excitable they are and how hard I laugh with them. I want to be okay with the fact that we chase each other around stores in superhero costumes. That we sing silly songs to each other, that people stare. I want to be at peace with people’s stares. With the fact that sometimes good enough means that we have hot dogs and watch a movie at dinnertime.

I want to be at peace with the depth of my feelings. My joys and my sorrows. I love with my whole heart. I’m tired of holding back. I’m intense; I need to make peace with that, because if you are in that circle around me, you’ll experience it and it’s like staring into the sun. I can be filled with such love and grace for another human being that I am in awe of this gift God has given me. Yet, I also need to be held, and loved, and cared for, someone to kiss my head and tell me I’m beloved, worth every intense second.

I need to be at peace with the fact that, in order to protect my children, and myself, not just anyone can be this person.

I need to be at peace with the fact that it simply hurts too much to love someone that doesn’t or won’t love me and treat me with respect. That living a whole life means saying goodbye to the people who hurts me and subsequently, my family.

I need to be at peace with the fact that I need and I deserve reciprocation of my love.

Mostly, I want to be at peace with the unknown. I want to receive the unexpected gifts of each day, I want to rest more, play more, wonder more, sing more in public, dance more. I may even want to go on a date, and be at peace with that, and I need to be at peace with the fact that the man I was in love with for half my life probably won’t care that I do.

In order to do that I need to live Shalom. I need to live into the Shalom of life and not the anxiety of it.

What’s this year going to look like? I have no idea. But it starts here, today, it starts by not compromising myself. It starts by being at peace with myself. It starts by not apologizing for who I am and not submitting to who you think I should be.

It starts by calming the inner voices of “not enough” and “too much”.

It starts by embracing that Shalom is the way God intended life to be. That my hope rests in God, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Hello 2015, Thank God you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you.

Peace

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Peace is today’s word for the Advent photo of the day.  I thought long and hard, as the obvious choice for me would be to sneak into get a picture of my children sleeping.  But instead I finished sorting through my email after 10 days away and poured myself a cup of tea.  No one is in the office Tuesday and it is quiet.  

I have a little Christmas music on and I exhaled.  I also put it in my favorite mug, it is my “tree of life” mug. Whenever I drink from it I am reminded that there is just as much beneath the surface of life as there is above. Peace comes from the roots.  A tree could be chaotic on the outside and yet remain rooted and firm on the inside.  A tree could also be blown over if the insides are not deeply rooted.

And so it goes with peace. Peace comes from within, it is not the absence of chaos, it is being firmly rooted in the midst of it.