A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:17-18

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time.

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28),

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations.

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here.

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift.

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!


A Mother’s Day Homily

June 4, 2019

This is the homily delivered by Melanie Smith on May 12, 2019 at the All Saints Church of Christ.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.


A Mother’s Day Homily

May 22, 2019

This homily was delivered by Melanie Smith at the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 12, 2019. It was her first time to sermonize before an assembled people of God. She is a public school teacher. Characteristic of her heart, she will spend a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish so she can communicate better with her students.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.


God Builds a House

May 20, 2019

When Israel agonized over what sort of house or temple they should build for God, God clarified something for them.  “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah 66:1-2 testifies, “the heavens are my throne, and the earth is my footstool; where is the house you will build for me, and where is my resting place? My hand made all these things, and all these things belong to me.”

The God of Israel announces some fundamental truths about creation. It is the house God built, it belongs to God, and God lives in it.

The divine hand made everything. This echoes Genesis 2 where it says that God rested from all that God had made. Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2 is the object of God’s creating and making. Everything in the universe—including the cosmos itself—is the product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God made it.

Moreover, God is enthroned within the heavens and the earth.  The “heavens” do not refer to some celestial divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos. God does not construct a house out of brick and mortar but out of earth and sky. The sky is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. The cosmos is God’s palace or temple, a cathedral of God’s own making. It is God’s house.

And God dwells in that house. It is the place where God came to rest. This is temple language, as we know from Israel’s history. When God came to dwell in Israel’s temple, it was called God’s resting place (Psalm 132:14). The temple is where God dwells, and creation is God’s temple. When we say God rested within the temple, we do not mean God became a couch potato or a passive observer. Rather, God dwells within the creation in order to enjoy it and share life with it.

While God was graciously present in Jerusalem’s earthly temple, God does not—first and foremost—dwell in houses made by human hands because God dwells within the cosmos itself. God is so present to the creation that every breath is the movement of God’s Spirit, and every breath is communion with God. Though, as Creator, God is transcendent to the creation and is not dependent upon the creation, God is nevertheless graciously and immanently present within the creation to sustain life, commune with it, and enjoy it. God loves the creation.

Perhaps we should remember that we live in God’s house, and therefore we should treat the creation with respect and care. And, at the same time, God invites us to commune with God within the creation and revel in its joy and beauty. 

Perhaps God is like an AirB&B owner who says, enjoy my resting place but don’t trash it. This is God’s temple, so let us enjoy it with reverence and respect.


Why Did God Create the World?

May 19, 2019

TThis question stretches across all age groups, from toddlers to graduate students.

To be sure, it is precarious, even presumptive, to answer this question. We cannot get into God’s head and identify motives. However, the theodrama does not leave us clueless. But before we enter the world of the drama, let’s consider a few ideas. 

On the one hand, some suggest God was needy. In other words, there was a hole in God’s psyche.  Perhaps, for example, God was lonely, or God needed companionship, or a playmate, or—worse—someone to control. I remember my daughter, for example, wanted my wife and I to have another child, and her rationale was that she needed someone she could boss around. In effect, this sort of God is co-dependent, a God who needs the divine ego stroked or a deficiency healed. Here creation arises out of self-interest rather than as a gracious gift to us.

On the other hand, some suggest that God acted arbitrarily. God had no reason to create. It was a bare assertion of sovereign power or ego. Sometimes people worship God simply because God is powerful, and in that case. God may be worshipped, but God is not adored because terror drives that worship. 

Reading the whole story—from beginning to end—suggests an answer to the question. While creation is the first act of God, we learn something about God’s motive by reading the rest of the story.

Christians confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not lonely. Rather, God enjoys a communion of love within the Triune community. God does not need someone to love because, as Jesus prayed in John 17:24, the Father already loves the Son, and the Son already loves the Father even before the foundation of the world.

Further, the purpose of redemption suggests the purpose of creation. Jesus prayed that disciples would come to know the Father so that the love with which the Father loves the Son might be in them and Jesus in them (John 17:26). In other words, God acts, whether in creation or redemption, to include us within the orbit of God’s own communal love. God created a people to share God’s own loving communion, a community that predates the creation itself.

Perhaps an analogy might help. Why do we have children? There is no economic benefit, and it does not relieve family stress. However, in the best of circumstances, we have children because we want to share our love with them. We want to include others in the orbit of the family’s love. We love, and therefore we create.

In a similar way, God does not create because God is lonely or needy. God creates to include others in the communion of God’s own loving family.  God loves, and therefore God creates.


Theodrama in Five Acts

May 18, 2019

The video is available here.

The Bible tells the story of God. There are many threads within that story and many rabbit trails which one might pursue, but there is one overarching plot to the drama. There is, in essence, one story.

This story has an arc that begins with creation and moves to new creation, the goal of the drama. The arc has a climax, but the climax is found in the middle. That climax is Jesus the Messiah, who is God in the flesh. This same one who was present at the beginning and through whom God created all things is also the same one God raised from the dead as the beginning of new creation. The first and final acts of the drama are performed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, then, is the pinnacle of the arc, the one in whom both the beginning and the end find their meaning and fulfillment.

Between creation and Jesus lies the story of Abraham’s descendants, Israel. They are the people of God whom God led into a new Eden, but they did not embrace God’s mission. God invested in Israel the hope of the nations, but they did not pursue this hope. Nevertheless, God pursued them and accomplished that hope in Jesus. 

Jesus, the instrument of God’s creative work in the beginning and now the reality of the new creation at the right of God, descended from Abraham. Jesus is a Jew, and through him, God will bless and give hope to all nations.

Jesus invites the nations into the community of Israel. This fourth act in the story is the church, which is the renewal of Israel’s identity and vocation in the world. Moreover, it is the renewal of human identity and vocation. God recreates humanity in order to give the world hope. Through the church, God will bless all nations.

This divine drama has five acts.  It has a beginning and a goal, and it has a means.  Creation is the beginning, the first act of God. New creation, the new heaven and the new earth, is the goal, the fifth act of God. Jesus the Messiah is the means, who is the third act of God. Between the first and third acts, and between the third and fifth acts, God creates community. The second act is the story of Israel, and the fourth act is the story of renewed Israel, which invites all peoples into the life of Israel.

I call this a theodrama because it is God’s story. It is the story of God’s work, of God’s acts.  God creates a good world!  God elects Israel as a people for the sake of the nations!  God becomes human for our salvation! God calls the nations into the life of Israel in the church!  And God renews the creation!

Over the coming weeks, we will retell this story, and through it God will invite you to make it your own, to participate in the life and mission of God, the one who created you, loves you, and redeems you.


Woe to You Who Are Rich (Luke 6:24)

February 24, 2019

[Message by Jared Randall at All Saints Church of Christ, February 17, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee.]

Today, I want to start by listing the basic ideas that make up Darwinian thoughts about Survival of the Fittest. Don’t worry, you’ll see why later. There are three basic ideas.

  1. Domesticated plants and animals show a tremendous range of variation. That sounds right, my cats are both cats yet only one feels the need to bite my toes in the morning to make sure I’m up.
  2. A similar range of variation exists in nature among wild species. Kinda simple, elephants in India are different than Elephants in Africa. There’s variation.
  3. All living things are engaged in a struggle for existence. X2. Everything wants to survive for as long as possible, that’s obvious. And if we need the same things to survive, we’re going to have to share; and if there’s not enough to share than one of us is going to have to die, and who ever dies doesn’t get to make more mouths to feed.

That’s basically it. That’s basically what Darwin noticed that no one else at the time did. Something that any gardener here instinctively knows, that there’s a web of dependence and competition that makes sense of everything that we do.

One of my favorite parts of Richard’s book, Myths America Lives By, is the section on the Gilded Age, where social Darwinism is on full throttle. I love that section because it basically shows how people applied those three building blocks of natural selection to an entire economic system that crushed the weakest people in society and wrote it off as “only natural.” It’s only natural- this is how the world works: you eat the same food as me, I need all the food, you fend for yourself.

People like Andrew Carnegie in 1889, one of the earliest, strongest millionaires, recognized that this is how nature was set up, which means this is how God had set the system up, which meant that those who were at the top of the pile were the ones living by God’s system.

Let me read this quote, “While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as condition to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment and the concentration of business… in the hands of a few…” and then later “Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined someday to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring “Peace on earth, among men Good Will..”

This is the game that we play- in America especially. Because there are only so many jobs. There only so many seats in the University lecture hall- only so many spots in the parking lot. There are only so many offices at the Capitol building in Washington DC.

So I got a headache today after reading Luke chapter 6 over and over noticing that no one is going to put these words across the doorways of the admissions building. No one’s going to move their family across the country because the company offered a smaller paycheck. No doctors have asked me if I have considered taking medication that would make me more sad.

I don’t know what world Jesus is living in. You know, Luke has this way of just shoving it in our faces. He just wants you to know. Reading Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, he’s kind of content to let you figure it out for yourself- but Luke just holds it up: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Doesn’t that give you a headache? I can imagine Andrew Carnegies head popping off if someone read him that text. I can imagine my own head popping off if I could understand it. I don’t know what world Jesus is living in, but it’s one that doesn’t make any sense. I guess it’s just one where The Origin of Species hadn’t been written yet. Because now we know about how the game works.

I think that I’m realizing lately that Jesus isn’t just the best hope for the world, but he’s the only hope for the world. And it’s because he’s the one who barges in on game night, clears the table and rips up our precious little rule book. Jesus is the only one with the guts to check the soil and taste the salt. Jesus looks around and says that surely there is some river where we can plant our shrubs.

Luke points to us and he says that either the poor are blessed or Andrew Carnegie is. It can’t be both. But with that said, Paul writes the scariest thing that we’ve read today. I got a headache when I read Luke, and I got shivers when I read Paul. Because he makes it clear; we are either living in a world where Christ is raised from the dead and the poor are blessed, or we aren’t. Jesus either flipped the board and cleared the table, or we lost the game. Jesus’s death on the cross was either the new way towards new life, or it was the non-survival of the not-so-fit.

We cannot be sure which is correct. But we can trust. And blessed are those who trust in the Lord, even between the headaches and shivers. No, better yet, as Jeremiah says, blessed are those whose trust is the Lord. Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the sad, for they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream that only the trusting can taste.


“I Will Not be Silent”

February 1, 2019

MLK Day Sermon 1/20/19
Robert A. Jackson, Jr.

At the All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN

The Text

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB) & Luke 10:29-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB)

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
    until her righteousness shines out like a light,
    and her salvation blazes like a torch.
Nations will see your righteousness,
    all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
    which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.

The Parable of the Samaritan

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three,do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Introduction

The following is an excerpt of Dr. King’s last speech (I’ve Been to The Mountaintop) that he gave in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

“In the Human Right Revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty,their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

“Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting amongst themselves.”

“But when the slaves get together, something happens. When the slaves get together,that is the beginning to getting out of slavery.”

“Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be sanitation workers. We got to keep attention on that.That’s always the problem with a little violence.”

“All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

“You know what’s beautiful to me? It’s to see all of these ministers of the gospel.It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow, the preacher must have the kind of fire shut up in his bones and whenever an injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos who said, “When God speaks who can but prophecy?” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus,“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me and he has anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

“So often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s alright to talk about long white robes over yonder and all of its symbolism. But ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey. But God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat (3) square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee.”[1]

Sermon Text

Like King, I stand here today as a messenger of God who is tormented by the pain and agony that is afflicted upon the disinherited of our society. Sometimes I experience that “Nathan Moment”. Have you ever experienced a “Nathan Moment”? That’s the moment when it is revealed that you have caused some of the affliction that is experienced by the disinherited.Nevertheless, I am learning the humbling art of preaching to self before and while preaching to others.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

Dr. King was a man who wrestled with his demons. And,he was also a man who was not silent about the injustices towards the disinherited. If we are honest with ourselves, we are also dealing with demons in our individual lives. I stand here today better understanding the inner conflict within us. The Apostle Paul said, when he wanted to do the right thing he didn’t. When there was something that he did not want to do, that’s exactly what he did. Our pride, arrogance, and idol worship keep us from acknowledging the humanity within our neighbors and even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

There are plenty of times that we have taken a selfish approach to life. I got mine and you get yours the best way you can.Too many times my white brothers have made comments about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe that it was Dr. King that said what is a person to do if they do not have any bootstraps? Too many times, white sisters have spoken up about the injustices towards women who looked like them but failed to see life from the aspect of all women of color. Black brothers have failed to prophetically preach against the sin of “whiteness” and failed to empower Black Women to speak into their calling of being prophets for the Kingdom especially within the confines of the American Empire. When I say“whiteness” it probably offended someone. They will not hear the rest of the sermon become of this one term. But, why? When I say “whiteness” I am NOT talking about skin color. I am NOT talking about an ethnic group of people. However, I AM talking about the imperialistic ideals of the Empire that have infiltrated the fellowship of the believers[2]. Some Whites, Blacks, and Latinos who reside in this country have allowed“whiteness” to tell those from outside of this society that they do NOT belong. Has “whiteness” become your religion?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

The institutions that claim to be of the Christ that want to truly make a difference must open their pocketbooks and their wallets. They must get out of their air conditioned and well insulated buildings. They must genuinely show up in the communities that are needing help. Don’t get me wrong,money is important to this conversation. It was important to further Jesus’ ministry. He had some financial donors. But, if we read closely, we see that his donors did not sit behind in their air-conditioned buildings. It seems that many of us want to go out of the country to do mission work. We will live in uncomfortable situations to do the work of God. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this work. However, I am saying that there is work to do at home. We debate over whether or not to build border walls, but when was the last time that someone who did not look like us get invited to cross to the inside of the walls of our houses to share a meal, coffee, or a conversation? We argue about the elephant and the donkey but fail to remember that these are two sides to the Empire’s politics. The politics of the Kingdom transcend both of them. Too many of us have fallen prey to idol worship because we have allowed the Empire to determine how we view humanity versus allowing the Christ to be the example to follow. When people are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills because the Empire decides to through a temper tantrum, do we just shrug our shoulders because of our hatred towards those whose politics do not match ours? Are we seeking to justify our apathetic response to the suffering of others? Who is my neighbor?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Dr. King was encouraged by the number of ministers that were in the audience during his speech. My pain is always the lack of preachers that are in attendance when matters of justice are being discussed.It has happened to me at church and school. Too often, the preachers in our faith tradition are either absent or silent. There will be plenty of events to get involved in matters of justice on tonight and tomorrow. But, how many of our preachers will show up? I have had several conversations over the years with preachers, both male and female, about us living out and teaching the people of God about the things that mattered to Jesus in Luke 4. I have asked them, “Are you willing to die for the cause of Christ”? Maybe, I should reframe the question. “What are you willing to give up to answer the calling that God has upon your life”? Will your sociopolitical ideologies allow you to continue to verbally and ideologically oppress, your black, brown, LGBT sisters and brothers? Will you continue to allow your socioeconomic status to cause you to overlook the poor of all races and nations? Will you continue to allow the traditions of your denominational tribes restrict you from living out the gospel? Will continue you allow those “in charge” to hold a paycheck over your head instead of attempting to be true to the Mission of God? Will you allow your patriarchal and misogynistic thinking to silence women and continue to add victims to the #MeToo and the #ChurchToo movements? Will you allow the idol worship of the “whiteness” in your life to control your thinking of who is or is not desiring of the Love of God? Will you continue to allow the cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance of your cultural upbringing to overshadow who the Spirit of God wants you to become? I believe that Dr. King was correct in his assessment that the preacher is more concerned about himself or herself that he or she is with others. However, I would conclude that the American Christian is more concerned about himself or herself than for others who do not look like him or her. He or she has replaced empowered empathy with anemic sympathy. He or she will acknowledge other followers of Jesus as fellow believers but will NOT acknowledge them as sisters and brothers. This negligence makes it easier to mistreat and overlook a sister or brother in Christ. 

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

The justice of the Bible is not a social secular movement. This is a Jesus movement. It is not the theoretical and lackadaisical teachings of “whiteness”. It is the gospel in action. We have to be honest with ourselves that we all have some sort of evil and sin in our lives. But the question becomes… Have we allowed them to overtake us? Has it become our God?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Now that we have dealt with the individual, lets deal with the community. The American Church is living in sin. It needs to repent of its idolatry and its adultery. It has taught the world to hate, it has taught the world to segregate, it has replaced the Apostles with politicians, it has replaced the Spirit with guns, it has replaced Jesus with Presidents, it has replaced God with the Supreme Court. The Bible has become a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Just like the Rich Young Ruler, it refuses to acknowledge the dignity of the disinherited by referring to them as “illegals”,“aliens”, or “those people”. It has silenced victims in order to protect the power structure. It practices a theology that is Anti-Christ when it tells disinherited people HOW to feel instead of asking them HOW they feel or instead of asking to see WHY they feel the way the feel. It seeks to be understood instead of seeking to understand. It has played the harlot with the Empire. The American Church needs to reclaim the mission of the ecclesia. It needs a rebirth. It needs to rededicate itself to Jesus.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Who is my neighbor?

Remember these words of Dr. King…

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”[3]

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” (lecture, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixfwGLxRJU8.

[2]Willie James Jennings, “Can “White” People Be Saved: Reflections on Missions and Whiteness” (lecture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, February 24, 2018),  https://youtu.be/SRLjWZxL1lE

[3] I have italicized and putDr. King’s words in quotations in an attempt to fully give him credit.


When Jubilee Sounds Like a Threat (Luke 4:14-21)

January 28, 2019

[This sermon was preached by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler at the gathering of the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, on January 27, 2019.]

When I was a little older than my daughter, Hannah, I used to go to my mom and dad,begging them to tell me a story. And it couldn’t be just any story—it had to be me-centric. “Talk about the Kaitie, Talk about the Kaitie!” We laugh about it because that’s just such a toddler thing, right? Your world is so small.Everything is centered on you and your needs. I was told yesterday that the kinetic sand in our sand table was for me to “look at, mama, not play with”because it was not mine. I was invited to the table to play, but when I started, I was not welcome. Ideally, over time, we learn that sand is for sharing and the world is big and needs outside our own exist and other stories are important even if they don’t include us. Ideally.

This lesson of a “bigger-than-you” world and learning the patience to hear stories that don’t include you is harder the closer in proximity one is to power or privilege. For toddlers, the response may include tantruming or pouting, but for adults, the response often becomes violent. The older one is, the more de-centering work challenges one’s safety, status, and self-concept. Violence,then, is just an emphatic rejection of wanting to do that work. It’s a lazy and entitled response to a call for empathy. I’m setting us up to understand this before even diving into the passage, because I think it is vital for us to put ourselves in the Nazarene’s shoes. Especially the shoes of the local religious leaders.

The gospel writer sets this up so perfectly.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.”

In verses 14 and 15, Jesus is a star. He is the standout, the wunderkind, the prodigy, the MVP. He was teaching in their synagogues and everyone praised him. There’s most likely a lot of hometown pride that bubbled to the surface when people heard Jesus was coming to the Nazareth synagogue. I can see Jesus sitting in the synagogue, surrounded by the men who he grew up around. Older men, his father’s age, and their sons, possibly childhood friends of Jesus.Maybe there was a mixture of pride, maybe some jealousy. He stands up, and they hand him the scroll. I’m not sure what they anticipated he read, but Jesus unrolls it, and looks for something. For all we know, this could have taken thirty seconds or five minutes, but I would bet the anticipation was thick.

He finds what he is looking for, looks up, and says the following:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Listen to this:  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There’s so much to unpack here—I don’t think we can cover it sufficiently. This divine mic drop was basically God’s thesis statement for sending Jesus to humanity. He takes two passages in Isaiah, combines them, and uses them as a declaration of ministry and purpose: “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”Jesus’s first hometown sermon is a decidingly political one: in it he declares dominion over the sacred and secular. And this IS Good News.

For the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, this is FINALLY God saying, “I’m here! It’s happening! Your Jubilee Year is finally come, all your debts are paid, you are free!” For the marginalized, Jesus is not only giving a word of hope and promise, but a word of finality. He’s here, y’all. Our troubles are no longer unheard and unseen.

With this word, Jesus basically confronts two institutions: the religious and the political. The Year of the Lord’s Favor Isaiah referred to was also called the Jubilee Year, and it was the responsibility of the government to enact and recognize it. Obviously, by the time Jesus came along, Rome was in charge, and “Jubilee” seemed more like a folk tale than a reality. It is a very pointed criticism that Jesus lobs at the political structures of his day when he chooses this particular passage. “Yeah, I’m here because you can’t do it.” And this Is Good News.

Everyone is amazed at his words and speaks well of him. But he doesn’t stop there.

See,it’s interesting to note that if you read ahead, the religious men in the synagogue don’t get mad because he says that he’s there for the poor and the oppressed. They get mad because he says that the poor and oppressed aren’t them. They are happy to hear of his healing until his healing heals those on the outside. They get so mad, in fact, they try to kill him. When the story shifts from centering them, to centering others, their violence overtakes their goodwill. They would rather kill the Messiah than join in the work with him.

And it’s not like Jesus is someone who withholds healing from those who need it. The fact that he chooses to reveal his mission in this way and then say later,“by the way, this isn’t about you,” tells me that he knew this community needed to be reminded of what it’s all about.

I titled this sermon, “When Jubilee Sounds like a Threat” because in 2019 America, I wonder how we would respond to the brown Nazareth preacher claiming freedom for the oppressed? I wonder if, depending on our social location and proximity to power and privilege, would it lead us to feelings of violence or feelings of joy?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to

Proclaim good news to those with poisoned water in Flint, Michigan,

He has sent me to proclaim freedom to Cyntoia Brown,

And recovery of land to indigenous people,

To set the undocumented immigrant children at the border free,

To proclaim health and healing to any sick person, regardless of ability to pay.”

Are we the local Nazarene religious leaders, so believing that we are entitled to Jesus and his words that any call to lift up the oppressed and marginalized is threatening? How can we tell if we are about to throw God off a cliff because we can’t handle the focus being off of us and on the systematically disadvantaged?

Does Jubilee sound like a threat or does it sound like Good News? What is our litmus test for whether we have perpetually centered our stories OR welcomed a bigger world and a bigger God who challenges us to look to the oppressed and marginalized for signs of His salvation work?

Church, we are being called into something great. We are can either proclaim Good News and do Good Work, or violently reject the God of the Outcasts. It starts with listening to stories in which we are not the subject and it ends in participating in the Great Narrative that rightly centers the oppressed.

May we be ever aware of our power and privilege, and learn to live empathetic, justice-seeking lives.


Millennials and Churches

March 5, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeff Wischkaemper, who holds a Ph.D. electrical engineering, and he lives in Knoxville, TN, where he attends a relatively new church plant that is affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

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It’s been six years since my wife and I left the Churches of Christ. Shortly after we left, I wrote extensively about some of the reasons for our departure, and some of the problems I thought Churches of Christ faced moving forward. In a recent discussion with John Mark on the topic of what churches (of Christ) can do to navigate multigenerational contexts – specifically those where Boomers are in charge and millennials make up an increasing number of congregants – I had the opportunity to revisit those posts and reflect on how I see connecting with millennials in a somewhat different faith community.

A note before I begin: Jeremy Marshall’s post here is absolutely worth reading. Because he’s already covered a lot of things I would want to say, I’d encourage you to reflect on his thoughts before reading this. Instead of rehashing everything he covered, I’ll try to supplement what he wrote with a few thoughts of my own.

First, a bit about myself by way of introduction: I was born in 1980, a member of the “micro-generation” that straddles Gen X and the Millennials. I spent 12 years earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees at a state university with a large campus ministry, and actively participated in leadership during that time. During my time in college, I overlapped with friends ranging from the college class of 1996 to the college class of 2013. And yes, I do see a significant shift in the social, political, and religious attitudes of people who are just a few years older than me compared to the people who are just a few years younger than me.

Why do they not want what we wanted?

Because the initial question was addressed specifically to congregations with Boomer leaderships, I’ll start with a pretty bold declaration of what I think the problem (still) is not, namely worship styles. I spent a lot of time beating a dead horse on this when we left, but loud, flashy instrumental music will not help you retain millennials.

My sense is that church leaderships have a tendency to look at worship styles as a solution to millennials leaving the church for a couple of reasons. First, they remember the time when they were young adults who thought worship was bland and stale. For Boomers, creating a dynamic worship experience was a major priority, and to be perfectly fair, a lot of the changes they made were both welcome and needed. But believing millennials are primarily interested in instrumental music is, in a very real sense, Boomers projecting their own desires for increasingly dynamic worship onto millennials, rather than an actual groundswell of desire from millennials themselves.

The more practical reason I think leaderships often gravitate to changes in worship style is that these changes are relatively easy to implement. Most changes to the way we do worship are straightforward, so long as the political will and capital exists. Worship services are something we plan and can exert some measure of control over. Consider the relative difficulty between 1) changing your worship service to include “newer” songs or 2) creating a broad culture of hospitality at your church. The first is a matter of planning and execution. The second requires a new imagination about your church’s identity. It’s easier to preach a sermon about kindness than it is to be kind.

Unfortunately, many of the changes I see as necessary for engaging millennials are changes of the second type. They are changes that aren’t easily controlled or executed, take a long time, and require a lot of introspection both from leadership and laity. To be frank, they are changes many of our churches simply aren’t equipped to make.

Keeping millennials in church requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume. Millennials are not adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments – and ironically, treating them that way tends to push them away, rather than drawing them in.

Three challenges

Difficulty connecting with changing demographics

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people like you. You are, we might say, on the fast track for eldership.

If you are in the 18-40 age range and you don’t fit this template, though, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you “back on track.” If you happen to be single, for instance, most singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because obviously singles’ primary goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because obviously all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

The challenge going forward is that demographic trends are moving away from the traditional template: 1) people are not getting married until later in life 2) married couples tend to be waiting longer to have children and 3) couples, even within churches experience divorce at higher rates than in the past. In spite of these trends, churches continue – overtly and covertly – to message that if you aren’t happily married by 25 with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of Church of Christ members isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most churches would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy. And from the inside, this makes sense. People who “fit” this narrow profile and know the secret handshakes find Churches of Christ to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding.

But people who are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives aren’t on a similar trajectory.

“Gospel” as “sin management”

The traditional story most churches have told for several generations goes like this (forgive the huge oversimplification): “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be able to live in heaven with God after we die.” The goal of churches, then, is to help people transition in status from “sinner” to “saved,” and then to help “saved people” manage their sin problem until they can go to heaven. (We would never say this so crassly, of course, but I think that’s a fair characterization of how many churches operationalize their purpose and mission.)

Now, there’s a sense in which that story may be “true,” but it’s a story that presents a solution to a singular problem that an increasing percentage of the population isn’t convinced they have. It’s a story that’s only “good news” if you can first convince people they are sinners in the hand of an angry God. Not surprisingly, the first move in the standard church playbook is to convince individuals of their personal guilt before a righteous and judgmental God – an approach which turns out to not work very well with people who didn’t grow up as nominal Christians.

Notice how much Jeremy in his article talks about story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about it below too). Think about how the same series of events and characters can be transformed by what Hayden White calls different modes of emplotment. For example, consider how differently the narrative of the French Revolution can look when written alternatively as a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, and a satire.

The story of God – told primarily as a tale of how to be forgiven and go to heaven after you die – isn’t an epic that captures the hearts and minds of many millennials. That’s not to say they aren’t interested in the story of God; far from it. But we need to take a step back and consider the mode of emplotment we bring to the text and ask ourselves whether a different approach to storytelling might resonate more in today’s world.

Justice, equality, hospitality

Justice, equality, and hospitality are words that Christians ought to have no problems with. And yet, if you ask non-Christians, the church is the last place they expect to find these virtues lived out. In an increasingly pluralistic society, faith communities are judged not by their benefits to insiders, but by how they act toward their non-adherents – those who do not believe.

How does your church (and its members) act toward immigrants (documented and undocumented)? How does your church (and its members) act toward members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does your church (and its members) act toward people of other faiths, (e.g. Muslims, Sikhs)?

Unfortunately, if we take an honest look, I think we will all find that our actions and intentions as Christians fall well short of the challenging words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.”

In the wake of World War II, European philosophers and theologians struggled to understand what had gone so horribly wrong with ethics and morality that millions of “good Christian people” in Germany – in a church that was in many ways more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been – could have been quietly complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings. One French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas – who survived the Holocaust only because he was protected as a prisoner of war – tried to reground ethical discussions not on an abstract notion of human rights or contractual political arrangements, but on our obligations to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

I don’t believe churches are at the point, yet, where we have been forced to undertake the same reckoning with regard to our complicity in the suffering of others. But we should be aware that even now, we are judged by a watching world on how we respond to the least of these. To the extent that our religion functions as a way to preserve and extend our cultural power at the expense of outsiders, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, we are weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Three ways we can do better…

If you change your story, you change your life

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his prophetic work After Virtue (1981) said this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Millennials don’t need another self-help book. They know how to listen to TED talks. But they are a generation whose apparent life trajectory is not optimistic; they will likely be the first generation in America to not enjoy a standard of living greater than their parents.

What they want, desperately, is to be part of a community with a story of hope – and we have a story that speaks to that desperation. Scripture tells of a story that says, “God is doing something amazing in the world! God wants to repair all of the brokenness you see around us and set things right again! You have the opportunity to join in a community that is partnering with God to bring about justice and peace and restoration and wholeness?” It’s story that says my identity is not wrapped up in how much I earn, in what my job title is, or in how much I consume; that it doesn’t depend on my gender or race or economic status. Instead, the story of God promises that my identity is grounded in the reality that I am created by God, and that God wants me to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s a story people want to be a part of!

The recently deceased Yale theologian George Lindbeck argued that in a pluralistic age persuasion involving fundamental beliefs and ultimate concerns is not simply a matter of dispensing information but is, rather, an invitation to participate in an alternative story. Part of the reason millennials are so turned off from many churches is that the story most churches tell by their lived existence is basically indistinguishable from the story told by the world. At most churches, “being a good Christian” doesn’t look all that different from a vaguely spiritualized version of “living the American Dream.”

If the “good news” your church preaches is, in the words of one Christian author, “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an almost illegible footnote about social/global transformation,” you are going to have a very difficult time retaining people under 40. You can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming while at the same time offering an incoherent and disconnected story. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a Michael Bay movie; possibly entertaining, lots of explosions, action and special effects, but very little substance.

Millennials are looking for a story. The story of God is an epic that has the capacity to animate their lives. But we need to learn to tell that story in a way that connects with their passions and desires, anxieties and fears.

Embracing women

To quote Sojourner Truth, “I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

Let me pose a hypothetical to you. I know someone who is an expert in couple’s therapy. Literally wrote the book on helping couples get past an affair. They lead seminars all over the world about how to have a better marriage, how to communicate better as a couple, about how to forgive those who’ve wronged you. They’re a past-president of the Division of Couples and Family Therapy at the American Psychological Association. And they are a person of deep faith. And for the cost of gas, I could probably get them to spend a morning strengthening the marriages and relationships of anyone in your church who wanted to come.

How in the world could you say no to something like that?

You could (and many of our churches would) say no, because that person is a woman.

The recent, attention-grabbing Nashville Statement included the following sentence in Article 3: “We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” One of my female friends replied, “You wouldn’t have to explicitly deny that females are unequal in dignity and worth if it weren’t implied by the entire history of [your organization].”

I know that for this audience, addressing this issue is poking a bear, and I know there are a lot of complementarians who will push back against me on this, but as a husband, brother, and friend of dozens of highly educated women let me make this abundantly clear: when you argue that women aren’t “less than men,” but that they “just have different roles (like teaching children’s classes and baking casseroles and sending sympathy cards),” these women would reply in a similar way to my friend above – you wouldn’t have to assert that women aren’t less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice. 

I want to say that again: you wouldn’t have to assert that women are not less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice.

My wife and I will never attend another church that doesn’t respect her talents and gifts, and the talents and gifts of other women, and doesn’t give women the opportunity to use the talents God has given them in settings where men are present. And we’re far from alone. In my small group, there are two women with Ph.D.’s (one of them a New Testament professor) and one medical doctor. Each of them grew up in small, conservative churches where their talents were dismissed and devalued, or worse still appropriated by boys who passed the girls’ work off as their own. Each of them has a story of hurt and resentment that is not only a barrier between them and most Christian communities, but sometimes a barrier between them and Christ.

You can jump up and down on any verses you like, but I will tell you that the lived experience of an increasing number of women suggests that the way complementarian theology is enacted is frequently damaging, not only spiritually, but on a deeply personal level. If you ignore that pain, or worse still perpetuate it, you will find an increasing number of millennial couples who will be unwilling to listen to you about anything else.

Our churches have to find ways of recognizing, valuing and listening to the talents of all members of God’s family. Spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Stop trying to be relevant. Start thinking about formation.

Too many churches get caught up in a never-ending quest to be “relevant.” If you want to connect with people under 40, think instead about how your church changes the people who are in it. Klyne Snodgrass writes: “[W]hen people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return, ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.”

Stories are identity-forming. They are how we organize the world around us. Again – if you change your story, you change your life.

MacIntyre’s phrase for people who live without a grounding story is “anxious, unscripted stutterers.” Because of a long series of choices I don’t have space to go into, many churches have lost their organizing story, leading many of their members to become anxious, unscripted stutterers.

Imagine if you asked your church the following three questions:

1) Who do you/we believe God is?
2) What do you/we believe God is up to in the world?
3) If God is doing something in the world, what should your/our response be to that?

My guess is that regardless of whether your church is “conservative” or “progressive,” your members would have a difficult time answering those questions without resorting to “Sunday school” answers (e.g. “God is love!”). These questions are a good baseline for understanding the direction that your church is headed, and the direction your members are being formed. James K.A. Smith has written extensively about how all of us are constantly being formed. It’s worth asking in the context of this question, “What is the direction of formation in most Churches of Christ?” Or, as I asked myself when we were in the process of leaving, “If I take the values and beliefs of this church to be my own, what kind of person am I going to be in 5 or 10 years?” Ultimately I didn’t leave because of personal disagreements, ineffective leadership, or vapid teaching (though those things were all present). I left because when I took a hard look in the mirror, I didn’t like the person being formed by the values of that church.

Wrapping up

I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a tech startup a couple of weeks ago, and he made a very interesting statement: “You get the investors you deserve. … If you’re trying to attract investors by going around saying, ‘We’re going to blow it up on every street corner!’ then you’re going to get investors who have those expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say, ‘We’re trying to build something that’s going to survive for the long haul,’ you’ll get investors who are more patient and willing to let you take time to do things right.”

My general observation is that many times, churches get the members they deserve. If your church is trying to attract people based on your flashy worship service, it shouldn’t surprise you when you lose members to a flashier worship service. If you’re trying to attract people because you have good preaching or children’s programs, it shouldn’t surprise you when those people jump to the next church that comes along and “out churches” you. But if you’re building for the long haul – and if you’re really taking the time to create a community around an identity-forming story, a story that changes the world – then you have the potential to not just weather the storm, but thrive within it.