a lament over springfield

When I first moved to Springfield, Missouri I remember how claustrophobic I was. There were trees everywhere, and buildings – so many buildings. It was a four hour drive and a world away from the wide open skies and empty luxury of rural, southcentral Kansas. It took me more than a year to adjust to that place where I didn’t quite seem to belong.

In retrospect I think the confinement also had to do with the first religious communities that invited me in. They were filled with exceptional people who had questionable theology, that kind of fundamental faith that left little room for all the questions I had.

I discovered that it’s nearly impossible to find authentic personal space and relationships when whole parts of the self have to be hidden. At first I hid the faith questions and all the other things. In Springfield at first, I was trapped, given the false choice between having faith and coming out.

Thank goodness for the many encounters through which we are saved: religious studies departments, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a coach who, to this day, understands her vocation as empowering women.

I don’t often think about the first coming out years. It was a long, sometimes silent, painful process. To hold onto certain people, certain values, I had to let others go. I’m sure it hurt them too. It’s hard to dive very deep into all of that now. I’ve taken so many steps from where I used to be, and it’s hard to imagine those who haven’t taken any steps.

But they’re still there as we know from the recent vote that narrowly repealed an ordinance protecting LGBT persons. They still believe in those false choices, no doubt. But sometimes I wonder what they think about me now, an ordained minister, married to another woman. I wonder how they process my colleagues the women and men (lots of them Disciples of Christ) who led the No Repeal campaign in the name of the same God as theirs. Or is a different God? I’m not sure – we seem so far apart.

The other month I was back in Springfield to speak as part of the Faith and Life Matters lecture series. I talked about vocation and what I’ve learned from basketball and life, and part of the story, no surprise, is the integration of my sexuality and my faith. The hardest coming out is coming out to the past. It’s much easier when people judge you right from the beginning, so to tangle up my ministry and sexuality with being a former Lady Bear (basketball player) in a visibly conservative town, well, that was the scariest thing I’ve done in a while.

I was practicing my talk in the mirror and flashed into my college self. One year we played a preseason basketball game against Athletes in Action, a team of Christians who use sports as a platform to give their testimonies of faith. After the game, a woman shared her story of living a sinful homosexual lifestyle and how she was saved to follow Christ. Afterwards I pushed her a bit – I knew freedom was coming for me, but she was headed in the other direction. I still remember her name. I still wonder: what would it have meant if the Athletes in Action woman’s story had broken the other way? What if she hadn’t been forced into that false choice: faith or freedom?

Right before my talk last month, as I was shaking off that horrible feeling you get when you want to run right back into the closet, I remembered how you never know how people will hear what you say. I’ve preached enough to know that much. Right before I spoke, I thought about how my college self would have heard my message. I thought about how the way time and space work themselves around, the life I could save might be my own.

I occupy spaces of such luxurious freedom now that it’s easy to forget about those rigid, claustrophobic spaces that still exist around Springfield, and probably here too.I wish I could tell them, and I wish they could believe: it doesn’t have to be like that, you know.

reflections from a weary heart

Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / till your work is done — African American spiritual (Keep your lamps trimmed and burning)

Last night we were going to go to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. It seemed like just the kind of escapist thing I needed after expending most of my spiritual, social and mental resources at the Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred gathering of LGBTQIA+ Mennonites in Chicago over the weekend.

But sometimes the spirit calls us to stay present for a little bit longer. During the day we received news that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri case would be announced imminently. Clergy, activists and the local NAACP invited the community to gather at Second Missionary Baptist, and we decided that was actually the place we were supposed to be. So that’s where we went.

We arrived and began to visit with friends (old and new). As the time for the decision approached, we all began to sing:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes — Sweet Honey in the Rock (Ella’s Song)

CoMO ProtestAfter the non-indictment was announced and after we shared four and a half minutes of silence at the request of Michael Brown’s family the leaders of our local movement revealed their fear and anxiety. They argued among themselves over whether to march or not, fracturing into factions. Some left and some stayed.

As people left the church, Jamie and I decided to join the outside demonstration, which was led by students from Mizzou. We walked up on an energetic and passionate crowd. It takes me awhile to lower my inhibitions and join the chanting, but I was ready by the time they got to this refrain:

Indict. / Convict. / Send that killer cop to jail. / The whole damn system / is guilty as hell.

So many people I’ve talked to here in Columbia understand the complexity of this unfolding story. Of course it’s about one young black man and one young white police officer, but of course it infinitely larger. The first three lines of the stanza aside (that’s another topic), I’m in awe of the lucidity of those last two lines of this chant heard ‘round the country. The whole damn system is guilty as hell. I don’t know what else to say but that this is the truth. We are embedded in a violent, racist, evil system. It’s a brilliant way to turn the question onto the system itself, which is deeply fallen. The system is guilty. We need to continue to expose and challenge, renew and transform.

Someone asked me to speak for Columbia Mennonite Fellowship at the next day’s rally. Tonight I really do needed to stop and rest, so instead of me, it will be another from our group. Together she and I wrote this message for our community:

If you know one thing about Mennonites, know this: we are people of peace. But peace should not be confused with passivity. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean avoidance or acquiescence. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean we sit back and leave the work to others.

Ferguson calls us all to remember that peace must be active. Nonviolence is something to live and be, something to choose every day.

Today we choose peace by questioning the violence of the state. Yesterday it was once again declared legal for a police officer to wield lethal force. The logic of violence is embedded in the ruling that said it is lawful to take another person’s life. By questioning the use of violence by police, today we choose peace.

Today we choose peace by challenging the violence of racism. We know the grand jury decision is the product of a system and culture that does ongoing harm to black bodies and black lives. By naming this injustice, by calling for a different reality, today we choose peace.

Today we choose peace through unity — perhaps the hardest task of all as we come with vastly different histories and experiences.   We stand with you, friends of all ages, colors and faiths with the certainty that we must bring to bear not only tenacity and passion, but every creative thought and action in order to make our community and our country safe, life affirming and enriching for every citizen.  At times we may need to help one another stay on track in order not to fall into the sometimes tantalizing trap of consolidating power for the sake of our religious, civic, or educational institutions.  If we are to free our children from the terror of racial oppression and hatred, we must begin to show them peace through unity the likes of which they have never seen and we have never lived.

We, the Columbia Mennonite Fellowship, stand with you in Columbia, Ferguson, St. Louis and beyond. We as people of peace stand with you in unity. We recommit ourselves to choosing peace. Today, with you, we choose peace.

One of many transcendent moments at Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred involved clapping and dancing through the aisles of the sanctuary at our Catholic retreat center host site. And I think what we were singing about there connects to what we are singing about here today in Columbia, Missouri:

Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long — South African traditional

So step by step, we keep walking.

blessed are the thin places

Sermon, Fulton United Church of Christ — November 2, 2014

Fall is a time for paying attention – for paying attention to the rhythms of the world around us.

I have been noticing how many people say that fall, that this season is their favorite time of the year. The trees turn colors and drop their leaves; frost starts to coat the grass in the mornings. The air becomes crisp and cold. The season tastes like apple cider and pumpkin spice. Our senses tune themselves to the transitional rhythms of the world. And we see and feel the way life changes around us.

I work at a non-profit agency here in Mid-Missouri, and the other day we began a staff meeting by sharing our favorite thing about this season: apple picking; deer hunting; corn mazes; family gatherings; Halloween.

It wasn’t until our first break that one of my co-workers and I had a side conversation about the topic. B- is a gardener. His flowers had mostly stopped their blooming. He had just pulled out his tomatoes and put his garden to rest for the winter. And he leaned over and said to me: “I didn’t want to spoil anyone else’s fun, but I hate this time of year.”

I wondered why. He said, “Everything is dying.”

I have been noticing signs of this too. The relentless summer brightness has been tempered as the sun’s arc across the sky sinks lower and lower each day, and tonight the sun will set well before 6 p.m. with the time change. The brilliant oranges and rich reds of autumn are replaced by crackly, shriveled brown leaves and bare tree limbs. Creation goes dormant, and sometimes we humans do too, settling in to lower moods and longer sleep.

But it’s not just the natural rhythms that move through death this time of year. The liturgical rhythms do too.

This weekend we observe one of the lesser known portions of the church year, the trio of days known as All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

These holy days can partly be traced back to the very earliest centuries of our Christian faith. The early Christians were a persecuted people, a people subject to violence and even death because of their faith in the risen Jesus. For its first three centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no Christian nations. Governments did not protect freedom of religion. And year after year martyrs were executed because of their faith.

To honor these martyrs and to keep their stories alive, special days were set aside to remember the “saints.” By the late 300s, there were so many martyrs, that one special day was created to honor them all together.

Then things start to get a little fuzzy in the history books. At first All Saints Day happened in the spring. And then somewhere along the way it switched to the fall.

Here’s what some people think happened: October was a sacred time for early pre-Christian religions. The ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounce sah-win) to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter — the time of year when the seasons shift. The ancient ones believed that at that time of the year, the doors of the other world opened and the souls of the dead come to visit our world again. It’s easier to communicate with the spirits at certain times, in certain places, they believed.

And so over time, some historians think that  the Roman Catholic Church’s All Saints Day festival, merged with the Celtic harvest celebrations. Today Halloween, or All Hallows Eve is October 31, and Catholics celebrate their Saints on November 1, and all other souls on November 2. As Protestants, we don’t have saints per se, but we combine these ideas to remember and honor those who have passed away. In life we remember death.

The liturgical rhythms align us with the rhythms of the season, and we enter into a space where we are reminded that life and death are connected.

But in our world today it sometimes seems that we fear death above all else. Advertising dollars and marketing messages would have us believe we need to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. Successful beauty products are “age-defying.” And contrary to our New Testament scripture, those who are blessed are not the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. Today’s reality, says those who are blessed and the strong, the powerful, the wealthy, the happy, the young.

But Jesus words, the words we heard today from Matthew’s Gospel, are not about this Kingdom of Earth alone. They are about the Kingdom of Heaven. And as I’ve preached in other sermons over the past months, in Matthew’s gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven was not necessarily some other world. The Kingdom of Heaven is not only in the future; it touches our present. The kingdom of heaven is not only out there; it is here among us, seen in images like yeast and pearls and fishing nets and landowners.

The Kingdom of Heaven is that place where life and death intermingle. It reminds me of the Celts again, and the idea of they have of thin places. Thin places are spaces where we see through the barriers we build between heaven and earth, the separation we often perceive between life and death is worn thin.

There’s an old Celtic saying that goes something like this: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” In these thin places we are able to catch extra glimpses of the divine.

One poet (Sharlande Sledge) describes them:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen,

Where the door between the world

And the next is cracked open for a moment

And the light is not all on the other side.

God shaped space. Holy.

Sound a bit like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Last fall, last year about this time I planted two sticks in my backyard. Well, they weren’t only sticks. They were the beginnings of trees. Less than waist-high, no branches or leaves, attached to a dirty ball of roots. The nursery that sent them promised me that these were in fact apple trees, and within five years I’d have my own fruit to pick. It seemed suspect at the time, last November when I stuck them in the ground.

Last week when I put my garden to rest for the winter, I walked by the sticks. They’d become what was promised, now trees with branch after branch, leaf after leaf. They are both taller now than my head.

In God’s reality, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the dead and the living are connected. Sticks are also apple trees. Dry bulbs hold flowers, and in every end there is a beginning. In this space, in God’s space, on this All Saints weekend, death and life are connected and close together.

One of the traditions of the church on this weekend is to remember the names of those who have been saints for you, those who have passed on whom you want to lift up today. In a spirit of prayer, I invite you all to say aloud these names in worship…

This day we remember these and so many others. We remember, we are reminded that the dead and the living are connected. We are part of those who walked before us, and we are part of those who are to come. Perhaps fall should be one of our favorite times of year. Everything is dying. Everything is coming to life. Pay attention, and you’ll see. Thanks be to God.

late summer porch sitting

Some mornings I get up before seven and sit with my prayer book on the bungalow’s porch.

Instead of faithfully reading each word, my eyes flicker up to the utility poles, their lines and cables adorned by mourning doves and other such creatures.

These days the thick black cords become tightropes for neighborhood squirrels.

South to north they scamper, twenty feet above Ripley Street, carrying green hulled black walnuts in their mouths.

One day I try to follow a little one to his nest, but he disappears somewhere in the neighbor’s bean tree: Catalpa speciosa, I think.

The Missouri summer is a humid blanket, wrapping herself around us tightly,

Yet they are already making their homes ready for winter.

When my gaze falls back to the book, I hurriedly mumble something for the squirrels before I remember that this day my prayer happened without any words.

P1140791

thought we were special

adoption profile

see our online adoption profile at http://www.iheartadoption.org/users/jamieandsarah

Last month Jamie and I renewed our adoption home study.

The home study is the standard process through which a social worker evaluates our fitness to be adoptive parents. She teaches us about adoption. She checks on our psychological and physical health. She runs all the background checks.

We talk about family history and family systems and parenting styles.

We meet with her together. We meet with her separately. She comes to our house and meets our cat.

She looks at all of our income and collects reference letters from our bosses.

She writes a long, official report.

It is a bit nosy, now that I think of it, but unlike biological parents, adoptive parents have to be carefully vetted.

Last spring and early summer we went through this process for the first time. Lucky for us we had a flexible, funny, cat-loving social worker. We sailed through. We checked all the boxes and settled in to wait.

The agency we were working with says the average wait for an adoptive family is one to two years. Now while we believed them, we also realized that in most things, Jamie and I are above average. Surely next year at the family reunion we’ll have a baby. Surely when our nephew turns one year old in March we’ll be expecting. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll even have to change our Christmas travel plans.

Christmas passed; then March; then the family reunion. Now it’s August, and we’ve been waiting more than a year. We’re quickly headed for longer than the average.

A couple of weeks ago we sat down with our social worker again. The home study update isn’t nearly as intense as the initial intake: just a one hour meeting, a doctor’s note, and updated fingerprints.

Our update was really just a check-in, and as we sat together last month, we processed the year of waiting. Jamie expressed the sentiment we’d thought all along. We didn’t think we’d be waiting so long. We thought we were special.

Our social worker didn’t miss a beat: “You are special.” For a split second I thought she’d validate our self-centered impulses. She’s at least helping us feel a little better. But then came the punch line. “And so is everyone else.”

You are special, and so is everyone else.

It was a direct and true message, cutting through our self-protective exceptionalism and laying bare the waiting.

Jamie and I had built up the wait, filling it with expectations and desires beyond our control. We tried to manage our hopes and disappointments with narratives that made things seem sensible and manageable. But the adoption process isn’t really something you can manage or control. In that way it’s a lot like grace.

Those attempts to figure out the correct path are exposed for what they are: false attempts to manage what is beyond our reach. Those struggles for control are relativized in light of something much larger than us. That persistent need to prove ourselves worthy is released, because it truly does not matter. Indeed in some times and some places, the Gospel message might be just as simple as the adoption journey:

You are special, and so is everyone else.

my other job

For the last little while, I’ve been some version of what you might call bi-vocational. It partly started with a note from Doug over at Fulton United Church of Christ. One of their regular preachers had taken a job and wasn’t able to continue her first, third, and fifth Sunday pulpit supply. “I was wondering,” wrote Doug, “if you would be able to help us on any of those times, and if so, when could you start?”

I’m not very good at making firm decisions. It’s hard for me to close off possibilities and even harder to think I might be letting someone (or a community of someones) down in the process. I had to talk to a few folks from my church. I’m one of the elders there, which means I take my turn taking communion to the home bound and presiding at the communion table with the pastor and delivering the offering invitation, among a few other things. Despite my worries, the church folks granted me their grace to take this additional call, and so I did.

fulton stained glass

Fulton UCC’s Stained Glass Window

I started in February, mostly knowing what I was getting into. The small and relatively progressive church in this town of 12,000 has between 12 – 20 in worship on a given Sunday. Easter attendance exploded to a vibrant 43, but despite their persistent desire for evangelism, their current environment doesn’t seem to have much in the way of growth.

During worship folks spread themselves across the pews in their usual spots in the blessedly small sanctuary. The faithful come, as some of them have been coming for over fifty years. The musician comes and splits his time between piano and organ on all but the third Sundays. We take communion and then commune for a potluck on the first. I preach at a lectern on the floor, my microphone connected to stereo speakers in the back, which sit directly underneath the large stained glass Jesus who stares me down each time I speak. After six months, I know most everyone’s name. And that’s about it.

Pastoral care: nope. Lunches and dinners in homes: not with these folks. Council meetings and 125th anniversary planning: not for me. Creative worship ideas: mostly regulated to the realm of readers theaters with participants recruited five minutes before the service begins. (I should say we have some excellent readers among the faithful twelve.)

I’ve quickly learned that it’s one thing to serve a church you know and entirely another to show up every other week to preach and pray. In fact, it’s a bit muddled for me, not participating in the larger life and vision of a place to which I am supposed to bring the good news.

To be honest, there are times I wish I could insert myself, lend a voice and a hand to the tenor and identity of this place, but it’s just not what I’m called to do. At least not here.

champion of the people


You wouldn’t want to read every sermon I preach, but here’s the first one in a long while that was designed for a Mennonite context. I filled in at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship over the Fourth of July weekend and got to re-use some Joy of Giving material that seemed especially suited for the day. 

Zechariah 9.9-12 // Year A – Proper 9 // July 6, 2014

championThis week I was thinking about how everyone should have a crazy uncle.

In my life that was and still is Crazy Uncle Marcus, my mom’s older brother. Marcus has a smile that takes over his whole face and an infectious laugh and an ornery streak. When we were young, he was always ready for anything. He’d toss me a ball for hours on end. He taught me how to put a worm on a fishing hook. And oh the games we would play.

One game in particular had to do with climbing to the top of things. We’d race up a big rock or a pile of sand, stumbling over one another in a rush to the peak. Trying to be faster, stronger, smarter. The first person to summit the mound would stand at the pinnacle, lift her arms in victory above her head and yell out “CHAMPION OF THE PEOPLE!”

I love Champion of the People moments.

It reminds me of my college basketball-playing days at Missouri State University. We were accustomed to being champions. We were accustomed to a certain kind of excellence, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, better, better. We were used to winning, and it was woven through everything we did. If we won, we celebrated. And if we lost, we were punished in hopes that we would find renewed motivation to win next time. Those days we did wind sprints, mostly: free throw line to baseline to half court, up and down, up and down the basketball court in twenty-six seconds. And you know what we called those wind sprints? We called them champions.

How appropriate to think of it this Independence Day weekend, as all across this nation we celebrate that founding myth: that freedom is achieved through conquest, through winning. We belong to a country, that is a championship kind of country. Success, victory comes by being bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. We have it, don’t we: the largest economy, the best universities, the most creative entrepreneurs, the strongest military. Even, for the briefest of moments, we had hope that our world cup soccer team might get closer than ever to champion.

Don’t we just love these Champion of the People moments?

Our foremothers and forefathers in the faith did too. The ancient Israelites, after wandering through the desert and enduring the persecution of slavery and homelessness somehow convinced God that they needed a leader, a king, and so the monarchy was born. King Saul, then David, then Solomon and many many more: the legends are still with us: untold riches and power and military might. Weapons and horses providing protection, and God’s presence in the ornate Temple in Jerusalem keeping the king safe, a divine warrior who would not let his people come to harm.

A theology sprang up to help the people celebrate their rulers. Royal Psalms were written, celebrating the king, his power, and the salvation of God that he ushers in. In Psalm 2 the Lord says, “I have set my king on my holy hill. I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” I can just imagine how they loved those champion of the people moments.

The people placed their hope in this certain kind of king. But hope can be a disappointing thing. Consider again our foremothers and forefathers in the faith, for instance.

After some years of prosperity, the Israelite monarchy began to crumble around them. Power struggles and in-fighting and competing loyalties reared up. King after king after king failed to live up to expectations. The Israelites themselves were conquered and driven into exile. Their symbols of success were destroyed and their champions were taken captive.

And so their hope shifted. Their theology stayed the same, but their hope shifted from the present to the future king. They believed, they found comfort in the idea that someday a warrior king would come again, divinely anointed to exercise his great military might, to rise up in a show of power and to rescue them from exile. To save them from their enemies and exact revenge.

Hope can be a dangerous thing. As the prophet Zechariah says in our scripture today, hope can become a prison, when it’s placed in the wrong kind of champion.

In 2008 I was in divinity school in Nashville, TN and Barack Obama was running for president for the first time. It was an exciting year for many, myself included exciting to have an energetic, hopeful candidate who seemed more ordinary and less aristocratic than the usual suspects. This could change everything, some of us thought. An unprecedented number of people in my generation took an interest in politics, put up bumper stickers, and donated money to this campaign, inspired by that slogan, “Change You Can Believe In.” People were hopeful that this could be the change we’d been waiting for. Perhaps some of you hoped so too. Perhaps in some ways it was.

But over the last six years, the wars have not ended well. The inequality between the rich and the poor has only grown. Poverty rates remain high. Gun violence continues. Partisan politics have become even more entrenched. Hope has not been realized, and so it has shifted to the future. Who will run in 2016? In whom can we place our hope this time? Surely things will change if we just get the right people in power. Hope can become a prison.

Perhaps closer to home some of you may have been closely following the happenings of Mennonite Church USA. Certainly your beloved pastor and my dear friend Samuel and ally has been part of the proceedings. The institution struggles to right itself in a situation of great conflict, which comes to light in the issue of sexuality. Can gay and lesbian people be fully part of the church? And so we’ve waited with expectation, some hopeful that conferences and powerful church leaders would lead us toward a welcome that would allow all of us to be fully part of our wider church. And despite the allies we have in high places, that has not happened. People are hurt, outraged, frustrated, disengaged, angry. We had hoped for better. We had hoped that those with formal authority, the institution would champion our cause and affirm our place. Hope can become a prison.

I’ve seen other champion kind of hopes dashed this week. The Supreme Court: surely they’ll rule with an eye toward women and the working poor. Surely there, there in the hands of justice are power and might there that we can place our hope. But we should know by now: hope can become a prison.

Hope can be a disappointing thing if it is given to the wrong kind of champion.

And the voice of the prophet Zechariah calls, giving us a different image of a champion of the people: he will cut off the chariot and the war horse. He will command peace.

One of my co-workers, a white woman, had only been with our agency a couple of months as the volunteer coordinator when a new position opened up. It was a more powerful position, a supervisory role with higher pay and better hours, and the higher ups thought she’d be a good person for the job. Of course she took it. But after a day she got to thinking. There’s another person, an African-American person who was more qualified. Someone who had been with the agency years longer, someone who knew the ins and outs of the work, someone who was well-respected and would be an excellent supervisor and yet was passed over for the promotion. And so my co-worker went to the bosses and told them she had to turn down the job after all. And she told them who they should hire instead. To this day, this woman has my unending respect. She earns less, and her social capital is smaller, but in this moments was a true champion of the people.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton puts it this way: Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

We were on a road trip my senior year of college, from Springfield, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. We’d played a bad basketball game. I’ll be honest, about half the time that year we just weren’t any good. And so after the loss, things looked grim. The drive back was long. The team was disappointed and tired. The coaches were upset and had let us know in no uncertain terms that this was not how champions played. As we settled into the charter bus for the long ride home my gentlest, kindest teammate leaned over to me and said, “Sarah, we’re sad and frustrated, we feel like losers, but just think how happy the the other team is right now.” I think of this moment often, and how with this simple logic, she turned everything upside-down, which is the work of a true champion of the people.

We grasp for institutional validation, for socially acceptable forms of authority, for a sense of power and success that is so often defined by bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, faster, faster, richer, richer. And the voice of the prophet calls: rejoice! Your king is coming. He is victorious, and he rides not on a horse of war but on a donkey. Your champion comes in triumph, but not bringing shows of wealth and power. He brings with him peace.

Joshua Casteel was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib when his conversion happened. In the words and face of a jihadist he somehow encountered the gospel of Christ and saw the wholeness of humanity that both lies underneath and transcends all the grasping at military power and the trappings of war. He became a conscientious objector. He could no longer question the enemy. He told his commander that he no longer wished to be a soldier. He was transferred to non-combatant duty and staffed open-air burn pits where toxic trash burned day and night. Weapons, paint, toxic materials, it was all burned there, and when Joshua returned to the states after six months he had stage IV lung cancer. It is a heartbreaking story, the death of this peacemaker, who said no to one kind of power to find another.

There’s a certain image our world has of a champion, a certain idea of our society thinks a champion should look like: bigger, bigger, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. A wealthy king, a powerful Messiah. There’s a certain way we think a savior should look.

And then we hear the biblical story, our story, we hear this message from the prophet, and the images of success that we carry most days of our lives are turned upside-down. The journey with the divine presence, the journey of faith and life, asks us to hear this message instead. Poorer, poorer, slower, slower, smaller, smaller. My friends, Jesus was a champion of the people, he is our champion of the people, and this is what he looked like.