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.

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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.