The Holy Spirit Resides in My Mattress

This tradition continued when I went to seminary and started serving three small rural churches in southern Indiana. I would struggle with a sermon or, even worse, have NO IDEA what I was going to preach on, and so I would go to sleep, and wake up with the entire sermon in my head. All I had to do was sit and write it.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t done the work beforehand. I went to a Presbyterian seminary and was schooled in how to do exegesis. I took Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and New Testament Exegesis, and basic preaching. I knew how to do the outline, how to make the connections, to check commentaries, to read in other translations, to check the context, to talk with other pastors in my lectionary group, and to journal my own thoughts during the week before I get to that point. I did all of these things … but I believe it is the Holy Spirit residing in my mattress that does the real work.

At first my family didn’t understand how this worked. My immediate family came down to celebrate my first Christmas as a pastor with me. (I am one of 8 children, and everyone came except one sister and her husband … it was a full house!) About mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve I still had not finished my sermon and was busy preparing dinner. My family freaked out, “Tricia, don’t you need to go to your office (in the next room) and write your sermon?” “No,” I’d reply, “I’ll go take a nap in a little while, and it will be fine.” Read more

Confirmation Cliff-Jumping

Again this year, I am writing a liturgy for confirmation with confusion, questioning, and consternation. I love the kids who are being confirmed. I love the community and camaraderie they have developed in a year of meeting, retreating, questioning, wondering, discovering, and constructing. I love how they articulate their faith…not always complete, not always theologically “correct”, but genuinely, from a deep place in their hearts, a place where God lives and the Spirit moves.

And yet when I gather with other young clergy, the confirmation issue always seems to come up. It’s always been “done,” say our congregations, our head pastors, and our older colleagues. Most of us seem to feel like the way it’s done doesn’t really fit anymore. We don’t know what to do with it.

I have quibbles with this whole process. There are so many pitfalls: the mistaken (to my theological thinking) idea that these young people are “joining” the church. Weren’t they already here? Isn’t that an odd thing to say when we baptized them in infancy? The way it turns into religious graduation is equally dangerous/treacherous. Does that really encourage the idea of constant growth in the Christian faith? What about the emphasis on parents, rather than on the whole congregation? Doesn’t that let everyone off the hook in the church’s responsibility to take on the Christian nurture of all its members? What about the idea that only the clergy can run the confirmation program? Confirmation isn’t about joining the clergy. It’s about joining the church.

Maybe my own confirmation is too close for comfort. I think back to my own class, and I know that the faith we all confirmed we had has been firmer and more solid for some than for others. Many of us disappeared after this church “graduation,” opted out, and never came back. Some hit roadblocks and bumps that derailed the journey. I know some of them will come back some day. I know that God’s grace is big enough for us all. But were we really ready? Read more

The Other Woman: A Conversation Between Hagar and Sarah

It was originally performed by Elsa Peters and Stacy Smith at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in May 2006.

(The two women start seated in chairs about three feet from one another, facing straight forward. They are unaware of the other one when they begin speaking.)

SARAH: In the greatest sense of myself
HAGAR: With a clear vision of my own identity
SARAH: I am not myself
HAGAR: I see that I am not a person
SARAH: I am not a woman, with a birth and a life and a death
HAGAR: I am not even a slave
SARAH: I am not Hebrew
HAGAR: I am not Egyptian
SARAH: My name is not Sarai
HAGAR: I am not called Hagar
SARAH: Or Sarah
HAGAR: Or Hajar
SARAH: I am the matriarch
HAGAR: I am the matriarch
SARAH: I am Jewish and I am Christian
HAGAR: I am Muslim and I am African
SARAH: I bear the birth of my people
HAGAR: In my own history
SARAH: And so I am honored
HAGAR: I am revered
SARAH: But I am despised
HAGAR: And I am shamed

SARAH: But it was not always so. There was a time when I was a person. Barely a person, only a woman, not a mother. But I had a home and a husband. My husband had no need of children; he was content in life and so was I. Looking back, I’m almost embarrassed to admit our lineage was of little importance to us back then. We always did swim against the current, I suppose. And there were expectations, no doubt they were there, but we paid them little attention. We lived a life, and it was ours.

HAGAR: I never had much of anything. Everything was always…I really don’t know whose it was, but it was never mine. I’m sorry, I don’t remember much from those days. A lot has happened since then, and it’s hard to remember myself as a person. But I was, I know I was. There was a time when I lived, and I lived free and happy. It wasn’t much. I was a woman and a slave, so back then I meant very little. But there was a place in time that was mine, a series of moments where I walked and talked and lived. At least I had that much. Read more

Good Friday: A Service of Shadows and Stones

At the beginning of the service, each person will receive a stone and be encouraged to use this stone by holding it in their hand, placing their worries on it, feeling its weight. At the end of the service, as the congregation leaves in silence, there will be a small table draped in black at the back of the sanctuary where people may leave their stones: leaving behind their worries; letting go of the weight; marking an encounter with God; and honoring Jesus in his time spent in the grave until Easter morning.

The liturgy is structured around Jesus’ last words, each reading followed by a short prayer, each prayer followed by silence, each silence ended with a song. Our music for the service uses a combination of classic hymns, spirituals, Taizé, and Iona pieces. We plan to make the musical accompaniment increasingly spare as the service progresses and as lights are extinguished. The length of the silences will also increase through the service.

At the end of the service, in near darkness, a solo voice will sing one verse of What Wondrous Love Is This.

An outline of the service, including the text of the prayers, and music suggestions follows: Read more

Holy Housework

But in the midst of all that spiritual work, the everyday work of dusting, scrubbing and organizing real rooms doesn’t go away. This month, we bring you a sermon that reminds how this, too, is a spiritual pursuit.

I have a secret.

I have a very long term, very intense, shameful love/hate relationship with housework. I love the idea of housework. Years ago I bought the Cheryl Mendelson’s book Home Comforts. Mendelson is a lawyer, who grew up in a farm in Pennsylvania, and her passion is housekeeping. She loves to sort and clean and cook. Her book is so beautifully written that it seduces you into the idea that housekeeping is an art. She writes:

What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.

(Sigh) Isn’t that lovely? I’ll read that paragraph and swear to myself that I will become a capital H Housekeeper. My house will be airy and light, dust free, with clutter put into its rightful place. The sink will sparkle. No crumb will mar my hygienic kitchen counters. My home will be a place of peace and beauty.

Yeah, right. Read more

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

“Do you want to be made well?”

What an Ash Wednesday question.
On a day where we traditionally hear about our own sinfulness
and are faced with our own mortality,
“to dust you shall return,”
what a question to consider.

Of course we want to be made well. Of course we do. Duh.

Why did Jesus even have to ask?
He’s at the pool by the Sheep Gate,
the one rumored to be stirred up by an angel of the Lord from time to time,
the one where the first person to get into the moving water gets healed.
A site of miracles? Perhaps.
Rumors of miracles, at least. And for some of these folks…well, a rumor was enough.
A neighbor’s cousin’s friend stepped into the stirred-up waters and was blind but now can see!
And when you’ve been ill for, say, thirty-eight years…well, there aren’t many options left.
A miracle pool looks pretty good.

Except, this man, who’s been ill for thirty-eight years,
isn’t physically able to get himself into the pool.
He’s alone, for whatever reason.
His family has all died,
or left him, unable to deal with his sickness.
Or maybe he left them, out of shame, or out of a sense of duty.
We don’t know.
So like Blanche, he’s “always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
Apparently, and unfortunately,
in the throng of miracle-seekers pushing toward the seldom moving waters,
the kindness of strangers is hard to come by.

So when Jesus asks him,
“Do you want to be made well…?”
I want to scream at him, “Of course he does! Why else would he be there, at that place?!” Read more

Advent Prayer

Fulfill in us the coming of Christ.

May we, O God,
Like Mary, treasure and guard the coming of your kingdom deep within us
Nourishing it as it grows,
Delighting in its first flutterings,
cradling its growing weight in our hands,
until it is ready to come and call out to the world. Amen.

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If your path involves motherhood, the odds are pretty good that you will be in some way waiting for motherhood to begin during an Advent season. This year, I know pastor-moms who are in a variety of states of waiting: trying, waiting to announce, announcing, waiting for paperwork, waiting for a referral, and ready to deliver.

Two Advents ago, I realized I was pregnant during a sermon on the annunciation. For a variety of reasons, the timing of this baby was horrible. As my head pastor explained all of the reasons the angel might tell Mary “Do not be afraid” I knew three things for sure: I was pregnant; I was very afraid; and I had better come up with a good explanation in case anyone in the congregation noticed that I was turning a shade of green in front of their eyes.

Our waiting in Advent is informed by many versions of waiting for the coming of Christ. Mary’s waiting for his birth might be the most distilled version. Women waiting for motherhood have incredible access to that experience.

I wrote this prayer as a way of exploring that version of waiting.

Six Degrees: A Homily and Prayer Litany for World AIDS Day

Who is my neighbor? Who is NOT my neighbor?

We live in a world in which we are just six handshakes away from anyone else. Chances are that you don’t personally know any Australian police officers, the Chancellor of Germany, or a member of the English Parliament. But! Maybe you know someone whose cousin studied abroad in Australia and had a run-in with the police. Or maybe you know a German professor here who knows someone who’s related to someone whose friend works for the German government. You get the idea. Basically, many believe that every person on the planet is separated from everyone else by a chain of about six people.

The idea of “six degrees of separation” was first proposed in 1967 by sociologist Stanley Milgram. He asked 96 randomly selected people around the country to send a piece of mail to an acquaintance, who would send the mail along to another acquaintance, and many of these letters reached Milgram’s “target” person in Boston… through an average of 6 people. Some sociologists question the validity of this study and the theory all together.

But whether or not you believe in the theory of six degrees of separation… and if you can suspend your own attempts to figure out how you connected to Kevin Bacon for a moment… there is no denying we live in a highly connected world.

What are the implications of these connections?

Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer challenges Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

If I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? Read more

Miles to Go

Though it is in our lectionary, our Lamentations text – this prayer of pain and petition – is not something we hear every day. I doubt many of us could quote from Lamentations as easily as we could from Psalms, from Isaiah, or from any of the gospels or epistles. So when we do hear from this book, it may come as a shock to our system. When I’ve told people that one of the texts I would be preaching from this morning is Lamentations, I got very similar responses. There were a few “ohs” and “that’s interesting,” and even an occasional “oh my.” Not exactly the words of assurance a woman would want. But these words did not really surprise me for what we find in this book – undiluted expressions of despair – are rarely the passages we seek out for nice Bible studies or our bedtime readings.

We are fortunate, then, that though we may not seek certain passages out, they surely seek us out. The scriptures which testify to the Word made flesh are not just letters on a page. When engaged with the Spirit, they are a living witness. This living witness is a Word that does not sit quietly, waiting for us to stumble upon it. It relentlessly seeks us out, captures us in its warm grasp, will not let us go until we have thoroughly engaged it.

Though many of us may avoid a book which is consumed with such vulnerable grief, given the recent events in our country, in our world, perhaps it is not surprising that this particular Lamentations text is seeking us out. With its opening words “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” the passage invokes disturbing images from our recent news reports: images of cities empty of people but full of water; images of homes, businesses, places of worship destroyed by rumbling ground; images of complete and total destruction; of ways of life and life itself lost.

These words recall such images because they were written in the midst of similar despair. Lamentations is a poetic response to perhaps the most traumatic series of events in Jewish history outside the Holocaust, the Babylonian exile. In 587 B.C.E. the people of Jerusalem were invaded by the Babylonian empire’s army. The siege lasted two years and saw the destruction of the city’s walls, buildings, and even the temple; saw a famine where men, women, children alike died from lack of nutrition; saw the deportation of Jerusalem’s king, the murder of the royal family, and the exile of many of its citizens. The lament we have before us, unlike the pain expressed in books like Ezekiel, does not come from those in exile. This lament is unique in the portrayals of the exile for it comes from those left behind. Those who look around and see the invaders in their homes, those who see their destroyed temple, those who see the mass graves. It is this people in this place who cry aloud as Daughter Zion: “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?”

Through Daughter Zion’s words, I can hear the voices of the victims of the unrelenting hurricanes, of the earthquake in Pakistan, of the places – too many places – where war is a way of life. In the face of pain and suffering in a multitude of places on such massive levels, Lamentations cries out to us. It cries out, speaking of loneliness, speaking of desolation. It cries out to God and it cries out to this body, the body of Christ, demanding to be heard. Read more