Looking Over My Shoulder

DrMartens

When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

Friend, Move Up Higher

Wedding banquet placecards

I can’t remember which member of the search committee said it. But I definitely remember their words: “Now that you are moving to Portland, no more Starbucks.”  And it’s true. There are so many locally owned coffee shops in Portland…  But I have to confess. I still love Starbucks. Starbucks was my first job. They were the first ones to offer me health insurance. And their coffee is just so good. I can’t help it. I love Starbucks.

Of course, there are problems with this love. There are things that I really don’t like about them. I don’t like that Starbucks destroys local businesses. I don’t like that each and every store looks exactly the same. I don’t like that they don’t even attempt to provide a living wage to the coffee pickers.

Read more

Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

Shiphrah, Puah, Grandpa, and Me: After Charlottesville

This sermon on Exodus 1:8–2:10 was preached on August 27, 2017 at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California.

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The author (left) and Rev. Erica Schemper (right) protesting in San Francisco.

My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. It was troops from Patton’s army who stumbled across Buchenwald, the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Americans.

Grandpa was not one of the liberators of that camp, but Eisenhower sent a number of American units to see it. He wanted the soldiers to know what they were fighting against. So it’s quite possible that Grandpa saw the camp, the stacks of bodies, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors. He was stationed in Germany for several months after V-E Day, trying to bring some order to the postwar chaos as evidence of Nazi crimes mounted.

Grandpa was horrified by what he witnessed in that year and a half in Germany. He saw what happens when one group of people decides they are inherently superior to everyone else. What made it worse was that he was of German heritage himself. The people who had done this were related to him. He never talked about it, but he never forgot. Twenty years later, my mom asked to go to West Germany as an exchange student, and he absolutely refused to consider it. He couldn’t stand the thought of his child going to the place that had done those horrible things, and living among the people who had done it and allowed it to happen.

We turned a corner this morning in our Old Testament readings. All summer we have been in the book of Genesis; we’ve been hearing the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. We ended last week with Jacob’s son Joseph making a life in Egypt, and his brothers and their families joining him there during a famine. Today we have jumped ahead four hundred years to the time of Moses in the book of Exodus. And the story of Moses begins in Egypt in the reign of Pharaoh.

In the days before Moses is born, there’s a new king in town, a new Pharaoh, who doesn’t know the Israelites or their history in Egypt. He’s nervous about having such a large, powerful group on the borders of his territory, they might ally with the enemies of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s worried about the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians. Four hundred years the descendants of Jacob have been in Egypt, and still they are foreigners, untrustworthy, not one of us. So out of ignorance and fear, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Read more

Geeks in the Pews: A Review of The Ultimate Quest

One of the fun parts of my ordination process was a summer parish internship. I served at a little church, where I stayed in their apartment and could walk down to the farmers market on Sundays after services. Now that I’ve been ordained for a while and preached more, I’ve become increasingly thankful for that church. They kindly listened to some sermons I would preach very differently now. Along with their homiletical patience, and an inside peek at day-to-day church life and power differentials, they also taught me something very important about who sits in our pews: Geeks.

I had preached a sermon that mentioned my deep love of speculative fiction (SF—often called science fiction and fantasy). While I don’t remember the details of the sermon, I do remember that for the rest of the morning people would approach me, always when it would be just the two of us, and confess their love for Star Trek. We were all, I learned that morning, Star Trek geeks.

This memory surfaces when I’m afraid I’m about to get too geeky for people. It’s a balm against the cultural norm that asks us geeks to stay in the basement with our dice, books, and scale models. It helps me remember that, even when the rest of the world seems a little too normal, I have a place in the pews with all the other geeks.

Jordan Haynie Ware’s book The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church, tackles the topic of the Church and geeks, establishing her as a wise and witty writer. Jordan and I are friends and colleagues – we have known each other for a long time via Twitter, were once in the same room at General Convention 2012, and we will soon be in the same diocese.

Far more effectively than The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ware guides readers through the basics of Christian faith, with special attention to Episcopal pomp and circumstance. Read more

A Litany Against White Supremacy

The author

As Charlottesville, VA becomes the focal point of white supremacy and those who stand against it, this litany was prepared by myself and Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings for use in worship.

Litany against white supremacy

Gracious and loving God,
In the beginning, you created humanity and declared us very good
We were made in Africa, came out of Egypt.
Our beginnings, all of our beginnings, are rooted in dark skin.
We are all siblings. We are all related.
We are all your children.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all your children.

Violence entered creation through Cain and Abel.
Born of jealousy, rooted in fear of scarcity,
Brother turned against brother
The soil soaked with blood, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are our brothers keeper. Read more

The Power of Words

Rev. Molly F. James, PhD
Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, CT
August 20, 2017, Proper 15A
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As a part of my PhD program, I spent three months living in England, which was a wonderful experience in many ways. There was, however, one huge downside. My husband Reade is a mechanical engineer. There is no such thing as a sabbatical in the engineering world, so he could not pick up everything and move to England with me. So I lived in England by myself. That is a challenging experience if one has been married for some years. But we found some wonderful ways to stay connected, even across an ocean. One of the ways came as a complete surprise to me. When I had settled into my apartment in Exeter and I turned on my computer for the first time, a window popped up with a message: “Hi Molly, 28 days until I come visit you. Love, Reade.” A new message popped up everyday counting down the days until he came to visit. And then messages popped up counting the days until I flew home.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of words this week, and that story came to mind. Read more

Firsts: A Response to Showing Up

The author

I was a grown-up — and an ordained grown-up at that — before I really noticed that the line between sheep and goats in Matthew 25 isn’t based on responding to an altar call, praying the sinner’s prayer, refraining from bad behaviors or being baptized.

These are all fine responses to the Gospel, of course, but Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom literally hinges on showing up with food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, shelter for the stranger, clothes for the naked, tending for the sick and presence to the imprisoned. “Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done it to me.” These are not just fine responses, but, according to Jesus’ own teaching, our necessary and grateful responses to the grace we have received.

These responses to God’s grace are available to everyone, though perhaps not always in exactly the same way. My necessary and grateful response was made available to me by way of a Charlottesville consortium of faith communities inviting their clergy colleagues from around the country to bear witness, provide direct action, non-violent counter-protest, or offer physical, emotional, and spiritual support during a rally of white supremacists in their city on August 12, 2017. I showed up on Friday night, not knowing what to expect. And the resulting 20 hours were full of firsts for me: Read more

Out of the Human Heart

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. 

In the name of God: the Source of Life, the Word of Love, and the Spirit of Truth. Amen.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a community prayer service at John Wesley United Methodist Church, right up the street. The pastor there, Jerry Colbert, called the gathering in response to recent violence in our nation and our community. And people came. People who belong to many different churches, and I’m sure some who belong to no church. People whose skin and hair and eyes were many different colors. We came seeking a place to pray and sing and cry together.

Near the end of the service, after he gave the final prayer, Pastor Jerry began to lead us in a song that I first learned in seminary, when I sang in the gospel choir.

I need you
You need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me
Agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body

It is God’s will
That every need be supplied
You are important to me
I need you to survive
 

It meant so much for us to sing those words to one other. After the song, Pastor Jerry invited us to greet each other, and I found myself embracing total strangers. We were all smiling at one another, so glad to be reminded that all of us belonged there, that all of us belong to God’s body. So glad to be reminded of our need for one another.

This morning’s gospel is one of those texts that preachers dread, and it’s not hard to see why. The collect for today calls Jesus Christ “an example of godly life.” But in this encounter with a Canaanite woman—a foreigner—his behavior is anything but godly. It’s tempting to try to explain this away, but the truth is that Jesus is rude to the woman. He insults not only her, but her people. He calls them dogs. Put this interaction into today’s context for a moment. Whose words are you reminded of here? What groups of people are calling other people dogs—and worse? This is hardly an example we would want to honor, let alone follow.

I find it interesting that just before Jesus travels to the distant city where he meets this woman, he talks to his disciples about the power of words and what our speech shows about our character. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the human heart,” he tells them. Only a few verses later, it seems Jesus needs to pay better attention to his own teaching. The words of his mouth reveal the prejudices of his own heart. You heard me right. I said that Jesus was prejudiced. Is that so hard to believe? After all, we proclaim that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. As a human, he experienced everything that we experience, and that includes learning prejudices against people who were different from him.

But never fear; there is an “example of godly life” in this story for us to follow. Two of them, actually. Read more

Dear Church: It’s Time to Get Out of the Boat

The theologian Karl Barth was known to have said that preachers should write their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he were alive today, he might have amended that statement to say that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and our Facebook news feed in the other. I have to tell you, there were two topics in particular that came up in my Facebook feed this week that we need to discuss here this morning. And while it might not seem so at first, they are actually related to each other.

The first was an article about church decline. I’ve seen dozens of similar articles shared by clergy colleagues, stating facts and figures about Christianity’s demise in the West: noting a decline in church attendance and a decline in young clergy and the impending leadership vacuum it will create. All the statistics that we faithful people who come to church every week don’t want to hear. These articles all speculate as to the reasons why people aren’t finding church to be relevant anymore: we’ve watered down the gospel to create mass appeal, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism and individualism, the internet, televangelists and millionaire celebrity pastors, church scandals, an increasingly secular culture… Perhaps all of these reasons are true, to a degree. The sum of it all, though, is what we need to pay attention to: that in rapidly increasing numbers, more and more people find church, Christianity, a life of faith, simply irrelevant.

The second was what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. In case you aren’t aware, a debate over removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park in Charlottesville led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” There was also a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community to counter-protest, and many Episcopal priests and bishops, as well as bishops and ministers from other Christian denominations, some of whom are personal friends, were among those gathered in counter-protest.

Starting Friday night, radical white supremacist protesters against the removal of the Confederate statue descended on Charlottesville. In a scene all too familiar to many who were part of the Civil Rights era, they marched through Charlottesville with torches in hand, shouting hateful racist slogans and terrorizing the counter-protestors. One colleague of mine posted a picture that he called “an enduring image” as to why he was there. It was taken inside the church where he and hundreds more faithful counter-protestors were gathered and showed a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, being held and comforted by the pastor of the church, with a terrified look on her face because white terrorists with torches in hand had encircled the church outside and were not letting them leave. The one difference was that now, there were no white hoods to mask their faces. Thankfully, the protest eventually was disbanded and they made it out alive.

The planned protest was for Saturday at noon, but it was cancelled before it even started. Saturday afternoon, in an act of domestic terrorism, a radical white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring at least 19 more. Virginia declared a state of emergency, police were ordered to clear the area, and people were told to go home.

I’m so upset at this headline that I’m still struggling to find the words for it. I’m baffled, confused, and sickened. How was this allowed to happen? How can white supremacy—neo-Nazism—have such an organized stronghold, such legitimacy, in this country that literally fought against Nazis in a World War? Why are we calling this “white advocacy” and the “alt-right,” using words normally associated with political issues, to tame down a non-political movement that has proven itself to be nothing short of domestic terrorism? How can there be such strong bleed-over between radical Christian fundamentalists and radical white supremacists, while the church stays relatively silent and allows them to corrupt the gospel? Read more