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Spring Pruning: A Sermon on John 15:1-8

pruning shears

I got pruned the other day. There were some dead, unfruitful, suffocating branches that had grown up out of me, making me ugly and overgrown. And God came over to me with some big sharp clippers and pruned those dead branches right off and threw those useless pieces into the fire and burned them to ashes.

My pruning happened on a retreat I went to a few weeks ago, led by a woman named Tilda Norberg. At one point, Tilda asked us to do something called “Speaking Truth to Lies.” And she asked us to write down two or three lies about ourselves that we needed to get rid of. Not ridiculous lies like: “My hair is blonde” or “I’m a professional body builder.”

But the kind of lies we tell ourselves—lies that we know in our head are not true, but that our hearts hang onto.

If I give you some examples, I think you’ll recall some of these kinds of lies knocking around in your heart at some point.

“If I weigh more than 120 lbs, no one will find me attractive.”

Or this one: “Because I have cancer or because I can no longer move the way I used to, I will never be whole or well again.”

Or this: “I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol.”

Or this: “If I weren’t so needy or noisy or nosy, the abuse would stop.”

Lies that we live our lives by. Lies that we die little deaths by. These are the kinds of lies Tilda asked us to write down. 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

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

Go-To Quote

I have a go-to quote.

Many pastors do. We have trusted companions that travel alongside us and provide meaning, repeatedly, in a variety of situations. Go-to quotes, rehashed sermon illustrations (spoken in different contexts, of course), and our best life stories are often guides that keep on giving right when we need to say something powerful. Often, they deserve repeating.

I am grateful for my go-to quote, written by one of the most excellent authors I’ve encountered. Thank you, Frederick Buechner, for this gem:

In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another day just like today, and there will never be another just like it again. Today is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.”[1]

This go-to quote is storied. I cannot speak it, write it, or hear it without transporting my imagination to a host of “todays” from the past that were indeed completely precious.

I heard this quote for the first time when it framed the sermon at my ordination service. As it was spoken aloud, I felt instantly connected to a number of communities across the past who had affirmed me into that sacred today, and I knew that the ones present in the sanctuary were blessing me into a sacred future. Time was a transcendent experience.

I have voiced this quote in the presence of couples standing before one another at weddings, people with particular names and shared hopes, knowing that this day is framing much of what will come for them. It isn’t that their wedding day is the most important of all. But it is a moment in which two people are pledging to walk through a host of todays together. Time is a transcendent experience.

Such events are monumental and memorable, and yet, each moment has this sense of both-worlds. Each is connected to the rest, and we are connected to the God who connects us to each other across time. The mundane moments of doing the dishes, stepping outside to get the mail, feeling the warm sunshine on our back, enjoying the aroma of coffee, and tripping over the splattered toys of our beloved children are instances in which we can wake up to the reality that our lives are present in ways that are precious. We are moving along all of these moments to and through sacred todays. As we do so, time will continue to be a transcendent experience.

We are not always awake in this way, but perhaps we would not be able to take it all in.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

But what if we allowed ourselves to glimpse at all that has come before and all that will proceed? If were aware of how precious it is, we could hardly live through it. Unless we are aware of how precious it is, we can hardly be said to be living at all.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words.

Dem Bones Still Speak

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(Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. I hear the word of the Lord)

Look! Imagine!

We find ourselves in the strange vision world of a 6th century BCE prophet.  A priestly prophet, concerned for God’s holiness and name; a man who seems to have spent time in exile in Babylon, among people who had been taken from their homes, away from Jerusalem and God’s presence, away from land that had sustained them. The book that bears Ezekiel’s name is full of vivid and difficult imagery. There is much not to like.

But the dry bones. Ah. The dry bones are perhaps a different story

We are not people in exile, we ought not minimize that experience but this passage seems to come alive, take on sinews and flesh, when read against the backdrop of our newspaper headlines and seeming perpetual societal pessimism:

The news reporting begins with the sorry state of our politics: Abbot and Gillard racing to see who can create the least humane conditions for refugees who arrive in Australian waters. It moves to Cyprus and the Eurozone debt crisis, through Syria, to working conditions in the Bangladeshi factories where our clothes were made. And we are aware of so much untold– Iraq, the East African food crisis, Kiribati and Tuvalu still faced with rising seas in the midst of a climate crisis.

Does Ezekiel mean something in the face of a cycle of stories that leaves us cold?

Last Sunday’s church morning tea conversations were all about people in pain – the quiet woman with breast cancer who has questions about whether who she is is enough for God; the gentle woman who is caring for elderly parents and a husband with depression wondering if this would burn her out too; one here despairing for the church’s future; one here desperately lonely.

Is Ezekiel not speaking to them, too, to their very real fears, to the pain of their burdens and their need for community?

Seminarians perhaps still feeling the wrench of moving out of sending communities, the ambiguity of being pulled in between multiple communities in this liminal space. Students feeling the dread swamp of the end of semester and the uncertainty of whether this essay is good enough or that presentation was even intelligible. And we certainly hear often enough that the church we love and belong to isn’t exactly faring well.

Could we not claim Ezekiel here too?

Again, I do not for a moment want to pretend that I, and perhaps others sitting in this room, face the same as the situation of exilic Jewish communities in Babylon. I don’t want to minimize the trauma of displaced peoples searching for meaning. But there is something in this passage that will not let us go, for there is a kind of meaninglessness and fear around us, one that Douglas John Hall, picking up from Tillich suggests is the great question for our time and context: the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness, the purposelessness, the superfluity, the boredom, the escapism. (Just think about the power of Facebook!) In a context like this, good news is a God who can meet us with a word of hope, who will remold our purpose, who will breathe life into the emptiness, and not just for our sake, but for the sake of others.

Yahweh transports Ezekiel into a valley, a valley filled with horror- bones, dry, desiccated, plentiful, dead bones. In what seems almost cruel, Yahweh commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to charge them with reanimation. The ruach, the wind, breath, the Spirit of God, is not far off, but full of creativity and life. Reminiscent of the second creation story, God breathes breath and spirit into what had no life or hope, promising restoration to the land, and a future that for the exiles would have been unimaginable.

Hope here is not a happy, shiny smile that ignores the world around with an infuriating optimism. Hope is being faced with the valley of dry bones, questioning God, but still looking for the Spirit’s work, even in completely unexpected ways, even for a seemingly impossible future. Reflecting on this passage, Walter Wink writes, “It is the prophetic task, in a time of unravelling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.” 

Our journey through Easter has shown us that the God of the dry bones continues to do new things that break open the pattern of our expectations. Jesus words to his disciples from John tell us to expect that the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will keep breaking in, for there is more to learn, for the future is open.

And isn’t that what Pentecost is, really?

A story to remember that God keeps on disrupting what is possible, that the Spirit is kind of elusive, but definitely present, a story that says that the Spirit Jesus sends is the Spirit of hope.

I wonder how the disciples felt hearing Jesus tell them he was going away and then when he left them. I wonder if they wished he would have just stayed, if they feared what would happen to them, their grief at this second loss. I wonder if they gave any thought to dry, dead bones in a valley and the breath that would enliven them, if they made connections between a God who could bring hope into such a painful time of their people’s story and the hope that had begun in the new event of Christ’s resurrection. I wonder if as they experienced the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, the Helper, if they realized just how open the future could be.

How will we look for transformation this Pentecost, as we hear words on Sunday of the Spirit falling like tongues of flame?

How will we claim the presence of the advocate, the comforter, the helper?

How will we too intercede for others, bringing words of truth, of life, of hope?

How will we prophesy to desiccated bones even against the backdrop of the daily news: of Syria, the Sudan, the Northern Territory intervention, climate change?

How will we be a people who have seen the bones knit together, sinews and flesh?

How will we believe that the ruach-wind-breath-spirit will continue to rush into desolate places with great gusts of life?

In a conversation last Wednesday afternoon, sharing a coffee in the sun, sharing conversations about call, messy ambiguity, conflicting communities which demand our time and energy, even being sucked into a place here where at times perhaps we lose sight of the world outside, a dear friend said that even when she is feeling deconstructed and doesn’t quite know what it is she believes in anymore, there is one thing which she holds on to, which she trusts: hope in God.

Let us be people who never lose sight of God’s future.

Let us ask that we would know the Spirit, resting upon us, among us, within us, reanimating our community: breath of life, winds of courage, that we would be people who hope.

New Hope: Greedy Boys and Happy Trees

Luke 19:1-10 The Story of Zacchaeus

I want to tell you the story of another boy who climbed a tree:  The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.   (Read story)

The message of the children’s book is profoundly true. Over and over again it is the giving tree that is happy. In the first part of the story when both the boy and the tree are enjoying their mutual give and take, they both are happy.  But have you ever noticed that after that first part, not once does it say that the boy is happy. It is always, “And the tree was happy.”

Ben Gill in his book, The Joy of Giving, says in the opening paragraph:
“My life has been spent helping people to learn the gift of giving. After twenty-five years in this pursuit, I come now to tell you that one fact has become increasingly clear: the happiest people on earth are the people who have learned the joy of giving.”

Let me tell you another story about a boy and a tree.  Once there was a tree and she loved a boy very much.  He would climb her branches, make crowns from her leaves, eat her figs, and when he was tired, would sleep in her shade.  And the boy loved the tree very much.  But time went by and the boy grew older.  One day the boy came to the tree and she invited him to play and eat figs and rest.  But the boy said he was too big to climb and play…he wanted to buy things and have money.  The tree offered her figs for the boy to sell and have money and be happy … the boy took her figs and left.  And the tree was happy.  But the boy stayed away a long time, earning money and becoming a successful businessman.  So successful, in fact, that he earned a promotion and became a regional supervisor … earning more money than he ever could’ve imagined.  He forgot all about the tree and her hope for him to be happy.  But he was not happy.  He had no friends.  People hated him because he was corrupt – skimming the profits, stealing from his co-workers, lying and cheating throughout the week but playing the part of the devout believer when it mattered.

He heard the grumbling of his neighbors, his servants, his “friends”.  He knew what they said about him.  And even though he pretended it didn’t bother him … it did.  One night, he dreamt about his old friend, the fig tree.  She whispered to him, “Come to me, boy.  Climb my branches & remember what it means to be happy.”  The next day, he heard that a famous preacher was passing through town & he wanted to get a look at him.  But his grumbling neighbors and all the people he had cheated & taken advantage of wouldn’t let him through.  He heard them laughing as he jumped and strained to catch a glimpse of this preacher.  He stopped as he caught sight of a tree … HIS tree.  She beckoned to him, waving her branches wildly.  He smiled, looking for an instant like the boy he used to be, and took off at a run, catching the crowd by surprise.   He swung himself into her branches and climbed quickly out to where he could see perfectly.  The preacher was closer than he expected … so close, in fact, that the branch he was laying on brushed the top of the preacher’s head and made him look up, catching the man’s gaze.  “Come down,” he said.  “Come down & learn what it means to be truly happy.”

The tree shook with love as the man climbed down, pausing for moment to hug her trunk.  The crowd grumbled loudly, “He already knows what it means to be happy.  He’s stolen from all of us to make himself rich.  The thief … liar … cheater.”  With his arms still around the tree, the man exclaimed, “I DO know what it means to be happy…I had forgotten!  Money doesn’t grant happiness…GIVING does!  Right here and now, in front of everyone, I pledge to give half of everything I own to the poor and I’ll repay the people I’ve stolen from with 400% interest!”  The preacher reached up and plucked a fig, smiling up at the tree then down at the man.  “Well done, my friend.  This changes everything.  Go and live your life and remember what it means to be truly happy.”  And the man did.  And the tree was happy.

Our world is obsessed with the pursuit of temporary happiness; a new car, new iPhone, new house.  But we miss the basic truth that genuine, lasting joy is the product of giving, not getting. Giving isn’t just about money; it’s a lifestyle that encompasses one’s whole personality. It’s a lifestyle perfectly exemplified in Jesus Christ. And when we live lives of joy, when we remember what it means to be truly happy, that’s the Spirit of Christ functioning as the Lord within us.  May the grace of God produce the joy of Christ within each of us.  Amen.

Rev. Christina Whitehouse-Suggs was previously the Associate Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina but is currently ministering full-time to her infant son, Dylan.  She received her M.Div. from Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC.  Christina resides in Columbia, SC with spouse Matt (chaplain with Tidewater Hospice), 7 year old daughter Kara (full of awesome), son Dylan (late night drinking buddy), and their cat Pipsqueak (who thinks she’s a dog).  She is also a nationally certified sign language interpreter and is often found on stage at one of several local theatres (in all her spare time).

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mladjenovic_n/3480169658/”>I Am Not I</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photo pin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

Matthew 2:13-23 – a sermon for Christmas 1A

We also know that Joseph is descended from the house of David, which allows Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecies that the Messiah would come from King David’s line. The Bible tells us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but the Bible also references Joseph as Jesus’ “father.” This creates a level of uncertainty about Joseph’s role. Then Joseph disappears completely from the Gospels after the time Jesus is left behind at the temple, when he is twelve years old. Joseph’s absence from accounts of Jesus’ public life has been interpreted by most biblical scholars to mean that he died before Jesus began his teaching and public ministry. Our opportunities to get to know Joseph within the biblical witness are quite few.

Throughout history, church historians and theologians often lifted up Joseph as an example of the kind of father who parented “by love and service.” Early Franciscan scholars downplayed Joseph’s lack of biological connection to Jesus, instead focusing on the obvious parental nature of his actions. Jean Gerson, a leader in the 15th century French church, characterized Joseph as giving “all the care that a good and loyal and wise father can and should show to his true son.” Joseph speaks to us today because “after Mary, he was the first Christian, a model believer,” says Father Joseph Chorpenning of St. Joseph’s University.

Today’s scripture passage is the Biblical “version” of post-partum depression. After the warmth and glow of Christmas – the excitement caused by the arrival of a new baby – today is the Sunday that reality sets in. For most new parents, this is when you discover that your meek and mild infant is a terribly colicky baby. This is when you wonder how someone who weighs less than ten pounds can truly turn your whole house, your whole life, completely upside down. You think you will never sleep again, you will never spend time with your spouse again, and you will never have an adult conversation again.

But for Mary and Joseph, the situation is much more dramatic. They discover that their baby, meek and mild, is causing political uproar and Herod, the leader of the nation, is attempting to murder all baby boys. Instead of spending time getting to know their son, they suddenly find themselves as refugees, struggling to protect their child in a strange land. It is not a natural or ordinary start to their family life. Read more

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

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

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