Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Her colors are fire: a benediction

This past Sunday was Pentecost and I was inspired to write this benediction
by the act of covenant we did together as a congregation:
weaving bright strips of red and yellow and orange into an almost 
invisible net that was stretched across the sanctuary wall.  

Holy Weaving Spirit is at her loom.
Readying herself,
she breathes,
and begins.

Strand by strand she gathers and weaves
a people into beauty,
a wild self portrait made of many strands.
Her colors are fire.
Her creation is God’s

our colors are fire.
We are God’s creation.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

We Had Hoped...

image: Daniel Bonnell, script: Amy Marie Epp
I am back from sabbatical and grateful to be in the pulpit again.  So this is a "What is In the Sermon" edition of the Pastor Amy blog.
Last Sunday on the way home from church I was listening to The Moth Story Hour on KUOW and one of the storytellers was an Irish woman who came from a family of 6 sisters.  Sisters who had learned how to be strong and courageous and connected to each other by their father.  When their dad died suddenly in his early seventies and they were all in middle adulthood, the bond that they thought was so strong between them began to unravel.  Each of them wondered how they were to go on being family, even being in the world without the one who was always encouraging, teaching, leading, connecting them - even as adults.

When I heard that story on The Moth, I thought of the disciples on the road.  These two friends and followers who had lost a beloved.  And not only a beloved, but the one who tied their group together.  The one who showed them what it meant to be God’s children, who told them they were beloved, who healed and served and ate with them, who was the center of their community.  And not only that - the one in whom they had hoped.  A people under occupation, they had a very real hope that Jesus was the leader that would liberate them - finally - from occupying forces.  Jesus’ leadership and charisma tied the disparate and diverse group of disciples together

When we read this story in Sunday school last week Madeleine suggested the image of a bracelet in which the knot that holds everything together has come undone.  I saw it immediately.  Each of the friend, followers, disciples a bead or a knot held together by their beloved Jesus. And once his binding presence is missing, they begin to scatter.  Cleopas and his wife are headed back home to Emmaus.  They’ve left others in Jerusalem, confused by a story of an empty tomb, a missing body and angels.

They are bitterly disappointed.  They grieve.  They had hoped…

And don’t we all.  This is a beloved Easter story, I think in part because of the details that allow us to identify with the disciples on the road.  We too have hoped. I’ve heard people experiencing infertility talk about the bitterness of hoping and longing for a child only to be disappointed - not just once but again and again.  Perhaps a disease or mental illness we thought we had seen the end of returns.  We had hoped…  Or the hope and disappointment of broken relationship.  Of love and trust betrayed.  It is kind of hope is the kind that comes with deep and long-lived yearning.  Perhaps - as in this case - even generations.  

As Jesus’ companions had hoped, we too place our hopes for political change in individuals to see those hopes dashed.

Then they meet Jesus on the road.  But of course they don’t know it’s Jesus.  But as they tell him of their broken hope and he retells the story of God’s people to them their hope begins to be re-woven.  Story by story from the torah and the prophets, he ties them back into the fabric of their community.  When, at the end they realize at the table that it is Jesus who has been with them all along, they say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning inside us when he was opening scripture to us on the road.”  These stories remind them of who and whose they are.  Not a nation’s or a leader’s but God’s.

In the Moth story about the sisters and their father, months after the funeral at which the sisters have carried their father’s coffin together and put his body to rest, one of the sisters gets a text message.  It’s from her dad.  Or at least it’s from her dad’s number.  It says, “I’m home now.  You can call on me any time.”  Honestly, I get a little weepy just thinking of it again, it was such a sweet story.  The text was (probably) some kind of glitch in the system, re-sending the last thing that her dad had texted to her.  But she took it as a prompt to connect again with her sisters, to recount the message from beyond, to wonder together and remember together whose they were and be reminded that the bonds of family could be re-knotted in a way that had their father woven into the whole fabric.

Cleopas and the other disciple, their hope for a Messiah has been disappointed.  Bitterly so. They will always be disappointed if they seek escape from the tyrany of political oppression.  Particularly if they’re waiting for some kind of a political leader to overthrow or rebel against or out-politic their occupiers.  Their hope for a Messiah who walks along with them, though, who explores God’s word together with them, who sits at a table with them, though.  That Messiah is totally present.  And that Messiah is present every time God’s people are gathered - walking, serving each other, eating together, opening scripture with each other.

Our experience of Jesus may most often happen in retrospect.  It can be very hard to see Jesus walking along beside us on the road when we are in the midst of the grief and disappointment of hopes lost.  And I don’t want to get all “footprints” on you, but it is often when we reflect back on an experience that we can say, “Didn’t my heart burn within me when such and such a thing happened?”

The two are compelled, when they realize who their walking buddy has been to turn back to community.  They realize that they have a hope of a different nature. Hope for a different kind of freedom - and into an urgency to run back to community and learn how to witness to each other, to continue the work of the loving, healing, proclaiming Jesus, to weave themselves into a community that makes Jesus presence known everywhere.   I wonder if in our disappointed hopes - particularly when they are hope tied up in political figures or aspirations - we might do well to be reminded that we are knots more securely tied into a string that God is continuing to weave together.

The eye opening, get-back-on-the-road moment for the disciples came at the table.  A table, maybe something like this one before us.  It came when Jesus broke the bread and they shared it.  Jesus known through a physical, tangible thing like bread.  In those look-back moments when we say, “Yes, that way Jesus with me.” how often are they moments that a friend or companion shared a meal, a kind word, a token of encouragement.  Maybe they are when reconciliation is found after a rift, in community gathered, in renewed physical health or a new understanding and peace with physical decline.  Around a table.

Some of you may have seen the Heineken ad that’s circulating on social media.  It’s meant to tug at your heartstrings and tear-ducts at it does.  People ideologically opposite are tasked with several challenges that they must complete together, then given a short survey in which they describe themselves to the other person.  Then they each watch a video in which this partner whom they’ve been laboring and intimately talking with talks candidly about their ideology.

Then they’re given an option - they can go on their way, or they can sit down at the bar (which they’ve just put together) and talk about their differences over a beer.  A Heineken, of course.  

Community built at a table.  And in common work.  And in shared life.  That sounds a lot like the body of Christ to me.

I invite you to join me at the table as we begin communion.  I invite you to join me the the hope that is in Jesus and in the people of God.  I invite you to join me in tying yourself into the care of community and love of God.  I invite you into hope renewed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Psalms of Revolution

Revolutionary-inspired poster one of a series
created by Seattle Mennonite Church artists
Lisa Bade, Debbie Shank Miller, Linda Pauw
and John Flickinger for Advent worship.
The first time I heard “One Tin Soldier” at camp as an 8 year old, my young mind was blown and my world turned around: the treasure that the mountain and valley people had fought and destroyed for was peace on earth!! Whoa. This song along with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer” were staples in the camp peace-anthem catalog.

There’s nothing wrong with those old gems. In keeping with our Advent theme of 'Revolutionary Songs' we’ve sung a few of them in recent weeks in worship. But there’s more to revolutionary song than acoustic guitars around the campfire. When I was in college, rap-metal rockers Rage Against the Machine moved my generation to push back against the machinery of wealth and empire. My well-behaved Mennonite classmates and I banged our heads to lyrics like “some of those that work the forces are the same that burn the crosses” and “f*** you I won’t do what you tell me” in “Killing In the Name Of”. I looked them up again this week and discovered the video for ‘Sleep Now in The Fire.” This guerrilla-shot video lambasting the excess of Wall Street, is directed by Michael Moore and worth watching even if you don’t dig the hard-edged music.

More recently I’ve been appreciating revolutionary hip-hop staples. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is a hip-hop classic that will make you excited to take the revolution to the street. Twenty five years later, A Tribe Called Quest, contemporaries with Public Enemy in the early 90’s have returned with an album including the single “We the people” calling out systems that exclude people of color, LGBTQ folk, Muslims and immigrants. Seattle’s own Macklemore and Ryan Lewis extol the virtues of the thriftshop (maybe not revolutionary, but something we simple Mennos can appreciate) but also stand up for same-gender marriage equality.

Protest songs have come a long way. And yet, the tin soldier, the fight against power, the celebration of love are all reflective of the original revolutionary songs: the Psalms. The Psalmist sings out in anger and frustration for vengeance against its ‘devastator’ in Psalm 137, sings in hope and confidence that the poor will be raised up in Psalm 72, sing the reminder that mortal rulers are ultimately not to be trusted in Psalm 146. The Psalms are full of emotion ranging from the depths of sorrow to ecstatic joy and always giving God’s revolutionary people an opportunity to praise the One who is turning the world around.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Be thou my vision

Every night I hold a sleepy toddler and sing, “Be thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart.” This has been my go-to bedtime song for almost ten years now. But I found that last night, while election results were already rolling in ominously from the living room, these were the words I needed. And they were the words I needed to sing into the ear of my child. Words that are reminders of where our faith and hope really lie.

I have often turned to Psalm 146 in times of both fear of and expectation in system, leaders and government. It is a reminder that our hope lies not in princes (or presidents) but in the one who ‘created heaven and earth’ and who keeps faith forever. It is a jubilee song and we need a jubilee hope.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
     the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers,
     upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked the Lord brings to ruin.

Both Clinton and Caine quoted scripture in their concession messages this morning. But we know that the Reign of God is not subject to the reigns and regimes of the world, however benevolent, and it may not be co-opted. The Reign of God is proclaimed most powerfully by Jesus, who never doubted his belovedness, who never doubted God’s faithfulness, and who loved and taught us how to faithfully love our neighbor and our enemy. He persisted in proclaiming God’s reign in the midst of injustice, fear, hatred and oppression.

May we hear belovedness sung into our ears and may we sing the song for those who cannot or do not hear it elsewhere. May we remember God’s faithfulness and respond with our own. May we remember God’s great love by responding with our own love in word and in action. May our hope and vision be in our love and the in love of our creator.

“Heart of my heart, whatever befall. Still be my vision, o ruler of all.”

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seeds of Joy

In the simplest terms, the Ignatian practice of reflecting on consolation and desolation, consolation is what brings joy and desolation is joy's absence. However, life is almost never just one at a time. The two may be - and often are - mingled. Consolation, really, is what draws me closer to the God who is my joy, whose present Spirit enlivens, which may happen even in the midst of misery and sorrow.

I'm in the soggy jacket up front.  We haven't even started yet. This is just the     
warm up.
Yesterday morning I was both cold and miserable but reflecting on it, I also recognize a joy which is my consolation. I spent almost 4 hours in the pouring down freezing rain on the soccer field of my child's school working on building four wooden benches. I know that I will experience the fullness of this joy in due time when the benches join the work of over a hundred other community volunteers in a new playground for our elementary school. All built in one miserable wet day.

It crossed my mind more than once to bail on this project when I looked at the forecast for the day and again when my windshield wipers were working at full speed on the way to daycare drop-off. I was not thinking about where I might find God's joy but of how maybe I was feeling a little sick and should go home to bed. But I showed up, I discovered friends, met community members and other school parents and together we build a playground. God's un-named Spirit at work.

This is not a church story. Most of our stories aren't. It's the story of where we spend most of our lives. In work, in schools, in volunteer roles, in family. It's not a church story but it is a God story. May you all find the seeds of consolation joy as you think on your stories today.

Two of my team-mates sitting on the bench we just made.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Deeper (and Broader) Than I Expected: Reflections on a Faith Formation Conference

Because of the subtitle of this conference, “Deep Faith: Faith Formation for All Ages” I went with a pretty narrow expectation.  It’s one I was looking forward to, but narrow nonetheless.  I hoped to engage the question of how to work at education and formation intergenerationally.  How does one shape a Sunday school class or worship service such that it appeals and genuinely connects with people from toddler to senior and allows folk of all ages to learn with and from each other?  I did come away with a few ideas.  Ideas I hope to work at and explore more in the future, including an understanding that building bridges of learning and connection intended to meet the particular challenges of, for example, a four-year-old in worship, may might also be wide enough to include others with different demographics but similar needs.  Wide enough to welcome many into an experience of God.

What I came to experience in this conference was not wholly what I expected but was still pretty exciting. Two workshops in particular had me excited to come home and think about how we implement elements in my context.  The first, led by Carrie Martens, was a workshop about marking faith and milestone moments across the life span.  Like most congregations we offer some ritual life-marking moments in worship, like infant dedication and baptism.  We also offer young adults hand-made comforters when they are ready to move on after high school.  But I was challenged to think about the many other ways to mark life-moments as sacred through adulthood and at points throughout childhood: the beginning of school for a child, consecration of singleness for adults who remain unmarried, blessing on retirement when adults complete work marking a ‘fruitful past and fruitful future.’* Since there is no beginning or ending to the formation of our identity in Christ, ritual markers along the journey give us a vocabulary to name that identity.  Being able to name our identity allows us to further deepen and claim it.

One of the areas we Mennonites have claimed as central to our identity is that of peace-makers.  Yet it seems to me that it’s rare for a congregation to actively engage in educating and forming members (young and old) in practices of engaging conflict in healthy and transformative ways.  I have certainly heard many stories of unhealthy and passive aggressive ways that churches have dealt (or not) with conflict. That’s why Rachel Miller Jacobs’ concept of ‘Ordinary Time Forgiveness’ seems both so simple and so radical. 

Rachel introduced those who participated in her workshop to some tools of non-violent communication and in particular we had fun with her deck of ‘Feelings and Needs’ cards.**  These cards, as the name suggests, each name either a feeling or a need.  When confronted with a conflict or situation in which discernment or transformation is necessary, one may use these cards, either alone or with another, to identify the two or three feelings that are primarily evoked.  This allows a listener to use empathetic responding when choosing cards for the story-teller to test if the feeling is right and for teller to respond.  Once primary emotions are identified, the needs cards come into play.  It is the met or unmet needs that evoke those feelings and when identified, we can so much more easily communicate – the first step in moving toward resolution and forgiveness. 

It's more complex than that, of course.  And conflicts, like people, may be much more multi-layered, but because this is about the every-day, ‘ordinary time’ conflict, each of us being formed with the useful tools of engagement is so important to confronting the really fraught and complicated stuff.  It makes so much sense to begin engaging the notion of conflict as normal and forgiveness as central in childhood, then to continue to deepen our understanding of self and other as we mature, growing in faith and experience.  I am looking forward to trying testing these and many of the ideas I encountered at Deep Faith and I’m very grateful to have been able to participate.
* Carrie Martens, “Faith Markers at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (in worship),” table.
** Rachel received her cards from Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  They were developed based on the Non-Violent Communication practices and principles of Marshall Rosenberg and much more can be found at Malinda’s website here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trump, Consent and our Circles of Grace

Like many of you, I am sure, I have been disgusted and horrified (but not surprised) by the words and behavior of Donald Trump directed at women over the course of his campaign and in particular this past weekend. It seems that this is a tipping point for many white Christians, because his words suddenly could not be 'othered.' But this is not (as, of course you know) the first time he has spoken with derision and in a violent or dehumanizing way about people. However I do see it as an opportunity to talk about this particular brand of violence and abuse and about the necessity of empowering each of us and our children to expect that we will only be touched with our consent. That no part of our bodies is an object just to be grabbed.

I came across this graphic on my Facebook feed a week or two ago. At the time I didn't think much of it other than passing agreement. Then I traveled for 5 days with my adorable red-headed toddler and I realized how caught off guard I am by people who think it's okay to poke his tummy, stroke his head, chuck his chin or grab his hand. And I realize I do this to little ones too!

It may be a fine line to tread between teaching our children to show respect for friends, kin and strangers (and we on their behalf) and to allow and even encourage them not to accept tickles, pokes or hugs when they are not open to that affection. But it's an important line. The bodies of women and girls in particular have been seen as fair game and we can reinforce this with girls and with boys without even thinking about it unless we are intentional.

In our Circle of Grace curriculum our children and youth learn about the space around themselves as inhabited by the Spirit of God, intent on their value and filling them with an inherent worth.  Nothing should be allowed to violate that space.  The children have an opportunity to think about what is allowed inside their Circle of Grace and what isn't. We tend to think about the things that go outside the Circle as things which we, their caregivers, would evaluate as a threat, or as 'creepy'. But sometimes even hugs and kisses from mom or dad might be put outside the Circle because they aren't feeling it. What's important is asking: Do you need a hug? Can I get a kiss goodbye? Is it time for the tickle monster? They might say no! That's okay. If caregivers and those close to our children can respect and protect the Circles of Grace of our children as they define them, they will be further empowered to name those boundaries in other situations.

May the Spirit's Circle of Grace surround you!