Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump


Buy Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump





Throughout her nearly forty years in ministry, Heidi Neumark has strived to make the communities she was part of sanctuaries amid the turmoils of life. Now, with the social and political upheaval of the years since Donald Trump was elected president, Neumark believes the true Christian calling is to live out a counterpoint to today’s prevailing spirits of exclusion and hatred. Using her own bilingual, multicultural congregation as a model, she moves through the seasons of the church calendar to reflect on what it looks like to live out essential Christian convictions in community with others.

Sanctuary is an amplifier for the many voices crying out against policies and rhetoric that are cruel, dehumanizing, and dangerous. Neumark begins each chapter with a quote from Donald Trump that she defies and dismantles with the power of her own stories–anecdotes about offering shelter for queer youth in her city, supporting immigrants and asylum-seekers being harassed by ICE, and embracing her church’s diversity with a Guadalupe celebration, to name a few. This is a book born out of the necessity of our current times that will nevertheless stay relevant as this era’s deep wounds, inflicted before and during Trump’s presidency, remain long past its end.


From Publishers Weekly: In this insightful work, pastor Neumark (Breathing Space) offers a collection of essays on ministry in the Trump era. “What Trump says and does,” Neumark writes, “publicly disavows every core teaching Jesus set forth…. The church must take sides.” Each piece begins with an epigraph from Trump juxtaposed against an anecdote from Neumark’s life that gives context or runs contrary to his statement. “Suffer the Little Children,” for example, opens with Trump’s quote: “the beauty that’s being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never be able to be comparably replaced.” Neumark then explores the historical white supremacy inscribed in the location and construction of Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City, built by German immigrants in 1908, where she is pastor, before reminding readers that Trump’s quote was in reference to the removal of Confederate monuments. In “Measuring Up” she quotes Trump’s racist remarks (“Hello Miss Housekeeping”) before exploring Trinity’s shelter and food bank program, as well as organization on behalf of immigrant labor rights. The collection ends with a particularly affecting story about The Border Church located between San Diego and Tijuana. With this powerful collection, Neumark adds her voice to the growing chorus of Christians calling for faith-based resistance to the Trump agenda. (Sept.)

Critical Praise:

“Pastor Heidi Neumark’s intensely personal telling of her wildly diverse congregation’s quest to create community against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency and NYC’s gentrification is inventive, humorous, painful, and oh so inspiring. Our world needs more pastors like Heidi, more congregations like Trinity Lutheran, and more books like Sanctuary. All three offer a divided nation reasons to be hopeful and paths toward healing.”
— Cynthia Nixon
actor and activist

“Passionate, luminous, inspired, and practical, Neumark’s Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s West 100th Street is a place where the simplicity of play meets a righteous rage for change, where faith and morality attain true meaning. Sanctuary takes on the problems of the USA—and of humanity—while recounting, with rich stories and vivid details, how a small church can carry an inclusive vision that transcends boundaries. This is a fine example of the resistance, vision, and transformation that, in her words, ‘these days, and the gospel, require.’”
— Joan Juliet Buck
author of The Price of Illusion

“Heidi Neumark’s books always take me to places I’ve never been. Sanctuary is no exception. It is more than a prophetic response to one president or one political party. It is a series of eloquent dispatches from the front where genuine ministry is happening, delivered by a trusted and wise messenger. This is a wonderful book.”
— Richard Lischer
author of Stations of the Heart

Sanctuary is a must read. Throughout the book, Neumark weaves together stories from those bruised, battered, and abandoned in the midst of abundance and puts them in stark relief with the oppressive decrees of Donald Trump and his enablers. Neumark’s stories, from her own lived experience, embody the call of the gospel to preach good news to the poor and bring comfort to the broken amid bedbugs, detention centers, and systemic violence and injustice.”
— Liz Theoharis
cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

“Heidi Neumark’s powerful book will retain its power long after Donald Trump’s presidency. Neumark has the unique ability to bring together people and events that are seldom in the same space—consider her chapter, ‘Bed Bugs, Condoms, Frankincense, and Myrrh.’ Biblical texts and church seasons intersect with politics without apology: ‘It’s remarkable,’ she writes, ‘that people who gather to worship in spaces with a cross prominently displayed become upset about politics in the sanctuary.’ You will never say ‘sanctuary’ again without hearing her passionate plea for the church to take sides—based on the Bible—with those whose lives are demeaned and dismissed. This is a book many have been waiting for; hopefully, it will also be read by those who didn’t know they were waiting.”
— Barbara K. Lundblad
Union Theological Seminary, New York City

“Pastor Heidi evocatively defines sanctuary as ‘an embodied way for dreams to grow in a protected space so that a different future can be born.’ This book is a sanctuary rich with the gilded stories of beautiful people for whom the church or society have rarely offered safety, finding their way to healing in a community finding its way to Jesus in our ever-changing and brutal city. A beautiful, compelling vision.”
— Winnie Varghese
Trinity Church Wall Street

The Essential Workers of Easter

John 20:1-18, preached on April 12, 2020

Easter is different this year. The basket of Easter bells that we hand out to children with the instructions to ring them every time they hear the word “alleluia!” said or sung sits untouched and silent on a shelf in my office, but every evening at twilight clanging pots,car horns, whoops, claps and even some bells fill the air with grateful praise for all the essential workers rising up in the face of death. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

And then there is this: because every kind of joy is essential for our children and this child has captured her world’s strange moment so creatively with the Easter Bunny in their carrot-decorated mask. She tells us that nestled among the eggs in the basket is some blue paw sanitizer. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Because Easter sermons don’t just pop up out of the ground like potted lilies on Easter morning, I had work to do for my sermon on Friday, but honestly, I was just too sad. I told myself, you are the pastor and you should be upbeat and joyful on Easter because you believe the promise of Easter, you can’t be sad and tearful but beloved church, I was sad and tearful. Of course, there are countless reasons for that these days, but what hit me particularly hard on Friday was the call that told me Peter Adrian, our dear elderly former organist had tested positive for the coronavirus in his nursing home where it is running rampant. Peter has no family and appointed me as his health care proxy and in what now seems like another world, I promised him I would not leave him alone. But now, I cannot visit him and he has no phone and there is only one staff member who will take her phone to Facetime with Peter, but she was away. And like countless others in similar and worse circumstances I felt helpless and sad. More Good Friday than Easter.

Of course it was Good Firday, but thenI turned to the beginning of the Easter gospel, an easter story that begins with Good Friday feelings. Early on the first day of the week, before sunrise, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. The sun has not yet risen. It is too early to see anything clearly, but she did see that the stone was removed from Jesus’ tomb and that his body was missing. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. The first words of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, the words that break the silence of Easter dawn are a mournful cry: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Helpless words of sorrow, confusion and loss even anger. If you bring any of those feelings to this Easter day, you are not alone. Those were the very feelings of on that very first Easter. Not only has Mary Magdalene’s friend and teacher been murdered, she can’t even have the comfort of giving him a proper burial because someone has moved the body, or stolen it and taken it where she does not know.

This is happening today in New York with more cases of the coronavirus than any country in the world and most of them are here in our city. Funeral homes don’t have the capacity to cope with the mounting numbers of bodies that need tending and burial. And many of these bodies are Black and Brown, most in fact, come from low-income families who cannot quickly come up with the cost of burial, even cremation. Where are they taking all the bodies? We have learned that they are being buried in mass graves on in Hart Island off the Bronx, a place where the unnamed and unclaimed dead of our city have been buried for years, a job that used to be foisted on prisoners from Rikers- but now, perhaps fearing lawsuits, other workers have been hired, essential workers doing a job nobody would wish to do. And most of these bodies are not unnamed. Most of them belong to loved ones who know their names but in these days they are being taken away and buried by strangers. I imagine that many of their families are hoping to claim them one day and bury them properly and they will be asking the question Mary asked. They have taken our loved one away and we do not know where they have laid him. Will the bodies be identified and found and returned? In a nation and city where children detained by ICE are sometimes lost to the system, along with many others lost without homes in a city where luxury empty apartments abound, can those who have lost the living be trusted to find the dead? But even if found, will their loved ones find the money to bury them?

They have taken my Lord away. And I don’t know where they have put him. Mary’s cry in echos in our own hearts. Not just for the dead. So much is being and has been taken away from us. Stolen from us. Each of us could make our own list of what has been lost or stolen, what we long for that may or may not come back.

After Mary Magdalene runs to tell the disciples about Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb, they come racing to see for themselves. What they see is what Mary saw, the tomb is empty, not a source of Easter joy but of confusion, a beloved body put somewhere unknown, for (as John tells us) as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead and so the disciples returned to their homes. Whatever they thought about what happened, they just went home to a Good Friday world where nothing much had changed.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. She can’t bring herself to leave. Confused and defeated, the disciples have gone back home but Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Pilate has washed his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death and is glad to have it all behind him now, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb and weeps. The leaders of the religious establishment have cracked open cases of champagne for a victory celebration, Happy Good Friday they toasted– at last they are rid of that busybody who called out their hypocrisy and corruption, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb and weeps. She feels her true feelings and nobody interrupts to tell her to feel differently. How long does she stand there weeping we do not know. How long O Lord? How long will wait at this tomb? How long before new life emerges for ourselves, our families, our city, our nation, our world? How long, O Lord? We do not know.

But at some point, still weeping, Mary moves. She cannot accept the empty hole of not knowing. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb… And there, because she remained weeping and looked into the shadowy depths of that tomb, seeking Jesus still, she sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus body should have been. Woman, why are you weeping?” And she repeats what she said to the disciples: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And then, Jesus appears. Jesus is there right in front of her, but Mary Magdalene can’t recognize him. Her tear-filled eyes cannot see properly and likely her grief-addled brain is not making full sense of things. There’s no question that stress and trauma contribute to addled brains as many are experiencing. I know that my brain has not been functioning at full strength.

So Mary does not recognize Jesus even when he is right there. What she sees is a gardener, and this is a cemetery so the gardener is likely one who tends the garden and the graves which is why she believes he has moved the body. Mary sees a gardener, a grave-tender, an essential worker. And then she hears his voice calling her name. Her name. “Mary!” “Raboni!”  she cries out, “Teacher!” And indeed, Jesus had inwardly been teaching her to keep on searching, to stand in the tear-filled shadows, waiting for the dawn, refusing to accept what seemed to be the inevitable loss of all her hope. She did not return to what had been. She did not deny what she was feeling and now she sees that the very worst thing that could happen- is not the end.

The gardener, the grave-tender, this essential worker is the risen Christ who is here on this Easter to tend our bodies in their Good Friday places of loss and trauma, living or dead. Because that IS the essential work of Easter. I love the fact that this happened in a garden. Because back in the beginning of the Bible, we have another garden story. The Adam and Eve story of paradise lost. And now we are brought into a garden again. And isn’t the place of where things fall apart, the very place we most need Easter to happen because frankly, if it doesn’t happen there.. What good is it? Isn’t that were we need the essential work of Easter?

In the mass graves? With the traumatized medical teams facing death after death? With families struggling to keep up with work while caring for beloved children? Or children worried for their parents? With those who have no clue where their work has gone and if they will ever find it again? With those alone who have no one to share their feelings? With those in crowded conditions of poverty, incarceration, nursing homes? And those with no homes at all? With the frightened sick and dying in rooms where loved ones cannot enter. Yes, but they are not alone. Our essential worker is there. That IS where the essential work of Easter is going on.

After Mary hears Jesus calling her name, she runs to hold on to him. And then Jesus says these strange words that sound almost mean: Do not hold on to me!  Why social distance now Jesus just when I’ve found you? Because Mary’s relationship with Jesus is going to be different now. And Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples I have seen the Lord!

 Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene are his words to the church. Church, Don’t hold on to me. I am not your personal, private savior. Go and tell the others. Go and bear the news of Easter into the world. Don’t just go to church. BE the church. And in these days, we know well that the church is not the building, much as we may miss it. Much as I miss you as I stand here gazing out at a church full of empty pews and imagine you sitting in them today and imagine you sitting at home.

But just as Jesus didn’t stay shut away in the tomb, Jesus doesn’t stay shut away in church buildings where some like to keep him. Stay in church Jesus- and I’ll visit you from time to time. If we do that, then we are leaving others alone to cry They have taken the Lord away, and we do not know where they have laid him. Sometimes the church has hidden our Lord behind doctrinal purity, sometimes the church has put him behind judgmental legalism, sometimes the church has laid Jesus behind small-minded prejudices, cruelty and even outright hate. But such whitewashed tombs cannot hold Jesus back.

But the church has never been a building, the church is a community of essential workers commissioned on Easter to bring Christ’s hope and presence and love wherever it is needed.  Jesus calls our name as Jesus called Mary’s name. Because you too are an essential worker in his reign.

On Friday, I asked a facebook clergy group I’m part of to pray for me and for Peter. One of the pastors wrote this: When I was visiting one of my church members in the hospital, at a time when I figured her life in this world was pretty limited, she asked me, “Can you see them?” I said, “What?” “The angels,” she replied. “No, I can’t.” She pointed them out to me. “There’s one there and one over there. One of them was sitting in the chair just before you came in and sat down. The nurses think I’m crazy. Do you think I’m crazy?” On the verge of tears, I replied, “No,I don’t think you’re crazy. I think they are a reminder that God is watching over you, no matter what happens next.” She died less than 24 hours later. Then this man, this stranger, who saw the 2 angels of Easter, said to me:Trust that Peter is not alone. Trust that God will make sure Peter knows he is not alone. I felt better. I knew I had been visited by one of Easter’s essential workers.

Easter IS different this year. The basket of Easter bells that we hand out to children to ring when they hear the word alleluia said or sung sits untouched and silent on a shelf in my office, but every evening at twilight clanging pots, car horns, whoops, claps and even some bells fill the air with grateful praise for all the essential workers rising up in the face of death.

For you too dear church. For you too.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!















Nasty Women to the Rescue


Exodus 1:8-2:10, preached on 8/23/2020

Most of us have likely had a heavy dose of politics this week watching or hearing about the Democratic National Convention. And next up we’ve got the RNC. I know that many people object to the idea of politics in church, perhaps not many of you, but certainly many people and even for those of us who don’t object, we traditionally, and legally, refrain from naming our support for any particular candidate. Although we can and do and will vociferously tell those who can vote to do so. Please vote. Please get your family and neighbors to vote. Help them make a plan and not wait to the last minute. Especially this year with extra efforts to obstruct the vote. But while I can’t tell you who to vote for- the Bible can point you in the best direction and believe me, the Bible does.

I did not pick today’s first reading- it’s one of the assigned readings for many churches today as part of a three year cycle of readings chosen by an interdenominational committee years ago. This reading happens to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Every time I read it and preach on it, it just seems so relevant, speaking from thousands of years ago right into the moment we are living, but this time, THIS time, well, ripped from the headlines, as they say.

The story begins at a point of crisis for the Hebrew people who arrived as immigrants in ancient Egypt. Ever since Joseph was sold into slavery and rose to be the chief steward of the land, the Hebrew people lent their talents and energies to the Egyptian economy. Life was better for the Egyptians because of the energies and gifts these immigrants brought and life was better for the Hebrews or Israelites. Together they prospered. And then, a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He didn’t know Joseph. There was no relationship. He was clueless about his own nation’s history. About say, Frederick Douglass “who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Although in this case, the historically ignorant king recognized Joseph less and less.

This new king pharaoh was completely out of touch. He lives in his own private bubble of paranoia and fear. He views immigrants and any brown or black people as a threat and a danger. Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”  Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. The pharaoh stirs up fear and anger against these people, justifying their abusive treatment. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are…rapists, criminals…These aren’t people. These are animals. They are… terrorists. They want to destroy our country.” Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, let us lock them up, put them in cages, teargas them, choke them or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land. Even lacking today’s technology, even without Fox news, Pharaoh’s words echoed through the land. But the immigrants, the enslaved people, continue to do what they have to do to survive despite the odds. And then the odds get worse.

The king enlists two midwives, Shiprah and Puah. Shiprah, whose name means Beauty in Hebrew, and Puah, whose name means Splendor. These two women have key roles in the health care system of Egypt, to bring forth life and protect it at its most vulnerable point. But Pharaoh wants them to do the opposite-  to kill all the Hebrew boys on the birth stool. It’s like having a Secretary of Health who claims that Medicaid decreases health care access OR a Secretary of Education who pushes an anti-public school agenda. Or seeking out phony doctors to massage your ego while thousands perish…the work of midwives enlisted to murder newborn babies.

There are different opinions as to whether these two women were Hebrew midwives or Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews. In either case, they did a courageous thing. They defied the orders they were given, a crime for which they could easily have been killed. They were committing civil disobedience. They were commiting treason. Friends, they were NASTY women.

And it was not any political party that led them Their resistence was not at all politically based. The Bible tells us that their inspiration was theological: the midwives feared God; (and so) they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them. The king is furious because he has been outwitted by these NASTY women– although he can’t quite figure out how these mad radical dogfaced witches did it. So now he tries to stir up and enlist the entire nation in his campaign of hate and genocide against the Hebrews. Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Let the girls live. So deliciously ironic. The girls can live because they have no power. They are no threat to his ego. Girls, after all, when you’re a star, you can get them to do anything. Pharoah vastly underestimated the power of women and it will be his undoing.

Because in the end, this story is one of hope and shows that the actions of a coordinated group of women rising up matters. We now read about a woman about to give birth to a son who does not have a good life expectancy. The statistics are against this boy child in Pharoah’s Egypt. As they are against many boy children in some of our own zipcodes. But when the baby’s mother looks at her child she does not see a statistic. She looked and saw that he was a fine baby…that’s what the Bible says. A fine baby. Which is what God sees in every baby, of every color, of every land.

This mother takes her fine son and hides him for three months,  but after three months it’s hard to hide a baby. And so she weaves a watertight basket for him and places it in the Nile river hoping against hope that he will float away to freedom, like my grandparents did when they sent their youngest child to England not knowing if they would ever see her again, like many Jewish parents under Hitler’s shadow, waving goodbye to their children, hoping that their sacrifical act of sheer desperation in the face of terror would buy their child a future, like parents who send their children into the Rio Grande and across the border to escape murderous gangs, risky dangerous journeys of hope for a child’s future.

And then… then, the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. She is the daughter of privilege with resources at her disposal that the others do not have. Her father’s orders must be ringing loudly in her ears, but she hears a different cry: the crying of a baby. She knows that this is one of those disposable, foreign babies. But his cry stirs compassion in her womb. She saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. She sees who this baby is and she sees what her father does not. This baby is a human being. This is a fine baby. Against the systemic racism and zenophobia sweeping her nation, she sees that Hebrew lives matter. And she is moved to compassion. It’s worth noting that Pharaoh ordered babies thrown into the Nile River by others, but he didn’t personally go down to the river. Oh no. He was busy on the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the golf course while others carried out his dirty business. It’s easy to dismiss the lives of people you never allow yourself to truly see or hear. But the princess left her golden penthouse rooms to go down to the river to bathe and now she is doing the unthinkable. She is defying her father, aligning herself with those mad, nasty women. One only wishes that another daughter in her golden penthouse would show the same defiant courage and compassion.

The princess lifts the baby from the river, but in those days you couldn’t run to the store for some formula and the princess can’t nurse the baby so up steps the baby’s own sister, Miriam. Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?And she runs to bring the baby’s own mother whose breasts are ready and full with milk. And Pharaoh’s daughter pays her. Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages. This is not how enslaved women in our nation were treated. Without pay, they were forced to nurse their masters’ babies. And it was mandated that only one breast could be used to nurse the white child. If a wet nurse switched up and allowed the white baby and her own black child to nurse from the same breast, she could be whipped, or worse, because it was like them sharing the same water fountain. But here this Egyptian princess offers paid maternity leave instead of slavery. Paid maternity leave instead of forcing a mother to spend long hours away from her baby. What a concept.

 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses“ because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” A Jewish Midrash imagines that this princess would later flee Egypt along with Moses and the Hebrews. The princess is willing to be cast down from her throne.  A model for all of us born into privileges others can only dream of.

 Note that the mother and sister could not save Moses on their own. The midwives could not do what needed to be done on their own. With all her privileges and resources, the princess could not do it on her own, but when the splendid, beautiful strands of their lives were woven together, they were able to save a child who would grow up to save a people, along with his sister Miriam, and lead them from slavery to liberation.

These women represent different classes, different races, different cultures, different religions and yet, they pulled together to save a life. In the Rev. Dr. King’s enduring words, they are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Long before Paul wrote to the church of Rome, these women showed how it’s done. Think of Moses’s mother and sister Miriam, Shiprah and Puah and Pharoah’s daughter while hearing Paul’s words: I appeal to you… by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…They didn’t all have the same function, but they all served the same purpose. Together, they are able to bend the moral arc of the universe a little closer to God’s justice.

For us as a church, I think it’s no coincidence that these women came together down by the riverside. As we do. Despite our many differences and varied points of view, we gather at the riverside of baptism where like Moses we have been drawn out of the water by one who gave up his privilege who didn’t count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself, And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because Jesus said yes to love and no to hate, over and over again, defying the orders of the empire. Because he sees us and hears our cries. Because he sees and hears of the cries of all the vulnerable. And calls us to go and do likewise.

And for those who are able, that includes voting. I won’t tell you how to vote but here’s a hint. If he sounds like pharaoh, he’s not the one.







The Day I Got Out of My Boat

Matthew 14:22-33, preached on 8/9/2020

Today’s gospel changed my life. One summer Sunday, 19 years ago, I sat in Trinity’s pews and heard this gospel reading while serving as a pastor in the Bronx. I was on sabbatical and had intended to go to a different church that Sunday but due to train issues I ended up here at Trinity. The pastor had recently left and an interim pastor preached what to me was a somewhat depressing sermon about depression- but maybe I just wasn’t listening well because my mind was distracted by the day’s gospel, as Jesus  walks across the waves towards the disciples in their boat and invites Peter to step out onto the waters and approach him. Only I heard the story in a new, unsettling way: “Heidi, get out of your boat,” and I felt seasick in my pew.

Getting out of my boat could have meant many things, but for me it sounded like a call to leave the present setting and structure of my life– the church and community where I’d lived and worked for almost twenty years. Not to come here to Trinity, but to leave where I was to go I knew not where. Except that I didn’t want to leave, thus the seasick feeling.

A few months later, after hearing this startlingly clear order to get out of my boat, my bishop phoned and asked me to consider the possibility of a call to Trinity. Previously, I would have just said, thank you but no thank you, but now I felt the Spirit’s call to be open to new possibilities. It took a while, but two years later, I became Trinity’s pastor. God’s word changes lives. This story changed mine- in ways for which I will be forever grateful.

I understood my call to get out of the boat as a call to take a risk, to trust in Jesus and that’s how I’ve understood Peter’s call- be bold in faith, leave the structures that feel familiar and safe and step out into the unknown. Take a risk and trust in God to keep you afloat. Wise advice. But there are many ways to read a Biblical text, many ways to see God’s workings through God’s word, a living word that bears ever new meanings and I am drawn to a different meaning for these days.

Let’s go back to the beginning of today’s gospel. Jesus has sent his disciples ahead in a boat while he goes off alone, seeking some rare solitude to pray by himself after many days ministering among crowds of people. The disciples were fishermen, used to winds and waves, used to storms but as the wind and waves get bigger and stronger, THIS storm strikes fear into their hearts. Wherever Jesus is, he realizes this and starts walking over the rough seas to reach them. What the seasick disciples see through the dim morning light and the salt-spray of fear is a ghost and they are terrified. “It’s a ghost!” Immediately, Jesus speaks to them to calm their fears. Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid. We don’t know how the disciples in the boat responded. We do know that they stayed in the boat, likely doing their best to keep it afloat, waiting for Jesus to reach them. All of them that is except for Peter- who speaks up: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

This isn’t the first time someone has addressed Jesus like this.

“If you are the son of God, command these stones to become bread.”

“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down for it is written that the angels will bear you up.”

It sounds a bit like Peter doesn’t it.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

The similarity is not very flattering for Peter because the first voice is the voice of the devil during the temptation of Jesus. If you are the Son of God, do this, Do that. If it’s you Lord, prove it to me, never mind my scaredy-cat brothers back in the boat, do something special for me! Do something spectacular for me, just this one time and I will believe. I have an idea…How about if I defy science and get out of this leaky boat and walk on water?

An editorial I read this week spoke of our national failure in the face of this pandemic and it cited two main problems- lack of leadership at the top and a strong of individualism that resists state rule, or put another way, that resists anyone telling you what to do. Now that can have it’s positive sides in some situations, like when parents tell their children- don’t’ follow the crowd, do what you know is right. But it can also lead us to where we are now, pitting individual rights against community wellbeing. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk.

The editorial says that some have “sacralized selfishness, by insisting on the right to act selfishly even when it hurts others. What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness. And this cult is killing us.”

 Martin Luther frequently cited the great African bishop Augustine who spoke of our selfish inclinations as homo incurvatus en se…humanity curved in on itself. This is a good definition of sin and it’s a good definition of what we’ve seen playing out.

It’s MY right NOT to wear a mask. I feel fine so I can’t be sick. I’ll just ignore what doctors and scientist say and do what I want to do. I’m not going to stop my life because I feel just fine. I’m not letting big brother tell me what to do, If I want to drink or party or gather in a big group or sing in church I’ll do it. In fact today, I might just try walking on water.

Jesus plays along with Peter but the storm is too much and Peter begins to sink, as vulnerable as those in the boat. Jesus reaches him and brings him back. Not to stand alone upon the shore of individuality, but to the boat where the others wait, together rowing against the wind, together waiting for Jesus to reach them. They weren’t seeking spiritual acrobatics. They weren’t trying to exempt themselves from the laws of nature. They weren’t tempting fate. They weren’t promoting exceptionalism for themselves, their group, their state. They were doing the what they knew how to do in the boat waiting for Jesus to join them as he already told them he would do.

And that’s when the real miracle happened. Not out on the waters where Peter and Jesus had their private drama, but back in the boat, where everyone was gathered together. When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him saying truely you are the Son of God.

The compelling thing about Jesus to me, the most amazing thing, is not that he walked on water. It’s that the one who could walk on water, chose and chooses to walk with the likes of us. Together in the boat with us as we are, flawed and vulnerable, selfish, foolish sometimes brave and sometimes afraid. Jesus got into the boat with Peter and the others and that’s where the miracle occurs. When they were together. That’s when the wind ceased. That’s when the storm stilled. As virulent storms will when we work and wait together.

Like us, this morning, together in a leaky boat weathering the frightening waves of a pandemic, together even when we are physically apart, bound together as we face varieties of struggles, Rowing against the wind, rowing against wave upon wave of delusion, rowing against the currents that would divide us and overcome us, giving us a sinking feeling about many things yet trusting that it really is Jesus in our midst, speaking the words that brought comfort and hope to the earliest Christians whose boat was battered in every way as ours can be: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”




Things Fall Apart

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46, preached on 7/26/2020

My mom was a fabulous cook but  NOT much of a baker, except for pies.. She made mouthwatering pies, especially fruit pies- apple, blackberry, rubarb. And for my birthday always a cherry pie made with sour cherries. And I’ve never had better pie crust. One of my big regrets is that I never learned to make her pie dough. I made it as a child and teenager with her by my side but not by myself and I’ve never been able to get it to come out right. I end up with a mess of dough, sometimes too sticky, sometimes dry and cracked and unwilling to hold together as it should.

Does your life ever feel like a big lumpy doughy mess, a big lumpy mess of dough that you can hardly handle. It’s either too sticky or too dry and it just won’t hold together the way it should? These days there are lots of things that just don’t hold together the way they should. He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is teaching about God, he never gives an outline of set points. He doesn’t lay out clear, unquestionable doctrines. He says, the kingdom of heaven is like- well according to Jesus, it’s like, Many different things. There’s not just one set way to talk about it, to explain it, to define it. Instead, we hear Jesus talking about holy mysteries using very simple, ordinary things, things even a child knew about: seeds, weeds, buried treasure, a beautiful pearl, a fishing net. And the one I want to reflect on today is–yeast.

We can imagine that you put a little bit of yeast in the bread dough and it rises and becomes something bigger and better. Yeast working through the bread dough is an image of how God’s kingdom or kindom spreads and rises through the world.

But that’s not exactly what Jesus wanted to say. Yeast or leaven, another word for yeast, is mentioned 39 times in the Bible, 22 times in the OT and 17 times in the NT and almost every single time, yeast represents evil or corruption. It starts out in Exodus when during the Passover, the Hebrew people were forbidden to eat leavened bread as a reminder of the flight from slavery and God’s liberating, saving power that freed them: Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. It goes on from there. I won’t share all 39 references but here’s a few from Jesus himself. He compares false teaching with leaven or yeast:

 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the these religious leaders.”… they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of false teaching. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of these teachers and the yeast of Herod. The yeast of Herod who slaughtered the Holy Innocents, who beheaded Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Yeast doesn’t sound very positive at all.

St. Paul speaks of some people stirring up trouble in the church Galatia and says that they must be taken aside and disciplined because  A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. Just like our saying that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

So today’s example by Jesus is the strange exception as Jesus uses yeast as a sign of God’s presence at work when elsewhere he uses it to mean something corrupt and evil.  Jesus is flipping things around to shock his listeners, but then, that’s what Jesus often does. This is the same Jesus who said that : The first shall be last. And the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn.

That’s the nature of kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven language that Jesus uses so often. The greek word translated here as kingdom is Basilea. In the first century when Jesus told parables, the word Basileia was used to describe the reign of the Roman emperor Cesar. Jesus flipped this around and spoke of contrasting reign, a reign and power of a very different sort, the Basilea of God.  The Roman Bailia controlled those who fell to Roman conquest, they then lived under the iron grip Roman baiiia or kingdom. But Jesus’kingdom welcomed people into a new kind of relationship where Power is reimagined. You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. This is the difference between the Roman kingdom and the kingdom of God. This is the difference between making America Great and making American Good This is why some people, including myself, sometimes like to use the phrase kindom to translate basilea. A place of welcome and equality. A place where all can find equal footing regardless of race, gender or other aspects of our diversity.

So the kindom of heaven defies the kingdom of empire for whom the kindom of heaven an evil, a small salty group that posed a threat to the status quo, a yeast that could leaven society with justice and love. It was a dangerous, threatening power, working in secret to corrupt the order of the world- and that’s how liberating movements are often seen, the Suffragettes, the Black Panthers, Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta and the farm workers movement, and today Black Lives Matter or even a Wall of Moms or dads with leafblowers in Portland.

These people are being viewed and labeled as corrupting, evil influences, as they work their covert fermentation like yeast turning a mess of dough into a feast for those who hunger and thirst for justice. According to Jesus, yeast has a revolutionary character. And the kindom of heaven is like yeast.

Finally, there’s another pearl of wisdom, another treasure hidden in Jesus parable. One thing I do know about baking is that measurements matter a lot. You cannot just throw things together with no thought for the measurements. And the measurements are off here. Jesus says this woman is working with 3 measures of flour. The word for measure is actually Eiphah. 3 eiphahs is about 60 lbs. of flour—easily enough to make bread for 150 people. This is way too much for one woman to mix in by herself. Three measures seems crazy here. It was a measure of abundance meant to jolt a community who felt itself to be small and possessing scarce resources.

There’s only one other story in the Bible that mentions this exact, same recipe, bread with three measures of flour. A story that would be well known to Matthews community. Its back in the book of Genesis when Abraham and Sarah are in the desert in the heat of the day resting in the shade under some trees by their tent and three visitors appear and tell them that Sarah, who is in her 90s and barren, will become pregnant. Naturally sarah thinks this is a big joke and laughs. But despite how odd this whole visit is, despite how hot it is…Abraham and Sarah spring into action to be hospitalbel to their guests: Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make some bread.”  and While Sarah is baking bread, Abraham is preparing a barbecue to go with it.

And so the three guests are served a feast in the desert. It’s a story of exaggerated hospitality. A story of impossible abundance to go with the impossible promise of a child and In the end we understand that the three guests were messengers from God and that hidden in deep in Sarah’s womb there was indeed a child, the beginning of many generations of descendents that include all Jewish people and through our baptisms all of us as well. And the bread that Sarah prepared came from three measures of flour. Way, way too much for just 3 visitors, but the whole story is about barren, scarcity transformed into more than you expect or imagine overflowing life.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

There was nothing about Sarah hiding the yeast in her three measures of flour. That’s because hiding yeast is not a cooking term. You mix it in or stir it in, you don’t hide it. In fact, our translation of the story, the one we read today, says that the woman mixed in the flour, but the greek word translated as mixed is ENEKRYPSEN which means hidden. Our word encrypted comes from that greek word. Ever hear of an encrypted message? It’s a message hidden in code. Jesus says that the yeast is encrypted, hidden in the flour. This thing that will change the dough and make the bread rise and grow, is invisible to the eyes. The kindom of God like yeast, is hidden. We don’t always notice it at work. In something very ordinary, very common, like bread. Like daily life. The kingdom of God is present, at work, in unlikely places, hard to see, places. When Jesus says it’s hidden, Jesus is describing our reality.

And so… when your life, your day, your week, feels like a big lumpy doughy mess,  a big lumpy mess of bread dough that you can hardly handle. because It’s too sticky or too dry and it won’t hold together the way it should…And when an entire country feels like that? Unable to hold together. As the poet Yeats wrote: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Remember Jesus words: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

The yeast of heaven is here, at work, for your sake,  for the worlds sake. even when we can’t see it. In that big lumpy doughy mess. It WILL come together. Even if we can’t see it now. Yeast takes time to complete it’s rising work, but rise it will. We have the word of one who knows what it is to be hidden out of sight, like yeast. Like buried treasure. Like a buried grain that dies and rises and lives among us, for us, with us and yes, through us. Amen.




What a Waste?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, preached on 7/12/2020

Let’s hear the story again. A sower went out to sow. (I should say as an aside that sewing here is not sewing with a needle and thread, sew but sow which means planting seeds.) A sower went out to sow And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

The sower is upset. All that work for nothing. How dare those birds mess up his project! He goes to Home Depot and asks what kind of trap they might have to deal with pesty birds. Somebody trying to be helpful overhears him and says Ever hear of a scarecrow? Actually, he has heard of that and he’s read online that scarecrows are not very effective, but crows and some other birds are afraid of owls, so he buys an owl statue and lugs it home to set up in the garden. He also buys some extra large rolls of aluminan foil. When he gets home, he sets up the owl and surrounds the fence with the foil in another effort to keep the birds away.

Then he gets back to sowing his seeds, but notices that large areas of the ground are very rocky. So he goes into his tool shed and brings out a shovel and wheelbarrow. Instead of planting seeds, he finds himself spending hours and hours digging up rocks, loading them into the wheelbarrow and carting them away wondering what to do with them. But he didn’t have much time to wonder. He remembered all the seed still waiting to be planted and he began to sow again.

This time he finds himself in a briar patch. Now he has to go back again to Home Depot to find some weed killer. But when he gets there, they are all out of it! They sell him some heavy duty gloves and suggest that he pull out the thorny brambles by hand, which is more environmentaly friendly anyway.  Well, by the time he’s done with that, the man is wiped out. He falls sleep in his chair half reading seed catalogues, and half watching a Criminal Minds rerun.

When he wakes up the next morning, the first thing he sees is a crow sitting on top of the owl statue. He goes outside and notices all the rocks he missed the first time. And it seems that more thorny weeds have sprung up overnight. At that point, the sower and went out for a mocca frappecino, forgetting all about the near full bag of seeds.

Well, who could blame the poor man?  What’s the point of all that work, all that effort, when the same problems keep rising up as sure as the sun rises in the morning, as sure as thorny weeds keep coming up and coming up. The parsonage I used to live in had a back yard and I used to host a church women’s group there in the spring and summer. One week, I invited anyone who wanted to come early, to come and help me fix up the garden. Two women came. Even though it was hard work, pulling out weeds for several hours, we had a good time doing it together. One of the women, Delores, especially enjoyed it because she told me that she had never had the chance to work in a garden before. A few weeks later, Delores came back. She looked around and was shocked. But I thought we got rid of all the weeds! she said. Having never worked in a garden before, Delores had no idea that the weeds just keep coming back and you have to keep on pulling them out, over and over again.

Lots of things are like that. What is it a bout churches and leaky rooves? Or plumbing problems. Or boilers. Or mice. You fix one thing and then there’s something else do to. Lots of pesky things that can keep you from doing what you REALLY want to do. What you really are called to do… sowing the seed, the good news of Jesus. I’m sure you can come up with your own life examples. The demands, discouragements and drivil and that distract us from what we really feel called to be doing.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in attedning to this problem and that leak, the crows and the rocks and the thorns that we forget why we are really here… to praise and glorigy and thank God and to tell our neighbors about the love of God through word and deed. Jesus tells this story in the middle of other stories, stories about his followers experiencing frustration, rejection, difficulties, and NOT getting the results they want. This parable from Jesus is an answer to the question, what went wrong? What are we doing wrong? Where the results? Maybe this is how things are Jesus says, in farming and in faith.

One thing that stands out in the story of the Sower and the Seeds is that God’s grace seems so awfully inefficient and ineffective. The farmer in the story appears to be wasting a lot of seeds. Unlike the man in my version of the story, who gives up and goes to Starbucks, The farmer in Jesus’ version just keeps on sowing, throwing seeds here and there and everywhere, on good soil and bad, on rocks and thorns and where the crows are waiting. He just keeps throwing out the seeds without appearing to pay any attention or do any calucation about the possible results. What kind of farmer is that?   3/4 of seed fails to thrive, 75 percnet of the seed is wasted and he just keeps sowing away, throwing away all that seed.

That’s how many people felt about Jesus. He was wasting his time and energy on neerdowells, wasting it on people who didn’t appreciate it. wasting it on uneducated fishermen and samaritan lepers, on women and children,  wasting it on people anyone with eyes could see were not going to be real good fruitbearers.

People who were like bad soil. That seems to be the explanation we read later on in the gospel. But that explanation was added later on, kind of like a sermon preached by Matthew to his church about Jesus parable, but it was not likely part of the original. Parables are meant to be read in different ways with varied meanings. In fact. NO other parable has a tacked on explanation. Because the hearer of a parable is expected to mull it over- and over and over. Matthew sermony explanation makes sense but, it may not be the only way to read Jesus’ parable or preach on it. We see in the parable that the seeds flourish depending on their location.

That can be true of people too and some people have an advantage due to their social or geographical location. What school district you fall in for example. Or social location which means that some children can do well with online schooling because they have more at home resources than others. Some people are more at risk from corona virus because of their location, because they are forced to live in over-crowded circumstances.

Like the seeds that end up on the side of the road, some people are pushed to the sidelines by red lining, generational economic disadvantage, immigration status and/or skin color. Some find themselves choked by thorns, the explanation is choked by “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” thorny arms that do still grab hold but we know of other chokeholds that crush life and prevent thriving futures.

Then we have the seeds that fall upon rocky ground. Or as James Weldon Johnson put it: stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died. Just as we read about the seeds that wither in the hot sun, hope that died. The greek word for wither here is the exact word jesus uses in the chapter just before this to describe a man with a withered hand. So the connection is begging to be made. Did Jesus condemn the man to a hopeless life of fruitlessness? Blame the victim for this withering? No Jesus heals his hand. Jesus restores that man to his community so that he can flourish.

Before this parable of the sower, Jesus had already preached his sermon on the mount with a series of strange blessings. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, the persecuted the marginalized. Jesus embodies a God who cares about all the seeds and all the soils. All social, geographical and economic locations. Would Jesus say blessed are the seeds in the good soil look how well they do and turn away from the rest? Does Jesus give up on anyone? In his essay, The Sower and the Seed and BLM, Dr. Raj Nadella writes:  The blessed in Matthew are precisely those who fall by the wayside, on rocky soil, and are grasping for life.

Our parable challenges the church and offers deep comfort. As urban farmers we don’t just throw seeds, we also prepare and tend the soil, working so that life can flower and flourish in all locations so that all places become fruitful spaces of justice and mercy and hope. So that even the pavement in front of Trump Tower becomes a banner for Black Lives Matter. When we tire or when our efforts seem futile, when our own lives feel overcome with thorns and rocky obstacles, we have the comfort of knowing that our Sower will never, ever abandon us or give up on us.

Let me tell you about another sower. She loved children but could not have any of her own. Then she and her husband adopted a daughter. But despite all the love they could give, there were thorns, and crows and burning sun. Her daughter, her only child, became addicted to drugs. People shook their heads. What a waste. What a waste. But the sower didn’t give up. She began making dolls, toys, blankets, quilts and infant clothes for babies born addicted to drugs. Children labeled in those days as crack babies.

The sower also worked to rearrange the soil and plant seeds in other areas. She was active in the Congress of Racial Equality, the Civil Rights Movement and the Brooklyn NAACP. She served on the Board of the Lexington Children’s Center And she cooked, not only for family and friends but also for others, in fact she often baked cakes and cookies for the children in our after school program.

This sower might have given up on church after being told as a child that she could only sit in the balcony of a neighborhood congregation due to her race. But she didn’t give up. In spite of the bad example of his followers, she caught a true glimpse of our sower/savior. And she kept going,  sowing love, healing and hope in spite of deep personal disappointment,  Eventually her daughter was able to be in recovery. Then our sower got cancer. What a waste. What a waste. She keep going as long as she could. Sowing. Loving. Helping. Her name was Ivy Hicks, the sister of Trinity’s oldest member, 96 year old Lucille Donovan. I had the job of meeting Ivy when I first came to Trinity and we held her funeral here not too long after. I have no doubt that when she went to meet Jesus he said well done my good and faithful servant, my dear sower of seeds.

Before concluding, let’s check back with our sower with his mocha frappachino. While he was drinking it his mind drifted back to the unsown seeds. And the One who had first entrusted them to him. He went back and he began to sow, all over the place. Right in the face of the crows and the rocks and the thorns. It made no sense. People gathered to watch him and laugh. But he was happier than he had ever been in his life.

Those who have ears let them hear. Amen.


Moses, Self-Interest, Wolves and Eagles

Exodus 19:2-8, preached 6/14/2020

Our first reading from the book of Exodus says: You are my treasured possession out of all the nations, you shall be fore me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Some have read these words and said, oh that’s us! We are the greatest. We are the best. We’re number 1.

But that is far from the meaning of these words from the Exodus story. Here we meet the worn down people newly liberated from slavery in Egypt. They are both elated to be free and exhausted from their wilderness journey. We meet them this morning in the wilderness of Sinai. The wilderness of Sinai just happens to be where Moses had a life-changing moment. It was in that very wilderness where Moses was a shepherd taking care of his father-in- law Jethro’s sheep. And one day when he was out with those sheep, he turned aside and saw a burning bush and heard the voice of God calling him to do what felt impossible. The Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  It was a call for Moses to go way beyond his comfort zone, tending his flock of self interests, to see the enslaved Hebrew people as kin and take on their interest as his own. “How can I do that?” asks Moses. I’m not ready. I’m not the right person for the job. He’s not wrong but “I will be with you” is God’s only answer.

I have observed the misery…I have heard the cry…I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Those are God’s words to Moses, but I think that many people in this nation, many white people, have had a kind of burning bush moment. They have been forced to turn aside and see the misery of their Black kin and hear their cry and see how they are systematically oppressed. At least I hope and I pray that this is such a burning bush moment.

Of course, a problem with that analogy is that some white people finally having a burning bush moment does NOT mean white people are called to be liberating saviors, but we are all called to be part of this movement towards real action, change and liberation. Ibram Kendi has some interesting things to say about self-interest and racism.

Some of you may remember that we were planning to have a conversation about Kendi’s recent book, How to be an Antiracist but then the coronavirus diverted out attention and ability to gather. It’s time to try again even if it has to be by Zoom. His words in an earlier book Stamped from the Beginning, are useful as we considered today’s passage from the book of Exodus and Moses’s call to move beyond tending to his own self interest to further liberating work:

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,… “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural… Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

Then he gives examples. The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope. Out of THAT self-interest came the racist idea that Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized. Kendi relates this to the slave trade in this country. If I’m a slaver, I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. That’s my self interest. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric that they need to be enslaved.

Before Moses is able to be a liberator, his economic and cultural self- interest is challenged. He will no longer be working with his father-in-law Jethro for his family, his self-interest alone. He will move from shepherding Jethro’s flock to shepherding God’s people who are enslaved. He will take on the interest of those he has been cut off from. His real kin.Jesus calls it loving your neighbor as yourself.

Now back at Sinai, these people who are liberated and yet exhausted from their wilderness journey and the trials and troubles they’ve faced need to know they are loved and precious, because knowing you are loved makes all the difference. But it’s not meant to entrench self-interest in a I’m #1 kind of way- I’m so precious and you’re not. It’s meant to strengthen them and to form them in love for Gods bigger project, for all nations, all peoples all the earth.

In our gospel, Jesus is seeking shepherds interested in God’s greater flock too. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And so he sends the disciples to take up this holy work. to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. What? That’ s impossible! How can we do that? Can we cure the sickness of racism? Can we cast out the demons of white supremacy as they gloat and tweet and plan rallies? Can we raise the dead? I will be with you God told Moses. I will be with you Jesus told his disciples then and today.

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t downplay the difficulties. He mentions those who will refuse to listen, who will see it all as fake news. The gospel mentions hostile governors and kings, hateful, cynical, violent attempts at quashing the movement. He quotes Jesus saying I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; And the wolves will not all appear to be wolves. I’ve been hearing about some ugly, unashamed racism in both Upper West Side and Upper East Side mom’s groups. We’ve seen it with Amy Cooper in Central Park. We need to beware of the wolves who masquerade as sweet, white sheep hiding the fangs and claws of their racism.

In our Exodus story, when the people hear the call to use their spiritual privilege as God’s beloved for the sake of others, they answer as one:
Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do!  Hmm…

I imagine you can guess how that went. I didn’t read our second lesson but in it Paul tells the Romans we know God’s love because while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.We are justified by faith, not works. We stand in the grace of God. Our Exodus reading puts it a different, more poetic, way: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. To understand what this means it helps to read another eagle wings reference from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 32 where God is described as a mother eagle- Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.

The writers had observed the behavior of mother eagles. When it was time for the baby eagle chicks to leave their nest and learn to fly, the mother would stir up her nest, and basically push the babies out. Most of the time, they instinctually were able to flap their little wings and fly. But sometimes something didn’t go right and a baby eaglet would flail and fail to fly, falling and falling until it would crash but as soon as the mother eagle saw this about to happen she would swoop under the baby eagle with her strong broad wings and catch it and bear it up. …to safety so it could live to try another day.

When the Biblical writers saw the mother eagle doing this, they saw an image of God’s mercy and love come to rescue us, to catch us and lift us up to try again. We can’t count on perfection but that does not mean we cannot hope and work for real change and real progress. We will make mistakes. We will flail and fail and fall, but we have a God who comes to catch us and lift us up in order that we may keep on.

Most pastors and perhaps some of you, have been with a dying person who has remarked on others they see in the room with them. I’ve been with people near death who tell me about others in the room who I cannot see. Yet the dying person sees clear as day, a loved one who surely cannot be physically in the room because they have died, and yet, the dying see them, as if they are there as sure as the bed they lie in. It’s like they have come to accompany the dying person to lead them on their final journey.

When George Floyd cried out for his mama, I believe he saw her coming to him, ready to bear him up on her eagle’s wings and carry him home. Jesus sent her to him. And I believe that when we flail and fail, the mother eagle will appear, spreading out her strong wings to catch us and carry us that we can carry on until the day when ALL God’s beloved children are liberated from under the boots and bullets of Pharaoh’s armies. Until all God’s beloved children are free.