Mustard Seeds

It has been awhile since I have written here. I had a baby at the end of March and it takes a minute to get back into the swing of things. In case you were wondering, baby boy was born a bit early, but healthy. He is growing and doing all the baby things. We are all delighted with him.

This Sunday is the parable of the mustard seed. The first sermon I preached at my internship congregation was on this parable. I was on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. A world away from my childhood home in Minnesota, an hour from Canada. I bought mustard seeds and gave each person one. I thought the urban folks could use the tangible reminder of how tiny the seed is.

There are sermons you don’t forget preaching. This was one of them. The first times we do things are exhilarating and frightening. Particularly, when related to vocational identity.

Fast forward about 8 years later, and the parable became important in new ways.

One Saturday morning, spring of 2016, I received a phone call. After a few pleasantries, I was asked if Shobi’s Table and the Saint Paul Area Synod would be willing to take on the full responsibilities of owning a food truck. I said, “yes!”

The generosity alone was worthy of thanksgiving. The faithfulness of the generosity humbled me. I was told that the gift of the food truck was to be a ‘mustard seed to build the kingdom.’

A rather expensive and large mustard seed. And, absolutely it is a mustard seed.

It isn’t some massive federal program to end hunger.

It isn’t a mega church preaching to thousands of people on the weekends.

It is a meal. A few people gathered for prayer and communion. It isn’t flashy or all that expensive.

Just a little bit to do God’s work on the east side of St Paul.

Isn’t it hopeful? Isn’t it hopeful that this little bit does the creator’s work? Isn’t it hopeful that our one small thing can be a part of the bigger thing. Can be a part of the work God is doing in the world.

I take heart in the small moments of grace we see in our ministry. Friends greeting one another, prayers requested, vigils kept. All of it is God’s work. All of it is small. All of it matters.

So, dear ones, keep hope alive, for the small little bits are a part of God’s work in this world.

The persistence of the saints (and grace for case managers)

She Persisted

The memes have been floating around the internet since Senator Elizabeth Warren was admonished in the United States Senate for arguing against Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as United States Attorney General.  The memes that have been made are of  well known women who have persisted. Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Coretta Scott King, and Harriet Tubman are women who made the memes. They are women we know to be a part of our story of justice. And this is good, it is good to know their names and their persistence.

There are so many more women and men who ‘never the less, persisted.’ They are the laborers in the vineyard who show up day after day, trusting in God’s promises of life.

Scriptures are full of stories of those who persist. Our God is a persistent god, who doesn’t give up on creation. We are a people of faith who show up demanding from God and community time and time again.

My favorite tale of persistence is from the 18th chapter of Luke.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

This is my favorite story of persistence for a very selfish reason.

I was once a mental health case manager. I had more than 30 people on my case load. More than 30 people who struggled with severe mental illness. More than 30 people who needed to be seen at least once in the month. And often, at least half of the people on my case load were in crisis. Perhaps a psychiatric crisis that meant hospitalization or a commitment. Perhaps addictions that were reaching a crisis point. Perhaps there were legal issues coming up. Perhaps there was an eviction notice. And, sometimes, all of these things for one person.

It is overwhelming work.

There were days when I couldn’t respond to calls fast enough. I couldn’t manage all the crises because I needed to sit in the ER for 4 hours with a client to ensure they were given the treatment they needed. I couldn’t respond to the “smaller” crises, because the big one took my day. And there would be so many voicemails to respond to. There were many days in which the person who left the most voicemails was the person who received priority. Their persistence moved them to the top of the list.

I am not proud of this. I wish that I could say I had a way of prioritizing the non life threatening crises and that there weren’t people whose needs didn’t get met right away. I wish I could say that. Instead, it was the persistence that demanded my attention.

I have taken comfort in Luke 18. It is Godly for folks to be persistent and God has grace for the person who takes a while to get to the persistent one. Or at least, there is space for me to not respond and then remember that God calls me to respond to the persistence. There is grace in it all.

On the street, week after week, I will be asked similar questions about housing, blankets, hygiene products and food. I will be asked and some days I say “no” and some days I have the joy of saying “yes.”

Persistence is survival.

The person who keeps showing up at the public housing authority is the one whose application gets processed.

The person who keeps telling the ER that something isn’t right despite their dismissals that they are mentally ill, is the person who survives a health crisis.

The person who shows up at the schools demanding their child receive the education services they need is the person whose child is served.

Persistence is biblical.

And it is the unnamed mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, women and men who show up day after day demanding justice that show us what God is up to in this world.

Persistence is demanding that God see and hear what is going on in creation.

We persist. We persist in trusting the promises of resurrection and new life in Christ. We persist in engaging in the joyful work of liberation in God’s world. We persist.

Keep Hope Alive, dear ones.

That is how we persist together.

God is a Fool

St Paul writes:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.       1 Cor. 1:18-31

There has been a lot of boasting lately. There has been boasting and grand standing at the highest levels. And here we are told that God isn’t impressed with such boasting of strength or wisdom or numbers. We are to boast in the one thing that matters: God. We are to proudly claim that we are the broken and foolish people that have been brought to the cross, through death and into new life. We are to proclaim that we belong to God and no one else. Not powers or principalities. We belong to no one, but God. And by belonging to God, we belong to all God’s people. We belong to each other.

It doesn’t feel that way right now.

It feels that we have lost our sense of direction. We have lost the call to love God and love our neighbor. We have forgotten that we are a deeply foolish people who trust a god who died. Our God died. What kind of God is that?

The God who was crucified is a God who takes deeply the commitment to foolishness in our world. This is a God who values humans and creation so much, that God chose to live as a part of creation. Fully live. God experienced birth, childhood, moving around, relationships, betrayals, and finally death. God knows first hand exactly what it means to be human. What a foolish God we believe in. Why would the creator of the universe enter into life only to die?

Because love is foolish.

It is foolish to join in solidarity with one another. It is foolish to claim that my well being is intimately tied to your well being. It is foolish to take risks for love. It is foolish to show up with children in tow for a march. And the foolishness is where we find God.

It is foolish to invite people in that we don’t know.

It is foolish to provide health care to each human.

It is foolish to ensure that God’s creation is nurtured.

It is foolish to recognize indigenous rights.

It is foolish to love God and to love one another.

I’ll be over here, a fool in love with God and God’s people. I’d love for you to join me.

And remember, dear ones, especially now,

Keep Hope Alive!

Jesus stayed

The beauty of the Bible being the living word of God, is that we have fresh eyes each time we come to a scripture lesson. We have lived more life, had more time with God’s people and we begin to see more in the stories.

The gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is John 1:29-42. John is always a bit tricky to read. Takes some time to take in a verse like 30, “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” Takes a bit to envision exactly how that is. In this scenario, it requires that we return to the first verses of the chapter. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.” And of course, this is hard to make sense of. We just kind of go with it.

As I read through the gospel lesson for this Sunday, I stumbled over the first section. I thought about how goofy and weird it all sounds. And then, Jesus enters the scene. I was struck by one particular verse. “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

Where are you staying?

I’m not sure when I became aware of the particular language of folks who live in precarious housing. Perhaps it was as a teenager around Peoples Church in Bemidji. Perhaps it was during a social work practicum. Doesn’t entirely matter. I became aware that there were ways of asking questions that were dominant culture and ways that were not. I might ask someone, “Where do you live?” My language would be corrected in the response. “I stay on the East side.”

Where are you staying?

Living and staying sound so very different. They are so very different. Living has a sense of permanency. Living sounds like roots have been set down. Staying, well, staying sounds transitory. Staying can be interrupted.

One can argue that there is too much placed on differentiating these two words. It all means the same.

And yet.

The folks who use the term “stay” are not dominant culture. The folks who use the term ‘stay’ are folks who have lived close to the edge of homelessness. They have perhaps been homeless or are homeless. I hear it used in communities that have experienced systemic racism that has limited access to safe, affordable housing. I do not hear white, middle class folks use the term.

Jesus, where are you staying?

Jesus stays.

Jesus stays.

The son of God has no stable living arrangement. The son of God who is both fully human and fully divine is on the edges of the community. No clear home. No clear place to lay his head each night. Jesus stays.

The heads nodded today on the street as we took heart that Jesus stayed. Jesus knows what it means to be uncertain of a bed at night. Jesus knows the experience of substandard housing.

Jesus stays.

Take heart dear ones. Jesus was sent to experience the life of the most vulnerable people. Jesus knows about wandering and looking for a bed. Jesus knows, for Jesus stayed.

One powerful word that indicates Jesus’ solidarity with us. One powerful word to let us know that a mansion wasn’t the place for the messiah. The messiah, the anointed one, stayed.

Keep hope alive, dear ones.

Winter on the Street

Today the highs will be around 2 degrees above zero. The windchill will be pushing -20 degrees BELOW zero.

And we went out on the street.

I am often asked by folks if we serve food in the winter months. I tell them, people still need food in the winter. People still camp in the winter. People are still hungry for community in winter.

I gave the main crew of volunteers the option of not heading out to the street today with me. 4 hardy souls ventured out. We served nearly 40 people in an hour. 40 people who braved the cold to find connection.

We learned of a mama giving birth. We learned of a grandma who had died. We learned that many of our folks who are often on the street at night found friends and family who were willing to let them in for the coldest nights.

The hand warmers went quickly. The coffee spills froze almost immediately. But, the food stayed warm and the company was good.

It is where we are called to be. Each week when we say our prayers, we pray for our brothers and sisters who don’t have a place to call home. We give thanks that we have the opportunity to worship in solidarity with them. We ask the Creator to give all people the good gift of safe housing.

Tomorrow is recognized in the liturgical calendar as “the Epiphany of our Lord.” Part of the Epiphany story is that Christ is visited by the magi. 3 men who have no real connection to Jewish faith tradition, come to worship Jesus. They follow a star, believing the star to be symbolic of an important birth. They follow the light in the darkness to find a child who is the messiah. The anointed one who was long waited for. They find the light in the darkness.

Epiphany is associated with light returning or the light being seen. It is the recognition of Christ as the light of the world. It is the recognition of the opening lines in the gospel according to St John.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

Epiphany is another reminder that while it is very cold and the days are still short, the darkness does not overcome the light of Christ. It gives us hope when we are told of a grandma who has died. We trust that the darkness of grief will not overcome. The light of Christ will lead the way. It gives us hope that friends and families will open doors on the coldest nights. The bit of light to give hope of restored relationship and restored safety.

Keep hope in the light alive!

Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

Matthew 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

All the fun and excitement of a new baby and then, we are hit with a story of Joseph leading Mary and Jesus into Egypt for fear of their lives. It feels like a bit of biblical story whiplash. We were so happy and what is this?

This lectionary text and Sunday in the Christmas season are referred to as the “slaughter of the holy innocents.” We read of Joseph obeying the angel of the Lord, who told him to flee to Egypt for Herod had become jealous of the child’s purported power. Joseph apparently did a good job fleeing in secret. Herod didn’t realize that the child was no longer in his jurisdiction. Herod also didn’t know which child in particular was the anointed one. Herod orders all children around Bethlehem that were under 2 years of age to be killed. Vulnerable folks in Bethlehem under the rule of a foreign leader killed for fear of Jesus’ power. Power that had not yet been fully revealed.

St Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

I have not been able to tell if the Ramah in current day Syria is the same as this biblical Ramah. Even if they are not the same, they are still within close proximity to each other. Rachel is weeping and refuses consolation. I find it hard not to bring to mind the images of the children being removed from the hospital rubble in Aleppo. The mothers who weep and refuse consolation as they see power exerted over them.

The current war in Syria is an easy parallel to draw.

The children are dying. Their mothers are weeping.

But, here, in the US and in Minnesota there are also mothers weeping.

Systematic racism, sexism, poverty, complex welfare systems, complex legal systems are the ways that Herod continues to react to the fear of the vulnerable becoming powerful.

Daily, I hear the lamentations of: lack of housing, lack of jobs, lack of food, lack of help from the systems.

And Rachel refuses to be consoled.

She says, enough to the violence and the blood shed. Enough to her children being considered “less than.” Enough to the powerful’s fear of the people regaining power. She says, “enough.”

During the DNC this summer, there was a group of women who spoke on behalf of Hillary Clinton. I was stunned that these women were able to be upright. You see, they are referred to as the “Mothers of the Movement.” The African American women who lost their children to violence that was sanctioned by the state. How, after losing a child to violence do you continue on?

And Rachel refuses to be consoled.

The mothers refuse to be consoled. They will not cease their cries for justice. They will not cease their work to remind the Herods that the powerful come, not as kings born in palaces, but as vulnerable babies born into families that are relegated to the margins. The power comes from the people refusing consolation. The power comes from the people who demand God’s justice, now.

And we see the people refusing.

We see the water protectors in North Dakota refusing to settle for contaminated water and broken promises. We see African American mothers refusing to accept the violence inflicted upon their children. We see the White Helmets rescuing babies in Syria.

And Rachel refuses to be consoled.

This is not the story God intends for us. We are reminded of this by a child, born to an unwed mother, fleeing with his family, healing the sick and raising the dead, and returning for certain death. God refused consolation and gave us a child to bring justice to this world. Let us refuse consolation in solidarity with God. Let us refuse Herod’s attempts at consolation and move towards the world God intends for us.

Keep hope alive, dearly beloved.

God’s story with us.

Reading scripture on the streets of St Paul often feels like a reality test. Am I reading about my present surroundings or about events 2000 years ago?  I wonder at God’s word present in this moment.

The Christmas gospel reading is no different. I will read it this Thursday as we prepare to welcome the baby Jesus, the light of the world, back into this world. At least, liturgically, clearly, he hasn’t left us.

And so I will read, “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

Doesn’t take much to make this sound like present day events. A registration taken while Assad was president of Syria. Or, As minority President Trump called for a registration of all muslims. It doesn’t feel far away. It feels as though this story of God acting in the world isn’t 2000 years old. It isn’t so strange sounding.

On the streets of St Paul, the next verses sounds more familiar. Our folks have to travel across county lines for court and medical care. They have to find ways to travel down to welfare in order to be counted for their benefits. It isn’t so different from the traveling of Mary and Joseph. Transportation that isn’t optimal. Timing that isn’t optimal. A process that feels ridiculous and complicated.

And sometimes, in the traveling, babies come.

Several years ago, I knew a woman. She was released from the women’s prison in Minnesota in mid November. She was from Red Lake in the far Northwest corner of Minnesota. She was released into the cold with no transportation back home. She was released a week before her due date.

I spent a few days in conversation with her mother, who just wanted to get her back to Bemidji for the birth. We had plans for a bus ticket. And, baby did what babies do best, she was born at an inopportune time. Baby girl made her appearance while her mother was pondering how to get from Minneapolis to Bemidji. Baby girl was born at Hennepin County Medical Center rather than the Bemidji Hospital.

There are so many ways in which this story illustrates the brokenness of our systems. A prison releasing a Native American woman to homelessness, in the winter, while 9 months pregnant. There are so many ways the story in Luke clues us into the injustices that surround Christ’s birth. There is a foreign emperor making demands upon vulnerable people, with no concern as to their ability to complete the task demanded.

And we wonder, what is the good news here? How are the difficulties encountered by homeless mothers wondering if baby will come before there is a home ready good news?

But, that is just it.

Jesus came before things were perfectly ready in the home. The nursery wasn’t set up. The cute onesies hadn’t been bought. The registry, the one that is fun to do, hadn’t been done. There were no ridiculous shower games played in preparation for baby to come. Jesus came as the most vulnerable of babies. He came as a child to parents not yet married. He came as a child to people under empire. He came as a child to parents with limited housing options. He came when the hospital refused the family’s insurance.

And still, he came.

Jesus came into the hot mess of Mary and Joseph and their travels. God’s only son came into the world in a messy family system. Step dad and mother, traveling to receive the benefits (or disadvantages) of the empire.

Jesus came. God came and dwelt among us. God came to experience the life that the lowliest of folks experience. God came. God came and gave us the hope that the brokenness of this world isn’t too much for God. God came to know intimately the suffering of oppressed people.

I find it comforting that God can show up in this humble place. So simple. I find it comforting as I look at our altar table with treats and coffee and stains. I know that while sometimes God shows up with the host of angels, God also shows up on a sidewalk. God shows up at the gates of the prison. God shows up at the public hospital. God shows up where God’s people are most vulnerable.

Take heart in the dark winter days. God is showing up for you and with you.

Keep hope alive!