Everything’s OK?

Hannah presents Samuel to Eli.

I have sometimes been called on to do the last sermon of the year, which is what the Video below shows: a sermon I delivered on the last Sunday of 2021, which might go down as one of the strangest years in our history.  It began with the Capitol Riot on January 6th and concluded with one of the largest surges ever in our Covid Pandemic, just as we thought it might actually be coming to an end.  Think again.  It wasn’t done with us, nor were we done with the Capitol Riot, which may hang on as long as the pandemic itself.

Before the sermon I sing! So a big thank you to my co-conspirators: Wayne Fetters (guitar) and Leonard Jones (bass).  It’s John Prine’s “Everything Is Cool.”  This sermon, then, follows up on a previous post: “Everything is Cool, Everything’s OK.” There I reflect on a sad anniversary: this Christmas was the 15th we experienced without my youngest son Bryan Emmanuel, who died on December 9, 2006, just days after his 21st birthday.  I tell more about this below.

Even in the midst of this tragedy I felt God’s grace, not only as I stayed with his body in the hospital, but in the days and years following, especially when his oldest brother Rick and wife Desiree established first Bryan House, then Emmanuel House, which in 2018 merged with the Joseph Corporation to become The Neighbor Project.  These started as living memorials to Bryan and have touched thousands of lives. Readers of this site now a lot about these organizations and what they do.  If you don’t know, there are links everywhere on this site, like “Emmanuel House in Top 100”—an article celebrating Emmanuel House being named one of the Top 100 Most Innovative social change organizations in the world.

I know, and I acknowledge, that not everyone gets this much grace in the midst of tragedy, and I share a story about someone who read C.S. Lewis’ book trying to explain suffering (The Problem of Pain) and wasn’t convinced, not by a long shot.

The scripture comes from the First Samuel, focusing on the story of Hannah giving her first-born, Samuel, to God’s service.  Think of the heartbreak of giving up your child just after he is weaned.  But God “repays” Hannah, and the phrase I come back to again and again is, “And God was gracious to Hannah.”

No matter what happens, can we believe that God wants to be gracious to us?  In many churches we affirm every Sunday that “God is good.  All the time, Good is good.” How truly do we believe this? This was the major question at the center of the movie (and book) The Shack, which was one of Netflix’s #1 Movies in the Country in 2021.  I turn to it as I explore the possibilities of us recognizing grace even in the midst of heartbreak.  Would I be able to recognize God’s grace if yet another tragedy hit my family, for Bryan’s wasn’t the last?  Could I still believe in a grace, and goodness, that always, always abides?  I hope so, but often with fear and trembling.  The sermon presents both a hope, and a question about that hope, to end a strange year with and take into the new.

OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Three Things to Stop Saying,” “How Holy Was Jesus?” “Who Do You Stand With?” “Servants Know First,” “The Quiet After Easter,” “Theology and Race.”

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Servants Know First

“Servants Know First” is the title of the first sermon I delivered this year.  (See VIDEO of it below.) The Gospel reading is from John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle: turning the water into wine.  I start by talking about the relationships between the readings set out in the Common Lectionary used by so many churches, and on the importance of weddings and wedding imagery in the Bible, but then focus on servanthood. The servants at the wedding—not the wedding host, bride and groom, or any other special guests—were the very first to know that Jesus had performed a miracle.

Most of the time when servanthood comes up, I turn quickly to one of the most important books I ever used in my teaching career.  It’s a small booklet, actually, just 37 pages long: Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  It started the whole field of Servant Leadership Studies.  Greenleaf begins by talking about how he got the idea while reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, which I suppose he could have.  But being a Quaker and knowing the Bible well, my students and I have almost always come to the conclusion that he begins with Hesse mainly to avoid getting Biblical on us right away.  The servant as leader is one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry.  In Matthew 20 and Mark 9, for example, Jesus says that if you want to be great, if you want to lead, you must be a servant first.  In John 13: 12-15 is the famous scene where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  He’s their Rabbi, yes, he says, but if they don’t understand servanthood first—even the abject task of washing someone’s feet—then they don’t really understand who he is and what he’s come to do.

Servants must do many things, but one of the most critical is to listen, so it’s no accident that very early in The Servant as Leader Greenleaf talks about the importance and the hard discipline of truly listening.  It’s not just so we can really hear someone else in depth. Deep listening, he says, empowers others.  And this, I conclude, is one of our great hopes in God.  Because God delights in us, God listens to us, and this empowers us.  The Psalm prescribed by the Lectionary for this Sunday, the Second Sunday After Epiphany, is one of my favorites: Psalm 36.  But that the Creator is a deep listener puts me in mind of another great Psalm passage—from Psalm 8:  “O God our Ruler, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is humankind that you should be mindful of them? The child of humankind that you should seek them out?”*

Everyone who preaches puts themselves in danger of being hypocritical because it’s often hard to live up to what you espouse.  Me, I’m not a great listener, let alone a deep listener, but it’s one of the major things I strive for.  It could be that someday I’ll get to be acceptable.

* This version is from The Inclusive Language Psalter.

OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Three Things to Stop Saying,” “How Holy Was Jesus?” “Who Do You Stand With?” “Everything’s OK?” “The Quiet After Easter,” “Theology and Race.”

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Our Abraham Moment?

The VIDEO below is of my friend Lennox Iton delivering a sermon on the last Sunday of Black History Month this year.  It also contains part of the scripture reading and part of a magnificent introduction from his pastor, Rev. Young-Mee Park, Hinsdale UMC, which Lennox parries beautifully.  I first met Lennox when we both volunteered to be on a committee of the Anti-Racism Task Force for the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC).  It was the Training and Curriculum Committee, which I came to chair, charged with creating a workshop on racial justice and equity that was more compact and more affordable than the ones available to the conference.  Because it is affordable and only four to five hours long, our hope is to roll it out to many, many churches in the conference—something we have already begun doing.  We call it “Becoming the Beloved Community: Talking About Race in America,” which you can read more about HERE.

The sermon below is a wonderful primer, succinct and precise, on how the Methodist church itself has been a bulwark of racism, contrary to John Wesley’s deep belief that racism contradicted Jesus’ life and teachings.  I’ve come to think of Lennox as the most serious and careful scholar of our group, though Lennox’s hook here is fairly pop cultural: the title song from Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.  (He notes, though, that Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for Literature!) The song’s first verse:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where you want this killin’ done?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61.”

Lennox Iton conducting the closing ritual for the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop.

Is this our country’s Abraham moment, the time when we resolve to “kill” racism?  After the death of George Floyd, it seemed so. But it seemed so after so many other high-profile deaths, which sat upon thousands and thousands of other less public, and often so-little-noticed, deaths throughout our history.  I’ve written for decades that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.  For awhile after May 25, 2020, it seemed different, though.  It took less than a year for the backlash to set in.  Now many are trying to pass laws against talking about race and facing hard facts about American history at all. “No critical race theory” is one rallying cry, though 98% of those crying it have little to no idea what critical race theory actually is.  They dump everything about race into that pot, and one of their main excuses is that they don’t want their kids to “feel bad.”  In a world where there’s so much to feel bad about, and from which parents protect their children very little, race has once again been singled out as the one thing we must protect against.

As I listen to Lennox’s sermon I ask what’s the one thing that needs sacrificing that’s as precious as your child.  I think it is white supremacy.  This does not mean white people, please note, but the idea that whiteness is the standard and fount of all rightness and goodness.  In my talk “Theology and Race,” first given to a group of pastors wanting to engage racism more fully, I say that Christian theology itself has white supremacist leanings because of its insistence on identifying whiteness with purity and spiritual rightness and blackness with the opposites.  I come at this idea again in “How Holy Was Jesus?”  Not very.

But all analogies do break down if you push them far enough, and in the Abraham story it breaks down when you consider that as Abraham was about to bring his knife down on his son’s neck, God provided a substitute sacrifice, a ram caught up in nearby brambles.  Will there be such a “substitute” in the case of racism—more particularly white supremacy, which is the sustaining root of racism?  In the end, Abraham doesn’t really have to carry through.  I don’t think such a saving moment is in the cards for us.  And here’s the thing: if we finally carry through and deal seriously with white supremacy, we will all be freer. It will be a sacrifice well worth making.  Writing this now, just a few weeks from Easter, we think of Jesus, who really did carry through.  IF we do, there will be a resurrection, a rebirth we have needed for a long, long time.

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