Saturday, April 4, 2015

Failures and Fallow Times (a Holy Saturday blog about all those blogs I was supposed to write)

At the beginning of Lent, I decided I was going to once again take on the spiritual practice of blogging as I had a few years ago, this time focusing on reflections about life transitions.

Then I didn't. 

As far as commitments I've reneged on in my life, this one is pretty minor, I suppose. I'm not going to beat myself up about it, or anything -- which in and of itself is representative of a pretty major shift for me.

Still. There's something disappointing about an idea un-realized, a practice un...well...practiced. And Holy Saturday seems like a good day to reflect on that. 

Holy Saturday is different than any other day in the Christian year, I think, because it's a day dedicated to nothing. It doesn't have the liturgical melodrama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. It's an in-between day, for waiting and for silence. 

"First there is an ending," William Bridges writes, "then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between."

What very few resources we have for those empty or fallow times, those times that seem wasted, that time when any growth that exists is invisible, when the conditions for future growth are being restored in intangible, unnoticeable ways.

What very few resources we have, as a church and as a society as a whole, for failures and for fallow times.

Here, then, is a fallow time. A day of nothing. Of sitting. Of waiting. Of pondering old habits half-returned to, and new habits not yet fully formed. 

A day, not for the intensity of Good Friday lament, but of the numbness of month fourteen after your loved one has died, when the pain hasn't subsided, really, just turned into a steady, numbing throb. 

A day, not for the deep throes of the depressive breakdown, but for the six months out of the hospital, when people have stopped checking in on you but that sense of things not being put back together lingers on.

A day, not for the collapse of the church or the organization or the family, but for the weeks following, when nobody is quite sure what to do.

A day for failures and for fallow times. 

I didn't blog for Lent this year. Not a big deal, in the scheme of things. A very minor thing, to be sure. But still, a little commitment unmet, worth noting and pausing on for a second before moving on.

A prayer, today, for the fallow times: for the invisible restoration of the conditions necessary for future growth. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sermon - "Just Hanging Out"

Well, now that I've been approved for licensing by my District Committee on Ministry, I suppose I'll share the sermon that I submitted to them for review. Thanks to Emma Claire Martin for filming and Rachel Ternes for reading scripture (Mark 6:30-44)...and all the rest of the AU Methodist Protestant Community for being awesome. 




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“Just Hanging Out”
February 26, 2015
Kay Spiritual Life Center
American University

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Fifty-five years ago, in January of 1960, four college guys were hanging out in their dorm room, just as they had been doing every night since they’d started as students at North Carolina A&T University. They referred to their nightly hangouts as “bull sessions” – unstructured time to bounce ideas off each other, reflect on life, and grow in friendship. On this particular night in 1960, one of those young men, by the name of Joseph McNeil, had something to get off his chest. Joseph had spent his winter break at home in New York, and while returning to school, he’d been denied service at the Greyhound bus station in Greensboro, NC.
            See, Joseph and his friends weren’t just college students. They were black men living in the Jim Crow South, facing all of the racism and segregation that entailed. So when Joseph shared his frustrating experience with discrimination on that night in January of 1960, the four men decided together that enough was enough. The very next day, on February 1, they went and sat at the “Whites Only” lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth’s. They sat there for half an hour, until the store closed.
            The next day, they went back, with twenty other college guys and four college women. And they kept coming back. Even as they faced heckling, harassment, violence, and arrests, their group grew and grew:
From four.
To twenty-five.
To hundreds.
To more than a thousand.
            Within two months, there were student sit-ins in 55 cities across 13 states. By July 26th, six months after Joseph McNeil shared his frustration with his friends during their late-night bull session, the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC was officially desegregated. And according to the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro – which, by the way, is housed in the old Woolworth’s building:
By August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins at "whites only" lunch counters inspired subsequent kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, wade-ins at segregated beaches, read-ins at segregated libraries, play-ins at segregated parks and watch-ins at segregated movies.[i]

And it all started with four college students. In a dorm room. Just hanging out.
            Don’t get me wrong. A movement like the sit-in movement required a massive amount of coordination, planning meetings, and strategy sessions. But isn’t it remarkable that such a massive movement had its inception in a late night dorm room conversation that, on other nights, might just as easily have been about sports, or school work, or – if it happened in 2015 – what was getting the most upvotes on YikYak.[ii] There is something important that happens when people share together in the unstructured time of friendship building, joke telling, and idea sharing – the kind of informal conversations that happen in the dorm room or dining hall or on the campus quad. Somehow, it’s when that kind of time gets interrupted by the pressing needs of the day that inspiration can strike and that the seeds of action can be planted.
            Tonight we heard a passage from the gospel according to Mark. Biblical scholars have often noted that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is on the move. There’s a word used in Mark’s gospel that’s usually translated as “immediately” or “right away.” That word appears about 40 times in Mark, though we miss it because translators use so many different English words for the same Greek word: “At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). “Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began teaching” (Mark 1:21).  “Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit began screaming” (Mark 1:23). “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” That’s a lot of immediacy – and that’s just in the first half of the first chapter! Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel, is nothing if not a man of action.
            And yet in tonight’s passage Jesus seems a bit weary of all of the immediately-suddenly-right away-activity. The disciples have returned from their mission in the surrounding villages, casting out many demons, anointing many people with oil (as we’ll do later in this service), and healing. They are sharing stories with Jesus, telling him “everything they had had done and taught.” And the text says that they kept getting interrupted by people coming and going, so much so that there wasn’t even time for a snack. So Jesus says: “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31).
            What follows is a story that’s familiar to anyone who grew up going to Sunday School, and probably even to a lot of people who didn’t. From just five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand people. It’s one of the few stories that appears in all four gospel narratives. Matthew even tells it twice. And each time this story is recorded, it’s preceded by Jesus taking his disciples and withdrawing from the crowds, from all the frenzied activity of healing and preaching. Perhaps, in the midst of the stressful and dangerous work of being a disciple, Jesus felt that some unstructured time was needed. Time to share stories, to encourage each other, to rest. Maybe even time to tell a few jokes. Time, you might say, for just hanging out.
Of course, Jesus’ planned time of seclusion and rest doesn’t quite work out. Word gets out, Mark tells us, and there’s a hungry crowd waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they arrive at their retreat spot. And yet I find it remarkable that even Mark’s action-oriented, always-on-the-move, immediately-at once-suddenly Jesus finds it necessary to look for some time alone with his friends. I imagine that, even as they “departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place,” as the text tells us, they continued to spend time together, hearing about each other’s journeys, sharing frustrations and joys, getting to know each other better.
We aren’t given any details about what Jesus and his disciples talked about during this time together. And I don’t know much about what those four college guys – whose late-night dorm room conversation sparked a movement – talked about on all the other nights that they spent hanging out. I assume that often their conversation turned to their experiences as African American men living in a city ruled by Jim Crow. I imagine it was no accident that they allowed their time together to be interrupted by their calling to enact social change. But I also imagine that they talked about all sorts of other things, school and relationships and family.
So I wonder: What if there’s a necessary connection between informal conversation among friends and the ability to respond with passion and determination to the interruptions of injustice and human need? What if that’s why the gospel writers tell us that Jesus withdrew with his disciples prior to this miraculous feeding of the multitudes? What if there is something important, even for the miracle-working Jesus, about unstructured time? Something that allows for transformation and healing to occur, instead of burnout and bitterness? What if there is a link between sharing a meal together and being able to feed the hungry?
What if there is something very, very important – something very faithful, very spiritual – about just hanging out?
Now, American University is a place that prides itself on activity. Last year, the Princeton Review rated AU as #4 in the country for Most Politically Active Students.[iii] There are a lot of things happening here, events and meetings, internship fairs and job interviews, teach-ins and protests. And many of these things have an air of urgency about them. You need to get an internship – at once. We need to respond to this international situation – immediately. When you graduate, you’ll need to find a job – right away.
You can get a lot done that way. And often, situations of injustice and human need really do call for urgent response. And yet, I worry. I worry that in the midst of all of the frantic activity, all of the urgent doing, we can forget how important it is to just be with each other. Even here, within the United Methodist-Protestant Community, it’s tempting to over-program ourselves, to pack our calendars with organizing and events and agendas and planning meetings.
Don’t hear me wrong. I love that you all want to do so many good things. I love that you put to shame all the shallow stereotypes about lazy Millennials that get strewn over various media outlets. And you can’t do that without planning meetings and agenda items. But I guarantee you that when you look back over your college experience, the most transformative aspect of your time here will not be in any single event or conference or activist campaign. What you will miss the most about this place is the time you spend just hanging out with each other – in the dining hall after the our weekly planning meeting; on the floor of the chapel after a worship service; in dorm rooms and apartments and out on the quad.
Like Jesus and the disciples withdrawing together before the miraculous feeding, unstructured time for informal conversation is not to be confused with apathy or a denial of the urgent problems of the world. I’m not talking about sitting alone in your room binge-watching House of Cards. I’m talking about spending time together, steadily building friendship and listening to each other’s stories. It’s what we call Christian fellowship. When we do that, we are somehow preparing ourselves to be faithfully interrupted by injustice and human need. We are tending the seedbed out of which transformative action may grow. And in so doing, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, what we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is not, ultimately, the next big activity or the next successful event. What we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is something so much more than that. It’s summed up in the words of our communion liturgy, which we will share together in just a few moments: “until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast together at the heavenly banquet.”[iv]
We’re looking forward to a feast. To a party. There’s going to be great food – way more than a few pieces of fish and some bread. And you know what? I bet we won’t need a set agenda for our conversations there. I bet we’re going to get to just spend time with each other, singing and laughing and sharing stories.
Funny, isn’t it: that the great, hopeful vision of our faith seems to have less to do with hectic activity than with – well – just hanging out.
Amen.





[i] This quote, and the information preceding it, may be found on the website of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC: www.sitinmovement.org/history/greensboro-chronology.asp
[ii] YikYak is a social media site that is popular on college campuses. http://www.yikyakapp.com/ 
[iii] From the American University website: http://www.american.edu/about/rankings.cfm
[iv] “A Service of World and Table I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 10.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"First there is an ending, then a beginning" -- an Ash Wednesday reflection

"First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between." -- William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes

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"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."
Some of you already know this: I've been working on a directed study this semester about campus ministry as a resource for life transitions. One of the books I've read for this project is by William Bridges. It's a bit more self-help-y than the things I usually like to read, but it has some solid insights, chief among them that transitions begin with an ending. Bridges suggests that one tool for navigating the inevitable transitions in our lives is to reflect on how we deal with endings. 

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the church season of Lent. It's an odd day -- people reflecting on their own mortality and walking around with smudges on their foreheads does not seem like the kind of thing people would still do in 2015. 

If it's the kind of thing that you're into, you go to a service, and confess your sins, and then a priest or a pastor smears ash on your forehead and says:

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

You might think that means, "You're going to die, so admit your sins so that you don't go to hell."

But actually, it's more like: "You are human. You are mortal. You are prone to error. Believe the good news that you are loved, that you are forgiven, that your soft, vulnerable flesh is beautiful in its transience." 

"First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between."
"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

Lent is 40 days, not including Sundays. People often "give something up" for Lent -- a few years ago, I blogged about things I wasn't going to give up on for Lent -- while others take on a spiritual practice.

I'm going to blog again, this Lent. This time, about transitions. About endings, and how we begin with endings.

About how I've dealt with endings in the past, and how I'd like to deal with them in the future.

About some of the big endings coming up in my life, the endings that will begin new and very exciting beginnings.

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return."

We begin Lent today, with palms burnt down into ashes, smudged onto our foreheads to remind us that we are human.

Because we begin with endings. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sermon -- "Something I Can't Not Do"

This is a sermon that I was invited to preach at Baldwin Memorial United Methodist Church, the church where I grew up. It was wonderful to be invited back home! The texts for the day were Isaiah 40:21-31 and 1 Corinthians 9:1-23.



"Something I Can't Not Do"
I work with college students. I serve as the associate Methodist chaplain at American University, and I love it. I love working with students who are asking big questions about life, about meaning, and about the world.
          As you might imagine, one of the big questions that college students have goes something like, “What am I doing with my life?” In Christian terminology, we refer to this as the question of call. A lot of college students are wondering about their call. They are wondering what to study, what sort of groups to be involved with, and what kind of jobs to apply to after graduation; but more than that, they are trying to figure out how to make a difference in the world in a way that is true to their growing self-understanding.
          “What am I doing with my life?” It’s a huge question, isn’t it? And I think that a lot of us have been told a big lie about it. The lie goes something like this: By about age 18, you should have a well-developed sense of identity. By the end of college, at age 21 or 22, you should have figured out what you’re doing with your life. By figuring out what you’re doing with your life, you should be able to get a job, which will become a career. Since you now have a job, you can afford to start a family and buy a house, and to work at said job until the age of retirement, at which point you can stop doing whatever it was that you were doing with your life and start fishing or golfing or quilting or whatever it was you’ve been putting off doing while you were doing the thing that you were doing with your life.
          In this oversimplified understanding, one proceeds in a linear fashion: figure out what you’re doing with your life; do it for a while; reach peak effectiveness; then retire and relax.
          That’s what a lot of us have been told, and I think it’s nonsense.
          Here’s why I think it’s nonsense. In the United Methodist Church, we believe that all baptized Christians are called into ministry. Now, I don’t know when you were baptized. Maybe some of you haven’t been baptized yet. But if you haven’t been baptized yet, it’s not because you’re too young! I was baptized about four months after I was born. And, in the United Methodist Church, there’s no undoing that baptism. I was baptized before I could talk; and I’ll be baptized ‘til the day I die. And what our church claims to believe is that from the day I was baptized until the day I die, I’m called into ministry.
          Now, there are some reasonable limits to this idea. It’s awfully tough for a four-month old to articulate their own call to ministry. And as we grow and we age, we discover all sorts of other limits. But those are the natural, external limits that come with being human. They don’t cancel out the internal reality of being called. Which means that the question, “What am I doing with my life?” isn’t just for high school students, or college students, or twenty-somethings. It’s a question for all of us, wherever we are in our life journeys. We all have a call.
          This morning we heard a passage from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. Paul is—as Paul so often is—feeling a bit frustrated with the church. They say that they’re following Christ; they say they’ve been baptized; but they’re doing and saying all sorts of un-Christlike stuff. In this particular passage, Paul is rehashing a disagreement about what it means to be free in Christ. Paul is trying to get across to the Corinthian church that the freedom of the Christ-follower isn’t about being able to do whatever you want—to eat whatever you want or wear whatever you want or have sex with whoever you want, all of which are issues causing tension in the Corinthian community. Now, you might think that Paul would just say, “No, you’re wrong, rules is rules.” But actually Paul believes very strongly that, in Christ, we are free. So what Paul does in this part of his letter is to use himself as an example of someone who has certain rights and freedoms but chooses to give them up in order to share the good news about Jesus Christ.
          Here’s what Paul says. He says, “Look. I’m an apostle. I’ve been sent by the Lord. And so I have the right to collect some payment from y’all for the work that I’m doing here. But you know what? I won’t collect my pay. Not because I don’t have a right to it. Not because I haven’t earned it. But because I’m not in this for the money; I’m in this for the gospel.” Ok, so Paul can be a bit passive aggressive sometimes. But what I think he’s trying to do is to set an example for the Corinthians that just because they have the right to do certain things, doesn’t mean it’s what’s good for the Christian community.
          One way of understanding Paul’s point here is to say that he is trying to talk about the intersection between one’s personal freedom and one’s responsibility to the community, the world, and God. And that intersection, I believe, is where call happens. One commonly shared definition of call comes from the theologian Frederick Buechner, who says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In similar terms, the great Howard Thurman, dean of chapel at Boston University and mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” In other words, calling has to do with you being free—but not free for yourself. Free, at a very deep level, to be who you really are in service to a world that needs your unique gifts and personality and vision.
             Paul is telling the Corinthians that he has a call. He experiences it as a duty and an obligation—but not an obligation imposed on him by some outside body. It’s an obligation that seems to come from somewhere deep inside himself. Paul says, “Why do I preach the gospel? Because I can’t not preach the gospel!”
          The Quaker theologian and educator Parker Palmer describes call like this: “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”[i]
          “Something I can’t not do.” I think that’s how Paul feels about his work with the churches. It’s like an obligation, like a duty, but not one that’s been imposed on him by society or by an employer or by his family. It’s an internal sense that this is who he truly is, this is who he was created and called by God to be.
          Paul can’t not preach the gospel. He’s so compelled by his sense of call that he says he’ll associate with non-Jewish people or Jewish people or the weakest and most marginalized people in society or the kid who gets picked last in gym class – whoever! – if it gives him the chance to share the story of God’s love made present in Jesus Christ. He’ll break taboos and societal stigmas if he needs to; he’ll spend time with people who everyone else ignores; he’ll do whatever he has to do, because he’s discovered the thing that he can’t not do.
          There’s a lot of power in discovering the thing that we can’t not do.
          What is the thing we can’t not do? As a church, the thing we can’t not do is sure to involve associating with people who are hurting, people who are broken, people who are wondering what’s become of their lives. As a church, the thing we can’t not do is sure to reflect our identity as the Body of Christ, the Christ who stands in solidarity with the downtrodden and suffering and those who think they have been abandoned.
But the thing is, we can run around trying to do all of the right things and still find ourselves tired, weary, burnt out, and distracted. You know why? Because we’re not God! We heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning, telling us that God does not faint or grow weary – but we sure do! Telling us that God’s understanding is unsearchable – but ours sure isn’t! We grow tired and weary and our understanding has some painfully obvious limits. We aren’t God, and we can’t do what God wants us to do if we don’t take the time to discover our call.
          But how do we do that? How do we figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be doing with our life?
          Paul, after all, seems to have had it easy. He was persecuting Christians, and then one day there’s a big flash of light and a voice from the sky and Paul finds himself telling everyone about Jesus.
But what happens if you don’t get a flash of light and the direct voice of God?
          Parker Palmer again has some good advice. He says, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and the values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”[ii]
          As Christians, we believe that humanity is created in the image of God. And if that’s true, then calling doesn’t have to be an outside voice and a flash of light. Calling is something that comes up out of the deepest layer of our God-created being. But we’ve got to learn to listen for it. We’ve got to spend time, in quiet, listening to the life that God has given us.
          Maybe that means spending time at the end of each day looking back over our day and asking, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Where did I experience deep gladness today? Where did I experience the world’s deep hunger today?” Or asking, in the words of Howard Thurman, “Where did I feel alive today?”
          Maybe it means beginning the morning in prayer, asking, “What is one thing that I can do today that reflects my deepest, God-created self?”
          Maybe it means seeking out people who are both mentors and mentees for us, people who we can learn from and grow with as we walk this lifelong journey of call together.
          Maybe, as a church, it means learning how to talk a bit less and listen a bit more. To make a few less declarative statements and ask a few more open-ended questions.
          Maybe it means, like Paul, being a bit less concerned about where our paycheck is coming from, a bit less concerned about who our society says we are supposed to associate with, and a little more concerned about the people that Jesus associated with, the poor and the lonely and those rejected by the powerful of their day.
          Whatever it takes for us to quiet down and listen to our God-given lives telling us what we are supposed to get up to with them, I know this:
          The question of calling is not one that is answered by the end of college, or the end of your twenties, or the end of your mid-life, or the end of your life. Working with college students reminds me daily that the question of calling must be asked anew as long as we have a life to do something with. Our society is obsessed with age and the things that you are supposed to have done by a certain age. But the words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today: “Youths” – yes, even our folks who are at ROCK this weekend – “will become tired and weary, young people” – yes, even young seminarians – “will certainly stumble; but all of those – all of those – whatever age, whatever race, whatever orientation or gender or level of ability – all of those who hope in God will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
          Are you tired or weary this morning? Are you wondering, this morning, what it is that you are supposed to do with your life? Are you wondering, this morning, what the church is supposed to do with its life? Let’s spend some time, getting a bit quiet. Listening. Waiting on the voice of calling, emerging from our God-created-depths, to renew our strength.      So that we can go and do the thing we can’t not do.  



[i] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 2000), 25. Emphasis added.
[ii] Ibid., 4-5, emphasis added.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sermon -- 'Replaceable'

This is a sermon that I gave for Wesley Seminary's Wednesday Night Chapel Service last night, based on Deuteronomy 18:9-20. The sound on the recording is a little bit wonky but I think it's understandable. My sincere apologies to Beyoncé.

 

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            I want you to imagine something.
            I want you to imagine that you’ve been asked to preach on Sunday morning.
            You’ve been asked to preach in a church that you know loves you and cares about you. You’ve known the folks in this church for a long time, and you love them, too. But you also know that the church is having some problems. You know the type. Attendance down. Not enough young people. Not sure of their mission or vision. Not sure how to break out of old habits and “we’ve always done it this way”ism.
            You’ve been asked to preach in this church, and because you’ve been to Wesley Theological Seminary, you know that what you say is important. You know that over the past decades much preaching in churches has been subpar. You know that biblical literacy is low and that solid theological reflection is rare. You know the importance of adaptive leadership, of preaching and modeling stewardship, of inclusive and diverse language for God. You know that the church in the U.S. is struggling, some might even say dying. You know that there is a lot riding on your leadership and on your preaching.
            And you can’t, for the life of you, think of a single thing to say.
            And now, I want you to imagine that it’s Saturday night. That you have been banging your head against this sermon all week and all you have is a couple of scattered words in an otherwise blank Word document. You’re way past the procrastinating-on-Facebook stage and you’re into the pure panic stage. You have reached a place of true desperation. And finally, you fall on your knees, and you cry out to God, “God! If you want me to preach this sermon, you are going to have to tell me what to say!”
            And here’s the amazing thing: God answers! God speaks to you!
            I don’t mean any of this wishy-washy heart-strangely-warmed nonsense. I don’t mean you happen to glance over and see a vase of flowers on your desk and that reminds you of how your grandmother always had a vase of flowers on her desk and that reminds you of the importance of remembering our traditions and that gives you a sermon idea. I mean God speaks to you, speaks actual words, in a voice that somehow you know is God’s.
            God tells you exactly what to say!
            And what God tells you to do is to get up in front of the congregation and say: ‘Church, someday I’m going to die. But don’t worry about it. I’m pretty replaceable.”
            And that’s it.
            Not exactly the word of God that you were hoping for.
            That feeling you’re imagining? I have the sense that Moses is feeling just like that in tonight’s passage. The text that Monica read for us is part of the Deuteronomic law book. Moses is reviewing the law before the Israelites enter their new land. Leaving aside for the moment the ambiguities inherent in a promised homeland that involves displacing other nations, and leaving aside for a moment the likely historical context of the Deuteronomic redactors, the goal of Moses’ recitation in this passage is to delineate the sort of community that God desires, a community that is meant to be substantially different from those who surround it.
            And twice, in the course of this relatively short passage, Moses tells the assembled people that he’s received a direct message from God, telling Moses to tell the people that God will raise up another prophet like Moses.
            Now, biblical commentators, and the biblical redactors themselves, are clearly uncomfortable with this. Nearly every single commentary that I looked at for tonight made sure to clarify that “a prophet like Moses” means a prophet in the tradition  of Moses, not a prophet exactly like Moses. Moses, after all, is a pretty special guy. A prophet extraordinaire – the original, the one-and-only. And when the Deuteronomic editors wrote Moses’ epitaph, they made sure to include the statement, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10).
            This made sense the first time I read it, but after the third or fourth time, it was starting to sound a wee bit defensive. I mean, is Moses’ ego that fragile that we need to rush to assure him that he’s the most special-est of all the special prophets? The more that I read that Moses was way more prophet-y-than-any-other-prophet-that-ever-did-prophesy, the more it seemed to me that the words “I will raise up for them a prophet like you” must have really carried some weight. The words seemed less and less like God’s comforting promise to the people, and started sounding more and more like the words of my favorite United Methodist theologian, Beyoncé Knowles:
            “You must not know about me / You must not know about me
            I can find another you in a minute / Matter of fact, he’ll be here any minute”
“Moses,” I could hear God saying, “don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.”[i]
            In fact, tonight’s text argues for replaceability as a key characteristic of the prophet. Moses is describing the continuation of the prophetic office in the Israelite community. And if you were to hear the lectionary text from Deuteronomy 18 in church this Sunday, that’s all you’d hear. But tonight, I had Monica read from verse 9 instead of verse 15 so we can hear that Moses isn’t just talking about prophecy for the sake of prophecy. No, prophecy is a contrast, a counternarrative, to the way that the surrounding nations deal with divine reality.
            Prophecy, in this passage, is the opposite of magic.
            Prophecy is the gift that God offers to the people, and is to be distinguished from sorcery, divination, consulting the spirits of the deceased, or, you know, digging through bird entrails or Pew Research Forum[ii] results to discern the future.
            Now, depending on what sort of faith community you grew up in, you might have heard this sort of text being used to warn you away from Ouija boards or Dungeons and Dragons or magic shows. And then maybe you grew up and realized those sorts of things are really pretty harmless, and so you forgot all about the warnings about sorcery. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
            You see, what all the sorcerers and the magicians and diviners have in common, which prophecy stands in contrast to, is that they claim to have the right kind of expertise, the right kind of power, to manipulate the divine reality to achieve the results that they desire. They know the right words and the right gestures, the right spells, to get what they want. Or, if you’re willing to pay them enough, to get what you want. They’ve got the secret formula to success.
            Unlike the magician, the prophet relies not on the secret formula or the right spell ingredients but on the word of God. This isn’t to say that a prophet is just a divine ventriloquist, verbally transcribing messages from God. One Jewish commentator puts it this way: “In the Bible, a prophet is not someone who tells the future, stealing knowledge from God and sharing it with the people. A prophet is someone who tells the truth.”[iii] The prophet is the one who responds to God’s call and interprets that call within the context of a particular community. The truth that the prophet tells is not reliant on the special skills or hidden knowledge of the prophet, but rather on the faithful activity of God in the midst of the people. In fact, tonight’s passage spells out a sort of divine death penalty for anyone prophesying on their own behalf or out of a sense of their own importance. A bit extreme, perhaps, but a clear indication that the prophet doesn’t get to dictate the activity of the divine.
            This is an important reminder for us as seminary students and as future ministers, whatever form that takes. Seminary plays a good and important role in teaching critical knowledge, best practices, and effective methodologies. We should learn all of that, and we should certainly put it to use in our ministry. But if we’re not careful, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking of ourselves as sorcerers. As magicians. As diviners of the future. It’s easy to start seeing ourselves as manipulators of divine reality, people who have learned special skills that will allow us to achieve desired results – to save the church from dying, perhaps; to grow vital ministry; to secure our own relevance.
            But if Moses is replaceable, than you better believe that we’re replaceable, too. That the point isn’t really our special talents, as wonderful as those may be; the point isn’t really our specialized knowledge, as helpful as that might be at times; the point isn’t really our best practices, as important as those are to learn. The point is that God is up to something, here, in our midst, in the midst of the church, in the midst of God’s world. God will work through our talents and our knowledge and our best practices; and God will work outside of our talents and our knowledge and our best practices. We are learning to be servants, not sorcerers – and certainly not saviors.
It is not, ultimately, about us.
And that is very, very good news.
See, I imagine that many of you are like me in that you have two voices yammering on in your head most of the time.[iv] These two voices seem to be in competition with each other, but in fact they are ingeniously collaborating to undermine you. One says, “You are irreplaceable. You are the center of the universe. Life is a story about you.” The other one says, “You are totally useless. Anybody else could do this job better than you. You’re the worst.” Those sound like opposites, but they’re not. They’re part of the same lie. The lie is, “You are alone. You are not part of a community. You are not surrounded by God’s grace. You must do it yourself. You must justify yourself.” Sure, one voice is trying to tell you that you are way better at that than anyone around you, and the other is telling you that you’re way worse at it, but neither of them is telling the truth. The truth is, we can’t justify or un-justify ourselves. We can’t perfect or un-perfect ourselves. That’s what God’s up to. That’s what God’s promising to do.
What we are supposed to do in response is summed up in tonight’s text by the Hebrew word tamim. It means “whole” or “complete” or “undivided.” The NRSV translates it as “completely loyal,” as we heard tonight “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” But I like Robert Alter’s translation: “You shall be wholehearted with the LORD your God.”[v]  I love that word. “Wholehearted.” Here’s a definition provided by the sociologist Brené Brown:
“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.[vi]
Maybe that’s not what the Deuteronomist meant by, “You must be tamim,” but if prophecy is all about counternarrative, about contrast-community, then what a counternarrative that would be. What a contrast that would be to the voices that say, “It’s all about me…and I’m total shit.” What a contrast between saying, “I am the one who has the special skills and the special knowledge to manipulate divine reality,” and saying, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” I am enough, because I know that my worth and my relevance and my effectiveness ultimately derive from the grace and love of a God who longs deeply for the healing and redemption of the cosmos.
And that God calls us to be prophets, not prognosticators. Ministers, not magicians.
That God has two messages for us, a counter to the two voices droning on in our minds.
The first message is, “You. Are. Enough.”
            The second is, “And don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.



[i] From the song “Irreplaceable,” by the irreplaceable Beyoncé Knowles. For the tragically Beyoncé-challenged:


[ii] I should clarify that I find the Pew Research Forum, the research of the Barna Group, and other survey data very useful in my own ministry. Social science is an invaluable tool for understanding the context of a community; it’s just not the crystal ball that some church researchers seem to wish it to be. For a great take on this, check out Patrick Scriven’s article “I just left the funeral for the church...
[iii] David L. Lieber, et. al., editors, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1999),
[iv] Anne Lamott refers to these voices as “Radio Station KFKD” in her marvelous Bird By Bird (New York: Anchor, 1994).
[v] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 970.
[vi] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham, 2012), 10.