Friday, December 30, 2011
Friday, December 02, 2011
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
With our backs against the waters separating Dr. King from President Jefferson and our bodies resting upon other pieces of cold stone around the monument, we watched as dozens of grade school children ran through the Mountain of Despair before plopping down in front of the Stone of Hope for a group photograph with Dr. King. We then made our way through the words carved into smooth stone walls that stand on both sides of the memorial. The words form quotes that have been taken from Dr. King’s sermons and speeches. As we walked along, we noticed that many people stopped to read the quotes while others brushed on by in hopes of finding the perfect photo op with the leader of the civil rights movement.
Though I was reading most of the quotes, my friend stopped me and said, “We have walked by these words as if they are just words! But these words were the life and the light of so many people.”
The life and the light of people.
I wonder how often we mount the pulpit with words that are just words versus seeking to offer words that can provide light and life to people who are sitting in darkness. I wonder how often we fail to remember the power of the words we proclaim. I wonder how often we use just words when we have been given the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Our words are needed – not words that are just words – but words that make sense of senseless situations where the emotions of anger, hatred, revenge and despair are tangible to the sight, sound and touch. Our words are needed in the hurt, pain and frustration of the world in which we find ourselves.
Less than a mile from where Dr. King stands sit dozens of people who sleep in tents at night and huddle under tarps in the day. The Occupy Wall Street movement is in its third month of capturing the hearts of imaginative and passionate people who are demanding hope and healing in a landscape of economic despair. Signs with angry words can be found in corners of America stretching from New York City’s Zuccotti Park to California’s Port of Oakland. Most of the protestors know what they are demanding: a fairer redistribution of wealth, a less powerful financial system, and more assistance for the poor and powerless in our nation. And still, words that bring light and life to people are missing from their vocabularies. The message is becoming lost in traffic jams caused by their marches and angry slogans painted across pieces of poster board because the message is just words instead of words that can be the life and light of people.
We have the words needed. The first song in Luke’s Gospel is sung by a teenage virgin who sings about how the Lord has done great things for her, looking with favor upon the lowliness of his servant while bringing down the powerful from their thrones. When Jesus teaches a group of disciples to pray, he invites them to ask for a daily provision of bread. When God rains bread from heaven, the Israelites are instructed to take a day’s provision on every day but the sixth day when they take enough for the sixth day and the Sabbath day because anything else will spoil.
The Bible has plenty to say about people who take too much and even more to say about what those who have too much are to do with their excess bounty. We have been given the words needed for this time just as Dr. King was given the words needed for his time. But these words have been treated as though they are just words. The words are absent from a movement in which they could become life and light for countless people around the world.
What are the words that regularly flow from your lips? Perhaps it’s time for us to brush up on our vocabulary. Maybe it’s time for us to enlarge our lexicon with words that can become the life and light of all people. After all, the Word has become flesh and dwells amongst us.
 John 1:1-5.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35
September 11, 2011
Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington
Sides are sometimes drawn in tangible ways and other times drawn in virtual ways. There are times when we can see a person taking a side and other times when we can only feel the power of a person taking a side.
A dozen or so blocks from where we are now, Democrats sit on the left side of a sometimes tangible and other times imaginary aisle while Republicans sit on the right side of the aisle. These Members of Congress are lobbied by some 12,000 people who spend over three billion dollars each year in an effort to lure them over to the side of whatever issue they represent. Phone calls and appointments are made. Cocktails and crab cakes are consumed, all in an effort to get people to make a decision, to choose a side. Whether it is the environment or taxes, gun rights or how to create jobs, we can all choose a side.
But sides are not limited to Congressional politics. When talking with a colleague this week, I reminded her of the importance of completing an online survey designed to evaluate our bishop. I shared with my colleague how the “other side” was organized and ready, referring to those people who are working hard to get rid of our current bishop. I told my colleague how important it was for those of us on our side to complete the questionnaire – to stand against the other side. As I reflected on the conversation driving back to the church, I realized how easy it is to create divisions with our words and our actions. We are good at taking sides.
I learned the pain of taking sides when my parents were divorcing. When Dad moved out I watched as friends, neighbors, church members and grandparents all took a side – some choosing to stand with my mother and others choosing to stand with my father. Some people who were once close to both of my parents were no longer visible in our lives. I also learned how easy it is for a parent to lobby his or her children into taking a side – that even children are sometimes unfairly swayed to take a side in complex parental disputes.
When have you taken a side? How many times have you aligned yourself with someone or something? How many times have you responded to the question, “Whose side are you on?”
We all take sides both consciously and unconsciously.
But what about God?
Does God take sides?
Does God play favorites?
We are in the second week of our sermon series, Exiting Egypt: Examining Exodus. We started last week by looking at the Passover. We heard the specific instructions God gives to Moses concerning God’s plans to kill the firstborn in each Egyptian home while passing over the Israelites. Since last week, the Egyptians have awakened to the horror of devastating loss while the Israelites are vowing to always remember what God has done for them by roasting the right-sized lamb with the right herbs and the right unleavened bread. The Israelites have seen the strong hand of God while Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened with an unwillingness to let the Israelites go.
It’s time for the journey to continue. God knows that the Israelites are still a little tenuous when it comes to leaving Egypt. The Israelites are still more comfortable with what they know, even though what they know is bondage, than they are with letting go and trusting God to lead them into freedom. As a result, God is doing everything God can to make sure they continue towards the Promised Land.
While a more direct route exists between the current location of the Israelites and the Promised Land, God knows that if the Israelites see an Egyptian army pursuing them that they will immediately turn back so God comes up with an alternate plan.
Going ahead of them as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, God leads the Israelites to the side of the sea. But the mass of more than 600,000 people plus children and animals is not able to move without catching the attention of the Egyptians. Pharaoh learns that he is seemingly losing all of servants and quickly gets ready for battle. 600 picked chariots along with every other chariot in Egypt are readied to push in on the Israelites. The Egyptian army is fully prepared for battle. The Israelites are running out of room with the army on one side and the sea on the other. But God has not forgotten them.
As we just read, God instructs Moses to lift his hand over the sea. Moses follows the instructions, the sea parts forming walls of water on both sides, and the Israelites walk through the sea on dry ground. When every Israelite has safely crossed to the other side with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the walls of water disappear covering the ground that was once dry, and every Egyptian drowns. Not one person in Pharaoh’s army survived while all of the Israelites safely crossed over the sea.
Does God take sides?
Does God play favorites?
Like most of you here today, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of airplanes crashing into the twin towers in New York City. I remember the Dean of Duke Divinity School opening the door of our student services staff meeting to let us know that something terrible had happened in New York City. I remember gathering around a television set to watch the replays of planes being used as weapons. And I remember gathering in the Divinity School chapel to pray after we learned that four planes had crashed in three different cities.
I remember the first time I met a 9/11 widow who forced me to imagine what it was like to have a toddler at home and to be pregnant with your second child. She illuminated my mind with the story of waiting for confirmation of her husband’s death, telling me how the only piece of her husband that remained was a bone from a finger that a policeman brought to her door months after 9/11.
I remember reading an email from a dear friend who told me about losing his best friend on United Airlines flight 77, a flight number we will never forget even though the number will never be used again.
I remember the sight of sanctuaries being filled to capacity as people who never went to church before packed into pews, yearning for a word of hope on the Sunday following 9/11.
I remember seeing more bumper stickers with the words, “God Bless America” printed on them than I had ever seen before.
I remember relearning how easy it is to take sides and how easy it is to assume that God is always on our side. Some of us were so angry that day because things like this do not happen to the United States. We have been taught to believe that we are always God’s favored nation.
But does God take sides?
Does God play favorites?
The Exodus journey begins with God appearing to Moses in a burning bush. The Lord says to Moses, “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, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…” God continues, “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress the Israelites.”
God calls Moses to help God deliver the people. God does something but only after God has seen the pain of the people. God responds when God sees suffering. God shows up when God sees oppression. Like all of us, God is sensitive to pain. God sides with people who are in pain, people who are in misery and people who are being oppressed.
Many people have asked where God was on Tuesday, September 11. It is a difficult question to answer when we have been taught to believe that God is all powerful and all knowing. While we are all grateful for the gift of free will, there are times when we would give anything for God to not give us so many choices, especially choices that can lead to so much harm. What if God would have tied the arms of terrorists instead of allowing them to execute their plans? What if God would have used the terrorists to strike another nation so that we might continue to live with unnecessary goggles that only allow us to see a favored nation status?
God does not take away our ability to make decisions – no matter what. We are not puppets on a string with everything already figured out and God holding the handles.
But if God is Emmanuel, God with us, then God is fully present in all places and at all times. If the steadfast love of God is established forever then this love seeps in to all places and perhaps especially the broken cracks around us.
There is no doubt in my mind that God was with all 2753 persons who died in New York City – that God knew each one by name, each family member they left behind, each award they had won, each dream they had dreamed. And I believe that the same is true for every single one of the 189 people who died at the Pentagon and the 44 people who died in Pennsylvania. Each person was a beloved child of God, intricately woven by God in the depths of their mother’s womb. God was present in every memorial service, funeral and burial. And, God has seen the pain and misery that has been magnified in the last ten years.
God wept on this day and if we could hear the sound of God weeping, perhaps it would be just as loud as the sounds coming from Egyptian houses on the day after the Passover. God wept with each person on the planes. God wept with each person who lost a loved one. And God’s weeping was not only for the victims. God’s weeping was not reserved for our side.
The Haggadah is a Jewish text that was created around the 10th Century to be read at each Passover Seder table. The Haggadah is the text from which people read the story that helps Jews remember how they have been passed over. But the Haggadah does not allow people to travel far into believing that God is only on their side. Rather, part of the tradition of the Haggadah is that the salt water of the sea represents both the sweat of Israelites slaves’ brows and the tears of the Egyptians who are mourning their great loss. While many people want to cheer when the Israelites obtain victory on the other side of the sea, the midrash pictures God telling the people to please quiet their cheers. God is not celebrating when the Israelites are safely on dry ground. Rather, God is weeping. God is weeping because the Egyptians who have died are also God’s children.
If this teaching is true then God wept at the actions and deaths of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the four passenger planes just as God wept at the deaths of their 2,966 victims who expected Tuesday, September 11, 2001 to be just another day.
I purchased a new devotional book this week. The book provides a pattern for daily prayer that goes like this: becoming aware of God’s presence, inviting God’s intervention, listening for God’s voice, reflection time, making our requests known, offering of self to God, and blessing. I used the book for the first time on Friday morning. With the rain still falling and a cup of coffee in my hand, I allowed the book to guide me through my devotional time only to find myself being completely arrested when I got to the guidelines for making my requests known.
I was invited to make my requests known to God by offering specific prayers: prayers for our world, its people and leaders, prayers for the church and its leaders, prayers for those in our circle of responsibility, and prayers for myself. I was doing fine until I got to the prayers for those in my circle of responsibility. My first reaction was to think, “Well, that’s easy. I only have to pray for Craig.” But God would not let me stop with my husband. Rather, different people kept entering my mind. My imagination was soon expanded to include many people in my circle of responsibility: my mother and father, my sister and brother, my nieces and cousins, my neighbors and friends, and every single one of you. I soon discovered that my circle of responsibility is very large, and that I am not allowed to pray only for the one person with whom I most closely and intimately share life.
I then thought about God interceding on behalf of God’s circle of responsibility. While we like to think that we are always at the top of the list or that God is always far more eager to bless America than God is ready to bless another nation, a song kept coming to mind. It is a song many of us were taught as children when we sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
God’s circle of responsibility includes every single living thing: every bird in the air, every animal that walks the earth, every creature in the sea, and every single person – terrorist and victim, Christian and Muslim, believer and doubter, innocent and guilty, you and me. And just when we are convinced that we are finally recipients of most favored nation or most favored person status, God shows us how big God’s hands are before letting us know that God’s heart is even larger.
It is not our responsibility to figure out which side God is on. It is our responsibility, however, to rest with confidence that God’s hands are upon us. We can believe without a shadow of doubt that God has seen and continues to see our pain, that God feels our pain, and that God is with us in our pain. We can face this day and all of our days to come with the full assurance that God is with us and that God will never leave us nor forsake us. And when we have done everything we can to place ourselves on the other side of God, we discover that God does not turn God’s back on us like we are so prone to do to others around us. Rather, we are promised that we can come back to God no matter what because the thing about God is that God’s side and God’s favorites seem to constantly be changing.
 Exodus 3:7-8.
Sunday, September 04, 2011
While Facebook does not offer a full glimpse into our lives, Facebook does provide many details.
Earlier this week I got a text from my niece asking me if my mother (her grandmother) had my Facebook password. Rather than saying, "No," and leaving it at that, I decided to pass on my exact thoughts about pictures that had recently been posted on her profile. I shared with my niece hurtful words and let her know that I was horrified by how she appeared in some of the pictures. It was five minutes later when I realized that my niece had defriended me on Facebook.
We pretend that God cannot see everything. We pretend that there are places of our minds, our hearts, and our lives that God cannot reach. We pretend that what we do in the dark stays in the dark or that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." We like to pretend that there are some parts of our lives that God will never see.
But the Psalmist describes a very different God. In Psalm 139 we are told that there is not a single place where we can go and not encounter God.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
No matter where we are, God is with us.
God sees everything and loves us in spite of it all.
We cannot hide from God.
We cannot limit God's access to our lives.
We can turn our backs, but God still comes to us.
What would it mean for us to live our lives as though God was watching everything? What would we do differently if we really believed that God could always see us?
I regularly joke that there are some days that I would prefer Jesus to return on compared to other days. There are definitely moments when I have my discipleship on - like having my makeup on - and definitely days when I do not have my discipleship on. There are parts of my life that I want God to see and other parts of my life that I don't want God to see. While I am striving for perfection like a good Methodist, I have a long way to go before I reach perfection.
Why do I think I can hide the less than glowing parts of my life from God? Do I really believe it is possible to limit God's access to each pocket of my life?
The Psalmist ends Psalm 139 with these words:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in my,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Amen, and amen.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
What if God loves us so much that we are set free from all of our failures and sins no matter what?
What if there really are no boundaries to God's love - that God is with us even when we make our bed in Sheol?
Are there any limits to God's forgiveness?
What if all of us, no matter what, have been given a "get out of jail free" card that is redeemable every time we seek forgiveness?
Friday, July 15, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
As many of you know, I am spending this week in Collegeville, Minnesota with Martin Copenhaver, Lillian Daniel, a writing tutor and eleven other remarkable pastors. We are pastors who love to write, and we are seeking to learn more about our vocation as writers. What follows is my response to the question of why I write.
When I was first experiencing my call to ministry, I asked my pastor to point me towards women pastors with whom I could talk and learn. I wanted to have coffee or lunch with pastors who were “like me.” My pastor referred me to many different women but none of them had been able to balance the demands of the church with being a wife and a mom. None of them wore red lipstick or had perfectly manicured fingernails with toenails to match. It was not until seminary when I discovered that there were plenty of women like me – people who loved to have a cocktail on Friday night before getting their nails done on Saturday morning, individuals who loved to get dressed up just for the heck of it and dreamed of having it all – a growing church, a loving husband, and a couple of well-behaved kids.
I now realize that I have searched the last six years for stories with which I could resonate. I yearned for someone to journey with me through the wilderness of congregational decline where the signposts that read “closure” were much more identifiable than the ones that read “pathway to new life.” I would have paid for advice and assurance from pastors who had stood with good church folks who could initially see only six inches in front of them and yet seemingly lead these same people to the place where they had the capacity to see far into the future – a future filled with hope and new life instead of chained-link fences around a condemned property. To use language from St. John’s University – I wanted people like Donald Jackson who bought the entire supply of ink needed for the St. John’s Bible at pennies a stick decades before he was hired to create the project, or individuals like the potter on campus who asked for 300 years worth of clay found in a source that would soon dry up because he believed that the people at St. John’s would be creating pottery for three centuries to come. I longed for visionary mentors, pastors, and advisors who could help me lead my people to becoming more visionary. What I found was something different.
I found a seminary president who told me that I was a Hospice chaplain to a group of committed 80 and 90-year-olds who had given their life to the church. This seminary president told me that all I needed to do was to hold their hands while I waited for them to die while starting a new church at the same time.
I found a myriad of authors who made church growth seem as easy as following a recipe for homemade chicken potpie.
I found colleagues who were in the same boat with me – people who believed with their whole hearts that God was not finished with the church but had no idea where to begin in order to transform a congregation from a place of decline to a place of vitality.
I then found a congregation who was willing to do something new. They did not like the changes at first but they showed me that if I demonstrated love and commitment to them that they would try anything. I learned that bringing balloons to the home of a 94-year-old chairperson of the Finance Committee who had little positive to say about me at first could change everything – that the balloons would still be in her apartment, deflated and under the table, long after the budget she fought me tooth and nail on had passed.
I believe there are people yearning to be in conversation with someone like me – an under-forty woman who loves getting my nails done and then finding the perfect shade of red lipstick, one who knows the joys and discomfort of online dating before meeting a partner who has promised to stand with me for life, one who is still discerning whether to add ‘mother’ to the list of titles found in my biography, and one who absolutely loves being a pastor – one who has, in fact, discovered that W.E. Sangster was right when he said that being a pastor is a joy for which none of us are truly worthy.
I believe there are pockets of enormous potential across my denomination as well as the universal church – pockets that seem to gravitate towards darkness instead of allowing the glorious light of the resurrection to shine. I believe there are countless other people who have responded to God’s call on their life and then found themselves in the middle of a committee meeting where every participant wants to damper their pastor’s excitement instead of respond to their leadership and try something new. And, I believe there are many churches just like the one I serve – churches who say they don’t want to change only to later thank their pastor for bringing about so much change because the change has assured them that their church is not going to die – at least not anytime soon. I long to reach into my heart – into a vessel filled with pain, doubt, hurt, disappointment and immense joy and then strike a chord in the hearts of others who are experiencing these very same emotions as result of the church and the office of pastor. I don’t know how it will turn out – but I am willing to put myself out there and see what happens.
I’m a pastor at the core of my identity. Being a pastor is my vocation. But I am also a writer – someone who longs to take words and shape them, praying that God will use them to provide light, hope, and anticipation in the lives of others.
Will you be in conversation with me?
Monday, July 11, 2011
Friday, July 01, 2011
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Monday, June 20, 2011
It was a typical June day. A bit of steam was rising from the sidewalks. Vendors selling water were stationed on each street corner. The sun was beating down upon Pennsylvania Avenue as people filled every corner of the popular street.
I walked down the city block in search of familiar faces and soon found the table from which members of our church were telling others about our unique community of faith. Armed with a fresh dose of the Spirit and a powerful reading of the scripture passages in which diversity is central and the Spirit falls upon all people, I could not wait to tell others about our church.
If I heard it once I heard it 50 times, "Are you really a gay friendly church?" or "Are you sure that I am welcome in your church?" A one word response, "Yes," was not enough to satisfy some of the visitors stopping for a rainbow cross or cold bottle of water. We had more convincing to do as a group representing Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
As I read the story of Pentecost found in Acts, I see a community in which everyone is a candidate for a fresh anointing of God's Spirit - the Advocate whom Jesus promised to be with us. I notice how God did not anoint only one type of person or only one group of people from a particular place. Instead, I see God's Spirit powerfully falling upon all who are present in real, tangible and transformational ways.
How has the church come to believe that it has the authority to discern who can receive the Spirit and who cannot? How has the church come to believe that diversity is something we should keep in our schools or other institutions but not a key mark towards which every Christian community should passionately work? How has our church come to pride itself on keeping some people in while keeping other people out?
As I stood on the street with the sun scorching my feet, I prayed for our church. I prayed for our church to look more like the crowd I saw at Pride - old people and young people, people with a lot of clothing and people with not very much clothing, people filled with confidence and people clearly afraid of being seen, people with dark skin and people with light skin, gay people and straight people, people aware of God's presence in their lives and people who have sought to lock God in the closet because the only God they have ever been told about is a God of judgment, people who were alive and well last Sunday afternoon because they were in a community in which they were fully accepted and valued - just as they are.
Holy Spirit rain down!