Stop Giving Your Money to Bad Systems

Credit to David Borger German, associate pastor of one of our sister churches, Sanctuary Church in Iowa City, for the great majority of this sermon – many of its insights, and much of the text, word for word sometimes.

Imagine with me for a moment that you have just won $10,000,000! But there’s catch. You must give it all away. To whom or to what would you give that money?

I invite you to turn to someone next to you and discuss it, in groups of 2-4.  If there’s someone nearby that’s not in a group, ask them to join you. Introduce yourselves if you don’t know each other.  And then share where you’d give away $10 million and why.

This morning we’re going to talk about money and our use of it. I’ve titled this “stop giving money to bad systems,” which is where we’ll land. I wanted to start with that exercise because I wanted to get us all in the mode of thinking about ourselves as empowered, responsible agents of the money and resources entrusted to us by God.  

$10 Million may be a vastly different sum of money than what you deal with on a day to day basis, but you still have money, at least some of it.  You might say not quite enough, but you have some money, some resources.  

According to the Christian tradition, God created us and has entrusted us with real power, real agency, real freedom to choose what we do with the money and resources entrusted to us.  And we are invited by God to remember and claim our agency, our power, and decide how we will use our resources:  Will we use our money as God invites us to, in ways that wisely contribute to our own health, the health of others, and the health of the earth?  Or will we use our money to prop up systems that take advantage of people and contribute to the ill health of creation?

There are larger systems of which we are beholden to, that shape and limit our freedoms.  For example, we all pay taxes. At the very least there’s a state sales tax so that if I go to the store and buy a new HD TV, I will pay state sales tax. I’m free to purchase a TV or not, but it’s not in my power to choose to pay the sales tax or not. Or I can drive to New Hampshire to get away with not paying the sales tax, but then I have to drive to New Hampshire.  I suppose I could choose to not pay federal income tax, but our federal government frowns on such practice and will promptly arrest me and try me and then I’ll owe much more money and be thrown in jail. So you know, choices.

And actually, if we go further down the rabbit hole on our choices, we won’t go deep here but let’s just uncover it, many philosophers and sociologists would eagerly point out that our sense of personal freedom is really an illusion.  They would say that while we believe we are free agents, acting under our own volition, we’re all actually quite captive to the influences and systems around us.  You only think you’re freely buying that car, but actually, you’ve been influenced by countless marketing attempts and your own proclivity to imitate and copy what everyone else is doing.  The Matrix has you, they would say.  

That may be very true. But to whatever extent we’re not free, the path to freedom is the same:  we can learn to listen to Jesus and step into the agency and empowerment that Jesus leads us into.  When we truly listen and reflect on what’s going on, our imaginations are shaped by God’s vision, and we receive God’s power to courageously act in ways that are consistent with God.  

In the end, that’s what I hope to accomplish today – I want to gain a better sense of our own empowerment over our own resources.  We can remember who we are – created and called by God to live empowered lives under God’s care.  And we’re going to claim whatever agency we have to shape a better world.  If that’s using $10 dollars or $10 Million dollars, we’re going to figure out how to do it well and courageously.    

This is the last week of our passion and courage series. Next week, Ivy begins a five-week series about Jesus’ example as a conversationalist. I think that going into the summer, it’ll be timely and practical and great!

We’re going to look at a story in which Jesus talks about money, its use, and the systems that influence our use of it.  The story takes place in the final week of Jesus’ life.  Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus taught

Mark 12:38-13:2 (NRSV)

38“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39>/sup>and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

There are three pieces to this short story:  

  1. Jesus’ warning: Beware of the scribes.
  2. The poor widow.
  3. Announcement of the temple’s destruction.

Each one contains a different lesson, but they all fit together.  

First of all, the scribes. Jesus tells his audience to beware of them.  Who were the scribes?  

  • Well, they were political and religious teachers/leaders, who carried a lot of influence and were generally well respected by the people

It’s a lot like today’s politicians, you know – minus the respected by the people part, sometimes.

Jesus has some harsh words for these leaders, and there are essentially two major critiques:

1) The first is that they focus a lot on external signs of wealth and prestige:  they wear long robes, they have the best seats in the synagogue, they choose the places of honor at banquets.  They’re driven by their own egos, and they think that the good life is achieved through external signs of wealth and power – how they look and perform in front of others.  

2) Second critique is worse than the first one:  Jesus says that they devour widows houses.  

There’s some debate about what this means, but one plausible option goes like this:  

Women had very little social power at this time, some 2,000 years ago. And to be a widow meant you had even less power.  If you were a widow and you were fortunate enough to have some property with your husband, once he died, you were not technically permitted to own the property.  The scribes, the religious/political leaders, created a system in which they became the trustees of your estate because you couldn’t own anything.  So you could still live in your home, but it wasn’t really yours anymore.  And to manage that estate, the scribes charged money, a portion of what the estate was worth. So every year, you would be giving to the scribes a portion of your home’s worth or value because they were supposedly helping you manage your own home.  

And what were these scribes doing with their money?  Well, they’re having nice banquets, living lives of luxury and influence.  You get taken advantage, your house literally being devoured, so they can look good.  

Behold! these scribes, these politicians, your leaders and rulers, Jesus says. Watch out!  

So after this sobering warning, Jesus sits down in the Temple right near the treasury dropbox.  It’s like he pulled up the chair right there near the back of the sanctuary here near our own offering drop boxes.  And he just sits and watches as people drop their offering in.  Which is kind of an awkward thing to do.

How many of you would be comfortable with some random person just sitting near the drop boxes watching all of us throughout the morning, watching what we put in, or don’t put in.  

Now most of us who call Reservoir our church home give through weekly or monthly automated giving out of a checking account or through our online giving system, PushPay, but there were obviously no systems like that at this time.  It’s all physical, metal currency, so people could kind of make it into a show of how much they’re putting in.  The rich would take their time because they have so many coins to put in.  It’s heavy. It’s loud – it makes a lot of noise when you drop all those silver coins in. The Temple was an enormous stone building. So the sound of the coins going in would be bouncing off the stone walls and make quite a sound.  So when the rich come in, it sounds like a slot machine cashing out.  

Whereas other times, for other people, it’s just the sound of 1 or 2 small coins.  

As Jesus watches, a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  (How does he know how much it is?  He can hear it. So can everyone.)


Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Now I have realized that there are two radically different interpretations of what Jesus is saying here.  I want to share both interpretations.

Option 1 is that Jesus holds up the widow as a model of sacrificial giving. According to this option, it’s a lesson in contrasts.  In contrast to the rich who give out of their abundance, the widow gives out of her poverty.

She’s seeking to do the best with what she’s got – it’s a very PIOUS ACT.  Even though she doesn’t have much, she’s giving sacrificially to God, even to the point that it really costs her, and that’s a sign of her faith. On this read, the takeaway is to be like the widow – give sacrificially to God, even if it costs you, because that’s what faith is, and Jesus will honor it.

The expectation is that Jesus’ disciples and the people reading this story will continue to give sacrificially to God, like the widow.  And that is what the Christian faith is all about.  

So that’s option 1. It’s admittedly the more common one, and one I’ve heard in one form or another many times.

Here’s the thing, though. One part of the job of a Bible teacher like me is to keep reading what scholars say about scripture, to listen to the most common interpretations but also to pay attention to other streams because – as you and I  both know – in all spheres of life, the majority isn’t always right. We have so much to learn by listening to a diversity of voices.


At the top, I mentioned my friend David Borger German. He went online and to his local university library and read 15 commentaries on this passage in Mark, and only one of them mentioned the possibility of another interpretive option. But it so happens to be one that I’d also recently read about. And it’s one I want to share with you today because it so struck me.

In this interpretation, Jesus is offering praise, but underneath it, he’s also offering – with some irony – a lament, because the widow is being taken advantage of by an unjust system.

In this option, Jesus points out the widow not as model, but as a tragic figure.  It’s a lesson about the degree to which this system oppresses the poor.  

Best as I can tell, there is more evidence for this interpretation. After all, Jesus just talked about how the scribes devour widows houses, so this is another example of their oppression. Additionally, the word “offering” does not appear. Instead, the word “treasury” is used. The emphasis here isn’t on free will but on a bloated public savings account. And finally, Jesus goes on not to praise but to announce the destruction of the Temple:  “Not one stone will be left. All will be thrown down.”   

The takeaway in this reading is that generosity may be a beautiful thing, but it turns tragic when our money is flowing to people and systems who are moving against God’s good purposes in the world. Stop giving money to bad systems.  

It’s important to note that with this option, Jesus isn’t blaming the widow for her participation.  He’s talking to his disciples at this point, so he doesn’t go over to the widow and say, “You’re not doing this right.” Her participation may be beautiful but is also tragic, and Jesus wishes it wasn’t so.  So Jesus goes to the men, his close followers, the people with more societal power and agency, and the ones who’ll be carrying on his work in just a few months.  

And Jesus calls his own followers not to perpetuate any systems.  They are to create and build up systems that don’t take advantage of the most vulnerable of our society. In fact they’re to uplift the downtrodden and empower the most vulnerable among us.  

Just for fun, let me point out the crazy irony in these two interpretive options.    

In option 1, the emphasis is on the widow’s agency and sacrificial giving —> it encourages people to do what they are told by the system: Give sacrificially! says the preacher, says the church, says the politician, whoever stands to benefit by the sacrifice. Spend sacrificially, says the company that wants to sell you more of their stuff so they can profit.

Option 2 puts an emphasis on the widow as a tragic figure —> it empowers all people, and maybe poor people in particular, to claim their agency and become more discerning.

So, as I said, I lean towards option 2.  If you like option 1, that’s fine.  I would just encourage you to do what Jesus says:  Beware of the scribes.  Watch out for religious leaders and the politicians and corporations and the unjust systems that are trying to take advantage of people, using a veil of goodness or righteousness or fancy marketing to hide how the few are benefiting off of the oppression of others.  

This is sort of an unusual stance for the senior pastor of a church to take. Religious leaders have all kinds of perverse incentives, after all, to try to guilt or trick you into giving more money to their institutions. My wife works a job as well, but my family is supported by this congregation’s giving. As this church grows and prospers, it’s also likely that I – along with my other pastors – will get more credit for that than we deserve. After all, a church isn’t a leader or a building, it’s a community – in Reservoir’s case, a community of amazing, beautiful, generous people trying enjoy the love of Jesus and the gift of community and the joy of living. All of us are the church, so all of us are how this community flourishes or doesn’t.

But again, it’s been typical for religious leaders to do whatever we can to incentivize, maybe to guilt people or trick them into sacrificial giving to our institutions.

But here’s the thing. We practice what we call centered-set faith. We believe that God is at the center of all reality, and that God is immeasurably good, and that God isn’t interested in manipulating or controlling us, but releasing us into greater and greater freedom, in all areas of our life, our finances included. And God invites us to use that freedom to pursue the greatest possible flourishing for ourselves, and for others, and for the world at large.

So if you think it’s important for a diverse Jesus-centered faith community to flourish, and to nurture healthy spirituality and connection to God, and you appreciate the existence and the mission of this faith community, then go all out – give as part of your investment in the flourishing of this community, and the flourishing of our mission, in this city and region and beyond.

But if not, then don’t.

And the same to all the other ways you spend and give and invest your money. Do so with freedom, with purpose, and knowing that every dollar you give and spend and save is supporting a system that you’re backing with your money.

My family’s been giving a tenth of our gross income to this church for well over a decade now. And on top of that, we’ve been giving money to other people and to systems that inspire us with all the good they are doing – empowering poor communities, rescuing abuse victims, doing spiritually beautiful things in unlikely places. And sometimes around the dinner table, we tell stories about what this money is doing in these really good systems.

I’m not proud of this or anything. It’s frankly pretty normal behavior around here, and this has been our family’s way of trying to invest our money is good systems, and

Now if we were to have all that money back tomorrow, at least for us, it would be a lot of money, more money by leaps and bounds than I’ve ever seen at once. We could pay an awful lot of bills and buy a boatload of stuff with all that money. But to me, there’s no way. Because I couldn’t do better with that money than we’ve done.

And our kids complain about a lot of things – they ought to, I suppose. Life’s not fair, and they deserve better parents sometimes, at least a better father! But they don’t complain about this giving, because it’s pretty rewarding to give your money to good systems, after all!

On the other hand, I’ve spent more money than I want to count buying food that is convenient, but is unethically sourced, bad for my health, hurts one of my favorite hobbies, which is running, and is produced by companies that harm the health of whole communities and do harm, not good to our environment. So I’m starting to wonder what it would mean to stop plowing my money into bad food systems.


Because after all, part of moving toward God for me is increasing awareness of how I’m empowered to use all I am and have – my money included – for the flourishing of my life, and of others, and the world. To plow myself into where God is and what God is growing, not the places God is not and what is fading away.

So now we come to the final part of our story.  We started with Jesus’ warning to us:  Beware of the scribes.  Then we listened to Jesus talk about the poor widow and we considered those options.  And now we’re walking with Jesus, leaving the Temple.  

And he says this:  

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

If you want to have some fun today, take 5 minutes and read chapter 13 of Mark and talk about it with a friend.  It’s quite a chapter.  Jesus goes into full apocalyptic prophet mode, like the language we read this winter in Revelation. He starts using a lot of figurative and very bold language to talk about destruction of the Temple that’s coming.   

This would have been utterly shocking news to the disciples, making them very, very uncomfortable.  They walk out going, “THIS IS AMAZING!” and he says, “Yeah, it’s not going to last.”  

It’s like you’ve just taken an awesome tour of the capitol building in Washington D.C., and then your tour guide announces it will be destroyed.  It’s that kind of anxiety and fear and insecurity.  Whoa.

I don’t think Jesus talks about this lightly.  Jesus does not delight in destruction.  But he’s very realistic about the natural consequences of building a system that oppresses other people.  It’s untenable.  It’s not going to last. Because it’s not with God.

We may prop up our bad systems a little while longer, but their time will end.

So what do we do this? What’s the invitation for us today?  Very simply:  I think we’re invited to listen to Jesus and to do what Jesus invites us to do.  He warns us about leaders who benefit off the oppression of the most vulnerable.  And he invites us to do what he does:  to build real, authentic community. Community that:

  • recognizes the inherent dignity of every person
  • and that empowers every one of us to claim the agency that God has given us, to participate in the renewal and the flourishing of all people and all things.

This is hard.  This is the life-long invitation, to continue to learn from Jesus, to continue to go to God to receive the power and healing that God makes available to us so that we are not beholden to fear.  But we are emboldened to step into creative alternatives in our lives and economic practices.  

We’re always invited to grow.  I’m certain I am blind to all kinds of ways that I participate in and perpetuate unjust systems.  But I’m committed to growing.  And I think that’s the invitation.

If this is attractive to you, here are three things you might consider.


  • Make a review of your personal finances this month, looking for the story they tell about your freedom, your empowerment, and your values.
    • Bank statements, credit card statements, if you want help, I wrote about this when I gave a talk on personal finance last year, we’ll republish that blog this week.
    • Highlight the beautiful but tragic story Jesus saw when he looked at this widow and her money.
    • Jesus’ line – where your eyes are, there your heart will be.
    • This isn’t about pride or self-criticism, but curiosity, what do you see?

And then ask two questions:



  • What’s one system you want to stop supporting with your money?


  • What flourishing, what good system, do you want to put more money into?




You’re Not Dead Yet

Facing Death

I was a teenager in the late 80s, when cable TV and VHS machines were all the rage, and when each town’s video rental store was one of the hubs of commercial activity. And being a teenage in this time and living in the suburbs meant a lot of weekend evenings hanging out at my friends’ houses and watching movies. One of the movies I watched most was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My wife and kids still don’t understand what’s so funny about it, but I’ll keep praying for them.

Anyway, as I thought about this week’s talk, a short scene from this movie came to mind. It’s a spoof on a moment in village life in the Middle Ages, when the Black Plague was sweeping through Europe, and undertakers pushed carts through towns, collecting the bodies of the dead.

Let’s watch, OK?

[Content Warning, there is a swear word used at 1:53, which we edited out for our in-service video.] “Bring out Your Dead” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Do you ever feel like that guy, the one lying on the cart – “I’m not dead yet!” People around us, our life circumstances, are like that other guy with the club in his hands, telling us this opportunity is lost, that time is over, that it’s too late for something else we once dreamed would be so.

A couple of us on the church staff were talking about this the other day: about the various deaths we experience at different stages of our lives. When we’re younger, we have to face the death of perfection. We learn we’re just not good as some things that we like. We discover that even the things that we are good at, there’s always someone better. We learn that rejection, sometimes serial rejection, is part of what it means to try anything. We have problems and flaws and so does everybody else, and we lose sometimes, and life’s not fair.

And then when we’re in mid-life, we experience a deeper level of this death, what I think of as the death of our dreams. We find out that some things we assumed would happen in life, or dearly hopes would happen, just aren’t going to happen. And we find out that even the good things of life – having a steady job, or raising kids, or owning a home, or getting married – these things have their downsides too. Sometimes they’re great, but sometimes they just suck. Maybe life, or at least maybe our life, isn’t all that we hoped it would be.

And then as we age, we inevitably face the death of our bodies. We get aches and pains, our parents die, someday we have to get ready to die ourselves. We’ll get tossed onto that cart and won’t have anything to say about it.

And then all along, in every one of these life stages, we experience the death of certainty. We realize we don’t know what we’re doing, and maybe nobody else does, and nobody’s coming to rescue us.

Bleak, huh?

The other week I must have said something about feeling alone in this world to my therapist, but instead of offering comfort, she said something like — well, get used to it, because we all come into this world alone and we go out of it alone too.

And I didn’t say this, but I thought to myself: you’re fired. That’s the gloomiest thing to say.

Is Death all there is to Life?

So is this it?

Is life an ongoing story of increasing death, suffered alone? Or is there something more — something that can help us say wait, I’m not dead yet! And have it be true.

This spring we’ve been talking about passion and courage, and today we’re going to talk about the passion and courage it takes to look for resurrection — to look to God to find life growing out of death, both literally and metaphorically.

We’ve been looking at some Old Testament narratives and asking what people find in God that gives them passion and courage. And without planning it this way, much of these series has been a look at some courageous women of the Old Testament — as Ivy and Lydia and I have each told the story of one of the Bible’s less famous women of passion and courage.

Today, I want to revisit the story of the one of the most famous — maybe the most famous women — of the Old Testament: a woman who had the courage to hope for resurrection, to trust God that life could grow where only loss and the death of dreams seemed realistic.

We’ll read one story from the life of Sarah and then a brief reflection from the New Testament on what was going on here. Here we go. Our first story comes from the Bible’s first book of Genesis, in the account of Abraham and Sarah, this couple that wander across the Ancient Near East because of a promise they believed God had given them and their descendants – a promise of land, and legacy, and blessing to them and through them to the whole world.

The only problem was there were no actual descendants. They were getting on in years and still had no child.

God had given Abraham and Sarah hope for a child, but years and years have passed, and that hope was slowly dying a long and complicated death. When one day, three visitors stop by Abraham and Sarah’s house, or their tent, really:

Genesis 18:9-15 (NRSV)

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The visitors – strangers to Abraham and Sarah – reiterate what they believe God had promised them: that in due season, they will have a baby boy who will carry God’s promises on to the next generation and beyond.

And I don’t know what Abraham’s reaction is, we don’t get it because Sarah’s is so strong. And I love it, she’s like, Ha! That “due season” you’re talking about has come and gone. Maybe it’s a bitter day for her, and she laughs that cynical laugh of resentment in the face of the naïve. Or maybe it’s a good day, and she’s not especially upset, but she just chuckles at how ridiculous this hope sounds. Maybe she’s thinking of the pleasure of raising a baby, a hope she’s long let die in her. Or maybe – scholars wonder – she’s thinking even of sexual pleasure, chuckling that the baby ain’t happening when they’re not even motivated to be intimate anymore.

Either way, though, the messengers catch it. They see or hear the laugh, even when Sarah’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to admit it.

Some people have wondered if they’re angry, the way they point out — oh no, you sure did laugh — or they wonder if God would be angry at Sarah for laughing, for not believing God would have power to do this thing God has promised.

But that doesn’t make sense to me. The messengers don’t criticize Sarah, and God’s not cursing her or anything. She’s hearing a reiteration of God’s impossible, unlikely blessing for her.

It’s like the messengers – which by tradition are angels, or even the presence of God personified – are saying: no, really, we saw you laugh, and that’s OK, it seems ridiculous, but this is what God does.

God is a God worthy of ridiculous hope

Hundreds of years after Genesis was written, an earlier follower of Jesus writes a Midrash, an ancient Jewish style of commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, which seeks to elucidate the original texts but sometimes add a new point of view or insight as well.

The 11th chapter of this book of Midrash, called Hebrews, is a meditation on faith, looking at these ancient people of passion and courage, Abraham and Sarah included.

And the bit on Sarah says that God is a God worthy of ridiculous hope, because God is a God of resurrection.

Read with me:

Hebrews 11:11-12 (NRSV)

11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

Where we are as good as dead, God sees possibility. Where we experience barrenness, God sees the potential for new life. And not just scrappy, just eking out an existence kind of life, but teeming life. Descendants as many as the stars are coming from this barren womb.

Infertile couples having babies, is something of a motif in the Bible. It’s not just Sarah, but Rachel, and Hannah, and Elizabeth, and more. These stories get a spotlight on them, not just because of what they meant to the people involved but because of what they say about God, and about the logic of ridiculous hope. This is where the poetry about rivers in the desert comes from. And this story of a powerful God making the impossible possible comes to a climax in the Bible’s story of Jesus’ life after death — in that resurrection that centers the New Testament and becomes the more important moment in the prayer life and in the good news celebration of the early church communities.

Jesus is alive. God is a God of resurrection. In the face of our dying lives in a dying world, there are grounds for ridiculous hope.

We’ve seen this in our own church community, over just our twenty years. Just last week, someone told me another story of hearing our announcement for prayer we give after the sermon every week, and she said, they named my issue, and I went for prayer, and I was better. Oh, my God, it worked kind of miraculously! I hear those stories a lot. We’ve had our share of what seem like miraculous pregnancy stories. In many ways, the existence of this community as what we are today is a whole series of unlikely dreams coming true.

We’ve appreciated the stunning surprises of living with a God of resurrection around here.

But of course, our own experience in this community, your own as well, I’m sure is that most of the time dying things do in fact die. People that can’t have kids most often continue to not be able to have kids. Deserts usually stay dry. That’s just the way it is.

Even in Hebrews, the text goes on – just after what we read – to say that most of the heroes of faith being discussed don’t quite see the fulfillment of what they’d hoped for in God. It says, “These died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They saw God work enough to know a living God – look there, off in the horizon, if you squint a bit, there’s God. But not enough to have all their dreams come true.

So faith, paradoxically, calls for both ridiculous hope, but also radical acceptance: Hope that God can bring life out of death, and acceptance that even in death, God can be there as well with something good.

I know, this might seem hard to get your mind around at first. Like I’m encouraging two opposites and calling them both faith. How can we practice radical acceptance and ridiculous hope at the same time? Let me tell you a story.

Radical Acceptance of Death

This story is about an 80-year old woman who thought she had found love again.

Allene had been widowed just after 70, and she says by the time she hit 80, her life was pretty desolate, until she met a man who just lit up her world. It was at a senior center on the West Coast. She spent time at the center on her annual visit to her son who lived nearby, met a man there that she really liked and got his phone number. After she went home, they began speaking over the phone every night. Their calls got more and more intimate, more romantic. Allene had been married for 51 years until her husband’s death, had only ever loved one man in her life, but now she was falling in love again.

She and Larry began writing stories together, and in one of the stories featured a man who was a retired long-haul truck driver. In the story, he impulsively drives across the country to meet a woman he’d fallen in love with. Larry had himself been a long-haul truck driver, so when the nightly phone calls stopped for a couple of days, Allene was certain that in her real life, Larry was about to show up at her door, having driven across the whole country to see her.

Problem was, more days and weeks went by without a word from Larry, until eventually he sent a note that he had met somebody else, and that he and Allene should just be friendly like a brother and a sister. And in case she wondered if he’d change his mind, he told her he was marrying the other woman.

This second chance at falling in love was over.

Just when Allene felt she had found a new lease on life through finding love again, her hopes were crushed. This dream, like her first marriage, died.

What was Allene to do? Hope against hope that things with Larry would turn around? Pray that this woman he was marrying would die, like his first wife? That wouldn’t seem likely, or kind, or right, really.

In this case, Allene had to accept the death of this particular dream.

But interestingly enough, in this case, radical acceptance of one death opened her up for a different kind of resurrection. See, in falling in love again, Allene put herself at risk for rejection and loss and disappointment, as we all do when we fall in love. And the worst had happened here.

But it wasn’t all bad, because it also stirred a broader hope in her that at 80, her life was not over. There could be a next and better chapter left in her.

In her case, she met the folks behind this project called Change Agent, who told her about a simple tool for finding your next chapter in your life. They told her about this tool of making three lists. Make a list of what you love, and what you love about your life. Then make a list of what you hate in life – again generally, and in your life in particular. And Allene made these lists, and she – like most of us – had lots to say. Then finally, she was told to make a list of what she really wanted. Turns out the “what you love” and “what you hate” lists are really just kind of warm-ups to ground you before making this third list of what you want.

And this third list was full of discovery for Allene because she realized that falling in love again was really just one path toward the deeper want that she had, which was to experience joy and connection, and to find that in part by making other people’s lives light up, and through physical connection.

She said elderly people at senior centers don’t like a lot of touch. When she’d ask for or offer hugs at her senior center, she wouldn’t get many takers. But she realized, people’s hands were sore, and people would let you touch their hands. So instead of looking for love again, Allene got training as a massager of hands.

It was pretty easy for her to learn, and in massaging the hands of elderly people, she discovered that she could keep the openness to other people she had found through falling in love again, and could experience physical touch and connection, and profound joy, as she spread her openness and connection to other people, who appreciated it.

This was a kind of earthly resurrection for Alene — a hope she didn’t know she had fulfilled, that only came after acceptance of another hope dashed.

On her next visit to her son, she even got a chance to give hand massages to Larry and his new wife, to be honest about her disappointment to them both, but to move on and enjoy their friendship.

Sarah in our Bible text laughs at the possibility of her dream of a son coming true. And when, against all odds, she gets pregnant and gives birth to a healthy baby boy, she names him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. Sarah keeps laughing with wonder and delight, as God fulfills her ridiculous hope that once had died.

Allene thought the life she wanted lay in falling in love again. But in the connection of many friends, rather than one romantic partner, and in the physical touch of hand massage, she found joy, and a life in her 80s that she really loves. She laughs herself when she talks about how happy and fulfilled she is now, and about the road that got her there.

I found Allene’s story so inspiring, that even in her elder years, she dared not to just muddle through to the end. But even when life pushed her to a kind of radical acceptance of loss and limitation, she let hope stir for a life she could love.

This mix of radical acceptance and ridiculous hope isn’t just the stuff of podcasts, it’s personal to me. In the first talk in this series, I taught that self-acceptance creates the possibility for self-transcendence.

I took a couple of days off early this week to visit one of my best friends and his family out of state. This is a guy who was the best man in my wedding and who’s been a good friend for 25 years now. One of a really short list of friends I’ve known that long.

And as we caught up on some of the deeper elements of our personal journeys, the kind of stuff that’s easier to talk about in person than over the phone, I was struck by how good God has been to both of us in some of the precise places where we’ve needed to accept loss and disappointment in life.

I won’t share details, but between us, radical acceptance of significant personal shortcomings and flaws, of professional blows, of relational losses and betrayals, has opened us up to new and deeper work of God, satisfaction and new life in forms we hadn’t quite expected.

I find this again and again to be true in people’s lives. As a pastor, I hear people talk again and again about the challenges and disappointments of their life circumstances. A lot of the deeper conversations I have with people are sparked by their disappointment or confusion about some aspect of the state of the world at large or the state of their lives.

And as they map this dying life they’re describing, the ones who look like they’re finding their way toward joy are honest about it. They’re not fighting reality but are moving toward a kind of radical acceptance of the way things are. And yet the ones who are moving toward joy are also doing what Allene and Sarah both did. They’re asking what could a resurrection working God still do here? What ridiculous hope do I still dare to hold?

What could happen in my life to make me laugh again, and keep on laughing through death itself into the final resurrection, when death is no more and all things are renewed?

I’d love to close us with a chance for us to ask these questions. I have a dare for you and then two questions for meditation and reflection, to see what a resurrection-loving God might stir in us.

Can we try together?

OK, first I invite you as you look at your life, to embrace it with passion and courage.

Try This:

  • Dare not to just muddle through.

You’re not dead yet. There is still more connection, more joy, more satisfaction, more life to be found.

And now let’s take a minute to meditate on two questions.

  • Radical acceptance – Where are you called to accept your dying life?
  • Ridiculous hope – Where is God inviting you to laughter-sparking resurrection?

The Daughters of Zelophehad

When I was 16 year old, living in Wichita, Kansas, freshman year in high school, I got a chance to join a group of teen leaders, call The Wichita’s Promise Youth Council. Each high school had 2 representatives throughout the city and about 20 of us were brought together to tackle issues that adolescents faced in our city. We arranged a focus study to be done throughout various youth groups, juvenile intakes, teen programs and asked, “what are top 3 issues we teens face today?”

The result of the focus study tallied to #1. Nothing to do, 2. Teen pregnancy, 3. Drugs.

From the study, we concluded that teen pregnancy and drugs stemmed from the first issue, because when you have nothing to do that’s fun or healthy, kids end up having sex and doing drugs. From our finding we presented a solution, to come up with a club for teens. It would have a dance floor with a DJ and lights, a game section with arcades and pool table, and even an information center where you can get pamphlets about STD’s and drugs. The proposal was taken to the city council. We got to present at the city council meeting, we were even on TV! And got a grant to build a club! We shopped around for venues and found an old country line dancing club that was closing down, and turned it into the teen club. I don’t remember how we did all this. I only remember having one adult staff who helped us out. But it’s one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had, where I discovered that if you voice your concerns and take action to solve problems, it can be done.

This is one of the reasons why today’s Bible story is so interesting to me. We’ve been in the series called The Ways of Passion and Courage, highlighting some stories from the Old Testament that don’t get told too often. This story, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad is from the book of Numbers. The name of the book really doesn’t sell it. Like, who’s gonna read a book called, Spreadsheets.  It does have a lot of Numbers. Alot of census and lists of clans and descendents. Numbers is a part of the Books of the Laws, that follow Exodus, after the Isrealites leave Egypt, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy capture much of the rules and law, that set their nation apart, as a unique people of God. It sought to create new ways to live as a small growing nation, finding and setting boundaries and guidelines to exist as a people. And today’s story captures 5 women who had the courage to speak out about the injustice of their existing inheritance laws. I think the story can show us a few things about how we too can participate in the law of God. I want to invite us to take a look through 3 different perspectives, First, seeing how the daughters carried out their actions and what we can learn from their ways, Second, how Moses and the leaders responded,  from the perspective of those in power to see how those of us with privilege can respond, and Third, how God invites us to join in and abide in God’s law and what that means. So 3 points, 1 what are the daughters doing, 2, what Moses is doing, 3 what God’s doing.


So, the daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. I love that the Bible included their names. Like last week’s story that pastor Ivy shared about the 2 midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, names of female characters in the Bible are significant, especially because they were often left out, like the woman at the well, the bleeding woman, or most the genealogy records. Verse 3 says that they approached, “the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly”. This is significant that they approached this place, because the Tent of Meeting was the tabernacle entrance, which means, “dwelling” or “presence”, meaning where God dwelled. A holy sacred place. It’s where only the leaders of the leaders were allowed in. There were a few different names of this area, some called it the Holy of Holies, it might have also referred to even Moses’ personal tent. Either way, it’s not a place definitely any women would think to enter.


When I first arrived to Reservoir, Steve gave me a tour of the building and gave me some history behind it. One of the most striking things that I immediately fell in love with was this sanctuary right here. I remembered learning in seminary the careful theological reflections that were thoughtfully implemented in the architecture of sacred buildings like this. That the ceilings were built high, to draw our eyes up, to gaze upon the high and lofty one. It sure is beautiful, and I don’t know if you know how lucky we are to be able to worship weekly in such a beautiful building. But what I loved the most was the story of when Reservoir came in. That originally this was the back of the sanctuary, and the dome you see behind yourself was the front. Renovations were made after some miraculous fundraising campaigns I hear, to close the back entrance up, and make the dome the front where everyone entered through. Now, I don’t know if that was a theological decision, but it meant something so beautiful to me. That the place where only the priests would stand, were opened wide for all to enter through, making us priesthood of all believers, having access to God, all who enter those doors, a royal priesthood. I loved that. As Jesus said, “so the last will be first and first will be last”.

If you’ve ever been left out, rejected, glazed over, this is good news to you. That’s why Jesus offended so many of those who were not outcasts. Those with power. To me, the Gospel offers such good news especially as a woman. Jesus was always turning things upside down. You see, I grew up in asian culture that really reinforces hierarchy. I think there’s some good and bad to it, but just to give you an example, the culture is that whenever you meet someone, you should assume that they are at first older than you and speak in the formal manner of the language. That’s respect. If they are truly older, there’s a lot of random, even not too antiquated rules like, when you are at a bar drinking with an older person, you would cheers and then younger person would have to turn away to drink. Really!

Growing up at the dinner table, you weren’t supposed to touch, lift your silverware, and start eating until the oldest person had done so. There are bazillion little hierarchy rules like this. And some I still respect, but some were difficult. It means that many daughters grew up with less respect and adoration from adults than sons.

And not even in just my culture but, in my religion, I’ve been told by some that I shouldn’t be a pastor, that I shouldn’t teach or preach because women aren’t supposed to speak in church, because they decided to do a reading of Paul’s letter to a specific congregation having conflict especially with women that were causing trouble, to mean it as a rule for all women in all church for the rest of time. But look at me now. preaching . At the the back of the sanctuary that’s been turned upside down by the miracles of Jesus. I’m so honored to be here and share my gifts and my passions with you today. And I do it with great respect and humility. That I know it wasn’t my “RIGHT” to be here, but a gift. That God’s great mercy to me, a sinner was to restore me to one who bears God’s image, a child of God. None of us deserves to be the first.


That’s why I all the more respect how the daughters handled the situation. They come to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and says, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relative.” You see their plea was to honor their father. They sought to restore their father’s name. They defended his name, pointing out the fact that he was not part of the rebellion that had been going on apparently with this guy name Korah. They called to his innocence in this matter and appealed their inheritance for his sake. How wise and persuasive they were! And it was probably a smart and witty way to approach these men. They were humble and respectful, even in the face of injustice. I think THAT takes courage. Courage doesn’t look like a superhero rising up with epic music in the background and muscles in tights. Real courage sometimes looks like stooping low, with a bowed head, in humble posture of service.

And for these daughters, this isn’t even an inconvenience or a small thing, it would have been a tragedy for them,  because without the inheritance, they would been left with no home, even pushed out of the land. Their family just journeyed 40 years through the desert, coming out of slavery in Egypt, and right when they were getting to the promise land, they would’ve been excluded. Just after losing their father, now about to lose their house. But even in this desperate situation, their courage was to not lose themselves to anger in the face of unfairness, but taking extra care to put on graciousness and respect. I respect that.


So, upon hearing the daughters’ plea, how did Moses respond? V. 5 says, “so Moses brought their case before the Lord.” His response was first take it to God. Maybe he didn’t know how to respond. He might even have been offended that the women showed up to the leaders meeting unannounced. They probably weren’t on the agenda and he probably had to deal with the other elders who demanded some order and rebuke for the situation. Not knowing what to do, Moses took it to the Lord. He was probably conflicted and unsure what the right decision was. It had always been passed on to next of kin who’s male. It had never been done this way. Daughters were never the heirs of land. Leaders who really listen to the voice of the oppressed absolutely have to rely on courage to be able to carry out the just way. Giving the land to the daughters was not just a matter of generosity or charity. It rubbed up their very laws that sought to mirror God’s just ways for God’s people. Justice work doesn’t come easy. It may not even be obvious. It’s different from doing good works, volunteering, or even helping the needy. Deep transformative life changing justice work may conflict with what seems even natural. What was traditionally thought as lawful was challenged by people’s experiences and voices crying out.

Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and pastor from 1930’s talked about justice rooted deep in love, in his work, Love and Justice. He says,

“Justice requires discriminate judgement between conflicting claims.” And he  talked about various forms in which love can be expressed, including in the form of charity or philanthropy, making the case for a higher form of love as doing justice.  He says, “Love in the form of philanthropy is, in fact, on a lower level than a high form of justice. For philanthropy is given to those who make no claims against us, who do not challenge our goodness or disinterestedness. An act of philanthropy may thus be an expression of both power and moral complacency. An Act of justice on the hand requires the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.”

Mere good works doesn’t take courage. But to really hear someone, that you may not agree with at first, and listen to the cries of the oppressed actually takes, courage. Because it challenges us. Because it conflicts with what we thought we knew, what we were comfortable with. And when we are challenged and conflicted, we can take the issue and our conflicted hearts to the Lord, trusting that the Holy Spirit is alive within us to speak truth to our times. To submit our knowledge to the work of the Spirit takes courage, the courage to be humbled, the courage to take a cost to ourselves. And not only so, it gives us the power to love, not with giveaways in ways that’s convenient to us but to love sacrificially towards retributive, restorative justice for others.

You might be thinking, yeah leaders and people in power need to hear this! And I’m like the daughters of Zelophehad, I need to speak up with courage. But I want you to imagine that you are Moses for a moment. Because actually many of us, are in place of power. And we hear the voices but we just say, well I’m not in power. Yes you are. Right where you are, you always have the power to stand up for those who have even less voice than you. What does it look like for you to speak up to stir things in your systems, that’s frankly worked for you? When a woman shows discomfort with sexual jokes, maybe you weren’t offended, do you say something to the guy? When someone’s idea gets co-opted by someone else in a meeting, do you point it out? When the housing market doesn’t affect you, do you hear stories of struggles for those who can’t afford a home? We hold so much power actually in various fields of industry and realms of privilege. When someone speaks up about their experience and it doesn’t affect you, what do you do about it? It might take courage to even try to get passionate about it. Do you get passionate about injustices that doesn’t affect you? Do you care?

I think there’s something to be learned about the way Moses handled the situation. He was humble enough to not immediately respond but wrestle the issue with God and hear from God where he should stand on this issue. How can we do that with the issues that are brought to us? With the voices of oppression that you see and hear? How can you bring their concerns to your conversation with God? Wrestling on their behalf?

Last point, What is God doing in this story? God is promising us, even the least likely ones of us, to be the heirs of the land. The inheritance of the land to the daughters has real spiritual significance because the promise land, Cannan, was not only a place to live but an actualized dream of New Jerusalem where God was in fellowship with God’s people. It wasn’t just about land but relationship. Not only does God say that the daughters of the Zelophehad are right in what they are saying, but God goes further to to make the decree a law of the land, permanently. It says, v. 11, “you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it.” Nearest kinsman. Here, in this story, even the daughters are counted as kin. This is how God’s land works. We are all kins.

In the last few decades biblical scholars have come to wrestle with a word that’s central to the Gospel, the kingdom of God. This word, “kingdom” is used in our english translation of the Bible to describe God’s reign. God’s realm. A land that is under God’s love and God’s law. But it’s also been problematic word, as word often get, due to things lost in translation, which as a bilingual person, trust me ALOTS can get lost in translation and some things just do not translate. Like there are Korean pun jokes that are so funny but I cannot explain to most of you. Like what did the car say to the bread? Bang bang! Because bread in korean is, bang, and the onomatopoeia of a car horn in Korean is ppang, so it’s funny. But see, not that funny. Anyways, I digress.

The word “kingdom” has its roots in human structure of governance. It draws from the familiar economy of power known to mankind, where a king rules and the people his subjects. However the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was a whole new different kind of place than we could imagine. It was actually like an un-kingdom, an anti-kingdom, where peace reigned. But Kingdom still conjures up our historical memories of power, war, hierarchy, domination, which goes to undermine the heart of God’s promised land. It’s inaccurate.

Nowadays many strands of theologians have begun to use the word kin-dom, k, i, n, like kinship or kinsman. It was popularized by a mujerista theologian named Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who bore theology out of the experiences of Latina women in America. Her work of expounding on the kin-dom is biblically rooted in the faith that God does not seek to oppress us but to liberate us into living a radically different lives than the one we know, that we are all kins, family. In Matthew 12:49, Jesus, when he was with his disciples, pointed to them saying, “these are my mother and brothers.”  It is the interrelatedness that defines us as children of God. It’s not how to be, it’s who we are. The kingdom of God isn’t about what law to follow, the point is that we are God’s own children. Which changes everything about how we should live! You are God’s beloved daughter. You are God’s beloved son. You will have my inheritance. Do you believe that?

The story the daughters of Zelophehad invites us to be completely a part of, without exclusion, as one of God’s own children, in the kin-dom of God. What is God doing in this story? God is making us heirs to the kin-dom.

Let me wrap up and summarize with the fill in in our program.

Like the daughters of Zelophehad, let us seek justice with humility.

Like Moses and the leaders, let us listen to the voice of the oppressed and bring their case before the Lord.

But above all, Remember, God’s promise, that God welcomes all. No one is excluded. And YOU, YOU have a place in the kin-dom of God.

May we live our lives deeply rooted in the knowledge of this, as we usher in and participate in the kin-dom of God here and now.


Jesus you are the light of the world. What are mere human beings that you are mindful of them? Oh that’s right, you have adopted us as your children. And you delight in us. You love us. You’re so in love with us that you gave everything up for us. Help us to receive you now, and again, to welcome you in our lives daily, to every part of our lives, with you kindness, your law, and your love. We pray, Amen.

Shiphrah and Puah: The Courage to Say “And”

(This talk was totally inspired by the amazing, courageous stories from women speakers at the Why Christian conference, 2018).

Courage: the Core Virtue

We are in this great new series, called “The Ways of Passion and Courage” – where we are dipping into some stories from the Old Testament – some of which you may have heard before and some less well-known.  

As we were framing this series – my mind raced to the flashy, well-known, acutely courageous stories of the Old Testament. It was easy for me to gravitate to the stories of David & Goliath, or Moses, or Daniel, or Noah. These are undoubtedly courageous stories that are wrapped in moments of history that we tend to remember that involve decrees, and battles and moments of high drama.

But I want to poke at courage from another angle, a courage that looks a little more subtle and a little more present in our ordinary lives – day in and day out. I think this angle on courage – can help us access courage and see ourselves as courageous beings a little more regularly.

Maya Angelou speaks of this kind of courage – that I’m going to get at today i think,  she says:

“I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.”

Courage seems to be the source and steady undercurrent for all the ways Jesus calls us to engage with the world around us.

Courage seems to be the source – and steady undercurrent for all the ways we hope to engage with the world around us.  


Sometimes I think that we might be our own stumbling blocks to courage — that our own limits of courage are our definitions of it.  And, even more, that our definitions tend to skew toward a binary way of defining it. Either I’m “with” or “without” courage.  “Courage” is attached to an outcome that looks like success. It leads to a heroic triumph or visible changeAnd in some cases this is how courage looks, but I think the risk is that we miss a whole lot of moments of courage in-between.

That’s why today I’d love to look at two women — two midwives — from the Old Testament whose names are Shiphrah and Puah, who I think can break open a whole host of helpful ways to think about courage. Their manner of courage isn’t limited to the binary framework of “either/or”, but one that takes over this in-between space — most of their lives — and is anchored to their utter belief in and embodiment of God.

If you’ve never heard the names – Shiphrah and Puah – fear not!  At the beginning of the week I was with a bunch of pastors from this small cohort of churches that we are a part of called Blue Ocean Faith. And when I mentioned that I’d most likely be speaking about these two women, I thought I read a bit of panic on their faces… “who?”…blank stare — “wait – who you are talking about?”

Courage in My Story

So before we get to the story of Shiphrah and Puah, I want to tell you two quick vignettes from my own life. Two that popped to mind immediately as I thought courage in my narrative.

Vignette #1:  Some 20ish years ago I was a Junior in HS and was taking a pretty rigorous math class. I think it was an honors pre-calc class.

It was pretty clear early on in the semester that I wasn’t doing well — like really not doing well — hovering around a D average.

I thought I was the only one.

Turns out aside from 3 geniuses – the rest of the class was failing. Turns out that this was a pattern in this class, over the years, with this particular teacher.

We start to ask for more in-class teaching/explanation.  And after-school time. The teacher thinks that’s preposterous – “It’s the way his system has always worked”.

I think this response is preposterous and I organize a walk-out.

The day following, at the beginning of class, we all get up, pile our textbooks on his desk and walk out of the classroom down the hall to the principal’s office, to talk directly to the principal about some sort of mode of action going forward that might help promote better teaching and learning.

Vignette #2: Just a couple of weeks ago I went to a inter-denominational gathering in NC that invited a myriad of voices to answer the question “Why are you still a follower of Jesus?” Many of the stories we heard that weekend – were stories of deep pain as a result of skin color, gender, sexual orientation and physical sickness, but stories that did not shy away from the REALNESS of Jesus.  Incredibly beautiful, liberated and loving voices that had taken life head on – and were walking upright – it was really inspiring. (Full of agency and power and all the credit to Jesus — wow!) I left wanting to harness this collective courage.

The morning I left – I walked to the hotel check-out desk at 4am.

Right away I noticed the woman who was behind the desk – was being “chatted up” by a man .

As I approached to hand over my key, it became clear that this man was a guest at the hotel, not an employee. He asked where I was headed.  When I told him “Boston”, he quickly did a really poor impression of Mark Wahlberg and then asked me my room number.

I left the desk, headed to get coffee in the side room, mulling over what I should do on my way back through the lobby.

A few minutes later I walked straight by the front desk and to the exit door, where the hotel bell-hop opened the door for me.

As I went through the doorway, I turned to the bellhop/doorman and said “Is she ok?”

OK – I’m going to pause there with these two vignettes and head straight to the story of Shiphrah and Puah, before I fold them back in for what will hopefully at that point make a little more sense.

The Courageous Midwives

Where we often come close to the story of Shiphrah and Puah is with the story of Moses.  Many of you probably have heard the epic story of Moses – this Hebrew baby that was drawn from the water and raised in Pharoah’s courts and becomes not a prince, but a liberator of his people. These peopl are the Israelites, who have been enslaved and considered less than human by the Egyptians. It’s the story of the great exodus from Egypt into the promised land.

This story of Moses is the one we know… But we don’t know the story of  Shiphrah and Puah – the story that sets the stage for Moses to live, and determines the fate of an entire people.

So let’s read the story found on your program:
Exodus 1

8Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13and worked them ruthlessly. 14They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16“When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.

A little context to where we pick up here: the Israelites had moved to Egypt during a time of famine and starvation. Joseph, who had been sold into slavery in Egypt as a result of his jealous brother’s action, had helped the Israelites land here. Joseph’s time in Egypt was blessed by God, and he worked his way into high standing in Egypt, and the Israelites fared well. And for a while the Israelites and Egyptians coexisted without (that much) trouble.

Soon, though, a new King came in to Egypt, and it says “He did not know Joseph”. This means he didn’t know Joseph’s people or his God, and therefore he looked out at the Israelites with fear and suspicion and saw them as a threat, as the “other”.   

He attempts to limit the growth of the Hebrews, who only seem to grow in number, by dehumanizing them in systemic ways — by slavery, and forced labor, and oppression.  These attempts, however, don’t seem to make a difference to keep them down either.

So Pharoah enacts a fear campaign,  “What if we were attacked by our enemies and these growing number of Israelites join sides with our enemies?” “We would be crushed!” And this fear messaging starts to shift the opinion of his people and there’s more of a widespread buy-in to oppress and segregate.

Pharaoh’s xenophobia pushes him to take drastic measure to ensure these “outsiders” do not one day take over the land, and his latest attempt, as we see here, is calling forth these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  Under government sanctions, Shiphrah and Puah are enlisted to participate in the extermination of Hebrew baby boys — to bring death to the world around them.

Now, the text reads that these women were Hebrew midwives. And yet, there’s a lot of conversation among scholars that suggests that these women were in fact Egyptian, but attended the birth of Hebrew women.  So they were midwives to Hebrew women.

I’m inclined to agree with this take – it makes sense to me that Pharoah would want his own “people” to carry out this decree.

This means  Shiphrah and Puah likely attended both Hebrew and Egyptian births. And midwives were often thought to be women who couldn’t have children themselves, so they were often pushed to the edges of society. Shiphrah and Puah are though to have possibly been Nubian midwives, from now Northern Sudan (reference:  Ebony Johanna), meaning that their relationships — throughout their vocational lives — spanned cultural and geographical lines.

A midwife’s primary role is to usher in life, regardless of status, race or any other defining division — to assist, guide and protect life.

So Pharoah is quite strategic with his newest attempt to limit the growth of the Hebrews. He knows that these midwives are the touch-point to life or death. And he says, “choose death”.

I can imagine that Shiphrah and Puah run through a few scenarios in their minds.  Either we are courageous and we say “no” to Pharoah 1) “we refuse to follow Pharoah’s orders and we likely die and likely our friends and families also die”.

Or we aren’t courageous and we say “yes” to PHaroah 2)“we follow Pharoah’s orders  – we promote the sovereignty of our state – and by the work of our own hands, bring death to the next generation of Hebrew males”.

This either/or choice seems to not be a complete picture of what courage could look like.

Thankfully these midwives seem to know another way to courage deep within their spirit. And I think they utilize this tiny conjunction word: “and”. “Wait!  AND we fear God”.  We revere and love and trust our God.  This “AND” — this belief in God — seems to be a way of harnessing courage, and it seems as though it isn’t only found in this one high-stakes moment with Pharoah – but it’s been built and developed over their lives.

Fearing God helps them see beyond the binary — that courage is far more than a choice of saying “yes or no” to Pharaoh.  It’s instead about saying “and…yes”! to LIFE with God.

These midwives are courageous!  They are divinely defiant! They’re heroically brave in their refusal to kill baby boys,  they’re clever in their explanation to Pharaoh of why baby boys keep being born, “these Hebrew women are so strong and vigorous that they birth their babies before we can arrive!” This is courageous, and smart. That explanation isn’t just an excuse to buy them time – it’s a subversive move to uphold the strength and dignity of the Hebrew people to Pharaoh.

This is the part of the story we would remember — these 4 verses of Shiphrah and Puah — and it is super courageous. It is, after all, what sets the stage for the liberation of an entire people from Pharaoh.

But the subtler courage that let’s them say “and… I fear God” — that type of courage that is developed over time, that isn’t as bold as these few recorded verses — is the version of courage I want in my own life, and what I want to explore more today.

As I mentioned Shiphrah and Puah were likely midwives who attended their own people’s births, but also the births of their “perceived enemies”.

These midwives were involved deeply, deeply at the center of women and their  family’s stories. To just go in and assist at a birth – is not the way of the midwife. A midwife is one who identifies with pain, one who sits with people in pain, and holds hands with pain, and confronts spirits that are full of despair and want to “give up”.  

Day after day, birth after birth, they came along-side the “other” — these Hebrew women, who they should hate. And they take their hands and rub their backs, and they say again and again “and” there’s a way here, “and God”. This breaks open a deep belief that courage wells up from inside of us — that it’s not only found in taking on a piece of armor.  That their God is one who sits alongside of them too, is in their reality — A God who doesn’t just go to the margins to serve someone else – but ONE who LIVES at the margins.

These midwives do this! They live at the margins. And, in their vocation, take on a calling, an oath to “in all ways serve life”. And the courage they dip into is God’s, because they believe that He is truly with them. And they greet pain — the pain of childbirth, and the pain of injustice, and the pain of not being seen with these virtues of God and that Maya Angelou speaks of. This is birthed by courage to say “and my God” – he’s real.

I can wonder if we wrestle with this question in our lives — whether acutely or sub-consciously — does what I do matter?  Does it touch real life? Does it bring forth anything new or courageous into the world?

This midwives seem to encourage us that “yes” — wherever we are, whatever we do, whoever we talk to matters. If we do it with kindness, and generosity, and equity, backed by a God that is real, it all matters.

These thousands of moments where they  offer their laboring and birthing mothers cool washcloths to their foreheads, where they gently turn babies inside of wombs – where they listen closely for heartbeats, where they root for life with their encouraging words, “yes push”, “you are almost there”, “life is coming”.

These times of being so intimately close to life and so close to God flip our ingrained allergy of “both/and”, and re-wire our pathways to see GOD AND LIFE as one — beyond political/authoritative decrees or external circumstances that try to inject fear.

For Shiphrah and Puah, these moments compile and develop a courageous heart — one that doesn’t filter with external factors “Life or no life” or “Egyptian or Hebrew” or “male or female”. Instead the passion for justice and care for all of humanity comes from a posture of  “and” – and GOD.

Omid Safi (a Duke University professor of Islamic studies) said recently that this closeness (to God),  is what allows us to see that the

same love that pours out of God’s own being and brings us here, that sustains us here, that will take us back home. It is this same love that we recognize in other people, who love their babies and their community as we love our babies and our community. When we recognize this same love in one another, we will not stand for having something happen to other people’s babies and community that we wouldn’t want to have happen to ours. That is simply what we call justice — and this work of justice is a task of love. (Onbeing).

The courage to say “and… justice and love” must go hand and hand.  This is the powerful picture of courage that Shiphrah and Puah give us today, one that they still invite us to!

Courage in My Story (Again)

The two vignettes that I shared at the beginning of the sermon  are  interesting to me because they so totally show the ways that I want to categorize myself as being “with” courage or “without Courage”.

I never labeled them in my story-telling as one or the other, but I bet  even you sitting and listening could recognize your own mind categorizing one as “courageous”, and one as “not so courageous”.

In highschool, I was courageous –– I staged a walk out and brought awareness to something I felt was injust at the time. Three weeks ago I wasn’t courageous — I consciously exited a situation where I noticed an awkward dynamic that could have been helped by intervening in some way.

May be very true, but I think it’s a limited view of courage. I’m slowly beginning to realize that the question at hand isn’t either “Am I with courage?” or “Am I without courage?” Because likely on any given dayI am both/and courageous and not courageous.

The question is, “Can I harness the courage of a God that is always with me?”

If I can tip more toward this – I can see the hundreds to thousands of times throughout my days and my weeks  where courage is live.  It’s then that I can see the maybe quiet, less obvious moments of courage that happen all the time.

Otherwise – I think the threat of disparaging thoughts can take over –  “Am I only destined to be a prisoner to the pharoah’s of my day? Will I ever witness more than pain and heartache ?

But the words of Paul here in Ephesians, fill out my truncated thoughts with the power and realness of Jesus.

He reminds me that, I am not a prisoner of anyone else but of JESUS who wraps me in humility and gentleness and patience, who gives me courage to lean toward people with love with an eagerness of heart that seeks to maintain the unity of the Spirit — this powerful JESUS who makes a way, who provides the “both/and to my either/or” tendencies, for the bonding posture of peace — this I realized is the power of Jesus.

This I realized is the courage that Jesus can offer so many of you;

To stand up – get out of bed, walk into a day, into a society that sometimes in the words of Lucille Clifton, “will do everything it can to kill you”… that’s courage and triumph!

To stand up and get out of bed and meet the reality of your day, in a sick body — perhaps penetrated with disease, infection, cancer, a body that is trying to murder you day in and day out — this is courage.

Courage is to stand up and get out of bed. Period. Nothing else to follow – just that one act.  It is courage that is full of sweat. A courage that says “and” — and today, I will rise.

Because Jesus lives in the “AND” – right?  He doesn’t fit in the binary tracks of either/or… He lives in our reality – which encompasses a whole lot of  both/and!

This picture of everyday courage gives us the freedom to sit down and listen, even when speaking is heralded as a sign of power or intelligence. And also the permission to see that some days courage is to stand up and speak, because you’ve been away from the mic for too long.

Jesus makes way for a courage that is ever-present, running through our veins,  on the tips of our tongues, in the palms of our hands as we touch life around us, and in our feet as we roam this earth.

When we can say “and”, there’s another way here with Jesus, another way to keep helping birth new life, “ I can’t yet see it – you can’t yet see it, but it’s here!” It allows us, as it did for the midwives, to ignite our moral imagination.

Where we have the humility to see the world as it is around us  and the audacity and passion to imagine the world as it could be.

All of us and the Midwives

Us limiting our sense of courage, doesn’t serve the world. We are all called to be courageous.  And to believe that our everyday posture of heralding life in spaces where only death looks apparent, will produce change  somewhere down the line.

The outcome that Shiphrah and Puah witness after making their courageous move to not kill these Hebrew baby boys could have felt disappointing to them, because Pharaoh just keeps marching on with his plans to wipe out these babies, demanding that all his people throw them into the Nile River.

But what Shiphrah and Puah might not realize is that their story — their whole story of being women who courageously live at the margins, and who stand against power and oppression — will continue to be told. Their names will be kept alive and whispered among the Hebrew women, their names will be yelled out in the pains of labor, as sign-posts of resistance and hope, (when their land is vacant of it), and  their courage to say …. “and”… “and I fear God”, would give PHaroah’s daughter, and Moses’ sister and moses’ mother  the courage to protect & hide and find and nurse him to life….

These names of Shiphrah and Puah are recorded! We get to see them written down in the text that we read today! This show us that a lifetime of courage — harnessed with the Divine — is worth 3,000 years of remembrance and legacy, and still worth talking about today. While Pharaoh’s fearful acts of dominating power and authority leaves him nameless and less than 300 years of fame.

Perhaps our role is akin to the role of a midwife — to cherish other life as our own, to stand right where we are in our jobs, and roles, and play, and life — and reclaim these places, places of courage.   And to keep live the courage to say “AND” as we continue to find and preserve and nurture life — wherever we touch it.

Sermon Notes – How Do We Harness Courage?

    1. Weep with those who weep”. (Romans)
      Come close to those around you – at your job, your neighborhood – LEAN in.As Maya Angelou and Jesus tell us: Humility, compassion, empathy might be the most critical ingredients to a heart full of courage. Because they allow our hearts to be softened to people and their pain.  Just as Jesus does with us.

      Pay attention to your emotions: are you weeping? are you angry? These emotions they might just suggest what you are passionate about

      From there  — where you realize your heart is stirred — you can figure out where to move from there if you want. What are you willing to do about it? Where maybe are you already doing something in your everyday life

    2. Where can you utilize the word “and” ?
      This might mean you have to take some time to realize where you are categorizing life into either/or buckets.  Try out the word “and” in place of either/or this week – and see what it produces. 
    3. Seek wisdom from people who have diversity of viewpoints.
      It’s likely there were a whole bunch of midwives. We get Shiphrah and Puah because they feared GOD, but I imagine there was a lot of conversation that varied in opinion and viewpoints that helped shaped how Shiphrah and Puah would move forward as they did.
    4. Check in each day to see where it is God is real to you.
      This will anchor you in your high-stakes moments and in your everyday moments of courage…When God is more real to us than the powers we see around us and infront of us, we are better able to choose God’s way of courage – with love, life, peace and justice….

      This will help you believe that the “Pharaoh’s of this time and in this land”, will not kill your spirit.


    5. Write down the names of the courageous people who come to mind. 

      These are both your forerunners and perhaps your contemporaries.People who die have no control over who tells their stories, who remembers their names. So it’s an important role we play – to keep the narrative of courage alive in grounding, real stories.Shiphrah and Puah likely had a sticky-note stuck to their mirror with the names of their ancestors, Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel  – courageous woman whose names were whispered in their ears as flames of hope and movement when we can’t see it ahead of us.

      This is important because it keeps the name of Jesus alive, not just in our memory, but right now, as our unending reservoir of courage and passion.

Could Your Great Passion Be Hiding in Your Weakness?

Rev. Traci Blackmon’s Story

This past week I heard the Reverend Traci Blackmon speak at Boston University. She was there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was talking about the need for us to continue to do the work of justice that King was engaged in, particularly in his later years, and to do so with passion and courage.

But probably the moment that most gripped me wasn’t in the talk itself, but a trail from her own life she followed during the Q and A at the end. She was talking about how she ended up where she is today, a national voice for faith and justice, flying around the country, giving speeches this week.

And the story started maybe just 10 or 12 years ago, when she was a nurse who was also training to become a pastor. This was complicated by the fact that she was also a divorced mother of three school-aged children. As a single mom, a divorcee, a woman of color in St. Louis, she didn’t have a lot of give in her life in terms of time or money, or much of anything.

And there was this church with a vacancy for a pastor. It was out of her networks, but she drove by it every day – pretty big building, a historic church, and she had this strong sense that she should apply for the position. She thought this sense came from God, and maybe this would be a great job – a big church that could pay her full-time, so she wouldn’t have to keep working multiple jobs. Everything would work out. But she didn’t apply. And when she heard that someone else got the job, she felt terribly guilty, that she had ignored God’s voice. So she promised Jesus, I’m saying yes to anything from now on.

And the next day, she heard the person they had chosen for the job backed out. So she applied. And within a pretty quick period of time, they offered her the position. Thing was, she hadn’t visited yet on a Sunday. So she said, let me come to worship at the church, anonymously, no one needs to know who I am, before I decide whether or not to take the position.

The committee said fine, and she showed up on Sunday… and there were 12 people there for worship. 12. And she thought, my God, no, I can not come be the pastor of a church of 12 people. That is not going to work out for me and my family.

But she had made that promise to God, so she took the position. She had to keep working multiple jobs at that point, but since there wasn’t a lot to do pastoring a church of 12 people, she had time and energy to do stuff beyond the walls of the church. And one of the things she did was make it known to the neighborhood that anyone who needed a funeral could use their church building, and if they didn’t have a pastor, she’d be their pastor for it.

And one day, she met a family whose child had died, and she performed the funeral, and one of the ushers at the church gave Pastor Traci’s card to a woman who was a guest at the funeral, a friend of the young man who’d been killed.

For nearly a year after that funeral, she never called, but she kept that card with her until one day, she was one of the first people on the scene at the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. And she called Pastor Traci from the street that day and said we need you here.

Which is how Traci Blackmon ended up as the first pastor on the scene. Which is what propelled her to a position of leadership in the protests and activism that summer and fall four years ago, which in turn has led to all manner of opportunities for Pastor Traci to grow and work out of her passions for faith and justice, throughout St. Louis, and now throughout the country.

It started with a vulnerable person finding courage to say yes to God, even where that yes brushed up against this 12-person church that couldn’t provide for her and her children.

Courage: the virtue of virtues

The next few weeks we’re going to talk about courage and passion. As I pray for you all, over the past year, more and more I find myself praying for God to fill us with courage.

Courage has been considered one of the four primary virtues back to Aristotle (along with wisdom, temperance and justice). In the early Christian tradition, faith, hope and love were added to these, making courage one of 7 Christian virtues.

Sometimes courage has been seen as only the terrain of the brave or the strong (Greeks primarily thought of courage, for instance, when they thought about warriors.) But this isn’t right. Courage is more central thank that. (Without courage – fullness of heart – it’s hard to practice any of these virtues consistently or to practice them in hard times.) And I wonder sometimes if courage isn’t — with the help and strength of God — hiding right alongside our great weakness.

So for the next few weeks, Ivy and Lydia and I are going to retell some of the Old Testament’s, the Hebrew scriptures’ stories of passion and courage – some famous ones perhaps and some not so famous ones. And we’re going to tell you some other stories too and see what it is that people find in God that helps stir and activate great courage.

Gideon the… weak

Today we’re going to start with a story I love: the story of an unlikely leader named Gideon. It’s found in Judges, which is a collection of dark, violent, and mean stories from Israel’s tribal years. And so before I even read the excerpts from the start of the tale, I’ll warn you, it’s a story of violence. (So a heads up to parents and everybody, I suppose – in both the Gideon story and in another story I tell, there will be some violent turns.)

So with Gideon, Judges 6-8, first, it’s a tale of the violence being done to Israel by Midian – they are terrorized.

Then, when Gideon and Israel triumph over Midian in war, and they take Midian’s place as the conquerors, they act more or less the same – equally violent in their revenge.

And so, by the end of the three chapter long tale of Gideon, Israel returns to where they started, not really much better or worse off. Much as people from the ancients to us today think violence is going to fix violence, it never does. And Judges is no exception.

But as I read some parts of the beginning of this story, keep your ear out for something else, how this isn’t just a story of violence, but a story of fear and of courage.

Judges 6:11-16, 25-27, 34 (NRSV)

11Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13 Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15 He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 16 The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”

Do you hear the fear here? Israel is afraid because of their economic insecurity, their lack, and their problems.

And Gideon is the very image of that fear and insecurity: he’s working in hiding — the winepress, which was the technology of delight turned into the technology of survival and the only safe place to harvest wheat without it being stolen. And then Gideon is the least in a family that is least in the clans of the “least” of the youngest child of Jacob – the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, in his own eyes.

So what does God, or God’s messenger, have to say to all that? The messenger says, God is with you, you mighty warrior. I used to read this as God seeing more in Gideon than he can see in himself. This is what so many mentors did for me when I was a young man, to see more in me than I could see. And maybe this is so, God calling out the inner warrior in Gideon, the person of deep courage that he really is.

But more and more, I wonder if God doesn’t just see us as the weak and flawed things that we are and say, that’s OK, totally good enough, because I am with you. I wonder actually if the messenger is teasing Gideon a little, in an affectionate way. Hey, little guy, youngest of this not very impressive family, so scared you’re doing your chores in hiding, you mighty warrior you, it’s OK. You can have courage because I am with you. You don’t need anything else. That’s what the messenger keeps saying after all: you’ve got a job to do, and I’ll be with you.

God’s made peace with all that Gideon is and isn’t. And Gideon can have courage not because he’s all that, but because God is with him.

Let’s read a little more.

In the part we skip, Gideon is afraid this call isn’t from God and asks for a sign. Just because he’s stepping toward courage doesn’t mean he’s suddenly not afraid. Then when he realizes he’s encountering God, he’s afraid in a whole different way – ah, my God. And he’s told: don’t be afraid, have peace. (So Gideon builds an altar and names it “The Lord is Peace”.)

Later, when it’s time for Gideon to lead people into battle, he’ll only go after designing an elaborate test for God and even after that, God says, Go, but if you’re still afraid, sneak into your enemy’s camp. There, Gideon hears their fear, and only then takes action.

The battle itself is a study in the power of weakness and fear – Gideon’s army is reduced in size to the point of absurdity, so they will know they depend on God’s strength, and then they “fight” with trumpets, candles and empty jars – using fear to rout their enemies.

We’ll read on, though, to the first courageous thing Gideon has to do, before any battling.

25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it; 26 and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night.

34 But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.

At the beginning of this battle story, and popping up again later in it, there’s this sub-plot of idolatry: who Gideon and his family and clan worship is as important as their freedom and economic flourishing. Seems like an odd element to the story, unless we realize that it’s their awareness of the living God’s presence with them that’s going to give them courage, and that idolatry – the devotion to other gods or other things – is itself a story of fear.

The gods in this story are Asherah, the Ugartic mother goddess, and Baal, the next-generation supreme Canaanite fertility god.

Archaeologists find evidence of these idols everywhere in ancient Israel. They were really, really common, as if most houses, even after they were part of a community that worships the God of Israel, kept around an idol to Asherah too, just to hedge their bets.

Idols were born out of fear – you cover yourself by honoring many gods to make sure you have kids that live past childhood and a harvest that can feed your family.

I’ve read that idol construction went up when threats of war were on the horizon, as people in their fear and awareness of their own vulnerability, reached out to more and more gods to protect them.

In Gideon’s case, his fearful family worships Baal, and Gideon is called to help them lean into the God of Israel instead.

Gideon does this and is nick-named the Baal-fighter. And that’s when he’s available to the Spirit of God: weak, vulnerable, aware of his own fear, he trusts God is with him; and God is, stirring him to courage.

Ironically, later in life, Gideon – installed as a leader of his tribe – taxes the people of their gold, himself makes a golden image of his authority for people’s security, and his children return to Baal worship – the cycle of fear and distance from God continues on to the next generation.

Before that happens, though, I think there’s some stuff for us here.

Do you hear it?

  • Our vulnerability that we’re so desperate to eliminate or avoid is not our enemy. God’s made peace with all our weaknesses. It’s OK. The stuff of our lives, as they are, is enough for God to be alive and at work in. Reality is God’s friend.
  • In fact, the seeds of our passion are often found in our weakness and pain.
  • And our pain, our limits, our weakness, and an awareness of God’s presence can lead to great courage.

And maybe one more here, bonus round. For those of us trying to figure out where our passion will be found, what we should be investing our time and skills and heart into:

  • Maybe we don’t have to go looking for our life’s work; it has already come looking for us. It’s there to be found in the circumstances and needs of our lives, even sometimes in our own pain and weakness.

This reminds me of the story of one of America’s great, great citizens.

Ida Wells’s story

The New York Times recently has been running a series of obituaries for people who have long been dead.

You see, they realized that in remembering the deaths of great and famous people, they’ve played right along with the patriarchy and white supremacy of our country’s past. So they’ve been trying to make up for lost time, and publish the obituaries of great women generally, and great women of color, in particular. And of them was the obituary of the pioneering American journalist, Ida Wells.

Wells was born in Mississippi in the 1860s poorer than poor. Her family literally owned nothing.  Circumstances improved modestly in her childhood, but when she was a teenager, both her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. Ida was the oldest, at 16, and so she and the rest of her brothers and sisters were going to be split up and sent to foster homes. Desperate to keep her remaining family together, though, at 16 Ida found work as an elementary school teacher, and tag-teamed with one of her grandmothers to take care of her little brothers and sisters.

A couple of years later, Wells pulled a Rosa Parks on a train, long before there was a Rosa Parks, and when she was forced out of the segregated train car anyway, she won $500 in an anti-discrimination law suit. In the 1800s.

The decision was reversed by a higher court, though, and Ida Wells, a woman of great faith in God, cried out with words that could easily have been on the mouth of Gideon as well. She said:

I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no… justice in this land for us?

Things got worse before they got better, though. When she was 25, I believe, she was working as a journalist , not a teacher anymore, and a good friend of hers, Thomas Moss, was an entrepreneur. In Memphis, Tennessee, he’d opened up a Black-owned grocery store. And Ida Wells was such a good friend of the family, she was the godparent to Thomas Moss’ first child.

But White people in Memphis were so jealous of his success, that they invented charges against him, he was arrested and then lynched by a mob. Wells was devastated, of course. She wrote that there was nothing left for Black men and women in her community but to save up their money, and get out of towns that wouldn’t protect their persons or their property.

And after all she’d been through, we’d understand if Ida Wells had withdrawn someplace quiet and safe. By her mid-20s, she’d been through so much in life already, so much to challenge her safety and her flourishing and her faith in God. It’d be understandable if she gave up.

But instead, she found her life’s work. She found her passion.

Wells became one of our country’s first investigative journalists and forensic reporters, writing detailed, fact-based, highly researched accounts of White America’s lynching of Black Americans.

Today’s investigative journalists continue to use skills and techniques developed and honed by Wells in her work. In part because of her leadership, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced into Congress during and after her lifetime. None were passed in the Senate, because powerful blocs of White democrats resisted, but the word was out. The nation knew.

And this was one of the fires that simmered and created the passion and strength that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and our ongoing efforts for justice and flourishing for all peoples today.

Wells found her life’s work in the painful circumstances of her own story. And she found her courage, best as we can tell, in her deep and abiding faith in the God who was with her in person of Jesus. 

Finding your life mission

What is your life’s work? What are you passionate about? What part of that, I wonder, is still hiding in your own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears?

My own life mission is to help people and communities flourish. And for me, faith in Jesus, and education have been big parts of that. But this year, I’ve been looking for some new vision and direction in my life and work, and that’s brought me back to doing a lot of inner work this year: deep patterns of daily prayer and reflection and journal writing, regular therapy too. And all that’s taken me back first to some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, places I’d really rather not go.

But my therapist has had this interesting line she uses when talk about a block or struggle or weakness in my life. She’ll ask, Can you make peace with that? Can you turn off the critic, the inner judge, and be compassionate toward yourself? Knowing my faith, she’ll ask, What does the part of you that is one with God see in yourself?

And she asks this because she knows the part of me that is one with God sees what God sees: a man who even though I still have parts of me that are weak and vulnerable, is absolutely loved and treasured and delighted in. A person that may not be enough, but because God is with me, has more than enough, for everything I’m called to. More than enough, with the God who is with me.

Like me, like Gideon, I suspect that no matter how purposeful or purposeless you feel, most of your life’s work is already part of your life. It’s hiding in the challenges of your circumstances, the public things of the world that cause you pain or frustration, the longings and desires and needs you already know.

And I’m quite confident that when God looks at your limitations and vulnerabilities, even when God looks at your fears and anxieties and insecurities, God sees a kid that God loves. God sees you and says I am with you, you mighty warrior. You have all that I am, so you have more than enough.

Can you see this yet?


I want to give you three simple ways to see this more. And I suspect that for those of you that try this in the week to come, some of you are going to get something small but really good.

Some of you are going to find strength to do one courageous thing you need to do or want to do and that’s going to bring you and maybe someone else joy.

But maybe, just maybe, some of us are going to find some of our life’s work here, and the courage to go after it. Are you ready? Here are today’s closing invitations:


  • Self-acceptance is part of God’s self-transcendence. Make peace with your weakness. God already has.
  • Ask what one courageous next step God is leading you to take in your personal life.
  • Ask God for strength to see it through every single day until it is complete.