GBIO Housing Justice BIG Action

Lydia Shiu interviews Reservoir members about the importance of prayer, their involvement with GBIO and the upcoming GBIO Housing Justice BIG Action taking place on 3/3 from 3 – 4:30 at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center at 100 Malcom X Blvd in Roxbury, MA.

Prayer: An Invitation to Sit in the Disorientation

Psalm 13[a]

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome them,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for God has been good to me.

My laundry machine broke in the middle of a wash this week. I was wondering how I was going to start my sermon this week, and see, the Lord provides! A whole load, wet, and the spin button does nothing except make a sad little “wheee” noise. I had to squeeze and individually hang the clothes on a dry rack like we were in the 1950’s! And as I did that monotonous task I prayed. I prayed why Lord, in the middle of a load? I’m busy today and I’ve got a thousand things on my mind (probably more like just 20) but still, (prayers are meant to be a space where I can exaggerate my complaints).  And God you picked today to break my machine?!? 

I don’t know if that’s faith or foolishness, thinking that God timed and controlled my washing machine, but it’s probably not a healthy theology, one which I blame God for the inconveniences of my life. I wasn’t really serious about those thoughts. I moved on quickly to what I need to do, agency of thyself. I think prayer can do that for us. A sifting of our frivolous thoughts. Morning pages of our mumbled jumbled crazy unreasonable minute details. I think those are some of the best prayers to be honest. When we simply can talk through our emotions, move through our feelings about it, no matter how small or big, taking a journey, a movement through the ebbs and flows of life, the ups and downs. 

Whenever I think about prayer, I think about the Psalms.

  • Because there was a time when I didn’t know how to pray and reading through the Psalms helped me.
  • When I didn’t know how to speak to the reality of the situation truthfully, the Psalms did it clearly and boldly.
  • When I needed to whine and complain and say crazy things to God, Psalms did it better than me.
  • When I didn’t know how to land or affirm or turn back to God because I didn’t have the courage to say, “I trust in you God”, the Psalms invited me and nudged me and said it before I could.

Walter Bruggerman, a White American Old Testament scholar, and I say White because I realize when it’s Black or Asian-American I say that – so like to be fair and not like White is the norm, like a White scholar is just a scholar and Black scholar is a Black scholar. ANYWAYS, in his book, The Message of the Psalms, he talks about the Psalms in three categories. There are Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of new orientation or reorientation. Orientation meaning, for example, Psalm 1, a prayer that is sure. That speaks about God and life in black and white.

Blessed are the righteous and the wicked perish.

Bruggerman goes on to say that

though all of life starts there, simple, clear truths about God and life, but any life lived a bit knows and faces “disorientation”. Life that is marked by quote, “disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.”

So Psalms like today’s Psalm 13, begin to lean into the disorientation of life, to ask questions,

how long, why is it that I actually see the wicked prosper? 

It was these Psalms of disorientation that gave me the honest and real invitation to prayer that made me be able to actually pray at a moment in my life. Because there was a time when prayer was taught to me to be more about the sureness. The praising of God. The thanksgiving. The assurance of faith. The trust we have in God. And only that. I was not directly taught to question God or what to do with the disorientation, the inconsistencies, the incongruences I saw and experienced in the world, except that it was all God’s will, which was more confusing.

Bruggerman critiques such tradition- yes it does reinforce sturdy faith or a way of speaking prophetically what we don’t see in the world, but that at times churches taught this way of prayer of orientation, prayer of assurance as a way of numbing, denial, ignoring the realities of our lives.

He says,

“It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened,

numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the

disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation

seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our

culture.’ Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination

for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of

lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the


And I resonate with that. Sometimes cliche or resolution too complete with a bow on top didn’t feel quite right to me. 

So an aspect of prayer I think is an invitation to “loss of control.” It’s making wild accusations to God. Are you not listening? Are you just kind of forgetful? Or are you hiding? You’re nowhere to be found God! And these questions turn our hearts, and take us through where it needs to go through. Our faith, spirituality, and our feelings are not just magical black holes that appear in one place and reappear in a totally different place in an instant. We need the journey of praying-through. 

And only by going through that orientation and then disorientation, can we honestly and squarely land on a re-orientation. Where we can be honest about the pain and THEN say, like in verse 5

“BUT I trust in your unfailing love;”

In Psalm 73:23 it says,

“YET I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” 

It’s the BUT and YET that I find comfort in. Because without them, it just sounds like a nice throwaway statement that knows not the depth of my suffering or confusion. 

I want to stay a bit more on the disorientation though. Because as someone who feels like my negative thoughts had to be just powered through rather than held with tenderness, I think we could do more to create safer spaces of prayer for ourselves and one another. To not have to jump to conclusions, resolutions, or faith. But to be okay sitting in the grief, the anger, the questions. To REALLY trust God to be able to handle them. When I have faith, who needs help with prayer? When I’m strong, I know how to pray prayers of thanksgiving. But when I’m not, I have no words. That’s when I don’t know how to pray.

I remember one time I was complaining about something to my friend over text on Instagram messenger, I don’t know if different platforms have different vibes for me. I was angry and heartbroken about the world. I was distraught about the war that’s going on where people are being raped, enslaved, bombed, starved, and so forth. It’s weird in this day and age to be able to see the broadcasting of genocide right in my hands in the comfort of my own bed. It’s disturbing.

It felt good to tell her my rage and I took a sad selfie of me sitting on the floor crying, but it was one of those disappearing pictures of course. She replied with a picture from a book. It was a prayer. It was called Prayer of Anger and Confrontation from a book called Liturgies from Below: 462 acts of worship. Praying with People at the Ends of the World. 

I want to give you a quick background to the work so here’s what the book description says: 

It’s been said that prayer is the vocabulary of faith. This book offers a wealth of resources from forgotten places to help us create a new vocabulary for worship and prayer, one that is located amidst the poor and the major issues of violence and destruction around the world today. It is a collection of prayers, songs, rituals, rites of healing, Eucharistic and baptismal prayers, meditations and art from four continents: Asia-Pacific Islands, Africa, Americas, and Europe.

Liturgies from Below is the culmination of a project organized by the Council for World Mission (CWM) during 2018-2019. Approximately 100 people from four continents worked with CWM, collaborating to create indigenous prayers and liturgies expressing their own contexts, for sharing with their communities and the rest of the world. The project was called “Re-Imagining Worship as Acts of Defiance and Alternatives in the Context of Empire.”

And I looked back at this to share with you, and honestly I can’t relate with it now, maybe I’ve had a better week without too much anger. But I had replied to her with

“Thank you for this. Now this prayer I can pray!”

It said this:

They ask us to sing songs

Is the strange land of undignified life

But we are already tired

Of waiting and waiting for unfulfilled promises


We will hang our harps on trees!

We will not sing anymore! No more praises!

Our worship of God will be on strike!


Until your justice manifests

Until we see your life’s will

Touching our pains

And healing our wounds

Embracing our forgotten soil

And restoring broken hopes

Guitars and drums will not sound

And our mouths will be silent!


Until the song of Mary is fulfilled

Until the Spirit of God renews creation

Until the loving power of the creative force

Fully establishes the inclusive project

From the Nazarene traveler, God, a supportive friend

Until that day, may It come!


We will not celebrate, we will not have services

We will not sing praises… We will strike! 


–From Psalm 137: 3-4; Psalm 137:2; Luke 1:51-55

Even as I read this now, I can’t say I can relate because today I do feel like dancing and singing. It was almost weird to look back at my texts with my friend of mine holding dearly to my friend’s comfort through this prayer to me at the time. Writing texts like,

“Where is this prayer from??” “I feel like a mess…”

And we both shared when we cried last and how I was reaching for a brownie and she was for a pumpkin pie. 

And maybe for many of you, this doesn’t resonate. Like we just literally sang with guitar and drums and you liked it. But in case there are any of you out there, who had trouble even having the strength to stand for our song worship prayers, or who felt like you didn’t get hit with some happy spirit for some reason, you’re not alone. You’re okay. You’re not weird. Or a bad Christian with subpar faith. You are simply going through life, that includes disorientation. And prayer for all of us is an invitation to go through our assurances, our questions, our disorientations and discomfort and hopefully back to a kind of new orientation that you never knew and never could’ve known unless you went through stuff. But I trust in your unfailing love. Yet I am always with you.

Bruggerman said this about new orientation

“new orientation: they are songs not only of social control but also of social anticipation and criticism.”

Whereas orientation sometimes felt like it was trying to control me from having negative feelings. New orientation allows me to see and accept things as is AND see through, see forward, see beyond a new way. With hope and a critical eye. Don’t you love that? The BUT, YET, and AND of prayer. 

Prayer moves you to the next. Prayer is defiance. 

My friend Rev. Dr. Peter Choi, I quote him a lot in my sermons cause I love his work. He has an online learning platform that I’m a member of. It’s like $100 a year. Called Faith and Justice Network, and MAN they have GREAT GREAT GREAT content. You should sign up. And then you’ll see where much of my content comes from inspired from. So this week Peter said this; 

Prayer is justice work. Refusing to accept the status quo. Prayer is protest. 

Prayer is justice work. Refusing to accept the status quo. Prayer is protest. 

How true. How beautiful. That our words are not mere complaints but that it’s our hearts on the picket line. Our longings at display. Prayer as protest and justice work.

  • Does that resonate with you?
  • What do you write on your prayer poster today?
  • What do you stand for?
  • What do you kneel for?

May that be a prayer for you. 

I also know that prayer hits differently for different folks. Heck, like the prayer I read earlier, apparently that really hit me that one day my friend shared with me, but it does not strike a chord this week. So let me offer another metaphor if prayer as a protest doesn’t resonate with you. 

To pray is to be sober. Many of us live our lives in a lull. In the busyness of our days. Work. Entertainment. Going from task to task. We’re constantly stimulated with ads, social media, ideas, pre-occupations, regrets. We play the past over and over or the future over and over and we don’t know how to simply be. To pray is to be sober from the world’s incessant words over us. Sobriety from what the world tells us who we are.

Who do you say I am? Not what anybody else says but in God, who am I? 

They have a saying in the AA, alcoholics anonymous world. Get yourself to a meeting. And for some, it’s a daily necessity. To go to a meeting. To be around the people that know you and get you and are on the same journey as you, that is saying the same thing you are saying about themselves. Each day, any day you slip and forget that for a moment, that’s when you know you need to get yourself to a meeting. Because you need to be reminded. You need to be spoken over whatever crazy thought that entered your mind. I think that’s what prayer is. Getting yourself to a meeting. 

AA’s powerful 12 steps take addicts through the process of becoming sober. It’s got some beautiful shifts and turns that even if you’re not an addict, although some would argue that we live in an addictive world where all of us are constantly stimulated. I think it’s a beautiful movement that could maybe apply to many of us. So I want to end our time by taking us through 12 steps as a prayer for us today. 

Maybe it’s not your powerlessness over alcohol but maybe some other parts of our lives, or our world. I personally often grieve the powerlessness I feel over our world of politics and war. 

So let me pray the 12 step prayer through. I’ll change the words from alcohol to maybe something else, or maybe you can put something else. It’s a humbling thing, prayer in 12 steps, a method from an addict’s approach. Maye we try humbling ourselves together, in solidarity with those who seek sobriety, or maybe dare I say that many of us might be seeking sobriety from alcohol, from porn, from marijuana, from pain killers, from food, from sex, from social media, from numbing ourselves, from work, from efficiency/productivity, from being complicit to violence, from laziness, whatever it is, whatever that may be good in moderation even but that has hindered your life, hurt others, may we lift it up in humility to God in prayer together as we close.

Dear God. 

  1. We admit that we were powerless— that our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
  3. We turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. 
  4. Helps us to search and do a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admit to you God, to ourselves, and to other human beings the nature of our wrongs.
  6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Help us to make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Guide us to direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Give us the courage to continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong to promptly admit it.
  11. Keep bringing us back to prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with you God as we understand you, praying only for knowledge of Your will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. And as we experience a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, may we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

We pray


Thank you for praying with me. I hope that this time carries on with you and bear fruit in the ways they should, God willing. Thanks for worshiping together with us. Till next time. Peace. 

The Good News Of Jesus

Matthew 1: 1-17 (New International Version)

The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

1 This is the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,

Isaac the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

4 Ram the father of Amminadab,

Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,

5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

6 and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam,

Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

Abijah the father of Asa,

8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,

Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

9 Uzziah the father of Jotham,

Jotham the father of Ahaz,

Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

Manasseh the father of Amon,

Amon the father of Josiah,

11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon:

Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,

Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,

Abihud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor,

14 Azor the father of Zadok,

Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Elihud,

15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,

Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

Well that was a mouthful. 

Would you pray with me?

God of love, 

We first give you thanks for the breath of life. We give you thanks for the force of love that sustains us. In our gratitude, we also grieve the hardships of our lives in small and big ways, the hardship of those around us near and far. We’re sometimes at odds with the joy and heartbreak that is life. And yet, Lord, we know that all are in your hands. Every hair, every life, every tear, every laughter. As we look to your word this morning together and ponder upon the ways we think about and talk about you, God, would you break through our hearts and minds with an understanding of your love, of your will, of your heart? Would you remind us of the great power of your love revealed through a little baby in a manger today we pray in Jesus’ precious and holy name Amen.

So if you ever have trouble sleeping, just pull out the Bible and start at the New Testament. the Old Testament starting with the creation story is too dramatic. Start here, with the genealogy of Jesus.

First things first. What’s up with the number 14? 

there were 14 generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and 14 from the exile to the Messiah.

I Googled it so you don’t have to. 

Seven represents completion. Thus, 7 + 7  = 14 means double completion.

And the name David, broken down into its consonants D-V-D in Hebrew has a numerical value of 4-6-4, totaling 14.) Thus, in repeating the number 14, Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of David

And that’s called Bible math. 

This is what I mean when I say that the Bible is, a series of texts that are far away from us culturally. And some of us might think, see? So what’s it to us? I don’t know Zerubbabel and what’s it got to do with me? 

I think the best thing about the Bible is that it is a book that persisted as a text throughout history for a span of about from 1000 B.C. to 1600’s. That’s 2600 years of history.

Reading the Bible is like, you know when you first go to therapy. They’re like, let’s talk about your mom. And you’re like, why, I have problems with my dating life right now. But then you start getting into family systems theory and actually do the family tree and you start realizing, Yo my family is MESSED up and OHHHHHH that’s why I’m having problems with dating! 

I heard from Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Freedom Road podcast, a guest of hers said,

“How you read the Bible says more about you than about God.” 

What are we to gain from this story about Jesus from the Bible? Why do they tell this story and they say I should read the Bible but like why? What’s it to me? Why do we care about baby Jesus and go all deck the halls to celebrate this story? 

Many of us know the simple answer. Jesus is God. And shows us who is God. So who is this God that we see through Jesus? And why does that God matter to me now? What does that God have to say to our world today, through Jesus? 

To get at that I’d like to zoom in on some of the tiny blips of the list, the five women included in the list and as well as a few women that are not included. 

According to the Women’s Bible Commentary, here’s the five women. 

“Tamar, taken by her father-in-law Judah to be a prostitute, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who protects the Israelite spies; Ruth the Moabite widow, whom Boaz marries after their potentially compromising meeting on the threshing floor; the “wife of Uriah”, Bathsheba, who commits adultery with David; and Mary, pregnant before her marriage.” 

All stories of mishap and rerouting, of making do. Why are these names included, especially when it could contribute to the illegitimacy of Jesus’ lineage, and that’s clearly not the point of the list.

My takeaway is that God’s way is not your way. God’s way is not our way.

God’s way is not clean. It’s not legitimate. It’s completely unexpected and surprising. And you find hope in places where you exactly expect to find the opposite of hope. 

I’d like to reprise the quote,

“How you read the Bible says more about you than about God.”

And it is true that many Jewish and Christian scholars have used these characters to conclude in literally opposing views, where Gentiles are used by God for Israel or that Gentiles are included in the grand plan of God. And I know that can be triggering in the backdrop of what’s going on in Israel/Palestine right now, but again, every person, every theology, every national identity or whatever has a choice to use the Bible as a weapon or a lesson. And we know that people throughout history have used it for both, even now. 

Even within the feminist/womanist critiques of these texts about female characters, they’ve wrestled with, her deceit, her obedience, compliance, sin AND  righteous (sometime for the same action, i.e. bearing children, keeping secrets, having sex, refusing sex). Regardless of the disputes, there seems to be something very interesting about the reason why Matthew included some of these female characters, who are socially vulnerable, in the list of Jesus’ genealogy. Maybe Matthew’s purpose was inclusion, at his best. 

And it makes me curious about the names that are also not included. For example, we know Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah? Furthermore, have you ever heard about Bilhah and Zilpah? 

Here’s a little story about them. There were two sisters named Leah and Rachel. Leah was the older one but Jacob loved the younger Rachel. Leah and Rachel’s dad Laban tricked Jacob into working for him for seven years for Rachel but gives Leah in marriage first since Rachel’s too young and then he works seven more years to finally get Rachel. Bilhah was the slave that was given to Rachel by her father Laban. And Zilpah was the slave that Laban gave to his daughter Leah. For their wedding gifts. There’s a longer story here but Bilhah and Zilpah, as slaves of Leah and Rachel, both bore many children for Jacob,

“whose bodies were used to produce a full third of the 12 tribes of Israel.” 

When I read about Bilhah and Zilpah in the book Womanist Midrash on the Torah by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, a womanist scholar, an Episcopal priest, I was struck by how I have never heard of them in all my years in Christianity. Gafney calls them womb-slaves, which is accurate for they were surrogates but also, not just surrogates as you might imagine, but sexual slaves. I had to gasp for air as I read this paragraph about Zilpah:

“Zilpah is presented as another pawn in the war for Jacob’s attention and affection. The battlefield for that was the bodies of Bilhah and Zilpah. Through the sexual and reproductive occupation of their bodies, people who would be known as Israel came into being. Through the wombs of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Israel’s people were birthed by choice and by force. The text says nothing to suggest that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Bilhah, and Zilpah. They are casualties of nation building. But their children, their grandchildren, and their descendants will claim and be claimed by the God of their patriarchs, and some of us who claim the God of Israel, including through the life and teaching of Mary’s child, Jesus, also claim Zilpah, Bilhah, Hagar, and all of the unnamed womb-slaves in what has become our spiritual ancestry.” 

This is the family tree of Jesus. This is the dysfunctional family dynamics we’re descendants of. And yet also, this is the inclusive legacy that we are so joyful triumphant about. To be sure, the Good News Jesus brought was a different one from the Good News of Caesar, Evangelion, which was a practice of spreading the good news after the war, which meant what it really means is now we’ve established “security” at all cost, “security” without peace or justice. I mean Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were literally relocating because of King Herod’s decree in

Matthew 2:16 “kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.”

It is in that environment that we are celebrating a homeless baby and claiming the Good News, a new kind of “security”, with baby Jesus as king, not after war but after a childbirth. Do you see the paradox of Christmas joy? Because that is what Christmas is about. Triumph from a baby in a manger. I don’t know what a manger is. I’m not a farmer. But I can imagine, yes a baby in a dumpster bin. A baby in rubble. A baby at a place where babies are not supposed to be. We see the commercialized dainty shiny nativity scene and go, “awww”! 

If we are to take the Bible not as a weapon but a lesson, I wonder if we could imagine what even a fuller list might be. What would it mean to include names, heritages, nationalities, religious backgrounds, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary, Ziplah, and Bilhah, and more, to the work, bearing, and birthing of true Good News. Not the good news of the world, and smart moves, legit, accepted, honorable.

  • But what of those we’ve casted aside and made nothing of?
  • What about the untraditional, illegitimate, those who don’t have the right credentials, could we all be a part of the story?
  • What if they were not casualties to the end product but heroes that are a part of the story, critical names that are the foundation of the faith we stand on?

I’m sorry to talk about casualties and sexual slaves amidst beautiful Christmas carols and celebration but there’s a zing to our joy. The light is so beautiful because it’s so so cold and dark here. And you know, that’s true joy. Everlasting joy. 

In our Advent devotional for this Week Three is about Blessing. In Day Two, we meditate on

Ephesians 3:14 where it says, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” 

And so I’d like to end with a blessing for, “every family in heaven and on earth”, especially those who are forgotten, by calling their name. Dr. Gafney said,

“calling the names of familial and spiritual ancestors is a womanist practice with roots in a number of African societies. In ritual practice, the affirmation “Ashe!”(which means “power, authority, affirmation”)  from the Yoruba tradition, originated in the country of Nigeria, concludes the name-calling of ancestors.”

And she says,

“Mother Bilhah, Mother Zilpah, womb-slave of Israel, we call your name Ashe!”

Who and what name do you call upon to bless now? 




Let me pray for us. 

God, we bless your holy name, precious Jesus Christ. Conceived out of wedlock, born as a fugitive, born in a manger, and yet or maybe because for that very reason you call him your beloved son in whom you are well pleased. Give us the eyes to see like you see, the wonder and beauty in every being, especially those who are persecuted, rejected, on the run, that there we might find great hope beyond understanding. Life. Joy. Peace on earth we pray with faith and expectation in this season of Advent. As we wait on you Lord, come now, Amen. 


Way of Jesus: Contemplation and Action

We’re in this series called The Way of Jesus, focusing on Jesus, his ministry, life, death, and resurrection…what does it mean to follow and adapt his way, to live in union with the Spirit wisdom of Jesus in our lives? 

Jesus showed us how to live by what He preached and how He lived, what He said and what He did. What I’d like to talk about today is how He lived a life of both connection with God AND connection to the people around him. Because He does this balance work of both doing the WORK of God AND BEING WITH God–both. Some people refer to this through a diagram of the line up and down, your relationship with God and God with you, and a horizontal line, your relationship with others, how you relate with others. It’s about Worship AND Fellowship. Prayer AND Service.

Justice AND Renewal as Christina Cleveland, a black female public theologian, named her work that is for Social Action and Spiritual vigor. And Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, calls his educational non profit that offers a contemplative Christian path of transformation, the Center for Action and Contemplation. Because their vision is

“Transformed people working together for a more just and connected world.”

So it’s BOTH, the holy transformation of self and the outward work. You Guys feel me? Spirituality and community. So what does it mean to try to live a life that follows Jesus’ way of both Contemplation and Action? 

Let’s meditate on a Scripture text from the Bible to wonder together what that might mean for us. For you, today. I’m getting this from the Gospel of Mark chapter 1. One of the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that primarily hold the stories of Jesus. 

But first, it’s SIDE NOTE Time! 

So those, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, are the Gospels that we have now in our current form of the Bible, the current Cannon, meaning, the current collection of books councils upon councils of committees decided on which books and writing would be included in the “main” text of the Holy Bible. AAAAAAAAND there are also other writings from the time that have been found that are not included, for example The Gospel of Mary, a 5th century text, or the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, etc.

They’re called New Testament apocrypha, “Apocrypha” meaning “hidden” or “put away”–the ones that are not included in our Bible today. I just think that’s so interesting! There are other writings from the early Christian years that many of us, most of us do not even know about. They’re like extra readings, cause let’s be honest, who actually did the extra readings from your syllabus? 

I think this makes the diversity of even among the four Gospels even more important to note and notice. 

So Mark, for example, does not have a Christmas story. Yeah. It just starts with Jesus as an adult. There’s no birth story or baby story. It begins with the baptism of Jesus. I’ll summarize the first part of Chapter 1 and then get to our text today. 

So Mark Chapter 1 opens with,

This is 

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” 

Jesus is baptized and as he came out of the water, he saw the heaven being torn open, God’s realm breaking in, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, a voice came from heaven saying, 

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And then the Spirit sent him out into the desert for 40 days.

And then he went to Galilee, saying,

“The kingdom of God is near!”

God is no longer distant!

He meets Simon and his brother Andrew, and invites them to become fishers of men. He builds a team.

And then he goes to Capernaum, on the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach. Clears out the evil spirit, it says. 

This recap vibe is pretty similar to how Mark is actually written. And this happened, and that happened. He uses this word And, “kai” in Greek, pretty much at the beginning of every paragraph. That’s one Greek word I did learn in seminary, Kai! Because my Greek professor had a hamster named Kai. Yes I have the learning style of a preschooler. That’s right, one might call a child-like faith. 

Okay let’s get to our text for today then. 

Mark 1:29-45. Let me read for us:

29 And as soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.

30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her.

31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

33 The whole town gathered at the door,

34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Jesus Prays in a Solitary Place

35 And Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,

37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Jesus Heals a Man With Leprosy

40 And a man with leprosy[h] came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

41 Jesus was indignant.[i] (other translations also say filled with compassion) He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”

42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning:

44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

This guy was busy! He was all over the place. But wedged in his busy schedule, essentially at the very start up of his ministry were already patterns that I’d love for us to notice. He did this thing, where he went back and forth from the community to by himself, to the community to by himself. He’d talk and teach and then he would go off and pray. From the desert, to a friend’s house, to the synagogue, to another friend’s house, and off again to some alone time and then back to the nearby villages. From the beginning it was a part of his ministry and his lifestyle to do this. It’s always couched in there, that desert time and that solitary time. 

Where in your life do you have desert time and solitary time inserted into your schedules? Have you set up any kind of rhythms of self reflection and prayer, alone time with God in your busy days?

I got an email from my friend Sara, who leads a Mindfulness Community Group, a forwarded Substack email about the “quest to find a daily contemplative rhythm that work” from a guy named Mark Longhurst, I don’t know him, but he wrote this: 

“Dear friends,

I’ve been in a busy season. Between kid sports, family commitments, work, and finishing up a writing project, my days feel compressed and fly by. Before I know it, the New England day is at its earlier close, and it’s time to sleep and do it again. Don’t get me wrong, mine is a joyful life and I wouldn’t trade its full family and community-centric flow for anything. But, as any parent knows, it’s a lot. And as someone on a contemplative path, such seasons of responsibility can sometimes feel overwhelming, as if I’m never quite able to enjoy the slower pace and extended silences that a contemplative life promises to bring.”

Now listen to this:

“For me, though, busy and contemplative are not opposites. I also don’t believe that greener contemplative pastures are up ahead, say, when the kids go to college and I’m an empty-nester. Instead, the busy and contemplative parts of myself need each other. I approach my contemplative practices in these months and years as my soul’s daily and necessary rescue mission. My morning meditation sit snatches me out of the constant effort to accomplish tasks, holds me in Divine Presence and says, “Stay here and be loved for a while!” Chanting Psalms at different hours helps me maintain a heart-centered, gentle awareness of God throughout the day. A faster shuffle from one thing to the other gradually increases my anxiety and, by extension, my irritability—but when I sit myself down for my afternoon meditation, it’s sometimes like ramming a stick into bicycle spokes. I feel myself flying over the day’s handlebars, but I land on my butt. I stay there and eventually return to myself.”

Ramming a stick into bicycle spokes. Does wedging some desert time, solitary time, prayer or meditation ever feel like ramming a stick into bicycle spokes for you? I love this invitation to land on my butt. Just humbled. And the thing is, even if you don’t choose to do that, sometimes life will just do it for you, whether you end up in a car accident that causes you to stop in the middle of the road preventing you from getting to that meeting you were rushing to totally lost or a panic attack that comes out of nowhere. 

A few weeks ago I had this happen to me, not like a full on panic attack but a breakdown. I had some really sad stuff come up for me and I was aware of it but I didn’t really sit with it. I didn’t have time. Have you seen that Instagram reel or TikTok thing where someone’s like, “this is my scatterbrain”. She needs to cook dinner, but the dishes are dirty, she starts washing but the dish washer is not unloaded. She starts unloading but the cabinets broken and so she go gets a screwdriver and as she returns with the screwdriver she sees the pile of dirty clothes, and you pick up the dirty laundry to the laundry machine and you open the washer and there’s a load in there already from GOD KNOWS WHEN!

So that’s what I was doing one morning. And I was like on my way to the bathroom with some dirty clothes to throw in the hamper, and it just hit me like a rock thrown on my head, and I just crouched down at the side wall to the entrance of the bathroom and broke down and cried. I mean it was really dramatic, I mean the place was not even a very inviting corner to cry in, like an awkward wedge of a wall. I just prowled down on the floor like a banana peel and had a straight up tantrum to God, kicking my feet and pounding the floor. That ever happen to you? No, just me? 

That was my gentle invitation from the Lord to slow down and talk to him for a minute. 

I know it’s hard. Especially for really important, efficient, effective high functioning hard working people like Jesus. When Jesus was out praying by himself, they found Him and were like, “Everyone is looking for you!” Of course they were! He’s in high demand! He’s got things to do. He’s gotta preach, teach, heal, make disciples, do miracles, save the world! He’s busy! You busier than him?

I know some of you are, like literally saving the world. Busy flying internationally to shape and transform health care systems, busy disrupting the financial industry with your software, busy being present to the underserved students that may literally have no other resource than your classroom, busy upholding your business above the water so you can provide for your family.

That’s why I love us doing this. Worshiping on a Sunday morning. We’re not very “productive.” We just sit around, and sing, and chat with people. Just sit down. And it helps that we do it together. 

Activist circles talk about this a lot. Self-care work in activism is crucial. You can’t just be out there, advocating, fighting, protesting ALL the time. You have to get back into your room, your study, and reflect. 

For example, though Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have too much close interactions despite both of their life works, but when they did, this was one point that Thurman made to the rising leader King. 

According to Thurman’s autobiography, the only time that he and King were able to arrange a “serious talk” came in the fall of 1958, when King was recovering in New York after being stabbed by Izola Curry at a book signing (Thurman, 254). The day before their meeting, Thurman recalled having a “vibrant sensation” in which “Martin emerged in my awareness and would not leave” (Thurman, 255). When he met alone with King the following day, he asked how long King’s doctor had given him for his convalescence. (Thurman says this)

When he told me, I urged him to ask them to extend the period by an additional two weeks. This would give him time away from the immediate pressure of the movement to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide. The movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own to which he must relate in fresh and extraordinary ways or be swallowed up by it (Thurman, 255).”

The reason why we need both contemplation and action is because just as Jesus as he was doing the work of healing, it can be alot to see the whole town lining up at your door for all kinds of disease and demons. I see this whole balance of contemplation and action is this. It is a balance work of grief and joy. Of taking on suffering and taking on gratitude. You need both.  One might think, what is there to be joyful and grateful for, we don’t got time for that right now, babies are dying! And yet, to do the WORK of ESTABLlSHING justice, you need AUDACIOUS Hope. You don’t got time for cynicism and getting jaded, cause you have to get back to work. You need to hone your hope. Nurturing it with small joys and audacious gratitude to fuel the work of hope and the work of justice we’re in. Just as Jesus began his ministry by being blessed with the waters of baptism, hearing a voice from heaven saying to him, in you I am well pleased. Not, the world is a mess, I need you to get to work. Our work and call to action comes from not a desperate need for us to get busy fixing stuff.

I’m really curious what Jesus was saying in his prayers on that early morning. The morning after the whole town gathered at his door to heal the sick. After he had done miracles. I wonder if he was like,

“God, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Or if he was like,

“I did this but God there’s so many people who are sick. Too many that I can’t get to in time.”


“I’m tired from staying up and healing all these people but I need you. I need you to tell me that you’ll keep being with me as I continue to do your work.” 

I always thought those superhero movies were so interesting because you get to imagine and see the intimate vulnerable parts of those big strong heroes. Batman pulling into his little cave after a hard day’s work of fighting villains. Superman coming back to ordinary clothes after saving the earth. In those moments, they find their true power that drives the super powers they have. 

  • What is the thing that drives your superpower?
  • What’s it all for?
  • Why do you do it? 

You go out there and fight the bad guys and then you come home looking for a spark of joy or a moment of gratitude that will fuel you for the next day. 

I think that was the superpower of Jesus. Not his miracles to heal but the place in which he got his authority from. In his intimate lonely conversations with his Father, that called him in again and again, that reminded him, I am here with you. I am here with you. The kingdom of God is near, even though it doesn’t look like it, even though it looks nothing like the kingdom of God is here, even though the Roman Empire is running rampant and you have to go back out into what seems like a god-forsaken world, for now, even now, just for this moment, I want you to look here at the joy. Look here at the gratitude. I love you. You are my beloved child. In you I am pleased. That is the only way we have any chance in facing the grief and suffering that surrounds us and have the power to take action towards peace, love, and justice. 

I want to create the space to do that now, even for a moment, if you’d be so willing, together. Let me guide us through some thought prompts in prayer now. 

Close your eyes if you’re willing, maybe even kneel or huddle over yourself, like you got some magic invisible cloak that’ll take you to a solitary place. 

  • What are you grieving these days?
  • What did you see in the last 24 hours that you are grieving?
  • Where have you seen unbridled joy?
  • What made you smile or laugh yesterday? 
  • Where do you see suffering?
  • Who is suffering, friends, family, neighbors near and far?
  • What are you suffering with or through these days?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What do you want to praise God for today? 

May God be with us, through the longing and to the tasting of God’s good gifts of peace, love, and joy, even now we pray. Amen. 


Profound Belonging

We’ve been in this series called We Are Reservoir for the last five weeks. Trying to share with you all, Who are we? What are we about? And especially, as every organization does, continuing to evolve and trying to figure out each season, what are we trying to be right now? Some of us have been going to this church for 10+ years and many things have changed, including the church name and even the vibe of the church. Some of us have joined in the last few years and religion, Christianity, and our world landscape has changed so much. So we thought it was a good time for us to re-share in this beginning of the new ministry year/ new school year, highlighting a few things about who we are. 

So Who Are We?

Well our Mission, we say at the top of our service every week: We invite everyone to discover the love of God, the joy of living, and the gift of community. 

As for our specific vision for this season in our church, through some visioning process we’ve taken as leaders, members, and staff and the board, in the last few years this is what we’ve come up with:

Reservoir will continue to become the Beloved Community we are called to be.

We wanted to anchor on this phrase “Beloved Community,” a phrase from the Civil Rights era rooted in biblical metaphor for a more just and equitable kin-dom. And we named five particular ways we believe our church is longing to more the Beloved Community. Like, HOW can we be a Beloved Community?

What does that mean? Here’s five ways we came up with:

  • Diverse and anti-racist.
  • Welcoming, and a place of profound belonging. 
  • Radically generous.
  • Empowering wholeness, love, and justice in people and communities, promoting whole life flourishing.
  • Innovating as a church in a post-Christian world, so that our ministry is less dependent on any one gathering but includes many life-giving new ways to experience and be church.

And so in the last five weeks, we’ve taken these five, 

  • Anti-racist.
  • Profound belonging. 
  • Radically generous.
  • Whole life flourishing.
  • Innovating

A bit out of order with week one, Steve talking about the ways in which we have stood on many of our enduring faith traditions and innovate what that looks like in this day and age. 

Week two Steve talked about what it means for us to try to be anti-racist, even as we live in systems drenched in historical racism, how it might look for us to become more and more anti-racist.

Week three Ivy told stories of some radical generosity she’s witness that gave us models and invitation to generosity, a sermon where afterwards I really wanted to print out “New Driver” Please Be Patient” stickers for us all (if you know you know).

And last week we witnessed Steve’s ordination vow renewal and with that an invitation to how our church can experience revitalization and whole life flourishing

And we’re wrapping up this week with our last intentional way we’ve named as to becoming a Beloved community: a church that is welcoming, a place of profound belonging. 

To talk about this, I’d like to read our scripture text from Matthew 12, where Jesus challenges the traditional notions of who belongs, who is important, who matters, uplifting the people out of their imagination of the way things are, into a NEW reality, a new way of being, a radically different system and methodology of belonging.

In light of Indigenous People’s Day I drew our text from the First Nations Version, an indigenous translation of the New Testament. It’s a new, 2021, translation quote,

“birthed out of a desire to provide an English Bible that connects, in a culturally relevant way.”

I share this translation as a way of honoring our topic at hand, Profound Belonging, in that centering contextualized voices in their own culture, they belong, they matter, especially in light of American Christian history. 

The Introduction to the First Nations Versions says this,

“Many of our Native tribes still resonate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonate in the hearts of Native people.” 

So let me read for us:

Matthew 12:46-50 (First Nations Version)

46 While [Jesus who is called] Creator Sets Free (Jesus) was speaking to the people, his mother and brothers were outside wanting to talk with him.

47 Someone noticed and told him, “Your relatives are here, waiting outside to see you.” 

48 “Who are my relatives?” he asked the person who told him.

49 Then he looked around the circle of people, lifted his hands toward his followers, and said, “Here they are! 

50 The ones who walk in the ways of my Father from the spirit-world above are my relatives–my mother, brothers and sisters.” 

“My mother, my brother, my sisters, my siblings. My grandma, my grandpa, my uncle, my aunt, my niece, my nephew.” 

I wonder if we believe that, about us?

What struck me as I began to tackle this topic of radical profound belonging, the first thing that came to my mind unfortunately is how much that wasn’t and hasn’t and isn’t the case in so many of our churches around the world. How faith traditions and churches have specifically excluded people, whole nations and groups of people, on the basis that they were not a certain way. And not just exclude but expel, excommunicate, exiled, eliminated, eradicated, executed in the name of faith and religion. The Christian history has quite a reputation for not implementing profound belonging, or implementing belonging but only if you do it our way, our style, our specific method. 

There are books on Mission, overseas mission, on how to spread the news of Jesus, evangelize, convert and make sure the faith sticks, by eradicating their culture, their primitive ways, their heretical practices. And the GOOD ones of these books on mission, actually tries to get at, how much more effective Christianity sticks if you actually USE their own culture to make it contextual and integrate rather than eradicate. 

In my current faith journey, one of the things that I’m unpacking is the way in which Christianity landed in South Korea and how Christian tradition has at times trumped over Korean traditions. For example, one of the traditions that Christian practices truncated is the tradition of ancestral worship. Now it was based on biblical texts like,

You shall have no other gods before me and all.

And it is a tradition that has been passed through Buddhist cultures, with like incense and all. But lately it’s made me feel disconnected to my ancestors, to my elders, to the dead, that lately, I wondered what it would look like to have a Korean Christian version of ancestral honoring, if such a thing exists. 

What does it mean to belong, to really belong, like family? Well what happens when for example two strangers decide to become family members like getting adopted or married. Well you might live together. Probably eat together a lot. You learn about each other, about each other’s upbringing, background, their worldview. And you try to merge the two different ways of doing things, and adapt to the other’s ways. 

On this Indigenous People’s Day weekend, I think about ways that I have been trying to make Christianity my own personal faith. That’s included decolonizing faith. What does that mean? It means that the Christianity that was through the white European culture lens, I have found sifting through that to find what’s helpful. From which I have very much been formed by John Calvin and Martin Luther and all and beyond that, really contextualizing and translating into and through my own culture has allows my faith to feel just a little closer to home, a little more familial, a little more my culture. 

Here’s what I mean. 

When I first saw this image of Korean Jesus, it felt silly. And then, it felt like Jesus was so close and that Jesus knew my world. I mean look at the windows around us. They are dressed and in the style of that artist’s known dear to heart culture and context. 

Here’s another one. 

Korean Nativity Scene and what I love about this one is that it’s not three wise men or shepherds, it’s her sisters, aunts, and girlfriends and mom friends showing up with food to the labor and delivery room. (Which I’d love for us to do with my pre/k pastor Aubrie going into labor probably next week. Ask me about her mealtrain). The presence of women, Korean women, showing up for Jesus just hits different. 

Last image, not my own cultural context but as an exercise-

How does it feel for you to see Jesus this way? 

Decolonizing my faith doesn’t mean getting rid of everything (which is what we’ll talk about in my Godly Play Spirituality class starting next week). Traditions, practices passed down from others, history helps but at some point you got to ask yourself-

  • Who is Jesus to you?
  • Right now?
  • In your life?
  • What would it mean for Jesus to be your family?
  • What would you share with him?
  • What would you show him from your life?
  • What’s important to you and who you are that you would incorporate Jesus into? 

Lately I’ve been trying out tapping into my own Korean indigenous roots, which just means like really really old raw ways of operating and thinking before democracy, capitalism, and cement came into picture. Not to say those things are bad, I love me a nicely paved cement sidewalk, but have you TRIED trail running?

I don’t know how it came to me, okay probably from comparative religion studies called doing yoga, a practice that’s been central to healing my body from trauma. I tap into Jesus when they say, thinking about a spiritual leader or grounding. And as I’ve been doing lots of yin yoga, which is like the you know the yin yang sign, yin is a bit more passive, feminine energy, I’ve been thinking maybe this is more of that not Jesus the victor energy but Holy Spirit presence and power that you only need to receive and lean into what God is already doing.

And then I realized, hey that yin/yang sign is literally the middle thing in the Korean flag. This way of thinking of energies working together to understand and be, it’s probably already familiar and in my blood. So I’ve started calling in yin spirituality and I’m Christian so it’s a Christian practice. And it’s been really nice to recognize and flow through life with this yin spirituality that’s made me feel both empowered and flow through life with a kind of trust, like the ground holding your up during shivasana or not pressing into your stretch but holding your pose for five minutes for your muscles to just gravity into flexibility and strength. 

For me thinking about Jesus, not as Daily Bread, but daily rice, a daily bowl of rice has been interesting. It’s warmer. It’s cozier. Because of my own affiliations to it. When I’ve practiced the Lord’s supper, communion with Soju or Makgulee (rice wine) and a little bit of rice wrapped in seaweed, I cried. It’s that feel of HOME. That feeling when you’ve been traveling for so long and eating unfamiliar foods and you finally get home and eat home food. 

Jesus was saying this is not just a religion or a system of belief, it’s about belonging. And that’s what we try to mirror in our membership, what it means to belong at our church, isn’t that you confess your faith in some particular way but you just simply say, I belong, I’ll bring some food to our membership meeting potluck. Jesus was like, don’t make this into just laws to follow, let’s be together and be with each other and here, you be my mother. You who are so different from me, let’s be family, let’s belong to one another. We don’t have to agree but let’s eat dimsum together. For me that’s what it’s meant to be family.

Even though this profound belonging is what we’re after, I realize it can be hard still. Many of us are maybe introverts, and have social anxiety. And even though a lot of us are grown ups, it can feel like a high school lunch table situation, where the cool kids hang out here and the remnants awkwardly dispersed. And I want to say to us the same thing I said at a youth group retreat once. My sermon title was, “don’t be cool, be warm.” 

Sometimes we get into analysis paralysis,

“should I do this, do they want me to do this, are they okay with me doing this,”

But I say to you, when you get a thought to text someone something thoughtful or a prayer, do it. Just say yes. When someone shares with you something hard, and you don’t know what to say, just lean into it, and say,

“do you wanna pray, like right now? Can I pray for you?”

When you think of someone struggling through grief or a season of depression or just life hardship, just stop by and drop off a bag of chocolate, or flowers, or fruit. Just say yes. When we talk to each other at church, asking how are you to each other, ask a follow up question to them, “I’m good.” And respond by sharing vulnerably about yourself.

And then say, “what about you?” Be quick to connect people, “Have you met my friend Carol?” And include them into your conversation. Say yes to a thought/idea and start a ministry about something that you’re passionate about, with just one other person, whether it’s about climate change, or farming, dance, or whatever. This is how we create a culture of belonging by ourselves taking risks and vulnerability to lean in. Don’t be cool, be warm. Just say yes to the community as we have been saying.

Because you never know what one extended hand can mean to someone. And that’s what Jesus did over and over again throughout the scriptures. Reaching out to the most unlikely characters. He talked to stuck-up snobby rich folks (Nicademus, Zaaccheaus), called them in, he talked to nobodies and the lame sitting outside of the temple, too unclean to even enter the building, and brought them in. He talked with a lonely woman at the well. And touched lepers when he wasn’t supposed to. 

Like I said in the beginning, sometimes churches weren’t good at being welcoming or inclusive. And at some point because I felt judged or rejected, I had stopped going to church for years. And then one day I went back to church, just cause I was kind of depressed and I wanted something familiar. That day, I heard this story that I want to share with you today at a time when I was feeling especially lost. When I was in a dark place, isolating myself from even the few communities that I had some ties to, and really even from family, not really returning their texts or phone calls because it was too much to explain and come up with a good answer to, “how are you these days?”so I didn’t even stick around after church to do any small talk to lean into community there. And then I heard this story that really broke me open. I reached out to my old pastor for the story he used. The story is from Garrison Keillor, a singer, writer, speaker, about a girl named Lydia. 

“Lydia grew up in the staid Lutheran community of Lake Woebegone.  Lydia tired of it, tired of this narrow, conservative community, so she took off for New Orleans.  There she imbibed (uhm-BIBED) in all the revelry of that city, drinking, partying.  She longed to be precious and valuable to somebody.  She found a boyfriend.  They lived together; their own apartment.  She got a job as a bartender; he got a job laying on the couch watching TV.  She got tired of the parties eventually, and eventually she got tired of him.  All she longed for from that life of freedom didn’t really pan out.  Kind of humiliated, with her tail between her legs, she wrote a check out for a month’s rent for the apartment, slipped it under one of the beer bottles on top of the TV set, and while he was asleep on the couch she slipped out and headed back home to Lake Woebegone.  

She didn’t live with her folks; she found her own place.  She found a job in the local diner, but around town everybody regarded her as the checkered woman.  Everybody knew her story; it was a small town.  Everybody knew she was the girl who had gone off to New Orleans.  Everybody knew the way that she had lived.  She’d see them whispering about her, pointing at her as she walked by on the streets.  She went to her parents for Thanksgiving.  They ate turkey and polished off the pie, and when all the dishes were piled in the sink she made her way out to the living room away from everyone else just for a few minutes of solitude. 

There she found herself standing at the mantle in the house, just looking at the different family knick-knacks that she cherished from her childhood.  She suddenly came across a picture of her.  It was her high school graduation picture.  It was a different time in her life.  She looked so innocent, so clean, so pretty, every hair in place.  Then she noticed the strangest thing on the bottom of that picture in her parent’s house was a little label that had been glued on to the bottom of the frame.  The little label had been typed out on her father’s old Remington typewriter, and it only contained two words: “Our Lydia.”  Instantly she knew what they meant.  I mean how strange to be labeled in one’s own house, and yet Lydia knew the purpose.  Before the world and against all the whispers this was her father’s declaration to everyone who came into the house and knew everything about her.  “This is our Lydia.”  It was the “our” that meant so much.  Those three letters were as jewels to her, each a diamond to say that in this house our Lydia is treasured, she belongs to us.“

Just as this father claimed his own misfit daughter, God claims you God’s own. In God’s House, God has a label under your picture, Our Grace, Our Daniel, Our Matthew, Our Vivienne, Our Sophia, Our Micah, Our Karen … I really want to say all the names but I won’t creep you out any longer by saying your name specifically. God loves you. No matter who you are. What you’ve done. You belong. You belong to us. We love you. That’s the kind of church that I hope Reservoir will be.

Let me pray for us. 

God I’m wondering, what would it mean for each of us to really feel like we belong. Like we are your family and you God are our family. May we walk with you in our days, at our tables, in our homes, in our holiday celebrations, would you show up uniquely in our own tongue, in our own native language whatever that might mean for each of us. Thank you for showing us that you love us and know us through the person and work of Jesus. Would you give us that audacity to be your beloved child, and move through this world, reclaiming the broken, healing the sick, feeding the poor, with your power. And bind us to one another, as relatives, as a Reservoir family, show us how to be that, through your grace we pray in the precious holy name of Jesus, Amen. 


Joy Is Our Strength

Nehemiah 8:5-12 Common English Bible

5 Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up.

6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah[c]—helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places.

8 They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this[d] because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.

10 “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

11 The Levites also calmed all of the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Don’t be sad!”

12 Then all of the people went to eat and to drink, to send portions, and to have a great celebration, because they understood what had been said to them.

Holy and Loving God, You gave your people the laws to guide them. You gave yourself through the person of Jesus to be with them. For us to know and experience your love, your compassion. To show us a new way forward, a new life forward. God, give us the courage to see your light. God, give us the eyes to see your good news. We thank you that you reveal yourself to us. Show yourself to us now, We pray, Amen. 

I moved to Boston about five years ago from California. There are some adjustments you need to make, when you move to a new town. There were winters getting used to. And the vibe of the town. The people. And an adjustment, to how. you. drive. 

Driving around greater Boston, Lord Jesus, is quite the experience transition from driving around northern California. First of all, we’ve got these things called a Rotary. If you don’t know what it is, it’s this round thing, and there’s usually at least four intersections coming into it, and we all have to go around. We should simply call it Pure Chaos. I go. You go. Everybody yields. While we all go around and around in a circle. Try following that and Google maps and cars and pedestrians all at the same time and after a while you’re like, I know this dance! 

When you move to a new city. Into a new house. Starting a new job. Beginning a new relationship. Beginning of a new school year. New Season. These are the times when we take stock of what has served us. What changes we might make going forward. What I will keep and promise and agree with others around me to do. New land. New laws. Adjustments. And a hope for the future. What this new venture will offer to me and me to it, and how we will move forward. How I will make meaning on this new landscape.

This is actually what’s happening in today’s text. The Jewish people had been away, held captive in Babylon, and now, they were back in Jerusalem, ready to rebuild their land. They were returning from years of exile in someone else’s land, and as they were re-landing back to their own, it was time to regroup and lay down ground rules together again.

The priest and a teacher of the law, Ezra pulled together the old laws, reviewed them, made revisions, and then brought the people together, standing on a wooden platform, he read the laws out loud to everyone. He read, and they apparently interpreted for each other, maybe there were some breakout groups to discuss and process together, explaining to each other so that they’d understand the laws, they did this all morning from sunrise to noon.

As they were listening, and this is the part that’s the most intriguing to me, the people cried. They cried listening to laws. Why? Were they upset? Were they like, this is gonna be impossible to abide by? I really wonder why they cried. 

Our scripture reading today actually comes from our Kids Church “curriculum” from July. I say “curriculum” in quotes, because, for one thing, we don’t call it Sunday School, and call it Kids Church on purpose. It’s not just a place you learn. Schooling, teaching, learning is not the center of it. And so it’s less a “curriculum” but a more framework and approach that shapes what we do with kids on Sunday mornings here at Reservoir church. It’s simply a story from the Bible that we tell, as is, and then just listen, ponder, wonder, ask questions, and discuss with and around it–is the main point. 

The “curriculum” is based on one called Godly Play. It’s been one of my favorite children’s ministry curriculum in the past decade or so, one that’s a mix of spirituality, wonder and play and the Montessori approach. 

Our pre/k program actually uses the Godly Play method pretty intentionally. Our elementary program more or less does kind of Godly Play lite. 

And what they do is, they tell a story from the Bible and then afterwards, the kids cry, just kidding, afterwards they ask these things called, “wondering questions.” The questions are not a set up answers for memorization or to conclude the moral of the story. It’s to literally just get their reaction. I wonder why the story happened like this or like that. I wonder what’s your favorite part. I wonder what can be left out. 

So we’re going to actually do that now. I’m going to first give all of us a moment to think, for like a minute. Cause I’m really curious. Why do you think they cried? 

So close your eyes if you want, to really wonder and ponder on it. Maybe imagine all these people and Ezra standing on a podium reading the law, and people crying. Why do you think they cried? 

Let me gather us back together. 

So in the spirit of Godly Play, my message today is not an offering of any answers but an invitation to wonder together this story and just to make space. 

The beauty of it all is how you resonate with the story with each of your unique stories. 

It may be that there have been times when you heard some news, it made you cry and at the same time you also celebrated. Maybe you also know what it means and feels like to be both really sad and yet also joyful at the same time. When something touched you deeply and you felt it, it made you feel like you could cry and laugh.

I was just so struck by this story because I love tears. I’m a person who is very close to their tears. I see a touching commercial and I cry. I imagined that after being in exile, and coming back to their land, hearing the laws might’ve even felt unreal. Are we really here? Back? Can I dare live as if we’re not slaves? 

And I still don’t know what to make of the priest and Levites (side note: apparently Levites doesn’t just mean descendants of Levi, yes and it’s a group of people referred to that were the priest assistants). It kind of feels like they were cutting off the grief and tears and encouraging them to go eat and celebrate for this is a joyous occasion. I sense on one hand, maybe this was good leadership. “Stop crying, we’re done grieving having been exiles. We’re done now. Let’s lean in and enjoy our life now!”, helping them move on as a nation? And on the other hand, was there a real mix of responses and were the leaders trying to just shut it down and diminish it? 

A theme of the book of Nehemiah and the book right before it, Ezra, which often are found in manuscripts as just one book, and most attribute the two books to one author, is that one of the glaring issues was one of identity. Particularly since while they were in exile, there was some mixing… mixing of races and intermarriages, that at that time, under their original law, was frowned upon. There are prayers of Ezra, confessing the sins of so many intermarriages, and even a list of the names of men who did so. We don’t know for SURE what they exactly decided to do with this issue. And we don’t know exactly what laws were condensed, or rewritten, either to further reinforce the tradition of not intermarrying, or somehow made efforts to include them in some way or form. It’s unclear from the text. 

The response was real. People cried. Audibly. Visibly. I just think it’s so funny, this call to rejoice right at the heels, right in the midst of grieving, weeping, crying, but go eat rich food and drink something sweet. I mean that’s what I do when I’m sad. I eat chocolate. 

This text reminded me of a text in the New Testament. Another time when some folks heard some news and were bewildered. I don’t know why the connection came to me, but that’s what I’ve been wondering with, the connection maybe between these two texts. I’ll read for us. It comes from the end of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark 16:1-8 – Empty Tomb

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.

2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.

3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?”

4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)

5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled.

6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him.

7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”

8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[b

Overcome with terror and dread, at the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

This is actually the original final ending of the book of Mark. In our Bible there’s more. Verse 9 to 20, that has a reappearing of Jesus, a kind of a few more words from Jesus that wraps up the story better. And you’ll see in your Bibles, between verse 8 and 9, a tiny footnote that says

“The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” 

The original ending of the story of Jesus that Mark wrote ended with, verse 8,

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

That’s it. 

  • How are we to respond to the Laws?
  • How do we respond to a vision of a more idealized hope of how we should live (that’s what a law is, or at least should be)?
  • How are we to respond to the fact that when all we knew was death, and here was a man named Jesus, who spoke of heavenly things, apparently raised back from the dead?
  • How are we to respond to the Good News or the Gospel?
  • How do you respond?

I think it makes sense for us to be utterly shaken. If we are not, I wonder if we really heard it at all. And I think it is natural to have a mix of emotions. One of fear, like a fear of God, and also at same time, a nervous excited joy of the unknown future. I think the story of Nehemiah and the story of Mark both show us the depth and breadth of the range of responses and the permission to have them all. There’s not just one way to respond and the response might feel very visceral or intense. It’s okay to have a mix of feelings of being sad and happy at the same time for the same reason. 

A few weeks ago I met with a fellow Asian American woman for coffee. This kind of similar socio-location is fun to do. It’s like if the intermarried women of Jewish exiles got to chat after they heard Ezra’s laws. There’s this shared experience and wisdom. We shared our location, our settlement and the timing. She was born here, in America. I moved here when I was nine. She talked about being a child of poor immigrants, seeing their parents not being able to fully be honored or accepted and seen for who they are and what their gifts were. And at the same time, I saw a woman in front of me, who was gifted in her career, successful in many ways, blessed with a good life as good as anyone next to her.

And I asked her,

“so how does that feel? Like being a child of a poor immigrant, and now living the life you have now?”

She was a little stunned by my question, like who asks questions like that haha, saying,

“oh right you’re a pastor”

and I was like,

“yes and I’m also projecting, because it’s a thing, that specific experience… I have feelings about it.”

Well I let her go first and she said this… The first few emotions that she shared with me were not like, I’m so blessed and I’m grateful I’m so lucky, but that she feels guilty. She felt guilty that she’ not maybe having more joy like she’s supposed to. She felt guilty that sometimes she felt down like she’s not allowed to do that. And she felt guilty for feeling guilty. She’s grateful of course for the life she has now, but yeah, it was a mix. And I felt the same. Like I didn’t know how to live this life. A life that has been gifted to us too abundantly, too mercifully. And the pain and the suffering of our past, of our parents, our people, that that still is with us and lingers in us and that still hurts. 

I wonder if we feel like that after God has brought us back from what might have felt like exile, or suffering, or near death. I wonder if we have a hard time coming to terms with the extravagant love of God that God has bestowed upon us. Do we even know what to do with that? You can even be bewildered and not know how to process it all in the moment and feel speechless, the women at the tomb did. And I think the Bible tells us today to go eat something sweet. I’m… kidding… kind of. 

I wonder how it’s felt for you when God’s spoken to you. Or when you first encountered the resurrected Jesus. I wonder if you cried. Or if you were a bit scared. I wonder if you were told to rejoice cause you’re supposed to but you found it all a bit confusing all at the same time. 

I do like the added ending of Mark too though, verse 9-20. Jesus appears to them and says to them,

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

I don’t know, I mean I have mixed feelings about it. I kind of feel like some other author added a happy ending to it and I don’t know if I agree with that. But the part I like is, “Go.” Just like Nehemiah too, “Go.” Go talk to people. Go eat with them. Go party. Go Celebrate. Go. 

And actually this brings us to the exact format of the Godly Play curriculum. In the classrooms, after the children hear the story, discuss, they respond, and then they GO to a time where they might interact with the theme but also just play games, build something, paint/draw, whatever you want to do, but the intention behind really is all about just being in community. Go and be in community with whatever you just heard, however you heard, whatever it might be bringing up for you, wonder and play and interact with it with others and see what it does. 

This was my teaser for a class I will be co-teaching with pastor Dan in October called Godly Play Spirituality for Everyone: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Faith Traditions in October. It’ll be a three part series on the Bible, Spiritual Practices, and Community. I feel like for so many of us, we’re asking the question, what does faith look like for me in my context, in my life. What do I keep from traditions of Christianity and what can I part with that no longer serves me. Again, a way forward that will begin to shape your own faith identity. We’ll do that together as a community. And yes, it’ll end with a meal.

 Hopefully with rich food and some sweet drinks. Because no matter what we go through together, even if it’s through many seasons of grief and through tears, not despite it but with it and through the crying, we are called to go and celebrate, to claim joy. The joy of living. The joy of our God who delights in us. The joy of our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s invite one another, to be together, share dinners, tables, and meals together, even cry together, and choose joy again and again.  May joy be our strength. 

Okay, let me pray for us. 

Lord, you have our hearts. And we search for yours. Let us be your living sacrifices, a fragrant pleasing to you oh God. Let our tears fall on thee. Let our joy rise to thee. And give us one another to do so as a people, who can remind one another of the law you give us, of the life you give us, of the joy you give us again and again, in and through all that we might be facing in our own lives in work, in family, in relationships, in our nation, in our society, in our world, give us your strength. The strength of joy through it all. We pray. Amen. 


Jesus is Calling; The Spirit Answers

Roman 8:15-17

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.

And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

There’s a scene in the hit series on Netflix called Beef, where the main character, Danny Cho, played by Steven Yeun (that one Asian guy on Walking Dead – another great show) finds himself at a church. Now it’s the 3rd episode, after (I don’t think I’m spoiling it if you haven’t seen it) the 1st episode where we see him buying these hibachi grills at a hardware store to attempt suicide. 

Danny walks in the lobby as the worship leader is saying,

“God, we thank you for this Sunday. We thank you for inviting us here today to gather in your presence. We thank you for who you are and what you’ve done.”

As he clicks open the door into the chapel as the voice gets louder,

“Thank you for the cross. We thank you for Jesus.”

He walks in as he continues,

“Lord Father God we come to you.”

A pastor welcomes him, ushers him to a seat and he takes a seat as he notices others standing, some raising their hands, he decides to stand too. They begin singing softly,

“Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.”

And then the drums kick in

“Have you come to the end of yourself. Do you thirst for a drink from the well? Jesus is calling.”

And you can see Danny starting to feel stuff, his eyes watering. And it pours out, all that Danny has been holding, all that he’s struggling through, he lets it go as he stands there at a church during a praise song in a worship service. 

Has that ever happened to you? All that you’re holding in, released in the presence of others who are also there to feel God? When the lyrics of a praise song seem to hit you when you weren’t expecting at all. 

Praise songs are a weird powerful experience. They are prayers, often intimate, vulnerable. Mix that in with some beautiful vocals and drums man. That beat drops and I’m like oh crap, it’s about to get real. Jesus is knocking. And I’m not gonna be able to hold it together looking all cool at church. At some point last week, I was watching Bel play the drums. She was hovered over, hitting the beat with her whole body, consistent, dedicated, almost invitational. Like a friend who comes up to you at the dance floor with, “bring it in bring it in” energy and you have to step in. 

I love that about praise music and worship. What audacity it has to all of sudden ask me in a melodic trance,

“Are you hurting and broke within?”

“Have you come to the end of yourself?”

Who wrote this song and have you been following me around this week? How you gonna ask me that right here right now, in front of all these people? And just like Danny, you look around, we’re all standing there asking ourselves, asking God, asking together, asking one another, our hurts, our needs, our longing, our hearts for healing, love, and acceptance. And the song is telling you, Jesus is calling you into that. And you’re just like, “really? Jesus, are you for real?” What a sweet invitation, through music, to know that someone, Jesus is there calling you with father’s arms wide open, with forgiveness. 

This scene stood out to me because it was a familiar one. I had been there. After college, I was in San Francisco, working 80-90 hours a week, feeling burnt out and a bit lost too. Wondering what am I doing, who am I, and (after not having gone to church for a few years) I took myself to church one day. I can’t remember the songs from the day, it was actually the sermon that shifted me back to Jesus. So much so that I ended up here becoming a pastor, preaching to folks – but like the song in Beef, and like a song we sang last week or few weeks ago, words spoken at church seem to pierce me to the core of questions I had for myself. 

Like the song we sometimes sing here, it says

When I’m feeling low, and my heart is weak, I know you have the strength to carry me. When I’m broken down and I’m filled with grief. I know you’re far beyond what my mind conceives.”

And I remember when I would sing these songs, sometimes one line would so clearly speak to what I’m going through,

“feeling low and weak, broken down.”

but then sometimes I wasn’t sure,

“if you have the strength to carry me, and who is you, and are you even carrying me at all because I don’t feel carried at all to be honest.”

I remember I’d sing some lines and then have to pray during other lines of the song when they are all confident in their faith, assurance of God’s promises, I’d be muttering under my breath, prayers of questions,

“really Jesus? Are you there? Show yourself?”

I don’t know why we don’t have more praise songs like that. Questions rather than basking in the assurance like, “isn’t He wonderful?” And I’m standing there like “is He though?” But I guess that’s sometimes been the invitation for me. Someone else’s faith of assurance. Their confidence. Their witness and confession of what God has done for them and I wonder, could that be for me? 

Danny’s song would’ve done it for me too. Cause I was looking. I was looking for somebody to call me. 

There was a time when I really struggled with my identity. It was a combination of, not having the right job, so vocationally I felt lost, I had left church communities so I didn’t really have a “people.” I was in a new city with no family around, so lonely.

And as an Asian American immigrant, you kind of feel like, well you’re not Korean anymore, but also you’re not really accepted as an American. This feeling of estrangement and lack of belonging no matter where you go will mess with your head. I remember learning the word ladle in my 20s. My mom never called it that, obviously, growing up, she called it joo-guk. A simple small word that has such connection to a sense of home and comfort. But I didn’t really have any Korean friends, so I’d never say the word joo-guk. I learned it when I threw a MySpace Karaoke party for my birthday at the seminary and we were using upside down ladles as mics.  

As an immigrant, sometimes you really do feel like a motherless child. A stranger here. A stranger there. Never feeling like you’re home. 

Our scripture text today says that we are God’s children. That we have received the Spirit of sonship. Another manuscript says, the Spirit of adoption. Adoption. 

And if we have received the spirit of adoption, then, that means we are heirs. 

You see this is the crux of the gospel, the good news. That you are claimed as God’s own children. That you are loved and you belong. The gospel of adoption. No matter where you come from, what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, what you’ve accomplished or haven’t accomplished. No matter where you were born, your nationality, your citizenship, or your race, you have been adopted into this family and you are God’s own beloved child. 

For me when I couldn’t figure out my job, when I was single feeling sorry for myself cause I didn’t have a boyfriend, when I didn’t feel Korean enough or American enough, it gave me ground to fall on to to know that God was my Abba Father. When I felt like I was flailing and I wasn’t sure of myself, I heard the gospel, the good news of Jesus saying to me, you’re mine. That’s what grounded me from falling away further into my own depth of despair and cynicism. And to hear this gospel, that when no one’s calling, Jesus is calling, I ate it up. I was falling and I needed it, so I fell into the hands of God. 

Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor put it in her book, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (p.218)

 “If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall. On the one hand, this is perfectly normal. I do not know anyone who likes to fall. But, on the other hand, this reluctance signals mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the many little deaths along the way. When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there–not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene–promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall. Ironically, those who try hardest not to fall learn this later than those who topple more easily. The ones who find their lives are the losers, while the winners come in last.”  

Maybe your disability is like hers, “an unwillingness to fall.” Maybe you have already figured out all the ways you will never fall and you’re so busy doing it that it’s keeping you utterly tired at the balance work of handling it all. Like Luisa from Encanto. Everyone depends on her. She’s the strong one in the family who has to carry the weight of it all. But she says,

Under the surface

I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus

Under the surface

Was Hercules ever like, “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus?”

Under the surface

I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service

I wonder for some of you, if under the surface, you feel like a tightrope walker in a stressful working environment. Under the surface, if you’re ever like,

Yo I don’t wanna go to work today.”

Under the surface, you wonder if you’re worthless if you don’t make this big sale or promotion or can’t save the entire school system. 

Jesus is calling. The miracle is you, not what gift you have, what you can achieve. Not how hard you work to provide for your family. You’re not just a useful mule. You are God’s child. Christ’s co-heir. 

Or maybe you have no problem falling, like me. Finding yourself falling, tripping over things, dropping things, forgetting things, burning things all the time. No, just me? Well, if that’s you, Jesus is calling. As you cry out, “Abba, Father,” remember so did Jesus on the cross in his suffering. 

Whether you are falling or climbing like your life depended on it, the crux of the problem is that we forget who we are. Who we truly are. 

I saw someone’s email signature that said, One who does not look back where they are from, will not arrive at their destination.” 

  • Who  are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • But even further, who created you and sustains you?

Don’t just look forward to what you need to do, want to do, but look back to what has already been done for you before you even knew anything at all. Which are the words to infant baptism liturgy,

“All this Jesus did for you, though you do not know it yet.”

As 1 John 4:19 says,

“We love because God first loved us.”

Do you know who you are? When Moana didn’t know who she was, you can see what pop culture I’m taking in these days with my four year old, yes it’s Moana and Encanto.

When she was hearing this inner calling from the sea, and with the encouragement from her crazy grandma, while her father was being protective and responsible even to not venture out, to do her duty to stay. She sought out for something deeper, something beyond.

She found a cave filled with old boats and sails and realized that her people were actually “voyagers!” And that sparked her and set her on a course to, I believe, to have faith in something beyond what she saw on her own island, and there she finds herself and sings, “I am Moana!”

People often try to find themselves in many things like, taking a pilgrimage to their homeland, or talking through their family systems and history in therapy, or taking a 23andMe DNA test. All of which I approve, maybe even recommend and probably will help a lot. It’ll give you extra pieces in putting yourself together. I’m not discounting those. I think history, science, and psychology are extremely important and helpful. 

But we are more than humans on this earth. We are spirits. We are souls. We are bodies on this earth and we are a spark of life in this universe.

  • What is that?
  • Who is that spark?
  • Who are you? 

In my own journey, one of my sparks in my own identity journey was, while I was in seminary, as I was looking back to through my own family through therapy, and through the societal landscape that I grew up in, and through Christian history that shaped my faith, I found something that deeply shifted the way that I saw myself in relation to God and Godself.

You see in my old testament class, as we were learning Hebrew, we excavated the roots of the Spirit through the scriptures. One of the gems, my Moana finding the boats in the cave moment, were learning about the Divine Wisdom in Proverbs and the word in Greek is Hagia Sophia and it was often referred to as “she”. As we looked deeper into this often personified Sophia, it was described as a “female expression of God.”

A female expression of God! Amidst all that I was unpacking about the world I lived in as a woman, how the society has treated me based on how I look or my sexuality rather than my thoughts or my words, as I was trying to reckon what it meant for me to be a daughter of God when everything I read only talked about sons, I went out of the doors of the seminary and yelled on top of that one balcony with the labyrinth

“There were feminine expressions of God! I am Lydia!” 

It felt like an answer to the calling. A calling from Jesus that sometimes I didn’t know how to relate to or answer based on all the readings, the theologies, the complicated church history. I mean the Nazi’s thought they were being Christian? Just to name one of tainted church histories. How do you reckon with that? The engagement with the Divine Wisdom, Sophia, a more personified feminine expression of God that felt at home. It resonated with me. It just hit different that’s all.  

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption. And by her we cry, “Mama, Mother.” The Spirit herself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

Okay these days, my kids are seriously so stuck on me, Umma! Umma! Umma! Constantly! I’m sorry I’m not discounting dads, but come on, the babies literally lived in my belly for nine months, inside me and I nursed them and fed them with my body. That’s some serious connection and bonding. 

That kind of bonding with God? Again, Abba Father is cool, I love my Dad. Jesus, super cool, a personified visible revelation of God in real life history that walked this earth. Jesus absolutely had an impact on me, as I heard the Bible story of Jesus calling the woman with the alabaster jar, defending her before Pharisees, saying,

“Don’t you see how much she loves me!”

Jesus claimed me as his own through that story. That’s a fact. And the presence of the Holy Spirit, that the Bible describes this Sophia as a shelter, a healer, a comforter, like the comfort of my umma, who rocked me when I cried, who fed me seaweed wrapped rice from hand into my mouth when I was hungry, A God who feeds me.

I felt held, known. Yes, I am her child, I could say, I know her embrace, I know her. And surely she knows me in all my femininity, girliness, and womanhood that had come to dictate my identity. And all that estrangement of myself, finding myself as the Other in this world, I found myself at the presence of God calling, God, Umma! Umma! Umma! 

Finding yourself. Finding God. And then finding yourself in God, in relation to God, finding yourself in the beholding of the greatest all encompassing unconditional love of God, is like the most precious and beautiful and most worthwhile thing ever. Once you do that, you can do anything. 

Richard Rohr in his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer says this:

“Our first job is to see correctly who we are, and then to do it. That will probably take more courage than to be Mother Teresa. To be really faithful to that truth is utterly difficult and takes immense courage and humility. We have neglected the more basic and universal biblical theme of “personal calling” in favor of priestly and religious vocations. The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. That is everybody’s greatest cross.” 


God’s calling is not just a calling to priestly and religious vocation as Rohr says. And it’s not even a vocation. It’s a calling to love. It’s not come here and be this or do that. It’s come here, let me hold you, I love you. Friends, May you experience and know that kind of love from Creator Father Mother God, Savior and Friend, Brother/Co-heir Jesus, and Comforter Healer Holy Spirit Sophia. 

Breathe on these Dry Bones

Good morning. I’m Lydia, if we haven’t met, one of the pastors here at Reservoir. My pronouns are she/they.

I want to share with you a text that came to me as I’ve been doing some justice work. It comes from Ezekiel 37.

Let me read the text and pray for us to begin. A quick note, I changed the pronoun of God from ‘he’ to ‘they’ and the phrase “Son of Man” to “Child of Human.” My main reason for this is to neutralize the gender of the divine as well as the gender of the prophet so that more of us that do not identify as “he” pronoun can relate with the text as much as possible. So,

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Valley of Dry Bones

The hand of the LORD was on me, and they brought me out, by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

They led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. They asked me, “Child of Human, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then they said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then they said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, Child of Human and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ “ So I prophesied as they commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then they said to me: “Child of Human, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ 

Let’s pray

God of Hope. God our deliverer. If there are any of us here now, going through a deep valley of what it feels like death, grief, and dry bones, I pray that you will begin to give us imagination. An imagination of how you meet us, of how you comfort us, of how you bring us together bone to bone and breathe life in us somehow. Though some of us may feel cut off, break through our pain, our depression, our apathy, our busy-ness, I pray that you will break through with a glittering beam of light and hope that we will lift our faces in the dark valley, to actually find you there, hear you there, and see you there breathing into us. May your Spirit land on us now, just as it landed in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, we pray these things in your name, Amen.

Hey welcome to a downer sermon. I’m gonna talk about the valley of dry bones and stuff today, yay. But don’t worry though, it ends with hope, so let’s hang on together. Cause what are we if we’re not a beloved community that is able to

“rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn”?

As a pastor, as I meet with some of you, I’m so honored to get to ask how you’re really doing? Many of our conversations start light… “How are you?” “Oh it’s good. You know, can’t complain.” And as we get into it, things start coming out in between “Yeah it was a hard year losing my dad but I’m hanging in there.” Or “Work is stressful but it’s good, I got to hang out with a good friend this week.” Or “My partner and I broke up a few months ago, but I’m okay.”

When I ask the question, is there anything I can pray for you? People begin to open up about the not so pretty parts of their lives. Although, to me, these are the most beautiful parts because they are raw emotions that many of us sometimes don’t know how to talk about.

  • What do you say to someone that’s had a miscarriage?
  • What do you say to someone who is going through domestic violence?
  • What do you say to someone who is struggling to take care of their aging sick mom?

In “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Trouble Times” by Soong-Chan Rah, he begins the book talking about church-planting in inner-city Cambridge. In Central Square, the neighborhood sandwiched between Harvard and MIT, which the university students refer to as “Central Scare,” a scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.” Their hope was outreaching “to the inner-city neighborhood and fostering an intentionally multiethnic church community.” And he kicked off the church plant not with missional thrust of gospels, or even the Revelations, the final hope of a thriving city, but landed on a 6-week series on Lamentation to begin their ministry. That it all began with looking deeper into suffering, grief, and lament, and there they found their call for action.

In my own justice work I realize how much I find myself just angry, and wanting to cry. How much I actually feel helpless in working on a ministry area called Faith Into Action! I fell into a specific area of housing justice work that sought to build relationships with tenants of public housing. It involved mainly door knocking. Now doorknocking can be scary but with tenant organizing, I found that they opened doors and talked to me more than I anticipated.

I was met by a Russian immigrant woman, proud of her daughter who had played violin for the Boston Philharmonic, and how public housing had given her a chance to live. I met an older white woman with health conditions that shared that when the basement flooded it destroyed all her late mother’s things, and the most they did was give her a water pump that died after two weeks and put a black trash bag over the switchboard. “It’s still there!” she said to us. I met a younger black man, who mostly was quiet and nodded but did tell us that there aren’t enough parking spots and they ticket and tow the neighboring street relentlessly. They can’t even have friends over because of fear of getting towed.

The struggle, the suffering, the lament, the extended descriptions of why there is a valley of dry bones is not the popular part of Ezekiel. The famous one is the one I read today, dry bones coming alive. You might’ve heard it preach on before. It’s arguably the most popular section of Ezekiel. Do you know what content is in most of Ezekiel, which by the way is the book right after Lamentations? It’s a warning of judgements. It’s prophecies of “the end has come!” It’s full of violent descriptions, symbolism of sexual violence, of condemnation and wrath that befalls Jerusalem. 36 chapters of them is all about that, before we come to this beautiful text about dry bones rising up with new life.

You see, Ezekiel was a priest in exile. It was written during the time where Israelites were deported to Babylon. It’s a story about dislocation, migration, and colonization. That was the bed on which the dry bones laid on. And I can relate somewhat. As someone who has immigrated, though by choice (well not my choice, my parents choice) but really with not much choice, power, money, or options. I resonate with the feelings of being “cut off” from the homeland where you’re originally from and from the state in which you live where you have no voice or power.

‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’

It says.  Koreans especially have a bone to pick, that’s a pun, on this as a country that was colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945. If you’ve read the book Pachinko, you get a glimpse into what it feels like to lose your identity, your people. Or if you are African-American in America of course, the history of slavery. As an Asian-American, it has been very interesting for me to see and experience and participate in the aftermath and post-slavery era we live here in America. And can I just be honest with you? It’s really tough to still see disparity, like the result of redlining that I’ve been pointed out to literally as we walked streets of Arlington, the town where I live.

So in imagining our text today, don’t just skip to the part about when the voice of God comes, the Spirit of God lifting them up with hope. Take a moment to think about the valley of dry bones you are standing on. What violence took place on this land for us to enjoy such prosperity? Ezekiel chapters 1-36 goes into it in horrific language, that I personally don’t enjoy as it often uses degrading metaphors of females. It’s ugly to say the least.

I’m going to share some valleys of dry bones that I’ve been witnessing.

When Ezekiel is quoting the exiled Israelites, the displaced, the deported in Babylon, saying,

“Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”

When I read this it reminded me of so many of the tenants’ stories. A few weeks ago we played some of the tenants stories in a video. Later that week I got an email from one of our Reservoir members that live in public housing. Here’s what they said,

“My biggest issue is the rodent problem I have been having. I have complained and called their maintenance department numerous times and all they do is make me wait until the following Thursday (during my work hours) to send an exterminator who will only lay down some traps and then tell me that they hope the mice don’t return. How is laying down sticky traps going to keep them from returning?? Then they will offer to put bait boxes in my apartment. Who wants dead rodents in their homes???? On each visit, I have asked them to seal the apartment. They will tell me they can’t find any holes to seal. They say that maybe they are coming in from the heaters but nobody will remove the heaters to look. When they come to remove the traps there are few mice on one trap. Right around New Year’s Eve, they found 4 in one trap while I found a dead one in my bedroom!!! I am VERY squeamish and I was TRAUMATIZED when I saw that in my room! I was shaking, screaming, and crying. My legally blind uncle had to come and dispose of them because when I called maintenance they said it wasn’t an emergency and I would have to wait until after the holiday to get assistance. A dead rodent body in my freaking bedroom isn’t an emergency to them but I was over there hyperventilating….. In the year and half I’ve been there we’ve caught 26 of them! Ewwwww!!”

You know where this is? This is in Somerville. Somerville Housing Authority, this person wanted me to name.

And I’ve also been working with tenants but also Housing Authority Executive Director who feel shamed. One ED said,

“I kid you not, “I feel like a slumlord.”

Slums in Somerville. Slums in Brookline. That’s what we’ve been seeing. 

I share this with you because tenants in these places often feel cut off. Cut off from the system. They complain but it goes nowhere. And often these folks already feel like they can’t speak up in fear of losing their home in the first place.

This text came to me as the GBIO Housing Justice campaign is gearing up for a 1000+ action gathering on June 26th. As I imagine, how could it be that these folks that have been shut down, dismissed, mistreated, forgotten, cut off, could rise up and unite and become a vast army, the Spirit of God gave me this text. 

I share this with you because I remember learning in my preaching class in seminary to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Because just as Ezekiel wasn’t just talking about the spiritual realm or life after death, just as real as his experience of being exiled, due to real destruction of his town, and real displacement of real people, because of power and politics, the good news and the gospel and the spirit of God working in and through our lives is absolutely about real lives right here in our town, yes in our backyard.

As I was preparing, I cried reading verse 14,

“I will settle you in your own land.”

Do you know what it feels like to be settled in your own room? Your own house? Your own land? If you do, then you know how important that is to you right?

I want to ask you, has

“The hand of the LORD brought you out by the Spirit of the LORD and set you in the middle of a valley”

yet? Verse 1 says,

“They led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley,”

God showed Ezekiel around, back and forth, to really see death. Have you been faced with very dry bones? If so, I grieve with you. No matter if that valley is living in public housing. Or surviving through cancer. Or struggling to have children through IVF and failing, or singlehood through longings of finding a partner, or aching through a foster child you love. I grieve with you as you fight with your brother or neighbor. I grieve with you as you try your best to get through the work day.

But you know what the good news of today’s text is right? Where did the breath of life, the Spirit of God, Ruach, flow through? It wasn’t breathed into the mountaintops. It wasn’t just through beautiful trees and flowers, even as we see and feel them nowadays outside. It’s in the depth of the valley, in the darkness of your bedroom, in the loneliness of your suffering. Just as Jesus resurrected after death, and the Holy Spirit descended upon those who were mourning the death of Christ. It is in the valley, there, the Spirit of God landed, not the mountaintops. 

And what I find funny is that God could’ve just done all this. But the text goes through this kind of tedious process, of bringing Ezekiel to this place, telling Ezekiel to prophesy, and so he does at first and the bones come together, but then they still didn’t’ have any breath on them, and I feel like God could’ve maybe even should’ve just went ahead and do the God miracle of breathing God’s life in them. But God goes on to instruct Ezekiel,

‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, Child of Human, and say to it… Come, breathe, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’

God told Ezekiel to tell Ruach, spirit, breath, what to do. It is only then, per a human’s command, that the Spirit of God moves into the dry bones causing them to rise up, a vast army.

Reservoir, I hear the rattling of your bone and your heart. You tell me that you care for the poor, that you care for the stranger, that you care about social justice and equity and diversity and inclusion. I know that many of you have seen and followed God’s spirit to the ends of the earth to sit with and grieve with dry bones of our times. I know some of you have been brought to it by choice or by circumstance.

I also know that many of us, we don’t see it. We haven’t experienced it. By way of privilege or just busy with our own lives, which I get. And I think that the hand of God has brought these stories of public housing to our church, Reservoir Church that is a member congregation of GBIO, because we decided back in 2016 that we weren’t just going to sit back while some Christians spoke for one kind of politics but that we will lean into public engagement that is inspired by the Holy Spirit uniquely through us, doing our part locally. 

And now that we have been brought to the valley of dry bones, now that the spirit of God has invited us to take a look at the conditions people are living in across the street, right in our own towns, how can we deny it? How could we not lament and grieve and call for justice in these troubled times? Could we dare to rise up locking bone to bone, arm to arm, audaciously casting judgment just as Ezekiel did, to the leaders of the modern day Babylon? How do we not get swept up by the breath of God to rise and bring life to this valley? Do we dare?

I know that many of us are already doing various things to bring the beloved community, the kin-dom, the reign of God to this world more alive and real, and there are a variety of things that our church does. And I’m curious, can we also unite together to show the power of Reservoir, coming in 100, 200 strong to unite powers with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, organizing 1000+ together? That’s what GBIO is doing on June 26th Monday night at 7pm at Temple Israel in Boston in person, envisioning a 1000+ vast army for the Housing Justice Campaign. As your pastor, which is kind of a modern day prophet, I beseech you, invite you to come down to the valley with me that day. And just see for yourself what the Spirit of God can do. 

And if you’re not local, or maybe you’ve got your own valley that you’re dealing with, I want you to take a moment to ask God where the spirit of God is breathing right now. What vision is God showing you that there is life, that there is a rousing of life, where you thought you had lost all hope? Where you thought you were cut off? Where is God connecting tendon and flesh to flesh? Do you believe that the Sovereign Lord can bring you up? May it be so, friends. May the Sovereign Lord put their spirit in you, now and forever more. Amen. 

On The Law of Retaliation

Matthew 5:38-42 

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you.  If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.

40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.

41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.

42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

Good and Gracious God, you have woken us up, given us breath and life and called us here today. We thank you for this day. We thank you for the rain. We thank you that you are a God who loves us no matter what we might be going through in our lives. Help us now, no matter what morning or what kind of week we had this past week, whether it was full and joyful or just busy and distracted, bring us to this space now with reverence and centeredness, on what our body needs, what our spirit needs, and there we pray that you will meet us with overwhelming abundant love. Help us to believe that as we open our selves up to your word now, we pray in your precious and holy name, Amen. 

Hey, Love Your Enemies is the series we’re on these days here at Reservoir and to preach on this feels like, (shaking head no violently) “I don’t want to!!!!!” 

My unholy human ego reacted strongly to this preaching prompt with, what I would like to spend some time on today, an understandable resistance to this teaching. I want to spend some time on it because I don’t want to jump to the moral teaching conclusion. I mean, you know the ending already, so now go, love your neighbors. Love your enemies. Cause Jesus said so. So you better. 

Because for so long, I have seen and heard the beautiful teachings of Jesus wrapped in as a command, for us to obey. It’s a shorter and easier way to spread the teaching, when you begin with, God said so. But I refuse the misused tactics of shame and guilt to do this, one because I believe that God is not a tyrant. God is not just a rule enforcer. I want us to go slow, go easy, gently toward this message, because at least in Matthew, before Jesus gave us teachings, advice, wisdom, and guidelines, he first did the miracles of healing the sick. 

And so I believe that in order to love your enemies, first we need to do the miracles of healing. because without it, first of all you can’t do it. Loving your enemy while you’re still really hurting – it’s impossible. But if you have experienced the miracles of healing, well then we can start talking. 

And maybe I know that because I know that firsthand. When you have been hurt, when you’ve been truly wronged, when you actually really have an enemy that’s done you wrong, and you haven’t had the practice of healing and loving poured into you, you don’t have the faculties to forgive and love yourself, definitely not others. And so I want to make space for that. Because to preach to a hurting person with the command to “love your enemy” is not only ineffective, I believe is abusive. 

You know how you teach someone to love their enemy? You love on them. And to love someone is to make space for their pain and not try to erase it by telling you,

just love your enemy because that’s what God wants you to do. 

So I want to unpack first of all, the ways in which we have misused and misunderstood the teaching “love your enemies”, especially in and through church and Christian traditions that have been unhelpful and even harmful. 

The reality is that people, people from places of power and through the power of the church have used teachings like “love your enemies” to further shame and oppress and keep people in their place. And that’s a real pain point, a triggering point for some of us.

Sometimes I hate taking a few texts out of the Bible and shining on the screen because it takes it out of context. If we actually take out the whole book, the text in its context, today’s is in Matthew 5 verse 38, but you look up just a few verse, earlier in the chapter, verse 23 says this, for example:

23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,

24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.”

Now I clearly see the good wisdom and intention of these verses. 

But in my years of growing up in church, I’ve seen it used to shame and prevent people from coming to the altar, serving in church, from coming closer to God. I mean, it was taken literally and applied blanketly.

Again, I can understand why one would like to make this good practice into a law. But, We picked and chose which “sins” were allowed or not allowed, like greed and hoarding weren’t checked with your small group leader but if you drank, if you went to a party or listened to secular music, then you felt like you couldn’t come to church at all.

Like we forgot that we’re ALL sinners, but some sin prevented you from taking communion, like premarital sex, while other sin, like owning a company that underpaid and abused workers were totally fine. We turned the wisdom into a convenient social rule that we wanted to enforce. I keep saying we because Christians are bound to one another and what churches have done in the name of Christ, we have to be at least aware if not account for that in our faith journey talks. 

Here’s another one, a few verses down in verse 31:

On the Law of divorce

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’

32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Okay, first of all, this teaching is directed at men only. The “Whoever” is not really “whoever” but it’s “men.” 

Jesus is not talking to me in this text. I am not even in the room. I cannot simply and literally apply everything he said to me and us all, because he would not do that, no relationship is like that. Audience matters. So who was Jesus talking to at this moment? At the top of the chapter it tells you, chapter 5:1

“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down, His disciples came to him and he began to teach them saying,”

He was talking to his disciples. 

We have used this to those who are divorced to shame them. You see some churches are still wrestling with LGBTQIA affirmation (whether they can marry or not) or women’s ordination (whether they can preach or not) and not long ago churches wrestled with divorce (whether they can do that or not and still be a member of a church). 

Can we just admit that we have misused, and continue to misuse so much of the Bible? It’s been weaponized against people where the divorced are outcasted from the community. No wonder people are leaving the church. We’re kicking them out with shame! 

The thing is today’s text has been used by colonizers and murderers, upon victims who are converted through force and then taught to love their enemies after they’ve pummeled through their land and their communities. Love your enemies they said, as they pressed their heels to their heads. THAT IS NOT THE TEACHING OF JESUS here. 

Let’s not shove “Love your Enemies” down the throat of those who are victimized and oppressed from a place of privilege and power to those who are suffering.

Okay, so there’s been bad and toxic interpretations of the text. Then what is the good interpretation here? We gotta dig. 

Cause I mean, when you just read texts like this at first glance:

But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you.  Or another translation says. [Do not resist one who is evil] 

WHAT!? Um, is Jesus being complacent with evil or co-conspiring with evil?!

The natural response is, what? You just want me to hurt again? You want me to go another mile at this rate? 

And now, welcome to the part of the sermon when we’re preaching from the Bible: Consider the cultural location and historical context of the text. 

Why did Matthew write this? 

This is why we have the four gospels because from Matthew we get an angle. And we can get a better sense of Matthew’s angle and purpose for his writing by comparing it to others. In order for us to better understand Matthew’s text we have to try to understand Matthew’s overarching message that it’s trying to convey, because every text is wrapped in that motif. 

The book of Matthew is uniquely Jewish Christian, meaning it is particularly interested in laying out the stories of Jesus in close relationship and in connection or in comparison to the Jewish laws. Our today’s text is specifically in regard to the Law of Retaliation, found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. It was directly trying to address these specific questions at hand. 

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

This is a central motif and the driving force of the booking of Matthew. To distinguish, juxtapose, and specifically compare Jesus in close relationship to the Jewish Laws was the purpose of Matthew’s writing.

That’s important because the awareness of the specificity of the audience humbles us in our understanding and application. It is not to say, oh it doesn’t apply to us, but the point is, we have to take into account that it in fact was not written for us, 21st century American, women for example. The takeaway for us in realizing this is, Matthew shows us the pastoral, contextual, and cultural interpretation and application of Jesus’ teaching to his people and his traditions, inspired by the holy spirit, to the best of his ability. 

We must do the same. And it must be lived and alive, a conversation and not a heavy handed law but a live rendering of what is convicted in our hearts to the actions of our day. That’s exactly what the writer of Matthew was trying to do, to not simply accept the Jewish Laws, but reinterpret it to fit their time and their social location, their hunger, their need. 

Similarly, Jesus,

“interprets the law within its proper horizon and according to its proper use, a task that at times involves criticism even, especially of particular features and interpretation of the sacred text itself” (p. 383)

by saying,

“you have heard it said, but I say….”

he is critiquing their holy scriptures, and contextualizing it, a model for us to do the same. 

In this way, it shows us that we must rely on one another, one another’s voice and story and another’s social location, to testify what the spirit, what Jesus has convicted them of, and we take it all at face value and with a grain of salt. That is what it means to live the faith, which is to do it in community. That’s why we have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And Mark and John don’t have the sermon on the mount really. Whatttt! Yeah. 

And even with Jesus, you can have a conversation with Jesus from your cultural context and location (take the story of woman at the table)

Matthew 15: 21-28

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

This story tells us that yes, even Jesus had a certain perspective, or to put it more provocatively, an agenda, which was only for the lost sheep of Israel. So, could it be that his message was only for the sheep of Israel? Maybe?! But again, taking Matthew’s motif into account, his whole message of the Gospel of Matthew is a thrust of pushing on the outer edges of affirmation of the Jewish Laws and then above and beyond the Jewish laws to go to the end of the earth, as it concludes in Matthews chapter 28. And so this story begs the question for me, then what would the crumbs of the “loving your enemies” be? 

Because our text today makes a few assumptions. It assumes that when they take you to court for your shirt, that you have a coat even to give to them. It assumes that you even have enough things for someone to even want to borrow from you. From the pedagogy of the poor, the biblical criticism of this text from the perspective of the oppressed is that the call to follow the law of retaliation might have been spoken to a certain audience that had some power and privilege. And maybe just maybe, I wonder what kind of example Jesus would’ve given to those who are marginalized and oppressed and broken, as a model of loving your enemy. 

Maybe it looks like being slapped across your face but not letting the abuser take your hope away. Because I in my pastoral context could not tell a domestic violence victim to simply turn her cheek to her perpetrator. And if I thought the gospel was telling me to do that, I would not be here. I do not believe so. My faith, just like this woman at the table, demands of the Lord to throw us the crumbs of this provocative wisdom, to ask God, then SHOW me this world you speak of where enemies are loved! 

What do the crumbs of your picture of “loving your enemy” look like? From the place of an outsider? If the message of “love your enemies” was only for the lost sheep of Israel, and this woman fought for even a crumb of that wisdom in her social location, as a dog as Jesus calls her, what would that be? And her faith was that that would be enough. I think so, I think what you can muster up, what you deem as the wisdom of loving your enemies may look like in your specific case, that would be enough. We’re not meant to follow the rules literally but receive the whole kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew calls it, as a whole ethos, and move in the spirit of love here and now. 

I remember in 2015 *uh trigger warning I’m going to talk about gun violence*. Please feel free to step out if this is not for you. I remember seeing the clip of the white shooter brought into court to face the survivors of the nine dead at the black Emanuel AME church in Charleston. And the family member saying to him,

“I forgive you”

It made me so angry, to see such foolish mercy, like throwing pearls to the swine, and of course and yet, touched, distraught by the shooting and that pain being disrupted by love. The confusion of such radical forgiveness. Why would anyone do that? How could anyone do that? To forgive someone who has shot your mother dead? 

You know who? One who has Received this kind of love from God first. One who knows deeply the love and grace and mercy of God no matter what befalls them. I’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye and everyone will go blind. To love your enemy is to usher in a total new way, to break out of the system, a new way forward. A liberation from the same old cycles and systems of hurt, retaliation, and more hurt. One of grace and mercy that snatches us out of that loop. By loving your enemies, you show them a new game, you usher in a whole new rules of engagement (although they might still respond with old ways of engagement).

A biblical commentary said this,

“Upon closer inspection this stance is actually rooted in a profound resistance, an unexpected refusal to play the opponent’s adversarial game. By voluntarily going a second mile, for example the first mile is likewise refigured from something “forced” into something chosen; so what might superficially seem to be docility is actually at a deeper level a form of non adversarial defiance.” (p.383)

They called it moral jiu jitsu, which I learned is a form of martial arts that’s not of violence but redirecting violence. The word literal translation meaning, gentle art. 

Matthew’s big point was trying to marry Jesus’ way to the known laws of the day. He was trying to show the Jesus’ way in and through and above and beyond the laws that were so important and dear and highly respected. But in doing so, I believe that it can be misunderstood that here’s a new law to follow, and that is what its intent was, but that new law is not a rule but a person. Loving your enemies is not just a new law to follow but realize that this is the kind of world that Jesus invites you to.

Jesus loves your enemies. Jesus loves his enemies. Jesus loves you in this way, even when we were God’s enemy. While we were still sinners. Even when you feel like you’re the furthest from God, by way of distraction of work and life, by way of deep dark void-like depression, by way of apathy or indifference, even there God does not oppose you but moves toward you. God turns the other cheek for you. God would give you God’s shirt and their coat to you. God goes the extra mile for you. God doesn’t refuse you but greets you with open arms with radical love and grace and endless mercy. 

May the crumbs of God’s love towards even enemies fall on us and heal us. That we may receive it, may it cover us and embrace us. That it might shape not what we do but who we are, no longer enemies but God’s beloveds. May we drive that deep into our hearts today. 

Let me pray for us. 


From Dust to Dust

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 

16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again!

17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed.

18 I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals

19 because human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals because everything is pointless.

20 All go to the same place:

    all are from the dust;

    all return to the dust.

21 Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth?

22 So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future?

Let me pray for us. Great Divine Love, you have called us here to this moment. Something woke us up this morning and drew us near to this place we marked as set apart and sacred, not because the place is special but because we decided together that we will seek you together. And so we seek you now in word and thought, no matter what we may carry with us in our hearts coming in here, whether in despair or in hope, we seek your love, your truth. Humble us, that we may get out of the way of ourselves, and see you, who tell us that we are beloveds. Help us to hear that deeply in our souls as we seek your word. Amen.

I remember when I became a freshman in college, I felt that I had finally stepped into the real world. Here is the world, not in the small confines of my parent’s house. Not the pathetic life of high school drama, not in the small towns which I grew up most of my life, from a small town in Georgia two hours south of Atlanta where I went to elementary school, from a small town in Wichita, Kansas, literally in the middle of nowhere where I went to middle school, or even Fresno, CA which is endearingly(?) called the armpit of California where I finished high school. I was finally in the big real world, UCLA. There was a mix of pride, of having made it there, but also great insecurity, I don’t know what I’m doing here. 

I remember becoming aware of the public opinion or persona of Christianity, which growing up as a pastor’s kid, it’s the water we swam in. But here at a “secular” university, it was something different.

There was one day, on Bruinwalk, which is the main walkway everyone took from the dorms to get to classes, often littered with flyers for student organizations, clubs, and fraternity/sorority parties, there was a man set up on Bruinwalk with a microphone and a speaker next to him. You could hear this amplified preaching/chastising,

“If you don’t repent, and admit that you are a sinner, you will face the judgment of God in hell.”

I remember hearing the words, thinking,

“I know what he’s talking about, but gosh why is he yelling it on a speakerphone like this.”

And I felt embarrassed for him, for Christianity. I didn’t want others to know that I was Christian as to not be associated with him. 

The worst part about it though was, he had this other mic set up actually, a few feet down from him, him on top of the hill, where students gathered around, that could apparently respond on the microphone. And he’d take questions or comments, or so it seemed. I saw students, eager, smart-looking, well spoken, much like students I sat with in my political theory classes, who I respected with awe at their comments in class, respond to him with great logic. And when they did, at some point, he had a button to shut off the mic of his opponents.

He was controlling the mic, turning it on or off, which then obviously frustrated his “listeners,” It seemed so sick to me. I wondered, how is this helpful in evangelizing the love of God to people? I think that’s when I started to get a bit jaded, not about God, but about Christianity and Christians. 

That’s what I appreciate about a text like today’s, Ecclesiastes, a book that many have debated over whether it should even be in the Bible or not. Those books are my favorite! It’s a book of impassioned contradictions. I love a good pessimist or a jaded realist.

I am not one. I am a hopeful optimistic romantic of them all. But an actual realist to go up against, really ruffles my feathers. And that’s what the Ecclesiastes has to offer I think to the hopeful romantics of Easter-loving Christians in this season of Lent. Because before we get to Easter, we’ve got SIX WEEKS of Lent, where this week is about dust. 

all are from the dust;

all return to the dust.

Ecclesiastes is like a good satire or dystopian story, like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parasite, Squid Game, or the Walking Dead. It makes you think and question, well, what is the most important thing about life? And the thing is, when you really start to ask that question about life, it quickly does force you to reckon with the opposite of life–death.

In the Pulitzer prize winning book titled “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, it says that

“the prospect of death… wonderfully concentrates the mind…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for (hu)man.” 

Death is a reality check. I know this conceptually, and I also know that some of you have personally experienced the “wonderful” concentrating of mind at the prospect of death of loved ones or scary health diagnosis. When one of my close friend’s dad passed away about a year ago, when it’s not just a hypothetical situation in a screen or a book, it was sobering to see that it really does both blur everything that’s unnecessary and focuses on the realest things about life. I remember her sharing with us in an update email, as she was approaching her dad’s last days, she said,

It is uncomfortable to talk about death, especially when we’re young, showing off great memories on social media, and just living it up.  And we should live it up!” Ecclesiastes 5 says that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them.” But Ecclesiastes 7 also says: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” This is a wake up call for me.  I don’t know exactly how my life will change from this moment on, but at 42, I’m about halfway through life and it is a good lesson in wisdom to know my days are numbered, that life really is short, and that everyone I love will either go to my funeral or I will go to theirs.  If I don’t learn and change, then my dad’s painful death is in vain.”

As much as I felt embarrassed by the Christian guy on the mic on Bruinwalk, I do think the message of Christianity does have this wake up call kind of warning to many of us who drift through our days and weeks, with great aspirations and guilty pleasures, even with meaning and purpose, but there is this reality check like Ecclesiastes chapter 1 offers,

“meaningless meaningless. All is meaningless.” 

I personally wouldn’t lead with that message, optimistic personality and all, and for the record, biblically, that’s not where it starts. Yes I am going to take a hopeful romantic break before I get back to death, dust, and meaninglessness. The Bible begins with the Creation which is called good, before “the Fall.” Before Original Sin, there was Original Good. Human beings, made in the image of God, to which God called good. How come we don’t talk about that as much when we’re evangelizing?

Okay, back to realism. There is something very compelling and sobering about the reality check of the Christian message. That there is sin. There is “evil,” however we define it. There are limits to humans. That there is suffering and death. I actually think the reason why the Christian message in one sense, is provocative yet widely received in many situations is because it speaks to the stark and dark reality of our world. Yelling into a mic, “You are a sinner” is powerful because we are so entangled in so much, daunting, powerless-evoking, sin and darkness in our world. Coming to terms with that is so freeing! You’re not invincible. You don’t have to be a hero or make something of yourself. 

The “heroism” concept is human nature though. Becker says, in The Denial of Death,

“One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.”

As Erich Fromm has so well reminded us, this idea is one of Freud’s great and lasting contributions. Freud discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it:

luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow…

This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physicochemical, inner  organic recesses he feels immortal (and by he, he means, human beings, all humans, outdated, you get the point). He goes on to talk about the nature of children, their unashamed demands for their wants and needs, which I will tell you that my two year old exerts all his tiny might and power to get my attention, relentlessly and impossible to ignore. 

This week I attended our Ash Wednesday service that our Worship and Arts Director Matt Henderson and some members of our community beautifully and thoughtfully curated. At some point, Jenae, who’s a therapist and a yoga instructor, invited us to grab a handful of dirt in our hands and led us through some prompts.

The dirt? It was dirty. As I was holding it in my hand I was reflecting on how much anxiety it brings me when my little girl wants to play with kinetic sand. I hate Kinetic sand. There’s nothing kinetic about it. It gets everywhere. And I don’t know what life trauma or trigger it touches upon but it makes me completely on edge to let her play with sand.

So when Jenae asked us to feel the dirt in our fingers, all I could think was how gross and dirty it was. And then at some point I realized, oh right, the invitation to Ash Wednesday and Lent is that,

“From dust we all come and to dust we return.”

Dang it, that’s going to be me someday, after I die and decompose. It was humbling. And yet, it was also freeing. Like all the ways I worried about things, really, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing mattered. Nothing mattered that much. Or as my husband puts it,

“nobody cares about you as much as you care about you.”

(He’s that realist I like in my life) Which gets at that both heroism of my own self worth and the macro-perspective of the reality that I am just dust. 

There’s an equalizer here for all. The text does this with humans and animals,

human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals”

it says. Which again, is humbling from our human centeredness and human ego. Death is the leveler for all. Our Lent Devotional guide juxtaposes Scripture with the voice of an indigenous leader, Randy Woodley a Cherokee descendant, and he puts it like this:

“In the western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings with, of course, the human being on top – the pinnacle of evolution, the darling creation – and the plant at the bottom. But in native way of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brother of creation.”” 

I love that our church seeks wisdom from both the scriptures and Christian leaders, which in seminary we called them special revelation, as well as from general revelation, which is in our lived experiences, wisdom of non-codified indigenous voices, which as a woman of color, it is not only in the scholarism of feminist thought that is truth and life for me, but in the daily lived experiences of “uneducated” immigrant, working class, wisdom of a mom, like my own mother that sometimes strikes the greatest chord in me, rather than the smarts of things I heard in the halls of a university. 

The Christian wisdom of this liturgical invitation, of six weeks of this, Lent, where we think about our mortality, humility, death, and suffering, before we get to Easter, I think is brilliant–and hard. Lent is hard for me. I much rather do Advent and Christmas, expecting and celebrating. Not this dreadful thing. 

But if death and suffering is a leveler, I also have experienced it as deepening and expansion of our life as a container. Our text today says,

I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals.”

And to this, in our Lent Guide, Steve writes in the Point of Interest section,

“I have no idea what the author of this text means by God testing us through our mortality… One of those ideas is that maybe God is testing us, or helping us grow, through these challenges. Maybe. But not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

Is God testing us with suffering?

Well, Ecclesiastes, though it is a part of the Holy Bible, says,

“I also thought…”

which is to say, it’s merely an opinion. So it sounds like the writer thinks they are a test from God. Steve says,

“maybe, but not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

I agree with that. Not always, a test. But if you’ve experienced any kind of suffering in your life, it sure is, maybe not a test, but it pushes you. 

How low can you go? How deep is the depths of despair? And when you have seen rock bottom, as they say, you can only go up, and the way up is long. Which means, since you’re so so low, since your suffering is so great, your rise from it can only be so so high. Jesus said this once before a sinful woman that I felt deeply in my soul.

“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

When I heard this, I thought,

“oh you have no idea how much I love you Jesus.” 

You know this in the simplest examples of when you’re sick, and you’re congested and coughing from your chest, it’s hard to eat, it’s hard to sleep, but when you get better, your nose is amazing in its capability to take in breath that is life! You can smell and taste food that is amazing. Your cold has been given away and your love for life has been renewed. You thank the Lord for each breath you take without coughing! 

And many of you know this in more complex ways. If you’ve been through bankruptcy, to have a credit line. If you’ve been through a breakup, to find love again. If you’ve experienced homelessness, to just have a bed and a table to sit and eat at. If your child’s been sick or struggling through an especially difficult time, to see them come through on the other side, gratitude upon gratitude upon gratitude is something that no sermon can teach you. 

So let us not deny death, or our mortality, or even suffering, because for one thing, it’s a sure and absolute final destiny for us all, but also because at the face of the realities of it all, our heart expands, somehow, I don’t know how, with great hope, greater joy, and greater sense of gratitude at life. 

May this Lenten season take you through this annoying knowledgment to Easter when we can genuinely celebrate, not at the denial of death with resurrection, but with clear and well awareness of death and life, both. Let me pray for us. 

Our Suffering Christ, God who went through death just like us, take us through our days. In the most mundane of days, even as it feels like just groundhog day, day in day out… would you walk with us, showing us the beautiful and brokenness of this world. Help us through the darkest of our times, and lift our chins up to see the vistas from the mountaintop. Reveal to us there through it all, you are there, with us, even in the nothingness and meaningless of it all, you hold us. Would you help us to there find somehow uninhibited joy, pure joy, we ask you, would you grant us that we pray. Amen.