Don’t Settle for Dirty Water

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For this week’s spiritual practice “Why Am I Here?” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.
Jeremiah 2:4-13 (NRSV)

4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5 Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
6 They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

Plenty Good Room

Click “Download PDF” for this week’s events.

Reservoir was blessed to gather online today with guest preacher our friend, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond. Click video to watch.

Liberation in the Land: A Reading of Exodus for the Ecological Crisis

I am honored to be with you on this Sunday morning. Over the last 14 years, beginning with the wake up call of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, God has helped me to see the crucial connection between our lives and the life of the planet. And in the past few years I have become so deeply aware that the liberation of all people cannot happen without restoring the delicate balance of creation. Furthermore, we will not be able to stop the degradation of our planet without addressing the systems of injustice that not only lack respect for the sanctity of water, of plants—but of human beings. I want to thank the leadership of this house who have created the space for me to share what God is speaking to me.

The reality is that this sermon is the beginning of a sermon series which, God-willing, will someday become a book. The series looks at the first 20 chapters of Exodus as a way of understanding the times in which we find ourselves. I promise that I will not try to fit all 6 sermons into this one sermon, but I hope it will give you an overview of how I have come to see God anew in these chapters in Exodus. If our goal is to facilitate the kindom of God on Earth, I would like to suggest that we need to examine the text anew and see what it can say to us for this time.

I also want to issue a disclaimer. This sermon started with my looking at the plagues in Exodus to think about how they connected to our current environmental crisis. I started this sermon, as I do all sermons, with a deep dive into the socio-political context of that time. I did not seek to add or subtract anything from the text. However, if you see any uncanny correlations between their context and ours, well…

I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In our tradition we don’t see any separation between our daily lives and what some people might label to be “political.” As the descendants of slaves, we know that the “political” sphere impacts every part of our lives including our freedom to worship God and to be acknowledged as children of God.

Every Biblical prophet speaks about the politics of their time as does Jesus. I say this because, while the message I am going to deliver is completely in line with the Black church tradition I grew up in, I have had the opportunity to talk to many white pastor colleagues and learned that what is considered normal in my tradition is more controversial in some Caucasian church communities. I was taught in my AME preaching class that the job of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. So if folks feel uncomfortable please don’t blame Pastor Steve.

I know that you all have been focusing on the topic of Training in the Studio of Love. This is also Black History Month and so I have chosen a passage for this morning which is one of the central passages in the Black Christian tradition – the book of Exodus. In exploring this text I approach it from the perspective of Cornel West who says that justice is what love looks like in public. I will say that again: Justice is what love looks like in public.

This morning I invite you to meditate on the topic, Liberation in the Land: A Reading of Exodus for the Ecological Crisis.  

Please turn with me to Exodus 1:8-14

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites

They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

‭‭Exodus‬ ‭1:8-12, 14‬ ‭NIV‬‬

This passage sets the stage for what is one of the most important stories in the Biblical tradition. This story is central to the Jewish faith, and it has also been a foundational text in the Black Christian tradition, because it speaks to a people who find liberation from the dehumanizing conditions of slavery—a people who have been told in both subtle and explicit ways that their lives do not matter. Our text starts with the rise of a new king in Egypt. It says that the king did not know Joseph, which is to say that the king did not know his history. See, Joseph was a Israelite who came to Egypt in chains and rose to be the right hand of the Pharaoh. Joseph was the Vice President, the Secretary of the Treasurer, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Chief of Immigration rolled into one. It was because of Joseph’s attention to God that Egypt was saved from the famine that beset many surrounding kingdoms. Another sermon in this series explores how the intervention of Joseph creates the economic prosperity in Egypt that allows this new king to ascend into a prosperous nation. Maybe he imagined that he had risen by pulling himself up by his own sandal straps. We can’t be sure, but for the purposes of this morning we notice that the fact that this new King didn’t know Joseph is a clear sign that the King really didn’t know much about his history or how he got to the place he was.

So this King rises to power and he is not interested in listening to Joseph. When he looks at the Israelites he doesn’t see them as great neighbors or productive citizens, he does not recognize all the ways that have contributed to Egyptian society, but instead in Exodus 1:9 the pharaoh exclaims, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more power than we. Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape the land.”

What led Pharaoh to see the Israelites this way? The scriptures do not speak of some precipitating event, but we can surmise that it could have been that a slump in the economy made people start asking about whether they should have to spend their tax dollars to educate Israelite children. Or it could be that Pharaoh was just a skillful politician who realized that fear-mongering and nativism could help him to win more support from his base. I believe we can understand the motivations of the King based on a textual clue: in verse 8 he is described as a king but by verse 11 he is called a pharaoh. We often use the words interchangeably, but a king is a ruler. Whereas the term pharaoh can be loosely translated “great house”, a pharaoh does not just rule the people, he projects his power through his familial dynasty and through the building of great edifices, and to this day people go to see the amazing structures built by the pharaohs. So this slight change of description leads me to believe that this man was not just about ruling the people but he was set to make a name for himself with the biggest structures he could build; he would cover the region in his pyramids and temples—you know, the ancient version of towers. In verse 11 it mentions that Pharoah immediately set the Israelites to building the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses.

Publicly, the Pharaoh states that his motivation for enslaving the Israelites was for reasons of national security—that the Hebrew population was dangerous. They were having so many babies and they might rise up to be a weapon of mass destruction within Egyptian borders. Yes his stated reason was to put Egypt first, and to keep Egypt safe from the invading hoards. But if I can be honest I surmise that it was really free labor, that was his motivation. I mean let’s be realistic, how was he going to complete these massive construction projects if he was constrained by paying a living wage? How could he become a great ruler with massive structures bearing his name if he didn’t cut a few corners in the labor department? Driven by his desire for fame and fortune, Pharaoh mobilizes his forces to enslave the Israelites and puts them to work building his new cities. Egyptian “progress” is built on the backs of the Israelites much like American “progress” has always been built on the backs of “foreigners”—stolen African slaves who tilled the soil producing cotton, tobacco and other cash crops, Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants who toiled in coal mines and wove in textile mills, Chinese laborers who blasted through mountains and laid thousands of miles of railroad tracks, and even now Mexicans, Haitians, and Vietnamese workers who pick crops, catch shrimp and even lose limbs in slaughterhouses.

Even as Pharaoh subjugates and oppresses the Israelites, they continue to have hope. Their hope motivates them to maintain their traditions, their hope gives birth to children and even in the midst of back-breaking labor their numbers keep growing. So Pharaoh decides that to control the Israelites he must decrease their population. He tells the Egyptian midwives, that when they go to deliver a baby that if the baby is male that they should kill the baby. Now I want to take a moment to challenge the efficacy of this strategy. I would assert that if his goal was to have more builders it probably would have made more sense to kill the girls rather than the boys. Furthermore, if his goal was to stop the growth of the people, it makes the most sense to take out the folks who are actually able to give birth. Finally if you want to kill the hope of a people, then in my experience you want to take out the women, because it is often the women and the mothers that speak life into the next generation. It is the women who often hold the spiritual traditions even when the men have lost their faith in God. Pharaoh’s blinding patriarchy leads him to a strategy that devalues women’s lives and asks women to participate in his genocidal project and the Egyptian midwives resist this plan. And even when Pharaoh enlists the entire Egyptian population to participate in this genocide, Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues the Hebrew boy who will later lead his people out of slavery. Throughout this text, women mount a quiet resistance to Pharaoh’s imperial policies. We don’t have time to go deeper into this, but some other day I will share the sermon “The Real Midwives of Egypt – A Story of Subversive Sisters.”

Focused on “progress” and control, Pharaoh had no respect for the lives of the Israelites—the Hebrew people—and there was no limit to his oppression. And yet more than forty years after Pharaoh tried to kill all Hebrew boys, this same baby who was raised in Pharaoh’s house comes back to confront him.  Moses sees the suffering of his people and comes with a divine anointing to confront not just the king but the Pharaoh—the Great House—the system of oppression on which the wealth was created.

And in this story we see something that bears out time and time again in the scriptures and in our own history. We see that any system built on oppression is a system that God will eventually interrupt.       

So despite his many protests, Moses answers the call of God to return to Egypt, reunite with his brother Aaron, assemble the Israelite elders and tell them that he is called by God to confront Pharaoh. And the Scripture tells us in Exodus 5 that Moses says to Pharaoh – “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” While the ultimate goal is the freedom of the Israelites, Moses starts with a simple request that the people be free to worship God in the beauty of the creation. And Pharaoh makes it clear that he does not acknowledge the Hebrew God. Again,, Pharaoh does not remember how it was God, through Joseph, that allowed the Egyptians to survive through famine. All he can see is that if he lets the Israelites go he will have no way of maintaining his building projects. I want to give Pharoah a little bit of credit: maybe there was a piece of him that was slightly charitable, maybe he made donations to children’s organizations or maybe he was good to his top executives, but in the end he had to be clear that his lifestyle and standard of living were built on the backs of others. He saw himself as the ruler, and there really wasn’t room for a God who might put demands on him that would counteract his lifestyle.

Pharaoh would not acknowledge God, he would not turn from his wicked ways, he was more committed to his standard of living than his standard of justice and so when he would not listen to the prophetic words of Moses, God allows the message to come through the creation.

Water into blood (Exodus 7:14-24) Lead and other pollutants in the water
Frogs  (7:25-8:15) Proliferation of invasive species
Lice (Exodus 8:16-19) Lyme disease
Flies (Exodus 8:20-32) Wooly Adelgid eating Hemlocks
Diseased Livestock (Exodus 9:1-7) Mad Cow disease
Boils (Exodus 9:8-12) Zika virus
Thunderstorms of Hail + Fire (Exodus 9:13-25) Hurricanes & Wildfires
Locusts (10:1-20) Drought that swallows up crops
Darkness for Three Days (Exodus 10:21-29) Disintegrating of the Ice Shelves
Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1-12:36) The Unnecessary Death of our Children

These signs give a physical manifestation to the corruption that was already in the soul of the Pharaoh and in the society he was leading. Pharaoh would not—could not—admit to his own moral bankruptcy, so God lets the truth be seen in the natural world. It is only when he loses his son that Pharaoh is finally willing to let the people go. Only when his hubris and stubbornness has caused him to lose the son that he loves. Only then is he willing to relent.

My deep fear is that we too will not get the message until it is too late. Is is possible that our love of comfort will not be broken until we have sacrificed our children on the altar of consumption.

We too have a system where oppression is too often baked into the equation. From mass incarceration to sweatshop labor to education inequity to gentrification our world is filled with so many examples of our disregard for the lives of the least of these. We care so little for those who matter most to God. We have all the resources that we need to feed everyone, to house everyone, to educate everyone—but we steal and we hoard such that people don’t get what they need. God is not pleased and God is making us face our injustice in the groaning of creation.

As each year gets hotter than the last, we have politicians who still question the science of climate. Even as we know that we must transition away from fossil fuels we continue to destroy conservation land—land that is as God made it—to secure our right to cheap oil. Even though Oklahoma had more than 800 earthquakes in 2015 as a result of fracking waste-water disposal, their governor refused to put the safety of the people above the profits of energy companies. As the cost of our lifestyle becomes more and more evident, I wonder what it will take to recognize that an economy built on the profits of the few maintained by the labor of the many that is fueled by stealing the planetary inheritance of future generations, is not an economy worth maintaining? The problem is not climate change; it is our commitment to a system that does not value all of the life that God created—a system that allows us to topple majestic mountains and depress human dignity in the name of “progress” is an unjust system in direct opposition to God’s love.

The responsibility lies not only with our elected leaders but within our communities, as we must make decisions not just for freedom of the individual but for the benefit of the whole. How much disruption has to happen before we consider the folly of our way of living? How many many forest fires will it take before we stop cutting down virgin forests to build McMansions? How many drought warnings will it take to realize that it is not natural to have golf courses in the desert? How much pollution will we breathe in before we question whether we need so many mass produced goods?

Some of us have read this story countless times or watched the movie version and undoubtedly imagined ourselves always in the role of the Israelites. Some of us became congregational leaders or activists, wanting to be like Moses or Aaron or Moses’ mother and sister who saw the vision early on. But this afternoon I want to challenge us to realize the ways that we have also been complicit with the Pharaonic order, the ways that we have aligned our thinking and our habits with “The Great House.” We call out those who are running to be in the Great White House, but are we willing to recognize the ways that we have allowed our minds and our habits to align with oppressive systems?

We denounce the government for going to war but happily fill up our tanks with oil. We call for action on climate change but will not divest our pensions or university endowments from fossil fuel companies. We decry unjust wages but continue to fill our closets with unnecessary cheap goods. Yeah, we cannot speak about Pharaoh without recognizing that as Americans we are often lieutenants in the Pharaonic order even when we don’t mean to be. 

So when the call goes out to pray, to hear from God and to turn from our wicked ways so that God can heal our land – that call is not just to someone else, but to us as Christians and to the church particularly the church in the developed world. We need to examine the ways that we have linked “God’s House” to the “Great House.” How we have cozied up to political figures in ways that stop us from speaking the truth to power. How is our lifestyle in direct contradiction to God’s love of every human being and also every living organism including ones that we can’t even see with our eyes.

We must consider the way that our division along lines of race, class, sexual orientation, and many other fault lines has prevented us from being a prophetic voice for change in the world.

We must challenge our theologies of “blessing” that are really an excuse for over-consuming in ways that are killing our planet and that have us thinking of cheap goods as our “birthright” even when those goods are produced by underpaid and overworked human beings that are supposed to be our brothers and sisters. Or that have us overeating and under-exercising in ways that are causing us to have terrible health outcomes in our community.

Only if we are willing to ask tough questions and take bold moves, if we are willing to consider the lilies of the field, the sparrows, the Lazarus’ at our gate and the needs of future generations, then our loving and forgiving God will create a way of escape for us.

This message is not just for someone else but for me. It was not until I saw the deaths of my people in Hurricane Katrina that I started to realize that it was time to address the ecological crisis. It was when I could imagine my own neighborhood in peril that I started to take up this call. But as I have grown in my love for God’s people and all of God’s creation, I have come to a greater love for my God.

More and more, I have come to see how there is a deep connection between so many of the things that God has called me to work on in the world. Hurricane Katrina really helped me to see this, but the connections have continued to be made clearer to me. One Thursday in October 2016 I was going to the meeting of an interfaith climate group when I got the call that one of my mentees, John Peterson Cesar, had been shot in the head. John I met when he joined the non-profit, Project HIP-HOP, for which I used to be the Executive Director. He was a gifted thinker, speaker and leader and I knew that God had placed me in his life to help him walk away from his street life and into his calling. When I went into the hospital room I could feel that his spirit had left his body and so over the weekend I helped the family through the process of taking him off of life support. The next Monday I flew to Baltimore for the Green the Church conference—a gathering of Black churches concerned about ecology. It was a space where I could see God working to raise up our congregations as a voice for justice, and it lifted my Spirit. Then I flew home to deliver the eulogy at John’s funeral, my first-ever eulogy. The following week, while still working through the pain of his death, I was on a plane to Standing Rock, North Dakota to join a clergy delegation in solidarity with the Oceti Tribe who was standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I was honored to give an address on behalf of the African-Americans who were there in solidarity. At Standing Rock I was reminded how this battle for the sanctity of water is really about a battle for the sanctity of life—All the forms of life that God has created. God created them and said that they were good and the question is, who are we to go against the word of God? Who are we to decide that some human lives are expendable? Who are we to exterminate a species of bird or reptile because their habitat is the most convenient place to build a strip mall?

It was the lack of love and respect for a great God, the belief that we can be gods that was at the foundation of the Egyptian system. The Pharaonic order then and now is killing our children—sometimes with guns and sometimes with pollution, but the root is the same in a system which lacks respect for God and sees lives as expendable.

Oh Lord my God – The God of Moses and Miriam, of Esau and Esther, of Harriet Tubman and Henry McNeil Turner, the God of my grandmother and the God who watches over me—Oh Lord My God.

When I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made – When I recognize that in your infinite wisdom you created this planet, and many others.

I see the stars – I look up and can’t even fathom how you imagine the solar system. In the light and air pollution of the city I forget that you created millions of stars and you know each of their properties.

I hear the rolling thunder – your sign to us that the great rains are coming to nourish the earth, the reminder that you are awesome.

Thy power throughout, The universe displayed – not just in the loud manifestations like thunder but the fact that you created microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean and even though I can’t see them they are producing half of the world’s oxygen. You had the power to create them and me and pull this all together.

Then sings my soul my Savior, God, to Thee – My soul worships you because you deserve all of my praise.

How great thou art – in my life.
How great thou art – in the earth.

Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee

How great Thou art
How great Thou art

I am so glad that I serve a great God

A great God who can do new things—who makes a makes a way in the wilderness and brings streams in the wasteland. When we let got of the systems of our own devising then we can make space to truly love God, to love each other and to love all of the creation.

Bodies Matter: Witnessing and Believing Trauma

As I watched the sunrise this morning I was reminded of the song that says,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end

They are new every morning, new every morning,

Great is thy faithfulness, oh Lord, Great is that faithfulness

I don’t know about you, but the last few days have been really challenging. The pain and sadness has been palpable – the tears in my eyes, the churning in my stomach the lethargy that has made me more tired that usual. Maybe if I can just go to sleep, I will wake up from this bad déjà vu dream.

I started Thursday morning in a challenge and ultimately futile exchange with an ICE agent that yielded no relief for the person for whom I was advocating. Then I drove back to Boston for a meeting of the Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Advisory Council. It is a statewide body with 15 members only one of whom is a person of color. I knew that was the case, I knew I would be walking into a room full of predominantly wonky folks who have the ability to come to the meetings because their job allows them or requires them to. Before I got there I was well aware that for the last 10 years this group has overseen the MassSave program and even though everybody pays into the fund, every single person who has an electricity bill has a little italicized line at the bottom of their bill that tells them how much they are paying into energy efficiency – even though everyone pays in – moderate income people, renters, people who don’t speak strong English, small mom & pop business – these folks pay in and then don’t get the service.  They have been under-served for 10 years and when I stand up on their behalf I am well aware on the uniqueness of my presence, but even more I am aware of their physical absence from these spaces of power and decision-making. I was not shocked when a group that includes 6 women who attend the meetings regularly and a few men who tend to be less regular attendees ended up being represented in their presentation by the two men. None of this is abnormal in my life. I am a Black woman in the mostly white world of energy policy, I am a person of faith in a space dominated by scientific calculations, I am the embodiment on values and visions that rarely get honored when people are trying to drive for efficiency.

My heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity was no doubt driven by the fact that on the way to the meeting I had been listening to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. In 1991 I was a twelve year old Black girl attending an predominantly white all girls private school in Boston. Anita Hill’s testimony and the subsequent attacks she endured left a deep impression on me and many of my peers. Most of my classmates had feelings and opinions as women, but few of them were connected to some of the racial subtexts that caused many black women like me to question some of the way that the real injustices of racism could lead us to protect Black men and even support their patriarchal attitudes in ways which caused deep harm to our own psyches. This week, all the feelings of the Anita Hill testimony, all of the memories of my own experiences with sexual harassment and coercion, all of the love I feel for women and men in my life who have suffered sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape – especially my own mother who is not only a survivor, but a committed advocate and healer – all of these things were walking with me – not in some ethereal realm, but I felt them and relived them in my body.

Then I heard the testimony of Brett Kanavaugh. His indignation reminded me of the sentiment I hear from many white men who are angered by how the world is changing. As women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, disabled people, low-income folks and other marginalized people are demanding to be seen, heard and included – it shifts that balance of power for those who have had more than their fair share of power. In the past, the thirty one percent of our population that was white males was afforded 100% of the power – if you include class into the equation an even smaller percentage of white men had disproportionate access. As we push for 100% of the people to have access to power, their share is shrinking and for some that feels like an unacceptable loss.

I was particularly struck by his repeated insistence about how much time he spent in church. For some that might substantiate that he was less likely to commit this assault, but for me I paused when I thought about all the ways that our disordered and disembodied faith may not have been any deterrent and even potentially a support of the “bro” culture for a young Brett Kavanaugh. I remember the ways that even when I was young the purity culture was demanded of girls and much more loosely suggested to boys. I remember my grandmother’s constant lectures about not getting pregnant which I don’t remember being equally doled out to my male cousin. I remember lots of conversations about how girls should dress and carry themselves that again I don’t think the boys received in equal measure. I think about my own participation in this culture as I have attempted to protect the girls in my life from harm, have I crossed the line into teaching them to accept an unacceptable system of gender oppression?

In my pain I really didn’t know where to turn and so I did two things. First I spent time with my 4 year old goddaughter Sariah. She is my joie de vivre. The amount of love and energy pent up in her tiny body takes me out of the theoretical plane of existence and right into the here and now. Making sure that she is fed, that she is safe and that her tiny body and really big Spirit are cared for and cultivated helps me to be always thinking about the world I want for her while also being fully present in the moment in a way that I needed on Friday. We went to the ICA to see “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985.” We bought our tickets (or rather I got my ticket because at the children under 18 are free at the ICA). As we walked into the first room she saw a sculpture and wanted to walk right up to it and touch it. I had to explain to why there was a rope around the sculpture and how we had to respect the work by only looking with our eyes. Thankfully the museum had given me a sketch pad and a pencil so I encouraged her to use it to draw what she saw. She started walking around the sculpture with the sketchpad looking at it and drawing. People walked in and saw her little 4 yr old body studying and sketching with such focus that it made them smile. I smiled too because I was sure that this scene was the manifestation of the dream of so many of the women who were portrayed in that exhibit. For them it had been only a dream that a little Black girl could be there with her Black woman godmother, seeing their art hanging on the walls in one of the city’s most prestigious museums and that little girl could be imitating their art with no concept that there is any reason she could not make art of her own. In that moment it felt like the work of God over decades of struggle to make a world in which our bodies – her body could occupy the space with the confidence in which she sketched and then came to show her work to me and one of the museum employees who was in that room. Being there with her was a reminder that injustice does not have the final say.

The second thing I did to address my pain was to turn to the scripture. I knew I was going to be here today and I had already been prepared with a sermon from 1 Kings when Elijah was clearly depressed and possibly suicidal. I was going to preach on what the Bible teaches us about the link between depression and our care for our bodies. I hope to be able to share that some other time, but in the lead-up to the hearing I began to sense that was not the word for today.

I knew the theme was embodiment and I wasn’t even sure where to start. As I shared earlier, I know that our religious tradition has a challenging history around the body and I have to admit that for me, lots of the issues really begin with the stories of the Bible and how we have chosen to interpret them. Not knowing where to start I decided to start at my go-to scripture to see if it would shed any light on what Jesus thought about embodiment. My go-to scripture is Luke 10:25 when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer who says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” For me this is the most important scripture in the text because Jesus says that it all boils down to this. So I usually look at the Luke version but I know a version of this it is written in every one of the gospels because it points back to the Jewish tradition of uniting verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to make this one statement that sums it all up.

Having read the Lukan version many times, I decided to turn to the passage in Mark which most scholars believe to be the first gospel on which Matthew and Luke are based (the book of John always does it own thing, so although it has sentiments that connect to this principle, it does not tell the same story.) Anyway – I went to the book of Mark and found the story in Mark 12. As I always do, I read the chapter in its entirety because even though the Bible is full of stories that we tend to break up into sub-chapters with headings, they are arranged in such a way that stories give context to each other and in this case, before making the statement about the most important commandment Jesus has already told three other stories to the crowd of regular people and religio-political figures who are listening to him. So I want to lift up one of the stories from Mark and then one which we are familiar with in Luke.

Mark 12 New International Version (NIV)
Marriage at the Resurrection

18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.20Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.22In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too.23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  27He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”



  • resurrection or not, tension within Jewish communities.
  • Trick question that tries to make him put the here and now in conflict with the hereafter.
  • Jesus recognizes the trick and makes it about God’s larger plan for justice.
  • The afterlife is no excuse to not follow God in the right now – God calls you to be who we are called to be, to live justice now. So they idea that Jesus may come back soon should not be an excuse to ignore injustice of any kind or to ignore the warming planet that is telling us to change.

Good Samaritan Context:

  • The lawyer is trying to get an out for who he doesn’t need to love
  • Three figures
    • Priest – Has got other things going on
    • Levite – Don’t know how that happened
    • Samaritan – Surprise for the Jewish folks who were listening

Three points:

  1. Physical condition matters – it doesn’t work to claim to care about people’s soul without caring in about their bodies. Forgetting about the body protects the privileged, those of us who already have privilege and protection.
  2. Sometimes God tolerates and even regulates our imperfect systems like the marraige system of the past (and many unjust systems we continue in the present) but God’s ultimate goal is freedom and justice for all of us. The woman is no longer property of any of her husbands but equal to them in God’s kingdom. This Samaritan is not just rescued by restored.
  3. Finally – the story tells us that if we are Christians – if we consider ourselves to be followers of Christ then our work is to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth and to do everything to resist systems that don’t align with God’s plan and to reflect God’s ultimate plan in our lives in our churches and in the world. And we definitely should not be the institution that is actively beating people down as we unfortunately the church has done at many times in our history and in the present.


When I got ordained I became clear about how much bodies matter

The next week will continue to be challenging

How we treat each other’s bodies is part of that commandment and it does not matter if you are a teenage boy or grown woman

When you are sitting with a friend who has been raped you are crystal clear that bodies matter. When you feel the suffering of someone in excruciating physical pain you know that bodies matter. When your head begins to throb and your stomach churns as you relive the pain of a past trauma, you know that bodies matter – not in some ethereal plane of existence, but right here and right now, and I am thankful to serve and worship a God who cares about me and my body – a God who is attentive to both the pleasure and the pain that I feel – a God who is not afraid to get up in with me, a God who was willing to come from a place of perfect existence and be subjugated to the all of the beauty and brokenness of life in a body.

The above is a prepared outline of the audio recorded sermon, not an exact transcript.

Just Breathe

I am thankful to be with you this morning almost a year since I was with you last summer. I want to say a special thank you to your pastor.

Over the last year we have had the opportunity to be in conversation about the work that you are doing here and the work that God is doing in the world. During that time I moved from being a minister at Bethel AME Church where I grew up over the last 30 years, to now launching a new congregation – yet unnamed. Our church has 8 members including me and 6 of us are here today (including my amazing husband of soon to be 11 years on August 4th.) We are a multi-racial, multi-class group of folks seeking a radical move of the Holy Spirit to bring us together and to help us to be the Body of Christ in a time where, I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use some serious divine intervention. We are in the process of looking for a meeting space on the other end of the Red Line in Dorchester. So as we grow we hope to learn from and be in fellowship with the Reservoir community.

I come to you this morning in a time where so many people feel –

Angry and afraid,

Bitter and beserk,

Confused and crushed,

Defiant and discouraged,

Exasperated and enraged,

Fuming and freaked out,

Galled and grasping,

Horrified and huffy,

Incensed and intimidated,


In the midst of all that energy, this morning’s sermon encourages you to  –




Our scripture comes from Genesis 1. The first book of the Bible, the first chapter and the first verse and it says –

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

  • The Spirit – The Ruach – The Holy Ghost – The living moving Spirit of God was hovering over the waters

3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And verse 6 starts – God said – and there was separation between the sky and the water

Verse 9 – And God said  – And the dry land appeared

Verse 11 – And God said – And the plants grew out of the land

Verse 14 – And God said  – And the sun and moon were hung in the sky

Verse 20 – And God said – And fish swam the seas and birds flew through the air

Verse 24 – And God said – And animals of many kinds began to walk the land

Verse 26 – And God said – And humans were formed in the likeness of God

Verse 29 – And God Said – this one I will read exactly as it because some folks won’t believe it if I am not exact – Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.

It says that God gave us every plant for food. Now, I just want to note that it says every plant for food and that bacon, fried chicken, filet mignon and even lean turkey were not on the list. In God’s perfection we were all vegetarian, eating only things that grow from the ground. That is not the focus of this sermon, but I’m just saying. I am not a vegan but for the sake of the planet and my own health I am working on bring my eating habits in better alignment with God’s perfect plan.

But back to our central point that when God speaks – things happen. When God exhales and makes sounds, worlds are formed. In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered and then it began to move and the creation came to be.

Who is this Spirit of God? We talk a lot about God as Father and Jesus as Son. Our praise songs are filled with adoration for God and for Jesus but the Spirit often comes in a very distant third in our thoughts, in our songs, and in our theology. The Scripture tells us that she was there in the very beginning and that she was putting in work on behalf of the creation. Some of you might have noticed that I called the Holy Spirit, she. You might be offended, intrigued or affirming of this choice of pronoun for the 3rd member of the Godhead. So let me take a moment to explain.

In the Hebrew scriptures the Holy Spirit is called Ruach. In this first chapter of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is described as the Ruach Elohim. Elohim – the word for God is a masculine word in Hebrew, but Ruach is a feminine word. The Ruach appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Spirit but also as breath, as wind, and as wisdom. In the New Testament it gets a little more complicated because feminine, masculine and neuter pronouns are used for the Holy Spirit. For centuries Christianity has debate the gender of the Holy Spirit but she was often acknowledged as feminine in the Catholic tradition until she wasn’t. There is not time to go fully into the politics of why the Holy Spirit went from being called she to he, but I will just say that it happened at the same time that efforts were made to reduce the power of women in the church. Now there are some  of you who have been Christians your entire lives and may never have heard this information about the Holy Spirit. When I first learned about this I was wondering why I had never heard it before. In my divine imagination I asked the Spirit what happened to her, why her name was changed, why she has been overlooked and underappreciated as a member of the Godhead and I imagine that she simply says #MeToo girl, MeToo.

Even though she is often forgotten, in the Jewish mystical tradition the Rauch HaKadosh IS the divine word – the embodiment of God’s speech in the world. It is this Ruach HaKodesh that is present at the beginning of time that brings the world into existence and this same Ruach HaKodesh that creates infinite possibilities in the present. As I mentioned before, the Ruach is also translated as the air or wind. The Ruach is the Holy Spirit — the omnipresent God force in our lives — and the Ruach is literally the air that we breathe the wind that moves throughout the world.

Inhaled air is generally about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% a bunch of other stuff including argon, carbon dioxide, neon, helium, hydrogen and an increasing number of chemical compounds that we don’t even fully understand. God created a perfect balance where animals like us take in this oxygen. We release carbon dioxide which plants take in process back into the oxygen that we need to live. Most of take in an average of 16 per min. That is 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 and if you live to average life expectancy of 78 years that is 655,948,800 breathes in your life.

Everyday we depend on the air to be there and most of us don’t even think about it until something makes us pay attention. For some of us it make be a panic attack that moment when the stress of life overwhelms you and literally takes your breath away. For others it might be that time when you go back to the gym or decide to run a race. You get the clothes, the shoes and the eco-friendly water bottle, but when you start running you realize that all the gear cannot make up for weak cardiovascular muscles. As you gasp for breath you would call out to God, for help but you are too winded for words. Like so many things, you don’t realize how much you depend on something until you realize that it might be gone.

We all get winded sometimes, but usually we can calm down and bring it back. If we work out, we can build up our body’s capacity to process air and strengthen our lungs. But then there are those of us whose breathing capacity is constrained by asthma. Asthma is a condition that causes your airways to narrow and to produce extra mucus which clogs up the passages of your lungs making it harder for air to get in. For some people asthma is a minor issue, for others is it a life threatening condition.

Science shows that asthma is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There are debates about which of those factors is more important, but what science does know is that as environmental factors and particularly pollution increases in our world, the rates of asthma are also rising. Scientists also agree that one of the most important contributors to asthma is the exposure of young lungs to toxins. This is why so much work has been done to get pregnant mothers to quit smoking but the reality is that if a mother is exposed to polluted air, those pollutants will go into the baby’s lungs. While adults breathe at a rate of 12-20 breaths a minute – an infant breathes at the rate of 30-60 breaths a minute – up to three times as much as an adult. Our babies are taking in the air at that rate and getting an extra dose of pollution at the time when their lungs are in a fragile stage of formation. Asthma is growing around the world and in our country the fastest growing rate of asthma is in Black children.

In 2015, Black people were 20% more likely to have asthma than their white counterparts. Latino children were twice as likely to die from asthma as white children. Asian Americans are actually doing really well in the United States around asthma, but in China asthma is the leading cause of hospitalization for children. Estimates say that in 2010, pollution contributed to more than 1.2 million deaths in China. Some estimates cite pollution as one the biggest killers, affecting more than 100 million people, comparable to diseases like malaria and HIV.

Just this past Tuesday we marked four years from the day when Eric Garner was standing on Bay Street in Staten Island. He was known for being out there many days selling loose cigarettes. In his book I Can’t Breathe, author Matt Taibi documents the life of Garner. At 6’ 3” and 350 lbs, Mr. Garner was a known presence in that community. A father of six, he spent most of his time trying to earn money to support his children. Folks said that he wasn’t the best dressed guy because he rarely spent money on himself, electing instead to give all his money to his children.

Mr. Garner was also known as a peacemaker, reminding people that violence is bad for business and encouraging folks to keep their cool. On the day in question he had just broken up a fight between two guys. The intervention left him out of breath when he was approached by the NYPD. The police knew him and he knew them. He kept insisting that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. One could argue he was actually helping the police by breaking up the fight. Nonetheless, the officers decided to arrest him and used a choke hold that was against official police policy. With their knees in his back they applied pressure to Mr. Garner’s lungs. His last words were “I Can’t Breathe.”

These words became a rallying cry around the world about the injustice of police brutality, but what many people did not know is that part of the reason that Eric Garner died is that he suffered from really acute asthma just like so many low-income people of color in this country. Eric Garner would not have died without the unjustified force by the NYPD, but he also might have survived if he did not suffer from a disease that afflicts so many people who grow up being exposed to chemicals and toxins we cannot pronounce and whose side effects we have not bothered to figure out. To maintain our lifestyle, companies make an economic assessment that pollution can be concentrated in low income communities and communities of color. We make a decision that these communities lives don’t matter – and thus many people, especially our babies, find themselves literally unable to breathe.

The tragedy did not stop with Eric Garner. In the aftermath of his death, his daughter Ericka raised her voice demanding justice not only for her father but for so many others. For more than 4 years she waited for the federal government to intervene to no avail. Just last week, the NYPD announced that it would do its own disciplinary hearing since it was clear that federal action was not coming. Finally Ericka’s calls were heeded. Unfortunately she was not able to see that justice.

Ericka was also a parent. In mid 2017 she gave birth to a baby boy and named him Eric after his grandfather. Due to the complications of her pregnancy and her own battle with asthma, Ericka suffered a heart attack. Then at the end of 2017, just as Christmas approached, Ericka had another asthma attack and a subsequent heart attack that put her in a coma. During the Christmas season, with Baby Eric only 4 months old, the Garner family said goodbye to Ericka, yet another family member who just couldn’t breathe.

In January 2016 Erica Garner wrote an oped titled  – Black lives like my father’s should matter. In it she said:

If our lives really mattered, we’d have equal access to decent jobs, good schools and affordable housing. If our lives mattered in this country, we’d have equal access to clean air, clean water and real investment in black neighborhoods. If black lives mattered in America, those who routinely brutalize us wouldn’t be the ones paid, with our tax dollars, to keep us safe

Even with my own heartbreak, when I demand justice, it’s never just for Eric Garner. It’s for my daughter; it’s for the next generation of African Americans. When I think about this presidential election, I’m not just thinking about the next four years — I’m thinking about the next 40.”

As climate change exacerbates the effects of pollution we are at a crucial time in human history. The decisions we make now will determine whether or not our children will be able to breathe into the future. If we want to honor God’s creation, if we want to save our species, we must change. We must change our lifestyles away from gas guzzling cars and towards smaller cars, bicycles, public transportation and even more walking. It is time to change in our energy policy away from polluting energy sources and towards creation-powered sources like wind and solar. It is time to stop thinking of health-care as a privilege and ensure that all God’s children have access. Less pollution and better health care would have let the Garners breathe a little longer and they will help us to ensure that our children can breathe for centuries to come. Some people see these as political issues, I see them as the collective decisions that we make to create the kind of world that God would want or to ignore God’s call to take care of our neighbor and let everyone fend for themselves. If everyone is going to be able to breathe, we have got to make some different decisions to reverse the path that we are on.

But the truth is that we cannot change in our own strength. Getting humans, and especially Americans, to shift away from consumption will literally require an act of God. And thankfully we serve a God who knew we would be at this moment before the beginning of time. I believe that Holy Spirit knew of our predicament when she led the prophet to pen these words in the 42nd Chapter of Isaiah verses 5-14 where It says….

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

   who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
   who gives breath to its people,
   and life to those who walk on it:

6“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
   I will take hold of your hand.
   I will keep you and will make you
   to be a covenant for the people
   and a light for the Gentiles,

7to open eyes that are blind,
   to free captives from prison
   and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

8“I am the Lord; that is my name!
   I will not yield my glory to another
   or my praise to idols.

9See, the former things have taken place,
   and new things I declare;
   before they spring into being
  I announce them to you.”


And down to verse 14

14“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.

I look at what is happening in the world and I think we need a rushing wind to come in and disrupt things – to blow some things over and whisk away the covers to expose other things. I don’t know about you, but I want the Spirit to come in and fill me up. I want her to give me the ability to walk and not get weary to run and not faint.

If you know that we need the Spirit — if you know that you need the Spirit then I invite you to plant your feet and close your eyes.

Take in a deep breathe and exhale. Take a moment to just thank God for the fact that you can breathe. Let your heart fill with gratitude to God. And now imagine that the Spirit is filling your lungs with a breath of fresh air. Imagine that you are exhaling everything that stands in the way of being the person of conviction that God is calling you to be.

Imagine that the Spirit is filling you so that you can work with God, be used by God to give life to something new – to create to a world where we value every life Imagine you are about to give birth to a society that lives in harmony with the rest of the planet. Imagine that we are collectively giving birth to the best of what God desires for the world. Imagine that we create a world together where Baby Eric’s life is radically different than his grandfather. Imagine that as you breathe in the power of the Holy Spirit, that Eric and Ericka Garner, that Adam and Eve, that Jesus is looking down saying……

Breathe…..Just Breathe

Come and Rest at My Feet


Breathe, Just Breathe

Chaos calls but all you really need is to

Take it In

Fill Your Lungs

The Peace of God that Overcomes and

Breathe, Just Breathe

Come and Rest at My Feet

And Just Breathe