Confronting my own Racism

03/03 Update: Execution delayed because drugs to be used are “cloudy”–unclear if SCOTUS is reviewing case or not.

03/02 Update after 9pm: Execution delayed for SCOTUS to weigh in.

Tonight a woman named Kelly Renee Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed in Georgia at the age of 46. Her picture has been in my newsfeed for days, a beaming face under a blue graduation cap. She is known to at least one of my classmates from seminary.

At 6:45 tonight, I sat down on the floor to pray for Kelly. I wanted to pray for her in the minutes leading up to and following her scheduled 7pm execution. As I prayed, several thoughts and phrases repeated in my mind…
I sang the spiritual, “Oh, Sister, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.”
I recalled the words of the Nunc dimittis we recite at evening prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace… for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
I apologized to Kelly and made promises to her.
I asked God’s forgiveness for my being complicit in a broken and sinful system.

And then it hit me.

While I have been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I can remember, this feels different. And it feels different because Kelly looks like me.

A white woman, pictured in cap and gown, smiling, a professed Christian.

The difficult truth–for me at least–is that this death affects me differently than the more prevalent images of incarcerated black males. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I’m re-reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow with a group of parishioners at Trinity Wall Street right now, I just met with a previously incarcerated black man last week to discuss some excellent work he is doing to give hope to prisoners serving life sentences, and I share dinner with a group of recently incarcerated (mostly black male) people once a month–so it’s not like I’m naive to the very real problem race disparity and mass incarceration.

And yet that knowledge is apparently not enough to override my internal prejudice.

Perhaps others will be more affected by Kelly’s execution as well, and perhaps God will use that extra dose of “she looks like me” discomfort to bring about justice. I don’t know. But I know Kelly has taught me a lot this night.

As of 8:45pm, Kelly has not yet been executed. She has been denied clemency–a decision affirmed by the parole board after her scheduled 7pm execution. I can’t imagine what the past few hours of hopeless hope have felt like.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.

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Observing a Holy Lent

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This morning I preached at our 8am Ash Wednesday service. It was special to me because a) this time last year I was a seminary volunteer at Trinity, sharing ashes in the church and on the street, not realizing I’d be a clergy person on staff a year later… and b) I’d never been asked to preach Ash Wednesday before.

In reading the lessons assigned for the day, I found that I loved the juxtaposition of Isaiah’s “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” with Matthew’s “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.”

It made me laugh because I read lots of opinions on how to do Lent “right,” often opinions of other clergy friends, and often opinions expressed as rules or facts.

ie: Ashes on the street is evangelism and love in the real world! vs. Ashes to go is cheap grace and not real church! Brothers and sisters–please.

This is probably why my mom texted me earlier this week, asking for advice on whether she ought to wear her ashes all day or wipe them off after leaving church. Usually when my mom asks such questions, I suggest she ask her priest. So when I responded this time that the decision was a personal one she would have to make for herself, she replied, “How would you answer if I were not your mother?” My response: the same.

And so that’s what I preached about this morning. My mom wanted to know what the church’s “stance” is. The church’s stance is simply to invite you to observe a holy Lent. A good start is to observe which of the lessons for today make you squirm more. Do you prefer to wear ashes on your head all day so that folks will see what a good Christian you are, getting up early to go to church before work on a weekday? Then maybe Matthew’s text makes you a wee bit uncomfortable. And maybe in observing that discomfort, you decide to wipe your face clean before continuing your day. Or does the idea of wearing ashes strike you as a reminder of your mortality you’d rather forget–or as a strong symbol of your faith you’re nervous to profess? Then maybe Isaiah’s text pushes you outside your comfort zone. And maybe that discomfort challenges you to wear those ashes “loud and proud” all day long.

The answer isn’t the same for all of us because our sin manifests itself differently in our individual lives. Some sin is communal–it’s true. And some sin is yours alone–or mine alone. In Lent we get to reflect on both. It takes observation. It takes noticing where your discomfort is and how that might be distracting you from following Jesus.

What will you observe this Lent?

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Tough Love

Preached at Trinity Wall Street on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

We tend to think of love as something soft and nurturing–and it is these things. But if we’re “doing” love right, it’s also hard.

Watch it here.

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Hi there

This was filmed back in August and edited this fall (thank you communications peeps for eliminating some of my awkward pauses and facial expressions!) as a means of introduction to the congregation. In the end, Trinity decided to wait until after my ordination to publish it–and now I share it with you.

Watch it here.

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Holy Spirit Extravaganza

On January 17th, my bishop came up from North Carolina and family and friends came in from Texas, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and of course New York–all to ordain me to the sacred order of priests.

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Photo credit: Craig Ruttle


Watch it here.

If you want to skip ahead to Bishop Michael Curry’s spirited sermon, it begins around 40 minutes in.

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Photo credit: Craig Ruttle


With Bishop Curry’s blessing, I asked that the readings for the day be those used in celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. They are Genesis 37:17-20 (Joseph the dreamer), Ephesians 6:10-20 (the whole armor of God–including shoes for proclaiming the gospel!), and Luke 6:27-36 (love your enemies). It is my prayer that these readings will forever shape and embolden my ministry in Christ’s church.

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We are all called to be mothers of God

Preached at Trinity Wall Street the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Annunciation seemed like an appropriate time to share with the parish that Jay and I are expecting our first child.
The night before I preached, two police officers in Brooklyn were murdered–I could not ignore it.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38
Watch it here.

Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you. Amen.

There’s a term church-types like to throw around. “Hermeneutics.” Perhaps you’ve heard it? It’s basically a fancy word for a “lens” or “perspective,” and it acknowledges the idea that we all bring something to the text when we read scripture. All of us have been shaped by life experiences that in turn shape our reading and hearing of scripture. And what a gift that is! Indeed, part of the reason scripture is living and active is because we come to it as living and active human beings who grow and change and learn constantly.

I find this helpful because as a preacher it is inevitable that you will preach on the same text many times in your life, but you never want to preach the same sermon. Even if the last sermon on said text was a hum dinger—you’re always looking for new or deeper insights to take in and then share.

Case in point—I preached this text two years ago. I was visiting my childhood parish in Lexington, Virginia, and I was so excited to be preaching on a text that was already so meaningful to me. I mean, I’ve had a framed print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation hanging on my wall since college, always hoping to be inspired by Mary’s courageous statement: Let it be. This was my jam! And other than the fact that I had no voice and had to whisper into the microphone, that sermon was a great one.

In the two years since I preached this text, I have graduated from seminary, been ordained a deacon, started my first ordained call here at Trinity church, and discovered that Jay and I are due to have our first child this summer. These are the kinds of life events that can adjust your lens slightly this way or that, opening up the scriptures in new ways that keep our reading of them living and active. I can tell you it has made for an interesting Advent.

But here’s the thing. As much as I marvel at the miracle and weirdness of having a human being growing inside me—and how much more miraculous and weird for Mary to experience the same with the very Son of God… and sure I smile whenever we sing “My soul magnifies the Lord,” thinking of Mary’s magnified belly while touching my own slightly magnified version… at the end of the day, that Mary became as we call her in Greek theotokos, the container of God, really says more about God than about Mary.

What makes Mary remarkable is her response.

The actual gestation of God as a fetus, nursing of God as a baby, caring for God as a child—even when that child became a grown man, that really points to the remarkable mystery of God. The same God that laughed at David’s suggestion in our Old Testament reading today that God would want a proper house—that God chose a womb of a lowly unwed maiden. No wonder we call Jesus “Emmanuel”—God is with us—you can’t get much more “with” humanity than to take up residence inside a human being and grow there for nine months. And thus Gabriel says to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

But lets get back to what makes Mary remarkable—because she’s today’s example of how to live as faithful disciples of Christ.

First, note that Mary’s gut response upon seeing Gabriel is to be perplexed. She’s wondering to herself, ‘What could this guy possibly want from me?’ Certainty is not a requirement of faithfulness. Mary teaches us that one can be perplexed and pondering and still be faithful to God’s call.

Second, after Gabriel explains that which is to come—which is really less of an explanation and more of an exultations of God’s love and power—Mary wrestles with what she has just heard, saying, “But how can this be?”

And after Gabriel speaks of the Holy Spirit’s presence with Mary, proclaiming “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Mary responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Notice she doesn’t say, “Oh, now I get it—that makes perfect sense!” My guess is she’s still perplexed, pondering, and wrestling. But Mary doesn’t have to have all the answers to know that God is requiring something of her in this moment and in her lifetime. I say “requiring” because Gabriel doesn’t proclaim his message in the form of a question. He does not come to Mary saying, “God would like you to bear God’s son—the savior of the world. Are you cool with that?” Rather Gabriel speaks the truth of what is to come in a more definitive manner. Mary acknowledges this requirement when she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” And “servant” is really a soft translation of the Greek word doulos—Mary is calling herself a slave to God—which reinforces the fact that she has no choice in the matter. And yet—and this is what I LOVE about Mary—the young, lowly, unwed, perplexed servant or slave exercises courage and agency even in her obedience by saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary responds—and she responds as one who believes.

It is Mary’s response and faithfulness that is praised again and again in Luke’s gospel. The scripture immediately following today’s passage tells us of Mary’s journey to see her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant despite her old age. As soon as Elizabeth sets eyes on Mary, she begins praising her: “Blessed are you among women—blessed is the fruit of your womb—blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is she who believed.

And how does Mary respond to Elizbeth’s blessing? By praising God with the very words we sang earlier, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” She receives the blessing by pointing to the one she is faithful to.

Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is a grown man preaching and teaching when his brothers and Mary try to reach him through the crowds. When Jesus is told they are waiting outside, he responds, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” While some take this as a harsh response—it’s true! Mary is often referred to as the ideal disciple precisely because she heard God’s message and responded in faithful obedience.

And again when Jesus is teaching towards the end of Luke’s gospel, a woman in the crowd calls out to him and says, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” And Jesus corrects her: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Jesus does not deny Mary’s blessedness, but clarifies the nature of it.

That God lived in a womb and nursed as a babe tells us something about God and God’s longing to be with us.

That Mary believed in the face of perplexing truths and responded in faithful willingness, “Here am I—let it be,” tells us something about what is means to be blessed.

Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century German mystic once said, “We are all called to be mothers of God—for God is always waiting to be born.” I love that image. It’s one I can relate to. We are all called to be mothers of God—for God is always waiting to be born. But you don’t have to have a womb to be a mother of God. And you don’t even have to be certain of every aspect of God’s nature. You can be young or old, rich or poor, male or female, perplexed, pondering, wrestling—and yet hear God’s call on your life (crazy as it may seem at the time) and respond in faith and obedience: Here am I—let it be.

And when people see the fruits of God’s call manifest in your life, you—like Mary—can point to God and say, “Yeah—look at all God has done. Isn’t God amazing?”

That’s what’s remarkable about Mary. And it’s in that kind of response that each of us can be remarkable too.

Here am I. Let it be. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my savior. Amen.

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God and hope are not dead

1 Corinthians 15:12-20, John 5:24-27
The Feast of John of Damascus

I preached the noonday service at Trinity Wall Street the day after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to charge a white New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an African American, sparking protests over the lack of accountability for police behavior in communities of color. I had already planned to talk about how people are like icons, pointing to the resurrected Christ, and I brought one of my favorite icons with me to demonstrate that point. It turns out “Mary of Seven Sorrows” could not have been a more appropriate icon for the day. During the first minute of my sermon, the moment I mentioned the grand jury decision, a man stood up and walked out of the church. He did so respectfully, but he did so in protest–a new experience for me.

Watch it here.

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Losing my religion

Sometimes religious people do really ugly things. Because I am a religious person and a religious leader, working in a religious setting after being trained in a religious school and living in a religious community, I sometimes get to see ugliness in religion up close.

This week was one of those weeks. And this week’s ugliness went public.

For me, besides the heartache, anger, confusion and sadness that accompanies these times–the thing I struggle with the most is how to talk about ugliness and evil with my friends on the fringes of faith traditions. My non-practicing Jewish girlfriends whom I love dearly and who constantly give me perspective and insight. My friends who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” having tired of religious institutions, or my friends who are vehemently opposed to religious expressions of all kinds. And the dearest of them all, my self-proclaimed “recovering-Catholic” husband who vacillates between lovingly supporting my vocation with pride, and shaking his fists with mistrust.

This week was a fist-shaking kind of week. And trust is at an all-time-low.

Two years ago, my husband and I were living on The General Theological Seminary campus while I was in my second year of school there. Without getting into much detail, two members of the administration used various bully-tactics to skirt around their mismanagement of our money. Jay was wounded alongside me as he a) footed the bill, b) lived in the very community calling our character into question, and c) watched me gingerly navigate threats with little/no recourse. It was an exhausting time, and perhaps the first time the church really broke my heart. I was learning the hard lesson that church leaders are not exempt from arrogance and meanness. The two things that most sustained us were the support and wisdom of my bishop and rector back home, and most especially the love and support of the seminary faculty. In that sense, church saved me from the church.

This week those same faculty who held me up were fired by other administrative figures at the same seminary.

The faculty were “resigned” by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees after communicating their serious concerns regarding the Dean and President of the seminary–concerns that in any other church or even business would require the person in question to be removed for the safety of others until an investigation into allegations was complete.  To the outside world, the message communicated is that The Episcopal Church protects those in power, even if that person has reportedly intimidated students and faculty with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and decisions.  So again I find myself struggling to explain why religion isn’t a bad thing–why I feel called to this work of ministry–why I feel I can trust the church–why I turn to the church for healing–why I’m not only a person of faith, but also a person contributing to the overall framework of the institution of the church.

So let me say: The Episcopal Church–of which I am a member, a leader, and a representative–is a good and joyful community of people striving to “persevere in resisting evil…proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…serve Christ in all persons…for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being.”  This is our baptismal covenant, as found in the Book of Common Prayer.  It’s what we promise, what we proclaim, what we are initiated into, and what we expect from ourselves and our church community.

That said, we suffer from the same unhealthy group dynamics everyone else does.  Part of my husband’s frustration stems from his belief that leaders of the church should be held to a higher standard–and to an extent, I agree with him.  Lots of people do.  But that part about “resisting evil” in the baptismal covenant?  It’s followed by, “and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”  Not IF, but WHEN.  I think the higher standard many people think of is perfection, when in reality its a willingness to repent and say you’re sorry.  Of course the church does not have the corner on apologizing.  And note that the covenant I reference is one of baptism–not one of ordination.  It is so widely adhered to that we make a point of renewing our covenant in our liturgy at least quarterly.

This week’s ugliness has cracked open some long-time systemic problems.  Problems not unique to The General Theological Seminary.  My prayer is that the heartbreak we feel will allow for truth’s light to illuminate a way forward–one of repentance, reconciliation, redemption and resurrection.

It’s what we preach.  Heck, let’s be the sermon.

And so it is in the hope of Christ that I pray for humility–for myself, my peers, the vulnerable students and the bishops that support them, the faculty, the Dean, the Board–and for their spouses and families that did not “sign up for this” in the same way we did.

#prayforGTS

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Shanah Tovah

Growing up in Virginia, my family celebrated Rosh Hashanah every year with our closest Jewish friends. It was a time we looked forward to–in large part–because of Maryann’s great cooking. My little brother often said he hoped he would grow up to marry a Jewish woman in hopes that fresh-baked challah would be a staple in his home. (Who knows–it could still happen!)

So last week when I met one of the members of Tamid, I got excited and nostalgic upon mention of this week’s Rosh Hashanah service. I asked around to see if I could attend (High Holy Day services in NYC are generally ticketed events with no empty seats) and was so pleased to join with five other Trinity clergy. Why would so many of us be at a Rosh Hashanah service? Because Trinity shares space with the Tamid congregation in St. Paul’s Chapel. And only tonight did I hear the story of why.

Rabbi Darren Levine told us that years ago, he and his son would shoot hoops before school almost daily. And daily they would encounter another father-son duo doing the same. A year or two passed by, and the dads became friends without ever mentioning their day jobs. In 2011, Rabbi Darren was looking for a space for Tamid to worship. The historic St. Paul’s chapel came to mind, so he looked up Trinity Wall Street’s website, only to discover the dad-friend from the basketball court: the Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones. And in a New York minute the basketball dads became clergy colleagues– the rest is history. Only tonight the history grew deeper as Tamid dedicated it’s new/restored/historic Ark as a permanent fixture at St. Paul’s. It was a beautiful celebration to witness, with some personal touches that will remain etched on my memory for all time.

Tonight I am grateful for haunting Hebrew music, moments of incarnation and Spirit filled spontaneity, a warm welcome from the people of Tamid, and the promise of profound relationships as we encounter and embody the Holy in this world together.

It’s going to be a great New Year. !שָׁנָה טוֹבָה

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Generosity and Grumbling

9:00AM service at Trinity Wall Street, New York City
Jonah 3:10-4:11Matthew 20:1-6
Watch it here.

God is good—All the time/All the time—God is good–Amen.

Indeed both the readings we heard today speak not only to God’s goodness, but God’s opulent goodness. God’s over-the-top generosity.

First we hear the story of Jonah and the Ninevites. Jonah takes the prize for being the whiniest of the prophets. I mean here he tries to escape God’s instruction to go to Nineveh and warn the people of their coming destruction and doom, he’s thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish who vomits him out onto dry land again, he begrudgingly makes his way to Nineveh and says simply, “Forty Days and God will smite you all,” and then he climbs up a hill and perches himself on the side of it to wait and watch the destruction. Kinda like the Grinch who stole Christmas waiting at the top of the mountain to hear all the Whos in Whoville cry boo-hoo-hoo.
Jonah
But low and behold, those pesky Ninevites—the people everyone loved to hate—the people who had enacted such evil atrocities on so many—the people no one could forgive—what do they do? They change their ways and turn to God. And God changes the divine mind and decides to spare the city.

Jonah is not happy. Perhaps he crosses his arms and pouts, or perhaps he shakes his fist up at the sky as he exclaims, “I knew it! This is precisely why I tried to flee in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I knew it.”

And God says, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

I think when we hear this story, we’re inclined to be like, “Yeah, Jonah! Give it a rest! How could anyone get upset over a merciful, gracious and loving God?!”

Ok, now picture a person, or a group of people, or a city or nation who have inflicted serious gut wrenching evils on us. Picture a modern-day Nineveh that you might wish were wiped from the Earth. Do you have that person or people in mind? Now imagine God forgiving them, and imagine your response.

Man, forgiveness is hard. Even when we’re not the ones doling it out, even just witnessing the immense love of a forgiving God can make us bristle.

And then we look at today’s gospel. A landowner goes to the market and hires some men to come work in his vineyard for a day’s wage. A few hours later he returns to the market and hires more men. And a few hours later he returns again, sees some men standing idly by, says “Why are you standing around doing nothing?” and when they respond, perhaps feeling destitute, that no one has hired them, the landowner brings who must have been the “least of these” back to work in his vineyard for the remaining hours of the day.

That evening he pays them all the same day’s wage, whether they worked 2 hours or 10. Of course the workers who had worked all day grumble at the landowner’s generosity. It’s not fair!! And like God’s response to Jonah, the landowner asks, “are you envious because I am generous?” And we might be inclined side with the landowner, because who could possibly begrudge his generosity?

But now imagine the implications on your life if minimum wage were to increase to better compensate the workers on the lowest end of our economic system. Or imagine how much more the food on your table might cost if the migrant farm workers who harvest it were entitled to basic workers’ rights, like one day off a week.

Sure it seems ridiculous to begrudge one’s generosity—until it demands something of us.

And lets face it. As easy as it is to laugh or scoff at the senseless anger of Jonah or the laborers, if we take these readings seriously and truly apply them to our own lives, we’re bound to squirm a little. Because if we worship a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—a God who acts out of generosity rather than fairness—a God who forgives way beyond our comfort zone—then are we not called to follow the one we worship and try our best to do likewise?

As you leave here today, think about which of these two stories makes you squirm the most, and then continue to reflect on it all week long. Think of God’s mercy on the Ninevites when you’re watching or reading the news. Think of the generous landowner when you’re going over your bank statement. Allow yourself to get uncomfortable. And then consider how you might practice more forgiveness and generosity in your own life so that your very lifestyle is an act of worship and a testament to the God of love we know in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

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