Choose This Day (a goodbye)

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

Have you ever been on the precipice, not knowing exactly what was going to happen next?

That’s where Joshua and the Israelites found themselves.

They had been through a lot together. This isn’t one of the stories we covered in our VBS for the Rest of Us series, but it very well could have been. Most of us probably know the story of Joshua and Jericho from our childhood – but the problem with just thinking about the story is sometimes we miss the big picture, so let’s back up a bit…

Remember Moses? Let my people go? Parting the Red Sea? Ten Commandments? Sound familiar? Moses had led God’s people out of captivity in Egypt and had then wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Moses was a great leader. Before he died, Moses chose Joshua to take his place to lead the people the promised land. Moses, who had led the people through such enormous change, passed these words of hope on to Joshua:

“Be strong and bold… because it is the Lord your God who goes with you;
he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed”
(Deuteronomy 31:6)

It was a new era. Most of the people who were alive then had never been in captivity. They had been born during the years of desert wandering and had never known what it was like to have a place called “home.”  The promised land was in view – the problem is, it was promised to them but held by others. In an incredibly violent story, God leads Joshua to take over Jericho – by completely destroying it. According to the text, this is accomplished by Joshua and his men walking around the city one time per day for seven days, then on the seventh day, walking around it seven times, then blowing horns. Let that sink in. The plan to destroy the city… was to walk around it.

It didn’t make any sense. It defied all logic and all understanding. There wasn’t a reason they could point to about why God had asked them to do this seemingly outrageous thing – the only thing that mattered was their faith, their belief that God would be faithful to God’s promises.

And isn’t that how it works sometimes? The thing we’re called to do just doesn’t make sense?

Many years passed. Joshua was growing old, another era was ending.

Which brings us to today’s text. Joshua had gathered the people together. He knew his time with them was coming to an end. He knew he would soon die and the people would have to decide what was next. So he told them:

Choose this day who you will serve. 

He reminded them that they had not always served Jehovah, the God of Israel. Remember that these were ancient people, tribal people, so it wasn’t a matter of serving God or being an atheist – they wouldn’t have conceived of it in that way. It was more about whether they would serve the gods of the land, or the gods of their ancestors –
or the GOD who has been faithful to them.

For the ancient Israelites – and even for the New Testament authors – they had no concept of “believing” in God. Believing was serving and vice versa. Faith to the apostle Paul wasn’t an intellectual idea, but rather how you embody what you believe – faith is an action, not a thought.

When Joshua tells the people to choose this day, it wasn’t to say a prayer and be done with it. It was to commit to a lifetime of reflecting God – choice after choice after choice.

——————-

You’ve probably gathered by now why I chose this text from the options for today instead of the Gospel text.

Two roads diverged - scaled

We, too, are on a precipice – all of us. We, too, are confronted with choices. We, too, are not sure what the next chapter holds…

 

… though we, too, know it won’t be written together.

Next month, our faith community will go separate directions. I will be moving to San Antonio with my family – and yes, that is different from when I first shared the news last spring we were moving to D.C.

At the same time, Pastor Nathan and his family will be moving to Atlanta.

We are all on a precipice. There is a lot about the next chapter that we don’t know.

When Joshua spoke to the Israelites, he reminded them of the faithfulness of God through the time they had been together… so in my last sermon here, I want to do the same.

There is one particular part of our collective story that some of you know and some of you might not. In fact, because of how much this congregation has changed in the past three years, some of you were not even here when it happened.

A little over three years ago, as a seminary student, I was required to serve a congregation for 10 hours a week – paid or unpaid. I am so grateful for the program Lexington Theological Seminary offers, because it was the only way I was able to finish seminary with as much as we move. At the time we were stationed at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, and when my husband got orders for Fort Campbell, I Googled nearby Disciples churches and emailed the pastor. I remember feeling very nervous, because I had to be at a church – I didn’t have a choice – and I wasn’t sure what I would encounter! This week in a fit of nostalgia I looked up that email. It began:

Good afternoon Reverend Brown,

My name is Sara Fisher, and I am a student at Lexington Theological Seminary.

I continued on, asking him if he would consider letting me intern here while I completed coursework.

Little did we know… 

But here is the remarkable part of that story. Just before I sent that email, the youth director, Brian Miller, had resigned. I emailed back and forth with Nathan, followed by phone calls, and after we had gotten to know each other a little better he said, “You know, I hadn’t told you this at first, but we actually have an opening on staff…”

Looking back, there’s a lot that we all didn’t know three years ago.

We didn’t know how long I would be here – when we first arrived, 12 months was rather likely. We didn’t know that my husband would deploy  – though, from Fort Campbell, that wasn’t really a surprise.

When I arrived three years ago, I walked in to a church that had anxiety because their senior minister was about to take sabbatical. There was a lot of uncertainty at that time – that spring, those “what if…” questions were on everyone’s minds.

What if there’s a funeral?
What if there’s a conflict?
What if the church is struck by lightning?

We didn’t know how well this church would work together for those three months…
What we would learn in those three months.

(and the church wasn’t even hit by lightning…)

We didn’t know about all the staff transition – since I’ve been here,
Pastor Jackie accepted a call to Virginia,
Jane McInnis, Sandy Cunningham, and Diane Beatty retired,
and Jane Wells, Donna Chapman, and Pat Sunderland stepped into those roles.
Whitney Joyner stepped down as our children’s choir director and Sylvia stepped up,
We added a youth choir with Hollie Dueker,
Jenny Fleming began filling in with children’s ministries this summer –
and I alone have had four separate job titles here in the three years I’ve been.

This church knows transition.
And we’ve experienced the faithfulness of God with each one.

Three years ago, we didn’t know how great of a fit we would all be for each other.

We didn’t know how much of a family you would become to my children.

We didn’t know that my leaving and Nathan’s leaving would align.

We didn’t know how sad we would all be heading into this Advent.

——————————-

Of course, some of the changes in these past three years we might have anticipated with the passing of time.

Sara Camp and Caitlyn Shelton – those freshmen girls I met the day I arrived –
are, unsurprisingly, getting ready to graduate.

With each passing year as the all youth grew older, their questions have grown more challenging. Their faith has grown more engaged.

Then there’s that group of 5th graders I kept my eye on when I first arrived and welcomed as balls of anxious energy to youth group that first fall… who are now emerging leaders not just in the youth group but in the church – as 8th graders.

Whatever anxiety and uncertainty there is about the next chapter right now, let me tell you, you have amazing young people who are ready to help write it.

————————————–

Yes, we as a church are on the precipice and about to begin new seasons of our journeys… but the reality is, those are not the only decisions facing us today.

I know and you know, that is not the only concern on our minds. Because we here gathered as a community, but each Sunday morning when we meet in the same room we bring the previous week’s worth of joys and concerns and decisions and changes with us.

And most of the time, the decisions we need to make aren’t between following God and not following God, but rather how to follow God. How to faithfully live. Choosing whether or not to follow God isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime decision. It’s a choice today. And a choice tomorrow. And a choice on Tuesday. And choice every day after that.

Following God, serving God, loving God, is a choice made every time we put the needs of others before our own. It is a choice made every time we stand up for someone being hurt. It is a choice made every time we give of ourselves and our resources. Choice after choice, we cultivate a lifetime of faithfulness to God.

I don’t know what God is calling you to do for the rest of your life, or 10 years from now, or really, even next week. But I know that today, God is calling all of us – individually and as a church – to make Disciples of Christ by sharing God’s love in relationship, reflection, and response.

You will continue to bring God’s love to your workplaces, your schools, your civic engagement. People around Hopkinsville will continue to know this as a welcoming place because they know all of you. Every day brings new opportunities to bring the love of God to this community. The choice is yours.

————-

Remember that remarkable part of the story that when I emailed Pastor Nathan, Brian had just resigned?

Brian’s first day back at FCC is three weeks from today, and he is beginning his time at LTS.

And somewhere, your next associate minister is on a precipice. Maybe already in search and call, he or she is wondering what the future holds. Grappling with uncertainty. In that liminal space – of not yet.

And. Somewhere. Your next senior minister is on a precipice. She or he might be standing in a pulpit, right at this moment, maybe feeling a call from God, some nudge they don’t even understand, to enter the search and call process.

Pray for them.
They are, somewhere, being prepared in ways they don’t even know yet
to help write the story of First Christian Church.

They will arrive to a church not knowing what is ahead.
Not knowing if they will be a good fit.
Not knowing how long they will stay.
Not knowing if you will become family.

So – this day, as you wait,
Be strong and bold… because it is the Lord your God who goes with you;
God will not fail you or forsake you.
Do not fear or be dismayed.

All Means All: Remembering our Trans* Service Members

You know those nice commercials with the service members? You know the ones, with instrumental music in the background, maybe an American flag? Then the camera cuts to the service member surprising her kid at school, or walking on the football field when his son doesn’t expect it, or stepping into an airport to thunderous applause? Those commercials that make you think, “I am proud to be an American! I am proud of our troops!” Those commercials?

Those commercials only tell half the story.

(Read the whole article at Red Letter Christians…)

The Monster

I first imagined myself as a preacher when I was a little girl of four. I listened to a missionary share his exciting stories of preaching overseas and knew that was what I wanted to do, too. As I got older, I never considered any life path that wasn’t ministry. I would dream about what it would be like to talk to crowds about God, faith, and spirituality. I would watch myself in the mirror to see how I might look to those listening to me speak.

Of course, as a woman, I knew that I couldn’t really preach. Each time I looked in the mirror, the gathered listeners I envisioned were all women, because my body — the very one I saw in the mirror — prevented me from speaking about God to men. Sure, I could lead a women’s Bible study, I could teach children’s Sunday School, I could even speak at women’s retreats. The best way to use my gifts, I was told, was as a pastor’s wife. I was told there was one best way to be the person God wanted me to be: by marrying a man of God and living my life as his “helpmeet.” So I did.

But my call wasn’t to be a pastor’s wife.

Continue reading at Off the Page… 

Seminary as Resistance

This morning, we lamented.

We are gathered here in Lexington for seminary classes… here, in Lexington, on January 21, 2017.

We lamented that we are not marching with peaceful protesters on the streets of D.C.

We lamented that, though we gather in this city, we are not marching with those lifting their voices on the streets of Lexington.

Yes, our names are in pockets and on ponchos and on signs on these streets, as our spirits march with the feet of our sisters, but here we stay.

We lamented the things that we have been told as women:

That our bodies are not right for preaching or teaching the word of God.

That our bodies are not acceptable to stand behind a pulpit.

We have been told we were not smart enough to study the word of God.

That we must cover in just the right way, talk with just the right tone of voice, we must be pretty but not too pretty.

That it is acceptable to be objectified, and, even have our bodies violated.

We have been told if only you were more…, if only you were less…

We lament.

But then, we rise.

Because for us, being here, is an act of resistance.

As people across the nation march, some of us are learning about the history of the church in the United States, that we might understand our heritage and refuse to make the same mistakes again.

As people across the nation march, some of us are learning how to study Scriptures, that we might use this knowledge to understand and help others understand how God is still speaking.

As people across the nation march, some of us are learning about how those labeled “Other” are too often demonized and have been throughout history. We are learning about the role of God in suffering and the ways in which we cause suffering.

We witness and are complicit in the demonization of human beings because of their —

skin color
ethnicity
gender
citizenship
orientation
gender identity
religion or lack of religion

— and acknowledge all those who have been and continue to be systemically oppressed, marginalized, and killed.

And we lament for the ways that we are “other.” We are demonized.

But we are learning about a God who marches.

We are not on the streets, but we are in these classrooms, preparing to lead the church in ways that we have been told we can’t. We will lead a church who breaks down barriers and tears down walls and offers love to all, every person, no matter what.

We’ve been told we can’t…

But we will.

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I wrote this collaboration with seminary colleagues, with eternal thanks to our professors who have mentored us and taught us how to think theologically… and resist. 

On Independence Day

Independence Day and I have a complicated relationship. I have fond memories from my childhood—packing a picnic and going to an all-day festival with my family. We’d lay our blanket on the grassy hillside and wait until nightfall. A military band always played inspiring marches, and when night fell, the sky was filled with every color in the rainbow and all sorts of sounds: booms, crackles, and whistles all overlapping each other into a symphony. But even then, as a child, I knew why we celebrated with fireworks. I knew the noise was meant to emulate the sounds of war. I imagined myself, as a young girl, hiding in a barn, keeping my breathing quiet lest the soldiers find me.

(Continue reading at Off the Page…)

Finding Junia

JuniaJunia was the first person in the Bible who lied to me. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t really
Junia
 who lied to me; it was the other people who lied to conceal her from me. 

I had been struggling with the issue of women in ministry for years. I come from a background that not only doesn’t ordain women, but doesn’t allow women deacons and elders, which does not allow women to collect offering or teach men older than 12. When I was in elementary school and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had an answer all prepared: “A pastor’s wife.”

See, I felt the call to ministry at a young age. I mean, very young. I was four. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the pew during a Sunday evening service, listening to a missionary presentation. I thought, “I want to tell people about Jesus!” From that day until this day, I’ve never questioned that I was called into vocational ministry; I just knew.

But the only way available to me was to be a pastor’s wife, and that’s what I did, by marrying an Army chaplain. I checked the boxes and was living the life to which I was called. 

Except, things are rarely that easy, are they? What followed was a life that didn’t line up with what I thought life would be like. I began seeing the cracks in my theology, in a version of Christianity that said to women: We don’t want to say you’re second-class, but

I knew – I KNEW – all of the biblical reasons why women were created to be helpmeets. I could use my apologetics skills to articulate the role of women to support the headship of men better than most men I knew. I would tell you that Timothy’s mother and grandmother were influential in Timothy’s life only because the men in his life slacked on the job (because, clearly, whenever God uses a woman, it’s always Plan B…). I would tell you about the requirement of elders to be The Husband of One Wife and could explain both sides of the debate about whether single men and/or divorced men were excluded.

I had all the answers…

                   …until I didn’t.

Junia first exposed that maybe, just maybe, some of my answers were flawed.
She is an apostle named in Romans 16:7. Let that sink in. Junia, a woman, is an apostle – an esteemed apostle, at that! The more I read, the more disheartened I was. See, a couple hundred years after Romans was written, church leaders decided that this apostle couldn’t have been a woman (at best; at worst, it was a deliberate deceitful choice…)… so they added an s to her name and made her male. For centuries, the Bible was translated hailing Junias – a man.

The first time I read about Junia, I felt like I had been punched in the gut, as though I was a victim of some 2000-year long conspiracy. My well-read Bible had failed me. How could I have been lied to all this time? How could they get away with literally replacing the name of a woman with the name of a man? I started questioning all the proof texts I “knew” about women in ministry. The more I learned, the more I realized that there was not just one “correct” way to look at any text – particularly those which have been used to oppress populations for centuries.

That’s when I knew I needed to follow my calling, not as the “plus one” on my husband’s ministry, but on my own. 

There was more to my decision than just Junia, of course. But when I saw Junia liberated, without that s that made her someone she wasn’t and kept her from being who she was, I knew that I could be who I was as well. 

May 17, the day I write this, is the Feast of St. Junia, a day we commemorate her contributions to Christianity, this esteemed apostle.

On this day, I remember all the other women whose contributions were erased from history because of their gender – or the women who were never allowed to make contributions because men would not let them. Today, I gather in my living room with women from my church, talking about faith and love, about church and community. I celebrate the young woman who is graduating from high school, who stood in my church’s pulpit two days ago and preached. I continue to work toward ordination and fully am who God has called me to be.

I think Junia would be proud.

Chicago Rooftops and Being Free

Today is her birthday.

I don’t remember the first time I met her. It was my freshman year of college, and at first, she was just another junior living on my floor. I do remember asking her if I could be her roommate. The college I attended over-booked freshman girls that fall, so we had three girls living in a two-person room. At the end of the semester, there was space for me to move out and in with Kandice. Her roommate was moving out, and she seemed genuinely excited to share our space together.

chicagoSo I went home for Christmas break, ready to come back in January and move in with Kandice. Over that break, this happened. Suffice it to say that I was… in a weird place when we first started living together.

Kandice and I were roommates that spring semester as well as the following fall, before I decided to leave the school. Often after a bad day, I would come back to my room, knowing where I had hidden chocolate. Kandice was present and in the moment in every way imaginable – unfortunately, her zeal for life often led her to my own hidden candy, which she would somehow find and eat. Frustration over stolen candy aside, I always knew she loved me for who I was as a person, and she challenged my thinking in ways that no one else at that college did.

The last week we lived together, before Christmas break in 2002, I got off the elevator on the seventh floor of our dorm. The school was in downtown Chicago, situated halfway between Cabrini Green and Michigan Avenue – between two worlds. When I got off the elevator, Kandice was standing there with the most intense look on her face I have ever seen anyone have. She yelled – no words in particular, just yelled – and shoved me up against the wall in an outburst of frustration. I could tell she wasn’t angry at me, and even as she got up in my face, it wasn’t violent. She had that much emotion.

I can’t remember whose idea it was to go to the roof of the building, but that’s what we did. It was late at night, but the sky was lit by the city lights. The rain was so heavy I could feel every drop; this was no light spring shower. On the roof of a 10-story building, the rain seemed just a bit closer. There was no shelter, no hiding ourselves from its heavy drops.

We stood on the roof and yelled. I can’t remember what exactly we yelled about – for her it was a lost relationship, for me it was the uncertainty of my future. I don’t know the words but I know we yelled. In the pouring rain. On the roof.

I am certain that the next part was Kandice’s idea, because it wasn’t allowed. If I followed every rule, she seemed to view each one as a new challenge. We snuck past the unlocked gate that led to the maintenance tower on top of the building. We climbed up the metal ladder and onto the very top of the tower. There was no railing. No ledge. We were now 11 stories up, and though the maintenance tower was probably 15′ square and was in the middle of the building (so if we fell it would only be one story), I felt on top of the world. And I was terrified.

We yelled for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, exhausted, drenched, and freezing, we made our way back down the maintenance tower. We peered in the door from the roof to make sure no one saw us, then rode down the elevator in silence. Comfortable, understood silence.

I have never felt as alive as I did on that roof that night. I was the most free to be myself, most free to express emotion I so often concealed. Kandice was my friend, my confidante, and I admired her.

We lost touch after college. We were Facebook friends, but that was many years ago, before I shifted my theology and started the path I’m on now. I wish I could still talk to her, because I really think she would LOVE who I am today.

Last week, I was telling my friend Alissa about Kandice, about how spunky and feisty and full-of-life she was. I told Alissa stories about being Kandice’s roommate, and suddenly I stopped short. My breath caught – I don’t think Alissa even realized that I stopped myself, because I forced myself to trail off. I couldn’t bring myself to say the end of the story: Kandice died almost six years ago, from Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Her death was tragic in so many ways. She was preparing for the mission field. She was young. She shouldn’t have died.

I couldn’t say the words because somehow saying them would make it a little more true. I hadn’t seen Kandice since early 2003, so somehow I can convince myself that she’s not on Facebook because she’s hanging out with deaf kids on dirt paths in Africa, listening to what they couldn’t say and learning from them. She’s there, in my mind, sharing about the love of God with these kids who are abandoned and unwanted. In my mind, Kandice is fulfilled and happy. And yet, though I know that she isn’t on the streets of Africa with deaf children, I know that Kandice really is fulfilled and happy now. Whatever happens after death has to be better than the hell that cancer and suffering deliver on earth, and I am confident that Kandice is there. Free. Fully herself.

Brene Brown says that we should “lean in to moments of joy.” So today, in Kandice’s honor, that’s what I will do. In the midst of the meetings and the deadlines I have today, I will light a candle and remember Kandice. I will say her name out loud. And who knows… maybe I’ll even find a piece of hidden chocolate in the back of my drawer.