At Any Age

D543405F-29D8-492C-B48A-4BB0EC12CF72I asked my husband a rather strange question last night. It was about my recent preaching at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon. This was how I posed the question to him:

“You have listened to me preach a gazillion times in past years when I was young. But now do I just seem like a little old lady in the pulpit?”

Apologies to all little old ladies who might very well preach as prophetically as ever in a similar situation! But back to my question, and my husband’s response.

“No! Not at all,” he said. “If anything, you seemed more confident and powerful than I have ever seen you.”

So much for my feelings of being inadequate just because I am now a retired senior adult who has not preached a sermon in a very long time. The truth is I agreed with my husband. I felt very confident within myself. I believed that I had received a holy and prophetic word from God, and was honored that God (and my pastor) chose me to speak that word. When I stood in the pulpit, I felt the memory and the wisdom of ministries past, all of them, and that recognition of God’s workings within me over the years filled me with assurance.

Still, we are used to prophets being young, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Prophets, after all, are given the mission of looking ahead. On the other hand, we think of elders as caretakers of the past. 

Pope Francis spoke about this in 2014 in his homily on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In that homily, he asks us to see the mission of our elders as looking ahead to the future. And looking ahead to the future as persons who possess the wisdom of age. He gives us Simeon and Anna as our role models, naming them “senior citizen prophets.” And what role models they are! Among all the stories in Scripture, I have long been inspired and moved by the stories of Anna and Simeon.

In the story, this older woman and man have just met the new parents, Mary and Joseph, who were bringing their baby Jesus to the Temple. Pope Francis preached it with these words.

“It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”

This is their story from the second chapter of Luke, verses 21-38:

And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul — to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

— Luke 2: 21-38 (KJV, NASB)

Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was looking for the consolation of Israel, was graced by the Holy Spirit. And in that Spirit, he came into the temple, finally holding Jesus in his arms and blessing him. This was the moment Simeon had hoped for over many years. And after prophesying about the child Jesus, he blessed the parents and began Mary’s preparation for the pain she was destined to experience when her son was crucified.

And the Prophetess Anna, now advanced in age, was there “at that very moment” the Scripture says. Anna never left the temple and she served God “night and day with fasting and prayer.” She lifted up her prayers of thanks to God for this child. And on top of that she proclaimed the message of hope that this child had come! Glorious news it was to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

The stories of Anna and Simeon give us a portrait of elderly citizens, full of life’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit, who prophetically present to the world Jesus as Messiah!

And their story is full of hope for us, too. Perhaps those of us who are “of a certain age” are truly senior citizen prophets. Perhaps the hope we need to hear is the hope that, at any age, God calls us to prophetic mission. At any age, God will use our voices to speak hope to a world in despair, a world waiting for the consolation that comes only from God’s Spirit.

“Think Justice!”

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A sermon preached on September 30, 2018 at the First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our hope and our refuge. Amen.

I

In July, I received a note from Ellen. She is 22-years-old, a college graduate with honors, a strong, confident young woman. This is what she wrote:

“I love all of you so much. None of this would be possible without you. My time with you had such an enormous impact on who I am, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to get me to this point. You’re my family forever and always.    Ellen.”       (Written on her wedding day, July 8, 2018)

Thirteen-year-old Ellen came to us at Safe Places, an organization where my staff and I cared for women who had been abused, children exposed to violence, and young girls who had escaped the evil grip of human trafficking. When we first met Ellen, she was silent, lifeless, angry — hurt deeply in her soul. But after a few months, Ellen’s vivacious personality began to emerge. Slowly, she opened up her hurt place and let healing in. 

Ellen was eventually strong enough to be a part of our Princess Program, where girls who had experienced violence spent the summer learning and sharing, and discovering their inner courage, resilience, and sacred worth. After the summer, we celebrated the girls at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion with a grand ball, a very grand ball. 

When they put on their sparkling gowns, and the most glittering shoes I had ever seen, they believed — for at least one magical night — that truly they were princesses. Our wise staff taught them that even princesses can be violated, but they already knew that. They had lived through the humiliation of verbal abuse, the pain of physical and sexual abuse, and the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse. For many of them, it happened in the one place that should have been safe — in their homes.

II

Throughout history, we encounter stories of violence. Such is our story today, a story about how violence devastates Princess Tamar, King David’s daughter. Sometimes historians, biblical expositors and even story-telling preachers come upon stories that are hard to tell. This is one of those stories. It’s probably not included in any anthology of  “The World’s Most Inspiring Bible Stories.” It’s a story we don’t tell to our children. We might prefer to skip this story altogether. Theologian, Phyllis Trible, would call it a text of terror. And yet, it is the word of the Lord, and, as such, it offers some truths, some warnings, some questions, and maybe even a smidgen of grace.

So even though we find trouble in this text, God might just whisper, and gently nudge us to listen and to let the story reveal some important ways God calls us to do justice. 

Listen for the whisper of God in the reading of sacred scripture, 2 Samuel 13: 1-22.

In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.

Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”

Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”

”Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”

“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.

III

Indeed, there is trouble in this disturbing text. We discover it when we eavesdrop on Princess Tamar — daughter of King David, sister of Absolom, and half sister of Amnon. We learn that Amnon conspired to be alone with her. His sly servant came up with a plan, and she ended up in Amnon’s room. After hurting her, he rejected her harshly. He called for his servant: “Get rid of this woman! Banish her from my presence! Bolt the door after her!” 

He would not even use her name.

Tamar collapsed outside the door, plunged her hand into the cooling ashes of the fire, and rubbed the ashes into her hair. As she staggered away, she tore her richly embroidered gown as a sign of her deep-down despair. Even princesses can be violated!

King David was angry, but did nothing either to punish his beloved son or to comfort his despairing daughter. There was no consolation from father to daughter, not a single trace of compassion.  And her mother is silent.

Near the end of the story, we stumble upon a tiny touch of grace when we learn that brother Absolom takes Tamar into his home. But she is no longer a princess of royal lineage. She fades into oblivion and lives out her days as a refugee in her brother’s house, a desolate woman who will never marry and bear children. But did Tamar fade into oblivion? 

I don’t think so! Tamar’s voice was not silenced. She told someone her story, and that someone heard her, and remembered her story, and re-told her story, and told it at the right time to the right person so that this story made its way into our holy scripture. Thousands of years later, we do know Tamar’s name. Across all barriers of history and culture, and if we imagine, we can hear her speak across the ages:  

“I lost my life that day. Here in my brother Absolom’s house, I am a prisoner. I will never have children that will bear my name through the generations. I will not know that deepest of joys.”

IV

So just keep silence, King David!  Stay silent, mother of Tamar! Protect your violent son at all costs. 

What a deadly picture of family violence — the violence of a brother overpowering his sister, and emotional violence because both parents remained silent.

We might ask: where were the voices of her parents? We cannot help but wonder how Tamar’s father and mother might have responded differently. But this royal family decided to keep silence to protect Amnon.

In her sermon, “The Silences We Keep,” Rev. MarQuita Carmichael Burton speaks of “conspiratorial silence.” Reflecting on Tamar’s story, Rev. Burton speaks these words:

Reclaim our voices, shatter the façade of the deadly silence we keep. . .

We must trade in our torn robes and ashes for a bull horn and a listening ear and tell the truth of our story, so that our souls, minds, bodies and the people we say we love might be healed. 

As former silenced victims choose to no longer acquiesce to the demands of the clan elders and refuse the false healing promised by our conspiratorial muteness,  we move forward to reclaim freedom and wholeness on our terms, because we need it and so does the village.

V

In the end, it’s all about justice, and the Prophet Isaiah knew a lot about that.

Break every yoke!  Then your light shall rise in the darkness! 

You shall be called the repairers of the breach!

We have seen a breach, and from the abyss of that breach, the “Me Too” movement erupted. The movement is a wonder to behold, and perhaps the cry of “Me Too” is precisely where we find the movement of God. Secrets held for decades came out of the darkness into the light, and grief-filled silences found words. Tears flowed freely from hearts that held on far too long to painful stories.

But I wish that no person had ever needed to cry out “MeToo.” That no one had ever endured the horrifying violence that caused them to live with a silence and secrecy that held such power over their lives. 

I wish they had never felt the grief that tormented them in the voiceless spaces of their spirits. 

I wish that Tamar had always been a princess — loved, cherished, protected by her parents. 

But she was not. And so many of our sisters and brothers and neighbors and friends are not. 

We may not always know who they are, but perhaps it is most important for them to know who we are, a people committed to justice.

VI

Dear people of First Baptist Church of Christ, I marvel at the many and mighty ways you do justice — creating beloved community across racial and cultural and ethnic divides, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, seeing the sacred worth of every person. 

Can we also find ways to do justice within families? One in four of us in this sanctuary have experienced — or are currently experiencing — family violence. 

Among all the things that doing justice is, it is also being healers of the wounds that happen in the prisons of family secrecy. What does that mean exactly? 

I believe it means finding healing and gentle ways to give voice to a family’s secrets and silences. 

It means being ever a kind listener and never a judgmental voice. 

It means making sure that church is a safe and sacred space. 

It means keeping a watchful eye, always, over children, teaching them to be safe, not only from strangers, but from people they know and trust. 

It means being aware of the invisible wounds that others carry, and reaching out with tenderness that brings healing. 

If Jesus were among us today, I imagine him speaking justice to the unconscionable abuse of power that causes violence. He would call out husbands who abuse their wives, brothers who hurt their sisters, parents who harm their children.  Jesus might look into homes and cry out, “Woe to you!” 

And then, in his gentle, loving way, Jesus would reach out to the those who suffer violence, take their hands, and speak hope to despair. 

Jesus is not physically among us. but he left us in charge. So when we fail to seek justice in every place where abuse happens, we confine him. Joseph B. Clower, Jr. expresses this most eloquently in the final lines of his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus:

If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with his compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among men [people].

 When we accept this weighty call and this daunting responsibility, the prophet Isaiah might call us repairers of the breach!

VII

So let’s end our story . . . Yes, Princess Tamar lost her royal status. But the final word in this story belongs to the brother who loved and esteemed her, and who honored her. In the chapter following our text, we learn that Absalom was the father of three sons and a beautiful daughter he named Tamar, in honor of his sister.  

Can you imagine Tamar taking her infant niece into longing arms that never expected to cradle a child who would carry her name? 

Can you imagine her full heart as she envisions the future of Princess Tamar the Second, daughter of Absalom, granddaughter of King David, niece of Princess Tamar the First?

What a surprise from God — anointing Tamar’s wounds with a holy, healing balm! 

And this is the very foundation of our Christian hope: the faith, the conviction, the assurance, the certainty that when Tamar was crying, God was listening. 

People of God, we must repair the breach and seize this holy task: covering survivors of family violence with the compassionate cloak of justice, confronting violence wherever it casts its shadow, following God into every place where justice must overcome oppression.

On the campus of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, there is a building that faces the interstate. On that building is a huge sign declaring a strong, prophetic message to over 100,000 motorists traveling past it every day. The sign reads “Think Justice!” But it means so much more! 

It means longing for justice, praying for justice, insisting upon justice — persisting, prevailing, creating — doing justice, breathing justice — in families, in communities, and to the ends of the earth. 

Then the mighty waters of justice will roll over us, and we will wade together in ever-flowing streams of righteousness. Amen.

“Feeling the Spray of Jordan”

 

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Crossing the Jordan River. Photo by Siiri Bigalke/ICSD.

As a hospital chaplain, I kept vigil at the bedside of many persons who were preparing themselves to die. For me, being present with a person who is approaching death is, without equal, the most sacred and holy privilege of a minister’s life. Yet, I found it difficult at times to keep myself emotionally and spiritually healthy. During my darkest times, one phrase of the beloved hymn, “Softly and Tenderly” washed over me: “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming.” With those words, the hymn text gives us a striking image of death.

Each of us has images of death. Every person has uniquely personal ideas about death. Some meet death with fear. Others who come near to death, whether their own or someone else’s, feel anger. Some have a sense of doom, while others are filled with a comforting calm. Always through the years, I heard the phrase, “crossing the Jordan,” most definitely a preacher’s expression meant to celebrate a life well-lived while standing at the end of life, the edge of the Jordan.

Rev. Gardner Taylor was one of those preachers who proclaimed death as a celebration of life and a joyous passing into eternity. An American preacher noted for his eloquence, Taylor was known as “the dean of American preaching.” Today my professor/preacher brother, who is always sending me something to read or listen to, sent me a stunning piece of Gardner Taylor’s preaching. The sermon was from the 1976 Lyman Beecher Lectures.

Gardner Taylor shared about one of his beloved deacons who was on his deathbed. The deacon expressed the wish that he could hear Taylor preach one more time. Reflecting on that experience, Taylor inspired those attending the lecture with the following message of eternal Christian hope. As my brother wrote, “It may be the most poetically beautiful thirty seconds of preaching I have ever encountered.”

Indeed, it is . . . so full of abiding Christian hope. This is what he preached:

Now, no preacher has of himself or herself anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within the view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel, and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, might thank God, as they cross the river, that he made you a preacher.

As for me, I do expect to feel “the spray of Jordan,” and as I cross the river for the last time, I will most humbly thank God that he made me a preacher.

That is the secret of greeting death for us all, I think, being able to stand — with a steady heart and a calm spirit — and give thanks to God for what he made you. You might very well feel “the spray of Jordan” as a mist on your face.

Thanks be to God.