Because it’s Sunday and we all need a Word.

There’s a lot of pressure to preach well on days like today. Mostly it’s pressure we pastors put on ourselves. We feel called and charged with coming up with words, powerful words, meaningful words, inspirational words, comforting words. And we are. But also, this isn’t about us. It’s about God’s Word. So, very early this morning, with the help of a Spirit who’d been nudging at me through many, many drafts, I wrote this sermon. It came out a little differently than I had planned. God made some changes in the pulpit, too. It’s not perfect. I am sure there are some theological holes. And I know there’s a ton of bad grammar (don’t show my Mom). But this IS what God gave me to say today, this day, with all that we’ve seen over this weekend, to the congregation who gather at Oak Hill, to our little family, to our little fellowship, and all that we’ve seen over these past few years, in our space and context. And it preached to me so.

(We also used this prayer, shared by Rev. Traci Blackmon at the start of worship, and this prayer written by fellow RevGal, Rev. Rachel Hackenberg during our prayers of the people. I am so thankful for the beautiful words of others. Always.)

 

On Hate. And Fear. And Dreams. Oh, and the Work.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, August 13, 2017 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

Text: Genesis 37:1-28
(This is an expansion of the lectionary OT text for 19A. Our congregation has been reading the lectionary OT texts throughout this summer.)  

At first I thought it was about hate.

They hated him.

It says so in the text and it gives us reasons why. They hated him. He was daddy’s favorite. Daddy loved him the most. Daddy gave him the fancy coat. He tattled to daddy on them. As someone who has 4 siblings let me just say, these totally appropriate and acceptable reasons for siblings to hate one another. Siblings are close and competitive and prone to jealousy and, well, it just happens. So, They hated him.

At first I thought it was about hate.

But then, they hated him even more, it says. They hated him even more when he had a dream and told them about it. In Joseph’s time dreams weren’t just these sleepy-weird-fantasy memories that we brushed off and said, “I really have to stop watching Law and Order before bed.” No, in Joseph’s time, dreams were visions from God, divine revelations, and holy proclamations. Dreams weren’t just ideas or dramatizations of our inner dialogues. They were prophetic truths send directly from God above.  And so, when Joseph had a dream, when he was given a dream from God, that all his brothers were to bow down to him, that his brothers and even his parents were to bow down to him, and when Joseph TOLD his brothers who already hated him about this dream of how they will bow down to him, they hated him even more.
They hated him even more because now they also had FEAR. Joseph’s words had made them afraid. Joseph’s dream had made them afraid. God’s plan revealed in Joseph’s dream had made them afraid.
This holy-special-divine-dream-plan terrified them. How could THEY bow to Joseph? They couldn’t. Because they couldn’t imagine bowing down to someone so lowly. Someone beneath them. They very one who was supposed to be behind them. Promises had been made, expectations set. This wasn’t how it worked. It up-ended the power dynamics society had come to let them understand. Their baby brother, for he was the youngest at the time, wasn’t the one who supposed to lead. It would be humiliating. The systems of their society determined that he did not have power, so who did he think he was? That kind of power was not his for the taking. That wasn’t how it was done. He was to remain subservient to his more powerful brothers. That’s how it worked.

But… if God suggested differently…. Because, God did have that kind of power…..

Well, that would change everything.

So when Joseph tells them of this dream, they who already hated him, were now also afraid, afraid of the change, of what it would mean for THEIR lives if this dream were true. Afraid that losing power, flipping the system as they know it, having to bow down to one who they felt was beneath them. That fear of the threat to their own position and influence and expectation is what drove their hate into rage. Murderous rage.
When I watched events playing out in Charlottesville this weekend, certainly I saw hate. But behind that hate, what motivates that hate to action, to rage, to a murderous rage, is fear.
Did you see the pictures? Did you see how young those white supremacists were? In their khakis and polos, carrying tiki-torches from Target and guns from Walmart. They were young. They weren’t the old uncle toothless redneck hillbilly caricature we like to label as racist. The image we like to draw up because it is so different from us, fringe and outdated. No. Those people yesterday, they looked like us. They looked like me. They looked like young white men, terrified of a world that might not, just for a moment, put them first. They looked terrified of a world changing around them, of changes they cannot stop, of a growing voice of dreamers, who’ve been given a vision from God, that we are ALL equally created in God’s image. That we in all of our various shades and styles, traditions and ethnicities, languages and tones, are beloved children of God. That is what they fear. As if there were a finite amount of God’s belovedness….
“Here comes this dreamer”, Joseph’s brothers said, “come now, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”

“They said to one another, ‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer… Let us slay him… And we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

It’s the inscription on a plaque outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN where another dreamer once was gunned down.

“The said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’”

They’re not the exact words, but can’t you hear the chief priests and scribes murmuring that under their breath, behind waving palm branches as another dreamer rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?

“The said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer, let us kill him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’”

It’s a statement of hate.
It’s a statement of fear.
It’s a desperate plan.
And it’s terrible theology.

Because if the dream is of God, if the dream is divine, then we can’t really stop it.
Even if we plan to kill that dreamer.
Even if we hate the dreamer.
Even if we craft systems to keep the dreamer down.
Even if we silence the dreamer.
Even if we take away the dreamer’s voting rights.

Even if we gerrymander the dreamer’s voting district.
Even if we rob the dreamer of access to health care.
Even if we separate the dreamer from us in school.

Even if we refuse to educate the dreamer.
Even if we lock the dreamer up.
Even if we cast the dreamer out.
Even if we don’t hate the dreamer, but we silently sit by and watch as our own brothers plot and craft and rob and silence and separate and lock up and hate and fear the dreamer.
Because, and I’m so sorry to say it, Joseph, it isn’t about the dreamer.
It’s about God’s dream.
For ALL of us.

You’ll remember, that this story doesn’t end up quite the way that the brothers had planned. And it takes some years. Long, hard years, full of work, and relationship building, and more dreaming, and more work. But Joseph’s dream, God’s dream, does come true.

Church, I believe God has a dream for us too. A dream of beloved community, a peaceful kin-dom, that time when justice rolls down like waters, where the wolf lies down with the lamb, where the multitudes are fed and no one is left hungry, where wisdom and understanding and love and hope prevail and sustain. It is the dream that God tells us over and over again in this message we call scripture. A dream that is taking thousands of years to learn and to live. A dream that requires us to join in what God is creating, to join in what God is making new, to join in what God is bringing out in us, with our faith, our prayer, our witness, our confession, our commitment, and our work.

For if we want peace, we’re going to have to work. If we want justice, we’re going to have to work. If we want to end racism in this country, we’re going to have to work. If we want to dismantle white supremacy, we’re going to have to work. If we want to stop this violence, in our streets, in our systems, and in our own hearts, we’re going to have to work. If we want to be freed from hate, we’re going to have to work. If we want to overcome fear, we are going to have to work. If we want share and spread love, a love from God, a love that overcomes and overwhelms, a love that changes and creates and makes things new, a love that saves, a love that can and has and will topple systems and fears, a love that is already pouring through you and me and us, a love that is already present and acting in this world, we’re going to have to work.

We’ve got to name it. Say it out loud.
Pray for it. Pray without ceasing.
Live it. And craft that dream into our own hearts.
And work for it. And work for it some more.
To join in the naming, praying, living, and working God is already dreaming for us.
Out of fear, they say, let’s kill this dreamer.

Out of love, let us say, we will do the work to live God’s dream.

 

 

August 9, 2017

Look, I don’t have the right words. But here’s my truth.
I was late to the work.
I didn’t know enough about systematic racism or my own privilege until it tore this community apart and killed another one of our own right in front of my face. I can’t un-see those images of Michael Brown laying in the street all those hours. I can’t un-see the images of his mother crying. It took too many lives lost, too many videos shared, too many images and stories seared into my heart to get me off my couch. Too many. Too long.
I was still brand new to STL on Aug. 9, 2014. I didn’t know what to do. But I knew I couldn’t keep watching and doing nothing. So I got up and went out and asked some questions. I listened and I learned. I made a lot of mistakes. I did some reading. I did some marching. I did a whole lot of emails. I followed organizers and experts. I made new relationships. I discovered “new” sources. I found my little lane in this work and I try to keep at it.
I wish it didn’t take that. I wish it didn’t take Mike Brown’s life. I wish his family didn’t have to suffer for so many of us to learn. I wish we didn’t keep seeing pictures and videos and images and tragedies. Now. Still.
I pray for Mike Brown’s family and friends today. I pray for activists and organizers. I pray for people who hit the streets and said NO MORE and did not back down. I pray for people who helped me learn, especially when I didn’t deserve that help. I pray for us. I pray for God to change our hearts and inspire new works of justice and love in us. I pray for hope.Oh, how I wish and I pray.
But I also know that wishing and praying isn’t enough. So, I also commit. I commit to keep doing a little bit of the work, to keep talking about it, to keep reading and learning, to keep showing up, to keep calling myself out, to keep calling us out, and to keep trying…

On Wrestling.

A God Who Always Shows Up to Wrestle
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan during worship on Sunday, August 6, 2017 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO.

Text: Genesis 32:22-31
I remember really not being sure anymore.

Because at that time, nothing made sense. Going to work didn’t make sense. Talking to my friends didn’t make sense. Sitting alone certainly didn’t make sense. Neither did grocery shopping or working out or dealing with my landlord or brushing my hair. In the days and weeks and months after my little sister died unexpectedly many, many years ago, nothing made sense to me. We’d had the funeral, I’d seen her one last time in that casket, then I was there when they put that tiny little box into the ground. Through too many awkward conversations and far too much mac and cheese, I’d listened to every last it of good advice and well-meaning words of condolence and love that incredibly sweet and generous and lovely people had been so kind as to offer. And at some point, it really felt like I had said all the words. I had no more left. I had planned and organized and cried and processed and felt and watched Love Actually 57 times. And I had nothing left. I was completely numb.

And I couldn’t possible see, feel, or imagine how there was a God in that. I had read the hospital report, I had gone over the details many, many times. I knew the logistics and the specifics. There was nothing holy or sacred about what happened. It was medical. Clinical. Scientific. And it was done. A whole person. Done. A whole story. Done. In ashes. Now in the ground. Right by my grandma.

So for a long time, numb as could be, I walked through the motions. “Fake it till you make it”, my mom advised. “Just come along with us,” one of my other sister’s said. So I went to church, but there was no more God in it for me. I still liked the songs. And the people were sweet. And you know I liked the cookies and juice.

But God no longer made sense to me in this world.

It’s fascinating to me how grief looks so different in different people.  How we handle things differently, process things differently, experience and journey through the same exact things so differently. For so long, I felt like my family had taken their grief to one side of the river- and with it, their faith, their laughter, their joy, and their ability to move on- and I was stuck on the other side, lost in my numbness, all alone.

In our text today, Jacob the wrestler, the one wrestling within his mother’s womb, the one who wrestled away his brother’s birthright, the one who wrestled away his father’s blessing, the one who wrestled to gain wives and fortune, now sends all that he has- his family, his herds, all of his possessions- to the other side of the river, and is left alone to wrestle for his soul.

It is when he is alone, on the river bank that night, as he is leading his family back to God’s promise land, back to face the wrath of his brother, back to face the decisions of his past, back to face an unknown future, all alone, that Jacob the wrestler, wrestles with God.

We’re not told how it started. Was Jacob quietly waiting. Sitting silently in prayer, resting and gathering his thoughts, devising a plan. Was he screaming and shouting about. Calling for a fight. Seeking out trouble. We’re not told how it started. Did God just show up? Was there a leading in? Or a flashing presence? Who threw the first punch? Who drew the first blood? Were words tossed about or did they go straight for the body?

For such an important match, we’re not told a whole lot.

But here is what we do know. God showed up that night to wrestle with Jacob. And God was willing to wrestle all night long.

I spent a year in a numb fog after my sister died. I knew dust and I knew doubt. I went through the motions and more often, I just walked out. On faith. On believing. On God. But God kept showing up. God kept showing up for a match that took more than a year. For a match I snuck back into three years later. For a match, I still revisit in dark moments and times.

And I may limp a little from our battles. But I know how strong it’s made me, how strong God has made me, in doing this work, in skirmishing and roughhousing this way. In struggling and scrappling together we are both stronger. God knows my moves. I know some of God’s plays.

In the end, day breaks. A new light rises, and God offers a blessing, and changes a name. Jacob is Israel- the one who wrestles with God face to face. Jacob is Israel- changed in name and in gait. Jacob is stronger. Jacob moves differently. Jacob is blessed. Jacob continues on.

And God keeps showing up. To challenge. To wrestle. To bless. To encourage.

So I keep showing up, too. Numb, or tired, doubtful or jolly, with confident moves and lots of friends, or kind of afraid and all alone… however I can, I keep showing up, for a God who is willing to wrestle with ME.

All. Night. Long.