Sunday, December 25, 2011


Friends, this is my last sermon as pastor at New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Mt. Laurel, NJ. I have always called it Tiny Church, and I am profoundly grateful for my time there. I learned how to preach at Tiny Church through the kindness of this congregation. They hired me as pulpit supply during my last year in seminary, and by the time I was ordained I had already preached 30 times in their pulpit.

They have been almost ready to stone me more than once, and yet we have wandered the wilderness with good humor and potlucks. I will miss them deeply.

This will be my last post on this blog, which I will leave up for a while. You can find my further musings at

Sunday, December 25, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Jonah 4 and Luke 2:1-20
(We used a Christmas Litany by Jennifer Phillips to call us to worship)

We have been following the story of Jonah through Advent, and here we are now at the final chapter of Jonah on my last day of service to this church, on Christmas morning, worshiping with our brothers and sisters from the afternoon church. A truly blessed three and a half years it has been, and I am sorry to be leaving you.

I came into this church with wild children, and I leave you with wild children. In three and a half years, nothing has changed and everything has changed, both for me and for you. We go into the new year, both you as a church and I as a pastor, with only a vague outline of what is coming next. There could be no more appropriate symbol for this juncture than the birth of a child.

The birth of a child is a moment of disruption, hours of labor, a vulnerable time out of time. There are few things more intimate than birthing a child, feeling that tiny body slipping out of your own body into the world, hearing the baby cry for the first time, nursing to offer life and comfort. There are few things more painful than birthing a child. 

Every birth is different. Some births end in death, others in unexpected life. The biggest surety is that the child born is rarely as we expected. Some births are long and painful, others fast and easy. No two births are the same--my first child came fast and hard and hasn't stopped raging at the world yet. My second came slow and easy over many hours, took a nap for several hours (and thereby stalling my labor), and then did not speak for three years.

Every birth is different, and therefore the metaphor of Christmas settles over us with peculiar and particular importance. As we too bear the Christ child into the world in this coming year, we are called to stay present in this birth, to know the cost of bearing the Spirit, to listen carefully for the cry of God, and to offer life and comfort to Christ as we care for one another.

We are not so different from Jonah, this little church. We are a stubborn people—and I include myself in that, for all that I am a newcomer and for all that I am leaving. Our vision is often narrowly focused on what is directly in front of us—as a church we have difficulty lifting our eyes into the future and beyond these walls. We get frustrated—and it has been a frustrating few decades as our numbers have dwindled and EVERYBODY seems to have a better mousetrap or transformation program or a new copier or overhead projector or prayer plan or whatever it is that will supposedly bring life to these bones. It is no wonder that like Jonah we are tempted to wander only a third of the way through Ninevah. It is no wonder that when God declares there is life after all that we prefer to sit on the hill and pray for death. It is no wonder we are angry with God.

Jonah sat on that hill and watched the rebirth of Ninevah. Perhaps what he failed to see was the rebirth happening in himself.

Jospeh and Mary journeyed long and hard in her last month of pregnancy to get to Bethlehem, and then in less than perfect circumstances they gave birth to the tiny Christ child. They birthed the Spirit into the world and changed who we are forever. Nothing came easy, nothing came quick, but they persevered on the journey, and they walked with God. This is my Christmas prayer for you and our churches: May you birth the Spirit into the world, may you be changed forever. May you persevere on the journey, and may you walk with God.

(We closed our worship with this Franciscan Benediction)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fish Guts and Mary

Sheepshead Bay
 U.S. National Archives
Sunday, December 12, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Last Friday, my twitter friend @mayog tweeted: "Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad. That's the point of the Magnificat". In a single tweet of 140 characters she said what it took me 15 minutes to preach on Sunday. But for those of you who like my ramblings, here's the sermon. May you find joy.

Scriptures: Jonah 2 and Luke 1:39-56

When last we left Jonah, he had refused the call of the Lord to go to Ninevah, booked passage on a ship to go in the opposite direction, found himself in the midst of a large, angry sea storm, and was thrown overboard by his shipmates in order to appease God. As the waters closed over him and he began to drown, which it appeared he would rather do than go to Ninevah, the Lord sent a large fish to swallow him up. He sat in the stinking fish belly for three days and three nights. Did he know if this fish belly would be a place of safety or did he imagine he might die? It is not clear in the text if Jonah knew the fish had been sent from the Lord until he had time for reflection. I suspect the narrator would have been explicit if God said, “Jonah…I have sent this fish to save you from drowning and in three days time it will spit you out on dry land. Then you will go to Ninevah.” Instead, we are left with bare bones: Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, and then he sang a song of praise.

What would possess a person, stuck in the belly of a fish in the middle of the sea, cast out by shipmates as a danger to others, alone with thoughts of failure and death in front of em*, what would possess such a person to sing a song of praise?

I wonder how long it took Jonah to stop thrashing about in the belly of the fish. There is only so long a person can continue in full blown panic and anxiety before passing out from exhaustion. A few hours? A day? How long before Jonah stopped pounding on the sides of the fish?

Have you had moments like this? Moments when everything seemed closed down—all options exhausted, no daylight to be found, no open doors, no good choices anywhere you look? The rent is due and there’s no cash? Your loved one is sick and there’s no cure? You know what needs to be done, but depression’s grip is so tight you can’t move—you can’t get out of bed, you can’t care what comes next? Have you had moments like that? Moments where your regret is so deep and so cutting it seems you will bleed out right there on the kitchen floor? You’ve done something terrible and the whole world knows it. You didn’t pick up the phone and your friend committed suicide. Embezzlement, rape, an affair, you lied. Maybe it’s not so drastic--you disappointed your parents for the 300th time--this week. You came out about your sexuality and got a bad reaction. You got divorced and people had things to say. You got married and people had something else to say. Your child hoped you would finally make a soccer game and you had to work. Maybe nobody else knows what you’ve done, and it’s burning through your soul anyway. Trapped in the belly of a fish, cornered by circumstance, unable to see out of the small, unlit, smelly space you find yourself in.

How long do you flail about trying to force your way out the side of the fish? It works sometimes, but there was Jonah on the second day still in the fish belly, alone with his thoughts. I imagine he was hungry and thirsty, although a friend once pointed out that in the belly of a great fish there might be plenty to eat. Perhaps so, but I guess on day two I would still be hungry. Have you had one of those moments?

Years ago I applied to be the youth director of the church I attended. I had been a regular there for over ten years and served on the church council for four years. I was not the easiest of members or elders, I don’t think—I was fairly opinionated and not shy about voicing those opinions. My application to be the youth director was something of a surprise to the pastor, the members of the committee, the church council, and frankly, to myself. Now I can see that it was the perfect fit at the perfect time, but it seemed like a gamble in the moment.

I met with the pastor and the committee. Some concerns were presented; we talked through them. The committee recommended me to the church council, on which I was still serving. There was still business to attend for the church council, and so when it came time to discuss my candidacy for this position, the council excused me to wait in the pastor’s office while they conversed. They expected it to be a fifteen minute conversation. An hour later they came to get me. After fifteen minutes of sitting alone in the pastor’s office had gone by, my thoughts became haunted. I imagined that concerns were being raised in that meeting that couldn’t be answered in fifteen minutes. Every controversial word I had spoken returned to me as I sat there. I remembered saying, “Who needs the Bible?” in my early days as a member. I remembered expressing displeasure in a Bible study that the books of scripture were not in alphabetical order. The time when I was fourteen in the youth group and the youth leader had to separate me from a boy rose up like a vision of Christmas Past. My criticisms of how we did communion, the music we sang, the snooziness of worship. I remembered every meeting I was late to or had missed altogether. I remembered that I had worn jeans to serve communion. As I sat there forty-five minutes past the expected time, I felt trapped by all that had come before, knowing that I was powerless to change who I had been and that it was unlikely who-I-would-come-to-be-in-the-near-future would be much different than the past. I wondered if I would be deemed worthy of leadership or considered unsuitable to work with the youth.

There was no place to go with my thoughts. I certainly couldn’t just leave the meeting. I couldn’t interrupt the meeting to ask if they were done yet. In those days I didn’t have twitter and facebook to sit with me through my anxiety—and that was probably just as well. No need to compound my past sins by snarky tweets from the fish belly.

What was Jonah thinking about in his time alone on day two? Did he regret the trip to Tarshish? Was he angry with the Lord? Did he make bargains with the almighty about what he would do if and when he got out of the fish? Did he think he was dead in the water? Perhaps he used the time to reflect back on his life deeply. I wonder, if in that time of reflection he came to thinking of the joys he had found in his life? Perhaps amid the memories of transgression and stubbornness and refusal, which had landed him in a life-threatening situation, Jonah stumbled upon the good memories as well. Perhaps by the third day he had come to see the moments of love and joy and laughter that inexplicably mingle with our sorrows.

Close your eyes. Let’s take some time to remember. What kind of fish belly are you in right now, and what day are you on? Are you flailing about? Are you alone with your regrets? Do you see in the midst of the sorrows the glitters of joy? Think on it a minute—where are you this advent? Are you so packed with things to do that you don’t even realize you are in a fish belly?

Jonah’s song of praise and trust precedes the fish spitting him out upon dry land. Let me repeat that song for you:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

‘I called to the Lord
   out of my distress,

   and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

  and you heard my voice. 

You cast me into the deep,

  into the heart of the seas,

  and the flood surrounded me;

all your waves and your billows

  passed over me. 

Then I said,
 “I am driven away 
from your sight;

  how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?” 

The waters closed in over me;

  the deep surrounded me;

weeds were wrapped around my head
  at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land

  whose bars closed upon me for ever;

yet you brought up my life from the Pit, 

  O Lord my God. 

As my life was ebbing away,
  I remembered the Lord;

and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple. 

Those who worship vain idols
  forsake their true loyalty. 

But I with the voice of thanksgiving

  will sacrifice to you;

  what I have vowed I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
To find his way out of the belly of the fish—to gain daylight and the perspective from which to see his options—there was first the necessity to find joy in his life. One might call Jonah’s attitude resignation—whatever you wish to do with me, so be it, Lord. But we might also find a hint of joy that in the midst of the impossible sorrow of his life (and maybe the end of his life) Jonah found a certain trust in God’s words to him and a purpose for his life. Not knowing if he would be given the chance to live out the call God had sent to him as a prophet, Jonah nevertheless promised to fulfill that call: “what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” In turning over control of his situation, Jonah made himself useful. In returning to the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah found purpose. In promising to do justice, Jonah found life. And then the fish spit him out on dry land. 

It is a risk to seek after joy in the midst of sorrow, depression, anger, and fear. We are called to sing out a song of praise without knowing how the end will turn out. When I emerged from the pastor’s office, I offered a muttered prayer, “Okay then, God. Your show.” No guarantees. No promises. And when I walked back into the church council meeting, they said, “We’ve decided to think about it. We’ll let you know.” As we closed that December meeting, we worshiped together and shared communion. We sang songs of joy and praise. And it was enough to remember I am who God made me to be, redeemed in Christ, and free to start again in the morning. Is this not what Jonah sang? “I am alive!”

As we make our way through the advent season, we are following the story of another person who sang of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances: Mary.**

The gospel of Luke tells the story of the birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus. John was born to a woman too old to conceive. Jesus was born to an unmarried virgin. Neither pregnancy should have been possible, and yet there they were. When the angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her she would bear this child, Mary registered her objection: “How can this be?” But the angel pressed on: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And so Mary said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Then Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, traveled to see her relative, Elizabeth. As Mary approached, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy and suddenly both women were singing with joy and praise. “How can this be? Who am I? Can you believe it? Blessed are you! Blessed am I!” They sang for joy over the life they sustained with their bodies.

Mary sang for joy even though she was very young and pregnant with a child who was not of her husband/fiance. She sang for joy at the possibility this child held for the world’s salvation. She sang for joy that the prophecies would be fulfilled, that justice would be done, the hungry would be fed. She sang for all that had been and all that would come.

Mary sang even though a child would require (at the very least) creative explanation to Joseph, family and friends. She sang even though there are no guarantees in childbirth—this whole process was a risk to her and the baby. She sang even though a thousand things can go wrong before a child reaches adulthood. She sang even through the tremendous responsibility placed on her shoulders. In the gospel of Luke we do not get the angel of the Lord’s visit to Joseph, reassuring us that all was well with Mary and Joseph. Yet despite what she may have feared, despite what he may have said, Mary sang her song of praise and joy—this baby was to come, and the world would be changed, she would step out in faith: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

She met her cousin, who greeted her with joy, and opening her mouth the Spirit poured out of her. To find joy in the midst of struggle is to open the doors to the prison. To sing of joy after three days of rotting in a fish belly is to be vomited out on dry land. To give oneself over to the risky joy of justice, love, and the dance of the Spirit is to be fully alive to the heart of God. Whatever else may come, there is that.

*Gender neutral pronouns are tricky. A lot of times there's another way of writing. But sometimes there's not. "Em" is the singular of "them" and stands in for "him" or "her" instead of tripping all over "one." Whether this is a good thing or not, ask the reader. I'll leave it up to em.

**I must admit at this moment, I am tempted into a flight of fantasy, imagining Jesus in the womb as Jonah in the whale. If this caught your fancy, then here's the sermon on Jesus' temptation to stay in the wilderness (maybe his Tarshish?).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

White Women Do

Update December 2013: apparently what else white women do is hold feminist retreats on plantations. What are you DOING, Ani DiFranco??

I've seen a post going around facebook called "15 Things White Girls Love to Do on Facebook" and I want to take a moment and register my objection.

That post makes white women out to be silly young things that sit around all day taking pictures of their feet. Here's a picture of my grown feet:

But what white women do on facebook and every other place of life is far more insidious and dangerous: we participate in ongoing structural racism; we perpetrate micro-aggressions against people of color; we engage in active oppression of our own selves to further a racist patriarchy that benefits us in multiple ways. We do Bible studies on The Help and enthuse over Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

A lot of us on facebook, we're women, not girls. And in many more than 15 ways we contribute to the suffering of others (including passing on this "15 list" with "oh haha").

A better use of our time is this book: At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. Maguire. Have a Bible study on that, please and I'll be there. Last year I struggled with that book in one of my seminars--our history as white women is painful history created by women misusing power. The picture in that "15 list" of two women "straight thuggin" should fill us with shame, not laughter.

What white women might do is stand in solidarity with our sisters (including our trans sisters!!). If you get a pic of my feet in the meantime, lucky you.

I'll say that from the pulpit any day.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fish Bellies Stink. An Advent Sermon.

Fish Counting Station
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Mark 1:1-8 and Jonah 1

Jonah is not a traditional Christmas story. But as I was away on vacation, I was reflecting on my remaining four weeks here at New Covenant, and the story of Jonah came to mind strongly. Advent is a time of waiting, and nobody waits quite like Jonah. We will come back to John the Baptist and waiting for the Christ child, but listen a moment to the beginning of the story of Jonah. We will be following him all the way through Christmas.

[Pause. If you do not know the Jonah story, go read Jonah 1. Chapter 1 begins with The Lord's assignment to Jonah and ends with Jonah rotting in a fish belly.]

Jonah was a prophet, but a half-hearted one at best. Called to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, he preferred to go to Tarshish. God said, “Go east.” And Jonah promptly headed west. He traveled some distance, paid for passage on a boat, settled into his bunk and went to sleep. He snoozed through raging storms, and it wasn’t until the sailors on the boat woke him up that he took notice of the damage he had done to others around him by not following his call from God.

The Lord said, “Go to the capital city of your bitter enemies, and cry out against it. Tell the people who utterly dominated your people that they have done great evil, for I have taken notice of their wickedness.” When reading Jonah, it is easy to shake our heads and say, “tsk, tsk,” as if our own habit is to follow God’s call into uncomfortable places. We say, “Oh that Jonah!” As if we had spent a lot of time this week challenging colonial forces, oppressive authorities, systems of racial and sexual discrimination. When is the last time you ran through town, pausing on street corners to shout out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Jonah is, at least, an understandable figure. Reluctant and recalcitrant in responding to God’s call and claim on his life, Jonah does what most of us with a lick of sense would do: he goes in the opposite direction from danger, discomfort, and dread.

Jonah runs off to Tarshish, a city perhaps known for trade. It’s at the other end of the world from Ninevah. It doesn’t have any Assyrians, or at least they aren’t the dominant culture. It’s far enough away to give Jonah good reasons not to go to Ninevah. There is probably plenty of good work to be done in Tarshish—good ministry work too, I bet! One can proclaim the word of the Lord in Tarshish just as well in Ninevah, right? If God is everywhere, then God can use us wherever we are—surely, this is so!

And yet, the trip to Tarshish went wrong from the moment Jonah stepped on the boat. The winds blew, the seas rose, the boat was tossed about terribly. Jonah, sleeping deeply in his bunk, failed to recognize that he had endangered the crew of the boat with his very presence. It wasn't long before the sailors recognized that it was Jonah who brought the curse of bad weather upon them. When he told them that he was fleeing from a call from God, they were terrified, and attempted to row back to land. But the storm would not allow them to land, and Jonah said, “Oh, just throw me into the sea!” Perhaps the seas might have calmed if Jonah had said, “Okay, God. I will go to Ninevah. I will heed your call.” But Jonah preferred to die rather than do what God asked. And to be fair, God was asking him to enter a lion’s den—to go to the capital city of his people’s hated enemies, and wander the streets telling them that the day of judgment was at hand. (The sermon on how we may well be the Ninevites and what reparations we owe is for another day, but not gone from my mind.) God was sending Jonah on a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. Jonah preferred not to. Jonah preferred to drown in the sea rather than obey such a command. And so the sailors threw him overboard.

Instead of drowning (which might have been easier), God sent a giant fish to swallow him whole. Instead of losing his life, Jonah was cast into a waiting room of sorts: the belly of a fish. Our children’s stories romanticize this space! But the belly of a giant fish is no joke. I was watching a show with my son called River Monsters the other day on animal planet. It’s something like the Crocodile Hunter, only this guy wanders the world looking for giant freshwater fish. He had heard a legend of a giant Japanese salamander that swallows children whole. Naturally, he rented a boat and went looking for it. As he wandered about looking for this legendary creature, he filmed a larged salamander eating a fish. The salamander sucked the fish whole into its mouth. As the camera panned down the body of the salamander, one could see the fish banging on the sides of the salamander’s belly, trying to punch its way back out. There was no such luck, and the fish was slowly digested, suffocating in the lightless horror of a fish belly.

This is the place Jonah waited. At first he must have thought he was going to die—from drowning, from the stench of a fish belly, from starvation, perhaps from loneliness and despair. Knowing full well he had not fulfilled the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah sat in a disgusting and hopeless space, waiting to die.

I tell you this story because I think this church and my ministry joined together for some of the same reasons. I think God has been calling us east, and we have been walking west. This makes us tremendously companionable traveling partners, and I have loved pastoring here the last three years. I love our mutual stubbornness, and our willingness to care for one another along our journey. But I have suspected for some time now that this church is called in one direction and often goes in another, although I do not exactly know what that call looks like.

I am reminded of this story because I am the 15th pastor at this church in 50 years. That is a lot of pastors and has led to a culture of pastors passing through here rather than making a home. We come with our pretty ideas and newfangled plans. And then we move right on through to whatever is coming next. Folks here know that whatever new projector or computer or answering machine or copier we put in here, that’s not going to change anything. Some of you remember my wild plan to place converted shipping containers on our property to house homeless families. I probably should have waited another year before dropping that on the church council. But not to worry, wait three years and there will be a new pastor here. We wander west for a few years together until the storms rise. And then the pastor or the church jumps ship and ends up sitting in the belly of a fish. Waiting.

Next thing you know we’ll be spit up on dry land again, but not today, not quite yet. In this Advent season of waiting for the advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, the birth of a child, the inbreaking of God to our daily lives, we are waiting to see what’s next. Me too—I don’t have answers for January yet either. I am as uncomfortable with this situation as you are. Worry eats at me about the church and about my own life—it eats at me like the stomach acid of a giant fish. As is so often the case when I struggle with God, I am banging myself on the inside of the belly of the fish, trying to bust out before I die. I imagine anyone looking at my life or the life of this church can see the internal struggle from the outside.

I remember when I was pregnant with my children that as time went on and the due date loomed closer, their internal movements became more obvious to the outside. Oldest took his foot and pressed hard on my lower right rib for days at a time. I used to take my hand and push on my abdomen to try and force him off that rib. Such a tiny little creature, but he left a solid bruise on that rib. Little guy left my ribs alone, but he often had the hiccups. You could put your hand on my abdomen and feel the little pops every time he hiccuped. We are like that right now, this church and I. The internal struggles as we wait in the belly of a fish are evident in how we are perceived from the outside. People can see the outline of a foot trying to push out of the fish, an instinctual effort to survive, all the while we live in a certain fear of getting spit out on dry land. The outward signs of our internal struggle for identity and vision are obvious to those who drive by and see the state of our property, the lack of cars in the parking lot, the neglected landscape. 

And then, once we get spit out, what will we do next? Once January is here, how will I pay my rent? Once January is here, who will preach and care for this congregation? Easier, in so many ways, to stay here in the belly of the fish. There’s a fair amount of digestive enzymes, but we’re not drowning. And as long as we’re in the fish, we don’t have to go to Ninevah.

15 pastors in 50 years. We have been through many cycles of fish bellies. It is a cycle of binging and purging—the hope that a new pastor and their energy, coupled with the congregation’s renewed enthusiasm, might result in growth, stability, something fantastic. These hopes are not always our hopes at New Covenant, sometimes expectations come from others—the community, the Presbytery, other churches, a committee, a discernment group. Nevertheless, we have our own hopes for what might be here. But it’s been a challenge discerning a consistent vision for the ministry of this church. Conflicted and ambivalent we continue on to the next cycle. And now I am leaving, contributing to this cycle, and I have deep regrets about that. It feels right to me, but I think often on how I might have done things differently here. Perhaps you do too.

Advent is a time of waiting, and this Sunday the advent theme is Preparation. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, cries John the Baptist. We hear the beginning of the gospel of Mark—it is a clear call, but it isn’t an easy one. Make the paths straight. Be prepared. The one who baptizes with water AND spirit is coming—is your heart ready? Do you have oil in your lamp? Are your affairs in order? For the new baby do you have what you need to nurture it? Have we prepared ourselves and this church for the Spirit to take residence and transform our life together?

Prepare prepare prepare. It’s hard to think about preparing for new life, when we are threatened with death in the belly of a fish. It’s hard to think about new life when we are living in regret and nostalgia for the old. It’s hard to think about new beginnings when the path ahead is as scary as testifying on street corners to the Ninevites.

All of us here in this room work hard to contribute to the life of this church—our (yours and my) efforts and love and service to this church are not in question. But the one thing that we struggle with is identifying a clear mission and vision for the ministry of this church, and when asked to do that, most of us say, “I prefer not to.” We each of us have the things we are willing to do for the church, and when we are faced with unexpected, new, challenging, or not desirable work, we often say, “I prefer not to.” And I as pastor, often will say, “I prefer not to insist.” I prefer not to have people doing work they’d prefer not to. 

When I hear the phrase, "I prefer not to," I think of Bartleby the Scrivener. It is a short story written by Herman Melville in 1853 about a scrivener (or a law scribe/copier). The storyteller, a lawyer on Wall Street, tells of a strange man named Bartleby whom he hired to be a scrivener in his offices. At first, Bartleby is an industrious fellow, eager to work. But then something happens:
It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined
Prefer not to? Perhaps those were Jonah's words to God: "I prefer not to." Perhaps those are our words as we contemplate yet another attempt at revitalizing this church: "I prefer not to." Perhaps they are my words as I think about paying rent in January, or finding another call, or attending another parent-teacher conference, or washing another ding-dang dish: "I prefer not to." Maybe there is some merit to opting out of the grind, the rat-race, the rigid norms that hold us in place. But you do not know the ending of the story--Bartleby continued to prefer not to do anything, down to the end of the story when he died in prison because he preferred not to eat.

If we are to continue as a worshiping community, if I am to persist as a pastor in any capacity, we will have to take up the thing that scares us most: discerning a vision for ministry, and committing ourselves to do the uncomfortable.

To continue being a Presbyterian church we need to get elders to Presbytery meetings. To continue financially, we must contribute. To continue hosting churches that help support us, we must be in communication with them. To navigate Committee on Ministry and move ourselves toward calling a pastor again, we will need to communicate with them more regularly. To further a partnership that might revitalize us, we will have to initiate further conversations. To have potlucks where we might share table, we will have to commit to coming out in the dark on a weeknight—we might have to pick each other up and/or accept help in getting there. To get new people to come to church, we will have to ask them. We’d prefer not to, but in January we are getting spit out on dry land again with a choice to get back on a boat fleeing God, or to set off toward Ninevah and fulfill God’s call to this church.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord! This is a challenge for us—a tossing down of the gauntlet. Once again we are about to be spit out of the fish belly. Once again we are slapped in the face with a glove. Once again, an angel of the Lord meets us to wrestle long into the night. This advent we struggle more than we have in the past to birth this child. Yet the child comes anyway. The Christ child follows the path all children follow as they enter the world through a mother’s womb. Once labor begins, there is no stopping, no going back, no handing this child over to someone else to be born. In labor there is only a relentless pressure to move forward and birth.

Next week the theme is joy, and I will surely preach on that! But this week we think hard on preparations. And mostly on preparing our souls. Preparing our souls to accept God’s call on our life. There may be joy found in Ninevah, although Jonah is a contradictory model for sure. But for this week our task is preparation. Prayer. Waiting in the fish belly. Our call from Christ is not to this particular church or institution, but since we are here in this time and place, we might well ask how we are called to this time and place. How do we live out that call in our daily lives beyond the walls of this church, and how do we live it out here in this church so that others might be supported in their walk? As you care tenderly for your home preparing for Christmas, think on this church and how we might care tenderly for it in preparing for January. Change is coming and fast. John the Baptist’s call reminds us of that—the status quo ends with the birth of Christ. The fish will spit us out. The question remains: will we simply get back on the boat to drown in a fish belly again, or will we turn toward Ninevah and seek God’s will?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)

Today, November 20, 2011 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to remember trans folk who have been killed due to anti-trans hatred or prejudice. The website for much more information can be found at

I became most clearly aware of violence against trans folk in 2008 when 14-year-old Larry King was murdered by his classmate, Brandon McInerney. Larry was shot in the school computer lab at a school in Oxnard, near my home in California. He was shot because he was gay, wore makeup, and dressed in "feminine ways." That year I wrote a sermon about dry bones and Lazarus' death:
There are a lot of teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, family members, friends, and police officers pointing fingers and asking, “Where were you? Why didn’t you do something? What’s wrong with this world that this could happen? Why didn’t I do something when I saw the warning signs?”  One Los Angeles Times article was full of quotes from 20 or so different people asking those questions. And I guarantee you that Larry’s and Brandon’s friends and family are asking their pastors, “Where was God? How could God let this happen? 
Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had been there, Larry would not have died.
While researching the news for this sermon, I found brief news reports of two other trans women of color murdered in February, 2008: Simmie Williams (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and Ashley Sweeney (Detroit, MI). There was so very little news coverage of their murders, I could not even discover how old Ashley was other than "young." Simmie was 17. I was horrified by these deaths. I was horrified by the callous news coverage of their deaths.

As I wrote my sermon, I tried to figure out how to connect my mostly white, cisgender, straight congregation in New Jersey to the death of a gender queer, gay, black child in California. I wrote of Paul Sartre's play "No Exit" and how connected we are to one another:

Three people who have died find themselves in hell. They are locked in a room together for all eternity, unable to sleep, eternally stuck with each other’s company. They don’t even have toothbrushes. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, but after a little while they begin to drive each other crazy. In an effort to make the situation more bearable one of the characters suggests, “Let’s all sit down again quite quietly; we’ll look at the floor and each must try to forget the others are there.” For a while they try it until suddenly one of them cries out, “To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there.” Sartre’s depiction of hell is a parable that leads us to understand life in community. We try for a little while to stay separate, to distance ourselves from death and suffering. But I know someone who knows a kid whose friend was murdered on February 12. And I feel it, in every pore. Don’t you?
Can you feel these deaths? Can you feel the fear our trans friends live with? Do you listen to the stories of their lives with the same openness and love you listen to the lives of others? In 2011, TDOR recorded 23 murders of trans folk. Within the U.S., all of the murder victims (except one) were people of color. Do you feel this in every pore? 

In 2008, I began to follow several blogs devoted to queer and trans concerns, and in 2009 I joined Twitter and connected with a few trans women who honored me with parts of their stories. I've met up in "real life" with several trans folk. Last year I helped with child care for the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference. I've come to believe that how we connect with trans folk determines and reveals who we are as humans.

Most people I have talked to have told me they just don't know much about trans folk. They tell me they have never met anyone who is transgender or genderqueer. If that is true for you, here are three resources to begin your education.

TransFaith Online: TransFaith is an interfaith group dedicated to "educating churchfolk about TransFaith,TransFolk, and OtherWisdom; supporting Transfolk in our sacred role as OtherWise; nurturing the expression of the sacred OtherWise. There is an extensive list of resources on their website for further reading.

Monica Roberts keeps a blog called Transgriot: "News, opinions, commentary, history and a little creative writing from a proud African-American transwoman about the world around her." We have racism and transphobia problems within the lgbtq community, and Ms. Roberts calls us to account frequently with her writing. She also frequently highlights trans women across the world working in many fields. This blog is a must-read.

Finally, Julia Serano has written an excellent book: Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Reading this book in 2008 helped me understand better the life stories of trans women who were willing to share with me.
Perhaps no sexual minority is more maligned or misunderstood than trans women. As a group, we have been systematically pathologized by the medical and psychological establishment, sensationalized and ridiculed by the media, marginalized by mainstream lesbian and gay organizations, dismissed by certain segments of the feminist community, and, in too many instances, been made the victims of violence at the hands of men who feel that we somehow threaten their masculinity and heterosexuality. Rather than being given the opportunity to speak for ourselves on the very issues that affect our own lives, trans women are instead treated more like research subjects: Others place us under their microscopes, dissect our lives, and assign motivations and desires to us that validate their own theories and agendas regarding gender and sexuality. 
Trans women are so ridiculed and despised because we are uniquely positioned at the intersection of multiple binary gender-based forms of prejudice: transphobia, cissexism, and misogyny. (Serano, 11-2)
As I look at the names and faces of trans folk murdered in the last few years, it is clear that racism plays as strong a part as gender in the violence directed toward trans folk. We need to look to this and do better--how we treat the most vulnerable in our society is a measure of our humanity.

One of my twitter friends said this today: "If you think #TDoR isn't important--especially as an ally--you're so wrong. Be advised: we notice who can't be buggered to even acknowledge the slaughter."

So this is me, acknowledging the slaughter. And also acknowledging my beautiful trans friends and their lives. Thank you for sharing your stories with me.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Don't Be Late

Alarm clock Museum of Hartlepool,
Sunday Sermon,
November 6, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:

If I can bear your love 
like a lamp before me, 

When I go down 
the long steep Road of Darkness,
I shall not fear 
the everlasting shadows, 

Nor cry in terror.
If I can find out God, 
then I shall find Him, 

If none can find Him, 
then I shall sleep soundly, 

Knowing how well on earth 
your love sufficed me, 

A lamp in darkness.

~Sara Teasdale, “The Lamp”

A quick note before I jump into the sermon this morning. I’ll be speaking about Israel quite a bit, but I want to be clear that I am not speaking of the modern day state of Israel. It gets confusing sometimes, especially because there is so much modern-day conflict in the middle east, but I am not speaking this morning of that conflict or of our Jewish brothers and sisters who live in Israel and around the world. I am speaking of our spiritual ancestors who lived in the region a few thousand years ago, and whose words were recorded in our scriptures. If we are to hear any modern day echoes in the scriptures or in my sermon, they should be words of prophecy to us, Christians who happen to live in the United States of America in 2011. This morning, we must look to our own house.

Prophets in the ancient world came in different flavors. Rulers of the ancient world often surrounded themselves with advisors and counselors who were also called prophets. Like anyone else in ancient Israel (and like anyone else in the Modern Day), people desire to stay employed. So when it came time to prophecy to the king, most prophets left out the bad stuff. After all, who wants to be the one to tell those in power that they are being unjust? Who wants to be the one to foretell the destruction of a kingdom?

The prophets of the Old Testament were of a different sort. Chosen by God to bring a critical message to the people of God, the Old Testament prophets didn’t waste a lot of time pointing out what people were doing right. They came to the people of Israel and Judah with a message of change and repentance. Follow the ways of the Lord or perish. It is interesting to note that it is these prophets, who were so critical of the ruling establishment and unjust power schemes, whose words have been preserved for these few thousand years.

Amos was a southerner, from the kingdom of Judah, but he did most of his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel. This gave him the status of somewhat of an outsider, for although he was also an Israelite who followed the Lord, his day job was back in Tekoa, about 10 miles from Jerusalem. Amos was not a priest or a priest’s son. He did not claim any prophets or priests as ancestors. He was a sheepherder in the hills, possibly a man of some wealth and standing in the community. 

The book of Amos itself doesn’t tell us much about the man, and he is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture. Unlike some of the other prophets in the Old Testament, Amos’ message was not particularly broadcast through the prophet’s personality and life. Like many others he seems to be somewhat of a reluctant prophet, minding his own business, when suddenly the Lord appeared with visions and oracles. Indeed, later in the book, after Amos had given King Jeroboam news of the impending destruction of Israel, the king’s priest, Amaziah, told him to go back to Judah and trouble the kingdom of Israel no more with his visions of gloom. Amos responded by saying, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” And then, displaying an irritability that seems to be characteristic of Israel’s prophets, Amos cursed the priest saying, “Your wife will become a prostitute, your children will die, your land will be given away, you will die in a foreign land, and Israel shall surely go into exile.” Amos did not have much patience for those who argued with him.

Much of the book of Amos consists of visions from the Lord, but Amos is no dreamer like Joseph, who could interpret the visions easily. In chapter 8, the Lord shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and asks Amos what he sees. A priest who spent his days trying to see the mystical truth of things might have responded with a mystical interpretation of the vision. But Amos simply responds to the Lord, “I see a basket of summer fruit.” A very practical man, Amos. There is nothing funny or delightful about the visions of gloom and doom that Amos brings us, but there is something eccentric about this prophet. His very crankiness and lack of desire to be a prophet provide an edge of irony that perhaps makes it easier to hear the crazy words of visions and oracles.

The first two chapters of Amos are a condemnation of the nations surrounding Israel for their war crimes against Israel. One can imagine the people of Israel nodding their heads in agreement. Those people in Damascus, who killed our people, they will get their just desserts. Those people in Gaza, for carrying off our people into exile, they’ll get theirs. Those people in Tyre, those people in Edom, those vicious Ammonites and Moabites, the hand of the Lord will come against them in vengeance. By now you can imagine the cheering that might be heard at such a rally. Then Amos even takes on his home country of Judah. Judah has rejected the law of the Lord and God says, “I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.” Remember that Amos is preaching in the northern kingdom of Israel, and so far nothing he has said is troublesome; everything he has said affirms Israel’s belief that the Lord is with them and against their enemies.

Then, suddenly, Amos makes his move against Israel. Israel shall also receive her punishment, but it’s not for war crimes. Israel’s crime is the sin of social injustice to her own people. Israel “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and pushed the afflicted out of the way.” Not only that, but Israel dared to do such a thing after the Lord had brought them up out of Egypt. The Lord saved them from affliction and slavery and suffering, but now, many generations later, the Israelites had forgotten their roots. The Lord had said, never forget that you were once slaves in Egypt, but now the social structures of Israel oppressed the poor and the needy, with no mercy for those who needed it. So Israel’s sin was two-fold: they oppressed the needy, yes, but the more grievous sin was that they did it even though they were God’s chosen people. The punishment to come was to be more severe because Israel should have known better.

After the indictments of all the nations, including Israel, Amos goes on for two chapters to describe the previous warnings the Lord has given Israel. Time and again, the Lord has sent prophets and warned the people through plagues and droughts to change their ways, but time and again the people did not listen and continued to turn away from the Lord. Therefore, Amos says, the time has now come when repentance is no longer really possible. And so Amos says to the people, “Why do you want the day of the Lord to come?” The people have been anticipating the day of the Lord with relish, a day when all will finally come out right, a triumphant day of victory in which Israel’s enemies are put down forever and God’s blessing will come over the land. But Amos says, no, it will be a day of darkness. For Israel has gone against the Lord and therefore the Lord will go against Israel. You are expecting joy, but that is not what you will find.

It is like someone ran away from a lion, only to run into a bear in his flight to safety. The day of the Lord will be like if a person leaned her hand against a wall to rest for a moment, and a snake came up and bit her. Israel continues to sing and worship and praise the Lord in the midst of their oppression of the needy, and the Lord says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”

And then the famous words, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you are on the underside of society, these are grand words! If you can imagine the destructive power of water, then these words bring hope to those who suffer in this life. This is hurricane season, and this year has seen powerfully destructive storms—high winds, heavy rain, flooding in streets and homes, rivers overflowing their banks, heavy tides at the shore. Following Hurricane Irene I drove through several neighborhoods where the trash heaps of ruined furniture and items stored in basements were piled high for weeks. A downed tree took out one of our members’ car windshields and her power for a week.

Water, though it brings life, brings ruin and destruction—we only have to look to hurricanes and tsunamis to see this. And even over centuries, the slow trickle of water cutting through desert lands gives us natural beauty like the Grand Canyon—277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, and a mile deep at its most extreme. We give birth in water. We drown in water. And likewise, the waters of justice are a terrible, beautiful force. This is what Amos was speaking—that the storm of God’s righteousness would sweep through the structures of oppression and injustice and leave nothing behind. A clean slate, the ability to start anew, to build a fresh society, free of bigotry and prejudice and greed.

Words of hope to one community are words of warning and terror to another. To those who have power in such a system, the fear of losing that power is substantial. And I would argue that no one community is pure of intention or free from oppression. Many of us come from mixed backgrounds—aspects of our lives are privileged and while others are oppressed. As humans we are always making choices about which injustice to address first. In fact, there is so much injustice in our world, that we get overwhelmed by it—sometimes we are frozen into doing nothing, because it seems like it’s never enough. If we are to be judged by all of the injustices that go unaddressed, then we are doomed for sure. Amos was right, and it will be a dark day indeed when the Lord comes again, for I tremble at the thought of seeing myself and others as the Lord sees us truly.

Let’s turn to the New Testament and see if there might be some hope in the gospel of Matthew. We are in to chapter 25 now, and Jesus’ ministry is very far along. The Last Supper is coming soon, and Jesus will be arrested in just a day or two. He has been speaking with the disciples and others in parables. He has been arguing with religious leaders and scaring civil authorities with his popularity with the crowds. Then, as now, crowds make the authorities nervous. Knowing that the end is coming soon, Jesus begins to given his disciples his last instructions, and one of them is this: “Keep alert. Stay watchful. I will return, but not even I know when. God alone knows when I will come back to judge. In the meantime, stay watchful. And especially, if I’m gone a long time, keep extra careful watch.”

This parable of the ten bridesmaids again tickles my funny bone. The first thing I always think of is how strange it is that one bridegroom has ten bridesmaids! It is easy for me to get lost in the strangeness of parables sometimes, but this somewhat fanciful beginning is perhaps a reminder that we have to listen to parables with an ear for the truth they are trying to convey with metaphor instead of focusing on the literal details. This is a story about keeping watch.

So there they were, ten bridesmaids waiting for the groom to come pick them up for the wedding feast. They knew they would need their lamps to light the way, and so they all brought their lamps. Five of them remembered to fill up on oil, while the other five forgot. I can guarantee you that I would have been one of the bridesmaids that forgot the extra oil. I’m one of those people who never gets gas until 20 miles after the little light goes on in my car. Suddenly, the bridegroom is sighted on the horizon, and the five foolish bridesmaids realize that they do not have enough oil in their lamps. They ask the wise bridesmaids to share, but they will not, and so the foolish bridesmaids have to rush out to the market to get oil. While they are at the market, the groom comes, the five wise bridesmaids go in to the feast, and the door is shut behind them. The foolish bridesmaids knock on the door seeking entrance, but the door is locked and the groom says, “I do not know you.”

This is the great tragedy of the parable—that not all could enter, the bridesmaids were divided. There must be sorrow on everybody’s part as the feast could only have continued in a more somber tone. The joy of the Lord, incomplete, interrupted.

Speaking as one who has had to knock on a few doors, tardy because I didn’t get gas sooner, it is a sinking feeling to know that you’ve arrived too late. There are many times when it doesn’t matter so much and people are forgiving, but every now and then there is something critical, and being five minutes late means the door is shut. Jesus tells his disciples, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

When I took my ordination exams a few years ago, the woman who proctored our exams told us that there was a firm deadline to turn in each exam. No exam could be accepted late, no exceptions, no how. One of the exams was a take-home essay and had to be turned in by Thursday at 9am or it would not be accepted. No exceptions were possible for running out of gas or a traffic accident or ticket. The exam was due at 9am even if you overslept, got sick, the kids got sick—even if the dog ate it. No exceptions for deaths in the family, migraines, sudden houseguests, or even sudden houseguests who caused migraines. The exam was due at 9am. Our proctor cautioned us to not leave this exam to the last minute. She said, “If it takes you 10 minutes to drive to campus, give yourself an hour. Because I guarantee you on that morning, there will be a traffic accident or construction, and it will take you longer than 10 minutes.” Her warning was a kindness for people like me with a tendency to leave things late, and Jesus was giving the same warning to his disciples. Keep watch, be ready, don’t be like the foolish bridesmaids who forgot to think things through.

I also wonder a little bit about the wise bridesmaids. Surely they might have offered the benefit of their wisdom to their more foolish sisters? People who know me will sometimes remind me to get gas before I go places. My sons especially like to remind me of these things. It is of course not the bridesmaids responsibility to remind their sisters, but somehow it seems a kindness. And later, when they are asked to share, the wise bridesmaids send the foolish ones to the market—was there really no way to share or was there really no way to keep the doors open for just a few more minutes? Perhaps not, perhaps this is the warning from Jesus: the exam is due at 9am, no exceptions. I will return someday, and those who are not ready will be turned away. No exceptions. If so, then perhaps this is the warning and the only kindness offered. As the African-American spiritual tells us: “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing nigh.” But perhaps this warning is meant for all of us, foolish or wise, that we must work together to make sure that every last one of us gets to the door in time.

Put together with the passage from Amos, with its emphasis on social justice and communal responsibility, I wonder if keeping watch for the kingdom means keeping watch for every opportunity, no matter how small, to help usher in the kingdom of God. Are we just watching for the bridegroom, our eyes focused on the horizon, so that we do not see the signs all around us of God’s work in the world? Are we so focused on the horizon that we do not notice that some of our brothers and sisters are running out of oil? Are we so confident that we have what we need that we fail to make sure others do too?

By all means, let us keep the lamps trimmed with oil—but perhaps the oil in our lamps is the kindness we do one another: the gentle mercies we grant each other every day, the small things we do to dismantle the systems of injustice around us. If this is the case, then we must always keep watch for the ways in which we can serve others around us. Just a few verses away at the end of Chapter 25, Jesus declares that he will know the righteous for when he was hungry they fed him and when he was naked they clothed him (when he needed a donkey they gave that, and an upper room, and a scalp massage--and probably oil from their lamps). The righteous say, “But Lord, when did we feed and clothe you? We don’t remember doing that!” Jesus tells them that whenever they fed and clothed the neediest of society, then they fed and clothed him. If we are to be judged by all the injustices in the world, then we are indeed doomed. If we are to be judged by how we treat those in need around us, then there is hope.

Each of us in our small ways cannot hope to dismantle the power structures that be—we are no mighty raging water that can flatten houses. But each small act of kindness and mercy toward another, each moment we take to listen to another’s story with compassion and a willingness to change, each time we make sure that no one is left behind, we have welcomed in a tiny portion of the kingdom of God. We are capable, perhaps, of only the trickle of water that carved the Grand Canyon, drop by drop, day by day. But raging waters are simply an accumulation of drops of water acting in concert—we might yet be God’s hands in the tearing down of systemic injustice. We ought, at least, be sure our part of the stream is moving that way.

Go therefore into this week and keep watch. Keep watch for any and every way you can address injustice. Keep watch for how you might change yourself. Keep watch for what you might offer to another. The day is coming, and it may indeed be dark, but let us fill our lamps with the oil of kindness and love, let us remind one another to get gas, let us share what we have as much as possible—if there is any way to keep the door open for latecomers and foolish ones, let us do so. For in this way we also serve our God who came and dwelt among us, first as a little baby and then as a man, willing to die for his love.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Guest Post: Reuse and Recycle

Youngest has a few words of wisdom from class, and instead of mailing you all letters I told him he could guest post on the blog. He says he has more to say at a later date, but this will do for now:

Help the Environment: 
Reuse and Recycle
by John Mulligan

We use about 8,768 bottles an hour. We use about 3,906,304 bottles a day. If we recycle we can reuse bottles and cans.

We must not throw stuff on the ground. We cannot put stuff to recycle in the garbage bin.

Use glass bottles instead of other kind of bottles. If we use glass bottles we can help the environment. This way we can save the earth.

Turn off anything that has to about electricity when you're done with it. If you don’t like food or don’t want it don’t throw it away give it to someone else who wants it or save it for later.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Desert Temptation

Utah, near Moab 05/1972
Sunday Sermon
October 2, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:

Our tiny church has been through a lot in the last year as we’ve been considering our future. There’s a lot we don’t know about January just yet, although we’ve beeen looking at possibilities and best guesses. We’ve laid the groundwork for a couple of different possibilities, but don’t have answers back from other people. We’ve put ourselves out to the world and the Spirit to see what might be done, and now we are waiting. Waiting, for me, has never been a particularly easy thing to do.

I thought that over the next few weeks I might preach about our internal spiritual lives. We’ve been focused for a while on opening up to the world and getting blown about. Perhaps we might take some time as we wait for possibilities to develop and seek inward for the Spirit as it moves deep, and often silent. Today I thought I’d talk about being apart from the world, since we have so focused on being a part of the world.

I have been thinking a lot about the wilderness lately. It seems that our whole world is finding itself tossed about into unknown territory. Our little church is considering an uncertain future. Many of us individually are considering uncertain futures. The world all around us is changing in ways that are hard to understand or keep up with. Those of us not immediately caught up in the ongoing whirlwind of job loss and foreclosures and stock market crashes and civil unrest at least have a front row seat to watching the disaster. It’s not just economics, but also war and politics, philosophy and theology—it feels like everything’s been changing for a while and that the pace of change is accelerating. I read these words in scripture this morning and I wonder: if the kingdom of God has already drawn near, where is it already?

The gospel of Mark is famous for being short and full of action. Other gospels offer the epic version of the Jesus story, but Mark offers the 90-minute action adventure version. Jesus in Mark is always moving, healing, preaching, doing something to further the story along. This small section of the gospel is no exception. In six short verses, Jesus meets John the Baptist in the wilderness, is baptized by John and anointed by the Spirit of God, and is driven into the wilderness where he spends 40 days being tempted and taunted by Satan. Meanwhile, back home, John the Baptist is arrested, bringing about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And that was just six verses!

I remember watching the remake of the movie “The War of the Worlds.” That movie was 116 minutes long and every minute was spent on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next action sequence. Any time the characters in the movie had a moment to rest, the respite simply functioned as a set up to more surprises and action until 116 minutes later the aliens lay defeated, the credits rolled, and the audience stumbled exhausted out of the theater to go home and get some sleep! The gospel of Mark is like that. I wonder how many of our lives are like that too?

Perhaps we might slow down to take a look at Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, the time in the wilderness contains more description of what happened to Jesus there. In those gospels Jesus fasted for 40 days, and when he was starving, the devil came and suggested that he use his powers to make the stones turn into bread to feed himself. Then the devil took him up to the top of a hill and suggested that Jesus throw himself off of it to see if the angels would catch him before he fell to his death. And finally the devil showed him all the kingdom of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus resisted those temptations, and filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to Galilee to begin his public ministry.

Mark, however, lacks any detail about the time in the desert. It is useful sometimes to compare the gospels and fill in some of the blanks, but sometimes it is also good to simply look at one gospel and allow what is not said to speak to us of possibility. The gospel of Mark simply tells us that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and that while there he was tempted by Satan and joined by wild beasts. There are two things I’d like to note about the wording of this passage. First, any place the Holy Spirit drives you to is also a place where you are guaranteed to find the Holy Spirit. And second, the word used for “tempt” is the same word used later in the gospel to describe what Jesus’ opponents did while arguing with him. The Pharisees asked him for signs from heaven and posed “what-if” questions that had no right answer to see if Jesus could wiggle his way out of the dilemma. There is a sense to the word of taunting, or trying to get Jesus to make a mistake. As I read these words, I wonder if the “temptation” in the wilderness might have been the temptation to stay in the wilderness, away from the relentless movement, betrayal, and death that Jesus faced when he returned to Galilee.

Often when I think of the word “wilderness” I think of the wild mountains of California: the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades to the north. Peaks that reach ten thousand feet, magnificent redwood and pine forests, rushing rivers and glacier carved valleys. Wild animals abound, bears and deer and mountain lions and chipmunks. Condors, blue jays, eagles and bats. Miles and miles of back country with no sign of civilization other than a few cut trail and back country ranger huts. For all it’s beauty, it is also a dangerous place; to travel in the back country, you need to be prepared with good equipment and supplies of food. There’s good fishing, but you’ll only catch fish on the days when you already have plenty of food for dinner. If you rely on the fish as a main source of food, you’ll be going hungry for a while. And while you’re picking berries, it’s good to remember that the bears eat berries too. This is what comes to mind when I hear that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

Yet the wilderness near Galilee bears little resemblance to the wilderness mountains of my childhood. Jesus was driven into an arid desert land. Yet deserts have their own beauty. At first glance a desert land seems to be all one color and lack life. Yet the longer you spend time in a desert, the more detail you begin to see. In the desert, the rocks and sand bear different shades of pale pink, orange and yellow. A morning sunrise or evening sunset brings glorious color to the sky and all the land around. The plants of the desert are smaller than those of a lush mountain; they hover close to the ground to preserve their water and resources. Many of the plants have elaborate schemes of self-protection—thorns and tough skin, toxins and camouflage. The animals of a desert are like the plants. Pale in color, tough skin, and close to the ground, the animals blend in carefully for safety and life. There is a rhythm to life in a desert that includes slow and careful movement, meticulous planning, and a willingness to blend into the surroundings for safety and comfort. Those that learn to live in the desert know where to find water, where to find food, and how to find shelter both from the heat of the day and the cold of night. In the desert, with few people around, a person might develop a routine of meditative prayer as they go about their day. And in the sameness of each day and night in the desert, a person begins to find the tiny variations in color and tone that make up the beauty of the desert. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, wrote of the beauty of God’s monotony in the world:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
This is the celebration of life and rhythm one finds in the desert wilderness. How tempting it must have been to simply stay there in the midst of that beauty! Especially since Jesus had been driven there by the Holy Spirit. There are times when God leads us into beautiful places, and it is tempting to stay there and never go back to the rest of the world. We often think about Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness as a terrible time of need and want, fasting and taunting by the devil. But what if it was actually a beautiful space where time slowed and through fasting and prayer Jesus was able to clarify his spirit? Perhaps there in the desert Jesus felt closer to God, his beloved Father, than he would again in his public ministry.

Those times of isolated meditation come with their own pain and difficulty. Alone in the desert with no distractions, all of one’s own internal demons have the opportunity to wreak havoc with one’s soul.

Some years ago a friend of mine decided to retire to another state. As she waited for her house sale to close, she decided to house sit for a friend who was also trying to sell his house. The place she stayed in was empty of all furniture and possessions except the few things she brought with her. She had some books, but no television. A radio, but no music CD’s. Late at night she wandered the house restlessly, trying to decide what to do with herself. Without the distractions of other people and things, she found herself facing her internal demons of insecurity, loneliness and fear. It was a time of clarity and self-reflection, and she was the happiest woman alive when she got on a plane to go to her new home where there was a sister and a dog and a television and a garden to tend. Yet that time functioned as an important turning point between the old life and her new life. She had time to process who she had been and time to develop hopes about who she might become. She had time to read scripture and pray. 

Perhaps Jesus, who also knew scriptures well, meditated on the psalms or the prophets. A prayer like the psalm we read this morning reflects the internal process of a person who is thinking both about the past and about the future. The psalmist gives thanks for what has been, asks for pardon for past transgressions, and then requests teaching and insight for the future. It is a prayer for a person poised on the threshold between what was and what will be. Perhaps it is the prayer of my friend and also the prayer of Jesus. As I repeat the words this morning, perhaps it will become your prayer too.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 
O my God, in you I trust; 
do not let me be put to shame; 
do not let my enemies exult over me. 
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; 
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 

Make me to know your ways, O Lord, 
and of your steadfast love, 
for they have been from of old. 
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; 
according to your steadfast love remember me, 
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 

Good and upright is the Lord; 
therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 
He leads the humble in what is right, 
and teaches the humble his way. 
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, 
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Eventually we must return from our desert sanctuaries. Tested, tempted, shaped by our time away from the action adventure movie of life, Jesus returned to Galilee. He came bearing peculiar news for the people. He said that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near.” The verbs used in greek for “fulfilled” and “drawn near” are in the perfect tense, which gives the sense of an action started in the past and continuing in the present. This is an important aspect of the gospel of Mark and the life of Jesus in general. God’s kingdom has drawn near and is still drawing near. The time has been fulfilled and will continue to be fulfilled. The good news of this is that we too are drawn into the kingdom of God even as we understand that Jesus has already come. The promise that the kingdom has already drawn near provides us comfort as we see about us all the difficulties of this world. The promise that it has yet to be fulfilled propels us on into the world to help usher in the kingdom, for all about us is sorrow, difficulty and a lack of love that we must help address.

Yet there were many times in Jesus’ ministry where he drew apart from the crowds to sit alone in quiet prayer and contemplation. He did not again receive the gift of 40 days of wilderness retreat, but when he was able he took time to rest between the crowds. As we travel through this time, perhaps it is time to think about our own wilderness retreats. Some of us may be in the desert already and God is calling us to re-enter the world and move forward with our ministry to others. I think most of us, however, are caught up in the difficulties of the world and might do well to allow the Holy Spirit to drive us into the wilderness, away from the television and music and constant chattering of our modern world. The desert fathers who spent much of their lives isolated in the wilderness knew that such breaks are necessary for the soul. Here is a story of three monks:
A certain man said that there were once three men who loved labors, and they were monks. The first one chose to go about and see where there was strife, which he turned into peace; the second chose to go about and visit the sick; but the third departed to the desert that he might dwell in quietness. Finally the first man, who had chosen to still the contentions of men, was unable to make every man to be at peace with his neighbor, and his spirit was sad. He went to the man who had chosen to visit the sick; he found him in affliction because he was not able to fulfill the law which he had laid down for himself.

Then the two of them went to the monk in the desert, and seeing each other they rejoiced, and the two men related to the third the tribulations which had befallen them in the world. They entreated him to tell them how he had lived in the desert. He was silent, but after a little he said unto them, "Come, let each of us go and fill a vessel of water." After they had filled the vessel, he said unto them, "Pour out some of the water into a basin, and look down to the bottom through it," and they did so. He then said unto them, "What do you see?" And they said, "We see nothing." After the water in the basin had ceased to move, he said to them a second time, "Look into the water," and they looked, and he said unto them, "What do you see?" They said unto him, "We see our own faces distinctly."

He said unto them, "Thus is it with the man who dwelleth with men, for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he lives in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly."
May God bless you this fall with a time of wilderness, a time of self-reflection and testing by your internal demons, and the ability to return to the world refreshed, with new vision for ministry.