Monday, June 18, 2012

Update About Life

I wrote a letter to my home church, Columbia Friends Meeting, updating them on how seminary is going so far and my life. I thought others may want to read it too, so I edited it slightly for a wider audience. 

Dear all,

I want to update you all on how I am doing at Princeton Theological Seminary so far. This past year has been a year of learning and growing. At several points through the year, I felt challenged both by the mainline Protestant theology and being one of the most theologically liberal students here. At the same time, I missed being a part of a diverse religious community which I had grown accustomed to after attending Earlham College and then living in Washington, DC. But through these challenges, I have learned more about Christianity, leading me to more closely examine my own beliefs and deepen my faith. Some of the classes I have enjoyed the most have been Theology and Practice of Community Organizing, Critical Race Theory, Pastoral Care of Adolescents, and Models of Young Adult Ministry.

With the other Quaker student at the seminary and her husband, we have held meeting for worship one evening a week over the past year, whenever possible with the rigorous academic schedule. We have welcomed several visitors in the past year, including a local young adult who is new to Quakerism. We will start again in the fall, and we hope to attract more people from the seminary and wider community. At the same time, I have begun making connections with Princeton Friends Meeting. I look forward to spending more time with the meeting starting in the fall and helping them think about outreach.

As part of my field education, I have to intern at two sites. I decided to do both of my site placements outside of the Friends tradition because I wanted to see how other church bodies function. This summer, I am interning at Princeton United Methodist Church. As part of my duties, I am working with youth and young adults as well as running their social media outreach campaign. In the fall, I will work at an Episcopal campus ministry on Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick. I look forward to working with the campus minister on growing relationships with groups from other faiths and to encourage service among the campus ministry student population.

Last Sunday I preached for the first time on Amos 7 about the plumb line. The sermon was received well! I enjoyed preaching so much that I asked to preach more, so I will preach again on July 1 and August 5. I welcome your prayers as I plan these sermons. I will follow Friends tradition so I will have an elder with me when I preach.

In other news, Jenn moved to Princeton in late April, and we are glad not to be dating long distance anymore. She graduated this Spring with a Masters in Social Work degree and currently works at a farm for the season helping with their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In the fall, she will look for a social work job. Lastly, at the start of this year, I joined the board of Quaker Voluntary Service. We are launching our first service house in Atlanta with seven young adult Quakers, and we hope to expand in the following years to other cities. It is very exciting!

In service & peace,



Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon - "Have We Crossed the Line?"

This summer I am interning at Princeton United Methodist Church as part of my field education requirements for my Masters of Divinity degree. I preached the sermon yesterday (for both services), which was the same day I was formally introduced as the summer intern. The church's current sermon series is called "Majoring in the Minors" with the focus on the minor prophets. Yesterday was Amos, so I preached on Amos 7:1-9. I am pretty happy with the message God gave me. (This was also my first sermon I have ever given in a church outside of the Friends' tradition.)

Also, following Friends' tradition, I did not wear a robe and I had an elder praying for me (She became violently ill on Saturday and could not physically attend the service, but I still felt her presence)

Have we crossed the line?

A long time ago God erected a wall with a plumb line upon Israel reconfirming God's faithfulness to the Israelites despite their disobedience. In erecting this line, God made a promise to never leave us. As confessing members in the Body of Christ, do we keep our own promise to God to remain faithful? Do we cross the line into unfaithfulness? How do we practice this unfaithfulness? What would God answer today if we asked for God's perspective on this question?

Have we crossed the line?

 Last week Anna preached on Hosea. In Hosea we find a disobedient family and an unfaithful spouse. In her message she confessed to being an unfaithful spouse to God. This week we are focused on Amos. He is speaking to the community of Israelites about their collective unfaithfulness to God. Earlier in Amos, he talks about how the Israelites have not practiced justice and righteousness towards both God and their fellow neighbors.

This language is key. Amos does not call out certain people. He doesn't blame John or Jane, or the ancient equivalents of those names, but instead he calls out the whole community of Israelites. The whole community is responsible for their actions, not just one person. In today's world, we always look for a scapegoat, someone else to blame, whether it is an individual, a neighborhood, a political party, a business... How many times have we witnessed this? We can open today's paper and read this sort of blaming. That goes back to the question I asked in the beginning: Have WE crossed the line? Please note that I didn't asked: Have YOU crossed the line?

We are a community of seekers. We worship together, we break bread at the communion table together on the first Sunday of the month. We play softball together, we have BBQs. Christianity has always been a communal faith. In the early church they would meet in each other's houses to worship, in that intimate of a setting Christians could not forget that their faith was communal. In the body of Christ, we are yoked together for better or worse. We are together in this journey. Sometimes many churches have sadly lost this sort of intimacy and in those churches, strangers worship together and then go home failing to connect with each other. In my first two weeks here, I feel that this church is different, but I think there are still strangers within our midst. These people are the ones who stand alone at coffee hour or avoid coffee hour altogether, the ones whose hands we rarely shake during passing of the peace, the ones who feel utterly alone during difficult times, not knowing who to reach out to in their time of need.

Have we crossed the line?

Amos is talking as an outsider to the Israelites. He came from the Southern Kingdom of Judah to the Northern Kingdom. As an outsider, he has a special point of view because he is not entrenched in the everyday life. Because of this viewpoint, God has led him there to witness to the Israelites about their sins. They are very apparent too, so Amos tries to warn them about God's wrath if they do not change. Even though they do not listen to him, he still tries to stand up for them. In the passage we just heard, Amos begs God not to shower locusts or to bring fire on to Israel. God relents and instead builds a wall to signal that God will never leave them behind. I see that as a line of faithfulness for us too. But unlike God, we cross the line with our actions outside of our Sunday mornings together.

How would an outsider view Christians' actions today? If Amos traveled here, what would he see? Would he see Christians living out the Gospel in everyday life and building the Kingdom here on Earth? In many ways I see us 21st century Christians in the same position as the Israelites in Amos' times. Sure we worship other gods, they are not named Baal, instead they are named Google, Starbucks, Whole Foods. I could go on. Consumerism is the god in this country and the effects are all over us and our community. We value consumerism more than anything else in this land.

What about injustice in the midst of us? It is obvious. Right now we have over two million people involved in the penal system. 1 in 3 black males will end up in prison at the current rate due to discriminatory factors in our judicial and penal systems. Then let’s look at how we spend our money as a country. The number one expense in the federal budget is for our military. Often times that money goes more towards private defense contractors than our own soldiers. We spend more money on the military than feeding people. More than 1 million of our neighbors here in New Jersey have to worry about having access to food, about where their next meal will come from. Surely this wasn't what Jesus meant when he preach that we should love our neighbors.

Have we crossed the line?

Do you enjoy those windy country roads that are around Princeton? I know I do. One of my favorite roads is Canal Road up in Montgomery Township. It is a narrow road with a couple one-lane bridges. Sometimes when I drive that road, I get distracted by looking out at the canal on one side or at the beautiful homes on the other side. Then suddenly I realize that I have crossed over the center line and a car is coming the other way, so I have to get back into my lane quickly. How many times has that happened to us? We get sidetracked by something while driving and cross over the center line. Then we look up and realize this and quickly get back into our lane. Or sometimes it is just easier to go over the line to smooth out the curves than staying in our own lane, especially if no one is looking.

God laid down a clear plumb line in front of Amos, but we don't see that line today. That line is not as clear as the center line on Canal Road. It is not as finite. Back in Missouri near my parents' farm, there are a lot of back roads with no center lines, so as a driver I have to pay extra attention to where I am on the road so I do not cross the invisible line into the other lane. But it is sometimes hard to tell where the line should be. I think following God is like that. It is hard to know always what to do, especially when it’s against the cultural norms. Sometimes faith is just not easy or clear-cut.

The good news in all of this is that God will remain faithful to us, no matter how unfaithful we are towards God. God won't cross the line like we do. Just as Anna reminded us last week, I will remind you again that God will remain with us. God will always welcome us back with open arms. By setting that plumb line in Amos' presence, God made a commitment to us, the followers of God. As people gathered together in Christ, We have made a commitment to follow God. We may wander but we do come back. Our presence here today confirms that.

Also we have each other. We are not alone in our journeys and struggles. Christianity is still a communal faith, even in the great age of individuality. In a community, as we know, not everyone will always agree on everything, but we do all look out for each other. We help each other, offer comfort and aid during hard times, give advice and mentorship during difficult moments. We can ask each other questions in an open and loving environment. We share in each other’s joys and accomplishments.

We are extending our Christian love beyond the people sitting here today. Just this last week we began our Cornerstone Community Kitchen where we open the doors to anyone to have a meal. All walks of life are welcome. We do not have ulterior motives in this ministry. We aren't trying to fill our seats on Sundays or enticed the unchurched with a free meal. Instead we just want to nurture our community through food and good conversation in the heart of our beautiful town.

It is also through our love that we are acting this month to help a fellow congregation, Turning Point UMC, with collecting donations for their congregation and their own ministry to their neighborhood in Trenton.

Lastly, in the fall the church will sponsor a 5K run/walk to help raise funds to help people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These three things are just a small bit of our work for others.

So I ask once again: Have we crossed the line?

Yes we do cross the line from time to time, but as a community we can hold each other accountable. And yes God will still love us when we do. And finally yes we, as a church community, do practice our Christian love out in the world, even if we each falter now and then. Our love for others can be seen within our own community and by our collective actions for our neighbors across the world.