Under the Broom Tree

(A link to this post will be included in the Saturday email to my congregation.)

At Peace, I’ve been preaching through a series about Prophets and Kings this summer. I love a summer sermon series that allows me to share chunks of scripture that don’t always get featured as I preach through the lectionary and am more likely to focus on the gospel readings each week.

We’ve had sermons on Moses and Pharaoh; Samuel and Saul; Nathan and David; Huldah and Josiah; and Elijah and Ahab. Coming up this Sunday we will share the story of the prophet Jonah and the King of Nineveh and reflecting and interacting about what it means to hear and share God’s truth on the last Sunday of August. Interested in joining us in person or online? Join our mailing list to get the information in your inbox or reach out to me directly.

When we got to Elijah and Ahab, we shared 1 Kings 18–Elijah and the prophets of Baal. And then the next week, I took a short detour from the series, but followed and important thread in the story of Elijah’s leadership as a prophet and preached 1 Kings 19–Elijah under the broom tree. You can watch or listen to the sermon here or you can read the manuscript here.

I may have taken it for granted that this is a well-known story from scripture, and I may have also taken it for granted that people generally understand this story the way I do–an absurd, but also very true-to-life, story about this victorious prophet of the Lord collapsing under a tree in the desert, wishing the Lord would just take his life from him.

Sure, Jezebel is no doubt terrifying and receiving her death threat may have sent almost anyone running for his life. But Elijah’s reaction seems extreme and unexpected–didn’t he just experience the victory of the Lord against 450 prophets of Baal? I think Elijah is definitely exhausted. He may also be depressed. Or perhaps Elijah has gotten a bit lost from the mission of the Lord and needs to take a moment to remember his calling. Does he really want to die? I’m not sure if he does or not, but sometimes we think death would be better when we are in those exhausted, depressed, and lost moments.

This is not an uncommon scene in the life of prophets in scripture. The congregation at Peace will see Jonah do a version of this on Sunday; but also check out Moses having a similar conversation with God in Numbers 11. This “under the broom tree” moment in the life of a prophet always seems familiar to me. Which I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon last week, and that seems to be what stuck with some people who heard it. And I realized as they reached out to me about it that perhaps my self-deprecating, dry humor summary of the scripture was not helpful (to be honest, that brand of humor usually is not helpful in sermons and I usually try to edit those parts out of the final draft).

When I said that “I’ve lived this story (in the last week, I’ve lived this story),” here’s what I meant:

On Friday a week ago, I was sitting on the couch in our apartment, working on my sermon. I was feeling kind of tired as I had not slept very well the night before. It was around 12:30 and I was full of caffeine, but had not stopped to eat anything yet. I was determined to get my sermon ready to preach so I could take the rest of the afternoon off to exercise, shower, and shop for groceries. Everything was under control and I felt like I was on top of this pastor thing.

My phone buzzed with a text message. “Are you going to do this thing you said you would do this afternoon?” I had forgotten about that thing I said I would do that afternoon!

So, sitting on my couch, having received this reminder that was going to upend all of my plans for the rest of the day and leave my sermon unfinished, I burst into tears. What am I going to do? I thought. I’m so bad at this job, I can’t even keep my schedule in order! I’m the worst pastor and people are going to be upset if I don’t do this thing I said I would do and then forgot about!

Now, my husband Jason, believe it or not, is used to these meltdowns. He was sitting in the same room, quietly reading and listening to music when I suddenly burst into tears. He listened to me explain what was wrong in between the sobbing. “You know what? I’ll go get the groceries,” he assured me. “Maybe you should eat something. Or take a shower or a nap before you go do that thing you forgot you had to do today.”

And he was right. The issue was not actually that I am a bad pastor or even that I was forgetful. The issue was that I was tired and hungry and a little bit overwhelmed already and the texted reminder just put me under the broom tree. I put away my sermon and took a shower and ate an apple and suddenly became rational and ready to serve once again.

The thing I had forgotten about went well. And I finished my sermon on Saturday–but perhaps without enough time to think through and edit the beginning.

It turns out that the events at the beginning of 1 Kings 19 are rather relatable and we find ourselves in good company under the broom tree. As we serve the Lord, we have to make time to rest and eat and shower–or we will end up sobbing on the couch. Or sometimes we get a little lost or forgetful about what we are called to do and need to spend time with God so we can remember. Or sometimes it can just be lonely or difficult or depressing to be a prophet or a disciple of the Lord and the smallest little thing will knock us down and we need to remember that we are not doing this by our own strength and ability, but by God’s. And sometimes it is too much and we really do wish we could die and we need to reach out for help and support (and that’s ok–you can have a good relationship with God and the support of a therapist and doctor, too).

So regarding my sermon, please accept my apology for raising concern or being too vague…and always know that your questions and feedback matter and they help me be a better disciple and pastor!

August Newsletter Article

PCUSA's New Curriculum Graphic
"Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living" Colorful image on a black background.

Of all the tasks I do as pastor, the one I probably struggle through the most is my monthly newsletter article/letter to the congregation. I am often just not sure what to write about and how to write about it concisely. I also usually wonder whether most of the congregation reads it, and I suspect that’s a rather demotivating factor.

Perhaps as I try to get back into writing regularly on this website, I should start to think of my newsletter article the same way I have always considered my blog: It’s an opportunity to share my ideas, open my heart, record personal history, and extend an invitation to discipleship. I do hope my congregation reads it, but the exercise of writing it is one of faithfulness and if even just one person who needs the words reads it carefully and finds something inspiring or something that affirms their calling, that’s a good reason to write it.

Here is an excerpt from our August Newsletter article. I will spend the rest of the months in 2021 using my newsletter space to reflect on the practices we will be sharing and learning about in my new Sunday School class (starting August 1). This month’s practice is “Follow Jesus.”

As Jesus was calling disciples at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee and Judea (and parts in between), he said to his would-be disciples, “Follow me!” (Mark 1:16-20) He called fishermen and tax collectors and faithful women to journey with him as he shared his message: “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) These disciples would literally follow Jesus, hearing his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and being sent out to do the same. 

For them, there were no altar calls–they answered Christ’s call every day with their bodies and resources. It wasn’t about a personal relationship with Jesus–it was about their relationship in community with Jesus, with one another, and with the strangers they were meeting each day. It wasn’t about Jesus living in their hearts–it was about Christ living in flesh in their world. It wasn’t about getting into heaven–it was about abundant life that starts right now and a Kingdom that God is building on earth.

For modern day disciples, what does it mean to follow Jesus? We cannot put on our sandals and pack a lunch and walk alongside Jesus as his first followers did. But we very much are called to follow him, continuing his mission in our church, community, and world. To guide us, we have scripture and the Holy Spirit. Scripture will invite us to read about what Christ did in body and what the Body of Christ did in the years following his resurrection. The Holy Spirit will be active inside and around us, giving us gifts that make us able to follow and minister and providing God’s light and guidance as we seek to be faithful.

Seventeen Months

Seventeen months ago, everything was different.

Seventeen months later, we are all different.

I have struggled during these months. As a pastor in a relatively new call, I have struggled to lead my church. As a family member of people who have varying levels of trust in science and medicine, as well as diverse political views, I have struggled to care for my loved ones. As a confident decision maker, I have struggled with decision fatigue so much, I don’t think I can say I’m a “confident decision maker” any more.

And I know I am not the only one.

This week I have been reminded of this because of conversations (confrontations?) with two of my loved ones.

In one situation, after 6 months of no conversations, we were able to have a conversation and find our way to reconciliation. Guess what? It was not about our relationship or anything either of us did to the other. It was all about the stress and struggle of seventeen months and both of us working uniquely hard jobs and managing family difficulties and making so many decisions. One one side, it had led to paralysis and self-preservation in the form of not engaging in any extra stress. On the other side, it had led to paranoia and hurt feelings.

In another situation, I have become kind of snarky and unforgiving as I assume the other person has become resentful and uncaring and I don’t think they are being fair or kind and I’ve started to let those thoughts creep out of my mouth. This morning as I was allowing myself to get a little worked up about it, I felt the tug on my heart.

Everyone has had an incredibly difficult seventeen months. Maybe you should pray for this person instead. Maybe you should assume they are doing their best and are having an even harder time than you have had. Maybe instead of assuming the worst about someone else while you give yourself grace upon grace, you should extend a little of that grace to this person.

So I’m trying to do better, because it’s not fair. And we all need a bit more grace all around. It’s easy to cast blame and snark and assume the worst about someone’s intentions. It’s harder to think of people and situations as complicated, multi-layered, and not all about “me.”

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

p.s. I don’t really know how to get back into blogging, but I know I need to start writing and reflecting again. So receive this as a first offering after a long drought.

Luke 2:6-7

Read the whole passage for today here.

6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7

In her book Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine makes this point:

The term manger is not just a bed of straw; it is a feeding trough. Those who remember their high school French should recall the verb manger, “to eat.” Mary places her baby where food is found; how appropriate, for this baby will later take “the bread…saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me'” (Luke 22:19). By locating Jesus in the manger, Luke is anticipating the Communion story. More, the name Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” If you go to a traditional Jewish household or a service where there’s meal, you would begin with the grace before the meals: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, ha motzi lechem min ha’aretz, who brings forth bread (lechem) from the earth. We should remember the manger in Bethlehem not only at the Last Supper but also in connection to all the passages where Jesus shares a meal with others.”

Tomorrow night, I’ll say the words of institution at our Zoom Communion Table during our Christmas Eve service. I’ll quote another favorite author, Ann Weems, who wrote “If there is no cross in the manger, there is no Christmas.” I suppose it’s also true that if there is no bread of life in the manger, there is no Christmas.

O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver, desire of the nations and Savior of all: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Luke 1:39-44

You can read the whole text for today here.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Luke 1:39-44

I’m re-sharing something I wrote 9 years ago. It’s about another woman who greeted with blessing on her lips and in her very soul. My beloved friend, Willie Ann, died this year at the tender age of 96. She was a kind, generous, loving soul who always took the time to remind me who I was and whose I was. Here are my words from 2011:

On Sunday in his early service sermon, John asked the question: “Does anyone ever offer a blessing over you?” He asked in it such a way that the conclusion was that it’s not very common for people to bless us in real life. I had to think that yes, people do offer blessings over me on a fairly regular basis. Friends who share their caring words and hopes for me, family members who do the same, church members who stop and take the time to speak words over my life.

 Willie Ann is a saint of our church who has lived a life that inspires me. I want to live a life like her. I want to treat people with the love and respect that she does. I want to be filled with joy like she is. If you know Willie Ann, you know exactly what I mean.

I walked into the sanctuary on Sunday morning for the 10:30 service and was met a few steps inside the door by Willie Ann. This is common. Even when Willie Ann is not the greeter, she stands at the back of the church and kisses and hugs and speaks to everyone she can get her hands on.

Willie Ann has quite a grip, by the way. As I entered the worship space, she gripped my left wrist firmly with her thin, aged hand. “Hello, you little angel!” she exclaimed. “Good morning!” I said and hugged her best I could without the use of my left arm. “You are God’s gift to us!” she exclaimed.

“Thank you, Willie Ann,” I replied, brushing off her words. “You’re so sweet to me.”

She gripped harder and demanded my eye contact. “You are God’s gift to us. The day you came here was one of our church’s very best days. You work hard and you are such a servant of the Lord. You are God’s gift to us.”

As tears filled my eyes, she kissed my cheek and released me and was off to offer her blessing to the person behind me. I hope that wherever you work, wherever you worship, and whatever you do, you have a Willie Ann who stands in your corner and reminds you that you’re a gift.

Psalm 40:1-3

To read the whole passage for today, click here.

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry. 
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure. 
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord.
 Psalm 40:1-3

I waited patiently for the Lord…

He drew me up from the desolate pit…

He put a new song in my mouth…

Many will…put their trust in the Lord.

This picture of the Psalmist waiting patiently, even in a desolate place, strikes me as appropriate for this year. It’s Advent, a time when we wait. We practice this waiting every year, as we gather with prayers and songs and the lighting of candles and we remember that Christmas is not about the shopping and the parties–or even the family gatherings.

But in some ways, it seems as if we have been waiting all year. Here in Advent, the truth is that we have been waiting since Lent. Some liturgically sensitive people have mused that it feels like Lent never really ended and we are still waiting for Easter.

When we are waiting, the temptation to go back to whatever we are used to is often our companion. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness and longed to go back to Egypt. God was taking them to a new land, and they decided they preferred the comfort of the old one (Exodus 16), even if it meant death.

This year, the temptation to go back to “normal” is strong. (Whatever that means–I have a friend that always jokes that “normal” is just a setting on the dryer.) I hear it all the time as I talk to people, this desire for things to be normal again. The desire to get back to how things used to be.

I remember when I was preparing to say my goodbyes in Henderson, leaving my ministry of 18 years and so many people we love, and someone said to me, “Things won’t be the same around here.” I replied, “They wouldn’t have been anyway.” Things change all the time–we change, they change, circumstances change. Every day things are different than they were before. There are just times and seasons when the change is more profound and obvious. Change is inevitable. Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

But what if…while we are waiting, even waiting in desolation, sorrow, and an all out miry bog…God is doing a new thing?

What if the reward for our patience and our waiting isn’t that we will return to singing the old, familiar songs we love so much, but that God will plant a new song in our mouths and our hearts? What if, upon being drawn out of the miry bog, our feet find solid ground in a newer, higher, more lovely place than what we knew before?

And what if our patience yields a new song that not only turns out to be even more wonderful than the old, familiar songs, but also causes many to see, fear, and put their trust in the Lord?

I’m thinking that might be worth the wait.

Revelation 20:1-6

You can read all of today’s passage here.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Rev. 20:1-3

The word* I have chosen today is WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Really, this passage on the last day of the third week of Advent in the year of our Lord 2020?

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Gentle reader, just a reminder that Revelation is apocalypse–and “apocalypse” means an unveiling. It’s not a book of predictions, but a book that speak about the reality of the world as it was at the time of its writing and what the author can envision happening in the realm of God.

In his book Unraptured, Zack Hunt writes, “Apocalypse is a call to repent and an invitation to participate in God’s liberating, justice-restoring work in the world. Apocalypse isn’t a call to figure out secret codes that will unlock a prophetic map to the future. Apocalypse calls us to be vigilant of the signs, but only so that we will be ready to stand up to the false prophets at work in the world, name them for what they are, and resist, not through acts of violence, but through Christlike love for our neighbors. This is how we work out our salvation in the last days” (page 195).

Anyway, I repent of this holy mess. Tomorrow we will be back to the gospel. Today, may God add his blessing to the reading of even this word.

*God’s word bears fruit even still, so disregard my own cynicism if you were able to find a word and a hope that reaches to you from the text. I feel like it would have been better left for the hardcore daily lectionary readers to tackle rather than being presented without context as our reading for today. (Please note: I am the one who determined the daily readings way back in November.)

Luke 1:24-25

You can read the whole passage of scripture here:

24After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:24-25

One of the things I remind my church as we study the Bible is that our own life experiences will change the way we hear and understand and notice scripture. When we read by ourselves, there are word and ideas that will stand out in this particular reading of the text because of something that is going on in your own life. When we study and read together, there is understanding another will bring to a well-worn text in our own Bibles as they share their own experiences against it. It’s part of the pedagogy behind our Advent devotional design this year–reading scripture, allowing the Spirit to speak to us about what stands out, then gathering to briefly share what we’ve noticed about the previous 2-3 days readings.

During Corona-tide, as I have read scripture, there are particular words and phrases that stand out to me in a new way.

Elizabeth remaining in seclusion for five months is something I hadn’t exactly paid attention to before this reading. I might have passed a Bible trivia quiz about it, but I never really thought about what it meant for Elizabeth to conceive a child and then remain in seclusion for five months (until Mary arrives for her visit, perhaps?).

This year being as it is, however, I hear that loud and clear this morning. Those of us who have been able to practice seclusion during this pandemic have a new understanding of what that means, I suppose.

Elizabeth’s seclusion was not part of a public health crisis, or, I’m assuming, anything imposed on her. I plan do a little more reading about this today, but I wonder if it had more to do with what was out there or with what was inside of her? Was it because of her age and the general public’s inability to understand the miracles of God for her sake? Was it because she was determined to keep herself and her baby safe and things were always very safe in the hill country of Judah? Or was it because she was aware of the great gift she now carries and her desire to exist with this mystery? God is at work in Elizabeth’s life and she is keenly aware of it, and one way or another, she isolates herself and hides away for this season.

As we continue in varying degrees of seclusion, may we be aware that God is at work within us and around us as well.

Today’s O Antiphon:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, you order all things with strength and gentleness: Come now and teach us the way to salvation. Come, Lord Jesus.

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises, the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 1:13-17

See the whole passage for today here.

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:13-17

Today, I’m simply struck by the graciousness of God, who sent John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, entrusting them to raise him, so that there would be someone (a prophet) to prepare the way of the Lord.

Yesterday, I prepared the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving for the Christmas Eve bulletin. (Yikes, by the way. Christmas Eve is next week!) In that prayer, we thank God for creating the world and for creating us in God’s image. We speak of our rebellion and God’s refusal to reject us.

“When we rebelled against you refusing to trust and obey you, you did not reject us, but still claimed us as your own. You sent prophets to call us back to your way.” (That version is from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA.)

Ahead of Incarnation, God sent a prophet to embody his calling, to prepare people to understand and receive what was happening.

Out of great love for the people God created in God’s holy image, God sends prophets to prepare hearts and minds to receive him, again and again. Our memories are short. Our steps are faltering. Our ways are crooked and we get away with whatever we can some days.

And yet, again and again, God sends gifts that prepare us to receive him, to make ready our hearts and lives for his appearing.

2 Peter 1:5-11

Read the whole passage for today here.

...you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. 10Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. 11For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. 2 Peter 1:5-11

Faith is a gift from God. We don’t earn faith, just like we do not earn our salvation. God is the one who provides for our faith and salvation.

But it is possible to receive a gift and never really open it or use it. One year Jason gave me an inexpensive, yet complexly wrapped and seemingly difficult to use, lens for my iPhone. I hadn’t asked for it, and wasn’t sure how it worked, and it was December and I was tired, and I guess I never did open it because when we were getting ready to move to North Carolina, I found the lens, still in its original packaging, in a box in my closet.

How obnoxious of me, I know. Like really–I never even took the time to figure out how to use it? I love taking pictures with my phone, which is why my sweet husband thought to give me this accessory.

So it is with faith, which is what I think is at least part of the epistle author’s point.

Support your faith with goodness

and goodness with knowledge

and knowledge with self-control

and self-control with endurance

and endurance with godliness

and godliness with mutual affection

and mutual affection with love.

Don’t leave the gift of faith unopened and unexplored and unused. There are so many gifts within that one gift–so many possibilities, and so many ways your for faith to not be one dimensional and tightly wrapped up…but developed and released and shared.