Not so silent night

Preached 12/29 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship
Matthew 2:13-23

Merry Christmas! It is good to gather together in worship with all of you this Christmas morning. Perhaps it seems odd to speak of Christmas, as our Scripture passage today is in sharp contrast to the celebrations of the past week. On this fifth day of Christmas, we continue to sing of a Silent Night and the stillness in Bethlehem. As we wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, we imagine Joseph and Mary and Jesus settling in. New parents, far from home, sleep-deprived, and doing everything within their power to care for this incredibly tiny new person entrusted to their care.

DSC_0345But our text today reminds us that all was not silent. And while Mary might have had a moment to sigh and breathe in the scent of her newborn as she gathered him to her chest . . . that moment did not last long. After all, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor wished to register everyone in order to tax them.

The roads are filled with travelers, the guest rooms are packed . . . but no one wants to be there. For many this is unpaid time off combined with costly travel . . . all for the purpose of another tax padding the coffers of a foreign empire.

There is a reason that the people have been waiting and praying for a Messiah to free them from Roman occupation. The New Testament is filled with quiet stories of centurions and legions—indications that the Roman military presence is commonplace, that violent acts of power are ways of life. The hope of a Messiah was couched in what seemed a hopeless situation.

Finally Jesus—God enfleshed—is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger . . .  While Matthew gives us no angels or shepherds, we find a group of astrologers who follow a star and read the signs that a King has been born. At some point during Jesus’s early years these strangers arrive, bearing expensive gifts. Of course, their very journey has stirred political trouble.

And as soon as the astrologers leave, the nightmare begins. Joseph has a dream, and the family runs. Some, likely in an effort to make this passage palatable, talk about this passage as a story of Herod’s fear and the family’s faith. I don’t think there is any level of faith that allows you to wake up from a dream about brutalized babies, pack up your belongings and two-year-old son for a three hundred mile walk and not experience sheer terror. The holy family has become political refugees, leaving everything they know in order to survive. They are making a difficult journey into an unfamiliar place with different customs and different language. They run picturing the sword at every turn.

Herod is certainly acting out of fear—he has a long history of brutal actions used to gain and defend his crown. But while Jesus is protected from slaughter, children back in Bethlehem are not. In Bethlehem, babies are ripped from their mothers and murdered. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper estimates that somewhere around twenty children were killed that day.

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Christmas story contains a pain so intense that even those beyond the grave cannot be comforted, because there is simply nothing—nothing—that makes this okay. It is a story of absolute hell thriving on earth. And this is a story that we cannot ignore—that we cannot skip over—because the hope of God is always, always mixed up with the desperate cries of a hurting people.

Rachel is still weeping today. She weeps in Nairobi, where poor parents dress their children as beautifully as they can, and place them in the street, hoping that someone with more resources will want them and take them in.

She weeps across the world as children are taken into slavery, stripped of their innocence, and used in the most vile ways imaginable.

She weeps as families are promised an education and dowry for their girls by factory owners who have no intention of keeping their promises, but merely want cheap labor for clothing sold to us here.

She weeps in Sudan and Gaza and Iraq and Jerusalem, in Myanmar, Thailand, and Guatemala. She weeps in St. Louis as a man named Richard sleeps outside in an alley on Christmas Eve.

She weeps as laws make it harder for the most vulnerable families to meet their basic needs. As guns and bombs and hate tear families and communities apart.

She weeps and cannot be consoled—and neither should we. Our voices should be joining with those experiencing pain and injustice in the world. We are surrounded by darkness—but today we lit the Christ candle, a symbol of God’s presence with us in full faith that the darkness did not and cannot overcome the light. We continue to speak the hope of the Gospel—that God broke into a hurting world and continues to break into the world of our hurt; that Christ came to announce freedom to the captive, release to the prisoner, sight to the blind, life to the lifeless.

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of this day, we shared this light with one another. In doing so, we proclaimed our role—to carry Christ’s light and illuminate the darkness, to join with God in the work of bringing the Kingdom of God here and now.

On this Christmas morning, we are invited to join with the pains of the world, to listen to the stories of anguish, to add our weeping.

At the same time, we are invited to sing—and I’ll admit that I wrestle with this tension. Because it IS tension, and who really wants that at any time of year, much less Christmas? But this is a passage without easy answers, without anything that lets us sigh too deeply with relief.

I believe we are called to sing, not in ignorance of a hurting world, but because the light of God, the love of God, is bursting forth. God wasn’t just in Egypt, but God was also in Bethlehem, holding mother and father and baby—and even soldier—in all of their brokenness. God is here today, entering into our world and our lives in new ways. God with us . . .  God. Is. With. Us.


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Elsewhere on the web

I haven’t been posting much here, but I have been actively writing and reading.

This week I had a guest post at The Femonite, one of my absolute favorite blogs. Check it out and bookmark the site—you’ll want to follow Hannah!

Yesterday, I was also the writer for the Baby Jesus Blog: An Advent Study. If you haven’t been following along with this guide, you’ll want to read all of the entries. I’m incredibly honored to be part of this project.

And for all of you who have been waiting to buy The Modern Magnificat until your purchase helped support women in Piedras Negras, Mexico—wait no more! I have partnered with Points on the Wheel (run by my dear friend Mark Buhlig) to bring you The Modern Magnificat for a $20 donation to help a group of women in Piedras Negras start a sewing business. Your gift will help these women get the commercial sewing equipment they need—and you get a free book! Check it out here. The book makes a great gift for pastors, seminarians, strangers on the street . . .

Looking for other book ideas for gifts? Here are a few remarkable books that I edited this year:

Going Back to New Orleans by Bert Montgomery
Seeking the Face of God by J. Daniel Day
Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow by Cody Sanders
Anabel Unraveled by Amanda Romine Lynch
Nightmarriage by Chad Thomas Johnston

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A year later: Jenny Call

modmagYesterday (Nov. 13) marked the one-year anniversary of the publication of The Modern Magnificat. In honor of that, I asked all of the women who wrote for the book to update me on their lives. Quite a few have had major changes in the last year. I’ll be posting their stories (and sharing my own) over the coming days. Please share your own experiences with The Modern Magnificat in the comments.


To begin, an update from Jenny Call:

Jenny Portrait_CroppedSince our journey together, I had the opportunity to contribute to another book, A Divine Duet: Motherhood and Ministry (edited by Alicia Porterfield). I contribute to a blog ( that came out of the book project, as well as my own personal blog ( I’m currently in the application process for a D.Min program in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary that would begin in the summer. I hope to continue to develop my skills as I am in the third year of my calling as university chaplain at Hollins University, a small women’s liberal arts college in Roanoke, Virginia. Writing continues to be a calling for me and a spiritual discipline to help me reflect upon and process the challenges of ministry and personal life. A highlight of my writing experience came when Sarah Bessey recently quoted from my blog post (  on her blog ( Unfortunately, I’ve been too paralyzed by my own expectations to write since.  🙂

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Benjamin Charles

I’ve been meaning to write for days, but I just haven’t had the words. What do you say after the loss of your second pregnancy? I’m now the seasoned grieving mother, the old pro at navigating this space between death and loss. I’m the pariah that might be contagious, the reminder that well wishes do not make everything okay.

And yet for me, Benjamin’s death is something entirely new, a pain that is quiet, but heavy in it’s silence. I knew early. A week and a half ago I cried on the way to the doctor’s office. There were no particular signs of loss—no heavy cramping of bleeding. The pregnancy just felt too quiet.

It was my first actual appointment, although I’d already been through three rounds of blood work and had a meeting with the nurse to train my husband to give me progesterone shots. This first appointment included an ultrasound. Although Allyn and I planned to use our midwife for my prenatal care, I couldn’t resist having one appointment with the doctor to be able to see what was going on.

On the road to the medical center, there are two awful anti-abortion signs. One that reads “Pregnant? You have the choice to choose life” (or something along those lines). The other claims the heart starts beating at 18 days. Neither are signs you want to see when you are terrified of what your ultrasound will show. I argued with the billboards, bitter that anyone would think about placing such signs on a St. Louis interstate. I was pregnant, but I couldn’t choose anything. I certainly couldn’t make my babies live. And heartbeats? 18 days after what?

My ultrasound offered little relief. Benjamin was measuring a week behind with a pulse of around 110. The doc declared himself “cautiously optimistic,” thinking that perhaps the dates were wrong and the heart was just beginning to beat, explaining why it was so slow. The doctor added that it was also possible that development had stopped and we were witnessing the slowing of the heart that would mark death. “But, I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. I read his face. It looked concerned. I was glad to see a heartbeat, but continued feeling what I had for the two days before—that something just wasn’t right.

The next week was hell. What do you do when it is unclear whether you are holding life or death? How do you act when your body wants to grieve, but your heart needs to hope? I wondered if this was what it felt like to have a loved one on a missing persons list—the answer out there, somewhere . . . but not yours to have.

After waiting a week, I called and begged the office to change my appointment (still a week away because the scheduler could not find an opening). They worked me in. This time it was Allyn yelling at the billboards. At the doctor’s office, I was called back almost immediately—directly to the ultrasound room. Doc asked if it would be okay to do another ultrasound. I responded that it would not be okay if we didn’t. Benjamin had not changed size. Allyn reports that according to the screen, he was actually a day smaller. There was no blinking indication of a heartbeat.

I’d anticipated crying at whatever news we were offered. Instead I stared, nodding at the words. I felt the relief of knowledge at the end of an eternity of waiting.

At this point there are no explanations, no reasons. My perfect pill taking could not save us from the death of a second child. And starting a pregnancy fully aware of what it feels like to lose a child did not protect me from the pain now.

The world is heavy. And now, I’m back to waiting for miscarriage.


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40 Things Before 40

You may remember my list of 30 Things Before 30 that I compiled before my 30th birthday last year. Now that I’m nearly 31, I decided it was time to compile my list of 40 Things Before 40. Here it is:

1. Sew a dress (and wear it!)

2. Hold a conversation in a different language.

3. Visit Taiwan

4. Milk a cow

5. Raise $10,000 for (You can help here!) – $112.47 raised

6. Visit City Museum

7. Ski

8. Read Madeleine L’Engle’s completed works

9. Take a cake-decorating class

10. Run 5k in less than 30 minutes

11. Take a dance class with Allyn

12. Participate in a flash mob

13. Bike the Katy Trail

14. Go whale watching

15. Complete 40 pinterest projects

16. Make everything in the More-With-Less cookbook

17. Can food that I grow

18. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

19. Send a care package to a stranger

20. Go on a cruise

21. Visit all 50 states

22. See a shooting star

23. Build a kitchen table

24. Go on a Segway tour of St. Louis

25. Become homeowners

26. Officiate a wedding

27. Participate in a color run

28. Make cake pops

29. Go to a drive-in movie

30. Ride in a hot air balloon

31. Complete 40 new items from this list of 100 things to do in St. Louis.

32. Attend the Wild Goose Festival

33. Visit Ha Ha Tonka

34. Take an art class

35. Have themed months for a year (vegan month, buy nothing but food month, random act of kindness month, etc)

36. Retreat with create cohort at Conception Abbey

37. Attend a hockey game

38. Run through the fountains of City Garden wearing everyday clothes

39. Find the best fried chicken in St. Louis

40. Break the record for the world’s largest potluck, currently at 805 people.


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Playing the fool

Sermon preached at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship today (July 13)
Luke 10:25-37

Good morning. I am glad to be here sharing the good news today. And I don’t mean because I am delivering the sermon—although I do believe that our text for this morning offers us challenging, good news—but it is good because I am the one here this morning and Samuel is not, meaning that Samuel and Rachel are off getting to know the long-awaited Jonah Eugene. And because of that, I think Rachel would approve of me saying how good it is to gather in worship with all of you this morning.

samaritanI will confess that it is rather intimidating to be the one standing before you to talk about our text today. As you may have noticed, it is the priest and Levite—two religious leaders—who are depicted as the bad guys in this parable of the man who fell among thieves. And I say bad guys intentionally, hoping that my gender will somehow distance me from these two men who passed by a traveler who had been striped, beaten, and left for dead. They merely glanced at him before intentionally crossing the road and continuing on their way. But, if I am honest with myself, it may be that these are very much the characters that I represent–I’ll leave it for you to determine where you fall.

At the beginning of our text we meet a lawyer who is trying to test Jesus. He asks a question that he already knows the answer to in order to see if Jesus will give the “correct” answer. Knowing nothing else about the lawyer, I can’t speak to his intentions. Growing up, I understood that anyone testing Jesus was bad. But we all have these tests we place before new churches or those claiming religious authority. “What Scripture translation do you use?” “Is this a Bible-believing church?” “What are your thoughts about (insert issue here)?” We want to know if this is a congregation we can trust, a person who will lead us in the direction that seems best. This lawyer obviously knows the Torah, the law, as Jesus points out, turning the test back on the tester. When the man answers his own question, stating that we are to love God and love neighbor, Jesus confirmed that the man had the right answer, but pushed him a step forward—“do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer is clearly feeling some pressure on his toes—who wouldn’t?—because he asks another question in order to justify himself “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story we know well—perhaps too well. Once we believe we know a story, we stop prodding it, stop asking what it means because, of course, it is obvious. But parables are remarkable because they are like riddles. Their meaning is not always clear at first glance. And even when we have figured out a meaning, there are always other layers of meaning to discover.

So today I’m going to ask that we look at this story with new eyes, to find more layers to explore. To do that, we need to know a little bit about the first century world and the context Jesus was in.

Jesus was likely part of the peasant class. He entered the world in a stable and was first visited by shepherds. He spends his days with fishermen and tells stories of day laborers and those who tend fields. We see over and over in Scripture that it is not the wealthy or religious elite who resonated with the message Jesus brings, but the lowly. Peasants of the day, perhaps much like the poor everywhere, saw goods—money, food, resources—as limited. You only had access to so much and that allotment never changes. If someone somehow gets more, then that must mean someone else has less. If your neighbor suddenly comes into a source of food or money, something must be wrong. This is a world in which bandits were seen as heroes. Like Robin Hood after them, these bandits stole from the rich—who lived at the expense of their poorer brothers and sisters—and even if these bandits only divided the riches amongst themselves, they were already doing more sharing that the rich man who hoarded the resources. Bandits helped correct the injustice of the world. The selfish rich folk who were attacked? They totally deserved it.

So in the story, our man who fell among thieves? The assumption of those who heard the story would be that he wasn’t a very good guy. He was a rich city-dweller—one of the elite. So he was stripped of his riches? Great! He was left nearly dead? No different from the way he left people every day.

The priest and Levite who walked by? The did what they were supposed to. Aside from purity laws which would render them unclean for touching a dead or bleeding man, there were safety concerns to consider. Might this be a trap? Bandits might be waiting for someone to stop and offer assistance. Of course they crossed the road. Any reasonable person would.

And then the Samaritan enters the story. We traditionally hear about the tensions between Samaritans and the Judeans. But not only is this man part of a despised ethnicity, but he is a tradesman—he obviously travels; he has a donkey to carry his supplies, and he has oil and wine, which were typical items of trade.

And at this point, he does the most foolish thing imaginable. He takes a nearly dead man to an inn and promises the innkeeper to pay whatever is needed. Now, if you have a tendency to think of inns as quaint getaways run by pleasant semi-retired couples, erase the image. Replace it instead with the innkeeper from Les Miserables who sings “charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice / two percent for looking in the mirror twice.” The hands are out, the pockets are deep, and chances are the other guests aren’t particularly savory. If you aren’t familiar with Les Miz and want more to compare, it will be showing at the Muny starting tomorrow.

Respectable people didn’t stay in inns—those folks who did stay at inns were wise to sleep with one eye open to avoid having their throats cut.

And it is at such an inn that our nearly dead man who fell among thieves is left.

And that is our story. So who was a neighbor to this man?

It gets a bit more complicated, right? New Testament scholar Douglas Oakman suggests that we might look at this story as if it began “The kingdom of God is like . . . “ which is what most of Jesus’ parables are about. The kingdom of God is like a despised fool who cares for a deeply selfish man despite a high level of risk, leaves that man with the vilest of characters and fully believes that he will return to collect the man in full health, with plans to pay what will surely be an outlandish bill.

And this is a beautiful story if we picture a God who stop at no end to pick us up when we are fully deserving of the cruel treatment we receive, and who is willing to pay whatever price necessary to see us restored. That is a God I can get behind, a Holy Parent who is worthy of praise. But Jesus does not let us think of this story as simply being a tale of a God who is a fool in love with creation. We must instead consider a world where our neighbor is a selfish man, a collection of thieves, religious leaders who are more concerned with doing the right thing than being the right sort of people, a traveling fool from a despised background and occupation, and a corrupt innkeeper . . .  all of which is far more complicated than simply being willing to help someone wrongly attacked and dying on the side of the road.

Our mercy is to extend to all. The Kingdom of God is a place where foolishness is only outdone by generosity. How do you live? By going and doing likewise.

What does that mean? The first thing that comes to my mind is praying what Anne Lamott calls the “first great prayer”—Help!

As I pay attention to the news of people in conflict, of justice that seems to be missing in so many places, I admit that I feel powerless. In light of the trial results that came out last night, I have tried to reflect on what it means that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are my neighbors, that the drug addicts in my neighborhood are my neighbors, that the woman who stormed away from my garage sale yesterday after reading the price tag on a pair of shoes is my neighbor. That those who are deeply hurt and angered believing that society feels the color of their skin makes them worth less . . . and those who are afraid that their rights are being taken away are my neighbors.

Calling out “Help!” seems the only valid step, trusting that we serve a God who can help us learn how to stand in the tension, seeing one another as the presence of Christ even with the glaring, painful, hideous faults we bear.

Friends, we are called to be fools, embracing all as neighbors to be loved. Let us go and make it so.

(Note: credit for my connection to this layer of meaning in the parable of the man who fell among thieves goes to Dr. David May [my NT prof] and to Douglas Oakman.)

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Avelyn Grace Memorial

My Dad created this video to honor his granddaughter, Avelyn. It uses footage and text from the memorial and communion service we held on Monday, July 1.


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