My Only Friend is Darkness – A Sermon about Depression, Anxiety and Mental Health

psalm 88(Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran (ELCA) Church of Millersville, Maryland. You can see a video of the sermon here, – about 5:40 is the start of the sermon – or a podcast here

The text is Psalm 88.)

My only friend is darkness.

Depending on how you count them, from a third to half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are expressions of lament. In the lament psalms, the writers pour out their hearts to God, powerful expressions of grief, sorrow, and regret. They wonder why God seems absent or unconcerned and uninvolved. The lament psalms are bold expressions of strong emotions, men and women articulating their frustration and anger with themselves, their situations . . . and God. But by the end of the lament Psalms, the psalmists express hope – hope that God has heard their cries, hope that God does care, hope that God will ultimately intervene on their behalf.

Except for Psalm 88.

The writer of Psalm 88 is unable to imagine even the possibility of hope.

My only friend is darkness.

That’s how the psalmist ends Psalm 88.

The first time I read Psalm 88, I wondered what it was doing in the Bible. Where’s the good news? Where is the assurance and re-assurance. Where is the hope? Where is God?

Those are the questions the writer of Psalm 88 asks.

Those are the questions someone who is experiencing depression asks.

Those are the questions I have asked when I have struggled with anxiety and depression.

Thank God Psalm 88 is in the Bible! It acknowledges that being a believer is not all happiness and “yay God!”. Bad stuff happens in our lives just like it does in the lives of unbelievers. When I realized I was a Christian, my life didn’t become perfect and my moods constantly positive. There are times when God feels very far away, very hard to see through the haze of my own weaknesses and limitations, through the sometimes dim realities of life in an imperfect, fallen world.

If the writer of Psalm 88 was not suffering from depression, that person knew what depression feels like. Even God may feel like darkness.

But depression is a liar. It tells you that you are worthless, that you have no friends, that you are beyond hope, that you have no future, that you are only a burden to others.

Psalm 88 reassures us that struggles with depression and other forms of mental illness are not due to a lack of faith. In fact, the writer shows great faith by continuing to cry out to God even when God seems distant or absent or cruel.

The psalmist is lamenting what Luther called “the Hidden God” or “God in a mask,.” But the writer of Psalm 88 never stops crying out to God. Although he or she can’t hear or see God’s response, even if it feels like just shouting in the air, the Psalmist keeps on emptying their heart in prayer.

Psalm 88 declares that doubt and difficulty are not signs of a lack of faith. “I’ve been there,” the psalmist assures us. “The dark times are part of the journey.”

One of the most harmful misconceptions about depression and other mental illness is that they are a sign of weak faith or of a weak person. Believing they are helpful, Christians will tell someone dealing with depression that they can get better if they pray more or read the Bible more or be more thankful, or just be more positive and optimistic.

Those are not bad things – certainly praying, reading scripture, gratitude, and optimism are good practices, especially during times of struggle.

But depression is an illness. Would you tell someone with the flu – or cancer – to just pray more or think good thoughts?

I hope not.

I understand that it is more difficult to help someone with depression or another mental illness than someone who is suffering physically. You can see a cut and cover it with a bandage. An x-ray can reveal a broken bone that can be healed with the aid of a cast. You can look at someone’s throat and have a doctor do a culture to determine they have strep throat, then treat it with an antibiotic.

Mental illness is not as visible, often especially to the one experiencing it. But mental illness can be just as debilitating or even deadly.

How can we, the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Church – how can we help?

First, we must purge the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses. Instead of saying or implying that mental illness is a faith issue, we must acknowledge it as medical issue.

Also, following the example of the writer of Psalm 88, it will help others if we find the courage to admit our own struggles with mental illness.

I’ve shared with you before that I experience panic attacks, and that I have sought counseling for help with situational depression and anxiety. I’ve also participated in couples counseling and family counseling. There is no more shame in that than when I saw a surgeon to repair the torn cartilage in my knee. It would have been foolish not to get that surgery – instead I could have denied that my knee was injured or prayed harder while thinking happy thoughts. Those things would not have improved my mobility one bit, and may have even negatively impacted my faith because I would have remained frustrated and in pain.

In the same way God has gifted doctors and nurses and other medical professionals with the skills and talents to deal with our physical ailments, God has gifted doctors and therapists and counselors to treat our mental health struggles. To seek the help of professionals does not deny God’s power or ability to heal us – God works THROUGH those God has called and equipped to heal. God works through therapy they provide and medications they prescribe.

God can also work through the people of God – the same way God works through us when we help those who are physically ill or injured.

As the church, we can be a source of strength and support for those dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. One of the lies depression tells, as we heard at the end of the psalm is that you have no friends, that no one cares about you, and that you’re not worth caring about anyway. As a community of faith, we can disprove those lies not just by reminding each other of God’s unconditional love and presence, but by BEING that love and presence incarnate – God’s love and presence in the flesh.

Rather than telling someone to “cheer up,” we can listen to and acknowledge their pain. We can encourage others to get help and point them to that help, and even accompany them as they seek that help.

Below the sermon is some information from Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency with various hotlines you can use to get help for yourself or for someone else. Of course, if someone is in immediate danger call 911.

The other hotlines are available around the clock. The Anne Arundel County Crisis Warmline is a local source of help. The Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline is obviously for young people. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotlines are always available no matter where you are.

There is also a note about Financial Assistance for Mental Health Services. It can be hard to pay for mental health services especially if you are uninsured. Even if you have insurance, it unfortunately often does not treat mental illness as it does physical issues. There is help – the number is listed there. Also, some therapists and other mental health professionals will treat folks on a sliding scale. Talk to me if you or someone you know might need a referral.

How do you know if you need to get help? 

If your depression or anxiety is keeping you from doing the things you need and want to do, if it is keeping you from being the person you want to be, if it is separating you from the ones you love – then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If you are having trouble finding hope and believing that things can be better, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If anxiety is causing you to be constantly worried, to believe bad things are going to happen if you don’t do things a certain way, if anxiety won’t go away, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If you feel you’re not WORTH getting help, then I hope you’ll consider getting help. You ARE worth it!

If you feel like hurting yourself or that the world would be a better place if you weren’t in it, then it is time to get help right away. Call one of the hotlines. You might need someone to help you get that help, or even to the emergency room. That’s okay. We are here for each other.

No matter who you are, no matter what you have done or what you haven’t done, you are a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, God’s masterpiece recreated in Christ Jesus to do the good stuff that God has planned for you.

No matter who you are, not matter what you have done or haven’t done, even when you can’t see that because your illness is lying to you. you are AWESOME and you are loved.

God does not desire you to suffer physically or emotionally.

There is help. There is hope.

We are here for each other. You have friends, even in the darkness.

AMEN


INFORMATION FROM ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY MENTAL HEALTH AGENCY 
 
Hotlines
Call 911 for immediate assistance in any emergency.
Anne Arundel County CRISIS WARMLINE/ADDICTIONS HELPLINE
410-768-5522
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline
1-800-422-0009
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
National Suicide Prevention Hotlines
1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Financial Assistance for Mental Health Services
You can get help if you need mental health care and have Medicaid. In some cases, you also may be able to get help if you have limited income, are not privately insured, and cannot get Medicaid, however, you may have to pay for some of the cost of your care. To find out for sure if you qualify, contact AACMHA at (410) 222-7858.
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The Bible: God’s Word in Conversation with God’s People

God said it etcThe Bible is the Word of God.

Sure.

I agree with that.

It’s in the constitutions of my denomination (ELCA) and its individual congregations:

The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

But to limit our definition of, and our relationship with, the Bible to “The Word of God” is ultimately reductive. It is in its simplicity too susceptible to misinterpretation, especially of the type seen on bumper stickers:

GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT!

The truth is, God’s word says a lot of stuff.

Does anybody believe all of it? How could they when so much of it contradicts itself or history or science?

And if the Bible settles everything, why can’t Christians agree even on what it says about such basic matters as whether babies should be baptized or what’s going on in communion or who should be ordained . . . not to mention what ordination even means?

The Bible is deeper, richer, holier than an instruction manual that can be summarized in cloying acronyms that insult both the Bible and the intelligence of those who treasure it.

Basic
Instructions
Before
Leaving
Earth

No.

Those who claim to read and interpret the Bible literally (although nobody really does), or to give all of its commands equal weight because every bit is God’s Word after all (again, nobody really does) diminish and distort the Scriptures. They tie Bible and themselves into knots to make it all fit together like frenzied frustrated puzzle-workers attempting to complete an image with pieces from different sets. The Bible rather than the God who inspired it becomes the object of their devotion and the ultimate source of their authority.

To claim that the Bible is infallible makes a claim that even the supposedly infallible Bible never makes.

Again, I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but there is more going on than that.

Much more.

Asserting as the ELCA constitutions do that God’s Word the Bible is “inspired” by God rather than infallibly dictated helps clarify things. But because “inspired” is a one-sided (God-sided) qualifier, the door to bibliolatry might be narrowed but remains ajar.

The  Word of God we have in the Bible is collaborative.

The diversity of cultures, literary styles, and even personalities that shape the Bible cannot be discounted. Rather than complicating our reading and interpretation, recognizing the variances guides us in our understanding, and frees us from the shackles of literalism.

So, if not just as God’s Word, how can we regard the Bible?

This is how I am thinking about Scripture lately:

God’s Word in Conversation with God’s People

God inspired Scripture, but it is clear from what ended up on its pages that those who wrote it down or expressed it orally thought and felt deeply about what God had inspired, poured it through the filters of their experiences, attitudes, and opinions,  and discussed it. They made it their own individually and in community before making it ours by sharing it.

This conversation is most obvious in the Psalms and other poetry. These verses burn with passionate fire ignited by God’s divine spark and fanned by God’s Holy Breath, but fed by the wood-fuel of emotions grown in the varied soil – sometimes rich, sometimes barren – of the writers.

The conversation is evident in the differences of perspectives, chronologies, and even facts inherent in the four accounts of Jesus’ life.  It is ongoing in the sometimes contradictory instructions grounded in culture and circumstance found in the Epistles.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the passages of war and violence often shock us and seem opposed to the person and life of the Prince of Peace. But these accounts of bloodshed, even genocide, reportedly ordered and approved by God indicate not a God who had a sudden change of heart when the calendar turned from BCE to CE, but rather God’s people in difficult conversation – wrestling with – God’s Word for them in a violent place and time.

To say that the Bible is God’s Word in conversation with God’s people asserts that the conversation did not end when the books of the Bible were written and canonized. It goes on today – and beyond – as God’s people continue to confer with and about God’s Word. The Bible was never meant to ensnare us in any single way of understanding it. Our perception evolves as we learn about and from each other as well as from and about God’s creation, all empowered by the Holy Spirit working in and through us.

The consensus of Christendom was once that the Bible not only supported but commanded slavery. Once it was near-universal that women could not be ordained. And of course allegiance to the Bible required holding on to a flat earth created in seven literal days as long as possible.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, God’s people have been in conversation with God’s Word for, well, ever.

The conversation continues.

God’s Holy Spirit continues to fill us and breathe through our holy conversations with God Word and with God’s people past, present, and future. Our understanding grows when the diversity of participants in the  discussion increases, and when we listen empathetically to the multitudinous voices the Holy Spirit has gathered, gathers, and will gather into the conversation.

Join the conversataion . . . What do you think?

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The Women Stayed – An Easter Sermon

the women at the tomb(Sermon based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on Easter Sunday 2019. You can hear a podcast of the sermon here.)

How many times have we heard it?

How many times have I preached it?

“All the disciples abandoned Jesus after his arrest and crucifixion.”

But we just heard in Matthew’s account of the resurrection that it’s not true.

Sure, none of the folks that we usually think of as Jesus’ disciples – Peter and John and James and Andrew and so on – were around on Easter morning. Only John had stuck around for the crucifixion. By Sunday, they were long gone, probably hiding out somewhere in grief and confusion . . . and fear.

But there WERE disciples besides John who witnessed the crucifixion, who then followed the body of Jesus to the tomb and saw it placed there.

There WERE disciples at the tomb as the sun rose on that glorious Sunday morning.

The women stayed.

This morning’s sermon has its roots in a thread of tweets posted a few weeks ago by author Elizabeth Esther. After reminding readers that the women stayed, she wrote, “What I would give if someone preached an Easter morning message about the women who stayed. I would be a mess of tears. If just once the dudes could de-center themselves.”

This morning, this dude is going to attempt to de-center himself and preach about the women who stayed.

It’s no wonder we don’t hear as much about the women who stayed as about the men who ran away. The Gospels were all written, as far as we know, by men. Centuries of patriarchal church authority resulted in the diminishment – and even slander – of the women who followed Jesus.

Have you heard that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or at least a promiscuous woman?

That’s not in the Bible. She was tagged with that reputation by the church in the sixth century. Unfortunately the image of Mary Magdalene as a wanton woman has persisted even into our time.

What the Bible does say about her is found in Luke, who tells us Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of “seven demons.” She followed Jesus for years, probably out of gratitude, from near the beginning of his ministry.

Mary Magdalene is one of the women who stayed.

Another was also named Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John who is best known for pestering Jesus to make her sons his seconds in command. There is yet another Mary in Matthew’s account who Matthew seems to believe is Jesus’ mother.

So consider these Marys who stayed. A demon-possessed woman, a mother known for being sort of pushy, and another mother who was unwed when she gave birth to her firstborn.

Three women who would have been rejected by the “good, decent people.” Of course, just the fact they were women would have marginalized them in that time and place.

According to Franciscan scholar Dr. Barbara Leonhard, in first century Palestine a woman’s place was definitely in the home. Women passed from control of their fathers to control of their husbands. Their role was well-defined and narrow – to take care of the house, to bear and raise children. Some rabbis taught women should never leave home except to go to the synagogue. When they got there, women sat in a separate area and were not allowed to study the sacred Scriptures.

Men could not even greet a woman outside the home.

But Jesus sure did! He spoke openly to women like he did to the woman at the well (another woman, by the way, who has been labeled as a “bad girl” with insufficient evidence) and made women a part of his ministry. In Luke 8 Mary Magdalene is listed along with other women who left their homes to follow Jesus, independent women who Luke tells us helped fund Jesus’ ministry in a time when a wife’s finances normally belonged to her husband.

That churches have kept women from ministry and authority is due to patriarchy, NOT Jesus.

It was a woman who first declared how Jesus would turn everything upside down, raising up not just women but all of the least, the last, the lost, and the left out. In what we’ve come to call the Magnifcat, Mary the mother of Jesus proclaimed the great reversal that would be instituted by her son. Listen to the topsy-turvy language in these verses she spoke before he was born:

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm
  he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.  (Luke 1:51-53)

Mary knew her son would overturn the supposed normal hierarchies. She knew he would shake things up.

On Good Friday and Easter, earthquakes proclaim this shake-up.

When Jesus dies on the cross, the ground shakes so hard that tombs are opened.

And on Easter morning, there’s another seismological event.

The women who stayed approached the tomb early Sunday morning, just as the sun was rising. Matthew says they were “going to look at the tomb.” Do they perhaps expect . . . something? Jesus had told his followers repeatedly that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over and tortured and killed . . . and then rise again on the third day. The male disciples seem to have disregarded that last part, but these women showed up. Did they retain some hope based on what Jesus had promised? It was the third day after all . . .

When they get to the tomb all heaven broke loose.

First, there’s the earthquake.

But the women stayed.

The earthquake was somehow caused by an angels’ arrival. He sounds scary-awesome – Matthew says, “His appearance was like lightning.”

But the women stayed.

The angel rolled the stone back from the entrance to the tomb. I wonder what that looked like. Did he physically move it or send some kind of energy beams or just snap his fingers? It was certainly an astonishing display of power.

But the women stayed.

It was all too much for the two men who were there. The two Roman guards fainted.

But the women stayed . . . on their feet.

The angel addressed the women. He said what angels always say after their disconcerting sudden appearances. “Do not be afraid.”

But there’s more meaning this time in the angel’s words as Mennonite Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler has pointed out. The angel turns to the Marys and says, “YOU don’t have to be afraid. Those other guys? They should be super afraid!”

They should be afraid because they are collaborating representatives of the forces that put Jesus to death, the forces Jesus came to overturn, the forces of Empire that promulgate and perpetuate injustice and violence and fear.

The women don’t need to be afraid because they are and represent those trampled by those forces who Jesus lifted up in his great reversal.

Then, to those women who stayed, the angel pronounced the greatest reversal of all, the great reversal of life and death that we gather to celebrate today:

“He is not here. He is risen just as he said.”

If I were filming this scene, I would cut to a closeup of Mary Magdalene who would say, just barely audibly, “I knew it!”

The angel then told the women to go and tell the other disciples – the ones who did not stay. For even though they betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus, he died and rose for them, too.

The women who stayed were the first to hear the Good News of Easter, and they were the first to be sent as witnesses to the resurrection; another reversal in a culture where women could not testify in court because they were believed incapable of telling the truth. Yet the women who stayed were the first evangelists!

And the women who stayed were the first to see the risen Jesus, and in meeting him the first to do what we gather for today – they were the first to worship the risen Christ. They fell at his feet . . . what else could they do?

Jesus echoed the angel’s direction to go and tell. The women became apostles. Apostle comes from the Greek word for someone authorized to speak on behalf of the king. Mary Magdalene in particular has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles.”

The women who stayed demonstrated Jesus’ love and concern for those on the margins, for those who are disappointed, dejected, and struggling to hold onto hope.

They remind us of Jesus’ concern for US, even and especially when, because of who we are or because of circumstances, we feel at the end of our hope.

Nothing, not even death, is beyond God’s resurrection power.

No one, not even you or I, is beyond God’s resurrection power.

To paraphrase Romans 8, NOTHING can separate us from God’s resurrection power.

Not gender nor any other category we use to divide people into “us and them” or “worthy and unworthy.”
Not Roman guards.
Not stones.

In the words of the Lauren Daigle song title, God is “Still Rolling Stones.”

God is still rolling stones away from tombs that trap us in patterns and systems of death, and bringing us into the resurrection of Christ.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of prejudice and judgment and hatred.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of despair and loneliness and rejection.

Even if the world – or especially the church – has convinced you that you are too far gone for God’s resurrection power, I invite you to stand with the women who stayed this morning.

If you want to know the resurrected Christ, stand with the women who stayed.

They had every reason to run away with the men, to completely lose hope, to figure that based on their position and place in society it really didn’t matter anyway.

But the women stayed.

AMEN

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The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2019

best picture nominees 2019.jpg

Sunday night at the hostless Academy Awards ceremony, one of eight films will be awarded the Best Picture Oscar. Here is my annual ranking of the nominated films. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday and try to stay up until the end to find out if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me.

vice movie poster8. Vice

I should love Vice. I was a big fan of director Adam McKay’s last film, the (justly) Best Picture nominated The Big Short. Vice repeats the unconventional fourth-wall breaking asides that made The Big Short such a surprisingly enjoyable lesson in high finance. And the theme of, and raison d’etre for, Vice, that Dick Cheney is an asshole, resonates with my perspective and politics.

But what was refreshing and elucidating in The Big Short becomes grating and repetitive in Vice. There is no nuance, certainly not in Christian Bale’s lauded but really one-note performance as the grunting, unpleasant Cheney. Yes, he gained a lot of weight and the makeup is transformative, but Bale’s Cheney is only a shadow of the similarly regarded Winston Churchill inhabited by Gary Oldman (last year’s Best Actor).

Vice ultimately plays like a Saturday Night Live cold open that would be fun to watch for five minutes on Facebook, but which loses its way when stretched to a feature film.

bohemian rhapsody poster7. Bohemian Rhapsody

I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody and am glad I saw it in the theater. I listened to a lot of Queen in high school and college in the late 70’s and early 80’s; hearing the music boomed over Dolby Theater Surround (“All Around You”) was a total nostalgia trip. I will not be too disappointed if Rami Malek wins the Best Actor Oscar (although the real Best Actor of 2018, Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, wasn’t even nominated).

But . . . Bohemian Rhapsody has no business being nominated for Best Picture. At best it is a successful diversion, a tribute to a great rock and roll band. In many ways it is a mess, the last-minute change in directors evident in the uneven plot and style.

Also evident are the many drafts the script went through, bending the truth so that Freddie Mercury’s sexuality was minimized and even demonized – things really go downhill once he acknowledges his attraction to men – and so that the surviving members of Queen can look like the good guys in comparison.

Bohemian Rhapsody is just not that good a film.

Green Book Movie Poster6. Green Book

Sigh. If Green Book wins the Best Picture Oscar, this Sunday night will go down in infamy with the 1990 ceremony when Driving Miss Daisy won and Do the Right Thing (the best film of 1989) was not even nominated. Surely the Academy is more woke 30 years later and does not need to reward a film that purports to teach us about race from a white perspective when two excellent films by black directors featuring black characters are also nominated. My fear that this might happen is not assuaged by the fact that the Academy did not nominate the best film of 2018, the unapologetically black If Beale Street Could Talk.

Like Bohemian Rhapsody, I did have a good time watching Green Book. It is light and airy and non-threatening. As a white guy, I am certainly comfortable having the white character take center stage. But even more I am disappointed that the most interesting character, Dr. Shirley, is relegated to a prop through which Tony Lip learns about black people.

And who exists so Tony can teach him how to be more . . . black! (Thank goodness Tony introduced him to fried chicken.) The subsequent criticism of the film by members of Dr. Shirley’s family should be enough to disqualify it from Best Picture consideration.

Green Book is a fine film, but not Best Picture, not in 2019, not with the other films that are nominated.

roma movie poster5. Roma

Roma is a majestic achievement of film-making. Alfonso Cuarón should probably win Best Director if only the current film is considered (but I hope Spike Lee wins based on his body of work; plus I want to hear his speech). I am a sucker for long takes and the coordination they entail. Roma is full of masterful long takes with blocking I cannot fathom – check out the scene in the shop that becomes engulfed in a riot. The black-and-white cinematography (by Cuarón himself) shines and shimmers, presenting tableaus worthy of still photographs hung on museum walls.

So why is Roma not higher on my list? This may disqualify me as a film critic, but I felt distanced from the characters and events by the very technical mastery I admired. Even the most fraught events in the film provoked more intellectual interest than emotional investment. I believe this is attributable at least in part to the literal distance Cuarón consistently kept the camera from his characters. Also, there is a limitation in his choice to portray the struggles of the indigenous workers through the eyes of a upper class child, and perhaps there are some issues with privilege inherent in that as well.

Although I respect Roma a great deal, for me it is not a Best Picture winner.

A Star is Born Poster4. A Star Is Born

I did not see A Star Is Born until this week. I went to the one theater where it was still playing, only at 10pm, out of a sense of duty and desire to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars ceremony.

I put it off because I did not think I would like A Star Is Born. My generation’s version was released when I was 14; for the adolescent me the Barbara Streisand / Kris Kristofferson weeper was nothing but cheesy.

But . . . there is something about this 2019 version of this oft-told tale. Perhaps it is the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, or the mostly excellent music, or the raw energy inherent in Cooper’s direction.

This film just works, and it works in what is perhaps the most “old Hollywood” way of any of the films nominated for Best Picture. It’s got big stars, an epic scope, and an old-fashioned passionate but tragic romance.

it’s certainly not a “great” film, but it is a reminder that popular entertainment does not have to sacrifice quality filmmaking. I don’t think it’s in the same category of Best Picture worthiness as the top three on my list, but I will not be too disappointed if A Star Is Born wins on Sunday.

blackklansman poster3. Blackkklansman

Now we come to the films I consider serious contenders. Any of these last three are worthy of being bestowed the Best Picture Oscar.

Blackkklansman affected me more than any film I saw this year. Specifically, the last ten minutes, disconnected from the plot of the rest but heartbreakingly relevant. That ending wrecked me. It wrecked the whole theater. Folks weeping, talking angrily back to the screen . . . Most of the folks around me were people of color and I felt at least uncomfortable along with the tears that welled up.

That’s a good thing.

One thing excellent films can do is make us appropriately uncomfortable even as they entertain us.

And Blackkklansman is entertaining. The story is one that no one would buy as fiction (but it’s true!). A black cop goes undercover – at least on the phone – as a KKK member. How can that not be fun? But it’s also elucidating – through John David Washington’s excellent portrayal of the police officer, we get to observe and experience what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.”

Perhaps Blackkklansman will win and make up for the tremendous snub of Do the Right Thing 30 years ago.

the favourite poster2. The Favourite

Is The Favourite sometimes too over the top? Do the anachronisms sometimes distract? Are the chapter titles  too precious at times?

Yes, yes, and yes. But who cares. The Favourite embodies everything one could want in a Best Picture – amazing performances by its three female leads, gloriously rendered costumes and production design, elegantly crafted dialogue with plenty of trenchant wit, all displayed with distinctively alluring cinematography.

The Favourite drips with originality. Its faults result from risk-taking, not playing it safe. Perhaps it is not as artful (or arty) as Roma, but it sure is one heck of a lot of fun.

It’s too bad there is not an acting award that could go to Olivia Coleman (who really should win Best Actress over both Glen Close and Lady Gaga), Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone collectively.

black panther poster.jpg1. Black Panther

Remember last winter when you went to the theater and saw Black Panther? It’s been a year or so, I know, but try to recall the rush you experienced watching the story unfold, the wonder the first time you saw Wakanda, the beauty of the tribes in their traditional clothing gathered at the waterfall.

Black Panther is so much more than a “Comic Book Movie.”

It is a film of not just black but also women’s empowerment, an original epic production that is not quite like anything that has come before.

Now, I know some of the Marvel fans will say The Avengers: Infinity War is a better movie. I’ve had that conversation. Perhaps Infinity War is better if you are a fan, if you have seen all the Marvel movies and know all the characters and plot thread that converge, but Black Panther is so much more accessible to everyone, and therefore certainly a more worthy Best Picture Nominee . . . and winner.

I admit that I am a comic book movie dilettante; I see the big ones but had no idea what Benedict Cumberbatch was doing in Infinity War, much less who Antman was.

I say that to assure you that I do not put Black Panther first on my list out of any Marvel fandom, but because I genuinely believe it was the best film of those nominated in 2018. One test of such a film is its rewatchability; I can imagine enjoying Black Panther many times over the years to come.

BONUS: The Real Best Picture of 2018

I said this above but wanted to reiterate, If Beale Street Could Talk is the Best Picture of 2018. It is beautiful, poetic, ephemeral but at the same time devastatingly real. I have accepted it’s failure to be nominated, but if Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack is not awarded an Oscar on Sunday there will be something terribly wrong. Please watch this film if you have not. You can thank me later.

beale street poster

BONUS BONUS: One More Recommendation

It’s not a great film by any means, but the film I just plain enjoyed the most in 2018 is Juliet Naked. Check it out. Again, you can thank me later.

juliet naked poster

 

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The First Christian Preacher – A Sermon about Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene(This is a sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series.  This week’s Wonder Woman is Mary Magdalene. The sermon Scripture is John’s resurrection account, John 20:1-18. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)

How many of you read Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, or saw the Tom Hanks movie based on it?

Then you know the “truth” about Mary Magdalene. That she secretly married Jesus. That she was pregnant when he was crucified. That she gave birth to his child and there are descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene living among us RIGHT NOW!

Oh, and some of the best evidence for this is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, where Mary Magdalene lays her head on Jesus’ shoulder disguised as an apostle.

Right.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most important women in the Bible. She is one of the most important people in the Bible. She is also one of the most slandered – people have been making stuff up about her for a couple thousand years.

And no wonder. For folks who want to challenge the truth of the Gospels, she is a witness who must be discredited.

To men who have historically held power in the church – and still do – she is a woman who threatens the legitimacy of the patriarchy.

But listen: “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his resurrection to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal Mystery. Any discussion of women in the church begins with this.”

That was a quote from Jesuit priest James Martin.

“Any discussion of women in the church” begins with Mary Magdalene. She – not a man – was the first witness to the risen Christ. She – not a man – was the first preacher of the risen Christ.

So who was Mary Magdalene, really?

In the Bible, we first find her mentioned in Luke Chapter 8:

“Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

So this group of women who traveled with Jesus had means – they had money – to support Jesus’ ministry. They were well-connected – one of them was married to the manager of King Herod’s household. And they had been cured by Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is listed first, which means she was probably the leader of this band of Jesus’s female followers. Luke says she had seven demons cast out of her. That could mean several things – that she had been cured seven times, or that she was completely cured as seven was the number that symbolized completion. As we’ve seen in other Bible accounts of people identified as possessed by demons, her symptoms would have appeared to us as something like epilepsy or mental illness.

Mary Magdalene had been troubled and tormented by something serious. She was a victim of illness, not someone who brought trouble on herself. Jesus had set her free.

Now in gratitude she followed him. She was a DISCIPLE – disciple means a follower. I know we usually think of Jesus’ disciples as men, but Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus was as much a disciple as the men with whom we are more familiar. She is mentioned by name in the Bible more often than most of those 12 disciples. Mary Magdalene can help us broaden our vision of what a disciple looks like – that we are ALL disciples when we follow Jesus, whether we are men or women.

Not only did Mary follow Jesus and lead the other women disciples, she also supported his ministry financially. She put her money where her faith was – another trait of a disciple. Perhaps she was a widow who had been left money by a wealthy husband, or maybe she had established some kind of business in Magdala, her hometown (and the origin of “Magdalene”).

This may not be the Mary Magdalene you thought you knew. Not only have people falsely, without any Biblical support, claimed that she had some kind of relationship with Jesus beyond teacher and disciple, perhaps you have heard she was a prostitute or some other kind of sexually promiscuous woman. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Sings, “And I’ve had so many men before, in many different ways.”

Promiscuity is certainly a charge men make when they want to discredit or dismiss a powerful or influential woman. We saw that with the Woman at the Well in last week’s sermon.

The widespread disparagement of Mary Magdalene’s character can be attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. In 591 he pronounced that Mary Magdalene was the same person as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also said she was the same person as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. So Pope Gregory the Great combined three women into one, and in doing so both minimized the witness and importance of women in the Gospel accounts and slandered Mary Magdalene along with Mary of Bethany and the other woman.

Pope Gregory said the “seven demons” that had been cast out of Mary Magdalene represented the seven deadly sins. So therefore she was guilty of all of them (especially the sexual ones).

Pope Gregory took the story of Mary of Bethany (a completely different woman) anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and gave it a prurient twist – he said the ointment had been previously used by her for sensual purposes.  And he took the description of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears – another completely different woman – as a “Sinner” to show Mary Magdalene was a beautiful, vain and lustful young woman saved from a life of sin by Jesus.

None of this has anything to do with Mary Magdalene, and all of it is a symptom of sexism if not misogyny that results from a church ruled by a patriarchy. Women must be put in their place and kept there, lest women take a place equal to men.

Jesus promised that “The last will be first.” Certainly, that statement applied to women who were last in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered. In Mary Magdalene we have an example of Jesus’ intention that women be lifted up, not kept in status below that of men. If we think about Jesus coming to lift up the least, the lost, the last, and the left out, that would certainly describe women at the time of Jesus.

But Mary Magdalene cannot be kept down! You may make up things about her, conflate her with other women and otherwise attempt to malign and defame her, but you cannot discount her role in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along with a few other women, and perhaps one of the twelve male disciples, she was one of the few with the loyalty and guts to show up at Jesus’ resurrection when almost all of his male followers went into hiding.

And there she was going to the tomb at dawn on that first Easter Sunday, going to properly prepare the body of her teacher – her rabbi – for permanent burial.

But the tomb was empty.

John tells us that she ran to tell Peter and another disciple that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Those disciples raced to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and left.

Mary remained at the tomb. She was crying. She was crying because she had seen Jesus die and because now his body had apparently been stolen. She had lost everything.

After a brief encounter with two angels in the tomb who asked her why she was crying, she turned around and saw someone standing there.

The tomb was in a garden, so she assumed it was the gardener. John tells us it was Jesus but Mary did not recognize him. Why not? She did not expect to see him there in front of her, talking or even breathing. He was dead. She had seen him die. She had seen his body placed in the tomb.

Jesus asked her why she was crying. He asked who she was looking for.

She responded, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then it happened. Jesus said her name.

“Mary.”

She responded with recognition. “Rabbi.”

Jesus told her not to hold onto him – she had work to do! Go and tell the disciples!

And she went – the very first preacher with the good news that Christ is Risen! The very first Easter preacher. The first evangelist of the risen Christ. The “Apostle to the Apostles.”

She went and said, “I have seen the Lord!”

Mary Magdalene was trusted with the message of resurrection, the best news EVER. Death does not have the final word. The old order has been turned upside down – LIFE follows DEATH.

But notice Mary does not preach a sermon of theology. She does not quote Scripture or speculate on the mechanics of resurrection. No. She carries her own experience of the risen Christ to the other disciples.  “I have seen the Lord!”

What an example for our life as disciples. What an example for our own witness. We are sent into the world to share our experience of Christ – to tell others how and where and in whom we have seen our living Savior, Jesus Christ.

And Mary reminds us that in the church there is no distinction between men and women, no jobs – especially the pastoral office – that are reserved for men alone. Over the years, men have perpetuated their leadership in the church by dismissing and denigrating women such as Mary Magdalene. But let us return to the example of Jesus.

I saw this on a t-shirt advertised on Facebook this week:

Dear Church,

Jesus Protected women.
Empowered women.
Honored women publicly.
Released the voice of women.
Confided in women.
Was funded by women.
Celebrated women by name.
Learned from women.
Respected women.
And spoke of women as examples to follow

Our turn.

AMEN

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“It Is Very Biblical to Enforce the Law”

The Bible according to the Jeff Sessions/Sarah Sanders interpretation of Romans 13:

babies thrown into the nile– Hebrew women, including Moses’ mom, should’ve turned over their babies to the Egyptian authorities because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Those authorities had the right and duty to kill those babies because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– Daniel, and the three men in the fiery furnace, should have bowed down and worshiped King Nebuchadnezzar because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” They deserved to die in the lions’ den and the fiery furnace because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– Those brave Christian martyrs in Acts and beyond should have stopped talking about Jesus when ordered to do so because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” The Roman government was right to put them to death because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– That especially includes Paul who wrote Romans 13. But he must have been a real hypocrite since he defied the law and was executed for it.

– And finally, there’s Jesus. He should have cow-towed to Pilate and the other Roman authorities who put him to death because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” The Romans were right to crucify him because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya . . . Sarah and Jeff, I don’t think those words (Romans 13) mean what you think they mean.

NOTE: The first quote in each section is from Jeff Sessions yesterday. The second is from Sarah Sanders, also yesterday.

(Exodus illustration by Martin Young, purchased from www.biblecartoons.co.uk.)

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“Into the Hand of a Woman” (Or, A Well-Placed Tent Peg)

Jacopo Amigoni 002(This is the second sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series.  This week’s Wonder Women are Deborah and Jael. Their story is found in Judges 4 and 5, but the reading in worship was Judges 4:1-10. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)

Our story begins with the A-B-C-D cycle typical in the Book of Judges.

A – The people of Israel Abandon God. After the previous judge, Ehud, dies, the people turn again to idolatry instead of God.

B – They are Battered by Enemies – Employing 900 Iron chariots, King Jabin’s army commanded by General Sisera conquers and cruelly oppresses the tribes of Israel for 20 years.

C – They Cry out to God.

So now it’s time for D. It’s time for a Deliverer.

Who will he be?

Surprise! She is Deborah.

Deborah is a multi-tasking woman. I’m sure many women can relate. She’s a wife. She’s a judge – literally. She sits under a palm tree and people come from all over Israel to have her settle their disputes. A woman!

And she’s a prophet – one of fewer than 10 female prophets mentioned in the Old Testament, along with a handful in the New. (You think there were more than that who didn’t make it into the Bible that men wrote and put together? I have my suspicions.)

Deborah – Wife, Judge, Prophet . . . And now deliverer – or at least one of the three deliverers we will meet in this story.

Deborah is truly a Wonder Woman.

God tells Deborah to send for Barak – whose name means lightning. Deborah does what prophets do – she speaks God’s Word to Barak: “Hey Barak. God commands you to round up 10,000 men and go attack King Jabin’s army commanded by Sisera. Remember he’s got lots of troops – oh, and iron chariots, too. (And we don’t have any of those.) But God’s going to give you victory.”

If I’m Barak, my answer is, “Uh huh.”

You heard what the real Barak said to Deborah: “I’ll go if you go with me, but if you don’t go with me I won’t go.”

So this man – General Lightning – tells this woman, Wonder Woman that she is, that he won’t go into battle without her.

This story is full of surprises! First a woman in charge and now this reaction from Barak – that’s not how God’s generals in the Bible act.

When I first read this I thought maybe Barak was a little . . . scared if not a lot needy. General Lightning is kind of a mess.

But that might be a little hard on Barak.

I got to reading and thinking about this. What if Barak is actually . . .  kind of faithful? What if he knows and believes God is with Deborah, so it’s not really about taking Deborah herself into battle but rather the assurance of God’s presence?

Whatever the reason for Barak’s request, Deborah says she will go with him. BUT, she says, it will be a woman that ultimately defeats Sisera. General Sisera will be “delivered into the hand of a woman.”

Who will that be? Deborah? You might think so, but we’ll see . . .

That’s where our reading ended but I want you to know the rest of this story – it’s a good one and it’s hardly ever read or especially preached on or even taught in Sunday School.

How many of you know this story? (A handful of folks raised their hands.)

What happened next is that Sisera heard that Barak and his army were on the move. So General Sisera called together his 900 iron chariots and all his fighting men to meet them in battle. It should have been an easy fight . . . for General Sisera. All those chariots gave him a huge technological advantage.

But Deborah told Barak to attack. She said, “The Lord is going before you!” Barak and his 10,000 men streamed down from the mountains toward the enemy army.

God somehow throws General Sisera’s army into a panic. And it starts to rain. Creeks, streams, and rivers overflow their banks. That makes lots of mud. All those powerful chariots get . . . stuck.

Every single one of those enemy soldiers are wiped out. Except one.

General Sisera.

He runs away on foot – not very dignified behavior for such a powerful general.

It gets worse for him.

He runs to the tent of a man named Heber the Kenite. Heber the Kenite’s family have some kind of alliance with King Jabin, so General Sisera thinks he will be safe.

But Heber the Kenite isn’t home. Only his wife – Jael (remember that name) is there.

Kenites are not Jews. So Jael is both a woman AND a gentile.

An unlikely hero, right?

Jael invites General Sisera into her tent. Sisera is apparently exhausted from the battle and the running away, so he lies down. He tells Jael if anyone comes looking for him, “Tell them I’m not here!”  Now things turn kind of weird – Jael mothers General Sisera. She covers him up with a blanket. Then he asks for some water, but she opens up a container of milk instead.

And General Sisera, safe and cozy in the blanket and soothed with the milk, falls asleep.

Jael picks up a tent peg and a hammer. She approaches sleeping Sisera. She places the pointy end of the tent peg on his temple.  She raises the hammer . . .

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

And that’s how General Sisera was ultimately defeated by a woman.

So who’s the Deliverer in this story? I’d say there were three – Deborah, Barak, and Jael. Two women and a man.

Judges 4 is less Wonder Woman and more The Avengers: Age of Sisera. Israel is rescued by a team of unlikely heroes. Deborah the wife, judge and prophet. General Lightning, the reluctant warrior. And Jael, tent peg assassin.

God uses unlikely heroes to accomplish God’s purposes. God uses people marginalized by their cultures – like Deborah, who would have been considered second-class because she was a woman. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because somebody thinks you are less than them.

God uses flawed people like Barak – and you and me. God uses “Normal” seemingly random people like Jael – and you and me. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because you’re not perfect or you’re not special enough.

The church is a collection of marginalized, flawed, random people. We are God’s version of “The Avengers,” each with our own superpowers like hospitality or teaching or serving or leadership or giving or mercy – gifts of the Spirit to build up each other and the church and to share God’s love in Christ with the world. WE together are called to tell in word and in action the story of God’s deliverance of the whole world – and of the One who saved the world.

Together, Deborah, Barak, and Jael, were the “D” in the Judges cycle. They delivered Israel from King Jabin and Sisera’s oppression. They freed Israel from what were ultimately the consequences of their walking away from God.

We, too, have an unlikely deliverer. He was born as a member of a people who were occupied and oppressed, born to a poor unwed mother and a laborer-father. He became a refugee, and as an adult never had a permanent home. But he saved not just Israel but the world. He saved not from earthly powers but from the power of sin and death and evil.

He saved the world not with armies and weapons – even tent pegs – but by dying on a cross. He saved the world with love, sacrificial love, servant-love.

Jesus is our once-for-all deliverer. His deliverance is eternal.

But the truth is, we still live out that ABCD cycle.

It’s a cycle that makes Judges very frustrating for me to read. It happens twelve times in Judges – 12 times the Israelites Abandon God and then get Battered by Enemies and Cry out to God and get a Deliverer. Then it happens again . .. and again.  It gets more and more aggravating each time.

“Why don’t you learn?!” I want to shout at God’s people. “Just stick to worshipping the God who rescued you from slavery in Egypt and from each time you got battered by enemies. Just stop with the idol worship!”

You know, the things that frustrate us most in other people are the things we see in them that remind us of ourselves.

It drives me crazy when other people procrastinate. (I wrote that line at  5:51pm yesterday.)

This cycle bothers me so much because it’s my cycle.

Things go along great and I get farther and farther from God. I am much less likely to remember to thank God in the good times than I am to plead with God in the challenging times. As I move away from God in those good times, other things fill up my God- space – idols like stuff I want and things I want to do. My biggest idol, the number one thing that replaces God is . . . me.  Myself. I start thinking maybe I’m okay on my own, I don’t need God so much. (Yeah, Pastors fall into this, too.)

Then, as they always do in this life, stuff happens. I am battered by enemies – whether those enemies are health or finances or relationship challenges.

So what do I do?

I cry out to God. “Help!”

Do you see yourself in that cycle?

It’s our human cycle.

We abandon God and turn to our idols, whatever they are – money, power, sports, popularity, success, patriotism, politics, social media – whatever good things we turn to idols because we look to them for peace, love, and joy instead of God, because we look to them for freedom instead of God – when we turn to them it’s not that we lose our deliverance or our freedom we have in Christ – it’s that we can’t experience that deliverance and freedom.

God is always with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But we can separate ourselves from the experience of God with us, from the experience of God’s love, by turning to idols. And the biggest idol is . . . ourselves.

These stories in Judges call us to repentance. They remind us of the consequences of abandoning God for idols, and invite us to turn back and cry out to God.

These stories assure us that God will always answer, even when we like the Israelites don’t deserve it. (And we never deserve it.) And God will always remind and assure us that we have already been delivered, that we are forgiven, that we are saved, and that we are already – and forever – loved.

AMEN

(Preached June 3, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, ELCA)

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