Sunday, February 06, 2022

Life Update and Webinar: Decolonizing Church Partnerships

Friends,

Me sledding down and Alpine pass
As you have surely noticed, I haven't had the bandwidth or drive the past few years to post on this blog anything beyond the occasional sermon/reflection that I thought might resonate beyond the setting for which I wrote it. So, unless we are Facebook friends or chat from time to time, the only clues you have to what has been keeping me busy are the occasional updates to my bio page. Currently, I'm juggling six part-time vocational roles in addition to being a human striving to prioritize family, friends, and fun—including soaking in the beauty of Slovenia and the surrounding region before we move to New Delhi this summer.  

In God's classic sense of humor/wisdom, the moment I stopped chasing the dirty pink bunny of productivity and professional "success" and discovered that I quite enjoyed being an underemployed semi-recluse was the moment that folks started knocking on my door asking me to teach/coach/help them. This is the very abridged version of how I now find myself with three jobs in academia (coordinating the Osijek Doctoral Colloquium program and teaching courses at MTSO and BGU) on top of my unpaid appointments as shepherd of The Church of England's congregation in Slovenia, president of FPM, and Bishop Mande Muyombo's Executive Assistant for Strategic Partnerships and Engagement (i.e., his wingwoman/Gal Friday for relationships with the anglophone world). Oh, and there are some exciting upcoming collaborative book projects too. 

So, yeah, I didn't exactly go into early semi-retirement after all, but now the well-being of my body/mind and my inner circle of family/friends take priority over anything I'm asked to present or write for acquaintances and strangers. And this shift has been huge. Now I go on family nature hikes, take dance lessons with my husband, up-cycle "trash" into cool cardboard dollhouses with my daughter, create elaborate vintage and runway hairstyles, play boardgames with new friends, and video chat with my people all over the world BECAUSE I CAN and doing so makes me better at all that other stuff. 

Speaking of that other stuff, here's a webinar I recently recorded for BGU on the topic of decolonizing church partnerships. 




   

Taylor



Monday, November 15, 2021

Sermon: How to Provoke One Another (Hebrews 10:24)

preached Nov 14, 2021 in Ljubljana, Slovenia www.anglican.si  


Photo by Digital Editz
Photo from Digital Editz

Sisters and brothers in Christ, as we just discussed in today’s conversation with our children, we find ourselves in a liminal space—between remembering and honoring those who have gone before us and anticipating and getting ourselves ready for a future that is free from heartbreak, hatred, and oppression. The themes that run throughout this and next week’s lectionary texts are a longing for a divine intervention that turns the world upside down, a questioning of when these things will finally happen, a defiant proclamation that Christ is the king of this kingdom that is at hand, and a discussion of the significance of Christ’s sacrifice and how to be prepared for the days that will come.

There are many ways to approach scriptural study, and one method that some Christian mystics use is called Lectio Divina. Instead of examining the passages with an semi-emotionally detached academic approach, those using Lectio Divina read and meditate on a passage, paying attention to what words or phrases resonate with them and pondering what insights can be gained from wrestling with what bubbles up. When I tried the exercise this time around, what stood out to me were the last lines of the Hebrews reading: Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. How to Provoke One Another. Now there’s a good sermon title. 

Most of us here aren’t entirely comfortable with provoking other people. The word has rather negative connotations—like internet trolls who enjoy provoking arguments. Bible translators have searched for alternative words in English. They’ve tried using to spur, to stir up, to rouse, to stimulate, to encourage, to motivate, but to provoke seems to be the nearest word we have to the original Greek. Provoking one another to love and good deeds involves an element of risk, asking to step out of our comfort zones, knowing that tensions and conflict could arise. Love that stretches beyond society’s expectations of us—that involves taking concrete actions—is by its very nature controversial. It breaks boundaries, it discomforts the comfortable, and it makes our tidy well-enclosed social lives messy. And complicated. Anyone who claims that following Christ will make one’s personal and financial problems disappear is either a con-artist or has been duped one.

I was re-reminded of God’s mischievous love of provocation recently when a seminary asked to teach an online evangelism course next semester. Welp, that’s one way to spur me to binge read on a topic I often find discomforting. There too in all those books I’ve been reading is that same question, asked in a myriad of ways: How precisely are we to share the Good News of Christ’s love and atonement? How do we, as a congregation, stir up one another to fully walk our talk? Such things are easier said than done, and yet, if we don’t earnestly make the effort, then what exactly are we doing here? 

Are we simply going through the motions of a familiar ritual because we find catharsis in it, or do we truly believe that there is more to reality than what modern science has found a way to detect and measure? Do we believe that there is an omnipotent omnipresent sentient entity that is beyond our limited comprehension—so we anglophones simply call it God—and that God cares so deeply about humanity, yearns so desperately to be in relationship with us, that approximately 2,000 years ago God reached out through a divine messenger to tell a young unwed woman from an oppressed working-class family living in a village under colonial occupation that God saw her and had chosen her and her cousin Elizabeth to miraculously conceive, give birth to, and raise up sons, one who would herald the arrival of the anointed one and one who would inherit the throne of David and be known as the Son of God? Do we affirm that these women enthusiastically consented to this conspiracy to make God’s kingdom manifest here on Earth? Do we believe that the man whose birthday we celebrate next month is worthy to be called Christ the King? That through his humble birth, life, teachings, and self-sacrificial death the world was turned upside down? That salvation and citizenship in the Kingdom of God is not just about what happens when we die, but about who we are, the values we live by, and whose we are today and every day? In the depths of our hearts, do we believe all this to be true?

Sisters and brothers, if the answer is “Yes,” then what more is needed to be provoked into full-time discipleship and sharing with others what following Christ has done to not just heal but transform us? And, if the answer is “No” or “I’m not sure,” then let us be a safe place to talk about that too, because if we don’t have the grace and courage to be open and vulnerable with each other in this little community of ours, how can we expect to be able to have these conversations with our neighbors, relatives, or colleagues? 

And, no, I’m not talking about wearing “I Love Jesus” shirts at the office or knocking on neighbors’ doors asking them if they’ve been born again. What I am suggesting isn’t about that sort of thing. What I would like to encourage, motivate, or rouse us all to do today and every day is to live a more integrated and liberated life. That person we are in those moments when we allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit, overflowing with gratitude to God and unconditional love for all humanity—let us not confine them inside the walls of a church or to only our solitary time but introduce everyone we know and meet to that person because that person has life-changing power flowing through them. That person—we—can be the catalyst that transforms lives and—who knows?—even nations when we allow Christ to work through us.

The words of Apostle Paul:

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6 –New Living Translation


Amen. 


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sermon: The Rich Young Ruler and The Use of Money

Sermon preached October 10, 2021 at the Anglican Church in Ljubljana; Slovenia.  

Preaching Text: Mark 10:17-31 

Photo of coins
Photo by Pratikxox
This week’s lectionary Gospel reading contains Mark’s version of the Rich Young Ruler text. Preachers and theologians have struggled throughout the ages to figure out how to interpret this story without concluding that disciples of Christ are required to sell everything we own and give away all our money to the poor. Countless arguments have been constructed, ranging from “Jesus’ instructions were for that specific man; not us” to “the eye of the needle comment was hyperbole.” Then there are the economic justifications—if everyone gave away everything they owned, who would plow the fields, catch the fish, construct houses or weave clothes? And yet, many a devote believer—one the most famous being Saint Nicholas—has been inspired by the story to take a vow of poverty, give their possessions to those in need, and live the rest of their days in an intentional community of fellow disciples. Their journal writings that have survived until today paint a picture of persons who, while still acutely aware of the sorrow and struggles of human existence, viewed what they gained by their decision as infinitely more valuable than what they gave up.          

Perhaps now more than ever, we live in a materialistic world. Those of us gathered today all come from societies that have so engorged their homes with possessions that t.v. shows and products about how to organize and/or liberate ourselves from all this stuff have become big business. And yet, we still tend to be so caught up in morally justifying why it is ok for Christians to own these homes filled with shiny things—so caught up in seeking a formula for how much we can keep and how much we must put in the offering plate—that we miss other dimensions of today’s Gospel reading—A story so important that it is found not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well.

Who is the man in these accounts? In Mark, we are told that he has many possessions. In Matthew, we learn that he is young, and in Luke he is referred to as a ruler. He is someone who has strived since his childhood to live a life pleasing to God, yet he remains anxious about whether he has done enough to inherit eternal life. So how would a young man who frets about being a good enough man have become wealthy and powerful?  There’s no mention in the texts of a miraculous rags to riches backstory, so I’m fairly confident in concluding that he obtained his socio-economic status the normal way—he inherited it. 

So here, imagine if you will, we have a young man—odds are high that he’s the firstborn son—who grew up in an opulent home in a politically powerful household. It would have been a big household too—full of both relatives and servants—and presumably a lot of land. And remember this is the first century in a region under Roman occupation. You couldn’t be a ruler unless you were in Rome’s pocket. In my imagination, I see an anxious perfectionistic teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is under a ton of performance pressure. He is profoundly worried about his status in the eyes of others and, while he refuses to admit it to himself, recognizes that what is required of him to please his family is at odds with what is pleasing to God. In Mark’s telling, the young man kneels down when he comes to Jesus. Scholar David Lose points out that everywhere else in Mark where someone kneels down, they are requesting healing for themselves or a loved one.  So when the man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, the great physician, sees the man’s true ailment and offers him the way to become healed. 

You see, the man’s mind is fixated on and fretting about his inheritance. This isn’t surprising; his maternal and paternal figures would have told him since his birth that who he is—and who he must be—is the heir, and that there are rules one must closely follow or risk losing one’s inheritance and becoming a nobody. The family expects him to maintain their high status in society, but he—and everyone else for that matter—knows exactly how their wealth and power were acquired and maintained. Scholar Luis Menédez-Antuña notes that the man’s household would have held many enslaved persons.   Selling all he owned would have included losing them and the fruits of their labor as well. And following Jesus’ order to then give all his money to the poor would mean that the enslaved, marginalized, and exploited in his household and community would suddenly rank higher than him in terms of their socio-economic position. 

Sisters and brothers, I think this was more than your average “quit your lucrative job, sell everything, and join the Peace Corps” conversation. This was an invitation to collaborate with Jesus in a political movement—flipping the tables on an unjust social order. Not simply refusing to lead the family business, but liquidating the assets and distributing them to those the family had oppressed. Think of the disruption—a community where the poor now have money, assets, and options! A ruler who leverages his power to implode the system from the inside, makes financial amends with those his family has abused, and then follows Jesus to cross! 

Jesus understands that this is what it would take to heal the brokenness, to liberate the young man from the burdens he carries, and allow him to experience the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. But the price of this healing—of this inheritance—was more than he was willing to give up, and he went away grieving.                   

What can this story teach us? Again, that’s an uncomfortable question with many possible answers. I don’t think that the moral is that middle-class folks need to have giant yard sales and move into tiny homes or communes, although buying less stuff and having a smaller carbon footprint is an act of creation care and environmental justice.  The way I see it, the story invites us to reflect deeply on the privileges we inherited at birth—from our skin tone to our citizenship—to acknowledge the advantages we have been granted in a socio-economic pyramid system that depends on trapping much of humanity at the bottom so that we enjoy the comforts of the middle levels. We can’t as individuals escape the system, but we do have the power to punch holes in it. 

The Anglican priest John Wesley did a lot of system disrupting in his day, creating a religious movement known as Methodism, which required of its members to confess their complicity in unjust systems and to actively break down socio-economic barriers. Wesley recognized that love and economic justice were at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, and thus they were at the center of his teachings and work as well. One of Wesley’s most famous sermons was titled “The Use of Money.”   Its main points are usually summed up as “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can” and cited in sermons affirming entrepreneurship, frugality, and especially giving generous tithes and offerings to the church. 

But what Wesley actually emphasized was something else. Yes, he believed that it is good for Christians to be engaged in income-producing activities, and he insisted on living below one’s personal means—living modestly so that money is a tool you use to do good, not a temptation that leads to vanity and greed. And, yes, Wesley affirmed giving away one’s money in those in need, but he did not view this as the primary way for Christians to use money to address the problems of society. In fact, he assumed that once one took care of one’s personal needs and the needs of family and friends, there wouldn’t be much if anything left to give away. Why? Because instead of focusing on giving away one’s money, Wesley wanted to talk about the ethics of making it. No forced labor. No fraud. No dangerous or miserable working conditions. No excessive working hours. No poverty wages. No pawn-broking. No undermining a neighbor’s business. No profiting from or enabling sinful behavior. The list goes on and on. In short, Wesley believed that Christians are called to disrupt business-as-usual by practicing Kingdom values.

Siblings in Christ, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be wonderful to sell [well, almost] everything and join a monastic community—one that welcomed couples and kids, of course. Intentional living where neighbor looks after the needs of neighbor, where we work side-by-side and break bread together—that sounds a lot like heaven to me. But just as there are many parts of the body, there is more than one gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus more than one way to faithfully serve Christ. And so, my challenge to you this month is, as your family studies and reflects upon the saints we honor, talk about what their stories inspire you to change in your life, and then take a leap of faith and do it. 

Amen   


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Naming Our Hidden Assumptions: Holistic Healing of Mission Partnerships

Adapted from talk I gave at the 21 May 2021 online symposium, Mission Organisations in Times and Places of Worldwide Connectivities, Inequalities, and Imaginaries; co-hosted by the Centre for Theology and Christianity Worldwide, Netherlandse Zendings Raad (Dutch Mission Council), and Protestant Theological University-Amsterdam



For much of my life I have been wrestling with a fundamental question: Why hasn’t humanity—or at least the Church—come together to heal the violence, poverty, and injustice in our world? Why do the missional partnerships and organizations we have formed to tackle such problems and bear witness to our faith so often fail?  What is it that we still do not understand? For me, and I suspect for you as well, the questions relating to how to address the dysfunctions within our boundary-crossing relationships and organizations are not simply intellectual quandaries, they are deeply personal examinations, as we seek to distinguish between what the Holy Spirit is inviting us to do and what is in actuality the voice of hubris mixed with power, privilege, pain, and prejudice. 

My journey on this quest began in earnest in secondary school—the first time I traveled to the Katanga region of what is now called DR Congo. I could sense on a gut level that there was something unhealthy about the relational dynamics I was witnessing between local church leaders, the foreign missionaries, and the mission board that was sending funds for salaries and project support, but I lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate this knowing. Since then I have roamed the world, turning to countless scholars and practitioners in a number of disciplines trying to get to the bottom of what 15-year-old me could sense but not explain. And in that journey, I have been profoundly changed. 

Before I could effectively teach what I was learning, I had to acknowledge and repent of beliefs I had subconsciously absorbed and accepted as truth. I needed to face my racist and classist assumptions of moral and intellectual superiority over people I wanted to help. I had to face my hubris, my fantasies about being a hero—a savior to the suffering and oppressed. I had to examine the guilt, grief, and shame I carried for living a privileged and relatively comfortable life while millions of people struggled to survive the day, and I had to get honest with myself about whether the actions I took to alleviate these feelings were doing more harm than good in the world.  

And so, as I pondered and prayed on what I could contribute to the conversation, I decided that instead of offering a history lesson, I could speak to you in my heart’s language about what I’m convinced that we, as mission scholars and practitioners, need to start openly discussing.  My overarching assertion is contained in the title I chose: In order for the healing of our missional relationships and organizations to occur, we must acknowledge and address the underlying toxic beliefs and wounds within ourselves—those things which for so long have been too hidden or painful for us to face. This includes, but is not limited to, assumptions of mental and intellectual superiority or inferiority, racism, savior complexes, lust for power and domination, guilt and shame relating to one’s socio-economic status, alienation, and inherited or directly experienced trauma.  

Nanci Luna Jimnénez, an educator specializing in healing from oppression-based trauma, says that “no movement you are a part of will be any healthier than you are.”* Now one could debate exceptions to this statement, but her point was this—if we want our communities and organizations to be healthy, we need to get serious about our own psychological and spiritual health. Thankfully, we don’t have to start this effort from zero. There is already a wealth of scholarship out there—from Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi’s work on the psycho-affective aspects of colonialism to Critical Race Theory, Christian ethicist Samuel Wells’ writings on alienation, and even Brené Brown’s work on healing from shame and guilt. What I am inviting the missiology community to do is to take the conversations coming from the decolonization moment and the conversations coming from the anti-racism movement and the conversations about trauma, mental illness, healing and wholeness and the conversations about theologies of atonement and pull them together into our writings and public forums so that they start effectively talking to one another. I truly believe that this action is the catalyst we have been searching for in moving forward towards healthier boundary-crossing missional efforts on a systemic level.  

In her recent paper Racism Awareness in Mission, our colleague Kirsteen Kim makes three assertions that I would like to highlight: 1) “The link between colonialism and contemporary racism needs to be made explicit in missiology;” 2) “At the very least, racism awareness should be integral to mission education and even a touchstone for authentic missiology;” 3) “We should examine the use of ‘culture’ in missiology.”  To build on Kirsteen’s last assertion, I’d like to amplify what anti-racism educator Lillian Roybal Rose wrote about the use of the term culture in our discourse: “Let's call culture anything that is benign or spiritual or connected. And let's call anything that demeans and devalues human beings oppression. Let's separate the two. Because if we don't, then in order to not be oppressed it begins to feel, for many of us, that we have to lose our culture.”**  When I apply Lillian’s linguistical distinction to the topic of church mission organizations and scholarship, it becomes clear to me that so much that has been labeled over the years a community’s culture that needs to be challenged through educational programs or evangelism, is, in fact, predictable social dynamics in response to collective trauma, oppression and extreme poverty. It is both condescending and unhelpful to frame such dysfunctions as a difference in cultures. Instead, I suggest we look to the scholarship on wholistic healing practices, both on the individual and community level.       

As Christian missiologists, we have an advantage over our academic counterparts in the secular NGO and development community because we have an overflowing abundance of teachings and testimonies—both ancient and modern—from all over the world about the healing powers of Christ—about liberation from guilt and shame—about finding love and acceptance in a community of faith, experiencing salvation and at-one-ment.  For example, in his powerful book, A Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells names and declares false one of the most deeply hidden assumptions held by Christians with socio-economic privilege—that while the poor and marginalized need our help, we would be better off without them. Wells says to those who go on mission trips and fund mission projects “You are not the answer to their prayer. They are the answer to yours. You are searching for a salvation only they can bring.”***  

Siblings in Christ- We are the broken ones in need of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and intimacy without pretense. Boundary-crossing relationships, the building of new communities based on the values of love, equality, and restorative justice modeled to us by Christ, offer us the at-one-ment we seek. As we discuss the complexities of dismantling organizational systems built on delusions of superiority mixed with guilt, we must never lose sight of this truth.

Prayers for health and healing,

Taylor



*Conversation with Jiménez on March 18, 2017 at workshop she led at the USA Embassy in Algiers, Algeria. Jiménez cited her mentor Lillian Roybal Rose as well as Shelly Brown the ones who first taught her this.
** “Healing from Racism: Cross-Cultural Leadership Teaching for the Multicultural Future,” Winds of Change (Spring 1995), 17, accessed September 1, 2017, www.roybalrose.com/healing.pdf.
***Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. p 96


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

New Book! The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere

Friends,

Last year I had the honor to become one of the contributing authors to the edited volume, The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere. I'm happy to say that it is now available for purchase!  (If it is beyond your book budget, wait a bit for there to be a paperback version and/or a promo sale).

Taylor


ABSTRACT

"This book brings together Methodist scholars and reflective practitioners from around the world to consider how emerging practices of mission and evangelism shape contemporary theologies of mission.

Engaging contemporary issues including migration, nationalism, climate change, postcolonial contexts, and the growth of the Methodist church in the Global South, this book examines multiple forms of mission, including evangelism, education, health, and ministries of compassion. A global group of contributors discusses mission as no longer primarily a Western activity but an enterprise of the entire church throughout the world.

This volume will be of interest to researchers studying missiology, evangelism, global Christianity, and Methodism and to students of Methodism and mission."


Sunday, January 10, 2021

More Than Words: The Baptism of Christ

 sermon preached via Zoom January 10, 2021 in The Church of England in Slovenia. 

Lectionary Texts: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Mark 1:4-11 


Friends, 

Baptism of Christ by David Zelenka
Happy 2021!  We made it. We survived 2020, and while we aren’t out of this surreal period of world history yet, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is finally visible. 

The new reality we enter into won’t be the same as the one we left eleven months ago. Some changes are permanent, and some wounds won’t heal in our lifetime. We have much difficult work ahead of us as we strive to create a more just society. But soon we will be able to hug and shake hands again. Attend concerts and parties. Play sports and dance together. Partake of the bread and wine of Holy Communion as a community of faith gathered in one physical place.

After a year spent talking into screens, we yearn for more than words. Yes, words can be powerful, but they simply aren’t enough. To live long and prosper we need that which is tangible, tactile. 

This, I believe, is why in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis we have two separate creation narratives, deliberately placed side by side. First the story of a deity so powerful that all of creation came into being simply through God’s verbal command. And then, a story of a deity who personally formed all living creatures with the dust of the earth and blew life into the nostrils of humanity. God’s hands sculpting every curve of our body. God’s mouth against our face filling our lungs with the exhaled spark of life. The very first acts of physical intimacy, of love made tactile.  

The Gospel According to John tells it another way. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1, 14)

Word and Flesh. Faith and Works. The voice of the Lord and the presence of the Lord. Good News and release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. (Luke 4:18) The intangible and tangible in perfect harmony.  

In today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus walking from his home in Nazareth to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  John’s hands hold him as he plunges into the waters. And just as he is coming back up—with the feel of the air against his wet skin, he sees the “heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

My friends, in the birth and baptism of Christ we are reminded of the Good News that the God we worship isn’t a distant abstract being we hope to spiritually encounter after our bodies have returned to dust. Our Lord physically meets us here—through the miracle of childbirth. God seen in the eyes of a swaddled newborn baby. Felt in a mountaintop breeze or when immersed in rejuvenating waters. Christ, the Word made Flesh, has the power to heal with a verbal command and yet he understands the visceral power of mixing dirt with his own saliva to make a cool compress that restores our sight. (John 9:1-10) Christ suffers with the suffering, and breaks bread with the marginalized. Christ invites us not into an ascetic life, but a life that revels in the sacredness of experiencing the physical world.      

And so, while we still have many more weeks or months of physical distancing ahead of us, I invite us to use this time to seek out and prioritize practices we can do even now to refill our hearts and strengthen our connection to humanity and all of creation. Make time each day to step away from our electronic devices; take a walk in the woods or a park; pick up that musical instrument in the back of the closet; paint a sunset; kick a soccer ball; roll down a hill; soak in those bursts of sunshine. Get out of our heads and back into our bodies. And then, once we viscerally remember who we are and whose we are, let us continue to use the power of our words and actions to be catalysts in this world for healing, reconciliation, justice, and liberation. 

Amen.





Sunday, November 08, 2020

Turning the World Upside Down: Reading the Beatitudes on All Saints Day

Adapted from sermon preached Nov 2020 in The Church of England's congregation in Ljubljana, Slovenia


Focus Lectionary Text: Matthew 5:1-12

One of the perks and challenges this past year of being a Methodist pastor serving in an Anglican congregation has been getting acquainted with a different hymnal full of songs I had never heard before. This past week I learned three more All Saints Day hymns, including one often known as Turning the World Upside Down. 

Turning the world upside down. I don’t know about you, but that’s sounds great to me. I think about the time Jesus started raging and flipping tables in the temple courts, driving everyone out with a whip made of cords. The Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus especially targeted the tables of money changers and those selling doves, calling the merchants robbers. 

Why those tables more than others? Well, the wealthy didn’t need to go to a currency exchange booth in the temple with its high transaction fees. They had no shortage of cash on hand. And the wealthy weren’t the ones purchasing overpriced doves to offer as a sacrifice. That’s what the poorest of the poor folks did when they couldn’t afford a lamb let alone a cow. The merchants Jesus lashed out at weren’t selling the first century’s version of cookies and quilts in the church foyer. This was about those in control turning having access to God’s love and mercy into a financial transaction that was out of reach for way too many people. Society’s system of exploiting the most vulnerable extended into the realm of institutional religion, sending the message to those unable to pay these exorbitant fees that God does not hear their prayers, forgive their sins, or even care about their suffering.       

Scholar Richard Beck writes that Christ’s righteous fury about the exploitation of the poor is “what causes Jesus to engage in a protest action that shuts down the financial system of the city during the annual peak of its commercial activity, where he "would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts" during the Passover week. An action akin to shutting down the Wall Street trading floor or shopping during Black Friday.” 

So why does The Church of England’s hymnal include Turning the World Upside Down in its list of All Saints Day hymns? What do its lyrics have to do with the lectionary's Gospel reading for the day? Everything. 

Let’s turn back in the story to Matthew 4:12-13, where we are told that “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.” Siblings in Christ, when Jesus heard that his cousin John’s prophetic ministry of calling out to the masses and preaching repentance was at its end, he knew it was his time to step up. He left his hometown of Nazareth, but didn’t go straight to Jerusalem. He went instead to the fishing villages surrounding a large lake known as the Sea of Galilee, way up to Capernaum at the far north end. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). It is there that he began his grassroots organizing work, walking along the lakeshore and encouraging people to leave their boats and follow him.

Matthew tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:23-25). This is the point in the story where today’s Gospel reading begins:

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).  The message Jesus preached is what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and the opening portion we read today we call the Beatitudes. There on a rolling hillside overlooking the water, Jesus spoke not to the religious gatekeepers, but to the people on the margins.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:3-12)

Over the centuries, power holders have twisted these words, hypocritically telling those whose backs they stand on that good Christians are supposed to be content with being poor, meek, and persecuted—that they should be happy in their suffering because they’ll be rewarded after they die. 

But that is not what Jesus was saying. Prof Lance Pape writes that “the list we find here is in the indicative mood, not the imperative. It is description, not prescription.” And, Prof Raj Nadella asserts that “the Beatitudes do not glorify situations of suffering but announce reversal of fortunes for the oppressed.”  Nadella points to the semantics of the text in its original language. Verse four, for example, is poorly translated in most anglophone Bibles. He writes that “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted—does not fully capture the force of the Greek verb at the end—parakleytheysontai. . . , [which] is derived from the Greek word paraclete, which was used in courtroom settings in the first century Greco-Roman context. It referred to lawyers and advocates and has the connotation of interceding on behalf of those who need assistance.” Jesus isn’t saying that those who mourn will get a comforting hug, he’s saying they will get justice and reparations.   

Nadella suspects that the ambiguity in the grammar about who exactly will be bringing about justice for these whom Jesus calls blessed is deliberate. Many assume it is God, but it could also be read as marching orders to Christ’s followers there on that hillside, including the persecuted themselves. Nadella writes that “many of the Beatitudes place the second part in the active voice…suggesting that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation. Rather than turn the afflicted and the oppressed into objects of our compassion and advocacy, the Church must acknowledge their own agency and actively work with them to facilitate the reversal of fortunes Jesus has promised them.”  

Turning the world upside down. Every saint that we celebrate on All Saints Day answered a call to strive to live a life consistent with the values of the Kin-dom of God, and, in doing so, they participated in the sacred work of turning the world upside down. May we honor their lives and show our love for God in our walk and our talk by stepping up—'cause it is our turn.

Amen  

Hymn: Turning the World Upside Down



Sunday, November 01, 2020

An All Saints Day Devotion Suggestion

An All Saints Day Devotion 
Ljubljana, Slovenia 
Nov 1, 2020 


Friends, 

Today congregations around the world celebrate All Saints Day. While frequently overshadowed in the USA and Canada by the more secular traditions on All Hallows’ Eve (a.k.a Halloween), All Saints Day is a time to pause and honor the saints in the faith that have gone before us. Many families mark the day by visiting the graves of loved ones, their ancestors in the faith. In a number of congregations that I know, the names of members who passed away in the past year are read aloud. Here in Slovenia, lighting candles of remembrance plays a major part of this annual ritual. 

2020 has been a hard year. It has been full of losses—loss of loved ones, health, employment, much-wanted trips and gatherings, etc.—as well as losses than can be hard to articulate, such the loss of a sense of confidence of what our next month or even week will bring. This past week, I found myself on a video call with friend from seminary talking about how it is with our souls these days. She helped me name some of the losses I had not fully allowed myself to grieve, and we discussed that perhaps this year it would be cathartic for me to light or paint candles for those things as well. It was indeed. 

Sisters and brothers, it is good and right for us to name, honor, and grieve our losses, and it is good and right to remind ourselves that we are a people of hope—a hope that for over two millennia has often been symbolized with a lit candle, a light to guide our path and warm our hearts. 

This week I encourage you set aside time—either just yourself or with others in your house or on your screen—to light, sculpt, draw, or paint candles representing both named losses and hope in your life. Pray for the sorrow and fear in the world, give thanks for the lives of the saints who passed before you, and invite the Light of Christ to shine brightly in your life.

All my Love,

Taylor

Monday, October 12, 2020

Again, I say, Rejoice! Paul, Pollyanna, and Philippi

Sermon preached in the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia 

October 11, 2020

Lectionary focus text: Philippians 4:1-9


Hayley Mills as Pollyanna
Hayley Mills as Pollyanna

One of my favorite films growing up was Disney's 1960 adaptation of the novel Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills. In it, a young girl comes to live with her stern wealthy aunt in a puritanical town. Gradually, Pollyanna’s infectious positive attitude transforms the people of this community. One scene that inspired a long-running joke in my family is when the pastor walks up to the pulpit and begins a fire and brimstone sermon with a booming “Death comes unexpectedly!” Thankfully for the pastor and his congregation, Pollyanna is able to gently give him feedback on his preaching style and persuades him to shift his focus to the numerous "glad texts" in the Bible, such as today’s letter from Paul, which encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. 

I was an adult before I began to understand the depth and nuance of Pollyanna and the theological discourse in the tale. If you come away thinking that the moral of the story is to always be cheerful—to practice what theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark as a solar Christianity where acknowledging injustice, doubt, and despair is taboo—then I encourage you to look again. Pollyanna may have presented as an abnormally optimistic child, but she was processing major trauma and culture shock underneath her sunny demeanor. She had been extremely close to her missionary parents who had both just died, and she had grown up until that point in the West Indies in poverty conditions, having never even owned a doll, let alone worn a fancy dress. Her parents had taught her to deal with disappointment by playing a game requiring her to identify something she could still be thankful for, and answers involving humor were encouraged. And so, when her whole world is ripped out from under her, Pollyanna clings to their glad game and invites others to join her, because that is a family ritual that cannot be taken away from her.     

Today’s lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also more than it may appear at first glance. The thing about reading old letters is that, without knowing the context of the conversation—the people and their past conversations and interactions—it is a bit like listening to a stranger talking on the phone. We can imagine the other half of the conversation, and we can make educated guesses about what the stranger is trying to communicate, but some things we simply cannot know.  For example, who exactly are Euodia and Syntyche? About all we know for certain is that they were Christian women who worked alongside Paul, that Paul urged the two to be of the same mind in the Lord, and he asked the community to help them. Many a sermon has been preached about the alleged squabbling between Euodia and Syntyche, but as I searched through scripture commentaries this week, I found a number of New Testament scholars arguing that these women have been unjustly maligned over the years. David Fredrickson writes that “people in antiquity were often encouraged to do what they were already doing; this was the polite way of moral direction.” 

Frederickson believes that Paul was not scolding but instead writing them a letter of recommendation, telling the community that they should help these women who had struggled alongside him. The exact word Paul used to describe the nature of their relationship to him translates better to “co-athletes.” The metaphorical imagery is that of the two running in the stadium with Paul, which may have been rather jarring to the recipients of the letter considering that that during this time only those society viewed as true men were allowed to compete in or even watch the games, and to ensure that others could not disguise themselves and sneak in, no one in the stadium was allowed to wear clothing. 

After vouching for Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement as colleagues in the faith who have proven their dedication and valor, Paul encourages them repeatedly to rejoice in the Lord. Paul speaks of gentleness and says to not worry about anything but to make requests known to God. He writes that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

Rejoice! Don’t worry about anything. Just tell God what you want. Taken out of context, these sound like the words of a prosperity gospel preacher writing from his private jet. But Paul isn’t a wealthy man who has no major worries. He is writing from prison, and he doesn’t know whether he will get out of there alive. Professor Christian A. Eberhart asserts that “the Apostle Paul could rejoice because he did not fear death.” His joy is not superficial; “it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.” 

Sisters and brothers, rejoicing in times of crisis and uncertainty and handing over our worries and laments to God does not mean we are naive, insensitive, or willfully ignorant. It is easy to praise God in the good times. Doing so in the hard times is a bold declaration of our source of hope and where our loyalties lie.  

A lot will happen between now and the next time we gather. Covid numbers around the globe will change. There might be another lockdown, and there might be a new treatment discovered. There will have been another presidential election in the USA. I suspect this fall is going to take us on an emotional rollercoaster. And so, my spiritual and mental health advice for us today comes directly from Paul. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).

Amen. 


The pastor's joy-filled testimony from the 1989 musical remake, Polly (Yes, I own the soundtrack)

Friday, October 09, 2020

My Book: Decolonizing Mission Partnerships

I am proud to announce that my doctoral thesis has been published in the American Society of Missiology's monograph series! 

This book has been many years in the making. Not only does it encompass much of my research and assertions about the history and relationship dynamics between United Methodists in North Katanga in the USA, it sets up a conceptual framework through which one can analyze other missional collaborations in postcolonial contexts.   

Paper copies can be ordered directly via Wipf and Stock (for the publisher's discounted price) or from a number of major booksellers. For those on a budget, there is a Kindle version for just $10