First Sermon

I have been preaching for half a century.

I have been preaching for 50 years. Half a century. At 57 years old, I am a virtual stranger to myself if I am not a preacher. A woman. A preaching woman.

The poem below recalls my early preaching years. I practiced as a child on a captive congregation of Barbies, G I Jerrys and other dolls. The poem was published in *82 Review several years ago. My calling came early, and I have been sustained over many years as a proclaimer by God’s love and grace.

I preached my initial sermon
to an ecumenical throng of listeners
gathered on my childhood bed
in that little yellow room
in the house at 243 Winston Lane.
I was six years old.

Mrs. Beasley, wire-rimmed glasses askance.
She never stopped smiling.
Barbie and Ken side by side.
(They arrived in their pink convertible, top down.)
G.I. Jerry (I named him after my dad) in full fatigues.
He came packing
but left his semi-automatic at the foot of the bed.
Brownie Scout doll, missing her beanie and one sock,
winked a single eye at Little Red Riding Hood.
“I know my way around the forest.”
Red said nothing,
stared straight ahead. Indomitable. Wooden.
Madame Alexander, her expression plastic,
kept her eyes fixed on the conventicle
of purple-and-yellow haired trolls.
Howdy Doody looked eager, but I was not fooled.
His commitment has never been more
than mere lip service.
A bride showed up,
costumed in wedding day white.
She was alone
and kept her story to herself.
The Liddle Kiddles created the biggest stir
spilling out of their house and onto the bed
in a disorderly pile of teeny tiny arms and legs
and teeny tiny accessories galore.
My congregation was gathered.
I preached.

Perhaps all were saved that day
or maybe none at all.
We all needed saving:
wars and rumors of wars
hunger
violence
brokenness of every kind imaginable. 
But then, as now when a word is proclaimed
to some assemblages, 
no sign of response could be seen or heard
until the preacher without intending it
pulled Mrs. Beasley’s string
and she said what was on her mind:
“Speak a little louder, dear, so Mrs. Beasley can hear you.”

A Water Jar Left Behind

And she goes on her way to proclaim God’s Gospel truth—to preach.

“I think the church is caving in to women preachers.”

Well-known pastor, John MacArthur, spoke these words this past weekend at a celebration of his 50th year in ministry. Speaking on a stage with two other men (no women), MacArthur made other negative, dismissive and derisive comments about evangelical women leaders and the #MeToo movement. https://religionnews.com/2019/10/19/accusing-sbc-of-caving-john-macarthur-says-beth-moore-should-go-home/

I began preaching the Gospel in 1987 as a pastor in the mountains of Virginia. Now, 32 years later, I am honored to teach ministry students every day at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Many of those students are women, and they are called to preach. I have heard their voices. They are astounding, insightful, passionate, and prophetic preachers.

The best way I know to respond when comments like MacArthur’s make news headlines is to do what God called me to do—preach. I offered the following sermon at one of our school’s new student orientation services several years ago. The sermon text was John 4, a story that carries the familiar title, “The Woman at the Well.”

Called to preach

Thirst. High noon. A well. And a water jar left behind.

They meet at Jacob’s well. A well that holds stories. Maybe even secrets.

Jesus is on his way somewhere else. She is collecting water. As she does everyday. Alone. At noon. To survive. 

They meet. And when they meet? So do their personal stories. And the realities of their lives. A Jewish man. A Samaritan woman. And a long history of cultural, political and religious clashes between their peoples. A long history of too many assumptions. Too many prejudices. A long history of conversations never shared, of possibilities and mysteries never set free. 

They meet. And when they meet. Something happens. 

Don’t be fooled by the misogynist veneer too many sermons have put over this story. Sometimes we are too quick to think and act like we know the woman in this story—what she lacks and what she needs. And yet—we don’t even know her name. How can we know what she needs if we haven’t gotten close enough to her even to know her name? And Jesus? We think we know about Jesus too…and yet…

They meet. And when they meet? A conversation. 26 verses. The longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospel of John. Not one of those kinds where one person is a submissive listener while the other waxes eloquent with spit-shined but unsubstantiated advice. This is a real conversation. Not small talk. A lively dance of words between two thirsty people. Words that dip and weave around complex theological topics—living water, worship, spirit, truth, salvation, the identity of the Messiah. 

The woman? She is wise in her life-weariness, and she asks questions, insists on clarifications, offers her opinions. She is bold. Fearless, in a way, too. Because she chooses to have conversation with him. In spite of who she thinks he is and in the face of all that other people have assumed she is.

And Jesus? Even as he talks about living water he is bone tired, thirsty, vulnerable—dependent upon her hospitality because he has no bucket and she? She has the water jar she carries with her everyday, and she offers hospitality—the thirst-quenching water in her jar mingling with water offered by Rachel and Zipporah and countless other women right here at Jacob’s well…

They meet. And when they meet? Something happens. Jesus—talks about living water and invites her to look again at what she thinks she knows about water. About life. And Jesus—the thirsty one who has no bucket—could it be that as she offers him water, he sees her? And sees in her the spirit and truth she bears with courage to that well everyday? Does he see in her something he needs to know about himself?

She sees him. He sees her. Shared vulnerability. Mutual regard. No distancing stares or objectifying gazes. She sees him. He sees her. Both are changed. Redeemed somehow. Jesus claims his identity as Messiah—in her presence. She is the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation. She is a witness. And she goes on her way—to proclaim new truth. To preach.

Amen.

Draw deep, pour out, preach

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

Are we the woman with the water jar,
bent on the chore of the moment,
intent on survival,
weariness living in our bones,
thirst for God drowning in the business of the day?

She is strong,
physically strong enough to carry that jar of water.
Maybe we can understand that.
What it means to be strong—
but not so strong.
Sure—but not so sure.
Seeking—

Then—in the noonday lull—
A tired stranger with no bucket.
Drawing deep.
Pouring out.
She is changed.
Jesus is changed.
We are changed.
Drinking water becomes living water.
An everyday chore becomes Gospel vocation.
An encounter with a stranger becomes a call to preach.

Her witness lives on today.
The empty jar.
A well of daily comings and goings.
Called.

“Draw deep.”
”Pour out.”

Preach Gospel news
In the name of the One who
Creates,
Redeems,
and sustains.

No Sex or Violence and Just a Little Bit of Murder

“Aria wanted to look back but she was afraid. After all, everybody knew what happened to Lot’s wife when she looked back. So she ran.”

So begins Come Home Free.

What is it like to live a life homesick forever? Aria never feels like she fits in her family. But when she falls in love with Luke Wagner, she thinks she has found “home.” Little does she know what a stranger she will become in her own life. 

Clara feels like a stranger in her life too. How can a daughter be so different from her own mother? When her mother gives her the old family Bible, she hopes to discover answers in its pages. The answers she finds only make her feel less at home in her own body and with the people she calls “family.”

Though separated by more than 70 years, Clara and Aria seek truth–about themselves and the places and people they call home.

These words now appear in the “book description” section of Amazon.com for a novel entitled Come Home Freeby Hunter Crainshaw. I am excited to announce that I co-wrote this novel with Sheila Hunter. While I have published four academic books, this is my first attempt at writing fiction, and I am pleased to introduce it and its characters to you, my blogging friends.

The desire to write this story was sparked 30 years ago when I learned about a family mystery. About five years ago, Sheila said to me, “You just need to write the thing. Let’s do it together.” The idea of co-imagining the full novel took root. Now, after many hours of writing, not a few moments of self-doubt, several dead-end storyline pathways, and countless days of editing, the digital version of the novel is available on Amazon.com.

The novel tells the stories of two primary characters, Aria and Ophelia, but its pages are alive with the voices and faces of other characters who remind us of what it means to be friends and family to each other. Come Home Free is not a steamy romance, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, or a labyrinthine mystery. Some people might call it “Southern fiction.” Others might say it is “religious fiction.” What we hope is that the story invites people to laugh and perhaps even to have hope again in the mysteries of home.

A print version of the novel will be available through Amazon in a few weeks. For now, the digital version is $4.99 and can be downloaded starting today.

Co-author Sheila Hunter owns Hunter Piano Service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and is a photographer, blogger, and musician.

Encrypted! Thoughts on the Occasion of an Ordination

 

Bird in the Hand 4

He told them another parable, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. And this seed is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

He spoke another parable to them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until all of it was leavened.” All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. . . This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”       Matthew 13:31-35

Stars. They encrypt the night skies with mystery and then steal away into the morning light. Crocuses peer up over shade-stranded snow piles. Daffodils brave late-winter chills to trumpet the arrival of spring. Here and there, now and then, Spirit winds stir up life’s inscrutable veil and we see. The hands of an artist. The hands of a musician. The hands of God.

Psalm 90 speaks of hands: “Let the beauty of the Lord be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.” I hear these words, glimpse creation’s grandiloquent beauty. And I wonder. What about my hands? Your hands? Too many hands in our world break and destroy. Too many injure and scar. Whose hands will hold broken hearts with gentleness? Whose hands will paint God’s grace on life’s landscapes of despair?

For me, these are questions of Christian ministry that matter. How do my hands, your hands, our hands join God in God’s justice-doing, beauty-creating, music-making work?

“A man took and sowed a mustard seed in a field…”

Maybe we can smell it. The rain-damp soil. Or perhaps we can see him. We don’t often see him. He stays in the fields. Weary boots caked with mud, arms sun-singed and sinewy…

“A man took and sowed…”

“A woman took and hid yeast in three measures of flour. . .”

Maybe we can smell it. Bread. Baking. It is hard not to smell bread baking, but it is easy not to see her. She stays in the kitchen. Where the ovens are hot and flour fogs the air.

“A woman took and hid…”

“A man took and sowed…”

Why these two unnamed characters who do such everyday work? Why are they connected to the Kingdom of Heaven in an ancient Gospel story that has ignited hope and fueled arguments and promised redemption these 2000 years since it was written down? Matthew gives us a hint. The man who took and sowed? The woman who took and hid? Parables about them and other everyday things and people are here in the Gospel to proclaim “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Something hidden? What hidden things do the church and people of faith today need to see?

A woman took and hid. . .

They are strong hands. Durable. When I first noticed her, she was up to her elbows in 30 pounds of flour. A stray wisp of hair falls across her flushed face as she works the dough. No bread machine. Hands and forearms move forward and back, back and forward. Relentless. Fierce somehow. But graceful. Yes—she is right there in Matthew 13:33. But I have hardly noticed her. The yeast is like the kingdom of heaven, people in the know say. And who wouldn’t notice heavenly yeast? Aren’t the yeast and the kingdom of heaven the point of the parable? Who notices her?

But there she is. A eukaryotic microorganism—yeast—hides her. But it is her hands that hide that microorganism in enough dough to make bread for 150 people. She encrypts yeast into the dough’s viscous density, and the yeast changes the dough. Infiltrates every part of it. The hidden one hides rising up power in ordinary flour, water, and lard. The dough rises. Life rises.  Bread rises. Political food. Poor people’s food. Our food. Sun-goldened loaves seasoned by the scent of the soil.

A woman took and hid.

A man took and sowed.

His hands are strong too, but in a different way. Nimble. That calloused, fleshy part of his thumb and forefinger wise to every shift and change in the texture of the soil. He takes a mustard seed in those hands. A tiny seed. A microorganism of a seed. Once sowed—it is hidden. Never to be found again until…it grows into a garden plant expansive enough for all the birds of the forest to nest in its branches. A man took and sowed.

The word “hands” is not in these verses. But a man took and sowed. Is THAT what we are to see? His fingers sowing into the soil a message of expansive hospitality. A woman took and hid. Is that what we are to see? Her fingers hiding in that bread the leavening of a radical message: the Kingdom of Heaven begins with hidden hands. Fragile hands we don’t expect too much of. Knotty hands we cringe to see. Labor-roughened hands we don’t even notice. His hands planting home for all. Her hands shaping life-giving bread for all. Is it possible that in the hands of God’s invisible people, we catch sight of the Kingdom of Heaven?

I wonder. What about our hands?

And so, you are ordained today. Affirmed and blessed to be a leader in Christian communities. Affirmed and blessed hold bread in your hands and break it at the Lord’s meal.

We live in peculiar times for doing and leading ministry. I feel like almost everything we Google or see in the news—so much of what we know and what we think we know is encrypted. Encoded. Full of hidden agendas. I encourage you. Seek wisdom for all that remains unsettled in your heart and mind about life’s mysteries. Search. Study. Pray. Ponder. Get a decoder ring.

But then, roll up your sleeves. Plant tiny seeds in rich soil and have faith in abundant growth. Get up to your elbows in life’s and ministry’s sticky dough (and ministry’s dough can sometimes be very sticky).  Work—forward and back, back and forward. Be relentless. Fierce. And graceful. And believe that the work will, here and there, now and then encrypt God’s good grace into a beaten down world aching to rise and rise again to new life.

One more word–in the midst of the work, when you grow tired (and you will) and when you celebrate faith come to fruition (and you will), take moment. Always in the midst of the work take moments. Place your hand in the hand of your spouse, and remember this ordination day. You see, in a moment the people gathered here will “lay hands on you.” You will feel the touch of hands. Gentle hands that have put Hello Kitty band aids on scraped knees.  Aching arthritic hands that knit or build or garden through pain. Hands that calm with a touch or write with a flair or feed others with a fierce desire that none will be hungry.  These hands will touch you with that ancient ordaining touch that says “we affirm and bless you and celebrate God’s call on your life.” These hands will touch you with an ancient ordaining touch that says “we anoint you to preach and teach and break bread and baptize.” These hands, these fingerprints will mark your ministry with prayer and grace and love. Remember this day.

And remember. A man took and sowed a seed in a field. A woman took and hid some yeast in some flour. Isn’t it just the way of our radical and peculiar Gospel to proclaim that THIS is what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. God’s reign, God’s justice, God’s grace and love for all people lives and grows right here in my hands. Your hands. Unnoticed hands. Hidden hands. All of our hands holding in them god’s grace. All of our hands, the hands of God.

May your ministry be marked always by these hands. And may your hands be blessed and strengthened to join with other hands in your community to share God’s grace in Christ with the world.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ashes.
I scatter them. They slip away from cold-numbed finger tips. It is winter. Nothing grows in winter—does it?

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But the kitchen fire warms my hands.
Its ashes make nutritious things grow.

We are ashes;
our lives seem sometimes to slip through our fingers.

We are also formed from good, dark hummus—the earth.
We are dust.
P
laced in God’s garden “to till it and to keep it.”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The season of Lent in Christian traditions is a time to reflect on rhythms of feasting and fasting and feasting again in our world, our churches, our spiritual lives. To   what fasts can we commit ourselves during this season that will teach us how to fashion a redemptive and life-giving  relationship with this earth we call home?  What can we plant in the ashes and dust of Lent’s Great Fast that will bear nourishing fruit for Easter’s Great Feast?

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, our foreheads smudged with charcoaled Palm branches from last year’s now-cold feast, we are reminded:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Until you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.     Genesis 3:19

Life is fleeting and fragile. Yet Lent calls us to work–by the sweat of our brows–to embody the Christian Gospel’s Easter promises of abundant feasts for all people. This is perhaps the most palpable outcome of a holy Lent: people of faith considering what it means to live lives of meaningful sacrifice and redemptive service and then taking steps to do just that.