There’s Just Something About Mary


“When you want to get in good with someone,” my father said, “you sometimes talk to their parents. Usually their mom.”

This was the response I got when I asked my father why some Christians speak to Mary or pray to Mary. Now, in my tradition that wasn’t our practice, but it made sense to me. If Jesus wasn’t answering the Divine phone, or if you weren’t sure you even had permission to make the call, his mother may lend you her ear, right?

While my Lutheran tradition doesn’t practice this piety, we have a long, though often hidden, tradition of holding Mary, the Mother of Our Lord in high esteem. Luther himself was known to lift her up as a model of saintliness. The “Theotokos,” the “God-Bearer,” a ship that carried the Christ across the sea of the cosmos…that deserves some reverence and a heartfelt nod, right?

But even apart from her role in history, mothering and motherhood are essential pieces of the fabric of our communal lives.

I’ve had many mothers, by the way. I say that not to dismiss my own biological mother; far from it! I say it more to acknowledge that the ways we mother each other, distinct from giving birth, are essential pieces of care that we extend in this world. The mothers of my friends often watched out for me, provided me with things I needed, tended my wounds and provided care when my own mother was working or not in proximity.

An upper-classman at my university, a young man in the same field of study, would have me over for tea and honey to see how I was doing on a regular basis. He took me under his wing in many ways, mothering me while I was 800 miles away from my biological family.

We are at our best when we mother one another.

And Mary, in her role in the Divine drama, was not only the mother of the Christ, following him all the way to his deathbed (like any parent worth their salt), but also the mother of humanity, on the lips of so many in their hour of need.

When George Floyd called out for his mother, all mothers were summoned. Mary was summoned.

It’s no wonder that St. Paul and St. John of the Beatles noted that “in the hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me…” In our hours of need, we all need mothering.

But not only the comforting mothering, but also the advocate mothering. In John 2 Mary advocates for the power of her son, giving instruction that the wedding attendants should listen to him. This Mary of the scriptures is mirrored in the mothers shaking their fists at the courthouse over their inaction on sensible gun legislation as their babies are murdered in schools and on street corners.

“Listen!” they scream.

Mary is mirrored in mothers shepherding their children across borders into a new life, much like she did when she safeguarded her son in the Gospel of Matthew from that blood-thirsty Herod, fleeing with him across borders from Bethlehem to Egypt to be raised in safety.

Mary is mirrored in the mothers yelling loudly that we must watch out for our children in these days because they are vulnerable to this virus and cannot yet be vaccinated!

Mary was not just tending to her son’s needs, she was fighting for them.

I’m writing all this because this coming Sunday, August 15th, is the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and if I were in a pulpit I’d ditch the common texts for the day and celebrate the feast of this God-Bearer not because she’s Divine, but because she mirrors Divine action in hard times.

And we’re in hard times, Beloved.

Humanity is at it’s best, Beloved, when we’re mothering one another. Mary reminds us of this.

There’s just something about Mary…

Welfare Christmas and a Christian Community that Still Doesn’t Really Get the Point

Carbs are only bad for those who aren’t hungry

I’m not sure if the band Everclear is a “one hit wonder.” I’m not really sure what qualifies a band to have that moniker. Like, what are the metrics for that?

Regardless, their most popular song was on heavy rotation when I was a teen. Their rock anthem, “Buy You a New Life” is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about being poor and having unrealized dreams. The song is an ode to the artist’s daughter, a promise that he would “buy her a new life” that looked nothing like the one he had growing up with an absent father and overworked mother.

My favorite lyrics in the song happen right at the beginning where the band takes privileged religious folks to task:

I hate those people who love to tell you
Money is the root of all that kills
They have never been poor
They have never had the joy of
A welfare Christmas

Do you know the “joy” of a welfare Christmas?

I remember one time when I was working in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago as a middle school teacher, one of the church members of the parish where the school was located shook their heads as they saw one of our families drive up. It was the early 2000’s.

“An SUV,” they said with contempt, “and this family is on welfare…”

What he didn’t realize, of course, was that if that mom wanted to get a job without white folks like him looking down on her, she had to drive up in a car that worked, looked nice, and didn’t throw off any red flags. What he didn’t take into consideration was that the single mom who worked two jobs to afford that car did so because she wanted her kids to be accepted without question.

And yes, she wore the same dress every time we had a parent-teacher conference. It was her nice dress. Respectable dress. Her power dress for a society that deemed her powerless because she was a woman of color, a single mom, a renter, a…name one of the ways we denigrate people.

He didn’t get the point.

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, we find Jesus on the run from the crowds. He had just fed them, a story colloquially known as the “feeding of the 5,000,” and they had their hearts set on having him rule them.

But Jesus, kinda knowing that they wanted to make him king (we always are looking for a leader to make things right, right?!), hops on a boat and sails away. So the people give chase, and when they catch up to him, they want him to give them bread again. You know, like he did before.

Jesus, though, says that miracles do not a savior make, and instead claims that he is the bread of life, and that they should seek after him and not some bread that would be moldy in a bit.

When preachers typically talk about this text they usually lift up the spiritual nature of it all, and how those greedy people just wanted a handout from Jesus and didn’t really get his message.

And my question for those preachers, for you, is this: have you ever known the joy of a welfare Christmas?

We are so quick to look down on this crowd for wanting food out of Jesus, but food was not easy to come by in the ancient world.

And, if we’re honest, for many it’s not easy to come by today!

I know why people who can’t afford fancy cars or clothes buy them. They know that nothing lasts in this world, they’ve seen it in their own lives and hearts, and so if you have it you gotta use it, or else it’s gone.

I explained this mindset, explained to me by those students and families who taught me so long ago to reframe my white, middle-class worldview, to a very kind colleague of mine who, without skipping a beat said, “I don’t think that’s true. They could open a savings account. It’s greed, pure and simple.”

And then he sipped his $5.00 latte.

What if this story about Jesus being the bread of life is less about spiritual hunger, and more about the idea that, if you’re following Jesus, you won’t allow your neighbor to go hungry?

I mean, what if the people aren’t misguided and are simply hungry, and their community, a community who had just experienced miraculous generosity, didn’t quite get the picture yet?

Perhaps when Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and will never be thirsty again,” he means that the community that forms around the message of Christ is one that will always, never hesitatingly, never waveringly, feed others and provide good, life-giving water without thought of cost, without an inkling of merit, without ever uttering, “do they deserve it?”

See, I don’t think this text is about the people in the story. I think it’s about most of us reading it who have “never known the joy of a welfare Christmas,” most of whom can’t really contemplate what it might mean to be actually hungry and not just on some Keto diet. Who haven’t given up bread for the carbs, but because we can’t afford it.

And look, I’m not suggesting we start a bunch of feeding programs…I mean, those are good and all…but what if following Jesus meant you looked at why folks are hungry in the first place and start to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening in the world. Like, what if Christians became known for advocating for great employment, wages that are livable, education that is affordable, food that is healthy and shared (not hoarded), and clean water that is a priority not a PR issue?

Geeze, it’s almost like following the one who claims that being next to them will ensure that hunger and thirst are “no more” might lead people to do some very radical things in this world.

That almost seems to be the point…

Anyway, that’s probably where I’d go if I were preaching this week.

On Staying Until You Leave

My best friend never texts me back immediately.

In fact, sometimes not at all.

And I’m not offended by it one bit because I kind of envy him. He has this practice of leaving his phone in his room when he’s home, at least until the kids are in bed and the house is quiet.

And when he’s at the office? It’s largely on silent mode.

He’s largely mastered the art of being present, mostly because he puts in some long hours on the regular.

I envy that because it’s a practice I have not mastered yet, even with my meditation discipline and my (feeble) attempts at focusing.

This week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 6:1-13) doesn’t look like it’s about being present at first blush, but I think it is, actually.

Jesus is present in his hometown, and the folks are so distracted by the fact that they have known him all his life, know his siblings, know his parents, that they can’t wrap their mind around his gifts and abilities. They aren’t present with his now, they only remember his was.

It reminds me of the time I met Molly Ringwald and was kindly asked not to inquire about any of her film career from the 1980’s (which I can list by heart in year of release). Instead, we were encouraged to ask what she’s up to now.

When Jesus sends his disciples out, he says to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave a place.” (vs 10) It was probably offered as simple lodging instructions because, well, when you don’t have a pillow and someone offers you one, you stay by that pillow until you’re ready to find a new one, right?

But today this verse speaks to my heart differently. I mean, what if we took seriously this idea that we need to stay in the place where we are? That is, when you’re visiting with someone, don’t put the phone on the table, but rather leave it in the car. Or on silent mode.

And when you enter your home at the end of the night, don’t lug that workbag in with you. You’re home, not at work.

Or if you, like me, mostly work from home, the office is off limits after 5:30.

I needed this verse a few weeks ago. On our family vacation I took three separate work calls, and I really shouldn’t have.

I knew I shouldn’t have, and my family predicted I would take them (because they know me much like Jesus’ neighbors thought they “knew” him), and I had the opportunity to prove them wrong and I blew it.

Totally blew it.

But, and here’s the thing: it’s not just about “being present” to be respectful. What if there are insights and spiritual awakenings that are missed out because we’re missing out on the moment?

Like, what if beautiful and wonderful, miraculous even, things are happening in our midst, like they had the potential to when Jesus was in his hometown, but we’re not aware enough to see them?

By staying present our present can change, by God, and even become disconnected from our past…if only we’d stay where we are until we leave there.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this week.

On Real Miracles

I struggle with the miracle stories that the scriptures contain.

I struggle because “miracle” is such a tricky word to define, and so many define it so narrowly, and praying for miracles doesn’t really seem to make them happen very often…

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for miracles, Beloved. In times of desperation all sorts of prayers escape my earnest lips and I regret none of them. I’m just saying that the cause and effect here doesn’t seem to hold much water.

I know it might be weird for a pastor to say that, but I kind of wish more would with regularity. Religion gives shallow comfort when it encourages people to hang their hope on the almost-impossible.

I’ve sat in hospital rooms where someone given a less than ten percent chance of surviving breathed again on their own. Is that a miracle, or is it just a statistically rare situation? Is it both?

Birth is, in itself, kind of a miraculous event if you ask me. Death can be, too. In fact, I’d say any thing that causes awe to blossom in the heart is quite miraculous.

Miracle is a tricky word to define.

In the ancient world there were lots of miracle workers, by the way. Traveling healers, itinerant preachers and prophets, magicians and sorcerers…they were all making their way through the world, and ancient Palestine, making their case for disciples and followers. That’s all to say: the fact that Jesus healed people and performed so-called miracles didn’t make him unique in the ancient world, and it certainly didn’t “prove” he was divine like so many pastors tell you (who obviously haven’t done their homework).


The thing that set Jesus apart was not the miracles he performed, but rather who was blessed by them: the poor, the marginalized, those who couldn’t pay, the outsider, the outcast, the untouchable, the enemy.

That is Divine.

Take for instance the miracle stories we get this Sunday where Jesus raises the dead daughter of a religious leader and is grabbed by a perpetually bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). In both of these cases the true miracle, in my mind, isn’t them returning back to health, but that he would cross the social, ethical, and religious lines of the times, lines that literally defined you in the ancient world, and did so with abandon.

To touch a dead body would make you ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to become unclean in the eyes of the world to bring new life to someone.

To engage with a woman who was have difficulty with a menstrual cycle that would not stop would make him, as a man, unclean. Jesus doesn’t ostracize her or get angry at her or immediately go and purify himself with the rituals of religion. Instead, he blesses her.

Go another layer into the story, though. Jairus, the man whose daughter was sick and dying, was a religious leader of the day and, if we follow the story, was probably at odds with this wandering prophet preaching radical grace. And yet Jesus doesn’t withhold his presence from this man who probably doesn’t think or believe the same way he does. Instead, he extends his hand to him.

I mean, it’s kind of like it’s meant to be that this story is coming just when the headlines are emblazoned with the story of Roman Catholic Bishops seeking to excommunicate Joe Biden. Have they not heard? Have they not read? The Jesus that they (we?) claim to follow and emulate was not about to let disagreements stand in the way of grace.

I struggle with the miracle stories in the scriptures. Miracles that defy the odds are rare, and they don’t seem to discriminate between those who believe and those who don’t (thank God…everyone deserves to beat the odds sometimes, right?). But, then again, everyday miracles that inspire awe are not so rare, but also show no partiality, which is pretty cool.

At the end of the day, though, the true miracle of this story is that Jesus would break down the walls that prevent people from being gracious to one another, and he’ll do so without batting an eye, apologizing, or worrying about how it will look to the public.

And that, Beloved, is a real miracle in my book.

Anyway, if I were preaching this Sunday, this is probably where I’d go…

Extraordinarily Ordinary

The Kingdom of God is like an irresponsible gardener.

The Kingdom of God is like a huge weed that overtakes every other plant.

The Kingdom of God is like a microscopic animal that reacts with the environment in large and explosive ways.

The Kingdom of God is like a hopeful parent on the porch, waiting for their child to drive home long past dark.

These are all examples, in a way, that Jesus uses to describe “the Kingdom of God.” Some of these show in this week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34)

And note: Jesus does not mean some sort of “heaven” when he’s talking here. The Kingdom of God is not heaven in the scriptures, Beloved.

The Kingdom of God in the scriptures is Earth, home, hearth, community that loves each other.

But, why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell us what the Kingdom of God is? Why this fanciful language?

Lazy theologians will tell you it is because Jesus wants you to figure out a puzzle. That’s a cop out.

But what if the Kingdom of God is, in and of itself, a puzzle? What if it is a paradox of sorts? What if the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people who, through Divine love, change reality for the better?

Perhaps Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is extraordinarily ordinary. Like, the components are ordinary. But the result? Extraordinary.

Perhaps when people really love each other it takes over all other grievance trying to grow in the soil of community, like a mustard weed in a garden?

Perhaps when people really look out for one another, that takes precedence over every other selfish desire, and the whole community is lifted like a loaf that has some yeast snuck in it?

Perhaps when we throw true affection around like seeds things just start to grow in our lives, and we’re not sure how, but we start to harvest it and share it together?

Perhaps in a world where society will tell you perfection is wealth, and in a religious reality where establishment churches will tell you perfection is obedience, Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God looks nothing like that, and it’s difficult to describe, but when you see it?

You know.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday.

We Didn’t Start the Fire…

The genius of St. Billy of the Joel’s tongue-twisting classic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is how he recounts 20th Century history in percussive prose punctuated by a catchy interlude at breakneck speed. In an instant we all wanted to memorize the lyrics and, though we all got tripped up at “Panmunjom” early on, the smart rhymes (he made “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “children of thalidomide” work!) made it all stick like Velcro on the brain.

We didn’t start the fire…but we could tell the story

Which, Beloved, is exactly what this Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about for those of us who are left behind these centuries later: we know the story.

We know the story, but we too often change it to suit our particular proclivities…which is what happens with stories. None are incorruptible. Like misheard lyrics to a favorite song, God’s story has been shaped and reshaped by people in ways that have been less than helpful.

It happens.

The way that stories move and shift over time are one of the ways they continue to live and breathe, for better or for worse. When it came to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I for a long time thought he said “Bacon, Reagan, Palestine…” instead of “Begin, Reagan, Palestine.” A line that was a recounting of geo-politics was, in my brain, a line about pork products and politics.

A little shift changes everything, right?

There are many responses to this propensity to have stories shift and move over time. Some would contend that the fact that a story is corruptible means it can’t be trusted at all…which is bogus on the face of it, Beloved. After all, even your own memories have shifted in your plastic brain over time. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust your memories, it simply means you have to be honest about the limitations there.

Another response is kind of like a huge universal shrug. Who knows what can be trusted, so why bother?

But there is another response which, I think, needs some focus, especially on this coming Sunday where we recount the birth of the church.

You see, yes the church has sometimes lost the lede when it comes to the Jesus story. That’s undeniable, OK? We’ve made fences where feedboxes should be. We’ve kicked sheep out of the fold because they didn’t fit the flock we had in mind. We’ve turned Jesus from a prophet into an idol in so many ways, it’s difficult sometimes to get back to that wandering Galilean when his alabaster-white likeness is stuck on pedestals around the world.

When the church is at its best, it is honest about its limitations…especially it’s propensity to shape something into its own preferred image.

But there is something that the church has historically said, and can get back to if it musters the courage: God is love. And if God is love, then Jesus is the love letter, and the flame-heads who appear in this week’s Acts reading, then, are those who are charged with reading and re-reading the love letter for a world pining to be in love with something that lasts.

And, see, if we can get back to that…well…that’s hopeful. A little shift changes everything, and sometimes for the better.

St. Billy’s chorus is an earworm:

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.

I mean, when it comes to the Pentecost event, we see there that we didn’t start the fire…we know this.

But instead of fighting the idea that God is love and the Christ is the love letter…which so much of the Christian church has done, by the way, as it holds hands with civic religion and “bathroom bills” and further marginalizes the margins…it needs to re-embrace the idea that God is in love with the margins.

Is in love with humanity.

Is in love with the world with such an intensity that the only appropriate symbol is, well, a raging fire that will stop at nothing to catch everything up in that love.

I’ve Been Hanging Around This Town for Way Too Long…

-art by Miwa Robbins, “Ascension”

This Sunday the mindful preacher always has a dilemma: do you preach on the Feast of the Ascension (a festival that always lands on a Thursday but can be transposed to this Sunday), or do you preach on the John text (John 17:6-19) which is a convoluted philosophical discourse that is about as clear as a morning on the coast of Maine?

What to do, what to do…

Well, preacher, you could do either, I think, because the message of both days pulls at a golden thread running through these last days of Easter: you gotta do this together, church.

You gotta do this together, because the Divine isn’t sticking around in the same way anymore.

if there’s one thing we know about God, Beloved, it’s that God cannot be pegged down. God cannot be nailed down.

It’s one of the reasons that Jesus left the scene in the first place in the Ascension.  He wasn’t going to accompany his disciples in his resurrected form forever, or else the quest would always be one to find Jesus. 

Instead he left, promising that they’d never have to look for him again, that he’d always be with them, and so instead of looking for Jesus, the disciples could do what they’re actually meant to do: look after their neighbor.  Love one another.  Embody Jesus, as they and Jesus are one…

Jesus left the scene so that, just as the woman touched the hem of his garment to stop her bleeding, there is a possibility that every hem is the hem of God imbued with Divine grace and love.  Jesus left the scene so that, just as the mud was spread on Bartimeaus’ eyes to give him sight, we might see all the earth as having the potential to give us insight into the Divine mind.

Jesus left the scene, Beloved, so that we wouldn’t just follow him around anymore, but could actually embody him for a world that is still bleeding, still suffering from lack of sight and insight, still tormented by the demons of racism and sexism and all the isms, still run by the powerful who prey on the weak, and still intent on trying to nail God down so that they can control God.

God is more mysterious than we can ever imagine, which is good news for us, because it means that there is nothing but possibility when it comes to the wild, mysterious, tongue-twisting God we have.  Possibility that, even if we can’t figure out how, life can come from death, hope will triumph over cynicism, and love will rule the day. 

A God who can’t be nailed down is full of surprises, Beloved.

I mean, remember what happened the last time they tried to nail God down?

It didn’t work then, either.

I Won’t Have to Miss You…

This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (15:9-17) is all about love.

It drips of love.

It reeks of love.

But, it’s a little confusing on the face of it because John’s philosophical style mixed with this esoteric notion of love that is both human but also super Divine is, well, hard to describe.

I mean, how do you describe something that literally defies explanation? Divine love (and by that I mean love that is Divine and also the love given by the Divine) is as comforting as a hug and as wispy as a fog.

On a recent NPR podcast where they went back and did a retrospective of the last 50 years of the station, they gave a brief clip of an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak at the publishing of his latest (and, it would turn out to be, last) book.

The interview started with heartfelt pleasantries as Sendak, who had been on the program before, expressed his admiration and, indeed, love for the interviewer. He noted that they were both up in years, though he admitted he was much farther along than her in that department, and then he said that he saw this as a good thing because he “wouldn’t have to miss (her).”

I was listening to this podcast as I was on my daily run, and this caused me to stop for a second.

Stop, and put my hands on my knees, and as sweat dripped from my brow (it was in the 80’s today here in Carolina), a tear mixed with it because that, by God, embodies what it means to love.

To love is to both have your heart open enough to miss someone when they’re gone, and to be grateful enough that you might pass first so that you don’t have to feel that pain of missing them.

Love means loving enough to miss someone, and to have a small sliver of gratitude that they might outlive you so that you never have to know that hurt yourself because it would be unbearable.

That sound selfish, I know, but sometimes there is pain you just can’t imagine and you pray you never have to realize.

That’s not selfish. That’s human. That’s being in love.

When put in the context of the Jesus story, of self-sacrifice, Divine love means loving something to death…and one step beyond.

To love our neighbor, then, means to love them enough to miss them when they’re absent…which is why it matters who is at the table.

Conversely, you also trust they miss you when you’re gone…

That kind of love takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of trust. It takes a lot of willpower and heart-power.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our notions of love in this life are often underwhelming.

We say we love everything from babies to burritos…and we can’t mean the same thing when we say that, right? Greek with it’s four-pronged definition of love does a bit of a better job at narrowing love’s definition, but ultimately we just have to be honest and note that love is something we try to wrap our minds around, but just really can’t.

Instead, well, maybe instead we should just wrap our lives around it…and be grateful for a love that has the possibility of stinging just a little bit on both sides of the relationship equation depending on how things work out.