Breaking Rank: A woman wrestling with God

jesus-centurion

Matt 8:5-13

I am a flawed preacher.

I know when you read that you think I’m referring to me- my personhood- I am a preacher who has flaws. While this is absolutely true and we will discuss that but no, what I mean is

I am a flawed preacher

in that

my preaching is flawed.

I’m not the worst preacher in the world. I’m a good story teller which is a hallmark of good preaching. I can describe the Biblical stories in such detail that you can almost smell the three fish and five loaves of bread being passed around to the masses. And I can make your mouth water, I can make you hunger for the miracles that Jesus can perform.

Or I can capture for you the temptation of Christ- when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I can make you see the red of the stone. When we think about a wilderness, we think of a forest but in the wilderness where Jesus was tempted there was red rock and nothing. No grass. No life. No trees. No place to hide. There was only red rock. And there was Satan. Standing there staring into his eyes. And I could describe for you the red of his eyes, red with the flames of hell’s fire that burned where his soul ought to be. I could describe the heat of his hatred toward Jesus as he attempted to compel Jesus to turn away from God. I could make you feel that heat on the back of your neck because he hates you too. The enemy hates everyone who is loved by God.

I’m a good storyteller but that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

And I am decent at discussing Biblical and cultural concepts, which is important for good preaching. I can contribute sociological, philosophical, and political polemics. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear what I think. What I think about homosexuality, educational equity in public schools, the Justice system. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear where I stand on the issues of this country, of this world. But that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

You see, what makes a great preacher – if you were to head over to my minister of music, Dr. Phillip’s church and listen to him preach or if you were to attend Myers Park and listen to Dr. Howell for several Sundays or if you were to listen to some of the historical greats

Gardner C. Taylor

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King, Jr. – and I don’t mean his speeches, I mean his sermons. If you were to listen to him preach in that over heated and over crowded congregation at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia- you would hear not a good but a great preacher. And what made him a great preacher was his ability to reveal himself. If you were to listen to him, Sunday after Sunday, you would hear about his family. You would hear about his children, how he got along with Coretta. You would see the man that smoked cigarettes way too much and loved women way too much.

You would see the man, the human, the fallible, the breakable man- you would get a glimpse of the man he was. The man that he was becoming. The man who was wrestling with God.

That is the mark of a great preacher.

I don’t do that.

I have a terrible habit of hiding behind the Biblical text. I can talk to you about the Bible all day. I can talk to you about Christian ethics all day but it is very difficult for me to talk about myself, to reveal myself. Of course, there is a reason for that. The first reason is that I began preaching when I was 15 years old. I didn’t have a great deal of life experiences to reflect on or reveal at that time. I wasn’t pulling from a deep well of wisdom and knowledge.

And The second reason is that I became a preacher when I was 15 years old. My first sermon was on obedience. Think about that for a moment. If you have a 15 year old in the household or if you can remember being 15, then you know that 15 years old is the height, the peak of teenage rebellion and here I was talking about obedience. Talking about the importance of submitting yourself to God, to your church, to your parents, to the authority of this world and when I punctuated my last period. And I closed my mouth. And I lowered the microphone. The congregation went crazy. And something happened. Something happened that changed the way that people perceived and interacted with me from that moment on- I became a preacher.

When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become different. There is a great hope for your life fore all of the greatest black leaders were produced by the Black Church so you are held to a different standard. You are faced with higher expectations. You are put on a pedestal. You are important. When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become an important person.

Importance and perfection go hand in hand. You are an important person, you are not allowed to make mistakes. There is no room for failure- which is why I had a 4.3 gpa in high school, a 4.0 gpa in college. Because you can’t fail. You can’t fall, dust yourself off and learn from your bad choices- to begin to add to a well of knowledge and wisdom. No. to be important is to be stuck in suspended animation and arrested development. To be important is to be incapable of revealing your bad choices. Your mistakes. Your failures. Your weaknesses. To be important is to be perceived as perfect.

But I don’t desire to be important. I desire to be a great preacher. And so I desire for you to get a glimpse of the woman- the fallible, the breakable woman- the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

So allow me to reveal my first bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge: attempting to be perfect does not in fact make you perfect. You can attempt to do everything right and still get it all wrong. There are moments in life when what is right is clashing up against what is right. Even and especially with Christianity your ethics will begin to collide with one another.

Your Christian ethics call for you to be a good Christian leader. You can go to church, Sunday school, Bible study, prison ministry, soup kitchens, read your bible, witness to your friends and your coworkers.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to be a good wife and mother or to work your hardest to realize those roles in your life. Because no matter how important you are, no matter how many feminist classes you took,  our Christian ethics still suggest that a woman’s value is placed squarely in her relation to a man and her relation to a child.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to get into the habit of submitting and being obedient to the man who is to be your husband, the head of your household, the father of your children. When your opinions clash

and you say “we are Christians. We have to wait.”

and he says “No. We. Don’t.”

your Christian ethics say defer, submit. obey. OBEY.  Your Christian ethics tell you to stop being the controlling black shrew, the overbearing black woman who attempts to call all of the shots in everything, to stop being the reason why black women can’t keep black men around, to stop being the reason that black women can’t keep black men from leaving.

Isn’t that what they teach you?

Isn’t it true

that no matter how important you are, you are only the stereotypes that are wrapped around you?

And your kind?

Think about it, President Obama is the Leader of the free world, he is in fact, the most important man in the world but to so many he is simply just another nigger.

No matter how hard he attempts to get it right, he will still get it wrong.

So what do you do?

What do you do when no matter how hard you try to get it right, you get it all wrong? What do you do when despite your best efforts everything still goes to hell?

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am, the woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

What do you do? I think about Job. I think about the text that describes the moment in his life when everything is taken from him. When he lost his children. His health. His wife. His everything. And I always wondered why the next verse wasn’t “so he went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey and drank until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to hold his children in his arms when they were born.

and drank until he couldn’t remember how it felt when he was informed that they had died.

and drank until he couldn’t remember the look in his wife’s face when she said to curse God and die. That would have made it more realistic. Because that’s what people do.

What do you do? I think about Joseph. I think about how he was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, lied on a by a girl he wasn’t even checkin’ for, and thrown into prison unduly. I wonder why the next verse isn’t that he went to the drug dealer and got high. Got high until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to be thrown into a pit and watch his brothers, his own flesh and blood, walk away. Why the next verse isn’t that he watched porn until he couldn’t remember his dreams or the promises of God. That would have been so much more realistic. Because that’s what people do. what do you do?

That’s the paradox of the human condition. We respond to the pain and destructiveness of this world by doing painful and destructive things to ourselves. We respond to the brokenness of the world by breaking ourselves. And It gets to the point that we cannot identify the brokenness on the outside from the brokenness on the inside. It gets to the point that we cannot separate brokenness from brokenness. It’s the compulsion to hurt ourselves when we are hurting that we need healing from. It’s the reason that we need Jesus.

We need his power.

We need his healing.

We need his deliverance.

So that’s what we do at Church. We continuously get down on our knees to beg Jesus for his power, his healing, his deliverance.

But when you are an important person, trapped in a facade of perfection, it becomes difficult to get on your knees.

In our text today we find an important person, a centurion, who had the audacity to get on his knees.

He was a roman soldier seeking help for his servant. He was not just a regular foot soldier but someone important. He had soldiers under his authority. He had servants. He was a soldier of value. He was a man who had a future. He probably had a career path to rank up even higher than he was. If you have ever seen the movie Gladiator you know that a good soldier could even be recommended to become Caesar one day. He must have had a large  sword and a large shield (the bigger they are, the more important the soldier). Imagine, then, the spectacle when this man of high honor, of high value, of high importance breaking rank- throwing down his sword and shield- to bow down to an Israelite, to a nobody, to Jesus. Imagine for a moment how the masses of people would turn and look. And whisper. And speculate, pointing and staring and saying

“Look at that important person bowing down before Jesus.”

But he didn’t care what people said about him because he knew that only Jesus could help him. He was audacious and unapologetic.

He wasn’t afraid of speculation.

He wasn’t afraid of judgement.

He wasn’t afraid to break rank.

Because he needed help. He needed Jesus.

I can identify with this soldier. I feel like this soldier. So many have said to me that you cannot submit yourself  in this way. You have too many speaking engagements, you have too great of a career ahead of you, you who can one day be Bishop, don’t do this. You are too important.

But I can identify with this soldier, audacious and unapologetic. Unafraid of speculation or judgement, unafraid to drop my sword and shield and break rank.

Because I need Jesus. Because he is the only one who can help me.

My second bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge is this (I only have two buckets by the way. The well is still not very deep):

It doesn’t  matter how big your title is, being a Bishop can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter how big your church is, being a mega-pastor can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter if you have a book that is on the New York Time’s Best seller’s list. Being a prolific writer can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter where you get your doctoral degree, your degrees can’t save you.

The only one who can save you is Jesus.

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

And so I will always break rank. And get on my knees publicly, before anyone and everyone. I am not too important to beg for his power, for his deliverance, for his healing.

And I could really get excited about the power of Jesus. His healing power. I could put him on the cross and whoop and holler until I punctuate my last period. But I am not ready for the conclusion yet.

Because I have neglected to mention the last component that makes for a good preacher. And that is prophetic witness. And I have prophetic power in spades.

I can speak up when something is awry.

The Church, the institution, is awry.

The Church is supposed to be the place where people should be able to come to throw down their sword and their shields and receive Jesus’ healing. The Church should be the soldier running to Jesus crying out “my servant is sick, please help!” Instead, too often, the servants are yelled at and ridiculed

“How dare you be sick! Don’t you know that you are my servant! You are the servant of importance, indeed, the servant of the Roman empire?!”

And the servants of the church, the leaders of the church, the members of the church, so often are not prayed for, lifted up, advocated for, but are instead broken even more.

I was raised by the church. I was produced for the church. I work for the church. I am the church. And I have been deeply wounded and harmed by the church. And so I stand in prophetic witness. I stand by, I stand with, I stand for anyone who has ever been hurt by the church. who has ever been burned by the sacred spaces where they should have found healing but only found more brokenness.

Take a glimpse of the woman who I am. The woman who I am becoming. The woman wrestling with God.

That’s why my peers do not come to church. That is why churches are closing down by the thousands. It’s not because of the music (believe it or not we like the songs our grandmothers sang to us). It is not because of the lack of technology (we have enough technology in our phones to satisfy us for a lifetime). It’s because the church is not a safe space to be broken.

That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous is a Christian organization that operates outside of the church. What do people do there? All they do is get healing. They get deliverance. Why is it that it is separate from the work of the church? Why is it that it is anonymous? Because The church doesn’t allow you to ache. to hurt. To be broken. Because if you can’t fake perfection here, you are not welcome here.

The simple answer is, like so many other disillusioned Christians, to just leave. That’s what millennials do, after all. When something is hard, or painful, or difficult, we quit. We press delete. That’s our modus operandi. To leave the Church and never look back. 

But me…

I want you to see me. I am a woman who, like Jacob, is wrestling with God. And I won’t let go.

I won’t let go until you protect my family.

I won’t let go until you touch my congregation.

I won’t let go until you restore the Church universal.

I won’t let go until you bless me.

Me. I won’t let go until you bless me.

It is me. It is me. It is me

it is me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

In the need of power.

In the need of deliverance.

In the need of healing.

Take a glimpse of me.

Of the Woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming.

The woman who is wrestling with God.

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Good Sex Part 1: Let Him Lay His Hands on You

Text: Matthew 19:13 and 14

In order to talk about healthy sexuality we must first address the elephant in the room- the truth that we as a community have been keeping a secret for far too long- and that is for many in this sanctuary, your first sexual encounter was violent, was coerced, was before you were old enough to consent, was before you knew what was happening. Before we can talk about good sex, we must first talk about sexual abuse of children.

Sexual abuse is any sexual act between an adult and a minor (sometimes between a minor and a minor), forcing, coercing, or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act:

It could be touching, or fondling.

Forcing a child to strip.

or raping a child.

According to the national statistics on rape, 70% of all reported sexual assault occur to children under the age of 17 and in almost half of all reported rape cases, the victim was also a child under the age of 17.[1] These are only the cases that were reported. It is widely known that many instances of sexual abuse go unreported. It is widely known, although rarely discussed, that the incidence of sexual abuse is extraordinarily high particularly in the black community. And this form of sexual violence that people endure has lasting implications on one’s ability to cultivate healthy spiritual or healthy sexual practices. This is an issue in which we must bring to light and bring to Jesus, the light of the world.

In our text this morning, we find Jesus in the thick of his ministry, travelling around preaching and teaching throughout Judea. By now, he has developed a name for himself as a great preacher, miracle worker, and healer. People are coming from all over the place to receive healing from him. We find here in our short pericope that a group of parents or guardians have brought little children so that Jesus could lay his hands on them and pray for them.  We read that the disciples rebuke the parents and try to keep them from Jesus. Jesus responds by rebuking the disciples and stating, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mat. 19:14).

Let the children come to me. And do not hinder them.

Sexual abuse hinders the relationship between a child and Jesus. You will hear me say over and over again throughout the next several weeks this fundamental truth: our sexual selves are inextricably bound with our spiritual selves. Therefore, sexual violence is not only traumatic to the mind and the body, but also to the spirit. This sort of trauma can get in the way of truly knowing God. Of knowing God’s goodness. Of knowing God’s grace.  And most especially, of knowing God’s love. The people brought the children to Jesus so that Jesus could lay his hands on them- even the imagery of Jesus laying his hands on you can be a stumbling block, can be disturbing, or even violent imagery, if you have been touched inappropriately. Sexual abuse damages a child’s body which is a crime. Sexual abuse keeps a person from their Lord, which is a sin.

Let the Children come to me. And do not hinder them, Jesus said.

We, as a community, need to begin to face this as a reality in our community and address this sin. This is really happening in our families and in our neighborhoods and it needs to stop. We must take seriously the statistics and be vigilant about changing our community so that our children’s first sexual encounter is no longer one of violence, confusion, and deep pain.

The first thing we must do is protect them. Know the statistics and take them seriously. The statistics are that 90% of children who are molested, know their abuser.[2] While it is sometimes an unknown, scary, predator that lurks around the child’s school, it is more often the case that the abuser is a family member, a neighbor, or a close friend of the family. We have to take that seriously. That means that children need to be supervised and protected, even from family. That may mean that a child needs to be supervised by two adults at all times. That may mean that you can’t send your child to grandma’s house for the weekend or the summer if there are a lot of adults living in her house. We need to protect children from live-in predators as well. We have to take seriously that the reality of the situation is that single mothers with live-in partners have the highest risk of having a son or daughter sexually abused.[3]  We have to take this fact seriously. And putting aside for a moment the question of what are you doing shacking up in the first place?- just putting that aside, if you chose to do that, know that your child is at risk. Put some measures of safety between your lover and your child. Between your lover’s family and your child. Between your lover’s friends and your child.  Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them. In other words, protect them.

Second, we have to believe them. It is a tragic phenomenon that incidence of sexual abuse often goes unreported, not because the child did not inform an adult, but because the adult refused  to believe the child or refused to respond to the crisis. I have heard so many horror stories where the child came forward and the parent just would not believe. I know a woman who was molested by her grandmother and she told her mother but her mother simply would not believe her. Her mother continued to drop her off at her grandmother’s house for days and weeks at a time.  She would not believe. She would not respond. This had lasting implications on the woman’s mental psyche, her spirituality, and her sexuality.  I know another who was molested by her stepfather for many years.  When she tried to tell her mother, her mother would simply leave the room. Her mother still lives with her stepfather to this day. This had lasting implications on the woman’s mental psyche, her spirituality, and her sexuality. It is our responsibility to believe and to respond to our children. Respond by talking to children about sex regularly and early on. If the first time you are talking about sex is after a crisis has occurred, you have already responded way too late. It is incumbent upon us to create a culture in our homes and families where open and honest conversation is the norm, where children are not afraid to speak the truth for fear of discipline or rejection, where secrets are not encouraged. This sort of secret festers in communities, it festers in families, and it festers in the hearts and souls of the victims. It causes the collapse of self-esteem, a confusion about wanted and unwanted touch, destructive coping mechanisms like substance abuse, it causes depression, and even causes suicide. Let the children come to me. And do not hinder them. In other words, respond to and believe them.

We can spend all of our time discussing preventative measures to eliminate the presence of sexual abuse in our community but for many people here- men, women, and children- a conversation on prevention is too little and too late.

All of us have been impacted by sexual abuse.

Here, present with us now, are men and women who have been sexually violated as a child.

Here, present with us now, are men and women who have violated a child or minor sexually.

Here, present with us now, are children who have been inappropriately touched.

Here, present with us now, are family members and friends who have witnessed as sexual trauma has stripped our loved ones of their life and their light.

Brothers and sisters, in order to have good sex, healthy sex as God intended- you must first receive God’s healing for the ways in which your body has been violated, you must first receive healing for the way in which you have used your body to violate another’s body. We stand today as a community- of parents, victims, violators, and friends- we stand desperately needing Jesus to lay his hands on us. We stand desperately needing his healing. Therefore, I invite you to allow Jesus to put his hands on you today. I invite you to allow him to place his hands on this area of your life fore only he can fix your broken places and bring light to your dark spaces. Good sex can only arise when you allow Jesus to be the one to touch you. To heal you. To make you whole. Let him lay his hands on you.

So what we will do now is enter a time of healing. There are candles on the altar and I invite you, as you feel led, to light a candle to represent a child that you are bringing to Jesus.

Perhaps that candle represents you, when you were touched before you knew what sex was, before you knew what was happening.

Perhaps that candle represents a son or daughter, niece or nephew, brother or sister.

Perhaps that candle represents a friend who was violated as a child and you have watched as the trauma has taken root in the person’s life, you have watched as his or her life has gone spiraling out of control as a result.

Jesus said, let the children come to me. And do not hinder them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Please, bring the children to Jesus.

____________________________________________________________

There were nearly 50 candles on the altar, all were lit. The time of healing ended with a period of testimony. The following are a few testimonies that were rendered:

“Pastor, I thank you for being brave enough to discuss this topic. This is really happening in our communities. I had a brother who, when he was younger, he went to our neighbor’s house to play one day. And that day he changed. He became a different person. He began getting in trouble, going in and out of jail. He eventually committed suicide. My mother believes that something happened to him. She believes that someone touched him. But she didn’t know, we didn’t know how to talk about it. So I encourage everyone to be brave, to talk about this, to speak out. It just may save a life.”

“I have nephews and nieces that have been molested. There are so many that there are not enough candles to light one for each. I knew something was wrong, that something was happening but everything was kept a secret. I pray that God would heal them and heal my family.”

“When I was a little girl, I was molested by a friend of the family. He would touch me and I didn’t know what was going on but I knew it was wrong. I became sexually active at a young age, I think because of that. I was a very young mother. I have never told anyone before today that this happened to me as a child. It was 50 years ago and I didn’t realize until today how much it still impacts my life. But I believe that I have been healed today.”

Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Amen.

[1] RAINN Rape Abuse Incest National Network. https://www.rainn.org/statistics

[2] RAINN Rape Abuse Incest National Network. https://www.rainn.org/statistics

Homelessness in Charlotte. A Wake Up Call

My name is Tiffany Thomas. I am the pastor of South Tryon Community Church, a United Methodist church that sits on the corner of South Tryon and Remount road. In this community, I have watched in horror as homeless persons lay down to sleep on benches, stoops and sidewalks up and down Tryon street. I have looked into the desperate eyes of so many who have told me that same story, “The shelters are full, there is no place to go.” I have heard reports of people dying in the night, out in the elements- tragic tales whispered and lamented among this community where most are constantly endanger of losing their own places of rest and finding themselves in the same predicament.

“Am I next? Will it be me? Or my child? Will death find us in the street, where heat eludes us,” so many have asked.

Last night, I went to the police department to find out what happened to a homeless man who is a member of my community, and dear friend of mine. He is a gentle soul, a Christian, he leaves an encouraging note on my car almost everyday, a scripture or a quote- every note is signed “God loves you and so do I.” When my groundskeeper reported to me that my friend died on a bench in Uptown, Charlotte, I frantically sought help from the police station to find out what had become of him. The police officer could offer little help, “Yes,” he said, “a homeless person has recently died.Yes, it was in uptown, Charlotte.Yes, he died in the night, on a bench. That is all I can say.”

“Why hasn’t it made the news”, I asked, tears of grief streaming down my face for the man who I may or may not know.

“Deaths of this sort rarely make the news,” he replied.

Deaths of this sort. Deaths of the homeless sort. Deaths of the impoverished sort. Deaths of the voiceless sort. They die in secret in the middle of public squares. Their bodies hurriedly removed from Trade, from Tryon before the important sort, the wealthy sort, the high political clout sort are inconvenienced traveling from their warm homes to their warm corporate offices.

I left the police station stricken with grief.
I left the police station mad as hell.

The city of Charlotte is ill equipped to deal with the needs of our rising homeless population. It is time that we recognize and face what my constituents know all to well: The shelters are too small. Too many people are forced to brave the cold or to purposely get arrested as the jail house is the only emergency shelter in the entire city where one won’t be turned away.

I am making a call to all communities of faith. It is time that we take seriously the needs of those with no place to sleep. It is time that we open our doors and exercise the gift of hospitality, an exercise that our God commands of us. At South Tryon Community Church we will be opening our doors and providing cots for people to stay over night when the weather drops below 20 degrees. I invite, I urge all communities of faith to likewise make the effort to provide emergency shelter to one, five, twenty-five homeless persons on the upcoming frigid winter nights.

For the Torah says ” You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor in your Land” (Dueteronomy 15:11)

For Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me… when you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (Mat 25:35-36,40)

For Mohammad, peace be upon him, says, “And worship God alone… and do good unto the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer.” (An-Nisa’ 4:36)

At South Tryon this is what we will do. Will you?

Rev. Tiffany Thomas
South Tryon Community Church
Pastor
revtiffanythomas@gmail.com