Running…

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan and was focused upon the story told in Jonah 1:1-17. A video recording is above and a written manuscript is below. If you have any trouble viewing the embedded video in this post, you can also view it here.

The scripture is read in two places: 10:25-12:05 and 26:20-29:00.

The sermon takes place between 32:30-51:15.

On the run… Jonah is on the run. At least for now, he’s running continually. At least for now, he’s running with no end in sight. That being said, he may have his own end in sight. He ends up in danger in the midst of a terrible storm and then, worse — at least seemingly, for now — he ends up in the belly of a large fish.

Not great. How’s your morning run going, Jonah?

Running… I wonder, what did he think he was running toward.? I wonder, what he thought he might be running from? When we’re on the run — running from calling, running from responsibility, running from fear, running from possibility, running from vitality, an running from wholeness — these seem to be good questions. But honestly, sometimes we don’t even know. We don’t know what we’re running toward. We don’t know what we’re running from. We’re just running.

There are certainly times when we need to run from danger and what is harmful to us. And today, we express support for all people who feel this, know this, and need companions along the journey. We want to be here for you.

But sometimes, we also run from what is good for us, whole for us, grounding for us, and connecting for us. And we run from what is faithful for us. We sense a calling — perhaps just a glimmer, or perhaps something resounding obviously like a bullhorn — GO! — and we do not want to do it. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uneasy. It calls us to stretch ourselves toward loving people we’d rather not love. It calls us to take on risk we’d rather not take.

On the run… Jonah is on the run.

Here’s something I love about the Book of Jonah: It’s so wildly satirical. It’s completely the top, and in some places, it’s wonderfully snarky. Biblical scholars believe all of this to be intentional. It’s a satirical story, dramatic and theatrical. And yet, it speaks right into a human experience that might be universal.

We have stories of running too.
We have stories of struggling too.
We have stories of inner conflict too.

As the Bob Marley song says,

“You’re running and you’re running,
and you’re running away,

You’re running and you’re running,
but you can’t run away from yourself.”

So in this story, Jonah ends up in the belly of a large fish, and he cannot run anymore. He can’t run from himself.

The story, of course, also aims to share that he can’t run away from God either. It’s not that God will force Jonah to do the calling that he’s currently shirking. But God won’t give up on Jonah either. We could look at this story and view God as capricious, endangering people through a storm out of anger or truly needing some kind of sacrifice to quell divine rage.

But really, I think this might be a story about God journeying with us when we want to do the opposite — run away from God in conflict and run away from the very neighbors that God is calling us to love. God keeps journeying with us in the most creative of ways, even in the belly of a large fish. Though the calling we’re receiving could difficult for us, it may also be for our benefit. It may also be for our growth and our wholeness.

As Dr. Michael Jinkins, one of my seminary professors used to say,

“There are some people for whom God must say, ‘The only way to save this one is to make a preacher out of them.’”

And there are lots of ways to be a preacher, by the way! So just because I’m the one up here wearing a robe and a stole, that doesn’t mean that couldn’t also be you.

Maybe our calling is saving us…  When we find ourselves in conflict with God, neighbors, and in our own internal world, that beckoning call to go, act, do, and love may also be a calling to turn around and live more fully, even if it stretches us, even if it invites risk.

God doesn’t give up on Jonah. God helps Jonah turn around, and God keeps beckoning and keeps summoning with that calling.

Interestingly enough, the calling is to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the prime city of the empire that will take the Israelites captive in the 8th century BCE. It is a calling for them to repent. In its most literal form, the word ‘repent’ means to turn around. Jonah has a calling to journey with Nineveh toward turning around.

Now in the belly of a giant fish, God journeys with Jonah and turns him around.

“There are some people for whom God must say, ‘The only way to save this one is to make a preacher out of them.’”

The calling is for Jonah’s benefit too.

When I think of a calling for my benefit, and along with it, a sense that I was in the presence of something much larger than myself. I have a moment that comes to mind. I think about a field in Marktoberdorf, Germany.

I think about how I marched to a field in a huff of anger and conflict, then departed with a sense of reassurance and wonder. I didn’t expect any of it, but it was exactly what I needed.

At age 23, I was on the verge of more than one major life transition. It was all a whirlwind of sorts. I was spending twenty days in Germany with the Cardinal Singers, the choir I had performed and traveled with for the last few years. With gratitude, we had been invited to participate in some prestigious competitions, most especially the Marktoberdorf Chamber Choir Competition.

And when I returned home to Indiana where I grew up… Whew. In ten days, I would then get married, and soon after that, I would move across the country to Austin, Texas. That would be the first time I had moved from home. I chose this… I’m the one who applied to seminary, and I loved choosing this seminary, but suddenly, on the Germany trip, I struggled mightily with the move. I knew I had to do this. No turning back. But I didn’t want to do it.

But what was I thinking?

I kind of panicked.

And I was also angry. I wasn’t ready to leave my friends, especially the people in this choir. We had created something incredible together over the last few years. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Do these kinds of friendships continue, or was I throwing that away?

I wasn’t ready to leave my church community. I had such a rich sense of belonging, and the people there had gotten me through so much. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Will I miss them too much? And will I miss out too much?

During a break in rehearsals, I departed for some time alone. I was infuriated about having to make these choices, potentially about losing so much. With deep frustration, I walked a pathway that was becoming increasingly familiar to me. It was a paved but often cracked, small road with gorgeous trees lining either side. Those trees with their vivid, green leaves lined the entire walkway until about a mile down the road, where everything opened up.

I had discovered this pathway about a week before and walked it many times since. The first time, I didn’t expect the opening, though each successive time was stunning in its own way. The shift was this: This road of trees suddenly opened to unexpected views. The Alps were in the distance on right, and a large, expansive field of wildflowers was on the left.

On this day, I think I was less interested in these, at least initially. I just wanted to be alone. So I walked and huffed. Then I turned left and stood in front of that field of wildflowers.

And I don’t know how to explain this, but something shifted, and I had an experience that felt very transcendent right there in the mundane moment of it all. And how to tell this story? Because in one sense, nothing happened, at least externally. There was no great miracle. Nothing fell from the sky. No supernatural action took place before my eyes.

But something happened internally. And it felt deeply spiritual. And I felt the presence of what I would call God, yet how do I name or describe what that means? Above all, I felt a sudden knowing. No voice fell from the sky, but if there would have been one, it would have said this:

There are people in Texas you have to meet, and without them, you will not fully be yourself.

Standing there, that is what I felt and quite suddenly, deeply knew. Something in me then rested in that knowledge, and the anger faded away. I trusted that it would be okay, even a gift to the ones I loved now, for me to become more fully who I was called to become. I knew that was calling me to Texas. I knew that was taking me to particular people in Texas.

And so I went.

When I lived in Texas, I thought of this experience many times. I even told the story a few times too. But I believe all of this resounded most strongly with me when I returned to Texas after the next move, which was to California.

At age 30, seven years after that experience in a field, I flew from Pasadena, California to Austin, Texas, returning for my ordination service. It would be held in a congregation where I did end up meeting an enormous amount of formative people in community.

One night before the service, I was alone in the upper loft of the house where we were staying with friends. I thought about all of this again. Then I wept with gratitude. It was overwhelming… I realized that the very next day, the church would be filled with people present to participate in ordaining me, and with the exception of two loves ones, to a person, the sanctuary would be filled with people I did not know until I made that move to Texas.

Having known them for years now, these were the kinds of people I could not imagine myself not-knowing. Every single person, and all the people collectively… It seemed that they were the fulfillment of that vision, the people I needed to know, the people with whom I would grow more deeply into myself… now with a myriad of names attached.

This was a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

Whatever transcendence is… whomever that Beyond-Presence is… surely, this calls us toward a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

And sometimes, the calling is for our benefit.

Are you on the run?
Are you struggling?
Are you grappling with inner conflict — with God? with neighbors? with yourself?

God keeps journeying with you. God will keep that call resounding. What will it take to stop your running? What will it take to turn around and follow this calling into fullness? The belly of a giant fish? Something less dramatic (I hope)? This story? This community? This worship service? This sermon? Things that will happen later today?

Will it take a God who holds us fast?

I think it may take a God who holds us fast.

May it be.
Amen.

-Renee Roederer

Running From Need

morning runner

Image description: A person is running, and the surroundings are blurry and distorted. Public domain image.

All people in this world have needs that are particular to themselves.
Every person.

And

All people and all communities have unique and particular strengths to share.
Every person, every community.

I’m not sure if we can ever truly run from need, because need is one of the most honest and real things about us all. But we definitely try. There may be a number of reasons for this. Among them, we’ve internalized lot of cultural narratives about individualism, self-sufficiency, and the belief that we must produce and earn love and belonging. (Psst, those are myths. Dangerous myths).

But those cultural narratives take form in our thoughts and feelings…

“I’m a burden.”

“I’m too much.”

“I don’t want to over-ask.”

“I don’t want to trouble.”

“They’re going to get tired of me.”

Soon we’re speaking narratives about ourselves, and we run from our need and from one another.

But here is something that is truer than true. I will even speak it as testimony because I keep discovering it to be so: Interdependence is an immeasurable gift.

These days, I’m acutely aware of my need of it, and how sacred it is to receive community care.

This pushes up against so many dominant, American cultural narratives.

I am community-dependent.
We are community-dependent.

These days, I keep saying these sentences to myself, because they are freeing, necessary, and beautiful.

Truly, interdependence is an immeasurable gift.

Renee Roederer

 

The Field in Marktoberdorf

marktoberdorf

Image Description: This is the field in Marktoberdorf, Germany I describe below. I took this photo in 2010, five years after my original experience. In 2005, the field was bright yellow with wildflowers. Whatever the season, it’s a gorgeous view.

Through the invitation of a colleague, I’m preparing to preach this week from the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible. He and I will be splitting this four part sermon series. The story of Jonah begins with him on the run. He’s heard a clear calling, but he’s moving in any direction except Nineveh, the place where he is called to go. This week, I’ll be sharing stories on that theme. Here’s one that I wrote in September, 2018. 

When I ponder an experience of transcendence… a sense that I was in the presence of something much larger than myself, surpassing what I expected… I think about a field in Marktoberdorf, Germany.

I think about how I marched to a field in a huff of anger, then departed with a sense of reassurance and wonder. I didn’t expect any of it, but it was exactly what I needed.

At age 23, I was on the verge of more than one major life transition. It was all a whirlwind of sorts. I was spending twenty days in Germany with the Cardinal Singers, the choir I had performed and traveled with for the last few years. With gratitude, we had been invited to participate in some prestigious competitions, most especially the Marktoberdorf Chamber Choir Competition.

And when I returned home to Indiana… Whew. In ten days, I would then get married, and soon after that, we would move across the country to Austin, Texas. That would be the first time I had moved from home. I chose this… I’m the one who applied to seminary, and I loved choosing this seminary, but suddenly, on the Germany trip, I struggled mightily with the move. I knew I had to do this. No turning back. But I didn’t want to do it.

But what was I thinking?

I kind of panicked.

And I was also angry. I wasn’t ready to leave my friends, especially the people in this choir. We had created something incredible together over the last few years. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Do these kinds of friendships continue, or was I throwing that away?

I wasn’t ready to leave my church community. I had such a rich sense of belonging, and the people there had gotten me through so much. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Will I miss them too much? And will I miss out too much?

During a break in rehearsals, I departed for some time alone. I was infuriated about having to make these choices, potentially about losing so much. With deep frustration, I walked a pathway that was becoming increasingly familiar to me. It was a paved but often cracked, small road with gorgeous trees lining either side. Those trees with their vivid, green leaves lined the entire walkway until about a mile down the road, where everything opened up.

I had discovered this pathway about a week before and walked it many times since. The first time, I didn’t expect the opening, though each successive time was stunning in its own way. The shift was this: This road of trees suddenly opened to unexpected views. The Alps were in the distance on right, and a large, expansive field of wildflowers was on the left.

On this day, I think I was less interested in these, at least initially. I just wanted to be alone. So I walked and huffed. Then I turned left and stood in front of that field of wildflowers.

And I don’t know how to explain this, but something shifted, and I had an experience that felt very transcendent right there in the mundane moment of it all, beautiful though it was. And how to tell this story? Because in one sense, nothing happened, at least externally. There was no great miracle. Nothing fell from the sky. No supernatural action took place before my eyes.

But something happened internally. And it felt deeply spiritual. And I felt the presence of what I would call God, yet how do I name or describe what that means? Above all, I felt a sudden knowing. No voice fell from the sky, but if there would have been one, it would have said this:

There are people in Texas you have to meet, and without them, you will not fully be yourself.

Standing there, that is what I felt and quite suddenly, deeply knew. Something in me then rested in that knowledge, and the anger faded away. I trusted that it would be okay, even a gift to the ones I loved now, for me to become more fully who I was called to become. I knew that was calling me to Texas. I knew that was taking me to particular people in Texas.

And so I went.

When we lived in Texas, I thought of this experience many times. I even told the story a few times too. But I believe all of this resounded most strongly with me when I returned to Texas after the next move, which was to California.

At age 30, seven years after that experience in a field, I flew from Pasadena, California to Austin, Texas, returning for my ordination service. It would be held in a congregation where I did end up meeting an enormous amount of formative people in community.

One night before the service, I was alone in the upper loft of the house where we were staying with friends. I thought about all of this again. Then I wept with gratitude. It was overwhelming… I realized that the very next day, the church would be filled with people present to participate in ordaining me, and with the exception of two loves ones, to a person, the sanctuary would be filled with people I did not know until I made that move to Texas.

Having known them for years now, these were the kinds of people I could not imagine myself not-knowing. Every single person, and all the people collectively… It seemed that they were the fulfillment of that vision, the people I needed to know, the people with whom I would grow more deeply into myself… now with a myriad of names attached.

This was a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

Whatever transcendence is… whomever that Beyond-Presence is… surely, this calls us toward a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

Renee Roederer

Belonging to Something Bigger

IMG_7041

Image Description: The cover of Seinfeld: Seasons 1 & 2. All four cast members are posing next to each other (left to right) Kramer, George, Elaine, and Jerry.

Years ago, I took a viewing plunge that would last nearly a year. I added the first disc of Seinfeld season 1 to the Netflix queue, and then, I began to re-watch the entire series. I enjoyed revisiting the hilarious scenarios that made Seinfeld one of the most unique and popular sitcoms to date.

As I watched, I realized that a number of common phrases were launched on this “show about nothing.” Terms like double dipping, close talking, and re-gifting all had their fifteen minutes of fame on the show, and they stuck with us because they named social quirks that had not yet been so wonderfully defined.

And I marveled at the burst of technological changes that have emerged in the span of one generation. This is because so many of those changes are simply not in the show. . . The fact that Seinfeld could craft entire episodes around the use of answering machines and pay phones — and for that matter, feature the frequent use of Jerry’s enormous, cordless landline phone — spoke to how different life was a few decades ago.

Every bit of this was enjoyable, but most of all, I found myself reflecting upon the moments behind the scenes, particularly upon the creation of the sitcom itself and the relationships that made it possible. The Netflix discs all have interviews with the cast, directors, and writers throughout the series. As I watched these episodes, I also watched the creators find their stride in defining the identity and tone of the show, and I watched the friendships grow deeper.

At the beginning, it was intriguing to watch Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David practically fall into this opportunity, not knowing where it would take them. In a humorous way during one of the first interviews, Larry David talks about the very non-humorous emotional meltdown he had when he realized that the show they pitched would actually be aired. He would actually have to write thirteen episodes for the first season. He didn’t think he could do it. Little did he know that he was sitting on a creative project which would become much larger than himself. Within that larger framework, he would find his own writing voice.

As I watched these early interviews, I pondered how we human beings frequently desire to be a part of creating something larger. I could feel that pull upon myself too. We all want to belong to something bigger than anything we can create alone.

I especially enjoyed watching the finale of the series. I had not seen that final episode since the evening it actually aired, and it was was wonderful to revisit it. Along with the last episodes themselves, the final interviews were just as intriguing and meaningful as the ones at the beginning. One story in particular will stick with me for a long time.

The four primary cast members all had a ritual of gathering together backstage before the taping every episode. When they gathered together for that moment on the date of the last live taping, Jerry Seinfeld said something quite lovely. Jason Alexander said that Jerry was rarely sentimental, but on that date, with tears in his eyes, he created a wonderful moment as they stood backstage and held hands. Jerry said,

“I want to say something. For the rest of our lives, when anyone thinks of one of us, they will think of all four of us.”

I love those words. He added, “And I can’t think of three people I’d rather have that be true of.” He was right. When we think of any of them, we do think of all of them.

This ending brought me back to my initial reflections at the beginning of the series. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes we stumble upon such an opportunity, only to add ourselves with our identities, dreams, and voices. Other times, we create such opportunities intentionally through the friendships that surround us.

 Seinfeld certainly made cultural changes to our world. If we follow the example of its makers and allow ourselves to create alongside others, our personal worlds just might get bigger, too.

Renee Roederer

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to 11 people who became supporters of my writing this month through Patreon. $2-5 per month makes a huge contribution in supporting my writing and my community work alike. Many thanks!

If you would like to consider becoming a patron, you can visit my Patreon site. 

Delight

Jimcombo

Image Description: Two photos of me with my Grandpa Jim when I was a baby and a toddler. In the first one, he’s kissing me on the cheek. In the second one, he’s holding me, and I’m wearing his big, white shoes.

My grandfather was an orphan.

That’s a stark sentence, I realize, yet a true one. My Grandpa Jim’s early life was very rough. He was the youngest of five children. When his Mom was pregnant with him, or shortly after he was born — I’m not sure — his Dad died. This part I do know: My Grandpa Jim was born on the very day of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. That plunged the United States into the Great Depression.

His mother could not afford to raise her children so she placed them all in a Catholic orphanage. Then she set a plan in motion; she started selling moonshine! When she made enough money to bring her eldest home from the orphanage, that child helped her with the business. And when they had enough money to bring the second eldest home from the orphanage, that child helped her with the business. This pattern continued until they were all home. My Grandpa Jim lived in the orphanage the longest. He spent his first seven years of life there.

It was a challenging place. They had so little. He once found a chocolate bar wrapper and kept it for a good while just so he could smell it. This was a very vivid memory to him. It was rare that the children had big joys or delights.

But as an older adult, my Grandpa Jim loved to delight in small things.

Here’s a very vivid memory that I have: When my Great Uncle and his Brother-in-law died, most people were out in the hallway after the visitation was over, but he and I sat in the room together for a bit, and he started telling me ghost stories. They felt especially playful and spooky in a funeral home. All these years later, I don’t remember any of the details of those stories, but what I remember very clearly is that he had a red lollipop in the breast pocket of his dress shirt. Maybe that was an odd context to have a sucker sticking out of your pocket and visibly (I mean, there were pants pockets too). But I imagine he found it lying around somewhere in the funeral home — maybe they were there for guests or for children — and he snagged one for himself so he could enjoy it later.

There were other silly, simple delights too. He used to sing these really goofy songs. All these years later, his grandchildren remember all the words. He loved to whistle and shuffle his feet in a little dance. And I honestly believe he was just as excited as the children, if not more excited, to open presents for Christmas.

Earlier this week, when I was leaving my workplace, I saw some Hersey Kisses in a bowl, and I put about five of them in the pocket of my coat. All week long, every time I’ve put on my coat and grabbed my keys in my pocket, I’ve also been surprised that I have these there. I just keep forgetting they’re there. And each time, I have this huge spike in delight. People who know me well also know how excited I get for little treats, and how much I enjoy the surprise of them, whether they’re displayed for a group or whether people give them to me personally. It’s a big swell of delight for something small yet unexpected.

And I’ve never made the connection before. This week, for the first time in my life, I asked myself, “Do I get this from Grandpa Jim?”

Renee Roederer

 

 

Oh, Michigan…

Ash Wednesday

Image Description: Ashes in the shape of a cross on a white background.

Well, if this isn’t the Michiganiest thing I’ve ever heard:

Tonight, my Ash Wednesday service has been rescheduled for Ash Thursday due to inclement weather.

I learned this last night and had a good laugh about it. I love it. Ash Thursday will be a first in my life. Stay tuned, since I may also blog about it!

But for today, I’d like to share a beautiful poem from Jan Richardson. My good friend Pepa Paniagua shared this on social media this morning, and I’d love to pass it along. May this speak into any particular situation, need, or hope you have:

Blessing the Dust
For Ash Wednesday

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

—Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

 

 

“Who Brings the Casserole?”

potluck

Image Description: Various dishes on a table for a potluck. Public domain image.

Over coffee, I had a meaningful conversation with a person who works with our local chapter of NAMI — the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Churches and extended community groups know how to provide care for people with cancer. We should be able to do the same thing for people experiencing mental health challenges,” she shared.

When someone is depressed, who brings over the casserole?

When someone is traumatized, who makes phone calls to check on them?

When someone is easily overstimulated or triggered, who accompanies them to the grocery, aiding them in the slew options, colors, and florescent lights?

Good questions. I am grateful that she is bringing these questions to congregations and our wider county.

Later that same evening, I had a phone call with Project UPLIFT. In my staff role with the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan, we host an eight week program over the phone for people with epilepsy and depression. I do this with alongside an incredible psychologist who teaches, facilitates, and provides people with tools to manage depression.

I find myself curious about our unquestioned, cultural beliefs… Why is it that we treat certain health conditions with community care but treat people with a mental illness as though their condition is some kind of character flaw? (It’s not). I also find myself curious…Why do we tend to make this big internal dichotomy between physical illness and mental illness, as if mental illness is not also physical? (Of course it is).

These questions keep swirling…

Renee Roederer