sermons, songs, etceteras
Like many of us, I have often asked and been asked who of Scripture’s prophets is my personal favorite and why. I have at times joined the many giving preference to Jeremiah who reminds us that God knits us together in our mothers’ wombs, taking care with each cast, pull, and weave to create a uniquely beautiful work of art that warms, covers, and comforts (Jer. 1:5). Or Micah, whose recording of God’s most vital, fundamental instruction to us lays waste to all our idolatrous zeal and performative worship, reminding us that to love our Maker is to act: to love mercy and do justice and walk humbly next to God (Micah 6:6-8). And yet over time, through study and contemplation of what it means to prophesy, my favor has shifted to one not typically considered a prophet, but who nevertheless set the stage for all the prophets who would follow her.
Before we dive in, we must establish how we understand and define “prophet” and “prophecy.” Literally, the Hebrew word נָבִ֥יא (nabi) simply means, “spokesperson” or “speaker.” Yet, given their unique voice in Scripture, we know a prophet of God is a particular kind of speaker set apart by what, to, and for whom they speak. The Hebrew nabi is not a future- or fortune-teller, nor do they offer magical predictions of threat or promise, except, perhaps, as future predictions converge with or stem from the present. Instead, and fundamentally, a prophet is one who speaks truth to power on behalf of the oppressed or marginalized.
For many years, including throughout my undergraduate studies in biblical theology, I understood “speaking truth to power” as “speaking truth in a powerful way.” But what I now see with clarity is that prophecy is speaking truth to those who have power and challenging how they use it in relation to those without. It is rarely if ever “merely theological” but “by nature has political and social ramifications.” Prophecy always subverts the status quo and confronts those so comfortable with what is that they have no need to imagine what could be. Because a prophet’s work lay in turning the attention of dominant cultures and powers to the needs and concerns of the oppressed and marginalized, those who engage the Biblical prophets or modern-day prophecy must locate ourselves properly in the social, cultural, religious, and gender-sexual power structures that form and inform the world around us.
Thus I make the case for a prophet who has not been widely, if ever, identified as such, but very much is one. She comes to us in the beginning of God’s story among the Hebrew people, and shows us what it means to disturb the powerful on behalf of the disempowered.
This sermon was originally preached on May 15, 2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here. Song lyrics are included below.
Fifth Sunday in Easter Lectionary Texts:
Acts 11:1-18 | Psalm 148 | Revelation 21:1-6
Gospel Text : John 13:21-35
Good morning, Beloveds. Today I’m going to go off script and take you back in time for a minute to my previous life. As you may know, each pastoral intern is responsible to create and design some kind of project during our year with you. I know one of your former interns designed a Lenten discussion series, and another created a beautiful prayer wall in the Spiritual Direction room.
I stumbled upon what’s become my project somewhat accidentally — or, perhaps a better word would be providentially — when Tom invited me to sing a solo back in November on All Saints Sunday. As I searched for songs that would be appropriate to the day, what happened instead was that I wrote one of my own. Not long after that, I wrote another that followed the Baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at Cana, marking the beginning of his ministry.
It’s been a long time since songs have come to me like that and more or less written themselves. After my son was born and we moved here from Nashville where I’d spent eight years as a professional recording artist — aka a rock star — I thought that part of my life was done. When I entered seminary four years ago, I felt certain my songwriting days were over. So I was surprised, delighted, and overcome, really, when songs poured out of me in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, two years ago on the 25th of this month. After that, songs went quiet again until they started blooming again this year. And that’s how I decided that for my project, I would continue writing songs to mark significant moments in Jesus’s life and in the life of the Church, to leave with you when my time here is over.
This sermon was originally preached on 4/3/2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here.
Fifth Sunday in Lent Lectionary Texts:
Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel Text (included below ): John 12:1-8
Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.
Alice Walker, acclaimed poet and author of The Color Purple, wrote that, in a poem by the same title about an Iraqi mother of five who lost everything during the US invasion -- everything, Walker writes, except her kids.
Hope is a Woman who has lost her fear
Along with her home, her employment, her parents,
her olive trees, her grapes. The peace of independence;
the reassuring noises of ordinary neighbors.
And yet, Walker continues,
Hope rises, She always does,
did we fail to notice this in all the stories we’ve tried to suppress?
and she puts on her same
unfashionable threadbare cloak
and, penniless, flings herself
against the cold, polished, protective chain mail
of the very powerful...
Hope is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.
When I read this poem, I cannot help but think of Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, and of the dead-and-raised and probably still stinking Lazarus.
Mary and her sister are disciples of Jesus, so close with him that in the story of Lazarus’s death immediately preceding this scene, both of the sisters, full of grief, confront Jesus’s lateness and wail that had he just come sooner, their brother would still live. And Jesus loved them so much that, in the shortest and arguably most powerful verse in all of Scripture, Jesus wept. And then, proclaiming that he, himself, is the resurrection and the life, he raised Lazarus from the dead.
That is the context of today’s text: Mary is a woman who has witnessed death, grieved it wholly, and seen it defeated in her own blood. Her hope is now unassailable, itself immortal in a way, and it has made her a woman without fear, brazen in her boldness at this celebration where Jesus is feted among his closest friends and chosen family. As Lazarus feasts and Martha serves the meal, Mary gets down on her hands and knees, breaks open a jar of pure nard worth an entire year’s wages, and dumps it on Jesus’s bare feet as he reclines at the table.
Now, I would love to get into the significance of this pure nard, but it is best saved for its own lesson, so I will just say this: The only other place in Scripture where pure nard is specifically named is in the Song of Songs, where it is spent by the lover on her beloved. I am not suggesting nor do I want to entertain any conspiracy theories about Mary and Jesus being married; it is just to say, Mary’s anointing of Jesus is not only extreme economically; it is profoundly, awkwardly intimate.
Hope is a woman who has lost her fear.
This song was written for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten Season and the day we remember the words of God to Adam in Genesis 3:19, and of Qoheleth to his readers in Ecclesiastes 3:20 -
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I am moved by how frail we are as humans, how ill-equipped we are to walk through grief and loss, or to feel our biggest feelings. This feels especially true among European Christians, which seems ironic since our faith is founded on a profound loss and the resurrection of hope. Yet we do not know what to do with death and dying, and so we pretend it has not happened; we sweep pain away with meaningless (vain) platitudes and spiritual bypassing.
But I believe there is great hope and Life in recognizing that the patterns of life and death, the evolution of ash to ash, dust to stardust, is itself a kind of perpetual resurrection. We come from dust and return thereto, and so become the particles of whatever new life rises. We are literally made of stardust, our bodies composed of long-dead, but resurrected cells.
It is one of the most beautiful truths I've come to understand:
I am, in this body, eternity.
What I do with my limited time in this body matters.
The seeds I plant and tend will grow and give life -- or cause death -- long after I've returned to dust.
And so I pray to Mother God:
What to do with death and dying
How to tell the truth when liars lie
How to breathe lament and sighing
Will you gather up and hold us
Like a mother will you show us
What to do with death and dying
In your waters baptize us
Let your death to life remind us
You have hallowed us for life eternal
And in this one may we lay the seeds
for justice and for peace
In your waters baptize us
Ash to ash and dust to stardust
From a billion years of life we are us
The resurrection of what came before us
Made of dirt and of divine
We are great love come to life
In the gardens that we tend
May we grow a medicine
When consecrated back to earth
May it be another birth from
Ash to ash and dust to stardust
Mother, Mother, Mother
MOTHER (ash to ash)
(c) 2022 Amy Courts Music
This meditation was first preached on March 23, 2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN during our weekly mid-week Lent services. The livestreamed recording of the song and meditation may be viewed here.
Song lyrics to "Lay Down My Head" are below the meditation.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows.
I come to you tonight, a bundle of nerves and anxiety. My thoughts are heavy, and dense, as I ponder what it is to be honored, to feast on goodness, in the presence of enemies.
I’m thinking a lot about the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the US Supreme Court. I’m thinking about the number of senators, all of them white, most of them men, who have both directly and indirectly, overtly and implicitly challenged her credentials and fitness despite having confirmed her to federal courts three times already, and despite that both her experience and expertise far exceed that of the last three justices they confirmed. I am thinking about the traps that have been laid for her, the many attempts over these three days, to bait her to react in such a way that they might categorize and dismiss her as an “angry Black woman.” I am thinking of the stark differences between how she has been treated and spoken to, compared to her immediate predecessor, Justice Amy Coney Barrett. I am lingering on what so many of my Black teachers and friends, and some of my favorite Black authors, have long been saying: that Black people in the USA must work twice as hard, for twice as long, and be thrice as perfect and unimpeachable as their white peers in order to be taken half as seriously. My thoughts are with her, in the presence of her enemies.
This meditation was originally given on Wednesday, March 9th, at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN for the second week of Lent. The video of the midweek service may be viewed here.
MEDITATION TEXT // Psalm 23:2-3
God, my Shepherd, leads me to rest in green pastures,
and along quiet waters. She restores my soul.
She guides me along righteous paths for Her Name's sake.
A few years ago, a friend invited me to a yoga and singing retreat in Chacala Mexico. She is an Obstetrician, and after hearing my traumatic birth story, which resulted in an emergency hysterectomy, the loss of the future I’d dreamed for myself, and a broken relationship with my very own body, she decided I needed -- or rather, that I deserved -- the restoration of a place like Mar de Jade. And so she paid my way to join her and about 15 other women at a retreat center on the Pacific that caters not to tourists, but rather cares for those who seeking healing. That week I was taught how to find and use my full voice, from grounded mama to tender listener; I was shown the way simple movements can open my body to healing I didn’t know I needed. And I feasted on meals full of fruits and vegetables grown by people who love and are in communion with the land, which were turned into nourishment by a kitchen staff whose aim was not merely to stuff us but to heal us with food.
On my second or third day, our yoga instructor taught me some breathing exercises that remind the body to release tension, anger, fear, and grief, and invited me to listen to my body and try to reconnect with it. She understood that my hysterectomy had cut me off from my life-giving self; that I felt like a living death. And to heal, I would need to open up and meet myself with love and tenderness in those empty spaces that mourn. Not much later, my singing teacher invited me to play. “Music?” I asked? I thought maybe she wanted me to play one of my songs for the group. But she said, “No. I want you to run….frolic on the beach…play in the water like a little kid. Connect with 5 year old Amy. Jump, spin, get in that water and see how it cradles you and tosses you and tackles you and holds you. Play!”
I felt like an absolute fool of course, even contemplating the invitation -- I am after all, a grown woman; I am very serious; my work is very important! My grief is heavy and I do not have time or energy or space for silliness! But I did it. And by the fourth day, I spent an entire afternoon running up and down the beach doing cartwheels until I got dizzy and fell over, and I did not care who saw me. I was a little girl, playing.
My fourth day was the day I got down to business.
(c) 5/29/20 Tony Webster (flickr) // Minnesota State Patrol troopers stand in formation, wearing riot gear and holding wooden batons, at Minnehaha Avenue and 27th Avenue South near the Minneapolis Police Department's 3rd Precinct, as the Minneapolis Fire Department battles blazes at Lake Street businesses, following the publication of a video showing a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed and unarmed Black man, killing him.
This sermon was originally preached on 2/20/2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here.
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Lectionary Texts:
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Gospel Text read from the Native American Translation of the New Testament (included below sermon): Luke 6:27-28
Good morning, beloved of God. The Image of God in me delights in the Image of God in you. The humanity in me honors the humanity in you. The Christ in me calls out to Christ in you, that we may love one another.
I offer this sacred greeting because we have occasion to ponder what Jesus meant when he taught his listeners to Love our enemies and bless our oppressors, not only because it happens to be today’s text, but because it is also today’s reality. We, like Jesus, live in an era of stark, often violent division, increasing disparities between the rich and poor, Black and white, urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, and so on. There is no lack of hatred for the Other, and humanity’s capacity for inhumanity seems boundless.
Just this week, multiple friends of mine were attacked for their race, their gender, or their sexual orientation. My own call to ministry was mocked by a stranger on the internet -- again. I don’t think it’s lost on any of us that we in the Twin Cities, in the USA, in the world continue to grapple with what it means to care for one another in an increasingly polarized world. And we as a society and individuals are still figuring out how to grieve so many deaths and move on with life amidst a pandemic we’re all sick of.
I don’t start with all this heavy to be a Debbie Downer but to tell you this from the jump: I hate preaching about love. To me it often feels fickle, weak, mushy. Like a bypass around real pain and grief and rage. But today I have no choice, because it’s what Jesus preached. So I greet you from the fertile soil of our shared humanity, trusting -- hoping, anyway -- that Love Wins.
To set the stage for what I think is the essence of this part of Jesus’s sermon on the plain, I want to start with a few presuppositions that have grounded and guided my exploration this week:
First, in Jesus’s view and experience, having and being enemies is inevitable AND it is wrapped up in Power with a capital P.
This sermon and accompanying song were originally preached on January 16, 2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The live recording may be viewed here.
Song Lyrics are included at the end of the sermon
Scripture Texts for the Second Sunday in Epiphany are:
Isaiah 62:1-5 | Psalm 36:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11
You probably noticed that I’m dressed a bit differently today, and that’s because I will be playing piano in a bit. But first, I want to tell you about a message God has been speaking to me for literal decades and stirred itself into a song this week.
As far back as I can remember, the scriptures that have pierced straight to my deepest self were the ones that said I mattered, that my gifts were important, that while there is no-THING new under the sun, there are new souls born every day, with new particularities blooming all the time to shed new light and cast new shadows on our understanding of ancient things. I held tight to signs throughout scripture telling me that I couldn’t ask for too much or BE too much — but that my imagination was probably too safe and too small for a God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to Christ’s power at work within us, and whose plans for those God loves and calls are well beyond anything our eyes have seen, ears have heard, or our minds conceived.
These promises were important, because I grew up in the deep end of scarcity where i learned to be satisfied with crumbs, and never ask for more. And because I long believed, and to a degree still do if I’m honest, that there would never be enough space or breath for me to exist in my fullness, when I already bring so much muchness wherever I go. I believed what I was told, which was that I had to choose: motherhood OR career. school OR work. Music OR pastoral vocation. Queerness OR God. There wasn’t enough to say yes to both or all. So I learned to be satisfied with what fell at my feet, and to fear Want.
So it is quite something that in today’s gospel, the invitation to Go Big or Go Home blossoms again, and for no other reason than joy.
For Here we see God, in God’s first God-act of john’s gospel, giving excessively good abundance to people who didn’t ask for anything.
This sermon was originally preached on December 19, 2021 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The live recording may be viewed here.
Scripture Texts (full texts as translated by Dr. Wilda Gafney in Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W are included at the end of the sermon):
Judges 13:2-7, Psalm 115:9-15, Luke 1:39-56
Blessed be the Lord most high who comes to us this day in spirit and fire -- not from upon a throne of glory, nor even from the mouths of righteous and practiced men, but from within the belly of a scared, unmarried teenager who’s seen some things, survived some things, and run to the cousin she knows will welcome, recognize, and celebrate the coming of God through her. Indeed, the world is about to turn on its head, just as the baby does on its way through the birth canal, to bring New Life in bloody placenta and primal pain. Oh God, Make us into ready doulas. Amen.
Today marks the fourth and final week of Advent, the last hours of the Great Waiting for God’s Arrival, when we light the fourth candle — the Candle of Peace — which is a fact I find rather funny given both our own current context of 2021 and all this time holds, as well as the scriptural and historical contexts in which Mary’s Magnificat is re-cast into the world.
I say re-cast because while it is most certainly rebellious, even dangerously so, to proclaim the toppling of empires and the humiliation of the proud, Mary’s song is not new. It is an old hymn her people have been singing for centuries, a song sung by Miriam as Israel fled the oppression of Egypt, then by Deborah and Hannah and Samson’s mother from today’s old testament reading. It is the song first sung by Abraham’s womb-slave Hagar to her God, the God who Sees, and it is the song sung again and again by Israel’s mothers to that very same God who continues to See and do justice for God’s people.(1) Indeed the gravity of Mary’s song in her particular moment in time, and ours as well, must not be missed.
But before the song, let us hear the prelude.
Good morning, church. Today is the Feast of Christ the King. The end of the church year, the culmination of Ordinary Time. Unlike many of our other feasts and holy days, today’s celebration was established less than a century ago, in 1925, by Pope Pius XI as a direct response to the rise in fascism and Christian nationalism throughout the world. We come to the Table today reminded that our belonging, belovedness, and allegiance are in the Crucified and risen Christ whose kin-dom is entirely other than those of this earth.
I've had days to ponder and pray, and I am still largely at a loss for what to say to you. Because I come to this day of celebration rejoicing that two Black men who were unjustly held on death row for decades were freed, one just hours before his execution, praise God! But I also come grieving that white supremacy was once more granted favor and permission to continue unabated, unaccountable, in one of the most publicized trials in recent history. I come in solidarity with my Black siblings who who’ve expressed tremendous fear as white nationalist groups - many of whom claim roots in Christianity - call for “stacking up Bodies like cord wood” in the wake of Friday’s verdict.
And I come deeply aware that the individuals in these stories could be swapped with any number of other individuals and we’d see similar results, not because we’re all the same but because that is how systems work. Individuals are props that keep us fighting one another about the veracity of each other’s claims rather than asking what’s wrong with this system that looks like it’s broken but is actually working as designed.
All this to say, I come to you this morning, the day we celebrate the upside-down UNkingdom of Christ, with deep awareness of how profoundly unjust the kingdoms of this earth are.
But I come with hope too, because Jesus knew injustice.