Monday, June 25, 2018

Sunday, June 24 Sermon

May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor
1 Samuel 4
By Jennifer Brownell
At Vancouver UCC
June 24, 2018

In the book and movie trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, young people – children really -  are selected from among the many regions of a starkly divided culture to participate in a televised game in which they must fight to the death. As they are sent off to the competition, one of the organizers of the games trills “may the odds be ever in your favor.”  It’s creepy every time, because of course the odds were never in the favor of the young people. The whole game is rigged by those in power, who use The Hunger Games as a method of distraction and control of a populace that is always teetering on the brink of revolution.

One reason the book and movie resonated so strongly is that we recognized so much of our own culture in it, perhaps particularly in regards to our collective treatment of children and our willingness to put them in harm’s way.  

In 1991, Patrick ONeill, a unitarian minister included this story in a sermon (
 “Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: "Kasserian Ingera," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?"
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.”

It's a great story, but it’s not true.  The Masai, as do most people in the world, greet each other with their version of hello (sopa) ( As you do, the Masai  might follow this initial greeting with questions to catch up on things:  'How is the homestead?', 'How is the weather?', 'How are the cows?' and also perhaps 'How are the children?'

But we keep telling and re-telling that story I think because it’s comforting and sweet, to imagine the Masai people - far away from Washington on the plains of Africa - exchanging this greeting with one another “How are the children?”.  In his story, ONeill describes them as “fabled” (meaning practically mythical) people who we can maybe picture from our elementary school perusal of national geographic. Asking first and foremost “how are the children” is just another one of those exotic and unfathomable customs that “those people over there” participate in, one that -  told the way it’s usually told – is impossible for us to imagine US doing.

How are the children?  We can’t bear to ask because we are instead sending them empty thoughts and prayers, trilling “may the odds be ever in your favor,” when we know the odds are against them from the start. We can’t bear to ask the question “how are the children,” because cannot bear to hear the answer.

Can hardly bear for even 5 minutes to hear the wails of children broadcast in our halls of government.  (

Can hardly bear to learn that this week yet another black boy - Antwon Rose Jr -  was killed by a police officer – shot in the back by Michael Rosfeld, a police officer who had been on the job only three hours, who’d been fired in January from his previous job as a security guard at a local university for brutally beating a black student.   (

Oh Antwon, the odds were never in your favor.  You knew that when you wrote this poem in school a couple of years ago: (

“I’m confused and afraid. I wonder what path I will take/I hear that there’s only two ways out / I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid.
“I understand people believe I’m just a statistic/I say to them I’m different/ I dream of life getting easier / I try my best to make my dream come true / I hope that it does./I am confused and afraid.”

How are the children? “Confused and afraid.” Antwon answers for himself, for a generation of young men of color, for children he has never met, confined in cages on our southern border: confused and afraid.

Confusion and fear are not, of course, new to us.  We did not invent them in this generation.

They are as old as our bible stories. Picture this.  A large plain, surrounded by hills. On one hill – the soldiers of Gath.  On the other – the army of Judea.   Goliath stands in the front of all his men, gathered high on a hill, and all day he shouts insults and challenges at the men of Judea, standing high on another hill. Wait, did I tell you that he stood in front of all his men?  Not quite right – because his shield bearer stood before him.  See, even with all that enormous, powerful and painfully detailed armor on, he still had to have someone ELSE stand in front of him, holding up a shield.  Maybe for all his bluster, Goliath knew he was not quite as all powerful, maybe not quite as undefeatable, as he would have you believe.

So Goliath stands in front of all his men, except for that one holding the shield in front of him, for days and days and days. And for all that time he’s…tweeting. Broadcasting the fake news that he is unbeatable and his opponants are third-rate clowns, sad failures.

Early this week, Gary Roberts told me that his grandpa, the logger  used to say, “It’s easier to believe a lie you’ve heard 1000 times than a truth you’re hearing for the first time.”  And after all the bluster, those Judeans really started to believe it.  “Maybe he IS unbeatable,” they murmured.  “Maybe we really just have to sit here and listen to him.”  They had placed their trust in institutions of the state, system of government and military and religions that had served them all along,  and those institutions were not acting to put an end to Goliaths taunts and threats.  Everyone was frozen, cynical or despairing or afraid to act. 

Then, into their midst came a country lad, a guy who was unplugged from the social media machine and so hadn’t caught the taunts and the threats, a kid who had never heard those lies even once, let alone a thousand times, a young man who nevertheless knew enough to understand the urgency of the situation, to see how dire it was, this vicious stalemate. David realized at once that cynicism and despair and fear were not the answers, that taking action was, even if it meant putting himself in harm’s way.  But he did not go alone.  He was not just a little guy defeating a big guy, he was a young man who knew God, and knew that God’s love prevails.

As Michael curry wrote this week, meditating on the crisis on our border, ( “Strength does not require cruelty. Indeed, cruelty is a response rooted in weakness. Jesus was clear about what true strength is and it always is driven by love. There may be many policy prescriptions, but the prism through which we view them should be the same: does the policy treat people with love, acknowledging our common humanity? If the answer is no, it is not a Christian solution.”

The young man knew that cruelty was not strength, indeed it was a sign of weakness.  He knew that God’s way was strong but never cruel.  The seasoned leaders and soldiers, the older and experienced ones, tried to talk him out of it. 

“You will never succeed,” they cried.

“God is with me,” the young man knew, and so he said again that he would go.

“Well, here, at least take these with you!”  

David tried on Saul’s armor but it did not work, the tools of empire did not fit him, would not protect him in the battle ahead.   “For the master's tools,” as Audre Lorde said,  “will never dismantle the master's house.”

David needed something simpler, and so he went out into that field to meet Goliath. (And the shield bearer? We don’t know what happened to him, maybe he ran away altogether, abandoning the great fighter. Eventually it happens that all bullies find themselves standing alone)

And David famously knocked him down with a single stone, the weapon finding it’s way past the bluster and taunts and landing on the one place that was not covered with armor. God’s power is stronger even than giants, even giants with really loud voices, and seemingly insurmountable power

We are in the hills my friends, and Goliath is out there, taunting us. Our Goliath is despair and cynicism and fear, and he strides onto the battlefield in a coat of armor emblazoned with the words, “I don’t really care, do you?”

According to journalist Giovanni Tiso, (  I don’t care (me ne frego) was the slogan of Italian fascists in the first part of the twentieth century and is still associated with European fascism today.  Originally it may have meant “I don’t care” in the sense that “I’m not afraid of death,” but  today “menefreghismo (literally, ‘Idontcareism’), has come to mean a cynical individualism, one that openly does not care for the suffering of others.

Goliath totters before us, spouting his lies.  Too long, those in opposition to his message of cruelty and hate have cowered on the far hill, believing what he says, frozen in fear.

There is no time left.  No time left for Antwon Rose Jr.  No time left for the children at the border, and their families, who fled places of violence in a last act of desperation with the one hope of sparing their children’s lives, holding them in sight of them on all that long trek, only to be torn apart at the end.  

The time is now for giants to be defeated. The time is now to stop sending our children into harm’s way with the offhand, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” or “I don’t really care.”

The time is now to act.

The time is now to tell your own stories of immigration, sanctuary and refuge.

The time is now to pray as hard as you’ve ever prayed, for God to show God’s power in and through you.

The time is now to speak up.

The time is now to call congress.  

The time is now to look idontcarism in the face and proclaim with all that you are, all that you have “Yes! I really care!”

The time is now to respond with valor and confidence to the uncertainty and confusion of others.

The time is now to talk to your neighbor about how, whatever you your politics, it is not Christian to put children in harm’s way.

The time is now to put aside the empire’s weapons, the empire’s ways of fighting evil.

The time is now to lace up your marching shoes.

The time is now to recall that we have defeated the powers before, and we will again.

The time is now to step boldly up to Goliath, holding only the tools we have been given, and realizing that he is not as powerful as we had believed.

The time is now to say God’s name aloud, and to proclaim that God’s work will always, always, ALWAYS be more powerful than any earthly power.

The time is now, brothers and sisters.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Making space

A good Friday dream, following a beautiful, meditative interfaith service of worship. My prayer throughout the service was "Eyes on you, Jesus."

In my dream, I'm having dinner with Chrissy Teigan and John Legend (like you do) and John is asking me what I'm working on these days. I tell him about this book I've been working on - a historical novel about the sixteenth century.  I'm describing the hardship of those days, and while describing it, it comes alive - the cold, the hunger, the ever-present illness.  Then Chrissy has to go to an awards show, so she changes into her gown (God, she's so beautiful) and floats away while I go off to a writing retreat. 

It takes a while to find the door to the retreat house that my key will work in, but I do. I go to the room I have already selected and someone is in there.  She has set up a card table and her writing is spread out all over.  I feel like I should recognize her, but I cant remember her name.  
"Oh, hi Jennifer," she greets me not very warmly, "at this retreat we all like to have our OWN room." 
"Oh, ok, sorry." 
Meekly I take my items out of the room (that someone has shoved way behind the bed) and head down the long corridor, opening doors trying to find one that will have space for me.  They are all occupied. A few times I get settled, only to realize that there's no room after all, and then move on. There is a boarded up area that I'm pretty sure that I remember has some rooms in it but a sign warns about SUPER SPIDERS within.  I avoid it.  

I wake up from this dream with my shoulder throbbing and tears in my throat.  

Oh man.  I need to make more room and, maybe more importantly, I need to occupy the room I have.  Yes, it's hard to write and work and work out and be a mom and be a caregiver and be a wife and be a faithful child of God and be a friend and rehab a tender shoulder (not necessarily in that order). Yes, it's hard to make space - space in time and in psychic energy and just physically.  Yes, it's scary to start writing when I can't see in advance where it will take me. Yes, it's scary to keep writing when whatever I end up with will never be as genius Hamilton. Yes, it's all hard and scary. But it's not 1500's, digging-turnips-out-of-frozen-ground-so-I-dont-starve-and-anyway-I'm-likely-to-die-giving-birth-to-my-fourtheenth-child hard and scary.  

I have more time and opportunity and media and space to use my voice than any woman in history. Certainly more than my character did. And she managed to write songs and diatribes and sermons and letters and pamphlets - pages and pages and pages. (And those are just the pages that survived.)

Sometimes we pray and pray and pray and it seems like nothing happens.  And sometimes we pray "Eyes on you, Jesus" and wake up the next day knowing exactly the next step to take. Pen to paper, easy as that. Resurrection is coming.  New life is just around the corner. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pentecost Sunday 2017 - Circles

"Circles" (art in response to sermon)
by Rory Martindale,
fingerpaint on ipad
Pentecost Sunday, 2017
Jennifer Garrison Brownell

Let’s make a big circle
Lets make it big enough for everyone
who was sitting down that morning before 9:00
not to new wine, but to a bowl of cornflakes, or whatever they ate for breakfast in those confusing days after Jesus had finally left them for good. Let that circle swirl and spiral across time and space so that it’s big enough to wrap in everyone who was visiting Jerusalem that day –
true believers and serious doubters
and tourists looking for some excitement
and pickpockets looking for some tourists.

Let’s make a circle big enough to include people who are long gone
–those Parthians, Medes, Eliamites and Mesopotamians, and Judeans, residents of Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygians and Pamphylians–
Whose  languages, buildings and breakfast cereals
were centuries dead even when this story was brand new.

Let’s make a big circle
Let’s make it big enough for everyone in every time of life.
Let’s make it big enough for very new babies and very old elders.
Let’s make it big enough for the men and the women and the gender-expansive who are in the middle of life, working, building, creating, caring for those babies and those elders.
Let’s make it big enough for people
who can’t work,
who want work,
who work too much,
who barely scrape by,
who are domiciled in skyscrapers.
Let’s make it big enough for those people graduating from school and commencing all of life’s hope, all of life’s promise.
Let’s make it big enough for those whose school days are behind them, yet who wake into each new day with curiosity and delight, asking “What do you have to teach me today, Lord?”

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for the generations that crowd before, and the generations that will march on after. 
Let’s make it big enough for those whose eyes are closed at last in rest after long, and satisfying life. 
Let’s make it big enough for those who are taken too soon by disease or violence.
Let’s make it big enough for Muslim children fleeing Syria and Christian adults riding a bus in Egypt and teenagers of all races dancing in England, and brave, brave men riding a train in Portland, Oregon. 
Let’s make it big enough for those whose lives are yet to come, for the grandchildren of our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for brown skinned people and black skinned people and white skinned people.
Let’s make it big enough for queer people and straight people and people who fall somewhere in between. 
Let’s big enough for divorced people, and married people, and single people, and people who fall somewhere in between.
Let’s make it big enough for religious people we don't understand and religious people we think we understand only too well.
Let’s make it big enough for boundary crossers, border crossers, immigrants and refugees. And lets never call anyone, anywhere, ever illegal,
because, friends, there is no such thing as an illegal person,
when the circle is big enough.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for those we love and those we hate. 
Let’s make it so big that those we love prosper, and those we cannot love prosper, too.
Let’s make a circle big enough and wide enough and abundant enough that scarcity and fear and hate are what is squeezed out, but not people, never, never, never God’s children. 
Let’s make a big circle where every single every living created thing knows that we are one family,
because in this big circle,
all living beings share the same first name
and that name is beloved.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for the stars that shine at night
and the blade of grass that pokes its head up through concrete. 
Let’s make it big enough for creatures of the sky – the bald eagles and the crows that chase them, and the hummers at your feeder. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for the creatures of the sea –the whale and the salmon and those mysterious creatures down below where it is too dark and cold for life and somehow life thrives. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for grizzly bears and anacondas and termites. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for seal pups and kittens with big eyes and babies in nests, their beaks reaching for the worm.
Let’s make that circle big enough for artic ice floes and tropical banyan trees and purple mountain majesties and
the sand you just found in your sneakers from
last summer’s trip to the beach. 

Let’s make a big circle around this table. The table of justice, the table of plenty, the table of forgiveness.  Let’s look around the circle, into the full, shining eyes of the ones who share this meal with us, today, right now. Let’s eat the bread that is one body together, and let’s drink the cup that means forgiveness for everyone, even that person we really, truly cannot stand. Let’s know that the circle is big enough that one and big enough for me and for you.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s know that we cannot, can never ever make this circle by
our own desire, our own cleverness, our own hard work. 
Let’s look!  Let us see the Holy Spirit dancing above us, each one of us, right here and now.
Like flames, like wind, and like birds fluttering over and around and through and in us. 
Let’s make a big circle.
Just like that first day, so long ago, when that frightened and grieving little group of disciples, gathered in the upper room, mourning their lost friend Jesus.  Those few, very few, who thought they were making a sad little circle, just for them. 

Let’s make a big circle because THAT day, and every day since, the Holy Spirit has had other plans.  Oh yes, she breathes, let’s make a big big big circle.  Amen.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible

I have never been the kind of person who has a daily spiritual practice. Although I admire the friends who get up early to meditate every day, I seem to pray better by the seat of my pants.

So, even though I never work my way methodically all the way through books of daily devotions, I love to dive into them from time to time. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks' Bible Sisters, A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible rewards this method.

The devotions are numbered, rather than dated, so you can open the book and begin anywhere.  There are fresh looks at familiar women like Mary Magdelene, Eve and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, as well as introductions to others who are less familiar.  If I had learned the names of the daughters of Zelophehad (introduced in Days 60-65), for instance, I have long forgotten them.  There is a helpful index at the back, in case there is a particular woman you would like pray with or learn more about.  People interested in learning more about the women of the Bible, praying with them and exploring their forgotten stories will enjoy this book.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review, and an additional copy to give away for free! Share the name of YOUR favorite Biblical woman in the comments  in the review posted on my facebook page by TUESDAY MAY 23, 2017 and I'll put you in a drawing to mail (or deliver!) the book to you.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Helps

I wrote this down on November 10, 2016.  Six months later, same still goes, I'd say.

Here is what helps:
Pray in public.
Get on the floor with children.
Sing the old songs and learn some new ones.
Let the sun embrace you.
Pray in private.
Cry some.
Light a candle.
Make something.
Eat a cookie, or maybe two.
Drink a glass of wine, or maybe one and a half.
Talk with friends.
Remember that it is ok to laugh.
Start a conversation with a stranger in an elevator.*
Change the sheets.
Clear a spot in a weedy flower bed.

*Today's example - me: how are you? she: I'm on this side of the grass, and that's what matters.

Away and Back Again

Highline Park (please note terrific
mohawk photobomb)

This is the third of three parts describing a recent trip to the Oregon desert and then to New York City. Here is part one.  And part two. 

After the Revolutionary Love conference I did touristy things for two days.  I gawked at the Flatiron Building and the Statue of Liberty. I ignored a certain Tower, and I took a picture next to the defiant girl statue, but not the charging bull. I sniffed flowers at a farmer's market and stood in the wind on the Highline. I ate really well and I got a sunburn. I waited in line for longer than I expected to in order to see the Daily Show, and it was worth every minute. I saw ads in bus stops that showed pictures of bombed out buildings and urged us to make a disaster plan before it was too late.  I passed statues of people I did not recognize (Roscoe Conkling?) and people I recognized but whose New York connection seemed somewhat murky (Gandhi?). I made a short pilgrimage to Ground Zero and still could not fathom it.
Right before I saw this,
I had literally just given money
to a guy dressed like the monk
who is pictured here. 

And I went to a May Day rally in Union Square, along with several hundred other earnest people. I walked around, taking it in. There were some speeches (which after the conference I had just attended seemed kind of bro-heavy) and some music from the stage, and OFF the stage people making theater and music and speeches of their own.  There was every kind of costume and sign imaginable.

And I saw an African-American man, passed out on a sidewalk.  I know he was passed out and not just sleeping, because his friend was trying to wake him up.  He was shaking him, and patting him on the face, telling him urgently to wake up, wake UP, man. I remembered Pastor Jacqui's sermon, her exhorting us "not to step OVER the homeless people in our neighborhood like they are PART of the ARCHITECTURE." I was holding a half drunk water bottle so I knelt down and offered it to the friend.

I believe that this sign holder
believes this.  And I believe that
sometimes our ideals are
easier to hold in the abstract

than to live into in reality. 
The friend poured some on the man's head, tried to help him drink some, told him to go home before the cops came. I sat down on the sidewalk, not at all sure what to do, and regretting (not for the first time) the untaken first aid classes. People walked by with signs, talking into phones, squinting up at the sun. If they did look at the man on the ground, at the man trying to revive him, their eyes held...what was it?  Mild disinterest. Pity, maybe. Or contempt.  The cops did come. And they called an ambulance, which I understood from the friend would cost the man $2000.

I joined the effort to wake him, shaking him, talking to him.  He looked up at us a couple of times, one time even sat up for a minute, then fell over again before we could catch him. And in that whole crowd, no one stopped. No one in that crowd of activists, lovers, human rights proponents offered to help. No one touched him.  When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics were loading him onto the stretcher, he looked up at the face of his friend and spoke for the first time.

"You. I don't like you."

"Yeah, I don't like you either," the friend replied without rancor.

And then he was gone, loaded into the ambulance.  An unlikeable drunk. A child of God.

All I had left was questions. Could I have learned his name? Could I have prayed out loud? Could I have tried to get help from the people passing by? And what kind of help was needed anyway?  What happens to a guy with no money when he gets carted off to dry out in a hospital somewhere? Could I have gone with him to the hospital with him to find out?  Could I have tried to pay the ambulance bill, which was just a little more than it cost to frolic in the city for a week?

I didn't do any of those things. I stood still for a minute in that swirling, swelling crowd and then I really wanted to find a place to wash my hands. As I walked out of the park, I tossed the empty plastic bottle into a bin.