I had the great privilege of preaching my second (ever) sermon at Smithfield United Church of Christ last Sunday. Thanks again to Rev. Doug Patterson and Rev. Dr. Susan Cherian for the opportunity and guidance - and once again thank you to my family for hosting me and attending the service, and to my partner for her support behind the scenes.
The sermon was based on Luke 14: 1; 7-14, which teaches us a lesson in humility. You can watch the sermon below and I’ll include the full text as well.
My first formation residency with the Shalem Institute’s program in Spiritual Guidance went amazing and I could not feel more like I’m in the right place while stepping into the call. I’m also halfway through my first term as an MDiv student at Lancaster Theological Seminary and I’m really enjoying the Seminary experience. Stepping into a call to ministry has meant a lot of unplanned expenses, like extra gas money and paying for a cat sitter while driving to Pittsburgh to preach. While I’m in a better financial position than most, I’m paying for most of my education out of pocket. Your support helps me step into this call with less worry and concern. If you’re able, can you donate something to my fundraiser? Every little bit helps.
As always, your prayers are much appreciated and please reach out if I can pray for you. I’d love to connect.
To Stand Up, First Know Where You Sit
I was a competitive athlete growing up - a soccer player to be exact - and I was privileged to compete at a very high level. If you know anything about competitive youth sports, you’ll know that it can be a pretty cut throat environment. At these levels, you’re constantly being evaluated and gauging where you stand as a player. As a member of our state’s Olympic Development Program, I would travel every summer to New England to try out for the Regional team in my age group.
So every summer, I’d get on a bus in Cranberry and drive to a big college campus, where I would spend a week fighting against the best players in my region, which was 12 states if I remember right. The way it worked was pretty simple. You’d have practice sessions during the day with your state team and then play games every night against other state teams. The regional team staff would walk around the fields with a clipboard, making notes on the players they’d like to invite to regional pool practice the next day. Each day, fewer players were invited into the regional pool, until the staff would name their final team at the end of the week.
In the morning, we’d wake up in our dorms and run downstairs to look at the list posted in the dorm lobby. On it, we’d find the names and state affiliations of the special few who got to practice with the pool that day. You can imagine the pressure in this situation. It’s amazing any of us got any sleep, although three-a-day sessions in summer heat definitely helped with that.
Each year, I was invited into the pool on the first day, and would get cut the second to last or last day. While my heart was always broken the mornings I was cut, I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons of those mornings. Every summer, I had the chance to experience absolute humility, which wasn’t in high supply when you’re one of the best youth players in your state.
My soccer career would eventually take me to college, where I played Division 1 soccer before suffering even more humility. I had to sit out my first year to undergo my second knee surgery on the same knee in 11 months. Then, in my second year, back-to-back concussions brought my career to a screeching halt, and I was forced to medically retire. These injuries continue to haunt and challenge my daily existence, but once again they taught me absolute humility as I went from a physically gifted to physically impaired human at 19 years old.
It took about two years to recover from the worst of my injuries, but as I approached my senior year, I was still lost as a human being. I was battling depression and chronic pain, but severely missed being an athlete. I knew that if I could find a way to compete and be on a team again, I would be ok; but, contact sports were out of the question. So, I walked into the track coach’s office and introduced myself.
“What do you do?” he asked. “I’m not sure. What do you need?” I responded. He looked me up and down, saw that I was more power and muscle than I was lean and graceful, aka pole vaulting and distance running were definitely out. With a quizzical look on his face, he asked, “Do you like to throw things?” “Sure! I won the softball throw in my 3rd grade field day meet,” I said assuredly. Mind you, this is a Division 1 track coach and I’m selling him on my 3rd grade athletic accomplishments. Thank God for his sense of humor.
He took a chance on me and offered me a one month trial period with the team in the weight room. It was the off season, so he had nothing to lose by letting me come lift with his athletes. If I could prove myself in the weight room and show that I was indeed there to support his team, then he’d teach me to throw javelin that year. He also threw in this bit of information: the reigning conference champion javelin thrower was one of his athletes and she needed someone to push her. My unspoken task was to train so hard that she feared her seat would be taken.
For the next month, I paired up with his champion in the weight room, upping the weight every time it was my turn on the bar, and watched her light up with the challenge. We became fast friends and training buddies that year, and by the end of the season stood on the podium together at the conference championship as the 1st and 3rd place javelin throwers. She looked sparkling at the top of the podium in her well-fitting uniform and fancy javelin shoes, and I looked like Rudy at the bottom in the XXL leftover uniform shorts that no one had claimed mid-season and my soccer cleats.
I had never been a “backup” before, but my track coach offered me a chance to sit somewhere other than the head of the table in exchange for a spot on his team. It was another great lesson in humility, but soon evolved into a lesson in teamwork, companionship, and accompaniment. I’ve never been so honored to be part of a team and despite the devotion to my primary sport of soccer, I still think of my short time on the track team as one of my best athletic experiences.
As a soccer player, I was obsessed with knowing where I stood. At the level I was playing at, everything was measured, everyone was judged, and everyone ultimately developed some sort of performance anxiety. On the track team though, I really didn’t care about being the best - though I never stopped training like it. I didn’t go through the same peaks and valleys of “I’m the best out there!” and “I’m terrible and will never make it.” I was just grateful to be there, grateful to have a chance to discipline my body again, grateful to be on a team, and grateful for the task to companion our champion. The track team was my redemption - my chance at a new life.
I was reading about redemption for Seminary this week and came across one of the beliefs of John Calvin in a book written by the theologian Cornelius Plantinga. According to Plantinga, Calvin “believed that an unredeemed life keeps oscillating back and forth between pride (‘I’ve made it!’) and despair (‘I’ll never make it’)” (2002, 119). It’s so easy to live an unredeemed life. It is so easy in our society to travel wildly between pride and despair. We want to know where we stand, how we measure up, and if we’ve made the team.
When I stopped playing soccer, I started to get really involved with social justice work and started a student club called SAFE, which stood for Student Athletes for Equity. We’d meet regularly to discuss the intersections of sports and social justice, actively engaging the metaphors from the field of play and mapping them onto the field of life. In a sense, we were also doing the work of redemption - trying to create new life.
I have to say though, I’ve never experienced this sense of an unredeemed life quite as much as I did when leading anti-oppression workshops or teaching about race relations. When working with fellow white people, in the safety of a workshop environment, I’d hear my peers express so much frustration at the concept of white privilege. I had the same frustration when I learned it, too, so I get it. I hated learning that there was more to my success than my own effort.
As a trainer in these sessions, I’d listen as people would declare that there was no way something was working invisibly for their benefit. It fractured their sense of self to consider that maybe, just maybe, their measure of themselves wasn’t wholly accurate. It was a lot like the players at regional ID camp who would wake up, not see their name on the list, and rant about the unfairness of the process. These players were often the ones who thought a little too highly of themselves. They simply could not comprehend that they did not earn a spot on the team. They were completely unwilling to surrender themselves to the judgment of the coaches.
I’d see this fractured sense of self over and over again in workshops and classrooms - whether the content was around race, gender, class, sexuality, you name it. Take a dominant social group and tell them that they have unearned advantage and that it has hurt other people, and watch them fall apart.
But then, something really amazing would happen in these workshops and classrooms that I knew to anticipate as a facilitator or teacher. As people learned to see the invisible things that were benefiting them, they could also see the invisible things that were holding themselves or their community members back. Sometimes, they were the same invisible things, like an unconscious preference for male leaders or white school principals. A man would express his vulnerability with having to always appear to be an authority, and a woman would say “I’d love the chance to give my opinion and have it taken seriously.” A white school principal would say “I look nothing like the students in my racially-diverse school district and feel out of my depth serving them,” and a person of color would say “I can’t imagine what school would have been like if I could have seen someone who looked like me in the most important position in the school.” These moments were hard and full of humility, but they were healing moments. They weren’t anxious moments. They were honest and revealing and open. And, they weren’t just life-giving moments, they were restorative to communities. They were redemptive.
Christianity is so compelling to me because our faith rests on this ultimate redemption narrative. No matter who we are, where we were born, what terrible things we think in our heads, we have been promised God’s love. We have been promised this security. We are redeemed. Christian life is not a tryout, like Regional ID camp. There’s no list to check each morning to see if your name is on it or not. It’s more like walking onto a team in a sport that you know nothing about and trusting the one in charge to help you find your place. It’s building community, accompanying and companioning others, standing behind champions, and letting others stand behind you when you are the champion. It’s being honest about your talents, what you’ve earned, and what you have not earned, and making room for others to speak the truth about what they’ve been denied. It’s building a world that is honest to all and dismantling the structures that deny anyone their humanity.
It’s taking the lowest seat at the table, so that you may be called into a more honorable position, rather than taking a spot above your fellow party-goers without reason. And let me be clear, whiteness, maleness, US citizenship, wealth, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness - these things alone will never be reasons to sit at the head of the table.
The theologian Plantinga went on to say that Calvin believed leaning into God’s grace to hold us up would rid us of our performance anxiety. That’s my prayer for everyone here this week. That we may lean into God’s grace, that we may understand ourselves as redeemed, and that we focus less on the list on the wall and more on being part of the team. Honor in Christ will always come in communion, in community, in the sharing of ourselves with each other. And if no one has said this to you yet, welcome to God’s team. We’re so glad you’re here.
Now get on the line, we’ve got work to do.
**I’m fundraising for my training as a spiritual director through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Your donations will help me pay for my training and formation so I can continue to companion others on their spiritual journey and write pieces like this. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/support-my-public-ministry