About Abby Norman

I live and work and love in the city of Atlanta. Former teacher, future preacher, current wife and mother and writer. Always looking for more Jesus.

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? A sermon for Rachel Held Evan

this is the sermon I preached on Sunday with some tweaks to make it more specific to the church on the internet. 

What do you do when you are waiting? What do you do when you are waiting for God to do something? What do you do when you thought God was going to do one thing, then God does something else? 

Today’s lectionary reading is in John chapter 21. This chapter in John was added much later than the other chapters. A few generations after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and he still hadn’t come back. This was not what anyone was expecting. Not only had Jesus not returned, but the Romans were becoming increasingly violent against both Christians and Jews.

What do you do when you are waiting for the promise of the risen Lord? This chapter is situated much like the scenes everyone waits for at the end of a Marvel movie. The resurrection story is wrapped up in chapter 20. But….now what?

But then, but then they remembered this story, this story of the in between time, the time when Jesus was sort of popping up whenever, when the Holy Spirit hadn’t gotten there yet. It was a confusing time. Yes, Jesus was resurrected but what did it mean? God, where are you? Isn’t it time yet?

Which bring us to our text.

John 21:1-19

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

Here is the question the disciples are wrestling with and I admit I  too am wrestling with. The Unite Methodist Church is in a bit of a public pickle, and I will be writing my paperwork for ordination this summer. The timing isn’t great. And this weekend a colleague of mine, a friend, a mentor, and a giant in the Christian writing world unexpectedly died at 37 years old, right smack in the middle of Easter.

What now? When is God going to do something?

It is a few weeks after Jesus’ last appearance and the disciples don’t know what to do with themselves. They can’t imagine going on without their friend to lead them, even though they have seen he is not dead….he still isn’t with them. They miss Jesus. They are grieving. 

So they go back to what they know, how they lived before Jesus interrupted their lives. They go fishing. In the middle of the night, I imagine because they are too sad and disrupted to sleep. In fact Peter is such a mess he cannot even bother to get dressed. Him being naked was a detail they omitted on the Sunday school felt board, but as a grown up I am grateful for it here. Peter was such a disaster, completely stricken with no idea how to proceed. And if all of that isn’t enough the old way isn’t working. They have fished all night and come up empty handed.

But then Jesus appeared. They were not doing the things they had been told. They were not going forward with the work. They were not grieving gracefully. Peter especially was showing all the disaster we are so often taught to tuck away before we come to God. And Jesus comes anyway.

He comes and invites them to fish on the other side. And so many fish are caught they can’t even pull in the nets. 153 according to John, and so many of them are big! Fish that really should be reserved for the rich, fish sold off instead of eaten because there were only so many and this is how the poor survived.

But when they get to the shore Jesus invites them into the feast. He already has a fire waiting for them, even more fish on that fire, and he breaks bread with them just like he did before. They are not in the right mental state for a feast, this is not a reward for being faithful. This is a feast anyway, a feast about who God is, about what resurrection means, not about who deserves what or only those who are ready (I know I keep talking about how Peter wasn’t even dressed, but seriously….he wasn’t ready and got invited anyway).

And at this feast Jesus shows the one who is the least ready the way forward, the one who completely denied him just a few weeks earlier. Peter, Jesus says, feed my sheep. Tend my Sheep. If you love me, you have to love my sheep.

Jesus doesn’t shame a single person for their grief, or confusion. There is no rebuking of their anger and lost feelings. There is simply an invitation into a new way. You can be sad, you can grieve but there is a way out of the wallowing and into the work. This is how you love Jesus, even when Jesus is not physically there to love, you feed his sheep.

This past week, as Rachel Held Evans sat quietly in a comma, I wrote a paper about her. When I picked my topic a few months ago, it was simply because why people leave the evangelical church was too large, and I needed a moment– an artifact to pinpoint a particular turn, and when I tweeted about that moment Rachel said, oh yeah! I wrote one of those. So unbeknownst to her I spent the last weeks of my seminary career reflecting on her voice as a way to write about the faith journey of so many of us. It was a fitting way to end my MDiv, I don’t know that I would have ever become a pastor without her work. It felt very strange, writing a paper about a woman I admired so much as she was not well. But I thought of how the example she set was to do the work, even when it was hard, even when it was emotional, to do the hard thing because it was the next thing to do.

Rachel died Saturday, and there are so very many of us grieving. We don’t know what to do or where to go. We don’t know how to go on. We are sad and can’t sleep and some of us are having trouble even getting ourselves dressed in the morning. I confess, that though we were more colleagues than friends, I am one of those people. But Jesus has always invited us out of the wallowing and into the work, and Rachel was so good at showing us how to do that.

The work is feasting. The work is a larger table with more people invited and massive amounts of fish, the good stuff for everyone not just the people who can afford it, who have the proper degrees and the right words, but for everyone.

The work is loving God and loving Jesus and you do that by feeding His sheep, by attending to those on the margins, by paying attention to the hurt of others, by taking what you have and offering it to others and throwing up the doors just as wide as you can get them and letting everyone else in.

And I believe that the work Jesus calls us to, the work Rachel did so well, is going to be different for all of us, and that my friends is such good news. Because inviting others to come along, remembering those on the margins and making more space, that work isn’t easy, but it is not complicated either, it is doable, and it is are turn to do that work.

Amen.

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When it is a sad Holy Saturday

It is 8:45 on Sunday night and while it is mostly done, I wouldn’t call my Easter sermon quite finished yet. The beautiful spring weather seems to have receded and one of my daughters and I changed into our fleece Christmas onesies from a few years ago to sleep in. I might even put the hood on.

I don’t know what my problem is. I found the Easter baskets about twenty minutes ago and am postponing the big Easter dinner until I have completed all my papers. There is no strawberry pie in the refrigerator. I am having trouble believing that Sunday is coming.

This is the thing that was once novel, but now you are instructed not to say on Good Friday. It is Friday today, but Sunday is coming! People point to this as a great example of the ways that the church in America is not good at grief, at suffering, at not glossing over people’s pain. And I suppose that maybe Sunday is coming, but today it is Saturday, and it just all feels so sad.

Someone I deeply respect is in a coma

Someone who I have been walking with still doesn’t have her happy ending

I still have papers due.

Our fellowship hall is still flooding.

It isn’t Sunday yet. We live in a Saturday world. Sometimes the weather changes and you end up in your Christmas pajamas the day before you slip on your new Easter flats. Things aren’t done or over. Things didn’t turn out the way we thought. We are still waiting.

Maybe thats okay. Maybe I will wake up tomorrow ready to celebrate our risen Lord. Maybe I will feel it in every inch of my being.

Or maybe I will wake up still sad, still waiting. Maybe it will take all 50 days of Easter for the reality of the resurrection to take hold. Maybe we live in a Saturday world. Maybe it is okay to believe in the resurrection and still feel sad, to write Easter sermons in Christmas onesies because it is cold outside. Maybe God redeems all this anyway.

Back Into The Wilderness

Last week was spring break. I, per the usual had a huge list of things I was hoping to get done. Mostly, all I did was nap. I slept for hours every day, getting very little done and being too exhausted to care. I wondered to my therapist and my friends if it was depression. I don’t think it is depression. I think it is grief. And not just grief but a familiar one.

My friend asks me how spring break was and I tell her I did little more than sleep. She tells me she is glad. She tells me that sleep is how the brain processes trauma. I am reminded how hard the last few weeks have been, and how I am working through a thing I have worked through before. In some ways this is good. I have done this thing, this kind of grieving so I know I can do it again. In some ways this is awful. I did not think this was a thing I would ever have to face again.

My husband was given a book once “They like Jesus but not the church.” I don’t know if we still have it. I do know we haven’t spoken to the book giver in years. Sometimes I wish I could be like the person in the title. I love Jesus, and I love the church. I think I always have, but sometimes I don’t much like the latter. Even when it is hard and painful and messy, even when we are busy disappointing each other, I still love the church. I don’t know how to do life without the church.

If you go back through my archives (please don’t, practice may not make perfect but it does make me a better writer) you can watch as I slowly back away, and then finally turn and run from an evangelical church that it was time to go from. I remember telling God I did not have the energy for church shopping, and God had BETTER give me a sign. That week Eastside Church put out their sign, Creative, Historic, Inclusive. That was all I needed. We were welcomed with open arms, I was affirmed in my gifts repeatedly, invited to preach, and then called from that church into the one I pastor now.

I know that most people in my generation do it, but I can’t imagine my life without a church. Even if I am all too familiar with the church breaking your heart. I left evangelicalism because as I grew and changed there wasn’t space for me anymore. Wasn’t space for a woman called to preach or a person convinced her LGBTQ friends weren’t sinning just for being whole. I was broken hearted by a church excited by my gifts but asking me to tuck parts of myself away as to not be so divisive And then, it happened again. The UMC voted (however closely) to exclude LGBTQ clergy and punish those of us who are affirming. The logical part of me knows that those who are telling me to wait for the judicial council, for the 2020 General Conference are the cooler heads that should prevail. But I am just. so. sad.

I showed up into the big tent called Methodism because it seemed like there was so much room. Room for my more conservative family who I still deeply respect in religious matters, my own growing liberal leanings, and my LGBTQ friends. I discovered that there was not enough room. I was faced with the reality that I yet again built a home in a place that my not want to welcome all of me, that there are those looking to make this tent much smaller.

I don’t know what is going to happen with the UMC. I am still faithfully pursuing ordination because I believe it is what I am called to do. But I am back in the wilderness again, the space where I am seeking and crying out. The space where I am depending on God for water, and manna, and my next right step. I only can go a little bit at a time and it all looks unfamiliar, and familiar simultaneously. It is the wilderness, yes. But I have been here before.

Last week I preached on the temptation of Jesus. I noticed, for the first time, that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. I think sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us into the wilderness too. Not because we are bad, or wrong or need corrected, not because we have strayed from God, but simply because it is time. It is time for us to go into the wilderness once again.

After all, in the wilderness we re-discover God.

Return to the Beginning

*I had the pleasure of preaching the joint Ash Wednesday service with Eastside and New Hope, because it was in the chapel of Eastside there was no good place to record. Here is a written version.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ “

I heard about the water walks in the way I collect most of my random knowledge, in my car on the way to some place or from another. They were highlighted on “Live from Here” these water walkers and I found their story profound, familiar, full of hope. 

Ojibwe Women take a copper pot to the beginnings of the Mississippi river . THey dip the kettle into the pure springs and they fill it to the brim. Then, they take that pure water and they carry it, they walk it 1200 miles until they are 90 miles south of New Orleans. 

They are always moving, the water is always moving, because the river is also always moving, and though they cannot always see the river, they travel a similar path, until they meet again at the end and the pour the beginning water back into the river at the end. It is a blessing to the river, that the river might remember where it came from and be purified.

They believe that the water can be healed by remembering.

They believe that the earth and the people can repair a relationship by traveling the same course.

In order to heal, the water must return to the beginning, and the people must remember where the water came from. 

Something bad has happened in the text for Ash Wednesday. We don’t know what but it isn’t good. Economic and ecological downfall are coming, the  people all know it. The prophet Joel does not say that God caused it. The prophet Joel does not blame the people. This dark event simply is, and the people are rightly terrified. (I got a lot from Wil Gafney’s very helpful commentary which is here.) And the Prophet calls the people to repentance. Calls them to remember who their God is and what that God calls them to. The prophet Joel calls the people back to their beginning. Return to the Lord with all your heart. Remember where you came from.

From dust you were formed, to dust you will return. Friends, today I am here to tell you that this too is good news. Because the dust was from the beginning. And in the beginning the word was God and the word was with God and God is love. That God who is love created you from the dust. Put God’s hands around you and formed you so perfectly that even now you carry the fingerprints of God, then breathed your very life into you. Put your hand on your chest. Breathe in and out. Feel the rhythm up and down and participate in the breath of life. Go back to the beginning and remember that you are made from love. 

Who you are called to be?

Who we are called to be?

Who we are called to become?

People of the dust, people who are shaped by God, remember that this God is love, and made you from love. Remember the God who is (as I was taught in Sunday school) slow to anger and quick to love. Go back to that place and confess that we have not always acted as though we were loved, we have not always thought of our neighbors as loved, we have acted in ways, and within systems that have not reflected a loving God. We need to repent, and we are free to repent because we know who we are repenting too.  We repent to a loving God

We do not repent to get something from God, but because we can, because of who God is. We can come together, we can rend our hearts, we can remember the beginning, and that can purify us.

 

I wrote this in 2013. It is still true. I still love it. My people are so great. Grad school is not a joke. I still have pumpkins hanging in my dining room. That is okay. Jesus will still come.

Dear December,

There is so much about you that I love. I love pulling out the Christmas decorations.  I love the music. Oh my word do I love the advent candles. I love the movies. I even love the excitement that builds at school and the three half days of exams at the end. The over-all feeling of WE’RE ALMOST DONE that we practically go mad on, teachers and students alike.lovecandle

I am one of the lucky ones. For the most part, you’ve been good to me December. I don’t have any terrible memories or heart breaking disappointments. We generally get along.

But December, as you approach, I am noticing whispers of the little friend you so often bring, so let me be frank December, while I am excited you are coming to see me,

Your scarcity isn’t welcome here.

I have found the word to name the thing that whispers in the dark to me you are not enough. It’s name is scarcity, and it is not welcome here. I will no longer be allowing the lie that the present I lovingly picked out for someone is not enough. I will not be replacing that lie with the one that so quickly comes after that I spent too much money, or too little.

These presents are tokens of relationships, the do not define them.

I am choosing to believe this holiday season, that my best is good enough for the ones I love.

I will not let the lie of scarcity of memories make me feel guilty about not doing all the things all the time. I will instead choose to believe that a night in with mom and dad and some hot chocolate and cookies is not just good enough, but perfect. Even if the cookies are just the red Oreos.

I will not spin my family into a holiday frenzy for the perfect picture, the perfect outfits, the perfect dinner, the perfect moment. Those things aren’t real. They do not in fact exist. Happy kids and good enough pictures are in fact picture. After all, my favorite pictures from last year are the truly imperfect ones. There are lots of kinds of perfect pictures. The lie of scarcity isn’t welcome here.

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We will be decorating the house on Monday because we want to, and it is fun, and not because we are supposed to, or we are bad parents for not having the tree up. If only the bottom third of the tree gets ornaments because the girls want to hang every last one I will praise the girls for their creativity. I will tell them the tree looks beautiful, perfect even. And I will mean it.

There is enough. There is enough time, there is enough gifts, there is enough to go around. I am armed my grandmother’s cookie and candy recipes, and the ability to make pie with bourbon in it and vodka that tastes like candy canes. I will beat back the lie that my homemade efforts are not good enough with a swig of spiked hot chocolate and a set of beaters turned to full blast.

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And December, I hope this season is as sugar-coated my children’s dreams. But you can tell your friend scarcity I will not be baking out of a sense of guilt or fear of someone thinking my efforts are pathetic.

Tell your friend scarcity I will be baking the way I will be doing everything else this season. As a way to connect to the abundance of love from the christmas’ of my youth. As a way to pour love out to my neighbors and friends. For the pure joy of it.

I will not let your stupid friend scarcity rob me of the beautiful truth of this season, that Jesus came to give humanity the ultimate gift, an eternal relationship with an all-loving God. In him I am enough.

So December, I am looking forward to you.

All your beauty and whimsy, your reflection and rest. I love your anticipation and your laughter, your hope, peace, joy and love. But the scarcity that so often comes with you? Sorry.

That lie can go straight to hell where it came from.

Jesus came down to earth as a baby, as a testament to God’s abundant love. I will love abundantly this season. I will give grace abundantly.

That love and grace is so abundant I can extend it even to myself.

So here’s to you December. I can say honestly, without your little friend, I look forward to this beautiful time.

Much Love,

Abby

What a Strange Time to Dream

I had my clergy evaluation today. I sat at a desk and we plotted and planned for the future, for the next few years. Plan A was quickly thrown out and plan B was assessed as the best, and I got everything I wanted for the church I am leading. Everything. Some of the things I did not even know how to ask for, but there they were in the other people’s heads too.

This thing seems to be coming together. And I have two secret projects that are coming together. And I am finding new paths for dreams long held, and old hopes are coming home. I thought they were gone forever, but there they are, waiting for me in my current reality. Who knew?

And as I am living into some of my wildest dreams, my friends are scared for their marriages because they happen to love other women. My congregants are nervous about how their family and neighbors will be treated if they are found by ICE. Every woman I know feels unsafe.

And yet, here I am, with all of these dreams. All of these dreams of a safe place for people to know God, of a community that actually loves each other well, of a place where people could actually have the space to reach their full potential because they are reminded of their intrinsic value. I dream of a place full of good art, and thoughtful prayer, and interesting learning opportunities that might actually make a difference AND are affordable and accessible to everyone. Like ACTUALLY everyone.

I was heartbroken on Saturday, felt like the world was impossible, and I read through my sermon again and there it was, that EVERYONE was worthy. EVERYONE was valuable. That was what I had to give the church the next day, the assurance that God is wildly for them, even when they feel like all powers that be are not. The world feels like it is spinning apart, except my tiny corner of the world where we dream of serving those who are most often forgotten, but not by God.

It is a strange time to be dreaming. But here I am. Maybe it is a strange time to be dreaming. Maybe that is exactly when we need the dreams God has.

To Priscilla on Her 7th Birthday

Dear Priscilla,

A couple of days ago you turned 7. 7! I cannot even believe it. You are more and more yourself every single year and I hope that never changes. I hope you keep growing into yourself because who you are is totally remarkable.

I often describe you to other people using words like powerful and fierce. I joke with my friend that when you are our dictator I hope you are a benevolent one. You know your will and you express it effectively and very often the world bends toward it. It is truly remarkable to watch.

I hope you are always this good at expressing your desires. I hope you know how often people are delighted to make your world good, how often it delights us to delight you.

I also hope that my description of you as fierce and powerful don’t pigeon hole you into not having feelings. You are SO sweet and generous. You are so kind and loving. Those things go hand in hand. You do not have to choose. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO CHOOSE.

You get to be your whole self, all the time. You know that now, at seven years old. I pray that you will never unlearn it.

Love,

Mom