Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

It's Not About the Building

Sunday, June 26, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Ewing Presbyterian Church

Scripture Readings: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 and Luke 9:51-62

How strange, really, to be preaching in THIS building for the first time, to worship with you all for the LAST time as one of your pastors. We’ve traveled together spiritually for a little over 4 years, through some dreadful ups and downs. The obvious source of conflict for this congregation over the last decade has been this building—this building we are sitting in today. And then the good Lord drops this scripture in my lap and says, “Here, do something with this, would you?”

A scripture rejecting nostalgia on my last Sunday with you, preaching in a building from 1867 that we’ve been fighting about for 15 years (longer really), with a congregation that remembers baptisms, marriages, funerals as “properly” conducted here in this contested space. Man, Jesus is a jerk.

So here goes.

It was January 2012 when three separate friends pointed me to the position description circulating in the Presbytery for a Director of Youth Ministry for Ewing and Covenant Presbyterian Churches. The position description was three pages long, included ministry to the youth of two different churches wanting to work in collaboration. You all advertised that the job would be 6-8 hours a week.

I was amused.

And intrigued.

Youth ministry, no matter the context, no matter the size of the ministry, requires more than 8 hours a week. But I was intrigued by churches trying to do something different, working in collaboration, so I

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Brief Return to Tiny Church

Sunday, June 12, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
New Covenant Presbyterian Church
Mt. Laurel, NJ

Scripture Readings:
Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, 5-6
Luke 7:36-50

Send out your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will get it back.
In the morning sow your seed,
and at evening do not let your hands be idle;
for you do not know which will prosper,
this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

As I wrote this sermon on Saturday, a 15 year old boy was murdered in Trenton. I don't especially know how to speak of these things to people and churches who don't experience them. I don't always know how to go between these two realities well. I just know that I will preach in the morning at Tiny Church and then come back to Trenton to be. We will pray for this young man and his family. We will do what we can, each of us.

Dear friends, it has been almost 5 years since I left Tiny Church—can you believe it? My oldest is 16 years old. He just got a job! The little one, El Segundo, is 13 and finishing 7th grade. Sometime this spring he grew taller than me by an inch. His voice has dropped to a deep gravelly bass. No longer does he run about church sanctuaries and hide under pews. These days he programs computers. They eat, these two boys, like locusts, devouring entire grocery store harvests.

These last few years I’ve been working with three churches in and around Trenton, ministering to

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hold My Faith

Unglazed wood fired jar by Michael Simmons
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: 
1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

I am delighted to worship with you this morning—I thank you kindly for the invitation to preach and to fellowship with you. Community, in any form, is rare these days. I treasure this time with you.

For the last four years I have been a youth and young adult pastor in and around the Trenton area. I’ve worked with three Presbyterian churches—one in Trenton, one in Ewing, and one in Lawrenceville—to create a collaborative youth group, including youth from all three churches as well as youth from the wider community. It has worked well in some ways, failed in others, and like many of our attempts in the church, it is coming to an end. June 30 is my last day as pastor for this assorted crew of teenagers. I suppose, really, that like ALL attempts of church it is coming to an end. There are cycles to mininstry, seasons of life, and even an historic church like this must surely know that. 1692 you were founded—if these old walls could speak, what tales would they tell??

I confess I am tired this week. I am torn between excitement about what might come next, anxiety over not knowing, and grief at what is ending. I brought all of that with me as I pondered the scriptures from the lectionary this week, and it appears that a message I could draw personally from
these stories is that in God there is life, even after all hope has been destroyed by death. It seems I might simply arrive on your church doorstep and proclaim, “Put your trust in Jesus, and your son too will be brought back to life. For the Lord loves the widows and will not leave you destitute.”

And yet, and yet…two men were murdered this week in Trenton. Elvin Grimsley, 38 years old, gunned down while he was sitting in his car on Wednedsay. He was the father of a teenager, Elvin Kimble, who was murdered last November. The paper printed a picture of the two of them standing together, father and son. That same day Zaire Gibbs was shot, and he died on Thursday. He was 25 years old.

Just a few weeks ago 100 of us walked through the city to remember the other seven people who have been murdered this year in Trenton: Ricardo Montalvan, 23 years old; Jermaine “Mooky” Johnson, 26 years old; Ciony Kirkman, 16 years old; Elliot Simon, 52 years old (and he was the father of Tiara Green, murdered just two years ago when she was 16); Tyquise Timmons, 21 years old; Shawntay Ross, 39 years old; Jovan Marino, 24 years old. Just a few weeks ago we walked through the city, praying, crying, pleading, hoping. But no miracle, and these sons and daughters did not come back to life. No miracle and two more men have died. It is difficult, in the face of these losses, in the face of a community traumatized by violence, to hold to faith with any integrity. As I type this another man was stabbed tonight, another man shot tonight. No, no, a second man also shot. I pray they see the morning. I pray for their families. I pray for this City. Will you take Trenton into your heart this morning? Pray with me?

You are nodding your head or shaking your head. Perhaps you have faced similar doubts, similar uncertainties, similar challenges to your faith. Perhaps you, too, struggle with the mismatch between the miracles of our Biblical texts and the reality of our lived experiences. Or perhaps such things lead you to cling closer to your faith, certain that the answer lies in better prayer, more faithfulness, Christ’s grace, the Spirit’s erratic movement, God’s promise to make all things new. Maybe, like me, you swing between belief and unbelief, certainty and unsurety, hope and despair.

Elijah, the prophet, was on the run from mayhem and murder in his homeland. He was a prophet of Yahweh, and as such, a wanted man. Jezebel and King Ahab worshiped Baal, and they were making the effort to arrest and execute rival prophets. Prophets, after all, rarely speak words of comfort to the powerful—prophets, mostly, when they are speaking the truth, make people uncomfortable. Discomfort is, precisely, perhaps, their job. So Elijah, prophet of Yahweh, was on the run. And God, true to form, offered little in the way of comfort to the prophet either. God sent Elijah into hiding in the desert, in the middle of drought and famine. He sent Elijah to a ravine, where there was a trickle of water, and sent ravens to deliver morsels of food so that he might not starve. And when the water had dried up completely in the ravine, God sent Elijah on, not to his homeland, not to any place of comfort where he might know somebody, no God sent Elijah straight into the heart of Jezebel’s land, to find comfort and sustenance from a widow who had nothing but a son who needed feeding.

When Elijah, desperate himself, arrived on the doorstep of the widow, she had only a bit of water and the tiniest bit of food. With the last of her cooking oil, she intended to make a last supper for herself and her son. And when they had eaten their last meal together, the widow planned to wait with her son until they starved to death. The land, gripped with famine and drought, provided no other life for them. At the end of the life she had scraped together for them, the only option was to wait for death.

Elijah, this man prophet, this man, with no other mouths to feed and with at least some mobility—the opportunity to seek out other possibilities—this man approached the desolate widow and presumed to ask her for water. And while she was granting that request, he pressed further and asked for food. And when she told him that she had one last meal left for herself and her son, and that after that they would starve to death, Elijah dared to say, “Give that meal to me. And you will be blessed with food and water that will not run out until the drought is done.” Out of faith people make astonishing claims. Sometimes out of desperation, people make astonishing demands.

And what, after all, did it matter to the widow? What is one less meal at the end of one’s life? Who wouldn’t trade the cow for the magic beans when there are no other options left? If death comes anyway, what is the cost of hospitality? Perhaps, if I am that widow, faced with death by starvation, I might welcome a quicker end. Take my food and end it!

So gave it she did. And Elijah ate. And somehow, some way, his promise was made good. The jar stayed full of meal. The jug stayed full of water. The widow and her son and Elijah ate and drank through famine and drought. They became a household. A miracle.

I’m struck by this passage. I work in Trenton. I see food insecurity constantly in the neighborhoods. Young people and families go hungry. Old people go hungry. This year, for the second year in a row, the City of Trenton failed to fund Meals on Wheels. This year, for I suspect is the umpteenth year in a row, the rest of the townships and the county failed to fund Meals on Wheels. 185 homebound seniors in the City of Trenton depend on Meals on Wheels to bring them a meal each day. Who will keep their jars full? Where is the miracle? Where is God?

We are in a drought in the City. There is a famine. Death creeps up to our windows. I don’t know a single family unscathed in the City. The City of Trenton lies at the south end of Mercer County, bordered by the suburbs of Ewing, Hamilton, and Lawrence, running right up against the Delaware. It is beautiful there, full of trees and old homes. The City is full of people who work hard, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. It is full of people who want better for their children—like any of us do. Trenton is our capitol city in New Jersey, a city with a long history of manufacturing and the diversity that comes with that. Working class and poor folk, mostly. The factory jobs are long gone, not much else to replace that industry. We could argue the reasons for days. But the results are clear.

7.5 square miles, Trenton, 84,000 people. 25% of the population of the entire county, squeezed into less than 4% of the county’s land. Almost all of the “affordable” and section 8 housing in the county is located in Trenton. Rents in adjacent townships are high enough to prevent Trenton folk from spreading out, even if the jobs and transportation were available. 34% of children in Trenton live below the poverty line. In surrounding townships that number drops to 8-11%. In the outlying suburbs to the north that number drops to 3%. In Trenton, 6th grade students function at a 4th grade level. 15 miles north, in Princeton, 6th grade students function at a 9th grade level. 5 grade levels difference in public school children. Generational wealth and systemic oppression have made their mark, carved sharp lines within the county, creating a sinkhole in Trenton that will not allow that city’s children to thrive. And twisted all through educational and wealth disparities is the truth about race. 52% of the people in Trenton identify as black, 33% identify as hispanic/latino. Trenton is the place where blackness and poverty and violence are pushed, enclosed, reinscribed, expected, required, judged, condemned, sentenced, and imprisoned. It benefits the rest of the county tremendously to have such a place. You don’t need a fence to keep Trenton Trenton. For the most part the borders are clearly marked by housing, behavior, resources, exhaustion.

This side of the street is Trenton, that side is Lawrence. The Lawrence side has street lights. The Trenton side is dark. This side of the street is Trenton, that side is Ewing. The school on the Trenton side looks abandoned but is not. The school on the Ewing side looks new. Separated by a double yellow line that says don’t cross And mostly, people don’t. Drive up 206 from Trenton to Princeton, and watch as the houses give way from tiny row houses with families of 8 living together, boarded up abandoned homes, the exhaustion of the community evident in the walk of the people on the street…drive north through Lawrence and watch the homes get bigger, family size drop, until at the southern tip of Princeton you will see 5,000 square foot homes that house 2 people. The disparity is so stark it takes my breath away. There is a drought and a famine in our land, and people are starving and strangling to death in poverty while others have plenty and more.

Where is the miracle? Do the people of Trenton not pray? I assure you they do.

Where do you see yourself in the scriptures today? Are you Elijah, running for your life, thirsty, hungry, driven by God and circumstance into the land of your enemy, to seek refuge with the poorest of the poor in the middle of a drought? Are you the widow, desperate to feed your son one last meal before you watch each other starve to death? Are you Jezebel and Ahab, rounding up people who don’t believe as you do and executing them? All fantastic possibilities, no? And if this was just an academic exercise, we could play with the images, entertain the metaphors, talk about starvation and death as hunger and thirst in spiritual terms. But three people were violently injured last night in the City where I work. Who knows what food those three were supposed to bring home? Who knows which children were supposed to be loved and cared for by those men? And there will be three or more people arrested or on the run for perpetrating those crimes, and they too were supposed to feed and care for others. This is no academic exercise. We are not Elijah, we are not the widow. We are, I believe, something far more useful: we are the grain that fills the widows jar, providing sustenance to those who suffer until the drought ends.

What does this look like, you ask? It looks like work. It looks like giving what we have. It looks like putting our gifts to work in ways that are useful to those who are simply waiting for death. It looks like being uncomfortable. Grain in the widow’s jar looks like after school programs and reallocation of resources to our poorest schools. It looks like Meals on Wheels programs funded by the suburbs when the city can’t make it. It looks like keeping and creating affordable housing in our townships to give people space to move and live and breathe as needed. It looks like jobs for ex-offenders and for teenagers before they become offenders
. It looks like sharing our space, our resources, our time, our talents. For Trenton is not the only pocket township in this state of New Jersey—this pattern is repeated in most of our counties. I don’t have to name the neighborhoods and townships in your county that are suffering—you know where they are. The good news of today’s scriptures, the Gospel I can offer you, is that we have the capability of being the grain to fill the jar. We can be used to bring miracles to other lives.

A seminary professor once told me that the beautiful thing about our communal faith—about the creeds and scriptures and liturgical rituals—is that in times of our own disbelief, the community holds our faith for us. When our prayers run dry and despair runs deep, the community prays and hopes for us. I find myself in such a desert these days, and I am looking to you here in this church, in the wider church also, to hold my faith. I’m looking to you to pray and hope on my behalf and for the community I serve. I’m looking to you to be the grain in the widow’s jar—to make sure that the jar does not empty before the drought ends. What miracles will you bring to fruition through the hands and feet God gifted you?

I slept on it, this sermon. I almost didn’t preach it. I figured you don’t know me and I don’t know you, what right do I have to ask this of you? I wonder how long Elijah stared at the widow’s house before he approached. I wonder if he knew how desperately low she was on supplies, how near death she might be. I wonder if he was moved to compassion, to sleeplessness about that. Nevertheless, Elijah came to the widow and asked. And I am coming to you, asking for your morsels of faith and courage and hope. Will you hold my faith a little while until the drought ends? Will you be the grain in the jar? Will you seek out opportunities for justice and reparations in your community? Who is the neighbor in need? Where are they? What do they need?

Christ’s last instructions to Peter in the gospel of John were to feed his sheep. And then he told Peter that if he followed him it would lead to his death. The widow knew this was the last of her food and then she would die. But perhaps she knew what we try to forget: we will die anyway. It’s just a matter of how we live and love. Will you be the grain? Will you hold my faith?