Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light Bulb in the Manger

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Like the congregation I currently serve, my childhood church presented a Christmas pageant during an Advent worship service every year. But in stark contrast to my current church's Christmas pageant, the Christmas pageant my childhood church presented every year was emphatically NOT FOR CHILDREN. The shepherds were adults, the wise men were adults, Joseph and Mary were adults, and the narrator was an adult. The script had been the same every year since about 1901, passed down on type-written yellow pages. Each set of characters silently acted out their parts as the narrator provided a voiceover, and then each group made their way to the nativity tableau, which seemed to glow with a heavenly light. There were roles for four children: two pre-teen girls were selected to be angels, and the two best-behaved seven-year-olds would be chosen to represent the modern Christians who were still devoted to the Christ-child. They would don their Christmas finery, climb the tall, tall steps to the nativity tableau, and lay wrapped presents for charity in front of the manger, posing there with the shepherds and angels while the congregation came forward with their own toys to donate to needy children. I yearned to be in the Christmas pageant – I just remember feeling so drawn to that nativity scene, glowing there in the darkened sanctuary. And the year I was seven, my prayers were answered and I was selected.

That chilly Sunday morning, I climbed the tall, tall steps in my forest green velvet Christmas dress and knelt in front of the manger, trying not to wiggle. But I couldn’t resist – emanating from the manger was this heavenly golden glow, and I just had to look in. I edged forward, as surreptitiously as possible, still kneeling, until I could peer over the edge of the manger. In I looked, holding my breath. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a 100-watt light bulb wrapped in orange cellophane.

A light bulb wrapped in plastic. That's what they were using to represent Jesus. Because, of course, no one was going to be able to see it, and they didn't want to bother with a doll or, God forbid, a real baby, a real baby who might fuss or cry, babble or wiggle.

That says something to me about how we as a society have come to think about Christmas. Of course, we get all up in arms about the commercialism and materialism of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. Of course, we worry that our secular festival of gift-giving and cookie-eating has distracted us from the Gospel stories of Christmas. Of course, some people oppose the trends of multiculturalism and religious tolerance, claiming that there’s a “war on Christmas” because public schools and retail establishments don’t assume everyone is Christian – which I actually think is a wonderful way to respect our brothers and sisters of other faiths. But that's not what I'm talking about today. I think that sometimes, when we reflect on Christmas, we imagine a night of pristine holiness, perfect order and peace. Our images of Christmas are often so simple and lovely and quiet and glowing that we have a hard time imagining that there might have been an actual baby – a noisy, drooly, sometimes smelly baby – in that manger.

But as I studied the Gospel lesson for today, I was struck by its absolute insistence that the first Christmas was every bit as messy and difficult and disorganized and REAL as our real lives, right here, right now, two thousand years later.

The Christmas story, like many of our stories, starts with some bureaucratic red tape. Our real, everyday lives can get thrown out of whack by all kinds of things: a canceled flight, some problem with the bank, a summons for jury duty. And so, too, with Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story: "A decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world was to be registered." An interruption, an inconvenience, that just seems to come at the worst possible time, taking no account of our lengthy to-do lists and packed schedules, or the aching back and swollen feet of a pregnant girl. There's nothing to be done about it, and so Mary and Joseph set off to Bethlehem, where the time comes for Mary to give birth.

“She gave birth to her firstborn son,” we read in the gospel, “and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” After five Christmases in this city, those words have taken on new meaning for me. Luke tells us of a Bethlehem filled with transient people, weary travelers “making do,” crowding into inns and stables alike for the census… and it reminds me of New York, with all the people coming and going to do their shopping, see the sights, and visit family, and all the people who are just passing through on their way from one place to another. Sometimes, it reminds me of our living room. At this time of year, calls pour in from family and friends. “I missed my greyhound bus,” says a weary friend, “The next one isn’t until tomorrow.” “The couch is already taken,” we reply, “But if we move the dinner table we can put a sleeping bag on the floor.” There is usually a bit of room at our little Manhattan apartment inn, but when the travelers are hungry and the groceries are scarce, sometimes we find ourselves out in the streets of lower Manhattan, wandering from door to door because there is just no room at the diner.

"In that region," the gospel writer continues, "there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." The story of Christmas does not happen to people who are attentively watching and hoping, silent and prepared, waiting for Christmas. During Advent, we do try to prepare our hearts and minds, but the Gospel insists that Christmas comes bursting in, ready or not, on people who are busy, working, trundling along with their everyday lives. It comes to us, too, when we have other things to do, family crises and work projects; flocks to watch and papers to write. And it comes to all kinds of people. Despite all of our romantic mental images of beautiful green fields and soft white sheep, shepherding was not a particularly respected job in the ancient Near East. But Christmas comes to us all, the Gospel reminds us, not just to well-behaved, neat-and-tidy, church-going people. It is, the angels proclaim, good news for all people.

When I look back on the Christmas pageants of my youth, where the shepherds were artfully smudged with little streaks of brown makeup to represent just a tiny bit of dirt, and the baby Jesus was represented by a glowing light bulb in the manger, I know that we had forgotten something. Christmas is not about getting all of your ducks in a row – logistically, or theologically. It is not about constructing the perfect nativity tableau, it is not about Martha Stewart crafts and perfect pie crusts, it is not about making everything “just so.” No, because Christmas, at its heart, is about Christ coming into the world. And that world is messy, and busy, and difficult, often beautiful but never perfect or pristine. Christmas is about immanuel – God With Us. Us, real people with all of our flaws and imperfections, our mismatched socks and broken relationships. The Good News of Christmas is that in Christ, God comes to messy, busy people in a messy, busy world. Or, as the Christmas song I Wonder as I Wander puts it, Christ comes “for poor, ornery people like you and like I.” And so it is, every year, with Christmas. Christmas comes to the world as it is, not the world as we would prefer to imagine it. That is what we forget when our Christmas pageants are perfectly choreographed and synchronized, with perfect shepherds and perfect wise men and a perfectly behaved light bulb wrapped in cellophane.

But there was something real and true about the light bulb in that manger, as well. There are two different Gospel readings for the day of Christmas; one is the Christmas story I’ve been talking about. But the other one is from the Gospel according to John, and we read it together at the beginning of worship today. It speaks of the mystery of the incarnation: it declares that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the light of the world. "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who came to show us God's love and God’s grace. Decades later, Jesus would tell us that whenever we give a hungry person a sandwich or a thirsty person a drink of water, we do it for Jesus. Jesus teaches us to see Christ in the faces of our neighbors, to love one another as Christ loves us, and to see ourselves and one another as beloved children of God.

The light bulb in the manger didn’t look much like the baby Jesus. But light bulbs are not for gazing at; we aren’t supposed to stare at them. We are supposed to look at what they illuminate. In that light, the faces of shepherds and wise men, Mary and Joseph, glowed. They were everyday people, like the people in the Christmas story; they were accountants and janitors, school teachers and postal workers. They juggled work and church and home. They shoveled the church sidewalks and raised foster children and coordinated food drives and edited the church newsletter. The light from that manger, the light of Christ, shone on their faces that day, and maybe they looked a little like they look to God: created, beloved, holy, everyday people, people whose lives have been changed forever by what happened that day in Bethlehem. We stood around the manger, and we were illuminated by the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Women's Ordination: My Conclusions; OR: What I Say When Some Jerk on the Bus Wants to Start With Me

This is the third part of my "utrum" paper, rebutting the arguments against women's ordination. Please note that any theological discourse undertaken with Jerks on the Bus is more likely to lead to a headache than a change of heart.

Responsio: I answer that it is theologically sound to ordain women.

Ergo: The strongest case against women’s ordination is the one based on teachings in the Pauline epistles [presented in The Case Against Women’s Ordination]. It is certainly dangerous to claim that the Christian church can simply disregard inconvenient scripture. However, there are ample grounds for valuing women’s calls to ministry over this interpretation of these particular scriptural passages.

Much of Paul’s other writing on gender is disregarded as clearly outdated, meant for people and problems of his own time and not for ours. For instance, immediately before the passage from First Timothy which is used against women’s ordination, the writer says, “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Of course, this passage may still have something to say to our time, but few Christians take the admonition against hair-plaiting literally.

Moreover, First Corinthians has an extended argument about head-coverings for men and women, including this:
…any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. . . . Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor.11:4-6, 13-15)
This passage, which includes a lengthy argument about creation and gender, stretches a full twelve verses, yet the wider church has judged hair length and head covering to be of little importance for our time. In this case, a lengthy and emphatic discourse on gender has been judged, and rightly so in my opinion, to be a product of and for Paul’s time, rather than an instruction for all time on the appropriate behavior of women.

If we consider this teaching about head coverings to be part of our tradition but not part of our task as Christians, why should we regard the words about women in the church any differently? Paul is no less emphatic here; these words are no more specific to Paul’s social context. In short, his teachings on women and authority need not limit the church’s ability to recognize God’s call of women to ordained ministry in our time any more than any other passages demand that contemporary Christian women wear veils.

The question of catholicity – faithfulness to the traditions of the church worldwide and through the ages – and women’s ordination is a complex one. On one hand, most churches throughout time and many around the world have declared that the ordination of women is not theologically sound; in recent years this has changed, but we must ask whether this change has to do with the guidance of God, or with the pressures of contemporary feminism.

Church history provides some parallel instances which may clarify this question: as we move further away from the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, for example, it is clear that the churches which advocated abolition and racial equality, both in society and in the church, while this was still unpopular, were influenced not by the whims of the world, but by God’s will for the church.

It is important that the church move in response to God’s will rather than secular trends. Given the testimony of women called to ministry, the witness of scripture, and the history of the church, the ordination of women is theologically sound.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Favor of Women's Ordination

Below is the second part of my "utrum" paper on the issue of women's ordination. This part of the paper attempts to lay out the case for women's ordination, stating the case thoroughly and fairly but without counter-argument. Strangely, it was harder to write than the case against women's ordination, although the process probably involved much lower risk of aneurysm. Tomorrow, I'll post the third and final part, my conclusion on whether it is theologically sound to ordain women to ministry.

Sed Contra: On the other hand, the ordination of women must be considered theologically valid.

Many women feel specifically called to ordination and are uniquely gifted for pastoral ministry. When a woman has carefully discerned the will of God, in some cases experiencing a dramatic call to the pulpit and the parish in a voice or a vision, how can the church claim that God’s will is for her to ignore that call?

Ordination of women is a matter of respecting divine vocatio. In Not Every Spirit, Christopher Morse writes that “Christian faith refuses to believe that God calls anyone to reject the particular gifts that God gives uniquely to each human life to make it whole” (267). God would not give women the aptitude for ministry and a sense of call to ordination, only to ask them to ignore this call. Neither, then, should the church ignore this call.

Furthermore, ordination for women is consistent with biblical witness. In the midst of a patriarchal society, Jesus defied societal norms by treating women with dignity and respect, maintaining friendships with women including Mary and Martha, and including women in his ministry. Jesus’ ministry included healing many women (Luke 13:10-17; Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 8:14-15); parables such as the unjust judge and the lost coin place marginalized women at the center (Luke 18:1-8; Luke 15:8-10) In the Gospel of John, we read of the woman at the well, with whom Jesus had a long conversation even though his disciples “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (4:27). Jesus’ disregard for social mores around gender calls into question the assertion that women must necessarily be proscribed from certain roles in God’s ecclesia.

Women in the Gospels take on pastoral and ministerial roles. The woman at the well is arguably the first person to preach the good news, announcing to her town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29). All of the Gospels agree that women were the first to find out that Christ had been resurrected from the dead. Furthermore, in Matthew, Mark, and John these women are explicitly bidden to spread the good news, and in Matthew, Luke, and John, the women are the first to the disciples of the resurrection. In light of these clear scriptural instances of women being sent to spread the news of what has happened with Jesus, it seems that there is biblical support for the ordination of women.

The shift toward women’s ordination in the last two hundred year reflects the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading the church to grow in faithfulness to the will of God. The first woman to be ordained in America was a Congregationalist in 1853. Since that time, many Christian traditions have embraced the ordination of women, including mainline Protestant groups, Evangelical traditions, and many parts of the Anglican Communion. These widespread changes in policy, undertaken in prayerful discernment, demonstrate that many Christian communities around the world are discerning that the ordination of women to ministry is the will of God.

The church’s shift towards women’s ordination coincides with the secular movement for women’s rights and equality. On its own, feminism in the secular world is a poor reason to change church standards of ordination. However, if the church arbitrarily resists gender equality in the name of preserving tradition, it risks being seen as archaic and irrelevant. When our growing societal awareness of gender equality is combined with the testimony of women’s experiences of call, the witness of scripture, and discernment that God is leading the church to ordain women, it is clear that women’s ordination is theologically valid.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Case Against Women's Ordination

For one of my seminary theology courses, I wrote an "utrum" paper, an analysis of a theological issue in a style first used by Thomas Aquinas. The task is to lay out two opposing positions as thoroughly and fairly as possible, before offering one's own conclusion. The issue I chose was the ordination of women to Christian ministry. The work I did in preparing this paper really served me well; it equipped me for conversation with people who doubt my call to ministry, and the faithfulness of denominations that ordain women. I'll be posting the paper here in three parts. What follows is my understanding of the case against ordaining women.

: Whether it is theologically sound to ordain women to Christian ministry.

Videtur: It would seem that it is not theologically sound to ordain women to Christian ministry. There are two significant places in scripture that seem to forbid women from leadership roles in the church. In First Timothy, the author instructs: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (2:11-14). Here, the writer, who in deference to tradition will be referred to as Paul, asserts that women are forbidden from having authority over men because of the Genesis story of the Creation and the Fall. Paul employs the Genesis 2 story of creation in which Eve is formed from Adam’s rib in order that Adam might have a companion, interpreting it to mean that women are secondary. Furthermore, the inheritance of sin can be traced to Eve’s gullibility; thus the descendants of Eve, women, are forbidden from teaching and from positions of authority.

A second instance of biblical witness against women’s ordination occurs in First Corinthians: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (14:33b-35). If women are to be subordinate in the church, as Paul writes here, that certainly precludes granting them leadership roles within the church. Furthermore, a final element of scriptural witness against the ordination of women can be inferred by considering the religious leaders of the New Testament. While it is sometimes asserted that Jesus’ maleness is not significant, it is nonetheless important to note that the major leaders of the church identified in scripture are men: Jesus, the twelve disciples, and Paul. In the New Testament, the most significant leaders of the ecclesia in the New Testament are all men.

The ordination of women is also judged to be theologically unsound by catholicity -- continuity with the church around the world and throughout the ages. Women’s ordination began to be granted by some denominations in the nineteenth century; up until that point it was widely unknown. Furthermore, many significant Christian traditions hold the ordination of women to be unacceptable up to this day, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, some provinces of the Anglican Communion, and several Protestant denominations including the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), and Presbyterian Church of America. These traditions justify their decision not to ordain women based not only on scriptural witness, but also on continuity with apostolic tradition.

Finally, it is important in considering this question not to be swayed by the tendencies of contemporary society. The past two hundred years in the United States have seen great advances in women's rights. However, it is important to remember that the church is not necessarily beholden to the ethical norms of the world. We as Christians must decide questions about the rites and sacraments of the church based not on contemporary identity politics but on scriptural witness and faithful theological discernment.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travel Notes: Doi Suthep, Chiangmai, Thailand

Wat Phra Doi Suthep is one of the great holy sites of Northern Thailand. Legend has it that centuries ago, a king placed relics of the Buddha on the back of a white elephant, and set the elephant to wander on the Doi Suthep mountain. Where the elephant stopped, there the temple would be built. And it was.

My ears pop and pop again as we ascend the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck taxi. That elephant didn’t mess around. The road terminates, but three hundred more stairs up the mountain lie between us and the temple.

The stairs to Wat Phra Doi Suthep are worn stone. Where western stairs would have railings, these stairs have dragons. Carved, painted green and gold, running the full three-hundred-stair length. At the landings, vendors sell bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice, small carved buddhas, little snacks of half a dozen tiny fried eggs (quail? Pigeon?). On the steps, Hmong girls in traditional costume will pose in a picture with you for twenty baht, wrapping their chubby toddler arms around you and planting a kiss on your cheek, before they prompt you to put money in the pouches hanging from their necks. I wonder what their lives will be like.

In the temple courtyard, we watch Thai dancers, take in beautiful views of Chiangmai, ring big brass bells. Then we remove our shoes, wondering how we’ll find them in the pile of hundreds, and enter the temple pavilion.

The temple is a riot of color, sound, and smell. Carvings of elephants, dragons, buddhas, boddhisatvas. Incense and oil lamps. Doors are elaborately carved and painted in vivid hues of red and gold. Barefoot, we roam the temple pavilion, a courtyard within the courtyard. In the center, worshippers process around a golden structure, murmuring Thai prayers. Around the periphery, people slip in and out of chapels, kneeling to hear monks pray or teach, bowing their heads as they are sprinkled with holy water, sitting in silent contemplation of lovely Buddhas in shades of green and gold.

It is hard to know what to do, tourists in a place of worship, unwilling to kneel or bow towards statues or monks. (Is that an act of faithfulness, or is it arrogance? Integrity or disrespect?) We take it all in, the people lighting incense and pouring oil into lamps, praying and meditating. We are spectators in a place of prayer, trying not to gawp at the unfamiliar practices, entranced by the daily life of a working temple. It all feels so foreign.

Suddenly, my perception shifts, like those pictures that slide from portraying a vase to two faces, and everything looks different. This is what I see: flowers, flames, images – simple human ways of recognizing and honoring a divine One too huge and too ineffable for words. People with hopes and dreams, needs and desires, fears, anxieties, and pain. Prayers for health, for harmony, for daily bread. Prayers for loved ones and for our world. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so foreign after all.

Holy One, hear our prayers. Amen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where the Wild Kings Are

Sermon on John 18:33-37

The Gospel text today might have sounded a little strange to you today, if you’ve been coming to church much this fall. Last week, Jesus was teaching and healing the adoring crowd – but suddenly today, the crowd has turned and he is under arrest, being questioned in Pontius Pilate’s headquarters. If you have even the most passing familiarity with the Christian tradition, you'll recognize this as part of the Passion story. Why are we reading it a month before Christmas?

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, and for this Sunday, one week before the beginning of Advent, we have special texts for a day which we call “Reign of Christ Sunday,” the day when we pay special attention to those parts of the Bible which speak about the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the reign of God. And so this week, we have this brief scene from Jesus’ trial before Pilate, where Pilate asks Jesus whether he is “King of the Jews.”

When I found out I would be preaching on Reign of Christ Sunday, I read this text, and I was completely befuddled. Sure, the word “king” is in here, but it’s hard to imagine a text that runs more contrary to themes of the great majestic power and glory of Jesus. Because no matter what Jesus or Pilate or the narrator or anyone have to say about kingdoms and kings, we know where this text comes from. We know that Jesus has been betrayed and arrested. We know that Jesus is about to be tortured and humiliated and executed.

So I turned this text over and over in my mind as I considered what I would say to you about this text and about Christ the King on this Sunday. And these questions were still with me one Saturday when I went to see Where the Wild Things Are. I grew up loving the book, a lovely little fable of just a few sentences, about Max who wears his wolf suit and makes mischief, who is sent to bed with no supper and sails away in a magical boat to the land of the wild things.

But the film took me by surprise, and I was struck by the way it expands the story of Max becoming king of the wild things. Max sails to a strange land and sneaks up to the village of the wild things as they are grieving over their abandonment by K.W., another wild thing who, like Max’s older sister, has found cooler friends. When Max comes out, the wild things gather around him, towering over him and threatening to eat him, until Max, a little boy of eight or nine years old, shouts “be still!” “Why?” they ask, and Max replies, “Because I am a king.” This takes the wild things by surprise: “You’re very small, to be a king,” they say. But Max tells them tales of his kingly feats of making Vikings’ heads explode with his magic powers, and finally they believe him, and wonder if they should make him their king, as well. But they have a few requirements of their king, and so they ask, “What are you going to do about the sadness? What are you going to do about the loneliness?” Max replies that he will be able to keep it out with a shield, a shield that keeps out all sadness and loneliness, and that is big enough for all of them to fit inside. And so with this reassurance, the wild things crown him king, and the wild rumpus begins.

For a while, things are raucous and wonderful, a perfect world for a little boy or a wild thing. Max and the wild things crash and smash things; they run and leap and yell, until they finally fall asleep in an enormous pile. Even K.W. comes back, and the wild things are overjoyed with their new king. But it can’t last. Soon enough conflict sneaks in. K.W. leaves in a huff, and some of the wild things are insecure, or hot-headed, or moody, and nothing Max does seems to make it right. He introduces one idea after another for forming a perfect kingdom of wild things: a dirt clod fight will let everyone have fun together, he thinks, or maybe building a fort. But nothing works. Everyone wants his attention, and wants to be his favorite, and wants him to stop another wild thing from leaving or fighting or interrupting or saying mean things. They want him to fix things for them, to be in charge of everything and make their world perfect. But he can’t. And soon enough, Max’s promises are shown to be products of the wild imagination of a little boy. Max doesn’t have a shield to keep out the sadness and the loneliness. The wild things decide that he isn’t a very good king at all.

As I sat in the movie theater, today’s text seemed perfect for Christ the King Sunday. In today’s text, we find our expectations challenged. We might have thought we knew what it meant for Christ to be the King: Jesus reigning supreme at the right hand of God, glorified and majestic, welcoming us into the perfect Kingdom of God. The disciples, too, might have thought they knew what it would mean for Christ to be the King – and they were ready to fight for it until Jesus told them to put away their swords. We, and they, like the wild things in the movie, think that we know what it’s going to mean to have a king. The king will rule over everyone, everyone will obey the king, and if the king is a good king, then everything will be just the way we want it. But wait – how do we want the kingdom to be?

In Where the Wild Things Are, each wild thing wants to be the king’s favorite – and their fights for Max’s favor sound a lot like the disciples bickering over who will get to sit at Jesus’ right hand. They hope for a kingdom where they will be elevated over all others. Maybe sometimes we hope that too. Maybe in the Kingdom of God, we think, Jesus will make everything exactly the way we want it, and will always be on our side, and will make everyone be nice. But this text reminds us that that is not the promise of Christ the King Sunday.

For us Americans, kings are the stuff of history and fairy tales, but in the world of Jesus, kings were a political reality, and in that time, the king of all kings was the emperor, Caesar. The Roman imperial system demanded enormous taxes, exploitative taxes that sometimes left people starving, and in the middle of all of this oppression and need, they were supposed to praise Caesar as not only king, but also god. One text we have from just before Jesus’ life says this: “Augustus was filled with virtue as a benefaction to all humanity, a savior who put an end to war and brought order to all things… and the birth of Caesar was the beginning of good tidings to the world.” The idea of kingship in the world of Jesus was tied up with divinity, salvation, and the right to dominate and subjugate. The king was supposed to provide order and plenty and peace – and in return would receive loyalty and praise and even worship. The people declaring Caesar to be a great savior of humanity, looking to Caesar to give them a perfect world, were controlled and exploited by the empire. That is what it meant to be the king in Jesus’ time.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. When we hear words like that, we might think of a great heavenly kingdom with Jesus reigning as king over all – like Caesar only greater more powerful, and more benevolent – but I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about in this passage. Jesus says that his basileia, his kingdom or empire, is not ek tou kosmou. Not “from” or “out of” this kosmos. Kosmos means world, but not in the sense of “planet” – it means a world order, a society and its way of being, like “the Western world.” Jesus doesn’t say his kingdom is not in this world; he is not talking about whether or not his kingdom is on this planet. He is talking about whether or not his kingdom is like other kingdoms. He is talking about whether or not the kingdom where Christ is king conforms to this world order, a world order in which the king stands at the top of the hierarchy, establishing order and demanding gratitude. That kind of kingdom is what Jesus rejects when he says that his kingdom is not “of this kosmos.”

It would be a mistake to hear him promising a bigger, better empire in the world to come. No, this, like so much of Jesus’ life and teaching, tells us that in order to understand what the “kingdom of God” means, we are going to need to throw away our ideas about what it means to be powerful in our world, and we’ll need to listen to the many words that tell us what the kingdom of God is actually like. Words that tell us that all of the hierarchies and structures which keep people jockeying for position will be transformed or reversed. Words that envision a way of justice and peace, a way of serving one another and breaking bread together. Words that promise a kingdom which is not like the kingdoms of this world.

In the movie of Where the Wild Things Are, we never find out exactly why Max decides to leave the wild things and sail home. But in the book, Max halts the wild rumpus and sends the wild things to bed without supper. And then the book says this: “And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat. So he gave up being king of where the wild things are.”

I don’t think Max ever imagined that it would be so lonely being king; after all, couldn’t he just tell the wild things to do what he wanted? To keep him company, to entertain him, to love him? But Max has a loneliness that goes deeper than being alone after sending his subjects to bed; Max’s loneliness, I think, has to do with the realities of the kingdoms of this world – kingdoms which separate us from one another with hierarchies and categories, kingdoms which put us above and below and against one another instead of beside each other. Kingdoms which are just as real in contemporary America as in first-century Judea. Kingdoms which tell us which people matter and which do not. Kingdoms where some people have every desire fulfilled while others are sent away hungry.

These are the kingdoms that Jesus rejects when he says, “if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Jesus calls us to turn away from the ways of kingdoms that are from this world, from kingdoms where victory is achieved by violence, where ends are justified by means, where our place in the world is defined by power, prestige, and privilege.

And Jesus calls us instead to a kingdom which is not of this world, the reign of God where the king is servant of all, and where we are called to become servants alongside our king. The reign of God, where we testify to the truth that that everyone is created in the image of God. The reign of God, where the meek inherit the earth, and peacemakers are called children of God. The reign of God, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black nor white, able-bodied nor handicapped, young nor old, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

Friday, October 21, 2011


I’m feeling a little guilty not to have posted yet about the #Occupy movement. But I have been, shall we say, pre-occupied. There’s a few reasons I’ve been procrastinating on it:

1) Legitimately busy. Now accepting prayers for my job search.

2) Trying to figure out the right balance of internet-anonymity and self-revelation.

3) I am mortified that people aren’t sure whether I’m in favor.

So I’m going on the record now: I am in favor. I’m in favor of people’s movements. I’m in favor of more democracy and less corporate influence on government. I’m in favor of closing the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Of course, there are things about the movement I’m struggling with, and here comes the self-revelation part. My spouse works on Wall Street. Not anywhere that got bailed out, and not anywhere that directly benefited from CDOs and credit default swaps and toxic assets and all the other horrific financial instruments we all learned about on Planet Money. But he does work in finance, and near Wall Street itself. (Incidentally, many of the places that did get bailed out and did benefit from screwing with poor people's hopes and dreams and credit scores are located in midtown. I know that Wall Street is a cultural symbol, and it wouldn’t pack the same rhetorical punch to occupy Park & 53rd or whatever.)

So I’ve been struggling a bit, and here’s where I am. Economic injustice is complicated. It is interconnected and subtle. We are all complicit in it, in some ways, or at least most of us are. It’s like empire. It’s like patriarchy. There’s not just one bad guy who makes it all happen – it’s in our hearts and our heads; it's in our anxieties and our desires for fancier toys.

When you know some of those Wall Street guys (mostly guys), it’s hard to look at them and be like “Yes! These people! They are the villains!” Mostly they’re cisgendered guys in their 20s and 30s from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds who have spent a lot of time thinking about math, and not a lot of time thinking about social issues, who have worked their butts off their whole lives and are aware that it was really hard but unaware of the ways they’ve benefited from privilege (it’s invisible to the privileged, that’s what makes it insidious). They want to pay off their student loans and they’re anxious about what will happen when their (middle- to upper-middle-class, but probably struggling) parents get older and/or sick. They want to live in nicer homes than they can presently afford, which is a universal desire if we’ve learned anything at all from this whole mess.

Most of them are in the 99%, but I suspect that the 3 million wealthiest Americans (the 1%) are similarly lacking in evil intentions and sinister mustaches. Many of them are probably interested in having a government that serves the needs of all the people. Many of them are probably just as puzzled as the rest of us about how to make that happen. Many of them probably feel alienated by the 99% slogan.

So I’m standing by what I’ve said before and I’ll say again: God doesn’t make bad people. If you want to separate the wheat from the weeds, it’s going to be more complicated than skimming off the top 1% (or if you’re not of my political persuasion, the bottom 47%). It’s going to be more complicated than Wall Street Suits versus protesters. (Also, PLEASE remember that a lot of the “suits” are administrative assistants and HR representatives and other support staff. Be kind.)

We need to do something about this. I hope we can do it together.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Hey readers! I am deeply embroiled in non-blog work, so I thought this would be a good time to pull this sermon from the archives. I preached it at a quite-affluent congregation that was presenting me with a preaching award. Having chosen a date and committed to preaching from the week's lectionary I faced a set of texts that were all pretty harsh on wealthy folks. I offered this sermon on Lazarus and the rich man.

The summer that I was eight, I packed a bag of t-shirts and swimsuits and my Girl Scout sash, and I went to sleep-away camp for the first time. I was excited about the campfires and the polar bear swims and the marshmallow roasts and the badges–I loved badges–and all of those things happened, and they were great. But there was a lesson I learned that I never expected.

You see, I was one of the later girls to arrive, and when I introduced myself to the girls I would be sharing a tent with, they told me that there was already an Emily who had arrived before me. So, they inferred, my name at camp could not be Emily. It would have to be something else. Later, I would learn how better to deal with duplicate names. I would learn to suggest that we go by “Emily T.” and “Emily M.” I would come up with nicknames that I didn’t mind, like “Em” or “Emmie.” But on this occasion, I was asked what my last name was–at the time it was “Mott.” I said “Mott, like the applesauce,” and giggling with glee, my tentmates decided that I would be called applesauce.

By the time my parents came to pick me up one week later, I was an emotional wreck. I’m sure that the "bug juice" and the late nights had something to do with it, but to me, the biggest reason was this: I had gone a whole week without ever being called by my own name.

Names, it turns out, can be very important. Our names are how we are known to the world; they say something about who we are–about our cultural backgrounds, our family histories; they identify us in a way that feels much deeper and more personal than our social security numbers. We put our names on things. Sometimes just for practicality–perhaps you write your name inside books so that friends will remember to give them back to you. Sometimes not for practicality at all–we put names on our front doors or our welcome mats. We wear them on jewelry and monogram them onto towels. Names, it turns out, matter to us a lot. You cannot–or at any rate, should not–change someone else’s name to “applesauce” simply because you find it more convenient.

But names and the way we use them also say a lot about power, privilege and status, and who has it. If you have an enormous amount of money, you can splash your name all over midtown skyscrapers, like Donald Trump. Our city is marked by the names of the richest of the rich, even years after their deaths–Rockefeller and Carnegie, for instance. A hundred years ago, immigrants coming through Ellis Island used to have their names changed to sound more “American” by the immigration authorities. And while women are ostensibly legally equal to men, and have been for ninety years, we still change our names if we marry a man at a much higher rate than men do if they marry a woman.

Names, the way we use them, the way we change them, say a lot about power. And that was absolutely true in Jesus’ time, just as it is in our time. It is especially true in the Gospel of Luke, the account of Jesus’ life which is addressed to “Most excellent Theophilus.” The word translated “most excellent,” kratiste, was most commonly used for government officials, and although we don’t know much about Theophilus, his name is preserved forever in scripture. The names of many powerful people are preserved forever in Luke’s gospel: a few that you might remember are Emperor Augustus, Quirinius, governor of Syria, and Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who arranges for Jesus’ body to be buried.

Luke was very concerned with power and status, and is constantly reporting the names of authorities, and who was the son of whom. At the same time, Luke is full of reversals, starting from the very beginning of the story: Mary’s Magnificat, the poem that she sings as she expects the birth of Christ, sings of a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And from that point on, dissonance rings through the text, as the narrator reports on who has power and money while the Messiah mingles with outcasts and poor people.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, who have been grumbling about the odd company he keeps and ridiculing him for his attitudes about wealth. Jesus tells them a parable about a rich man. The terms which Jesus uses to describe this man convey opulent wealth. Both purple dye and fine linen were luxury items, and this man is dressed in both. Every meal this man eats is a magnificent feast. And he lives in a gated house, although gates were about as rare in ancient Israel as they are in modern Manhattan. This man is a caricature of wealth.

Lazarus, meanwhile, is a caricature of poverty. The Greek word used to describe him means not just a poor man, but a beggar. Lazarus is described, in the passive voice, as “having been thrown” at the rich man’s gate–having been tossed aside. He is covered in sores, and these sores are being licked by dogs–an image which would have been even more repulsive in a society where dogs were seen as filthy pests, not beloved pets.

So we have these two men, dramatic portrayals of wealth and of poverty. And as we would expect in Luke, there is a reversal. Lazarus is taken into the bosom of Abraham and the rich man tormented in the underworld. But what we might not expect is this: the poor man has a name and the rich man does not. What’s more, Jesus gives the poor man in this parable the name of one of his dearest friends–Jesus names the fictional beggar of this parable after Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead.

It pushes against our expectations to identify a beggar by name while the rich man remains nameless. It is such a transgression of social norms that many try to “fix” or “correct” it. The rich man has been called “Dives” by tradition, but dives is not a name–it is the Latin word for “rich man.” Scholars have combed through old manuscripts, wondering whether there is an older version which names the rich man. And one commentary I read actually mixed up the two men, assuming that the name must belong to the rich man, saying that “the poor man” ended up in the bosom of Abraham while “Lazarus” suffered in Hades.

We know instinctually who is supposed to have a name in a story, and who is not, and this story breaks the rules. I think that is precisely the point. Parables are stories that contain layers upon layers of meaning. Is this a story reminding the privileged to be attentive to the needs of the oppressed? Yes it is. Is this a warning that there are consequences for individuals and societies who are indifferent to the suffering of those around them? Yes it is. Is this a story about a man so self-absorbed that he thinks he can boss Lazarus around even from the depths of Hades? Yes it is. Is this a promise of justice for those who feel ignored by the powers that be? Yes it is. Is this a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection? Yes it is. And is this a story which, by defying our expectations, demands that we pay attention to who we know by name and who we lump into faceless categories? Yes, it is that too.

This is a story which calls us to give some attention to the way that we tell stories, the way we understand the world. It is a story which, by refusing to play by the rules, asks us a question about whose rules we will play by. Because there are still people whose names we use, and people whose names we do not use. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, Lady Gaga and President Obama. These are people whose names and histories and personalities are intimately familiar to us, even if we will never meet them. And there are people–millions of people, sometimes billions of people, often oppressed or underprivileged people, whom we collapse into categories: Africans; the homeless; the elderly. We speak of them, sometimes, as if they had one mind, one experience, one personality, almost like the Borg, that Star Trek villain made up of individual bodies connected by one computerized hive mind.

If you watch for it, it will not be long before you hear some gross generalization about the hopes and dreams and experiences of some category that includes millions of people. “The mentally handicapped benefit from structured activities like the Special Olympics,” someone might say. “Africans need to be educated about safe sex. They need access to modern technology.” “Domestic violence victims have no self-esteem.” I am not saying that these statements are universally wrong; they have bases in statistics, in the real world. And the scale of suffering in this world is too great for each of us to encounter each starving child, each trafficked woman, each African AIDS patient, as an individual. But if we accept these categories uncritically, we fall into the trap of seeing powerless people as objects, rather than created, beloved children of God. People can come to be seen not as people, but as obstacles to step over, unfortunate souls to condescend to, nameless, faceless masses.

The call of faith, the challenge that Jesus gives us in this story, is to pay attention to who has a name and who does not, to challenge the categories that define us and others, to see one another not as rich and poor, Samaritan and Judean, tax collector and priest, Pharisee and Sadducee, but as people. The call of faith is to build community across the barriers of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, handicapped and able-bodied, young and old. The call of faith is to know that no matter how little someone has, no matter how marginalized, no matter how oppressed, everyone has a name, and God knows them by name and loves them–and us.

This is deep at the heart of the message of Jesus, but it runs so contrary to the ways of the world that it keeps slipping through our fingers–even our stories of benevolence sometimes are framed in language that forgets to see needy people as people. There’s a wonderful old Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” which tells the story of a king named Wenceslas who looks from his window and sees an unnamed poor man gathering wood late at night in the snowy woods. He gathers food, drink, and firewood to give the man and his family a Christmas feast. It is a kind act, to be sure; benevolence beats apathy every time. Wenceslas, I think, is following Jesus: he is giving of himself, caring for the “least of these,” reaching out across social boundaries. But in the song, Wenceslas’s name is remembered, and the peasant’s name is forgotten. The poor man becomes a prop, an object through which Wenceslas’s kindness is demonstrated.

It is precisely this which Jesus is calling us to turn away from when he gives Lazarus a name. He is inviting us to reach across boundaries and categories, to engage one another as human beings, to turn away from the dehumanizing messages of this world about who matters and who does not. He is inviting us, the Body of Christ, the church, to build models of the kingdom of God right here, by being in community with one another, communities that cross lines of age, race, social class, ability, and sexual orientation. Perhaps he is inviting me to learn the names and stories of the panhandlers outside my home and workplace. Perhaps he is inviting you to travel on the upcoming mission trip to Zimbabwe and meet Zimbabweans with particular stories and particular hopes and dreams. Perhaps he is inviting congregations to think about whether we welcome street people as graciously as we welcome affluent people.

When Jesus names Lazarus, but not the rich man, he is trying to shake us out of our indifference, our exhaustion with the great suffering of the world (and it is exhausting), and to remind us that each and every person–even Lazarus, even us, is a beloved child of God. Each and every person–even Lazarus, even us, is known by name.

There is a call to action, there, friends; there is a call to peel away some of our protective apathy, to take off our blinders, to allow ourselves to be wounded by others’ suffering, as God is wounded, and to do something about it. But there is also a word of comfort: Lazarus’s value in the eyes of God cannot be taken away from him. And neither can yours. Your value does not come from accomplishments, or college degrees, or your resume. Your value does not come from intelligence or attractiveness or wit. Your value does not come from having a nice home, or successful children, or a lucrative stock portfolio. It does not even come from your church work or your charitable work. (It does not even come from winning a preaching award.) Because no matter what you have or don’t have, no matter how you’re doing in the rat race, no matter how well-loved you are at church or at home or at work, your value comes from being a created and beloved child of God.

When Jesus names Lazarus, he is inviting us to live in the reality of the Kingdom of God: the reality that we are made in God’s own image, and that we are known by name and loved. And when we know that, when we really receive it and know the love of God for ourselves and for our neighbors, it makes linen and purple cloth seem less important, and clothing the naked more important. It makes fine feasts less important, and welcoming strangers to the table more important. It empowers us to open the gates, to look people in the eye, to care for one another, not out of obligation or fear, but out of love. Because we know that in the Kingdom of God, Lazarus is loved and called by name. And so are we.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Philippians: When Church Ladies Collide

I recently spent a Saturday with family, including my grandmother. (She learned that I blog here. Hi Grandma!) I was still struggling with and rewriting the sermon I was going to preach the next day. “Would you like to practice on us?” grandma inquired. “Maybe,” I replied, “I’m not sure it’s quite ready yet.” “What are you preaching on?” she asked. “Philippians,” I answered. “Never mind,” she said, “Don’t practice on us after all. I can’t stand Paul.”

I get where she’s coming from. We’ve talked about this before, and her problem with Paul mostly has to do with his problematic teachings about women. (I’ll write about those someday soon, I promise.) I used to feel the same way, and those words that bother her still bother me. But I’ve changed my mind about Paul, and it’s because of things like these verses from this Sunday’s lectionary passage, also from Philippians:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)

I didn’t used to pay attention to passages like this one, passages that speak so clearly and specifically to someone else. They seemed so distant, written to speak to some other place and time. But I am so glad they’re in our Bible. For one thing, they remind us that epistles are “someone else’s mail,” written to particular communities, often about those communities’ particular problems, frequently in response to letters from those communities that we will never get to read.

But more importantly, they record a Paul who speaks not just about women, but to women. Passages written to women leaders in various local churches (there are several of them) make it clear that Paul saw women as compatriots and “co-workers,” leaders of the fledgling church.

I wonder who Euodia and Syntyche were? We’ll never know. Clearly they were having some sort of disagreement that was affecting that church community. What we do know is this: Paul takes their dispute seriously; he urges them to resolve their differences; he affirms them as colleagues, leaders, and Christians. He doesn’t dismiss their argument as frivolous. He doesn’t make snide remarks about “cat fights” or “parking lot matriarchs.” He doesn’t try to use his status to force them into silence or out of leadership. I've seen some churches do worse in the twenty-first century.

Maybe we still have a few things to learn from Paul.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sweeter than Honey

A Sermon on Psalm 19

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” sings the psalmist, “the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; they are sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” What a beautiful image – imagine how special honey must have been, what a delight in a time before Snickers bars and high fructose corn syrup, a time when it wasn’t possible to go to the Morton Williams and pick up a bear-shaped squeeze bottle to sweeten your cup of tea. As I was reading the Psalm for this week, that image really captured me – I loved honey when I was little, and I still do – there’s something mesmerizing about watching it swirl into your tea, something fascinating about the way it moves in slow motion and sticks to everything. I got so caught up in this wonderful image of honey dripping from a honeycomb that it took me a moment to remember what an odd statement this is. The law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. The law? Really?

The law gets a pretty bad rap in Christianity. Specifically, I mean the idea of “God’s law,” and the parts of the Bible that are sometimes referred to as the law – usually the first five books of the Bible, which are also called the Pentateuch, or in Judaism, the Torah. Those five books contain a lot of things other than what we would think of as law – they contain the creation stories, for instance, the stories of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph and his coat of many colors, and of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. But they also contain quite a lot of what we think of when we think of law, the bulk of which is Mosaic law, or the laws that are given to Moses: the ten commandments, the purity codes that decree what is acceptable to eat, and what is acceptable to wear, laws about forgiveness of debt, and many, many more. Traditionally, there are said to be six hundred and thirteen laws in the Law of Moses! When we Christians talk about this law at all, we often talk about it as something old and outdated, something burdensome and bothersome, and we talk about it in contrast with love. We talk about love as the counterpart of law, we talk about love setting us free from the law, we talk about the Old Testament talking about a wrathful God of law and the New Testament teaching about a God of love.

A lot of that kind of thinking comes from the epistles of Paul, who often wrote to communities of early Christians about the role of Jewish law in the forming church. Paul writes about being justified through faith, not through the works of the law; in one letter, he describes the law as being a “disciplinarian” until Christ came – a title given in Roman society to a slave assigned to supervise children – the law, he says, was like our babysitter. In our contemporary world, with the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism so clearly defined, it can be easy to read Paul as saying that the law has no value for us as Christians, except perhaps to demonstrate to us why we need the grace of God and the love of Jesus. It sometimes seems that Paul is simply telling us that the commandments are nothing but a set-up, a list of unrealistic expectations designed to lead us to realize why we need salvation – because we aren’t perfect, and can’t follow the commandments perfectly. And it’s true – we aren’t, and we can’t – but the people Paul is writing to are in a very different situation than ours. Paul’s letters that talk about the law come to us from the earliest days of Christianity, and are written to mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles who want to follow Jesus. All of them are trying to make sense of who Jesus is, and what Jewish law means now that he has come. Should the Gentiles start following Jewish purity law and keeping kosher? Do the Jews have some advantage because they’ve been studying and following the law their whole lives? Should the law be forgotten altogether? These are the kinds of questions that are causing tension in the communities Paul is speaking to. So when Paul seems to minimize the role of the law, he is speaking to communities that are divided over the law, urging unity within the body of Christ. It is that context that we need to remember when we’re thinking about the idea of God’s law, and the role of the Old Testament in our faith.

Of course, there are truly dark and problematic things in the Mosaic law – laws that suggest that the slavery is permissible, that women are property, and that gay people should be put to death. And I don’t mean to dismiss the harm that those passages have done over the years. There are different ways of thinking about why those ideas are in the Bible, and how to understand them today. Scholars remind us that slavery and patriarchy were the absolute unquestioned norm in the time and place of the ancient Israelites; they remind us that sexuality was understood completely differently in that culture than it is in ours; they remind us that the Israelites were a small group in desperate circumstances, struggling to survive and to keep their identity as a people, and that many of these laws seem to have that end in mind. Regardless of how we understand these passages, it would be a mistake to let them chase us away from the entire Old Testament, and from the idea of God’s law altogether. This Psalm, I think, calls us to a different understanding of what God’s law can mean in our lives.

There’s a wonderful tradition from medieval Judaism that is still practiced in some contemporary Jewish communities: when a child started to learn the Hebrew alphabet, the letters would be written on a slate, and each letter would be covered with a piece of candy. As the child learned each letter, they would eat the candy, symbolizing the sweetness of studying the Torah. This idea that God’s law is precious as gold and sweet as honey is linked to the idea that studying and living with the law is a lifelong process. God’s law isn’t seen as a set of rules that you memorize and then follow – the law is something to be studied, chewed on, contemplated, lived with. The point of the law isn’t to appease an angry God, but to keep God constantly in mind as you live your life. In Jewish tradition as I understand it, study of the Torah is filled with word play and number play, creative re-imaginings and embellishments of scripture called “midrashim,” and lively debates; studying the Torah isn’t a step on the way to a goal – studying the Torah is the goal. A law which is sweet as honey isn’t a set of cold, hard rules; it’s a way to connect with and enter into God’s vision of justice and mercy, to incorporate your faith into your daily life, and to listen for the voice of God through patient study and constant discernment.

That practice of study and meditation, prayerful attention to God’s will and immersion in scripture, is a practice that is available to Christians as well as Jews, although our relationship to Mosaic law is, and should be, very different from that of observant Jews. The traditional way of understanding Mosaic law in Christianity is that we understand that law to be specifically for the Israelite people – that’s the reason that Christians don’t participate in Jewish practices like keeping kosher. However, we cannot understand Jesus and his teachings without understanding the Jewish tradition of which Jesus and all his disciples were part. Indeed, if we immerse ourselves in the Old Testament and learn its themes, stories, characters, and ideas, we see even more how deeply the New Testament is shaped by the old. We hear Jesus preaching in the temple that “the spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and we remember that Jesus is speaking in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. We listen to the Christmas story and we hear echoes of the stories of other miraculous births, of another Joseph who received dreams from God, of another evil king who ordered the slaughter of innocents. We understand the Old Testament as the story of the relationship between God and the Israelite people, and although we are not called to follow the law given to the Israelites, we are called to seek God and to hear what God has to say to the church in that story. We are not called to keep the purity codes which set Israelites apart from the culture around them, but we are called to recognize that in elements of the law, we see God’s vision of justice for the world – a world where debts are forgiven, where everyone gets a day of rest, where foreigners receive hospitality. These were real practices that really mattered then, and that really matter now. Those things are part of God’s vision of justice, and they are part of our justice movements now – you see them in the movement to forgive third world debt, in the New Sanctuary movement, in movements for worker’s rights. When we remember that law is not just meant to judge and confine us, but to urge us toward living rightly with each other, we start to see why the psalmist might say that the law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. We are invited to be God’s people by meditating on and living into God’s will for a better world. That is the attitude that causes the Psalmist to sing about the law of the Lord reviving his soul, opening his eyes, making his heart rejoice.

However, the discussion of the law is only the second half of the Psalm, and I think the first half gives even more insight into how we should understand this vision of God’s law. The Psalm starts by announcing that all of creation praises God: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork!” The psalmist goes on to say that although God’s creation does not speak with words, its proclamation of God’s glory is heard throughout the world. Surely we can identify with this – when we see photos of the earth as seen from space, our whole world and everything in it appearing as a tiny blue gem glowing in the midst of a field of stars, creation cries out glory to God. When the air starts to warm and trees burst into bloom, creation praises God. Creation praises God without words by simply being what God created it to be.

These two things are coupled in the Psalm: creation praising God through its very existence, and the beauty of God’s law. The two seem unrelated at first, but I think there’s an intricate link here. Nature praises God by following the course that God has set out for it – by the rising and setting of the sun and moon, by the changing of seasons, by the ebb and flow of the ocean – by following the laws of nature. Our role is a little different: it is our faithfulness to God’s will and God’s ways that praises God. Creation praises God through its actions, and so can we. Of course we can praise God with words, but we can also give glory to God through our faithfulness to the will of God – we can praise God by following God’s law, by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s vision for the world. During the Civil Rights Movement, a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose faith led him to work for racial justice, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights march in Selma. “When I marched,” the Rabbi later recalled, “It was like I was praying with my feet.” What a wonderful way to think of God’s law – praying with our feet, praising and glorifying God through action. When we march in the AIDS walk, we praise God with our feet; when we gather at tables together and take the time to really connect with one another, to hear one another’s joys and concerns, we praise God with our ears; when we distribute sandwiches to hungry people, we praise God with our hands; when we meet to do the business of the church, to make plans and decisions, and bring all our attention to how this community can best do God’s will, we praise God with our minds.

Heaven and earth don’t need words to praise God, this psalm declares, and neither do we. Certainly we can praise God with the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, but we can also praise God by rejoicing in God’s law – by following a path of love and justice, peace and mercy. Saint Francis is said to have advised his followers to “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This is the kind of Christian life that this Psalm calls us to: one where our faith is lived out not just through belief, but through practice; not just through word, but through deed. A life where we respond to the good news of the Gospel by doing justice and loving kindness. A life where we live in and with the scriptures, contemplating them and walking with them and studying them and incorporating them into our lives. A life in which everything we do and everything we say is informed by our relationship with God. A life in which we live out God’s vision for this world, knowing that God’s word is sweeter than honey.

God of all creation, lead us to take delight in your will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles, so that the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the deeds of our hands may be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Half Empty, Half Full

A Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

Have you ever read that book The Giving Tree? It’s a children’s storybook by Shel Silverstein, and when I was a kid, someone would read us The Giving Tree during the weekly “children’s sermon” at church about once a year. In the story, there are two characters: a tree and a little boy. The tree provides the boy with everything he needs: apples to eat, branches to play on, shade to sit in. The boy grows up, and the tree gives more and more, until one day the boy, all grown up, wants to sail away and see the world, but he has no boat. The tree offers itself as wood, allowing the boy to chop it down. Years later, the boy comes back, now an old man. “I’m sorry,” the tree, now a stump, says, “I have nothing left to give you.” But the old man just wants a quiet place to sit and rest, and the tree is delighted to oblige. The end.

I can’t stand that book.

Or more accurately, I can’t stand the idea that that book promotes, at least in the context of those children’s sermons: the idea that the meaning of life is giving of yourself until you run out of self.

The book was inevitably read to us by someone who was giving and giving and giving in their own lives – to their spouse, their children, their parents, their work, their volunteering. And as they read us this story, they would tearfully speak of self-sacrifice and giving everything you have, and we, the Sunday school children, would listen and nod, and bow our heads in prayer that God would help us to have generous hearts so we could give cheerfully of ourselves always, and hold nothing back.

Do you know where that idea comes from? Actually, I’m not quite sure where that idea originates, but I can tell you who is responsible for propagating it across the face of the globe: Paul. Paul did that, and he did it most famously in today’s text from Philippians.

This text comes from the letter to the church in Philippi. Paul is writing to them from prison. The Philippian church loved Paul dearly, and they had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to visit him and take care of him while he was imprisoned. Incidentally, as inhumane as the justice and prison systems are in contemporary America – and if you followed the execution of Troy Davis this week, you know it is horrifically broken – we do at least feed prisoners. As far as ancient Rome was concerned, there was no reason to use government resources to keep prisoners alive. If they didn’t have people who wanted to come and bring them food, they could starve to death. So Epaphroditus has come to Paul in prison and tells him how things are going in Philippi, and carries this letter back with him from Paul. In this section of the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “make his joy complete” by loving one another, caring for one another, and being humble. And then he goes on to this little snippet of poetry, which most scholars think is a quote from a hymn that the Philippians would have known:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.

It is a lovely poem, and it espoused what were, at the time, revolutionary ideas: the idea that lowliness is not shameful. The idea that glory and power and status are not objectively good things that we should pursue at all costs. The idea that God can be found in the most humble of places.

Those ideas are beautiful. Those ideas have inspired Christians to work with people who are despised and rejected by society. Those ideas have empowered Christians to stand up to injustice even when it means risking their lives. Those ideas have encouraged Christians to be suspicious of the pursuit of wealth and power and prestige.

But some of the ideas in that ancient hymn have also been very harmful. That hymn is one of the roots of the idea that the appropriate response to suffering is submission. And that idea, the belief that the good and godly thing to do in the face of suffering is meek acceptance, flows so naturally into passivity in the face of injustice.

There is a bit of suspicion in American culture about people advocating for themselves. Although we are a nation born out of colonists’ demand for justice, I hear a touch of skepticism, a bit of hesitancy, when we talk about movements of people demanding justice, whether they be racial minorities, LGBTQ folks, or labor unions. I wonder whether there’s some connection between that hymn urging people to emulate Jesus by humbling themselves and the idea that oppressed people should stop making trouble and just take what they can get. I believe there’s some connection between Paul encouraging us to be like Christ, who “humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross” and those children’s sermons about the tree whose greatest joy was in giving itself away until all that was left was a stump.

I wonder if we can find something life-giving and life-affirming in this text? I wonder if there is a way to read it that condemns selfishness and self-centeredness without condemning self-ness, without condemning the selves which we believe are created in God’s own image? Is there something in this hymn that can teach us how to give without being destroyed in the process like the giving tree?

I think there is. And I think it might be in the word kenosis. Kenosis is a term from Christian theology that means “emptying.” It’s used in that hymn where it says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Kenosis has since become a much-loved Christian theological term. John of the Cross talks about emptying ourselves of our own wills in order to make room for the spirit of God. Early Christian theologians debated to what extent Christ did in fact “empty” himself, since they didn’t believe that he had entirely given up his God-like-ness. Much later, C.S. Lewis compared God’s kenosis to the work of a painter, who pours herself or himself into the act of creation without giving herself or himself up.

I had always envisioned kenosis kind of visually, and I pictured it as something like pouring the liquid out of a bucket, or scooping the goop out of a pumpkin. As I was studying this week, though, I discovered that that doesn’t seem to be what kenosis means at all. While the theologians were arguing about Christ’s kenosis, Greek-speaking folks went right on using that word casually, in everyday life, and this is how they used it: kenosis is the process that happens between meals – you eat something and you’re satisfied, and then you gradually become hungry again, and that is kenosis. Or it could describe the moon: you see the full moon, and then it begins to wane, and that is kenosis.

Kenosis is not something that occurs once and for all; kenosis, normally, is cyclical. Kenosis is not so much a tree being chopped down, but maybe more like a cow being milked. Kenosis is not a final act, but something we do over and over again.

I started lifting weights a couple of weeks ago, and while I was researching weight-lifting programs, I learned something that shocked me: we don’t get stronger by lifting weights. We get stronger by recovering from lifting weights. During that lifting session, you challenge your muscles, and if you’re challenging them the right amount, you damage them just a tiny bit. Between workouts, they heal themselves and that healing makes them stronger. If you don’t take days off, they don’t have time to repair themselves, and they will get weaker and weaker and weaker, and if you don’t rest them, you’ll eventually injure yourself. But if you do it right, if you push yourself and then recover, push yourself and recover, and after each recovery you are a bit stronger and you can do more and more.

So how do we do that cycle? Where can that restoration come from, and how can we make sure that we find the right balance of giving and receiving? I think Paul’s epistle to the Philippians gives us a clue: this epistle is not a letter to one person; it is a letter to a community, and it urges them toward kenosis in the context of that community. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” If we are alone, like the giving tree, giving and giving and giving, we are liable to give until nothing is left of us. But Paul isn’t writing to one person telling him or her to give of herself without self-interest: he is writing to a community, telling each of them to look out for the wellbeing of others – both those outside the community, and one another. In community, we can care for one another, help one another through tough times, see that each of us has time to rest and be renewed.

I learned something this week about how community can help us be whole and well, how we can heal each other even in the process of kenosis, as I followed the campaign to save Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia on Wednesday. Troy was executed despite a worldwide campaign of letters, petitions, phone calls and protests, and shortly before his execution, he penned a letter to his supporters that rings with some of the same hope that I hear in Paul’s letter from jail: “I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith.”

It compounds my faith.

People emptied themselves for Troy Davis. People gave of their time and their energy; they called and tweeted and emailed; they stood vigil and fasted in solidarity; they hoped and prayed and finally wept with the family. But they didn’t do it alone. They – we – maybe some of you – did it together. And when all of that work failed, and Troy Davis was executed on Wednesday night, they – we – maybe some of you – strengthened and energized each other to keep striving for a justice system which is just. In community, we find hope in the midst of despair, light shining in the darkness, fullness even as we empty ourselves. When we work together, we’re not like the giving tree, giving more and more until we run out. The more we give, the more we empty ourselves together, the more we care for one another and the world, the fuller and stronger we become.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Dangerously Close to Preaching": Reflections on Higher Ground

Correct me if I’m wrong, but good films about women’s religious experiences are pretty rare. (No,
Eat Pray Love does not count.) So I was pretty delighted to see the trailer for Higher Ground, a film directed by and starring Vera Farmiga. The film, currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, is based on Carolyn S. Brigg’s memoir This Dark World and tells the story of Corinne Walker’s spiritual journey into, and eventually out of, fundamentalist Christianity.

I went with high expectations, and the film did not disappoint.
Higher Ground opens with Corinne Walker’s adult baptism, but immediately plunges into her childhood. We get to know Corinne’s family, her complicated relationship with religion, and we see the averted tragedy which leads her toward a more intensely religious life. By the time we return to Corinne’s baptism, we understand fundamentalism’s appeal for her: we can see the ways it helps her make sense of her life, the ways it meets her spiritual and emotional needs.

Because the truth is, no one wakes up in the morning and thinks to herself, “Today I’d like to join an oppressive, patriarchal religious community.” And the truth is, there is a lot more to the religious lives of fundamentalist women than oppression and patriarchy. One of the lovely things about
Higher Ground is that it shows Corinne receiving strength and comfort and joy from her church as authentically and honestly as it shows her struggle with its flaws.

Corinne’s relationships with three women struck me as particularly telling in her spiritual journey. Corinne’s sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) is a rebel, a counterpoint to Corinne’s life of piety. When Wendy moves in with Corinne and her family in order to “get back on her feet,” the two share a surface-level sisterly camaraderie until their different worldviews lead to a major clash, ultimately revealing their scorn for each other’s choices. Theirs is a relationship marred by mistrust and judgment, scarred from old wounds, and the brokenness around Corinne’s familial relationships pushes her toward the closeness of her fundamentalist church.

What is lacking in Corinne’s relationship with Wendy, she finds instead in her friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). Annika approaches life with joy, gratitude, and sensuality, and she is, for Corinne, as much role model as companion. They pray together as freely as they laugh, and the easy spiritual sisterhood between them makes the appeal of Corinne’s fundamentalist community clear. At the same time, there is an element of jealousy in Corinne’s admiration. She longs for the joie-de-vivre and deep sense of God’s presence that seem to come so easily to Annika. When Corinne sees Annika speaking in tongues, she declares, “You get all the good stuff! I want it!” and shortly later she is alone in her bathroom, trying to coax herself toward glossolalia with all the rigor and effort of an algebra lesson.

Most enraging, and unfortunately most true to my own experiences of fundamentalist Christianity, was the pastor’s wife Deborah (Barbara Tuttle), whose de facto role is to enforce the community’s patriarchal standards on the women of the church. In the trailer, we see a glimpse of Corinne standing up to speak in church and finding herself silenced by the pastor and tugged toward her seat by her husband. Later, Deborah admonishes her, “Sister, I know you just want to testify to what God has done for you, but you came dangerously close to preaching.”

Although Corinne’s eventual decision to leave the church comes after many more injuries, large and small, this moment goes to the heart of the matter. There is not room for Corinne’s voice in her community – at least not if she comes dangerously close to preaching. Nor if she comes dangerously close to grieving, or doubting, or questioning. There is room for Corinne’s authentic voice, it seems to her at first, but the boundaries become clear as Corinne is hemmed in, over and over again, until she rebels.

And yet, not all of Corinne’s struggle with her church is unique to fundamentalism. In any Christian community (and probably any faith community), there are unspoken boundaries and norms that become all-too-apparent when we tread on them; there are dearly held orthodoxies; there are people who seek to build themselves up by putting others down. But we do church anyway, because, as
Higher Ground so honestly and tenderly shows, we find God through relationship, in community, despite all its messiness. And although (spoiler?) Corinne is unchurched and lonely as the credits roll, we sense that her search for higher ground is not over, and will lead her, once again, into messy, grace-filled community.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Praying With Joseph

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Catholic-Protestant tension is the thickest you’ll find outside of Ireland. My parents’ view was that we were all Christians, but it doesn’t matter. It’s in the water. And more importantly, on the playgrounds. So I grew up knowing that I was Protestant Not Catholic, and that meant that We Do Not Pray To Saints.

But things have changed, and I am learning to learn from other faith traditions instead of competing with them. So a few times this summer, I found myself praying to, or maybe with, or at least about, Joseph.

Joseph is not technically the patron saint of stepparents. Technically, those are Saints Adelaide, Leopold the Good, and Thomas More. But I’m Protestant, and this saints thing is new to me, and Joseph is familiar. So Joseph it is.

There are some crucial differences between being a garden-variety stepmother and being the “earthly father” of Jesus Christ. Also, I realize that as a non-custodial stepparent, my role is much more limited than that of Joseph or any other parent who lives with their kid. But this summer I spent a month stepmomming fulltime, and not to say that my stepson is Jesus or anything (although he is amazing), but I feel an affinity with Joseph. We’ve had some similar experiences. We deal with some of the same issues.

Joseph knows what it’s like to field the curious stares, awkward questions, and rude comments that come with being a 26-year-old stepmom. People assume I’m my stepson’s nanny, or his aunt, or his older sister. They ask probing questions about my spouse. They warmly assert their approval: “This is my stepson.” “Oh! Okay!!!!!” Joseph gets it. He probably caught a fair bit side-eye around Nazareth.

Joseph understands that becoming a step-parent happens in stages – first, you start dating someone, and he tells you that he has a child; or you’re engaged to someone, but she gets pregnant so you figure you’ll break it off, but an angel appears to you in a dream and tells you not to. (Either way, really.) It gets serious when you’re on the altar, making vows with your spouse to the sweetest little boy in his miniature tuxedo; or, perhaps, when you are searching around the stable for some swaddling cloths and a place to lay a newborn. But it doesn’t feel really real for real until you’re fleeing to Egypt to escape a bloodthirsty, power-hungry king. Which, now that I think of it, makes the requests for peanut butter toast at six in the morning and the fortieth viewing of How to Train Your Dragon seem like somewhat less of a big deal.

One day I brought my stepson with me to the church’s sandwich ministry. He wasn’t sure he wanted to come – he had never done anything like that before. He had a lot of questions about homelessness and poor people. We talked about Jesus, and what he had to say about feeding people. My stepson said he would try. He was shy and reserved as we both got to work. But eventually I noticed that he was introducing himself around, handing out bag lunches, pouring cups of water, and explaining, “I’m here with my stepmom.” When I heard those words, my heart filled with pride and gratitude, and my eyes welled with tears, and Joseph smiled with me.

Dear God, I’m not sure exactly how this saint thing works, but please tell Joseph thank you. Amen.