Thursday, June 30, 2011

The "Like" Button

I spent much of this week embroiled in a Bible Showdown on facebook. An old acquaintance who is very involved with the choral world at my college has become deeply involved in fundamentalist Catholicism (I’m not sure what type exactly, but one of the kinds that makes snide little remarks about Vatican II.) Wherever classical choral music is sung, gay folks and conservative Christians have to find a way to live together. In our choral world, this has been an enduring but uneasy d├ętente. Political and religious views are kept off the listserv, due to the threat of mutually assured destruction.

Facebook has messed this up big-time – you can’t be a hardcore queer activist and hide it from your choir friends. You can’t be a hardcore Catholic fundamentalist and hide it from your choir friends. (Well, maybe you could, but even thinking about those privacy settings gives me a headache.) This Catholic fundamentalist, J, was offended at the jubilation on his newsfeed on the occasion of the New York state legislature passing marriage equality (WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!), which coincided with Pride weekend. On his wall, he shared his views about “sodomy,” urging his Catholic friends not to receive Communion until they have repented of their sodomy and/or approval thereof, and reminding his non-Catholic friends that we are all condemned to Hell. I went after him, and we went back and forth for a few days. We mostly talked past each other, since I don’t accept the authority of the Pope/Catholic Tradition, and he doesn’t believe I have the authority to interpret the Bible for myself. It’s over now, both because I have nothing more to say and because he has unfriended me, so I’m no longer able to post on his wall.

The point was not to change his mind. I don’t think I can change his mind.

I do honestly believe that God can transform people’s hearts, and I hope and pray for that for J. It is a beautiful and a powerful thing to see someone led out of homophobia, led out of a faith based on hatred and fear and exclusion. It is beautiful and powerful to see someone come to know a God who creates us unique and beautiful and loves us extravagantly and welcomes us with open arms. I’ve seen it happen.

God can do that. But it takes time. It takes more than a day, and more than a facebook thread. And J is probably not in a position to be able to hear anything right now from a female UCC pastor.

So why did I bother? Because it was the right thing to do. Because I cannot let someone speak hatred to my friends on behalf of my Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Because I am called to “proclaim the Gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil.” Because I have heard too many stories of LGBTQetc folks who thought they had to choose between a church that condemns them or no church at all, because no one ever told them otherwise. And because someone on the internet was wrong.

I am still riled up. I’m scattered and distracted. I’m leaving in an hour for UCC General Synod and not yet packed. And I am so profoundly grateful.

My inbox is full of messages of encouragement and support, notes from dear friends and old acquaintances that remind me what a privilege and blessing it is to bring the good news:

“thanks for standing up for what's right...”

“Your work is making your queer and ally friends feel closer to, rather than alienated from, God. That is real ministry.”

“Thank you for being you - today and always.”

And I’m not even going to start on how many "likes" I've seen.

I am so grateful to have friends like this. It is hard and scary to do Bible Showdown. It feels terrible to be called a repulsive, blasphemous heretic. I’m way out on a limb, and I’m afraid I’ve lost some of my more conservative friends (not just J).

What a blessing to have my ministry affirmed, to know that I do not stand alone, to be reminded that people who need a good word are watching and listening.

I don’t get into internet fights in order to get street cred with my liberal friends. I do it because there are people – lots of people – who still think that J might be right, that God might hate them, that there’s no place for them in the Christian church. I do this for people who don’t know where they stand, don’t know how God could love them, don’t know whether to give up on faith altogether.

The people I’m trying to reach are the people who would never click the “like" button, let alone comment. But I couldn’t do it without my community. Messages and wall posts are little epistles, offering strength and solidarity when the world feels really hostile. Friends, thank YOU. Thank you for taking the time to reach out, for reminding me that what I’m doing matters, and for all the good work you all are doing out there. You give me hope.

Loving and welcoming God,

You have promised us courage in the struggle for justice and peace.

Thank you for the courage we receive from community, standing in solidarity in witness to your vision of extravagant welcome.

Bless us and strengthen us to do your work in the world today and every day.

I pray in the name of Jesus, who turns no one away.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Sermon: Five Stages of Resurrection

John 20:19-31
Second Sunday of Easter, May 1 2011

Last summer, while working as a chaplain at a hospital, I received a page about a pastoral emergency. A patient had come in the night before for a routine hip replacement, and gone into surgery early in the morning. Her surgery went perfectly. But while she was under anesthesia, her sister died suddenly and unexpectedly. The patient, Gina, woke up in the recovery room to find her children crying. Not long after, she sent her children away to start making her sister’s funeral arrangements, and not long after that, her nurse paged me because she was distressed and agitated.

I sat with Gina several times during her time in the hospital, but I remember that first day most clearly. I sat with her for nearly an hour, mostly just listening as she said over and over, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening. This isn’t happening. I just can’t believe it. It’s not happening. I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s true.”

In the book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea that there are five stages of grief. She divided the emotional experience of terminal illness into five phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross only studied the terminally ill for her research, but these stages of grief ring so true that they are now used to understand all kinds of experiences of loss: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship. Every person is unique, and every grieving process is different, so people can go through those five stages in a different order, or skip some stages, or move back and forth between different stages, but those stages offer a good framework for thinking about how we grieve. And that day when I sat with Gina as she expressed her disbelief over and over and over again, I got my first clear picture of what it means to be in the “denial” stage of grieving.

In our Gospel text for today, I hear Gina’s words ringing back, but in a very different way: “I cannot believe it.” It was not that Gina thought her children were lying to her. It was not that she had assessed the evidence and decided that her sister was actually alive. It was that she had gotten a piece of news so huge, so unexpected, so life-changing, that she could not wrap her mind around it. She knew that it was true, but she couldn’t quite believe it. And so I thought about Gina and those five stages of grief as I imagined what it might be like to go through the emotional journey that Thomas goes through in our Gospel lesson for today.

At the beginning of the reading, it is the night of the day when Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ, but none of the disciples have seen him yet – they have only seen the empty tomb. And all of the disciples except for Thomas are gathered together in a locked house, afraid that the same religious authorities who orchestrated Jesus’ execution will turn against them. (By the way, the text says that they have locked themselves in “for fear of the Jews,” but all of the disciples are Jewish themselves.)

Jesus appears among them, and actually shows them his hands and side before vanishing. When the disciples tell Thomas what they have seen, he says this: “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the marks, and put my hand in the wound on his side, I will not believe.” Ick.

On one hand, that statement is just so viscerally gross that it just sounds wrong. “I will not believe it unless I put my finger in the nail holes.” On the other hand, this just sounds so human to me – the human need to see it for ourselves is one of the reasons that, when someone dies, we display their body at a wake. The human need to see it for ourselves is the reason that my hospital patients were always getting scolded by the nurses for peeping under their bandages to look at their wounds and stitches. When I hear Thomas saying, “I won’t believe it unless I see it and touch it,” I’m not sure I hear faithlessness. I hear someone trying to wrap his mind around the incomprehensible. I hear denial. Perhaps those stages of grief could help us understand how the disciples, and how we, respond to the good news of resurrection.

Of course, the stages Thomas goes through as he wrestles with the resurrection and what it means don’t line up perfectly with the five stages of grief, but I think there’s something there, something about how we deal with huge, life-changing, world-transforming moments. The five stages of grief teach us that bad news is hard to come to terms with; it is hard to wrap our minds around; it is hard to accept and understand and integrate into our lives. Moving forward from a huge loss or change is not instantaneous – it is a process.

A couple of years ago, shortly after I first studied the five stages of grief, I had a kitchen accident, in which I cut off the very last little bit of the end of my thumb. It was not a huge tragedy. But it did hurt a lot, and it was scary, and I went to the emergency room to get it looked at. The doctor told me that it would heal, but it was unlikely that the nerves would regrow, so I probably would not ever have sensation in the end of my thumb again. And I thought, “I don’t believe that.” And then I thought, “wait a minute, Emily, that’s denial.” Over the next several days, I noticed myself going through those five stages of grief. “I can’t believe I did that! What sort of stupid idiot am I?” – anger. “If I’m really careful from now on and practice better knife safety, maybe my thumb will be fine” – bargaining. I knew exactly what they were, but even though I recognized them, I couldn’t jump straight to acceptance.

It can be like that to deal with good news, as well – a friend of mine who is awaiting the birth of a baby this summer spoke of the emotional process of comprehending the pregnancy – the process that started with hearing the good news, but didn’t end until they saw tiny hands on the ultrasound image. Even when the news is good and joyful – news of new life, news of hope, news of transformation, we cannot always accept it right away.

Thomas could not jump straight to acceptance, either. Jesus had promised the resurrection. The disciples had told him of the resurrection. But it would take time for Thomas to wrap his mind around the resurrection. The scripture reading today says that a week passed between the day the other disciples saw the risen Christ and told Thomas about it, and the day when Jesus appeared to Thomas, showing his hands and inviting Thomas to inspect his wounds. I wonder what that week was like for Thomas? I imagine he spent a lot of time wrestling and praying, as glimmers of hope began to overtake the despair of having watched his friend and teacher die.

And maybe it’s like that for us, sometimes, too. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the good news that God’s love is stronger than death. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the good news that hope can conquer fear. On Easter, we greet the Risen Christ with trumpets and lilies and feasting. We greet each other with the words “Christ is risen!” and reply with the words, “Christ is risen indeed!” But after the lilies have wilted and the trumpet players have gone home, we sometimes find ourselves asking, “Really?” “Is he?” We might find ourselves saying, “I think it might be true, but I can’t quite understand it.” We might find ourselves asking, with Thomas, “How can I know? What can you show me?”

Lots of churches and sermons and Sunday school lessons condemn those kinds of questions – and condemn anyone who admits to asking them. But Jesus doesn’t condemn them. In fact, in today’s reading, he answers them: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for being doubtful; instead he meets Thomas in the middle of his doubt and invites him to faith.

The good news of the resurrection is not just for people who have their theological ducks in a row. It’s not just for people who have moved past fear and denial and doubt. It’s not just for people with both feet firmly planted in hope and rejoicing. The good news is for you and me, even when we can’t quite believe it, don’t quite understand it, can’t quite accept it – especially then. When we are trapped behind the locked doors of fear, lost in the depths of despair, wrestling with doubt and disbelief, that is a moment when we can encounter the Risen Christ for ourselves, as we move, for the first time or the thousandth, from death to life, from despair to hope, from fear to trust. That is a moment when we experience resurrection in our own lives.

When we are doubtful, when we are uncertain, when we cannot quite accept or comprehend the good news of resurrection, we are not condemned – like Thomas, we are invited. We are invited to the communion table to taste and see that God is good. We are invited to gather with one another in loving community to hear the stories and sing the songs that proclaim hope and love and peace and justice. We are invited to go out into the world to love and serve our brothers and sisters. We are invited to meet the risen Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Prayers for the UMC

An ecclesiastical trial is being conducted this week in Wisconsin for Rev. Amy DeLong of the United Methodist Church, who is accused of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and of celebrating a same-sex union.

There are lots of helpful articles out there:
here is the website for Rev. DeLong’s supporters; this article gives some helpful background, and this article covers some UMC polity issues. A UMC clergy friend of mine is in Wisconsin and is blogging about what’s happening. You can read his most recent update here.

I have a lot of reactions, more a series of scattered thoughts than a single cohesive essay, but here they are anyway.

The phrase “self-avowed practicing homosexual”: it is disgusting. Let’s start with “practicing.” It assumes that our sexualities are something that we only have when we’re engaged in physical sexual intimacy. That is nonsense. NONSENSE. And if you don’t believe me, reflect on your teens. Thinking back on mine, it is clear to me that my “non-practicing” years were some of the most fervently heterosexual years of my life.

Also about “practicing”: take a look at
1 Corinthians 7. Paul is pretty into celibacy, no? And yet, he writes this in 1 Cor. 7:7: “I wish that all were as I myself am [i.e. single and celibate]. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” I’ve talked to some folks who do practice celibacy, and they’ve talked about how the decision not to have a spouse and children allows them more time and energy to devote themselves to ministry in the church and the world. Celibacy can work for some people. But even Saint Paul, celibacy’s head cheerleader, acknowledges that some people have the “gift” of celibacy and others do not. When a denomination rejects “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordained ministry, they say that gay and lesbian folks with gifts for ministry and a calling to the ordained ministry cannot follow that calling unless they also have a gift for celibacy. That whole “gift of celibacy” idea has been pretty much disavowed for straight ministers, by the way. Celibacy for straight people is seen as kind of weird and backwards (except by the Catholic church).

Now about “self-avowed”… honesty and self-knowledge are crucial to good pastoral ministry. Honesty can co-exist with boundaries, of course – there are things that are true about my life and myself that I do not share with my congregants. But hiding my marital status would be completely beyond the pale. I can’t do good ministry by pretending to be someone else. And it would be hypocritical stand up in front of people and tell them that they are created, beloved children of God, unique and blessed, while lying to them or to myself about who I am. What church hierarchy in its right mind asks people to do that?

My friend mentions in his blog that one of the arguments the defense has made is that there is no actual evidence of “prohibited sexual activity.” If I understand that correctly, the implication is that Amy and her spouse may have refrained from sexual intimacy. This is an argument being made in an ecclesiastical court to try to help Amy retain her ordination. It's a lesser evil. But the idea that this would be seen as a positive thing is so irksome. (Of course, sociological evidence suggests that it
may be a possibility.) Back to Saint Paul! “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again” (1 Cor. 7:5a). Saint Paul said that! Saint Paul!

Okay, enough griping. There are some really beautiful things happening, as well.

Although the jury may be constrained to finding Rev. DeLong guilty (if I understand correctly, objecting to the rules on the ground of conscience is not considered a valid reason for a not-guilty verdict), they do have considerable leeway in setting a penalty, and the clergy of Northern Illinois have passed a non-binding agreement to recommend a maximum penalty of a 24-hour suspension. (Again, lesser evil.)

If you want to be filled with hope and joy that light shines in the midst of darkness, take a look at Rev. DeLong’s
response to the charges against her. About some of the “evidence” against her, her certificate of domestic partnership and a thank-you note from the couple whose union she blessed, Rev. DeLong writes this: “these are precious documents, signs of a love and a ministry guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that I attend to with the deepest sincerity and commitment.”

I am so grateful for ministers like Rev. DeLong who are clear-headed and spirit-filled enough to preach the gospel with joy and integrity in the middle of such ugliness. Thanks be to God for her ministry and her witness! I pray for strength for Amy, her partner, family, friends, and supporters. I pray that the jury will be blessed with wisdom and courage. I pray that the UMC and the whole church may bear witness to God’s vision of love, justice, and extravagant welcome.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sermon: Not by Bread Alone - On Lent and Dieting

Not by Bread Alone
Matthew 4:1-11
March 13, 2011 – First Sunday of Lent

In the early days of Christianity, asceticism was all the rage. In order to practice their faith, people would abstain from food, drink, sex, and sleep. They would wear uncomfortable clothing and refuse to bathe and inflict pain on themselves. A community of Christians called the Desert Fathers went out into the wilderness to devote themselves to Christ through extreme forms of bodily deprivation. Their stories are so excessive that they sound almost surreal. In one, a man has been fasting from food and drink for days, and he feels tempted to break his fast. And so in order to strengthen his ability to overcome temptation, he hangs a cucumber from the ceiling of his hut and continues to fast, meditate, and pray for days more, all while gazing at that hanging cucumber.

And as crazy as that all sounds, they were doing their very best to follow Jesus… and when we look at today’s Gospel lesson, the connection is pretty clear. Jesus is still practically dripping with the water of the Jordan River when the spirit leads him into the wilderness. After he has fasted for forty days, the text says, the evil comes to him. It’s impossible to say what Jesus might have seen, and nearly impossible to know for sure what Matthew meant when he talked about the devil, but it is important to remember that the devil as we picture him these days is the product of centuries of Christian artwork and theology. The Old Testament says lmost nothing on the topic, and the New Testament doesn’t say all that much either, except in the book of Revelation. But Satan, or actually “the satan,” is mentioned in the Book of Job. In that book, Satan seems to be a servant of God, although in a different way from the other angels – Satan is sent to test Job with God’s permission to see if Job is faithful. And in our Gospel lesson today, Matthew tells us that Jesus is in the wilderness “in order to be tempted.” So perhaps this Satan, too, is supposed to be understood as a servant of God.

In any case, Jesus and the devil have a conversation, and the devil tempts Jesus three times. First, the devil tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his own hunger – to turn stones into bread. Then he takes him to the highest point of the holy temple in Jerusalem and tempts Jesus to perform a flashy miracle in the sight of all the important religious people. Finally he takes Jesus to a tall mountain and tempts him with political power to rule all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus always responds with scripture, although the devil quotes a little scripture himself, which ought to remind us that just about anyone can use the Bible for their own ends.

This is the story that gives rise to the church season of Lent. Although Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness come at the beginning of his public ministry, we remember them in connection with the last days of his life, because the church has traditionally understood that first period of temptation as preparing Jesus to eventually face his passion and death. So for forty days we observe a season of solemnity, repentance, and preparation. In our Protestant tradition, we don’t have any structured dietary changes for Lent, like our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters do. But even in Protestantism, our church services become darker and more solemn, and many of us try “giving something up for Lent” – sometimes a favorite activity or a bad habit, but most often a food or drink.

One of my favorite twitterers is a person who tweets these funny little prayers that also often contain a startling grain of truth, and on the first day of Lent, she tweeted this: “For those who are using Lent as a diet plan, Lord have mercy, amen.” And first I laughed, and then I thought about how neatly Lenten disciplines fit into our cultural baggage about food and eating and weight loss and self-control. Because we live in a very different culture than the one that Jesus lived in, and a very different culture from that of the Desert Fathers.

Some things haven’t changed. We all have human bodies, like Jesus did, and that means that we get hungry when we haven’t eaten. It means that we crave particular kinds of food – things that are salty or sweet or fatty. It means that food is meaningful for us – it’s associated with memories and relationships and emotions.

But some other things have changed a lot, and when we give up a food for Lent, or fast on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, it taps into a whole different culture’s baggage. Have you heard of the Master Cleanse? It’s that diet where for days on end, you eat nothing and drink a mix of water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. Its inventors say that it’s for ridding your body of toxins, whatever those are, but tabloids and gossip columns praise it for helping celebrities lose weight fast. If you really think about it, it’s not that much weirder than staring at
a cucumber for days on end, but it’s in pursuit of a different purpose, and we’re used to people doing strange things to try to get thin. And if you listen carefully to the subtext of the commercials and television shows and images and speeches that make up the fabric of our culture, you will hear messages that thin people are good and virtuous and worthy, and overweight people are bad and lazy and stupid. You hear it when a movie reviewer talks as much about Natalie Portman’s weight loss as her acting. You hear it when grocery stores give bigger employee discounts to employees with lower body mass indices. You hear it when almost every overweight character in the movies is either a villain or a clown.

On the flip side, our culture also surrounds us with food that is terrible for the animals it is made from, the workers who produce it, the earth, and our bodies. In the book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser writes about the system that brings us fast food hamburgers. He describes feed lots where thousands upon thousands of cows live their entire lives without ever seeing a blade of grass, and the waste that they produce is deposited into vast, reeking lakes of manure. He describes slaughterhouses where workers work long shifts for low wages, with one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries of any industry in this country. And the goal of these food companies is to make sure that as many people as possible buy as much of their food as possible as often as possible – and that’s as true for groceries as it is for hamburgers – so they try to convince us that the more of it we eat, the happier we will be.

And that is what a broken food system looks like. It looks like school lunch policies that limit the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to this nation’s poorest children. It looks like big business spending millions of dollars on lobbying and lawsuits to make sure that no government agency or public figure ever says “eat less red meat.” It looks like a commercial promising you that sugar-free gum that tastes like strawberry shortcake is finally going to make you attractive
and happy. It creates shame and guilt and anxiety about bodies and eating.

That shame and guilt and anxiety make the observance of Lent complicated. When I hear someone say that they’ve given up chocolate or hamburgers or soda for Lent, it makes me want to ask, “what’s behind that”? Because my hope is that when we choose to practice a Lenten discipline around food, it makes us more aware of ourselves and of the world around us. My hope is that Lenten disciplines remind us that there are people in the world who not only don’t have chocolate, but don’t have adequate food or clean water. My hope is that Lenten disciplines prepare us for the work of healing the world, because that work is hard and sometimes uncomfortable, and Lenten disciplines can teach us that we can do things that are hard and uncomfortable. That is my hope.

But my fear is that many people take on Lenten disciplines in part because the world has convinced them that their bodies are not good enough, and that the enjoyment they get from eating tasty food is a sin, and that if they give up sweets for forty days, they will lose some weight, and that will mean that they will be a better and more loveable person.

Friends, if you want to use Lent to become healthier, I’m not going to stop you. But I do want to be perfectly clear: your body, exactly as it is at this very moment, is made in the image of God. And Jesus did not go into the wilderness to lose ten pounds.

The passage of scripture that Jesus quotes, the passage that says “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord,” comes from Deuteronomy. And in that passage, God is reminding the Israelites who are about to leave the wilderness and enter the promised land that God fed them with manna in the wilderness. The Israelites came out of slavery terrified of starvation. They were so frightened of what would happen to them that they kept asking to go back to Egypt, back into slavery. But a miraculous bread-like substance would appear on the ground each day, and God told them to just take what they needed. When they tried to gather more, only a day’s worth of bread would remain in their baskets. When they tried to hoard it overnight, it would rot, but more bread would be on the ground.

When the devil tempts Jesus to turn stone to bread, and Jesus quotes this passage, he isn’t extolling the virtue of fasting; he’s invoking a story about learning to trust in God. He’s invoking a story of God leading people out of a broken and anxious relationship with food, teaching them to stop worrying about their next meal and focus instead on building up their spirits and their community.

If you give something up this Lent, I hope that it helps you build up your spiritual life, and your capacity to do God’s work in the world. That’s what Jesus was doing – he didn’t go into the wilderness because starvation is virtuous. He went into the wilderness for a time, to help himself prepare for the ministry that lay ahead of him. He went into the wilderness to pray and meditate and think, and to learn that he could endure pain and discomfort and withstand temptation, if he had to – and he would have to. He went into the wilderness so that when he came out, he could serve the world better.

As we go into the wilderness with him this Lent, as we in this congregation observe a period of simpler, more solemn Sunday worship, as some of us give something up, or take something on, let it be for the same reason. Let it be an act of defiance against everything in the world that tells us that we need more stuff in order to be happy. Let it be an act of solidarity with those who lack the basic necessities of life. Let it be an act of preparation for the difficult and terrifying and beautiful work of changing the world. Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Daughters of Jerusalem

Last month, while traveling in Israel, I was wandering around the Old City. I didn’t have my bearings yet, but I happened to notice one of the stations of the cross: Station Eight, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

I paused, and prayed.

Then I decided to try to find the next few stations of the cross. On the way, I saw an open building with Russian writing on the door – the Church of St. Alexander, overseen by the Russian Orthodox Palestine Society. My guidebook said it was worth a look, so I went in.
After paying my donation (5 or 10 shekels - $2-3), I was told that in order to go any farther, I would need to put on a wrap skirt for the sake of modesty. I was wearing jeans. They were neither tight jeans nor skinny jeans. I tied a wrap skirt over them. What else could I do?
The church preserves some incredible ruins, including a massive city gate and the tiny Eye of the Needle next to it. A Russian Orthodox nun ceaselessly muttered prayers at the altar, standing in her stocking feet with a water bottle by her side.

I took some pictures, but I couldn’t focus. I was too angry. Angry at a world where women’s bodies -- my body -- are seen as problems to be covered up and controlled. Angry that my denim-clad legs are assumed to be an affront to the God who made them. Angry on behalf of the women whose cultures demand that they dress in long sleeves and full-length skirts and head scarves in the middle of the summer. Angry at the growing realization that my pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be marked, every single day, by men (always men) examining my clothing to decide whether I would be permitted to enter the places where Jesus ate and preached and was tried and tortured and crucified.

Jesus was crucified naked.
I wept for the daughters of Jerusalem.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon: Lost in Translation

A Sermon for Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21

There are two ways for an American to order dinner in France, writes the humorist David Sedaris. The first way is to learn the proper conjugations for all the verbs and the correct genders for all the nouns, to study idioms and social customs until she or he is able to understand the menu and correctly use the conditional tense which is considered polite when requesting a meal. The second way goes like this: “I… WANT… A… STEAK.”

I’ve heard a lot of jokes like this: self-deprecation by Americans who are ashamed that so few of us are fluent in any language but English. I used to agree – how arrogant, I thought, to go to a foreign country and expect everyone to speak English! But my perspective changed a few weeks ago, while I was in Israel with the story of Pentecost on my mind. My husband and I sat down to eat in a little restaurant in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. At the table next to us was an Italian family. And I discovered that when an Italian family eats at an Armenian restaurant in Israel, they use English to communicate with the waitress.

We are fortunate to live in an era in which English is the lingua franca, the shared language that people use to communicate with one another in cross-cultural situations – even when an Italian family is speaking with an Armenian-Israeli waitress. When everyone speaks a little English, it makes it easier to buy and sell things, to give directions, to order food or make a little small talk. But when Israelis and Italians and Germans and Argentinians are communicating with one another in grammar-school English, a lot gets lost in translation – it can be hard to communicate nuance, or emotion, or humor; the sentences are as simple as possible, and figures of speech are avoided altogether. The English that tourists speak to one another is practical, but it doesn’t have much soul.

That is not so different from the situation of the people in today’s story from Acts. The disciples are in Jerusalem after witnessing Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot, which takes place fifty days after Passover, just as our Pentecost takes place fifty days after Easter, is timed to coincide with the “first fruits” of the growing season, and it celebrates the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. So every year in Jerusalem, people would come from north and south, east and west, to bring their first fruits to the temple. There were a few different ways people might be able to speak to each other: perhaps some of them would be familiar with Latin, the language of the colonizing Roman empire; the Aramaic spoken in the region might have sounded familiar to them as the language of scripture and liturgy. Most likely, though, they would have communicated in Koine Greek. Just like English is the lingua franca of our era, Greek was the lingua franca of Jesus’ life and the early church. It allowed the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be written down and shared; it allowed the Apostle Paul to communicate with Corinthians and Ephesians and Galatians. Nowadays, when we don’t understand something, we say, “It’s all Greek to me,” but in that day, Greek was the language that allowed for communication across cultural boundaries.

I wonder if the way we talk about God in church can sometimes be a little bit like a lingua franca? Something brings us here, to church on a Sunday morning – perhaps a profound experience of God, perhaps a sense that there is something happening in our lives that we cannot quite understand, perhaps a desire for a deeper spiritual life. It can be hard to put words to what is happening with our hearts and minds and souls, hard to describe what it is about the story of Jesus that draws us in and gets us up on a Sunday morning. But here in church, we’ve found some language that lets us share a little bit of what God is doing in our lives. We use hymns and prayers and scriptures; we speak of sin and grace and salvation. We use terms that would sound very strange to someone who wasn’t familiar with Christianity: we talk about kingdoms and mustard seeds and tax collectors. Sometimes it really works for us – we walk out of church saying YES! Other times, it doesn’t quite connect. Something has been lost in translation. Our communication about God isn’t always perfect, but we make do. Drawn together by a God who is too big for words, we have found a way to speak to one another about it – our lingua franca; our Greek. With a little bit of religious education, we can talk to one another about God and we can all understand it.

But in our Pentecost story, the miracle is not that the disciples speak in a language that everyone can understand – that would have been easy enough. They could have spoken Greek. No, the miracle is that through the Holy Spirit, each member of the crowd hears the good news in their own mother tongue. The biblical account lists an astounding number of regions – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the list goes on. These are people from modern-day Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and more – pilgrims from all over the known world. Every single one of these people, the story says, hears the good news in their own language – the language that their parents spoke to them in childhood, the language that they use to soothe an infant or joke around with a friend, the language in which they whisper to their wives or husbands. Maybe you believe in literal miracles – that the Parthians actually heard words in Parthian – or maybe you hear this story metaphorically. Either way, I think it has something vital to say to us today.

It is not always enough, this miracle story seems to suggest, for us to struggle along in our lingua franca. That will do most of the time, but God wants to speak to us in our own language. I think that this story of pilgrims hearing the good news in their own language can lead us to think about how we hear God’s voice speaking to us in the languages of our hearts. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when you are far away from this city, walking through some beautiful wilderness and admiring the beauty of creation. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when an achingly beautiful piece of music fills you with awe. Maybe for some of you, God speaks to you in your own language when you play with a child or grandchild. Maybe for some of you, the voice of God speaks through poetry or in silent prayer or when you’re gardening. This story reminds us to listen for the voice of God, not just in the shared language that we speak in church, but in the deepest language of our hearts – whatever that is for each of us. This story of Parthians, Medes and Elamites reminds us that God’s word for us speaks to the heart of our being, speaks to us deeply and intimately, in ways ordinary and extraordinary, in burning bushes and quiet conversations.

And maybe it does more than that. Maybe, when we think about this story and how it connects to our lives, we’re not only the Parthians and the Medes and the Elamites. Maybe, friends, we’re the disciples. Perhaps this story invites us not just to hear God’s voice speaking to us in our own languages, but to speak in ways that allow God to speak through us. Perhaps this story invites us to speak boldly, with actions and words, about the love of God we have experienced in our own lives, to witness, as the scripture says, to God’s deeds of power. That might mean letting God speak through you when you tell family and friends about why you go to church and what your relationship with God means to you. But it could be other things, as well: it could mean letting God speak through you when you offer a kind word or a listening ear to someone in distress. It could mean letting God speak through you as you give of your time and talent at a food pantry or a youth center. It could mean letting God speak through you as you share your gift for music or art or writing with your church or your community. It could mean letting God speak through you when you speak up against hurtful comments or jokes based on racism or sexism or homophobia. The story of Pentecost tells us that the Holy Spirit can speak not only to us, but through us.

Last summer I worked as a chaplain at a hospital, doing an internship that fulfills one of the requirements for ordination. In my first few days, I visited a patient named Rosa who had just had a hip replacement. Rosa’s English wasn’t so good, and I speak no Spanish at all, but we managed – she showed me her rosary and her picture of the Virgin Mary, and I smiled and nodded. I was very new at chaplaincy, and very unaccustomed to praying with people, especially in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the hospital, but I offered to pray with her, and I stumbled through a prayer for her healing, and then asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer with me. Rosa’s recovery was difficult, with complication after complication, and as my internship went on and I grew in confidence, Rosa’s discharge date was pushed back and back and back. I kept visiting her, and we kept stumbling through those conversations and those prayers. Eventually, it was the last day of my ten-week internship and Rosa was still there. We stumbled through one last conversation as I tried to explain that it was my last day, and then I said, “Let’s pray.” And she said, “This time, I pray.” And she began to lead me through first the Hail Mary and then the Lord’s Prayer in strong, clear Spanish. I realized how much it meant to me for this strong and faithful woman to give me the gift of letting me be her chaplain, and I realized that she was now chaplaining me through the difficult task of letting go and saying goodbye. It was Rosa who spoke those prayers that day, and she said them in Spanish. But in that moment, it was as if God was speaking to me in my own language. And if that was not a Pentecost miracle, I don’t know what is. Thanks be to God. Amen.