Thursday, December 4, 2014

God Is Coming

A Sermon on Mark 13:24-37

Outside the church doors, the Christmas season is at hand. Twinkling lights decorate street corners and shop windows. Christmas songs play on radio stations. Television commercials count down the shopping days. Santa has arrived at Macy’s. Even our Starbucks cups have turned a jolly red. Inside these church walls, though, we are not in the Christmas season yet.

Instead, we are in the Advent season – a time of watching and waiting, hoping and longing, preparing our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ. Inside these walls, we will not tell the Christmas story or sing carols of Jesus’ birth until our Christmas Eve services. Inside these walls, we observe a time of stillness and silence, following the ancient tradition of the church that teaches that waiting expectantly in the darkness prepares us to rejoice at the coming of God’s light into the world.

Perhaps, like me, you live with a foot in both of those worlds. Perhaps, like me, your moments of meditation on hope and peace, your moments of holy anticipation, are mixed and mingled with the chaos of getting Christmas cards out and Christmas cookies made. Perhaps, like me, you seldom experience darkness without the glow of an electronic screen. We live with a foot in each world; one foot stands in the frenzied, commercialized, materialistic Christmas of the secular world. The other foot stands in the lovely, but perhaps idealistic, church world with its call to slow down, wait, and watch in the darkness.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forgiving and Forgetting

A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I can’t believe I’m about to start a sermon this way, but here we go…

The scripture reading for today reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a rather nerdy sci-fi show which I watched regularly throughout my childhood.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wrestling with God

A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

I do not like to watch people fight on television. I do not like wrestling, I do not like boxing, and to be perfectly honest, I routinely mix up wrestling and boxing, which horrifies my husband. I am told they are entirely different sports, but I can’t stand watching either one long enough to learn the difference. Recently, despite my distaste for televised fights, I’ve been hearing a lot recently about yet a third kind of fighting, MMA, or mixed martial arts. Apparently, there is an MMA competition coming up where amateurs can compete to win a big pot of cash.

A man I know from my neighborhood who sometimes attends my church’s sandwich line is certain that that prize has his name on it. He’s been telling me for the last couple of weeks about his training regimen, his potential competitors, the friends who are coaching him. He’s told me how many push-ups and pull-ups he can do and described MMA techniques in exhaustive detail.

Finally, a few days ago, I couldn’t take it anymore. As he continued to wax poetic about roundhouse kicks and chokeholds, I told him that I thought it was a sin and a shame that people relax by watching other humans do violence to one another on television. I told him that I hoped things worked out, and I wanted the best for him, but that the world has too much senseless violence already, without people hitting each other for money and other people watching for fun. I got on my high horse, and I declared the whole endeavor ungodly and evil.

And then I read the scripture for today. It would appear that my personal distaste for wrestling is not actually reflected in all of Christian scripture and theology.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Testing Faith

A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

I took my first SAT was when I was thirteen years old. Wandering the stacks of my local library, I happened across the test prep section, where I found row upon row of books about preparing for the SAT, the PSAT, the MCAT, the LSAT, the GED, and on and on the list went. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but as a homeschooled student, I had heard over and over again that it would be essential that I get a high SAT score if I wanted to get into a good college. I checked out Ten Real SATs, and one Saturday afternoon, I sat for three hours at the desk in my bedroom and self-administered the test. In retrospect, the very fact that I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon taking a practice SAT for fun should have told me that I had nothing to worry about.

I sometimes read articles bemoaning our education culture of high-stakes testing and test-driven teaching. I meet parents of toddlers who are busily preparing for preschool entrance exams, and parents of middle-schoolers who are stressed and anxious about the tests that will place them into high schools. I hear of schools where test prep has to be emphasized to the exclusion of not only art and music, but also reading novels and writing essays. There are lower-stakes tests as well: every time I log on to facebook, I see that my friends are taking tests for fun: “I got House Lannister. Which Game of Thrones house are you?” their posts query. Or: “78% of Americans will get this math question wrong. Can you find the answer?” Our culture finds itself in a new and troubling relationship with testing. But I would argue that this obsession with tests and testing is nothing new.

Our First Testament reading today speaks of a very different sort of test. It comes from the book of Genesis, which has been following the patriarch Abraham, whom God promised to make a great nation and sent out to a land unknown to him. The text has made its way through many stories of Abraham: the birth of his son Ishmael by his wife’s concubine Hagar; the promise of a son to Sarah even though she was well beyond her child-bearing years; the birth of Isaac, and Abraham’s subsequent rejection of Ishmael and Hagar; all interspersed with journeys all over the Ancient Near East. Now we come to these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham answers with the prophetic response ‘hineni,’ which is not exactly translatable, but we typically render as “here I am.”

God then commands Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Of course, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, whom he sent away with his mother, Hagar. The Jewish tradition offers an interesting take on these words: in Hebrew, the word order is “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.” The rabbis argued that there must be a reason God uses so many words, and so they imagine Abraham playing dumb: “take your son,” says God. “Which one?” replies Abraham. “Your only son,” says God. “Isaac is the only son of his mother, and Ishmael is the only son of his mother,” Abraham responds. “The one you love,” God says. “I love both my sons,” asserts Abraham, although he has sent one of his sons into the brutal desert. “Isaac,” God finally clarifies.

The text proceeds in grim and excruciating detail, describing Abraham’s preparations, his journey with his son and two servants, then the last leg with Isaac only. Isaac questions where the lamb is, and Abraham tells him “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” They arrive at the place that God has appointed, and Abraham builds an altar, lays the firewood, binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and raises the knife. At the final moment, an angel calls out to him to halt, declaring, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, which he sacrifices instead of Isaac.

What are we to make of this troubling story? Traditional interpretations tend to praise Abraham’s unswerving obedience to God’s command. Perhaps you have heard interpretive statements like these: Abraham follows the path God has set out, even though it is painful and horrible, and lo and behold, at the last moment, God intervenes and provides. We, the listeners, are urged to be like Abraham, following God’s will even when it is painful, difficult, or confusing. Here’s another one: Abraham is willing to risk everything for God, and is richly rewarded. We, the listeners, should be willing to give it all up for God. Christian interpreters have pointed out the resonances between this story and that of the crucifixion: the sacrifice of an only son; the “lamb of God” who is ultimately sacrificed.

Here’s the thing, though: I find those interpretations terribly unsatisfying. Certainly, we should follow God’s will for us even at great personal cost, even when it is difficult and hard and frightening; certainly we should be willing to give up what we hold dear if that is what discipleship demands of us. Should our faith make us willing to cut the throat of another human being, let alone our own child? Do we believe in a God who would demand such a thing? Is that the God we know, the God we worship?

With questions like these in mind, interpreters have wondered whether this text might originally have been a story that spoke out against the sacrifice of human children (which was, in fact, a religious practice that sometimes happened in the cultures of that time and place). Perhaps as scripture took shape over the centuries, different traditions melded and merged, mixing themes of a God who rejects human sacrifice with themes of faithful obedience, ultimately forming the story the tradition has wrestled with ever since.

Other interpreters have asked this question: if God was testing Abraham in this way, did Abraham pass the test?

In the 1950s, the world was deeply shaken by what they had seen take place in Nazi Germany. How, people wondered, could so many people have been led to participate in such evil? A psychologist named Stanley Milgram designed an experiment, hoping to learn about what kinds of people would participate in harming strangers, and under what conditions. Were people with lower IQ’s more susceptible? Younger or older people? People from wealthy or poor backgrounds?

Here is what you would have experienced as a participant: you enter a room where you meet another participant, a middle-aged man. You randomly select roles: you will be the teacher, the man will be the learner. You watch as he is strapped into a machine with electrodes. You go into another room, where you can hear him over a speaker and speak to him over a microphone. In front of you is a machine with voltage levels and a button. You teach him a series of word pairs. Then the experiment begins: you give him one word, and he responds with its pairing word. If he gets it right, you move on. If he gets it wrong, you give him a small electrical shock with the button. After a few mistakes, you increase the voltage. After several mistakes, he starts to complain of the pain. “Ouch! That hurts! Stop!” Perhaps you look at the researcher, who assures you that everything is fine and you have to go on with the experiment. Soon his complaints get more strenuous: “Wait! I have a heart condition! I don’t want to do this anymore, let me go!” A few more wrong answers, and you turn the dial up again to a voltage marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” The learner begins to bang on the wall separating him from you, begging for mercy. If you hesitate, the researcher says, “You must continue.” You turn the dial to a setting marked “XXX.” You push the button. Then there is only silence.

About two thirds of all subjects were willing to administer that final shock four times. Two thirds. Humans, it turns out, are shockingly, devastatingly willing to harm each other because someone who is perceived as an authority figure tells them to do so. We care deeply about being approved of, being found adequate, meeting the expectations set before us, passing tests. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son may not be such a remarkable show of faith as we have heard. Most people would be willing to do something similar.

Did Abraham pass the test? I kind of hope not. I imagine God waiting and hoping for Abraham to come to his senses, and finally intervening.

I do not believe in a God who rejoices in violence, whose will for us is that we should harm – or threaten to harm, or be willing to harm – other people, be they friends or enemies, strangers or our own kin. Perhaps one way to understand this story is as a reminder of how dangerous blind obedience can be. A reminder that our desire to please authority, to measure up, to pass the test, can overwhelm our own inner compass, our own sense of personal integrity. If we think that God is calling us to harm others, perhaps our response should be not “Here I am,” but “Why?” or “Did I hear you right?” or “No!”

Tragically, these questions are not abstract theological quandaries. Over the centuries, Christians have thought they heard God’s voice in scripture seeming to condone slavery, domestic abuse, sexism, and homophobia. In their zeal to follow the scriptures, churches have been willing to inflict harm on women who were thought to be witches, on unmarried mothers, on Jews and Muslims, on gay and trans* teenagers, and on and on and on. And today, as the LGBT community and allies of our city gather for Pride celebrations, we remember all the harm that has been done to that community, as we declare that God rejoices in human diversity and calls the church to bless and not to harm.

The good news of the Gospel is this: there is no test set before us; we do not need to prove we are good enough, faithful enough, smart enough, or brave enough. We are loved with a love that cannot be broken by our failure to measure up. We are loved with a love that loves us despite our obsession with measuring up. Jesus came not to test us, but to show God’s love for us. The work before us is not to pass a test, but to live in faithful gratitude.

The life of faith is not a test. The life of faith is not blind obedience that harms God’s beloved children. Living faithfully means bearing witness to God’s love, living our way toward God’s vision for the world. Living faithfully is speaking out against injustice and violence. It is doing justice and loving kindness. Resisting misinterpretations of scripture that condone violence and prejudice, classism and sexism and homophobia. Standing up against bigotry and hatred. Declaring our faith in a God who calls us to do good and not to do harm. Living faithfully means knowing that God may call us to sacrifice wealth and possessions, or prestige and position, or even – sometimes – our own safety, but will never call us to sacrifice our integrity or the wellbeing of others.

So wherever this road of faith leads us, let us follow with faith and trust in the God who is always at work to bring peace and healing, justice and mercy, to all people.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Still Rising

A Sermon for Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:6-14

One day when I was eleven or twelve, my family was sitting around the dinner table, talking about Jesus. I don’t remember what we were talking about specifically, but I remember my mother using a present-tense verb – something like, “Jesus is always merciful,” let’s say. And I responded, “You mean was.” “No,” my mother replied, “I mean is.” “But Jesus is dead,” I said, “Isn’t he?” I had learned about the resurrection, but didn’t know what came next. I guess I had assumed that the resurrected Jesus had basically resumed his pre-crucifixion activities, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, telling stories to the disciples, and lived out the rest of his life until he died of old age. That was when my parents discovered that, although I had faithfully attended Sunday school, week after week for years, I had never heard of the Ascension.

My mother’s face flushed, and her eyes welled with tears, and her voice shook a little bit as she told me what she believed: that the resurrected Christ lives; that the story of Jesus is not just something that happened, but something that is happening. “But if he didn’t die, then where is he?” I wondered. And my mother told me about the story that we find in our text from Acts today.

It is forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, and he is with the eleven remaining apostles (all except for Judas, who betrayed him). He instructs them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit – we’ll hear more about that next week. The disciples ask him whether he is about to restore the kingdom to Israel, but Jesus reminds them that the future rests in God’s hands and is not for them to know. Again he promises that the Holy Spirit will come, and that when that happens, they will witness to what they have seen in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After these words, the text says, Jesus was “taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” As the disciples stand dumbfounded, staring into the sky where Jesus is disappearing, two men in white appear. “Why do you stand here look into the sky?” they ask. They declare that Jesus will return in the same way that he left.

And so the disciples return to an upper room – perhaps the very same upper room where they gathered for the last supper with Jesus, perhaps the same upper room where they saw the resurrected Christ – and they pray there, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and certain other women whom the text mentions but does not name, although I am certain that Jesus knew their names, and would have listed them himself if he were writing this story.

I try not to assume that my own experience is universal, but I’ve heard enough stories and questions to know that my own experience as a child was not unusual. I was not the only regular churchgoer who did not hear of the Ascension for many years. We Protestants tend to downplay this part of the Christian faith, to the point that I have met plenty of other people who, like me until that day at the dinner table, weren’t quite sure what happened to Jesus after the resurrection.

For some reason, the Ascension is a miracle story that strains our credulity – for some of us, almost to the breaking point. It is a story that is very hard to believe. Many of us accept easily that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin – although there is certainly room in this community for different interpretations. Many of us easily accept that Jesus performed miracles – that he healed sick people, turned water into wine, calmed a rough sea with a command – although, again, our understandings of those stories are as diverse as we are. We embrace, each in our own way, the story of Jesus rising from the grave, appearing to the disciples, showing Doubting Thomas his wounds. But something about this story is harder. Perhaps because, as modern people, we have abandoned the “three story cosmos” system that was accepted in Jesus’ time. We know that if you keep going physically up and up and up and up into the sky, you will reach not a heavenly city as the ancients believed, but the airless stretch of outer space.

Or perhaps we resist this story on a more spiritual level – how can we accept that our loving Savior reigns in glory at the right hand of God, when we live in a world where 272 kidnapped Nigerian girls are still in captivity far from home? How can we trust it when we live in a world where a young man can go on a shooting spree, murdering six people and injuring thirteen more, because he felt so entitled to the bodies and attentions of young women that he believed they deserved death for the crime of not being romantically interested in him? How can we believe it, when for two thousand years after Jesus’ ascension, war and violence have held sway over this earth, our weapons growing more and more powerful and deadly? This story is hard to believe.

And yet, if we think of it as a metaphorical kind of story, a symbolic statement, that raises even more problems and questions. If Jesus metaphorically ascended to heaven, then what actually happened to the resurrected Christ? Is the resurrection, too, just a metaphor, a figure of speech, a nice story to make us feel better about the facts of mortality and the sorrows of this world? I don’t believe so. And yet, this story is hard to believe.

But as we stand here, scrutinizing the sky, trying to wrap our minds around this challenging account, the text itself offers us a way to think about this story. Two men appear and they say to the disciples – and, perhaps, to us – “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Those words remind us that our call as disciples is not to stand staring at the sky, trying to answer all the puzzling questions and paradoxes of our faith. We can ponder them, certainly, we should ponder them. But ultimately we are called to set our hands and minds and hearts to work, here on the ground, doing the work that Jesus has set before us. Our call is not to figure out the facts of the ascension, but to live into the deeper truth of the ascension.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that the reign of God is very, very near. And so our call is to live as if the boundary between heaven and is not a wide river or an impenetrable wall, but a porous and permeable bit of cobweb.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Jesus is, at this very moment, near to God. And so our call is to live as if the God who created the Milky Way and the whale’s song and the human brain is not a distant and unknowable deity, because God sits next to the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Christ lives. And so our call is to live as if the story of Jesus did not end two thousand years ago on a cross on Golgotha, or even outside an empty tomb one Sunday morning, but continues to this very day. To live as if we are entrusted, for a time, with the momentous gift of being the body of Christ in this world.

Earlier this week, the poet Maya Angelou died. She spoke many times of her Christian faith, a faith that is deeply infused in her poetry. And as we celebrate Ascension Sunday, I am reminded of these lines from her poem “Still I Rise”:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 
That, I think, is the truth of the Christian faith: that the power of sin and violence to hurt and kill is nothing compared to the power of God to raise and rise. Christ rises. Christ is rising – rising toward light and hope and love and beauty and God, not to leave us behind, but to draw us along with him. And every time we see God at work in the world, every time we see the resurrection that happens when love overcomes fear, when hope overcomes despair, when the arc of the universe bends toward justice, we see the truth of the ascension.

So as we gather around the table and as we go out into the world, friends, let us not stand looking at the sky, confounded and paralyzed by theological paradox. Let us set ourselves to the work of the people of God, the work of love and justice, prayer and witness, feeding and healing. Let us do so in thanksgiving to the God who calls us to be part of this grand story of the risen Christ.


Image from Jesus Mafa

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Growing Up ONA

I am one of the first ordained clergy who never knew a time when gay and lesbian people were not explicitly welcome in church. My childhood UCC congregation became ONA, or “Open and Affirming,” (our designation for fully welcoming gay and lesbian people into the life of the church) in 1988; we were the seventeenth ONA church in the nation!

The church of my childhood explicitly welcomed people regardless of their sexual orientation (we would later expand from saying “gay and lesbian” to “LGBT”). There wasn’t another church for miles around that proclaimed such a welcome, and so the congregation grew as word spread that gay and lesbian Christians were fully welcome and included. My earliest memories of church are of a community that included gay folks and straight folks; single people, families with children, and couples without children.

We weren’t perfect. Like every church, we had our share of bad behavior. There was gossip, and petty bickering; there were conflicts about children being too loud, about people not cleaning up the kitchen after their programs, about what kind of music we would have in worship. There was even homophobia – the vote had not been unanimous, and I remember hearing a few anti-gay slurs from congregants who didn’t like our ONA identity or the lesbian and gay Christians who had found safe harbor in our pews; and I remember hearing the more insidious homophobia of inclusion that comes wrapped in conditions and caveats.

But regardless of the resistance of a few, we were living our way into a vision of the kind of community we believe Christ calls us into: a community where diversity of every kind is seen as a blessing from God. Every leadership position, every ministry opportunity, was open to any member who had the gifts and skills for it, regardless of gender, age, race, class, or sexual orientation. Sunday school, coffee hour, bell choir, committee work – gay folks and straight folks worked together on everything from hosting homeless families to balancing the church budget.

And there were weddings.

This was long before any state recognized same-sex marriage. But we believed that God calls us into relationship; we believed that when a couple – gay or straight – wants to make a covenant, to promise to love one another for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live, that is marriage whether the state recognizes it or not. So we had weddings – “holy unions,” we sometimes called them, to clarify that the couple was marrying in the eyes of God and the church – full of joy and laughter and prayer and music.

Yesterday, my denomination, the UCC, filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina. North Carolina’s laws against same-sex marriage make it illegal for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that does not have a marriage license; same-sex couples cannot be granted marriage licenses. In short, North Carolina’s laws forbid religious marriage ceremonies like those I remember from my childhood. The UCC argues that prohibiting ministers from performing religious ceremonies as they see fit infringes on our first amendment right to the free exercise of religion. I couldn’t agree more.

On May 17, 2004, just after midnight, I stood on the steps of City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts and cheered as couples exited the building with marriage licenses in hand. But I thought, too, of the couples I had seen stand at the altar and make vows before God and the gathered congregation. They would, most of them, get one of those precious pieces of paper in the weeks and months to come; but they were already married. They had been since they said “I do.”

I am an ordained clergywoman now. I am fortunate to live in a state where I can marry couples as I see fit, not only in the eyes of the church, but also in the eyes of the state. But although we have come a long way, it saddens me that this fight I have been fighting as long as I can remember continues.

So I pray that our government will run as it should, protecting the rights that guarantee that each church, each minister, each believer, can exercise her religion as her conscience dictates, whether she is for or against same-sex marriage. And I pray for justice for those who still live without the legal protections of marriage, despite their covenantal commitment. But most of all, I pray for the day when the whole church welcomes LGBT people fully and without reservation, and every Christian child has a chance to grow up in a congregation that reflects the beautiful diversity of the people of God.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jesus Saves

A Sermon for Palm Sunday on Matthew 21:1-11

I generally disapprove of starting sermons with jokes. But there’s an exception to every rule, and the apostle Paul once wrote, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” So if you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’m going to tell you a joke.

“I know there’s no God,” one man said to another. “Why?” the second man replied. “Well,” said the first man, “I was out sailing one day and my boat capsized and sank. I ended up treading water in the ocean, miles from shore. No water, no radio, no life vest, even! I prayed to God to rescue me. I prayed and prayed and prayed and God didn’t rescue me. So I know there’s no God.” “Well, what happened?” the other man inquired. “After a while,” the man answered, “some stupid fishing boat came along and pulled me out.”

In our scripture lesson today, like in that joke, we meet some folks who are crying out to be saved, but don’t know what kind of salvation they ought to be looking for. Throughout the gospel narrative, Jesus has been making his way from Galilee to Judea, moving from the more rural, bucolic region of his childhood to the bustling city of Jerusalem, where the great temple which was so central to Jewish faith and practice in the time of Jesus is located. On the Mount of Olives, from which you can look down into the walled city of Jerusalem, Jesus pauses and prepares to enter Jerusalem in a grand bit of street theater. He sends his disciples out to commandeer a donkey and a colt, in fulfillment of a scriptural passage from the prophet Zechariah. Once the animals have been acquired, Jesus begins his dramatic parade into the city. A crowd gathers, with branches cut from trees (this is where the tradition of waving palm branches on Palm Sunday begins), spreading branches and cloaks on the ground, running ahead of him and following behind, shouting loud “Hosannas!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they cry, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Let us make no mistake: this whole scene is extremely subversive; it is a direct challenge to the powers that be – the Roman powers that have colonized the region, and the local Jewish authorities whom the Roman authorities allow to maintain some limited power. Jesus, an itinerant rabbi from the hinterlands who preaches a message of love and liberation for the marginalized and oppressed, is marching into the capital in a procession that parodies the victory parades of conquering kings. The crowd is eating it up, crying out their hope and longing and love and praise. This looks for all the world like the beginnings of a coup d’├ętat. In fact, in another Gospel’s account of this same story, the Pharisees rush to Jesus and the disciples, begging them to hush the crowd, afraid of the political consequences of the authorities hearing of the people crying out for revolution. The Roman Empire was not squeamish about violently crushing rebellion, and Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem hints at just such a rebellion.

I was in seminary before I ever realized that “hosanna” doesn’t just mean “hooray!” or “praise God!” or “Check out this awesome guy!” Hosanna is Hebrew for “Save please!” or “save now!” Jesus is riding into the city, and the crowd is cheering him on with cries of “save us!” and quoting from Psalm 118: “Hosanna! … Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So what does it mean that the crowd is crying out for salvation? What does it mean that they greet Jesus not with general whooping and cheering, or with cries of “alleluia” (which means “praise God”), but with cries of “save us now!”?

 Later followers of Christ would start to think of salvation as something more inward, spiritual, and individual. The word “salvation” came to refer to being in right relationship with God, to being reconciled with God. Over the centuries, many Christians came to hear the term “salvation” as meaning “salvation from Hell.” If someone stops you on the street and asks the question, “Are you saved?” they are usually asking a question about what you believe, and what will happen to your soul after your death. The theology of Christian salvation that leads many to proclaim “Jesus saves!”, that leads to debates over whether heaven is big enough for Buddhists or atheists or Catholics or Mormons or us, is perhaps what we think of when we think of Jesus and salvation. But it is not what the crowds are thinking of as they cry out to Jesus, “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

They are crying out for salvation – not in the hereafter, but in the here and now. For them, “save us” means “save us from the empire that is taxing us into starvation, that is seeping into our culture and our religion, that is corrupting our authorities.” “Save us from Caesar the emperor, and Pilate his representative in the region, and Herod, the puppet king who is allowed to rule us as long as he supports them and aids them in our oppression.” “Save us through a political revolution,” their words and actions suggest, “Look at all of us – how many of us there are! Surely we can rise up against them! Save us by attacking, save us by conquering, save us by overthrowing the authorities and ruling this country!”

We all know what lies just around the corner. The crowd is about to turn against Jesus. His way is too strange and too new for them. They want him to save them in the way they were expecting. They are asking for him to save them by the sword, but his is a way of turning swords into plowshares. They are asking him to save them with retribution, but his is a way of reconciliation. They are asking him to save them by bringing rebellion crashing down on the heads of the authorities, but his way is a way of justice and mercy bubbling up from below, washing away the structures of injustice and evil. They are asking him to save them by inflicting violence, but he will save them by transforming the powers of violence and death. It is too strange, and too new, and they don’t understand, and neither do we.

In a few days, we will gather again in this sanctuary to remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. And just as today we shout “hosanna” with the crowds, on Good Friday, we will join our voices with the crowd that cries “crucify him!” It is hard for us to see ourselves as members of that crowd, that fickle crowd that turns from praising Jesus to crying for his execution. But I think it is important for us to remember how quickly the crowd turns from adoration to condemnation when their own plans and visions are left lying on the ground with the palm branches as Jesus rides on, inviting them to follow. And it is important, too, for us to see that tendency in ourselves: how quickly we cast aside our heroes when they deviate from our projections and expectations; how insistent we can be on our own visions and schemes and desired outcomes, our own way, even against the way of Jesus.

The crowd thinks they know what to expect from Jesus; they think that they know how he should go about saving them. And perhaps we do, as well. The spiritual writer Anne Lamott in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, wrote this: “I know God enjoys hearing my take on how best we should all proceed, as I’m always full of useful advice.”

Perhaps we sometimes come to God full of useful advice: “change that person’s mind, God, so they agree with me,” we might say. “Inspire our church with new vision, but preferably a new vision that doesn’t require us to change very much.” “Rescue me now, oh Lord, but not with some stupid fishing boat.” Perhaps we sometimes approach the Holy One with directions and demands, thinking that we’ve got it all figured out: save us in the way we expect! Save us in the way we’re comfortable and familiar with! Move in our lives, only along the paths we’ve laid out!

That, I think, is the cry of the crowd, and perhaps sometimes our own cry too. But Jesus is much too wild and gracious and loving to comply. The crowd cries to Jesus for salvation, and it is true that they need to be saved from the empire that is trampling them. But not by another violent conqueror. Jesus meets those crowds where they are, graciously and lovingly receiving their love and praise, their hopes and dreams, their demands and expectations, and later their disappointment and betrayal and condemnation. He hears their cries, and ours: “Save us! Save us now!” And he does. Not in the way they expect, but in the way they need. In the way we all need.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Invisibility Cloak

A Sermon on John 4:5-42

In the first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry receives a magical cloak which renders the wearer invisible. Harry’s invisibility cloak is a crucial resource for him throughout the series, allowing him to wander around Hogwarts with impunity, eavesdrop on secret conversations unnoticed, and generally cause mischief. Something about the invisibility cloak captures the imagination – I think many of us sometimes wish we had an invisibility cloak of our own, especially in this bustling city, where privacy and solitude can be so difficult to come by.

While invisibility cloaks are mythical, iPhone apps are real, and a new app called Cloak has been making headlines. Cloak helps its users to avoid their friends and acquaintances by collecting location information from friends’ social media updates and warning the user if there might be someone they know nearby. In the time of Jesus, of course, there were neither invisibility cloaks nor iPhone apps, and so people had their own ways of avoiding unwanted social contact.

Our Gospel reading today finds Jesus en route from Judea to Galilee. Judea was one of two Jewish provinces in the time of Jesus; it was where Jerusalem was located, as well as Bethlehem and a number of other towns. Galilee, the other Jewish province, was where Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was, and where he did much of his ministry. In between the two provinces was Samaria. Samaritans shared common ancestors with the Jews, but while the Jews’ ancestors had been taken into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans were descended from those who had not been taken into exile, and had intermarried with the foreigners who had conquered the land.

By the time of Jesus, the two groups were entirely separate, bitterly divided by their common history. They did not associate with each other, and many Jews would have chosen to detour around Samaria, adding long days to their journey, rather than passing through it. If they did pass through, I imagine many would have assumed a posture familiar to us New Yorkers: eyes down, shoulders hunched, walking hurriedly, disengaged from the world. We know something about how to communicate with our body language that we’re just trying to get from one place to another, that we wish had an invisibility cloak. We assume this posture, perhaps, on the subway or bus at the end of a long day, or in places where we feel out of place, whether it’s a swanky office building or a neighborhood where everyone but you looks the same, or a bar or restaurant where you stop, only to realize that everyone but you is a regular and you are an obvious, unwanted outsider.

In Jesus’ time, just like in ours, there were social norms about who associated with whom, and how you acted when you were just trying to make your way through Samaria. You would don your metaphorical invisibility cloak and get through with as little fuss as possible. But just try telling Jesus that.

Jesus and his disciples have stopped to rest and eat in the Samaritan town of Sychar, and while the disciples go to buy food, Jesus rests by a well. While Jesus is alone at the well, a woman arrives to draw water. The author notes that it is around noon; this contrasts with the story of Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at midnight. Another thing to notice, though, is that noon is an unusual time to draw water from the well – hauling water was a strenuous chore, typically undertaken in the morning or evening, rather than under the heat of a midday sun. It’s odd and noteworthy that the woman has come to draw water at noon, and some commentators speculate that she is trying to avoid the groups of people, mostly women, who would have come to the well to draw water in morning and evening. Perhaps she, too, comes to the well wishing for an invisibility cloak, whether because of conflict, or rumors and gossip, or simple shyness.

There at the well in the middle of the day, she meets Jesus, who asks her for a drink of water. The woman expresses surprise that this Jewish man whom she does not know is asking her, a Samaritan woman, for water. Coming to the well at a time when she would have expected to draw water alone, the woman meets a man whom she would have expected to avoid contact with her, but instead of pretending that they cannot see each other, he has asked her for a drink, and she remarks on the strangeness of it. Things get even stranger soon enough: in answer to her surprised inquiry, Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink, and he would have given her living water, which in Hebrew means simply water that flows, as from a river or spring.

This would have sounded very strange to her: this man has just asked her for a drink – but now he’s telling her that she should have asked him for a drink of spring water – so does he need a drink, or doesn’t he? And what does his identity have to do with it? “You have no bucket, and the well is deep,” she observes. Then she follows up about his mention of his identity: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Now Jesus starts to hint that the water he speaks of is not literal water: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman hasn’t quite caught on yet, though: “Give me this water,” she requests, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Here we see another hint that her trips to the well are onerous, and perhaps not just because of the physical labor; she longs for a source of water that will put an end to her hot mid-day journeys to the village well.

In an odd conversational turn, Jesus responds to her request for water with a request of his own: “Go call your husband and come back,” he bids her. When the woman replies that she has no husband, Jesus reveals that he knows more than he had let on: it’s true that you have no husband, he says, because you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. Most commentators assume that this must be an indication of sinfulness on the woman’s part – that her strange marital history must be due to some moral deficiency on her part. Perhaps, some commentators note, that is why she comes to the well at an unusual time, because her reputation makes her unwelcome among the women who gather at the well in morning and evening. But commentator Gail O’Day notes that the text does not mention divorce, adultery, or sin – and while the commentators are very interested in delving into the woman’s sexual and marital history, Jesus notes it without judgment and moves on.

Jesus’ surprising insight into her history shows the woman that Jesus must be someone special – “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” she says. And then she begins to ask him about one of the most significant theological differences between the religion of the Jews and that of the Samaritans: where should one worship God? Jesus’ speaks of a coming age when right worship will be defined not by location, but by “spirit and truth.” Hearing his promise of change, the woman brings up the issue of the coming Messiah, and Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just as the two have hit upon the essence of Jesus’ identity, the disciples arrive, carrying the food they have purchased for the mid-day meal. And at that point we read this: “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” And with that, the woman leaves her water jar behind and returns to the city, where she starts to tell people about Jesus. The woman at the well becomes the first evangelist: the first person who preaches about encountering the Messiah.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman,” the author reports. The first time I read this text was in my junior year of college. At the time, I was rather idealistic about healing the divisions between progressive and conservative Christians, and I had joined a bible study group run by a very conservative national campus ministry organization, where I was far and away the most liberal member. In that same year, I finally recognized that I was called to ordained ministry. One day I arrived at Bible study brimming with hope and joy at my newfound sense of call. “How do you reconcile that with 1 Timothy 2:11?” one young woman asked, referring to one of the passages about women not speaking in church, which are used in conservative traditions to bar women from leadership positions. I was stung by the dismissal of my call, and hungry for scriptural affirmation of my call to preach. And so I opened my bible and read, and read, and read and read until I found those words from this story: “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” Jesus didn’t care about the boundaries between men and women, Jews and Samaritans; Jesus did not care about the conventions and social norms that are supposed to render people invisible to one another; Jesus simply cared that she was thirsty for living water. There were a lot of people thirsty for living water, thirsty for good news of God’s love. And so Jesus told her the good news, and she went out and told the people.

Our world is less bound, perhaps, by formal restrictions about who can speak to whom. And yet, sometimes when I stop on the sidewalk to talk with someone I know from church, I notice the odd looks of people who, like the disciples, wonder but do not ask: why are we speaking with each other? Why am I speaking with Walter, or Ben, or Jim? What could I possibly be talking about with our sandwich line clients? And when I notice those looks, I think of the woman at the well. When, like that woman, we meet Jesus at the well, the boundaries that limit our relationships to people who look and think and talk and believe like we do, the boundaries that keep us separate from each other, fall away. They slip from our shoulders like invisibility cloaks, allowing us to see our common thirst for living water, for good news.

I wonder whether the woman only told the good news to people who looked like her, who shared her social station? I wonder if she slipped back into the invisibility cloak that made women invisible to men, Samaritans to Jews, old to young, poor to rich? Or did she discover that it was as unnecessary as her water jug, and leave them both lying on the ground as she went out to preach? And what about us? When we leave this place, our thirst slaked with living water, our hearts brimming with good news, what will we do?

What will we do?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes to Go on the Upper West Side

For two hours, we stood outside the church on the corner of 93rd Street and Broadway, offering "Ashes to Go."  We wore clerical collars, and purple stoles over our black coats. Whenever someone came to us, we traced an ashen cross on their forehead, and gave them a card with these words:
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. Since the Middle Ages, Christians have observed the beginning of Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The ashes remind us of our mortality: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The cross reminds us of God’s love, made known in Jesus Christ, which overcomes even the power of death. We offer ashes on the street corner because we believe that God cannot be confined to a church building! May these ashes and this Lenten season help you draw closer to God, and may you see God’s grace and love wherever you go. 
It was very cold, and sometimes very holy. We imposed ashes on over a hundred people. Here are five moments that have stayed with me:

  1. A college-age girl approaches. She looks interested, but maybe not completely clear about what to expect. I ask her name. “Julia, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I say. “Okay,” she responds, “but that’s kind of morbid.” Then she thinks a minute more. “I guess we should make the most of it while we’re here.” 
  2. “You’re KIDDING,” says a middle-aged woman, a note of incredulity in her voice. “No,” I say, “We’re completely serious.” She pulls off her hat and lifts up her bangs. “Hit me,” she says. 
  3. A little boy with red hair in a school uniform and his nanny are passing by. She gestures towards us and says something to him. I can’t hear their brief exchange. She steps back, but he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders and approaches. I crouch down and ask his name. “Remember that you are dust, Patrick, and to dust you shall return.” 
  4. A car pulls up behind us, and the passenger window rolls down. Two young men are listening to loud music inside. “Can I have ashes?” the driver asks. He takes off his hat. My colleague goes around to give him ashes through the car window. “Me too?” asks the passenger. I lean toward the car to mark an ashen cross on his forehead. The thick marijuana smoke gives me a contact high. 
  5. “How long will you be here?” a woman asks after receiving her ashes. “Until four o’clock,” I respond. At 4:02 we are bringing the sign inside when I hear a shout. The woman is jogging toward me. A boy and a girl, still wearing their school backpacks, run with her toward us, two children in light-up sneakers hastening to receive reminders of human frailty. 
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. -from
Psalm 51

Monday, February 24, 2014

Doormats for Jesus

A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

It might not surprise you much to hear that I enjoyed Sunday school when I was a child. I am a pastor, after all. But you might be surprised to hear why I enjoyed Sunday school. The Bible stories were nice enough; the lessons were usually interesting; I liked some of the songs; I hated all of the crafts. But some of my favorite things about Sunday school were the climbing structures. Like so many sprawling suburban churches, my church housed a nursery school, which used the Sunday school rooms during the week. They had installed an outdoor playground with a big climbing structure made out of tires, and an indoor playspace with a structure that we called “the fort.” When my class was very well-behaved and finished our activities early – or, more often, when we were very badly behaved and our teacher gave up on trying to get anything done that day – we got to play.

One day, out on the playground, Glenn had attained an awesome perch at the top of the climbing structure when Morgan approached and shoved him out of the way to take the good spot. Glenn shoved back. And Morgan declared indignantly, “You can’t do that! You’re supposed to turn the other cheek!”

We had learned the well-known verse and discussed its message of non-violence some weeks before, and I guess some of us had figured out how to use it to our own advantage: the proper Christian response to aggression was passivity, we had learned. The proper response to violence was non-violence. The secret, therefore, was to be the aggressor! Your hapless victim would be obligated to turn the other cheek, taking your abuse meekly as Jesus commanded, and you would get your way without risk of retaliation.

Our interpretation sounds obviously wrong – because, of course, it is wrong. And yet, our misinterpretation was not created in a vacuum: in misinterpreting this passage for our own benefit, we were drawing on a Christian culture that has misinterpreted the same passage, the passage which is our Gospel reading for today.

The passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, an extended discourse in which Jesus teaches crowds in Galilee. Many of Jesus’ best-known teachings are drawn from the Sermon on the Mount (or its counterpart in Luke): teachings like the Beatitudes, the words “judge not lest ye be judged,” and the Lord’s Prayer. Many of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount expand on the teachings of the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, which were the foundation of the Jewish faith and practice shared by Jesus, his disciples, and his followers. In today’s passage, Jesus teaches about how to deal with aggression, violence, evil, and enemies. These words are so challenging that, two millennia later, Christian societies are still trying to explain them away.

Jesus quotes a passage from Exodus: “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he says. This system of retaliation may sound barbaric to us, but to this day, society is afflicted by the human tendency to escalate conflict – whether it is physical violence or emotional harm. Surely we can think of situations in our own lives where the desire to “get even” led to larger and larger acts of cruelty and hostility. The ancient Israelites, no less than us, struggled with that human tendency; this law commands them to “settle the score” without adding to it. But Jesus takes this limitation even further: “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says. “If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

Too often, Christians have heard these words as a call to meekness, docility, and passivity. We have assumed that “turning the other cheek” means patiently enduring violence, meekly submitting to abuse, silently suffering oppression. My Sunday school classmates and I thought we had learned what the words meant: if someone is mean to you, don’t get back at them, just tolerate it. That’s what our teacher had taught us, and probably what she had learned in Sunday school, and her teacher before her. Kingdoms and empires have taught this lesson to their subjects; in the days of slavery, white supremacist ministers preached this lesson to slaves; abusive spouses and parents have used it against their victims. The supposed message is that, if we act like doormats and punching bags in the face of violence, God will reward us in heaven.

Is that what Jesus is saying? I don’t think so.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink has pointed out that Jesus specifically refers to the “right cheek.” In order for a right-handed person to strike someone on the right cheek, he argues, the blow must be with the back of the hand, which he says would be a dehumanizing and disrespectful gesture in the ancient world (as it still is, to a lesser extent, in ours), a gesture meant to reinforce hierarchies. Looking at the legal codes of the time, Wink notes that the fine for striking an equal with the back of the hand was one hundred times as much as the fine for striking an equal with a fist; there was no penalty for backhanding someone of a lower social station. “A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors,” Wink declares. “Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.” Wink argues that when Jesus teaches his followers to turn the other cheek, he is suggesting that they demand to be engaged as an equal, upsetting the balance of power by refusing to either fight back or accept their aggressor’s dominance.

Perhaps Wink is right, or perhaps he’s stretching his inferences a bit further than the text can bear, but either way, he touches on something that I think is important: turning the other cheek is not an act of resigned acceptance. Jesus does not say, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, let them strike you again as many times as they want.” He does not say, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, look meekly down at the ground.” He does not say “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, be still and silent and passive.” If we listen with fresh ears, we can perhaps hear the power of this teaching: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he might be saying, “surprise them. Don’t do what they’re expecting. Don’t cower, don’t fight back. With your cheek still stinging and your eyes still watering, look them in the eye and say, ‘Now hit me here.’”

Jesus invites his followers to confront violence – to confront it – but not with more violence. He does not call them to be doormats and pushovers. He calls them to be courageous witnesses to another way of living. Turning the other cheek is non-violent, but make no mistake, it is confrontational. It turns a mirror on cruelty and injustice, shines holy light on hatred and evil, and confronts the powers of evil and oppression with the power of the Reign of God.

On Martin Luther King Day this year, a history blog published an image of an incredible document: type-written guidelines by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, directed to the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama as the bus boycott came to an end. The guidelines give advice to African Americans boarding racially integrated buses, and give voice, for that time and place, to some of the principles I believe Jesus was espousing when he told his followers to “turn the other cheek.” “If there is violence in word or deed,” the document declares, “it must not be our people who commit it.” “Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”

The document offers some specific strategies, some of which might sound odd to modern ears: “Do not deliberately sit by a white person unless there is no other seat,” Rev. King and his colleagues advise their African American readers. Later, they counsel: “If another person is being molested, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.” At first, this seemed strange to me: why would Rev. King advise his followers not to advocate for each other? But in his time and place, this was how he applied Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek: turning the other cheek means confronting violence and injustice in an unexpected way. Rev. King is perhaps anticipating that white racists will try to pick fights and incite riots; he warns his community not to fall into that trap, but to rise above it. That was a way of turning the other cheek, in that time and place, for that community.

And what about our community? How do we practice this challenging teaching? Many of us are fortunate not to face regular threats of violence on the streets and subways, in our places of work and leisure. Unlike Jesus’ followers, there are no Roman centurions who are legally entitled to hit us on the right cheek, or force us to carry their pack for a mile. Injustice, oppression, and violence take other forms now, but they still exist – in huge societal systems, and in everyday interactions with other people. I see it when sandwich line volunteers arrive at the church shaken by a homophobic or transphobic remark. I see it when I hear about how young African American men are treated in New York City department stores, and how their murderers are treated in courts of law. I see it when legislators mischaracterize food stamps recipients as lazy, dishonest, and undeserving.

I observed it the day I arrived at church for work one weekday morning and saw a man sitting on the steps of the church, aggressively shouting unwanted sexual comments at young women passing by. I wish I had lived up to Jesus’ teaching as I understand it. I wish I had found a way to say or do something that drew attention to the human dignity of the women he was humiliating with his rude words, something that would knock him off-balance and make him reconsider his actions, something that would invite him to a different and holier way of living in the world with his fellow humans. What I actually did was tell him to shut his mouth and get the – ahem – off my church steps.

Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek is hard. It’s hard because it calls us to resist our desire for vindication and vengeance. It’s hard because it requires us to use imagination in moments when we want to fight or flee. It’s hard because it isn’t a recipe for holiness, but a call to creative, non-violent confrontation – a call which we need to answer differently depending on the particulars of the situation.

But the good news is that we are not called to do the work of justice alone, friends. We have each other, we have the witness of generations of saints who have walked this path of love and justice, and we have the Holy Spirit. And when we answer Jesus’ call – when we answer hate with love, humiliation with dignity, thoughtless cruelty with creative non-violence, when we turn the other cheek – it is like the tiny pinch of yeast which leavens the whole loaf, like the little green shoots that push through the cracks of the concrete, like the light which shines in the darkness; it is like the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Bunch of Links about Breastfeeding and Religion

I have a post or three to write about breastfeeding and church... but it's still percolating.  In the meantime, I thought you should see the following related links:

There's a wonderful blog here highlighting images of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, including this video:

"If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice"

Historical Images of Women Breastfeeding as if it were a Normal Part of Life and Not a Shameful Thing
Especially note #5, which includes a woman breastfeeding in a crowded church pew.

And here is everyone's favorite Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers, talking about how mothers feed their babies:

So that's about it for today. Enjoy!