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.