A sermon on Transgender Remembrance Day, from 2011 Christ the Queen, the queering of Christ the King

Christa

Who I am? This is the beginning of a poem written in a Nazi prison cell by the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his death by hanging. I’d like to share it with you today.

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

 

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine…

 Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Who among us has not experienced the kind of disconnect that Bonhoeffer describes so well. People know us and relate to us differently in different contexts. There are different sides to our identity or identities. Perhaps no one knows and sees all of our sides. And maybe we feel we need to hide parts of who we are depending on where we are because of how others might respond. Maybe if they saw certain sides of our identity, they would not like us, love us, accept us. Who am I? This or the other?

It may sound odd, but I think God knows what this is like. Just as we have a sinful tendency to want to put other people into boxes that make sense to us, we kind of like to put God in a box too. To define God in terms that make sense to us. To limit God according to our view of things, which is of course limited by our individual and social backgrounds.

The stained glass windows that are now in storage were created over 100 years ago by a white artist with a German background. Jesus looked quite white and German himself. The people who donated those windows and first enjoyed them would likely have been shocked and perhaps disturbed by the wall hanging from Haiti in the back of the church which shows a Black, Haitian Christ.

Imagining Christ wearing the features and skin of different races is something that more people are used to today as we have seen religious art from other parts of the world. But what about imaging Christ with skin pocked with the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer associated with the early days of the AIDS epidemic. There are such images of Christ infected with full-blown AiDS and they are disturbing. Some people find them to be offensive. Why? Because of the way we like to categorize things. During communion we will sing the hymn Beautiful Savior: Fair is the sunshine. Fair is the moonlght, bright the sparkling stars on high. Jesus shines brighter. Jesus shines purer than all the angels in the sky. Well if Jesus shines purer than all the angels in the sky, Jesus cannot have AIDS. Because AIDS can still bring with it a stigma of guilt and shame. And Jesus is pure. AIDS can still draw some into the ugly shadows, but Jesus shines with beautiful, uncontaminated light. AIDS bad. Jesus good. This is how we like to sort and categorize.

Today is what the church calls Christ the King Sunday. As I pointed out last year, Christ the King Sunday did not exist before 1925 when Pope Pius 11th wanted to challenge the abuse of authority he felt was rampant in the 1920’s. He hoped that a Sunday devoted to the Kingship of Christ would help address this problem. Well that didn’t seem to have worked very well… And we’re not even Catholic, so we don’t need to adopt the decrees of any pope. But for some reason Lutherans, along with many other denominations, got on the bandwagon of Christ the King Sunday.

In Today’s Gospel Jesus is introduced as the Son of Man and a king. But the people in the story do not recognize him. Why is that? It is because a king is imagined in a very specific way. A king dresses a certain way, A king lives a certain way. A king is a very rich, powerful adult, male. A king as popularly imagined, and certainly at the time the gospel was written, is definitely one of the one percent.

Obviously a king is not a man in rags picking through the garbage for cans to sell. Obviously a king is not a transgender woman. Obviously king is not a starving Sudanese child. Obviously a king is not behind the bars of a woman’s prison. But in today’s gospel, Jesus presents himself as king AND as being all of these people, people across a full spectrum of genders and ages and races who have in common one thing, they find themselves on the margins. They are not the 99 percent. They are at the bottom of the 99 percent. The very opposite of a rich, powerful adult male.

People who have no trouble viewing an image of Christ on the cross wearing a crown can become very upset at an image of Christ covered in the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma or Christ as a woman on a cross, sometimes called Christa. I would say that such images are faithful, visual representations of today’s gospel where Christ the king says, “what do you mean you didn’t see me? I was hungry, I was sick, I was in prison. I was naked. I was a stranger.” In picturing God, the church has, for the most part, taken the image of king and discarded the rest. Making God over in our worldly image of power, God as a white man in a crown on a throne.

Of course, most of us don’t really imagine God like that..and yet….when I said last year that since this is a Sunday to show how Jesus redefines power, exploding our normal categories of what is and is not powerful, perhaps we should celebrate Christ the Queen Sunday instead of Christ the King Sunday, I got some pushback. One person suggested it was not Biblical. Where does the Bible suggest that Jesus was a Drag Queen? Point taken. A few others placed themselves among feminists who find Drag Queen culture to be offensive because men dress up as an exaggeration of an oppressive idea of what a woman should be… a woman with big boobs, in a tight sparkly dress and 7 inch heels. I agree that it is offensive to feel that to be a real woman you must possess such a body type and rock such an outfit. But another thing to consider is to see Drag Queen culture as making a mockery of such a stereotype. Here, you want to see a real woman? Actually, she’s a man! But not always. They may be gender queer. Those who dress in drag are breaking out of the gender box people want to put them in but, in going to the other extreme, making a defiant parody of the whole thing, of the way our society likes to define and confine us in strict gender roles, body types and clothing.

Drag artists work hard to shake it up. To do gender-bending things. And so did Jesus. Jesus himself often said and did shocking things on purpose because people needed to be shaken out of stereotypes and boxes they like to use sort people by, to control others and to feel superior to others. The story in today’s gospel is a good example. It’s shocking. Jesus’ own disciples don’t recognize him because of his body type and clothing. God does not belong in a starving body. God does not belong in an imprisoned body. God does not belong in a diseased body. And yet, that’s where God is, says Jesus. When Jesus said “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” his words had shock value. And Jesus intended them to. Likewise when he called a group of religious leaders “a brood of vipers” and said that they those who think they can see are really blind. Likewise for the sayings we call the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor The meek shall inherit the earth. To us, it sounds rather lovely, but in fact, these were and are shocking statements. Jesus used actions in the same way—in the temple when he kicked over tables and took out a whip. When he washed his disciples’ feet. He was acting in shocking ways that disturbed people’s expectations of what is holy, proper and acceptable.

Jesus turned either/or categories inside out and upsidedown: blind/seeing, sick/well, pure/impure. rich/poor. slave/free. And from the moment of his birth: human/divine. Of course, this was not just being shocking for the sake of being shocking. Jesus was breaking open labels and boxes, dualities that caused all kinds of human misery. Jesus rebelled against ways of defining people that dehumanized people.

We have seen the tragic misery of young people (and adults) who commit suicide because they just don’t fit into the categories their peers, their family and society seem to value. Most of us thankfully do not reach such a desperate point, but few people go through life without ever knowing what it feels like to not fit in in one way or another and it’s often not a good feeling.

It’s an interesting coincidence that today, Nov 20th has been designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance. A day set aside to memorialize those who have been murdered due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. One of the first young people in our shelter came to us was a transgender woman who was beaten so badly that she sustained permanent brain damage. While she was here, she also needed reconstructive facial surgery. All of the transgender youth who stay here report being harassed on the street. One young man told me of being chased by teenagers in Riverside Park. They were throwing branches that had fallen from the trees in a storm and yelling: “What is it?” The transgender people who are remembered today are those who have been so dehumanized that their killers thought it was OK to attack them. They have paid the ultimate price for not fitting in. For not playing by the rules.

As did Jesus. On the cross. Jesus paid the ultimate price for refusing the identities others wanted to impose upon him. Ie If he is good, then he must shun these people. If he is male, then he must oppress those people. If he is holy, he must not touch her, or him, or them. If he is the Messiah, come down off the cross and save himself.

But Jesus sought to form a community where all people could experience their belovedness as children of God. A belovedness not based on our merits, our anatomy, our sexual orientation, our gender preference, our appearance, our IQ, our racial makeup, or anything else but only and ever only the love of God, a love that breaches every border, even the defining lines between heaven and earth, human and divine, to embrace us all.

King? Queen? What gender is the body of Christ? What gender is the church? None. And all. It doesn’t matter. Queer theology and our baptismal theology have a lot in common. Queer theology moves beyond the imposition of restrictive labels—gay, straight, bi, intersex, androgynous, and so does Jesus. Jesus was about building a different community, what Martin Luther King called the beloved community and what the gospels often call the Kingdom of God. But that language brings us back to kings and even switching to queens is not helpful. Perhaps we might call it the kindom of God, the place where all are kin, because all are related in the love that embraces us and gathers us together.

It is this kindom, this beloved community into which we are born through baptism. Even from the start, the church recognized that baptism gives us a deep, true identity that trumps everything else. Paul tried to express this in his letter to the Galatians where he wrote: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Imagine that! St Paul giving birth to this queer, baptismal idea, there is no longer male and female. St. Paul as the mother of queer theology!

Christ the King Sunday is much easier at Wee Worship. All you have to do is let each child put on a crown and they feel special. We make it so much more complicated but really, that’s what God wants for all of us, to feel the specialness of being beloved children of God. Wherever we fall on whatever spectrum of identity people devise for us, we are beloved children of God.

That’s what we seek to teach and sing and pray and grow into here at Trinity as we seek to live out Christ’s kindom: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welcoming all. If you believe in the value of such a church, I urge you to reflect upon your giving to Trinity in the coming year. If you can increase your giving, even a little, please do. We need it to strengthen and extend the embrace of our ministries even further. If you cannot, you are no less beloved. We are all kin here.

When I read Bonhoffer’s poem before, I left out the last line. I’ll read through to it now.

 Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?

Whoever I am, You know, 0 God, I am Yours! And that’s what makes all the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night of Broken Glass

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When I visited the German village where my grandfather grew up, our guide was an elderly man named Edzard who was a small boy in 1938. As an adult, he spent decades researching the history of Wittmund’s Jews, including my grandfather. He gave me a copy of a letter stamped, “Heimat!” meaning, “Secret!” It was dated November 10, 1938 and contained the report sent back by the SS men who had carried out their “Kristallnacht” mission in Wittmund a day earlier. Evil is masked with the use of neutral phrases: “protective custody,” “group transportation,” the “secure custody” of cash and goods, “supervision of the Fire Brigade.” The letter, in its awful entirety, follows:

The action against the Jews in the District of Wittmund happened without any particular incident. Of the three still remaining Jewish retail stores, two were damaged and one only somewhat. All Jewish people were kept by the S.A. in protective custody. However, women and children were released in the early morning hours. As originally commanded, the Jewish men were deported to Oldenburg by group transportation. 

All cash secured by the S.A. during the action remains in secure custody with the local S.A. Administration. In the same way, the complete inventory of the Jewish retail stores was secured by the N.S.V. The exact amount of cash and the quantities of merchandise are not known to this office.

The burning of the synagogue (in the nearby town) created some problems, since the synagogue is located in the old part of town and is closely surrounded by old buildings. Under supervision of the Fire Brigade, the surrounding buildings could be protected and damage avoided. The Jewish-owned “Horster Grashaus’ agricultural enterprise was put under the guardianship of the District Farm Director in order to secure orderly, uninterrupted continuation of the activities.

Edzard used different words. Jews were taken from their homes and beaten while their houses and stores were looted. They were then herded to a building for cattle near the marketplace, beaten some more and kept over night. In the morning, the men were taken to Oldenburg and then to a concentration camp. The women and children were let go, though it is unlikely that they got very far. Indeed, a number show up later on a memorial we visited marking their journey’s end in Auschwitz or Ravensbrück or Thereisenstadt.

I wondered aloud that the handful of Jews left in Wittmund were deemed important enough to warrant their own pogrom. Indeed, said Edzard, their lives had no import other than to allow the regional Nazi leaders to get in on the action. After the war, a 1949 newspaper article noted the trial and judgment meted out to the perpetrators who came to Wittmund. Ten men were sentenced to serve three months to a year in prison. The average time served was five months. Two had their arrest warrants repealed for “reasons of mercy.” Before long, they could all go on with their lives as if nothing had happened.

Naming the Shadows

102815totentanz_detailOn their honeymoon in 1953 my parents visited Lübeck, Germany, to see St. Mary’s Church, the world’s highest Gothic cathedral built of brick. My father wanted to show my mother where he was baptized and confirmed. Eleven years earlier, on Palm Sunday 1942, an Allied bombing raid had attacked this jewel in retaliation for the Nazi bombing of England’s Coventry Cathe­dral. When my parents visited, repairs were under way. They could look up past the soaring arches and see the sky.

Among the many works of art destroyed in the firebombing was a painted frieze that wound around four walls of the confessional chapel. It de­picted a common medieval theme: the dance of death, or Totentanz.

In the painting, death dances with representative citizens, following a strict hierarchy. Death begins with the pope and the emperor, and then moves on to the cardinal and king. He slips a bony hand in the crook of the bishop’s arm, then the mayor’s. Death is all motion, leaping off the ground while the citizens of Lübeck stand stiffly resisting the inevitable: merchant, bailiff, nobleman, knight, doctor, moneylender, monk, hermit, farmer, sexton, peasant, maid, and finally, an infant in her cradle. For those who entered St. Mary’s chapel for confession, the city­scape of Lübeck depicted in the background brings the point even closer to home. The painting includes an exhortation to lead a righteous life while time remains. It is part of a genre of art that spread during outbreaks of the plague; in fact, a plague claimed thousands of lives in the vicinity of St. Mary’s only a year after the painting was installed.

A new version of the Totentanz, completed in 1956, is a point of special pride. The stained-glass window is a faithful vertical version of the original but has a few striking additions. Death goes through the same social ranks, but when he reaches the baby he is forced to his knees and covers his face with his hands. The child is Christ, and to make sure we don’t miss this, a golden label floats over the baby’s head: DEO. The baby in the crib is swaddled in bands for burial and appears to be rising from his crib as from a tomb, hands raised in blessing. The other departure from the original is the representation of the cityscape. The buildings of Lübeck are there along the bottom of the window, but the city is being attacked by angry, red tongues of fire.

This beautiful window draws millions of tourists each year. There is a sly social commentary in the original—the pope and peasant are waiting in line for the same dance partner. The point is the equalizing nature of our mortality. But given the church’s setting and history, that’s a lie. The 102 panels in this stained-glass meditation about death were all created within a decade of the Shoah in Germany, but there is no reference to the Holocaust. Not one piece of glass suggests the truth: not all deaths are equal. Not one piece suggests the lethal alliance of Shoah and church. Instead, Lübeck is envisioned as the victim of war with no role in and no contrition for the city’s complicity in millions of deaths. Streams of visitors come, take their photographs, and purchase their postcards, but leave without any mention of the Shoah. They receive no invitation to meditate on how they might live their lives in the wake of the Shoah’s macabre choreography.

Two of the citizens snatched away in Lübeck’s Totentanz were my Jewish grandparents. (read the rest of this essay here: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-10/naming-shadows)

Read the whole story in my new book: Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith (info on book page)

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This is for You

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I spent one year of seminary in Argentina and three months of that year’s summer break visiting a Lutheran church community in Peru in what was called a Villa Miseria, a village of misery. Here in NYC, if you are poor and can’t afford housing, you are likely to become homeless. In the city of Lima, Peru, people who could not afford housing had another option. They could build homes on the dusty, desert hills around the city. Since it never rained, so you could use very simple materials to build with. The homes of the families in the church were made of cardboard or straw mats.

Church services were at night since most people were down in Lima during the day trying to make some money so they could eat. There was no electricity in the Villa Misera and the church was lit by kerosene lanterns. Some of the congregants came in, sat down and quickly nodded off. The pastor didn’t mind this and told me that he was glad his weary church members could enjoy a moment of quiet rest. There was no running water available either so all of the community’s water was trucked in once a week, if that. People saved one pail of water for cooking and one pail for washing. The water had to be used over and over for washing- bodies, dishes, whatever.

This may have been called a Villa Miseria and poverty is miserable, but miserable would not be how I would describe the people I came to know there. They were loving, resilient, hard-working and generous. Near the end of my time with them, one family invited me to their home. I had grown close to their son, 10 year-old Julio, who taught me to sing and play new songs on the guitar, songs I’ve taught others to sing in churches I’ve served in the Bronx and in Manhattan.

I was from the United States and they wanted to do everything they could think of to be hospitable to someone from the US…and so, they spent all that day’s hard-earned money for one thing, for me– a large bottle of Coca Cola. Peruvian-made Inca Cola could not be good enough for me. The Coke was produced with great pride and flourish along with a plastic drinking cup and some crackers. I watched as the mom took the dusty cup, (because everything gets dusty when you live on a hillside of dust) and swished it back and forth in a pan of dirty water before filling it up for me to drink.

Oh dear God! I thought. If I drink from that dirty cup, I am going to get deathly sick. Oh dear God! I thought, if I don’t drink from that cup now I may as well be dead. I will certainly have sacrificed my soul on the altar of scrupulous hygiene. Ten year-old Julio had the honor…”This is for you,” he said, holding out the cup. It was delicious. I didn’t get sick. Someone whom I told about this said “Well of course you didn’t get sick! Coca Cola kills everything!” Perhaps, but I think it was more than that.

Jesus knew there was a time and a place for purity laws and traditional ritual washing practices. Jesus also knew that there were times to set those things aside for a higher purpose. Because God knows that it’s not only people in a Villa Miseria who cannot get things sparkling clean.

We are all complicit in actions and structures that spawn misery. In his epistle, James writes: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Ironically, keeping oneself unstained by the world, sometimes means allowing ourselves to get down and dirty, to bear many stains for love’s sake, to prioritize love over rules. Love over judgment.

Thankfully, that that is the kind of God Jesus shows us. And sometimes that God looks like a smiling 10 year-old boy on a dusty hillside holding out a cup of Coca Cola and a plate of crackers. A holy communion of extravagant generosity, of radical grace, a moment that overcomes seemingly impossible divides. “Take and eat,” he says. “Take and drink.” he says. “This is for you.”

Gathering the Fragments

images-1One of the things required of the author of a soon-to-be published book is to find people who will write blurbs. Blurbs are short comments about the book that appear on the back of the cover or sometime just inside. I had to get blurbs for my upcoming book (Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith) and I found one of these blurbs to be kind of insulting to us as a church.

The blurb included this phrase: “the misfits at her New York church.” Now the writer of the blurb also told me to edit what she wrote and that’s what I did. I changed the misfits at her NY church to read the eclectic mix at her NY church Or eclectic community at her church. To me, to call everyone here a misfit just sounded kind of insulting. I wasn’t sure everyone would want to be labeled that way.

On the other hand, I bet that in our heart of hearts, many of us HAVE felt like a misfit at one time or another. Or all the time. Even if we don’t want to be labeled that way. I know that I have.  And that’s what drew my attention to something in today’s gospel that I never really focused on before. It’s a story that some of you may be familiar with. Sometimes we call it the feeding of the 5000. In this story, a little boy shares his lunch of 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and with them, Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus turns scarcity into abundance, This is a great stewardship sermon, if we just offer what little we have, instead of hoarding for ourselves, God can take that and use that to do far more than we can ask or imagine. Some people think it was a miracle of multiplying. Others think it was a miracle of sharing. And I think that all of that is true. I’ve preached about it many a time. And I’m sure we all need to be reminded of that, I know that I do, reminded that when we look around and see too little, God sees differently. That when I think I might as well save what I have for me and mine since my own wants and needs exceed what I have, God sees differently. God shows us a child with a lunch of bread and fish and challenges us to push beyond the limits we place on our generosity.

But there’s an old rabbinic saying about studying the Torah, studying God’s word. It says… Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. I’ve been turning this text inside out for many years and I AM beginning to wax gray. I’ve been turning it and turning it again for everything that is in it and lo and behold, this time, something different turned up for me. He told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

Gather up the fragments, gather up the broken pieces, gather up the misfits, so that nothing may be lost. Maybe besides being a stewardship story about giving, this is an evangelism story, a story about gathering the fragments, gathering up those rejected and tossed aside, those who are marginalized for whatever reason, the misfits, gather them all up so that nothing may be lost. And maybe it’s a story about truth-telling and justice, gathering up the shattered fragments of truth so that nothing may be lost.

What really happened to Sandra Bland locked up and dead after a routine traffic stop, especially routine if you’re driving while Black? The story comes in bits and pieces. In fragments. And each little jagged piece of information matters. To her family. To her friends. To all who wonder. The fragments that are uncovered will be bloodied and stained with hate, but they matter to those who loved Sandra Bland. They matter to those who identify with her. They matter to those raising Black daughters and sons and moral children of any color. They matter because #Blacklivesmatter And according to today’s Gospel, they matter to Jesus. Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” Have some pieces of this story been buried? Have some pieces of this story been hidden? Have ALL the fragments been crushed into dust beyond recognition? It seems that way. It seems that we’ll never know the whole truth of what happened. Because the hammer of racism has pulverized that truth.

That should matter to all of us who have been marked with the cross of Christ in baptism. Just as the hunger of the multitude matters. This is a story about feeding the hungry AND gathering the fragments. It is our work as the body of Christ. Feeding and gathering. We will not find all the fragments but we are called to find as many as we can. In the days after 9/11, I remember being invited by a priest friend to join him down at Ground Zero to bless body parts. Fragments of lives once whole. Holy fragments. Because they mattered. Every small piece that was once part of a larger, beloved whole.

Some of us know this in less extreme ways. Many of you know that I’ve been on a journey to discover missing pieces of my own life. I’ve been able to travel in search of fragments of my own lost Jewish history. Every piece I’ve been able to uncover matters to me. Many pieces got edited out of my book which is how it goes, but every piece matters to me. And in searching for whatever fragments I can find, I’ve heard from many other people. People who come from families with secrets, with things that just don’t get talked about, because of fear or shame or guilt or whatever reason, but that leave some aching to know, longing for even fragments of information. One woman mentioned the father her mother has always refused to speak about, “It makes me feel like half of me is missing even at the age of seventy.” The missing pieces of the puzzle leave an empty space that can haunt us.

We also can feel fragmented in other ways. Having too much to do. Torn between demands at work and demands at home. Fragmented in terms of all we have to do and all we long to do. We can feel that we are losing part of who we are. Illness can do it. Alzheimer’s is one disease that cruelly fragments the brain and loved ones long for even fragments of the person who used to be there. We live in a dismembered community, city, nation and world. Even the church commemorating the spot where Jesus is thought to have fed the multitudes has recently been burned down by arson. What God created as a gorgeous whole is been torn apart by tribe and race, by economic forces that separate what God has joined. We are surrounded by the fragments. We are convicted by the fragments. We are summoned by the fragments. Our identity as followers of Jesus is to feed the hungry, to be generous in sharing even in the midst of scarcity and ALSO to gather the fragments, that none will be lost.

What does this mean for us? This means that we prioritize those who are tossed aside and value those who are rejected by others. Nothing and no one goes to waste in God’s economy. I love something written by Derek Walcott, a marvelous Caribbean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

The love the reassembles the fragments is the love of God. The love the reassembles the fragments is the love that gathers us here to worship. A friend told me about a Domestic Violence agency that has a “mosaic” project. In workshops, survivors of violence break old dishes and pottery (cathartic activity in itself) and then use the shards to make beautiful mosaics. Out of brokenness comes beauty and strength. Then my friend said, “I have a large, pottery lamp that was knocked over. I pieced and glued it back together as best I could but its scars are obvious. I love it.”

When Jesus rose from the dead, in beauty and strength, we are told that his scars were obvious. His scars were a reminder that he came to gather the fragments, the misfits, those whose lives were pulverized under the hammer of Roman injustice. Those who lives were scarred by sin. We gather in his name. A strangely beautiful mosaic of broken pieces joined together. More often than not, we sit, and sing and pray among people of different ages and races and back-rounds. We come together. Imperfectly. Inexpertly. But we work at it week after week. On Sundays and in Dinner Church. Pastor Emily Scott, who began a Dinner Church several years ago, recently said: “To sit around the table is not comfortable, but it’s holy … a place where heaven and earth overlap… The gap is real. Building relationships with our neighbors takes hard work and a lot of time and it’s not glamorous.”

No, it’s not always comfortable or glamorous. But it’s who we are. It is recovering God’s image in our own souls. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

Twelve baskets. Numbers are important in John’s gospel and 12 is a key one. There were 12 disciples. Reflecting the fact that there were 12 tribes of Israel. To gather up 12 baskets of fragments is to gather up 12 tribes, 12 disciples. Which means that the leaders God gathers are a collection of fragments. Broken, scarred, yes, misfits like us. Beloved misfits.

Of course, our work as disciples of Jesus is always imperfect and incomplete, as are we and there are always more fragments to be found and gathered. More pieces of shattered truth to uncover. More misfits to embrace. But we can carry on with the sure promise of our scarred Lord and Savior, that in the end, every fragment WILL be gathered up and nothing and no one shall be lost. Amen.

Grasshoppers and Giants

0020000028AI don’t usually title my sermons but if I did, today’s title would be Grasshoppers and Giants. Let’s start with the grasshoppers. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah (40:21-31) begins with a majestic picture of God. Isaiah describes God as one who sits above the circle of the earth, a God who stretches the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to live in. This God is presented to us as all-powerful, bringing down princes and hurling rulers to the dust like a WWE wrestler with god-sized muscles.

But did you notice the grasshoppers? Well in the face of all this power, according to Isaiah, the grasshoppers are us. “God sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.”

 When Isaiah settles on this image of grasshoppers to describe the people, I believe that he is going back over thousand years to a story in the Torah, which was Isaiah’s Bible. Isaiah is remembering a story from the time of Moses from the book of Numbers. Moses has led the people on a 40 year wilderness journey to the promised land and that land is now in sight. So Moses sends spies to check if out and to see if it’s a good place to settle. This is what we read of the spies adventure: “they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.” In case this isn’t clear, the grapes are so humongous, you need two men to carry one single bunch. Not even Miracle Grow could produce grapes that big. Only God. This land is so amazingly fertile that it can feed and support many people- the people there now and more to come.

But well, then there were some others in the group, like in most groups…some negative Nancies. If it looks too good to be true it probably is. They ignore the giant grapes and say: “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites who come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Doubts and fears are rising to the surface. The Nephilim were a mythic race of giants briefly mentioned in Genesis, produced by the unnatural union of supernatural beings and mortals. Faced with the Anakite descendents of the Nephilim, the people see their own potential dwarfed. “to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” They are buying into the identity projected upon them…others put them down, they internalize that, seeming insignificant to themselves like grasshoppers, because so they seemed to others. When that happens, everything else falls apart. The land is no longer filled with fruitfulness — humongous grapes, milk and honey, instead it is a land that devours its inhabitants.

But were the Anakites really giants? Were they a race of tall people? There is an interesting study where archeologists examined the skeletons of Anakite people and found them to be generally the same size as everyone else. They were the same size, but for the fearful band with Moses, they were larger than life. And the fear grew and spread so that soon, everyone felt diminished…everyone felt weak and powerless and insignificant, like grasshoppers.

It’s easy to understand why the prophet Isaiah draws on this distant memory in describing his present situation. The people Isaiah is writing for also felt like grasshoppers. A powerful nation had taken them from their beds, from their homes and work and place of worship and brutally carried them off to exile in Babylon. They were refugees. Faint, powerless, even the young, like the young refugees from Syria and Iraq waiting today in refugee camps faint and weary, as the adults. Tired of longing to be where they are not. Tired of not knowing if they will ever be free. It’s easy to feel that God does not see them or take notice of their plight, to feel so small and unimportant in the scheme of things. In the scheme of others who can crush them in a second the way you crush a bug.

Isaiah speaks to us too. We also get tired, worn down and faint. This time of year is especially hard on many people. The cold, the slush, the ice, the long nights – can all have a particularly wearing effect. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which leads to depression. Thrown down not by some human tyrant but by the cold tyranny of the weather. And if we huddle inside and turn on the news, it just gets worse and we hear of modern day descendants of the Nephilim, terrorists like ISIS severing heads, burning people alive, doing all sorts of horrific, larger-than-life evil things. And what can we do? We are like grasshoppers.

I think Isaiah got that part right but I’m not sure about the rest of what he starts with. This image of a majestic, all powerful God who sits above the circle of the earth. Is that really comforting? Is that comforting for those down below who already feel that God is far away, too far to notice the plight of those who fear being crushed like bugs.

Even Isaiah realizes that the answer is- probably not. So he shifts direction. Do you feel your way is hidden from the Lord? Isaiah asks. Do you feel God is disregarding your humanity? The prophet asks, but he knows the answer. Well then, he says, hear this. God calls all by name and not one is missing. Not one child in a crowded refugee camp is missing from God’s sight. Not one person is suffering alone. Not a single one. What does this mean for those who are missing from their families, held by terrorists? Those who disappear? Those who feel invisible? They do not disappear eternally. God sees and God has counted every hair of their heads. They are not crushed permanently. That is God’s promise. At times, it does not seem like enough, but it is all we have and the hope that it will become what we need.

A few days ago, some of us stood at the coffin of Andy Silva, a 16 year old boy who died of leukemia. He was once a student in our afterschool program. His mother is weak and faint with grief, but she was surrounded by her sisters, held up by their support. Andy insisted that the family wear white not black. He wanted them to live with hope. Is the promise that her son is not eternally lost a comfort? Perhaps not that day. But maybe some day it WILL help if she can believe that her beloved, hopeful child has not disappeared. That Andy lives on in a different way that we cannot yet understand. That her son, downed by disease, is now raised up, lifted on the wings of divine love.

Isaiah has another promise too. The promise that God who does not faint comes and gives power to those who are faint. God who does not grow weary comes and strengthens those who are weary. God does not stay sitting above the circle of the earth. God comes and gives power. God comes and gives strength. This is what we see Jesus doing in today’s gospel. “Even youths will faint and be weary,
 and the young will fall exhausted; 
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
 they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
 they shall run and not be weary,
 they shall walk and not faint.”

I read a terrific blog by Melissa Bane Sevier on this text. Sevier points out that in Hebrew poetry when you have three images, like walking, running and flying, the last line is more important to the author than the middle, and the middle is more important than the first. So you would expect Isaiah to write: “They shall walk and not faint, they shall run and not be weary, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

You walk, then you run, and then, you fly! But Isaiah has the opposite. they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
 they shall run and not be weary ,
they shall walk and not faint. You fly, you run, you walk. Maybe Isaiah is realizing, well how many of us spend our days soaring above it all up where God sits above the circle of the earth? How often are WE able to race through the hurdles before us, running like the wind to get where we hope to go?

“Sometimes, no matter how much we long to soar like an eagle, all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. Maybe the (greatest thing) is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.” (Melissa Sevier) In Selma, the people walked. In the face of terror, they walked. In the face of hatred, they walked. For the sake of their children and grandchildren, they walked. In the face of crushing evil, they stood up and walked. So in the end, who were the giants?

It was this time of year, at the end of January that my grandparents were taken from their beds, like the people Isaiah wrote for, they were taken from their comfortable home and brutally forced on a train that would carry them away from all they knew and loved to a concentration camp. A week before my grandparents arrived, an inmate of the camp wrote in his diary:

“Winter has come, and with it a great chill. I remember how much we feared the winter. The situation is truly very bad. People are living in the attics where the temperature often falls below zero. Still more transports will be coming.” Including the transport with my grandparents. There was no heat and each winter morning began with the removal of that night’s stack of frozen bodies, more than a hundred and fifty a day from around the camp.

How could you not feel like a grasshopper? Like a bit of vermin about to be crushed at the whim of the giant monsters of evil around you? My grandfather did not survive but my grandmother, in her 70’s, somehow did. She survived insect infestations, diseases and the indignity of being allowed to bathe once every other month.

My grandmother survived starvation rations given to the elderly who could not work. Sometimes there was nothing but lentil soup made from dried ground lentil pods, gray, tasteless, without any nutritional value boiled in stinking water; Most people threw it away in disgust, but the old begged for it because they were given nothing else. They were expected to die. She survived standing all day outside in freezing rain, soaked to the skin during a camp census. Many died that day, that night, but she survived.

Then in February of 1945, an announcement was made. People could sign up to go on a train that would take them to Switzerland and freedom! Who could believe that? Why would those who were constantly plotting your murder and torture grant you a ticket to freedom? One volunteer for the trip was a young mother planning to take the train with her son, but at the last minute, she was chosen to leave, while he had to stay behind. He was stronger. He could work harder. My grandmother watched. She heard the mother’s cries. She was old. The woman was young. My grandmother was faint and weary. She knew the train was really going to Auschwitz like all the other trains but she stepped forward anyway.

She would go, so the mother could say with her son. But as it turned out, a payoff of over a million dollars had been made to divert this train from Auschwitz to Switzerland, the only time this ever happened. On February 8th, 1945, exactly 70 years ago today, my grandmother stepped off that train and was free.

She lived the rest of her life in Switzerland because Germany was no longer home. When I was 18 months old she held my hand and took me on walks. When I was four, she gave me roses with all the thorns picked off so I wouldn’t hurt myself and held my hand and took me on walks through alpine meadows. When I was 7, we went on walks up the Alpine hillsides and I ran ahead while she took breaks on what I called Oma benches. At the end of the walk, we stopped for ice cream and then we walked back.

My grandmother didn’t just survive. She walked on with grace. She walked on with love. Oma didn’t fly. Not even on planes. Oma didn’t run. She walked. A short elderly woman, She walked with a cane. Slowly. But she walked. One foot in front of the other. And so I ask, WHO IS THE GIANT?

Beloved church, we all struggle, sometimes more than other times. But when I see the way you put one foot in front of the other. In service to others. In generosity, in kindness, in fierce determination, in loving gestures that most do not even notice, but that are not lost to God. I see that you are not the grasshoppers. You are the giants. “Maybe the greatest thing is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.”

Face the Snake

Sermon preached at Service for Justice and Reconciliation Metro NY Synod, January 17, 2014 Text: Numbers 21:4-9

This is a Service for Justice and Reconciliation and our Biblical ancestors are in the room to deliver some bad news: There are no short-cuts on the way to justice and reconciliation. Our ancestors are here to admit that THEY became impatient on the way when they had to go AROUND the land of Edom. Another translation says that they became discouraged on their winding wilderness journey. Well, where we read impatient or discouraged, the original Hebrew combines two words. The first meaning short and the second being “Nephesh,” a word we translate as breath or life. So we might say our ancestors are feeling short-changed in their lives and short of breath. They are literally saying …we can’t breathe. We’re choking out here in the desert and we can’t hold out much longer.

Can we blame them? They’ve been heading somewhere without getting anywhere for a long time. They’ve lost the spring in their step and the song in their heart. Justice delayed is justice denied. And it feels that not even Moses, who was like their bishop, has their back. Not even God is on their side. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, here come the snakes, sinking their poisonous teeth into the worn out legs of a worn out people. It’s a nightmare come to life. … Help Us! they cry. Do something! Get rid of these snakes! And Bishop Moses prays for God to take the snakes away.

It’s clear in the story that the snakes are a consequence of human sin. Way back in the garden of Eden, the snake is an embodiment of evil. The wily serpent comes to poison the trust between God and people, between one person and another. And here we see the serpent appear again on the wilderness march to freedom– a whole slew of fiery serpents on the attack.

Now the story gets really strange. “Here’s what you do Moses,” says God, “make a model of a poisonous snake out of bronze and put it on a pole and everyone who gets bitten should look at it and they will live.” Now this is not at all what the people wanted. They wanted God to get rid of the snakes! But God doesn’t do that. “Make a snake of bronze.” says God… AFTER the venom is flowing through their system attacking their vital organs, breaking the body down, THEN if they look at the bronze snake they will live. After the people get bitten.

Wouldn’t it be better not to be bitten in the first place? Well it would be. It surely would be, but we’ve already got the poison in our system and there’s no wishing it away. And it’s likely that if we try to pray it away or add a few multicultural songs and try it sing it away, we’re going to get the same answer our ancestors received– Face the snake, people. You want peace? First, you have to face the snake. You want justice? You want reconciliation? First, you have to face the snake. Take a good look at what’s biting you. God knows, we don’t want to but we need to.

We needed to have our attention drawn to Michael Brown and the passionate, angry young people out on the streets in Ferguson. We needed to see the tape of Eric Garner’s final moments and the video of 12 year-old Tamir Rice crumpling to the ground. Because WE need to face the snake in order to be healed.

Some of us, and by us, I mean White people, some of US bristle at being told to face our racism because we don’t consider ourselves to be racist. We’re nice people. We do all kinds of very good kind and caring things. We have friends or even family members of different hues. Doesn’t all this talk about racism just stir things up, foster negativity and make things worse?

Some of us don’t want to face the way the venom of the past continues to lurk in the organs and systems of our body politic. We think of the Middle Passage, of Whites Only and lynching as ancient history. The church dealt with race, now we’ve moved on to sexuality. And when it comes to all that talk about white privilege. It often makes no sense to those who struggle to get by every day and honestly don’t feel privileged in any way shape or form.

But we all live in a society where race and ethnicity still matter when it comes to the economy, housing, education, criminal justice and often where you worship. We are all part of a segregated society that incarcerates a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. We are part of a divided society where some people don’t have the privilege of not facing the snake. The mothers of Trayvon, Michael, Eric and Tamir had no choice. The little girl in our afterschool program who was about to jump of the top of a playground slide because of classmates calling her an ugly African monkey had no choice. The children going to prison feeder-schools (like the ones near the New Horizon prison in the South Bronx built for 10-15 year-olds) can’t ignore the snake that swallows them alive. Maybe if the SCHOOLS around there offered a New Horizon, there would be no need to build the prison. For many of our sisters and brothers, EVERY day is another day of facing the snake, no choice about it.

In watching the movie “Selma,” which I hope everyone will be able to do, we can see the key tactic of getting the violence perpetrated against non-violent protestors on the news so that people around the nation will see the snake in action. And although I didn’t notice it in the film, one thing that Martin Luther King later wrote about is that part of the intimidating arsenal utilized in Selma included throwing snakes at the marchers. That’s right. Throwing actual snakes into the crowds as a scare tactic. Talk about facing the snake.

I’m glad we’ve gathered together to reflect and pray and stand together. But when I saw Dr. King’s call to White northerners to travel down to Selma to experience the reality there, to march in solidarity, it made me wonder what that might mean for us. Dr. King called on people to experience some dislocation for the sake of reconciliation. Northerners traveling south. Outside of their comfort zones. I wonder if we might hear that as a call to us to some dislocation too. Maybe next time instead of meeting to pray in an area of wealth and privilege, we might meet in Flatbush, Brooklyn or the South Bronx. To place our bodies, along with our prayers, in a stance of solidarity. Rabbi Abraham Heschel was one of those who traveled south to join the marchers. When I marched in Selma, he said, I felt my feet were praying. Maybe instead of getting down on our knees, it’s time to get up on our feet. To go where the bite of injustice is most keenly felt. To listen and learn. To listen and learn and take our marching orders from those whose voices have been silenced or ignored.

Listening to voices that have been silenced reminds me of planned shrinkage– and no that’s not a new name for our strategic plan. In 1976, Roger Starr, New York City’s Administrator for Housing and Urban Development, announced a policy targeted for the South Bronx that he called “planned shrinkage,” a purposeful cutting back of city services such as police, fire and ambulance as well as the shutting down of hospitals and schools. He stated that the city could thereby “accelerate the drainage” of the most battered sections of the Bronx. So people in downtown Manhattan made plans for people in the Bronx. White people once again made plans for the lives and property of Latino and African American people without their voice. Without their consent. Now well-planned shrinkage, as our church and many denominations are proposing for the sake of growth may be exactly what we need, but we need to remember this history and say NEVER AGAIN to planned shrinkage that privileges the voice and expertise of outsiders over the voice and expertise of those on the ground– especially where race is a factor. This is not to say that outside voices cannot bring a helpful, new perspective but only that there’s nothing helpful and nothing new about dislocation without representation.

The call for the reverse of this, for reconciling dislocation is not only one that came from Dr. King. It comes from a higher authority — Jesus “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” That’s dislocation for the sake of reconciliation. “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.” That’s dislocation for the sake of reconciliation!

Would fewer people attend a service in the Bronx or in Brooklyn? Which, let’s face it, is a small inconvenience compared to the risks taken by those who traveled to Selma. Is it a problem for us to expect that kind of dislocation? If it is, then that’s all the more reason we should do it. And do it again. Make it our new normal.

Our struggles with dislocation are a reminder of our condition. The effects of poisonous snake-bite include blurred vision, weakness, numbness, and paralysis. That’s what happens to the body. It happens in our civic and religious bodies. It happens in the body of Christ. But our snake-bitten ancestors suffering from their own blurred vision, weakness, numbness, and paralysis out in the wilderness are also here to witness to some good news. Some very good news.

They discovered that when you face the snake, you find yourself facing God. God was right there in the midst of what was biting them. God was right there in the middle of the attack with the anti-venom. Right where they thought was only poison, pain and death, there was God with power to heal and save.

John’s gospel has it’s own mini sermon on this text: Jesus says “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must I be lifted up.” When we see Jesus lifted on the cross, with nails biting into his arms and legs, we never again need to face what’s wrong in us and what’s wrong around us, without seeing at the same time what’s right in us and what’s right around us and what’s right in us and around us and above us and below us is the love of God…for God so loved the world. That’s what we see when we face the snake. When we stare down evil, when we face racism, and any godless ism that has it’s teeth in us…what we find staring back at us is the love of God, more potent than any poison. The antidote of LOVE. The remedy of LOVE. For hate cannot drive out hate Only LOVE can do that. For God so LOVED the world…Death where is your victory, death where is your sting?!

The work of salvation is finished. But the work of love goes on. We have not yet reached the Promised Land. “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” says Cornell West. Peace and Justice-making love is the work we’ve been given to do along the way in THIS wilderness.

Here’s something I ask myself. Why do we insist on boundary training workshops for our ordained leaders, but not anti-racism training or multi-cultural, cross-cultural community training which is not for Whites only? Now I am not speaking against boundary training workshops- exploiting one’s position to sexually abuse and take advantage of others causes terrible damage to individuals, families and congregations. It’s a poison for sure. However, I would propose that racism and zenophobia or fear of the other, fear of difference, does even more damage. Look at the mounting toll in Nigeria. Pakistan. Gaza. Jerusalem. Syria. France. Ferguson. Or closer to home where we can see the signs of international fissures in our own mirrors. Our own pews.

Maybe the reason we mandate healthy boundary training is that our insurance policies require it. But does the insurance industry dictate our priorities or does the Word of God do that? I think every clergy person, and perhaps all who would exercise moral leadership, should be required to take dismantle-the-boundaries training too. Dismantle the boundaries that marginalize, divide, deport, incarcerate and keep us from truly seeing one another as Police Commissioner Bratton courageously called for, truly loving ALL our neighbors as ourselves as God calls for.

What if no pastor could get a new call in this synod without boundary training AND dismantle-the-boundaries training? Is that so far fetched? I know it’s hard to force people to do something they don’t want to do, but our lives depend on it. Our church depends on it. Our city depends on it. Our planet depends on it. How can we not do it? What about our larger gatherings, for Lutherans, our synod assembly? We’ve dedicated untold hours of assembly time to sexuality. And that’s good! But what about racism and it evil twin, poverty? Pastors who identify as LGBTQ can be ordained now HOWEVER getting a call is still a challenge in many quarters. What about clergy of color? How easy is it for clergy of color to get a call? What is mobility like for our clergy of color? It’s not a zero sum game where concern for one erases concern for the other. As Dr. King reminded us so eloquently: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

How many of our congregations know the abundant joy of dismantling boundaries? The kind of joy known by my home congregation in New Jersey, a predominantly White congregation, that called an African American woman to be their pastor and had such a fabulous experience that when she left they called another African American woman pastor. In fact, this predominantly straight ,White congregation called a lesbian African American pastor.

That’s the kind of boundary-busting joy too many congregations are missing out on! The kind of boundary-busting joy that offers a foretaste of the day when every wall is torn down and every stone is rolled away, – the snake is crushed under foot and our blurred vision is rinsed clear in the waters of the river of life and we can see as we are seen and love as we are loved. Don’t you want to break out some of that boundary-busting joy right now?

Don’t you want to break out some of that my-house-shall-be-a-house-of-prayer-for-all-peoples joy? That swords-into-plowshares joy? That I-will-pour-out-my-Spirit-upon-all-flesh joy? That in-our-own-languages-we-hear-them-speaking-about-God’s-deeds-of-power joy? That good-Samaritan-at-the-well-and-on-the-road joy?

The road is long but that’s no reason to lose the spring in OUR step or the song in OUR hearts. “Don’t be discouraged when trouble’s in your life. God will bear your burdens and remove all the sting of misery and strife, that’s why we’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord; trusting in God’s holy word.. God’’s never failed us yet. We can’t turn around…. We’ve come this far by faith!