“And Riot Gear Will Collect Dust”

10846452_10205005538156557_3165016420734450036_nLast week our Advent gospel included the words of Jesus: KEEP AWAKE! I believe that many people woke up this week when Eric Garner’s murderers were not indicted. Many people shook off the weight of despair or apathy and found themselves on fire with moral outrage.

People shook off the weight of whyareyousurprisedwhatdidyouexpect and victimblaming and wedon’thaveallthefacts and picked up the mantle of #Blacklivesmatter which should not require the explanation that of course all lives matter but that black lives clearly do not matter to those sitting on many juries and grand juries in our country, at least not as much as white power and control matter, and so the lie which is perpetrated in our courts and prisons (not always not by everyone but by too many and too often and too systematically) needs to be contradicted by voices that say outloud and clearly and persistently that #Blacklivesmatter.

The numbers of people protesting here in NYC and in Ferguson and around the nation is a sign of people rousing themselves from business as usual. Of waking up. But waking up is one thing, keeping awake, as Jesus calls us to do, is another. We wake up. Then what? What does it mean to keep awake? To sustain wakefulness?

Isaiah has come to church to help us this morning. Let’s listen to his voice anew.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Cleveland, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten, they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.

A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower – rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows upon it. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. But the breathe of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.” (re-told by Timothy Wotring)

Isaiah first wrote to a group of Jews who had been uprooted from their homeland and taken away to Babylon where they are forced to live under an alien regime and to accept it’s notions of reality as if their own reality is not real. But Isaiah also wrote for us. His words will sound familiar to many people, particularly those who live under authorities that do not see reality in a way that corresponds to their reality.

Many of those who benefit from the unjust systems in place may mean well and be in fact, quite nice. Listen to the anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise: Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand juryfor instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on videoand still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve.

Isaiah’s people lived in the midst of this insanity too and so did he. The exiled Jews he lived among had given up hope. Isaiah cites their pain: The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. (Is.49:14) My way is hid from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God. (Is.40: 27) These are the cries of people who feel that no one has their back. Not even God.

Isaiah’s word begins with God calling a heavenly court, a heavenly grand jury, to overturn the perverse decisions that have come down. “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her sentence of injustice is upended. Undone. Liberation is at hand.”

Then Isaiah gives us a poetic image for the way forward. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah speaks of a divine highway construction program that will level mountains and raise up valleys. Uneven ground will be made even. Rough places will be smoothed out. In other words, for this new exodus through the wilderness, major structural changes are required. The dismantling of uneven structures, which all racist structures are, is required.

Some of us want to call for the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to automatically appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all excessive force and wrongful death cases by police officers, and in particular, to immediately appoint a Special Prosecutor in the wrongful death of Eric Garner. Some say this is impossible.

Is it written in stone that this cannot be? Not according to Isaiah. Not for a God who moves mountains.

+Some of us are demanding that the City and State of New York draft legislation making the chokehold illegal (not just banned as protocol) with significant penalties for any officer who uses it.

+Some are demanding NYC create an NYPD Training Program – modeled on San Antonio’s successful Crisis Intervention Training- to eliminate racial disparity and police brutality.

+Some are demanding a Civilian Review Board to provide oversight and recommendations in cases of racial-profiling and police brutality; and a Borough Task Force, that trains community policing groups in the five boroughs.

Are these things impossible? Not according to Isaiah! Not for a God brings down mountains and lifts the valleys and smoothes over the rough places and levels the playing field so that the words liberty and justice for all are for real.

Then says Isaiah the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. And ALL people shall see it together. The optic nerve and the part of the brain that makes judgments will be reconnected. All people will see the truth and the truth will set us free. Even though, in the words of Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off”

The truth always pisses off those who will find themselves divinely leveled because of it. Those who stand on the mountain top and don’t want to be brought down. When Isaiah says that All people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of God will stand forever. Those are fighting words, insulting words for those who wield their privilege like a baton and use their power like a chokehold, but for others, those words bring sweet relief. The baton will wither, the power to choke and crush will fade away. But the Word of God, the Word that breathes life into crushed lungs and broken hearts, that Word will never fade.

Where does all this leave us? After telling us that God’s word endures forever, Isaiah says that WE are the ones who are called to lift our voices with strength, without fear, and to show our bloodied cities with their cavernous divides between races and classes that God is here and will lead us forward. God IS here.

Here, where young people of many races are leading the way in the streets. Here, where elders are cheering them on and joining them to the extent that aging, aching joints allow. Here where teachers and parents continue to bless and love their children, showing them that all colors are beloved by God. Here where people of every shade and hue sing and pray and listen and work together. Here is your God! Here where Jews on the Upper West Side march and sing Shiva for a murdered black brother. Here where 150 Union Seminary students rallied in protest at Foley Square and many were arrested. Here in law offices working to overturn lethal legal fictions. Here is your God. Right where you thought was only unbearable loss, right where you thought was only injustice, here is your God! Here, in the midst of a chokehold, here is your God choking on a cross. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

All flesh is grass, says Isaiah. The grass withers, the flower fades, yet here in the withered grass, in the straw of a manger, here is your God! Not in flexed muscles that choke life but in the tiny arms of a newborn babe, here is your God! … where our deepest human question tears through the flesh of Jesus himself: My God my God why have you abandoned me? Here is your God!…where the shoot of Jesse was uprooted and the Rose of Sharon withered and the flower of glory in the eyes of a mother’s son faded.. the Word of our God will stand forever.

Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written… the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s jubilee.

This Advent jubilee journey we find ourselves on is a long one that includes loud, relentless shouts in the streets, and soft whispers of faithful love. Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. The word comfort comes from con forte or strength together. Only together we can be strong. Only together we can remain vigilant and awake. Only together we can find hope for the way forward.

Together does not mean that we all do the same thing. Some will protest. Some will care for the protestors. Some will teach. Some will write. Some will pray ferocious prayers. Some will listen to the pain of others. Listen and learn with humility. Some will organize. Some will nurse and nurture children for a new day. Some will simply use every bit of energy they have to keep on keeping on in a world that doesn’t care. And that itself is a powerful a testimony to the power of God who raises up the valleys and cares for every single blade of grass.

But each of us is called be awake, to be vigilant, to do nothing that calls into question the essential belovedness of the other, especially the essential belovedness of those who experience a daily barrage of indications that they do not really matter. That their dear children can be murdered with impunity. Keep awake. What you do with the dear life you still have matters.

 We’ve come this far by faith, 

   leaning on the Lord;

   trusting in God’s holy word,

 God’s never failed us yet…

                  

 

 

Christ the Queen?

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 beautiful, 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. But stay with me for a minute. I realize that the whole Drag Queen culture is offensive to many feminists 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! Those who dress in drag are breaking out of the masculinity strong box people want to put them in but, in going to the other extreme, I would say that they are almost 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, intersex, androgynous, L G B T 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 Bonhoeffer’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.

 

Whoever I am, You know, 0 God, I am Yours!

And that’s what makes all the difference.

Did She Have A Demon or Was She Demonized?

10410506_10204185429094343_4501902096333581439_nA sermon on Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

When I look out over the crowds of citizens protesting the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, I see a familiar face raising her hands. She’s the woman in today’s gospel described as a Canaanite woman. Let me break that down for you. For Jesus and his disciples she was otherized as a pagan, unclean by birth, an alien. She was silenced as a woman and she’s usually been quiet, trying to fly under the radar of those watching for her to take one step where she doesn’t belong, waiting for her to make one wrong move.

This Canaanite woman is usually quiet but one day everything changes. Now it’s her child who is profiled. Her own daughter is being demonized. And so now this quiet woman begins to shout at the top of her lungs: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. Actually she’s shouting “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” First, let’s not over-spiritualize this. I think we can assume that the torment was spiritual and it was personal but it was also public. It had social and political ramifications. It was part of systemic racism towards Canaanites. This woman’s Canaanite daughter was not only tormented by a demon- she was demonized which is an ongoing part of racism because, say, if you are going to shoot an unarmed person with their hands up, you have to dehumanize them first.

And so this Canaanite woman who is usually a paragon of quiet pride lets loose- “Have mercy on me, Lord, my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The reaction to her outburst is swift and comes from the ranks of organized religion, if you consider the first 12 disciples organized. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Send her away. We’ve got other things to work on now. Send her away. How dare she raise her voice at us?
After all we do to help others! We’ve built houses with Habitat. We’ve given food to the food pantry. We’ve even sent our own children on mission trips to help the poor so don’t try to make us feel guilty. We’re his disciples! “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

But what about Jesus? Surely Jesus will listen to this woman.
Jesus answered: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
What? This is JESUS comparing this woman’s child to a dog?
Joining the systemic dehumanization of God’s children that is used to rationalize their being treated as less than human? How can that possibly be? Well, when we say that God became human, it doesn’t just mean that Jesus had a human body. It means that Jesus grew up and was socialized in a particular time and place and culture, a culture that historically feared and demeaned Canaanites. This Canaanite woman however is not going to stay in her place and allow her child to be demonized. Once again she raises her voice, with a clever come back to Jesus’ comments about her daughter being like a dog. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Did she just say that? Yes she did and.. what’s more remarkable is that Jesus allows this woman to stretch his mind, to change his mind. This gospel story turns out to be a testimony to the power of listening to voices from the margins that many conveniently ignore and allowing those voices to change us.

Jesus set aside equality with God as a thing to be grasped. Jesus abandoned the perfections of glory for the limitations of flesh and blood. The gospels give us a number of examples where Jesus struggles. In the wilderness, in the garden of Getsemane and on the cross. Perhaps his encounter with the Canaanite woman is another such struggle. Maybe Jesus was struggling with a radical ministry that led him into uncharted territory with people he’d be taught to avoid but he works right through that struggle and because of THIS phenomenal, audacious Canaanite woman Jesus will never demean a Canaanite or Samaritan person again. Just the opposite. Now he raises his hands in solidarity with her righteous protest. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly.”

The Canaanite woman had mentioned crumbs that fall to the dogs from their masters’ table. But I have to say that when I see her standing in the crowd of protesters in Ferguson with her arms raised, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs any more. When I see her in the ruins of her home in Gaza, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs any more. When I see her standing before the grave of children dead from Ebola, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs. When I see her sending her son across the border to avoid being murdered by gangs, I don’t believe she’s asking for crumbs.
The time for crumbs is over. And by crumbs I mean, prayers without action. What MLK called, “A high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” Tolerating people instead of accepting them as equals. Multicultual music without authentic multicultural community. Seeking to preserve the peace while avoiding the uncomfortable work of justice. Refusing to recognize the need to repent of our complicity in systems that perpetuate racism and breed injustice. Giving people crumbs from the table instead of a place at the table, even if it means, giving up our place. Offering our leftovers rather than our first fruits. Crumbs. Crumbs won’t cut it.

I think it’s really important that right before this story in Matthew’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. People that the disciples once again wanted to send away. But Jesus gives the people what they need. An abundant meal. A feast. So much food that there are baskets of leftovers. Because crumbs were not enough.

Jesus doesn’t do crumbs. When you and I come forward this morning for holy communion, bringing our own crummy, ragged, imperfect, needy selves, Jesus will not offer us a little crumb of love nor a little crumb of forgiveness. Jesus gives us his body and blood. Jesus lays his life on the line for us. Instead of crumbs from the table, Jesus offers us a place with him at the table. And then sends us out to go and do likewise. To listen, really listen to the cries of those on the margins of our awareness. To talk to someone we’ve be taught to demean and allow our hearts and our minds to be challenged and changed. To set tables of extravagant, equalizing welcome for those who expect nothing more than crumbs and to step aside for those who demand their rightful place at the table where the only Lord and master is Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t offer crumbs to the world. God is not in the work of giving out crumbs. God provides the best. And truth be told, when I look out and see you. Each one of you, what I see is a brilliant reminder that God is not in the work of giving out crumbs. God provides the best. For you. In you and through you. And for that, for you, I say thanks be to God!

Close Call

ImageThat’s what this needle-sharing incident turned out to be. I was the last one to use the needle. A seminarian working at the church was second. A resident at our shelter got the fresh needle since it was hers. She has been diabetic since childhood and has to inject herself with insulin four times a day. We have sharps containers at the shelter, but when this young woman was out during the day, she had been wrapping her used needles in paper towels and stuffing them into her backpack.

At some point, when she was getting ready to leave the shelter for the day, the wrapped needle fell out of the backpack. Our seminarian picked up the crumpled paper while setting up for Sunday School and pricked herself, drawing blood. Later in the day, I did the same thing while showing the needle to a social worker.

Now two of us were on the post-exposure-prophylaxis HIV regimen even though it was extremely unlikely that we were exposed to anything. Nonetheless, such incidents make you more aware of your vulnerability. One moment you’re fine, the next moment, you’re not so sure. Others are not sure either. The informative paperwork that came with my pills was sealed in blue tape to ensure privacy, as though I had a dirty, little secret to hide. When it comes to HIV, even taking precautions makes one suspect. The highlighted instructions adhering to the bottles, refer to “your infection” as if it’s a given and advices me not to breastfeed. Twice a day, I felt a sudden solidarity with my friends and acquaintances who take the same medications as a matter of course. Every morning and evening, I felt grateful for the existence of these meds and the improvements that have been made to lower their level of toxicity and reduce side effects. I felt grateful for the many years of rich life these pills make possible and thankful for the courage and perseverance of those who endured years of a regimen that was far more taxing. And twice a day, as I paused to swallow, I paused to pray for the many people around the world who cannot access this life-saving medication that costs around $2500 a month without insurance.

This entire incident is not what one expects in the church fellowship hall, but when you share space with ten homeless queer youth, some who inject hormones (long needles) or insulin (short needles), no precautions are foolproof. We have now fine-tuned our protocols to be as fail-safe as possible; however, the only way to stay perfectly secure is to stay away or to close our doors to this population. But these are not options.

It strikes me that our very call to ministry is a close call. It is a call that draws us close to the sharp edges of life. It is a call that exposes our vulnerabilities as we refuse to stand apart from the pain and need around us. Following Jesus is always a close call and while some of the results are not yet in, we live in hope and anticipate joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Thursday and We Weren’t Really Expecting Jesus

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It was Holy Thursday and we were remembering Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. For a number of years we have done this with a dinner that includes Holy Communion. We also read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then we wash and dry each other’s hands as a sign of honoring service to others. Afterwards, we go upstairs into our sanctuary for the stripping of the altar.

Each year, we hang flyers about our Holy Week services outside the church. There is a brief description of each day and Thursday’s mentioned dinner.

It’s a potluck so you never know exactly how much food is coming and what it will be, but usually everything works out. It was working out again, although, truth be told, there was not going to be much in the way of leftovers and one person who was bringing chicken didn’t show. Then, about halfway through the meal, several dozen homeless men and women came to the door. They had responded to the magic word on the flyers. Dinner. Oh.

If this were Passover, Elijah had actually shown up and we had to scramble to find him a place to sit and food to eat. And I’m proud to say that we did. A few people emptied their plates…onto someone else’s plate. And the person who came late with the chicken was miraculously right on time.

I had to somewhat awkwardly explain that, of course, everyone was welcome but, just so we all knew, this was not actually a community meal like we have on Thanksgiving. It was a worship service. Of course, all were welcome to the worship service, which was also a dinner. Which was confusing to people who were just hungry and who had come to community meals in this same space. And isn’t Holy Communion a community meal too?

Then it was time for the hand washing, which of course, is symbolic. No one is actually washing. We pour out water and dry each other’s hands. We don’t even use soap. It turned out that people who were really hungry also really wanted to wash. One woman came forward and splashed water on her face while the person before her, lifted the towel and gently dried. For her it was not symbolic, she was washing.

We Lutherans say that Holy Communion is not a mere symbol. We say that Jesus is really present in flesh and blood, even if it looks like bread and wine. And so it was. Jesus really present, even if he looked like a hungry man eating chicken and a hungry woman washing the grime from her face.

 

When God Was A Little Girl (a review)

A front-page editorial in a recent Sunday New York Times asks “Where Are The People of Color in Children’s Books?” Church libraries face the same challenge and such diversity as there is rarely gets extended to God who is almost always male and, in the case of Jesus, also white. I recall one book where a multiethnic group of children stand gathered around a manger that holds a very white baby Jesus.  It is an image of diverse humanity paying homage to a white child.

The outstanding exceptions are few and far between. Happily, When God Was A Little Girl. written by David Weiss and illustrated by Joan Lindeman, can now be added to that list. The author responds to his young daughter’s questions about God by telling the story of creation using the image of God as a little girl doing an art project. The race, ethnicity and age of the girl change from page to page. The girl-child God uses all manner of paint, song, glitter, colors, darkness, light and clay among her creative tools.

People are created in “bunches” and  “each one was a little different. Some were the color of deep, dark dirt; some looked like the pale sand on the beach. Some were boys and some were girls. Some were taller; some were shorter. Some were thin; some were round. And God thought they all looked just right!”

According to When God Was A Little Girl, all of creation is a work of art made by an art-project loving God.  A child can readily understand their own creative inclinations and work as a reflection of being made in God’s image, both boys and girls.

It is unfortunate that the image on the top of the book’s website has cut off the darker shading in the original picture it is taken from, but that is your link to purchase the book and It is wonderful book to add to any church or home library and to share with a child near you. I hope it will inspire other creative efforts by authors and artists who are dissatisfied by the gender myopic, monochromatic palette that dominates so much of our public imagination.  

http://whengodwasalittlegirl.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Jesus Denied Nicodemus a Copy of Christianity for Dummies

I remember one Sunday when I was very young, maybe 4 years old and I was with my parents doing what we did every Sunday. I was sitting in the back seat of our car on the way to church. I had my special white gloves that I only wore on Sundays. They were either plain white gloves or lacy ones in the spring and summer. I also had a special church pocketbook and for some reason I don’t know, I had special church handkerchiefs. Some came from my grandmother in Switzerland and were embroidered with alpine flowers, others had cartoon characters printed on them. I usually took six or seven with me. I removed them from my pocketbook and looked at them and organized them in the pew at church to entertain myself during boring sermons. Anyway, one Sunday like every Sunday I was in the car with my parents and we passed a tennis court. I looked up in time to see that there were people playing tennis. My mind sprung into action. How could this be? It was Sunday morning! Years later my mother told me that I had arrived at the only possible answer…which I shared from the back seat…they must have gone to the early church service. In the simple world of my early childhood, it was unthinkable that someone would not be going to church on Sunday morning. I had not yet been exposed to the idea of different religions. Much less unbelief. Only Tennis after an early church service could fit into my world view.

 Of course, this world view did not last. By the time I was 7 my best friend had died and the questions began. Why did she die? Why did unfair things happen? Why did God allow this or that to go on? Why was the world like this and not like that? A few years later, I absorbed the images of concentration camps shown in school, the pictures of starving children offered at church and TV footage in my living room from the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam and race riots in nearby Newark. This was not the world as it was supposed to be and I was the kind of child who lay awake at night puzzling over such things. If Jesus was the answer, he wasn’t sharing that answer with me. It’s interesting that many people turn to the Bible for answers. Sometimes, we do find the answer we need in these pages, but these very pages are also filled with questions. In fact, the word why occurs 4231 times in the Bible and why is only one way to begin a question. Here’s a sampling of Biblical questions:

Why have you brought trouble on this people?

Why have you sent me?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Why this uproar among the nations?

Why do you stand so far off?

Why do you hide when times are hard?

Why does my enemy oppress me?

Why do you forget we are exploited?

Why do the wicked prosper?

Why am I discouraged?

Why is my soul downcast?

Why have you rejected us?

For a book where people seek answers, there sure are a lot of questions. In fact, even Jesus flings his own soul-wrenching question from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Few of these questions get direct answers. I am reminded of a book I read by Rainer Maria Rilke in the midst of my youthful questioning, Rilke writes in response to the questions of the young poet. …I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart …Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

I thought of this recently when I was reading the story of Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Nicodemus is a smart, educated, well-positioned leader, but something is missing. He’s wondering about things that don’t make sense. He’s a spiritual seeker, longing to understand more about God and about his own path for life. We’re told that Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus at night. Many commentators assume that Nicodemus went to Jesus at night because he was embarrassed to go during the day. He didn’t want others to see him with Jesus, to appear to be straying into unapproved places. Or maybe Nicodemus just thought that night was the best time to catch Jesus alone and get his full attention.

Rabbi he says, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. Nicodemus begins with what he knows…and leaves the rest unspoken, all that he does not know and longs to know. Jesus answered truly I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus has two questions. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Nicodemus longs to understand more, but he is stuck with his very concrete, literalistic mindset.

Jesus doesn’t make fun of Nicodemus. He tries to help him see in a new way The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. According to Jesus’ words here, being born again is not a formula, it is not a creed, it is not legalistic proposition, it is life lived open to mystery, life lived open to the unexpected, it is being receptive to the movement of the spirit, And Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into this spirited, windswept realm where you might be led to places you never could have imagined.

But how can these things be asks Nicodemus who is still confused. Jesus is not giving him the 4-step plan he wants. Nicodemus would have been right at home in the self-help section of any bookstore but Jesus is refusing to be pinned down between the covers of a book. Even if that book is the Bible. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Jesus doesn’t provide a set of rules, but instead offers a relationship of ongoing trust and love. And speaking of love, we come to a verse that is one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. It’s a favorite slogan of religious fundamentalists, often reduced even further at sports events where fans just hold up the numbers John 3:16. Tim Tebow used to paint it on his face.

For God so loved the world….it goes on to say that God gave God’s son and all who believe in him will be saved, and presumably win football games…I too believe that God so loved the world… and loves the world, but no true love can be reduced to a placard. We can’t tame the mystery and power of love and bend it to our control, to our limitations, rules and regulations, to something we can possess and hold in one hand with a hotdog or a beer in the other. How strange it is that this very text has been used perhaps more than any other in the whole bible, to close the door on our questions. It’s strange because Jesus takes Nicodemus’ questions seriously. When did church become a place where you come for answers but get the feeling that questions are unwelcome, where questions are pushed into the shadows? Jesus welcomes Nicodemus’ questions. He does not condemn him.

If you Google images on line for John 3:16, you’ll get tons of them. If you Google images for John 3:17. You get nothing. John 3:17- Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. I wonder why John 3:17 isn’t as popular as John 3:16? John 3:17 is uncomfortable. It even challenges me when I condemn those who misuse John 3:16.

Speaking of questions, a colleague of mine is a social work supervisor and child specialist at Harlem Hospital. He’s also a pastor. A few days ago, he was asked to help a father explain to his six year-old little girl that her mother and sister died in the recent explosion that killed 8 people in East Harlem. Whatever he says, whatever the father says, is not likely to satisfy that little girl’s questions. No matter what answers emerge as to gas leaks and building infrastructure, they are not the kind of answers that will provide any comfort to that little girl, nor to her father.

I think our life together is part of the answer. The father of that little girl will likely never have good answers for her, but if he keeps on keeping on in the midst of his grief, if he gets the support he needs and is able to surround her with love and show her that her life is precious, that her life matters, he will help her live into a new day. Our stumbling, fumbling attempts at love in the face of pain are part of the answer.

It seems that Nicodemus found his answer in living the questions too. When he leaves his conversation with Jesus, there is no sign that anything is really resolved for him. But we meet him later in John’s gospel, on two occasions. When Jesus is arrested and the disciples have all run away, hiding in the shadows. Nicodemus steps out into the light and speaks out on Jesus’ behalf. He takes a courageous risk for the sake of justice and truth. And then again, after Jesus has been crucified, a man named Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus body in order to bury it.

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

All those fragrant spices– a hundred pounds, carried by Nicodemus to bury Jesus. All that love. Like us, Nicodemus never got is copy of Christianity for Dummies with all the answers inside. But he found a way to live with his questions, to risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the weight of love. I think that NIcodemus was born again, or at least, his life showed signs of the new creation we await when all is clear and we will dwell in that place described in the book of Revelation where the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb and night will be no more.  Until then, we live the questions. risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the fragrant weight of love.