This is for You


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!

Magnifying the Flutters

photo-652In Wee Worship this morning, our service for children, I handed out magnifying glasses. I did this to help us all think about what it means when Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord. My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” My soul magnifies the Lord.

It’s easy to magnify other things– problems, disappointments, failed efforts, evil and hatred. These things often loom large and claim our full attention while the promises and words of God can recede to the peripheral edges of our awareness.

This happened to our Biblical sisters Mary and Elizabeth too. When the angel came to Mary to announce that she is favored by God and she is going to give birth to the son of God, Mary’s first response is “But how can this be?” How can she be favored when every day it is thrown in her face that she is unfavored. She is poor. She lives under the oppressive and violent Roman empire– an empire that does everything to show her that she is NOT favored at all. She is a nobody.

“Do not fear,” says the angel, “the holy spirit will come upon you.” Mary could have lain awake focusing on all the negative things– things that, if Mary was like me (and like many of us I imagine), grow bigger and bigger as the night wears on. I mean really, there are few people awake at 3 or 4 in the morning who are magnifying the Lord. Maybe a few monks, but that’s about it. Yet Mary, long before her belly stretched the make room for the child within her, allowed the angel’s words to grow larger and larger, swelling and stretching her soul– do not be afraid…God is with you. I imagine that Mary’s worries and fears were still there, because as Luther put it, Mary was not a stone, but her worries and fears no longer dominated her. There was something greater. Something bigger–“Do not be afraid …God is with you.”

Luther points out that this is just as great a miracle as the virgin birth, the miracle of faith. That miracle that Mary was able to trust that inspite of the way things appear, she is favored by God and God is forming new life within her.

Then Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.'”

Elizabeth was Mary’s much older cousin. Elizabeth had passed menopause. It was now too late to find herself with child. She had tried her best to be faithful, to live a good life. She just didn’t see the fruits she wanted to see. She didn’t see life taking shape the way she hoped it would. The results she longed for have not come. And now, it was too late. This can happen to us at any age really. We can feel that it’s too late for hope. Too late for new life. Discomfort and hot flashes of disappointment loom large. But like Mary, Elizabeth find an embryonic promise making itself known. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”

And now Elizabeth allows this tiny kicking foot to be magnified larger, to become a prophetic witness: “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

It’s often easy to dismiss or overlook the little, embryonic signs of God’s work and promise in our midst and so this morning I’d like to invite you to consider the flutters. Consider the flutters.

When I was pregnant with our daughter Ana, I remember the first time I felt her move. Some people describe that small but unmistakable movement as a flutter. A little flutter because it’s so slight. At first, you’re not even sure you felt it but then it comes again and you know and everything shifts. The day I first felt that flutter was what one might call a bad day. Things weren’t going the way I wanted, I couldn’t see the results I anticipated. And suddenly, I felt the flutter and everything changed. I knew that, while on one level things seemed to be falling apart, on another level new life was taking shape: tear ducts, fingernails, heart valves, brain cells were all forming and growing–invisible miracles that had nothing to do with my own futile busyness. It would continue to happen, I’d be in the middle of something, sometimes dealing with terrible things, injustices, loss, death and then, I’d feel a FLUTTER, a poke, a tiny kick, and somehow, it gave me hope.

Childless or not, young or old, male or female, during this Advent season, we are all pregnant. Advent reminds us that God is at work to give birth in us and through us. To bring love and light and goodness of the Christ child into the world in us and through us. So, ready or not, we are all pregnant. Have you felt the flutter?

I felt it this week as person after person came in and climbed upstairs to fill the stockings for those who have been kicked out in the cold just for being who they are. I felt the flutter of kindness as gifts fell into the stockings. I felt it when last year’s Vicar Emily, soon to be pastor Emily, brought 10 gorgeous, soft and fluffy blankets made by Lutheran college students. A flutter of warmth in the cold.

I felt it when I watched youth from our shelter working late in the kitchen to prepare baked ziti for the next evening’s Advent Dinner Church. I felt it when I watched a little boy who came to his first communion class and asked, “What’s a Jesus?” now two months later, coloring an invitation to his first communion and telling me that the cross on the bread reminded him of God.

Some movements of change and new life are huge and magnified for all the world. The falling of the Berlin Wall. The freeing and election of Nelson Mandela. The opening of Cuba. These things remind us of possibilities that have seemed impossible.

But these large moments are rare. Advent reminds us to be alert for the small flutters. Like Mary. She refuses to magnify the oppression. She refuses to magnify the terror and loss of those living under the Roman regime. Mary sings of a future too small to see, taking shape in her womb, Mary lifts up truth in a world that magnifies so many lies. Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that every small voice of truth, every embryonic hope, every holy vision towards which we work without yet arriving is more important than it may seem. And it’s all magnified in Mary’s song. She sings as if God’s dream is already born and flourishing. Even when it’s only a flutter.

The poet Emily Dickinson put it like this

Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all.

Hope is the thing with feathers. A flutter of feathers.

The Brazilian theologian Ruben Alves describes such hope like this: “….Hope is that presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression. It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.”

I witnessed such a creative event this past week, probably my favorite flutter moment. Last week, we had an Advent Crafts night for children to come and eat pizza and make Christmas ornaments. In preparation, we spread newspapers over the tables to catch the glitter and glue and make clean up easier. As the newspapers went down, I noticed the news they bore. News of systematic torture by our own government, news of slaughtered school children in Pakistan, news of brutal racism and poverty. News not fit for children. I hoped none of the children coming would notice and of course they didn’t. They focused on making angels and decorating cookies and turning candy canes into reindeer and glitter-bombing snowflakes. Together children from very different backgrounds defied the fatalistic news of division and hate spread out before them.

It’s also true that they would then go out to live in a world unfit for children, On Christmas Eve, we will sing the beloved carol, Joy to the World, that includes this verse: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.”

The thorn-infested ground was spread out in front of our children by way of those grim newspapers and they would go out to face it directly. So…did those few hours of loving favor and glittery happiness matter?

We each have to answer that question for ourselves. For my part, I’m with Mary. I choose yes. I choose to magnify the flutters.

“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


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.