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

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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