Without Witness, Without Reward

Family of Christ PC(USA)

August 12, 2018

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

A few months ago, when you were starting on this liminal journey between pastors and interim I preached a sermon on Star Trek. Now that you're nearing the end and this will probably be the last time I preach here for a while I thought I'd balance it out with a Doctor Who sermon. If things had gone on much longer, you'd have gotten comic books, and that "All New Wolverine" sermon was going to be something special.

I've been binging on a lot of Doctor Who for the last few weeks. There isn't much on TV during the summer, I've seen all the episodes of the new series multiple times, so they make great background noise while I'm doing something else, and I just love the character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Doctor, they're the central character on a BBC television series that premiered more than 50 years ago. The weekly adventures of the Doctor ran originally from 1963 to 1989. There was a made for TV movie in 1996, and then in 2005 the regular series was started again and continues through today. In that time 13 actors have portrayed the Doctor and a 14th, Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the Doctor, is set to premier in October.

I think he introduces himself best when he says this: "I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm nine hundred and three years old and I'm the man who's going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?"

Another character gets a little carried away, saying of him "Because I've seen him. He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He is ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he's wonderful."

Now I have to say, that I very rarely do much binging of Paul. So often he comes off as a curmudgeonly misogynist. And so many of his texts have been used against women and queer people. And he was such an uninteresting preacher that he literally bored someone to death during one of his sermons.

But there are times when I really love Paul. Galatians for example, and, now, today's text.

Often this is one of those texts that can and has been badly misused as a prescriptive list of rules by those in the history of the church who have wanted to control others. "Don't be angry," "Don't swear," "Be more God-like".

But I think if you read it as a whole, you can get away from the prescriptive list and see it as Paul talking about being in the church, about being human, and about how those two things interact.

It would be easy to read this as some kind of smarmy, sappy appeal to always be nice, and to always be good little children, but I feel like there's more than that here. Paul doesn't tell them to not get angry, he tells them to not be bitter and to be kind as God has been kind to them. But because he doesn't tell them not to get angry, there's an edge to it and a freedom. There are things that are going to make you angry, there are times you're going to need to stand up for yourselves. Christ got angry, Christ stood up for himself and for his friends when he needed to, but even in those moments he was never cruel, and he did not sin.

When the Doctor took that name (no one knows their real name) they swore an oath to themself "Without hope, without witness, without reward. Never cruel, never cowardly, and never give up"

The Doctor, although thoroughly alien, throughout all the incarnations has always had a great love for Earth and the human race.

At one point a character is introduced as "No one important" And the Doctor reponds, "Blimey, that's amazing, You know, in 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important"

In Ephesians, Paul exhorts the members of the church to "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil." And, "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Paul in his exhortation to the church at Ephesus is acknowledging that just because you've come to church, that doesn't mean that you stop being a part of the human race.

Humans get angry, humans can be malicious, and bitter and angry, and people in the church are still susceptible to those things, but that doesn't mean they have to be governed by them, Paul is giving them another way to live. A way to live that's, maybe, attainable.

Paul is telling them that they don't need to be perfect, that they can continue to be who they are, as long as they try to be kind. It's there,

in that moment when Paul doesn't say be perfect, or be nice, but rather be kind to one another. It's the word kind there and the way it's different from nice or from being perfect. It's a lot harder.

In American culture We tend to confuse niceness with kindness and think that as long as we can take care of the first one, we don't have to worry about the second.

There're different versions in different parts of the country.

There's the famous "Minnesota Nice," a surface sheen of niceness and pleasantness, that some have observed is less about being "nice" but is more about keeping up appearances, maintaining the social order, and keeping people in their place. I saw t-shirt Saturday that referred to it as "Minnesota Passive-Aggressive"

In the south, it's "Bless your heart."  Which is kind of a universal get out of jail free card for saying nasty things but still appearing to be nice.

But even without the regional stereotypes, I think we often find it easier to be nice than to be kind. It's nice to say "I'm sorry for your loss", it's kind to say "How can I help? Can I watch the kids? Make some meals?"

Nice tries to spare emotions, ease pain. Kind tries to help, even if, at times it causes more pain.

Nice turns a blind eye to excessive drinking, kind says "I know you're going to hate me, but you need to get some help."

Kind is hard, kind calls for effort, and even for sacrifice. In his next to last episode the 12th Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi is facing a no-win situation, one that will surely kill him, but he won't run and he gives this speech trying to convince two of his fellow Time Lords to stand with him rather than run away:

No! No! When I say no, you turn back around! (catches up with them) Hey! I'm going to be dead in a few hours, so before I go, let's have this out, you and me, once and for all. Winning? Is that what you think it's about? I'm not trying to win. I'm not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It's not because it's fun and God knows it's not because it's easy. It's not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it's right! Because it's decent! And above all, it's kind. It's just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there's no point in any of this at all, but it's the best I can do, so I'm going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You're going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?

There's another story where the Doctor is running from a group called "The Family of Blood" who want to catch him so they can use his essence as a Time Lord as a way to make themselves immortal. The Doctor runs and hides from them, even changing himself into a human being so that they won't be able to detect him, giving up all his 900 years of knowledge and power. Throughout the two-part story it was assumed he ran because he was afraid. At the end one of the family shares the real reason:

He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why. Why this doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he'd run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.

The character then goes on to describe the way the Doctor punishes the Family of Blood for their arrogance, what he had been trying so hard to avoid.

The thing about the prescriptive-list-of-rules reading of this text that I talked about earlier is that it's easy. Or at least it's a lot easier to say, "Don't get angry" than it is to say "You're going to get angry, don't use that as an excuse to treat other people like crap."

Don't get angry is a great way to try to control people by convincing them that this thing they can't avoid is sin and therefore they need to repent and come back to your church.

Saying "It's okay that you got angry, what matters is how you treat other people while you were angry" is giving up control and saying, you need to use your own mind and decide how you're going to behave.

It's a lot easier to say, "just be nice to everyone." Nice is easy, nice is saying the right things and trying to protect everyone's feelings. You don't even really need to think about the other person, you just say and do the same things you would for anyone else, bless their heart.

But Paul wants us to be kind. Kind is hard, kind is really thinking about the other person and putting yourself out to do what they really need, even if that is painful and difficult for you, or painful for them.

In both cases, "get angry but don't sin" and "be kind rather than nice" what causes us difficulty is that in order to do the second thing is that we actually need to think about people other than ourselves. We actually need to lay our needs and wants aside and consider those things in other people.

At the end of the last new episode of Doctor Who that we've had, the 12th Doctor finally accepts that he has reached the end of his run and must regenerate into someone new. Before he goes, he lays out the rules for the next one, so that they will be right there at the front of number thirteen's mind:

You wait a moment, Doctor. Let's get it right. I've got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go.

Except maybe for the part about the pears, I don't think Paul could say it any better.

At What Cost

Family of Christ PC(USA), Greeley, Colorado
July 8, 2018
Ezekiel 2:1-5
Mark 6:1-13

When I first saw that these were the lectionary texts for today I was super excited. I mean the Mark text is such a classic that you just need to say a few words of it and people know where you’re going. And I love the Ezekiel text. They’re just rich and meaty to work with.

“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

"Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them."

I had such a desire to stand up hear and speak prophetic words to you, so that you would know a prophet had been among you. So that you could hear God’s word with such force and strength that you would be convicted to do great works as you went out from this service.

But. . .

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house."

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

If going to his home town was Jesus’ kryptonite, what do you think coming to FOC does to me? The church I grew up in, with my mother sitting right there?


And I was scared. What authority did I have to come here and speak prophetically to you? You who knew me when I was part of the Almost Perfect Youth Group? You who have seen the mess that my life has been a lot of the time since then. What authority would you give to me and my words?

To speak prophetically you need two things, the authority of a prophet and the Word of God.
Who the hell am I to think that I have either of those things? Both of them have to be granted to you from outside, and why would they be granted to me? I’ve been unemployed for six months, I live on antidepressants and antianxiety drugs, the first thing I set aside from the unemployment check that I get every two weeks is the money for my every other week appointment with my therapist.

So my excitement at these texts turned to fear and anxiety in the pit of my stomach and I could not even start writing this. Until I forced myself to sit down at the Park Hill Library on Friday after noon and just start writing.

In her book Bird By Bird Anne Lamott writes about how “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”


Now there’s a prophet who knows what she’s talking about. Nothing that I wrote on Friday is in this sermon, but in the hours that I sat there and struggled to spit all that out, I found the voice and the authority that I need to preach these texts to you today, and by the time I finished the 90 minute drive home I knew what I needed to say. 

So here goes. 

What I can see so clearly is the need for a prophet in the land in these days. For we have surely become a rebellious house.

We need a prophet to speak against the way we’re tearing families apart at the border.

We need a prophet to speak against the rise of white supremacists and their fellow travelers.

We need a prophet to speak against the sexual and physical abuse of women

We need a prophet to speak against the growing division in the country, that’s splitting families and friends.

We need a prophet to speak about how black lives, and brown lives, and trans lives, queer lives really do matter.

We need a prophet to speak against the false cries for civility that really intend to drown out the words of the prophets that are already speaking

We need a prophet to speak against national leadership that confuses the sowing of fear and hatred with actually leading.

We need so many prophets.

But. . .

I can’t be that person or more accurately, those people, this morning.

And the truth is, those people are already out there.

I don’t need to have the authority of a prophet or the Word of God. I need to have the courage and the strength to listen for the prophecy that is already being spoken. I need to find a way to separate those voices from the noise.

There’s a prophet that owns the Red Hen Restaurant.

There are prophets going to the border to defend the separated children in court.

There are prophets in the senate named Maxine and Elizabeth, who are using their place of power to speak the truth.

There’s a prophet in the House of Representatives named John who has been speaking since before the Selma to Montgomery marches and is still speaking today.

There’s a prophet on Netflix named Hannah, and if you haven’t seen her special, “Nanette,” you really need to.

There are prophets right here in this room and in this church, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, speaking out as activists, creating art that challenges the audience and that supports the community.

There are so many prophets everywhere you look, if only we choose to hear them, to see them.
We are surrounded with such a great cloud of witness today that we must not despair or give into the fear that we have been left alone to deal with the pain and the struggles on our own.

And if that isn’t enough, we can still listen to the words of the prophets who have gone before.

Two weeks ago at the General Assembly of the PC(USA), our denomination began the process of making Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” one of our official confessional statements, adding it to our Book of Confessions, our record of the conversation the church has been having with itself throughout its history on what it means to be the church.

When the process of adding the Letter is completed, and I pray that it will be, it will stand alongside the Belhar Confession where the church in South Africa spoke out against Apartheid and the Theological Declaration of Barmen, where the church in Germany spoke out against the rise of Nazi power and the way they saw some of the church surrendering to that power.


It’s taken far too long, and it will take at least six years more before it’s complete, but what an amazing example it is of actually listening for the voices of the prophets in our time. 

I can’t be a prophet for you today, all I’m able to do is point you to the prophets that are all around us. Indeed, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at my seminary, has suggested that it may not be the job of the preacher to speak as a prophet, but rather to work as the scribe speaking the words of the prophets again and again, so that we may learn to really hear them.
With that in mind, I feel like I should leave you with the words of a couple of modern prophets.

From Dr. King

I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

And, finally, from Hannah Gadsby:

I don’t tell you this so you think of me as a victim, I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value. My story has value…

You destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents. I will not allow my story to be destroyed. 

What I would have done to have heard a story like mine, not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power, but to feel less alone. To feel connected…Because diversity is strength, difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing… 

And I am angry and I believe I have every right to be angry, but what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger. I don’t, because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else…

Laughter is not our medicine, stories hold our cure…I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger, I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood, by individuals with minds of their own. Because, like it or not, your story is my story, and my story is your story. I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story anymore, I don’t want my story defined by anger, all I can ask is just please help me take care of my story…And that is the focus of the story we need: connection.

Look for the prophets, listen for their words, connect their stories to yours, and take care of them.
Amen

Aletheology

Family of Christ PC(USA)

Pentecost, 2018

Acts 2:1-21

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Thursday morning I went to my yoga class and the teacher started out by talking a little bit about stories, their nature and the nature of truth in them. And then she moved into the regular practice and invited us to let go of outside thoughts and just focus on our breathing.

Well, you can't just start me on an epistemological path like that and then expect me to be able to just put it aside a minute later. I'm fascinated by stories and the way they impact us, by the way, they bring us together and they way they allow us to remember.

I'm particularly fascinated by the way some stories are seen as true and others as not true. And I wonder if there aren't different kinds of truth, different ways for stories to be true, to be real.

The author John Green has said that we don't remember what happened, what we remember becomes what happened.

Personally, I often relate the story of Paris and the Starship Enterprise. Now, I've never actually seen either of them. All I know about them is what other people have told me, what I've read in books, and what I've seen on TV. One of them I have spent my whole life studying in minute, ridiculous detail until I know basically everything there is to know about it.   The other one is a city in France.

So, which one is more true to me, more real? Now, before you call the nice men in the white coats to take me away, yes, I do know that the Enterprise is a fictional creation while I have every reason to believe that Paris is a real city several thousand miles east-ish of here.

But in terms of direct, concrete impact on my life, the Enterprise is much more real.

The Pentecost story in Acts is interesting to me in part because of that ambiguity. 

We celebrate this day as the birthday of the church, the place where it all started.

The spirit comes down upon the gathered and rests on them and gives them the power to testify in many languages. And there just happens to be a remarkable crowd outside, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia. Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. A Bible professor once told us that the odds of all those different people from all those different places all being conveniently outside the window are so small that Luke throwing in some Klingons and Romulans really wouldn't change them that much.

But really, does that make the story untrue? Or is it about the larger, more important truth, that the testimony being given is open to all people, everywhere and in every time?

It's that truth that is most important to me as we celebrate the birthday of the church. 

In this part of Acts, we get to see the birth of the church, a church that was united as one, where all the members lived in harmony, sharing all their possessions, they proclaimed the gospel and they did great works of healing. That sounds awesome, and it lasts from here, Acts chapter 2 all the way to chapter 5 where it starts to fall apart and it never manages to pull itself together again.

The church went from birth to teenage rebellion in the span of three chapters. 

In the Apostle's Creed, Christians affirm that they believe in the one holy (small c) catholic church, even though none of us have ever seen it, other than in these three chapters, and we are all unlikely to ever see it in our lifetimes.

Is this part of Acts just a nice fairy tale of the way things were once, but can never be again?  Is it something that we trot out every year like the story of the first Thanksgiving and then put back away and ignore until it comes around again?

I hope not. 

I have often been referred to as a Presby-nerd, and despite the fact that I am currently living in exile in the land of the Lutherans, I continue to be one. When the General Assembly in St. Louis rolls around in June, I will stream large portions of it, especially the plenaries, because I loves me some polity and some parliamentary procedure.

I had such proud moment while I was watching GA back in 2016 and someone came to the microphone to offer an amendment to the motion that was currently on the floor. The proposed amendment would have effectively negated the original motion. And I yelled at the TV, That's not an amendment, that's a substitute motion!!

A minute or two later Gradye Parsons, the longtime Stated Clerk, informed the commissioners that what had been proposed could not be an amendment to the original motion but would have to be treated as a substitute motion.

I still get a warm glow thinking about it. As I said, I'm a Presby-nerd.

Aside from polity and Roberts Rules of Order, I'm particularly nerdy about a section of the Book of Order called The Great Ends of the Church. So nerdy, in fact, that my fellow Presbyterian seminarians thought I was maybe a little too into them.

I first learned about the Great Ends years ago when mother made a set of Great Ends of the Church banners for FOC. I later made a set of those banners for my church in Alabama, and when I went to seminary, hanging there in the refectory we the original set from the General Assembly where the banners were introduced.

The six Great Ends of the Church are, The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. The maintenance of divine worship. The preservation of the truth. The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. The promotion of social righteousness. And The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

In those three chapters of Acts following Pentecost, we see the nascent church living up to those great ends, they proclaimed the Gospel, they worshiped in the face of strong opposition from the powers-that-were, they maintained the truth of what they new in the face of that opposition, they sheltered and nourished one another, sharing all that they had, through acts of healing they addressed the needs of the poorest and least well off in their society and through doing all this they show us that maybe those things can be happen, that the church could, possibly, achieve its Great Ends.

In the early 1960s, Gene Roddenberry, The Great Bird of the Galaxy and the creator of Star Trek managed to slide a fast one past the powers that be in the Hollywood studios of the day.

Star Trek, he told them, would be nothing more than a space western, a "Wagon Train to the stars." And such was Gene's persuasiveness, he was able to get them to make it.

But for Gene, that was never what Star Trek was about. For him, the very core of Star Trek was that human beings just like us could be better. Humans didn't have to be driven by greed, by fear, racism, sexism, but rather could work together, man and woman, white, black, Asian, and alien, not for money or for conquest, but for the greater good of mankind and all we encountered.

There's a classic method in the arts, promoted in the theater by Bertold Brecht, of commenting on the present times more or less safely by placing the work in the past but dealing with current day issues, known as historification.

Roddenberry used that in reverse. He went to the future and looked back at those issues, racism, never-ending war, disease, etc and said, what if we approached these in a different way? 

And he did it with ordinary people, Kirk, McCoy, Sulu were not superhumans, they were people, people who chose to be better.

In the original series episode, "A Taste of Armageddon" two warring civilizations have found a way to make war civilized. Computers simulate attacks, and the people in the affected areas dutifully report to designated disintegration chambers to be killed. But no buildings are destroyed, no infrastructure is damaged, for the rest of the people life goes on as if there were no war at all.

Kirk stops a character from committing this ritualized suicide, and she tries to explain why she has to report in to be killed:

 

Mea 3: If I refuse to report, and other refuse, then Vendikar would have no choice but to launch real weapons. We would have to do the same to defend ourselves. More than people would die then. A whole civilization would be destroyed. Surely, you can see that ours is the better way.

Captain James T. Kirk: No. I don't see that at all.

 

To the horror of Anan 7, the head of the government, Kirk then proceeds to destroy the computers that have been running the war for hundreds of years. 

 

ANAN: There can be no peace. Don't you see? We've admitted it to 

ourselves! We're a killer species, it's instinctive. It's the same with 

you! Your General Order 24. 

KIRK: Alright. It's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're 

human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we're not going to kill - today!

 

We can do better, we can make the world, the galaxy a better place.

Much later, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Thine Own Self". The android, Data, finds himself stranded on a planet with a civilization just on the cusp of the beginning of the Renaissance without most of his memory.

He is taken in by a small family, a father, Garvin and his young daughter, Gina. In one of my favorite moments in all of Star Trek, the family has just had dinner and Data lingers in the dining room, looking out the window at the stars and moon as Gina clears the dishes.

Data asks, "Where is your mother?"

Gina replies, "She died about a year ago. Father said she went to a beautiful place, where everything is peaceful and everyone loves each other and no one ever gets sick. Do you think there's really a place like that?"

And Data, still staring out at the moon and stars says, "Yes. I do."

Later, after Gene's death, that vision of a better humanity begins to fade from the writing and storytelling in Star Trek, it's still there, it's just not as pure or as clean

In the later chapters of Acts and the following books, we see glimpses of the church doing better, but never attaining that ideal laid out in these chapters.

Both Star Trek and these three chapters of Acts try to show us that we can do better, that many of society's ills, could just maybe be resolved if we could just do better.

Does the objective truth of either of those stories really matter?

In the final Great End, The Exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world, the church is called to add its story to these stories and show the world that maybe we, just regular people, can be better than we have been.

People in recovery often use the phrase, Fake it until you make it. Meaning to act as if you have already achieved the goal you are striving for until such a time as you actually achieve it. Recovery also stresses the principle of one day at a time.

On this day that we celebrate the church's birthday, I want to invite all of us to fake it until we make it and one day at a time show the world that we can be better. Wouldn't that be the best birthday present of them all?

Definitely Not a Doubting Thomas Sermon

Family of Christ PC(USA), Greeley, Colorado

April 8, 2018

1 John 1:1-2:2

(HFASS folks will recognize some recycled content. Shhh, don't tell anyone.)

I wonder if this text sounds weird for the Sunday after Easter. I mean, when Corny asked me to preach on what is sometimes known as "Low Sunday" I immediately knew that the Gospel text was going to be one of two things. It was either going to be The Road to Emmaus, or it was going
to be Doubting Thomas. I mean those are the things you talk about on the Sunday after
Easter, right? Over and over again, year after year, Road to Emmaus or Doubting Thomas, 
Doubting Thomas or Road to Emmaus, and on and on, right? For the record, this year it's
Doubting Thomas.

Supply preachers like me often get asked to preach on the second Sunday of Easter, because all
the installed pastors are fried from Holy Week and many of them are on vacation, so this for
this Sunday you either get a guest preacher or something else that gives the pastor a break like
Youth Sunday or something. 

So, if somebody did a study, it would probably turn out that supply preachers work on these
texts more than the installed pastors do.

I have a Doubting Thomas sermon in my files that I know none of you have heard, and I could
probably have pulled it out, dusted it off, updated a few things and y'all would have never
known.

But, yeah, that's not happening this week.

This year on Low Sunday we're doing something else.

Let's see what there is to do with this text.

There's a big temptation with this text to use it to point at those guys over there.

It's particularly tempting with the current political climate.

It's particularly tempting with the divide between liberals and conservatives in the church

And it's double plus tempting when the people on the other side of the divide seem to spend a lot of their time pointing at you.

As a transwoman, I am very much aware that there are people over there who spend a lot of
time talking about how horrible I am, whether it's the president saying that people like me are
not fit to serve in the military or organizations like the "Center for Biblical Manhood and
Womanhood" who last year published what they called "The Nashville Statement" which said, 
among other things:

"WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God's holy purposes
in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture. WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or
transgender self-conception is consistent with God's holy purposes in creation and
redemption."

And

"WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender
self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one's
biological sex and one's self-conception as male or female. WE DENY that the grace of God in
Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God's revealed will."

Fortunately, when I'm confronted with things like that, I have a wonderful group of friends around
me to support me. Some of those friends gathered in a coffee shop on Colfax the day
the Nashville Statement came out and wrote "The Denver Statement" responding with:

"WE AFFIRM that there is no longer male or female but all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
WE DENY any self-conception that presumes one is capable of knowing God's holy purposes for
other people, and that such self-conceptions can be consistent with the Gospel of grace, love, 
and mercy as demonstrated in holy scripture."

And 

"WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake prejudice and see such
prejudice as our own and not as God's.
WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-righteous assertions of absolute
knowledge of God's will."

It would feel great to give a pulpit thumping, haranguing sermon about how those guys over
there are such hypocrites calling me a sinner for being transgender while ignoring their own sin.

Damn, would that feel great.

But I don't think that Family of Christ needs to hear that sermon. And I don't think I'm ever
going to be invited to preach at the kind of churches that do need to hear it.

So, I can't indulge myself. 

There's got to be a different way to go.

I think the other way to go is to think about our own sin rather than thinking about others.

Because, of course, it's always fun to think about our sins.

Sins are those things that other people use to make us feel bad about ourselves.

And to be honest, for a lot of us, sins are the things that we use to make us feel bad about
ourselves.

I know I have a part of myself whose job is to keep track of all the bad things, real or imagined
that I have ever done and to remind me of them, usually when I'm awake in the night, or when
I'm already feeling bad about other things that are going on.

I bet some of you have that part too.

We have these very intricate and detailed lists of what's sin and what's not and we check things
off, both about ourselves and about others, tallying up the good things and bad things.

It's amazing the very specific nits that we pick at over and over again. 

We want there to be a clear list of what's a sin and what's not, so we can know how we're
doing.

But I can't help but notice that the writer of this epistle says that if we say we haven't sinned
the truth is not in us and we make a liar out of God.

But what he doesn't do is specify sins, unlike us, he seems to be completely uninterested in the checklists that we're so fond of. 

Because the specifics of our sins are not important. It isn't about what we have done. 

It's about, I think, how God wants to forgive us, to be in fellowship with us and walk in the light
with us.

And we get in the way.

We struggle to accept God's care and love for us, not because it's hard to attain, but because
we just can't accept that it's right there laid out for us.

That struggle to accept what's freely there for our taking is something that's come up several
times in my life recently.

In her sermon on Maundy Thursday last week, Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke about Christ's last commandment to his disciples, that they should love one another. She pointed out that for many
of us the hardest part of that commandment is not loving other people, but in allowing ourselves
to be loved by others. So, often, when someone tries to love us, we push away, we hide. In the Maundy Thursday text, it happens almost immediately as we see Peter pushing himself back and refusing initially refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Because he couldn't accept the idea that he was deserving of the gift and love that Jesus was trying to give him.

Then, Saturday night at my church's Easter Vigil I took part in one of the series of readings that
we do during the initial portion of the service each year. It's similar to a service of Lessons and
Carols except for two things. One, we sing hymns, not Christmas carols between the readings, 
and, two, we invite people to not just literally read the text, but rather to tell the story
creatively in their own way.

This year that included two original songs, a karaoke version of a third, the children leading us
in "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands", and a video telling the story of the flood from the
perspective of the dinosaurs, as portrayed by three members of the congregation in inflatable
T-Rex costumes.

I ended up picking for my piece, a portion of Isaiah 61 where the prophet speaks about how "I
will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me
with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe or righteousness, as a
bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels."

And God says that he will, "give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of
mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit."

I spoke about my "complicated" relationship with clothes.

For most of my life, I've been a cross-dresser. By that I mean, on a day to day basis, I have worn
clothes that I knew didn't fit with the gender, with the person, I knew myself to be.

Now, I want to say, that, in and of itself, there's nothing wrong with cross-dressing. If it makes
you happy, knock yourself out.

The problems arise when it doesn't bring you happiness, but shame and fear. Or when it ceases
to be about expressing who you are and rather is about hiding who you are, masking your true
self.

For 49 years of my life, I was a cross-dresser, and not just in one direction, but two.

For 40 years I would have sworn to you that I was a straight cis-man. A straight cis-man who
just happened to have a large collection of women's clothes hidden away, to take out only in
the strictest privacy, when I knew no-one else would be able to see. I felt so much shame and
fear that it kept me from experiencing many of the joys of life.

That's my first story of cross-dressing.

Then, about 13 years ago, I learned some new words for myself. James Edward Foote, that
straight cis-man was no more and Meghan Jennifer Foote, the trans ace woman emerged like a
butterfly from a chrysalis, and all was wonderful.

Well, no. What it meant at that point was just that I had become a different kind of cross-
dresser, I had moved from wearing the clothes that I thought fit my identity and hiding the ones
that I thought didn't, to wearing the clothes that hid what I knew to be my identity.

I was happier, I was in a better place, but I still wasn't where I needed to be.

It wasn't until four years ago that I found a way past that self-destructive cycle. I found a church
I loved, filled with people I felt I could trust and I wore a skirt in public for the first time. And it
was wonderful, it has lead me to the very best parts of my whole life

But no, the fear and shame, the depression and anxiety did not disappear in an instant like the
sun appearing from behind the clouds. I still require anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds just
to face the day, I'm still nervous about going to the bathroom in a strange place.

It wasn't until I started thinking about this text that I realized that I am yet a third type of cross-
dresser, and that most, if not all of us here tonight are too.

The thing is, I refuse, I fail to put on the garments of salvation and robes of righteousness that
God has laid out for me. 

The hardest part about this text is believing that those garlands and jewels are the way that
God wants us to be dressed.

But it would be so good if, once and while, we were able to stop our theological cross-dressing
and put aside the ashes for a garland, stop mourning for a minute and accept the oil of
gladness. Put aside our poor spirit and don the mantle of praise.

I pray that all of you will, even for one minute, be able to set aside the falsehood that tells you
that you don't deserve those things and show the world and yourselves who God has truly
made you to be.

In today's text the hard part we face is believing that it is so easy for us to set aside the things
that keep us from God, to lay down our checklist of things that we have decided mean that we
don't deserve to walk in the light, in fellowship with our loving God.

All through the Bible, in the new testament and the old, God wants to love us, God wants to
dress us in the robes of salvation, God wants to walk with us in the light. And God weeps for us
when we can't or won't accept those gifts.

And the reason we don't is not because, as some in the church would have you believe, that
God is angry with us, or vengeful, it's because we put up roadblocks, we refuse to let ourselves
accept what God is trying so hard to give us.

Today's text tells us, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not
in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us
from all unrighteousness."

Through the centuries the church in it's various parts has built up elaborate structures around
the act of confession and absolution. From the Catholic church's sacrament of personal
confession to the prayer of confession we recited together earlier in this service.

But this text isn't asking that we go through any of those actions, just that we acknowledge the
obvious fact that we screw up, that we're going to continue to screw up and that we can't help
screwing up. 

I don't think that any of us can argue that those things aren't true, it's just so hard for us to
believe that all we need to do is let go of our lists of screw-ups, it's so hard for us to believe that
just acknowledging that they are true is enough without any further action for God to let those
things go and to walk with us in the light.

We don't need to say Hail Marys, or whip ourselves over these things, we don't need a priest or
a minister to tell us that we are forgiven.

We need to let God love us, we need to put on the garments of salvation and the robes of
righteousness that God has laid out for us, and to say, "yep, I'm a screw up." 

The writer of our text today promises us that's all we need:

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does
sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning
sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

Amen

 

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

November 12, 2017

House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver.

These are a couple of rough texts.

Amos has God yelling at the Israelites about how he hates their worship, hates their music, won’t even look at their sacrifices.

And then Matthew has the Bridegroom, and I’ll let you in on a secret, the Bridegroom is Jesus, telling the five foolish bridesmaids, “I don’t know you” and closing the door on them.

Hear the good news.

I got a later than usual for me start on this sermon. The advantage of not being an every week preacher is that I usually have two or three weeks where I can think about the texts, write some things down, do some research, really work things out.

Reagan IMed me last Sunday morning to see if I would be able to preach tonight. Sure, I said. What could go wrong? What’s the worst that could happen?

Then I went and looked at what the texts were for this week and all of a sudden I had the answer to what was the worst that could happen.

These texts are like trying to get away from a lion only to run into a bear.

One of the things you can do when you’re in a hurry and don’t know what to say about the texts is go pull out the commentaries and see what they say you should say.  I have a particular set that I go to, twelve volumes about preaching the lectionary, edited by folks from my seminary, it’s very popular, especially in Presbyterian circles. So Monday night I hunkered down with Year A, volume 4 and read about the Amos and Matthew stories. And it was very helpful because, by the time I was done reading, I knew exactly what I didn’t want to say.

Fortunately for me, I have another weapon up my sleeve. My almost preternatural and kind of creepy ability, to pull up a pop culture reference for almost any situation.

All week I had two lines from the Whedonverse running through my head.

Xander Harris on hearing  that  his on and off girlfriend Anya had died as she stepped up to save another person’s life, “That’s my girl, always doing the stupid thing”

And Jayne Cobb on being told he could sit out of a particular firefight: “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about should lately. Just last Friday I was talking to my therapist about the things I do day to day, and she said, “There’s an awful lot of shoulds in there, where’s the time for Meghan?”

It’s so easy to just do the shoulds, I should get up at 5:30 in the morning go to work, I should take my lunch at my desk, I should make dinner for my mother, I should stay up past 10:30 at night to help my mother get to bed, I should say yes when the church asks me to do something, I should say yes when my friends ask if I want to go out, because if I don’t, maybe they won’t ask me again.

My mother is great at giving me shoulds, most often in the imperial we, “We should clean the gutters,” “We should get the trees out of the garden,” and on.

I could spend the next five years doing nothing but shoulds, and still have just as many yet to do.

But in all that where is there room for “I want”, “I would like to. . .”, “How can I get out of this job, that’s giving so much stress”?

But the truth is, it’s so much easier to just move from one should to another, and not think about the hard questions, not make the hard choices. Even if the shoulds are hurting me.

What’s the smart thing to do, what’s the right thing to do, no matter what I think I should do?

I hear those kinds of questions in both of these texts, although in one case I think sticking to the shoulds is willful ignorance, while in the other, it comes from a genuine desire to do what is right.

The Amos text sounds so vicious and mean. And it sounds so different from what we’re used to hearing and what we’re used to thinking church should be about.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

5:22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

5:23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But as with so many things, context is really important 

This text comes from the fifth chapter of Amos, and believe me, most of the rest of the book has been about how horrible the Israelites have been. Particularly how bad they have been to the poor and needy. 

From chapter 2: “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;"

From chapter 4: "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan...who oppress the poor, who crush the needy."

From earlier in chapter 5: "Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! The one who made the Pleiades and Orion...who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name...Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain...Therefore says the lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: in all the squares there shall be wailing; and in the streets they shall say, 'Alas! Alas!'"

So you can see that God wasn’t really happy with Israel at this point, because of the way they have treated the poor and the afflicted.

And the Israelites have been saying to themselves, “As long as we worship the way we should, as long as we sing the right songs and make the sacrifices that we should, we’ll be fine.”

And today’s text is God saying “Umm, no. Your first responsibilities are to see to righteousness and justice, to protect the poor and comfort the afflicted, then you can come and worship and I will listen to your harps and look on your sacrifices.

This is God saying that coming to church on Sunday, that right worship and prayer are not the point, and are not enough. 

Isn’t it great that a couple three thousand years later, we’ve all learned that lesson and there’s nobody out there thinking that church on Sunday and tithing are all they need to do, and how they treat the poor and the needy the rest of the week isn’t really important?

Umm. Okay maybe not.

The ten bridesmaids story gave me a lot more trouble, because on the surface and even when you dig deeper into it, it appears to be saying that there are things you can do, that are in your control, that can keep you out of the Kingdom and put you outside the love of God. And that, aside from being an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, just goes against everything I believe.

So I needed to take another look and try again, and that’s when Jayne Cobb came to mind.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

What if this story is a warning about getting too caught up in the shoulds and forgetting what’s really important.

What if the mistake the foolish bridesmaids made was not in not thinking of bringing extra oil, but in thinking that it was the oil and not their presence that was important. They know they should have their lamps lit, but the should is not as important as what they need.

What if the Bridegroom (and again, if you haven’t kept up, the Bridegroom is Jesus) didn’t care nearly as much about whether the bridesmaid’s lamps were lit as he cared about the bridesmaids coming to greet him as he arrived. What if instead of being angry that they weren’t prepared like they feared, he would have been happy to see them, to welcome them in their boldness to approach without having everything in order and to rejoice in their mere presence.

The mistake they make, aside from thinking they’re going to find an oil dealer in ancient Palestine that was open at midnight, is staying away because they didn’t think they had what it takes, that the important thing was having oil and not in joining in the celebration of the coming of the Lord.

It’s the mistake the Israelites were making in Amos but turned on its head. The Israelites thought that just performing the correct worship rituals was enough, all the while ignoring what was actually important to God: justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.

It’s, I guess, a question of worthiness. The Israelites just assumed they were good to come to the Lord, despite all the warnings God had given them that they weren’t. They were the chosen people after all, how could they not be worthy?

And the bridesmaids assumed that they were not worthy to approach the Bridegroom because they didn’t quite have their lives in order. I mean they couldn’t light their lamps to welcome the Bridegroom how could they possibly go to him?

Reading the two texts, I think I’d rather be one of the foolish bridesmaids. I’d much rather approach the Lord in my unpreparedness, with my failings, saying I shoulda, coulda, woulda done more.

I think we’re in a much better place when we come to worship the Lord if we come feeling that we don’t deserve to be there than we are coming in certain of our righteousness when we have not been doing what we should.

The people who are sure of their righteousness don’t need to come to the church, to liturgy or to the table, although they would proudly step up for each. And God would hate, despise their worship.

Church, liturgy and the Eucharist are for those of us who forgot to bring extra oil, who want to say to God, “Give me just a little time to get ready, and then I’ll come.” 

God says, “No, come now, as unready as you are, as much as you feel you don’t belong or aren’t worthy. I want you to come.”

One of my favorite settings for the liturgy of the Eucharist goes like this:

This is the Welcome Table of our redeemer, and you are invited.  Make no excuses, saying you cannot attend; simply come, for around this table you will find your family.

Come not because you have to, but because you need to; come not to prove you are saved, but to seek the courage to follow wherever Christ leads.  Come not to speak but to listen, not to hear what’s expected, but to be open to the ways the Spirit moves among you.

So be joyful, not somber, for this is the feast of the reign of God, where the broken are molded into a Beloved Community, and where the celebration over evil’s defeat has already begun.

There are so many of us at House who have been told that we don’t have what it takes to approach the altar of God. Whether it’s because we’re gay, or trans, alcoholic, or addicted, depressed or crippled by anxiety, or whatever, there are so many reasons people will tell us that we should run and get more oil before we come anywhere near the Lord.

I come to House every week, not because it’s another on my long list of shoulds. But rather because this is the place I need to come to, this is the place and you are the people that give me the strength to face all those shoulds for the next week.

It’s stupid for us to think we can approach that altar. None of us belong there, none of us is ready, but like Anya, maybe the best thing that can be said about us is that we’re always doing the stupid thing. 

So I invite you to come to the table and do the stupid thing, come and meet the Lord who welcomes you joyfully, not because you’ve done everything you should, but because you haven’t and yet you still need to come. 

 

Anti-Excellence

I got this email from Nate a couple of weeks ago asking me to if I would be able to preach this weekend, 

And I said “sure, I can do that.”

Then he told me that the text for the week was the Calling of Samuel, and I almost regretted saying yes.

It’s a cute little story.

Well, except for the part where the first prophecy God gives Samuel is to tell his guardian and mentor that God’s going to bring down punishment upon his son’s and family without any relief forever, it’s a cute little story.

Cute little stories are awful to preach on. I mean it’s funny how he goes and wakes Eli up three times, and it’s awesome that he turns out to be a great prophet for Israel.

Umm. Conflict? Nope. How about moral questions? Not really.

It’s a call story, but as call stories go, it’s not even an interesting one. 

Isaiah gets a huge temple scene with six angels, with six wings each.

Ezekiel gets this psychedelic thing with wheels within wheels and eyes on the wheels, moving in all four directions without veering.

And if you want a really meaty call story, go check out Hosea, “when the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord”

Even Jeremiah got a scroll to eat.

Samuel disturbs an old man’s sleep three times. Yawn.

On top of all that, I’m just not a big fan of the call story genre.

You see, when you’re going to seminary and going through the process to become a teaching elder, everybody wants to hear your call story.

You have to write it up and tell it to your session, then write it up for your seminary application, then write it up and tell it to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry.

Once you’re in seminary and started on the process, you have to tell it in classes. Then you go to field ed and you have to tell it to that church, then you do your chaplaincy and you have to tell it there, and then you have to tell it to your presbytery when you stand for candidacy.

That was about the time I came out, I am not at all sure that part of my reason for doing that was so I could start telling that story instead of my call story.

The assumption was of course I must have a cool call story, that moment where God spoke to me and told me to go try to be a minister. There are so many call stories in the bible, of course everyone who goes to try to be a minister must have a story of their own. Right?

Because there are so many of them in the Bible and because we’ve heard so many of them in the course of our lives, we’ve kind of fetishized the call story. 

We talk about them, share them, write hymns about them.

I’ve been so conditioned to it, that I feel like I’m transgressing on some sacred church law by doing a sermon about call stories and not having us sing the ubiquitous “Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”

Please don’t rat me out to the church police.

And that obsession has caused a couple of problems through the years.

The first, that I think of as the “Constantine Effect” is how many times the church at large or individual churches have been taken in by somebody who had a great call story, who stood up and said in a very flamboyant way, “God spoke to me and told me that I need to lead you.” 

From stories like that we get cults, like The Branch-Davidians, The Westboro Baptist Church, and Focus on The Family.

We even see, today, groups of fundamentalists Christians attributing a call story to Donald Trump in order to justify their support of him.

Somebody pointed out that Peter probably wished that Paul didn’t have such a great call story.

And how different would western history be if Constantine hadn’t seen that cross on the night before battle?

So that’s one problem with focusing so much on the importance of call stories, people get taken in by particularly vibrant ones and that has often lead to some very negative outcomes.

But there’s a second problem that’s less obvious and more insidious, one that has probably cost the church quite a bit more than the stories of charismatic leaders ever has.

Many of you know that I go to House for All Sinners and Saints down in Denver. House has one central motto that we try to apply to all aspects of our church life.

We are “Anti-Excellence and Pro-Participation.” We don’t care how good you are at something, we care that you’re trying to be part of the life of the church.

Each week as people enter for worship, they’re met at the Table of Contents and welcomed by a couple of greeters, who will give them a bulletin, and ask them if they want to do a job.

As the table of contents is set up, there are 20 bulletins laid out on it, each with a job that needs to be done in worship written on the cover. Call To Worship, Communion Server, reading the first text, reading the Gospel, and on and on.

Anybody who walks in the door can take any of the jobs, even if it’s the first time they have ever joined us in Liturgy before, or haven’t been here for months, the jobs are open to who ever wants to do them.

Our founding pastor, Nadia, likes to tell a story about how on my first visit to House I took the Gospel reading and how shocking it waswhen this, in her words “Unattractive trans-woman” that nobody knew stood before them and read the Gospel with such beauty and conviction that it was like believing the words all over again.

The story is not quite true, it was actually my second Sunday, and I don’t know that I did all that great a job of reading the Gospel, but the story is canon now, so what can I do?

Right next to them on the table is a sign “We are anti-excellence and pro-participation.” And often, the people who take the jobs live into the anti-excellence part with abandon. And while that makes some people, myself included, cringe during the service, I think it’s wonderful that those people stepped up and did the work of the church, even if it was not something that they were good at, or comfortable with.

You can probably tell that I like to speak in public. It’s actually, unlike what most people experience, easier for me to speak in front of a crowd than it is for me to have a serious one on one conversation. 

And I have some skill at it, both connected to being around the theater for so long and to explicit training in seminary. Before we could take our intro to preaching class, we had to take a required course on the public reading of scripture, and then when we got into Intro, over the course of the semester we each preached three practice sermons that were videotaped. In the week after the practice sermon, we would spend an hour in a one on one session with the professor going over those videotapes moment by moment with the same level of attention to detail that football players go over game footage to see what they’ve done well and where they’ve screwed up. It was excruciating. But it taught us how to be in the pulpit.

My skill at public speaking has even been used as evidence of my call, it’s become part of my call story.

Through my three years plus at House, most Sundays I’ve taken one job or another, most often one of the scripture readings or the poem. I’ve consciously tried not to take any of them too often, because I didn’t want to be greedy, and I didn’t want people to think that my reading was the norm.

Recently I heard that a member had spoken to one of the pastors about how they didn’t like the way we had people who weren’t very good do the readings in liturgy and why couldn’t we have some kind of training so that more of the service was read by people who were good like Meghan.

I hate that. One immediate effect it’s had is that I’ve stopped doing any readings in liturgy. It breaks my heart to think that there’s even one person out there thinking that they can’t take a job because they can’t do as well as I can. 

I love standing before a congregation and speaking whether it’s reading scripture or preaching, and I’m vain enough to know that I’m pretty good at it. But I don’t want that to be a stumbling block for others. I don’t want to stand in the way of the next “unattractive trans woman” or whatever who’s willing to take the risk of standing up and joining in the work of the people.

Which brings me back to the second problem with our obsession with call stories. 

What about the people who don’t have one? 

What about the people who think that God hasn’t spoken to them like he did to Samuel or to Paul? Or that God hasn’t given them a gift for the work like he did for Isaiah or Jeremiah?

Through the centuries, how much has the church lost, because people who could have made a huge difference have said, “that’s not me, I’ve not been called to do that.”

One thing that I think people miss in that case is that, I believe, more often than not, the call comes after the stepping forward.

I haven’t told you my call story, but it is the story of someone who experienced the call after they took the step forward.

I was going to a church in Alabama, Immanuel Presbyterian, and partially because of what I had learned as a youth here at FOC, I signed up to be a liturgist, their equivalent of a lay leader. Certainly not because of any sense of call, but just because it was what one did.

And in that time, in that place, something clicked when I was in front of the congregation and when I was reading scripture. And then I wanted to do it more, so I took a class in the presbytery to be a commissioned lay pastor and I got to go to some other churches and preach and I wanted to do more and more and more and I went to seminary and you know most of the rest.

God never woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me to do those things, I never saw a bright light on the proverbial road to Damascus. 

What I did was try, without any of that, and it worked and it changed my life.

So I want to say to you, if you don’t have a Samuel story or an Ezekiel story, don’t let that stop you from giving your time and talents to the church. Maybe a call will come, maybe it won’t, but either way, you will have helped the church. 

And that’s far greater than any call story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Be Seen

August 20, 2017

House for All Sinners and Saints

 

To Be Seen

All this week I had an image from earlier in my life that kept returning to me, I guess it started 

in therapy Wednesday night and then I’ve kept coming back to it as I’ve thought about this text.

It could have been any Saturday in 1995 or 96, I was working at the Alabama Shakespeare 

Festival and living on my own. At the time I wasn’t going to church, so it wouldn’t be unusual 

for me to leave work on Friday and not speak to anyone besides maybe the cashier at Burger 

King until I got back to work on Monday.

I would have made my way to the mall, just to see other people. This was long before I had 

come out, where my desire to dress as and be a woman was still a cause for great shame and 

something that I knew I needed to hide from everyone.

I’d walk through the mall, head up, smiling, trying to make eye contact, and I could see and feel 

people’s eyes sliding off of me, not seeing me. There’s nothing in the world so invisible as a fat, 

unattractive white cis man in a mall in the deep south. 

There was a part inside of me that was just screaming, “You’re not seeing me! I know what I 

look like, but that’s not me, there’s something so different, something so amazing on the inside 

that you can’t see and I can’t tell you.”

I used to feel such envy of people who were visibly different. People covered in tattoos, goths, 

anybody who really stood out visually as different. I used to always imagine, knowing it wasn’t 

true even as was doing it that they must be so happy because people could see who they really 

were. They weren’t invisible, people could see them, see them for who they were. 

Today I still have that drive, and now I have the courage to do things, big and small, just to be 

seen. And, at times, I still feel invisible.

I’ve wanted to preach this sermon for at least nine years. The texts that we use in worship 

come from a thing known as the Revised Common Lectionary. It provides readings for each 

Sunday of the year in a three-year rotation, years A, B, and C. Today is the 20th Sunday in 

Ordinary Time, Year A. 

And the texts we heard today are the texts we heard three years ago on the 20th Sunday in 

Ordinary Time, I remember Nadia was still on sabbatical, so Brian preached. And nine years ago, 

and 12 years ago, somebody somewhere was preaching on these texts.

I’ve wanted to preach on the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time for two reasons.

1) Because I love, love, love, the Old Testament text. I identifiy with the beginning of Isaiah 

56 in a very personal way, it’s a text that speaks specifically to me and people like me in 

a very direct way naming us and promising us a place and a name in God’s house for all 

time.

2) I’ve also wanted to preach on this text so badly that I asked Reagan a year ago if I could 

preach this Sunday, because I hate, hate, hate what the Lectionary has done to the text.

Many Trans people, myself included, identify with the biblical depiction of eunuchs, both 

metaphorically, and for some like me literally.

Any of you remember the part about eunuchs in today’s readings? There was something about 

foreigners and something about a Canaanite woman and something about dogs, but eunuchs?

Yeah, I didn’t hear it either. 

As the lectionary has evolved, the exact shape of the texts has evolved as well, sometimes parts 

of them are left out because the readings are just too long, sometimes it’s for clarity or to 

remove things that are seen as irrelevant. A reference librarian at my seminary and I have been 

looking all summer for a record of how those decisions are made, but there doesn’t seem to be 

one, they just have happened.

Today’s first reading has been so shortened, for some reason it has gone through the process 

that seminary students refer to “comma-ing out” 

When you look at the citation for today’s first reading in the lectionary, it doesn’t say Isaiah 

56:1-8. What it says is Isaiah 56:1, 6-8. For me that comma is huge.

So, what wasn’t there? Hear the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 56:2-5:

2 Happy is the mortal who does this,

   the one who holds it fast,

who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,

   and refrains from doing any evil. 

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

   ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

   ‘I am just a dry tree.’ 

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

   who choose the things that please me

   and hold fast my covenant, 

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

   a monument and a name

   better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

   that shall not be cut off.

 

Listen to that blessing, “A monument and a name greater than sons and daughters, an 

everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Shall not be cut off, except maybe by the compilers of the lectionary who don’t want to waste 

their time on eunuchs like me.

I can't tell you when, where, or by whom those verses were removed, but I can tell you how 

that omission makes me feel: invisible. There’s that word again.

When I read about the Canaanite woman in the gospel lesson, it’s not hard for me to relate to 

her in some ways. She was even more invisible than I was in that mall in Montgomery Alabama. 

In that culture, in that time, women were just not supposed to be seen, and they certainly 

weren’t supposed to be making nuisances of themselves. Add to that that she was a gentile, not 

even a Jew, and here she is pestering Jesus and his very Jewish disciples. 

You know they tried to ignore her, to look right past her. “Just keep moving nothing to see 

here.” And they tried very hard to make sure that she didn’t bother Jesus with her ranting. They 

wanted to keep her invisible.

But to her great credit, she had something I never did, she had the courage to stand up and 

shout and not let them not see her. I don’t know how my life would be different if I had that 

courage back in those days of being invisibly in plain sight, but I do admire the Canaanite 

woman for not being willing to do that. How easy would it be for her to just stop yelling and just 

walk away, as invisible as I was in the mall, as invisible as her society said she was supposed to 

be.

But she keeps on, and she finally overwhelms the disciples with her tenacity and they appeal to 

Jesus to send her away. 

And here we get an example of a rare, but not non-existent, phenomenon in the Gospels, Jesus 

the Jerk. 

Last week when Nadia preached so eloquently on the walking on water text, she managed to 

leave out the part where Jesus calls Peter a loser for only being able to walk on water for two or 

three steps. Dude, really?

This week we get him telling this desperate woman, “I can’t help you, you’re not one of the 

people I came to help.”

And the woman still refuses to be invisible, but unlike what many of us would do in the 

circumstance, yelling at Jesus about what a dick he’s being, she just drops to her knees and 

makes one last plea for his help.

And still he refuses. He tells her that helping her would not be fair to the people he was sent to, 

it would be like taking the food from their mouths. He gives her one more chance to just 

disappear, as everyone would expect her to do.

But she responds, turning his own words back on him, that even dogs get the scraps that fall off 

the table. Abasing herself, calling herself a dog.

Then in a moment that should reassure many of us, Jesus shows us that God does in fact like 

smart asses, he grants her request and heals her daughter. 

She is invisible no more, because she did not allow herself to be invisible.

For whatever reason, the compilers of the lectionary want me to be invisible.

They don’t want to talk about eunuchs in church, probably don’t want to imagine that they 

have eunuchs in their churches. And so, they take it upon themselves to hide God’s great 

blessing to them.

Ten years after that scene in the mall, I was in seminary, studying theology, and the scriptures 

and I was brought to the place where I could come out, where I could begin the process of 

never being invisible again. A process that has been wonderful and which has led me into the 

best times of my life

The Canaanite woman refuses to be invisible, and when she is seen, she is granted that which 

she desires most, the healing of her daughter.

God knows us and sees us but God also wants us to be seen.

There’s two ways for that to happen.

 The first way is internal, I wasn’t able to be seen, to be known until I reached the point that the 

Canaanite woman reached, where I was willing, and more than willing, but had actually reached 

the point here it hurt too much to do anything else, that I was able to expose myself to the 

world, no matter what the world my think.

I was invisible at the mall, because I let myself be, because I accepted what the culture told me 

about myself, and I let myself not be seen.  

I used to be angry at the compilers of the lectionary because of the way they made people like 

me disappear, but the truth is, they can’t do that. We can only make ourselves invisible. And 

God’s promise to me remains, no matter whether it’s read in church every three years or not.

But there’s another way to approach gods desire that we be seen. And that’s for each and all of 

us to make the effort to see the people around us.

How different would the story of the Canaanite woman be if the disciples had seen her for who 

she was, had seen her need and instead of asking Jesus to drive her away, had taken her to him 

and said, “Can you help this woman?”

How different would this sermon have been if the compilers of the lectionary had kept the 

promise to the eunuchs in the reading for this week.

And I can’t help asking, looking at the events in Charlottesville and the aftermath and in looking 

the struggles of immigrants, who am I not seeing? Where is it that instead of helping the people 

around me, I’m going to God and saying “Hey can you get rid of these people, they’re really 

bugging me?” 

Who’s narratives am I “comma-ing out” of my life, just because they make me uncomfortable?

God sees us as we are, god loves us as we are, but it is our choice to let the rest of the world 

see that love, see that acceptance.

And it is also our choice to see God’s love and concern in others.

We can listen to those who would tell us to go away, to disappear, to just leave them alone. Or 

we can trust God and let everyone else see who god knows us to be.

And we can, at the same time, look around and see the invisible among us, really see them.

For too many years I listened to the those voices that told me to hide, I let them make me invisible.

Let yourself be seen, and see those around you, for the God who sees all things as they are.

 

 

A Sermon on Christ the King

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver, Colorado November 20, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 23:33-43

Audio available here

So, yeah, I get to preach on the reign of Christ, on Christ the King Sunday 2016.

I get to be the one who, in the midst of this awful year gets to tell you about how Christ is in charge, how he’s “King of kings and Lord of lords and he shall reign forever and ever” and that we will be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all who hate us. Just look around, from David Bowie dying at the beginning of the year up to today,  it’s super believable, isn’t it?

And on top of that, today is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside each year to memorialize those trans people who in the previous year have been killed or have killed themselves. This year the worldwide list includes 295 names, including 123 in Brazil, 52 in Mexico and 23 in the United States.  We won the bronze this year. Each year, at memorial services around the world, the list is read, and it’s heartbreaking. Not just the sheer numbers, but the various reasons given. Worst for me are the children who seem to appear every year, dead because their fathers didn’t want sons who were “sissies”

Years ago, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the folk singers Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer wrote a song about the AIDS Quilt.  The AIDS Quilt was a project to commemorate those who had passes. Each 3 foot by 6 foot panel of the quilt contains the name of a victim along with personal memories from their friends and family that made the panel. It now consists of an estimated 48,000 panels and weighs around 54 tons.

Cathy and Marcy’s song begins, “A patchwork of thousands of precious names, there must be someone that you know. . .”

Every year on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, as the list of the dead is read, I can’t help but think of the chorus of that song, which applies every bit as much to this list as it does to the quilt, “And I know that my name could be there, and I’ve felt the pain and the fear, and as human loves and passions do not make us all the same, we are counted not as numbers, but as names.”

It’s exceedingly hard for me to stand before you tonight and speak to you of my hope and faith in God’s triumphant reign over the earth and how everything is going to be okay and that we will get to the point where we no longer need to be afraid or be dismayed. It’s hard when I look at the state of the nation today, and it’s even harder when I am remember that I’m someone who can be killed for walking into the “wrong” bathroom.

But we’re here, so I might as well go ahead and give it a try.

Now, I’m not what they call a “Cradle Lutheran”, in fact, I was 49 before I attended my first Lutheran service, so maybe I’m a “Mid-life crisis Lutheran.”

Before that, I was a true-blue Presbyterian, specifically, in the Presbyterian Church(USA). I’d served a Clerk of Session for two different congregations, attended a Presbyterian seminary, passed the Presbyterian ordination exams and could explain to you the differences between the BOP, PDA, the PPF, COM, and CPM. Presbyterians love their three letter acronyms.

Mostly, I don’t miss all that. All that I’ve found here with you at House outweighs any nostalgia.

Except, except around Reformation Sunday. Here, predictably, everything on Reformation Sunday is about Luther: Luther said this, Luther did that, Luther insulted those guys. Luther, Luther, Luther.

What about Zwingli and Calvin?

What about other parts of the Reformation? Because what was happening in Germany with Luther, was happening all across Europe in ways that gave birth to other traditions in the Church--traditions that many of us came from before we found House; traditions that we still draw from to give us hope.

And so, on this day where we celebrate Christ and Christ's Kingdom, I thought what better day to listen for hope from another corner of that kingdom.  One place where I’ve always gone to find hope is in a confession from the Reformed tradition called the Heidelberg Catechism.

Catechisms are written in question and answer format and through the years the first question and answer of the Heidelberg has been very important to me, I’ve quoted it, written about it, and just plain relied on it at many different times in my life.

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is:

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

And the answer:

That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The reason I keep going back to it is that it reminds me that whatever problems I face, I don’t need to face them on my own, that I belong to God, and that as Jeremiah reminds us, God will gather all of God’s flock together and that, together, we shall not have to be afraid any longer.

I find the same comfort in the gospel text, how Christ, even while he’s dying on the cross continues to bring the good news of salvation to those around him, even to those who have been judged by their society to be unworthy of that love and care.

In the past those things always been a great comfort, but today I’m just struggling with them, how is it going to happen? When is it going to happen?

And right there we’re back to the problem with Christ the King Sunday this year. Talking about all the things that tell us about Christ’s reign and sovereignty, that I have lived with and believed all my life and that I want to believe right now and convey to you and they all just look like complete b.s. when looked at against all the crappy things that keep happening in the world. When we fear for our safety, see our friends and loved ones suffering, when we see the powers and principalities of the world looming over the weak and marginalized and then we hear God saying through Jeremiah, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed.”

We hear those things and we struggle to think anything other than, “Yeah, right,” or, “When Lord, when?”

When are those shepherds coming, how long must we wait?

I’ve felt that way since the election, and today as we remember my departed trans brothers and sisters, it just seems to get worse and worse, it gets harder and harder to see how all things are working together for my salvation.

But then I think about House and about all of you and I know in my heart that there has to be an answer to this despair.

In a few minutes Reagan will lead us in the celebration of the Eucharist. Near the end of the spoken part of the celebration, right before we start coming up, he will hold up the elements, the host and the cup, which, we’re reminded each week we believe to be the body and blood of Christ, and as he holds them up, Reagan will say something like, “Behold what you are, become what you receive.”

Behold the body of Christ.

Become the body Christ.

In his blessing to us last week, Bishop Gonia said that now is the time for us to be the church.

Throughout its history, the church has been known as the body of Christ in the world.

And we’re back to that.

I don’t know exactly what the Bishop was thinking when he said that it was time to be the church, but thanks to those Presbyterian heritage, I know pretty well what it means to me.

For more than 100 years the main stream of the Presbyterian Church in this country has included in its constitution a list of six Great Ends of The Church. Six purposes of the church.

It’s a great list, I love it. I’m sure I’ve annoyed quite a few people through the years with my desire to bring things back to how they relate to the Great Ends. I’ll be happy to rattle off all six of them anytime you want, and tell you way more than you want about what I think each of them means.

But for right now I’m really only interested in the last one.

It says that one of the church’s jobs is “The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” It’s the church’s job to show the world the way things should be.

And we are that church, queer and straight, cis and otherwise, strange and wonderful, each us make up a vital part of the body of Christ and of God’s flock.

So here we are, the church, the body of Christ in the word on the Sunday where we are celebrating the reign of Christ over the world and it’s up to us to bring the Kingdom of heaven to the world.

God has, as promised has raised a king to reign over us, a king that will deal wisely with all and who will execute justice and righteousness throughout the world. But that king is the same man who walked among us on earth and who hung on the cross with thieves. He is a king who has suffered as we suffer and who stays with us through all of it.

We, HFASS and the larger church, Lutheran, Presbyterian, whatever, are the hands and body of that king.

We’re not waiting for the time to come or for someone else to help us.

We are the body of Christ in the world and the Kingdom of Heaven starts with us. We are the people we have been waiting for, we are the shepherds that God promised us.

I can live with the fear that comes that many of us have because of the results of the election and the despair that comes each year around the Day of Remembrance because you all are here, and I have learned that you will shepherd me through all this. And I can only hope that I can do the same for you in your hours of fear and despair.

Because of where we are as a country right now, and because of what day this is, I cannot tell you about Jesus’ great and glorious reign on the large scale, saving the world in one great moment of triumph.

I can tell you about how, on the smallest of scales, person to person, in millions of tiny moments of love and respect for each other, we can get each other through the fear and despair and bring the kingdom to everyone. One moment at a time.

That’s hard to face, but the good news is that it’s not up to any one of us, in life and in death we belong not to ourselves but to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. Christ who suffered on the cross, Christ who continues to suffer with us through all of our struggles.

Trusting that, let us celebrate the reign of Christ on the Christ the King Sunday, and every day, by being Christ for one another.

I don’t always have the words to tell you how to do all that, but Bruce Reyes-Chow, a contemporary leader of the Presbyterian Church, came up with a pretty good set of instructions and I’d like to leave them with you,

Go forth into the world

With compassion and justice in your heart

Give voice to the silent

Give strength to the weak

See one another

Hear one another

Care for one another

And love one another.

It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.

Amen

 

Worst. Sermon. Ever

 

Preached at Family of Christ PC(USA), Greeley, Colorado October 9, 2016

Text: Jeremiah 29 1,4-7

Jeremiah can be rough, he had so much bad stuff left over when he finished his eponymous book, that he was able to write another called Lamentation. He was generally not a very happy guy. And not just that, he can be pretty cryptic and dense in his imagery, to the point where you start to wonder what in the world he’s talking about

 

But here, today, he sets all that aside and gives his people and us a bit of a break in these words from God.

 

With the Exile to Babylon, the people of Israel had to deal not just with military defeat, economic hardship and physical displacement. For them this was also an existential and theological crisis.

 

Their entire world view, for generation after generation, was based around the idea that they were the chosen people of the one true God. The God that was greater than all other gods. And they had known that that supreme God lived with them right there in the temple in Jerusalem.

 

But now, that God had been defeated. The temple had been sacked and God’s people were enslaved and hauled away from the land that had been promised to them.

 

And that’s the context in which Jeremiah is writing. Most of the prophets, and in a lot of ways, most of the rest of the Old Testament, the job was to explain how this horrible thing had happened. The writers tend to fall into two schools. Some say “It was your leaders who were bad and that’s why God has left you.” The others say “Yeah. All y’all were awful. Did you really think you didn’t deserve this?” Jeremiah tends to fall in the second camp.

 

But there was a second job for Jeremiah and the rest of the exilic prophets, especially Second Isaiah and Ezekiel. That was to prepare the people to get past the immediate crisis and to prepare them to survive both during their banishment and in the promised future where they would be able to return to the promised land.

 

Jeremiah’s word today is, basically, “Looks guys, you’re here now. What’s done is done, stop worrying about yesterday, you have to get through today. So stop complaining and get to work on building the rest of your life.”

 

It was a few months ago when Nate asked me to preach this Sunday. Once I had agreed, I went and looked up the texts for today in the Revised Common Lectionary and the Jeremiah text jumped right out at me.

 

Here was a text that would be fun to preach! Here was an opportunity to speak agains one of my pet peeves, today’s culture of complaint.

 

A lot of people see it as an artifact of the internet, and sure, the ‘net gives people a platform for their whining and complaining, but it doesn’t create the underlying mindset that drives it.

 

When I talk about this culture of complaint, I’m not talking about speaking out against injustice or fighting against people or structures that have hurt you.

 

What I’m thinking of are the kind of complaints exemplified by the Simpsons character “Comic Book Guy.” Comic book guy is famous for his catchphrase, “Worst episode ever,” or “Worst issue ever,” or “Worst whatever ever.”

 

There’s an exchange in an episode of the eighth season of the Simpsons that exemplifies his thinking. In it Bart questions his incessant complaining:

 

Comic Book Guy: Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

 

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

 

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

 

Bart: For what? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

 

Comic Book Guy: ...Worst episode ever.

 

There’s a simple pleasure in complaining about things that way. Especially where you can do it anonymously and without ever having to face the people you’re complaining about.

 

It’s more than just venting, tearing other people’s creative work down can give you a feeling of power, of superiority, even, to a certain extent, accomplishment.

 

But it takes no real effort at all. It’s a cheap high, on that can be  quite addictive if you let it.

 

This kind of complaining on the internet has been around since the very beginning. It was there on the message boards of the UseNet. It’s one of the many kinds of behavior that get placed under the umbrella of “trolling”.

 

The classic troll is out to derail conversations and to get reactions. They will say whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. The complainer is just one flavor, along with others like the concern troll and the grammar nazi.

 

For a long time, trolls were just an annoyance, and people developed strategies to deal with them. People learned the importance of not feeding the trolls. And many creative people know deep in their heart that they should never, ever read the comments.

 

In recent years, however, there has been a growing trend where instead of being relatively harmless, if annoying disruptors of conversation, groups of trolls have begun to rise up with tangible real life consequences.

 

The two that I’m most familiar with are Gamer Gate and the Sad Puppies. Both groups are made up almost exclusively of straight, white men who feel that their beloved passions, video games for Gamer Gate and science fiction for the Puppies, have been stolen away from them by the evil purveyors of such dark ideas as inclusivity and equality.

 

The lash out against those evil people, dubbing them SJWs, or Social Justice Warriors.

 

Annnnd. . . you can tell that I get very worked up about them and I wanted so very much to use this text to rant about those people, those children of God.

 

But that rant is not a sermon. It’s just an opportunity for me to spout off about things I don’t like to rave about those people over there, always complaining about things and people they don’t like.

 

Do you see why that might be problematic? Writing a sermon complaining about the way people I don’t like complain about people they don’t like?

 

Sure, it’s super meta, but it’s also super hypocritical.

 

It would accomplish nothing but make me exactly what I was complaining about. I would be a troll, and it would be, to coin a phrase, the Worst.Sermon.Ever.

 

So where to go?

 

The text had become a trap for me. But the first step in avoiding trap is to know it’s there.

 

From a homiletics perspective that means, go back to the text.

 

As I said at the beginning, Jeremiah is hard folks. I think it’s fair to say that if you think you’ve found an easy answer in Jeremiah, your wrong. And boy was I wrong.

 

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

 

My first, and biggest problem was thinking that Jeremiah was writing to those folks over there. You know, those guys, not me. Definitely not me, I mean I’m not in exile, am I?

 

Am I?

 

Anna Carter Florence, my preaching professor, taught us a technique for analyzing a text: look at the verbs. Just the verbs.

 

For today, they are:

 

Sent, taken, says, build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give, bear, multiply, seek, sent, pray, find.

 

Listen to just the middle group again. Let them roll over you:

 

Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give.

 

Jeremiah must have seen that the people in exile were stuck in their grief, stuck in their confusion, stuck in their anger, and they were not doing those things.

 

They were not building their lives, not living in the fullness that God desires all of humanity to live into, planting, growing, eating, taking and giving.

 

The temptation for the preacher is to put ourselves in the place of the prophet and not in the place of the people they were reaching out to.

 

I think that’s called hubris.

 

What I needed to ask was not, “Where do I see people behaving like the people that Jeremiah was talking about?”

 

What I needed to ask was, “Where am I behaving like the people Jeremiah was talking about?”

 

Where am I not building, living, planting?

 

In short, where am I in exile?

 

And I thought just figuring out what Jeremiah had to say was hard.

 

Where am I in exile? Well, actually, this are going pretty well, but. . .

 

Where am I in exile? I’ve got a good job. I have great friends and a strong community, but. . .

 

Where am I in exile? Why do I feel like I’m not building, not planting, not living?

 

Like the exiles in Babylon, I’m spending too much time looking to my past.

 

For them they were thinking about how good they had it back in the day. Last year in the holy land, last year in Jerusalem.

 

For me, I look at how good things are today, and things today are, in a lot of ways I’m having the best days of my life.

 

But I look at how good things are and rather than rejoice, rather than enjoy, I get angry and depressed about how much I missed out on in the first 40 or 50 years of my life.

 

How my own inability to accept myself as I am, combined with society and culture’s pressure on me to not be who I am forced me to pull away, to hide from life and from others, to miss so much.

 

Somebody once wrote about being trans that “We mourn the loss of our childhood as ourselves.”  And boy have I mourned, mourned not just for a childhood not lived, but for 20s not lived and for 30s not lived.

 

Jeremiah’s text today was a meant to be a big old dope slap to the people of Israel who had stopped living, to get them to look forward and not back.

 

And it’s a big slap upside my head to stop looking back at what I may have missed and to start living in today and looking to the future.

 

So, now I get to ask you, as preacher’s prerogative, where are you in exile?

 

What are the things that are keeping you from building, living, growing, having and giving?

 

Pain is real. The hurts and traumas of the past live on into today and the future, and we can’t just turn them off. Unlike what a certain presidential candidate said recently, strength will not save you from PTSD or loss.

 

But God, through Jeremiah is calling you, calling me, calling all of us not to live there.

 

Exile is real. But, as people of faith we are called to believe that the joyful triumphant return is just as real. We may not be able to see it, but Jeremiah and God want us to live in that reality. The reality that the Kingdom of God is at hand

 

Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give.

 

The Lord says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pry to the Lord on its behalf. For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”

 

Here you are. Now is where you live. Yes, you are exiled from where you were, where you maybe should have been, and the only way back there is through building and living now.

 

Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give.  And one more, trust.

 

 

 

 

 

Traps

In a couple of weeks, on Tuesday, July 26, I’ll be having a little bit of outpatient surgery, a procedure that is officially known as an “Orchiectomy”, but is probably more clearly understood by its colloquial name, castration.

I’m really excited/nervous and have been having a conversation on Facebook about what would be the proper celebratory rituals to commemorate the occasion. The discussion has ranged from serious and heartfelt thoughts on the writing of liturgy, to the very not serious, but maybe just as heartfelt, throwing of a “Ball Voyage” party at which no nuts will be served.

As good as the conversation has been, my Spidey senses are tingling about the possibility of a trap coming up.

The trap is to think of this procedure as something that will make me more authentically a woman, that I will emerge from the surgery like a butterfly that has finally finished its metamorphosis.

Yeah. No.

I will be no more authentically a woman on Wednesday the 27th than I was on Monday the 25th, or really, than I was on March 17, 1965. Sophie Labelle, who writes the “Assigned Male” comic put it like this a while back, “I am not a girl trapped in boy’s body, I’m a girl, girls have all kinds of bodies, this is a girl’s body.” (Girl is one of those words that look wrong when you’ve typed it a bunch of times)

There are two dangers to this trap that made me want to bring it up. The first is a danger to myself. If I think of this surgery as The Thing That Will Finally Make Me A Woman, then I’m setting myself up for pain and disappointment. It’s important for me to remember that I am not “becoming” a woman, I am and I always have been a woman, it’s just a matter of learning that truth and living into it.

There are two reasons for this surgery. One is about drugs and hormones. For the last several months I’ve been taking a drug that does chemically what this surgery will do mechanically. That drug is ridiculously expensive, my insurance has been paying all but $150 dollars of the $1,000+ the drug costs each month, which means it’s not a long term solution. The advantage of either the drug or the surgery is that it lowers the dosage of estrogen that I’m required to take, which is safer and healthier for me. (high dose estrogen increases the chance of strokes, blood clots, and cardiac problems)

The second reason for the surgery is legal, once I’ve had what is quaintly referred to in legalese as “irreversible genital surgery” I’ll be able to get my birth state to issue a new birth certificate, and with that I’ll be able to get rid of that pesky “M” on my driver’s license. I’ll also be able get a passport with an “F” on it. Squee.

The second danger of the trap is larger than just me. I want to say very clearly and carefully that, just because I am choosing to have surgery, that doesn’t mean that surgery is normative or even desirable for other trans people. Many trans people will never have, nor even ever want to have, any kind of surgery. And that’s fine. They are not any less authentically trans than someone who has all the surgeries. Their experiences and lives are not lesser because they are on a different path. Their experiences are just as real, just as valid and just as important as anyone else’s.

When Caitlyn Jenner came out, I worried that the general public would take her experience and her ability to have fabulous clothes, hair, and makeup to be the way trans people “should” be.

Passing is not the way trans people “should” be. Surgery is not the way trans people “should” be. Femme is not the way trans women “should” be. Butch is not the way trans men “should” be.

The only thing they “should” be is themselves. In exactly, perfectly, and only the way they want to be.

Update August 1: The surgery hasn't happened yet. The insurance company is still making up their minds about whether they will pay for it or not. Currently looking at August 9, but don't know for sure.

 

 

This Cup 2

A sermon on Mark 10:35-45 first preached at House for All Sinners and Saints October 18, 2015

Grace, mercy and peace are yours in the name of the triune God. 

I’ve been going to House for about a year and a half now and if you’ve been paying attention, and I don’t know why you would have been, you migåht have noticed some things. 

The first thing is that I like to sit right up there, next to Jamie. And, sorry Jamie, it’s not just because I enjoy your company. Which I do. 

You may also have noticed that when the time comes I’m one of the first people to jump up and go get some bread and wine. 

Other things that you probably haven’t noticed: If, during Communion, Jamie calls out a hymn that I don’t know by heart, I won’t sing it. 

And, while I’ve done almost all of the jobs that are handed out every Sunday, I have never been a communion server at House. 

All of those things are related, all of them are because I love, love, love watching people come to the table, I love seeing the community coming together as we receive the elements. Watching all of us doing that together brings me joy and it’s often that joy that gets me through the week. 

My love of the sacrament and the community it forms goes back long before I ever even heard of House. I first discovered it at the church I attended in Alabama and then nurtured it through my time at seminary. Never missing the Friday chapel Service of Word and Sacrament. 

But this Gospel reminded me of a Friday where I had to miss it, a Friday when I probably needed it more than any other. 

Ten years and eleven days ago, on Friday October 7, 2005, at just after 10 in the morning, a letter was placed into each of the mailboxes on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. 

The date and time had been selected very carefully, so that the letters would go into the mailboxes during the best attended chapel service of the week (Friday was always the best attended because it included Eucharist) so that there was the best chance that most people on campus would get them at about the same time as they swung by their mailboxes on the way out of chapel heading to community coffee time. 

The day was also chosen because it was the beginning of the Board of Directors fall meeting and so they would be on campus as well. 

The reason I know so much about the complex machinations involved with the circulation of this letter is that I wrote it. I had for the several weeks before that Friday been doing draft after draft to get the wording and content of the letter just right. 

Basically what it said was, "You know that thing you think you know about how I'm male and my name is Jim? Yeah, not so much." 

Needless to say, I was very interested in how the students, faculty and everyone else would react to that announcement. 

For the most part it fell out in two ways. Most people were very nice and supportive, and those that weren't were pastoral enough to take the old "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all" adage to heart. Most of them just pretended that it never happened. 

But there was a reaction that I got repeatedly and which I didn't expect at all. People kept telling me how brave I was, How much they admired my courage for doing this. 

I struggled with that “you’re so brave, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” and it was interesting to learn that I wasn’t alone in that, the was an article in the Guardian this week titled “Don’t call trans people brave, we’re just trying to live in a prejudiced society” 

The author, Rebecca Kling, wrote: 

First and foremost, calling all trans people brave results in distancing the person saying it from the experience of being trans. It’s often followed by, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”. Or, even worse, “I could never do what you’re doing”. That speaks to a depressing lack of imagination. In a world of video games, Netflix, 3D movies, fantasy football and more, I pity someone who can keep track of the  Houses of Westeros but can’t expand their vision enough to contemplate what it might be like to have one’s physical body and mental identity at odds with each other. 

My personal struggle with it is that I never felt that brave. I didn’t come out to make a stand or to change people’s minds. For me, all along the way from coming out to one person, to coming out to the world, to starting to go out in public in the clothes that make me feel like myself, all along the way I have done those things because it had become too painful to not do them. In my mind I feel like bravery comes when you do something difficult that you could have chosen not to do. And when I had a choice, I stayed closeted, when I felt like I had a choice I wore jeans and t-shirts (what my friend Rai calls my “boring clothes”). No. When I had a choice, I hid. It was only when the agony of not doing those things became so great that I had to that I made any of those moves. 

And I have always thought that being brave meant doing something selfless, something for others. And in doing this I was anything but selfless. I was doing this for me, not for you, no for anybody. 

So, being called brave always struck me as wrong. 

That next spring, I took a class called “The Preacher and The Poet” taught by Dr. Anna Carter-Florence, where we did many exercises around the writing of poetry and the way that writing process influences and informs the writing of sermons. We used a number of writing prompts to practice our craft during the course. Near the middle of the term Anna gave us, as writing prompts, a list of the various questions that Jesus asked of his disciples and others during the course of the gospels. 

Our assignment was to choose one of the questions and to write our response as a five minute sermon. 

I chose one of the questions that Jesus asks in today’s text: “Are you able to drink form the cup from which I drink?”  

And my reaction at the time, was “No I can’t, not even close” Despite all those people telling me that I was brave, I knew that I was not, and certainly didn’t have the courage that Jesus shows through his death and sacrifice for all of us. 

All of my life I had been taught about how God chose to go through great pain and suffering, suffering that God could easily have avoided, for all of us, “To save us all from sin and sorrow when we had gone astray.” Now that’s bravery. 

That’s what I talked about in that five-minute sermon ten years ago, Jesus was brave, not me. 

It’s been interesting then to look at this question again ten years later and to see if I feel differently about it. 

The question I asked myself was, could I now, after all this time, claim some measure of that bravery that I had attributed to Jesus in that sermon? 

But the answer that I came up with surprised me: what if I had been wrong not about my lack of courage, but about thinking that what Jesus did was brave? 

What if God would tell us the same things that I did. 

What if God made what we have always thought of as this great selfless choice because God’s agony at watching the children of God suffer and struggle became so great that God had no choice at all, God could not continue the way things were. 

When I first reflected on these questions, I experienced fear. How could I hope to face the things that even Jesus, God, struggles with? No matter how many times people tell me that I’m brave for coming out, I know that bravery, that courage had nothing to do with it, how could I take up Jesus’ cup? But now that I’ve thought more about it, maybe I could, or at least I’m willing to look at it a different way. 

What if when Jesus promises that James and John shall drink of his cup and be baptized with this baptism, he’s really saying that they are not going to face the things he faces without a measure of his strength?  

I think that all along I have been thinking of the wrong cup. What if the cup he’s referring to is the cup that he will drink from at the last supper? 

That means that James and John will receive the same cup that we’re about to receive as we celebrate the Eucharist; For them and for us that cup is our source of strength and courage to face whatever awaits us. 

If I was brave to come out, if I am brave to dress in the clothes that make me feel like me, then that bravery comes from my experience of baptism and of the Eucharist and the lessons that I have learned there, that pain and crucifixion are not the last word. That the cruelty of the world and people in it are not the way things have to be. We can be better. We will be better in the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. 

Shema Yisrael

A sermon on Deuteronomy 6 4-9, first preached at Family of Christ PC(USA) October 11, 2015

Shema Yisrael. Hear O Israel. 

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 

That brings to an end this whole long passage that seems so legalistic and prescriptive to our ears,  and indeed time and again it’s been read as “Here are the rules, now follow them.” From the Pharisees to Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, this is what you have to do and those who fail to do not will face the wrath of God and be doomed to hell for all eternity. 

For so many people that reading makes this passage a heavy burden to carry and that legalistic way of looking at the church has driven a lot of people away as they’ve either felt the weight of it themselves or experienced others wielding it like a club against them.  

It’s created lifetimes of guilt and shame and has led many to leave the church as they came to believe that is what the church is all about. 

I’m going to propose then a different reading, particularly of the Shema Yisrael. Maybe instead of being a tool to use against others, a way of filtering the worthy from the unworthy, the elect from the reprobate, maybe it’s there as something to lean on. 

Maybe it’s a place for those who are lost or are struggling to find their path again. 

I’ve been reading “Furiously Happy, A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson, who is also known online as The Bloggess. 

Miss Lawson has struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions for all of her life and has learned ways to survive when things are at their worst.  

. . .And I remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I Can grab on to each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have see the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm. Those moments are a promise that life is worth fighting for, and that promise is what pulls me through when depression distorts reality and tries to convince me otherwise. 

Through long painful experience she knows that she will have times where she will not be able to get out of bed because of the weight of depression, when she won’t be able to leave the house because of the terror of anxiety, but she has learned to remember the times of great joy, indeed she has learned to cultivate those times, to experience them and take them far beyond where those without the lessons of mental illness would take them, that’s what she means when she talks about being furiously happy. She says, “I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that “normal” people also might never understand, and that’s what FURIOUSLY HAPPY is all about. It’s about taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence.” 

In another place she talks about the way that, in the midst of depression, our brains lie to us. “…And I push myself to stay healthy. I remind myself that I’m not fighting against me. . .I’m fighting against a chemical imbalance. . .a tangible thing. I remind myself of the cunning untrustworthiness of the brain, both in the mentally ill and the mentally stable. I remind myself that professional mountain climbers are often found naked and frozen to death, with their clothes folded neatly nearby because severe hypothermia can make a person feel confused and hot and convince you to do incredibly irrational things we’d never expect. Brains are like toddlers,” she says, “They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process serotonin effectively.” 

I understand exactly where she is coming from, I too suffer from depression, perhaps not as extreme as Jenny’s and I’m very fortunate to have it under control at the moment, thanks to my friend Wellbutrin. But when it is not under control, my depression will lie to me again and again. “You’ll always be alone, just accept it”, “No one wants to be around you, you might as well just sit at home”, “you’re not good at anything, there’s no point in trying and on and on. And the thing is, when depression tells me those things they make perfect sense, “of course no one wants to be around me,” I’ll think to myself, “I don’t want to be around me.” 

In the musical [Title of Show] they talk about it this way: 

It’ll wake you up at 4am to say things like: 
Backup: 
Who do you think you’re kidding? 
You look like a fool. 
No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough 
Susan: 
Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform 
and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, 
but if the vampire inside my head says it, 
It’s the voice of reason. 

My pastor and friend Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about her depression in her book “Accidental Saints”,  

I remembered that, at one point in my life, my own depression had felt so present, so much like a character in my life, that it had actually felt right to give her a name. I named my depression Frances. . . 

Frances first stopped by in my teens and early twenties and was written off by my family as my being “moody.” But later when I found myself coming to like the same things Frances liked – booze, emotionally unstable boyfriends, self-destruction—she finally just moved in, turning my studio apartment into a wilderness. 

She was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me devastating things about myself. When Frances lived with me, I was no longer able to do simple things, like remembering if I’d showered or shopping for groceries.” 

Jenny Lawson’s decision to be furiously happy is to reject those lies and to claim the identity that she knows to be hers, that of a beloved mother and wife, as an very popular and talented blogger and author. Those are the truths that she needs to hold on to when depression tries to steel them away from her. The furiously happy moments anchor her to what she knows to be her true identity, no matter how hard depression and mental illness try to deny her those things. 

What if that’s what the Shema Yisrael is meant to be for Israel? 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. It is a call to identity. 

I’m not saying that Israel as a nation was depressed, but it is certainly true that throughout their history, nations and powers have tried to make them forget their identity, to convince them that they weren’t who they knew themselves to be. Conquer them, make them slaves, scatter them throughout the word in the diaspora.  

But through it all, they had the Shema, not only to remind themselves who their God is, but to remind them that they belong to that God and that nothing anyone can do can change that.  

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[e]5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. 

God wants them to remember in the good times, but also in the bad times who they are and who their God is. 

Their God is the God that led them out of Egypt, their God is the God that gave them manna in the wilderness, their God is the God who made promises to Abraham and Isaac, who was furiously happy with them and who in turn made them furiously happy to be loved by God. 

And God knows that people will forget, God knows that the outside voices of powers and principalities will try to convince Israel that they are not the special people that they have known themselves to be, just as depression tries to steal our identities away from us. 

And because God know that, God gives them very specific instructions to help them remember. Talk about it, God says. Tell your children, remember it when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Write it on the back of your hands so that you will see it with everything you do, write it on your foreheads so that those around you will be constantly reminded of who they are. Remember it when you are home and when you are away, and put it on your doorposts and gateposts so that when you’re neither home nor away but somewhere in between you will think of it then as well. 

Hear o people of God. You are not what others tell you you are, even when those others are your own brain. In life and in death you belong to God, and that makes God furiously happy, remember that. 

Keep these words . . . in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates 

Amen