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