Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Imagining Mary


Life is not always what you expect. Sometimes the most extraordinary of things happens in the midst of life’s ordinary moments. One minute you know exactly what’s supposed to happen and the next, well, the next you find the entire world seems to have turned upside down. At least that’s how it has been for me these past few months.

I was engaged to be married a year ago on my thirteenth birthday. It came as no surprise. I knew what was expected. Don’t we all know what is expected of us, after all?

I had watched one by one as my sisters were married off, sent to live with the new families. I watched as they each grew round with new life and gave birth, time and again. I visited them in their homes, brought news of mother and father and offered them a moment of rest by tending to their children or preparing the meal. I always loved visiting them, but things were different between us. The games of childhood were replaced for the daily tasks of life. Maintaining a household was not easy. Often as I sat in the homes of my sisters, I wondered which was harder, raising the children or taking care of the husband! Both seemed impossible! Mother laughed when I told her this, shaking her head she said, “Oh Mary, just wait till you get married.”

I knew the day would come, but I wished it hadn’t come so quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave my family…not yet and I surely wasn’t ready to care for a husband or a brood of children. I didn’t even know Joseph and yet in a year or two after the betrothal time was complete I was supposed to simply leave with him?

It didn’t seem fair. Not fair at all. How come he got to choose who he wanted to marry but I didn’t? How come he got to come and go as he pleased but I had to stay in the house? How come I was the one who had to be responsible for everything…for the house, for the children he expected me to bear, even for him? I knew this was what was expected. I had watched as my sisters married, leaving their childhood for the life of an adult, but I tell you, I was not ready for such a life. Not yet. I felt overwhelmed and utterly powerless. No one needed my consent. They just married me off whether I liked it or. But then again, what more could I expect? This was my place in the world.

I always secretly hoped there was more in life for me than just getting married. I wanted to travel, to see different places, visit new people. I wanted to learn more, do more, see more. When I was young I followed our rabbis around the village, following their shadows, listening to their every word. Before I knew better I told my mother I wanted to be a rabbi too. I wanted to learn to read the scrolls and tell the stories. I wanted to go inside the temple and pray for the people. My mother laughed and said that work was not for me. I was a girl.

But then again, what more could I expect? I am a girl after all…soon to be a woman, I suppose. This is the way life is. What more is there for me in life than to marry, bear children and be a faithful, obedient wife? I just needed to resign myself to my place in the world.

Shortly after my betrothal I was sewing in the courtyard. The day was nearly ended and I was hurrying to finish before evening fell and light left the landscape. Suddenly, there appeared before me a vision of light, dazzling and shimmering, like nothing I had ever seen before. The sun was setting but this light was brilliant. From the center of the light a form appeared. I pinched myself several times to make sure I was awake, truly awake. I looked around for others to confirm what I was seeing, but my family was no where to be found.

Fear swept over me. What was this? Who was this? Before I could move or cry out, a voice sounded from the figure of light. “Greetings, favored one! God is with you!”

I stared still unable to move. Favored one? Who were they speaking to? My father and brothers were still out working. Surely, this figure could not be speaking to me? A child? A girl? What did this figure have to do with me?

Before I could respond, the pillar of light spoke again. The voice was calm and soothing. Like my grandmother’s voice, it comforted me.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

What had I done? I could not recall. I tried desperately to remember anything I might have done to please God…but all I could think of were my recent complaints and doubts and fears about getting married. What had I possibly done to find favor with God?

Again, the voice spoke, “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a child and you will call him Jesus. Your child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High and God will raise the infant to the throne of David to reign over the house of Israel for ever and ever.”

Without thinking I spoke back. Impudent perhaps, but I could not control myself. This didn’t make sense. Messenger of light or not, this seemed completely impossible.

“How can this be? I am still a child, betrothed but not yet married. I can’t yet have a child.”

I don’t know what possessed me but here I was talking back to what appeared to be a divine messenger from God. Looking back I can’t believe I was that bold. But it just didn’t make sense. This was not what I expected.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy and will be the Child of God. Look, now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a child and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. Mary, nothing, nothing is impossible with God.”

I sat there stunned. I didn’t understand. None of this was to be expected.

Old Elizabeth? Pregnant? How could that be? Me? Bear the Child of God?

I sat there staring at the light. None of this made sense. Not at all. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. But what could I say? My mind was racing trying to figure it all out, trying to make sense of the impossible.

And then, suddenly, my mind quieted. Peace passed into me beyond my wildest imagination and something from within told me to say yes. I don’t know why I imagined God needed my permission, after all God was God. But something told me, the decision was up to me. Before now nothing had been up to me. I had no power as a child, a girl, and now even as a betrothed woman. I had no power in the world, but here in this courtyard, in this moment, something told me to expect the unexpected. Something from within prompted me to say yes, for without my permission, without my consent, this holy divine plan could go no further.

And then, I heard myself calmly proclaim, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.”

It was as if the voices of the prophets and ancestors of old that I had heard proclaimed so many times before rose up from within and answered.

And then, as suddenly as the figure of light appeared, it disappeared and I found myself alone once again in the courtyard of my family home.

What was I supposed to do now? The angel had told me what was going to happen, but not how? I knew it was true. I felt it was true. But how was I going to break the news to my family? Or to Joseph for that matter? It was up to me to figure out what I had to do. A story of a divine visitation was not an easy one to believe…especially from a young, poor girl as myself. What would people think of me growing fat with child before the end of my betrothal? No one would believe me.

Suddenly the assurance I felt in the presence of the angel disappeared and fear rose up inside of me again. This was not the way things were supposed to happen. I knew what happened to women who had children out of wedlock. This was serious. Joseph would surely leave me. He could never bear the scandal. And my family? My God, what would my father say? I would probably be kicked out of my house too? What would become of me? A single mother is never welcomed…not anywhere. Suddenly horrible images sprang up in my mind. I would have to beg or worse…Panic began to set in.

This was not the way things were supposed to go. Not at all. No one would believe. No one…except perhaps, Elizabeth. The angel said she too was miraculously pregnant. Perhaps she could help me.

Without explanation I ran and found my father in the fields. I begged him to let me go and visit our relative Elizabeth. “There is no need for me at home. Joseph will not come for me for some time. And news is, father, news is that Elizabeth is pregnant. Let me go to her.”

And miraculously he gave me permission.

I set out at dawn the next day, anxious to reach her, sure she would have an explanation. Part of me hoped that I would arrive and find that she was not pregnant, that this was all a figment of my imagination. If she was not pregnant, then perhaps I too was not pregnant.

I walked all day through the Judean countryside. My mind still raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. This was not how things were expected to go. There was no way I could be the bearer of God’s child. Me? A poor, peasant girl? Divine things were left for powerful men…for Moses, adopted son of the Pharaoh, for David and Saul and Solomon, Kings of Israel and for the One to come, the savior, the messiah. People have been talking now of One who is to come and bring liberation for us. This One will break the oppressive rule of the Romans and free our people once again. With fire and might, with violent rage and terrible recompense he will save. This is the bearer of the divine, not me, a small, weak, powerless young girl.

As I walked the words and stories I had heard for so many years began to come back to me. This time it was not just the stories of the men of God, but of the women I had forgotten. I remembered the song of Miriam…and the song of Hannah…I remembered Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy and Hagar’s courage in the desert. God called to these women and they sang God’s praises. God lifted up ordinary people, women even, and led them to do extraordinary things.

As I pondered all these things in my heart I suddenly saw the world in a new way. Come to think of it, God never has done what the world expected. In fact, throughout the ages God has surprised the people by turning the world upside down. When the world wars violently nation against nation, God proclaims peace. When the world oppresses the outcasts, God proclaims liberation. When the world shuns those at the margins, God proclaims welcome for all. When the world starves the poor, God fills them with abundance.

The world’s expectations are not God’s expectations. The vision God has given us throughout the ages has always been counter-cultural. God’s vision of the way the world ought to be defies our human expectations. Peace. Justice. Acceptance. Inclusion. Abundance. These are not what the world expects.

The more I pondered these things, the more certain I was that God had called me to this task because I could do it. Like Miriam, and Hannah, like Sarah and Hagar before me, I had been called from my ordinary life to do something extraordinary. God chose me to defy the world’s expectations and do a new thing.

When I arrived at Elizabeth’s house, I could feel myself almost bursting with assurance, filled with great joy that God would choose me to do something so extraordinary. As Elizabeth welcomed me, she suddenly grabbed at her swollen belly. As the child lept in her womb she hailed me with an extraordinary greeting…

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Suddenly all that I had been thinking on my way here was confirmed and the joy that had been building could no longer be contained. Like Miriam and Hannah before me, I broke into a song of praise for my God.

“My soul magnifies God and my Spirit rejoices in my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of me, God’s servant…” I found myself singing all the wondrous acts of our God that defy the world’s expectations… “Our God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; Our God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Our God has helped Israel according to the promise made to our ancestors to Abraham and to Sarah and their descendents forever and ever.”

The world’s expectations do not have to define or control us, for God has shown us more. What more can we expect? So much more.

God takes the poor, the powerless the oppressed and raises them up. Hasn’t this always been the message of our faith? Sometimes we forget under the weight of life’s expectations, but the message is still there waiting to be discovered and re-discovered over the ages. God has done wonderful things and continues to in every age. What more can we expect? So much more. For God promises a time when peace will usher forth, justice roll down like waters, and love will reign supreme.

The way things are, the way things are expected to be, doesn’t have to be. God has given us an alternative vision for the world, one that we can make happen if we just believe, if we just say yes, if we just give ourselves to the divine way of peace and justice. God can’t do it without us. We must say yes. We must concede. We must be the bearers of the Divine in the world. Not just me, but all of us. For each of us has a part to play in the unexpected good news of a God who turns the world’s expectations upside down. After all, all things are possible with our God.

And so, now these many months later, I am returning home. Joseph sent word that we are to travel to Bethlehem this week for the state census. This is not what I expected, to travel these last months of my pregnancy. But then again, what has been expected in my life lately? What more can I expect? So much more.

* The images in this post come from: " The Annunciation" by John Collier; "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner; "The Annunciation" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Sculpture by Karen Schmidt, "Mary and Elizabeth."

Finding Joy in the Chaos

Yesterday, I made the mistake of once again attempting the wilds of the Christmas Tree Shop. I know. I know. I should have known better. But I was honestly hopeful that it would not be that bad. It will be a quick stop. I’ll just run in and run out. Ten minutes top.

Right.

Between the throngs of shoppers, the endless lines, and the ransacked shelves it was far from the quick stop I imagined it would be. Add a tired, hungry baby with a dirty diaper and you have the recipe for disaster. After winding my way through the aisles, arms full of all I could carry (since there were no more carts to be had), scouring and scavenging the shelves for the last few boxes of lights, and standing in line for well and over 15 minutes, all the while listening to the inane, overly jolly Christmas music, I was about to lose it. And so when I walked out in the cold brisk winter wind to the sound of the Salvation Army guy wishing me a “Merry Christmas,” it was all I could do not to turn around and yell at the poor man. I was up to my limits of holly jolly frivolity and could feel myself about to snap. Merry Christmas, please!

Since Halloween we have been bombarded by the world’s shallow expressions of Christmas joy. Just turn on your TV. You can’t escape it. The constant loop of commercials advertising the happiness to be found in Gap sweaters, Folger’s coffee, or Kaye’s. The perennial parade of Christmas classics offering saccharine sweet stories of joy and hope. The images of happy families gathered around the Christmas tree arm in arm. TV this time of year is like the Hallmark channel on steroids.

And, yet, despite the onslaught of so-called joy, there remains the news ticker ever present scrolling across the screens of our lives with word of rising unemployment, increasing rates of poverty, escalating violence in the world, mounting costs of health care, intensifying harm done to environment, growing sense of dis-ease.

Despite the world’s celebrations going on all around us we know that just below the surface is a cauldron of fear, anxiety, and doubt. Our own lives are marked by these common fears and uncertainties…whether it is the anxious anticipation of having to spend the holidays feigning family bliss or the deep-seated fear of spending the days alone, whether it is the strain of buying gifts for everyone or the anxiety of not having enough to buy any gifts. Whether it is the pain of loved ones lost or the sting of friends estranged…the superficial holiday cheer seems only to heighten our own anxieties and leave feeling less than jolly this time of year.

It is in this chaotic and difficult context that we hear the dissonant words of Paul this evening. “Rejoice! Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.”

This is one of those texts that appears frequently in the lectionary in both Advent and Ordinary time, yet it is a text nonetheless that I have never, ever preached. The simplicity of joy always seemed too, well, overly optimistic given the state of our lives and the world around us. As you know, I prefer to preach a prophecy of woe…the world is rough, but God loves you. Too much sunshine, lollipops and puppy dogs can ruin a good Christian, right?

And yet, the words of Paul remain. Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.

In order to engage this text this week, I had to get over all of my negative connotations of this text engraved on sappy Christian tchotskys and emblazoned on evangelical bumper stickers. I had to let go of the cheesy camp songs, and blithe advice doled out late at night by creepy televangelists and let the text speak for itself. Despite popular renditions of this verse as a Christian version of “don’t worry, be happy,” Paul has something much deeper in mind than a simple “letting go and letting God.” The joy about which Paul speaks is not devoid of pain. How could it be?

Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians from jail. Arrested for preaching the gospel and endangering the State, Paul writes in a dingy, crowded, dirty jail cell from which he may leave only to head to the executioner’s block. This is a person who understands the reality of pain and suffering in the world.

William Loader reminds us that:

“joy is never alone. Its companions are pain and fear. ..Paul's sense of joy is not the absence of pain or fear, but the presence of Christ, in whom Paul places his hope and trust. That unity [both] takes him into pain and death, and…leads him over and over again on a journey from death to life, from pain to joy. Sometimes Paul’s joy stays alight as a flickering flame amid an oppressive darkness of criticism and downright hate. But it remains and can flare into brightness at relief and change.”
You see, joy for Paul is not a simple emotion, but rather a committed attitude or orientation toward life. It is a fundamental way of seeing things, a new perspective that radically changes one’s experience of the world. In this way, it is not a negation or avoidance of struggle, but rather the very way in and through the pain and fear of life. Joy is not a mask to cover up the less pleasant times of life, but rather the underlying foundation of hope without which one cannot encounter life’s pain and survive. This type of deep joy is what keeps us sane, what buoys us up, what helps us get out of bed in the morning and enables us to simply put our feet on the floor despite the chaos of our lives.

And where, do we find such joy, such hope? What brings about such a radical reorientation in our lives? What force can effect such a change?

Huston Smith, renowned religious scholar, asserts that “The only power that can effect transformations of [that] order… is love.” Likening it to the immeasurable power contained in an atom, Smith writes,
“The 20th century discover[ed] that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine -- the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment -- in its case, love’s bombardment.”

We know this as we see it happen in our own lives. Smith writes, “A loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules and threats. Love takes root in children only when it comes to them.”

Watching children and their parents one gets a glimpse of the mutual way in which love arises. Parent and child, loved and loving, call forth the best in one another as they exchange glances, glimpses, caresses, nudges of tenderness, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. It is this love that brings forth the ground of joy that sees both parent and child through the inevitable rough times of life.

During those long nights of waking, during those unexpected crying jags where nothing will soothe him, it is the memory of the tender caresses and wide, sly smiles from Grady that sees me through. The gentle touch of his hand on my cheek, the warm embrace of his tiny arm wrapped tightly around my neck, the silly laughter echoing in my ear...all tie me back to the ground of love and my source of joy that sees me through the hard, long sleepless nights.

Think about your own experiences of love and the way in which they transformed your life…perhaps it was the glow of your first love that sent waves of ecstatic joy through you, that colored the world around you in ways that highlighted the joy and brilliance of the world in new and unimaginable ways. Or perhaps it is the memory of a loving parent, a compassionate friend, a kind stranger that for a moment transformed your world from hues of dull grey and shadows to brilliant rays of glorious light. It is the experience of being loved that elicits that deep, satisfying sense of joy.

And so it is also with God. It is the mutual love affair between human and divine which helps us access that joy of which Paul speaks. Whereas our human love, no matter how joyful or well-intended, always fails, God’s love never fails.

As wonderful as the love is that exists between me and Grady, I am all too well aware that one day, perhaps at age 13 or 15 or 17, the memory of those gentle touches and silly laughter may seem all too far away. And as much as I dread it, there will also come a day when despite my best efforts and intentions, the love I have for Grady will simply not be enough to satisfy his soul. Our human love, no matter how well intended, is always finite, limited and imperfect. And because of that there will come a time when both Grady and I will disappoint one another.
That is why we must connect to and remain grounded in the love of God. It is only that deep and abiding love that can evoke the joy to carry us through the pain and despair of life.

Imagine the power of connecting to that first, primal, unimaginable source of Love from the divine. How would our lives be transformed if we were certain that we were totally loved by the ultimate power in the universe? Huston Smith puts it this way,
“If we too felt loved -- not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally -- by one who unites all power and all goodness, the experience could dissolve fear, guilt and self-concern dramatically. If, as Kierkegard noted, we were at every moment certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy."

Paul understood that to remain in contact with such a real sense of God’s love, we needed to practice it among one another and so, the passage in Philippians ends with concrete instructions for cultivating that sense of love through community.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The joy and peace of God come most fully through the practice and cultivation of love…through gentleness, mercy, honor, truth and compassion. William Loader reminds us, “Paul is not just advocating the power of positive thinking. These concrete instructions to the community of faith are about filling one's mind with what Paul sees as the signs of God's life - not so that will feel good, but because this is another way of filling oneself with God's life and so allowing God's life to flow through us to the world around us.”

Truth be told, I went to the Christmas Tree Shop yesterday in search for lights for a tree…which I vowed I wouldn’t put up this year…there was simply too much to do to be bothered by Christmas! Yet, standing outside the store waiting for Josh to pick me up, something happened. Despite my own stoicism or perhaps even cynicism, the bell ringer kept talking.

“It sure is cold out here today. You should button up your coat. You don’t want to get sick.”

And, in the midst of his chatter I turned to look at him a man, in his 40s, dressed in not more than a fall jacket and a thin knit cap, ringing his bell and being concerned about my warmth, my health, my well-being. I was struck by his sincerity. The more he talked, the more I realized this was no schtick to get me to donate, this was simply a conversation from one cold person to another.

Suddenly the anxiety and worry that had nagged me as I shopped seemed to disappear in the light of this small conversation. Worries of finances, moving, transition, change, time, work, all melted for the moment and I let go of that which was keeping me not just from joy, but from real human interaction. And so, when the car pulled up and he said goodbye, wishing me a Merry Christmas, I turned and smiled, “Merry Christmas to you to.”

Despite my best intentions to keep Christmas at a distance this year, something in his words sunk in.

In this Advent, we are called not to bah humbug the superficial joy of the world that seems to negate the reality of pain in the world, but rather to cultivate and share a deeper sense of joy, a joy that reorients our vision and springs forth from the well of love the Divine has for us. Once we cultivate that experience of love in ourselves, we become able to openly share it with one another and move past the saccharine sentimentality to a true sharing of the Christmas spirit, that love and peace that passes all understanding.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Making a Path to the Water's Edge

This parable recounted on the blog Telling Secrets, is by the South African activist, Olive Schreiner,and it is one of my very favorite sacred texts for it evokes the collective ongoing journey of humanity. Schreiner, like that lonely woman on the path, had once searched for a passageway out of the narrow confinement of Victorian life. Growing up as a child of Wesleyan missionaries, Schreiner questioned her family’s beliefs about the propriety of South African society. While she never abandoned the vision of peace and justice she heard promised in scripture, she forged a different path, making a way to the waters’ edge for activists, feminists and pacifists after her.

Schreiner offers us an alternative Advent vision of the path through the wilderness. Her path through the South African wilderness mirrors the long journey through deserts of the ancient near east. Isolated and remote these two divergent paths through the wilderness both lead to a fabled river that forms the boundary between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be. A path to the water’s edge…

For the ancient Israelites that journey led to the Jordan, that ancient boundary between the exilic wilderness and the dwelling place of the Divine. That river, first crossed by Joshua and the people centuries earlier, is the symbolic threshold leading to the promised land. For the exiles in Babylon to which Baruch writes, the Jordan symbolized a homecoming, the heralded arrival of a people long displaced, coming back once again to the home which God promised.

Imagine the joy that this vision must have evoked for the people of Israel, long displaced and cut off from their families.

“See your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you”

An image of the lost found. Rejoice, O Israel, for God will bring your children back to you. Do not fret the journey, for God has already prepared the path.

"God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of Divine glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from the Holy One."

To those living in exile across the wild desert of the middle east, the image of a safe, straight path meant everything. The Divine preparation of the path, the lowering of the mountains, the raising of the valleys was more than a symbolic gesture of the coming dream of God that would radically shift the socio-political landscape. For those living far off across the desert, this meant a safe and speedy return home across the river Jordan. The wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem was treacherous. A straight path without the obstacles of mountains and valleys signaled a sure way home for the children of Israel, a path to the water’s edge.

It is no coincidence then that in this text from Luke, we find John also standing at the water’s edge. There at the Jordan, in that liminal space between wilderness wandering and the promised land, John invites people into the rushing, wild waters in preparation for the coming kin-dom.

John understands that there is still more work to do. For while, it is true that the Israelites have literally crossed into the promised land from their wilderness wanderings, the journey is not yet complete. In fact, the promised land once attained was not at all what they expected. Not only did it come at the cost of those who lived in the land before them…through warfare, death and destruction…but it turned out not to be the place of tranquility, peace and justice they imagined. Centuries of violence, conquest and oppression proved that. In fact, from the time they crossed to perhaps the present day, it seems the occupation of this land brought more conflict and chaos than peace and prosperity.

Mere occupation of the promised land did not usher forth God’s dream of peace and justice. For that, the people had more work to do. That is why John called the people to a baptism of repentance of sins. For John, this was not merely a verbal act by which sins are confessed. But rather it was, in Greek, a metanoia, In the words of Herman Waetjen, it was

“a turning around, a 180-degree change of direction, and therefore a change of mind. It is a movement into transformation that involves the total person. Repentance, as a termination of participation in the old moral order and an entry into a new moral order, inaugurates the active construction of a life and a way of living that corresponds to God’s [dream] for human beings. In time Jesus will instruct the disciples on the ethics of this new road into life. This is how to make the paths straight for the coming ‘kin-dom of God.’"


In fact, Jesus’ ministry will be consumed with instructing the disciples on how to forge that path in the world…through love, compassion, non-violence, forgiveness, and mercy.

While in the passage from Baruch, the people are promised a divinely made path, here in Luke, it is the people themselves who must forge their way not just to the water’s edge but in and through it in order to prepare themselves and the world for coming kin-dom of God. For still there exist barriers to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even in the city of Jerusalem, in the city of the holy of holies, still there is something lacking for the completion of God’s promise. These barriers are ones both imposed from without and constructed from within. The people themselves have been kept from God by the powers and principalities of the world, and by themselves.

We recognize these barriers and obstacles to the Divine, don’t we? We who have oft been kept at bay by the institutional church know what it is like to have our path blocked. And at the same time, we confess we recognize the barriers and obstacles of our own making… towering mountains of hesitation, uncertainty, apathy; dark valleys of fear, anxiety, doubt; chilly, churning rivers of self-loathing, internalized oppression and despair. We, too, know what it is like to wander lost in the wilderness of life, don’t we?

John reciting the well known words from the prophet Isaiah, calls the people to join with God in the construction of a highway back to the Divine, by preparing a path for themselves and for their community that will lead them home to God, to the dream God has for them, to the fulfillment of the promise of shalom, God’s vision of peace and justice for the world. This is the message of John. Tear down the barriers, make the road plain, for kin-dom is surely coming and we must be prepared to be met by the Holy.

You see, the preparation for this journey toward the completion of God’s promise is a mutual endeavor between humanity and the Divine. Both are required to work together for the realization of the kin-dom.

Often in our liturgy at CWM, we talk of this as the co-creation of the kin-dom…something that cannot be done by God alone, nor by sheer human effort. Human and Divine need each other if this dream is to become reality. And, this my friends, is good news.

John’s call to us for transformation is at once individual and communal. We are called to turn our lives around, to begin a new on the path that leads toward God, while at the same time we are called to prepare the path for others. Like God who brings down the mountains and raises the valleys to cosmically break down the barriers for pilgrims on the path, we too are called to be preparers of the way. We participate with God in the preparation of the road that connects the wilderness and the world, that highway between our daily life and our encounters with the Holy.
Our Advent journeys are both about following and leading. Here at CWM, we have followed a path laid for us by members of our congregation who have since journeyed elsewhere. I am mindful of all those who have beaten the path to the water’s edge for us that we might be the queer church in Davis Square.

I remember David, co-founder, of CWM, who dreamed the dream and created space for the birth of a new type of church in the congregation he was serving. Without his vision and the hospitality of the people at Grace UMC in Cambridgeport, we would never have made it to the water’s edge. There on Magazine Street a dream was made reality and we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Tracy, a founding member of this congregation, who forged the path toward our communion table. Upon coming to worship the second Sunday in the month, Tracy, a former Roman Catholic was aghast to discover that we only served communion once a month. “But you can’t have church without the table? Do you think we could have it again next week?” Why not? And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Joe and Craig, two other founding members of this congregation, who forged the path for our community meals. After a meager snack of store bought cookies and stale coffee, they suggested perhaps they could bring a light supper the next week. And what a meal it was complete with homemade apple turnovers and fresh pressed apple cider! And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Dee Dee, our first intern, who suggested that perhaps the church become involved in local politics. She spent her first year making in roads into the greater Boston LGBT community for our congregation securing a feature in BayWindows, signing us as one of the first congregations to support marriage equality and creating name recognition for us throughout the community. Dee Dee initiated our commitment as a congregation to being active advocates for justice in the world. And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Brian and Karen, Betty and Bill. I remember Jessica, Kirk, Terry, Jennifer, Susan, Jeff, and David. I remember Jen, Thi, Lucas, Jeremy and Chelsea. All of whom walked the path with us for a time.

These are just but a few of the faithful saints who have journeyed with us, helping to make a path to the water’s edge on which we now travel. While our paths have now diverged, their gifts remain with us as steps along the path, stones that built the bridge over which we now cross.
As many of you already know from our charge conference this past week, it has come time for paths to diverge again here at CWM. I have been invited to become the sixth Dean of Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University beginning this March. My last Sunday with you will be February 14th. A new pastor will be appointed after the first of the year with whom you will travel further on the path. While we had anticipated that we might journey together a bit further to June, this invitation has sped our timeline up in unexpected ways…both for you as a congregation and for me as your pastor.

We have traveled this path together for nearly 8 years, forging the way forward together. It has been a mutual process in which together we made the path by walking. As I look back on our time together, I feel immensely blessed and privileged to have shared this journey with you for I myself have learned so much. Here I learned to be a pastor, here I found the meaning of community, here I discovered what it meant to truly be Church. As my faith home, you prepared the path for me. Thank you.

But now in the coming months our paths will diverge. The steps we have taken together, the path which we have tread, will remain. Only now God calls us forward to forge new ways of living and loving and being in different communities. While it is with real sadness and sorrow that we come to this unexpected turn in the road, we celebrate the path we have walked together and look forward in eager anticipation to the road that lay ahead.

Like that woman on the path, we, at CWM, find ourselves at the water’s edge, at the precipice of a new beginning. And, like John,we too exist in the liminal space of knowing the promise and yet not-yet living into its full realization. In this liminal, not-yet space, we are called to enter and cross over the river, to extend the highway, to forge ahead in new paths, navigating new territory so that we might wind our way closer to the Divine.

And while we confess that dwelling in this liminal space of already/not yet can be uncomfortable, raising our anxieties about our future, we have been called by God to make the way clear…not just for ourselves but for all those who will follow. Look around, the saints of CWM are not just those I have named. They are all around us. You are the ones who have made this path to the water’s edge…and now God is calling you forward into a new land, into a new space. God is calling all of us to enter the chilly waters that we might cross through to the other side and create new unimaginable paths that lead us and the world toward a greater realization of God’s kin-dom on earth.

Just as John has made the path to the water’s edge preparing the way for Jesus, so also, we too are called to prepare that path…and to extend it. The hope of Advent rests in us and in our courage to traverse the wilderness of our lives, making a path to and through the water’s edge for ourselves and for the world.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Preparing the Path to Advent

This weekend as I went Advent shopping for the church, I found myself once again confronted with the reality of the Christmas explosion. As I searched for purple Advent candles from store to store to store, I could feel my body tensing up with my usual Grinch-like disdain at the overly optimistic, sappy sentimentality of Christmas consumerism. The cloyingly jolly carols piped in even to the restrooms, the brightly colored baubles obscuring my line of sight, the hoards of eager after-Thanksgiving shoppers, the tacky, neon blow-up Nativity scenes, the shelves filled to brimming with cheesy Christmas tchotskies…all brought my blood to boil.

Why in the world cannot I not find a single purple candle in the sea of gold glitter, candy cane stripped, elf shaped, ornament ensconced candles stacked row upon row in the Christmas Tree Shop? Doesn’t the world know it is Advent, not Christmas? Hasn’t anyone read the lectionary for this week? There are no cute babies sleeping, no reindeer prancing, no Santa’s singing, no cookies baking!

You’ve read the lesson for today. You get it, right? In perhaps no other year of our lectionary cycle is the distinction between our secular Christmas expectation and our faithful Advent anticipation more vivid. Luke pulls no punches when describing the eschatological hope of the advent of the kin-dom. Far from the sentimental carols piped into to every grocery store, mall and post office is the stark vision of the end times we read in Luke.

'There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; people dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

This is no baby Jesus meek and mild kind of holiday. This is serious people! This is about the end times, the apocalyptic vision of the days that are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when the Promised One will come…that Branch from David who will execute justice and righteousness, bringing salvation and safety to Israel and establishing a new order in which peace has priority and God’s dream is fulfilled. This is a 2012 epic-end-of-times saga that will not be pretty…agony, bewilderment, clamour, death…the very foundations of the world will be shaken.

A jarring contrast to the holiday madness of the world around us, no?

Our Advent lectionary helps point us toward the completion of God’s dream for the world, reorienting our gaze from the immediate gratification of overindulgent Christmas celebrations to the day in which peace and justice will come to be fully realized. These texts we read, both from Jeremiah and from Luke, arise out of a people who have long been beaten and battered by the world around, tossed to and fro between the world powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome. The eschatological and apocalyptic hope of which we read is rooted in the reality of a historically oppressed and marginalized people.

Both Jeremiah and Luke are speaking to communities who know their fair share of sorrow.
Jeremiah is writing during a time of prolonged exile and desperation. Kate Huey reminds us that

“this wasn't just a disaster in terms of the highest levels of government, when God's own people had been carried off to exile or were suffering its long-term effects. This was an everyday, lived experience of the ordinary person who felt their suffering as a judgment by God.”

It is to this situation of sorrow, grief and loss that Jeremiah proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Likewise, Luke writing just 15 years after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, addresses a community steeped in hopelessness and despair. His depiction of the fall of the temple is not prophetic prediction, but past history.

Both of these communities longed for something more, yearned for a day in which the promise they had heard repeated from generation to generation would be fulfilled…an end to oppression and injustice, an end to colonization and occupation, an end to poverty, marginalization and powerlessness, an end to sorrow, loss and grief.

We, too, can relate to these desires of a community long beleaguered by the powers and principalities of the world around them. Can’t we? We watch with horror at the injustices and sorrow in the world around us…the ravages of a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the struggle of millions living with HIV AIDS, the suffering of those without clean water, nutritious food, or adequate shelter, the inequalities between those who have much and those who have so little, the brutal sting of prejudice and discrimination, the search for meaningful work and a just living wage, the grief of loved ones lost and promises broken. We, too, long for the promised coming of the kin-dom both in our world in and in our lives.

So in the midst of such significant eschatological and existential questions, it is understandable that we might get a more than a little annoyed at what seems like the nearsighted vision of a Christmas come in a Good Friday world. Why can’t the world get it right? This is not about some sentimental holly jolly season, but about the cold, hard reality of pain and suffering and our longing to relieve it. We know. We get it. Why can’t the rest of the world?

And yet, cruising the aisles of the Christmas Tree Shop, I found my eyes wandering to the piles of potential gifts for family and friends and began to feel my heart quicken and eyes glisten as I thought about the small joys some might feel at the gift of a plush blanket or wind-up toy. And then I began to get anxious about all I had to and wanted to do for Christmas…the cookies, the gift baskets, the holiday cards. ..not so much a nervous anxious, but an excited anticipation. I was actually looking forward to Christmas celebrations! In spite of my own best efforts to maintain my Scrooge like contempt at the Christmas frivolity, I found myself longing for a bit of the joy of the season.

Regardless of my own theological predisposition toward the kin-dom of peace and justice…I had to confront the idea that this is actually not a bad or even inappropriate thing to desire. You see the desire was not so much for the trappings of Christmas, but for that underlying yearning for moments, snatches, glimpses of hope in the midst of a chaotic, overly busy, rough and tumble world in which sorrow, grief and loss mark so many of the most of the days.

Advent is not an either/or endeavor. As we have been talking about these past few weeks in regard to the life of faith, Advent is a both/and event. It is both a time of expectant waiting for the fulfillment of God’s dream, and also the very present reality of that dream breaking forth in joyous celebration in the here and now.

The text from Luke helps us understand this both/and reality of Advent. Luke borrows from Mark this account of the end times, but adds something that alters the readers’ perspective.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap . . . Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”

Luke’s addition to the Markan account points us toward the attitude or disposition with which we are called to face these times. Luke is concerned not just about our final destination, but also about how we get there. Both/And.

We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God's intervention in the world: the coming of Christ into the world as a tiny babe and the fulfillment of the kin-dom issuing forth peace and justice forever more.

Advent is this path between times…between the already and not yet, not only of Christmas, but of our lives. It is a liminal space in which we are called to prepare ourselves and the world for something more.

We know this in between space intimately, don’t we? Much of our own lives are lived in liminality. Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us:

“There is a point, or a period of time, that we spend in between one time or place, and another time and place. In that in-between time, we have to live with things being not so clear or comfortable, not familiar and comfortable and yet not being what they will be one day. This "in-between time," though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope.”
It is in this in-between time that Luke calls us to pay attention. Be on guard! Wake up! Be Alert! For the path itself is a place of Divine revelation. It is the time not just of longing for what could be, but also for the celebration of what already is…the glimpses of God we see in our everyday lives…the joy, hope, peace and love we know in and through the world in which we live. While we long for the completion of the promise, for the fulfillment of our joy, we must take comfort in the moments and measures of grace which we see in our everyday lives…for those moments constitute the hope we need to carry on.

As liminal space, the Advent path must attend to both the destination and the journey itself. We are called to lift up our heads and keep our eyes on the prize that is to come… the days that are surely coming when a shoot will arise from the root of Jesse, the time in which the fig tree will come to fruition and the fulfillment of promise of God’s dream. But, we are also called to pay attention to the quotidian hope embedded in our everyday lives.

When we are able to simultaneously be present to the destination and the journey, we find ourselves strengthened for the road ahead. It is only in and through the hope of everyday joy that we find the strength to continue our collective journey toward God’s dream of peace and justice.…whether that be in the singing of a cherished hymn, the embrace of a friend, or even a tacky elf shaped candle for a family member.

These glimpses of hope in the midst of our wilderness lives are like that small, thin, fragile thread that we follow late at night through the dark forest journeys learning to grope and grasp our way through unchartered territory by trusting in the thin wire of hope that leads us through. Or perhaps, these glimpses of hope may even be said to be like breadcrumbs scattered along our path to lead us home once again. Nourishing and sustaining, yet never fully satisfying. We savor them and continue on yearning for more. That is the hope we get in Advent….already, and not yet all at once.

As we begin our Advent journey today, we heed the warning of Luke to be alert, keep awake, for the irruption of the kin-dom is imminent all along our pilgrim journey. It comes in glimpses and snatches, moments of grace and hope that lead us on. So, while no this does not mean we will start singing Christmas carols in worship (sorry), it does mean we will not simply wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise, but rather forge ahead following that thin, fragile wire of hope, gobbling up the breadcrumbs as they come, as we wind our way toward God’s dream in which we are overcome by the floodwaters of grace and hope, our very beings inundated by the presence of the Spirit.

Be alert! The kin-dom is coming here and now! So celebrate and be glad, for God’s hope is bursting forth in our midst!

King?

Last Sunday was known as “Christ the King Sunday” or in more progressive denominations, “Reign of Christ Sunday;” a Sunday in our liturgical calendar at CWM that always draws moans and groans of justified discontent with the patriarchal, hierarchical, oppressive vestiges of our Christian tradition. Just reading the text for today, an uneasiness pervaded the congregation. King? Really?

And well we should be uneasy about such a seemingly triumphal and easy proclamations of power.

How do we reconcile our faith commitments of mutual love and abiding justice with a tradition that at times can be oppressive in its perpetuation of patriarchal structures of power? What does it mean for us at CWM to celebrate Christ the King Sunday? Is it possible for us to participate in this liturgical rite at all? Or must we simply reject it as incompatible with the Christian tradition we know? Can kingship and the kin-dom exist together in the same faith tradition?

These are critical questions for us to face as a community of faith. While it is easy to dismiss what we perceive as the traditional celebrations of Christ the King Sunday, it is more difficult at times for us to face the inadequacies of familiar progressive interpretations….interpretations which I have preached more than once.

You know them, you have heard them in this very space…sermons that temper the triumphalism of a Kingly Christ by focusing on the paradox of a servant leader. Sermons that focus on the way in which Jesus’ kingship turned the expectations of the world upside down. Sermons that interpret the Reign of Christ as a counter-cultural commonwealth that subverts dominant notions of power and institutes in its place a reign marked by justice, peace, love, and freedom. Sermons that invite parishioners to re-imagine Christ’s reign as God’s commonwealth, God’s kin-dom, God’s vision of peace and justice that we hear reflected in the prophets’ cries throughout the ages. A kinder, gentler reign of sorts.

These are the familiar answers that I, myself, have given over the years to somehow assimilate the Christian Tradition (capital T) with the Christian traditioning done in my own communities of faith. Yet somehow, this year, these all too familiar answers, as true as I still believe them to be, were not satisfying. There was something lacking still.

While I still believe these sermons to express a fundamental truth about our faith, an overemphasis on them does two things: first, it glosses over the importance of understanding and re-interpreting reign as a real re-ordering of priorities and second, it focuses our gaze on the outward, socio-political realities of the world, often times to the exclusion of the inward, transformation of our beings.

As much as we understand the limitations of reign as a patriarchal, hierarchical political state in which which some are allotted agency and independence, while most are kept subjugated as impotent and dependent, there is something significant about re-appropriating the word reign in our own faith lives. Jesus was clear. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Not “of this world,” the text says, but “from this world,” meaning that the notion of kingdom or reign cannot be known in and through our human creations of nation, state and power. It must be re-interpreted through a Christological lens.

Rather than ignore or negate this notion of reign, we are called to re-claim it in a new way. Reign implies a re-ordering of priorities, of norms, of commitments, of rules. A re-ordering in which mutuality has priority over patriarchal domination; in which peace has priority over violence and war; in which love wins out over hatred and fear. The word reign gives us a clearer sense of this radical re-prioritization of the norms and commitments of the world. Everything is not equal in this system. Some values and commitments are given priority over others, and in this sense, there is a hierarchy of commitments.

The difference in this hierarchy is the way in which power is exercised. Rather than a top down imposition of wills, of God demanding obedience to the reign of peace and justice, power in this reign is exercised from below, moving up, in and through and among the world. It is not a power over, but a power with and through. This makes the hierarchy of norms function in a radically different way. God’s reign bubbles up in and through the world as the world opens itself to a new, re-ordering of norms, commitments and values. It happens whenever people witness to the power of love in the face of hate, peace in the face of conflict and life in the face of death. It happens not as imposition from a Divine tyrant, but as rather as a response to Divine Love and possibility.

When we re-imagine reign in this way, we reinterpret the use of power from power over to power with. This we can understand in terms of a socio-political re-ordering of the world in accord with God’s vision of peace and justice. Yet, in our haste to counter the privatized and oft times oppressive spirituality that interprets this Sunday as a pietistic surrender to God’s patriarchal will, we tend to overemphasize this political reading of the text.

The Reign of Christ is not an either/or endeavor. It can never be simply a political re-ordering of the world or a private pietistic surrender to the will of God. It is always simultaneously both/and. The truth lies somewhere in between, doesn’t it?

What would it look like for us to consider God’s reign in our own lives? To open ourselves to a re-ordering of our priorities? To loosen control and invite the Divine to wreck holy chaos with our lives?

This is where I think the re-conceptualization of reign as power with and among is helpful. When we talk about allowing God to reign in our lives, we are not talking about a simple, surrender to God’s will, a throwing up of our anxieties to the Godhead, an uncritical plea for Jesus to take the wheel (which I never thought was a good idea to begin with…).

No, when we understand reign as a power working in and through us, we begin to see God’s reign in our lives more as a habitus than a command.

Today I want to invite us to re-conceptualize God’s reign as a habitus.

Habitus is a Latin word used most commonly to refer to a habit, a pattern of behavior that happens automatically. Good, bad, indifferent, these patterns of behavior are seemingly unconscious. Nail biting, smoking, brushing our teeth first thing in the morning, crossing our legs, twiddling our thumbs. They arise spontaneously without thinking.

In theology, however, habitus takes on a deeper meaning in regard to our spiritual formation. A habitus is a way of living and being that connects us to our faith and our God; patterns of behavior that both shape and are shaped by our faith. I remember vividly how my first year theology professor likened theological habitus to his driving from home to school on the Jamaica Way. His body knew intimately all the crooks and turns and narrow passage ways of the road. Every pothole, every light, every lane shift had become integrated into his being so much so that driving to work seemed an almost automatic response. This, he asserted, was the way in which our theologies and faith lives were intended to be…so intimately known and integrated into our very beings that faith emanated from our very being. At once one and the same.

What I want to suggest today is for us to begin to think about God’s reign in our own lives as the cultivation of a divine habitus, as a way of allowing God to shape and form our lives in real and concrete ways from within, from below…moving in and through our lives. The Reign of Christ is not just for the powers and principalities, it is intended to re-order and re-shape our own lives.
Here at CWM we have our own set of faith habits, don’t we?

“I greet you with grace and peace…”
“Here at CWM, all are welcome…”
“Look around…”

Our theological habits at CWM, are more than just catch phrases, they serve to radically shape and form our faith lives. Think about the way in which these habits…or habitus’ inform the way in which we think about our faith, the world, each other, ourselves. What we do impacts what we believe in a very tangible, real, concrete way.

Living into the reign of God in this way is reflected in our langauge and actions, but goes much deeper. I confess that all too often I live in my head, preferring to live out my faith through intricate theological arguments and abstract statements of belief. (As evidenced by this very sermon!!) I confess I still have much more work to do in allowing the reign of God to pervade the whole of my being. Allowing God to reign in my life, to cultivate a habitus of kin-dom living is much easier preached about than lived. As much as I strive to live out these gospel ideas and commitments in my life, I know that there still exists within me a resistance to surrendering control, to a complete re-prioritization of my own norms or priorities. There is something wild and chaotic about allowing the Divine to move and breathe through you. I talk a good game, but really, truly, authentically allowing God to re-order my life…well, that’s another thing.

One cannot think their way into living out God’s reign as a habitus. No, rather than think your way into God’s reign, we must be our way in. That is, we must practice living into God’s vision of peace and justice…in the world and in our lives, by living it out. By practicing it. My professor did not one day decide to master the driving of the Jamaica Way, but rather the knowledge and mastery, the habitus of driving came in and through the practice of it. That’s why, we come here to CWM. To practice living in the reign of God. To be our way into a holy habitus that transforms our lives, that opens us to new possibilities, that allows God to live and move and breathe in and through our very beings.

What would it mean for us to live into the habitus of God’s reign? How would our lives be transformed if we invited God to guide our own priorities and norms? What would it be like to allow that power from within to arise in our own lives and emerge in and through us? What if we allowed the Christ to reign in our hearts and our lives? Would we be transformed? Would the world change?

I think it just might.

Today when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we are inviting the Divine to transform our lives by bubbling up in and through our very beings, transforming us through holy habitus, so that we might not only become for the world glimpses in the here and now of the Commonwealth to come, but also open ourselves to the power of the Mystery that is in and through and among and beyond us all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Virtually Advent

This week begins our prelude to Advent. While the stores have already decked the halls and begun the annual onslaught of post-Halloween Christmas music, we in the Church are slowing down our pace to settle into the Advent season...that time of watching and waiting, of longing and expectation.

In preparation for our season of Advent, we at CWM, are beginning a virtual Advent reflection here on this blog in preparation for this new season of worship.

We invite you to join us in crafting our Advent season together by reflecting on the following questions here in the comment section of this blog.
  • What hymns and readings do you most want to experience during the Advent season?
  • As you read the lectionary readings (Advent 1, Advent 2, Advent 3, Advent 4), what images strike you? What themes emerge? What visions come to you?
  • How do you imagine our worship space for the next four weeks?
  • What does Advent mean to you?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Eradicating Homophobia and Heterosexism in the United Methodist Church


The General Board of Church and Society of our denomination just unveiled it's latest resource on the issue of homophobia and heterosexism. This site grew out of a mandate from General Conference, the global legislative body of our denomination. In 2008, the General Conference passed "Opposing Homophobia and Heterosexism" (#2043 in the Book of Resolutions) calling on the church to provide resources on how the denomination can eradicate homophobia and heterosexism.

Check out the stories and resources. Together we can create a fully inclusive church and society!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How Beautiful the Feet

Last week I had the privilege to stand on the lawn of our nation’s capitol and watch from afar as the thousands upon thousands of equality marchers made their way down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Waiting at the dais, our small band of interfaith religious leaders stood silent as we caught the first glimpse of the marchers cresting the horizon of the avenue. The brilliant colors of their banners and flags announced their coming and if you strained your ears just enough you could hear the faint whisper of their joyful songs, chants and drums growing louder, step by step.

Looking around at my colleagues, there was not a dry eye to be found. For the sight of the march echoed a familiar hope for each one of us. Known and named differently in each of our traditions, our collective hope was embodied for a rare, brief moment before our eyes; echoed in footsteps of the marchers, given voice through their song and made real by their presence.

O God, freedom was coming…and we could see it now! How beautiful the feet of those who bring peace!

How beautiful indeed! Friends, that day on the lawn of the capitol, under the brilliant blue sky, in the light of the shining sun, we looked good! Mmmmm….we looked fierce! How beautiful, how fabulous, were the feet of those who marched that day!

As I stood there, I could not help but recall our texts for today, first in Isaiah and then again echoed in Romans. “How beautiful the feet of the messengers who announce peace…How beautiful the feet of those who bring good news!” I had to wonder if the vision of the prophets and of Paul induced that same strange warming of the heart that I felt as I witnessed the good news being brought to the very steps of the capitol.

Their context was different, but was the hope not the same?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Marching for Equality

In just a few short days, thousands of people will descend upon our nation's capitol to march for justice during the National Equality March. Fifty years after Stonewall and forty years after the first equality march on Washington, we will gather once again to advocate for civil rights, to cry out for justice and to march for equality.

Cambridge Welcoming Ministries will join in the festivities including participating in the service of prayer and thanksgiving for equal rights at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, the interfaith breakfast, and the march itself. Pastor Tiffany Steinwert has been invited to be one of 30 clergy from across the country to join in the interfaith invocation and blessing of the march led by Rev. Troy Perry.

Won't you join us as we march for equality?



For a complete list of United Methodist activities during the March for Equality, click here.

Finding Wholeness in Our Brokenness

Today’s scripture is one of the most popular miracles portrayed in the life of Jesus. Recorded in all four Gospels, it appears a total of six times in varying forms. The fact that all four early Christian communities thought it was important enough to be included is significant.

But why?

The Gospels are full of miracles, aren’t they? Healing the sick, walking on water, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, even raising the dead. So, why is it that this story gets all the play?

If we read the passage carefully, we will see that beneath the glamor of this miracle lies much more. The story of the feeding of the five thousand both points to and embodies a more profound truth about God and humanity. It is, in essence, a sacramental story; a sign and symbol of God's grace let loose in the world.

If we look at the text, we can see the way in which this story parallels our own contemporary rite of holy communion:

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.”

Many scholars interpret this parallel between the feeding of the five thousand and the institution of holy communion as one example of gospel redaction…that is of the authors of the gospels going back over the stories and editing them to reflect deeper meaning in light of current practice. These scholars propose that after the institution of holy communion in the early Christian communities, gospel writers went back and re-wrote the text to parallel their own rituals and rites. In this way, what was once a simple miracle story took on now greater meaning in the context of the faith traditions and practices of the early Christian communities.

Therefore when scholars read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, they tend to interpret it through traditional understandings of holy communion as a ritual meal reflecting Jesus’ bodily sacrifice for human sin. They highlight Jesus’ pouring out of compassion on the multitudes, the willingness to heal and work long past evening as a sign of the ultimate sacrifice to come. The brokenness of the people there that day…the wounded, the weary, the sick and the oppressed…is read as our own brokenness that is made whole through the sacrament of the eucharist.

Yet, I have to wonder in this case about the order of influence between these two.

Should we really interpret the feeding of the five thousand through the lens of communion? That is to derive the meaning of story from the practice of early Christian communities.

Or shouldn’t we rather interpret communion through the lens of the feeding of the five thousand? That is to derive the meaning of holy communion from the story of Jesus’ own practice. The difference seems subtle, but I believe it is significant.

What if the feeding of the five thousand were paradigmatic for communion? How would we understand communion differently?

Think, for a moment, about what Jesus says when the disciples come and ask for help. The disciples are more than a little anxious about the coming of nightfall. They are tired from their journey and worn out from their work, not to mention frightened and grieving over the execution of John the Baptist. Here they were in a deserted place, the people are hungry, night has fallen. They have to do something.

So, they go to Jesus, the miracle maker, and plead for help. “Jesus, these people are hungry and we can’t do anything about it. Can’t you just send them away and make it all disappear?"

And what does Jesus say to them?

“You feed them yourselves.”

Can you imagine? Here the disciples are looking for help, for escape…for salvation from Jesus and what does Jesus say, “Do it yourself.”

Do it yourself? The disciples are a bit confused because they cannot understand how they are going to feed these people without a lot of money. "Do you know how much that is going to cost," they ask. As if money and things can ever bring salvation.

But Jesus points them in a different direction. Jesus says what do you have? Jesus doesn’t ask for a strategic plan or a fund development campaign. Jesus doesn’t ask them to write grants or go for help to the neighboring villages. Jesus simply asks them to look at what they already have.

As if they were in Oz, Jesus tells those Dorothies, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power.”

The salvation and hope they sought was not to be found elsewhere…not even in Jesus. The salvation and hope they sought, the salvation and hope they needed was already right there with them all along.

“What do you have?” asks Jesus.

And with that the disciples begin to go about the sharing of what the community already had.

Now think about the implications this has on our understanding of communion. If this is the lens through which we understand communion, what does this mean? Where is the grace, wholeness, love and healing found? From where does our hope and healing come in this story?

It comes from us. In the words of June Jordan, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

In this way, we begin to see the sacramental focus of holy communion in the compassionate power of the common love we share with one another. It is in the mutual sharing of our joys and sorrows that we find healing and hope. By the very act of coming together in our own brokenness, with our own limitations, failures and griefs, we find wholeness in community. The miracle is not done for us, but rather by us. Holy communion is at heart a communal ritual.

As the contemporary text we read this evening reminds us, we all come to the table hungering and thirsty for something more. To be human is to be finite, limited and broken. Some of us are broken by illness, disease and pain. Others by loss, affliction or depression. Some of us are broken by the words and actions of others…family and friends whose love is imperfect and painful. Others by systems and institutions that oppress and marginalize. Some are broken by powerful addictions that imprison and dis-empower us. Still others broken under the weight of our own internalized pain, buried beneath our self-loathing. Each of us carries our own unique brokenness.

The summer I left for college, I found myself struggling with brokenness in many forms. I was on the brink of moving from adolescence to adulthood as I left my family home and moved 1000 miles away. In the midst of all of these transitions, losses and change, I prayed for things to get better. But they didn’t. I listened to the words of the pastor and tried hard to believe that if I just prayed hard enough everything would work out just fine. But no matter how diligently I prayed, nothing changed. The hurt, the fear, the uncertainty and grief were all still there.

It was during the last UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) retreat that I found a measure of grace to get me through. We had celebrated communion late at night, in the darkened cavernous sanctuary. Passing the bread and cup as we knelt in front of the hard wooden communion rail, I began to pray. If communion was as magical as the pastor had told us, surely my prayers would be answered there on my knees. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I begged God for forgiveness and deliverance. I confessed any and all possible sins I thought I could have committed and literally threw myself at God’s mercy. Tears streamed down my face as I confronted my own pain and sorrow, feeling so very unworthy at the table. Maybe I just didn’t belong. Maybe I was not good enough for God to heal my wounds.

As I wept in prayer, Jerry came and sat beside me. Jerry was chronologically the oldest member of UMYF at 45 years of age. But his severe form of autism rendered him emotionally the youngest among us. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?”

As much as I appreciated his concern, I knew only God could help me now.

Then my youth pastor came and sat beside me and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” I couldn’t bring myself to confess my sense of unworthiness and so again, I sent her away.

Finally, my best friend came and sat me and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” I didn’t have words for how I felt or I didn’t even know at that moment what I needed.

But in her embrace, I felt something subtly shift and my tears subsided.

I wish I could say that I got up and left the table healed. But I was not. Rather, what I found in that moment was a small measure of grace to get me through. It would be over the next several years that I would began to piece together the meaning of that night and begin to make sense out of what happened. What I experienced was not a miraculous healing from God on high, but rather a measure of grace from my community of friends through Christ.

Our human brokenness is inevitable, for all human love, no matter how great, how strong is finite and limited. And despite our best intentions, we find ourselves wounded by life at point or another. And, so it is with those limitations that we approach this table for a spark of hope, a measure of grace to get us through moment by moment.

You see, we cannot find our salvation alone. There is no magic prayer that can make us feel whole once again. In the midst of our limitations and brokenness we must have the courage to reach out to others to heal and be healed. It is only together that we can experience God’s grace, reflected to us in the lives and loves of one another. This is the true meaning of communion as seen through the lens of the feeding of the five thousand.

In the sharing of bread and cup, we are bonded tone another through Christ as a community of compassion, love, healing and hope. We find our salvation in the arms of one another, as we become Christ for each other here and now.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

We are the church together!

The news out of Minneapolis is wonderful!  

This week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to:
 - allow partnered gay men & lesbians to become ministerial leaders in the church
   - allow congregations to recognize same-sex unions
 - approve a comprehensive, inclusive social statement on human sexuality

The ELCA also finalized a "full communion" agreement with the United Methodist Church, enabling the two denominations to forge a stronger, mutually supportive relationship.  

Cambridge Welcoming Ministries lifts up prayers of thanksgiving and tears of joy that the doors of inclusion are being thrown open, and we rejoice with our siblings in the ELCA!  
What an auspicious time for the ELCA and UMC to enter into a deeper relationship!


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

how do we embody welcome?

My best friend and I have been talking recently about issues of church accessibility. [See also her post here, where she focuses on welcome as it relates to physical dis/ability.]

I expect we at CWM would say that we would be happy to do whatever necessary to be inclusive and accessible to people who are worshiping with us -- and I have seen us do that -- but there's something problematic about saying that we will make accommodations only when someone asks us to. (It reminds me of discussions around becoming "officially" a Reconciling congregation -- both the power of explicit public statements, and the obligation to combine statements with tangible actions.)

But when we're a small community with limited resources, how do we decide how to use those limited resources?

I don't have answers to the question of how to manage that balance, but I do want to lift up some of the different ways in which a church can be inclusive and get us thinking.

My best friend said (in the above-linked post), "Inviting someone to church when they can't get in the door, hear the sermon, or share fellowship without going into anaphalactic shock is an empty invitation." I think this is a really powerful statement.

GLBT

In the spoken welcome which opens each Sunday's service, we explicitly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and straight persons. I have said before that this is something that's really valuable to me. (We also explicitly welcome those who are newcomers and those who are long-time attendees, as well as people of many other different kinds, and that part of the welcome is also something I really appreciate.)

The bathrooms on our floor are clearly gender demarcated, but there's a wheelchair-accessible not-gender-marked bathroom on the first floor. Though see below re: stair-alternative accessibility.

Physical ability

We worship on the second floor, and I'm fairly confident that there is no elevator in this building. (You would think that having worshiped in this building for two and a half years now I might know this. Witness my able-bodied privilege.)

Edit: I have been informed by a member of CAUMC (whose building we use) that, "There is an elevator kitty-corner from the parlor; I think it works. I know I've seen people use it when there have been potlucks." Learn something new every day! /edit

When Kirk worshiped with us, we had an ASL interpreter, but we don't have one now, nor do our website or bulletins say anything about our willingness to hire one (though I know that we would be happy to hire one again). Will Green (who no longer worships with us on a regular basis, now that he's based in Hull) and I both took ASL, but neither of us knows enough to really engage in that way with someone who's Deaf. (This also raises the issue of accessibility to people whose primary spoken/written language is not English.)

We don't have a sound system to make the service more accessible to the hearing-impaired, or large-print or Braille bulletins for people with vision impairments.

Our seating arrangement is a series of moveable chairs, which makes it very accessible for people who can't (comfortably or at all) sit in traditional pews (witness Michele putting her sprained ankle up on a chair while she sat during service this most recent Sunday, for example).

Food and drink

As good Methodists, we have non-alcoholic "fruit of the vine" for Communion (though the fact that we don't have an alcoholic option is in some ways exclusive; I know people for whom it's really important to imbibe actual wine when taking Communion).
We don't have gluten-free Communion bread (I also have no idea if our Communion bread is vegan).

We offer dinner after service every Sunday, and all are welcome to join/stay for dinner. (We also mention this on the website.)

We always have vegetarian options at dinner, though we're less good about making sure that we have sufficient vegan options (which is something that we should really work on since we do have actual vegans worshiping with us, so this isn't a theoretical issue of inclusivity). And yes, I know that of the small congregation, it's an even smaller subset of people who routinely provide dinner, and I'm certainly not helping that problem by volunteering to provide dinner myself.
We also don't do a great job of labeling ingredients (for people who are vegan, are lactose-intolerant, have a gluten intolerance, have peanut allergies, etc.), though I have noticed in recent weeks that whomever provided dinner will announce relevant information like "contains dairy" or "doesn't contain gluten" -- and during the closing announcements we announce who provided dinner, so everyone knows who to ask if they have questions about ingredients.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An Introduction....

Hi! I am Robert Wyckoff, usually known also as Bob, and I will be the supply pastor here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries during Pastor Tiffany’s maternity leave. By way of introduction, here is little bit about myself and where I am from.

I am a Certified Lay Speaker from Union United Methodist Church (http://www.gbgm-umc.org/unionboston) which is located in Boston’s South End. Shortly after I joined Union in 1993, we began the journey toward becoming a Reconciling United Methodist Congregation. I worked on the Reconciling Committee there and taught classes using the materials which had been developed by the UMC for that purpose. In 2000, Union became the first African American congregation to join the Reconciling movement. Union UMC was also involved when Cambridge Welcoming Ministries first began at Grace UMC, and so I am especially excited to have been sent by our District Superintendent, Rev. Martin McLee, to fill in for Rev. Steinwert during her absence. It is a blessing and a humbling responsibility with which I am charged and I am grateful for the generous support I am receiving from the Lay Leaders at CWM.

About me personally, I am an alumnus of St. John’s College in Annapolis and a graduate of the University of Vermont, 1972, where I majored in philosophy and religion. More recently I studied at Berklee for a performance degree in 2006. I play trumpet and arrange music for Boston Community Choir (http://www.bostoncommunitychoir.org) and also play a 12 string guitar and harmonica. I am especially looking forward to joining forces in song with Pastor Annie Britton when she visits!

I have three grown children, two daughters and a son, and eight grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 24, all of whom make me feel blessed and proud! I will be posting my reflections here on this blog and also my thoughts for our Children’s Moment which we have at CWM each Sunday. This is one of my favorite parts of the worship service, when we are all invited to see things through the eyes of the children among us. For we remember that Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me….”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sowing and Reaping With God at Stonewall

The two parables for this evening read like a lyric from an overly optimistic musical. Similar to Annie’s cloyingly confident hope that the “sun will come out tomorrow,” Jesus’ simplistic assessment of God’s kin-dom seems like a Polly Anna gloss to the harsh reality of the world in which we live.

All we have to do is sow the seed and watch it grow. No matter how small, no matter how insignificant, the seeds we plant will grow beyond our wildest imagination.

Yeah, right.

Taken at first glance, these two parables, of the sower and of the mustard seed, seem incredibly naive. An almost, divine “be happy ,don’t worry” attitude that seems to offer us in the modern day little to grasp on to. We know the kin-dom has not yet fully blossomed, for we live in a world still plagued by injustice, oppression and despair.

I think of those moments, just in the past year when it seemed the ground of justice would forever lay fallow…mourning the results of General Conference as the denomination reinforced discrimination against LGBTQ folks, grieving the loss of marriage equality in California, first in November and then again just a few weeks ago, lamenting the defeat of a gender non-discrimination law in New Hampshire. In the context of real, concrete struggle, these parables seem out of touch with reality. Bringing forth the kin-dom of God seems daunting, if at times impossible.

Yet, if we take a moment to read the parables in context, we begin to see that Jesus was no fool. These words were not spoken to a group of na├»ve, inexperienced people. These words were addressed to a community that had followed Jesus through many trials and tribulations. In fact, Mark records these parables for an audience not yet one generation removed from Jesus’ own death. Even as Mark wrote, this nascent group of Christians felt the persecution and repression of the wider culture. Neither Jew nor Greek would tolerate them. As religious deviants, they were set adrift in the world, targets of humiliation, repression and prejudice. This was not a group of people who could be easily cajoled into a gospel of health and wealth. This was not a group of people who could be made content with easy, empty words of hope.

It is in the context of this struggle, that the words take on new meaning and help us find a deeper sense of hope that is rooted in our relationship with the Divine. Jesus knew that the coming of the kin-dom would not be easy. It is for this specific reason that he offers these parables as hope for the people.

It is a hope that requires an intimate connection with the Divine. Far from blind faith in a benevolent god head, this hope is a call to co-create with God the coming kin-dom…part of which we can see and know and control and the other part which emerges in and through the Spirit…as a miraculous mystery and untameable gift.

You see, the original hearers of this parable were people still connected to the land. As farmers themselves, they understood the meaning of the parable in ways that perhaps we cannot. No farmer believes that all that is required is the planting of a seed. Farmers understand that the seed must be nurtured, nourished, and tended. A simple planting of seed would not a full harvest yield. Yet, the farmer disciples also recognized that no matter their best effort, there was something mystical and magical about the harvest they would reap. Despite their best efforts (or sometimes lack of effort) the seeds would grow in unimaginable ways. Harvests could not be predicted or controlled.

This relationship with the earth…this mutual relationship of care and trust, of nurture and independence creates the ground from which the early Christian understood these parables.
You see these parables were meant not to offer mere consolation to the disciples, but rather to incite and inspire them to action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, no matter how disappointing the results. Jesus was trying to help the disciples understand that the kin-dom of God is a joint venture between humanity and the Divine that cannot be controlled, planned for or predicted. It is the participation of the wild and restless Spirit that drives this process through history…one in which we participate, but never control.

We plant the seeds of God’s kin-dom, we nurture and tend to them, but in the process it is the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us that transforms our efforts into a miraculous harvest of peace and justice.

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, s small seed of resistance, dignity and liberation burst into bloom at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. As police came to conduct their monthly raid, a sudden spirit of rebellion surged through the crowd and within minutes police and patrons alike realized this night was not to be business as usual.

For years, The Stonewall Inn, along with hundreds of others in New York and across the country had been plagued by regular, dehumanizing and humiliating raids. It was routine for gay men to be arrested for as small of an infraction as accepting a drink from an undercover police officer. Degrading, humiliating, and repressive, these raids were meant to keep the gay and lesbian community in check through ritualized and routine dehumanization. It was business as usual for those in the queer community.

So, when four plainclothes-ed police officers arrived at the Stonewall on the morning of June 28th, they expected the evening to go as usual….rounding and roughing up the suspects, arresting the flagrantly flamboyant, and going home quietly at the end of their shift. But this night was different.

When the officers sent to verify the sex of the drag queens and trans folk began their routine check, those dressed as women refused to cooperate.

When the officers sent to check the ID of the patrons began their routine interrogation, those who had been lined up refused to produce their identification.

When the officers sent to break up the crowd began shouting, those who had been released refused to disperse.

Quickly a crowd rose…50, 100, 200, people stood mocking and jeering the police. Posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion, “wrists limp, hair primped” as one witness described, the crowd protested through their subversive performance of gender.

A bystander shouted, "Gay power!", while someone else began singing “We Shall Overcome.” An officer shoved a trans woman, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. And then a scuffle broke out as a woman in handcuffs fought back after police battered her with a billy club. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you do something?" One witness recalls, "It was at that moment that the scene became explosive."

Pennies, beer cans, bricks and garbage flew threw the air as the crowd which had now grown to 600 began to actively resist. “Witnesses attest that the most outcast people in the gay community were responsible for inciting the first round of resistance. Suddenly fights with a veritable chorus line of drag queens broke out. Singing to the tune of The Howdy Doody Show theme song, the drag queens mocked the police: "We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don't wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs."

One witness recalls, "I just can't ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing.... And all the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on the machismo ... I think that's when I felt rage. Because people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line."

An anonymous participant recalls, “When did you ever see a fag fight back?... Now, times were a-changin'. "

The riots ran on for days as people continued to congregate in and around the Stonewall Inn. But something was different now. With graffiti on the walls of the bar, declaring "Drag power", "They invaded our rights", "Support gay power", and "Legalize gay bars” a new spirit of liberation began to take root in the community. One witness remembers watching the open affection and love between members of the community,: "From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets."

The writer Allen Ginsberg wrote this, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they've lost that wounded look [they] all had 10 years ago.”

What burst into bloom that night was a seed of human dignity, freedom and liberation. Spontaneous and unexpected the collective action that night was a seed sown for generations but only brought to flower that night. Michael Fader explained,

“We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough... It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration.... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.”

This seed of resistance, of revolution, had been planted for some time within the queer community. Resistance to the repressive policies of post war America began long before Stonewall. In the early 1950s “homophile” organizations began to sprout up across the national landscape: the Mattachine Society in LA, the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco and in 1956 the first ever North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. These North American organizations, of course, stood on the shoulders of faithful LGBTQ members throughout history who planted seeds of justice and love their actions, witness and lives. You know their names, faithful LGBTQ people and their straight allies who advocated for the rights of all people…who do you remember?

What happened that night is just one of many moments throughout history in which we see the wild and surprising way in which the humanity and the Holy Spirit conspire for justice. Working together to plant and nurture the seeds, the harvest bursts forth in unimaginable ways.
Who expected a routine bar raid to result in the beginning of the queer liberation movement? Certainly not the police, and perhaps not even the patrons. It was a moment in which the Divine and the human came together in the Spirit of liberation to bring God’s kin-dom one step further to fruition. Since Stonewall, we in the LGBTQ movement have continued to farm for justice together with the Spirit. In just 40 short years think of the progress we have made…what are some of the harvest moments you remember?

We remember Stonewall this Pride week here in Boston, not just in celebration of the movement for full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but for us as Christians, as a moment in history when we co-conspired with the Divine to bring forth the kin-dom of God from a tiny seed of resistance and rebellion to the fruits of justice and liberation.

And we are not finished yet.

God calls us on further, to have faith in the tiny and sometimes unnoticed seeds that we plant, not just in the movement, but in our own lives. Everyday rebellions of open affection, coming out, and refusal to obey the heteronormative customs of our culture. Whether it is standing up to homophobic remarks or proudly displaying your family picture, we participate with God in sowing seeds of justice. No act is too small. Everything we do matters, for with God all things are possible.

So let us join together with the Divine to bring forth a harvest of God’s love in the world!

________________________________

* The quotes from this sermon are all taken from here.