Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Kairos Has Come

On the eve of April 3rd, 1968, amidst tornado warnings and torrential downpours, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd of folks as they gathered in preparation for the city’s sanitation workers’ strike that was to happen the following day.

Knowing the whispers of threats were growing louder around him, he addressed the fears of the crowds. Rather than allowing them to go unspoken and gain power in silence, King talked about the risks and dangers he faced in a way that brought clarity and perspective, not just to King’s life but to the movement for justice of which they were all a part.

Foreshadowing what was to come, King told the tale of how he had nearly died a decade earlier when he was stabbed in a book store in Harlem. And he recounted how even on the way to Memphis a bomb scare on the plane necessitated a special guard to accompany him. And then, King said this:

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” - Martin Luther King, Jr "I've Been to the Mountaintop" -

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

Not more than 24 hours after uttering these words, Martin Luther King Jr. would lie dead, shot by an assassin’s bullet. I may not get there with you…

Recalling these very same events theologian, Dan Clendenin, notes that what was so remarkable about King was his unique ability to distinguish between the chronos time of the world and the kairos time of God. In Greek there are two different words for time. Chronos is the daily, ordinary time of the tick-tock of our clock. It is linear time that marches on second by second, hour by hour, day by day. But kairos time is different. Kairos time is God’s time. In Greek it denotes a time of great opportunity that irrupts through the daily grind of chronos time as something special and unique happens.

King knew the difference between these two times and while at the beginning of this speech he marched through the chronos of human history, he paused for a moment to reflect about the times in which they were living…there was something different, something unique happening in that moment. King told the crowds that out of all the remarkable epochs of human history, he would ask God for just a chance to live in these times in the mid 20th century. He said,

“Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world."

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

And so, as King gets to the end of the speech and contemplates his own chronos life span in the midst of the kairos opportunity, we see that for King, as Clendenin wrote, “longevity, length of days, is a pale imitation and sad substitute for a decisive choice at a critical moment, however short the time.” (From his essay "The Time Has Come," January 2009)

This notion of kairos time is not a new idea. In fact, it arises from our sacred scriptures. Some of the very ones we read this evening. In both the passage from Corinthians and the passage from Mark, the authors announce a kairos opportunity in their midst. We hear Paul warning the Corinthians, “Kindred, the kairos has grown short.” And Jesus, calling the disciples, “The kairos has come! The kin-dom of God is near.”

In both of these passages we see the authors employing kairos as a way to indicate the rupture of the ordinary by the coming of the extraordinary.

In the Gospel the very first words spoken by Jesus according to Mark announce the breaking in of kairos time, of a time of great opportunity, expectation and decision. For kairos time always requires action. "The kairos has come. The kin-dom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

In announcing "the good news of God" Jesus proclaimed the initiation of God's Commonwealth, God’s Shalom, God’s vision of peace and justice. No longer were the people to yearn for this time, nor prophesy of this time to come…now was the kairos of God’s kin-dom in which they were living!

It is with this proclamation that Jesus invites Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to join him, "Come, follow me.” “Come, the kairos has come! Now is the time!” The text goes on to detail the newly called disciples' response: "At once they left their nets and followed Jesus." At once. No hesitation. No questioning. No doubts. At once.

You see for Mark it is essential that the readers understand the depth and significance of this kairos time. Kairos demands a response to God’s invitation to opportunity and possibility. There is no time for discussion, no time to make a list of pros and cons, no time for deliberation. Once one is confronted with the kairos of God’s kin-dom, one is required to respond….immediately!
Some may choose to ignore the invitation. Others to accept it. The text does not tell of the countless numbers of folks Jesus invited who were not yet ready to accept such a life changing job opportunity. We know that the choice to accpet the invitation necessitates a radical re-visioning of their lives, doesn’t it?

The text goes on to tell us that in choosing to join the march of kairos time with Jesus, those Jesus called had to leave everything behind. Not just their nets and their boats, but their livelihoods, their vocations, their families, their friends, their responsibilities, their preconceived futures. All left behind in the wake of God’s time. The decision to work for God’s kin-dom, God’s vision of peace and justice requires that one abandon the ways of the world.

William Loader understands that this choice is not simply a choice to change one’s life, but rather to transform the world. “The calling of James and John and Simon and Andrew and such other callings to leave all and follow function as a protest not against life at home, but more generally against societal structures which simply perpetuate the past and trap people into the service of the status quo and its gods.” (From Loader's First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany 3)

This is exactly what Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians in the second passage we read. "The kairos is short...this world in its present form is passing away." With the initiation of the kin-dom proclaimed and embodied in Jesus everything has changed. Absolutely everything! The crisis of the kairos demands that one change their lives immediately.

We read these passages and sometimes I think we imagine that these radical, life altering events only happen in “biblical times.” As if somehow, once the canon closed and the imaginations of the authors ceased to spin tales, that God too stopped acting. “Well, that kairos thing is a great idea for the people back then. But, we are living in the midst of chronos, plain and simple. There are no great opportunities for change, for life altering experiences. You know I’ve got school to finish, a job to find. I have family responsibilities and I’m really quite busy.”

I know these excuses because I confess there are times when I too believe I am too mired in the chronos of quotidian life to ever find time or space to live in the kairos. I look around at the world, the Church, my community, even my family and friends and I think, nothing is ever going to change.

More often than not, even here at CWM, we talk about the kin-dom as if it is some far off distant future and yet, the reality is that the kin-dom means nothing if we don’t live into it. King knew that. That night in Memphis he preached to the crowds,
“It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

King understood that once the kin-dom is initiated, there is no turning back. The kin-dom must be manifest on earth if it is to be at all. With Jesus, kairos time disrupted business as usual and every single day since, in every age and epoch, humans have had the choice to join God’s movement for peace and justice in the world, or to ignore it and escape into the chronos of status quo drudgery.

The choice is ours to make! Now is the time!

If you do not think we are living in kairos time, consider this, just this week we inaugurated the first African American president of the United States of America, who not less than 60 years ago would not even have been able to have lunch in the nation’s capital! Right now in the United States of America we have been given the unique opportunity to renew our historic work in racial reconciliation. While Obama is no messiah, he symbolizes a new advent, a new opportunity to begin once again to talk about race in this country, and not just to talk but to do something about it. This is kairos time and it demands a choice, it demands action!

Friends, we are in the midst of kairos time. God is breaking in all around us. But the choice is up to us what we will do with that eternal invitation to peace and justice. Susan B. W. Johnson has noted that “there are about ten weeks between the January 20 commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and the April 4 anniversary of his assassination. This time has become a uniquely American pre-Lenten period, a time for self-examination and atonement related to issues of race and class, and issues of freedom and nonviolent activity.” (from her article Love's Double Victory, Christian Century January 15, 1997)

I invite us as individuals and as a community to use this pre-Lenten time period to do exactly what Jesus instructed…”Repent and believe.” Repentance in it’s original meaning does not mean to feel guilty or bad about the past, but rather to change the future. For Jesus to repent historically meant to think and act differently. In Hebrew it literally means a turning around, changing directions, choosing a different path, or making a radical rupture.

In the coming days, we have a choice to make…will we continue to live beneath the oppressive and stagnant weight of the status quo or will we dare to join the inevitable march of God’s kairos and change our lives, change our world? We each have the opportunity to go to the mountaintop, to see and believe in the promise land that is breaking forth in our midst.

The choice is ours to make. Now is the time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Scandalously Radical Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 might seem a surprising pick for the focus of a sermon at Cambridge Welcoming. So why use it? Why publicly speak the words, “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.”? What can we make of this text, even though (perhaps especially because) it provides ammunition for those professing a limited, heterosexual, marriage-centric sexual ethics? Can we move from it toward the radical inclusivity of sexual diversity?

I consider this passage to be crucial to understanding Paul’s overall project. We must keep in mind that Paul’s letters address specific concerns and questions of particular communities, and he does not lay out any kind of systematic theology. But here in 1 Corinthians, we catch a glimpse of what it is that makes Paul so incredibly frustrating. How is it that the same man who readily quotes the baptismal formula that declares, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” can also instruct women to remain in silent submission? With the risk of oversimplifying complex issues in Pauline interpretation, I suggest that our 1 Corinthians reading for today can shed light on Paul’s oscillation between radical equality and status quo hierarchy.

One of Paul’s main concerns is for the health of the corporate body of Christ. If any member of the community does wrong, the whole body is contaminated. To be fair, this concept does not necessarily prohibit inclusivity and mutuality. We might say, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” to urge all to work together for the common good. But in chapter seven of 1 Corinthians, we discover a potentially problematic implication of Paul’s thinking. Earlier in the letter, Paul says that there are a few Corinthian men who are claiming to follow in the Way of Christ but remain sexually promiscuous; this, Paul contends, pollutes the Body of Christ (our reading from chapter six). Then Paul teaches in chapter seven that sex is still appropriate (for those unlike himself who cannot resist it) but only within the bounds of marriage. (Note: Paul does not say that sex within marriage is restricted to the purpose of procreation as some would argue. Indeed, Paul never defines “good sex” as a solely procreative act.) The problem, as feminist biblical scholar Antoinette Wire points out, is that these men who cannot “keep it in their pants” need women who will marry them. Wire explains that the Corinthian women who enjoy prophetic authority and autonomy as a result of their abstinence from sex would be the eligible bachelorettes called to service in order to restore communal health. While Paul does not seem to explicitly obstruct equality here—in fact promoting mutual authority within husband/wife relationships—he implicitly sacrifices the freedom of the Corinthian women prophets to control their own bodies in favor of providing marital opportunities for lustful men. For Paul, the individual body is in service to the community, the Body of Christ.

Paul’s concern about members of Christ’s body being “united to a prostitute” becomes incredibly interesting and surprisingly thrown into question in the work of a second-century reader of Paul, Clement of Alexandria. I am referring to the way that Clement engages a philosophical debate in the Roman Empire over how it is that humans can be rendered divine. Clement does his intellectual and spiritual work in a city that is full of statues and images that depict humans as gods, and he finds it all quite disturbing. Statues of Roman gods tell the stories of their lavish existence and licentious behaviors, and so according to Clement, the artistic images actually teach adultery. In contrast, Clement argues that people are breathing statues, naturally embodying the image of God, and so humans should strive in their deeds to be like God. The idea that all humans are in the image of God is not an unfamiliar one in contemporary culture, especially at Cambridge Welcoming. The assumption of God’s reflection in all persons lends itself toward the ideal of equally valuing and respecting all individuals as diverse and valid manifestations of the divine image. But Clement goes even a step further. He claims that humans do not simply possess the image of God; that is, people do not just reflect God, but that they have the capacity to be God, to render themselves divine.

It will be useful here to clarify the way in which Clement differentiates between the image and the likeness of God. Foundational to his thinking is Genesis 1:26a-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” While Jewish commentators and biblical scholars have generally considered “in our image” and “according to our likeness” to be a mere literary doubling, Clement joins some other first- and second-century Greek Christians in reading the text as intending a difference in meaning. “In our image” comes first and then to be “according to our likeness” is a greater potential that follows. Clement interprets the Genesis verses to mean that all humans are made in God’s image, and goes on to clarify that there is a more significant second step of being “according to our likeness” that has only been accomplished by Christ.

That Christ is the only one to have attained ‘likeness’ does mean not that humans cannot move beyond the original blessing of being in God’s ‘image’. Clement insists that it is possible for humans, in the same way as Christ, to become like God. He bases his argument upon Philippians 2:6-7 (“though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”). In the words of Clement:

The Lord himself will speak to you, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,” the compassionate God who longs to save humanity. And the Logos itself already speaks to you manifestly shaming unbelief. Yes, I say, the Logos of God became human, in fact in order that you too should learn by a human how it is ever possible that a human become a god. (Prot. I 8.4)

Clement declares that just as the Logos of God (Christ) took the form of a human—specifically a slave—humans are able to become gods.

The concept might seem radical (or perhaps just bizarre) today because we do not typically speak of humans as able to be gods. While we talk of encountering God in another person, Clement says that humans can fashion themselves fully in God’s likeness; we can actually become gods. I suspect that many contemporary Christians would consider this idea blasphemous, but Clement’s philosophical-religious-cultural milieu is one in which the lines between human and divine are not so strictly drawn. I am not suggesting that we should adopt Clement’s theology, but rather, there is something to be learned from the way that Clement engages the broader debate over what it means to be in God’s likeness.

The first lesson is that we can find Christianity’s potential for radical inclusivity creeping through the work even of old, traditional, elite, presumably heterosexual (or perhaps asexual) men. I call attention to Clement today because the way that he uses the physical body of Christ (Jesus) dramatically shakes up and reconceptualizes the corporate Body of Christ (the church). To make his argument that humans can come to be in the likeness of God, Clement puts the spotlight on Christ embodied as a slave, using Philippians 2:7 as his authoritative source. This is absolutely remarkable considering the status and role of slaves. A major and unavoidable reality for slaves was that they lacked control over their own bodies; slave bodies were at all times available for use—sexual and otherwise—by their masters. The body of Christ that Clement considers able to teach humans how to become gods is thus a vulnerable, perpetually-unclean body.

This is really quite extraordinary! Clement completely shatters the prevailing philosophical ideals of his time and undermines Paul’s teaching concerning the Body of Christ. Regarding our Corinthians passage for the day, New Testament scholar Jennifer Glancy asks if slaves could have been included as members in Paul’s conception of holy Christian community. Paul shuns the one who is united with a prostitute, and yet slaves could not control their own bodies so that they were vulnerable to being prostituted. While Paul acknowledges slaves in the community and might even instruct them to take advantage of possibilities for freedom (depending upon translation), he defines the Body of Christ in a way that marginalizes and potentially excludes slaves. But then comes along Clement of Alexandria who lifts up Jesus as a slave—a physically-available, impure sex object—in order to teach what it means to be in God’s likeness. Suddenly the Body of Christ is not an impenetrable, masculine paragon of self-control. And if the slave body of Christ represents the corporate Body of Christ, all persons are able to be joined to the community regardless of their status or ability to control their own bodies.

The full implications of Clement’s thinking are profoundly radical. However, the second lesson we learn through Clement is that sometimes the kernels of radical potentiality that are available in the tradition end up constrained and stamped out by the status quo just as soon as they are uttered. What Clement teaches to be the way of one who is in God’s likeness is a Christianized version of the Platonic elite male who is passionless and in control of his body. Clement does say that women and slaves are able to attain divine likeness… in theory at least. But it is the practice that is exclusive; in reality, human possibility is limited for women and especially for slaves. Clement puts forth words that have the power to utterly transform the Body of Christ, but he does not take them toward their radical ends. Perhaps this is because he would be embarrassed to condemn the divine representation of sexually promiscuous Romans and then to base his theology on the body of a slave. Slave Christ is simply too scandalous, and so Clement—in the way of the controlling slave master—uses the slave body for his own purposes and then discards it when it has done the desired work.

And this is why progressive Christians generally have an uncomfortable relationship with the first few centuries. “Thank you for Jesus, thank you for the Gospels telling us of Jesus, thank you getting this whole church thing going. However, what you do with the message—the way that you translate it through the oppressive social structures of your time—is your own business.” It is somewhat surprising then that in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor with a federal holiday this month, actually challenges the modern church to be more like the ancient one. He says, “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

From what we have read today in Paul and Clement, King is really quite generous. While not simply replicating popular opinion (probably because popular opinion condemned and largely ignored early Christian groups) and certainly putting forward some transformational ideas, the early followers of Jesus whose work was preserved and considered authoritative generally shied away from too much social change and remained within (or at best tiptoeing along the periphery) of social constraints. But what King is getting at is that early Christians were absolutely committed to their beliefs regardless of the consequences. They remained faithful to a new way of living and being in the world. In many respects, they were innovative, coming up with fresh ways to talk about old debates, such as how it is that humans could be rendered as gods.

Clement did challenge the dominant culture. In his commitment to Christ, he exhorted all people to change their behaviors and to live according to the one who could truly teach what it meant to become divine. He was certainly creative, offering a unique contribution to religious and social debate. And most significantly, by epitomizing slave Jesus, he approached the radical tipping point whereby all could be included in the Body of Christ regardless of the status of their own bodies. But he could not go all the way. He remained committed to Christ and reinterpreted the social and divine order, but being limited by the ideals of his time, Clement did not seek to completely overturn the establishment. Standing on the brink of change, he chose a more socially acceptable and comprehensible route to Christian transformation.

With the inauguration of America’s first African American President, a man who campaigned on the promise of change, we find ourselves at another moment in history that presents the opening for new possibilities. Particularly relevant to this community, we can finally allow ourselves to believe that the unfair practices of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be ended and that legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will actually be signed into law. Just as Clement realized an opening for all people to become divine, we are presented with the chance to further the possibilities for all people to be full and equal citizens.

That being said, the opportunity for radical transformation is tempered by acquiescence to social constraints. While positively mentioning lesbian and gay people (though not so much transgendered persons) in most major speeches, and despite speaking against California’s Proposition 8, Barack Obama still declares that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Perhaps it is that Obama thinks his general support for LGBT people to be safe enough that it does not stoke widespread controversy but that he considers endorsement of same-sex marriage to be too great a political liability in light of the current social climate. In much the same way that Clement uses the slave body of Christ to make a particular argument but discards it before it can embarrass him, Obama lifts up the queer community as part of his progressive agenda but might fear that the ends of complete inclusivity will be too radical to be widely supported. This is not to say that queer bodies are mere pawns in a political game, but it is an acknowledgment that any genuine respect for LGBT people is filtered and manipulated according to social-political interests and calculations.

What we realize in all of this is that, often behind thinking that conforms to traditional norms, there is a moment at which radical potentiality is given over to the status quo. Paul proclaims the end of ethnic, social, and gender division in Christ but implicitly limits women’s autonomy and marginalizes slaves. Clement calls attention to the positive value of the scandalous slave body of Christ but immediately covers up the scandal with elite male philosophical language. Obama declares that sexuality should not preclude equality but maintains an unequal definition of marriage. We might read this resistance to dramatic fundamental social change in the terms of Paul’s commitment to the unity of the body. The Body of Christ (or the body politic) might assume a new meaning—one that is based in the idea that all can be members—but the movement of individual bodies is dictated by the needs and limitations of the group. As with Paul, there is an unwillingness to allow individuals bodies to contaminate or somehow limit the progress of the corporate body. The margins of the whole are privileged over and restrict the potential of its parts.

In reaction to this attitude, Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically expressed, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” King realized on the basis of his experience that conformity to social constraints would not actually protect the Body of Christ but would allow continued abuse of its members. Even Paul acknowledged all parts of the body as being essential; one part cannot be rejected or mistreated if the whole body is to be healthy and fully functioning. But the theory and the practice are not always easily reconciled. The theory demands a dramatic restructuring of society, and it is at this point that those with the power to affect change often stop short of radical transformation for fear of becoming socially unrecognizable, ineffective, and ultimately powerless. The challenge then is for us to wade through the translations of Christian tradition into the language of the status quo and to uncover the words of radical potentiality. In Clement—an unlikely source for those wishing to subvert cultural and religious norms—we find words, that if allowed to speak out their full impact, locate the power of divinity in the bodies of those traditionally oppressed and considered spiritually unclean.

It may seem that I am preaching to the choir, and to an extent I am. Cambridge Welcoming exists as a church body that represents the socially and religiously marginalized. We know that tradition can be hurtful because we experience the pain. We know with Martin Luther King, Jr. how society and the church has “blemished and scarred [the Body] through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” My message today then is one of affirmation. It is the acknowledgment that the texts and practices of Christianity and the broader culture from the first centuries through the present have obscured Christ’s message of radical welcome. But it is also an opportunity for this and other marginalized communities to expose the moments when compliance with the status quo occurs, to realize the kernel of transformative possibility that still stands as the alternative, and to utter once again the radical words that were previously left silent, this time speaking them until the fullness of their prophetic power is realized. We can lift up the Body of Christ as Paul does but pay attention that its members are not cut off or abused. We can think along with Clement to declare that the slave body of Christ teaches what it is to be in God’s likeness but push onward toward the radical implication that even, in fact especially, the socially downtrodden can appear divine. And politically, we can echo Obama’s calls for the equal valuing of queer people but urge his words to manifest equality fully in all realms of life.

If there is one thing we might take away from Clement, it is the idea that recognizing humans to be in the image of God is not enough on its own. We are called to actively work to present ourselves as like God. So what does it mean to look like God? According to Clement, it is the slave body of Christ that can teach us how it is that humans can come to be in God’s likeness. What Clement ultimately avoids I read to mean that the very fleshiness of humanity is divine. In this way, becoming like God does not mean conformity to the prevailing ideals but rather means living out the fullness of one’s humanity. In Tony Morrison’s words from Beloved, “Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.”

The Christian tradition can be incredibly frustrating because it is full of radical possibility—sometimes in the most unexpected places—that too often is surrendered to the status quo. Our challenge is to uncover the moments of radical potentiality and to press on them, to slip through the cracks and to open up the new possibilities, even those that have previously been avoided. In closing, I offer the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” May we call attention to and continually speak the words of justice that they might affect all persons toward the realization of radical inclusivity in the Body of Christ.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Belovedness and The United Methodist Constitution: Does All Mean All?

There is a story that another UM pastor, Janet Wolf, tells about one of her parishioners. This story about Fayette has become gospel for me in understanding the fullness of the meaning of baptism in our Christian tradition. You see Fayette, although new to the Church understood the power of baptism deep her in soul.

She came to Janet’s church one summer, pacing back and forth outside the open doors, listening intently to the music, the laughter, the words. Occasionally she would crouch down on the front steps engrossed, amazed and astounded at what she heard. Little by little that summer Fayette moved from the sidewalk to the steps, from the steps to the door and finally one day from the door to the pew.

Months passed and finally Fayette decided to join a membership class. As part of this class, Janet began to explain about baptism. She began, “You see, in baptism, each of us is named…” but before she could finish, Fayette jumped up and with excitement and enthusiasm, and began to finish her sentence….“each of us is named by God as bright, brilliant, beloved children of God and beautiful to behold.” “I know. I know those those words. I heard you say them before at all those other baptisms.”

“That’s right,” said Janet, “we say them as a response to everyone’s baptism.

“Well,” said Fayette, “I can’t wait till you say them at MY baptism!!”

It seemed from that day forward Fayette began reciting those words over and over again whenever she could. During prayer time, in the middle of the sermon, in the midst of a hymn, you could hear Fayette shouting out, “You are a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and you are beautiful to behold!”

Finally the day came for Fayette to be baptized. As she emerged from the waters, she sprang out of the baptismal, pool dancing and leaping for joy down the aisle. Turning to the congregation she said, “And now I am…” and the whole of the congregation responded to her, “bright, brilliant, and beloved child of God and beautiful to behold.”

Well, not long after that, the pastor received one of those dreaded middle of the night phone calls. It was the local hospital calling to say that Fayette was there, having been brought in after a brutal assault. As Janet approached Fayette’s room, she could hear her mumbling to herself, “bright, brilliant, beloved…bright, brilliant…bright, brilliant, beloved child of…” Standing in the doorway Janet could see Fayette pacing back and forth. Her face was swollen and bruised, muddied and bloodied, hair going this way and that.

She turned to see Janet standing there and she said “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God…” but she couldn’t quite finish it. Again she started, “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God” and turning to see herself in the mirror with the reality of the words not matching the image staring back at her, she went on, “And God is still working on me! And if you come back tomorrow I’ll be so beautiful to behold you won’t recognize me!”

You see, Fayette knew, even in the midst of the tragedy and trauma that was so often her life, that there was nothing that could ever take back, erase, or wash away that mark she had been given in baptism…she was forever permanently and powerfully marked as that bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and she was beautiful to behold!

I often wonder why, if Fayette could remember those words in the midst of crisis and trauma, why it often seems so difficult for many of us to remember those same words in the midst of our own lives.

Each year on this particular Sunday, I go back and read again the short little book by Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who struggled throughout his life accepting his own sense of belovedness knew that there was something about the world in which we live that seeks to destroy our belief in our belovedness. Nouwen believes this is a gradual process that happens overtime as we define ourselves, not by our baptismal vows or promises, but by the measures of the world; by what we do, by what people say about us, or by what we have.

And it is true, isn’t it? We measure our lives is by what we do. What we do in life determines who we think we are or how we judge ourselves. What is the very first question we hear when we meet someone new? “So, what do you do?”

In an instant who we are becomes reduced to what we do. And when we do it well, we feel good about ourselves and our lives but when we do things poorly, all our self worth flies out the window. What we do can never fully satisfy us as we seek to know who we truly are.

We also try to identify ourselves is by looking at what people say about us. What people say is a powerful thing. When someone speaks well of us, we are on top of the world. Life is good. Yet, when one person has something negative or critical to say it seems that our whole world collapses in on us. Whether it be gossip, or criticism at work or at home, these little comments can destroy who we think we are. When we depend on the evaluations and affirmations of others to tell us who we are, we find once again it never fully satisfies us.

And so, we turn to answering the question by looking at what things we have. Our families, our health, our education, jobs, our bodies, our material possessions. When we tally up the sum total of what we have we may feel good. Perhaps our new job is paying more than just our monthly bills for once. Perhaps we have finally lost those last ten pounds, or we are close to finishing that eternally long degree program. And while all of these things are good things for which we should be thankful, they also do not satisfy our quest for who we truly are. The moment we lose any one of those things, when we lose our jobs, or worse when a family member passes, we can fall, and slip into a deep depression of inner darkness. The world seems to make no sense and our lives
crumble before us. And again we find that even measuring ourselves by what we have never fully satisfies us.

The truth is that no external source of affirmation, whether it is what we do, what others say about us or what we have, can ever truly satisfy that deep need of our soul for love. There is only one perfect love and that is the love we seek, the love of God.

Jesus knew that he was the beloved child of God through his baptism and it was this knowledge on which he hung his entire life and ministry. On that day so long ago when the clouds parted and the dove descended with the divine words, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased,” Jesus knew instantaneously who he was. There was nothing more he needed to know. It didn’t matter what he would do, what others would sayabout him or even what he might have…all that mattered was that he had been named by God as the Beloved.

This mark, this identity as the Beloved, is not just reserved solely for Jesus. As Christians we believe that God has also chosen and marked each one of us through our own individual and communal rites of baptism. Baptism is the outward sign and symbol of God’s grace poured out upon us as we are incorporated into Christ’s Body as the Beloved. It marks us, names us and claims us, just like the Spirit did that day to Jesus at the Jordan, proclaiming that we too are indeed God’s beloved children, we are pleasing to God.

This divine naming and claiming radically changes our identity; it transforms who we and shapes us into a new way of living and loving that is Christ’s Body, the Church. The first letter of Peter states it quite well, when in the translation of Clarence Jordan, he writes, “the former nobodies are now God’s somebodies” Or, in the more familiar translation, once we were not a people, but now we are a people.

Peter says, "the former nobodies are God’s somebodies."

In many ways, this is at the heart of our mission and ministry here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries. Through our worship, our fellowship, our witness and our advocacy we strive to make a space where former nobodies are recognized as God’s somebodies.

There are a whole lot of people who have been told they are nobodies by their families, by those in their workplace, by their so-called friends and even by the church. But our distinctive voice needs to say again, the former nobodies are God’s somebodies. We are the Beloved. No matter what we do, what others say or what we have…we are the Beloved!

"The former nobodies are now God’s somebodies; the outcasts are now included in the family."

If we as a Church truly believe in the Gospel proclamation of the Belovedness of all people, then we must be compelled to pass the proposed Constitutional Amendment to Article IV of the United Methodist Constitution which would protect all people as members and participants in the Church. This simple amendment states that all people are to be included in the Church. Rather than list some protected groups and leave out others, this new amendment would ensure that all means all...that the divinely ordained Belovedness of all people is recognized by the that what God sees, the Church finally recognizes. (To find out more about how you can help pass this amendment, go to:

I often think back to that story of Fayette and wonder at the power of baptism for her that even in the midst of being beaten and abused she could not just remember those baptismal promises, but she could believe them. She believed those words with the whole of her mind, body and soul, even when everything else around her seemed to contradict those promises. She believed that baptism had forever marked her. She believed that no matter what happened to her, no matter what the world did to her, no matter what was said about her…she was no longer a nobody…through baptism she had become a somebody God’ bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and beautiful to behold!

And that is the most wonderful thing about baptism, isn’t it? It is a permanent sign from God that can never, ever be washed away…not by what others say, think or even do to us…no, our baptisms mark us as permanently and powerfully part of the family!! We have all been marked and we are all the beloved of God, bright, brilliant and beautiful to behold!

If we can learn to live out of that core of God's love, we can be freed to truly love one another without the burden of expecting that all these exterior things will satisfy our souls. We have been created with a heart that only God can satisfy. When we are grounded in God's great love for us we become free to live as the beloved, and love as the beloved. When we claim our belovedness, when we begin to live our belovedness, when we come to believe in our belovedness, we become as free as Jesus to love, minister to and care for the broken world around us.

May we leave today with the knowledge that despite all that the world may say of us, we truly are bright, brilliant, beloved children of God and oh-so-beautiful to behold.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Being Gay Is a Gift From God

This week Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show created controversy across middle America as Rev. Ed Bacon proclaimed on national television that "being gay is a gift from God." Click here to watch the clip as Rev. Bacon counsels Sedrick, a young gay man.

While Oprah, herself, seems to be behind the times, claiming this is the first minister she has ever heard say that being gay is a gift from God, many of us know this truth from experience. All of our sexual orientations and gender identities are blessings to from God. If we truly believe we are made in the image of God, as our Judeo-Christian heritage tells us, then we must proclaim the divine gift of our sexualities in all their diversities.

How have you lived out your gift of sexuality in your life?

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols

For the second Sunday of Christmas at CWM we held a service of lessons and carols. Interspersing readings from Scripture, history, literature and theology, we celebrated Christmas through Word and song.

All of the non-canonical readings were taken from Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Vol. 1-3 (United Church Press, 1994).


First Lesson Isaiah 9:2, 6,7

Those Who Saw the Star by Julia Esquivel

Isaiah 9:2-6a

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you
For the yoke of their burden,and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian. For a child has been born for us, a child given to us;

Those Who Saw the Star by Julia Esquivel

The Word became Light,
The Word became History.
The Word became Conflict,
The Word became Indomitable Spirit,
and sowed its seeds…

and those-of-good-will, heard the angels sing.

Tired knees were strengthened, trembling hands were stilled, and the people who wandered in darkness saw the light!

The Word became flesh in a nation-pregnant-with-freedom,
The Spirit strengthened the arms which forged Hope,
The Verb became flesh in the people who perceived a new day…
The Word became the seed-of-justice and we conceived peace.
The Word made justice to rain and peace came forth from the furrows in the land.
Grace and Truth celebrated together in the laughter of the children rescued by life.
And the Word shall continue sowing futures in the furrows of Hope.
And on the horizon the Word made light invited us to relive a thousand dawns
toward the Kin-dom that comes…

*Christmas Carol UMH 219 v .1,2 "What Child Is This"

Second Lesson Luke 1:26-35,38

People of Ceaseless Hope by Walter Burghardt

Luke 1:26-31

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The woman’s name was Mary. And Gabriel came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! Our God is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by these words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus.

People of Ceaseless Hope by Walter Burghardt

[We] must be [people] of ceaseless hope…Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means [we] must be [people] of the present, [we] must live this moment - really live it, not just endure it - because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.

*Christmas Carol UMH 238 v.1,2 "Angels We Have Heard on High"

Third Lesson Matthew 1:18-21

First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle

Matthew 1:18-21

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of God appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a child, whom you are to name Jesus, for your child will save God’s people

First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle

God did not wait till the world was ready, till...the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait

Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god's light would not go out.

God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

*Christmas Carol UMH 224 v.1,2 "Good Christian Friends Rejoice"

Fourth Lesson Luke 2:1-7

In the Middle of the Night by Dom Helder Camara

Luke 2:1ff

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn child, wrapped the child in bands of cloth, and laid the child in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In the Middle of the Night by Dom Helder Camara

Then you chose to come.

God’s resplendent first-born sent to make us one.

The voices of doom protest:

“All these words about justice, love and peace—

All these naïve words will buckle beneath the weight

of a reality which is brutal and bitter, ever more bitter.”

It is true, Lord, it is midnight upon the earth,

moonless night and starved of stars.

But can we forget that You, the son of God, chose to be born

precisely at midnight?

*Christmas Carol UMH 230 v. 1,2 "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Fifth Lesson Luke 2:8-20

Aztec Story of the Nativity

Luke 2:8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”

Aztec Story of the Nativity

The angels came down from the sky like birds. Their voices were bells. They sounded like flutes.
“Praise God in heaven Alleluia!” They came flying out of the sky, singing, “Peace on earth, alleluia!”
Sweet smelling song flowers were scattering everywhere, falling to earth in a golden rain.
“Let’s scatter these golden flowers, alleluia!” The flowers are heavy like dew, and the dew is filled with light,
shining like jewels in Bethlehem. “Alleluia!” Heart flowers , plumlike bell flowers, red cup flowers.
They’re beaming with dawn light, they’re shining like gold. “Alleluia!” Emeralds, pearls, and red crystals
are glowing. They’re glistening. It’s dawn. “Alleluia!” Jewels are spilling in Bethlehem, falling to earth, “Alleluia!”
*Christmas Carol      UMH 245 v. 1, 2           "The First Noel"                                   

Sixth Lesson Matthew 2: 1-12

In Choosing to Be Born by Peter Chrysologus, 5th Century

Matthew 2: 1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw this One’s star in the east and have come to worship this child."

In Choosing to Be Born by Peter Chrysologus, 5th Century

In choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us. God therefore reveals God’s own self in this way, in order that this great sacrament of love may not be an occasion for us of great misunderstanding. Today the Magi find, crying in a manger, the one they have followed, shining in the sky. Today the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited, laying hidden among the stars. Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, humanity in God, God in humanity, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body.

*Christmas Carol UMH 254 “Queens and Kings”

Seventh Lesson Che Jesus, Anonymous, Argentina

Che Jesus, Anonymous, Argentina

They told me that you came back to be born every Christmas. Man, you’re crazy! . . . with this stubborn gesture of coming back every Christmas you are trying to tell us something:

That the revolution that all proclaim begins first of all in each one’s heart. That it doesn’t mean only changing structures but changing selfishness for love. That we have to stop being wolves and return to being brothers and sisters, That we . . . begin to work seriously for individual conversion and social change / that will give to all the possibility of having bread, education, freedom, and dignity.

That you have a message that’s called the Gospel, and a Church, and that’s us -- A Church that wants to be servant of all, a Church that knows that because God became human one Christmas there is no other way to love God but to love all people. If that’s the way it is, Jesus, come to my house this Christmas, Come to my country, Come to the world of humanity.

And first of all, come to my heart.

*Christmas Carol UMH 246, v.4 “Joy to the World”