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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Call to Action: An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes

The state of Massachusetts has a bill on the floor titled, "An Act Relative to Gender-Based
Discrimination and Hate Crimes" (H.1728/S.1687). This proposed law would prohibit discrimination in employment, lending, housing, education, and public accommodations on the basis of a person's gender identity or expression. It also adds gender identity and expression
to the hate crimes statute, which reflects the heightened level of violence experienced by transgender and gender non-conforming people.

The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition is currently reaching out to have people write letters to two judiciary co-chairs. There is a sample letter below for your use. All you have to do is print and sign the letters and mail them out. It will take five minutes and about a buck in postage, but it could mean saving some one's job, home or even life.

Please feel free to email Calyb Hare if you have any questions about the bill, about the work the MTPC is doing or have additional questions about what it means to show your support via the letter.

Mail one letters each to;

Senator Cynthia Stone Creem
Senate Staff
: Room 416B
State House
Boston, MA 02133

Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty
House Staff: Room 136
State House
Boston, MA 02133

Calyb Hare
244 Cedar St, #3
Somerville, MA 02144


and email a hard copy to calybhare@gmail.com or fax to 781-902-7598

It's very important that Calyb Hare get a copy of your letter via fax, email or snail mail so that he can add it to our total packet to present to the full committee.

__________________________________________________________________

Sample Letter:

Senator Cynthia Stone Creem
State House Room 416B
Boston, MA 02133

Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty
State House Room 136
Boston, MA 02133

Dear Senator Creem, Representative O’Flaherty, and Members of the Committee:

I live in Massachusetts, and I am writing to ask you to support “An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes” (H.1728/S.1687). This proposed law would prohibit discrimination in employment, lending, housing, education, and public accommodations on the basis of a person's gender identity or expression. It also adds gender identity and expression to the hate crimes statute, which reflects the heightened level of violence experienced by transgender and gender non-conforming people.

I believe this bill is important because transgender people and others whose gender does not conform to rigid stereotypes are often harmed by harassment, discrimination, and violence. For example, transgender people are routinely fired by their employers either before or after transitioning from one sex to another; many others remain unemployed or underemployed as a result of discrimination, hostility and misunderstanding about transgender people. Widespread prejudices about how "real men" or "real women" should look or act often lead to harassment and unfair treatment in public accommodations, housing, and credit transactions.

This legislation is vital to our community. Transgender people face discrimination in many aspects of their lives. They are often harassed at work as well as on the street. They have been denied both routine and life saving emergency medical treatment due to their status as transgender. In countless dehumanizing ways, transgender people are denied opportunities to provide for their basic needs. The Massachusetts legislature has a chance this year to send a very different message; passing this bill makes it clear that Massachusetts values all of its residents, and protects all of them equally against discrimination and violence.

I urge you to support this bill, which represents an important step towards equality for all citizens of the Commonwealth. It is time for Massachusetts to join the 13 other states and dozens of municipalities that already protect their citizens on this basis, and once again take its rightful place as a leader in the struggle for equality for all people.

Sincerely,

Your Name

___________________________________________________________________

Trinity Sunday

Deep in the South in 1962, 22 year old Zelda was giving birth in a university hospital. Poor, indigent and black, Zelda was not like other patients. Far from the nice, genteel white southern women who complied to the hospital rules, lying. flat on their backs in a drug induced state, Zelda broke all the rules. Pacing naked back and forth on her bed, she moved and sang and moaned with each contraction.
Student nurse, Peggy Vincent, author of the memoir, The Birth Catcher, recounts being utterly bewildered with what seemed to her at the time as crazed behavior. Struggling to care for the woman and stay in good standing with the rigid rules of Mrs. Purdue, who was her instructor, Peggy remembers her own anxiety, panic and fear as she watched Zelda labor.

See pages 18-19 of The Baby Catcher.

Much to young nurse Peggy’s chagrin, the hospital rules could not contain Zelda. It was only in a moment of mutual vulnerability, Zelda in her need to labor her way and Peggy in her need to stay within the rules, did the two figure out a way to become “conspirators in birth.” Rather than try to impose the rules on Zelda, Peggy became her co-laborer, her co-conspirator. The minute hospital staff came near she would run in the room, Zelda would lie down and pretend that all was well. In an unlikely alliance, the two of them danced together toward birth.

It was only when Zelda began to push that the hospital staff realized what was going on. Despite Peggy’s horror, the doctors and nurses who rushed in at the sound of pushing were intent to follow the rules to the letter of the Law. With thick leather cuffs they strapped Zelda to the delivery table despite her desperate screams and kicks and pleas. As Zelda tried to birth her baby, the rules of the hospital clamped down on her with ferocity.

“She’s a crazy woman!” shouted one doctor.

“Why do we let these women breed?” cried another.

Devoid of any relationality, the doctors and nurses treated Zelda like an object to be controlled, rather than a person with whom to be in relation. And all the while, fighting back tears, Peggy observed, as rules trumped relationship and Zelda was subdued. For after all, a rule is a rule is a rule. Mrs. Purdue would approve.

A rule is a rule is a rule. No matter who it hurts. No matter what relationships it violates. A rule is a rule is a rule. It is this same sense of legalistic adherence to rules that Paul addresses in the text that we read today. In order to understand the passage, we must contextualize it within Paul’s wider argument about what it means to lead a life in Christ.

Without having read the previous 7 chapters, this passage seems quite problematic. The dualism of flesh and Spirit suggest a denigration of the body and the call to suffer with Christ seems a masochistic command to salvation through pain. Yet, I believe there is much more to this passage when we read it in the context of Paul’s full argument.

For no scripture was ever meant to be read literally or a historically.

We enter Paul’s argument at the moment where he distinguishes between two ways of living. The first is a way of living life according to what Paul deems as the “flesh.” Given the dualistic interpretations of this text throughout history, we all too quickly assume that Paul is talking about the desires of the body, of our sensuality or sexuality. However, in the context of the entire chapter we come to understand that for Paul living in the flesh meant living by the human values which seek to drive us away from God…selfishness, fear, greed, and legalism.

You see, the early fundamentalist Christians were enslaved by a life driven by the flesh, rather than liberated by the Spirit. They were held captive by the Law, trying desperately to keep the commandments, dotting their lives down to the last iota. For the fear they felt, the anxiety about the uncertain nature of the world around them drove them to seek security in the very concrete, seemingly eternal and objective truth of the Law as literally depicted in scripture.

Yet, in their fearful fervor, they found they failed time and again to uphold God’s requirements of love, mercy, grace and compassion. Paul recognized this earlier in the chapter when he asserted that this type of legalistic living drives people into a state in which, as William Loader puts it, “their guilt conspires with their sense of inadequacy to produce a kind of moral impotence in which people just keep getting worse.” Legalistic living, is indeed living by the flesh…living in blind adherence to human values projected onto the divine. Scripture driven or not, this way of living is not what God intends for the world. In many ways, this was how Peggy was living her life terrorized and paralyzed by the rules imposed on from high…from the divine Mrs. Purdue and her rigid rule book.

But there is another way to live….living not by the flesh, but by the Spirit. For Paul, the radical message of Jesus was that love initiated a new relationship of belonging with God…an at-one-ment with God, as William Loader claims, “from which goodness would flow, not because of fear of disobedience, but because love begets love. Love is the fruit of the Spirit. While the way of imposing the law leads people into slavery, love liberates.”

Love liberated Peggy, if for only a moment. In recognizing their own mutuality and interconnectedness in birthing new life, Peggy and Zelda allow relationality to trump rules and forged an unlikely alliance to bring forth new life together.

This momentary alliance was indeed exactly what Paul meant by living by the Spirit. It is not isolated act of personal piety, of an individual relationship with Jesus as your personal savior, but rather living in intimate, inextricable relationship with one another, the world and ultimately the Divine. And this type of living is just the opposite of the enslavement by the Law…it is the liberation of love.

When we understand the distinction between these two ways of living and when we come to understand what Paul means by flesh and the Spirit, we begin to see the implications of this passage in a much different light. Living by the Spirit is a gift given to us by God, by virtue of our status as joint heirs with Christ.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Loving Parent! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”


By using the intimate language of familial ties, Paul emphasizes the true gift or inheritance of God as relationality. We are enabled and empowered to live life in the Spirit in and through our deep connection with God.

Living by the Spirit means living our lives, not by externally imposed rules and regulations, but rather by the innate, internal law of love in which and for which we were created by the divine. Living by the Spirit is living in and through our relationship with the Divine. Being glorified with Christ, is no pie in the sky heavenly prize, but the very real and present presence of the Divine working in and through us. For the last two weeks, we have been talking about the way in which the Divine dwells in and through our very being. This, indeed, is living by the Spirit. It is a divine dance of love in which we are an integral part.

Today, on Trinity Sunday, it is quite appropriate that we celebrate the relationality of the divine in our lives…for indeed this is what the Trinity represents. Christian tradition has struggled over time to depict the reality of the divine relationality through the concept of the Trinity. One God in three.

Early in the life of the church folks tried to make sense of the relationship between God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. If God is one, what do we make of these seemingly distinct revelations of the Divine. Some tried to distinguish by substance (what they are made of), others by role or action (what they do). Yet, these interpretations failed to express the inner relationaity of the Divine. It was Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers who first began to describe the Trinity in ways that fully expressed the mutual interaction and relationship between the three. For Augustine, the Trinity could only be known in and through Love. He used the analogy of Lover, Beloved, and Love to describe the Trinity.

The Cappadocian Fathers developed a similar idea of God’s essence through the concept of relationality. The theo-babble word we they used to describe this reality of relationships was "perichoresis" which means a mutual "indwelling," "permeating," or "interpenetrating” or even "to dance around." Perichoresis describes the Trinity as eternally giving themselves over and into one another, as if in a Divine Dance. It is not a static relationship, but a dynamic, ongoing, active relationship….a dance that knows no end.

But this dance of the Trinity is not exclusive to the Divine. If we take the account of Genesis seriously in which we are created in the image of the Divine, if we believe Jesus’ words that we have become the hands and feet of Christ for the world, if we understand Paul’s assertion that we are indeed heirs of Christ, then we see how this divine relationship extends to include us…for we have been adopted into the divine family. We have been made heirs equal with Christ….In this way we see ourselves as participating in this divine dance of love.

For Paul, living in the Spirit, is living in and through this Divine relationship of love in which are called to join the divine dance, at once being the lover, beloved and love for and with the world. Yet, this way of being is difficult to maintain in a world ruled by the Law, by the legalistic demands of the flesh. It is this tension between the world of law and the world of love that may lead to suffering. Here, Paul is not prescribing suffering as a necessity of salvation and redemption, but rather explaining that to love so fully, may create conflict with the world and may lead to suffering…such as we witnessed in the life and death of Jesus. But, as full participants in the life of love, we are called to follow love at all costs.

Lest we understand this divine dance of love as exclusive, Paul makes clear that this relationship, this divine dance, is not limited to a human-God relationship but rather extends to all of creation. Paul looks to the renewal and rebirth of all creation. The Divine dance of love includes all of creation….from bacteria to baleen.

“For the creation waits with eager longing …” It is not just humanity that longs for redemption in and through and with the Divine…but all of creation.

In Paul’s understanding, the universe is like a mother in the final stages of pregnancy.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of the world.”

As William Loader imagines, “It is almost as though Paul sees the Spirit as the panting in the birth process. The Spirit - indeed God - is travailing with us for change.”

Several years after attending the traumatic birth with Zelda, Peggy was called upon to attend to Mrs. Purdue, the very instructor who had instilled such fear in Peggy that she became paralyzed to help Zelda in her time of travail. Now more than ever she had to be absolutely perfect. The rules were the rules were the rules and she had to demonstrate her ability to the one on high that she could indeed enforce them. As intimidating as it was, Peggy began her work with Mrs. Purdue with all formality and rigidity as she had been taught.

See pages 32-33 of The Baby Catcher.

Throughout the night Mrs. Purdue and Peggy abandoned the legalistic hospital rules and instead melded together in what Peggy calls the “dance of birth.” Rocking and swaying and dancing together, the two became one as they brought new life into the world. Suddenly the enforcer became the transgressor. Perhaps, these rules were always meant to be broken. Even Mrs. Purdue, the symbolic keeper of the rules, realized that relationship trumps all. For new life, cannot come under the scrutiny of rigid regulation, but must be allowed to be birthed in a divine dance of relationality that connects all creation through love. In their dance of birth, Mrs. Purdue and Peggy symbolized for us all the power of relationship to loose divine creativity in the world.

When we let go of the fear of disobedience, the anxiety of following the rules, the projections of good and right behavior, and instead give ourselves over the wild and unpredictable nature of the Spirit working in and through us, we find ourselves living not by the flesh of enslaving law, but rather by the love of the liberating Spirit. It is in and through this relationship that we join with creation in bringing forth God’s kin-dom.

We are called to allow ourselves to dance intimately with eth Divine, to let go of fear and rock with the rhythms of life being birthed in us and in the world.

Pentecost Sunday

Today in churches around the world, we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit, the birthing of the church, the breaking in of God’s kin-dom. Congregations far and wide drape the church in red, proclaiming the Good News of the day with trumpet fanfares, dramatic readings and thrilling music. It is the least the modern church could do, given the chaotic, euphoric outburst depicted in Luke’s Acts, isn’t it?

The text, itself, reads like a summer blockbuster movie script. It is now 50 days since Jesus’ death and resurrection and 120 disciples have gathered in the upper room awaiting the coming of the Counselor, the Comforter, the One Christ promised who would bring them healing and hope. Perhaps still in shock from the tragedy of the Lenten journey and the miracle of resurrection, they cower in silent anticipation. While the city below bustles with the excitement of the Jewish harvest festival, the Feast of Weeks, the nascent community of Christ anxiously and quietly waits and waits and waits. As ten long days and nights pass, the tension mounts in the stuffy, closed up space, the music crescendos and the audience senses something exciting is about to happen.

Suddenly there is a sound like the rush of a violent wind that came from the heavens, and there appeared divided tongues, as if of fire, flaming tongues that came and rested on each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine the surprise of the disciples who awaited a gentle comforter? Here was no quiet counselor…here was a chaotic, loud, flaming presence that sent unknown power coursing through their bodies, compelling them to speak in a language they had not before known.

As the fire descends upon the heads of each person, they begin to speak in other languages given to them by the Spirit. The text tells us that this riotous spectacle drew onlookers from the festival below. Those who had traveled from every nation and state to be in Jerusalem for the festival gathered round to see what was happening. As the diverse crowd of gawkers gathered, they all heard the Galilean believers speaking, but rather than hear the new, unrecognizable language of the Spirit, the diverse crowd of people heard the disciples in their own native tongue. Ecstatic jibberish flowing forth in a cacophony of sound, yet being understood as loud and clear as if spoken in one’s own native tongue!

The text tells us that the crowds were amazed and astonished, not only that by the flaming presence of the Spirit and the miraculous experience of intelligible Babel, but by the fact that this holy deed was being accomplished in and through mere Galileans, ancient hill-billies, supposed ignorant country bumpkins. How was this possible?

The Pentecost story is often interpreted as a story of fantastic surprise…for the disciples, for the crowds, for the audience, both ancient and modern.

Yet, I wonder why we find this story so surprising? The Spirit’s arrival should have come as no surprise to the people of faith for God had been foretelling of this event for generations upon generations. The Spirit was not a novel creation of God, post-resurrection. The Spirit was not a new force sent to birth the church and set the world on fire. No, the Spirit had always been with the people of God, dwelling in and through them.

From the very beginning of Creation, our sacred texts declare the presence of the Spirit…

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while Spirit swept over the face of the waters.”

And when God created humanity, the text tells us, "God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, So God created humankind in the Divine image, in the image of the Divine, God created them.”

From the very beginning the Spirit has lived and dwelt in humanity…an integral part of their very being. Yet, the Spirit lay dormant for generations as the people turned from their own power in search of Divine salvation. We read of prophets time and again trying to awaken the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in humanity, prompting them through prophetic calls to action and pleas to God to pour out once again the Holy Spirit upon the people.

It’s what the prophet Jeremiah longed for when he wrote of God’s new covenant, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

It is what Isaiah prophesied, The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me; and sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

It’s what the prophet Joel predicted when he said, “And afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28).

The Spirit has always been with us…even if at times it has gone unrecognized.
Jesus, too promised the disciples of the Counselor, the Comforter, the One who would come after him to lead the disciples. The Pentecost experience should have come as no surprise to the disciples for they had been instructed to wait for the Spirit. Indeed, in this text we find them doing just that. The problem was that the disciples expected something much different. I imagine they expected One who would come and take care of them, who would shepherd and enfold them, like a mother hen, healing them in their grief and defend them from those who sought to persecute them. I imagine that they sought the fulfillment of the hope of Jesus as the Messiah, of One powerful and mighty, who would rule from on high and exercise power on their behalf.

But instead what the disciples discovered was an unruly, chaotic force that coaxed up out of the depths of their being power unimaginable. It was not the Spirit who was to heal the wounds, confront the unjust world order and preach the Good News…it was them! They had the power all along…it just needed to be re-awakened, ignited, called forth.

This was not what the disciples expected, but then again, the Spirit is often not what we expect.

You see Pentecost is not the first arrival of the Spirit, but rather the reawakening of the Divine presence that already resides in the people. The pentecost experience unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit that already dwells in the disciples, but has been forgotten, covered over and ignored through the ages.

Last week, we read from a translation from Walter Wink in which Jesus prays for the disciples before the ascension. Here, Jesus laments that the people have for far too long projected their power onto him. Remember, Jesus prays,

“Until now they have been limited in what they can do, because they have projected all their own divine powers on me and on you. But now, they will no longer have me to carry their projections. They will discover powers unimaginable within themselves--your divine power within them and they will do greater works than even I did. Right now they are content with theophanies, disclosures of divine love and power, signs and wonders. But the thing they lack is completion in themselves. Like a catalyst I have opened them to their utmost possibilities, but they have persisted in identifying them with me. In my absence they will be thrown on your power within them. When they discover that power, their joy will be boundless.”

It should come as no surprise that this power dwelt within the disciples all along…God created it, the prophets foretold it and Jesus promised it. Pentecost simply offered the disciples a second baptism, a reawakening of the divine fire, of the soul-force, of the grace, of the Spirit that resided in each of them from the beginning of time.

The disciples were not meant to cower in quiet fear after the resurrection. They were meant to live out resurrection through their own lives, going forth into the world to do as Jesus said, even greater things than I. Yet, it seemed the trauma of the cross and the miracle of resurrection had locked the disciples in their own tombs of fear and self-doubt. What Pentecost did was awaken and enliven the Spirit each of them already had dwelling within and ignited the fire of God’s love in all whom they encountered.

It is no coincidence that today we celebrate the baptism of Lucas Nguyen-Powell. It was a divine syn-croncity that this day was chosen for it is not only the church’s celebration of the second baptism of the reawakening of God’s Spirit in each of us, but it is also on this day 19 years ago that Jen confirmed her faith and entered the Church as a full member. Life come full circle…the Spirit poured out on one and passed down to another.

Pentecost indeed is the second baptism of the spirit. Our baptismal liturgy speaks of a dual baptism…one of water and the spirit. This day, this penetcost we celebrate that baptism of the Spirit. But we must remember, it is not a bestowal of God’s grace and Spirit, but rather a re-awakening, a recognition, an affirmation of the grace and Spirit of God already dwelling in and through Lucas. Our sacred scriptures tell us that even as we are formed in our mothers’ womb, God’s spirit enfolds us. Each of us here is born with that grace and that Spirit dwelling in us. The problem is that we sometimes forget that it is there, allowing it to become covered up, tarnished and neglected by the world around us.

This is exactly what had happened to a young woman, named Fayette, who was a new member at Edgehill United Methodist Church years ago.

She had come to the church one summer, pacing back and forth outside the open doors, listening intently to the music, the laughter, the words. She looked weary and worn by life. She walked with shoulders’ hunched and head hung, not daring to catch anyone’s eye for fear of them noticing her. There was no spark to her…not anymore…just a tired soul who longed for more, but expected little. Whatever life had dealt her the years the before, left her seemingly but a shell.

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. It was as if something was being reawakened in her Sunday by Sunday.

Months passed and finally Fayette decided to join a membership class. As part of this class, the 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, 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.” Clearly the grace and power of the Holy Spirit had been reawakended in Fayette through baptism and she was indeed a new person.

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 the 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 hide, tarnish or cover over the power of the Divine dwelling in her. No matter what people might say or do to her, no matter the reflection in the mirror, Fayette recognized the image of the Divine looking back at her in that mirror, for her baptism had re-awakened it in her. Fayette knew more than most of us that nothing 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! There was nothing that could ever again

Today, we gather to repeat that ritual once again for Lucas in hopes that as he is marked as an infant the Divine spark within him is affirmed and re-awakened so that he might grow all his days with the knowledge that he is indeed a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God who is beautiful to behold. We do this ritual as a community, because we recognize that this rite is not only for Lucas but for all of us. Baptism is a pouring out of grace, but also an initiation into the life of the community…the community that is charged with reminding, not just Lucas, but each and everyone of us gathered here, just how very powerful we are. For it is only in and through each of us that we come to know the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within.

A Sermon for Mothers' Day

These past few weeks, the lectionary readings have been from the First Letter of John. At the heart of each reading for the past three weeks and for the next two weeks has been one word…love. In this passage alone within the space of 15 verses, John uses the word “love” 25 times. You can hardly miss his point!

Yet, the word love, as frequently intoned as it is, is not so easy to define. Throughout centuries scholars have spent lifetimes crafting definitions of love that adequately describe the philosophical, ontological and metaphysical reality of this human phenomenon. Recently I received an email with this very question. But this time rather than leave the answers to the scholars of the day, a group decided to ask children ages 4 to 8 the simple question…what is love? Here are a few of their answers.

"My mommy loves me more than anybody. You don't see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night." Clare - age 6

"Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken." Elaine-age 5

"During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my mommy waving and smiling. She was the only one doing that. I wasn't scared anymore." Cindy - age 8

"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK." Danny - age 7

Love is like how my mommy says my name, When someone who loves you they say your name it is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth." Billy - age 4

The children need no fancy words or theological concepts to understand love…they know it when they see it…or better put, they know it when they feel it. You see, love is not an abstract concept or philosophical state of being, much to the chagrin of countless philosophers and theologians throughout time. No, love is a concrete reality that we as humans are open to experience through our relationships with one another.

Reading back over these statements, it is striking how many children identify love with their mothers. In the very ordinary events of making coffee, saying goodnight and speaking their names, the children recognize love in their mother’s actions.

For many of us our first experience of love does come through a mother’s love…the warm embrace and light kisses on our cheeks and foreheads (kisses that we soon struggle to avoid once we reach adolescence), the cold-compresses and hot bowls of chicken soup when we are sick, the compassionate embraces of forgiveness after we have done the worst, the unconditional support and encouragement no matter how poorly we might play the clarinet, or kick the ball, or swing the bat or dance in the recital.

Being a mother is never biologically determined…mothering transcends kinship ties. For some of us, our own biological mothers provided more harm than healing, more conflict than love and so we had to look elsewhere to find the mothering we needed. For many of us that first experience of love came through mother figures, people, both women and men, who modeled that type of unconditional love through their actions.

For me, I came to know love most fully in the arms of Mama Tana, my adopted Nicaraguan mother. Mama Tana was a beautiful, big round woman, with a smile and a laugh that could crack any frown. Although Mama Tana had her own brood…there were more than 25 people living in her three room house…her love was endless and overflowed to all who knew her. Everyone in town called her Mama, from the adopted daughters she took in to live with her to the street vendors to the children at school. Just as she mothered the town, Mama Tana soon became my mother as well.

I remember vividly one night coming to her house after work. I had had a bad day and felt horrible. I felt as though I was a bad teacher, a horrible person and a faithless Christian. Mama Tana took one look at me and asked me how I was…I tried to answer but found instead of words only sobs came. I could not explain to her how awful I felt, how inadequate, how alone, how alienated. All I could do was cry…and as I did, Mama Tana enveloped me in her in wide arms and held me close, rocking me as if I were an infant. In her embrace I suddenly felt warm all over, the dark depression in which I found myself was shattered by a light of hope and love. Mama Tana loved me no matter what I did. In those few moments, I knew the grace of God in Mama Tana’s arms. Soon after I bought the picture I showed to you, for it became to me a picture of the Divine Mama Tana, the God of love I had experienced in her arms.

It is through experiences like these of human love that we glimpse God’s love for us. John is clear that while we may not be able to see God, at least not in this lifetime, we can come to know God through the love we have for one another: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” If we love one another, God lives in us.

You see John understands that love is the very foundation of God’s being. When all else is said and done, God is love. We know this not through theological speculation or philosophical deduction, but through our concrete relationships with others. It is only through the love we have for one another that we come to know and experience God in our lives.

In a very real way, the love of our mothers’, both biological and chosen, incarnates for us the love of God. God, like a mother, continuously brings forth new life nurtures and cares for creation, wipes away tears, gives comfort and grants us grace beyond measure no matter what we do. While not often as well known as the passages that compare God to a Father, the Bible is indeed full of images of God as mother.
God is described throughout Scripture as a loving mother: God is a woman in labor whose forceful breath is an image of divine power; God is a mother suckling her children; God is a mother who does not forget the child she nurses; God is a mother who comforts her children; God is a mother who births and protects Israel; God is a mother who gave birth to the Israelites. The early scripture writers understood the ways in which the Divine is known to us through our mothers. Through this human love we come to know divine love in God, as we are birthed, fed, nurtured, comforted and cared for. It makes you wonder why we call God “he” when the Bible is full of so much rich mothering imagery for God!
The imagery is indeed rich and multi-layered, giving us glimpses of the diverse and depth of the Divine character. Loving and caring, yes, but also fierce and faithful. God’s love as mother is also portrayed as fierce. In scripture we read of God as a Mother eagle and mother bear, fiercely protecting their young against life-threatening situations. Jesus himself is described as a mother hen who gathers in her brood, to shelter and care for them, to instruct and teach them in the ways of the world.
This fierce love at times becomes swallowed up in our hallmark inspired sentimentality around this special day. We romanticize the love of our mothers as gentle and soft and forget the ways in which mothers reveal to us the tougher ways in which God calls us to love. Love is never easy, even with our mothers!
The original Mother’s Day proclamation was not a sappy rhyming poem inscribed on a greeting card, rather this is how it read”
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender to those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
- from Mother's Day Proclamation - 1870 by Julia Ward Howe

Mother's Day in this country began not as a chance to support Hallmark, but as a cry for peace. “Our husbands will not come reeking with carnage and our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn what we have taught them.” This proclamation is more than tender reverence for mothers; it is a cry of protest amid a violent nation. Mothers everywhere are called to say no to violence and yes to peace, called to reveal God’s fierce love for humanity in a resolute stand against the world’s warring madness.

Having lived through the civil war in this country, Julia Ward Howe was keenly aware of the pain, loss and grief war inflicts on mothers everywhere …no matter which side they fought on. She understood the ties that bind those who mother and sought to use this common bond to seek peace and reconciliation in a time of war.

“We, the women of this country, will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Mother’s Day originally transcended nuclear family ties and instead of binding one small household in maternal love, stretched the familial ties across nations and around the world. In this proclamation she united mothers everywhere in a love that sought, not just comfort for some, but peace and justice for all.

Julia Ward Howe understood that the Christian call to family transcends our common notions of kinship. Rather than idolize the perfect nuclear family of mother, father, son and daughter, the kinship lines of the Church, of the Body of Christ, transcend these divisions, uniting us all in a common family, with God as our Mother, our heavenly parent. As Christians, we proclaim, “we are family” as a radical form of protest to the ways in which the world seeks to divide us from one another.

The early church knew that the tie that binds was not one of family lineage, nor city state nor nation. No, the family to which we owe our primary allegiance is our Christian family, that transcends common kinship bonds.

Jesus, who longed to gather us as a hen gathers her children, spoke of us as a single family, with one divine parent. He spoke of us as a single living vine, all of us branches of one being. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” said Jesus. We are all intimately connected to one another in this great global family. What happens to one, happens to all.

Peace begins in knowing that our enemies are not "other," but ourselves. The strangers whom we battle are the brothers and sisters whose hearts are bound with ours. Those whom we dehumanize and demonize and belittle and ignore are our own flesh and blood. When we turn away from genocide in Dafur and tolerate sweatshops in Nicaragua, it is our own family that we are abusing. And our divine Mother weeps equally for us all. We want so deeply for God to care a little more about us than our enemies, but she will not. If we can know God’s love through the love of the mother’s in our lives, we can understand the ways in which God loves all her children equally with a fierce and tender love that transcends our limited notions of human kinship. She loves all her children, and neither our pride nor our fear will dissuade her.

Give thanks for the love of our Mother God. Give thanks for our kindred, even the ones with whom we fight. Pray that God will have mercy on us and heal our bitter hearts. Pray that we will honor our unity in God's love. This Mother's Day, pray that we may come to know that we are all children of one Mother, loving and all-powerful, who gives her life for us, that we may have life, and have it abundantly.