Sunday, August 23, 2015

What does the Lord require of you? a sermon on offering for Zion Lutheran, August 23 2015
















Readings
Micah 6:6-8
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 40:1-11
I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make
    the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
    to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
    your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
    none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
    they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
    but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
    you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
    in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold
    your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    keep me safe forever.
2 Corinthians 8:9-15
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Message    (Listen along)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

So you at Zion have been in the process of working through different parts of the service, and talking in the sermon about the parts, their traditions, where they come from.  Today's focus is on the offering.  So everyone just bust your wallets ... no, no, I'm just kidding.  I did tease Pastor Meta, I said, "so you're going to have the guest preacher talk about money, that's how you want to set this up..."  (laughter)

But I hope you heard in the readings that have been laid out today that offering is about more than money.  That is where I want to find our home today, in this sermon: that there is something more that God asks from us and for us.

We have these beautiful examples in these three different scriptures.  We have Micah, Second Corinthians, and the Psalms.  Micah is a prophet.  He writes from a place that is troubled.  The Jewish people for a long time have understood their offerings to God as having many different functions.  They need to give from the first fruits of their harvest, to give back, to give thanks.  They need to give a tenth of whatever grows, to say, "God, you are the one who gave the growth.  You are the one who truly feeds us."

In addition, the Jewish people have understood that there need to be offerings to take the place of their sins.  When they make mistakes, when they fall short of the glory of God, they must turn over food and sacrifices from their own belongings, to fill in the gap that has come between them and the promises that God wants for them.

And Micah, the prophet, looks at this and says:  "But wait.  Where is the line?  How far does this go?  Does God really want oil, and sacrificed cows, or even my firstborn, to make up for my sin?  Where do I stop and say, 'I've given enough'?"

Where Micah lands is in saying what God wants is for us to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.

Paul, on the opposite side of the biblical timeline, somewhere in the first century, maybe in a prison maybe in a tent somewhere dictating to a scribe, is talking to the church in Corinth, a church he started.  He is answering their questions but also pleading with them and saying:  "There is a church in Jerusalem that is suffering.  They need help.  You are a church in abundance.  It is possible that God has called for you to help them."

Paul is writing to a community that is in a lot of transition, just like Micah's community.  Paul is saying, "I know you are a new church.  I know some of you are Jews, and you are used to giving at a certain place and a certain time and in a certain way.  I know some of you are Greeks, and Romans, and other Gentiles, who have not been part of a worshipping community in this way.  This is new.  Let me explain to you what it is like to live into this new community that lives in the grace of God."

Then we have the psalm.  The Psalms is this interesting book of the Bible that collects a hundred and fifty poems and songs -- sometimes they are laments, sometimes they are praise, they are always prayer.  And this particular psalm is talking about worship from the heart.  Not about worship that follows a perfect ritual, but worship that rises from true hope.

All of our writers today are talking to people in transition, who are wondering "What does it mean that God wants something from me?  What does that look like?  What if God wants too much?  What if I can't give enough?  What does God require of us?"

And so Micah's words reverberate through the many hundreds of years, saying, "What God wants is to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God."

To do justice.  To recognize where limits are.  To not ask more from people than they can give.  To recognize when people are suffering.  To admit when we, painfully, have taken part in that suffering.  God calls us to do justice.  To apologize when we have done wrong.  To make amends when we have made mistakes.  And to call wrongdoers to account, to speak love to power and say, "There are people hurting.  We must do something different."  It looks so different for each person and each congregation to do justice.  But God calls us to that relationship being restored, between us and between God.

What does the Lord require of us?  To love kindness.  To forgive ourselves.  To forgive others.  To live in the hope that looks like love.  To lay our own burdens down, to be kind to ourselves, to say "I will not carry this pain and hold on to it in a way that makes me resentful or bitter, but I will learn to let it go."  To love kindness towards yourself and towards others.  To love the kindness that God offers every day.  To believe that there is a place that we can live where it's no longer about racking up the perfect points or offering the right sacrifice or worshipping with absolute righteousness, but to live into God's kindness, every day.

What does the Lord require of us?  To walk humbly with our God.

Humbleness is a tricky word.  We've come to recognize it often as a beating down of the self, a bowing of the head.  But the core of being humble is being honest.  It is not about beating yourself down, lowering yourself.  It is not about raising yourself up, above others.  It is about being honestly who God made us to be, nothing more and nothing less.  To be humble is to be truly ourselves, to admit our messy mistakes but to celebrate our great joys, to be honestly ourselves before God and before each other.

What does the Lord require of you?  Not oil, not sacrificial cows, not your firstborn.  Not to give, as Paul says, until you are under pressure and uncomfortable.  What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

And the church, at its core and at its best, calls us to this.  That is why we gather, in the hope that we will be continually brought back to justice and kindness and walking honestly with our God.  To a place where we give -- our talents, our treasures, our hopes, our prayers.  A place where we give up -- our resentments, our pain, our anger.  Not out of fear and shame and guilt or concern about the jeopardy of our salvation but because we are free.  Because God has said, "You are free."

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly and honestly with your God.  It is a different kind of offering.  It will look different in different times and places.  It is not a hard and fast rule, like bulls and oil and tithing.  It is a transformation of the heart that God is working at in you every day.

When we come to our time of offering today in worship, and the basket passes you -- can you give money? Of course.  But remember too when it passes you that God asks for so many other things.  For you to let the love of God knock at your heart.  For you to offer up your pain, your mistakes, your sin, the oppression that you live under or that you have caused for others -- to offer that up and let it go.  And to give into the world instead justice, and kindness, and honesty.

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God.  Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finally: or, the day Isaiah promised


Finally.

Finally, finally, finally.

Finally!

We are laughing, we are crying, we are singing, we are dancing in the streets.  It is Pride weekend and we finally, finally, finally have won marriage equality for same-gender relationships in every state in America.

This is a day centuries in waiting.  This is a day I wasn’t sure I’d see in my lifetime, and here it is.  The exhale of a million long-held breaths is like the sound of the Holy Spirit.  

This is the day the prophet Isaiah promised, telling those with no family to sing as if they had a hundred children, offering love and redemption to those who had too long carried fear, shame, discouragement, and disgrace.

Finally! 

We will celebrate well this weekend.

Yet many voices remind us that there is much more work to be done.  Jennicet Guti√©rrez’s interruption of President Obama’s LGBT reception has re-drawn attention to the oppression of trans women of color who are imprisoned or detained in American cells.  Nine trans women of color have been murdered in 2015 alone.  LGBT children and teens still comprise 40% of the homeless youth population, many cast out from hateful families and shunned by friends and churches.  Thousands of open or closeted LGBT people will hear today, from family and friends and coworkers and peers and even church leaders, that the Supreme Court’s decision is one more American backslide into perdition.

Nation-wide rights to marriage ends one part of legal discrimination; it does not end the cultural, societal, religious, and interpersonal hatred many of us face each day.  

So the question is:  what do we do now?  A person of faith might say:  Where is God calling us now?

Today’s ruling has only legal effect; it changes nothing about religious practices of barring same-gender couples from marriage.  But there is something glorious and godly in it yet.  The good news of the long arc of history that bends toward justice is the good news of a just and loving God.

This is the day the prophet Isaiah promised.  This is the day of rebuilding.

We have been torn down.  We, the LGBT community, have been gripped and pulled and ripped apart by those who opposed us, by strangers and family alike, who claimed we had no place in the law or in the house of God or even the world.  We have lived in legal and religious exile.  But God has been calling us back, relentlessly, pleadingly, fighting through the crowds of hate to offer a word of hope.

And today, the foundation for our house has been laid.  We have been afflicted and storm-tossed, and today, we see a foundation laid with silver and sapphire, towers of rubies and gates made of precious stone.  We are being made a city shining for all to see.  We are a promise:  we are God’s yes, yes, yes to hope and work and resurrection.  That which seemed impossible is possible.  That which seemed far off is near.

This is the day the prophet Isaiah had promised.  This is the day when the Lord cried out, Have you no money?  Come, buy, eat.  I want to feed you far better than hatred and fear ever can.

Let us learn from the stones that built this foundation.  Let us remember the lessons we learned as we fought for marriage equality state by state; as we had the hard conversations with friends and family when we declared our own unalienable rights; as we saw the tide begin to turn, the low roll of waves of acceptance.  We can bring these lessons to greater work.  We can take what has built the foundation of this house -- dedication, hope, a powerful belief in justice -- and continue the fight for our brothers and sisters.  We can reduce homelessness among LGBT youth.  We can see trans health care covered by insurers and doctors.  We can examine our own relationships and root out abuse, addiction, codependency, and all other toxicity that has crept in from the hatred we lived in each day.

And if we are people of faith, let us too learn from the stones that built this foundation.  Let us remember that the lies we are told by family and society and supposedly loving Christians do not tame the God who is pursuing us in madly irrational hope.  Let us hear the voice of God who says I gather the outcasts, even more than you can count.  We can find our home in the house of God again.  We can believe that there is a place for us, that a loving God is beating down each door and wall in the passionate hope that there will be space for all.  We can raise up the voices of faithful LGBT Christians, hearing the voices of the prophets in our midst, calling us home.

We can do this.  Whether we were brought here today by the spirit of a just and loving God or the hard work of thousands of LGBT people who believed in a better future or (as I suspect) a gracious overflowing of both, we have come this far by a powerful faith.  We have all believed in something, together.  We have more work to do, but look at how far we have come; we already know we can do more.

Where is God calling us now?  To build on the foundation; to rebuild the house of God, a house of prayer for all people.  There will be peace, and food, and joy enough for all.  And the house of God, which once was a boundary between, will be a home for everyone.

Finally, our work is done.

Finally, our work can begin.

---------------------------------

This summer I've joined up with Voices in the Wilderness, a blogging collective empowering Christian writers to impact the world.  You can find more posts like this at http://www.viwcollective.com/ .

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14: Breathe.

Reading:  Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.


Children’s Message
So we’re going to try two things today.  We’re going to breathe -- I’m going to read the story again, and we will breathe together every time I say “breath.”  We’re gonna add some music.  I did not bring bones, I am sorry -- I brought rocks.  *shaking sound of rocks in a plastic cup*  Every time I say “bones,” we’re gonna rattle.  *rattling sound*  Take one and pass it around -- don’t take them out, keep them in their containers, they are dangerous rocks.  Yes, you get to keep them when we’re done.  Two more behind you.  Are we ready?  Rocks silent.  Here we go.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones *rattling*. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” *rattling* 

I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, *rattling* and say to them: O dry bones *rattling*, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones *rattling* : I will cause breath to enter you, * deep breath in and out * and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you * deep breath in and out *, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone *so much rattling*. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them * deep breath in and out * .

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath * deep breath in and out * , prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath * deep breath in and out * : Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath * deep breath in and out * , and breathe * deep breath in and out *  upon these slain, that they may live.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them * deep breath in and out * , and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones *rattling* are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up *rattling* , and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

You may now open your rocks.  (I bite into my rock, hard.)  It’s a jelly rock!  They’re jelly rocks.  Can I have a couple volunteers to share more rocks with the adults?  Julia, Grace, Audrey, you take charge.  And the rest of you may go back to your seats.

Message
So this is the story of Ezekiel.  And if you place the story of Ezekiel in the long span that is the story of the people of God (drawing arc with both arms), the chosen people, we’re right about here (right hand), right, in the New Testament and onward.  Right about here (left hand far out) is creation.  Right about here (left hand up to the left) is Passover, when Moses leads the people out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea on dry land, and leads them into the promised land where they learn what it means to be God’s people and right about here (hand slightly moves) is where they start forgetting.  And right about here is where they are taken into captivity in Babylon, because they’ve forgotten what it is to be God’s people.  And this is where Ezekiel is preaching.

So when the LORD God leads Ezekiel into a valley full of dry bones, it’s not unlike saying to someone who’s just told you a really painful story, “Oh.  That sucks.”  God is recognizing what the people have done.  God says “This valley of dry bones is the people of Israel” and Ezekiel goes “Yeah I know, I’m aware!  We have been taken from our beautiful land, some of us have been beaten or killed, we are all living in bondage in a country that’s not our own and forced to worship gods that aren’t our own.  You don’t need to tell me that we’re dry bones.  We already know.”

And so God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel says, “Oh Lord, you know,” which is sort of an answer that says “Well I’m pretty sure no, because I know things about science and life, but since you asked now I’m not really sure.”  “Oh Lord, you know.”

And then God puts the bones back together.  And puts sinews, muscles, flesh on them and skin and finally breath.  Breath.

But what really snagged me about the story this week is that God says, “Look, you are these bones.  You feel like you’ve been taken apart and all hope is lost.  But I will rebuild you.  I will put your bones back together and cover them with muscles and skin and put breath in you and I will make you strong again, and then you will know that I am the Lord.”

It’s not, “when you know that I am the Lord, then I will put your bones back together, and your muscles, and your breath, and your strength.”

Not “when you have learned to be perfect” or “when you have the most beautifully crafted sanctuary” or “when every inch of your life is coated in holiness” or “when you’ve given up just enough.”  Instead it is “when I put your bones back together, then you will know that I am the Lord.”

In some ways this is aggravating, because I kind of like a system where I can rack up enough points, but God throws it out.  The points don’t matter.  The work is for our neighbor but not for ourselves.  It is not for earning up enough gold coins that we can buy our way back into assembled bones and muscles and breath and strength.  God wants to do that, no matter who we are or where we are or what we are.

And this is the message of Pentecost, the story we celebrate today, if back in that arc we’re way over here (drawing biblical arc again, shaking right hand).  The disciples are all gathered in Jerusalem; Jesus has risen from the dead, and the disciples are all hanging out together to pray.  They stay in one room.  And God goes, “This is not what -- seriously?-- go!”  And sends flames.  And teaches them all to speak in different languages and sends them out to share the message of Jesus with everyone in Jerusalem.  God says, “I don’t care that you’ve been hiding in this room, I don’t care that one of you is Peter dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks, I don’t care that you’ve made mistakes.  Some of you are fishermen and you’re stinky, some of you are tax collectors and you’ve ripped other people off; I don’t care.  There’s something more to this.  You don’t have to hide in a room and wait until you’re perfect.  Just go.  Just go.”

And the word for Spirit, the Holy Spirit that descends on them, is the same word as for breath.  “Just go, and breathe, and be filled with the Spirit.”

And this is the story we tell about baptism.  Emerson doesn’t come today to the font of baptism because he’s racked up enough points.  He’s not claimed by God because he’s good enough.  He’s claimed by God because he’s loved.  He’s claimed by God because God is so desperate at any point in our lives, when we’re a baby or a child or a youth or a young adult or in middle age or retired or anywhere in between, a parent or not a parent or divorced or remarried or never married or anything else in the long stream of our lives -- God is so desperate to rebuild us up from our bones that God will claim us at the moment we’re born and say “You’re mine.  You’re mine.  Without anything that you have to rack up, nothing that you have to do.  You will know that I am God when I build you back up.”

So people, wherever we are today -- whether you feel like you are bone, piled in a heap; or you are just barely reassembled; or covered in muscles and skin but not quite breathing; or if you feel that strength:  breathe today.  Let us have that place for the Spirit of God to breathe in us, as it breathes on Emerson, as it breathed at Pentecost and sent the disciples out, as it breathed on those dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision.

Let us breathe.  Breathe in, hold it, and out.

Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

CrowdRise Fundraiser: Queer Grace Website

I realized I was gay when I was fourteen years old. I had the massive fortune to be born into a family and a congregation that loved me, but even in that safety net I could not miss the vitriol and violence committed against LGBTQ people by supposed "Christians."  Trying to find my identity and my faith in the midst of a religion that continually fought over my worth wore on my soul, and there were times I thought about leaving the church.

Sixteen years later, the crisis of faith and identity among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minority people continues. Progress has been made, and the internet abounds with theology, interpretation, compassion, and compelling personal stories. But much of the information available is scattershot, sown throughout the web and often lost in google searches.

I have been dreaming for a few years of creating a web community where resources could be housed and shared to help LGBTQ people navigate the waters of faith and identity. Can one be Christian and gay, and what does that look like? What about transgender? What about bisexual or pansexual (and also, what do those terms mean)? Why would we say "queer" when for so many years it's been a violent slur? What does the church have to say about asexuality, or polyamory? How does Christian faith intersect not only with gender identity and sexuality, but also with sexism, racism, classism, and other systems of abuse?

There are incredible answers to these questions by authors and prophets far better equipped than me. What I am hungry to do is to create an encyclopedia of ideas, collecting the best the internet has to offer on the topic of Christian faith and LGBTQ identities. I've come to recognize that I can't do this alone -- nor can I hammer it out in a free weekend. This is going to take a lot of work.

So, on my 30th birthday, I'm asking: will you help? Will you chip in $5 or $10 to buy me a few hours worth of caffeine- and sugar-fueled website building?

I'm setting the insane goal of $1000 because I think it could happen. $200 would cover really really nice webhosting through SquareSpace for the next two years.  Some of the rest could fund ads on Facebook and elsewhere to boost visibility, or pay artists and photographers, or donate to already-existing organizations when I link to their material.  And, the rest would also create a stipend for me to work with.  Maybe it won't happen.  But maybe it could, and it's my 30th birthday; wanna make it the best one yet? :)

Queer Grace website fundraiser

Monday, April 13, 2015

Stories of faith in a world that wants proof: a sermon for April 12 2015 at Mercy Seat Lutheran

An opening reading.

By Ryan Grim and Nick Wing, published in the Huffington Post.

Here's A News Report We'd Be Reading If Walter Scott's Killing Wasn't On Video.

A North Charleston police officer was forced to use his service weapon Saturday during a scuffle with a suspect who tried to overpower him and seize the officer's Taser, authorities said.  The man, who has a history of violence and a long arrest record, died on the scene as a result of the encounter, despite officers performing CPR and delivering first aid, according to police reports.

The incident occurred behind a pawn shop on Craig Street and Remount Road. Slager initially pulled Scott over for a broken taillight. During the stop, police and witnesses say Scott fled the vehicle on foot. When Slager caught up with him a short distance from the street, Scott reportedly attempted to overpower Slager. Police say that during the struggle, the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.

It was during that scuffle that the officer fired his service weapon, fatally wounding Scott.

“Shots fired, and the subject is down. He took my Taser," Slager radioed immediately following the shooting.

Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon,” his attorney said in a statement on Sunday. “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”

Saturday's encounter bears similarities to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which kicked off a national conversation about the use of force by police. Authorities there ultimately determined that Brown had attempted to overpower Officer Darren Wilson and run before turning back and charging the officer, who was forced to deploy his service weapon in the encounter.

Slager was placed on administrative duty, pending the outcome of the state investigation.

This article relies entirely on local news reports, which sourced their version of events to information from police, the attorney for the officer, "witnesses" and police statements. Many of those claims, when a video of the encounter was released, turned out to be lies. Slager has been charged with murder. 


First reading:  1 John 1:1-2:2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

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


Gospel reading:  John 20:19-31.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


Sermon

There is an expression in the English language that is “the burden of proof.”  And no more have I felt the weight of that burden than this week.  Every time I turned on my computer or flicked through my Twitter feed or watched the news, when we were faced with, once again -- after month after month after month of questions and concerns about police brutality particularly towards black men -- now we have two events in the past week where police brutality against black men who were under suspicion, being pulled over, were left for dead.

For many months questions have arisen again and again: over Eric, over Mike, over Tamir -- the desire for proof.  The desire to see if institutional racism really is a thing.  If police brutality is really a concern.  The question has arisen over and over again and the answer has been “Unless I see, I will not believe.”  It has broken the hearts of many Americans and people around the world again and again, particularly the hearts of those in communities of people of color.

But should we be surprised?  Because we live in a world that asks for proof.

Unless I see your sexual orientation:  unless you perfectly fit the stereotype that does not challenge any aspect of my heteronormativity, I will not believe.

Unless I see street harassment:  unless I see that catcalls and shouts from car windows are not unwanted compliments but arise out of a culture of objectification and fear, I will not believe.

Unless I see your mental illness:  unless I am convinced that there is truly something wrong with you more than just what’s “in your head”, I will not believe.

And unless the world embodies a perfectly good and just God so that karma is dealt out in exactly the proportion that I believe it should be, I will not believe.

The world wants proof.  And the stories we are given are stories of faith.

And poor Thomas.  We turn him into this example, for two thousand years in the church, of “doubting Thomas.”  The finger wagging and the scolding and the eyebrows raised in shame that we should not be like him.  We should be grateful that we have not seen but have believed.  As if the poor guy didn’t just want what all the disciples had already gotten.  To see the Lord, in the flesh.  To break bread with him, we know, from the gospel of Luke when he meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or later in the gospel of John when he meets them on the shore and eats fish and bread with them.  All Thomas wants to do is see.  Everybody else got to.

But what we are given and what is handed down to us over two thousand years are stories not of proof but of faith.

And when we turn Thomas into that doubting caricature, that stereotype, that example, we miss the depths that his doubt takes him to.  That he is the one who looks at Jesus with his wounded wrists and feet and side and says “My Lord and my God!”.  To confess that Jesus is Lord and God is ordinary language for people who have been raised in or regularly come to church.  But when you read the gospel closely, it is not there.  It is a dangerous claim to say that someone is God, and there are hints and implicit weavings; and Jesus is made equal with the Father, or Jesus is the vine and we are the branches and the Father is also the vine, but this -- this moment:  when Thomas has gone so deep in his doubt, is the moment when Jesus is revealed as God.

So why these stories?  Why are we given stories of faith in a world that asks for proof?

Well, see what the text says:

“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Life.  Elsewhere in the gospel of John, Jesus promises abundant life, overflowing, ridiculously overboard, like a sower scattering seed so generously that he doesn’t care if it falls on road or rock or bad soil.  Abundant.  And life extravagantly diverse, like the roots of a tree.  If they all grew exactly the same, exactly the same place and cell division, they would fight each other, strangle each other and die.  Diversity and change and a little bit of breathing room are inherent to life.  So these stories offer us life.

See what else the text says, that the letter of John -- which was probably not written by the same guy who wrote the gospel, very complicated, apparently some people have the same name as others -- “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”  Complete.

Joy is a tricky word.  We can use joy to describe the feeling when our beloved gets down on one knee and says, “Will you marry me?” and we can also use it to describe the feeling when the season three trailer for Orange is the New Black is released.  It’s a tricky word.  Which is probably why the writer of the letter says complete joy.  Deep and full and wide and lasting and transforming and life-changing and so awkwardly and offensively ours.  Not so that your singular joy may be complete or that my individual joy may be complete but that our collective, embodied, brought together, one body joy may be complete.

This is the awkwardness of the promise that Jesus brings us.  That we belong to each other.  That the atoms that make up my body and your body and this floor and streets in India are the same atoms that existed at the moment the universe was created.  That we have all known each other from that moment.  That when we become members of the body of Christ we’re being re-membered into the body that has always had us.  That we are made for, as the writer of the letter of John says, “fellowship with each other and with the Father and with Christ the Son.”

We are offered these stories, these frustrating stories of faith instead of proof because we are made to read and listen and doubt and believe in community.  We need each other.

We need someone to go for the groceries so we can have Sunday night dinner, and accidentally miss the return of the Savior.  And we need eleven waiting behind, hidden in a room, so that God can break in.

We need each other for that life and that joy.

So how do we live in a world that requires proof when we are given stories of faith?

We ask questions.  We listen.  We trust enough to believe that the experiences and stories of others will not destroy us.  That change will not tear us apart.  That questions and doubt and truth are good.  Because God has not made us for destruction but for life and for joy.

We know our own truth.  We listen to ourselves.  We live into our stories.  We fight for our own space, our life, our air to breathe.  God has not made us for fear and hiddenness but for life, and for joy, and for each other.

And we finally, frustratingly, can accept foolishness:  that maybe things are not always as they seem.  Maybe we and the ones we love are not exactly what we predicted.  And maybe, just maybe, death does not have the last word.

Amen.



(A note about this sermon:  I left my manuscript at home.  This is the transcript of what was preached off a hastily scribbled twenty word outline.  The conclusion I preached was not as solid as the one I planned; most upsettingly, it didn't loop back to talking about the murders of Walter Scott and Eric Harris, and the importance of believing each other's stories, as well as I wanted to.  For that, readers and hearers, I apologize.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Advocacy Spectrum

While I was at the Gay Christian Network conference, I got the chance to meet with Jake, one of the coordinators of the @FaithinFerguson / Theology of Ferguson twitter feed.  Jake called me today to chat, and we got to talking about advocacy and activism and the difficulty of figuring out where people "are".

In any social justice issue -- #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ welcome in churches, anything in between -- there is a spectrum of advocacy.  Some people are just beginning to learn about the issue and how it relates to who they are.  Some people are ready to storm the gates of political and religious oppressive systems.  And there are a whole host of people in between.  It's hard sometimes, especially when you are trying to get Very Big Things Done, that there are people just at the beginning of understanding.

As Jake and I chatted, I sketched and doodled, and then after the phone call I tweeted a first draft to him -- the Advocacy Spectrum.


I focused on advocacy/activism around LGBTQ issues (because sometimes being more specific makes a metaphor easier to manage), and here is what I drew:

The PEDESTRIAN:  Just beginning to come out.  Not ready to ride.  Still a lot to discover!

The CYCLIST:  Coming out to safe people, beginning relationships and advocacy.  Not safe yet to be "out in traffic" for emotional, financial, etc reasons.

CAR:  Autonomous!  Safe to be out.  Self-supported.  Out in all or most areas of life.

BUS:  Advocates & allies working together in the same direction.  "Riders" are out in most/all situations.

SEMI:  A smaller group of advocates and activists moving big ideas forward.

MOTORCYCLES:  Nimble and fast.  Cutting edge ideas and hopes.  Intimidating in groups!

Some additional commentary:
- Everyone is going at their own pace, but all are moving in the same direction.
- Not everyone starts as a Pedestrian.  I was extremely lucky and grew up in a family & a church that supported me in my sexuality and faith, so I would say I came out right onto a bus.  That gives me incredible advantage and privilege over those who had to start with walking, and work through the very difficult process of getting to a safe enough point to come out.
- Once you're "on the road", there's no objective benefit to a Car or a Bus or a Semi or a Motorcycle.  Some people like the speed of Harleys.  Some people wanna work together on public transit.  None of these are "better" than another -- they're all different ways, with different benefits and drawbacks, of getting to the same place.

I tweeted this image out earlier and got some fantastic feedback.  So far:










Your turn.  What would you add?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gay Christian Network post the second: "How Dare You"

I wasn't entirely certain I wanted to go to the Gay Christian Network conference.

I've been gay and Christian for almost fourteen years, since I came out at age 16.  I found my way to the Gay Christian Network (gaychristian.net) like many of its members -- by googling "gay and Christian."  Back in the very early days of my web- and soul-searching, I didn't see anything at GCN that I wanted.  They primarily had message boards and articles detailing what it meant to be a "Side A" or a "Side B" Christian.

I wasn't interested.  I'd been raised in a home, a congregation, and a denomination that had taught me there was no conflict between my faith and my sexuality.  I wasn't interested in spending time reading (and then debating!) people who believed otherwise.  So I closed my Netscape Navigator window and moved on.

I promise you, it was this long ago.
Now, ten or more years later, I'd periodically see a Facebook status or blog post from GCN, and the comments were often the same -- Side A and Side B Christians going at it, fighting with each other, Scripture sticks and psychological assertions flying.  No, thank you.

Then Rachel Held Evans tweeted, months ago, that the GCN Conference was a more expansive alternative to evangelical conferences (like the most recent ERLC Conference on "the Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage" which, stupidly but unsurprisingly, had no openly gay presenters).  I am always touched by Evans' support for the LGBTQ community.  But I was troubled by this idea that GCN, which I saw as war-torn and dichotomous, would be a safe space for others.

Then my friend Dianna also tweeted about it.

So I tweeted back.  I asked, honestly, if GCN was safe.



This is when I re-learned one of the Cardinal Rules of the Internet:  never trust the comments.

I was immediately responded to, not by Rachel or by Dianna, but by someone I'd never met named Lindsey.  The same Lindsey who'd written (and I'd seen this flying around Twitter) "The sermon I wish had been preached at ERLC", a beautiful exploration of sexuality in the Scriptures.

After some very honest back-and-forth, Lindsey (and partner Sarah) had not only convinced me to go to the conference but offered to include me on their registration so my fees would be covered.

This ... from a couple that has been blogging for a year about their call to celibacy.

I was skeptical at first.  This seemed like an expensive but possibly effective conversion strategy - get me to show up for GCN and then sell me on all the benefits of celibacy.  (Let's be real.  It's not like I haven't had dates that've made me consider it.)  But as days and weeks went by, and Lindsey and Sarah and I continued talking not only on Twitter but also by email and gchat, some things became clear:

1.  They have spent an incredible amount of time reflecting on their individual calls to celibacy, on their own faith journeys, on the Scriptures and traditions of the church.
2.  They have spent an incredible amount of time reflecting on their partnered call to celibacy, and what they want their home together to be like in order to reflect previously established models of celibate communal living.
3.  They had absolutely no plan to convert me.
4.  I had been a judgmental idiot.

I'd been actively avoiding GCN for years, and when it finally snuck into my life it turned out I'd been avoiding a host of beauty and transformation.

At the GCN Conference, I got to hear from Jeff Chu about his hopes for reconciliation with his mother, about the visit where she finally brought chopsticks (a family tradition) for his partner.  I heard from Danny Cortez about leading a congregation into becoming a Third Way church, about supporting his gay son.  And I witnessed Vicky Beeching's first telling of her life story, her travels and travails through the life of faith and sexuality, including her coming out last year.

(These are all online, and they are all amazing.)

And I met amazing people.  Stephen, Sarah, Justin, Andrea, Rosemary, Eliel, Michael, Matthew, Jake.  Finally met Lindsey and Sarah and Dianna all in person.  There were dads with their LGBT kids, moms proudly wearing "Free Mom Hug" buttons for anyone who needed the mom hugs they weren't getting at home.  There were teenagers holding hands, couples over sixty.  There were trans people.  People of color.  Straight people, gay people, every shade in between.

Nobody wanted to convert me to anything.  We just wanted to be together.  We wanted to be in a space where we could finally be who we are, and worship there.  We wanted to tell our stories, broken and stumbling as they are, and hold each other's hands and cry together.

Looked like the kingdom of God up in there.


I live-tweeted Lindsey and Sarah's breakout session on celibacy.  Because their life together is fucking beautiful -- and I use that language because people came at me for tweeting about it.  As a result of tweeting their session, I was drawn into angry conversations on Twitter with logical fallacies a-plenty about how GCN was giving a platform to a harmful theology.

Most of the other sessions were Side A-focused.  The three keynote speakers who are gay are also in relationships.  And Sarah and Lindsey have been and were and will continue to be clear that their celibacy is in response to a call, not a mandate, and that they do not ever declare it required for other LGBTQ Christians.

If I have to take sides, I'm a Side A girl.  Have been and will continue to be.  I will continue, till I take my own seat in the kingdom in heaven, to fight for my chair at the table of the kingdom on earth.  I will continue to fight for equal marriage rights, for health care coverage for trans individuals, for ordination for LGBTQ people across the board.  When a teen or young adult or married person or whoever comes to me in fear and trembling about their sexuality and their faith, I will not suggest celibacy as a first stop.  And I will continue to engage in debate and discussion with Side B Christians who insist (unlike Lindsey and Sarah) that their way of life is the only way for LGBTQ people of faith.

But I have been pushed beyond judging the lives of others.

Asked to, I will walk with anyone.  I will listen.  I will ask questions.  I will notice patterns, be unafraid of tension, reflect back what I have heard.  I am learning not to assume that everyone is sick or out to get "me and those like me."  I am called to do so, by my baptism and my someday-ordination.

There are many ways to live a life.  Some are borne of devastation and pain and self-hatred, and they reflect that, and when invited I will walk into those places and speak the truth I know about gospel freedom and grace.

But there are many ways to live a life that are borne of deep wrestling and heavy prayer and many dark nights of the soul.  Many of those lives do not look like mine.  Many of those calls are not mine.  I have learned to say no to lives and habits that are not life-giving to me, while recognizing that they can be for others.  And invitations to witness those lives are a deep blessing, and I will rejoice in them.

That is why I can go to GCN.  Why I can love Lindsey and Sarah deeply.  Why I can sit at a table with the executive of the Marin Foundation and order another drink and talk till 2am.  Their stories, their hopes, their life trajectories are not mine.  But they know that, and I know that, and we care for each other's stories and calls fiercely.

Most days I cannot believe that we will all end up in the kingdom of heaven and no one will be kicking anyone else under the table.  The Gay Christian Network conference was not perfect, but it was a hint of what that might look like.  It made me believe a little more.