Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sermon for the Slaughter of the Innocents, December 26 2010

Texts here.

Well, good morning! Merry Christmas! I hope you had a nice, relaxing day - one full of joy and celebration - time with family and friends and loved ones - a day of abundance, of loving-kindness. I hope you had that - because today’s reading yanks us out of our reverence and abundance into darkness and terror.

So the child Immanuel, G-d-with-us, is here. He has come! Angels announce his birth to shepherds, who rejoice in all the things G-d has done. The stars themselves align to mark his birth. Wise men from far away bring royal and extravagant gifts. It makes a beautiful picture - just like our kids in the Christmas pageant - all wondering and reverent around the manger in the final tableau.

Then Matthew tears us away from the Christmas-card picture. The shepherds leave, the angels ascend, and the magi take off by a side road to avoid Herod. The wise men, you see, were well intentioned: they saw the star when it rose, and knew that it marked the birth of the King of the Jews - so they brought royal gifts, and they went to the royal house of Jerusalem, to Herod the Great. They expected to find the royal child in a royal palace. They weren’t precise on his birthdate - sometime two years before. The problem was, no child had been born to Herod’s family in that time. So the wise men, well intentioned as they were, tipped off Herod to the birth of a rival king - an enemy - a challenge to the throne.

So Herod reacts the way that kings react when their throne is threatened: he destroys the competition. He commands the death of every baby boy in and around Bethlehem, two years old or younger. If he kills the child, there is no threat, no enemy. And so the voices of all the mothers, all the children, all the women and men and every resident of Bethlehem, become one voice of wailing and loud lamentation. And Joseph and Mary and the baby escape to Egypt, to stay until Herod is dead.

So G-d is with us! Immanuel has come! And they try to kill him. Mary and Joseph have to run, escaping in the darkness, to protect their newborn child - the Son of G-d.

Now this does not work.

The Son of G-d should not have to go into hiding. The Son of G-d had his birth proclaimed by angels - marked by stars - acknowledged by wise men in far away nations. Such an amazing baby should not have to hide. The angels should take up flaming swords, and stand guard around the simple stable, just daring Herod’s soldiers to come closer. This is the story we might want. It works much more neatly if the Almighty arrives, laying down some serious trouble for Herod and anyone else who wants to mess with G-d’s Son. It’s easier to have fire and brimstone raining down, the clouds torn open by giant hands and a loud booming voice saying, “This is my Son; back off.”

But this is not what we get. What we get are silent stars, angels gone, wise men sneaking home, and Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt with a tiny crying baby in their arms.

This would be upsetting - if it weren’t true. It is true, and it is true because the same thing happens over and over for the next thirty-three years. Throughout the story of Jesus’ birth, life, and death, we get a picture of G-d doing unexpected and unsettling things. G-d in infant form has to run away to Egypt. Then G-d in adult form shows up at the River Jordan and proclaims that the kingdom of G-d is at hand. G-d welcomes tax collectors, and prostitutes, and Samaritans, and sinners, and Romans, and people who just aren’t - welcome. G-d talks about justice, and love, and compassion, and mercy. And when the powers-that-be finally get their hands on G-d, there is no angel with flaming sword, no fire and brimstone, no voice from heaven - there is only the cross. G-d is born among us, G-d lives among us, and G-d dies among us. G-d comes to earth, and the world comes to kill him.

And this is how our lives are, too. Some of us celebrated yesterday. We were surrounded by friends and family, our loved ones. We played board games or chased our cousins around the tree or watched new babies play together. We went for a walk in the snowfall. We made krumkake and ate spiral-cut honey-baked ham and drank eggnog and cider. We opened present after present, and watched as our loved ones opened theirs. At the end of the day, the house was full of joy, and good smells, and little scraps of ribbon and wrapping paper.

But some of us - and some of our friends and co-workers and neighbors - some of us who celebrate the very same birth of the very same Jesus - some of us woke to a cold house. Some couldn’t be with loved ones - some didn’t want to be with family. Some didn’t have enough presents. Some didn’t have enough food. Some were having their first Christmas without a child, or a spouse, or a parent, or a sibling. Some of us woke up, and found ourselves running to Egypt.

Mary and Joseph’s escape is the truth of our own story. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay is not a magic amulet. He doesn’t protect Mary and Joseph against Herod’s army. Nor do the wise men, or the angels, or the stars. Jesus is born - as extraordinary as a birth can get - and then suffers the same pains we do - the same longings, the same despair. This is the truth of our life. Not every scene is the children’s pageant tableau. And not every day can be Christmas. Each one of us will have days, weeks, months, even years when we feel that all we are doing is escaping to Egypt. We feel Herod’s threat - death and destruction - everywhere. We are threatened by our own past and our own pain. Our bodies begin to fail us. We flee families and friends and communities - even church communities - where G-d’s mercy and lovingkindness cannot be found.

And Immanuel - G-d is with us, even in the suffering.

G-d is with the innocent children when Herod’s soldiers strike. G-d is with the mothers weeping in Bethlehem. G-d is in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph disappear under the cover of nightfall. G-d is standing at the banks of the Jordan, getting his feet wet and his toes sandy. G-d is with the sinner and the tax collector and the prostitute and the Roman, not only when they stand before Jesus but in every moment of their lives up until then. And G-d is at the cross. G-d does not transcend the pain of this world - does not call on angels to deliver him. He feels with us, suffers with us, and dies with us - to raise us to new life.

G-d does not send angels with flaming swords
but mercy, and compassion, and loving-kindness.
G-d does not fight the powers-that-be with yet more power,
but with love.
G-d does not strengthen us for war
but for peace - for hard work - for justice.

G-d is with us in all our sufferings, and G-d’s presence saves us.

And we are given Christ - this tiny, helpless baby,
who disappears into the darkness and flees to Egypt,
but who will one day return.
Who will one day begin to teach of all the good things G-d has done for us,
all that has been done out of G-d’s mercy
and in the abundance of G-d’s steadfast love.
We are given this tiny baby, Immanuel, G-d-with-us,
who dares us to dream of a world
with no ruling from Herod, no flight to Egypt, no wailing and loud lamentation in Ramah.
This tiny,
suffering G-d
comes among us
to call us out of our own suffering,
to open our eyes to each other’s pain,
and to embolden our hands to begin the long and hard work of redemption.


Texts for the Slaughter of the Innocents, December 26 2010

Isaiah 63:7-9:

I will tell of the loving-kindness of the LORD,
all the works for which we give praise,
because of all the LORD has done for us -
yes, all the good things G-d has done for Israel,
all that has been done out of G-d’s mercy
and in the abundance of G-d’s steadfast love.

For G-d said, "Surely they are my people,
children who will not lie";
and G-d became their savior.

G-d was with them in all their sufferings,
and G-d’s presence saved them.

In love and compassion G-d redeemed them;
G-d lifted them up and carried them through all the years.

Hebrews 2:10-18
It was fitting that G-d,
for whom and through whom all things exist,
in bringing many children to glory,
should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.

For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,
saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
And again, "I will put my trust in him."
And again, "Here am I and the children whom G-d has given me.”

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood,
he himself likewise shared the same things,
so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

For it is clear that he did not come to help angels,
but the descendants of Abraham.

Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect,
so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of G-d,
to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered,
he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23
Now after they had left,
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
"Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt,
and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night,
and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,
"Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated,
and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem
who were two years old or under,
according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

When Herod died,
an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
"Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel,
for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."
Then Joseph got up,
took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
There he made his home in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled,
"He will be called a Nazorean."

Monday, December 20, 2010

What a queer blessing I have.

Kristi’s choir had a gig at the Guthrie, singing carols in the lobby before A Christmas Carol and 39 Steps started.  Afterwards we went out to Spill the Wine, and I met her director and his wife.  His wife’s an Ole, a music education major, and an Ole Choir graduate.  It was pretty much impossible for us not to get along.  We did a little reminiscing about choir, and Dr. Armstrong, and such.  It was cute in a music nerdy way.
Then suddenly the conversation shifted, and I found myself in a middle of a methodological explanation (on three glasses of wine…hurrr) of my call and what it means for me, for Kristi, for us, and for the church.
This happens a lot.
I don’t know in what proportion it happens to straight pastors and pastors-in-training, but I feel like it happens to me more - that conversations with strangers or acquaintances at parties and dinners suddenly turn into one laptop short of a PowerPoint presentation on what the church could be if it took a sideways glance at what Jesus wanted it to be.
These conversations are primarily happening with people who grew up churched (as is the majority in the Midwest) but now, in their twenties and thirties, have not found a church home.  Some are wary of religion, some disinterested, some downright angry.  Yet our conversations are exciting and life-giving.
(Okay, there are some people who are jerks.  But I am pretty sure, from other behaviors exhibited during the same gathering, that they are jerks in other situations, and therefore not worthy of spending my down-time arguing with.)
I wonder if my “queer” calling speaks to those who are “outside” the church tradition in a way that a straight pastor does not.  Am I, the long excluded, seen as a fellow outsider - another person the church has failed?  Is my calling not a manifestation of the insanity of Bible-thumping but a startling and fascinating commitment to an institution that has condemned, vilified, damned, and (at best) ignored me?
Am I not a supporter of the system, but one committed to its renewal?

Friday, December 17, 2010

My first semester of seminary is done.

Hebrew final cancelled.  Paper on ministry with queer youth submitted.  Mark final emailed.  Systematic theology essay sitting on my hard drive, to be printed and turned in tomorrow.
And suddenly my first semester of seminary is over.
It’s a little anticlimactic; I finished the very final paper alone in my apartment, with Kristi at work and Oliver asleep in his cat cube.  I’ll drive to campus tomorrow to turn it in, but I don’t know if I’ll see anyone.
I feel extraordinarily ambivalent.  
It is fitting, I think, for me to feel torn at this moment.  Life back in school has been a total subversion of all my unconscious expectations about school.
I had, to begin with, no idea what I was going to learn this year, and not even an inkling of how much.
I had no idea how many heart would swell and ache in daily worship with excitement and joy.
I had no idea (although I might have guessed) how great a support Kristi would be to me, how accommodating and loving and compassionate in my times of overwork, undersleep, and stress.
I had no idea when I finally turned that application in last March that I was going to have moments where I felt totally alone.  
I had completely forgotten how hard it was that first semester at Olaf, when I was eighteen and completely redefining myself after spending so many years as a sick girl.  If I loved my Olaf friends four months ago, I love them so much more now - for simply being the amazing people they are, and radically allowing me to participate in that and to grow and celebrate and laugh and cry and dance with them.
Now I have begun to add new friends to this community that I rely on for strength, joy, and celebration.
I had no idea how many amazing people I would meet this semester.  Perhaps abstractly I knew that G-d sometimes calls incredible, gifted, wondrous individuals to serve the church.  But I had no real concrete expectations for how amazing and diverse the student body at Luther Seminary would be.
If I have any confidence in my call, I have so much more in theirs.
If I am excited to be a part of the church, so much more now am I to be when I see the leaders that G-d has called.
I have loved this semester because it is absolutely where I should be right now.  And I am very pleased to be done with finals and to know that the next two weeks are at my leisure (well…except for the Christmas pageant, the December 26th sermon, the confirmation retreat, and the Peace With Justice Congregations project…) 
But part of me is not eager for one-sixth (yes, even just one-sixth) of my seminary education to be over.
And part of me is so terrified to even think about going into the world and living out what I am learning.
Yet so much of me is so excited, and so amazed, by the blessing of the other students around me.  I believe that Christ is coming and G-d’s kingdom is about to break in solely because of their dedication, their compassion, and their brilliance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If you meet the Buddha in the road...

There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
I ran across this as the title to a book on an old index-file card in the Rolvaag Library at Olaf.  I was in the middle of turning said index cards into notecards for class, but I took this particular card, tucked it into my Oxford Annotated NRSV, and decided to come back to it later.
Four years or more later, I have no idea where the card is.  The phrase occurred to me again today - only G-d knows why - so I looked it up.
The road, the killing, and even the Buddha are symbolic.  The road is generally taken to mean the path to Enlightenment; that might be through meditation, study, prayer, or just some aspect of your way of life.  Imagine meeting some symbolic Buddha. Would he be a great teacher that you might actually meet and follow in the real world? Could that Buddha be you yourself, having reached Enlightenment? Or maybe you have some idealized image of perfection that equates to your concept of the Buddha or Enlightenment.
Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.
Sam Harris at Shambhala Sun says:
Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism. 
The Zen Master warns: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!” This admonition points up that no meaning that comes from outside ourselves is real. The Buddhahood of each of us has already been obtained. We need only recognize it. Killing the Buddha on the road means destroying the hope that anything outside of ourselves can be our master. We must each give up the master without giving up the search. The importance of things lies in the way we have learned to think about them. How often we make circumstances our prison and other people our jailers! At our best we take full responsibility for what we do and what we choose not to do. The most important struggles take place within the self.
And, interestingly (and a little eerily), a blog post by someone named emmy:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. It ain’t the real Buddha, but more likely a manifestation of your own longings and desires. You can’t see the Buddha. You’re not supposed to. As soon as you “see” the one you are to go through, your way is blocked. The Buddha says, “[E]ven this view [about no one in particular possessing The Truth], which is so pure and so clear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you treasure it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of.” Listen—follow the voice—keep going.
So:  if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, because any concrete experience of the one Being, of the mu (the nothing-beyond-nothingness), is false.
My first thoughts were:  isn’t this interesting in comparison with Christianity.  Buddhist teachers say to kill the manifestation of Buddha because it is false.  We killed the Messiah because he was true.
We could pretend we killed the Messiah because - as the Buddhists would argue - no man can be the manifestation of G-d.  But the opposite is true.  We killed the Messiah precisely because he was the manifestation of G-d.
We killed the Messiah because we already knew who we wanted him to be.  We wanted a powerful leader, who would crush the Romans, who would purify Israel.  John the Baptist wanted one who would cleanse with fire.
And we got Jesus.  Born in a stable to an unwed mother.  Raised in backwater Nazareth.  Gets mouthy with the religious leaders, won’t get into debates about taxes or life after death.  Eats meals with people we don’t like.  Touches the unclean.  Talks about the absurdity of G-d’s mercy, and asks more of us than we can bear.
So we kill him.
And we kill him every day.  We are lax when we should be strict, and we are angry when we should be loving.  We quash new ideas with cynicism disgusted as realism, and we maintain traditions that choke the life from us because we fear the new.  We draw lines.  We debate endlessly.  We box up mercy.  And I sit here googling “If you meet the Buddha on the road” while children sleep homeless.
Yet every year we gather in the dark to say:  come again!
When he comes, will we only kill him again?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Faithful friends who are dear to us...

Today, as in many other class days, tangents were gone off upon during systematic theology.
In order to keep myself from swearing more than usual (and I was swearing under my breath quite a bit when we hit the 20-minute mark), I started thinking about Christmas cards and presents.  Who do I still need to buy gifts for, when will Kristi and I get the time to write and mail cards, is there a cute photo of us from the year that we should get printed?
As I look at our card list, I realize how many people that we love are from our years at Olaf.  We road tripped this summer to see Hannah in Milwaukee and Liz in Madison; Emily and Paul were just in town over Thanksgiving; Amanda and Kira were here last summer; Amy and Sarah are our Saturday brunch buddies; we just saw Catherine, Steven, and little Asher on Monday night for dinner; Eric and Abby’s save-the-date is on our fridge; we just saw Sarah at Christmasfest; we lounged at Becky’s cabin this summer with Liz and Sarah and Kevin and Jose; Joel just met me for beer and theology talk last month; there were tons of Oles at my birthday party last spring; we did Sauce/Cause Trivia night with Sam and Joel this summer.   
It occurred to me too how many people I’ve met at Luther, just in these short four months (how can it be finals already?!), who will be added to the Christmas list in our future.  It is a really great place, and there are some really great people.  
Living twenty minutes away from campus makes “community building” tricky - I don’t have the privilege of walking down the hall and knocking on a friend’s door when I need to hash out an upcoming paper or that day’s class discussion.  If I want to watch a movie at 2am, the only person who’s joining me is Kristi - and the cat.  So I tried to be intentional these past few months; I sought out “community building” activities and stayed on campus later than I needed and arrived earlier than necessary and friended everyone I could on Facebook.  And I definitely fretted about friends and friend groups - Kristi can attest to that.  There were weeks when I was 83% ready to pack up and move closer to Luther, because I couldn’t imagine building quality friendships unless I was within walking distance of campus.
Now, as the semester ends, I realize how many great people I’ve been blessed to meet, and to call my friends.  
Friends who sit with me in chapel, and sing with me in choir.
Who eat my cookies and share their cheesecake.
Who annotate our conversations with their own books and article suggestions.
Who counsel me through crises of doctrine, and laugh with me when Guillermo says “cheeks.”
Who pull up yet-another-chair for lunch and fill my meals with laughter.
Who take that extra moment to shout “Hey girl!” as they’re dragging themselves from 8am Greek and pass me in the hallway.
Who talk football with me on Mondays when the enlightened of us grace the campus with our green-and-gold.
Who foolishly enter into bets with me on Packers-Vikings games, and properly pay their bets with a pint at Manning’s.
Who invite me into their own circle of friends.
Who call when I don’t show for Bible study.
Who email me scholarly articles with Harry Potter references.
Who find reason to celebrate my nerdiness.
Who have begun to know my story, and to honor it, and share theirs.
And friends who have, so amazingly, begun to join my “cloud of witnesses” - the people in my life who have laid claim to my audacious extraordinary call and said, “Yes.  Yes.  Yes.”
May G-d continue to surround me
with physical manifestations of Her lovingkindness;
may I stay open and aware to the same;
may we all strive to create community in the midst of seeming impossibility.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I wept in chapel today.

Not the kind of weeping that I'm used to - the tears of joy and love at the unexpected and imperfect beauty of a congregation together, or the tears of self-actualization as I begin to unwrap a tiny part of myself that needed to hear the Gospel and hadn't yet been opened.

No, I wept because there was a little scared seventeen-year-old girl inside me throwing an absolute shit fit.

Backing up:  today, Marie preached in chapel, and organized the worship.  Marie is one of my favorite people.  We're the same age and graduated from Olaf together; we shared religion classes, and chapel worship, and student congregation council meetings.  Marie was and is one of the clearest manifestations of the best things about being Lutheran.  She's always been an advocate for "people like me" and I trust her completely.

And the worship she put together was spectacular.  She integrated a great, student-led worship band, and had a PowerPoint presentation to accompany her sermon.  This is new stuff for Luther Seminary daily chapel; we are pretty old-school as far as worship goes, sticking to the hymnal almost exclusively.  And I was really excited for it, because I think that the old-school style is horrifically overused and that we're getting the serious short end of the stick in our worship training because of it.

But all this did not quiet down the scared little girl inside me.

Scared little girl started squirming when the lesson was read from next to the altar instead of directly at the pulpit.

Scared little girl started kicking when the sermon was done sans manuscript and from the area around the altar (again, instead of the pulpit).

Scared little girl went into full-on fight-or-flight panic mode when the PowerPoint was turned on.

Because scared little seventeen-year-old girl was remembering every single church service with praise and worship, and a message preached from the floor, and Scripture read from PowerPoints - every single service like this that has been bookended by the reminder that "people like me" are not welcome.  That we are an abomination.  That we are condemned.

When the Prayers of the People were done over improved keyboard, with "Take Me As I Am" as the response, the scared little girl inside me screamed.  I tried to calm her, tried to tell her we were safe and no one was going to cast us out, but the prayers underlaid with music beat against her like fundamentalist fists.  I  wrapped my arms around myself and tried to keep it together, tried to sniffle as if I had a cold and not as if tears were covering my wretched face.  Scared little girl wanted to run, needed to get out, but we were in a middle pew with people on both sides - there was no way to leave without notice.

I felt every emotion just like I felt them when I was seventeen and very broken and lost.  So I was crying too; crying because I could not calm the scared little girl inside me, and crying because she is still inside me.  Much as I want to believe that the wounds of condemnation have been healed over by the grace of Christ and the love shown to me by so many of His children, they are not forever gone.  They are still there.  The scared little girl is still inside me, and still scared, and still ready to run.

This is why I think that worship today was horrible  and why it is essential.

I am fighting the scared little seventeen-year-old Emmy whenever a drum set accompanies the hymns or a screen drops behind the altar.  I stay far away from any church that uses praise and worship music - because so, so, so often, this music is a harbinger of a theology that will tell me to curse G-d and die, for this life I love and the woman I cherish is worthless.

And I want it.

I went to Selah, the Sunday night worship and praise service, for three years at Olaf.  For the first two years I did not feel unsafe.  Catherine led worship, and Catherine was a friend who I trusted.  There was no condemnation, no hatred, no abomination, only the beauty of the music.  Then leadership changed, and the self-centered music began to come in, and Christus Victor reigned supreme.  Whether this indicated a change in theology or only demonstrated what had always been believed, I do not know.  But I stopped going.

I long now for the beauty of Selah, for those moments of freedom and joy and celebration.  I want again to sing praise and worship music - but there is nowhere safe.  So, so, so often it is a symbol of a theology that will gleefully destroy me and my queer brothers and sisters in the name of the idolatry of fundamentalism.  I do not seek it out.

But here at Luther, I would be safe.  I would be safe to sing those songs again, and to learn new ones, because I stand in the company of Marie, and Jamie, and Kayla, and Kim, and so many others who know who and what I am and yet stand next to me.  I must learn these songs - we all must - because so many of them are beautiful and good, but also because so many Lutheran churches hunger for a life-giving service that can be made from this music.  How are we to know how to select praise and worship music, and to incorporate it into our Lutheran worship, if it is never played in our own house of worship?  This is the only place now that I am safe to learn these songs.

May G-d soothe the scared little girl inside me, and may she learn to sing again.  Amen.