Sacred Soil

Our lives at the gates
June 9, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

This widow, the widow of Nain, was stuck in an impossible place as she watched her only son carried out on a bier that day. A bier is much like a stretcher, an open span of canvas wrapped around poles. Her son’s body would have been wrapped in cloth, his form exposed in this funeral procession. This woman, this widow, watched her child, her livelihood, carried bodily out of her life. Through the gates of the town. Her grief must have consumed her, knowing that her son’s life was cut short, and knowing that it meant the same fate for her. In the ancient world a woman with no son and no husband had to rely on charity to get by—and much like today charity was no way to thrive. At that gate, her former life was gone, all she could see going forward was death.

And so often we find ourselves at a similar gate. Now the stakes may not be so clear for us. We may not be able to point at the stretcher and say, this is my child whom I raised. Though, some of us could. Our passage at this gate may not put us at risk for losing our very livelihood—though it might. For some it’s just a medical bill, or foreclosure notice away. But, most of us do know what it is like to see our lives changing, our dreams dying—never to be the same again—and wanting to hold on to familiarity, to the real joy of that former life, to grab onto the bier and say: No. You do not get to take it all away.

And sometimes, we grab onto that bier without even knowing we’ve done it. Death is insidious and sneaks in, setting up camp. Like the creeping business of our daily survival: we get so consumed with meetings, commuting, getting our kids to school, the incidentals of life. The job we wanted doesn’t come through, the surgery didn’t go as planned. And then there is the challenge of money. The bills, the mortgage, the credit cards, fines, fees, all contend with our need just to make ends meet. The cycle is endless, the pace is impossible. And before we know it, we are at the gate of the town watching the life we hoped for, where everything is whole, being carried out on bier—its form exposed. Lifeless. And our response is to grab on tightly, hold on for dear life—but it’s already gone.

It is precisely at this moment that Jesus sees the widow. And Jesus has a special way of seeing. Somehow he is able to know that this woman is mother, this woman is widow, this woman has lost everything. As this bier is carried out of the town, she has been declared by society to be nothing. But, he sees the whole of her. Knows she is something, and he is moved. Moved to compassion. There is no test of faith here, no argument about merit or just desserts. Jesus sees her in the midst of swarming crowds and says to her: Do not weep.

Jesus sees us too. He sees us mother, father, brother, sister, man, woman, child. Beloved child. He sees each of us in our entirety too—with the same compassion. With clear vision, Jesus looks through all the crowding around us and sees us whole. For who we really are. The good, the bad.

It is this Jesus who reaches out to touch that bier, that death. Stunning everyone. Freezing the entire scene. He grabs on, taking the rotting corpse of this Widow’s life into his hand. And his grip, unlike ours, transforms death. He says to the young man: Rise. And he does. He sits up in that stretcher and begins to speak. And Jesus gives him back to his mother.

Now this is not merely return as if the procession suddenly dropped everything and reversed back into the town. This woman, her son and the crowds cannot simply turn around and re-enter the gate of the city and resume as if nothing had changed. And neither can we. In our baptism, each of us has also been touched by Jesus and commanded to rise. In those waters, we are at once the widow and the dead man, so burdened by the brokenness of this world that it is as if we are dead. But then, through the power of God’s overwhelming love, we rise from those waters raised to new life. New life. Not the old one. New.

But what does this new life look like? It’s a personal question—a question we answer with our own lives. For our widow, and the crowds, well they respond with what the text calls fear. But Biblical fear is a bit of a different thing– certainly it evokes a sense of terror in the face of something so much more powerful than us. But it also takes on qualities of awe and amazement: reverence caught them all. For the second time in our text, the whole scene stops, everyone completely stunned. First when Jesus touches death, and then when life is returned to the widow. Of course they’re afraid—but their response is to worship God. And this is not unusual in the Bible, particularly in Luke. In those moments of profound awe, the response is to glorify God.

We know this fear—Jesus’ touch doesn’t make sense. It breaks every rule that the power death declares. As we know it, death is final. That’s it. Both physical and metaphorical. The body is done. Nothing will save it. And, when death is found in the functionality of our daily survival, and we are caught short, giving into busyness, having no way to make ends meet. Death tells us that there is nothing that can save us. We are doomed to failure, and we are defined by it. Death would say to us, you are your failure. But Jesus comes, touches our death and claims us alive and whole, a child of God. We have a new identity—it is death transformed into life. We are right to be afraid when God can come so near to us, see us so clearly. We are right to fear the God who touches death, even dies, turning death itself into life. Life abundant. We are right to be caught in reverence, and awe.

But fear and awe do not simply return us through the gates giddy with the prospect that all our losses have been restored. It’s not that easy. The loss is still very real. And to deny our losses would be foolish. There are widows among us, there are parents who have lost their children, there are people who have lost their livelihood and who know a world that cannot see them in the midst of their pain. Nothing will ever be the same. But we know, we have this promise which is most certainly true, the finality of death was swallowed up by Jesus’ touch; the funeral procession stopped. Death no longer has the final say.

And so it is for us. As we cling to that which kills us—as we watch our lives being carried out on a bier—God comes to us, sees us, grabs hold of us and says again: rise. Be lifted up—know the reality of death and know that God is more powerful. Know that life will never be the same.

And from this touch, this moment of life, we are filled with awe, and are compelled to praise God. Indeed, to live our lives as praise to God.


The Trouble with Being Progressive
June 6, 2013, 4:35 pm
Filed under: Weeds | Tags: , ,

Newton’s first law declares that an object in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by a force. This is the law that describes how a ball will effortlessly sail through the air, until it collides with dirt, or a bat, or the catcher’s mitt. It’s one of those laws that we scarcely need to name, as it seems so obvious to our existence.

As a child, I had a lovely relationship with Newton’s first law, pushing down the streets on my little roller skates. The thing about roller skates, and my six-year-old self, well, I never really seemed to get a handle on how to account for the moments when I would be “acted upon by a force.” Gravity, gravel, the wall, my clumsy feet–invariably, I would be caught by surprise, my graceless gliding halted suddenly by the reality that there were many forces that lingered near, just waiting to act upon my body in motion. Fortunately, we always had a good stash of band aids.

These days, Newton’s law has me sailing forward. Gliding, now gracefully, on the joy and astonishment of tremendous victories that have profoundly changed my life. In 1997, I came out as a lesbian in the days just after my state had tried to pass a law banning the discussion of anything related to homosexuality in our public schools. While the measure did not pass, I remember well the violence, the fear, the vitriol hurling about. In those days, it seemed to me that claiming my identity as a white lesbian meant subjecting myself to the forces that would continually act upon my freedom. It was a frightening time.

And then, three years later, against all logic, I decided to become a pastor. I knew in this decision that these forces would press upon me, and that finding my calling would mean getting creative about my momentum, searching out new places and ways to launch forward. At the time, it seemed clear, like a law of physics, I was not going to be able to follow this calling in the standard way. The church had uttered a bellowing “no,” to my gifts for ministry.

But, it turned out differently. Somewhere along the way, our society began to cherish the mutuality of relationships. It happened quite a while back. (For more on this check out Stephanie Coonz’ book: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage) And from this dramatic shift, we launched a movement toward justice that has been utterly astounding. It took awhile to gain momentum, but there are days it seems that this movement is a rocket ship launched into history. In the 16 years since I came out, as a white lesbian, I have experienced an astounding shift from fearing violence and enduring jeers, to a steady rain of laws, and policy changes, and attitude shifts that have meant that I am now functionally married (come on Illinois, figure this out), I’ve got a beautiful daughter, many legal protections, and mostly, I don’t fear walking around holding my partner’s hand. And, most astoundingly, I am a pastor, ordained in a blessedly ordinary way. It is as if I am moving ever closer to that moment when justice will be fully gained, and I will be really free.

Until I hit a wall that is.

Perhaps that’s not fair. I don’t know that I’ll hit a wall. It may well be that I will continue to benefit from this great launching toward justice… I don’t know. But I am leery. It may be that I kissed the pavement too many times while on those roller skates. But, I am leery of this assumption that this particular launching of hope will continue forward. I fear that the momentum created is not enough to withstand human fear, human depravity. And I’m also not sure it’s good for us to presume it will, even it if does.

For most white folks, history has been moving on this arc toward greater prosperity, security, and freedom. There are certainly moments where this is not true, times when economic decline has been devastating. But, for the most part, the story has been that the best days lie in the future. We are hurling ever faster toward goodness and hope, that we can do no other but progress toward this great time when all the world will know a good and holy existence.

And I do mean holy. We mix God up in this all the time. And there’s good reason to. We are promised in the scriptures that God will bring all things to God’s self. That God will redeem creation. There will be a time when justice will flow like a river, washing down upon the earth. And this is good. Very good indeed.

Yet, as humans, we have this little difficulty in separating our own experience from that of the divine. And, for us white folks, that’s a particular challenge.  Because for many cultures the goodness of God, the hope of humanity, lies in the past. For the Native Americans who experienced genocide as a result of white settlement, there is a longing for the freedom known before the force of white greed and colonialism came crashing against their lives. In reading the Hebrew scriptures, it is clear that the good days of Israel were the earliest, when the people were ruled by God. It was human depravity that brought about the need for kings. God clearly longs for those days past, when we truly listened. And by this I do not mean to imply that other cultures have a nostalgic longing for the good old days–rather that there is a fundamentally different understanding of time, of the action of momentum.

And so it seems to me that it is a dangerous thing to presume that this object that is in motion will stay in motion. We have this way of resting into the momentum, of believing that God has willed this movement forward and that nothing can stop it. Indeed, I have heard many times that marriage equality will come to Illinois. It is only a matter of time. Yet, I worry that this is an assumption based on the story of white privilege, on the story of people who instinctively perceive that history will continue to move in our favor, as if this were a law of physics.

I’m told that in Germany, before the rise of Hitler, gay and lesbian folks were growing in societal acceptance. Some parts of Germany even celebrated this diversity. But, in the difficulties of the Wiemar Republic, in the economic devastation, in the rise of fear, this group was one of the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Fear stood as cement against the momentum of justice.

An honest look at history will prove, we should never under-estimate the power of human depravity.

So what then do we do?

As a Christian, and as a pastor, I do believe that God will bring all things together. I do believe there is a day when freedom will truly come. It is a day without time, moving neither into the future or beyond the past. I don’t know enough about physics to tell you what that is like, but I do recall that Einstein suggested that if we think we understand quantum physics, we’ve got it all wrong.

Which is to say, I don’t know the answer. But, I do know that I am called to seek justice, to urge toward it on all levels. For all people. And as for the trajectory of our movement… well, I suppose it is best that we tend to the forces that act against justice, using the best of our humanity to act for good. But, let us never assume that our own actions will bring about the kingdom. That’s God’s to do. For now, perhaps all we can do is rejoice and be grateful for all those ways God’s reign breaks into our lives now.

And if we do this well, perhaps we can really be prepared for that day when the forces of fear and human depravity break against the lives of others, of ourselves. If we do this well, we will not be surprised by the abrupt collision with gravity, but will rather trust in God’s promises with a whole new fervor.

Rearranging Furniture
June 2, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Pentecost 2c

1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
Psalm 96:1–9
Galatians 1:1–12
Luke 7:1–10

When I was in college I went with a group friends to a “Hunger Awareness Meal” up in Seattle. Perhaps you’ve been to such a meal—they’ve been a thing for a while. It’s a way to experience the impact of global food insecurity and inequality, with the hope that such an experience will inspire action.

When we entered the banquet hall we were each handed a green ticket, the color of which indicated the sort of meal we were to receive. And so, dutifully, we wandered around till we found the green table with our food for the evening.

First, we passed by a stunning buffet, roped off in the corner. The table was filled with shrimp and cheese, sparkling wine, adorned with exquisite candles. Just a few people lingered around the table, looking oddly and awkwardly at the display. No one seemed to be eating. But the tablecloth was blue, so we moved on.

Next we came to a table filled with McDonald’s hamburgers… there were more people here, though they too awkwardly looked at their food, not eating. Here, we were grateful to walked on as we noticed the yellow tablecloth. (We, being college students from Evergreen, weren’t not so fond of the McDonald’s).

Finally, we came to the green table. It was the smallest table, adorned with an enormous bowl of rice. Really, it was the largest bowl of rice I’d ever seen. Next too it stood a tower of paper plates. No utensils. There, a woman stood behind the table and politely deposited a scoop of rice on a plate. We took our little plates, and went to sit with a larger crowd of people. We all looked curiously at our forlorn little lumps of rice.

Later we learned that of the 300 people there that night, 45 had received the blue tickets, the invitation to the fabulous feast. 75 dined on the hamburgers, and the rest, 180 of us, received the scoop of rice.

Turns out this is a reasonably accurate representation of what happens throughout the world. Some of you know this personally. I remember the days in my childhood, when we depended on food donations from the church. It’s not a foreign concept. It’s not out there, not some one else. But it is amazing seeing this played out in a single room. In a room where we could not ignore each other—where the hunger of the other became personal.

And so it was interesting to us that there were several folks who had received blue and yellow tickets, who clearly felt guilty. Ashamed. Unworthy. And so they found these lovely and sneaky ways to deposit left-over food in the green area, offering it up to those who had not gotten much of a meal.

But no one took the leftovers. I heard one woman beg, “please take this, I do not need it,” her face sick with guilt. But, the other woman replied, “Oh, no thank you. I’ll be fine.” Each felt unworthy to take what had been offered…

And from our calculations, it seemed nearly every plate offered in donation sat as people awkwardly walked by, determined not to even see the offerings. Determined not to take and eat. Everyone felt unworthy to eat the really good food, no matter their ticket.

Later, over a nice meal at the local brew pub, (we were college students after all), my friends and I wondered over this odd dynamic. We wondered, why did the folks with blue and yellow tickets feel so unworthy? Why wouldn’t the folks with green tickets (including us), eat this food? And we wondered, what would it have taken for everyone to have had a good meal?

Then Kate said, “We should have removed the ropes and rearranged the tables.”

We replied curiously and indignant, “what?!” And she repeated, “Take away the ropes, rearrange the tables. Move all the food around. Make it equal. There was surely enough food there for all of us to have a lovely meal. All we needed to do was rearrange the tables.”

We laughed nervously, knowing she was right, but also wondering at the huge chaos this would have caused. What would people have thought? Would they try to stop us? Would they have kicked us out?

I sorta wish Kate had spoken up earlier. It would have been interesting to find out.

This story came to mind as I read our gospel lesson today. In this story we’ve got a very rich Centurion. He’s got slaves, and soldiers who report to him. He was born with a blue ticket. He always gets what he wants, and he knows it. He is perhaps even used to it. (It’s also important to know that as a loyalist to Rome, merely uttering his title would have tightened the shoulders of the first hearers of this Word.) He’s a representative of the occupying force the oppressor. The foreigner. The outsider.

But he is also one who loves the Jewish people. One who cares deeply, even though a foreigner, even though part of that 15% with the blue tickets, he is known for sending his gifts, his food to the Jewish folks, even building a synagogue. Despite all the stereotypes, he is a good guy. And in particular, he loves this slave. This one who is so desperately ill.

And so he asks. He asks for healing for this one. This one who would have merely eaten rice, this one who is counted amongst the lowliest. The centurion asks that the very son of God come to this one, and heal him. Recognizing his power, recognizing his love, he asks. And then most beautifully, withdraws his request that Jesus come, recognizing that his power should win him no special privilege. He realizes that his power does not make him worthy.

But you and I both know he’s right—that nothing will ever make him worthy, or make us worthy. Nothing. None of us worthy for the blue, the yellow, or the green tickets. Nothing.

And Jesus, being Jesus, responds with love and in awe. Indeed, he takes a cue from Kate and he rearranges the tables. He goes and removes the ropes that have kept folks from seeing the faith of the centurion. He goes and removes the ropes that declare the slave beyond love. He goes and he removes the illness, that made this man an outcast. And in so doing Jesus completely rearranged the furniture. Rearranged the spread before them.

Even though it ends up getting him into a lot of trouble, this is just what our God does. Over and over again. Our God is always rearranging the tables. Removing the ropes that divide us, inviting us all to eat. Inviting us all to the love of God. Centurion, slave, Roman, Judean, blue ticket, yellow, green. All of us. And it’s not because we deserve it. None of us, no matter how much power we have, none of us will ever earn that love. We cannot be worthy enough.

It’s amazing. Humbling. And, I believe it is an invitation—indeed a calling. A calling to go out into the world, beyond these walls and ask, where are the ropes dividing us? How can I rearrange the tables so that all may be welcome? How may I welcome the foreigner who has come longing to hear of God’s love?

But first, we must practice. First we share a meal that really is for all. A meal where no one is roped off into a separate section, where no one is better than another. A meal where none are worthy, yet all are welcome. This meal, at this table, at Christ’s table. Indeed the table stands out in the middle so that we may all come near. Each one of us loved. Each one of us holy. With a little bread, and a little wine, at this meal all who are hungry are fed. Filled to overflowing with the love of God.

Fed. Transformed. Sent to go and rearrange the furniture.