Sacred Soil

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.

What’s my line?
March 10, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , ,

Sermon Lent 4C

Joshua 5:9–12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32

I think this is a dangerous parable. Difficult. And beautiful.

Jesus precedes the telling of this parable with the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He explains how far God is willing to go to find that sheep, that coin. Explains how God rejoices when it is found.

And when these lost items are simply animals and change, I find the parables a delightful metaphor for God’s overwhelming love. A great answer to the charge the Pharisees lay on him, an answer to this frustrating accusation that somehow eating with tax collectors and sinners is a problem.

But, when we get to this parable, where the one lost is a son, where the one finding is a father—then things get complicated. Dangerous. No longer is it a simple story of finding the lost, but it’s a whole mess of a tale about how we go astray; how we long for our family members to come to themselves; how we long, some days, to come to our own selves. It’s a story of an impossibly generous father, a story of a predictable brother.

There are layers and layers of complexity and possibility in this story, and they quickly get wrapped in our own stories of wandering, of forgiveness, and our longing for forgiveness. I believe this is such a well known story because for so many of us, it is our own story. Or we wish it were.

But the dangerous thing, the problem for us, is that this parable, when played in our own lives is never so simple. Who gets the part of the son? The father? The brother? How do we divvy up the roles? Because, in our own lived experience, the lines are rarely so clear and bold. We have this way of being multiple people at once—and at times we screw up discerning who we are.

Here’s an example of that:

In the early 1990’s, a high school friend of mine, we’ll call her Stephanie, came out to her parents. She mustered up all the courage she could find, and told them about her girlfriend. She knew it would be dangerous—they weren’t especially accepting of such things. But she wasn’t prepared for the argument and yelling that followed. And then the silence. Her parents sent her to her room, so that they could talk. And as she sat on her bed, she could hear them argue in hushed tones. And then more silence.

Soon, her mother’s footsteps fell on the stairs, and she heard the soft monotone. “We need you to leave. We cannot have this in our house.”

Stephanie spent the next several weeks living with friends, crashing on couches while she and her parents tried to work things out.

They all longed to have this prodigal story be their own. Stephanie longed for the welcome and warmth of her father’s arms, of her mother’s arms. And her parents longed to welcome her home. But they had different conditions on this.

Stephanie needed them to accept her as she was. Her parents needed her to “come to herself,” as the had perceived it. They needed her to not be gay.

It turns out that this is a major cause of homelessness among youth. Her’s isn’t an isolated story. Daily children are kicked out of their home because they are gay or lesbian. And the story is so often the same—the parents believe that the child has been as the prodigal son, asking for their inheritance so that they can go off and squander it. And so they send the child on their way. The days that follow are filled with longing for that triumphant scene, when the father’s arms open wide to receive the one who had wandered. The scene where the fatted calf is cooked up for a joyful celebration.

But, it may just as well be that the parents have become the prodigal son in this story, choosing to walk away from their child. Losing themselves in the fear of difference and worry for this future they had not imagined.

It turns out that the nature of our broken selves means that it is so often difficult, if not impossible, to divide ourselves into the neat categories of prodigal and father. We don’t always recognize the forces at work in ourselves, the way fear gets in the way of understanding each other. The way our preconceptions block our capacity to fully receive, to know when we should open our arms wide for embrace, or to long for the other to repent. (because it’s just as true that we too often believe that one has repented, when all they have done is wished for repentance).

It was several years later, when Stephanie was in college, that I ran into her and her parents again. There was a new formality to their relationship. An awkwardness that spoke of real tension. But they were clearly trying, trying to find their way toward embrace. Taking on the multiplicity of their roles—walking toward each other. Not so swiftly, as in the parable—I suppose it’s hard to move very fast when you run as both the prodigal son and the father wrapped into one.

I think that his is what makes the parable so extraordinary. That our God is the father in this story. Our God is the one, who without question or ambiguity, without requirement or hesitation, our God is the one who gives up all propriety, and runs. Hits a full sprint, wrapping loving arms around us, and says welcome home. Just as we are. Coin, sheep, daughter, son.

It’s extraordinary because it’s something we can’t really do. Our egos, our fears, our pride, our confusion, they all get in the way. We don’t know our role. We can’t have that purity. The mess of human relationships, our own need to be self-righteous, and our own sinfulness get in the way.

The open arms of welcome are here. For all of us. Without cost, without price. It does not matter what pig slop you have rolled in. It does not matter how you have squandered your gifts. It does not matter how far you have wandered. God’s arms are wide. Welcoming us as no other can. Wholly, and holy. Just as we are. It truly is extraordinary.

And it isn’t just a one time thing. A single moment. It’s a daily reality. Over and over, God is ready to receive. And look here, at this table is the feast. The bread of life, the cup of hope, given for each of us. This feast is our own prodigal feast, welcoming everyone into God’s wide open arms of mercy and love. Today. In this hour.

Which is good for us, as we mere mortals figure out how to deal with the mess of our own lives. The need to forgive, the need to be forgiven. To understand how we have hurt each other, to understand what is good. We will mess up on these accounts. We just do. But God’s arms are there, ready to receive always. Every single time.