Tuesday, November 01, 2016

sermon on Reformation, repentance, and Susan Boyle

It’s hilarious you have the Episcopalian preaching on Reformation.
We were there for it, of course,
had our own version of scholars and lay folk saying,
“What the heck, Rome?”
but we went to the king and said,
“You can be in charge and get a divorce if you let us split, cool?”
So, it was less dramatic, theologically, anyway.
Our closest feast day to Reformation Day is the
Feast of the approval of the First Book of Common Prayer (1549)
It was written in English
which was pretty daring and thrilling for the time,
but still no hammer and nails.
It’s funny, as well, because,
much to the chagrin of one of my former Edge House students
and just massive Lutheran Pam Mills,
I don’t much care for “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Except maybe with a beer stein.
Which, come to think of it, Brother Martin would probably have enjoyed.
But I do really enjoy Reformation Sunday.
And I enjoy how much y’all enjoy it.
It’s like going to a part of town you’re not familiar with
and coming across a birthday party
—you don’t know about the family arguments
or the struggles individuals are having,
you only see the delight.
Everyone’s having so much fun being a part of this partying group,
and you want to join in.
From the outside, the red shirts
and the jokes about Minnesota are charming.
Of course it’s not just a party, it’s as serious as the business end of a .45.
Today is a party that celebrates a massive change
in the way the church did things.
It’s a kind of death and resurrection, really.
Do you remember the movie Network?
It’s a brilliant parody as well as foretelling of how the news is made.
In it, the national news anchor gets fed up
with news becoming entertainment
and his and his coworkers’ being expendable.
On a live broadcast he snarls,
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”
It becomes a rallying cry.
This is our Brother Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.
The church needed reforming in Martin Luther’s time.
He and others were right to point out the sins of the church and say, 
“Friends, no, this is no good. Let’s try again.”
But it wasn’t that easy.
His 95 Theses read as a dry topic sentences for academic discussion.
What he was saying was,
“we are hurting each other the way we’re doing things now.
We’ve lost our way.”
But as the internet tells us in its infinite wisdom,
“When you have power, equality looks like a threat.”
Even though the reformers spoke truth,
those in power felt threatened.
Change the way we operate on a daily basis?
Change our theology about Purgatory and really eternity itself?
Consent to the people hearing scripture in their own languages
and being involved in its interpretation?
This is terrifying. It means we in power lose the power we had.
It means we’re not in control any more.
It’s not like the Pope and the Magisterium
held that power for evil purposes, mostly.
They, like so many others, understood themselves
as helping, as upholding sacred practices
and understandings of God.
It’s not that they were caught out in intentional greed,
but that they understood themselves as righteous,
like the people Jesus was talking to in last week’s gospel.
It says he spoke to
“some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”
This may be the lasting lesson of the Reformation.
Not the party but the invitation to examine ourselves.
Do we trust in ourselves that we are righteous?
Maybe we’re not selling indulgences any more,
but what do we hold tightly in our fists,
thinking we’re doing good
and in reality hurting each other and the message of love
Jesus came to give us?
The lasting lesson of the Reformation, what we’re celebrating today,
is of repentance.
Repentance, matanoia in Greek, is a turning away from the thing.
My dad used to say to us as kids,
“I don’t want your sorrow, I want your repentance.”
He meant, he didn’t just want us to regret the thing we’d done,
because regret isn’t transformative.
It just sits there making us miserable.
Repentance is a change in posture, a change in direction.
Repentance may indeed happen often,
like the process of getting sober
or the way we need reminding to be kind to someone.
Turning away from something hurtful may happen so many times
that it looks like we’re spinning in circles,
but it’s a real change each time.
Maybe a better word for it is a practice,
something we do regularly that shapes us,
something that in trying over and over we get better at. 
I practice forgiving and having patience
with one of my husband’s childhood friends
over and over and over.
I think I’m better at it now than I once was.
And I think I have to keep practicing, keep reforming.
Pastor Larry was all about that version of the word,
do you remember?
He understood it to be about re-shaping ourselves
in a different image,
or, more likely, God re-shaping us into the image of God.
Imago dei, our original state.
We can’t ever get there by ourselves, not really,
but we can continue to turn towards it.
I did something like this the other week.
I’ve been miserable about how we speak to one another any more.
Maybe it’s not different now then it ever was,
maybe I’m just newly aware of it.
But so much of the conversations online, in speeches,
even between church members,
is so rude and ugly and hateful.
UC, like most college campuses,
has street preachers every few weeks
who carry signs and preach sermons over megaphones
about how we are all of us going straight to hell.
Sometimes they’re decent to talk to,
most times, it’s a mess of judgment.
 So I invited some students and colleagues
and took the Edge House’s own megaphone onto campus
to do some positive street preaching.
The others in the group weren’t comfortable speaking yet.
I ended up confessing our sins. Our collective sins.
I didn’t plan anything particular to say and it was really hard,
but I began to confess the ways
that we ourselves need reforming.
How we have treated native peoples over the centuries.
How we have treated Jews and Africans.
How we have treated each other
when our beliefs were deemed heresy.
How we have consistently chosen to see
our brothers and sisters of whatever
orientation or gender or color or status
as less than because it is politically expedient.
Afterwards, because I stumbled over my words and thoughts,
I asked on Facebook “what are the sins of the church
you would like to hear confessed/apologized for?”
I got so, so many responses. Pages and pages of them.
Friends, we are absolutely justified by faith,
we are absolutely saints and saved and living in the Kingdom.
And also we are still sinners, needing to turn back to God.

What needs reforming now?
What is the theme about which we could write 95 theses?
Probably we can think of lots of things out there that need reforming,
but what in here needs reforming?
What is the speck in our own eyes that needs to be removed?
Within the ELCA?
Within Good Shepherd?
Within each of us individually?
We participate in the world, in voting, in civic pride,
but do we put our faith in those systems and leaders?
Do we think that if we put enough money and energy
into the process the country will become Christian again?
As though it was better 50 or 200 years ago?
Perhaps our reformation involves intentionally listening
to the voices of the marginalized
—whether by race, sexuality, youth, status.
Whose voices do we discount?
Or is it simply that we have arrived at this point in history
without meaning to,
doing what we’ve always done because we’ve always done it?
This is what the Reformation is about
—seeing God’s desires for unfettered, active love,
and naming the ways that we block that love.
And we are not about a single Reformation
         as much as a call to constant reformation.
Whether we know it’s happening or not.
Martin Luther didn’t intend to start a new church.
He didn’t want to destroy the church but to call it to account.
He leaned into his challenge to the church because he loved it so much,
because of his respect for the institution
and the people and for Jesus himself.
Whatever we do now to identify the truth of things,
to name our own privilege and to sacrifice power
is because of our love and respect for the church and for people.
We don’t do it because our works will bring the Kingdom here
but because when we repent, when we open our arms in love,
that is the Kingdom here.
I'll close with a video from Britain’s Got Talent. At the beginning, look for the judgment. Then look for the moments of turning. As they see what they've done, look for the Kingdom of God on their faces. Look how beautiful, how loving it is to repent.

Friday, October 14, 2016

apocalypse 2016

This is the apocalypse.

Not the actual date, not a specific event, but this experience we are living through in 2016 America.

Rather, I should say this is an apocalypse, because this is not the first one and it won't be the last.

"Apocalypse" is almost always misunderstood. It means a pulling back of the curtain, a revealing. It's a metaphor for seeing things as they truly are. It's not an asteroid-related disaster or trippy, judgmental poetry. It's not even the end of the world as most people understand it. It is scary. Seeing the world as it is rather than as we want it to be is terrifying. Which, now I think about it, is kind of like the end of the world. The end of the world we thought was real.

Before the curtain was pulled back, we had thought, perhaps, that things were getting better. Or, at any rate, they weren't getting worse. But that "we" was the people it wasn't happening to. "We" felt comfortable and unthreatened, but now we can see what our brothers and sisters knew all along.

It's not getting worse, it's already really bad. There are news stories all the time about yet another mass shooting, yet another unarmed black man being shot by police, yet another execrable statement by Mr. Trump, yet another scandal in the life of someone we thought we could trust. But I'm not convinced that things are getting worse. We've always had people doing shitty things to each other. In the post-internet world, what's scary is not our propensity for evil but our ability to see it happening.

Mr. Trump's anti-everyone-but-rich-white-guys screeds aren't just about him, they reveal the same thoughts in our fellow Americans that have been there all along. They reveal a deep hurt and insecurity that folks attribute to immigrants or PC culture, but the hurt is there nonetheless. A few police officers shooting unarmed black men aren't themselves horrible racists, they reveal a culture that has not valued black bodies. They reveal a world in which we have only made surface attempts at reconciliation. Mass shootings aren't just about the mental state of the shooter and his political leanings, they reveal our inability as a culture to deal with difference.

The most famous apocalypse--the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible--isn't about a literal beast or a literal whore of Babylon, it's a long metaphor for hope. It says this misery we see won't last forever. But the New Jerusalem and the wiping away of our tears doesn't happen until the world sees itself for what it is: violently self-interested. We have to experience the death of the world we thought was real--literally or spiritually--before new life can come. Maybe that death is as simple as relaxing our grip on the ideologies we hold dear, maybe it's as extreme as confessing our individual and corporate sins and looking for ways to atone.

Maybe 2016 is heralding that death before new life. Will we allow ourselves to experience it? Will we open ourselves up to hearing other peoples' stories and pain, knowing that doing so will change us? Or will we pretend that everything's fine and we've done all we can and push the revealing back another year?

Monday, June 13, 2016

meditation after the Orlando massacre

Written for the vigil held at Below Zero Lounge.
(Unrelated, no idea what's going on with the font sizes here.)

I have two things to say tonight.
One is that we need to mourn.
A man went into the Pulse night club yesterday
and opened fire and in the end
there are 49 of our brothers and sisters dead on the floor,
another 53 wounded,
hundreds mourning their loved ones,
and tens of thousands more bearing the wounds of fear.
This is bullshit.
This is not how we care for one another as human beings.
This is the time for anger and pain and misery.
We don’t want to go over the events of yesterday again, but we must.
It’s important to name the evil and the pain and the anger we feel.
When even a single person dies of natural causes, we should be sad,
we should mourn.
How much more should we mourn when so many die,
when their deaths are caused by hate and fear,
when their deaths are used as political ammunition.
It is important for us to feel sad and angry
and confused and numb and violated and unsafe
and infuriated and vulnerable.
I imagine that many of us here remember other times when we have been hurt,
when someone has tried to destroy us.
Maybe it was being beaten because of who you were holding hands with
or because of how you walked.
Maybe you’re remembering someone who was dressed like me,
a clergy person, or some other flavor of religion
that made you feel that you were wrong in your very existence.
Maybe it was harsh words, spoken low but intended for you to hear.
Maybe you’re remembering the AIDS epidemic of the 70s and 80s
or Stonewall or chemical castration and hard labor camps.
People the world has called queer for centuries
have many, many reasons to mourn today.
But…and this is one of my favorite words in the English language…but…
This is not the end of the story.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the author of the book of Psalms says,
“Weeping will endure the night but joy comes with the morning.” Weeping will endure the night but joy comes with the morning.
This one little word tells us something huge.
It’s a hinge where everything changes.
You are weeping now, of course you are,
BUT that’s not the whole of reality.
We are overwhelmed by repeated acts of violence
against the LGBTQ community and against just humans
all over the world
BUT there’s something else happening,
love and love and love and love.
My experience of the world is that God is present in that one tiny word,
calling to us in our misery and showing us what else is happening.
I need to hear this so much that I had it tattooed on my body.
Well, something similar.
It says “Everything will be okay in the end.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
This is the second thing I want to tell you.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
This is what my faith tells me, and this is what my experience tells me.
When my college friend Ed was diagnosed with HIV, we wept.
And when new drugs helped his T-cells, we rejoiced.
When Leelah took her own life, we wept.
And we came together and rejoiced
over the Cincinnati trans community.
It’s not okay right now, so it’s not the end.
Bad news is not the end of the story.
As a nation, we are fumbling our way out of homophobia
—it’s not done, but it’s happening.
Forty years ago at Stonewall, the police raided the bar
as they had for decades, arresting and beating the people in the bar.
Yesterday, the police did the hard work
of breaking through the wall into the Pulse,
taking out the shooter,
saving so many people.
It’s different now. They’re outside now protecting us tonight.
And we here tonight,
and others in the LGBTQ community and allies,
all across Cincinnati and beyond,
we stand up for each other,
not hiding and hoping it will all go away.
We love, all of us, deeply, openly,
in ways that may leave us open to hurt.
This community isn’t perfect—we have our own brokenness to atone for.
But—(there’s that word again)—but we will go on,
we will make art and love
and live our lives more intensely, more beautifully,
more devotedly than before.
Last night, watching the Tony’s,
I met the musical Bright Star for the first time.
Carmen Cusak sang these words that made me cry:
If you knew my story
You’d have a good story to tell
Me I’m not alone
Tell me I’m not alone
Even though I’ll stumble
Even though I’ll fall
You’ll never see me crumble
You’ll never see me crawl
If you knew my story

Your story, our story, is hard and beautiful and not over yet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

sermon on Psalm 1, privilege, and racism

Psalm 1, has a lot of meat. It reads:
1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
On a first reading, it’s fairly innocuous.
Yes, we’re happier when we’re not terrible to each other.
We’re more fulfilled and connected to God
when we participate in what God is doing.
We are more fruitful when we pay attention to God’s desire for love.
I’m into it.
And wickedness—or sinfulness,
we often experience as that rootlessness,
that powerlessness over our wrongdoing
that the psalm describes as chaff that the wind blows away.
We get bandied about by our desires.
And we crave justice—“those wicked people need to be punished,”
maybe even “I’m so wicked I need punishment.”
We long for a just universe where good is rewarded and evil punished.
I’m still into it.
Maybe we just end the sermon here?
Maybe not.
There’s a thread in modern theology that says
this psalm and many other bits of scripture
are about something more concrete.
It’s about the haves and the have nots.
Certainly those who “have” God, as it were, and those who don’t.
But also about those who have prosperity and lots of stuff
and those who do not.
As though those things are entirely related to whether you have God.
The righteous have much, are blessed, succeed.
The wicked have little, are miserable, and fail.
So, it follows from this simple reading that
those who have little, are miserable, or fail must be wicked. And those who have much, are blessed, and succeed
are righteous.
Don’t we say God helps those who help themselves?
Sure, it’s not in the Bible, but it’s true, right?
And look at statistics: look how closely crime and poverty line up.
But this reading is from a place of privilege.
Let me complexify this for us.
A number of years ago,
I took my diocese’s required Racism Awareness workshop.
There was a mix of folks from across the diocese there.
As a conversation-starter,
we were given an envelope with 26 notecards inside.
On each notecard was a question
and we were asked to put those cards into two piles:
“this does apply to me” and “this doesn’t apply to me.”
Let me share with you some of the statements on the cards.
Maybe you can keep a tally of where you’d put them:
“I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the person in charge,
I will be facing a person of my race.”
“I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper
and see people of my race widely-represented.”
“I am rarely asked to speak for all people of my racial group.”
“I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials
that testify to the existence and contributions of their race.”
“I can worry about racism without being seen
as self-interested or self-seeking.”
“I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color
and have them more or less match my skin.”
“Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash,
I can count on my skin color not to work against
the appearance of financial responsibility.”
“If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return,
I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my color.”
Hearing where each person put their notecards was
—and I cannot put this dramatically enough—
earth-shaking for me.
I had put 25 of the 26 cards in the “it does apply to me” pile.
And the white folks around me were similar.
All of the people of color in the workshop
had put a majority of the notecards
in the “it doesn’t apply to me” pile.
In this moment, I had a sudden, intense, clear vision
of the privilege that I enjoy as a white person.
Just recently I read an article in which the author spoke
of grocery-shopping with her half-sister at their regular store.
Both of them are of mixed-race, but the author “passes” for white,
that is, she has more Caucasian features,
whereas her sister looks clearly black.
The sisters were in line to check out with their groceries.
The author was first in line, wrote a check, was not asked for ID,
and began bagging her groceries
while her sister’s were being scanned.
The sister then began writing a check as well
and the cashier immediately asked for ID
and looked intently, the author says “suspiciously,”
between the ID and the check.
The author called attention to this behavior,
asking what she was looking for.
The cashier replied it was policy to ask for ID.
The author asked why she herself hadn’t been asked for ID
moments before.
The store manager was called. It became a bit of an issue.
I’m aware that this is an anecdote,
but one which our black brothers and sisters
would not find surprising.
What is going on here?
I want to be clear that there are all kinds of privilege,
not just this example of embedded racism.
In this country there’s the privilege of being comfortable or even wealthy,
of being male, of being straight, of being educated.
And being privileged in some way doesn’t mean things haven’t been hard.
Of course wealthy people have depression and anxiety
and difficult family situations,
but they know they’re going to eat for the foreseeable future
and they’re going to be respected.
And of course a poor white family will have significant struggles
just as a poor black family will,
but that poor black family will have other struggles as well.
And an educated white woman might enjoy many privileges
in her hometown
but be targeted by rape and death threats in some online communities
because she is a woman.
Privilege changes and overlaps with lack-of privilege
—we call this intersectionality.
Now, I suspect that by my bringing this up in church,
some folks out there are tensing up.
If it’s because you disagree with me, I understand, but please hear me out.
I think scripture has something to speak into our lives here
that’s both difficult and freeing.
If it’s because we don’t talk about this kind of stuff in church,
I have to ask why not?
Why wouldn’t we talk about the ways in which
we Christians act like Pharisees, whether we know it or not?
Why wouldn’t we open our eyes to systems of oppression
and do what we can to make folks’ lives better?
Isn’t that basically what the prophets and Jesus were doing?
My point is this:
It is very easy to fall into the belief that something is not a problem
because it’s not a problem to us personally.
It’s so difficult to identify with this idea of privilege
because by its very nature, it’s invisible if you’ve got it.
And my second point is that
privilege isn’t a bad thing per se,
it’s a question of what we do with it once we see it.
How do I respond, for example, when I get pulled over for speeding,
and the officer literally backs away from me and says
“I can’t give a priest a ticket!”
Rejoice at my good fortune? Insist he give me a ticket?
Give him a lecture about privilege?
Ask some other officers about policy and practice and begin dialogue?
Our scriptures are rife with folks getting away with things
because they’re in charge or favored or pretty.
And those stories portray privilege sometimes as violent and terrible
like David’s sending the husband of the woman he lusted after
to the frontline to be killed.
And sometimes as the only way to save thousands of lives,
like Esther’s ability to speak to the king her husband
to spare the lives of the Jews.
And they’re rife with stories of people on the other side of things,
seeing the imbalance of power,
experiencing the oppression of invading forces
or economic pressures.
They’re rife with stories of the outsider and the rejected
pushing back against power and privilege.
This is Ruth. This is Tamar.
This is Moses in Egypt. This is Mary Magdalene and Peter.
This is too many people to list.
Looking back at my first description of Psalm 1,
I think we’re being called to awareness and compassion.
I said, “we are happier when we’re not terrible to each other.”
Which means we need to notice when we’re being terrible.
And when someone else is being hurt by our privilege.
How do we use that awareness to show that person love?
We are more fulfilled and connected to God
when we participate in what God is doing.
Maybe we ask what God is already doing in our community
rather than plowing forward with what we know needs to be done?
We are more fruitful when we pay attention to God’s desire for love.
Not productive, mind you, that’s our consumer culture speaking.
No, we make the fruit we were meant to
when we’re paying attention to love and forgiveness
and understanding and creativity.
How do we educate ourselves about issues
that don’t affect us personally?
And how do we learn to forgive?
This is where Psalm 1 gives us some beautiful grace.
It doesn’t say that the Lord watches over the righteous
but the wicked will perish.
It says “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.”
The way. The way in which we do things.
The path we walk. The way of seeing the world.
God watches over and fosters and delights
in the path of love that each of us walks.
I even imagine God,
with one of those brooms they use in curling,
shuffling backwards in front of us,
sweeping the broom back and forth,
smoothing out the path when it gets rough…
And God will allow/is allowing the path of sin and misery
that each of us walks to fall into disrepair.
Psalm 1 is maybe foreshadowing Psalm 30,
“weeping may linger the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
In other words, everything will be okay in the end.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
And God invites us to participate in making things okay.
It will be uncomfortable for us to face how we are complacent
in the face of suffering.
It will be hard to begin dismantling our individual and corporate sin.
But we don’t do it alone.
God is walking that path with us,
nudging us towards the one that’s been cleared,
raising us up when we fall,
and celebrating with us when we succeed.
This is one message of the cross:
in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we celebrate this Easter season,
it is not that Jesus reminds an angry God that we are God’s beloved,
we are reminded that we are created in God’s image,
that we are God’s beloved, that we were made for love.
God’s been there all the time, maintaining the universe,
shining love on all of us.
We just forgot.
On the cross, Jesus showed us
where all our grasping and violence and moralizing lead us.
And in the empty tomb, Jesus shows us
all the possibilities of creation.
We can be and are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
May it be so.