Friday, December 12, 2014

sermon on Ezekiel 33:1-7

Friends, the internet is a jerk.
I mean, maybe it’s the people, but online is such an easy place to be rude—I’ve done it myself! It’s an easy place not to do research, to demand people take you seriously regardless of what you’re saying. It can be a deeply connecting place as well, a place to be educated, to be inspired, but for God’s sake, don’t read the comments. Like, ever. I made the mistake this past week of reading a few comments on news stories about Ferguson, Missouri. They were…disgusting.

And I don’t know of you’re aware of the stolen, nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence? Basically, Jennifer Lawrence had some nude photos of herself for her own purposes. Someone hacked into her accounts and stole them. Some guys on the website 4chan shared them but then a group of folks on another website Reddit spread the photos around far and wide. Jennifer Lawrence was embarrassed, people who saw it were embarrassed, and eventually the folks on Reddit were embarrassed. They had a change of heart—they took the photos down and then did a fundraiser for a cancer charity that Jennifer Lawerence had been associated with. When they sent the thousands of dollars they’d raised to the charity, their note said they were trying to make up for their lapses in judgment and included jokes about what had happened. The charity…said, “no.” Basically, “no, we’re not taking your money, you can’t pay for forgiveness.” Not to be deterred, the Reddit guys sent the money to a water charity with a similar note and with an addendum about how surely this charity would take the donation, they’d be fools not to. And the water charity…said, “no.” No, you don’t get to do something jerk-y and then do one nice thing and expect the scales to be balanced.

It’s not just the internet, though. The Bible is a jerk. Did you notice in that Ezekiel reading, “But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” Basically, tell people how they’re sinning because otherwise you’ll burn with them. Somehow, we are saved because we have pointed out others’ sins. I’ve met well-meaning Christians who take this as license to insist on their understanding of good and evil and to try to convert me to that. Our scriptures have can be a deeply connecting place as well, a place to be educated, to be inspired, but for God’s sake, don’t read the comments. Or, well, take the centuries of commentary and contemporary, me-first theology together and with a healthy grain of salt.

The thing is, we are about law AND gospel. Yes, the Law says to be righteous and righteously judge your neighbor for their misdeeds. It also says NOT to judge your neighbor—that’s not just Jesus’ line.
No, the Law can be good because I certainly drive better when there’s a cop nearby, don’t you? It’s so easy to justify my own selfishness if I just let a law slide here and there. But the gospel is about something else. Gospel is literally “good news”—it’s a challenge or a comfort that enters into your place of bad news, of really shitty news and transforms it into something beautiful. This is not to say that believing in Jesus makes everything go right for us from finding a parking place to cancer remission. Good news is about hope.
And Ezekiel’s version of good news involves repentance. For him, repentance is about hope. Because we recognize the terrible things we do and say, because we commit to not doing them—even though we’ll fail many times—we have hope that things can be different, will be different. Instead of a cycle of violence that we see enacted in the world all the time, when we admit our failings, we participate in a cycle of forgiveness.
It’s true that the internet is a jerk—it’s a true fact, look it up. But it’s also true that the internet is a beacon of hope. I just recently discovered the vlogbrothers—I’m late to the party, I know—and their videos are the most perfect example of hope I can think of right now. In case you’re also running late for the party, here’s the executive summary: they’re brothers, one a novelist, one a scientist, who do short weekly videos to each other about all kinds of things and have developed a huge following and collaborative community around them. I don’t think they mention it much these days, but back in the day, John mentioned offhandedly that he’s a religious man and at several points Hank has mentioned that he is not. But the words of wonder at the universe and love of collaboration and delight in decreasing world suck—these all speak to me in my language of the creative presence of God constantly grinning like an idiot and saying, “Yes! And…?” Their videos suggest to me the theology of God the primal mover: God acts first, then we respond. John and Hank made videos and then tons of people responded, like a huge sigh of relief—we can make a difference! And for Christians, God loves us first, and when we see that, when we feel it beyond words on a page, suddenly the air is cleaner in our lungs and our eyesight clearer—we can make a difference.

So here are two undying truths from across generations of Christians and, indeed, across generations and faiths of human beings:
Don’t be a jerk.
God loves you even though you are a jerk.

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Here's a link to a great vlogbrothers video:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

sermon on justice, water, Edward Snowden, and Amos 5

Since my sermon from this week is a single page of messy notes, enjoy a change of pace and LISTEN to it instead:

Saturday, October 04, 2014

retreat address on the Song of Songs

Readings from the Song:
Woman: 1:5-6 (don’t despise me because I am black)
Man: 4:9-16 (you are beautiful and you smell sexy)
Woman: 5:2-8 (ready for “bed” and can’t find lover)
Man: 7:1-9 (you’re beautiful, this time with food)

I joked with my students in describing this retreat
that it was going to be about the sexy, sexy Bible. Was I kidding?
For centuries, we’ve tried to figure out this poem.
Some see it as a kind of performance art,
reenacting a fertility rite to bring good fortune to crops.
Others as an allegory
—a one-to-one metaphor for God’s love for recalcitrant Israel.
It’s read on Passover in many Jewish households because,
in the words of my friend Rabbi Yitz,
“Passover is the dating process
of the just-born Jewish nation with G-d,
culminating in the Marriage Ceremony
under the canopy of Clouds at Mount Sinai.”
For many Christians, it’s been God dating the Church instead.
Others see it as a celebration of physical and romantic love, God-given.
Still others wonder why it’s in our Scriptures at all
—God’s not mentioned once.
Do we ever read it in church? Not much.
And then only the least racy parts.
Like, not the bits with dripping nard or channels or bellies
and breasts and lips.
That stuff is best kept far away from Sunday morning.
Only, why? Are we embarrassed?
We are certainly embarrassing as a Christian people
to non-Christians who don’t understand why
we’re so embarrassed about our bodies and what they do.
The Song of Songs is, at least a little bit, all these things.
The woman who wrote the Song
and the men who included it in the canon of scripture
and the millions of Jews and Christians who have read it
across the centuries have already voted.
This Song is scandalously specific and ambiguous.
It is almost pornographic and deeply spiritual.
The Song of Songs is about sustaining relationships
and about constantly striving
and it is about the love which is the ground of all our being
in one way or another.
First, it’s poetry. Some of your eyes are lighting up at the thought,
others are bracing yourselves for a long, boring lecture
and ultimately not understanding any more than when you began.
Don’t worry, I only mean that it means more than it seems to mean.
Like the TV show Lost. Or whatever your favorite pop song is. Only better.
So, The Song of Songs is about a woman
who is deeply in love and lust with her beloved
who may or may not be King Solomon. Probably not.  
And they have frequent trysts but apparently don’t live together.
Or maybe they’re married,
though the text doesn’t offer much support for that.
Or maybe their relationship is scandalous somehow
since she gets beaten at one point for trying to find him.
It’s not a straightforward story-poem
with a beginning, middle, and end,
nor is it entirely clear who the characters are.
It reads a bit like a series of monologues
between the man and the woman
but they don’t always flow from one to another.
The language, as you might expect, is heightened, is metaphorical;
“your teeth are like a flock of goats,”
“your neck is like a tower, all it’s stones in courses.”
It’s like saying, “your skin is as soft as a kitten’s fur”
or “your hips are as curvaceous as the Guggenheim Museum
and truly, they don’t lie.”
Her neck is not a tower, not really,
and her teeth aren’t hairy like a flock of goats.
It’s about taking inspiration
from the natural and human-made world
—what’s beautiful to you?
That’s what you compare your love to.
“Your body,” she says in one place, “is like ivory.”
Which, it turns out, is a lot like other places in scripture
when someone sees someone else’s “feet,” meaning genitals.
The Hebrew word translated “body”
means a man’s midsection,
so the woman is speaking of the man’s penis as like ivory,
like an elephant’s tusk.
Yes, in a lovely, poetic way, she’s saying,
“my beloved is well-hung.”[1]
Second, the Song of Songs is part of a theology called “Bridal mysticism,”
the theology derived poetically
that Jesus is our collective and individual boyfriend.  
If you think of it literally, it’s a bit creepy.
But also beautiful and has a long history in the church.
We see married people all the time
—certainly we see broken marriages,
but also connectedness and reliance and mutual giving.
Of course we’d use it as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
Bridal mysticism takes Jesus as the boyfriend to its logical extreme
and puts the mystic or the reader in the place of the bride
—when we read these passages, when we pray,
we can experience the great hope a bride feels,
the anticipation of new life,
the excitement of being with the one our heart most desires
—you know this feeling.
Not just the heart palpitations of a crush,
but the deep connectedness to someone we truly love
and who loves us back.
For some of you, that might be a romantic or married partner,
for others it might be a deep soulfriend,
for others it could be the relationship you have
with a parent or sibling.
These are beautiful experiences and we ought to want them—
but they require a certain vulnerability on our end.
We have to be able to be vulnerable to God.
Bridal mysticism requires us to present ourselves
exactly as we are to our bridegroom Jesus.
Third, and maybe most important,
“the protagonist in the Song is the only unmediated female voice in scripture.”[2]
Meaning, every other woman’s story is told by someone else,
either by another character in a story or by the writer of the book.
Here, the woman speaks in the first person,
she is a woman in touch with her own heart and mind,
a woman in touch with her sensuality,
a woman empowered.
And so, because her story needs to be heard, I’ll tell it to you,
at least, an imagined story of how she came to write this poem.

I was told I had to work in my brothers’ vineyards.
I was told I had dark, ugly, black skin.
I was told I’d never amount to anything, that I was unloveable.
I was told I would have babies and that would make me valuable.
I was told to be quiet in church, to submit to my husband, to lie back and think of England.
I was told it was all in my head, that it was my fault.
I was told.
And now I will tell.

When I saw him the first time, I came over all giddy.
I was talking to my friend and suddenly I was stammering
and my hands were shaking and my nipples were hard
and I couldn’t stop staring.
When he talked to me the first time,
I looked down at my shaking knees,
knowing he couldn’t possibly find me pleasant to look at,
but he lifted my chin with a finger and looked at me
like no one else ever had.
He really saw me—what did he see?
He said that I was more beautiful than a flock of goats on the hillside,
more sweet than persimmons dipped in honey,
more elegant the Temple Mount itself.
He said, “she’s a brick house!”
He compared my breasts to round baby sheep
nursing at their mother’s side.
He said my heart was bigger than the Jerusalem marketplace,
that my mind was sharper than the rocks at the shore
which tear up the hulls of boats,
that my ass was as round as melons
and how he wanted to take a bite.
How could he see this when I am, at best, average?
He saw me and he loved me.
And I saw him and I loved him.
We devour each other with our eyes.
When we see each other around town, from yards and yards away,
we cannot resist seeing, we cannot resist knowing.
I know that last night we spoke of philosophy and the nature of God,
we spoke of politics and farming and birds and bees,
we spoke of our fears and of our darkest fantasies.
And we touched each other
—we removed each other’s clothes slowly, achingly slowly,
fingers tracing the hollow of the throat,
like the curve of a spoon dipped in custard,
fingers circling wrists vulnerable as newborn puppies,
fingers caressing inner thighs,
open like a book revealing its secrets.
And today, when we see each other,
we know, deeply, what the other looks like under their clothes,
how they respond to kisses and challenges.
We devour each other with more than our eyes.
Yet I cannot see him now.
And so often, I cannot find him.
He doesn’t respond when I text and our friends have not seen him.
I run across sidewalks and fields,
through the autumn trees smelling of wet leaves and death
and I weep.
I meet people as I wander and they look at me in disgust.
They speak harshly, telling me no one could love me as he does,
telling me I’m making a fool of myself,
telling me to not to speak up for myself,
telling me to go home.
And so I return to my bed, to my empty apartment
which still smells of his soap and his skin and sex.
I return to my shower and wash away my tears in hot water.
I rub lotion into my skin and put on my pajamas,
giving in to exhaustion.
I tell myself it will be better tomorrow.
I tell myself he will return.
I tell myself to fall asleep.
I give in memories and touch myself.
And just on the edge of sleep, I think I hear him next to me,
his hand on my belly, his lips at my ear.
I wake with a jolt but he is not here.
I run to the door,
my hands still slick with lotion and my own moisture,
my feet bare,
but he is not there.
And later we have carved out time to lie on the grass,
feeling the warm sun on our skin,
seeing the red glow of it through our eyelids,
smelling burning leaves and each other’s familiar scent.
Cloves and eucalypus and nard filling my nose and my heart.
His hand in mine, our only touchpoint, yet containing multitudes.
I bask in my beloved’s presence and he in mine.
And tell him,
Many haters cannot quench your love for me.
Many insults will not quench my joy in my own body
nor the want I feel for you, my beloved.
Many sorrows and arguments will not quench our commitment.
Many wars cannot quench the spark of the divine and the hope of peace.
Many waters cannot quench the fire of my love,
neither can floods drown it.

For the holiness of all that is love, hear me tell you my story and know this same love.

[2] Women’s Bible Commentary, “Song of Songs” by Renita J Weems, 164

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

sermon on Romans 12:9-21, conversation, and jerks on campus

This past week at UC has been crazy. A week and a half ago, the students returned to campus and the university put on a ton of events to welcome them, to help them make friends, to encourage them to join extracurriculars, to encourage them to do things other than drink themselves silly. It’s called Welcome Weekend and they say, if you’re not completely wiped out by the end of it, you’re not doing it right.

Check out some of the people who came to the-Edge-House-sponsored Board Game Extravaganza—I stopped counting at 200.

And here’s a shot of our Giant-Sized Settlers of Catan—it’s a strategy board game from Germany, very fun. We just made it bigger fun.

We took our espresso set-up onto campus to give out free iced lattes and we had some great conversations with some of the 150 folks who partook.

Earlier in the week I got to speak again to a roomful of technical theatre students at CCM about spiritual wellness. I don’t have a picture of that, I’m afraid, but it was all about how, just like a play needs actors and costumers and set-builders and stage managers and lighting designers and all the people to make it work, so do our lives. Don’t do it alone.

And so it goes. Days on end of deeply emotional and draining events. Ya’ll should come next year, it’s great!

One of my students has been working for a year on a collaboration between DAAP design students and both the Women’s Center and the UC counseling services called #consentculture. It’s in response to the statistic that 1 in 4 collegiate women are sexually assaulted in their college careers. And that first couple weeks of the school year is what they call the “red zone”—more of the assaults happen when folks are new and vulnerable. So my student Heather and others have created this amazing brand and set-up where people can come over and learn about it and pledge to support consent—verbal, ongoing consent. Beautiful. Wednesday, I went to sign the board. As I turned to speak to the woman staffing the table, a young man came up and said, “consent culture? I believe in consent to rape.” Yeah. I figured he was a freshman, didn’t know how offensive he was, so I said, “that’s not funny. Please don’t say that.” And he proceeded to spout a lot of garbage—and that’s the nicest way I can say it—garbage about men and women and our place and men’s right to receive something back. When I noticed aloud that his argument wasn’t logical, he insulted us by saying that lesser minds wouldn’t understand his argument nor his entitlement. Maybe you’re familiar with some of the rhetoric another young man in California spoke before he shot up a sorority house recently? It was like that. And. It was…alarming. And disgusting. And we who were there at the booth did an admirable job of not flying off the handle but I’m going to be honest with y’all: I was angry. I was furious that he and anyone else could believe that women were objects who owed him something. And I was furious that there is a culture that would teach him this. And, weirdly, of all the things in that moment, what was the most frustrating was his unwillingness to allow anyone else to speak. He approached alone, looking for a fight; he left alone, having gotten one.

I’m not offering a treatise on feminism today, nor a travelogue on the Edge House’s Welcome Weekend adventures. But I am going to insist that we talk to and listen to one another.

Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome have been bouncing around in my brain all week. Paul says a lot of things about how to live in Christian community—look back at that in your bulletin [on the screen]. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This may seem to be a kind of grocery list of virtues that we want to do but know with that sinking feeling that we can’t hope to live up to. And we Lutherans—ahem, y’all Lutherans…—might even go so far as to get comfy with that. You might think that since there’s no way we can check off all that blessing and persevering and living peaceably with everyone, and since we are saved by God’s grace, let’s just not worry so much about it. Our everyday failures to be kind and forgiving aren’t such a big deal in the end.
Yes and no. I mean, yeah, it’s good not to be so nitpicky of ourselves and others—we don’t want to become micromanagers of other people’s lives—it’s exhausting for one thing. And we don’t want to end up hating ourselves for our failures. But. But.
What this is about is how much we need each other. How much we can’t do it alone. Paul is talking about being present, about showing up to our relationships and working to release our own self-interest. He’s talking about reflecting back grace and love and forgiveness rather than our normal, easily-justifiable rejection and annoyance. I won’t go so far as to say that we’re hateful people—seems like our day-to-day sin is annoyance, it’s eye-rolls and unwillingness to engage with the humanity of those around us. None of us here want to destroy the people we meet, but neither do we want others to disrupt our comfortable routine. And Paul’s all about disrupting that comfortable routine and requiring the believers to engage day-to-day kindness. He wants them, basically, to recognize that they need each other, like those theatre students need each other to produce a play and to, you know, live their lives well. Paul’s not saying, “go out there, team, and save the entire world!” He’s saying, “next time you meet that one lady you don’t care for so much, try to be a little gentler, know she’s struggling as well.” He’s saying, “next time you find yourself knowing you’re right, maybe allow for the possibility that you’re not, know that the other person has a story to tell.”

This storytelling and, maybe more importantly, story-listening, might be the thing that saves us. And really listening to someone else’s story is not easy. You might hear something that makes you uncomfortable or something you want to combat. You might hear something that resonates with your own deepest truth and it makes you weep. You might hear something ­­­­­­­­­­that opens your brain or heart to something unexpected and transforming.

For us to be able to do what Paul’s saying, to love with mutual affection, rejoice, be patient, persevere, extend hospitality, and live in harmony, we have to be vulnerable with each other. We have to be willing to actually talk to each other about more than the weather and the budget and our children and grandchildren. All good things, all good things. But we have to be willing to disagree about how to live out this divine love we’ve been given and still sit down to worship together.

So I want you to partner up. Turn to someone near you and if you need to add a third person because of where folks are sitting, great. Pulling from Paul’s letter to Rome, I invite you to share with your partners when was the last time you extended hospitality to a stranger? What difference did it make? I’ll give you 4 minutes to talk…

…friends, I invite you to turn your faces and hearts forward again.
Without sharing confidences, what was that like for you? What did you learn?

Now, that was only 4 minutes. Imagine if our lives were shaped by listening to each other and to looking for the ways in which we need each other?  Imagine if we weren’t so concerned with looking for big burning-bush signs and looked for the signs in each moment of God’s action? If a single smile from your mother suggested God’s toothy grin. If the bubbling laughter of a vacation reminded you of God’s playfulness in creating us in the first place. If a frown or a tear reminded us of God’s brokenheartedness at our self-centeredness. If doing the dishes reminded you of your baptism.
Friends, the church only functions because we have musicians and readers and ushers and offering counters and council members and Habitat for Humanity volunteers and students and teachers and prophets and apostles. It doesn’t function because we’ve all got it figured out. Just like how this place runs, so are our lives. Don’t do it alone. Know that no matter what things look like in any given moment, you are not alone. You are welcomed into the Kingdom. And the people who annoy you or you roll your eyes at or you avoid, they’re not alone either. Because they have you. We are a people of welcome. Let’s offer that welcome in the ordinary moments of our lives.