Tuesday, December 22, 2009

[unpreached sermon #9] We Light the Candle of Peace Today

Advent 2C - December 6, 2009
Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6
We Light the Candle of Peace Today

I find it a little ironic that this is the Sunday of Peace, having read through the week's daily lectionary with lots of passages of wrath and judgment.  It's also weird because today's Sunday lectionaries are all about preparing the way for the coming savior -- oh, and Paul saying nice things about the Philippians.  "Peace" is not a theme I would intuitively extract from this set of readings.

So, when I can't figure out what to do with the lectionary, I go back and summarize each text.

First, we have Malachi, which has two parts.  One, a messenger is coming to prepare the way of God.  Two, the coming of God will be purifying like a refiner's fire purifying silver.

Next, we have the first of two passages from Luke.  This first is what is known as the Canticle of Zechariah.

Again, it's in two parts.  God has honored the covenant of old and shown mercy on us, sending us a savior.  And you, child, shall be the prophet who comes before this savior, telling the people of their salvation.  Dawn from on high will break upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Third is the epistle in which Paul praises the Philippians, longs to be with them, and prays that they may continue to grow in love and insight.

And fourth, the opening of the third chapter of Luke.  At a particular socio-historical moment, under imperial rule, the word of God came to John in the wilderness, and we hark back to the prophet Isaiah -- prepare the way of the Holy One; everything will be smoothed out, and "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

So what do I do with all this?

I was tempted to just ignore the Epistle because it doesn't really seem to fit (and who besides me preaches on all four lectionary texts, anyway?) -- but I'm stubborn and perverse, so this actually made me want to focus on the Epistle more.

There's a song that goes, "the one who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it."  I've always found it a bit of a weird song, but of course it gets in my head every time I read this lectionary passage this week, so I've been thinking about it.

We are works in progress.

And God has begun good works, which God will complete.  Both events to which Advent is looking forward -- the Christ child and the eschatological Second Coming -- are not about wiping something out and starting afresh but rather about bringing something to its fullest fruition and completion.

The refiner's fire that Malachi speaks of takes mineral from the earth and turns it into something you can make into a work of art or function (or both) -- order out of chaos.  I was telling Tiffany on our Advent planning call that in reading the lectionary texts this year, I found myself troubled by that classic Isaiah quotation -- "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low..." -- because on a literal level I don't like the idea of all the landscape variation being erased; but that on a metaphorical level it can still resonate with me -- the rough ways shall be made smooth.

So, we are preparing the way of God.  What does that mean?  Does that mean a carpet of palm fronds like the crowds on Palm Sunday?  The triumphal king enters the Holy City, the dwelling place of God, on a donkey, and comes not to overthrow the occupying imperial powers or even the temple authorities but rather willingly gives himself (herself) up to be executed by the authorities.

In their book The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the imperial environment into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire wanted peace, too, and succeeded -- the Pax Romana.  Except that was peace through violence -- not true peace at all, but merely a lull.

The peace that Jesus is about is peace through justice.  Where relationships are not defined by nonconsensual power-over but rather where we are all gathered together at an abundant table with FAMILY -- and not the family of origin which is so fraught for many of us, but family of choice.  God has chosen each one of us -- named us and claimed us, declaring us the Beloved.

And we are called to help bring about that peace.

When I read the Canticle of Zechariah I get as far as, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High," and I remember Tiffany preaching on how we are ALL called to be messengers of the Most High [I suspect I'm remembering this].

In continuing to think about what it means to help bring about this promised peace, I am also reminded of one of Marla's favorite phrases: "we make the road by walking." I think I first heard this when she preached on the David and Goliath story this past June.  She talked about how there's a lot that's really problematic in that text -- Goliath trash-talks David and David gives it right back, talking about the destruction he is going to rain down on the Philistines.  Not exactly modeling an ethic of "love your enemy" and abundant table fellowship. But she pointed out that there's also the stuff about how the Israelites try to clothe David in armor and none of it fits him.

David is victorious despite not because of the assistance of the powers of the world.

Personally, I'm really big on working within the system; but it's also good for me to be reminded that the systems of the world are not God's system.

We are called to do this work -- knowing that God is bringing Creation to full fruition rather than destroying and starting over, strengthened by the assurance that this broken world will be redeemed.

So let us go forth, to prepare the way of peace -- to make that road by walking it.


Monday, December 21, 2009

"But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."

Tiffany's weekly email Saturday night included:
This week at CWM we will hold a quiet meditative service focusing on the Magnificat, Mary's song of joy.

Please stay safe during the impending storm. While we will have services at CWM, we encourage you to stay warm and safe.
There were ultimately 7 of us gathered (including the pastor).

We did a group conversation Reflection like we've been doing in Advent Bible Study.  The Scripture was Luke 1:26-56.

We talked about the issue of whether Mary consents.  We talked about how even if it was a rape (either the Divine acting without Mary's consent or Mary being raped and inventing this story as a cover), something so redemptive comes out of that (which doesn't deny the horror of that, but also speaks to the transformative power of love).  I said that I am so invested in my idea of a benevolent God that I have to see her as having consented -- that if she had said no, Gabriel would have chosen someone else, and that I see in Mary a modeling of radical openness to God, an affirmation that even when things seem so strange and frightening we can trust God.

We talked about how Mary is really prophetic in the Magnificat and how that subverts the traditional ideas of her as meek and submissive.  We talked about how in opposition to the Fall narrative which blames Eve, all of this redemption starts with women (Elizabeth, Mary).  Carolyn cited the "he abhors not the Virgin's womb" line (from "O Come, All Ye Faithful") and talked about how that really resonated for her about pushing back against the idea that women's bodies are bad and cause people to sin and etc.; Marla countered that it feels to her like setting apart virgin!Mary as special and different from all other women (thus reifying the trope that female bodies are bad/sinful).  We talked about the question of whether people believed Mary's story (Carolyn said, "I bet her best friend believed her," and Marla said, "I'm not sure I would believe my best friend if she told me that story").  We talked about how Mary stays three months at Elizabeth's and so she comes home great with child and doesn't that make her story look even more discreditable and why does Joseph believe her -- I said, "Matthew sends him an angel," but of course we were in the Luke story.

We talked about how the Magnificat comes after Mary has gone to see Elizabeth and after Elizabeth has rejoiced and affirmed her.  (At the end, Tiffany asked us what we would take with us from this for the coming week, and I said for me I would take that with me, that reminder that within the beloved community we can find love and joy even in the midst of events that are so scary and confusing.)  We talked about the possibility that Mary hadn't really accepted it until she talked to Elizabeth, and my tellings-and-retellings self suggested that maybe she went to this hill country town to abort the baby (maybe she had just been placating the angel ... how does one know if an angel is truly from God anyway?) and changed her mind after seeing Elizabeth.

"Welcome, Yule."

Friday night, I went to Revels with my mom.  I had basically zero expectation, but I actually enjoyed it a lot.

It opens with an excerpt from "Black Elk Speaks" -- "Black Elk's Vision," about Black Elk's vision of the Tree of Life (I thought of Revelation, of course).  At one point he's tending the [invisible] tree and a little white boy asks him what he's doing and he tells him and asks the boy, "Do you see the tree?" and the little white boy says no, and Black Elk says something like, "Well I guess I'll have to try harder," which I found so powerful (hi, I am a child of CWM, where we are so about embodying God's Kindom here on Earth).

At one point, a little girls asks him what his people do in the winter, and he tells her that they gather together inside and tell stories.  She says something like, "We do that, too.  I like stories," and I almost cried.  Though I almost-cry like all the freaking time these days.

I was a little disturbed by the representation of Native people/culture.  In part because when they were in groups they were usually (a) in full-body costumes that hide their faces, which felt a little dehumanizing/Othering to me (though it also meant I didn't have the visual squick of White people playing Native Americans) and (b) felt like an interlude passing through, without real connection either to the other characters on the stage or to the narrative as a whole.

And after a point at which Black Elk is lamenting that the Tree is withering, he sees white kids finishing a Tree of Life quilt and asks them the story of it, and they tell a weird folk tale about pregnant!Mary and a cherry tree, and most of the rest of the Second Act is Christmas music. I mean, I know it's called "The Christmas Revels" (the "In Celebration of the Winter Solstice" subtitle notwithstanding) but I felt a little bit like the subtext was, "The Tree of Life is Jesus Christ -- Native Americans couldn't keep that Tree alive; it takes Christ[ianity] to make that happen."  I mean, I do think in some ways that the story of Jesus Christ is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- that God incarnated, enfleshed God's self, dwelt among us amidst the marginalized people, proclaimed an open and abundant table to all, endured death and triumphed over IT, resurrecting in body and spirit, promising the same (present and future) hope for us -- Christ stands between us and the powers of darkness, assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  But at the same time, it feels problematic to me to imply "our story is the culmination of your story."

There were a bunch of parts where we sang along (the last song before Intermission was "Lord of the Dance," and we sang the chorus, and as they exited into the atrium, they brought the people sitting in the front rows with them, dancing).  The guy leading us in that, as he had us practice, said: "I love harmony.  There are no wrong notes, just poor choices in the moment.  And then we move on to the next moment, with new choices."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

[unpreached sermon #8] We Light the Candle of Hope Today

Advent 1C - November 29, 2009
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36
We Light the Candle of Hope Today

This is the first Sunday of Advent.  The first Sunday of Year C -- the new liturgical year.  Happy New Year, Church.

I have a complicated relationship with Advent.  I love this season -- the candles and evergreens, talismans against the darkness; the Advent wreath increasingly filled with light even as (here in the Northern Hemisphere) there is increasingly less sunlight in our days.  But so much of what I love is the celebration -- which feels inappropriate in a season that is defined by waiting.  I love the joy -- and that's not for two more Sundays.  The first Sunday in Advent is the Sunday of Hope.  I think so much of what I love about Advent is that it means that Christmas is almost here.  My joy in Advent is a joy about all the things I have loved around Christmas before and which I know (or hope) I will experience again.  Which maybe isn't so inappropriate after all.

Earlier this week I was feeling very anti-Advent, very anti-waiting.  I was feeling sad and lonely and I wanted to focus on the Easter truths -- Christ is Risen; we are a resurrection people, redeemed, reclaimed, named, and sustained; death has lost its power over us; we are bright, brilliant, beloved children of God, and we are beautiful to behold.  I didn't want to be in the dark waiting period; I wanted to hold on to the fierce power of the Easter truths.  And of course at the same time, I knew that the waiting was a good practice.  A lot of what was making me sad was that I wanted resolution to things that are a process, that I wanted time and affirmation and renewal and all sorts of things NOW -- in my time rather than in the time of those would be offering these gifts to me.

And so with that in mind, I return to the lectionary.

The prophet Jeremiah says:
"The days are surely coming," says HaShem, "when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: 'HaShem is our righteousness.' "
The days are surely coming.

We do not know when those days will be, but we can trust in the assurance that they are coming.

My NRSV informs me that the Hebrew word for "righteousness" is tzedeq, which also means "legitimate," and talks about issues of legitimate rule.  However, when I read that Hebrew word, my first thought was of tzedakah, which Jonathan Sacks devotes an entire chapter to in the the book The Dignity of Difference.  Sacks introduces it with a passage from Genesis, where God says to Abraham: "For I have chosen Abraham so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep my way by doing what is right [tzedakah] and just [mishpat]" (Genesis 18:19a).  Sacks says that mishpat means retributive justice, or the rule of law, while tzedakah refers to distributive justice; but he goes on to say that tzedakah combines the notions of charity and justice.  Sacks say that tzedakah can be understood as what is often called "social justice" and goes on to explain this as "meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less" (114) and as being "about alleviating poverty in a way that makes for self-respect and independence" (125).

This surely sounds familiar to those of us at Cambridge Welcoming, the vision of God's Kindom which we are working toward.

My best friend's church is focusing on money and consumption as their theme this Advent, and if I were doing that, I would talk about how Sacks talks about what we have being held in trusteeship from God and what that means, and it would be a great sermon.  But that's not the sermon I'm interested in preaching today.  So instead we're going to continue to move through the lectionary.

Next is the Psalm.  My favorite part of Psalm 25 is verses 6 and 7:
Be mindful of your mercy, O HaShem, and of your steadfast love,
    for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
    according to your steadfast love remember me,
    for your goodness' sake, O HaShem!
I love this idea that God's love for us is so much deeper than our sins and transgressions.  We so often turn away from God and outright hurt God, and when others do that to us we often hold a grudge, but God's love is so deep and abiding that we can trust that God will remember us with love.

Again, we are modeling the Kindom -- As far as the east is from the west, so far have our sins been removed from us (Psalm 103:12).  Which, as Paul is at pains to tell us over and over again, does not give us license to sin, but instead we are assured that no matter how much we turn away from God, God is always welcoming us back.

In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes:
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Mother herself and our Sovereign Jesus direct our way to you.  And may Christ make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may Christ so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Mother at the coming of our Sovereign Jesus with all the saints.
This passage almost makes me forget that we're in the Sunday of Hope rather than the Sunday of Joy.  But of course, all of Paul's joy is an anticipatory hopeful joy -- the hope of joyful face-to-face encounter with those who are at the moment distant from us but to whom we are still connected in deep love.  Yeah, you see where I'm going with that.

Paul also expresses his hope that the Thessalonians will be "blameless" before God at the Second Coming.  I know it's easy to read this as some sort of demand that we be "good enough," that we be "worthy," but in working on this sermon I keep thinking of the parable of the maidens waiting for the bridegroom, and so when I hear Paul here I think of wanting to be our best for someone we love.  Part of waiting for the Second Coming is preparing ourselves.

Moving on to the Gospel, I'm struck by verse 34 from the Luke passage -- "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly."

Weighed down with drunkenness.

I'm not used to thinking of drunkenness as something that weighs you down.  I'm used to thinking of it (at least in a Biblical context) as something that gives you such energy and takes you so out of yourself -- recall the times people have been accused of being drunk: Hannah's prayer to God with her lips moving but no sound coming out, the disciples at Pentecost speaking such that all gathered heard in their native language, ...

But Luke cautions us as we wait that our hearts not be "weighed down with drunkenness."  The whole passage in Luke is about being alert for the Second Coming of the Christ -- complete with lots of doom and gloom imagery, but what is most important to me in that passage is the emphasis on being alert so that the Second Coming does not catch us unawares.  How many times have you been so caught up in the worries of the day that you have failed to see the Holy Spirit moving in the world and in your life?  I opened this sermon by talking about how I'd been feeling really down and so I didn't want to do Advent, I wanted to skip ahead to Easter.  But of course I know that each day brings with it both joys and sadnesses, and I know the importance of being awake to the moments of joy.

World AIDS Day is this Tuesday -- December 1.

This past week, I saw a blogpost that said, "The HIV travel ban will officially be lifted on January 4.  It's about time."  I had no idea there was such a ban.

According to the L.A. Times, "The ban on infected foreigners began in 1987, when federal health officials added HIV to the list of communicable diseases that prevented people from entering the country. In 1993, Congress made it law."

I was four years old in 1987 and ten in 1993.  I remember junior high school health classes that talked about Ryan White.  I remember part of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt being displayed in the gymnasium when I was in high school.  When I first knew real live gay men -- in 2000, 2001 -- I don't think AIDS occurred to me.  I'd binged on GLBT books (mostly fiction) a few years prior, and many years later I came across one of the books I'd read -- Earthshine by Theresa Nelson -- on a list of young adult fiction about people with AIDS.  I had remembered that book as a powerful book, though I couldn't tell you any details about it, and I was completely surprised to see it on a list of books about AIDS.  I still haven't gone back to the book to see if I just completely failed at retention or if it named the disease obliquely.

Last week, I also read a piece in The Economist about a report from the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS.  The report estimated a 17% drop in the annual number of new infections compared with 2001.  The report also states that over the five years to 2008, the number of AIDS-related deaths around the world fell by 10%.  Admittedly, this still means that 2 million people die each year of AIDS-related causes, and each year 2.7 million new people are infected -- 1.9 million of them in Africa.

It's easy for me to stand up here a white, middle-class, cisgendered, American citizen, and talk about Hope.

I have hope about Christmas because I have experienced it before.  What does it mean to hope for something you have never experienced?

The Christ child born in a stable to a couple of peasants was not how anyone was expecting the promised Messiah to enter the world, and throughout Jesus' life -- and death, and resurrection -- people's expectations about the Messiah were overturned.

Similarly, the Kindom of God will not be what we expect.

This first Sunday of Advent, I invite us to reflect on what it is that we are hoping for -- in our lives, in this Advent season, and in the Kindom.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

[unpreached sermon #7] Last Sunday of Year B - November 22, 2009

Last Sunday of Year B - November 22, 2009
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37
I forget that the Sunday before Advent is "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ."  Apparently I also have a Thanksgiving option, as my country observes that holiday this coming week.  But of course you know which one I picked.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was this Friday.  I admit to DateFail and had longstanding plans to go see a folksinger perform, having forgotten that November 20th is the Transgender Day of Remembrance.  My privilege, let me show you it.  And I chose to keep that commitment -- in part because I was going with my mom, whom I wanted to spend time with; and also because I know I'm antisocial and probably wouldn't hike out to Allston even if I stayed in town.  But I felt kind of guilty about my choice all week.

I know at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries we have talked about how it's problematic that the one time that we (the queer and allied community) specifically remember trans people is at a memorial service.  What kind of message does that give our young people (and our not-so-young people, for that matter)?  Hence our having a TranSpire service in February of 2008.  (I had forgotten, actually, that April 6 is Transgender Day of Empowerment.)

My best friend lives in Kansas City, and she was noting the lack of community events around the Transgender Day of Remembrance this year.  She realized that probably the people who would be involved in creating those events are the same people who are involved in the World AIDS Day events -- which is happening in just over a week on December 1 -- and commented on how it's unfortunate that these two events often get lumped together.

This season in the Northern Hemisphere already feels like a season of death -- less sunlight, colder air.  We wrap ourselves up in so many layers that we are barely recognizable, and we spend as little time as possible outside of temperature-controlled environments.  We hide from each other and from ourselves.

Having read all the week's lectionary readings, one thing that struck me when I was reading up on the Transgender Day of Remembrance was the statement: "Although not every person represented during the Day of Remembrance self-identified as transgender [...] each was a victim of violence based on bias against transgender people.."  [cite]

Our Gospel reading today is from Jesus' trial before Pilate.  Pilate keeps asking Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" and Jesus never answers.  Jesus asks, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"  Jesus says, "My kingdom is not from this world."  Jesus says, "You say that I am a king."  But Jesus never says, "Yes I am" or "No I am not."

Jesus wasn't necessarily crucified for who he was but rather for who he was perceived to be.

Which I think is an interesting "in" into "Christ the King" Sunday.  Jesus is not who we expect him to be.

There are things we think of when we hear the phrase "Christ the King," but that isn't necessarily what Jesus has in mind as to who he is.

(And wow do I feel really uncomfortable with all these male pronouns for Jesus.  I mean, I know that the historical Jesus was incarnate in a male body -- though one of these days my best friend's gonna write a lesbian christology -- in epic prose poem format -- and it's gonna be awesome -- but still.  I really hope someone somewhere is preaching today on a Jesus who is Sophia Wisdom as a drag king.)

And honestly, there's almost nothing about "kingship" in the actual lectionary.  Our Psalm today includes God swearing to David:
One of the children of your body
    I will set on your throne.
If your children keep my covenant
    and my decrees that I shall teach them,
their children also, for evermore,
    shall sit on your throne.
-Psalm 132 11b-12
Well, David's children didn't sit continue on his literal throne forever, so we're already operating at some sort of metaphorical level -- some level of "When we say Jesus is 'King,' we don't mean it in the way you would normally understand that word."

It feels weird to me that Christ the King Sunday comes right before Advent, and then I remembered that this is the last Sunday of Year B.  It makes sense to end the church year commemorating the fullness of the central figure of our faith.  Though it makes for a bit of whiplash that we then move in to reenacting the expectant hope for the newborn Messiah (with a side of eschatology -- awaiting the Second Coming as well).

But the fullness of the central figure of our faith is not a reification of the structures of power and hierarchy we see operating in our world.  To proclaim that Christ is King is to proclaim that Caesar is not -- to proclaim that all which has power over us now will not ultimately conquer us.

One of the things that struck me in the daily lectionary readings was from Zechariah -- Chapter 12, verse 10; and Chapter 13, verse 1:
"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a Spirit of grace and supplication.  They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for me as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for me as one grieves for a firstborn child.  [...]  On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity."
This struck me particularly being so close to the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

One of these days, the perpetrators of violence will recognize what they have done and will mourn their actions.  We suffer, but that suffering will end.  This is the theme of a lot of the daily lectionary readings -- often phrased in ways that are uncomfortable for us, with its language of one's enemies being crushed and etc., but an overarching message which I think is important for us to hear.

In 2 Samuel, God says to David: "One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land."  This is the kind of ruler we are supposed to see in Christ -- one who is like the light of morning.  Light in the darkness.

In the daily lectionary, we have 2 Kings about Hilkiah finding the book of the Law, and it's mostly a story I'm not all that interested in, but I like that we have a story about finding the Word of God.  Admittedly, in this story it's very Law-centered, and the punchline is about routing all the idolatrous priests, but I still like this story about finding the Word.  As our friends in the UCC say, "God is still speaking."

There is also stuff about the dwelling place of God.  In the Psalm today, I love that David swears, "I will not sleep until I have found a dwelling place for my God."  It is important for God to dwell among us.  And it is important for us to make space for that.  RJ of "when love comes to town" blog says, "There are two models of transformation in Advent: John the Baptist and the young Mary," and invites us this Advent to learn from the Marian model, to bear Christ for the world.

We are ending the Christian year and looking ahead to the next year -- Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time -- periods of preparation and periods of action, periods of mourning and periods of joy, periods of confusion and periods of clarity.  This is what it is to be alive.  This is what it is to be a Christian.

As the Christian year draws to a close and we prepare to begin anew, I invite us to reflect on what it means to claim Jesus Christ as the central figure of our faith -- what it means to make a dwelling place for this figure of light and healing.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

[sermon #6: Pentecost 24B] Approaching Advent ("This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.")

[Yes, I know this is basically two sermonettes.]

Pentecost 24 (Year B) - November 15, 2009
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8
Approaching Advent ("This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.")

We're making our way toward Advent.

In today's lectionary passages there's lots of strength and power-over (particularly in Hannah's hymn to God -- e.g.,  "The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed." 1 Samuel 2:10 -- but also some in the Letter to the Hebrews as well) but I'm more interested in light in the darkness.

Marl talks a lot about signs of the apocalypse, of the End Times, but at the end, Jesus says, "This is but the beginning of the birthpangs" (Mark 13:8b).  I love birthing imagery around God and Creation.

The sun hasn't yet officially risen at the time I get up in the morning, and it has most definitely set when I leave work.  But we know that the lighter days are coming.  We have not yet reached the darkest days (the days which have the fewest hours of sunlight), but although we know darker days are coming, we know lighter days are coming after those.

Last Sunday we concluded the semi-continuous reading in the Book of Ruth with the birth of Obed, restorer of life and nourisher of Naomi's old age, ancestor of Jesse and of David.  In the daily lectionary readings this week, we read about Rebekah being found as a wife for Isaac, and about Samuel -- about the circumstances leading up to his birth to Hannah and about his Call from God.

Subtle, right?  In the line of Jesse and David is born a child who will be a restorer of life, and Abraham finds a partner for the child of his old age, and to another woman is born a child who is dedicated to God and who hears God's call "in those days [when] the word of God was rare [and] there were not many visions."

Our theme over and over is the birth of children who are a light in the darkness -- new life in periods of emptiness and barrenness.

This is the Good News.

Not the magic of children per se, but the fact that God is over and over again bringing life out of death, light out of the darkness.

Even in the midst of all our darkness and conflict, God's Spirit is moving.

Tiffany talked about how Hannah bypassed the temple authorities to confront God directly, but what strikes me is how this is echoed in Pentecost.
Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine."  But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before God."
-1 Samuel 1:13-15
And from Acts:
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
"In the last days it will be," God declares, "that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of God's great and glorious day.  Then everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved." [Joel 2:28-32]
-Acts 2:12-20
The INTOXICATING power of connection with God.  And I hasten to caveat this because I know that not everyone has positive experiences with intoxication, and I want to keep this a safe space for all who have suffered the effects of substance abuse.  And personally, alcohol mostly makes me tired.  But I love this idea of being so filled with the Spirit of God that observers think, "You cannot be acting under your own power."  Because when we are our best selves we aren't -- we are tapping into that power and energy in which we all live and move and have our being, of the Ground of All Being, of that which sustains all of us, that same breath of life which breathed life into the first humans when they were but molded earth.

Through the prophet Joel, God tells us: "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit."  No one is too lowly to be filled with the power of God.

We are invited, in these November days which here in Massachusetts are so often cold and dark, to be filled with the warming, life-giving, spirit of God.


Let us return to the Gospel.

Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple -- leaving the dwelling place of God -- and one of the disciples says, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

Look at the towering, strong, enduring, ROCK SOLID, systems built by humans.

Jesus replies, "Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

Since the time of Genesis, humans have been trying to reach the heavens with their own power, with their own earthen buildings, to cross over into God's realm so that we can say, "This is my land now -- I know God, I control God, I am like unto God."

Just as that Tower was knocked to the ground, so too these buildings, so too these systems.  No human system endures forever.  God always breaks through, upsets the established order -- Isaiah tells us that, "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain" (Isaiah 40:4).

Jesus' disciples ask, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

When will God's Kin-dom break through?  How long must we wait, O God, how long?

And Jesus doesn't really answer them.

Jesus warns them not to be led astray by those who will come in Christ's name, and tells them not to be alarmed by wars and natural disasters, but that's it.  Our Gospel reading today (which admittedly is not the end of this particular speech by Jesus -- though I can assure you that we don't get much additional clarity in the rest of the chapter) ends with Jesus saying, "This is but the beginning of the birthpangs."

There is going to be a beautiful new Creation on the other side, but in order to get there, you need to LABOR.

And labor is hard.  Sure, sometimes it's easy.  But sometimes it's hard.  It feels like it lasts forever, and it's bloody and sweaty and filled with screaming and groaning, and sometimes it even kills us.  But usually it doesn't.

And through it all we have the comfort of the constant presence of our God.

And so I invite us to be inspired -- to be filled with the power and the presence of God, to help birth the Kindom of God on Earth.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

[unpreached sermon #5] Salvation Through Relationship (Pentecost 23B)

Salvation Through Relationship

Pentecost 23 (Year B) - November 8, 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

In beginning to prepare for this sermon, I was reading The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, which summarizes Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 as "Ruth wins the favor of Boaz."  I was really not excited about that, but it's not actually an accurate representation at all.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working.  See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor.  Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do."
    Ruth said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.  When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.
    Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be God, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may this child's name be renowned in Israel!  This child shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him."
    Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
    The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi."  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
These Sunday readings are also excerpts from Tuesday and Friday's daily lectionary.  As my best friend commented: Clearly they were the important parts of the story :)

I could do a whole annotated Book of Ruth highlighting the (potential) queerness, and that IS my preferred reading of the text, but I don't actually need to do that here.  This story isn't about Ruth and Boaz perpetuating heteronormativity; it's about Ruth becoming more fully integrated into the family; it's about restoration and sustenance for Naomi, who might otherwise have been left alone.  The Old Testament is full of exhortations to care for the widow and the orphan, because they are the most vulnerable.  Earlier in the Book of Ruth we have seen Boaz indeed be kind to Ruth, but I love that it is Naomi who makes this happen -- Naomi who has rejected her name and told those who knew her in earlier times to call her "Mara," which means bitter.  She says that she is bitter, laments that God has brought her back empty -- and yet she still seeks to provide for this foreigner who has returned with her, and tells her exactly how to go about it.

Last week we read about Ruth choosing to go with her mother-in-law rather than returning to her own people.  Here, she becomes more fully integrated into Naomi's people by partnering with Boaz.  I could use this as a segue into talking about modern life, about how regardless of the pledges you and someone else have made to each other with your hearts and souls, in order to access full legal protections, society requires something more official, like marriage -- and I hope that someone did preach that sermon, this Sunday after Election Day 2009, after the referendum on Maine's same-sex marriage law -- but that's not the sermon I'm interested in preaching right now.

She will become the ancestor of David, the greatest of all the Israelite kings -- and we Christians can't hear about Jesse and David without thinking of that other Davidic king: Jesus the Christ.  If this were a different church, I would interrupt my sermon to play part of the Hallelujah Chorus -- king of kings, and lord of lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.  I am really really excited about Advent.

I know, I know, we don't like kings and lords -- ours is not a hierarchical God with power-over, but rather a God of an egalitarian Kin-dom.  But I can't help but be thrilled not only by the music of the Hallelujah Chorus but by its idea -- of the Creator of the world once again reigning over it, of the world being as it should be.  When I think about prayers of confession, I think about turning back to God, of the Jewish concept of teshuvah.  I think about walking with God, of God's will and our will being aligned.  And so the idea of the Reign of God doesn't necessarily conjure up for me images of some enthroned guy in the sky waving a scepter.

We're still in Hebrews for the Epistle reading.  It's getting to the point where I'm not sure which I dislike more -- that I keep having to deal with what reads to me like substitutionary blood atonement or that each week's lectionary passage seems to say the same thing.

I read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity this week, and Borg argues that in the first century CE, the statement "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" had quite a different meaning than the one that is common today.
According to temple theology, certain kinds of sin and impurities could be dealt with only through sacrifice in the temple.  Temple theology thus claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins; and because the forgiveness of sins was a prerequisite for entry into the presence of God, temple theology also claimed an institutional monopoly on access to God.
    In this setting, to affirm "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" was to deny the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God.  It was an antitemple statement.  Using the metaphor of sacrifice, it subverted the sacrificial system.  It meant: God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God; you have access to God apart from the temple and its system of sacrifice.  It is a metaphor of radical grace, of amazing grace.  (p. 94-95)
God in Jesus has [...] taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.  I really like that.  God is always with us ("close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest star" as a UCC prayer puts it -- which reminds me of the Quranic statement that Allah is closer to a person than that person's jugular) and it is we who build up walls and stumbling blocks, it is we who think that anything -- death or life, angels or principalities or powers, things present or things to come, height or depth, or any other created thing -- can separate us from the love of God.

Critiques and rejections of the exclusive temple system also evoke this week's Gospel passage -- where Jesus warns against the scribes who gloat on their appearances and then notes the widow who gave her last two coins to the treasury.

I'm not actually sure what to do with this passage, as I'm not really a fan of giving up absolutely everything you have materially -- and giving it to an institution, to boot -- so I'm wary of the apparent exhortation to give everything we have to live on.  I mean, I've talked before about "credo" meaning "to give one's heart to," and I am totally on board with the exhortation to love God with our entire selves, with all that we have.  But give all my money to the church?  I love my church, but I am also attached to making my rent payment, for example.

Last week we heard (from a scribe no less -- they're not all bad): To love God and to love neighbor, "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

So we are called not necessarily to material sacrifice, but to love -- knowing, of course, that the former often comes with the latter.

In this week's daily lectionary, Paul says, "Since we have now been justified by Christ's blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through Christ!  For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God's Child, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through Christ's life!" (Romans 5:9-10)

Leaving aside the implicit blood atonement theology, I love this idea that even when we were God's "enemies," God so wanted to reconcile with us that God sacrificed SO MUCH.  This is not a God who is going to say, "You didn't hold the proper tenets, too bad for you."  This is a God who, as I say during the Call to Confession every Wednesday, is always reaching out to us.

Our Psalm today begins: "Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless God guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for while they sleep God provides for those God loves."

One thing I hear a lot at the church I grew up in is: "God's work, done in God's way, never lacks God's supply."  Google attributes this quotation to J. Hudson Taylor.

This always makes me uncomfortable because it has the same ideas as Prosperity Gospel -- that your material success (prosperity) is directly proportional to how much God approves of you.

A number of this week's daily lectionary passages are from Paul's Letter to the Romans, exhorting us: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) and "Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." (Romans 13:10).

A book I was reading recently points out that the famous passage on Love from Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13) comes after a list of the gifts of the Spirit.  You might get all this awesome stuff which we would parse as Fruits of the Spirit -- prophecy, healing, etc. -- but if you don't have love, it's not worth anything.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV)
Love is what is most important.

I like to think that is what the Psalmist is talking about about God building the house and guarding the city.  God is Love.  And we can build our insular communities and guard our wealth of privilege, but if we are not working in alignment with God, if Love is not the spirit that moves through our hearts and hands and mouths as we do this work, our work will ultimately crumble.

I'm cheating again, writing the sermon AFTER the Sunday in question.

I've been frustrated recently with sermons that water down the radical, challenging message of the Gospel to make it palatable for middle-class Americans.  But maybe I'm being too harsh.

I mean, I can talk a good game about radical servanthood or whatever, but I'm still a selfish bitch.  How helpful really is it for me to exhort people to do things I'm definitely not doing myself?

The day after the Sunday this sermon is for, I ended up in a fight with one of the people I love most in the world.  One of the things that struck me in processing it was my feeling that THIS of all things is something I want to do right by and yet I can't manage it.  And giving money to the New Sudan Education Initiative or whatever seems so beside the point when I continue to hurt people I love.

We live our lives in the day-to-day.

And we live in a global community, so I'm not suggesting that we turn our back on those concerns, but I wonder if in all the focus on faceless charitable giving we lose our attention to the ways in which we can better live out Love in our daily lives, with those close to us.  Ruth was a foreigner working Boaz's fields, but her mother-in-law was kin to him, and so she was also family, even before their marriage.  And maybe he would have married her even if she had been his neighbor's Moabite daughter-in-law, and I absolutely think that we are called to be radically hospitable to the stranger, but maybe this week we can think a little bit more about how to be hospitable to those we are already in relationship with -- to be more charitable, more gracious, to cultivate a generosity of spirit ... to be kinder and gentler to those around us, to pay attention to where they're coming from rather than making snap judgments and reacting thoughtlessly.

When we sang "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant?" in morning church on Pentecost 21, verse 3 literally made me cry.
I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.
This is what we are called to do -- to embody the light and life of Christ in the world, for strangers and for those we love (and for those who are neither strangers nor loved ones as well, of course).

Go now, to love and serve God.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

their eyes are all asking: "are you in or are you out?"

In a (locked) post on a community today, someone talked about considering joining her faith community in a more formal capacity and spoke of her resistance to joining things, to putting her name on membership lists, and solicited thoughts on formal and informal membership.

Having put together my reply, I thought it might be of interest to regular readers of this blog as well.
my autobiography is probably not a helpful comment (but here it is)

I grew up with Honesty and Intentionality and Consistency being hugely valued, so I often have a really difficult time labeling myself as a member of a group. (See also the fact that I tend to feel sympathy/connection to a variety of, if not mutually exclusive then at least not wholly overlapping groups, so I feel not only more at home on the borderlands but also feel that is a truer statement of my identity.)

I grew up in a nondenominational Protestant church, and at some point during my teen years the pastor asked me if I wanted to get confirmed. I said no, because I didn't know what I believed, nor did I know what I was supposed to believe in order to become a member of this church. (My mother brought me and my brother to church every Sunday of our childhood, and I continued to attend until I left town for college -- but the pastor's sermons put me to sleep, so I usually helped with childcare rather than staying through the service; I never felt like I wasn't a part of that church family, though.)

The church I attended almost every Sunday my sophomore through senior years of college (two hours away from the town I grew up in) I was never invited to officially join as a member, and I would have said no if asked.

The year after college I lived with my parents and church-hopped some (though I spent most of my Sundays at the Congregational church), knowing I would be leaving town soon, so I saw it as more denomination-shopping than congregation-shopping.

Some months after I moved out of my parents' house (and moved a half hour closer in to Boston) I started church-hopping again and began accumulating church communities. Two and a half years later, it's almost a stubborn point of pride that I attend regularly (read: weekly) at a number of different churches (two Sunday worship services, one Wednesday night worship service, one Sunday discussion group) but am not officially a member of any church.

I've been referring to Cambridge Welcoming Ministries as my "primary" or home" church for probably close to a year now and Tiffany (the pastor) sometimes invites me to officially join the church (this year I'm on Finance Committee, so I'm not uninvolved), but that means claiming not only CWM but also the United Methodist Church. In looking at lay speaker certification recently I actually felt a willingness to officially join the church/Church -- though I'm still not ready to do it (yet).

In writing this up, it also occurs to me that because I'm involved in so many church communities, to claim one "official" membership feels problematically exclusive -- even though in some ways it shouldn't since I'm very clear that CWM is the church I feel most at home in, the church that most teaches me how to be church, the church that best embodies how I think church should be, the church that most nurtures my gifts and graces and challenges me (in a growing way rather than a frustrating way -- it does the latter, too, but less so than some of my other church communities), the church I prioritize and privilege over all others.
In a true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives! -- Parker J Palmer, 1977, Quaker Faith & Practice, 10.19
The Parker Palmer quote [from the OP] definitely resonates with me as often my resistance to claiming a group identity label is very much connected to my resistance to being officially linked with certain other members of that group (political affiliation, church denomination, etc.).

[unpreached sermon #4] All Saints Day 2009 (Our God is a God of Life)

[Yes, I wrote this as if I were preaching it on November 1, despite not finishing it until the next week.]

All Saints Day 2009 (Our God is a God of Life)

Pentecost 22 (Year B) - November 1, 2009

Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Our Old Testament reading is from the Book of Ruth.  Is *the* passage from the Book of Ruth.  Bringing heathens to the one true God through the power of queerness.  On this Sunday when Cambridge Welcoming Ministries celebrates and honors contemporary saints who have worked for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons at all levels of the United Methodist Church.

And then we get to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which makes explicit that blood atonement theology that so many of us find so problematic and even hurtful.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), she entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with her own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered herself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

For this reason she is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
The more time I spend at Cambridge Welcoming, the more uncomfortable I become with the body and blood language in Communion.  My mother was one of the people who pushed back on me about this.  She said:
I still think that the fact that Jesus was literally broken for us is core to the Christian faith. [...] And I thought that your birth required that I be cut open. It strikes me that the greatest treasures require sacrifice of some kind. Some are harsher than others.

It reminded me of the poem I wrote when George was born. Somehow it is important to me to remember that Jesus suffered for us. His pain was real because he was really human. And if we don't acknowledge his brokenness, somehow we are disrespecting his sacrifice.
My brother George and I were both born through caesarian section (yay modern medicine -- my mom would have died twice over otherwise).  The poem she refers to is about the experience of receiving Communion in the hospital after having given birth to him.  In it she says:
In my hand I hold the bread;
Cradling, blessing, my baby's head.
Rememb'ring when I was torn
That this new life might be born.


As I drink His holy wine,
My baby partakes of mine.
He takes his life from my breast,
His tender self in quiet rest.

Reenacted holy communion
With every birth, at each nursing breast.
Mother and child in holy union.
What strikes me in this is the LIFE imagery.  It's not about glorifying the pain and suffering that were a part of the journey to this moment; instead it's celebrating the life that has come out of this.

Hear again the Gospel:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scribe asked Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
    Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."
    Then the scribe said to Jesus, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'God is one, and besides God there is no other;' and 'to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
    When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, Jesus said to the scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.
I admit, the first time I read this lectionary passage this week, I only kind of skimmed it -- having heard this basic story so many times before. But when I went back to edit the gendered language, I noticed something I hadn't caught the first time: "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  This -- to love God with all that one has and to love one's neighbor as oneself.

This reminds me of Jesus saying elsewhere in the Gospels (Matthew 9:9-13), "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  He's quoting the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:4-6, NIV):
"What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
    Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth;
    my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
What is most striking to me in reading that Hosea passage is, "Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears."  That's a harsh critique -- that our devotion evaporates under the slightest heat.  The verse that follows says, "Like the first human (or like humanity) they have broken the covenant — they were unfaithful to me there."  We don't offer burnt offerings these days, but there are many other ways in which we make as if to give to God without offering our hearts.  How many times have we failed to live into the covenant with God?

We call ourselves Christians -- at least most of us gathered here do -- and yet we are so very much "of the world."  We go on "diets," not because we want to honor the body we have which is created in God's image by feeding it food full of justice and nutrients and love, but because we believe the voices of the world that there is some magic number at which we are acceptable.  We mutter curses at those traveling the road with us rather than joining our hearts with theirs and praying for peace, patience, and safety.  We shake our heads at those we pass on the street who are begging for spare change rather than inviting them to sit with us in a coffee shop, to buy them something to warm their hands and fill their bellies.  Over and over we turn away from that Emmaus encounter, when the risen Christ was revealed to the mourning disciples in the breaking of bread -- the breaking of bread with an apparent STRANGER they encountered on the road.  Tiffany exhorts us to "look around," to see that "Christ is present" in the gathered congregation.  Far more challenging is a practice Anne Lamott writes about in one of her books -- to see each person she encounters when she is out walking her dog as if that person were Christ.  Because that person is Christ.  We can all recite Matthew 25 -- "whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me"... feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned.  And we are ALL "the least of these."  Everyone is hungry for something, sick from something, imprisoned by something.  And we are called to be God's hands and feet and voices and shoulders in the world -- to be the BODY of Christ in the world, ministering to this embodied world.

We are, to quote from Ann B. Day's liturgy in Shaping Sanctuary (p. 97, based on I Corinthians 12:14-31), "The hand clapping, toe tapping, heart pumping, mouth tasting, arms embracing, justice seeking, hymn singing, love making, bread breaking, risk taking, Body of Christ."

To return to the passage from Ruth... Ruth gives up EVERYTHING.  "Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried."

That is some radical fidelity.

I'm less interested in wrestling with Paul and making peace with atonement theology than I am in challenging us to live in to this Call -- this Call to walk with God, to make God's ways our ways, to love God and our neighbor and ourselves all with our whole being.  Yes, I believe that just as we are called to love God with heart, mind, strength, and soul, so too are we called to love our neighbors -- for we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and how can we love ourselves except with all of our selves -- our heart, our mind, our strength, and our soul.

So why should we want to walk with this God?  This God who calls us to give up the walks, the lodgings, the people, and the gods of our former lives?  This God who births us into the world but exhorts us to not be "of" this world?

In the daily lectionary readings leading up to this Sunday, Tuesday's readings are Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Acts 9:32-35.  From Ezekiel:
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Sovereign Lord God.  Turn, then, and live.  (Ezekiel 18:31-32, NRSV)
And from Acts:
As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda.  There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years.  "Aeneas," Peter said, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat."  Immediately Aeneas got up.  All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas and turned to the Lord.  (Acts 9:32-35, NIV)
Our God is a God of life.

God calls us to cast off that which keeps us from relationship with God and to repent, to turn back to God.  God lifts us out of our paralysis, calls us out of our beds, invites us to be a living sacrament pointing to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all that is.

Every week at Wednesday night service I say, "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life abundant."  I might also say, recalling my best friend's threefold reflections on the Bread of Life lectionary arc: "This is the Bread of Life, that you might have life, and have it abundantly, and have life everlasting."

Our God is a God of life.

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the high priest Christ who entered into the Holy Place with her own blood.  But Ruth needed no blood to join with Naomi, she merely pledged her life to hers.  We have had enough of death when this story opens.  Naomi's husband Elimelech "died" we are told, and her two sons -- Mahlon and Kilion, the husbands of Orpah and Ruth -- "were killed."  Famine drove Naomi and her family from Judah to Moab, and famine (in some sense no less literal a famine, as she has no male kindred to provide for her in Moab) drives her back to Judah.  "So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning."  [Ruth 1:22, NIV, from Thursday's daily lectionary]  The famine in Judah is over, and Naomi is returning to her people, just as the harvest is beginning.

Our God is a God of life.  Of abundance and renewal, of welcome and family.

Hear again the Psalm:
Praise the Lord our God! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise you as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. God, you set the prisoners free;
you open the eyes of the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down; you love the righteous.
You watch over the strangers; you uphold the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked you bring to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Alleluia!
I struggled with the lectionary texts this week, and also with how to preach a sermon on All Saints Day, particularly in light of the sudden losses suffered by some of my friends.

I finished reading Emil Fackenheim's What Is Judaism? this Saturday.  In a section titled "The World to Come and the Holocaust," Fackenheim writes, "Only if we share in the anguish of the victims dare we affirm their resurrection.  Only then dare we affirm the resurrection of anyone.  For if the world to come does not exist for them, it does not exist at all." (p. 274)

And yet we are a resurrection people.  A people who affirm that Weeping may come in the night, but joy will come with the dawn.

In our brokenness, our barrenness, and even in our bitterness, we are over and over again welcomed back to Bethlehem, just as the harvest is beginning.  We are called to work the fields and welcome the stranger, called to embrace long-lost family members and those they bring with them.

On this All Saints Day, I invite us all to help share in the long birthing process toward new life and renewal.

"folding sheets like folding hands / to pray as only laundry can"

I have mixed feelings about the whole ExpediaFail 'cause I mean, the agent tells you you don't need a visa and you're skeptical and the agent assures you and you don't do a quick Google search to double-check? That said, I can't help but be impressed by the power of the Internet.

Thanks to when love comes to town, I am listening to Carrie Newcomer's "Holy as a Day is Spent" over and over (from her album The Gathering of Spirits).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Apparently it's Advent already in my head?

[First Sunday of Advent is actually November 29.]

At Harvard T last night, a busker was playing "God of Grace and God of Glory" ("cure thy children's warring madness...").

Later, I also had "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in my head ("Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die.").

This morning, I had "O Come, All Ye Faithful" ("Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning...") and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" ("Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.") in my head.

Is it bad that most all these songs blur together when I'm singing them in my head? (Not so much "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but...)


Yesterday I read a Magpie Girl post on The Imposter Syndrome, and one thing that struck me from the "Treatment Plan" was:
Trust the fear. I know this seems contradictory, but here’s what I mean: The more persistent that nagging voice is that’s calling you a con-artist, the more likely it is that you are actually doing exactly what you are meant to be doing. Know that the voice will get louder before it dies down, especially if you start ignoring it, but it will, in time, begin to give up the fight and let you do your work in this world fully and without doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Marianne Williamson said it most famously: “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…Your playing small does not serve the world.”
(1) "The more persistent that nagging voice is that’s calling you a con-artist, the more likely it is that you are actually doing exactly what you are meant to be doing."

I push back against this to some extent -- in so far as I think there are voices inside us that tell us not to do things which we should listen to. Sometimes we're not as [smart, talented, whatever] as people think we are AND THAT'S OKAY. We shouldn't push ourselves just because other people want us to.

But that's my own bias speaking, because really she's talking about something else, and yes, the voices that say "You're not good enough to do this thing you want to do" is usually a gremlin voice and should not be heeded.

(2) "We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…Your playing small does not serve the world."

Your playing small does not serve the world.


Last night I was thinking of a Velveteen Rabbi post I'd read ("The View from Week 35"):
Being pregnant has been endlessly fascinating. Already it's has shifted my spiritual practices. My weekday prayer practice has morphed: I'm less likely to get out of bed and daven a full shacharit these days, but much more likely to make brachot at random moments of the day. I say a blessing every morning when I give myself an injection of blood thinner, and when I feel my son moving inside me. I wonder what bracha I'll make over breastfeeding, and whether I'll be able to sustain gratitude when I'm changing his diaper at 2am.

I talk with him constantly when I'm alone in the car -- I tell him about my day, about how I'm feeling, about the world we're bringing him into. In that sense, being pregnant feels a bit like I'm praying all the time, because the other figure I talk to when I'm alone in the car is God. Lately I find that I shift back and forth between words intended for the baby and words intended for the Holy Blessed One without making much distinction between the two.

Being pregnant has shifted my relationship with the liturgy. I've known intellectually for years that we call God ha-rachaman, The Merciful, but I hadn't considered what it means that the root of that word for merciful is the root of rechem, womb. I get distracted while davening prayers I've known by heart for years: one mention of God's mercy and I'm liable to be caught in contemplation of what it means that God is the womb in which creation is nurtured. It takes conscious effort to set aside those meditations and move on with the service sometimes.
I'm less likely to get out of bed and daven a full shacharit these days, but much more likely to make brachot at random moments of the day.

I think this particularly jumped out at me because I'm trying to develop a practice of saying grace* before each meal (which then begs the question of what constitutes a "meal" -- do I count snacks? obviously the answer is to adopt a more Jewish approach and say a blessing before I put anything in my mouth ... yes, I went to a gutter place when I wrote that -- but I will be disappointed in contemporary Judaism if no one's composed a blessing for that).

I'm somewhat hesitant about automatic rote things -- because I worry that they lose meaning that way; that we say them without thinking. But I am a really big fan of acknowledging God's presence and grace in all things -- and having prepared language for that really helps.

* "Dear God, we thank you for this food, may it bless us and nourish us. We ask your blessing on all those responsible for bringing this food to our table -- from the first farmers through to [the grocery store employees, the restaurant staff, these people who are hosting me, etc.]. We also ask your particular blessing on those who have no food and those for whom food is a difficult issue. (We ask all this for love's sake. Amen.)"

Yes, apparently my default language for this kind of prayer is plural even though I'm the only one asking (and am always doing it silently at that).

And "for love's sake" is totally taken from Laura Ruth.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

unpreached sermon #3

Pentecost 21 (Year B) * October 25, 2009

Job 42:1-17
Psalm 34
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

I wasn't going to write a sermon this week. I didn't like the lectionary, and the daily lectionary wasn't helping, and I don't have the grounding in church history to want to preach Reformation Sunday, and I'd already written a vision of the church earlier in the week.

But then, before Wednesday night church service, I heard Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" -- which I've heard enough times to recognize at about the second note -- and as I listened, I was particularly struck by the line, "It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is an utterance of rejoicing, even when we don't appear to have any reason to, even when we ourselves don't want to. There is something in us, deeper than all that pain, deep in our bones, in our souls, in whatever it is that makes us "us," or maybe even deeper than that, the Ground of Our Being as Tillich would say, that KNOWS this love, even when our minds cannot fathom it and our hearts cannot feel it.

I've been reading Emil Fackenheim for class this week. He's writing in 1987, about What Is Judaism after the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel.

One of the first things that really struck me in his book is that our source text for the Christian hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" comes from the book of Lamentations. If I were crafting the worship service to go along with this sermon I'm not preaching, I would have us sing that hymn -- because it's been in my head recurrently since I read that passage in Fackenheim's book.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
The thing that has stuck with me even more, though, is his discussion of that part in the Exodus story where we read: "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." (Exodus 2:24) This begs the question: Did God forget? Fackenheim mentions various attempts to make meaning out of those four hundred years of suffering, assorted Midrash and such. And he talks about reading the story as a Jew today, in the wake of the Holocaust. He says that for such a Jew (and I apologize for Fackenheim's male-default language):
all talk about meaning in those grim four centuries is wiped from his lips. Instead, as he reads the Tanach itself, he has nothing but that bold, powerful, magnificently anthropomorphic phrase: "And God remembered." That and nothing else.
"And God remembered."

I think sometimes that the only message I have to preach is that God is with us always. That God loves us and abides with us -- from before our conception through beyond the grave.

Our lectionary passages this Sunday are on the greatness of God -- the powerful greatness of God; God is great and greatly to be praised. With a problematic implication about our inherent unworthiness. At least, that's how I summarized them when I reread them Wednesday night. But on rereading them, I realized there was a lot I was eliding.

Let's recap the lectionary:
  • Job says to God, "You're right. I know not whereof I speak. You win." And God turns to Job's "friends" and tells them: "You have not spoken of me truly -- as Job has. Make some sacrifices, and Job will pray for you, and then we'll be okay." And God restores Job's fortunes umpteenfold.
  • The Psalm praises God -- for providing for and comforting the righteous.
  • We continue to read in Hebrews about the blameless high priest.
  • And we read in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing a blind person, saying, "Your faith has made you well."
In trying to summarize the Job passage, one thing struck me. Hear again God's words to Eliphaz:
"My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept Job's prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done." (v. 7-8)
And my servant Job shall pray for you.

For I will accept Job's prayer.

God won't listen to their prayers, but God will listen to Job's.

Which presages the Hebrews passage, the high priest whom God will listen to.

But my first thought wasn't that connection -- it was the call to pray for others. Including (and perhaps especially) those who have wronged us. These three told Job that Job's suffering must be because Job had displeased God. Which is not only an untruth about Job's righteousness but also an untruth about how God operates.

If you were sick and in pain, and all your worldly possessions were gone, along with all your family, would you want to hear anyone suggest to you that you somehow "deserved" this? Of course not. And if someone with power was upset at how these people had spoken, would you intercede and say, "No, do not deal with them according to their folly"? Okay maybe you're a better person than I am, but I suspect I would feel like, "Yeah, see how it feels now! Does it comfort you any to know that you deserve this? Doesn't it just suck?"

But God calls us to intercede. God says, "Yes, justice would demand that I punish these people, but there are things that trump justice. And to help you internalize that message, I want you to pray for these people, to pray for grace and mercy rather than justice and punishment for them."

And God also calls those who have offended to offer sacrifice -- you don't just get to rest secure in the knowledge of God's grace. Just as the one who has been wronged is called to let go of desires for vengeance and extend a hand of reconciliation, so the one who has wronged another is called to sacrifice from one's own abundance -- both to be in solidarity with the one who has not and also to be reminded that all that we have is not ours but rather is entrusted to us by God.

"And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends."

Job is still suffering when he prays for these people. I first read the timeline differently -- that Job's fortunes had already been restored when this event happens, but no.

The last thing Job has said to God is, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (v. 5-6), so we don't know if Job even expects to be rewarded by God at all. I mean, he had called God out, and God gave him a long long speech reminding him how tiny and finite he is compared to God, so if I were in Job's position I don't think I would be particularly expecting much of a reward.

It's much easier for us to be gracious when we're doing well -- even if we have been wronged, we can feel much more kindly to those who have wronged us if other forces have helped to heal the effects of that wrong.

But this passage tells us that before we receive any comfort we are called to pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

I would argue that it in fact implies that in order for us to receive any comfort, we must pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

We talk a lot about the Kindom of God -- that Kindom we are called to help bring forth on Earth. That Kindom at which ALL are at table together. That Kindom in which ALL of Creation is redeemed and restored. Really truly accepting that "All means all" is HARD, though. But the work bears fruit.
And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and God gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to Job all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that God had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. (v. 10-11)
Now the relationships are restored. Job's relationship with his friends has been mended, and his family has come to his house and is sharing a meal with him and offering him sympathy and comfort (those things his friends had failed to provide) and also offering him tangible goods. For God does not magic things into our possession but rather works through human beings. We in the world are called to be God's helping hands, and marching feet, and shoulders to cry on.

Now let us turn to the Gospel.

Jesus' statement that "Your faith has made you well" can be really problematic because it implies that if you are NOT well you just don't have faith.

But I like to think that it suggests that we can find healing in our faith.

Hear again the Gospel:
They came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, child of Timaeus and a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. Hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Child of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Child of David, have mercy on me!"
     Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called Bartimaeus, saying, "Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.
     Then Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?"
     Bartimaeus said, "My teacher, let me see again."
     Jesus said, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately Bartimaeus regained sight and followed Jesus on the way.
I believe it was Bartimaeus's faith that enabled him to be so bold as to cry out to Jesus, even as those around him were telling him to sit down, shut up, and not make a scene.

If someone comes into our lives whom we know can offer us healing, we are called to, well, call out to that person -- rather than merely hoping that they will see us, will see our need, and will stop to help us.

And it is in these interpersonal connections that we can find healing.

I've encountered a number of times recently the reminder that "credo," from whence our "creed," means "to give one's heart to." We give our hearts to God. I've read Marcus Borg on this, and I still can't explain it. I can say, however, that it makes me think of a poem by e. e. cummings, which opens:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
I love this imagery of interconnectedness, of at-one-ness. We don't always like the word "atonement," with its implications of a requirement of blood and death and suffering in order to effect reconciliation, but the word itself sans all baggage is simply at-one-ment. God desires to be at one with us.

That Leonard Cohen line I quoted at the beginning? The full line is: "Love is not a vict'ry march. It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is not a victory march.

God is not about defeating people by force but rather is about reconciliation, is about joy and trust even in the midst of pain.

Go now, to love and serve God.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

this is not an epic prose poem

I want a radical, queer, church, which is rooted in the Bible (and tradition), and which is engaged -- with the text, with the tradition, with the world -- and which doesn't make assumptions.

I want a church that has a (radical, prophetic) vision of the Kindom of God and is working to bring it forth on Earth.

I want a church that beloves me and that challenges me.

I want a church that is radically welcoming.

I want a church that proclaims its affirmation of GLBT persons. I want a church that welcomes and affirms all sorts of marginalized people -- poly, kinky, furry, immigrants, homeless, addicts, those who have been in prison, those who don't speak English, those with illnesses and disabilities both visible and invisible, those who do not fit the gender binary, persons of color, fat people.

I want a church that doesn't make dismissive comments about people with differing beliefs.

I want an ASL interpreter on standby. I want the physical space to be accessible to persons with physical handicaps. I've grown into the idea of optional nametags. I want greeters at the door. I want newcomers to be greeted and welcomed -- and to feel safe sitting in the back if that's what they want.

In this church, people will feel free to sit in the back as long as they want. And at the same time, people will reach out to newcomers, will get to know them, will help them to feel at home. When people stop attending, members will reach out to them.

No one will be pressured to participate in anything, but people's gifts and graces will be recognized and nurtured, and people will be invited and encouraged to share those gifts and graces in the service of the church.

It will be clear, both printed in the bulletin (or projected onto a screen) and articulated by the worship leader, what we are doing next at each point in the service.

I want people to be named when they receive Communion. I want an option to cross your hands over your chest and receive a blessing instead of partaking of the Elements. I want people to wholly abstain from the ritual if they so desire and to not feel uncomfortable doing so. I want wine and grape juice. I want vegans and persons with gluten intolerance to be able to partake of the Bread of Life.

I want our Communion liturgy to reflect and articulate (and embody) what we believe.

I want the Passing of the Peace to be a time when we encounter each other face to face, when we share peace with each other with personal contact (including, as people are comfortable, physical touch -- a hug, a handshake, a high-five) because we are Christ's body in the world.

If there is a Receiving Line after service, it will not be rushed through.

During Prayers of the People, congregants will lift up aloud and in the silence of their hearts all the joys and concerns they bring with them. People will make themselves vulnerable in their openness, knowing that this is a Safe Space. Some people will cry, and some people will comfort them with touch or a word or simply their strong presence in the seat next to them.

When the Offering is received, people will be encouraged to give generously and joyfully -- and it will also be explicitly acknowledged that money is but one of the many gifts and graces we bring with us, and that all are equally welcome and valued regardless of the gifts we have to share. (I also like the explicit articulation that first-timers need not put anything in the basket as their presence is gift enough.)

I want hymnals so that those of us who can read music but aren't so good at just following a tune played on an instrument can join in comfortably.

We will not sing songs in foreign languages just because we want to be diverse. We will sing songs from the cultures and traditions of those in our congregation.

I want the Fellowship meal after church to contain more than just desserts. I want vegan and gluten-free options. I want the food to be purchased with awareness of environmental concerns. I do not want congregants to talk about how they are trying to lose weight.

In my dream church, no one will have to miss part of the worship service to help prepare the Fellowship meal or anything else.

I want Bible study/book study. I want the church's theology to suffuse the life of the church -- in word and deed -- and I also want opportunities to dig more deeply in a more formal setting.

I want congregants who bring their passions and share them with the church. I want a church that not only supports those congregants in their work but also works with them.

I want a church that takes the liturgical year seriously.

I want a church that is aware of the calendar outside of the church -- National Coming Out Day, local festivals, etc.

I want a church that follows the lectionary, except when it doesn't, and which takes seriously our inherited Scriptures.

I want a church that preaches Good News, that knows the Church is called to speak a word distinct from what one might hear in a secular group of similarly minded people -- is called to proclaim the message of Christ.

I want sermons that inspire me and challenge me -- that are rooted in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I want a pastor and a congregation I can argue with and who will listen to me and take me seriously -- who will push back when I am resisting something they know to be True and who will receive me with grace and love, who will tell me when they are hurting and cannot listen to me in that moment. I want a church that teaches and encourages me to speak with love and grace and generosity and also with passion and prophetic wisdom.

I want a church that takes seriously Jesus' call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit and care for the sick and imprisoned. (Food drives? Prison ministry? Visiting the shut-in?) I want a church that takes seriously the call to give up everything we have and Follow.

I want a church that trains and strengthens its members to be Allies -- Allies to GLBT persons, Allies to people of color, Allies to people with mental health issues and physical disabilities, Allies to all who are suffering.

I want a church that takes language seriously.

I want a church that address the Triune God with a variety of names, pronouns, and metaphors. I do not want a church that tries to pronounce the Tetragrammaton.

I want a church where we don't say things are "lame" or "crazy," where we don't say "you guys," where we don't assume people's preferred pronouns.

I want a church that is attentive to the world outside its doors -- to its local community and to the global community.

I want a church that knows the other houses of worship in its neighborhood and which works together with them.

If this church has a denominational background, I want it to draw on the strengths of that tradition -- not at the expense of denigrating other traditions. I want ritual and liturgy that is thoughtful and organic to the congregation -- that acknowledges the pain and joys of human life and the True Fact that God is with us always.

I want a church that starts on time. And where people are welcome to come in late, even to come in at the very end and join us for Fellowship meal, and where people feel safe to leave early. Where children and pets and strangers and "enemies" are ALL welcome. No matter their dress, their history with church, their politics, their ease with social interaction, their education, their income, or anything else which sometimes makes people feel Other.