Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My facebook status is "cares rather more than she used to about the workings of the prison system."

I love my best friend

She forwarded me the below with the note "I thought this might be relevant to your interests."

Though the public hearing is on a teaching day, and I already wanna take the following day (also a teaching day) off to go to First Church Somerville's prayer retreat.

Subject: Families and friends of prisoners are losing rights in Massachusetts

Hey Friends,
I know there's a lot going on in the world right now but I'm really hoping you can take action on another piece. Massachusetts Department of Corrections is expanding its rules for prisoner visitors, thus making it more difficult for prisoners to get the support they need as they prepare to reenter the community. The following are the primary points being proposed by the DOC:

1) you can only visit one inmate for entire department of correction (this not only breaks up community ties but severely hampers our ability to organize)
2) each inmate can only have 10 pre-approved visitors who all have to submit photo ID and full CORI background check
3) visitors can't talk to each other in the waiting room or anywhere else(!!!!)

Please sign the petition calling for an end to this outrage -

Please attend the public hearing on February 4 at the Executive Office of Public Safety Building at 1 Ashburton Place - Ashburton Cafe Function Room at 10:00am. You are welcome to gather at the Community Church of Boston from 8:30 - 9:30am for coffee and sign making prior to the hearing.

Please take this action! Even if you don't spend your time advocating for prisoners please also think about the families and friends of prisoners who are going to suffer from these new regulations.

With love and faith,


the thirteenth amendment did not abolish slavery, it just moved it to the prison industrial complex. support the moratorium on massachusetts prisons and jails.

a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up again

From: RevLauraRuth Jarrett
Sent: Wed, January 20, 2010 11:14:32 AM
Subject: [FirstChurch Mailing List] The election, the earthquake, and Rest and Bread

Dear Beloved,

We had a little political earthquake in Massachusetts. Some of us thought that Martha Coakley would be a shoo in. Some of us thought that Scott Brown would be the best person to represent Massachusetts in the national Congress. Some of us were distracted or were too busy and didn't vote - all of this and a thousand other thoughts, wishes, hopes, and dreams exist in our congregation this morning.

Our work as a congregation is to be community together, to hear each other, to learn from each other, to listen for God's direction and walk Jesus' way of peace, to align ourselves with the divine. Instead of thinking about who is right (or wrong) or what should have happened, instead, I gently and respectfully request we speak together of our spiritual, physical and emotional needs and how our needs informed how we voted. In this way, we may know about how to pray for each other, how to serve each other, how to negotiate complicated ideas and complex needs with simple love and without judgment. In this way, we grow more centered in our purpose, grow flexible in our ability to see God. I pray this might be our journey.

We have a listserv called: First Church Chat for such discussion. You can join it here:

The real earthquake is in Haiti, complete with aftershocks. We raised $2560 to give to the Holy Bible Baptist Church, our sister church in Davis Sq. Owen Robinson, Christy, Simon, Izzy Zuzelo, and I walked it down. We got a quick hug and heartfelt thanks. How amazing it was to be welcomed with our gift into that community!

The folks at HBBC will be putting together survival kits for kids. Myriam from HBBC said they could use some hands to put these kits together. You can see what they're doing and what they need at

Church World Service is doing the same. You can see what they're doing and what they need at

We can pray together about all these things, to reaffirm that we are the body of Christ regardless of whom we voted for, that we are all in spiritual need at Rest and Bread tonight at 6:30. Music for meditation begins at 6:15.

Church Council follows.

Peace, dear ones, and love from me,
Laura Ruth
I replied:
Thank you for the acknowledgment that not everyone in this congregation/listserv was necessarily anti- Scott Brown.

And for having a forum other than this main listserv for partisan conversation.

And for reminding us of what we as Church are called to.

Rest and Bread

The readings were Matthew 5:14-16 and part of an article from today's Boston Globe.

I was a little uncomfortable with Laura Ruth's Reflection because hi, I am just war girl, but I can't really argue with the fact that Jesus' message was about loving and taking care of people.

Afterward, we were invited to reflect aloud (and light a candle) on being a peacemaker, on being light in the world, on seeing light in others. Laura Ruth was the first to go, and she said that she thought that Scott Brown was a nobody, that she didn't have to think about him, but now she does; "I'm sorry." I know I'm not remembering the middle part exactly, but what really struck me was the "I'm sorry" that she said at the end, because what I heard in that was, "I'm sorry for discounting the humanity of a beloved child of God" -- because dismissing people as not worth thinking about is in some ways dismissing their humanity (though yes I know plenty of people just thought of course the Democrat would win and they were merely making a political calculus, not any sort of verdict on any person's inherent worth).

A friend today posted excerpts from G.K. Chesterton's "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family," in Heretics, including:
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty towards humanity, but one's duty toward one's neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting...We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy...But we have to love our neighbour because he is there-- a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.
Much on my mind is this recent slactivist post on "The Logic of Hell" -- which I just read today. And this one, which points out that:
When Jesus stood to read in the synagogue he looked over the whole of the scriptures and selected the one thing he wanted to say out of all that he might have read and he read this as his motto, his mission statement, the signature and standard of his ministry and its meaning:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

[sermon #10] Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Will you pray with me?

Creating, Sustaining, Redeeming God, I invite your Holy Spirit to move in this place, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts may bring us into your Light, O God.

The day after Thanksgiving, just a few days after I'd agreed to preach this Sunday, I was at a dinner party, and one Jewish woman asked, "Why did Jesus need to get baptized?  Wasn't he, like, The Man?"

"Therein lies a tale," said one of the other Christians in the room.

Which tale we are told in the Gospel of Matthew:
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  14But John tried to deter Jesus, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

15Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."  Then John consented.  (Matthew 3:13-15)
Okay, so it still doesn't really answer the question.

My NRSV says, "Righteousness, right conduct in accord with God's will as revealed in scripture."

So I still don't know why Jesus was supposed to be baptized.

John Howard Yoder says: Before Paul and the new humanity, even before Jesus, baptism also meant repentance and cleansing.  It meant "You can leave your past behind." (Body Politics, page 41)

This is a useful formulation for me -- the idea of baptism as marking a new start.

In their book The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan posit that it is not that some of the Gospels are missing some of the years of Jesus' early life but that "all the years are missing until the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus" (40).  They posit the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as overtures to the story of Jesus' adult life and ministry, as parables rather than historical accounts.  I'm not going to get into a discussion of the birth narratives here, I merely mention it to provide the appropriate context for that line that so strikes me -- "the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus."

The birth narratives have marked Jesus as special in various ways, but here Jesus is publicly marked out.

“You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know this baptismal liturgy from the many times Tiffany has told this story -- "You are a bright, brilliant, beloved Child of God.  And you are beautiful to behold."

Jesus is named and claimed by God, undeservedly.  This is a moment of grace -- not something we earn.

God says to Jesus, "with you I am well pleased," but there's no indication that Jesus has done anything particularly to merit this.  Luke tells the story of young Jesus in the Temple, but other than that Jesus hasn't done anything to earn this distinction.

Something I read recently commented on the fact that Jesus is marked as Chosen before the temptation in the wilderness.  While we might expect someone to not be publicly named as Chosen until after a period of testing, God makes a commitment here -- at the beginning of the story in some of the Gospels, certainly at the beginning of Jesus' adult life as recorded in the Gospels.

The Isaiah passage we read echoes this -- God says, "I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isaiah 43:1-2).  The hearer is named as redeemed, with no indication of merit or even a reason.

This reading opens Chapter 43 of Isaiah.  The preceding chapter, Chapter 42, closes with, "Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers?  Was it not God, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?  So God poured upon them the heat of God's anger and the fury of war; it set them on fire all around, but they did not understand; it burned them, but they did not take it to heart."

The people Israel have turned against God, and God has punished them, and they still haven't gotten the message.

"But now thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear."

We remember that exhortation "Do not fear" from the Christmas story, right?  "Do not be afraid.  For I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior."

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus.  This child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High."

"Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child and you will name the child John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at this birth."

When God speaks to you, it usually means your life is going to get turned upside down -- so opening with "Do not be afraid" makes a lot of sense (though Mary at least got a "Hello").

No one cautions Jesus not to be afraid.

I think because Jesus chose this.  Divine messengers and messages are usually reported as coming to people who aren't particularly seeking them, but Jesus is stepping into this baptism with full knowledge of the sort of path that lies ahead.

This is Jesus' coming out.

John has been proclaiming and enacting a baptism of repentance -- calling people to return to God, to begin a new chapter in their lives, preparing the way for the coming of One who will begin a new chapter in the life of the world.  So when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized, John says, "What do you have to repent of?  You are the Holy One, the Child of God.  You should be baptizing me, so that I may follow you."

But Jesus recognizes the necessity of this baptism.  We don't know what stories Mary and Joseph told their firstborn about the angels, the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Anna at Jesus' presentation at the Temple -- even what stories were told about Mary's visit to pregnant Elizabeth, or any of the other stories Jesus and John might have grown up hearing about themselves and each other.  But in whatever way, Jesus has spent three decades preparing for this moment.

In Acts we read that Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed for the people there that they might receive the Holy Spirit "for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus."  I've come to be a big proponent of believer's baptism (rather than infant baptism), but at the same time I'm not fond of the privileging of the moment of personal conversion (accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior), so I really like this idea that yes, these people had accepted the word of God, had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but their journey was not complete -- God was still working on them.

Whatever commitment we make before God and others, it is not the end of the journey.

John even tells those gathered at the Jordan: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming [...] who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Our baptism in water is an outward marker of our commitment to begin a new chapter in our lives, but it is our baptism with the Holy Spirit that sustains us throughout that journey.

After Jesus is baptized, "the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove."  I have this image of a six-foot-tall dove descending and enveloping Jesus is an embrace.

And indeed, we are beloved both spiritually and physically.

The Incarnation reminds us that we most fully encounter God in humanity, and the physical act of baptism reminds us that we are an embodied people.

So I invite you, as you move throughout this week, to remember your belovedness, to be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and to to live each moment as if you are a new creation in Christ -- because you are.


Friday, January 8, 2010

I love the Internet, but sometimes I wonder about people.

So that explains why I saw a bunch of facebook Statuses last night that were just a color.

With NO explanation. How is that supposed to raise awareness about ANYTHING?

How about a facebook Status that says, "I personally have known X number of women diagnosed with breast cancer. Click here [link] to donate to [breast cancer related charity]."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tikkun Olam

One of the professors I work for sent me a PDF document to print out for him and commented that I might be interested. One of its bullet points references “Arvut Hadadit" and “Tikkun Olam” and so of course I Googled them. One of the top-listed results for the second term was a 2007 article. Excerpt:
Rather than reject the term altogether as meaningless, I suggest a re-imagining of tikkun olam that combines the four understandings of the term that we have seen in traditional text: 1) the Aleynu’s concept of tikkun as the destruction of any impurities that impede the full manifestation of the divine presence; 2) the literalist midrashic understanding of tikkun olam as the establishment of a sustainable world; 3) the rabbinic willingness to invoke tikkun ha’olam as a justification for changing untenable laws; and 4) the Lurianic belief that individual actions can affect the fate of the world as a whole.
  • From the Aleynu conception, our understanding of tikkun olam will include an emphasis on the elimination of evil and the restoration of the world to a perfected divine state.
  • The midrashic emphasis on the physical maintenance of creation reminds us of the need to work to preserve the world at a time when human behavior is having a negative impact on global temperatures, hurricane systems, and other natural phenomena
  • The rabbinic understanding of tikkun ha’olam as the creation of a workable social and religious system leads to a definition of tikkun olam as a mandate to correct the systems that make our own society dysfunctional.
  • Finally, the Lurianic belief that individual actions can have a permanent effect on the cosmos offers hope that our efforts toward tikkun will succeed.
These four strands, though complementary in some ways, also remain in tension with one another in some other important ways. The Aleynu prayer has the potential to direct Jews toward an inward focus on connecting with God and on spreading divinity through less tangible means, such as prayer or basic kindness, rather than through attention to more concrete human needs. The midrashic focus on the physical maintenance of the world might lead to an emphasis only on issues that affect the physical world – such as global warming, deforestation, or the extinction of animal species—and a concurrent disregard for human problems, such as poverty and health concerns. The rabbinic attention to fixing loopholes that disrupt the legal and social system may limit the definition of tikkun olam to issues that are understood to interfere with the large-scale functioning of society to the exclusion of issues that primarily affect a certain segment of the population. The Lurianic emphasis on the restoration of divine wholeness easily leads to an otherworldly focus, and a minimization of one’s sense of obligation toward the here and now.

By combining the major themes of these four strands, we come to a definition of tikkun olam as the process of fixing large societal problems, while maintaining a belief that our actions can have a positive effect on the greater human and divine world. When I think about my own tikkun olam commitments, I ask myself whether the work I am doing makes our society, as a whole function in a more positive way; whether the work allows even the most vulnerable members of society to live fully realized lives; and whether the work contributes to establishing a world in which the divine presence is more readily apparent. If we each ask these questions of ourselves, we can help to ensure that our work is worthy of being deemed tikkun olam.
If we each ask these questions of ourselves, we can help to ensure that our work is worthy of being deemed tikkun olam.


One of the articles on the sidebar was "Why I Study Sabbateanism." In discussing Jacob Frank, the author writes: "If you see a boundary, cross it - that's the view, because it's what God did, mixing Godself with the impurity of the material world." I was a little thrown to hear a Jewish writer saying this, because hello Christian Incarnationalism, but of course the God of Abraham has been coming down and dwelling amidst God's people since Creation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

in which i continue to have a heart made of stone (or something)

In anticipation of my preaching next Sunday, Tiffany asked me, "please let me know which texts you want read (knowing you, I suspect all 4) and if you have any hymns or other pieces of liturgy (call to worship, prayers, etc) that you want included. The whole bulletin is open for you to write. Just let me know how much or how little you want to do."

My instinctual first choice was "I was there to hear your borning cry," except I looked up the words and really I only want the first verse. ("In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell" is BRILLIANT -- especially for Baptism of Jesus Sunday. The Temptation in the Wilderness immediately follows the Baptism.) The rest of the song is very meh (and wow have I become That Person -- I read "If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one," and thought, "That excludes polyamorous people").

Anyway, my heart is made of stone because apparently lots of people just sob through this hymn -- because it evokes for them their earthly parent/child relationship. Which is a totally sensible reading of the beginning of the hymn -- even though I think I consistently hear the speaker as the Divine Parent. And it is a moving hymn (even though I wish the poetry were better). But yeah.

I reread "She Comes Sailing on the Wind" (and actually didn't register the male pronouns for Jesus on the first read-through -- I mean, I understood the implied referent, but I didn't have a negative reaction to Jesus being gendered as male as I am more and more these days) and like it. Though I feel a little bit weird using it for Baptism of Jesus Sunday.

[critique] Celebrating the Coming Epiphany

On Sunday, Gusti posted a facebook note (a sermon, essentially) entitled "The Wisdom of the Star." Excerpt:
We have to pass through Herod to get to Jesus, I’m afraid. We have to look straight into the fear that grips our hearts.

But if I am wise—if you are wise—if any of us are wise—we know exactly where this Star of fear and doubt is heading, and we don’t want any part of it. Not in this new year. Not in this new decade.

The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth urged Christians to approach the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And I agree. The wisdom of our time sheds light on the biblical tradition, and the wisdom of the biblical tradition sheds light on our time.

But here’s the thing. The wise ones don’t stop with Herod or the Arizona Daily Star or the intimidation or the name-calling, not even in the name of the prophetic tradition that is so important to us at St. Mark’s.

The wise ones don’t stop with fear. They keep going. Because they are following the star of Christ, and they won’t stop until the star does. And this star rises on a baby who is not afraid to be born in a manger to an unwed mother far away from home. And this star rises on a baby who is not afraid to tell the truth in the temple as a teenager while his parents search for him frantically. And this star rises on a baby who is not afraid to denounce the devil in the desert as a disciple . . . or touch the most tragically ill as a teacher . . . or cry out in the agony of crucifixion as a Christ . . . or rise up through resurrection as a Redeemer.

Because this star that we follow is about light and hope, not darkness and despair, and this wisdom we cling to transcends violence and destruction and fear and intolerance . . . and we may not have any idea where the star will lead us in the end . . . but we must follow it at all costs if we have any hope for salvation.

The wise men brought what they had. They followed a star. And they never, ever followed Herod’s star again.

So we bring our treasure to this place of hope, as the wise men do, whatever treasure we have, even if we can’t imagine how God will use it. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. What can a baby do with these things, we might ask?

But God can take anything we have to offer and use it in ways we never imagined. There’s that first century college education fund to start that we didn’t know existed. Maybe Jesus can go to rabbinical school now. There’s that flight into Egypt that has to get paid for somehow. There’s an adult Jesus ministry that needs to get seed money from somewhere. Who knows? Maybe that gold, frankincense and myrrh really were good baby gifts. Maybe they have gone on giving, even up to today.

So bring your gifts to God on this Epiphany Sunday—and every Sunday—following that star of hope and light and wisdom and grace. Keep praying toward the light on this Epiphany Sunday—and every Sunday—keep looking all around . . . at the wise women and men from every part of the world, right here in this sanctuary, right here on this journey to Bethlehem together, bringing every treasure we possess . . . to share with a baby, who will share it with the world.

And God will use our gifts in ways we never imagined possible. In this new year. And every year. Amen.
I was really struck by that line that opens the excerpt. Because when I was debriefing morning church with my housemate and her guest on Sunday, I commented that I don't really understand why the magi stop at Jerusalem and ask Herod for directions if they have a star that they're following, so I was really struck by "We have to pass through Herod to get to Jesus, I’m afraid. We have to look straight into the fear that grips our hearts."

I was telling Ari last night about Tiffany's Epiphany Sunday sermon and about how Tiffany really grooves on being a prophet of woe -- by which we mean talking at length about how the world sucks -- and how despite my constant critique (and even cynicism) I am always asking, "But what is the Good News, Tiffany?"

I was reminded of how the first episode I saw of House (1.07 "Fidelity") I said it was too cynical for me ("Everybody lies") and I couldn't watch it.

Ari and I talked about how there's a difference between dwelling in how much the world is a broken mess versus critiquing individuals/institutions.

I said critiquing is what I do -- or, at least, pointing people to critiques other people have made (e.g., James Cameron's Avatar).

Ari said, "You're a vessel for critique."

I laughed and thought of Mary (bearer of the Christ Child) except of course this is more like being the bearer of John the Baptist and oh yeah.

I think that part of it is that critique is an active, creative, enterprise. I say that I'm much better at critique than I am at constructive suggestions for how to improve things, but even targeted critique gives you a place to start. Bemoaning the state of the world leaves you without any agency -- the Powers are corrupt, the world's a mess, it's all so overwhelming and beyond our control. But if you tell me that language I use is hurtful or that media I'm enjoying perpetuate harmful ideas or that I'm marginalizing people in what I claim is an inclusive community ... I can do something about that. Not only is it a learning process (and I think learning is inherently exciting) but it's something I can actively be a part of -- even if that just means pointing out to someone the flaws in a movie they're talking about.