Category Archives: church

The Hedges Are Burning

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

There are some stories that never seem to get old, and never seem to make much more sense either, no matter how many times we tell them. The story of Moses at the burning bush is one of those.

As the passage starts, Moses has led his father-in-law’s flock out to the very edge of the wilderness, to the mountain called Horeb or Sinai. I’m not sure if Moses was looking for God there or not; what we know about Moses so far is that he knows how to survive, born at a time when the Pharaoh had commanded all male Hebrew children to be killed. Through his mother’s protection and a good bit of luck, he manages to live and grow up, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.

And we know he has a sense of justice. He had fled Egypt after killing a man – an Egyptian – who was beating a Hebrew slave. So here he is now, in the wilderness outside Midian, where he met his wife’s family and settled down. Maybe he was looking for God, on this long route with his sheep, or maybe he’s looking for some connection to his people, or maybe he’s not quite sure what he’s looking for, but he is drawn for some reason to the mountain of God.

Whatever he was looking for, it probably wasn’t a bush on fire. In the wilderness like that, a fire could be deadly! It could spread out of control like a wildfire in California, catching on any little piece of brush, leaving a blackened path of desert behind. But this bush was blazing, and yet not consumed.

Moses stops in his tracks and walks toward this strange fire, and whether he was looking for God or not, he has stumbled onto holy ground, says God, who is the God of Moses’ people: “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” For this lost young man, cut off from his people and his traditions, God is a connection with home.

But God has not shown up just to comfort him; Moses has a job to do whether he wants it or not. God says, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” And Moses protests, Who am I to go and bring the people out? Why would you send me?

It doesn’t quite make sense, then or now, unless you can see the big picture of who God is and how God works in the world. And so Moses asks Who are you? Who should I say is sending me? And instead of a simple name that Moses might fit into his world, instead of the Egyptian gods who have one name like people, a noun with edges of beginning and end, God says I am who I am.

Two verbs and a preposition; verbs without tense exactly but just imperfect action, past/present/ future, or maybe all of the above. I am, God says. And what’s more, God says, I am Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, the family you lost and can find again. Finally Moses gets a name he can wrap his hands around and understand! And so, after a few more objections, he finally sets off on the task God has set for him.

It’s a momentous task, and one that will change the course of Israel’s history, and the way we understand God’s very being today.

I don’t know if Moses set out looking for God, but he definitely got more than he bargained for. It seems like pointing yourself toward divine fire might be a risky proposition in that way. God has a tendency not to respect the boundaries we set for ourselves. We might think we see the edges of where God’s fire is burning and where it isn’t, but God has other plans.

* * *

In our gospel text today, Peter thinks he finally has Jesus figured out! He said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”! And Jesus says yes! Blessed are you, Peter.

Great, so we’re set. That’s who Jesus is, end of story, and we’re all going to be saved now, right?

But then Jesus turns right around and starts saying he’s going to have to suffer and be killed, and Peter jumps back in to say no! No, Jesus, he says, that’s not how this Messiah thing works! You can’t be killed!

And where I might want to imagine Jesus just shaking his head with an exasperated sort of sigh, instead Jesus yells right back to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” as if he is being tempted again with worldly power or tempted by the idea of being a Messiah who doesn’t have to suffer. Peter wants Jesus to be something he’s not; Peter wants Jesus to fit into the picture he had in mind of the God he was looking for, but whether anyone likes it or not the job of Messiah is bigger and more complicated than either of them expected.

* * *

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We set out looking for one thing, we think we know the rules of the game, and we’re walking along a neat and ordered path with trimmed hedges just like we’re used to, and then all of a sudden one of those hedges bursts into flames and sets us down a twisting rocky path where we think God couldn’t possibly be leading us. The God we know doesn’t work that way.

Right?

It happens for people and it happens for churches, especially if we’ve grown comfortable on the path we’re used to. We get used to just living our lives, thinking we know what’s right and what’s wrong, knowing where God is and where God is not, set on what we do and what we don’t do, calling God “God” and knowing exactly what we mean by that and what we don’t mean.

And then something unexpected happens, whether it’s sudden and dramatic or gradual enough we don’t know things are changing until we look up to find we’re not where we thought we were; and the rules of the game have changed. Suddenly the things we relied on don’t seem to hold true anymore, and there’s a voice asking us to do something new and we don’t know if that’s God’s voice or not or maybe we just don’t recognize it.

* * *

We are unsettled. There’s a fire where there shouldn’t be fire, and we want someone to come and put it out for us. We want to make sense of our lives again and put neat corners back on our hedges. We want a name to pin that experience down, so we can write it off and move on.

But that fire doesn’t act like normal fire, with God’s voice booming out of it, and rather than giving a simple name that has a beginning and an end, like Jonas or Maria or David or Beth, a name with shape and form and expectations attached to it – instead God is a verb. I am who I am, or maybe it’s “I will be what I will be,” or even “I will be what I have been.” God won’t quite let us pin God down. “I am,” God says, and that’s what we need to know.

But there’s a lot there in that name, if we listen. For Moses, born to a slave and cut off from his people, God says, I am. For Peter, struggling to make sense of a Messiah who doesn’t look like he expects, God says, I am. For us, uncertain of where the world is going, God says, I am. Seeing our communities change around us and clinging on to what we have known, God says, I am, I have been, I will be.

As we set off on new paths and wonder if God is still present in these new ways, God’s name is in the mysterious fires: I am, I will be. I am what I am, God says, and that is eternal and both bigger than you can possibly understand and small enough to be here with you, right now, in the name and face by which your ancestors have known me.

I am God-sized and I am person-sized, I am burning and not consumed, I am Messiah and also crucified. I am who I am, God says, and that doesn’t change, but don’t you dare think you’ve seen all of me. I have plans for you that are wild and unexpected, God says, and I will be with you the whole way.

I am, God says. And that is joyful news.

dialogue is actually pretty great.

My friend John preached an amazing sermon for the national More Light Presbyterians conference about a lunch he had with the executive editor of The Layman, Carmen Fowler LaBerge, when she agreed to be interviewed for Out of Order.  She responded in the magazine, and I was struck by how respectful and loving it was, in a debate that is so often characterized by vitriol and hate.

So I sent her a thank-you note.

Dear Carmen,

I’m writing as one of the subjects of the documentary Out of Order to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the film, and for your lovely and gracious response to John’s sermon. I am so pleased to know that a lunch like that is still possible!

It grieves me to hear of the hurt and alienation you are feeling from the PCUSA, particularly because I’ve felt similar alienation at several stages of my journey – from a church which nurtured me and which I love deeply, divided over whether I could truly be part of it. I considered leaving the denomination, and I know what a painful decision that can be. Certainly, it is not one that’s taken lightly. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years to denominations where they felt more affirmed, and it is a painful loss every time, no matter what the reason.

I was recently ordained as Associate Pastor at the church where I’ve been serving in various capacities for the last year and a half. We are a small congregation, mostly aging as so many churches are these days, on the edge between suburban and rural, and fairly theologically diverse. My time there has been an incredible blessing, and I have high hopes for our future together.

We have lost a few members because of my sexuality – although not as many as I feared – and each has been a loss to the community. Those who remain do not always agree, about everything or maybe even about most things. But somehow, by the grace of God, it works. We have grown as a community, in trust and care and ministry with one another, and I have seen and felt there a renewal of confidence and hope for the future. Our diversity of thought has been a blessing, even if it is not always an easy one to navigate.

For my sermon this week, I’m working with the lectionary text from Jeremiah 29; his letter to the exiles in Babylon. To these people feeling displaced and alienated in a strange land, surrounded by people it seems like they have nothing in common with, he says, build houses, plant gardens, get married. Set down your roots there, in the midst of these strangers. Seek the peace/wholeness/well-being of this city where God has sent you, for in their shalom is your shalom.

It is a text I’ve come back to often over the last several years, and it never gets any easier. I know my temptation is so often just to surround myself with those people I agree with, and build walls around ourselves so we can safely yell out about how wrong everyone else is. Except that never works, because inevitably I would be blocking out someone I care about. And as much as I don’t really want Jeremiah’s words to be true, he is right every time. I am blessed and nurtured by my relationships with people different from me, even those who disagree with me. In their peace is my peace; in your peace is my peace.

Thank you again for your participation in the documentary and your willingness to engage in conversation. Blessings on your journey, wherever it takes you.

Christ’s peace,
Kate

Holy Priorities

Preached 9/29 at Head of Christiana PC.  I was responding to the tense situations I also reflected on here.  

1 Timothy 6:6–19

This month, for the cover of the newsletter, I submitted a poem I had written reflecting on A’s baptism two weeks ago. It was a joyous occasion. I felt so much love and hope and promise sent forth from the congregation and bounced back by her radiant smile. And the joy continued downstairs during the shower for the new baby to come. It seemed like the whole community felt so blessed to be able to celebrate new life in our midst and hope for the future.

I got the sense that we were not just celebrating one baby, and one baptism, but we were in some way also celebrating being a community that has baptisms, and a community that anticipates new things on the way.

To capture this renewed hope and rebirth in the poem, I used images that I’ve heard from you in different ways of the hopelessness and anxiety and fear that some members of this community have felt in the past about the life of this congregation.  But I have seen and felt the renewal of hope in my time here.

We have a rich history in this place; you did before I came, and your families and our ancestors in faith built that history before you.  But we also have a future.  And there has been some anxiety in recent history about what that future might look like, or even if there would be a future.  But what I have seen over and over again in my time with you, and which shone like a beacon on the Sunday of the baptism, is that that anxiety is melting away.  We have seen a vision of new life in this place.

This renewed joy in our lives together is what I hoped to communicate to you in that poem, and I regret that some of my words may have landed the wrong way.  It is a challenge for us to move forward if we won’t see where we’ve been.

But then, it is hard to be honest about where we are, or who we are, when there are messages coming at us from all sides about what we should really be doing (“start a contemporary service, with a praise band!”), what we should buy in order to be someone we think we should be, how we should look, who we should care about; messages thrown at communities and at us as individuals, making us question who we really are and what is important.

We say in our baptisms, you are a child of God; and then we leave the church and suddenly the TV says, you’re not pretty enough, you’re not rich enough.  And the newspaper says, you haven’t done enough.  And the internet says, you’re too old, you’re not hip enough, your friends are doing cooler things than you are.  And everywhere ads say, buy more things, so you can be happy.

And God saying, “you are my beloved child,” kind of gets drowned out in the swarm. Continue reading

The Rev. Bruise K. Almighty

Some recent posts of mine have caused a bit of controversy in my congregation.  In one case it was my use of a particular word, and in the other it was my reference to some past sentiments in the church as “dying” and “forgotten,” in order to illustrate the present reality which feels much more hopeful.

I’ve edited the first, now, because the one word doesn’t feel worth the trouble.  [Y’all know you can curse in front of me if you need to, right?]  And these particular issues feel like they’re really pointing to something larger.

I think the root of this difficulty is the tension between the world of the established, institutional church, and the world outside it.  However you want to characterize it, there is obviously a significant cultural disconnect for congregations across the country, otherwise the church as a whole would not be in the sort of crisis where we find ourselves.

I have one foot in each of these worlds.  I was raised in the church, nurtured in the church, and the church is in my bones.  At the same time, I was not discouraged from being part of the wider world.  I am a real person, very much a part of my generation at the oldest edge of the Millennials.

I love my identity as a cultural translator, a bridge between worlds.  But it is not always an easy place to be.

Most obviously, in my two jobs as parish pastor and campus pastor, I have had to carve out on the fly what I look like and how I speak in each of those roles.  They are similar, often, but distinctly different because each group has different needs and comfort levels and expectations.  Then throw in who I am with my colleagues and friends, and then who I am in roller derby, and the picture gets more and more complicated.

Each of these identities is still me.  I strive to be true to myself in whatever role, and I really value the multiplicity of my identity.  I have thought a lot about cultivating my image in different contexts, and I’ve learned some invaluable things that help me to dress intentionally for each different role.  Even if that does mean a lot of costume changes.

I am at the meeting place of the culture clash between mainline church folks and young adults, and in some ways my very identity is emblematic of the changes that are taking place.  For many people, I am not what a pastor looks like.  I am young (in church terms), I am female-bodied, I have tattoos, I am bisexual, I am honest about my own struggles and my own humanity, I am passionate about justice issues and not afraid of shaking up the powers that be — although I’d argue that last one is exactly what a pastor looks like, or at least they should.

And I’m realizing that this very reality is powerful for people who are not served by the church as it is, or the way they perceive the church to be.  For people who have seen the church as disconnected from the modern, “real” world, I am proof this reality is changing.  People who have said to me, I don’t really go to church but I’d love to hear you speak sometime.

But that same disjuncture – where for some people it is a positive thing that I don’t look like a pastor – presents some difficulties when you’re looking from the other side.  Because I don’t look like a pastor.

And there’s nothing I can say that will smooth out that tension, because that is the present reality of the church in the modern world.  And that is the reality of my self and the unique ministry to which I am called, somehow bridging this irreconcilable divide.

So I invite you to be here with me in this tension.  If the mainline church and the modern world are going to have anything to say to one another, we will somehow have to face these places where our cultures clash and our expectations have to shift, from both sides.

Or, you know, we won’t.  But I have to have faith that we can.

Banksy - Stained Window

Sacraments

glowing grinning
full to bursting with the presence of God
in a fresh-baked loaf of bread
crackling in the hands of a hungry college kid

and a beaming little girl
basking in the love of a congregation that just can’t contain its adoration of her
in the floaty purple dress she picked out herself
hearing God Loves You
and We Love You
and knowing nothing else matters

accepting the water on her head
– like the oceans she says –
with grace

hearing Child of the Covenant and knowing somehow
deeply
what that means.

knowing in her bones the presence of something magical
in that water and that proud congregation

a glow of something like God in us
love more than love
being more than just being
being full of the holiness of people coming together

strange assortments of broken lost ones
pieces glued together clumsily
somehow whole-er together

around a table with one candle and a new loaf of bread
all for us
ripped in great ragged chunks dripping juice down my chin
hungry for communion

lost folks who thought they’d been forgotten
dying slowly on the hill below the cemetery
restored and hopeful again
smiling laughing throwing baby showers again
filled with the grace of God in the waters again
thirsts quenched by abundance again

God everywhere with us in the water and the bread
which are nothing and are everything
letting us be here together – really –
because God is here we let ourselves be here

with our whole hearts open for a minute
trusting everything
trusting goodness
trusting the presence of something so very holy

each other.

An Absurdly Open Table

Luke 14:1, 7–14

A friend of mine shared a story the other day – she was riding the subway in Boston, where she lives, and a woman got up to offer her seat to an older gentleman.  And then this woman proceeded to announce to the entire train that she had done so because he was older than she was, which was fairly obvious, and that she had offered her seat because the Bible tells us we’re supposed to give our seats to elders.

Now, I’m not sure what passage she was referencing in particular, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he told this parable today.  Announcing our own good deeds feels a lot like clamoring for that imaginary seat labeled “most holy.”

Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with this description of the most honorable places at the dinner table.  Their society at this time was very tightly structured around the concepts of honor and shame, which became almost tangible things, given and lost like currency.  Your relative honor in that context had a great deal of significance – it would influence who would do business with you, your prospects for marriage (and therefore your family’s status into the future) – basically your whole place in society.

So in that sense, the first part of this story is much more literal than most of the parables we get from Jesus.  It could have disastrous consequences for a person to be publicly shamed by being asked to change seats.  Some of his hearers may even have figured out this general principle, just like a lot of people today have figured out that being an arrogant jerk doesn’t get you very far.  …Which doesn’t mean it’s not still a useful thing to hear.

But in the second half of the parable, he turns this very practical advice on its head.  He has said, yes, your humility will get you some social rewards.  Not always assuming that you are the most important person in the room will pay off, in very visible, tangible terms.  But Jesus isn’t done.  He’s saying, it’s easy to be humble if there’s something in if for you.  But you will be blessed, he says, when you sit down with people and don’t have any expectation of a tangible reward.  You are blessed then, because you will be repaid later.

And yet, even though the social reward of not-being-an-arrogant-jerk mostly “makes sense” in our cultural terms, and the kind of radical, inclusive hospitality that Jesus is talking about in so many ways does not make sense, this sort of upside-down, inverted-expectations kind of living that always shows up when we start talking about what God’s kingdom might actually look like, that really does start to make a true and essential sense, deeper than the quick rewards of social status and propriety.

We are blessed because we invite marginalized ones, even before we get to this bit about being paid back later.  We are blessed by the company of those the rest of the world has declined to invite.  When we throw our welcome to the four corners and open this table to anyone who would join us here, we are richer for it.  Then and there.  Because that is what God’s kingdom will look like, that motley group of people with nothing to gain from each other, and the freedom to see each other for who we really are – that is where we will see God’s presence flashing brightly in the corners of our vision.

It’s as if Jesus is offering a way out of this oppressive system of who is worth more than whom.  We know what that kind of system can feel like, don’t we?  Even though ours isn’t quite so structured as to dictate our places at the dinner table, we’re just as conscious most of the time of who we’d like to try and be friends with, and who we’d really rather not be associated with, socially speaking.

And Jesus says, what happens if you throw all that out the window?  What if you just invited all the social misfits you can think of?  All the people who don’t ever get invited to parties?  What if you just decided that all that status stuff didn’t matter?  Continue reading

Wild Geese and other strange communities

I spent much of my first week as a Real Pastor muddy and wet and surrounded by awesome people. I was a volunteer at the Wild Goose Festival, a pretty fab festival/community about spirituality, justice, and creative expression.

The Atlantic called it “Woodstock for evangelicals,” which is not too far off base but also doesn’t capture the uniqueness of the community. For one thing, I felt totally comfortable and accepted there, which is not usually true of anything “for evangelicals.” (Are you picking up the dripping sarcasm?)

And man, if I had denominational prejudice coming into this weekend, these folks just killed it. I had some fantastic conversations with people who came from all kinds of church backgrounds. (It felt like I met more Baptists than anything else, and even one guy from a PCA church.) But plenty of fabulous PCUSA friends, too.

But more than the content of our conversations, I think, what really struck me was the incredible openness and honesty and genuineness and trust. We brought our whole selves there, and they were okay. I heard (and shared) so many personal stories, those kind of awkward pieces that we don’t normally share except with really close friends, and to have those stories received gently and graciously by people I’d met mere hours (or less) before was unique and strange and beautiful.

My weird artsy self could pull out my sketch journal during a talk or a performance and not get funny looks. People actually seemed to respect that creative response.

Wild Goose collage/journal

My existence as a young pastor with one foot in traditional denominationalism, theology nerd and artsy kid and socially-awkward extrovert, that self was totally present in all its quirks, and was not just accepted but affirmed. People seemed to want to hear my opinions and perspectives – even the people I had just met who came from some “other” tradition, those kinds of situations where I’ve learned to tone myself down a little to avoid confrontation.

I didn’t really expect that, but it felt immediately like home. In a lot of ways that’s what I wish for the church more broadly – that we can really get down to the business of loving one another for who we are, not for who we think we ought to be.

If you asked me that question about why millennials are leaving the church (and didn’t you??) I would say this issue hits at the core of it. I can’t help but think people are leaving or disenchanted because of all the unrealistic expectations and non-acceptance and general disconnection of the church from the realities of the world. So often church is seen as this place where you’re expected to be this holy, perfect person, which is never true for any of us.

I want to keep building places where people can be themselves together. Where weird mixes of people can come together and really care about each other. Where we can really be church together in a way that we seem to have forgotten.

Where not fitting in is a good thing.

Where a van full of random strangers is the norm.

Part of me wished at first I had tried to be more involved – to be a volunteer chaplain, or applied to speak, or just had some kind of more formal way to offer something – but I’m really glad I didn’t, this year. I didn’t realize how much I needed this space of just being. I went to some talks and some performances, but sometimes the best thing about them was the people I sat down next to, and the conversations we had before/during/after. I spent a lot of time sitting by the river.

I needed that. But I also feel like maybe next year I will try to present something. More than anything else, this weekend made me feel like I have something valuable to say. And I will try to nurture this community, because God knows we need more places like that.