Category Archives: theology

A Whole-Body Gospel

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, March 1, 2015. I’m speaking as a white pastor to a white congregation, and while it’s not explicit in the sermon text, I’m particularly talking about the ways we as white Christians are implicated and called out to action. 

Genesis 17:1-11, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38

I took a class in seminary about improvisation in worship – borrowing from improv theater to push our own thinking about what worship could look like. And one week, we took a theater game about high status and low status characters, and put it into a bible story. We had read a story from somewhere in the gospels – one of the stories about Jesus healing a leper and the way everyone else reacted – and each of us were secretly assigned a character in the story. We were supposed to interact with each other, in character, and then line ourselves up based on our social status: high status at one end down to lowest status at the other end.

I was assigned Jesus. Oh hey, that’s an easy one! Of course I’m the most important person in that story!

But then I started actually talking to my classmates, and trying to get into character, and I didn’t really know what to say to the important folks, the scribes and religious leaders and all, and so they sort of turned their backs and bumped me further down the line.

And then I started talking to the poor folks and the lepers, and that felt a little easier to figure out. I know how Jesus would talk to them. And I’m supposed to touch the lepers, I know that, but then my classmate acted out being healed! And suddenly the other lepers start to nudge me back up toward the higher-status end of the line, but that doesn’t feel right either!

So as the rest of the class lined themselves up neatly according to their characters’ social status, there I was at the end of the line with the three people playing lepers, jumbled up in an awkward clump as we played the game of “no, you go ahead!” “no, you first, I insist!”

Finally I gave in and took a spot ahead of them, not quite at the bottom of the line, while we all revealed our characters and started to debrief the exercise. And almost immediately I started kicking myself, because that spot didn’t feel right either, and maybe I should have insisted on putting myself further down and I was letting my ego get ahead of me.

Because Jesus certainly had some things to say about social status. The last shall be first and all that, right? But really, couldn’t I just be above the lepers at least? Do I really have to be all the way at the end?

* * *

Jesus was pretty good at saying things that make us uncomfortable, starting at the very beginning with Peter, and no less so today. This reading from Mark shifts the focus of the whole gospel – we had been just walking around witnessing some healings, learning some parables that were confusing at first but then sort of started to make sense, and then Peter finally says that he thinks Jesus is the messiah we’re waiting for, and BAM! Suddenly Jesus starts talking about having to suffer and die, and if that weren’t crazy enough, that we who want to follow are going to have to take up our own crosses and be prepared to suffer the same way.

It’s a game-changer, that cross is, and we still don’t quite know what to do with it today, whether Jesus’ or our own. On one hand we raise it up so high, put it on a magical spiritual pedestal, while we sing ecstatic songs about the flowing, saving blood, that it becomes totally divorced from the gory reality of one man’s public torture and execution.

Or on the other hand, we wipe all the blood and gore away, not dwelling on Jesus’ pain and death because really the resurrection is the only thing that matters now. An empty cross is all we need, because of course we’re not going to die or suffer or anything … so what does all that have to do with us?

And if we don’t really know what the cross meant for Jesus, then we certainly don’t know what it means for us when Jesus challenges us to take up our own crosses. We avoid looking directly at anything that might remind us of death at all, let alone our own. And so this image of bearing our own crosses turns into a glorification of self-denial and bloody sacrifice, if we let it, or else we turn it into a meaningless metaphor and let the weight of this challenge slide off into a platitude about just not being arrogant.

Jesus was someone who turned all social hierarchy on its head. As a rural Jewish peasant, he was already not at the top of the heap; but then as he left his home and began breaking social rules, he aligned himself with lepers, with women, with Samaritans, giving up what privileges he had in order to defend those more marginalized than he was. He put his own body on the line in order to stand between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her to death. He made his own body ritually unclean, risking disease and shame and social sanction in order to stand with people who needed healing and needed friendship.

While most of us spend our lives climbing up the social ladder, trying to be more important and more influential and more respected, Jesus fought his way down. Even his own disciples tried to stop him – reminding him what would happen if he ate with them or touched her – and especially they pushed back when Jesus said he’d have to die. It’s a scandal, because that’s not what messiahs did! It’s certainly not what they went looking for.

No wonder Peter rebukes him. Jesus, that’s just not what you do! That’s not how this game works. While everyone else is fighting their way to the top, Jesus pushes back and insists on living like some kind of crazy person who doesn’t even recognize that there are rules and he’s breaking them all. No wonder he winds up getting himself killed, and in the most shameful way of all.

Rome just continued the story that Jesus himself wrote with the way he lived. Okay, if you’re going to insist on giving up all your status in society by eating with those people and standing up for that woman, then we’ll finish the job with your public humiliation and torture, and disrespect your body once and for all by hanging it up to die by the roadside.

When Jesus challenges his followers to take up our crosses and follow, he is issuing an invitation to join him on this counter-cultural path; down the ladder of social status, away from the power and prestige that come from oppressing others, the privilege of ignoring the humanity of those at the bottom. It’s a path that takes commitment, and if we’re truly following Jesus’ example then we are putting our very bodies at risk: it’s not enough just to think about people in need or send money every now and then. We are challenged to lose our very lives for the sake of this gospel.

No wonder we skip over this part.

* * *

Last Sunday was the Academy Awards. I didn’t watch, and by all reports I didn’t miss much. But the one moment that seemed to really excite people, in the midst of all the canned jokes and identical speeches, was the performance by John Legend and Common. Their song “Glory” was written for the movie Selma, and it captured the spirit of the marches then and the marches today, the long fight against racial injustice.

And they staged it as a tribute to the march in Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, fifty years ago next week; Common crossed the bridge rapping in a sharp black suit, followed by a chorus of marchers in slow step behind him.

Like the first marchers, the chorus was mostly African-American with a number of white folks mixed in. And as the Black marchers lifted their voices to sing of the challenges they had endured and the glory they longed for, the white marchers stayed silent.

As blogger Aliza Worthington put it, “They simply marched in step, and side by side with the Black people on the stage. The only voices we heard were the voices of people of color. White people showed UP. They walked. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder. They marched. And they let the people of color do the talking. They stood silently so Black voices could be heard.”

What a powerful image, and a powerful example for us of putting one’s own body on the line for someone else.

That brilliant bit of staging mostly went unnoticed, and maybe that’s the point too. When we reach out to support someone, we’re not doing a very good job if we spend the whole time trying to draw attention to ourselves, trying to get credit for what a generous and selfless thing we’re doing.

Giving up status and privilege like Jesus did and like he challenges us to do is a whole-life and whole-body endeavor. He wound up on a cross for it, and he invites us to do the same.

* * *

From the very beginning, God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and the whole Hebrew people was not just a one-way covenant. God made a promise to be God to them, and in return God asked for a commitment to be God’s people, marked by the physical act of circumcision. It has never just been about a mental commitment, or a spiritual commitment – God asks us for our whole hearts and our whole lives.

And we fail to live up to our end of that promise, but God has made a covenant with us that will not be broken. God will love us and will be our God no matter what we do, and yet God is also asking us – challenging us – to do better.

We are loved with an unbreakable love. And we are called to love God not just with our minds and our souls, but also with our whole hearts and our whole lives.

Hear the good news; live the good news!

See also: Jesus the Privileged, by Christena Cleveland

Being a Better White Person

Dear fellow white folks,

So you’ve figured out that you have some privilege based on your skin color, and not everyone experiences the world the same way you do.  Congratulations!  Now what?

It’s really easy at this point to get caught up in guilt, and not do anything for fear of offending somebody. But guilt doesn’t accomplish anything. Recognizing white privilege is really important, but it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the way we talk about privilege even lets people off the hook, because systemic issues aren’t any one person’s “fault.” So we think, what can any one person do against this faceless, monolithic system?

Well, dear white person, that’s where you come in. It’s time to start looking around and connecting to others who are already doing this work, as well as finding ways to use your privilege productively.

Listen. One of the ways privilege operates is by allowing white folks to ignore the voices and experiences of people of color. A recent survey showed that the social networks of white people are on average 91% white! Recognize whose voices are present in your life, and start really listening to the voices of your friends and acquaintances of color.

Part of listening means taking what you hear seriously. You’ll hear about experiences that are different from what you’re used to hearing, and that’s a good thing!  Resist the urge to argue, interrupt, or assume you know what someone’s going to say.  Trust what they’re saying to you.

A good way to start listening is to empathize. Recognize where your experiences are different, but also notice that the feelings attached to those experiences are deeply human.  The impulse behind the slogan Black Lives Matter is the systemic denial of the basic humanity of Black folks in particular, and you can start by recognizing the shared joys and sorrows and fears of the people of color in your life.

Be aware of intersectionality; that is, things are more complicated than just black and white. None of us are 100% privileged or 100% oppressed, and those gray areas are places where we can start to understand other people’s feelings of exclusion. As a queer white person with a complicated gender identity, I have some experiences of what it feels like to be marginalized and systemically discriminated against, which I think helps me to notice and trust those feelings when others mention them.

That does not mean I know what it feels like to be Black, but it does help me empathize and recognize situations that might be upsetting or problematic for a person of color. Nor does it mean I know what it feels like to be a queer person of color!  But it does mean we have some common ground to start from.

And finally, to white men in particular: recognize that this might be new territory for you. Dig deep and think of a time when you felt like things were unfair or not right (like many people started to recognize during Occupy Wall Street), and know that other people have been having these experiences for years. Then, enter these conversations with humility – it’s like you just woke up outside the Matrix for the first time, and this is a whole new world for you, so it’s time to be quiet and let other people show you what’s going on.

So, welcome to the real world. Let’s try and make it better, okay?


* My title is borrowed from Chris Rock’s spot-on statement about racial progress: “The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Hard Questions: Pride, Divestment, and the binding of Isaac

Genesis 22:1-14
Matthew 10:40-42

A few months ago, I was in New York for a whirlwind trip over my birthday. I sent out invitations to join me for a birthday dinner on the Sunday night that was actually my birthday – but of course since all of my New York friends are all either pastors or grad students and/or have brand new babies, getting all of us together at once was basically impossible! So instead, David and I wandered around the city the following day, meeting up with friends for coffee in one place and lunch in another and cupcakes in a third. It was like a race for all the catching up we could do in the middle of 5 different crazy schedules!

At one point we met up with my friend Jesse in the West Village for falafel, and then all walked together across town to a fabulous little bakery on the way to his next appointment. Jesse and I are such kindred spirits in terms of being curious about everything, especially classical and biblical literature, so instead of updates on babies and family and that sort of thing, we managed to immediately get ourselves deep into conversation about Jewish theology, while running across town to get the best cupcakes in the city. He was really excited to tell me about a book he’d been reading by Douglas Rushkoff which had made such a difference for him in thinking about his own Jewishness and about particular formative texts. I was excited to hear it, of course, because there’s nothing I like more than a good theological conversation!

And so I found myself speed-walking down West 11th street in New York City, trying not to get red velvet cupcake all over myself, while having an intense discussion about the meaning of the story of the binding of Isaac, and what on earth that means about God, in both the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition. It seems fitting, somehow, although that probably says more about me than anything else.

* * *

At first glance, our two texts today couldn’t be more different. We’ve gotten used to the repetition of Jesus’ words in Matthew, his instructions to the disciples as he sends them out into the world, and it seems logical: welcome one another; nothing too challenging.

And on the other hand we’ve got one of the most difficult and counter-intuitive texts in all of scripture: the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, and what comes very close to human sacrifice. Isaac is bound and laying on the wood on the altar, wordless except for his first innocent question – “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” – and Abraham has his knife ready, poised to kill his beloved son because that’s what he thinks God wants.

What do we do with that one?? Is this even the same God we’re talking about here? How could we possibly worship a God who would ask such a thing? And moreover, why on earth would God ask that in the first place? Isaac was just born in the previous chapter of Genesis, a miraculous birth for Abraham and Sarah in their old age, the beginnings of God’s covenant with Abraham and the Israelites, a fulfillment of God’s promise.

For that matter, what kind of God would put Isaac through that kind of trauma? I can only imagine what that must have been like for him, to go off onto the mountain with a dear father he trusted, prepared to worship God together in this familiar place; and the dawning, sickening realization that he is the sacrifice. Ultimately he finds himself bound on the altar, feeling utterly betrayed and terrified for what is to come, probably running away in his mind, watching as if from a distance because otherwise he would crumble in hopeless fear.

How can we worship a God who would do that? Who would desire that, as the narrator seems to tell it? Interpreters have been wrestling with this text for centuries, and they’ve come up with some interesting ideas but no really satisfying answers. Perhaps, as the narrator tells it, God is testing the depths of Abraham’s commitment. Still, it seems unspeakably cruel to use Isaac as a pawn in a test like that.

Or perhaps, as some Jewish interpreters have suggested (as I learned from my friend on the streets of New York), God is really testing if Abraham has been listening to God’s repeated instructions not to be like the people around them, not to worship those other gods, not to sacrifice children like they do. And in that reading I can imagine God burying face in hands in disappointment – “Really, Abraham?? Did you really think I would ask you to kill a child?” – reaching in to stop Abraham’s hand before any more damage can be done.

And of course we can’t really know what God’s motivations were here, assuming it was God’s voice Abraham was hearing in the first place. But, for whatever reason, Abraham find himself in a place we know all too well: what he believes God is asking him to do pits him squarely against what is right for his relationships, even directly against the life of a person he loves. It’s a terrible place to be, but as people of faith, we find ourselves in a similar bind all too frequently. There is no easy answer, because either we’re betraying our beliefs, or we’re betraying our loved ones, and that’s no kind of choice to make.

* * *

Our denomination finds itself in such a situation now. No doubt many of you have heard by now about several controversial decisions that have come out of our General Assembly in recent weeks – decisions made with the utmost care and prayerful reflection – but in no way easy decisions. Equally faithful people are coming down divided on issues which seem to put us in a conflict like Abraham’s: it’s come down to our relationships versus our convictions, and there is no halfway.

Two actions were taken related to same-sex marriage: one proposal to amend the definition of marriage in our Directory for Worship to read “two people,” instead of “one man and one woman,” which will be voted on in the presbyteries; and an Authoritative Interpretation allowing pastors to perform any legal marriage according to their conscience. This conversation about sexuality issues has so dominated our life as a denomination, as it has in so many others recently.

And yet the more controversial decision to come out of GA this year was a resolution to divest our money from three companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. This too has been debated around in circles for years, as we have studied the situation and the actions of these companies and tried fruitlessly to convince them of more peaceful ways. And as we talk with friends and colleagues in Israeli and Palestinian and US Jewish leadership, we get mired deeper and deeper into the history of conflict and genocide and the longing for a homeland; made all the more passionate because of the deep faith convictions of so many people on all sides.

And what it seems so many of these conversations boil down to is this same old story: one person tied up on the altar, their life in the hands of a person who holds a knife to their throat because they believe it’s God’s will.

We have already sacrificed so many of our lesbian and gay children, our transgender friends and neighbors, our bisexual and queer colleagues, pastors, cousins… on that altar we think God wanted us to build. And perhaps we heard God stopping our hands at the last second, saw the angel swooping in, but by that point the damage had been done. The trust was gone, and rightly so.

* * *

And yet sometimes it’s not even that clear. Sometimes our convictions lead us into murky waters, and even the mention of the word “Israel” is enough to make normally-opinionated people suddenly the models of tact, because the risk of offending someone is too high. Sometimes our fears are too great, where something that might be heard as a critique of Israel, or of the US for that matter, would mark us as a terrorist or an anti-Semite, or simply an awful person. And so we turn a blind eye; don’t listen to our convictions because to point out the violence and injustice committed by a friend is too big a risk.

And so it is easier sometimes just to let things be. Perhaps if we pretend not to see the Palestinian children bound up on our altars, or the LGBT children with our knives at their throats, perhaps we can continue to pretend that this is just between us and God. That God is just testing us to see how faithful we are, never mind anyone who might be sacrificed in the process.

The truth is that our theology matters, our convictions matter, and what we hear God saying matters – not because it is more important than the lives of our loved ones, but because over and over again God says to us, love one another as I have loved you. Over and over God says, I do not want your sacrifices, I want your justice. Over and over Jesus repeats, whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and welcomes the God who sent me. Whoever offers a cup of water to a stranger in my name is beloved of God.

Over and over God says, I am a god of justice, a god of welcome, a god who has made a covenant with you, my beloved people. This is the God we have come to know. This is the God whose guidance we seek, whose voice we trust, whose presence we long for.

I don’t know what to do with the story Abraham tells of a time when God asked him to kill his son; but I do know that feeling of being caught between what I think God is saying and the person I’m about to hurt. It’s an impossible place to be.

Sometimes we misunderstand God. Sometimes we can only see a tiny part of God’s bigger picture, and we think we’re chiseling away at a stone when we’re really stabbing at an elephant. Sometimes we hear God all too well, and we decide to do our own thing because the truth is too complicated.

* * *

It’s hard to know, sometimes, whose voice it is we are following. And so we turn back, in times like this, to the fundamentals of who God is and who Jesus is, the foundations on which all our faith is built. Back to the very beginning: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And Jesus’ second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

And we can turn to newer words like those of the Belhar Confession, written in South Africa during Apartheid:

We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.

It is a strange world we live in sometimes. We rush around like never before, hearing conflicting voices and opinions and stories from every corner of the world, so that it is hard to know what’s true and what’s false and what’s almost-true-but-not-quite.

But our God has not changed, and the words of Jesus have not changed, and they are the criteria by which we judge all else: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength; love your neighbor as yourself. Period.

Scary Stories

Preached 4/6/14 at Westminster PC for Youth Sunday

John 11:1-46

It seems a little strange, doesn’t it, to be celebrating Youth Sunday on this fifth Sunday of Lent – when we’ve grown tired of all this talk of death, and of the snowy gross weather, and we’re really just ready for spring and Easter already! But the church calendar keeps us stuck for a little while longer hanging around the tombs, with the stench of death hanging in the air. It doesn’t seem to fit with the hope that we see in our young people, about to graduate from high school and going off into the world full of joy and expectation and possibility!

I’m reminded, somehow, of all the uproar lately over young adult literature. Stories like Divergent and The Hunger Games, stories of dystopian futures, of children forced to kill children for entertainment or survival; stories like the Riders of the Apocalypse series, where four teenagers channel their demons of eating disorders and bullying and self-harm and abuse into their new roles (as the riders of the apocalypse) to tackle these issues on a global scale; stories like Harry Potter, even, where children and then teenagers are on the front lines of a battle to save their whole world from evil creatures who would destroy them — young adult literature is dealing with darker themes than ever, and for plenty of adults, this is a sure sign that our youth are being corrupted and let down a path of moral decay.

(Never mind that this debate has been around since the Beatles showed up with their long hair and suggestive lyrics, or the brothers Grimm filled their fairy tales with child abuse and anti-Semitism and incest.)

It’s a constant debate, I think, because it’s such a natural instinct to try and protect our loved ones, especially our children, from the awful realities of the world we live in. Often it seems like we will just pretend the bad stuff doesn’t exist – as if not talking about abuse or racism or pedophilia will just make them go away.

But of course, kids see the reality of the world eventually, like we all have at some point, and we can’t protect them forever. For some parents this comes sooner than others, like for African-American or mixed-race families, who must at some point prepare their children for the reality of the racist fear and violence that they will probably face, in this society where it seems like every week there is a new face on the news of a Black child who has been shot or kidnapped or sentenced to an adolescence behind bars.

We can’t protect our children, and we can’t protect ourselves or the ones we love, and so we tell stories. In our stories, the monsters hiding in the shadows have faces, and they have weak spots.  We can figure out how to beat them. The world might be an impossibly frightening place, it might be that everyone really is out to get us, but in our stories there is a way out. The good guys can fight back, and maybe win eventually, once we figure out where that tiny crack in the force field is to aim our arrows.

* * *

I’ve been catching up on the first several seasons of The Walking Dead on Netflix, which is a great show about a group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The first battles have passed (actually, our protagonist Rick slept through them in the hospital), and now this bunch of people thrown together by circumstance are just learning how to live in a world overrun by the reanimated corpses of their friends and neighbors.

One of the most interesting dynamics, for me, is around the children of the group. How do we teach our children to live in this world of zombies? Do we lock them in the library and pretend everything is okay?  Do we teach them how to shoot a gun or use a knife, or where to hit a walker to take them down? Can we really bring another child into this world with such an uncertain future? Rick has a 10-year-old son named Carl, who seems to be just as happy curled up with a comic book and his baby sister as he is wearing his dad’s sheriff hat and gunning down zombies.

In one episode, while the camp is fighting a flu epidemic from the inside as well as the walkers from the outside, Rick tells Carl to stay with the younger kids, even though he wants to be out fighting too. They argue, of course, and Carl retorts, “Dad, you can’t keep me from it.” From what, Rick says. “From what always happens,” Carl says. He knows by now that loved ones die, that their fences can’t keep the evil out, that some day they’ll be betrayed by the infection inside them. “I know,” Rick says, “but it’s my job to try.”

* * *

Our story today is full of death and sickness and a bit of political intrigue – one of those that if it weren’t in the Bible, well-meaning folks would probably try to have banned from school libraries – and there are so many details that don’t quite line up, either. Why does Jesus wait to go to Lazarus? How does he know that Lazarus is dead? Why does he say this disease won’t kill him, when clearly it eventually does? Did he really just let Lazarus die in order to do this miracle and show off God’s power? That’s kind of harsh.

And Mary and Martha voice this too – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” It’s a statement of faith, but also a cry of abandonment. Whether Jesus had come as soon as he received word or not isn’t really the point – as some of the onlookers put it, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” And of course, he could have—but if we get stuck on this question, we will run around in circles asking ourselves why Jesus did not come to Bethany immediately if he loved this family so much.

But there is no good answer, here; and even if there were, it does not change the fact that Lazarus, whom Jesus loves, is dead. However it happens, Lazarus is dead. Mary and Martha are weeping, their friends are weeping, and even Jesus weeps, because someone he loves is dead.

He says to Martha in her grief, her anger, “Your brother will rise again.” And she answers, almost mechanically, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” We can almost hear her thinking, “but that doesn’t help me now!” He answers her, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Martha says yes, I believe this, but she doesn’t seem to understand it any more than we do. What kind of life is this, if we still have to die? If we still have to lose each other? I thought our faith was supposed to protect us from this??

All through John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the life he promises us, the eternal life that he has brought to those who love him. And the way he tells it, most of the time, this is a life that he has brought now, not “on the last day,” like Martha says. “I am the life,” he says. It’s no wonder, when Jesus talks like that, that John’s community started thinking they might not have to die at all!

But in this story, Jesus says, no, sorry. The sad stuff, the awful stuff, that’s still going to happen. Even Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, whom Jesus loves dearly, even they will weep, and die. The monsters are still real.

But despite this, in spite of the grief, and the stench, and the threat of his own death, Jesus stands there weeping, in front of people who have tried to kill him, and calls out to God, calls out to Lazarus, “Come out!”  Come out, and live!

In the face of all this death, Jesus does not turn away, but Jesus gives life. God gives life, because that’s just how God works. In the midst of pain, in the midst of weeping, God brings a brilliant flash of life, of joy, of reconciliation.

Life goes on. Our faith and our best efforts won’t protect us or our loved ones from the scary stuff that surrounds us – the death and hatred and violence of our world. But in the very face of all that, God still brings life.

In the very next chapter after our text today, Lazarus is alive, but the chief priests are planning to put Lazarus to death (again) because people saw him and believed. Our world sees life and chooses death. But God sees death, always and everywhere around us, and God brings life.

Easter happens in the midst of the worst kinds of hatred and fear and politically expedient executions. Death comes, like it seems death always comes, but God has bigger plans than that. God knows the weak spots of the monsters who come after us.  God knows how to take them down.  Even before we figure out what this “eternal life” thing might look like that Jesus has promised us, we know that our God is about life in the face of death.

Death finds a way to squeeze through the fences we’ve built around ourselves for protection, but we are not fighting alone. When the zombies get in, or the Capitol-dwellers or the dementors, or whatever monster it might be today, we are not standing alone. Jesus stands beside us, having been through those battles and many more, having seen the very worst that humans are capable of doing to each other and come out the other side holier and more full of life than ever.

We tell stories of vampires and conspiracies and werewolves and serial killers because we know how those stories end. We have some control over those stories. The real world is often as scary as any of the stories we tell, but the really scary part is that we don’t know how our story is going to turn out.

Wait– that’s not quite true. We don’t know the details of the end of our stories, or even what’s coming up in the next chapter. We probably never will until it happens.

But I do have one spoiler for you: God wins. Life wins. Love wins.

Thanks be to God.

Full of God

Psalm 46

Colossians 1:11-20

It’s that time of year when I have no idea what season we’re in. The stores have been doing Christmas since before Halloween, and now we’re looking towards Thanksgiving and it’s still not yet Advent. So we find ourselves today on this “Christ the King” Sunday facing one of my very favorite juxtapositions of the church year – or really, of the Christian faith itself. While the rest of the world is looking toward Christmas (sooner than ever, it seems) we in the church are looking towards Advent, which begins next Sunday. And in Advent, we will be waiting expectantly, looking to see our own most holy God, somehow defying all expectation and showing up in the most humble of places.

But today, it is not yet quite Advent. Christ the King Sunday is the last week of the church year, and we celebrate a whole different aspect of God, and of Christ: an incomparable, incomprehensible bigness. Words are inadequate but we must try anyway, to capture a small glimpse and to praise our God. Paul draws on an early Christ hymn to do that, which many of the early Christians probably knew by heart and spoke or sung together when they gathered in each others’ homes to share a meal together.

That man Jesus, he is the image of the invisible God. In him, by him, for him all things came to be (visible and invisible), all things including thrones and powers and rulers and principalities were created by him and are subject to him. Somehow – somehow – these early Christians saw in Jesus a perfect window to the God they were searching for. And their words paint an extravagantly grand picture: he himself, that man Jesus, he is before all things, and in him all things are held together.

And yet. This is the same Jesus who, in a few short weeks, will be remembered as a squalling infant, born like any other human child, dependant on his human parents to feed him, protect him, change his diaper. It is an almost untenable paradox, and yet this paradox is also at the heart of the Christian faith. Somehow, all the grandeur and mystery of the universe, past, present, future; somehow, all the majesty of swirling galaxies and a love so powerful as to sustain every living thing; somehow, all of that is born into our world in the most ordinary of ways, wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a manger.

But on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we are pointed first and foremost to the grand and powerful parts of the story. We are reminded that we can belong to a different kingdom, a different world. The language in the Colossians passage is strangely militaristic, which our translation tones down a bit. People in that time and place, particularly Jewish people, were very much used to being under the control of some foreign government. Over the centuries, it had been Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and now Rome. And each time someone conquered their armies, the regular people came along with them, subject to a whole new ruler.

So in the same way that at some point, the people woke up and found that they were under the control of Rome, Paul uses a phrase which gets translated into “God has transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son,” and his language would have been immediately familiar – as if to say, God’s armies have taken over, and you are no longer a Roman subject. Now you are a subject of a totally different kingdom, with different priorities, different rules, and a different future.

But all this language about kings and kingdoms and subjects falls pretty flat on our ears in 2013, in a country where our closest knowledge of “kings” is “that system our founders rebelled against,” an antiquated, un-American symbol. Or maybe “king” is just Elvis.

But in those days, in that context, “kingdom” was something very different. “Kingdom” encompassed all the little cultural expectations of Roman subjects, imposed on top of their cultural patterns and so ingrained that soon it was hard to tell the difference: the mandate to raise a cup of wine at the end of the meal, dedicated to the emperor; it becomes habit, like playing the national anthem before a baseball game. Kingdom meant seeing Roman centurions on city street corners, watching hawk-eyed like police and harassing anyone whose look they didn’t like. Kingdom was who you paid taxes to, and who held your debts, and who turned a blind eye when the tax-collector middle management robbed and cheated to scratch together a decent living at the expense of the most vulnerable people. Or, paid barely minimum wage with no sick time or health benefits; and some folks grumble but that’s just the way this “kingdom” works.

Kingdom was big and all-encompassing; not just government, but all of life and most of culture too. And so the idea of belonging, suddenly, to a whole new kingdom – a world and worldview like nothing anyone has known before, with a past and present rooted in the earthly life of Jesus, and a future hope imagined in his resurrection – that changes everything. Suddenly nothing is just “the way the world works” anymore. Because this world we’ve known is not the way it has to be. More than anything else, the way Jesus lived on earth was by upending everyone’s expectations. Somehow, every time someone thought they had him cornered, trapped by the world’s logic, Jesus managed to throw everyone a curve ball and make everyone question the rules and the world they knew.

* * *

Just like in Jesus’ day, the stories that capture our attention now are those stories that are a little bit unexpected. Those stories that force us to look at the world in a slightly different way. This week, a woman named Linda Tirado wrote an essay about her experiences of living in poverty. She called it, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts.” She painted an eloquent picture of her life, the demands of managing two jobs, a full-time course load, a veteran husband with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and two small children. She shared details from lives lived at the edges of society, her own and others’, of living in weekly motels with a minifridge and microwave – and hence a diet of peanut butter and frozen burritos, the cheapest way to eat and the only things she could prepare without a real kitchen – of having no money for dental care following an accident, and then applying for decent jobs as a legal secretary, for which she was well qualified, or wait staff in the front of a restaurant, and being turned away because her broken teeth meant she “did not fit the corporate image.”

The Huffington Post picked up her post, retitled it “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense,” and it spread like crazy across the internet. It is a voice and a perspective that middle-class people don’t often hear, and it resonated even though for many people, it turned the world upside down. Her education and articulate writing meant that people would listen, and those relative privileges give her the chance to speak up for the world she knows of lives lived on the margins of getting by, of borrowed rooms, mounting debts, children with disabilities, of deciding each month whether the money goes towards food or the electric bill.

Her words shake many people out of their understanding of the world. And so her post was shared and shared, and people started to ask how she could keep writing. Keep telling her stories and others’. So she set up a page where people could donate towards her project. At this point, almost 1800 people have contributed over $50,ooo. She’s been contacted by a literary agent, and while she continues to work the night shift in the kitchen of a chain restaurant, she will write a book. She says she feels fairly overwhelmed by this support, understandably, and that she’ll use some of the money to pay off some bills for close friends who are struggling, to see if she can make some difference with it. Her new bio on the Huffington Post begins: “Linda is a completely average American with two kids and two jobs. She also writes essays on poverty and class issues, which is a skill she really only realized she had a week ago.”

* * *

Most of the time our experience of the world is pretty mundane. We work, we play, we take care of the ones we love, or vice versa, and things are good or they are bad, but mostly things just sort of are. Mostly what we see is what we expect to get. Mostly we don’t expect that the woman flipping our pancakes at 1 am is a talented writer and cutting social commentator. Mostly we don’t look for the divine ruler of the cosmos in a baby’s cradle. We don’t look for enlightenment in the eyes of a stranger. We even have a hard time looking for God in our own lives, sometimes, as we get caught up in all the busyness of minutiae and forget to stop and look for the big stuff.

And yet. We as Christians affirm above all else that our God – in all God’s holiness and splendor – lived and lives in this world in a human body just like ours. And that belief is, at its core, the audacious suggestion that we can see God here, in our world, reflected in one human being; we can touch a person who is made of flesh like ours, brown skin full of desert sun, and that ordinary body is also a divine being like none we have experienced before; we can smell his sweat like ours, and it is the smell, somehow, of all that is good in the universe.

Sometimes when I think of myself preaching, I imagine that I have reached down into a satin-lined case to lift up the multi-faceted jewel of the scriptures. I hold it up to the light, turn it slowly, and hope that it catches somewhere and sends a ray of light across the floor. Maybe a rainbow, if I’m lucky. And that’s not about me, at all. I’m just holding up God’s word, looking at it from a new angle, and hoping that you see something powerful there.

Some weeks, some days, are just like that. When all we can do is lift ourselves up into God’s light, shards of colored glass broken by all the things life has thrown at us, and allow God to shine through us.

In the words of the Psalmist, the cities will rage and foam around us, the mountains will topple and the seas will roar, and our God is with us through it all. Sometimes all we can do is reach up towards the light of God, and through the chaos we hear that final line, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Roller Derby and the kingdom of God

Roller derby is a whole world unto itself.  It’s not quite like anything else we’ve known, ever, and it’s constantly changing because we’re making it up as we go along.  And yet there are values, which are not quite like rules but which guide the growth of this world in ways spoken and implied, and which are so counter-cultural that even we fail to live up to them sometimes.  And I believe they have the power to change the world.

Who are you, really?  If outsiders know anything about derby, it is derby names.  More than nicknames or “fake” names, derby names are an opportunity to be exactly who you want to be – who you feel called to be.  I am Bruise Almighty, and I have grown into that name as I have grown physically and mentally tougher.  When a big, jock-y Parisi coach can see the fire in my eyes and call me Bruiser without a hint of sarcasm, I grow stronger and more determined in a way that “Kate” just doesn’t capture.

There’s a place for you.  Over and over I’ve heard from skaters, it doesn’t matter what you do out there, it just matters what you can do with eight wheels on.  And even if you can’t skate, you can coach, or you can ref,  you can take photos, or you can do stats/penalties/timekeeping, you can mascot, you can be a superfan, you can announce.  And there’s a place in the derby world for you if you just show up and claim it.

By the skater… The phrase is so ubiquitous we almost don’t know what it means anymore, but however you frame it, this is our sport and we have made it what it is.  It is about empowering people who have no idea what power feels like, and it is about making something awesome happen out of almost nothing, and making it better and better while not losing sight of where we’ve been.

And when something is wrong, you speak up and fix it.  We made this up, and we can make it better.  In the real world, we spend a lot of time waiting for permission to do things.  We sit around and wish the world was different; wish the government weren’t so corrupt and bureaucratic and tied up with corporate interests, wish racism weren’t still alive and well, wish women and queers were free to behave as poorly as white men get away with…. But in derby, if something is wrong we have the chance to step up and fix it.

Power in derby does not look like power in the rest of the world.  Power here is internal strength.  Power is something claimed for yourself, and nothing that can be given or taken away.  Leaders come from among us – those who have claimed the authority and self-possession of the amazing person they were created to be, or those who want the chance to grow into it.  We have different gifts, but we all have the opportunity to claim them and let them shine.

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And that’s a threat to the world out there.  A lot of people are invested in the way the world defines power – the hierarchies and bureaucracies and the “power” that is earned by trampling more vulnerable people under your feet and hoping desperately that no one points out your own vulnerabilities.  People who question that sort of power end up dead, whether by assassin’s bullet or execution (crucifixion).

Because Jesus preached that the kingdoms of this world have no authority over us.  We are invited to be citizens of something greater.  A world where all the f-cked up things are made better, made good, made whole again.  And that kingdom is “at hand” – it is not just close, it is within our grasp, and it is within our power to make it real, here and now.

And the kingdom of God is full of paradoxes.  It is the tiny seed, the yeast growing like a fungus until it takes over, the weak becoming powerful, and the sick, the blind, the despised, being healed and discovering a strength they never knew they had, healed by their connection with God and one another, and together being a new thing.  It is that little germ of a vision, an experience of the divine that creeps out and starts bleeding into all parts of life until it takes over.

Which sounds a lot like roller derby – that secret identity you discover on the rink and claim and grow into until becomes you, until you are Amelia Dareheart or Harper’s Fury or Marie Antoithreat or Spinal Snap or Mariah Scary in every corner of your life.  That strength fills your bones and you’re not the same person you used to be, because you are strong and you are full of God, of your own power, of the skills and passion you never knew you had.

And we screw it up sometimes.  A lot of the time.  But we can try again.  And we can constantly say to the “real world” that this is not how we want things to be, not how God wants it, not how it should be, and we’re going to build something different.

The kingdom of God is at hand, and we can make it happen.  We can reach out and grab it, incarnate it in any old skating rink or abandoned warehouse or big corporate convention center.  We have a vision of a new thing, and we are going to make it happen.  It will be imperfect, it will come in fits and starts, but we are going to try.  We have discovered how strong we are, and there is no stopping us now.

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