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The Jewishness of Jesus for a New Year of Courage

January 1, New Year’s Day, repeatedly blinks and flashes on the secular calendar like a giant reset button. It’s the opportunity and the invitation to start over and start fresh.

On the Christian calendar, this day sits roughly in the middle of the twelve-day Christmas season – roughly for more than one reason. In some traditions, this day is celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. This is, after all, the eighth day of Christmas, and Jewish male children are circumcised and receive their names eight days after birth.circumcision_jesus_rothenberg

Most contemporary liturgical calendars, however, call this day something else; they obscure that genital wounding by calling it instead the “Feast of the Holy Name.”

Well, that got tidied up pretty quickly…

I have to wonder: Does renaming this day reflect an ongoing discomfort with the genitals of Jesus or even acknowledging he had genitals at all or about human sexuality more generally or perhaps how easily bodies can be wounded? Probably a bit of each.

This somewhat peculiar moment in Jesus’ life seems particularly appropriate as we enter a new year in a deeply divided and anxious country. It matters to suppose that the divine Word of God is manifest not only in all the peculiar things specific to a particular human body but also in all the complex and fleshy entanglements of a human society.

Circumcision, as early Christians argued, confirmed the genuine humanity of Jesus, but it did more than this; it marked – quite literally carved – a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity in a province of the Roman Empire.

As theologian Graham Ward puts it, theology always entails a “cultural politics.”*

But we need to say far more than that and much more directly: it’s a cultural politics that comes with a wounding of the flesh.

As we’ve been seeing for some time now, a renewed wave of identity politics is sweeping across this country, fueling a severe fragmentation of our society, revealing painful wounds and old scars that many carry on their own bodies.

Two of the more recent examples: plans are underway for a neo-Nazi march in a small town in Montana later this month, quite specifically targeting the town’s Jewish residents. And this past week, in Chandler, Arizona, a Jewish family erected a menorah on their front lawn – this being the season of Chanukah – and someone refashioned it into a swastika.

These hostile if not hateful sentiments are not new, but their expressions are newly visible in a cultural climate that now seems so much more tolerant of these things than it ever should be.

We must not let this become normal.

Given the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, there has never been a good time to brush aside the Jewishness of Jesus – erasing circumcision from the name of a Christian feast day risks doing precisely that. But we need to say much more than that given the cultural climate right now in the United States.

Christians need to be proactive and vocal about our indebtedness to Judaism, about our ancient though certainly contested kinship with Jews, about the people of Israel living under the first-century imperial occupation of Rome as the very location for God to dive headlong into the beautiful and messy poignancy and bloody cultural politics of human life.

This is, I believe, just the beginning of the kind of courageous witness Christian communities will need to offer in the weeks and months ahead – about ethnicity, about race, about religion, about sexuality and gender – all the intertwined complexities of what it means to be human together and in which the Word of God was and is pleased to dwell, in the flesh.

The familiarity of these seasonal stories at this time of year might still inspire us for the challenging work ahead, especially if we hear these stories in all their scandalous peculiarity. Later this week we’ll celebrate the Epiphany – Persian astrologers presenting extravagant gifts to a Jewish baby born in poverty. It’s hard to imagine a more counter-cultural story for this American moment.

It has always mattered and it’s soon going to matter quite directly for Christians to insist that bodies matter. And I believe the present moment demands as much specificity as possible in our insistence – no mere embrace of bodies in general or some abstract theory of the goodness of embodiment will do. As a short list, we must insist on this:

  • Black flesh and bodies matter.
  • The flesh and bodies of migrants and refugees matter.
  • The flesh and body matter of the eight-year old transgender boy who was just kicked out of the cub scouts.
  • The flesh and bodies of the Native Americans at Standing Rock matter as they seek to protect the flesh and body of Earth.
  • The flesh and bodies of other-than-human animals with whom we share this planet, they matter, too, as equally the cause of God’s ceaseless delight – they, after all, were among the very first witnesses of Jesus’ birth in a barn.

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I return to the Eucharistic Table week after week in my little Episcopal Church for many reasons. One of them is to find the courage to love in a world of hate, and to remember (again and again and again) that my own flesh and body matter.

In many ways, the Eucharist is my weekly “reset button” for my own life, starting over and starting fresh by encountering divine love once again in the flesh.

Perhaps on this Feast of the Holy Name we can reset the calendar by remembering the holy names God uses for us, for all of us – names like Delightful, Cherished, Beloved.

 

* Graham Ward, “On the Politics of Embodiment and the Mystery of All Flesh,” in The Sexual Theologian, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood

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A Standing Rock Thanksgiving

A recent social media meme pointed out the terrible irony of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at a time when Native Americans are being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures.

I would add two more words to describe that confluence – fortuitous and Eucharistic.

I realize the risk in both of those words just now, especially a Christian liturgical word that has carried so much colonial and neo-colonial baggage, a religious rite that traveled with conquerors and pioneers who scattered, decimated, and killed the native tribes on the very land those same tribes now seek to protect. I take this risk hoping the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock will inspire more communities to engage in courageous and decisive action at the intersection of racial history and ecological fragility.standing_rock1

I fuel this hope, especially at this time of year, by remembering that Christian faith began not with a text or a doctrine or an institution, but with radical social practice – table fellowship. As the gospel writers portray it, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the wrong people.

Who sat at your table – and whose table you joined – mattered a great deal in that first century society, nearly as much as the character of your sexual relations. Both food and sex perpetuated hierarchies of social value, relations of power that stratified ancient Mediterranean communities just as they do today. Jesus cast these hierarchies aside – much to the ire and even revulsion of many in his own community; this eventually cost Jesus his life.

The earliest Christians continued that practice of table fellowship, which they came to call “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At those shared tables, both then and today, Christians do two interrelated things: we remember the violence of a state-sponsored execution and we proclaim a hopeful faith in the God who brings new life from such pain and suffering.

Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth century American philosopher of religion, described a genuine community as a people who share both memory and hope in common. People who share only memory but no hope often fall into a paralyzing despair; people who dwell on hope with no shared memory can easily drift into utopian fantasy. A genuine and indeed beloved community, Royce argued, will always share the intertwining of memory and hope. He applied this description to Christians at the Eucharistic table.

We have some daunting and likely gut-wrenching work ahead of us as Americans living in a deeply divided, fragmented, and increasingly hostile society. The wounds and scars that divide us are not new, of course, but for many white liberals like me, too many of those wounds have gone unnoticed for too long; we have not held enough memory in common and we have lived with too much untethered hopefulness.

America cannot be “great” nor can we move “forward together” without remembering more honestly and bravely how firmly our national roots are planted in a violent past, without hoping for a future in which my thriving and flourishing are inextricably bound up with yours.

The family Thanksgiving table likely cannot bear the weight of that crucial work. Perhaps that’s why our faith communities still matter – our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. Perhaps the standoff at Standing Rock can become the occasion for forging new modes of multi-faith solidarity, a fresh vision of shared tables on sacred land, a way through painful memories toward a hopeful horizon.

Perhaps so – and if so, then white Europeans will once again owe the courageous indigenous peoples of this land a profound debt of gratitude.

(Click here to support the water protectors at Standing Rock.)

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Solidarity in Shame, Hope for Healing

As a white person, I cannot really know how a person of color feels in a white supremacist country like the U.S. As a man, I cannot really know how a woman feels in a patriarchal society.

As a gay white man, I do share at least this much in common with many women and people of color: a deeply embedded sense of bodily shame. Perhaps together we can deepen our collective hope for healing.

I’m tempted to insist that everyone lives with some degree of alienating shame (I think that’s a useful way to read the biblical story of the “fall” in Genesis 3), but the more modest scope suffices to make this point: far too many of us internalize hateful messages and quickly find ourselves awash in self-loathing. Left unaddressed, shame can lead to isolation and depression, or it can spiral outward in gestures of aggression, hostility, and even violence.shame

Witness Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this past Sunday morning. In addition to being a Muslim, he was perhaps secretly gay. If so, what he did still qualifies as a “hate crime” – a crime rooted in his own hatred of himself. Shame, in other words.

LGBT people confront toxic comments at nearly every turn; many of these are hard simply to shrug off and forget. Some of them linger, tempting us to believe their poisonous lies and be ashamed of who we are. We’ve heard some choice ones over the last few days, which are just particularly virulent illustrations of a daily reality. Consider these:

  • The Lt. Governor of Texas apparently believes people like me actually deserve to be shot and killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He tweeted a Bible verse shortly after the massacre in Orlando: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).
  • A supposedly Christian pastor in Arizona rejoiced that there were “50 less pedophiles in the world” but then added this: “The bad news is a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit children into their filthy homosexual lifestyle.”
  • Another supposedly Christian pastor in Sacramento, California, preached the very morning of the massacre that he was sorry more of us didn’t die. He later added this: “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.”
  • And here’s just one international example: a popular meme on Russian social media this week declared that “50 faggots were killed in a bar in the United States. Fortunately no human beings were hurt.”

It’s not that each of these absurdist, nearly melodramatic outbursts or even all of them together are too much for any of us to take; we’ve learned how to be strong and we’ve cultivated a good deal of resilience over the years. No, it is rather how each of these can trigger a lifetime of painful memories that start to build up like plaque in the arteries of our souls – all those times of being called a sissy in grade school, or “devil’s spawn” by a pastor, or a cocksucker in high school, or a fucking faggot on vacation in a gay resort, of all places.

I’m describing here what people of color keep trying to get white people to understand about racist microaggressions, and what women keep trying to get men to understand about sexist objectification, patriarchal dominance, and the cumulative effect of being leered at for years and decades. Jessica Valenti wrote about those leers just recently in the New York Times. She describes their lasting imprint rather poignantly:

For me, it’s not one particular message or adolescent incident that bothers me; it’s the weight of years of multiple messages and multiple incidents. It’s the knowledge that this will never be just one day, just one message, just one hateful person. It’s a chipping away of my sense of safety and my sense of self.

All of these moments and incidents and stray comments burrow deeply into our psyches and sit there, festering in a toxic soup of internalized revulsion and bodily shame. Most of us scarcely realize how many of our daily interactions and even dearest relationships wind up coated with layers of that acrid brew.

No one can heal from all this shame alone since isolation is itself a symptom of shame’s corrosive effects. Only by sustaining deep relationships of mutual love and respect can any of us hope to retrieve for ourselves and among others the joy and dignity for which God makes us all. This is what makes churches and gay nightclubs alike so terribly important. No, these have never been perfect social spaces, not by far, but they have been vital venues where we can start to forge relational foundations for healing.

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In this age of increasing religious and cultural pluralism, we need to work across old boundaries and in new communities far more diverse than we have yet seen or perhaps even imagined. The diversity itself will contribute to the healing we seek. Indeed, we must create spaces where women, people of color, the sexually queer and the queerly gendered, and white, straight, men can all do the hard work together of building a different kind of world — a world in which no one need turn to violence, not as a first nor even a last resort to find some relief from the debilitating weight of bodily shame.

Yes, easy access to guns was the proximate cause of the Orlando massacre. But I suspect and I am quite convinced that its deeper source was Omar Mateen’s unbearable alienation from his own bodily goodness, a spiritual malady from which far too many of the rest of us still suffer.

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Congress to do something about that.

[I have written more extensively on the difference between guilt and shame, and how this matters for Christian faith and social transformation, in my book Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy. Portions of the commentary above are adapted from that book.]

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Keep on Dancing

I know some churches where lots of dancing happens on Sunday mornings.

I know some gay dance clubs where lots of praying happens on Saturday nights.

Turntables

For many years, I failed to notice the deep intertwining of these spaces, the blurring of the categorical lines and boxes that supposedly mark the difference between “sacred” and “secular.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that treated dancing with a great deal of suspicion and attended a college where social dancing of any kind was forbidden. Even after setting aside that religious perspective, I mostly overlooked the glittering sparks of divinity flying off the sweaty bodies of gay dancers and the spiritual glow of otherwise dingy warehouse clubs where we all felt safe, safe enough to be ourselves.

No, more than that: I learned how to be myself in those clubs. I learned friendship and devotion, comradery and betrayal, ecstasy and grief. I kept my sanity on those dance floors in times of anguish and with friends and lovers who likely saved my life more than once. I understood far better what Christian liturgy meant on Sunday morning – and why I should bother going – by dancing with all those other queers on Saturday night.

For years I enjoyed dancing in gay clubs for more reasons than I appreciated at the time. The light of that appreciation dawned brighter one night some years ago on a dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I wrote about that night in my book, Peculiar Faith, and how odd and transformative it was on that particular night and in that particular place to feel completely at home in my body with all those other bodies. With few exceptions, we weren’t dancing as couples that night but all together, each of us dancing with all the others. It was one of the few times in my whole life when I felt, without any doubt, that I truly belonged somewhere.

I felt the Gospel, in other words. I felt the Gospel residing securely and cozily in my very own body.

I don’t mean that gay dance clubs are perfect slices of Eden. They aren’t, and neither are churches. But I did at least touch and taste that night what I have come to believe is the very hope of Christian faith: to be completely at home in our own bodies without any shame, completely at home among other bodies without any guilt, and completely at home with God without any fear – all at the same time.

Experiencing “home” with that kind of depth is sadly quite rare and perhaps becoming rarer still in a world of so much fragmentation and isolation and violence. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the peculiar faith of Christians can rise to meet these yearnings for home; more oddly still, most churches could use some help in that work from gay dance clubs.

From eighteenth-century English “molly houses” to twentieth-century nightclubs, LGBTQ people have persistently carved out spaces of safe haven, gathering with others often at the risk of physical harm. Far more than venues for drinking alcohol and finding sexual liaisons—though that happened too—these spaces of homeward longing catalyzed shared reflection, strategizing, and deep bonds of affection. All of this redrew the cultural and political map of Europe and the United States.

Someone else just recently noted these things about queer spaces as well – the President of the United States. Responding to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Barack Obama noted that gay bars stand for more than dancing; they provide places of “solidarity and empowerment.”

That sounds like Church, or what church could and ought to be. Consider what a friend of mine reported hearing from a speaker at the vigil held in Oakland, California, the night of the shooting. “When they kill black people, they kill them in church; when they kill gay people, they kill them in the clubs.” A voice in the crowd then responded, “sanctuary is sanctuary.”

The purpose of terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, is to terrify us and divide us. Queer people have known this for a long time – and still we gather. The earliest Christians knew this too; and still they gathered to celebrate the mysteries of faith, often under threat of imperial persecution.

This is scary stuff – the very stuff of terrorism. Yet as a wise colleague of mine once said years ago, “You cannot do Christian theology from a place of fear,” he said. “The only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.”

A second-century Christian said mostly the same thing by declaring that “those who do not dance do not know what is coming to pass.”

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, there are many steps we must take to heal and to guard against still more violence. Whatever else we do, though, let us make sure to dance – and hold hands, and share hugs, and kiss each other.

Dancing is not a luxury and it is not frivolous. Dancing is the bodily necessity of joy and the rhythm of courage. And still more: While LGBT people dance for a host of reasons, a thread of commonality weaves all of it together. In a world of oppressive social structures, unwelcoming religious institutions, and constant threats of violence, we dance for hope.

This – in addition to having lots of fun – is why I find dancing with other LGBT people so compelling. We do live in a world of rampant bigotry, physical insecurity, and risks to personal safety; and still we dance, and at times with joy shaking loose from our bodies and gratitude lighting up our faces.

I dance and I see the luminous presence of God.

No shame.
No guilt.
No fear.

Keep on dancing.

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The Ground Cries Out

There’s a lot of blood in the Bible, just as there is the world today. Whether in ancient texts or the daily newspaper, we seem awash in blood.blood_dripping

You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to stumble into blood. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain by saying, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

Couldn’t we say the same thing about the fratricidal madness in Israel/Palestine? What about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? They garner headlines by beheading two Americans but most of their victims are actually fellow Muslims.

There’s plenty of blood closer to home, too. It’s everywhere: the horrifying image of Michael Brown lying on a Ferguson, Missouri, street in a pool of his own blood; the revelation that the Ferguson police department in 2009 actually sued a man they had beaten for staining their uniforms with his blood; every “drive-by shooting” that happens nearly every day in the U.S. spilling still more blood.

I was astonished to realize recently that the FDA still prohibits gay men from donating blood, a policy established in 1983 at the advent of the AIDS crisis. And I do confess: I like vampire fiction, from Brom Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and, of course, television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ( a great source for theological reflection, I have to say).

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula, several characters repeat in mantra-like fashion a key line: “The blood is the life!” That summarizes pretty well an ancient Israelite conviction as well — one we might do well to consider in today’s blood-soaked world.

Blood signaled not merely violence in that ancient society; it was the visible, tangible, taste-able, smear-able, odiferous presence of life. Or rather, precisely because blood is the coursing, flowing presence of life itself, the careless, wanton, violent shedding of it is truly horrific.

This weekend, many Christians will hear from the biblical book of Exodus and about blood, the blood of a lamb smeared on doorposts. It is of course the foundational story for Passover. Most Christians likely also hear in that story intonations of the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and will think about the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God.”

Blood becomes visible with violation or violence, and life is seen, manifested and displayed, even as it is being degraded, demeaned, destroyed. I wonder if we Christians might take that insight with us to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday.

In a world awash in blood, I wonder if we Christians might consider anew what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb of God. Is this conceivable anymore? I think it should be.

As we ingest the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, we take into ourselves the very life of God:

  • We take in God’s own deep solidarity with all victims of violence, made visible in the blood of Jesus spilled by Roman soldiers.
  • We take in God’s unswerving affirmation of life, made visible in the wounded hands of the risen Jesus from which his blood flowed.
  • We take in God’s own participation in the risk of bodily intimacy – the risk for everyone and not just gay men, the risk made visible in Jesus sharing the cup of his life with the one who betrayed him.

As the very life of God courses through our veins and arteries, eventually, perhaps regularly, maybe even daily, this life will be made visible in acts of compassion, generosity, and love. It will declare itself in the refusal to allow, ever again, the body of a teenager to lie in a city street for hours as blood drains from his body. It will manifest itself in a new kind of world devoted to abundant life for all and not just for some.passover_blood_door

It will be as obvious as blood slathered on a doorpost.

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First-Century Ferguson

I do not mean that Ferguson, Missouri, is somehow a first-century locale, especially with all the twenty-first century military gear on display of late to keep unarmed protesters terrorized. I do mean that some first-century Christian insights might help some of us to think a bit differently about race and violence and Gospel in the U.S. today.ferguson_guns

For the last couple of years, I’ve started all of my seminary classes with this: “Christian faith began not with a doctrine, or a text, or an institution, but with a radical social practice: table fellowship.”

To be clear, I am convinced of the importance of teaching, words, and structure in Christianity, but all of that serves but one thing: communion with God and with each other, or table fellowship, in all its many forms.

I’m not an expert on race and racism. I’m a white guy, who enjoys much more privilege than I am actually aware of in my daily life, and I am committed to learning and doing what I can to dismantle racism – my own and this country’s. I am also a Christian theologian, and I do believe that Christian theology and Christian faith and Christian spiritual practice can make a difference in undoing racist structures and animating a vision of thriving life for all.

As a theologian, I try always to be mindful of this: First-century Mediterranean societies were no less stratified than the modern West. Food mattered a great deal back then, more so than in today’s fast-food culture. In the first century, with whom one shared food helped to maintain the strict social stratifications based on gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. Food and sex served the same purpose in those societies: maintaining a social hierarchy of value. Or more simply, some people mattered more than others. (I offer an extended commentary on this very thing in my book Divine Communion.)

First-century Christians, following the example of Jesus, interrupted that social dynamic with a bold move: eating with the “wrong” people. By doing so, they declared that all people matter, no exceptions. (Of course it took them some time to get to that insight and not everyone did, thus St. Paul’s frequent diatribes in his letters…)

I was reminded of that first-century insight by reading Acts 10 just recently. That text has been used often by LGBT people as an ancient analogue for the struggle to welcome sexual and gender diversity in today’s churches. Welcoming Gentiles into that early and mostly Jewish Christian community was cause for significant scandal – and it reshaped the whole movement. But I realized something else from my recent reading of that text, and I’m rather stunned that I hadn’t really considered it before.

In that ancient story, Peter and his Jewish companions spend several days in the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Remember, at that time Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire, In this biblical story, the ones oppressed enjoy the hospitality and the food of their Roman oppressors! More than this, the Spirit is poured out on all of them (Acts 10:44-46)!

So many Christians read that ancient story in a very narrowly theological way; it is also, and just as much, social and political. The story is both because God is social, and thus political.

Can we imagine a wemmaus_supper_contemporaryorld in which white Ferguson police officers sit down and share a meal with African American Ferguson citizens? First-century Christians could imagine that. Can we?

I’m not suggesting a “solution” to the ongoing horror of race relations in the U.S. I am suggesting that finding such a solution will not happen without a table, without shared meals, without the totally irrational, seemingly impossible commitment to eat together. Remember 1950s’ lunch counters? It’s not just accidental that race relations in the U.S. orbit so often around shared food. Thiseucharist_contemporary matters.

This is the heart of Christian faith, in my view: God sets a table for all of us to enjoy. It’s now up to us whether we will sit there, with each other, and with the Other we have been taught either to fear or to despise.

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The Village People on Easter

I confess: I still enjoy dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People, complete with all the goofy hand gestures that accompany each of those four letters. A dance floor filled with people, arms stretched above their heads to make a “Y” – it looks like a prayer meeting.

That song became something like a gay anthem way back in the disco days of the late 1970s. Earlier this year, some activists suggested including that song in the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Sochi, to protest Russia’s stance toward LGBT people. But Victor Willis, the song writer, insisted that he really didn’t have gay men in mind at all when he wrote it.

Willis’ protests notwithstanding, The Village People have endured as gay icons, not least for their costumes. The biker, the sailor, the soldier, the cowboy, tvillage_peoplehe American Indian, the construction worker, and the cop – these hunky cultural stereotypes fueled the erotic fantasies of many gay men (including me). This might make The Village People rather gay, certainly kitschy, but not terribly queer.

Something far queerer happens toward the end of Luke’s gospel account, a story that features another kind of village that many Christians will hear about this weekend, as we always do on the third Sunday of Easter.

emmaus_breaking_breadAn alluring stranger joins two disciples of Jesus traveling along a road toward a village called Emmaus. When they arrive, they invite this stranger to join them at the village inn. There, sitting at table, the stranger breaks bread. In that moment the disciples finally recognize the stranger as the risen Jesus; in that same moment, he disappears (Luke 24:31).

But wait! What happened to the joyful reunion part? If not a Hollywood-style orchestral soundtrack why not at least a hug? Or as Dorothy put it in the Wizard of Oz, “My! People come and go so quickly here.”

Luke’s village people underscore the peculiar character of Christian faith and indeed its queerness. “Queer” not so much for its LGBT sensibilities but for its refusal to give what so many of us want: a clearly defined God we can grasp and control.

Luke set the stage for that moment several chapters earlier, when Jesus appeared in glory on a mountain. There, Peter did what I would have done and excitedly proposed to build a booth, a place to capture and contain the glory (Luke 9:33). But Jesus refused to be boxed in and captured, just as he did in a village called Emmaus.

First-century Emmaus and twentieth-century Village People – together they can remind us about the risks and dangers in trying to categorize, classify, and capture both God and humans. On the one hand, we risk living with little more than an idol, and on the other, all the dangerous cultural divisions drawn by race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender of the kind NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling just recently displayed.

Black men play basketball. Asian women are bad drivers. Gay men lust after American Indians, especially if they just happen to be construction workers. Familiar stereotypes are easily dismissed but they linger, fortifying the categorical assumptions most of us adopt nearly every day.

The familiar made strange.
The reliable unraveled.
The status quo ecstatically undone.

These are the peculiar hallmarks of Christian faith and they invite us into queer moments of encounter. In the midst of what we think we already know – racial profiles, sketchy neighborhoods, exotic cultures, the familiar stench of decay and death – right there strange new life awaits. Queerly enough, according to Luke, hospitality is the best way to see it.

For Luke, it takes a village to raise the ensign of Easter over the familiar categories of our despair. Even The Village People can help when we see their campy costumes as parodies and we dance not with categories but with people, our arms raised in the shape of a “Y” – or even better, as a “V”.village_people_ymca2

God’s victory over death appears when we break bread with strangers, and even more in the courage to dance with them.

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Giving Up Housework for Lent: A Lesson from Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps and housework – I’ve been thinking about both in these early days of Lent and what they might have in common.  I thought about this just yesterday, after hearing the news of Mr. Phelps’ death while I neatly folded laundry and scrubbed the kitchen sink.

Keeping a tidy house makes me happy. I’ve realized lately one of the reasons why. A tidy house distracts me from all those other areas of my life that are decidedly untidy – my neurotic worrying, half-hearted disciplines, and unanswered emails, among many other bits of quotidian clutter. I prefer gazing at my neatly arranged sock drawer rather than pondering a messy psyche.

That preference sometimes turns outward. The latest political sex scandal, the disgraced celebrity, the stupid comment from a pundit – at least I’m not that messy!

Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have done some truly despicable things, most visibly by picketing ordinations and funerals with hateful placards. That over-the-top vitriol, so easily dismissed as ludicrous, can also easily mask the far more subtle but no less corrosive rhetoric from otherwise respectable clergy and churches.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” sounds better than “God hates fags,” but the former has done just as much damage – probably more.

Likeable religious leaders and credentialed experts exercise far more influence over impressionable teenagers and social policy makers than readily identifiable fringe figures like Mr. Phelps. Focusing attention on the overt messiness of Westboro Baptist Church can distract us from noticing what lurks around in the ostensible tidiness of mainline institutions. Cloaking anti-LGBT rhetoric with pastoral concern leaves destructive shame in its wake.

Lent takes courage. This season invites all of us, individually and collectively, to ponder what most of us try to avoid – our own clutter. That avoidance has a long history and a legacy of truly distressing effects. I offered one way to think about that legacy in my recent book, Divine Communion. There I suggest that our longings for intimacy and communion are most frequently interrupted by unaddressed shame. I put it like this:

I find it helpful to define shame as alienation from our own bodily goodness. When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships but also wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations. Expanding circles of shame, in other words, often operate in scapegoat-like fashion to expel the “other” from community—or nailing that “other” to a cross outside the city gates.

I avoid thinking about my own lingering sense of bodily shame by cleaning the house. I wonder how often our churches, our communities, and this nation do the same thing.

Lent isn’t about finally “getting things right” or berating ourselves for mistakes. It is about turning our gaze directly toward the messiness of our lives and finding God there – the God who seeks intimacy and communion with us. Finding our whole selves in that divine embrace will give us fewer reasons to inflict our own wounds of shame on others. This, it seems to me, is the profound hope of the Lenten season and the Easter promise toward which it points: God raises the Wounded One from death.

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I don’t usually post sermon texts here (sermons are performance pieces and difficult to capture in text). But given the recent government shutdown drama, the spectacle of a deeply divided country, and all the horrors generated by a globally divided humanity, I want to share some reflections on what many churches will mark tomorrow, October 27: Reformation Sunday. The texts here are Joel 2:22-32 and Luke 18:9-14. (I’ll be preaching this live at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California at 11am. Join us!)

Many churches – especially Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations – will mark October 27 this year as Reformation Sunday. The last Sundaluther_thesesy of October each year is set aside to commemorate the day, October 31 in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. (You have to be careful how you pronounce that word “theses.” Though of course Luther himself would appreciate a good scatological joke.)

That moment in 1517 was Luther’s line in the ecclesial sand, a watershed moment in what was emerging as the Protestant Reformation. That movement redrew the map of institutional Christianity and therefore also the map of Europe, because it also marked the emergence of what we know today as “nation states” at roughly the same time and for reasons deeply intertwined with Luther’s agitations.

Needless to say, Reformation Sunday does not appear on the liturgical calendar used by Roman Catholics. On the other hand, given what we’ve witnessed so far from Pope Francis, I’d say with gratitude that the reforming spirit seems to be stirring in the Vatican these days as well.

That’s an important reminder, it seems to me, of one of the slogans those early reformers adopted: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, or “the reformed church always reforming.” (And I quote that in Latin because I find it mildly amusing that some Protestant theologians today still like to quote that slogan in the language of the institution their ancestors critiqued.)

More to the point: reformation is not an isolated event, relegated to a distant past some 500 years ago, but is rather part and parcel of what the Church always does – or rather should always do. It’s a reminder, in other words, that just like housework the Church’s work is never really finished. Or in more traditional language, conversion is not a single moment in the life of Christian faith but rather a lifelong process of transformation. Actually, some would say more than lifelong as death marks but one milestone – albeit a significant one – on our journey ever deeper into the life of God.

So I’d like to offer just a few observations about what this seismic shift in Christianity 500 years ago might still offer to our lives of faith today, what this dusty old moment from the past might still offer to that call always to be reforming. And I’m thinking especially of a twin concern shared by many of those early reformers – justification and sanctification. More precisely, being justified, or saved by grace alone through faith, and being sanctified, or transformed in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great theological code words but, really, does this stuff matter?

Actually the Bible might help us find reasons for why these things do matter and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the lectionary texts for today signal the twin concerns I just mentioned. Luke’s Jesus tells a parable about a sinner finding justification before God and the text from the prophet Joel is often associated with the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit. So a few thoughts about each – and seriously, just a few. This topic has filled countless volumes.

First, justification: what in the world is that about? No really, what does this mean? Both the tax collector in Luke’s parable and Martin Luther himself could easily tell us. Luther, you might recall, was an Augustinian monk before launching on his institutional reform project. It was, Luther himself would say, a life of torment. He did everything his religious order demanded and the institutional church proscribed to lead a life of faith – and he was tormented by doubt. He was never fully convinced of his own salvation, he was never satisfied that God was satisfied with his efforts.

Never enough. Never enough. Never enough. … Oh, Martin, how I can relate!

Curiously enough, the turning point in his life came from reading carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther embraced as a sustained elegy to divine grace. The whole point of Christian faith, Luther realized, is not about what we do to justify ourselves but instead how God sees us through Christ, through the lens of divine grace – as cherished, and loved, and forgiven.

(Just a side note for the theology geeks among us: a similarly dramatic turning point occurred in the early twentieth-century life of the pioneering theologian Karl Barth when he also studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans; if you think the only thing to do with that letter is to refute Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter, think again.)

Luke’s parable captures far more concisely what Luther experienced. There Jesus contrasts the religious leader who boasts of all his good works and the tax collector, a despised Roman collaborator and social outcast who bewailed his sinfulness. It was not the clergy person in that parable but the cultural pariah who returned home justified, Jesus says. And that is justification by grace through faith, as Luther declared in his world-changing insight.

I totally identify with both that tax collector and Martin Luther. Oddly enough, I did so especially in the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In that tradition, preachers frequently issue “altar calls,” the invitation to turn one’s life over to Christ and be saved. I did precisely that as a teenager – multiple times. I responded to those altar calls again and again because I worried and fretted that the conversion hadn’t really “stuck.” I had to be sure, I had to know, I had to keep providing evidence that this time I really meant it. This time, God, really, I mean it.

And of course, just like Luther, I had missed the point. It’s not what I do – not even responding to an altar call – but rather what God does, that provides all the justification anyone needs. Or as my liturgy professor in seminary likes to say, we are “drenched” in grace.

Good news, to be sure. But there’s something more lurking around this text that deserves our attention. Luke’s parable is not only about the promise of divine grace; it is of course just as much a parable about not judging others.

No one’s life project is finished. No one has sufficient reason to boast before God. No one has it all figured out.

Or in more traditional language, this parable is calling of us all back to a profound posture of spiritual humility.

By saying that I just provided a classic illustration of a preacher preaching to himself with the hope that it might also be helpful to others. When I am convinced of something, I am not exactly known for sharing that conviction humbly. Yet I do believe we need more of precisely that, both in our political discourse these days as well as our religious circles.

Actually, that’s probably stating the case a bit too mildly. Some would say that the ideological and political divide in our country today is as bad as it has ever been, with each side unswervingly claiming the moral high ground. More still, religious conviction is fueling war and the rumors of war around the globe.boehner-obama

Yet even more: the despicable treatment of lesbians and gay men in Russia; the unabated practice of hanging gay teenaged boys in Iranian public squares; the draconian legislation in Uganda that makes “homosexuality” a capital crime. All of these moments and more spring from absolute religious conviction. Did you see the image of fully vested Russian Orthodox priests throwing stones at marchers in a gay pride parade? If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a scene from a Monty Python movie.

But here’s the thing: Even if I am right about something, I am no less in need of grace than the person with whom I disagree. I am absolutely convinced that those Russian Orthodox priests are wrong. And I need divine grace as much as they do.

I read Luke’s Jesus as offering a not-so-subtle nudge to level the playing field. To do that, I need to revise how I associated myself above with the tax collector. I am just as much the Pharisee in this parable – probably more than “just as much.” And that’s why sanctification and not only justification was so important for the Protestant Reformers.

Martin Luther used a medical analogy to illustrate the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Being justified is like a doctor having just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. The physician pronounces the patient cured (read “justified”) even though the next step is also required for a full restoration to health: a process of rehabilitation (read “sanctified”).

While I find that analogy useful, I have to say that I find it troubling as well. It’s probably a theological hangover from an Evangelical youth, but that analogy comes perilously close to identifying the human condition itself as fatally flawed, or as John Calvin would say, suffering from “total depravity.”

Now, to be sure, there are days when I read the newspaper and think that humanity as a whole is thoroughly and utterly depraved. But I don’t read the Bible that way and I don’t read my friends and colleagues that way. Do I read my detractors and enemies that way, as totally depraved? Of course I do. That’s why Luke’s Jesus makes me squirm.

And that’s why I appreciate that the reformers stressed sanctification as a process. No one’s life project is finished. No one has reason to boast. No one has it all figured out.

And indeed, that’s why Christians keep coming back to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday mornings. We might come to that Table for the reminder of the justification and forgiveness that God has already accomplished in Christ. Even more, we come to the Table to deepen the sanctifying process.

eucharist_contemporaryThis process of meal sharing at this Table invites us to see ourselves ever more clearly as cherished, loved, and forgiven so that we can see everyone else in the same way – everyone, no exception.

We have a long way still to go in that process. But by God’s amazing grace, the reformed church is always reforming.

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Church-Making or Change-Making?

How will we save our churches? Should we?

Like many other clergy and theological educators, I have thought a lot about the first question and not nearly enough about the second.

Membership in mainline Protestant churches, as so many realize, has been declining steadily since the 1970s; many congregations have closed. That trend has accelerated in some regions, even among more conservative and Evangelical churches, which paints an equally bleak future for free-standing seminaries. Graduate-level theological education itself seems vaguely quaint to many, and to others woefully out of synch with a rapidly changing world. (See this analysis from a seminary professor.)

We suffer from no dearth of ideas and programs to reverse all these trends. But I’m still haunted by that second question – should we?

I’m haunted even more by something I heard the late biblical theologian Walter Wink say some years ago. He said it to a gathering of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. This is what he said: “Whenever an institution devotes more resources to its own survival than to its mission, that institution has become demonic.”

I certainly don’t consider Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley “demonic,” which has remained a small mission for each of its 135 years and has faced more than a few moments of possible closure in that history. Yet the congregation has met those moments of anxiety best when it worried less about getting more members in the pews and focused more on how to address the needs of the neighborhood in which those pews sit.

eucharist_contemporaryGood Shepherd helps me to remember that the mission of the Church is not over – because the Church has never had a mission. God, however, does have a mission, expressed in various ways: to gather all peoples on the Holy Mountain where they learn war no more (Isaiah 2:1-4); to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19); and to ensure life in abundance for all (John 10:10) by dissolving the social barriers that divide us (Galatians 3:28) in a city where all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:14).

The question today (as it has always been) is not whether churches will survive but how Christian communities can participate better and more fully in God’s own mission of reconciling love and transformative grace.

After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Tulane University decided not to rebuild. The university decided instead to re-invent itself for hurricane-katrinathe sake of rebuilding New Orleans. “Faculty and staff lend their expertise” to create an educational opportunity for students to engage in the “largest urban renewal project ever undertaken in the United States.” The broader mission of the school derives from that vision: to equip graduates to do that same work in their own communities around the country and the world.

Here’s a thought experiment: Consider the last 100 years as a century-long socio-political hurricane in Western society. In the wake of that devastation, the Church decides not to rebuild but to re-invent itself as a networked hub of spiritual leadership for social transformation. Clergy would still preach, preside over sacraments, and provide pastoral care in this vision. They would do all this, however, not for the sake of making churches but for the sake of remaking society – a world where all can thrive and flourish.

Can church-making serve the kind of change-making the world needs today? That question, it seems to me, could channel institutional anxiety into constructive energy for renewing Christian witness and ministry.

That energy has been percolating for a number of years now. It has inspired some Christians to embrace what Phyllis Tickle has been chronicling so diligently: Emergent Christianity. (See also Emergent Village as well as something a tad edgier here and Darkwood Brew.) A lot of not-explicitly-Christian-or-particularly-religious people have tapped into that energy, too. Some of these are social entrepreneurs or social innovators committed to social change for good (See the Social Capital Markets conference and its newly created people of faith track as well as the pioneering work of Ashoka in higher education.)

hands_collaborationBringing together those worlds of emerging Christian witness and social innovation could catalyze exactly what the world needs – not more institutions but a diverse movement of spiritual renewal and social transformation.

That very possibility has seized the institutional imagination of Pacific School of Religion, the seminary where I teach in Berkeley. A new strategic vision, programming initiatives, compelling partnerships – all of this will unfold in this academic year and has already begun with a cohort of “Changemaker Fellows.”

I’m convinced that theological ideas and spiritual practice play an indispensable role in social transformation. I believe we still need churches and seminaries to provide those resources for leadership. The question all of us need to address much more collaboratively, creatively, and constructively is why, and then of course, how.