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LGBTQ Pride Month: Praying at the Intersections

Same-sex sexual acts have been legal nationwide in the United States only since 2003. Read that sentence again—I identify as a gay man and even I am shocked by how recent that is. That moment came as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

As LGBTQ Pride Month launches today, it might be helpful to recall why that case in 2003 mattered so much and also why it’s still important that faith communities pay attention to this history. Not only to the history but also to the crucial intersections this month invites for our commitments concerning racial justice and gendered equity, and still more, for ecological renewal.

First, let’s recall this: prior to 1962 in the United States, same-sex sexual activity was illegal in all 50 states and punishable by fine or imprisonment or coerced psychiatric hospitalization and electroshock therapy. (The term “homosexuality” itself was invented by nineteenth-century medical researchers and carried with it the stigma of pathology that could in theory be “cured” or reversed.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the police routinely raided gay bars and lesbian clubs and arrested patrons merely for gathering there. These laws changed slowly, state-by-state, until a series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1996 and 2015 finally decriminalized “homosexuality” nationwide and granted same-sex couples full marriage equality.

A turning point in that history came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back when the police raided that bar. The “Stonewall Riots” launched the modern gay liberation movement in the United States in new ways. Anniversary marches began the very next year, and by 1971 more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and Europe remembered that watershed moment with “Pride Parades.” Today, those celebrations and rallies occur all around the world and in nearly every town and city in the United States. Embracing these public expressions of sexual identity with pride is an attempt to reclaim human dignity after decades of being shamed or coerced into silence.

Rather than supposing that “pride” is a “deadly sin,” as many religious communities have long taught, some embrace pride as a path toward flourishing; in contexts where self-denigration and violence are expected, pride is actually lifesaving. This has also been true in various ways for communities of color struggling against structural racism and for women grappling with patriarchal structures of oppression.

“Between Worlds,” Delita Martin

While gender, race, and sexuality are distinct aspects of everyone’s identity, they also overlap and intersect in some complex ways. Indeed, those “intersections” can help all of us appreciate our own multiple layers of identity and how labels simply fail to express fully the richness of human life and relationships.

Anne Sisson Runyan helpfully reminds us that paying attention to the “intersections” isn’t just about adding layers of identity, one on top of the other, like a big stack of labels. As she notes, “women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women. In this sense, gender is always ‘raced’ and race is always gendered.”

As a white man (albeit a gay one), I had a lot of trouble appreciating that sense of racialized gender when I first encountered it; but of course, people of color get it right away. As Runyan explains, “racialized sexist stereotypes of white women portray them, under the still-prevailing legacy of the Victorian age, as passive, physically weak, undersexed, and needful and deserving of protection. In contrast, racialized sexist stereotypes of black women…under the still-prevailing legacy of slavery and colonization, construct them as aggressive, physically strong, oversexed, and undeserving of protection.”

Attending carefully to the rich diversity of human experience eventually expanded “gay liberation” to include “lesbians,” and then “bisexuals,” and more recently “transgender people” in cultural and religious efforts for justice and inclusion. These labels, however, don’t work for everyone. Many African Americans, for example, adopted “same-gender loving” or “SGL” in the 1990s as a way to distinguish themselves from primarily white notions of “gay and lesbian.” There is also a long history among indigenous peoples in the Americas of using the term “two-spirit” as a way to name how gender and sexuality don’t fit into the neat binary boxes that often accompany European ways of describing the world. And still others prefer the word “queer” as a way to name their experience of not “fitting in” with any modern categories and expectations.

“Renewal,” Nancy Desjarlais

The complexity (and the richness) of these intersections grow when we expand this kind of analysis to include other species and the wider worlds of intertwining ecosystems. Leah Thomas is the founder of the online resource hub for Intersectional Environmentalism and writes compellingly about the urgent need to foreground the lives, experiences, and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in movements of ecological renewal.

“Innocent Black and brown people are the most impacted by climate change,” Thomas writes, “but those same people are not present in environmental policy.” Just as race and gender are often co-constructed, environmental activism is typically populated with white people and actions are directed toward locations where predominantly white communities are affected. As Thomas notes, the health and vibrancy of BIPOC communities around the world are the only adequate standard by which to assess our progress on ecological renewal as well as the degradations we’re inflicting on ecosystems.

Given the history of religious condemnation of LGBT people, communities of faith bear a particular responsibility to promote social justice and to respect the full dignity of every human being, and indeed, of all creatures of the same God. “Pride Month” is an opportunity to make that commitment visible and intentional in every way we can and at as many intersections as we can name.

All Saints’ Parish, where I have the privilege to serve as the rector in Saugatuck, Michigan, will be “praying at the intersections” of human identities this month and endeavoring to appreciate in deeper ways the rich diversity of God’s creation, especially when gender, race, sexuality, and ecological renewal all coincide and overlap and intersect.

We will also be posting profiles on our Facebook page of LGBTQ pioneers in the Episcopal Church as well as artists who come from “two-spirit” indigenous communities in the United States. I hope and pray that these posts can elicit the complex beauty that arises from the intersections, those potent locations where God’s handiwork shines brightest when the fullness of our diversity is embraced and cherished.

“Harmony,” Alima Newton
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Easter and Eucharist for Earth

The religious training of my youth was steeped in what I call “escape hatch Christianity.” The subtle and sometimes explicit message from sermons and educational programs and just the ambient spiritual culture of those Western suburbs of Chicago shaped my impression of the Christian Gospel as the means by which we eventually escape Earth for a disembodied place called Heaven.

One can, of course, simply leave such religious images behind, as I did, but they also linger in public policies and in civic organizations and in how communities of all sorts treat Earth and her many ecosystems. If “heaven” is elsewhere, in other words, we can quite literally let this planet go to hell. More than a few books and scholarly articles argue persuasively for precisely those links over the last two or three centuries.

What if, instead, we pray as Jesus taught us, that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” and then live accordingly? That has been a guiding question in (among other places) the social media presence we’ve been cultivating at All Saints’ Parish in Saugatuck, Michigan.

We observed and celebrated Black History Month in February, followed by Women’s History in March. Each stands on its own with its own integrity and significance. Taken together, however, they also frame in vital ways the month of April, which includes Earth Day on April 22–an important opportunity to provide a compelling religious alternative to “escape hatch Christianity.”

To that end, I’m inviting the parish to observe April as “Mother Earth Month,” for which both Black history and women’s history offer important insights. The history of the United States, for example, is marked throughout with the painful white/black divide and the sometimes violent segregation of Black people; this is not unlike the various ways in which modern Western culture has segregated itself from the vibrant ecosystems of the planet, setting humanity apart from and above all other animals.

“Mother Earth,” Starr Hardridge

Likewise, patriarchal societies perpetuate male dominance by subjugating women in both overt and subtle ways (just one among many of these ways in the U.S. is through income inequality; today, women make just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes). These patriarchal dynamics are replicated in humanity’s relationship to Earth, especially in modern Western culture in which the planet is objectified (just as women’s bodies are by men) and Earth’s natural resources are decimated.

April also marks, of course, the season of Easter as Christian communities celebrate with great joy the raising of Jesus from the dead and the assurance this provides that divine love is stronger than death itself. How might this Easter promise provide an occasion for considering the role played by ecological healing and renewal in Christian faith and in our celebration of new life? As part of that intention, we will celebrate Earth Day as a parish on Sunday, April 25th, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

In social media, especially on Facebook, we will also feature Native American artists each week and their portrayals of humanity’s relationship to the beautiful web of ecosystems on this planet. As a primarily white congregation here in Saugatuck, we want to avoid romanticizing indigenous communities and also resist treating them as exotic “others.” At the same time, many Native American tribes have historically lived in greater harmony with Earth and other-than-human animals in ways that have much to offer to the wider world. We pray such offerings might be received gratefully so that all God’s creatures might thrive and flourish on this “fragile earth our island home.”

May we find over the course of this month that Christian hope has nothing to do with escaping from this planet to a disembodied place called “heaven” but rather inspires the longing for that day when Earth will become fully the heaven of new life God has promised by raising Jesus from the dead.

“Mother Earth,” Angela Babby
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Flowers Delivered and Hell Harrowed: The Everyday Rhythms of Hope

It’s an early Saturday morning. Gentle rays of sunshine are trickling through stained glass, kaleidoscoping around the baptismal font. I lift the wooden lid from the font and liberate a small spider who had wandered in there, who knows how long ago; the stone hasn’t felt water’s blessing for some time.

I unlock the front door of the church to help Mary bring in the Easter lilies from her car; she’s perfectly named for this occasion. Mary co-directs the altar guild and there’s work to be done, even when the sanctuary will remain mostly empty of people tomorrow and we stream prayers and chants and bread and wine through pixelated images into people’s homes.

Margie and David were just here and we all looked for David’s glasses; he thought he might have left them in the sanctuary after preaching one of the Good Friday homilies yesterday afternoon. We looked in the sacristy but didn’t see them anywhere amidst all the religious hardware strewn about, the candlesticks and altar books and kneelers and linens that had been stripped away from the Altar on Thursday evening.

Tom arrives, and then Valerie, all of us in casual Saturday morning garb—I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and the leather jacket I bought with my mother at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sixth anniversary of her death was this past Wednesday, and the rectory has been filled with the smell of roses since then; Bobbie and Margie brought the roses to me that afternoon, to help me mark that mid-week moment.

It’s a wonderfully strange day, this Saturday that sits betwixt and between, this day of ordinary patterns of everyday life that carry charged particles of hope and anticipation.

Not somewhere else, but here; not in some other time, but right now God moves and stirs among us. Holy Saturday reminds me every year about this everyday character of Christian hope. The drama of Maundy Thursday and the heartache of Good Friday have unfolded with whatever poignancy they hold for each of us still and then…Saturday. There’s cleaning to be done, some fussing with flowers, returning fair linens to the Table, freeing a spider from a dry font.

Meanwhile, as early traditions would have it, Jesus is not quietly dead in his tomb nor merely resting on this day but busily harrowing Hell. Descending among the dead, he tramples Hell’s gates beneath his pierced feet—the gates are destroyed, not only so no one need ever enter through them again but also to ensure that everyone there is freed—every single one.

One of my favorite icons of this underworld drama depicts Jesus yanking Adam and Eve from their graves, both of them apparently startled and maybe even a tad reluctant, unsure of what this new life might mean.

I appreciate that reminder, too: resurrection is not resuscitation, but something utterly new and fresh and disorienting. And also this: no one is left out of this shocking newness and no one is left behind.

Not a single one.

Harrowing of Hell, Church of the Holy Savior, Istanbul

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The Good Friday of Solidarity and the Vulnerability of God

The story Christians tell on this day, this Friday we insist on calling “good,” is quite familiar. The story is familiar not only to those who have attended church our whole lives or who have the read the Bible through many times, but even to those who may have never attended church or read the Bible even once.

Crucifixion was actually very common in the ancient Roman Empire. It was one of the tools deployed by imperial power to maintain control over unruly provinces. There were times in that period of Israel’s history when the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with dozens and dozens of crosses, rebels and agitators hanging from them. Anyone who has ever feared state power or law enforcement knows this story.

“Stations of the Cross,” Ben Denison

We should note as well the sexual shame and humiliation that was likely part of this moment of physical torture. We don’t often think about that because it’s not mentioned directly in the biblical text; the biblical writer didn’t have to mention it because first-century readers would have known quite readily that aspect of this form of execution.

As one scholar has noted, “a striking level of public sexual humiliation” was most likely part of this story, what we would today classify as sexual assault, with all the bodily degradation it would have carried both then and now. Far too many people today and throughout human history know exactly what that kind of shame feels like.

There are other reasons why this story is so familiar—it’s so thoroughly human. Is there anyone who hasn’t known at least some kind of betrayal from a friend? Hasn’t everyone felt the fickle loyalties of a crowd, the dread of an angry mob, the terror of a tyrant—whether a neighborhood bully or an imperious thug? Haven’t all of us shrunk from our duties, hid from our obligations, denied our associations with the righteous troublemakers, even just once?

Living through a global pandemic, hasn’t everyone been reminded viscerally of their own mortality? Certainly not everyone has felt it to the same degree—privilege can still blunt the sharper edges of an otherwise precarious life, but certainly not forever.

The arc of this gospel story is, in all these ways, both quite particular and still also universal. This is precisely the source of its transformative power. It’s the familiarity of this story that grabs our attention, how easily it’s recognizable, how quickly each of us can find ourselves in it at least once if not multiple times.

Just there, in its horrifying familiarity, is where we might start to grasp the “goodness” of this day.

I should note first at least two ways in which I have come to appreciate how the story we Christian tell about this day is not “good.” First, it is not good to use today’s story as a way to justify violence as the means to achieve greater purposes. Second, it is also not good to suppose that God the “Father” killed his only “Son” in order to forgive our sins; I actually do embrace the vital notion of atonement as part of the good news of Christian faith, but God doesn’t kill anyone to achieve it.

That point deserves repeating: the purpose of the horrific act of humiliation and torture that Jesus endured is not somehow to placate an angry God; honestly, that’s a monstrous idea. No, what is on display in this violent story is instead a profound and even beautiful moment of deep solidarity between God and God’s creation, between God’s own beloved and us. 

God freely chose to enter into our own vulnerability and fragility, to know it and embrace it. And God freely chose to do this because of unimaginable love.

The poet Sylvia Sands has written about this as she reflected on Jesus falling beneath the weight of carrying his own cross to meet his death. This is what she wrote:

Eat dirt.

We all like to see the mighty fallen.
Here’s God in the dust…

Except…
crumpled and tumbled beneath his cross
he resembles nothing so much as
a child.

Grown-ups don’t fall down, do they?
Well, not often.
Not unless they’re
drunk, crippled, down and out,
mugged, starved, queer-bashed,
frail, raped, stoned,
or plain suicidal.

He’s there in all those of course.

Dear Jesus of the gutter,
Friend to all humankind,
I cannot forget it was Roman feet you saw,
ready to kick you onwards…

Just as later,
your sisters and brothers
would see jackboots in Auschwitz.

So it is hard to watch you squirm,
debased, degraded, filthy,
beneath your cross.

But where and how else could we understand
your solidarity with the dispossessed?

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Jehovah Jireh! God Will Provide a Different Way to Live

These are strange days, an unsettled time of deep anxiety, and yet also, perhaps, a time of emerging potential for a different way to live on this planet, and with each other, and with so many other creatures of the same God.

I have in mind of course this frightening coronavirus pandemic—which is far from over—and the ongoing ecological crisis that threatens countless species (including our own), and also the renewed urgency to address the longstanding pain and trauma of systemic racism fueled by white supremacy in this country. Still more, we are near the end of Pride Month, and today, June 28th, is the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which many mark as the beginning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to notice how the biblical texts many Christians heard today from the lectionary might stitch together these various markers of this current moment. I’ll begin with where I want to end, with the wonderful phrase from the story in Genesis: “The Lord will provide.”

Abraham said that, and it’s the name he gave to the mountain where he was preparing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. At the very last minute, God provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son (Genesis 22:1-14).

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“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio (1602)

I’ll return to that story, but first do notice some things about the other two texts for today, beginning with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Frankly, hearing a passage from Paul during Pride month, especially from his Letter to the Romans, is a bit like pouring a diabolical salt in a religious wound. As you may know, the first chapter of this letter has been a source of great pain and anguish for gay and lesbian people; it has often been cited by those who wish to condemn and exclude LGBT people.

I strongly suspect Paul himself would be truly horrified by such a hateful use of his letter; at the very least, using it that way is a bit ironic given that one of Paul’s purposes in writing this letter is to critique the self-righteousness of the gentile Christians in Rome, and an overarching theme of the whole letter is to praise the God who shows us a wildly extravagant grace and divine generosity in Christ.

So I’m wondering if we might take that stress on grace and map it to what we heard from Matthew’s gospel about a hospitable welcome. It’s a deceptively simple little passage, and also a powerful one about mission, which is something Matthew seems to care quite a lot about.

Matthew’s Jesus is sending out his disciples to do the work of ministry and what we just heard is part of the instructions he gave them. Anyone who welcomes you, he says, welcomes me, and those who welcome me, welcome the one who sent me (Matthew 10:40-42)

This posture of welcome—and I can’t help but use this image—this daisy-chain of welcome sounds infectious. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this when the energy of a welcoming hospitality feels contagious and it spreads in the community—but here it is for life, not death, for breathing not suffocating.

Welcome, hospitality, grace, generosity—these infectious characteristics of a faith community are so important in a society like ours today where so many have experienced religion as hurtful, damaging, and even lethal. Here, in this passage, Matthew frames ministry itself with the hospitable embrace of God, a welcome that is encountered in the unconditional welcome offered by God’s ministers.

This sense of divine grace and generosity offers a much-needed framing for the story about Abraham and Isaac from Genesis. It really is a troubling story. Does God really demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, his only son, the son he loves so much?

No, it turns out, God does not demand it. Set aside all the troubling bits for a moment about God testing Abraham in this story. Please, do not fail to notice that God interrupts that act of sacrifice and provides a ram instead. That’s why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up in my Evangelical Christian home, Jehovah jireh!

That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story. In Hebrew, what we see translated as “The Lord will provide,” is just two words. The first is what’s known as the Tetragrammaton, or the very name of God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; to this day, Jews generally don’t try to pronounce that name—it’s not entirely clear how one would pronounce it, actually, but they don’t try mostly out of a sense of piety, of deep respect for the Name itself. So instead they substitute “The Lord” wherever God’s name appears in the text, which many English translations today also do.

The second word, yireh, actually means “to see.”
God sees.
God will see to it.
The Lord will provide.
Jehovah jireh.

This phrase became much more important to me than I ever imagined it would when I came out as a gay man as a young adult. That same Evangelical tradition made clear that I was faced with a significant choice: either sacrifice my sexuality for my faith, or sacrifice my faith for my sexuality, but I couldn’t have both.

No, that’s not true. Jehovah jireh. God will provide another way.

Remarkably, I believed this as a young adult—and thank God I believed it because many who don’t end up taking their own lives, even to this day.

I believed God would provide another way to live, a life in which I could love Jesus and still be gay. Lo and behold, God’s grace is even more wildly generous as I managed to live a life far richer than even that; I became a better Christian because I’m gay, and that has shaped a wonderful fruitful life of writing, teaching, preaching, and activism.

  • So whenever religious leaders and faith communities insist on sacrificing their own LGBT children for the sake of doctrinal purity, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever politicians insist that our elders and grandparents must be sacrificed for the sake of the economy—remember calls for exactly that at the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic? Whenever we hear that we can and must say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever multinational corporations insist on sacrificing entire ecosystems to ensure profits shareholder value, we can say No. Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way.
  • Whenever the institutions rooted in systemic racism insist on sacrificing black and brown bodies we must rise up and say No! Jehovah jireh—God will provide another way for us to live together in peace and with justice.

It turns out that God provides another way by inspiring white people to do our homework and become better allies for our siblings of color; and by inspiring economists to come up with different models for sustaining our common life; and by inspiring whole communities to rally around their most vulnerable members to protect them from viral infection; and by inspiring straight, cisgender people to march with us queer folk in pride parades, and accompany us to wedding banquets, and to honor whatever gender anyone wishes to manifest in the world.

Jehovah jireh—God provides all these other ways to live, and more, for the sake of thriving, flourishing life, and not just for some but for all.

The world is hungry for that reassurance, for that good news, for even just the possibility that religious traditions are up to the challenge of this present moment. Indeed, people are desperate to learn how to tap into the deep wells of faith, hope, and love.

Let us encourage each other as people of faith with those words of an ancient faith: we may not know what the future holds, and indeed, we have no idea what the future will bring. But somehow, someway, God will provide.

welcome_rainbow_church

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The Good News of Easter: Disorienting, Unsettling, Terrifying

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

You might guess that I’m describing our current lockdown condition during this Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps. But I might also be describing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Here are those same words, again; think about them in relation to Easter:

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

Easter is a very peculiar season, and the stories about the risen Jesus are some of the strangest stories in the Bible. So strange, in fact, that these stories simply wouldn’t be suitable for Hollywood blockbuster movies; the biblical storytellers refuse to give us the kind of neat and tidy endings big movie directors crave.

alexander_ivanov_magdalene

Mary Magdalene and Risen Christ (Ivanov)

Imagine with me a director trying to film scenes from, say, John’s account of Easter:

Cut! Hey, Mary, you know what? Just go ahead and touch him! No, really. I’m wanting the soundtrack to build right there toward a big crescendo, and we can’t have Jesus just wandering off! Could you hug him, or something?

Or this:

Cut! Hey, Thomas! For heaven’s sake, don’t put your finger in there! That’s gross! Speaking of which—makeup! Get over here! Could you make that scar look a little less…I don’t know…icky? We’re going for happy here, not macabre!

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“Doubting Thomas”

The oddness of these Easter stories and the oddness of this virus lockdown—what might one have to say to the other?

The story many heard yesterday in church for the third Sunday of Easter offers at least three things that might illustrate particularly well the unsettling and therefore hopeful character of Easter. The story comes from Luke, and it features two disciples of Jesus on a road toward a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples are then joined on their journey by a stranger. Those familiar with the story know that this stranger is none other than the risen Jesus. But don’t rush ahead to Emmaus quite yet. Pause and ponder this rather curious feature that shows up in other accounts of the resurrection as well: even Jesus’ closest friends don’t recognize him.

We’re not told why Jesus is unrecognizable and there could be multiple reasons. But it seems to me that the unrecognizable Jesus is one way for the Gospel writers to remind us that the risen Jesus is not a ghost nor is he a resuscitated corpse; he is instead something new.

Pope Leo the Great pondered this back in the fifth century and suggested that the hearts of these disciples burned within them along that road, as Luke describes it, because they caught a glimpse of “their own glorified humanity.” We do not yet know, in other words, what the fullness of human life in all its flourishing actually looks like, and yet that is precisely what God intends for us all, a life of thriving into which the risen Jesus leads the way.

A second feature of this story is hospitality. But here again, it is not the welcoming of what is known and familiar that Luke describes but instead the increasing intimacy of these disciples with a stranger—sharing with the stranger their inmost anxieties and griefs, and then extending an invitation to lodge with them, and finally sharing food with this stranger. Not just in the breaking of bread, in other words, but in this whole arc of extending hospitality, the risen Jesus eventually becomes known.

And third, this risen Jesus who eventually becomes known in this story is also the one who quickly disappears. Without so much as a teary embrace for a stunning reunion or a “Whoa! It’s really you!” from the disciples, Jesus simply vanishes.

All of our grasping after God, all of our yearnings for certainty just slip through our fingers, like trying to catch water with a net, as one theologian puts it. Whatever the future of God’s promise of new life holds for us, it won’t be reducible to the known objects of our faith, not even the most familiar and cherished ones, the ones we can control and manipulate.

Many biblical writers and theologians of all kinds return to this cautionary note quite frequently, the caution against idolatry. As Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, centuries ago, “concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

So I’ve been pondering these and other features of a very disorienting set of stories, these stories we hear every year during the Easter season and that we insist on calling “Gospel,” or good news. And it occurs to me that the news of Easter is truly good not because everything is put back in exactly the way it was before, but because everything is made new.

As Christians, we are not baptized into nostalgia; we are baptized into the hope of the “new creation,” the first fruits of which God gives to us by raising Jesus from the dead—a Jesus we cannot at first recognize, a Jesus who becomes known to us by extending hospitality to a stranger, a Jesus we cannot seize and put on display like a museum artifact.

Luke spells this out for us, actually, in the opening verses of Part 2 of his account of the Gospel, what we call “The Acts of the Apostles.” There, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Or, we might say, is this the time, Lord, when you will make America great again?

I’m not trying to be politically partisan here because, indeed, the urgency to return to so-called “normal life” in this country infects both sides of the political aisle. And Luke would urge us to resist it mightily. Luke is pretty clear about this: the Gospel doesn’t restore anything at all but instead, as he says toward the end of Acts, it “turns the world upside down” (17:6).

A recent editorial in the New York Times noted something similar, and rather pointedly: the United States was already suffering from severe pre-existing conditions long before this novel coronavirus arrived to our shores. This pandemic has simply made those conditions starkly and painfully visible, whether the shameful gap between rich and poor, the shocking fragility of our health care system, the house of cards called our economy, the near-total disregard for ecological sustainability and vitality—these are just a few of the features of what many assumed was “normal life” and to which we must not return.

Even when we realize the need to go forward rather than back, this in-between moment is filled with anxiety.

Let’s be honest with each other: we are living through a terrifying moment and we can’t see what kind of future it will bring. Luke appreciated this as well. The chapter from which this morning’s story comes begins with the women who discover that the tomb is empty and their first response is terror (24:5).

Whatever new thing God is always bringing about will always startle us, will always make us uneasy, and will sometimes terrify us. This is why, it seems to me, Luke is so keen to narrate new life around a shared table of hospitality, and why so many Christians are so eager to return to the table on Sunday mornings—we need each other as we let go of what has been and try to embrace what is, even now, emerging.

When we do that faithfully, with a posture of hospitality, Luke assures us that we will eventually recognize that future as the dear companion we have always longed for, the love that renews us, and the life that will make us thrive.

emmaus_bonnell

Daniel Bonnell, “Road to Emmaus”

 

 

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Alleluia: The Great Nevertheless

The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection belong among the queerest stories in the Bible—peculiar, strange, and downright odd. They don’t conform to the expected plot of a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a neat, happy ending. The risen Jesus isn’t even recognizable by his closest friends (John 20:11-14) and it’s not entirely clear exactly what he is—he’s clearly not a ghost but not a resuscitated corpse either (Luke 24:39). He is still Jesus but new.

These peculiar stories belong to a larger set of biblical stories that we might group together under “The Great Nevertheless.”

It makes little sense to seek out an obscure nomadic tribe of people, enslaved by a powerful nation, and claim them as God’s own people. Nevertheless, God did so with the ancient Israelites.

Few today would take the humiliating public execution of an obscure itinerant preacher as an occasion for life-changing faith. Nevertheless, gospel writers did so with the story of Jesus.

Not many would look to a ragtag bunch of uneducated day laborers to turn the world upside down, defy government authorities, create new kinds of community, and generate a worldwide movement of countercultural practices. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit did precisely that with Jesus’s followers (Acts 17:6).

I find it easier to see and speak that great “nevertheless” in ancient texts than in my own life and especially in the wider world right now, a world engulfed with a viral fear and anxiety. Easter feels a bit sequestered in theological theory.

In such difficult moments, I am particularly grateful for church. I don’t mean the institutional superstructure; I mean the worldwide community of all those who are the living members of the Body of Christ, all those who can believe for me when I doubt, who can summon joy for me when I’m mired in sadness, who can trust on my behalf when I’m paralyzed by fear, who can shout “Alleluia!” for me so I can hear once again The Great Nevertheless.

On this particular Easter Day, I am also mindful of all those who are separated from families and friends, isolated in their homes or, alas, quarantined in hospital rooms. Few of these can summon enough Easter joy even to imagine speaking an “alleluia”; those on ventilators would be unable to speak it even if they wanted to try. Perhaps especially for all of them, the church throughout the world lifts its collective voice to proclaim an Alleluia! whenever and wherever all these others cannot.

To speak and shout and sing for those who cannot—this reminds of an Easter tradition I learned many years ago when I was in seminary. The liturgy for the Easter vigil in the chapel included something called the “great noise.” It happened upon hearing the presiding priest announce God’s victory over death and the gathered community would make a loud noise with whatever we brought with us: gongs, wooden clappers, kazoos, and especially bells.

As the Great Noise rose up as the Great Nevertheless from the chapel stalls, a seminarian stood outside in the bell tower, yanking on the rope attached to that gigantic bell with all his might. That bell pealed the news of resurrection across the Wisconsin countryside. A dear friend of mine, Cynthia Gill, later wrote about that moment with words I never want to forget:

In the chapel itself an orgy of bells, every person clasping his or her own personal Easter bell, ringing and ringing as though eternal life depended on it. And on through the liturgy, the ringing of bells. With every “alleluia” in a hymn, a chapel-full of arms raised with bells ringing. All the while, Michael [the bell] was joyously tolling—through the baptisms, through the communions, through the Easter party in the dining hall that went on and on into the wee hours of the morning. Children and students, faculty and staff, those who would never ring a proper bell again in their lives, took turns pulling on Michael’s rope with all their might, telling the Wisconsin countryside that their Lord and Savior had burst the tomb, that feasting, not fasting, was the order of the day. The gospel told the story; the bells tolled the story.

“Now I know,” Cynthia concluded, “that if I ever should lose my words, my voice, my vocabulary; if I ever lose the ability to comfort, to argue, to complain, I shall not lose the chance to proclaim ‘Christ is risen!’  For I still keep my little Easter bell close at hand, and come the Queen of Feasts, I too shall ring, ‘Alleluia!’”

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“Michael” the bell at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

I am so grateful for all those who are bolstering my faith and my hope today with the loving acclamation of Easter joy. Their Alleluia is helping me voice the Great Nevertheless for all those who have no voice this morning nor even any bell to ring.

Faith is sometimes (often?) a struggle.
Hope seems just out of reach.
Nevertheless, Christ is risen!

Alleluia.

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Terrifying Freedom, Liberating Service

Freedom—the word and the concept—has been showing up lately on social media, in court cases and congressional hearings, and randomly scattered through presidential tweets. Freedom has been showing up and getting tossed around as if its meaning is perfectly obvious or self-evident. I think it’s much more complex than most people imagine. I also think absolute freedom would be absolutely terrifying.

That is a rather odd thing to say in the United States of America, a country steeped in the language of liberty and individual freedoms as God-given rights. These words need and demand some context.

Especially in Black History month, we must be crystal clear that freedom from slavery is an unqualified good (tour guides on plantation museums still have to say this explicitly to tourists). Let us also be just as clear—as writer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander keeps reminding us—slavery may have ended, but the racial caste system in this country has not. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and mass incarceration, freedom is still only a dream for far too many in this country.

We might also ponder what “free” means in “free-market” capitalism when the whole system is chained to corporate shareholders demanding ever-higher profits and whether we ourselves have nearly as much “freedom” in this economic system as advertising executives would like us to believe we do.

The concept of freedom itself is indeed complex; but why would absolute freedom qualify as “terrifying”?

Just one reason among many: freedom can quickly turn into isolation and alienation, an experience of the world where the only reference point is the self. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was hiking in area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains called the “Emigrant Wilderness,” in terrain similar to the kind that trapped the Donner Party back in the 1840s. I knew the area fairly well but wasn’t paying the kind of attention one should when hiking in a wilderness area; I got turned around, lost my sense of direction, had no map, and could see no trail. I was in a sense utterly free and also thoroughly terrified.

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Emigrant Wildnerness, Sierra Nevada Mountains

Putting this in more positive terms, we humans are creatures who thrive on attachment, on a sense of place and community to provide an anchor in an otherwise tumultuous world; creatures who flourish, not alone, but in networks of relational loyalties and responsibilities. And let me quickly add: such networks cannot be fully duplicated online; the realm of Internet engagement is called virtual reality for a reason. (Some would argue for an important distinction between social media and online communities, but I’m not entirely persuaded by this.)

I worry that the kind of freedom praised in certain segments of American society idealizes a life without any constraint or duty; this romanticized notion of an untamed life of liberty stands in stark contrast to genuine freedom, the kind that enables us to live within proper parameters where we come most fully alive—alive to the self that is in vital relation to others and the land we all share for life.

All of this came to mind as I reflected on what many Christians heard in Church this past weekend from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 30:15-20), a book second only to Leviticus in the minds of many as an example of “legalistic religion,” or faithfulness as mere regulatory control, the Bible itself as the textual chains of constraint chafing against a glorious life of freedom.

It is truly unfortunate that the so-called “Old Testament” in the Bible has been so closely associated in the minds of many Christians with a rigid moralism and, even more sadly, with an image of an angry God. The Hebrew Bible actually offers some of the most tender images of God, the God whose heart breaks over injustice, who lures and woos the creation into loving relationship, who longs for intimacy and communion.

We might recall the context of that passage from Deuteronomy: God has liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and guided them through the wilderness for many years, and has now brought them to the brink of the “promised land.” Right there, on that brink, God gives them the law through Moses.

Notice that freedom from their life of bondage in Egypt does not mean the freedom to do whatever they please; it means instead the freedom to be in covenant with God.

The stakes are high at this juncture in the story of ancient Israel; the people have a choice to make, the choice is between blessings and curses, between life and death. “Choose life” is the repeated exhortation in this passage,  where full, thriving, flourishing life is intertwined with a conscientious observance of the Torah, of the law—an observance that binds us to each other and, as this text also makes clear, to the land itself, apart from which we simply cannot live.

Absolute freedom can indeed be absolutely terrifying, in part because we cannot know who we are apart from the others with whom we share an identity, the ones who make us who we are. And that is exactly what ancient Israel’s covenant with God was meant to foster—we cannot be who we are alone.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., declared more than fifty years ago, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It is no mere coincidence, then, that the rhetoric of absolute freedom is accompanied by an epidemic of loneliness and despair, increasingly self-medicated with opioids or suicide. Untethered from others, from community, from the land itself, we die.mlk_beloved_community

The stakes are just as high for the gospel writer called Matthew, from which Christians also heard on Sunday (Mt. 5:21-37). Perhaps more than the other three gospelers, Matthew will not let us separate Jesus from the religious observance of Israel.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, especially as Martin Luther framed it, many Christians think of Christian faith as a contrast between “law” and “Gospel,” or between “works righteousness” and “grace.” These contrasts aren’t wrong, but a bit too stark. Matthew’s Jesus interrupts those refrains with a bracing refrain of his own, one that should give us pause: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

That’s a really important “but” and it is not a repudiation of the law. To the contrary, each time Matthew’s Jesus offers that pairing, observing Torah suddenly becomes more difficult not less. Paraphrasing Matthew’s challenge might sound like this:

  • Do not suppose you are free of social obligations simply because you haven’t killed anyone, as if that suffices to build community—embrace instead a much deeper duty, the kind that heals anger and forgives faults.
  • Do not suppose you are living in a healthy marriage just because you haven’t had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse—recognize instead what lust actually is, the urge to own and control another human being like a commodity.
  • Do not suppose that justifying a divorce with the letter of the law releases you from caring about the welfare of your divorced partner—especially if that person is a woman in a patriarchal society.

Absolute freedom can be absolutely terrifying because we truly do belong to each other—not only contractually or legally but, as it were, organically, like branches that cannot live without the vine.

I think of this whenever I gather around the Eucharistic table. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, Eucharist is about salvation and also covenant; it’s about liberation for sure, and still also obligation; it is certainly about freedom, and therefore, it is also about belonging—to God and to each other—and not just the others we like, but the ones we don’t understand, who irritate us, even those who try to thwart on our own thriving. We all belong to each other.

Quite early in Christian traditions, in the first couple of centuries, theologians wrote about salvation in terms of freedom. What God accomplishes for us in Christ, they wrote, is freedom from sin, death, and the devil—not so that we can then do whatever we please without constraint, but rather so that we can be free to serve Christ as living members of his Body.

The contrast worth pursuing here is not between “law” and “gospel,” but between a terrifying freedom and a liberating service, the kind that frees us from competition, revenge, and the corrosive effects of hate—which I take as helpful synonyms for “sin, death, and the devil.”

Table fellowship becomes ever more important in a world of increasing fragmentation—tragically disguised as “freedom”—and violent forms of tribalism—mistaken embraced as “liberty.” Eucharist instead bears witness to the hope of genuine, life-giving freedom, the kind that unites us to God-in-Christ, binds us to each other, and secures our service to this precious Earth.

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The Lamb of God in the Beloved Community

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.

It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.

I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.

This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.

All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).

That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.

What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):

We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.

Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.

A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.

Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.

For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.

This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.

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After defying an injunction against protesting, King, with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center) and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left) were arrested and put in solitary confinement in a county jail in Birmingham, AL, on Good Friday 1963.

Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.

King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.

What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.

Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?

To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.

The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.

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Manger Matters: Shedding Light on the Shadow of Shame

In the Christian tradition of my youth, Christmas always anticipated Good Friday and Easter. Jesus was born in order that he might die for our sins; the manger mattered, in other words, merely as a means to a greater end—the cross.

Stressing the significance of the cross is certainly not “wrong,” but I have become convinced how inadequate that one symbol is to meet the multivalent challenges of being human. The manger matters all on its own, a vital symbol of the hope we now need for the flesh—our flesh as humans, the flesh of all other animals, and the fleshy body of Earth.

Ancient storytellers remind me of this, especially in the multiple ways one can read the so-called “fall” of humanity in the opening chapters of the Bible. That classic story is not only about guilt, but just as much about bodily shame—“who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11) How one reads that ancient story shapes how one celebrates Christmas. Atonement, for example, cannot heal our bodily shame; perhaps the only thing that comes close is Incarnation, the divine embrace of the flesh that so many of us treat so casually, at best, or worse, hatefully and violently. (I wrote about this in my 2013 book, Divine Communion. I offered some Christmas reflections based on that book when it was first published.)

John’s account of the Gospel makes incarnational hope explicit, declaring that the divine Word became flesh (1:14). I’ve been wondering recently how else that particular account can become a source of healing for our shame, an assurance of God’s own solidarity with us in the flesh. John is certainly not shy about multiplying the metaphors we might use to invite bodily encounters with God; how might such an invitation shape your Christmas celebration?

For these Twelve Days of Christmas, I offer here a canticle based on the full arc of John’s account of the Word dwelling among us. I offer it with hope for the world’s healing, with prayers for divine blessings on all of God’s creatures, and as a reminder of the dearness of flesh itself, which God so tenderly cradled in a manger.

Light of the World

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