Last week, the United Church of Christ’s New Sacred blog posted Jon Berren Propper’s “A Kingdom of Nonbelievers? Maybe.” The blog post takes as a starting point the recent controversy over a United Church of Canada minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has become an atheist but who wants to remain a minister serving a congregation in the UCCanada. From there Propper goes on to ask just how essential having the “right” beliefs should be to building the kingdom of Heaven, and he offers a vision of an inclusive Church that values diversity, love, and action over dogma.
I completely agree with Propper that right belief is often less important than we make it out to be and that churches should be open to all kinds of people who want to explore the common “touchpoints” of the Christian tradition. At First Church Somerville, we are a Christian church where everyone is welcome with whatever beliefs or doubts they may have. I think Propper would feel right at home at here. Our folks come from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds - completely unchurched, Catholic, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, New Age, Spiritual But Not Religious, interfaith, Jewish, Santería, and even (occasionally) cradle UCC. And, yes, we have a number of non-theists, atheists, and atheist Christians who are official members of the church or who are deeply connected attendees and friends of the congregation.
Why would an atheist come to a Christian church? The answers to that question are as diverse as the people themselves. Some come just to be with their families on Sunday morning. Others come because even though they can’t conceive of “God the Father,” they love them some Jesus all the same. Some are “Jeffersonian” Christians who don’t go in for anything supernatural or miraculous at all, but find great value in Jesus’ teachings. Others do “believe” in some sort of God, but just not the anthropomorphized old man in the sky. Others feel their lack of faith in a personal, loving God as an absence or loss in their life, and they show up every week to explore honestly what they can and can’t believe. Others show up for the music. Others show up for the community. The list goes on. But what is true of all of them is that they know that they have options - there are plenty of non-Christian spiritual communities or humanist groups they could join where they could still hear sermons, sing sacred music, celebrate holidays, be in community, and explore their belief systems outside of the Christian context. But for some reason, they have chosen to be a part of this explicitly Christian church.
And this is where I differ greatly from Propper’s take on Rev. Gretta Vosper. I agree that there is nothing “wrong” with not being a Christian, with belonging to another faith tradition, or with being an atheist. But if we are Christians, we must also at the same time affirm that there is something valuable (for everyone) about maintaining explicitly Christian churches and denominations. The identity we claim and are able to offer to people as the Church of Jesus Christ - the identity of Christian, disciple, apostle, Jesus follower - is also good and true and beautiful. Rev. Gretta Vosper, by her own admission and affirmation, is no longer a Christian. In other words, it’s not that the UCCanada has said that because Vosper claims atheistic beliefs, she can no longer call herself a Christian. She has explicitly identified herself as being a non-Christian. Could she be a part of the kingdom of Heaven? Sure. Is she, as a self-identified non-Christian, a suitable person to lead a Christian church or to hold ministerial standing in a Christian denomination? Absolutely not.
Propper writes about how Judaism makes room for participants and leaders of various beliefs and non-beliefs. True. So do many Christian churches. But does Judaism make room for leaders in the Jewish faith who are not Jewish in their identity? Propper writes that Vosper’s congregants must think “she’s as Christian as can be” because, despite her beliefs, she leads a good life. But because Vosper is not a Christian, even if her congregants did say, “She’s as Christian as can be,” Vosper would likely correct them. Christian identity isn't handed out to (or forced upon) every good person. Christian identity and faith in Jesus Christ are claimed and committed to. Vosper is not a Christian, nor does she want to be Christian. She understands herself as "growing out of the Christian tradition," but if you were to attend her church, you would not find the most common “touchpoints” of the that tradition. The word “God” is rarely used. Common creeds and prayers have been secularized, removing explicitly Christian language. Jesus Christ is not a focus. There is no Holy Spirit. Sacred music has been rewritten and secularized. The Bible is read rarely. There are no Sacraments.
There’s nothing “wrong” with Rev. Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey or her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with the congregants who remain at her church who support and desire such a community and leader. And there is also nothing wrong with the United Church of Canada being honest about the fact that Rev. Vosper and her church have stepped almost entirely outside of Christian tradition and fully outside of Christian identity.
Liberal, progressive Christians need to think seriously about what the Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is. Are all welcome here? Absolutely! And if that were the end of our Mission and calling as Evangelists of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be absolutely appropriate for a non-Christian to be a “Christian” minister. But hospitality is only the first step, the base line, the context in which we go on to offer Good News to all people. A non-Christian leader can welcome people into community and take them on a rich spiritual journey! But they cannot offer the Christian Gospel, an invitation into a life dedicated to and transformed by Christ. This is our unique Mission, the sacred gift we, as the Christian Church, have been entrusted with and which no one else can offer.
It's been an interesting week in Somerville, MA, with a local police union organizing to have the #BlackLivesMatter banner removed from Somerville City Hall and replaced with an All Lives Matter banner. The union has complained that the banner suggests that Somerville cops should be blamed for racism. They also say that the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the assassinations of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rogue by black men and therefore displaying the banner is wrong.
Last night there was a rally of area police officers at city hall demanding the removal of the banner and there was a much less covered (of course) Black Lives Matter rally called "Setting the Record Straight." Black Lives Matter Cambridge organizers challenged those calling for an All Lives Matter banner to #ProveIt. If you truly believe All Lives Matter, prove it by acting like Black Lives DO Matter. Prove it by fighting against personal and systemic racism that tries to dismiss, oppress, and destroy black lives. It was a powerful message and a true invitation to come together.
At First Church Somerville, our congregation decided to hang a Black Lives Matter banner on the church tower in December 2014. I think for many of us - certainly for me - the phrase Black Lives Matter sounded like something that Jesus would have challenged us to believe and act upon.
As Christians we understand, according to Genesis, that all people are created in the image of God. All of us are God's children. All of us, no matter who we are, are beloved by God. Every life matters. This is what we are created to be. AND as Christians we also understand that the good way God created us to be is not always what we do. We do not always live or act with love toward all the lives in this world.
And so when Jesus came to us to announce what he was here to do, he made his debut introduction, according to Luke chapter 4, by saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In other words, Jesus didn't say All Lives Matter. He didn't say I'm here for the rich, and the captors, and the sighted, and the oppressors. Jesus makes perfectly clear here what the rest of the Gospels describe - that Jesus' ministry and activity in this world will be focused on the people who GOD created to matter, but who the WORLD treats as if they didn't matter.
Jesus showed up for the last, the least, and the lost to help us all correct the sinful idea that God created some of us to be mightier than, greater than, better than others. This is what Jesus means by proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor - It's a time of correction. Only after the correction has been made can we truly proclaim All Lives Matter. But in order to announce the time of correction and the movement toward God's justice, Jesus said then and Jesus says today, Black Lives Matter.
When a rich young ruler came to ask Jesus how to be saved, Jesus asked him about all the commandments - don't murder, lie, cheat, steal. The commandments, Jesus tells us, add up basically to God's original vision for us, a world in which we all love one another and treat one another with respect. The rich ruler tells Jesus he's been following all the rules since he was a kid! And the Bible says that Jesus looked at him and loved him and offered him the next step. You lack one thing, Jesus said, if you want to really get this thing right, take everything you have, give it away to the poor, and then come and follow me.
The rich young ruler came to Jesus hoping for a path to salvation. I know, said the rich young ruler, that All Lives Matter. What else do I have to do? And Jesus said, Prove it. If All Lives Matter, you need to give up some of your privilege and dedicate yourself to acting like Black Lives Matter. That's the path.
We all have a lot of work to do together! Tearing down one another's banners is a sad waste of time and energy that could be dedicated to actually doing the hard work of coming together to make the world a better, more just place. I'm looking forward to continuing to support Black Lives Matter Cambridge and the city of Somerville in this important work!
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
- Galatians 2:20
This weekend, I had no time for interruptions. It was our church’s fifth annual Drag Gospel Festival weekend, and all week we had a lot of preparations to take care of. We had to get ready for Friday’s big fundraising drag show at Club Café. Saturday was spent with a crew of awesome Christ Chefs at Costco, at Market Basket, and in the church kitchen prepping the meal to follow Sunday’s Drag Gospel Worship. Sunday morning I had to get up, get dressed, and put my face on. Lipstick and lip liner were applied and removed twice. The first attempt left me looking like a giant bearded baby that had eaten a tube of lipstick. The second attempt was worse only because you could tell I had tried (and failed) harder. And I don’t even want to talk about how many times I glued my fingers to my eyelids trying to get the eyelashes on.
Fortunately, while we work, work, work in the world of Chronology, God frequently works on another timeline altogether. It is the Kairos timeline – a sacred timeline operating in a hyper-dimension of space-time all around the tick-tock of Kronos. We experience the Kairos when it intersects and interrupts the clock of our expectations.
We often experience worship as Kairos time – unless, of course, the sermon is too long. ;) It’s true that we attempt to craft an entryway into Kairos with a perfectly orchestrated execution of music, testimony, prayer, and preaching. If you’ve ever done a wedding with me, you know that much of what we do to prepare for the ceremony is to open up a vulnerable and beautiful opportunity for the Supreme Moment to touch us all when you make your vows to one another. And you also know that no amount of preparation can actually prepare you for what happens in that Moment. All of our preparations are blissfully laughable in the face of the overwhelming largeness (the overwhelming “?!ness”) of the Grace of that Moment.
And so we must recognize that the Kairos moment is not always intentionally prepared for or even welcome. Sometimes, it bursts in upon us violently and terrifyingly. The phone rings at 3 AM. Your water breaks months too soon. A cry for help! The other shoe drops. The excrement hits the air conditioning.
A man rises menacingly in the middle of Drag Gospel Worship and begins to shout angrily.
It was the furthest thing from a holy moment that I could imagine. I was terribly afraid. I didn’t know what his intentions were. I didn’t know how things would end. And I was not prepared. But, as a community, as the Body of Christ, by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the intervening Power of the Holy Spirit, we responded as best we could – with love and respect, both for the person yelling at us and for ourselves.
I have received quite a bit of thanks and praise from our community for handling the situation with Drew, the man who stood up to interrupt worship on Sunday. But it was not I who met Drew, but Christ living in me, through Grace and by the support of our community’s faith commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
God intervened on October 7th, at the meeting of our church’s deacons, through the faithfulness, wisdom, and well-differentiated leadership of Senior Deacon Melissa Shungu. Meli calmly and respectfully brought up feelings of discomfort in our community around the image of Drag Gospel Jesus that I had approved for this year’s promotional materials. She wanted to discuss the image and why it was chosen. Pastor Jeff didn’t really want to discuss it and he copped a HUGE ‘TUDE with Meli. This guy right here was defensive, made unfair generalizations about why people would feel uncomfortable with the image, and was more interested in self-righteous eyeball rolling than in listening with love to his Christian sister who in that moment was doing exactly what she is called to do as a Deacon of our church. Thank God, Meli didn’t descend to her pastor’s level. Instead, she raised us back up by making clear, compassionate, self-differentiated statements that reminded us all of how a group of Christians should have handled this important and relevant discussion.
I didn’t cop a ‘tude with Drew on Sunday, in part, because Meli and the Deacons prepared me to be who God was calling me to be on this issue in that particular moment.
It was that Deacons meeting that compelled me to sit down and write the blog post in which I clearly articulated to myself and our church for the first time why the image of Drag Gospel Jesus was chosen, why it is important, and why I felt it wasn’t offensive but inclusive. If you read the blog post and heard my response to Drew on Sunday, you know that much of what I said in that Kairos moment and how I said it was born in the writing of that blog post.
I had a well of words to draw upon extemporaneously in Sunday’s interruption because I had first been asked by our Deacons to write those words to all of you.
Earlier this month the national offices of the United Church of Christ sent out an article by email about Landon Patterson, a transgender high school student who had been elected Homecoming Queen at her school. Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest her. The UCC showed up to support her.
One of the pictures that originally accompanied the article showed a sign held up at the rally. It read, “Westboro Trash GO HOME.” FULL CONFESSION: I am confident I have had some very nasty things to say about Westboro Baptist Church and that I have said them boldly. Still, something about that sign didn’t feel right to me. I prayed about it and realized I was uncomfortable because the image could be interpreted to suggest that we as the UCC were promoting this sign as a part of our Christian response to the situation and that we felt it was acceptable as Christians to call people trash. And seeing that sign (which didn’t belong to the UCC supporters of Ms. Patterson, but to another group of counter-protesters) I had to come to the point of conscious awareness and articulation of the conviction that no person, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done, is trash.
I did not fall into the temptation of treating Drew like trash on Sunday because God, through the actions and communications of our larger church, had confronted me with the fact that this kind of thinking is not in line with the values and commitments of my faith.
What is also not in line with my faith however is allowing someone to disrespect or attack me or any other person with hateful ideologies or theologies. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean submitting to them. Praying for those who persecute us entails taking actions to resist their hateful and hurtful actions.
When Drew first stood up, I didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know where to begin. I was shouting for attention. I walked toward Drew, then back away, totally confused. I felt called to protect the people gathered in worship and I felt that dragging (ha!) Drew out of the church physically while he yelled at us would have only increased the violence that people were experiencing in that moment.
Then the Holy Spirit broke in with a story. The story was related through Warren Goldstein about Rev. Donna Schaper. Donna, who I met at Judson Memorial Church, is a mentor in ministry to me and has taught me so, so much. But she doesn’t talk herself up much, so Warren, her husband, is occasionally the scribe of some her wisdom. As I remember Warren telling it, a man stood up in church once while Donna was preaching to shout her down. She walked down from the pulpit as he yelled, stood before him, and asked him calmly, “May I engage your anger?” I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say to Drew; I didn’t know how I was going to balance honoring Drew and honoring those he was attacking, but I knew where to begin.
My sister, Christina, was riding a BART train in San Francisco when a man slapped a woman on the train across the face with all his strength. Had my sister ever prepared for such a moment? No. But in that moment she became a ferocious She-Bear, the mother who dines upon the flesh of the hunter who would dare threaten one of her children, and she chased the man from the train like Athena descending upon the Trojan plain, like Kali come to devour the demons. That Moment, the Moment of her response, was one expression of her truest Self. Kairos interrupted her and she became something more than herself; she became a big, bad, holy expression of God by the power of a Grace that we do not control.
Her courage inspired and prepared me.
It wasn’t me, or at least not me alone, who responded to Drew on Sunday. It was all of us. And It was the Holy Spirit.
When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.
- Mark 13:11
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations