This post-election sermon was a difficult one to write in the midst of a big week. It ended up probably being too long. If I had had 24 more hours, I think I could have tightened it up quite a bit (the irony is that shorter sermons take longer to write). At the same time, there was a lot that needed to be said and a lot that needed to be worked through in this sermon. I got requests ranging from "I think there needs to be yelling," to "Go easy on us." Some folks needed a call to Christian action right away. Others needed to mourn. Some people wanted to call out the sin. Others wanted an assurance of grace. The big week also served the sermon with Megan and Nicole's wedding becoming just about the best possible sermon illustration a preacher could hope for. Other acknowledgments must go to Hal Taussig for introducing me to the Letter of Peter to Phillip at the Tanho Center, to Walter Wink and all his work on "Jesus' third way," and, of course, the congregation of First Church Somerville who are wonderfully supportive to their pastors when their pastors preach hard sermons.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Divine Parent is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Will you please pray with me?
Lord, I will stand at this watch post. And we will all watch together from this rampart. We will keep watch and we will await what you will say to us. What will you answer, O God, concerning our complaint? Help us, the speakers and the listeners and the watchers, to glimpse your vision for the appointed time. May we who see it, write it. May we who hear it, shout it out. May we who know it, make it known. And in your wrath, remember mercy. Amen.
How many of you remember that last Sunday we read this same piece of Scripture (Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also)? What a difference a week makes. Do these words sound different this week? The words themselves might feel like a slap across the face this morning. These are hard words to hear right now for many of us.
But this morning God has pushed me to speak about the other cheek, and to recommend to you that Christ’s command is a command for COMPASSION towards those intent on harming us without COMPROMISING on our most important values. COMPASSION without COMPROMISE.
If you’ve ever been slapped or struck across the face or upside the head, you may remember the slightly surreal and disorienting experience of a momentary shocked deafness on the side of your head that received the blow and then this rising, insistent, alarmed ringing in that ear. Well, this week, these words of Jesus have been ringing in my ears. It’s not a pleasant sound - it’s an alarm. And alarms, once they’ve been set off, offer us no easy comfort, no easy way out. They’re a painful reminder of the stinging blow we’ve been dealt.
Two weeks ago I was in Colorado at a conference where I was studying extracanonical Christian texts - those early Christian texts that didn’t make it in Bible, frequently because they lifted up the radical leadership, the preaching and teaching of women. As I wrestled with the idea of turning the other cheek this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of one particular text called the Letter of Peter to Philip. It tells the story of the Apostles after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. And they’re all doing their best to spread the Good News. So they’re healing, and preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and they’re doing it in Jerusalem, in the Temple, in front of the Roman powers and the Temple authorities, and they’re getting in trouble, and they’re doing their best to turn the other cheek, but at some point it dawns on them. Hey, wait a minute, you know this is exactly what got Jesus crucified. We’re gonna get ourselves killed. This peace and love stuff is a one-way ticket to suffering. Why are we doing this? We need a new plan! And so they gather on the Mount of Olives, lock themselves away in a room, and they pray to Jesus and Jesus appears to them in a great light from heaven. And they talk for a good long while, the disciples explaining the situation as they see it to Jesus and asking, "What’s gonna happen to us? You’ve got our backs right? We’re going to be peaceful and loving and SAFE right?" And Jesus says listen, “I don’t know what's going to happen. But here’s what I know. The world needs peace and love and justice. The people need healing. And that’s what I’ve called you to teach and preach. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I’ll be with you.” And so the disciples head back out to the Temple and they perform healings and they preach and teach the good news and do their best to offer the world Jesus’ Way. And the letter ends there, without letting us know what happens next.
People all over social media and in person this week – some of you among them – have been talking about Clinton’s loss and Trump’s election feeling like a death. Many of you posted on Facebook early Wednesday morning words to the effect of: “What do I tell my girls when they wake up? How do I make this OK?” It’s felt like more than one death - like a tragedy that takes away so many cherished lives and much hope in one swift blow. The death of a hope for the first woman president, of a hope in the greater decency of people, of a hope in certain democratic ideals, of a hope that our families would be safer over the next few years than in the past. And – wait a minute – as the shock wears off many of us hear in the rising ringing alarm sounding in our ears, this very real note of fear.
This wasn’t a death within the natural order of things – oh no, it was an attack. And the people who pulled the lever for that attack, and the unequipped narcissist with the soul of a tyrant that they elected, and the fundamentalist Christian hatemonger who rode into power on his coattails are not going to become suddenly magnanimous or reasonable or measured in their victory. Which institutions, which morals, which people will this rising movement of hate towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, the sick, people with disabilities, and the imprisoned turn on next?
When the KKK and the American Nazi party and White Christian Evangelicals take to the streets in celebration of the election of their candidate we must realize that this election signals an attack bigger than any one person, something bigger than Trump, more powerful than him as a moral individual, certainly, and more powerful than he could be as president. There are larger forces at work here. We stand on the edge of an epic moment. Over the next few years we will see tremendous changes and setbacks. 50 years of progress since the voting rights act are now under attack. The push to undo decency will be waged in the white House, in Congress, in the complicit media, in the courts, in fundamentalist churches, and in our schools, our hospitals, and on our streets. Tuesday’s election changed our country and our democracy, and much like 9/11, we have only just begun to imagine what we will face.
Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” stings in the face of so much grief and reasonable fear. But alarms pierce our ears and our souls for a reason – for a purpose. Warning. Danger. Smoke means Fire! Wake up! For those who would say you to you this week, “get over it, it’s not that big of a deal, you’re being a sore loser, quit whining,” we have Jesus Christ’s words cutting to the white meat of our reality: “We HAVE been hit. We HAVE been stripped. We HAVE been hated, and cursed, and abused. Women, LQBTQ folks, Mexicans, Muslims – It’s real!” says Jesus, “I see the marks on your face. This is terrifying. The world needs you to respond - by offering up your vulnerability and fighting like hell. The world needs all of you: the cheek that has been struck and the cheek they’re aiming for next - all of you. And I will be with you.”
Yesterday Rev. Megan S. showed me what “turning the other cheek” might look like. Many of you know Rev. Megan because she was our Student Minister here two years ago. Well, yesterday, in the midst of all this horror, Rev. Megan married the love of her life: Army 2nd Lt. Nicole B. And so on Veteran’s Day Weekend, soldiers in uniform, and clergy colleagues, and friends and family gathered together to watch Megan and Nicole make their vows to one another. There was booming organ music, a bagpiper, and a traditional saber arch. Eight army officers held their swords up and as the two brides recessed down the aisle, each pair of soldiers dropped their swords in front of them and refused to let them pass - until they kissed. And there in one of the biggest and most beautiful and historic churches in Boston we made our promises to Megan and Nicole - that we would be there for them, that we would support them, that we would love them - come what may.
And out on the dance floor, partying our butts off, all of us felt in our dancing bodies who we are and what it is that we’re willing to fight for. A lesbian military church wedding is a risky thing, a beautiful thing, and a thing that must be celebrated and defended. And I thought, looking around the reception hall at everyone drinking wine that tasted like Jesus himself had had a miraculous hand in its production, this is a celebration of “turning the other cheek.”
Throughout Christian history “turning the other cheek” been frequently interpreted as a call to UNITY & SUBMISSION with those intent on doing us harm. Nonsense. We have not committed ourselves to Jesus’ Way and teachings in the hopes of UNITY with this world, in order to ACCEPT or TOLERATE this world’s violence or injustice. We follow Jesus, and take Jesus’ words seriously, to be unified with God through Christ. To be unified to our neighbors through love.
To God we offer submission, acceptance, and gratitude, even in the face of life’s inherent pains. But to demagogues, to pharaohs and to caesars, to patriarchs, to abusers, and to hatemongers, and to all other false idols and powers we Christians are commanded to offer the DISOBEDIENCE of our dancing bodies – to lift our faces up in sacred defiance, to look sin square in the eyes, and to declare ourselves Christ’s disciples and God’s beloved children.
A slap in the face is not an invitation to COME TOGETHER. In the same way the admonition to turn the other cheek is not a demand for UNITY. It’s the opposite. Turning the other cheek is Christ’s demand on us to express bodily differentiation, self-assertion, and dissent. Offering those who have struck us the other cheek is an offer of human DEFIANCE and civil DISOBEDIENCE that says you may have the power to hit us, you may have the power to strip us, you may have the power to oppress and imprison us, you may have the power to take away our status, our healthcare, our civil rights, but you DO NOT have the power to make us submit.
We will not be quiet. We will be ALL UP IN YOUR FACE. If you take away our clothes, we’ll be naked all up in your face - a mob of naked dancing nasty women, bad hombres, queer clergy, and active duty army officers. Let’s see how you respond to that. And so out of love - yes, love - for those who curse us, we will compassionately refuse to compromise with the violence of their agenda. We will passionately refuse to hide away who we are. We’ll flaunt who we are knowing that those who hate us will try to strike at the celebration of our love.
If Mike Pence gets his way, he will land a vicious blow on the cheek of our clergy-military lesbian wedding celebration. He’s going to do his worst to strike at our best. That is sure. And while we’re getting slapped on that cheek, Donald Trump will slapping at every Mexican and every Muslim from the other side.
Now, if you’re privileged, like I am, maybe you’ll be unfettered enough to dodge the blow that is coming. But if you’re not privileged, if the chains of oppression or vulnerability are too restricting, if your life depends on Obamacare, if your legal marriage depends on the supreme court, if your family depends on immigration reform, if you are literally imprisoned, if your hijab makes you a target, if your dark skin makes you a target, if your woman’s body has been turned into a target, then dodging might not be an option for you. It simply wasn’t an option for the disenfranchised poor peasants who gathered on the side of the mountain to listen to Jesus preach the words we heard this morning.
When despotism strikes at America the blow will land on the cheek of some far harder than others. If you’re a privileged Christian, you have a responsibility and a decision to make. Will you rush out of the burning building through the private escape hatch that Jesus himself refused to take or will you risk taking the long way through the fire with all those who have been burned and crucified?
Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me and there won’t be any more slapping.” Jesus says, “I’m here to make disciples first out of the people who have been slapped hardest.” If nobody has ever tried to crush you beneath their boot, you might not have the kind of ears you need to hear what Jesus is saying in this morning’s reading. But if you’ve been hated, abused, and reviled, you have the ears to hear. You’ve been slapped before and you know the sound of the ringing in your ears.
If you haven’t heard that ringing in your ears, if you haven’t been hit that hard, Jesus has some advice for learning to become a disciple. “Listen to ones with the ears to hear. Then put your cheek in the way of the next blow. Take everything you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me.”
In times like this, we must take refuge in our faith and in our faith community. In a time when the nation has become less safe, we’ll need to rely on this local faith community more. First Church, we’re already working on this. But we’ll need to make this spiritual home more robust, more open, more affirming. We’ll need a powerful religious education program for our kids to battle the messages they’re going to be receiving from Trump, Pence, and their administration. We’ll need a family ministry program that is going to be able to respond to families under serious duress – attacked and demeaned for who they are and who they love. We need to attend the antiracism and white privilege trainings being organized by some of our Deacons and Mission & Justice Committee members for 2017. We have to talk to one another now more than ever, and get to know and to LOVE one another now more than ever, and examine our own privilege and prejudice more than ever.
We need to care for one another in the difficulties ahead. Because the God we have come here to serve is not a God who promises us safety. She is a God who demands we love even those who hate us. With all my privilege, not even I can do that by myself. I can’t do that without you. We can’t risk the defiance and the discomfort of the other cheek without knowing that we will be there for each other and that we will be committed to being self-aware, repentant, faithful, and safe for one another. We can’t celebrate a defiant wedding and dance our hearts out by ourselves. We can really only turn the other cheek in community. No one should be left alone.
In the end, this is what Jesus offers us. Because the future is uncertain and difficult we are therefore called to heal, to teach, and to preach the Good News. We will defiantly, passionately stand in the face of what is to come together. We don’t know what will happen. But as Christ has promised to be with us, we promise to be with each other and all those primary disciples who are under attack. Amen.
Last month I preached on the Jesus' exhortation (via the Gospel of Matthew) that we ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What is the relationship between the salt of the earth and the light of the world - where do these two ideas meet and how do they influence one another? As First Church Somerville continues to progress through the grief, the possibilities, and the work of the interim period, I offered them this affirmation of and challenge to their identity as a congregation.
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel According to Matthew chapter 5, verses 13 – 16. Let us know hear the Word of God:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Parent in heaven.”
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be truly salty. Drop us in the ocean of your love and purpose, O God, and brine us until we are ready to taste the way we say we taste. Amen.
I haven’t preached in a while so I’m going to rewind the clock one whole month to what was a watershed historical moment in American history – the Democratic National Convention. Besides a woman – named Hillary Clinton – becoming the first woman ever nominated to run for president by one of the major political parties, which was an amazing historic moment for sure, there were a lot of other ways that the Democratic National Convention was unlike any we have ever seen before. The Convention fully embraced the language and the symbols of patriotism, family values, and religion in a way that surprised us – we’re used to seeing this kind of stuff at the Republican National Convention.
But at the Democratic National Convention, Liberal Religion and progressive Christianity had their most significant platform in the great American public commons since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Rev. William Barber’s speech on morality in which he called Jesus, “a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew,” followed directly by Khizr Khan’s speech in which he described his family as representing patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to their country is just one example of the narrative that was being created throughout the DNC – a narrative that argued that Christianity (and Islam) are not fundamentalist religions, but liberal ones and – more than that – PROGRESSIVE religions.
Christianity stated loudly and clearly at the DNC, along with other great faith traditions of the world, that we’re called to work within and to celebrate a pluralistic society, we’re called to love and serve our country and all who call it home, we’re called to defend and promote diversity and justice, and we’re called to be the moral defibrillators of our time for the failing heart of our democracy threatened by the indecency of an off-the-rails white nationalist movement and an absolutely complicit, morally bankrupt Christian right. This was a big moment for Christians and people of faith like us. This is a moment for us to be SALTY and to be BRIGHT in the world.
At the DNC Progressive Christians boldly stated their identity and their mission in the world. Well, what about our identity and our mission here at First Church? Before we rush out the door to add our efforts to the great liberal religious renaissance that may be coming, let’s take a lick off our own selves and trim the wick on our own lamp – let’s assess where we are now in this moment as a church, and as a congregation, in transition, and in the interim period between lead pastors.
Jesus asks us, if salt loses its saltiness – what good is it? Well, that’s stupid, Jesus. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. Salt IS salty, right? Once again the son of God proves his ignorance of chemistry and the hard sciences. But back in Jesus’ time and place the salt that was harvested was not entirely pure – there were other crystalized minerals mixed in and if exposed to moisture the salty parts could be dissolved away leaving you with a bunch of crystalized sulfates and borides which tasted terrible and were of no use. When this happened to your salt there was no getting out of it – you needed to let that salt go and get yourself a new batch of salty salt. From Jesus’ cultural perspective salt could not be defined by pointing to a big pile of the stuff, it could only be defined by tasting it – by its true essence or its flavor, by its saltiness.
For years, under the leadership of lead pastor Rev. Molly Baskette’s leadership, the size of our church boomed. We were a growing mountain of salt! But we never really figured out how to go from being a sprinkling of salt to a great big pile – there were always growing pains – a constant struggle to be the next-sized church that we never quite figured out. Numbers were up, giving was up, but growth – growth in the sense of development along a path – growth that wasn’t about piling on salt but that was about fulfilling the destiny of the flavor of salt – was a different story.
In a little while we’ll be adding a new member to our ranks – Jesse Stansfield. He’s been around for years now, but today he officially and fully immerses himself in the covenant of membership here at First Church. Our covenant at this church is not worth joining because of the number of people involved, but because of the quality of the relationships here and the quality of our ability to serve God and the world together. Our covenant, our agreement to be church with one another, is the salty flavor of God among us. It’s our identity.
Our covenant has changed recently. One of Rev. Molly’s last acts among us was to ask us to revise the covenant of membership so that it no longer required baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. No matter how you felt about the potential change, we wouldn’t have tackled it when we did it if Rev. Molly hadn’t pushed the issue as she was leaving. It was a big decision for many of us, but the conflict, the consequences of conflict, and the resolution of the conflict stayed largely focused on Rev. Molly. It was her idea, her agenda, and her organizing that led to the discussion and so she absorbed the conflict as she always did, and ultimately we made the change.
But really it was just the beginning of a change in the nature of our covenant of membership – a change that we are ultimately not in control of and maybe we’re even resisting thinking about it – that despite what the membership promises have stated to the contrary much of our covenantal relationship at First Church Somerville has focused on our individual, personal relationship with one particular pastor – with Rev. Molly Baskette. When Rev. Molly left, the flavor of the covenant seemed to change radically for many of us.
For those of us who are committed to the mission of this church into the future, we’ve come to a time when the size of the pile marked “salt” has to matter less to us than the flavor found in each individual grain. This is a different kind of growth – a movement away from being attached to quantity as a marker of vitality and a sign that we have something to contribute to the world, and a movement toward discovering our true quality – a quality that can’t go away just because someone leaves, just because things are changing. Things are always changing. Perhaps, one way of looking at it is that we haven’t really lost our flavor at all – we just haven’t really, truly, confidently tasted it yet.
One of the most important pieces of the interim period, I think, will be to realize that the particular flavor, and that particular way we related to Rev. Molly Baskette can never be replicated or replaced. That’s just not the way it works – ever. And if the hope is that our new senior pastor will restore the saltiness to our covenant, we’re setting ourselves and our new pastor up for quite a disappointment.
Nobody – and I mean nobody – in all of Christendom – wants to serve as Rev. Molly Baskette’s replacement – as her stand in. Our next Senior Pastor will want to serve God, this church, and the world as themselves. So, YES, we want a strong, organized, charismatic, visionary leader who knows how to preach, teach, and lead! But do we want someone who will be willing to cram themselves into a Molly-shaped hole, or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than that?
At moments of difficult change in any life, it can feel like the lamp is on the lampstand, but that the flame is out. And we’re waiting for someone or something new to come along to light the lamp. Or maybe to actually BE the light itself. Is that the pastor we want? Is that the pastor we need? Or do we want someone who wants something much bigger than even that?
When potential new pastors are checking us out, I think we want them to see the lamp burning brightly because we, the beloved community, are that light, and the caretakers of our own light, and as a community we’ve set the lamp on a stand for the world and it’s higher up than any one person could ever hope to go on their own! And we want that pastor to GASP and be inspired by US and think MY GOD MY GOD these people have something to teach ME. And then they start to dream about how they can help us to raise our lamp even higher, to expand the circle of its glowing, rather than having to worry about constantly keeping the fire burning. In our most nervous and exhausted moments of change that’s what we think we need – someone who can keep the fire burning for us. Someone who can add flavor to this bland meal. Someone who will brighten up our dingy covenant.
When Jesse comes up here this morning to join our Covenant of membership, he’ll be carrying a candle. All of you who have joined us have done the same thing. You carried your lit candle up to the altar as a symbol of joining your gifts to the gifts of everyone else here. Pay attention to that symbol this morning and consider what it says about our greatest hopes for our salty, shiny selves.
The connection between salt and light brings us back again to the opportunity of the present moment – the opportunity to be a part of taking back the religious dialogue in this country from ideologues and hatemongers. The dynamic connection point between the salt of the earth and light of the world is called Mission. Mission is about who we are in covenant together (our saltiness) and how we live out who we are in the world (our lampiness).
I think First Church Somerville might have a bit of a mission problem, in that the dynamic point of connection between our saltiness and our lampiness, the point from which we step out to act in the world, and the point to which we return to reflect on what we have done and how it has changed us – that all-important point is in need of well – growth, development.
We have a Mission and Vision Statement – in which we define ourselves as a diverse group of progressive Christians and in which we layout some goals for ourselves as a community – we want to grow, we want to welcome people more deeply into the life of the church, we want to become more diverse, we want to provide a good religious education to our kids, and we want to develop new congregational leaders. This seems to be more or less our internal mission.
And then we have a Mission & Justice committee that is focused on making sizable charitable donations to outside groups and causes and to developing relationships to outside organizations and movements. This seems to be more or less our external mission.
Our mission somehow got divided in two – and it’s critical that we reconnect the two halves. Yes, absolutely, our sizable contribution to the Somerville Homeless Coalition every year is a part of our mission. If we try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, we will no longer be a functioning church – we’ll be salt that’s lost its saltiness. And, yes, absolutely, the Youth Group is a part of our mission. If we ignore the educational programs for our kids, we will soon cease to be a functioning church – we’ll essentially be knocking the lampstand out from underneath the lamp.
We cannot have one half of our mission in competition with the other. If we’re going to be a church for the future, contributing to the best of what Christians can offer the world, we will be a church with one unified mission that equally supports the baby born here and the movement builder fighting for justice on the street outside. Because those are not two different things. They are connected! Movement builders make babies. And babies grow up to be movement builders.
Now this is great because I can feel the anxiety rising in the room just at the mention of the fact that we might need to evaluate our mission and RE-evaluate how we support that mission – why is there forced conscription of volunteers for Sunday School and Coffee Hour but no requirements for protesting and lobbying for justice? Why is there so much money to support charitable donations to outside groups but not enough money to functionally staff or supply our Sunday School or to buy food for the coffee hour table?
Undoubtedly, there will be CONFLICT! And I can’t imagine anything better – anything more honest, more revealing, and more SALTY than a little fight around here. A conflict that doesn’t begin and end with the senior pastor making a unilateral decision, but a fight that we have to start on our own and that we have to settle on our own.
This is precisely the sort of problem, and the sort of learning, we’re meant to tackle in our interim period. Imagine if we figured this one out NOW and we were able to use that learning and self-discovery process to teach us about ourselves so that we could use the new knowledge to help us hire the pastor who will be the best leader for who we are and where we’re going INSTEAD of hiring someone and sticking them with the unfortunate first task of picking a fight about how we support the mission of the church.
Actually, we’ve made some great progress. We have an amazing, dedicated search committee who take finding a great new pastor for this church very seriously. We have a Building Task Force Committee who are for the first time in five years bringing the renovation project under true congregational control. We have a Family Ministry Taskforce Committee who are exploring how our Sunday School stacks up to the competition in order to make recommendations for the goals we need to set to fulfill our Mission to our kids and to the families who will be arriving SOON, when things change again, and the salt starts piling up.
Now what we need to do is not to just make this about the work we need to get done until the new pastor gets here. We need to make this about figuring out who we are, how we relate to one another, and where we see ourselves getting to – I mean really getting to – not just “program-sized church” whatever the heck that means. Who cares how big we get? Let’s grow by really understanding who we essentially are as salty Christians, by committing to being the light, not just watching the light show, and by evaluating and merging our mission work so that when it comes time for our new pastor to start we can actually tell them who we are and what we’re called by God to do in the world. Amen.
This was a hard sermon to write. It was difficult to find the right balance of anger and hope, comfort and motivation, confession and affirmation. This is one ally's attempt to respond to what the Spirit was trying to say. It was gratifying to hear all the creative ideas that people started throwing out after the service. To quote legendary graffiti artist Freedom, "We have just begun to move."
Matthew 13:24-33; Matthew 13:44-46
One week ago, as we were celebrating Pride Sunday, we were just beginning to hear about yet another act of violence, another mass shooting, another act of terrorism, this time in Orlando. By the end of worship we knew it was even more – a hate crime, an attack on the Pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community, an attack on the Latinx community, and the largest mass shooting in modern American history – 50 dead, even more injured.
All week long I’ve been praying for a word of comfort to share with all of you. And it hasn’t been easy to find those words. There are no words to erase the violence that was done in Orlando. I have no words to smooth over the pain. I feel as though God is asking me to wrestle alongside all of you – as honestly as I know how – with these terrible murders.
To begin, here are some of the words that must be said this morning from this pulpit and from every Christian pulpit: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people are God’s children. And those who lost their lives in Orlando – mostly young gay Latinos – were created by God in all their beauty and loved by God in life just as they were – as queer, as brown-skinned, as gay men, as Spanish-speaking, as same gender loving, as immigrant.
Being lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer is not now and has never been a sin. Loving or desiring a person of the same sex or gender and mutually, consensually acting on that love and desire is not now and has never been a sin. Coming out of the closet, getting married, or starting a family – these actions of love, brave actions of spiritual growth, actions that bear witness to the power and goodness of God and what God has made – are not sins.
“You will know them by their fruits,” said Jesus. The job of faith is to discern what is good and what is evil by its results in the world – the fruit it bears, says Jesus. By Jesus’ standard, could anything be better in God’s eyes than to be beautifully gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer? The fruit borne by LGBTQ identity and community is love, sex, marriages, pleasure, families, joy, community, and a compassionate, well-forged, profoundly aware identity that is deeply and genuinely concerned for the people who Jesus was most in love with – everyone who has been marginalized and abused by the dominant culture. What greater gift could God have given to us than queerness and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people?
A world, a country, and a Church full of queer people, queer love and sex, queer families, and queer communities is a far better world than a world, country, Church without them. And anyone who would try to push on you the belief that being LGBTQ is less than the best thing, less than beloved by God, that being and acting gay are sins that will ideally disappear by the gun or by praying the gay away – that person is pushing rotten, poisonous, and sinful fruit – the kind of fruit that leads to murder, and mass murder, and worse.
Especially in a country that offers easy access to guns designed for murder, designed for mass murder, and worse. The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms – very well. But it is not the second amendment that is standing in the way of sensible gun reform in this country. We lack the political will to get the deed done because those of us who are outraged haven’t yet gotten organized enough to go up against the morally bankrupt firearms industry and the NRA. Beloved, now is the time to begin to see the gun violence issue as an issue pointed at the core of who we are as people of faith. Now is the time to respond to the blood of so many innocents cut down by weapons designed for soldiers on battlefields being wielded by murderers in children’s schools, movie theaters, black churches, and gay night clubs. Now is the time to reevaluate our relationship to guns in this country and to once and for all see the fruit that guns bear in our culture, to see the terror and the murder and the sin, and to see the blood that is on our hands as a people who have failed to act in defense of the innocents.
There is a word that describes the kind of belief systems – belief systems held by all different kinds of people – belief systems that refuse to do the faithful work of discernment. That word is: Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of all stripes use the fact that we can’t look directly upon the face of God to their advantage. Fundamentalism is really very easy to understand. Just like Moses, we’re all stuffed inside the dark cleft of a rock, staring out hopefully. We get the merest glimpse of God’s backside and in that indirect, covered, hidden peek God declares as loud as thunder and as insistently as silence that we humans are NOT GOD and that we DO NOT KNOW.
And though the day may come when we will dissect the multiverse down to its very last subatomic hyperdimensional vibration; and when we will balance out all the equations of consciousness, and experience, and existence itself; and when even the very last inscrutabilities of quantum uncertainty are mapped out on a spreadsheet, we will recognize on that day that we haven’t yet seen anything more than God’s shadow passing by. And in the face of such a terrible realization, we will tremble.
And in that moment, as it has in so many others like it, fundamentalism will slither up from behind, whispering from further back in the cleft of the rock – PssssT – tempting us with dogmatic certainty, apocalyptic simplicity, and self-righteousness: “You’ll never see the face of God by looking out there,” fundamentalism will hiss in our ear. “Don’t give your faith to that mysterious, wishy-washy God. Give it to us. Give it to our rules. Join our militia! Deify your hatred!”
And even on that far future day, some of us – or some parts of each of us – might still turn around, give up looking for God, and crawl back further into the rock. Because fundamentalism – whether it be biblical or constitutional – is simply easier than faith and discernment – less risky, less disciplined, less compassionate, less vulnerable. Fundamentalism, unable to see the face of God and offended by the complexity of creation, the plurality of humanity, changing times and circumstances, and the uncertainty of faith, creates an idol of its own ideology and false history and worships itself. This is a human tendency, part of our shared human condition, and we’re all at risk of this trick of the Enemy.
I know, I know, “enemy” is kind of a loaded and fundamentalist-sounding word itself. The word that’s been translated from the original Greek as “enemy” in our parable reading this morning could literally, etymologically be translated as “the hater.” We’re all at risk of the lures of fundamentalism because some Hater has sown their weeds in every field.
Fundamentalists may have tried to convince you that YOU are the weeds, that THEY are the wheat, and that they are headed to the heavenly barn. You and I are headed for the fire because we are not fundamentalists like them and therefore we’re bound for hell. This interpretation is so prevalent and so EASY, and it’s been used to attack so many of us and the people we love, that it’s difficult for us to hear this parable of the wheat and the weeds and not to think of heaven and hell, us and them, the saved and the damned. But a spiritually abusive, overly simplistic allegory about how you are going to hell because you are a weed is NOT a parable. A parable, remember, is an opportunity from Jesus to draw from the depths – to dwell for a time in the mystery of God and to be delighted by the experience of God’s Wisdom.
Parables imagine the Realm of God, because we can’t see it directly. Even Moses can’t see God’s face directly without his brain melting and his head exploding. Understand – even God cannot show you Her True Face, Her True Realm, and keep you in one piece while doing it – it would be like trying to power a lightbulb with lightning strikes. And so Jesus tells us parables about the Realm of God comparing it to things that are hidden, lost, small, mixed up, and obscured.
Seeing the Face of God, experiencing the Realm of God, says Jesus, is like being a woman who hides a tiny bit of yeast in a large amount of flour and mixes it all up, until it’s all transformed.
It’s like finding a hidden treasure in a field, and instead of taking the treasure home with you, you cover the treasure back up, mixing it into the field and then you go and sell your house and everything in it so you can buy that field.
It’s like being a pearl merchant in a marketplace full of tiny, white pearls and finding the ONE hidden most valuable pearl mixed up in all the others and then bankrupting your pearl business to buy that ONE PEARL.
It’s like being a farmer with a field of wheat and weeds – all mixed up together, obscuring one another, growing up together. The farmer has to discern how to protect the wheat and weed out the weeds, and decides to wait until the day of harvest, when the wheat is wheatiest and the weeds are weediest.
An allegory about how you are going to hell is NOT a parable, it’s a fundamentalist weed – and, beloved, I think we can safely say that it’s harvest time. Because we’ve seen the rotten fruits of this overly-simplistic, antichrist, antigospel, antirevelatory, us-versus-them theology. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia – we have plumbed the depths of their simplicity and there is nothing but hate there. They are the weediest weeds, so it’s past time for us as a people, certainly as Christians, and I would pray, even as a nation, to clear the fields.
The firearms industry and NRA have money. But if we can begin to imagine the Realm of God, if we can discern the true fruit of assault weapons and guns in our communities, then we can make the moral and ethical case for a transformation in our gun culture that chooses life over profit, honor over fear, love over hate.
Perhaps, we as a people have not yet found the faith and the creativity to believe that just a little bit of yeast can transform large measures of flour. And so we don’t bother trying to mix it in. We’ve seen the treasure in the field, and we’ve covered it over again, and we’ve gone home to bed and let ourselves despair, instead of sacrificing the house, the bed, and everything else we have to buy that field. We haven’t been able to afford the one great pearl because we’ve been unwilling to sell off the lesser pearls of our comforts and privilege. It’s time to let go of our unfettered access to guns so that we can possess something greater – and that something greater is love for our neighbors.
In a world full of racism and homophobia, much of which has been perpetuated by the Church throughout history, we must demonstrate our faithful love for Queer People of Color by doing our best work to disarm the Haters intent on doing them harm. Ask Jesus in your prayers today, "Lord, what is more important – the lives of your children or the guns designed to slaughter your children?" We have looked out at a field choked with the weeds of homophobia, racism, gun violence, and many of us have been unwilling to do the hard work of harvesting and separating the good grain from the bad weeds. Those weeds are choking out our vision, our imagination, and our experience of the Realm of God. It is time to act.
I would ask you, as a church, to begin to faithfully, prayerfully discern and imagine how it is we might act together. What can we do? I imagine that we can do something. What we must recognize, beloved, is that the status quo – a gun in the hands of every disaffected, angry, lost young man hell-bent on murdering our neighbors – cannot be acceptable to us as Christians and peacemakers. Let’s find a way to come together to disarm hate. Let’s separate the weeds from the wheat, let’s burn our hatred and our phobias and our fundamentalist tendencies as an act of contrition, and let’s store up the good grain that will nourish us toward bravery, faith, and action.
Beloved, in life, none of us can ever see the true face of God. But look at the cover of your bulletin this morning. There are 49 faces there. Look at them and don’t look away. I see a little bit of God mixed up in every one of those beautiful brown faces. And I am praying this morning that we find a way to honor them:
Stanley Almodovar III
Oscar A Aracena-Montero
Antonio Davon Brown
Darryl Roman Burt II
Angel L. Candelario-Padro
Luis Daniel Conde
Cory James Connell
Tevin Eugene Crosby
Deonka Deidra Drayton
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez
Leroy Valentin Fernandez
Mercedez Marisol Flores
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz
Juan Ramon Guerrero
Paul Terrell Henry
Miguel Angel Honorato
Jason Benjamin Josaphat
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla
Christopher Andrew Leinonen
Alejandro Barrios Martinez
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez
Akyra Monet Murray
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera
Joel Rayon Paniagua
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez
Enrique L. Rios, Jr.
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan
Edward Sotomayor Jr.
Shane Evan Tomlinson
Martin Benitez Torres
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez
Luis S. Vielma
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon
Jerald Arthur Wright
A strange sort of miracle happened with yesterday's sermon. I actually liked it. I'm not sure how that happened. Usually, I'm terrified of my sermons after I preach them. But Sunday evening I found I actually wanted to listen to the recording. In four years of sermoning, I've never wanted to listen to a sermon EVER. And I have never listened to one on Sunday evening, let alone with delight.
Maybe it's because I really don't feel very responsible for this one. It came and found me. On Saturday night I had already written a sermon for Sunday, but at 7 PM - after I'd already put away a nice relaxing beer - the Holy Spirit downloaded this one into me. It was all right there. Boom. Impossible to be ignored. I wrote the whole thing down in maybe three hours, which is the least amount of time I've ever spent writing a sermon.
Working hard is important. And developing our skills and character in order that we will be able to offer our best gifts is important. But it is such a relief to remember that it's not always all on us. In creative endeavors I experience this Grace most powerfully. I set an intention to make something, I put in the work, but the final result is often something that was beyond my original imagining.
Manuscript is below...
I was honored last month to be invited by Megan Snell to preach at her (celebration of) ordination last month. First Church was very fortunate that we were able to scrounge up some loose change so that we could pay Megan to be our student minister in the 2014-2015 academic year. We all learned a lot from each other! And hosting her ordination (celebration) was an exciting moment for the church. I think the whole congregation was feeling proud and emboldened by witnessing Megan's journey of faithfulness and commitment. I tried to capture a bit of that in my first ever ordination sermon. I offer it here:
Scripture and manuscript are below.
One of the great things about this blog will be getting to put up Sunday bulletin cover art that feels slightly less safe than the pictures that actually make it into your hands at worship. :)
This past Sunday the lectionary Gospel text was Jesus' teachings on divorce. I had just preached Megan Snell's ordination the Sunday previous and put a lot of energy into that sermon and I had a really bad cold and I just couldn't summon the energy to go there this past Sunday. I actually think that Jesus's teachings on divorce are important and that it's important to preach on them and give people the historical context that these teachings existed within. I think that the more the context is understood, the more folks can begin to understand what it really was that Jesus was saying NO to. I really think you'd need at least two sermons to make it safe to effectively talk about this difficult passage. There's also a bit in there on the gender binary - Jesus talking about how people were created male and female and that opens up a whole another can of worms that need to be dealt with for trans, gender queer, and intersex folks. And I just didn't think I had the time or the energy this past week.
I had been thinking about preaching a sermon on Character or Christian Virtue recently. And while speaking with a friend, Henry, on the lectionary reading he suggested that part of what Jesus is asking us to do is to sacrifice our understanding of what marriage is and turn it into a sacrament. It was an interesting conversation and it got me thinking about Christian virtue and sacrifice.
The Holy Spirit helped me to spit out a sermon on the Fruits of the Spirit, Crucifying the flesh, and what the sacrifices are that we might need to make to live into virtue. And it turned into a wonderful opportunity to also talk about the goodness of the human body and trying to heal the division between spirit and flesh.
Sermon manuscript text is below...
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations