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.
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
I have an awesome job. I don't always know if I'm good at being a pastor, but it's always fun trying.
This morning at office hours Scott leaned over to me as Megan and Bonnie were chatting and asked me sotto voce:
"Jeff, what is God?"
I must admit that I failed to answer well immediately. Cut me some slack. It was early and it's a BIG QUESTION.
We chatted about it for like an hour, in which time we got somewhere after talking about a lot of things. First, when it comes to God I have never found there to be any easy answers. If you want easy answers, I am mostly incapable of providing them because I often feel called to work out an issue with people so thoroughly that in the end your question is 50% answered, 50% irrelevant, and 100% leading you toward the next question or struggle in your journey of spiritual discovery. Of course, we all have to pace ourselves, and there are times when we just need to rest in the love of our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer - no questions asked.
Scott and I discussed apophatic theology, the via negativa: God exists. God does not exist. God does not not exist.
And we talked about the closest approximation to an easy answer on God that I know how to give:
God is a Mystery.
This piece of my theology gets woven into worship services when I introduce the Prayer that Jesus taught us, the Lord's Prayer: "When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray he taught them these words so that we would always have a means to connect with the Great Mystery..."
I had a similar amazing-Spirit-talk talk in Diesel Cafe last week with Jessica where we were asking similar questions, this time about Jesus. Who is this Jesus person anyway? I again expressed this piece of my theology. For me, Jesus is the entryway into the BIG QUESTION.
These two conversations brought me back to writing out my theological perspective for my ordination paper. The whole paper is 20 pages long. I'll spare you. But the opening paragraphs on my theology and the opening paragraph on "Why Jesus" seem relevant here, so I'll share them:
Centuries of theological writings and discussions on the topic of God have demonstrated how absolutely difficult it is to say anything about God at all. What can we say about God? What should we be saying? Can we, as finite beings in physical form who have no ability to experience being itself, really assert that God exists? What would that existence look like? Where would it be located?
One way of dealing with this has been to think of God as the biggest and the best. God is Great! God is Eternal! God is Omnipotent! God is the Primary Cause! God is Infinite! But even such big words fail to breach the barriers of our own limitations. God, in fact, must be beyond the infinite. But even that notion brings us no closer to comprehending God’s true “existence.”
I will risk contradicting myself (which is hard not to do when searching for words about God) by saying that God is a Mystery – as the great theologian Denys the Areopagite put it in the 15th century, God is beyond all assertions and denials. Perhaps we could say that God then goes beyond belief – what is it that we believe in when it is impossible to assert or deny any tangible reality, any lingual descriptors, any self-evident truth about God? Ultimately, in each of our lives and in our communities, God is a matter of faith.
Faith goes beyond belief. When belief is shattered, faith endures. Faith rests easy in the midst of imponderable mysteries. Faith ultimately doesn’t care whether God is or is not benevolent, intelligent, loving, or accessible – these are just words. Sometimes faith sees it one way, sometimes the other. Sometimes great faith doesn’t bother to look at all. Great faith just leaps – and trusts.
For me, as a Christian, Jesus is a tangible access point into the great Mystery. Jesus has saved me by showing me the Way. His is the way of the servant. He does not sit at the table, but he serves the table. He knocks at the door and asks leave to enter. He washes feet. He eats with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He dwells with, organizes, heals, and empowers the last, the least, and the lost. I believe that all those who choose to engage Jesus’ message and walk his way, at any level, enter into relationship with the Resurrected Christ, who listens, learns, adapts, and continually offers “living water” – new possibilities for relationship, transformation, and liberation – to those who seek it.
Next weekend the Drag Gospel Festival returns to Boston and Somerville for the fifth year! For those of you who don’t know, the Drag Gospel Festival (DGF) is an annual celebration of (mostly) gospel music and drag performances that raises money for the LGBT Asylum Task Force. The LGBT Asylum Task Force supports and empowers LGBTQ folks seeking refuge and asylum in the US after facing violence or persecution in their country of origin. DGF was the brainchild of James who is a drag performer under the name Serenity Jones and a member at First Church Somerville UCC. But lots of people get into the act at DGF – we have drag queens and drag kings, from actual pros to first timers, with costumes worthy of the finest ballrooms to costumes that would get groans at even the most last-minute Halloween parties. We even have “Faux Queens” – women who dress like men who dress like women (talk about meta!) This year First Church Somerville UCC, Old South Church, and the Imperial Court of Massachusetts are co-sponsoring the event. The above flyer will give you all the info on the upcoming festivities.
The flyer also contains what is probably the greatest Drag Jesus image ever produced in the history of Christian art. At least, that’s what I thought everyone would think when I approved the image. Actually, the first thing I thought was, “Drag Jesus needs longer eyelashes and some lip liner.” The artist, Rich, made the changes and THEN I approved the poster thinking it would be universally hailed as the next great movement in religious iconography.
Seriously though, let me first say to all of you who might not know me that well – I love me some Jesus. I LOVE JESUS! Jesus Christ is, in fact, my Lord and my salvation. Jesus Christ is my greatest teacher, my path and my way, my entry into all things holy, and sacred, and good. Jesus is a friend of mine. As a pastor, I spend the vast majority of my time thinking about and talking about who Jesus was and is and why it’s all important to us. I do my best to welcome other people into relationship with Jesus and I do my best to live in the faith and according to the teachings and examples that Jesus has set forth. So, let me just drop those Jesus creds right there as my way of saying that I am not interested in insulting Jesus.
And I feel strongly that there is NOTHING INSULTING about Drag Jesus. But I’ve become aware that not everyone may feel the same way as I do about this image. So I’m writing this in defense of Drag Gospel Jesus. As a Christian and a pastor, I feel compelled to suggest a few reasons why I think it’s important to imagine that Drag Gospel Jesus isn’t an insult to God or Jesus, and why it ought not to be offensive to Christians either.
First, I want to remind everyone that the original image that was modified for this poster is not what Jesus actually looked like. I know, I know – you’re not stupid. You know that. But what’s important to remember here is that ALL of our images of Jesus are human cultural expressions of what we think Jesus OUGHT to look like and – by exclusion – what we think he OUGHT NOT to look like. I invite you to Google Image Search the term “Jesus.” What you will find are hundreds and thousands and millions of pictures of a white, European Jesus. Was Jesus white? Hell no! Jesus was not white.
Many people are not insulted by pictures of white Jesus. I vary. Images of white Jesus that were produced in European art before modernity I often give a pass to. Some of them are sublimely beautiful masterpieces that touch my soul and bring me closer to God. And I believe that they were produced in an attempt to imagine Jesus freely and not in an attempt to constrain Jesus. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with depicting Jesus as European, African, Asian, Indigenous within the artistic traditions of those cultures.
But the fact that the image of white Jesus still dominates in our culture and in our churches today is a terrible spiritual harm to God’s people. I think Jesus would be just fine with looking like all of us in all kinds of different art. I just think he’d remind us to make sure we spread it around – to remember that we’re all God’s children, and that Jesus is not the Jesus of just one kind of people. Jesus is the Jesus of all of us. What we are saying today with our pictures of white Jesus is that, even though we all know that Jesus wasn’t white, we would prefer worshiping whiteness to worshiping Jesus.
As for spreading it around, why not another image of Jesus that looks not exactly like Jesus did, but exactly like some of God’s children and Jesus’ people do? Drag Gospel Jesus is such an image. I don’t imagine that Jesus actually looked like this. But I do believe that Jesus would want people who do look like this to see themselves reflected in him.
This all makes me think of the opening two weeks ago of the movie Stonewall. The Stonewall Riots, that the movie intended to depict, were the symbolic beginning of the gay rights movements and the actual beginning of the gay pride movement. The community in Greenwich Village and some of the main leaders in the riots were drag queens, trans women, and people of color. Numerous eyewitness accounts describe the people being put into the paddy wagon that night as “queens” and some of the biggest trouble started when the police arrested a woman dressed like a man. Other accounts describe the riots really blowing up after a police officer shoved a drag queen and the drag queen hit him with her purse. People began throwing objects and shouting “Gay Power!” But in the movie, the main character is a cisgender white male. And it’s he who throws the first brick outside Stonewall.
The film's director, Roland Emmerich, says ... he wanted a white, male protagonist to serve as a relatable surrogate for the audience. That character, Danny, also throws the brick that starts the riots after he catches his boyfriend cheating on him in the bar. "We knew this didn't happen," Emmerich explains. "This is a fictional story and I think it made ... sense for this story."
As our culture continues to try to “whitewash” history, trivialize queer people’s struggles, and reduce gender non-conforming people to secondary roles (at best), my hope is that a faithful Christian response would be – in small part – an image of Drag Jesus that reminds people who don’t conform to gender binary norms that God sees them and loves them and that they are truly welcome to come to church – just as they are.
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...
Welcome to the Jesus the Imagination Blog.
This is a little space for me to curate some of my thinking and writing and creating. I pour a lot of my creativity into journals where it remains largely buried. They’re like a sort of portable, external subconscious. And they’ve been pestering me lately for a little more attention. They’ve been saying to me:
You’re like a busy farmer who scatters seed on the ground, and you sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, you do not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, and the harvest has come, how long can the busy farmer neglect the sickle and the reaping before the good crop goes to seed, scatters itself back to the earth, and is lost for a season?
As a Christian who follows Jesus and a pastor called to help other people – hmmm, what’s another word here… let’s say – EXPERIENCE Jesus Christ, I spend a lot of time trying to imagine ways into a confidence with Jesus. In its Latin origins “confidence” means “faith with.” I try to imagine ways of having faith with Jesus, which I think for some people – especially the people it seems I have been called to serve so far in my ministry – is more fruitful than “believing in” Jesus. “Believing in” something suggests a sense of immediate and full surrender which simply doesn’t work for everyone. “Believing with” Jesus helps us to recognize Jesus’ invitation into a way of living and being and into the commitments of the Good News, which he embodied. When we believe with Jesus, we believe one step at a time. We recognize that – much like the imagination itself – faith is inside of us, but it is something we must choose to encounter. The field is ready to harvest. Will we go down and do the hard work of reaping? Like the imagination, Jesus is inside of us. And Jesus, like imagination, is not contained by us. Jesus-Imagination is bigger than us, a source of life – the read of life, the living water, the word. Faith is like a well – a tap into a great reservoir. And we must choose to haul the bucket to drink. Although, it might not be as much work as we imagine it to be.
In my preaching I take to take these images and dreams and visions and explain them. In this blog, I will do some of that. I also hope to allow some of the images to just flow without the need to tame them into a logical precision. After all, they are born and they live not from logic, but from faith and imagination. Perhaps this wild nature is their truer form.
There are a few buckets to haul on to get to know Jesus.
First, there is Jesus of Nazareth, the historical person. Getting to know this Jesus happens through academic scholarship. A great deal of academic interest and resources have gone into studying who Jesus was as a real-life person since the late 18th century. This Jesus scholarship really took off with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906 which reviewed all of the previous work on the subject. Another big milestone in historical Jesus studies was the formation of the Jesus Seminar in 1985 by Robert Funk. The seminar was made up of 150 scholars who would get together and vote on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings and deeds. And in 2013 Reza Aslan’s book Zealot probably became the most widely read book of historical Jesus scholarship after a video of him being attacked on Fox News for being a Muslim who writes about Jesus went viral on social media.
While some scholars have suggested that no historical person called Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, they are in the minority, and most assert that someone called Jesus of Nazareth did exist but their reductions, recreations, or interpretations of his life – what he did and didn’t do, what he said and didn’t say, and what he meant by it all – vary widely. This diverse range of scholarship, some of which is totally contradictory, and none of which can be proved to be more or less factual than any of the rest (it can only be demonstrated to be rigorous and scholarly – but equally rigorous and scholarly works disagree greatly) is a great invitation into the exploration of Jesus. While it doesn’t seem that there are limitless possibilities for the reconstruction of a historical Jesus, the deeply personal narratives that are created help our imagination enter into the deep possibilities of Jesus, help us to understand his particular historical context, and encourage us to imagine Jesus with the historians.
Another entryway is the Jesus of faith statements. The Gospels are faith statements – each author has a particular interpretation of who Jesus was, what Jesus said, what Jesus did, and what it all meant. (You can maybe see a pattern beginning to emerge here.) The dogma of the Church and the churches are also faith statements about Jesus. Probably the most famous (or infamous) of these today is “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior.” “Jesus loves me” is another. But again, faith statements about who Jesus is vary widely throughout history and across culture. In the church I serve now – First Church Somerville UCC – there are atheist Christians, Catholic Christians, Christians from fundamentalist, evangelical backgrounds, new-age Christians, spiritual-but-not-religious post-Christians, Unitarian Christians, Universalists, Nones, and so on. In one church the testimonies of faith about who Jesus is vary widely from person to person and throughout their individual lives.
And then there is the third way, which for me, underlies and grows out of the other two.
Another famous faith statement about Jesus from the opening of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being.
And from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians chapter 13:
Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?
Some more faith statements: Jesus is the Christ (the anointed one, the Messiah, the Savior). Jesus is an incarnation of God. Jesus is resurrected. Jesus is the Logos (Word) of God. Jesus is co-eternal with God. In Jesus, all things were created. Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Jesus is within us.
Jesus has a particular, historical aspect. He was a real person. His precise, exact life is lost to us but can be reimagined in many ways through study and imagination. Jesus is the Universal Christ – eternal, creative, resurrected. These statements are not imaginary assertions, but imaginal orientations to existence that allow a love and relationship to develop with that which is Ultimate and allows us to make ultimate commitments to a way of being (faith).
Jesus is our imagination – the historical Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Living Water. The Jesus of history and of faith are both far greater than us and yet also exist like a seed and a well inside of us. To have faith with Jesus requires the reorientation of the imagination: a step-by-step growth of what is possible, what is good, what is true.
And to create anything, to do anything – anything at all that comes out of our bodies – requires Jesus the Imagination. At least, this is my faith statement. It is absolute and universal to me. Perhaps not so for you! But I hope you will find visions and creations within this blog that offer you an invitation into communion and creation with Jesus Christ.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations