22 December 2008

A Prayer for Waiting in the Season of Christmas

As Christmas approaches, the object of our waiting comes near. Many of us feel the pressure of this season to be only joy and happiness, but for many it can be a time of sadness--especially as we remember those who are no longer with us, and the things for which we wait that will not arrive on Christmas morning. This Christmas, let us be comforted in knowing that God holds us in both our rejoicing and pain, in hope and disappointment. Let us look to an unlikely baby, the child of an unwed teenage mother, and find some rest for our souls.

What follows is a prayer from the Pres Welcome Advent service.

Jesus, we are waiting.
We wait for your Promise. We trust in your Word.
We hear echoes of your Good News-
that peace is possible,
that love endures all things,
that justice will roll down like waters,
that there will be no walls to keep us apart.
Forgive us when we fail to trust...
forgive us when we fail to be your Church...
forgive us when we doubt you and fall silent...
Forgive us when we ignore the gifts you grant us on the way.
We wait.
Grant us the courage to wait with expectancy,
and to proclaim with hope and joy your promise.
A new dawn is breaking...give us eyes to see it.

14 December 2008

For what do we wait?

Ian Doescher

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

—Psalm 126

For what restoration are we longing? For what do we wait? During Advent, the time is ripe for thinking on those things we await, those promised things that are yet to come. For gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, queer and questioning people—and their allies--, Psalm 126 must speak a true word about waiting, about expectation, about hope.

There are a couple of ways to read this psalm, and both are possible given the text. One way is to assume that the first three verses—about God's restoration—refer to a past event (usually thought to be Israel's return from exile). The second way to read it—and the way I first read it—is to view the first few verses as a hope for the future, as in "this is what it will be like when God restores us." The justification for this second reading is verse 4, which states a very present need: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb." So I ask again: for what restoration are we longing? For what do we wait?

Growing up, I went with my parents to the very conservative Church of Christ. When I was in high school, I started noticing the things that were said in church—Oregon had an anti-gay ballot measure on the ballot in 1994—the infamous Measure 9—and I can remember someone at church passing out "Yes on 9" pamphlets, and my friends in the youth group talking about how they had vandalized someone's "No on 9" sign. Is this what church is supposed to be about? That question led me to the Presbyterian Church. A friend who knew I was unhappy with the Church of Christ invited me to her church, and I immediately felt more comfortable there.

In the thirteen years since then, four of which included a divinity school degree, I have joined the Presbyterian Church and subsequently put my Presbyterianism to the test. I have wrestled with the tradition, learned to love parts of the polity, and cried as the church upholds decisions I find difficult to accept. This is probably a familiar feeling for many of us: we have both loved and been challenged by our denomination; we want it to be what it is and we desperately want it to change. We are in a sort of exile, looking forward to the time when God will restore the fortunes of Zion.

Now, I too look forward to the day when our church and our society are fully welcoming, when laws like Oregon's Measure 9 and California's Proposition 8 and the Presbyterian Church's Amendment B are a memory. "Restore us, intimate God," I find myself praying, "Bring us the day marriage for gay and lesbian couples becomes a reality. Restore us so that all are fully accepted for who they are. Bring the day when the church ordains those most fully called, regardless, and asks forgiveness for the decades and centuries of wrong done in Christ's name. In that moment, when the Lord restores to wholeness the family of God, we will be like those who dream! Then our mouth will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy. Then it will be said among the nations: 'The Lord has brought them justice!'"

09 December 2008

I have called you by name


“I have called you by name.” (Is. 45:4b)

October 19 was Mission Sunday in the Catholic Church. The priest spoke about mission, missionaries and martyrs from centuries past. I asked myself, “what is our mission today and who are our missionaries and martyrs?” One need not go to a foreign land to be a missionary because the mission can be in our own country, city, church, neighborhood or family. Right here, right now there are people who need to hear the message of God’s love and to hear God call them by name. I thought especially about LGBT people whose lives have been brutally ended. They too were missionaries and martyrs who lost their lives for living and speaking the truth. I thought of people who witness the LGBT experience and God’s love even in the midst of physical and emotional threat. They face great opposition, mean-spiritedness, rejection, and hatred. These missionaries live and bring the message of God’s inclusive and unconditional love. They live and bring God’s words, “I have called you by name”.

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers,

unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in

hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers/sisters

loved by God, how you were chosen. For our gospel did not come to you in word

alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and (with) much conviction.”

1 Thessalonians 1:2-5a

Let us remember and honor our LGBT Martyrs and Missionaries. Let us pray for those who continue this mission of witness, this “labor of love” that they will be safe in body and mind. Let us pray so that we may live and believe what God has said, “I have called you by name”.

…..but for now I must sign


30 November 2008

The Pride in Christ's Cup of Cold Water

Douglas G. Grace
Broadway Presbyterian Church
Heritage of Pride Sunday 2008
Lectionary Texts: Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? – Psalm 13:1

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,

and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet

will receive a prophet’s reward;

and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of righteous person

will receive the reward of the righteous;

and whoever gives even a cup of cold water

to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you,

none of these will lose their reward. – Matthew 10:40-42

How long Oh Lord, how long? How long must we bear pain in our soul and have sorrow in our heart all the day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

The Psalmist’s lament surely does speak to the pain and frustration many of us Presbyterians have felt for a long time. Time after time, our church has not welcomed gay and lesbian prophets, nor received the queer as righteous.

How long oh Lord, how long...

Well, maybe not much longer now!

Praise God for the wisdom of this past week. Our Presbyterian General Assembly has voted to remove the constitutional barrier for out and open, affirmed, and faithfully practicing homosexuals to be openly and honestly ordained in our church. And the Assembly voted to remove the unjust and improperly translated slander against homosexuals in the English version of the Heidelberg Catechism in our Book of Confessions.

So, now it is up to the 173 presbyteries across our country to vote on ratifying these constitutional changes that this General Assembly has initiated.

How long oh Lord?

Not much longer now!

How long oh Lord?

And we answer,

Not much longer now! Amen!

I am honored to be here at Broadway Presbyterian Church where the answer to that question has been an affirmation of love and support for the little ones the church has long denied Christ’s cup of cold water.

The Assembly also passed a new Authoritative Interpretation that overrides a recent Presbyterian Judicial Court decision not to allow individual presbyteries to decide the “essentials” for ordination. So even while we must wait two years for the final outcome of justice for our denomination’s constitution, the Presbytery of New York City will now be legally free to ordain whomever they deem worthy –

“practicing” gay or celibate.

I celebrate with you this morning! And I applaud all of you for your faithfulness to Christ on this Sunday of Pride and hope in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Thank you for your leadership in NYC Presbytery in affirming GLBT people, and for your discipleship in advocating for ordination.

It is places like Broadway Presbyterian Church that are not only the salt of the earth, but cups of cold water for God’s thirsty children.

How long oh Lord?

Not much longer now.

So what is God’s Word saying to us today, in the presence of this potentially historic moment in our denomination and here in a congregation where I am preaching to the choir?

What are we hearing the Spirit say to us this morning?

Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

There is a lot of Biblical wisdom and holy salvation floating in that cup of cold water.

If we reflect a moment, we remind ourselves that the region of Israel has never had an abundance of water.1 So Matthew’s congregation certainly would understand the significance of a cup of cold, refreshing water on a hot, dry, Sunday morning.

Rain descending from heaven was the primary source of water in ancient Israel since streams and springs often dried up. In this land where thirst was common and plant life was frequently parched, water was viewed as a gift from God in heaven that gives life to humans, animals and plants. Even the psalmists and prophets used water as a symbol for blessings and salvation from God.2

To drink from the fountain of the water of life, says Psalm 36, is to receive the salvation and blessings of God. Psalm 42 compares a longing for God during times of trial to a longing for the water of a flowing stream.

And today’s Psalm cries, “How long oh Lord, how long?”

And we answer,

Not much longer now.

Jeremiah referred to God as “the fountain of living water.”3 And Ezekiel envisioned a river flowing out from “below the threshold of the temple.” Even in the barren wilderness of the lonely desert, “everything will live where the river goes,” says Ezekiel.4

The sparse streams and the uncertainty of water in the land of Israel gave rise to final visions of hope for God’s ultimate reign of a world where water would be in overflowing abundance.5

How long of Lord, how long?

And we answer,

Not much longer now.

The Gospel of John develops this idea of the water of life in Christ6, and in Luke, water was offered in hospitality to guests so that they could wash their feet of the sand from the desert.7

Water was also a means of ritual cleansing in a religious context where people and articles were washed in preparation for a religious ceremony.8 And let’s not forget that rain from heaven cleansed the Earth from unjust human dominion and left a proud rainbow of faithful covenant.

This morning’s Prayer of Confession and Assurance is a reminder of this cleansing; where we “live as forgiven people, free of guilt and resentment; abiding in Christ’s love and freedom; striving for mercy and justice; and living at peace.”

God’s Grace is joyfully bathing in Christ’s cup of cold water. And it is offered this morning to all in the Presbyterian Church USA –especially the deemed “Queer.”

The Gospels declare that Jesus embodied this divine “living water,” and Christ’s love is offered as a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Those who drink water from a well, Jesus proclaims, will eventually be thirsty again. But those who drink the water that he offers will never thirst. Instead, because you and I drink the water of life, we partake in the promise of “the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”9

This cup of cold water, it reminds us of our baptism too – probably since a cup of water is about all we use today in the Presbyterian Church to do a baptism! Cold water, well, maybe not so much of the right image for baptism since cold water would certainly make a baby cry!

But that cup of cold water that Jesus challenges to be offered to the little ones is a reminder that all children of God find family in the body of Christ, and deserve the hospitality of love, respect and honor.

The family of Christ aids each other to feel the Holy Pride in who we are as created beings in the image of God; who we are in knowing that God created all life and called it good.

So Christ’s cup of cold water is filled with a spiritual soup that quenches thirst, offers abundance of life, performs ritual cleansing, gives salvation to the little ones, offers hospitality, restores the shamed to righteousness, and gives hope for God’s love to ultimately reign supreme in this unjust world. There is a warm, eternal fountain of flowing and living streams gushing up to heaven from Jesus’ cup of cold water down here on Earth!

And whoever gives even a little bit of this cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

So it begs the question of us, do we, as disciples of Jesus, offer this healing hospitality of Christ’s love?

And more pointedly today, do we receive that cup of cold water with the same loving grace now that it may be finally offered to us?

Will the little ones respond with the maturity of faith, and the wisdom of Christ?

Paul also speaks to us today by saying, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace!” May the Presbyterian Book of Order never be used as an instrument of wickedness!

How much longer Oh Lord?

Not much longer now!

Because Holy Pride is at the center of the cup of cold water which is being offered in the name of Christ’s disciples!

We are called now more than ever to discipleship in offering Christ’s cup of cold water, and we are also called to receive it with grace when offered to us. This is the hard work of spiritual discipline which we face now.

We may have won the primary in this victory at last week’s Presbyterian General Assembly. But we still face the general election of presbytery ratification in changing the constitution of our denomination to fully accept the ordination of GLBT people.

So there is yet a mission that we are sent out to complete.

And the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew speaks to Christ’s disciples in this hour of Presbyterian hope. For God’s hour is upon us this morning of Pride as we prepare for the final victory of God’s justice and peace.

It tells us to go to the lost sheep of Israel and proclaim the Good News of Christ’s love and freedom.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet and move on. Let go of your anger and resentment, and move on.

Jesus says that he is sending us like sheep in the midst of wolfs, so be wise and innocent in our own right.

Have no fear; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known:

“Come Lord Jesus, Come!”

Be proud of who you are, in the grace you have received, and how God made each one of us, good.

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops:

“I am who I am,” and “This is my story!”

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

Everyone, therefore, who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my God in heaven.

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

AND…Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward!

How long Oh Lord, how long?

And we answer,

Not much longer now!

There is hard work before us. And many of us recognize all too well the pain that the church has invoked over the years.

The church has kept many people deep in the closet, far behind the winter coats and down at the bottom of the pile of old and worn-out shoes.

But it is God’s Church that lets us stand here today and affirm

in honesty,

with integrity,

and legally

those who have been long denied ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in The Presbyterian Church (USA).

Here we stand together with Jesus at the thirsty grave shouting,

“Come out Lazarus,

Come out!

You are not dead! Drink from Christ’s cup of cold water and be alive!”

How long of Lord, how long?

Not much longer now!

Nowhere in our Bible does it say that God’s Way will be easy; and for Pride seekers, the parade route hasn’t always been clear. But we know this morning, after the close of our General Assembly last night, of the hope of the pathway that lies before us: For this is our story and this is our song, praising our savior all the day long!

Our thirst will be quenched by the cold water of our Savior’s cup; happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above for God’s rain/reign and lost in Christ’s love.

How Long Oh Lord, How Long!!

Not much longer now!!!

So will you join me?

Will you stand up and join me in affirming that the Spirit does justify us by faith through Grace; sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor as we watch for a new heaven and a new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

18 November 2008

A Post in Honor of Transgender Day of Rememberance

A Sermon by Shannon T.L. Furness Kearns
For a Chapel service at Union Theological Seminary, 11/19/08

Today marks the first time that Union has had a chapel for the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. There is a history of this memorial on the bulletin you received at the door. Today is a day that is set aside to remember the people that have been murdered in the past year because of their gender identity. Most of the time the ceremonies that mark this day are not religious in nature and I’ve got to admit I struggled with writing this sermon. I struggled with how to balance rage, grief, and celebration.

I don’t want to preach from a place of rage, but I find that I have to start there. I am angry at the fact that sometimes I feel like a one man transsexual menace on Union’s campus, a voice crying in the wilderness asking people to pay attention to our struggle, asking people to treat us with respect, asking people to use the right pronoun for me only to be met with silence, or excuses, or disrespect.

I feel rage at the fact that we even have to hold this event. I am filled with rage over the way that the news media reports on the deaths of transgender people; how they sensationalize our deaths and yet can’t even get our names and pronouns right. I am filled with rage at the silence of the world over the deaths of transgender people, angry at parents and friends that can’t accept our lives, angry at religious institutions and churches that kick us out, silence us, and deny our humanity. I am angry that as we read these names we find they are mainly women of color. Angry that we still live in a racist and misogynistic society. How do we celebrate when there is so much injustice?

And I realize that I can’t stay with the anger, but the anger and the rage quickly fades to a grief that overwhelms me. As I prepared the list of names for today’s service I found myself getting overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of names. Overwhelmed because it seemed like every day that I woke up there was another new name on the list. And I felt sick as I looked over this list and saw the brutal ways in which these people were murdered. And I struggle with that. Because how do we celebrate the lives of these people when all we know of them in a lot of cases is how they died? I don’t want to do the same thing the media does and sensationalize only the deaths of transgender people, but at the same time, I look at this list and I am overwhelmed by the brutality. People shot execution style, people stabbed and left to bleed to death, people shot over and over, people strangled, people drowned. I am overwhelmed with the grief I feel. I am overwhelmed with disregard that we have for these bodies, for the humanity of these people. I feel powerless to stop all of the killing. I feel grief over all of these powerful people who were killed so young. The youngest on this list was only 15. 15 years old and someone was so afraid of gender difference that they killed him.

I feel grief over our churches that will still deny us ordination and membership. I heard a song yesterday by Arcade Fire, and there was a line that said “Working for the church while your life falls apart, You are singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” How many transgender people sit in our pews singing hallelujah with that fear in their heart? Fear of damnation, fear of rejection.

How do we celebrate in the midst of such grief?

How do we get to the celebration? Where is the hope? Some days I don’t feel it. Some days I can’t get out of the rage. Some days I can’t get past the grief. Some days I can’t get to the celebration.

And I gotta be honest, most of the time the bible or the church aren’t the first places I turn for comfort. Because there are a lot of people hiding their hate behind religious words, and the Bible has been used over and over again to demonize me and my community. It’s heartbreaking for me to be told in not so many words that I can’t possibly be a Christian because I don’t fit someone’s interpretation of the Bible. It’s hard to be robbed of my own tradition, my own faith by the very people I should be in community with. The church doesn’t have a great track record on welcoming my trans brothers and sisters. But on those days when I can manage to get past the rage and the grief and when I find the strength to claim the Bible as my own in spite of the people who use it as a weapon against me. On those days, I find comfort and cause for celebration.

In the book of Isaiah, in the 56th chapter there is this interesting passage: it says: 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

Some scholars have said that the eunuch is the closest biblical example we have to modern transpeople. Whatever the case, eunuchs were outcasts from society. They were denied a place in the holy assembly. They were looked down upon and despised. And yet here God is saying that they will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters. Friends, this is good news to transgender people. We know what it means to have names chosen for us that don’t fit, or to be called names that are hurtful. We also know what it means to choose names for ourselves that represent all of who we are. And we honor one another by using those chosen names even when others refuse to.

But to have an everlasting name; one that will not be cut off; this is hope for those of us who feel like outcasts. This monument is hope to those who have been killed and to those who worry they will be forgotten. This passage brings me great comfort: to know that I am a beloved son of God and that God gives me an everlasting name, even if my family rejects me, even if the church doesn’t want me, there is a place for me in God’s eyes. This isn’t just some cheap hope. I don’t offer it as a placebo, to say that we should stop fighting for our place at the table, our place in society and the church. Instead I offer it as a raft in the ocean for when the fight gets too hard. I offer it in response to the fearful hallelujah. I offer it because it’s the best I have to offer. We are beloved children of the Universe and no one can take that away from us. We are beloved children. We are beloved.

And I pray that one day our churches will become true places of community. I pray that our society will welcome the outcast. That we will take to heart the words of the song sung earlier, that we need one another to survive. I pray that one day we will really believe that and live it out. Until that day, we celebrate knowing that the change will come. That we will cling to the oft-quoted Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “The arc of time is long, but it bends towards justice.” That we will believe in that justice for ALL of us. That we realize the community involves ALL of us.

In the center of our circle is a dried up tree. Today we will place names upon this tree, making our own monument, remembering those who have been killed, celebrating their lives, calling them by name. We will bring this tree to life with color and with memory. Today we feel rage. Today we feel grief. Today we celebrate. We allow all of these things to permeate us, allowing these things to motivate it. And we cannot separate the one thing from the other. We celebrate not in spite of rage or grief but because of it. We celebrate the lives of these men and women. We hold them in our community and offer them love.

Today we know that we are not cut off. Today we remember.

10 November 2008

Imago Dei, Imago Dust

Jenny Howard

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen.1:27

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen.2:7

Genesis wastes no time: right there in the first chapter, it tells us what it means to be human. We are the very image of the Holy One, the Creator’s ultimate creation. Surprisingly, though, in the very next chapter Genesis apparently tells us just the opposite: we are dirt. Which is it?

“In the beginning” and “Adam and Eve” are both part of the popular imagination, but it’s when one first gets serious and starts actually reading the Bible for oneself that one finds that these are not the same story, but two different stories of Creation. This experience can lead to an ever-hardening attitude of willful ignorance (“It’s a mystery, it’s not for me to think about it”), or it can be the beginning of a long journey away from a literal understanding of the Bible.

We can thank 19th-century German theologians for rigorously examining, then proclaiming, what many had suspected for a long time: there are two stories because there are two authors. We don’t know their names, so they’re usually called just J and P.

P’s view of human nature soars to the heavens: we are holy, almost divine, the image of God; the Creator’s final and highest accomplishment; so filled with goodness that God entrusts to us the caretaking responsibility of everything that God has just created. In contrast, J has a very earthy view of human nature: we’re made of dust; we eat things that aren’t good for us; we are so evil that we blame our wives for our own misbehavior, and even kill our brothers when we feel unloved.

Whether we believe that being human means being high and holy, or that being human means being low and dirty, we have a Bible story to support our conviction. We can argue endlessly over which is the “true” or “correct” understanding of human nature. And many of us do, because many of us hold to one belief or the other when it comes to essential human nature.

But it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, a choice, an “either-or”. Perhaps the final editors of Genesis intentionally included both stories, believing that sometimes one is true, and sometimes the other. In this view, to be human is to see our nature as dual, a blend, a “both-and”. Sometimes we’re the image of God; sometimes we’re just dust that has learned to breathe. Part of each of us is good; part of each of us is evil. While this approach allows us to account for both Biblical stories, it is ultimately unsatisfying as an answer to, “What does it mean to be human?” because it is not an answer; it is two separate answers, connected by a decision not to choose either.

I would propose taking yet another step beyond “both-and”: our nature lies in the tension between “image of God” and “image of dust”. Both Creation stories – both images – are necessary to understanding our essential nature. But, instead of elements of a mixture, the two stand as separate, independent poles, and we exist in the space between them. A physical analogy: if the two are weights, we exist in the balance between them. A balance is not either weight, nor is it both one weight and the other. And it is certainly not neither weight. The balance’s existence derives from the weights, yet it is not itself composed of the weights.

In other words, we need both Creation stories to understand what it means to be human, because we need the space between them. We were made, and we live, in the dynamic equilibrium that exists between sacred and profane, good and evil, God and dust.

03 November 2008

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
St. James Presbyterian Church
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Let’s consider the text we have this morning an improvement. But first, to see what I am talking about, we have to start at the beginning. You see, when we began this journey with God, way back in Genesis, it seemed like all was going to be ok, more than ok really. God was pretty happy with what God did, pretty pleased with himself really, as the heavens and the earth came into being, the light and the dark the day and the night. The sky and the land, the sea and all the vegetation. Then came the sun and the moon, the stars and the fish and the birds, sea monsters of ever kind. God saw that they were all good. God blessed them. Then came the cattle and creeping things and wild animals. And then came the people, the human creatures. And God blessed us too.

I wouldn’t say God was say clueless then, but God hadn’t had much experience with this human thing that God had made. And so when God had given humans our own hearts and our own heads and our own souls it was a complicated mater. For humans had their own minds and wanted to do their own thing and God seemed to be shocked by this, or it seems to me that our Scriptures tell us this, God was shocked by the ramifications of us having our own ideas, not God’s ideas so clearly on our sleeves.

And so the story began pretty quickly, by chapter 3 even of the first book of our Story, the story began of the human creature doing what it darn well pleased. By chapter 4 the human creature was murdering, by chapter 6 God had had it and sent a great flood to the earth, convinced at this point that humankind was wicked, that all of our thoughts evil. God was so disillusioned by us that he was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth.” But this sorrow was so great and God felt so deeply that it grieved God’s heart.

But not so fast, that isn’t the end of the story, that isn’t even the story for today. There was one human creature, Noah, who pleased God, and Noah gave us a second chance. Noah was given a chance and God told him to get an ark and he took a few people with him and a few animals. And Noah was remembered. Because of Noah God realized that God had made a mistake. God made a mistake again, but this time God’s mistake was wanting to blot us all out, wanting us destroyed because of our humanity. And so, essentially, God apologized, and promised to never “curse the ground because of humankind” again. God realized that humans had evil inclinations from young and so God would not stoop to our level and try and destroy us, for we have done a good enough job ourselves that we don’t need any assistance in that arena.

This relationship between God and humanity develops and grows through the Hebrew Scriptures of God learning how to live with God’s creation, with us and all of our fantastically manipulative and far-out behaviors. The relationship develops as we learn that maybe, just maybe we should trust God with our whole hearts and minds, despite our inclinations to try and go it on our own.

By the time we get to Jeremiah this struggle of relationship had been going on for a very long time. By now, since we are well into the prophets, and the major prophets at that, we have God speaking to people, through people, God had been in relationship with people for some time now, not just frustrated and disappointed with us, responding by creating floods, but by this time communicating directly with us, us human creatures could address God and God could address us. Even though we continue to do our best to avoid the nurturance of this relationship, God has done God’s best at developing it.

At this point, when we come to Jeremiah, we were all still fighting with each other, murder hadn’t subsided, the questions of who was on the in crowd and who was on the out crowd persisted, we were well on our way walking over a Real Live Bridge to Nowhere. After a long time had passed, after many years of fighting and confusion and misunderstanding and preconceived notions were set in stone, destruction was becoming imminent. The entire nation of Israel was on the brink of destruction, by its Babylonian neighbors. Babylon was encroaching, debates were flying…do we give in or do we fight back? How do we save ourselves? If we collapse has God forgotten us? How can God allow our devastation? Has God turned away from the covenant made at Sinai? Is our God powerless compared to Babylonian Gods? (The New Interpreter’s Bible Intro to Jeremiah p. 1051)

This idea of human sin certainly had not gone away, not one bit really. In these days, but not in the days to come, but in these days it was clear to the prophet Jeremiah talks about it this way: that “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and their children’s teeth had been set on edge.” But God knew what God had gotten into and, so let’s consider it an improvement: here we have God speaking to and through human creatures, in this particular instance to and through Jeremiah. God was done with floods and threatening sacrifice. God was sticking in there with us.

Not only that but in the midst of it all, in the midst of some of the greatest conflict the world had ever seen, we have a God who, through Jeremiah, is pretty darn hopeful. The world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket as fast as we thought it was. Despite it all we have the promise that a new covenant will be made, not one we will thrash against the rocks as we already had a few times before, but a new covenant, one with us, one between Israel and Judah. It will be a covenant that God will put on our hearts and the covenant is simple, it levels the playing field, that God will be ours and we will belong to God. It is a covenant that is not based upon our sinfulness, it is not based upon our abilities or our lack thereof, it is not based on our obedience or disobedience, it is not based on our manipulations or our human desires, it has no escape clauses or conditions. It is not given with strings attached. Despite it all God believes so deeply in humanity that thinks we could pull a covenant like that off.

But let us remember who we are talking about here, let us remember who God is speaking through. Jeremiah isn’t exactly the most sensible prophet. He for some insane reason believed that we could all listen to each other. He for some reason held out hope even though his life had no physical signs of hope in it, for he suffered mightily and lost everything. He for some insane reason, just in the next chapter, right in the middle of a literal battleground, he made a tremendously unsound financial decision: to buy a plot, a field, property, real estate right here right in the middle of the war. This was not the best way to invest in his future in the midst of a financial crises more than anything we have ever seen in the United States. Jeremiah took stands. His was a proponent of the: let Babylon have its way with us and still, yet, God won’t leave us and we will learn somehow or another how we will survive and how we will even thrive. And so, the people not so fond of him, they tried to kill him. He was one of those kinds of people that got to the heart of the matter a bit too quickly, a bit too bluntly, a bit too honestly. He spoke his mind even though his mind called into question the status quo, even though his heart made his people very uncomfortable, to say the least. He took radical action that made no, absolutely no sense in the world when everyone around him thought the world was falling apart faster than it could be put back together.

Maybe this is why I like Jeremiah. He helps me loosen up when I am getting too nervous about my job security, when I can feel the belts tightening around my spending simply cause I am nervous about the future, not knowing how much worse it is going to get, knowing I am putting too much stock in the results of our upcoming election. I like him because he is a little off his rocker, because he doesn’t think too hard about what is supposed to be done and I am not sure he knows the ramifications of his actions so clearly, for he if did he wouldn’t have ever taken them, he does what he thinks is right and good and just because that is what you are supposed to do. He is kind of blunt and I can relate to that, I have never been good at subtlety, it is a Midwestern skill that this Midwesterner was just never given.

Despite all the corruption and greed around Jeremiah, despite the fact that the sinfulness of the world was too overwhelming for much of the world to really handle, to take in, God comes to Jeremiah to tell him that God will watch over to build and to plant, God comes with a covenant based upon nothing more than God’s love for us. In the midst of the deepest of sin, in the middle of the most pain and fear God comes to tell us that God will match our desire to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, to bring evil with God’s own desire to build and to plant, to make a covenant with us, no matter how regularly and insistently we try and break it. It is an improvement, no? No more floods on this earth with the purpose of destroying us, for we can destroy ourselves well enough. No more of that, but instead the covenant with us that God will be for us and claim us as God’s people, building and planting and planting and building.

Perhaps I am too idealistic—you all have heard me preach long enough to know for whom I will be voting for on Tuesday as we all go to the polls to make history together. Perhaps I am putting too much stock into what happens on Tuesday, for I know it isn’t going to be easy. I am not at all convinced that our votes really all count or that continued insane attempts at assassination will not continue.

Perhaps I am too idealistic—but for the first time in many years I have felt relatively hopeful about our country and where it may be going. It’s a long time coming, an awful long time—but perhaps, just maybe I am seeing a little glimmer of hope that Jeremiah had seen so many years ago in the midst of extreme destruction all around us that we have worked hard to create, establish and maintain. God speaks through Jeremiah and God speaks through all of us as well to proclaim hope in the middle of hopelessness, health in the middle of sickness, justice in the middle of oppression, understanding in the middle of confusion.

It isn’t such a crazy thing, you know, to believe that life could be better, and to act and live out of that conviction. It isn’t such a crazy thing, you know, to live and work and be church out of the knowledge that God cares for us in the midst of it all, in the middle of life enough that God will write that care on our hearts, that God claims us as God’s own precious creation. It isn’t such a crazy thing.

We have a long way to go before we deeply understand the covenant made so long before us between God and the human creatures that we are. We have a long way to go before we really live out of the knowledge that we have the option of not acting out of the sins of our ancestors but, instead remembering our past and living out of the actions of us today and now. We have a long way to go before we internalize that all of us, no matter how we may feel today or felt yesterday, no matter how hard we are on ourselves or our neighbors, God still writes God’s care and liberation on our hearts, in the most precarious and precious part of our bodies possible, God gives us freedom. God chooses us, not based on our past sins but based on our present possibility and in that choosing we are charged with the hope and action of Jeremiah, as we enter this most important week in the history of our nation and world and every week that we are graced with life. Thanks be to God.

23 October 2008

Matthew 20:1-16

A sermon by Miller Hoffman

There is a magical place in Brooklyn called the Park Slope Food Coop. It is a grocery store owned by its members and committed to making healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wants it. Everyone pays a one-time non-refundable fee, about twenty bucks, and a one-time refundable investment, about a hundred bucks, which you can pay over time, and you become a shopper and a co-owner of the organization. You’re one of more than twelve thousand other owners, but you get to suggest and vote on things if you really want to, like whether or not to sell meat and beer, or whether or not to allow non-members to shop, like they do at the coop in Ithaca for an extra mark-up, or whether or not to stock the Creme Freshe in the dairy case or with the juice and Fresh Samanthas.

Famous people are members of the Park Slope Food Coop, like John Turturro and his wife Catherine Borowitz, who I stalked once, sort of, and Sapphire, who wrote the novel Push, who I just said hi to, quietly, in my head. Total nobodies are members, like me and Corrine. People are members from Brooklyn and other NYC boroughs, and from Long Island and Westchester and other suburbs, and even from Connecticut. You do the fee thing, take an orientation, and work a two-hour-forty-five-minute shift once a month. Even John Turturro. Everyone is the same. It was founded by a bunch of 60s and 70s hippies, like our sensei Annie Ellman, who came here in March to talk about her other wacked out, radical ideas: peace, breath, centeredness.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a little bit like home for me and Corrine, maybe for Sean and Loren, too. (They were our squad leaders, a long time ago.) It’s a little bit like home for me, and I think a little bit like heaven. Not because it’s idyllic. You can actually live the dream of finding non-genetically modified breads and cereals, and buying affordable fresh, organic produce, even in the middle of Brooklyn, New York City. You can buy twice or three times the cheese there as I can get here for the same price, in as good or better a variety. Manchego and Glouchester with Stilton were my favorites. You can buy a Nikki McClure calendar right there in the stationary section, an artist who does these incredible wood cut prints of people connecting with the earth, and which we can’t get anywhere here but online. So you can do all of this great stuff and buy all of these great things that can’t be done or bought here, but it’s not, you know, utopian.

Boy, you should see how pushy and nasty and annoying people can be when they think they’re part owners of something. You should see what ridiculously petty, minute things people really want to suggest and vote on. Ask Sean sometime about how obnoxious the people there could be. (He has this great very funny and somewhat shameful story about having an argument with a shift worker and getting nowhere, and so he just spontaneously started to speak to them in French.) But it is sort of like heaven because everyone is the same, even though they’re all different. Everyone has to work. Everyone owns it. Everyone has the same say in matters. And the staff, when they start, they get paid the same as everyone else doing their job, no matter how long those other folks have been doing it.

If you get hired as a Receiving Coordinator, you get paid the same as any other Receiving Coordinator, even if they’ve been working there for ten years. You get paid the same to work in the office as everyone else in the office doing your job, no matter how long they’ve been there. I don’t know why. Most members don’t even know this is the case. I’d like to believe that it’s a response to the discrepancies in pay between men and women, between white folks and people of color, doing the same job. I’d like to believe that it’s connected to building cooperation and teamwork between co-workers, rather than competition and hierarchy. I’d like to believe that it’s a correction to the myth of the meritocracy.

You know, the meritocracy. The illusion, the tall tale, that says that if you work really hard you will be rewarded. The lie that says we all get what we deserve. The fiction that says bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. Meritocracy is a deception that, I believe, is part of oppression, part of the line that the regular folks get fed by those in power. Keep working hard. Keep giving us your sweat and tears, keep making money for us, your turn will come. Soon. Then you can name your own price, be your own boss. It’s part of the hustle to keep things the way they are: Keep working hard. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t question the system, because the system is going to reward you. Scout’s honor.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, President Bush will hire and defend the bungling of his pal Brownie, who had no more business overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency than it seems he had overseeing the International Arabian Horse Association. Sarah Palin will give out high-paying state positions to her high school friends who are not experienced or qualified for the job, like the State Department of Agriculture job, which paid something like $95k, that went to her childhood pal who “liked cows.” I’d like cows, too, for $95k. Palin, herself, will become the Republican Vice Presidential nominee after a shockingly brief and narrow record of public service. Mayor Ryan has similar credentials, for Pete’s sake. These examples sound totally partisan, so please know that, even though I spent twenty minutes googling Democratic nepotism and came up with squat, of course it happens there, too, of course it does, and the liberal media machine is just covering it up, like they do. But my point isn’t that only Republicans are schmoes. I’m trying to say that meritocracy is a myth.

Here, within the contours of my own, personal world, a good friend of mine has the pedigree. Her dad’s a lawyer who has defended political protesters and activists since the 70s. Her sister is named after her godmother, one of the Weather Underground. She went to a good, selective, private university where Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison are former faculty. Her dissertation was a intelligent and incisive look at the race riots in 1919 Washington, DC ... and she’s nevertheless been getting jerked around by one academic institution, even as she’s being courted by another, more prestigious, one. I know that there are folks in this room who are connected to higher learning, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to you, but whatever the academy uses as its criteria for acquiring and advancing faculty, it does not use merit. I don’t know what it uses.

Bad things happen to good people, talented people, hardworking people. Good things happen to bad people. Good things happen to random people, people who got there first, who were in the right place at the right time, who knew the right people, who went to the right school, who married into the right family, who dressed right, who fell down the right hole.

It’s not totally haphazard, of course, or it wouldn’t work. It works the same way fat-phobia works: Average people gain and lose five or ten pounds over the holidays or when their eating habits change, and that gets generalized and Imbued With Deep Meaning until all people of size are assumed to be people who eat too much, gluttons, food addicts. All of them. Instead of just getting to be fat people with the same mix of healthy or unhealthy or ambivalent relationships to food as slim people. Hard work has to pay off in some cases, in enough cases, to take on its Deep Significance. So we get to hear stories often about folks like Abraham Lincoln, who read his law books by fire light, and Rockefeller and Cinderella to keep us invested in the system, keep us buying into the myth, keep us believing in merit.

I don’t know whether you are persuaded. Maybe you are picking up what I’m putting down, or maybe you’re still on the fence. But, ultimately, you don’t have to agree. The parable of the vineyard owner in today’s text insists that it’s irrelevant. The world of the parable rejects merit and assumes a universal wage. According to Matthew’s Jesus, heaven’s commonwealth discards the system of reward based on who worked longest, or hardest, or through the scorching heat. The kingdom of heaven pays everyone the same, whether they labored for the full twelve-hour day or only part of it, even just an hour. Even just the one hour, for pity’s sake.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll admit that my instinct is to side with those workers that got picked up at six a.m., who worked through the long day and the hottest hours of the day, just like it’s my impulse to sympathize with the older sibling in the parable of the Prodigal. I was here all day, all along. I work all. the. time. Where’s my party? Where’s my bonus pay? Even at the magical, home-ish, heaven-like place called the Park Slope Food Coop, everybody has to work their shift. And it’s always a two-hour-forty-five-minute shift. Everyone gets paid the same, and everyone works the same. It seems reasonable to me to ask, even to ask with a little attitude, maybe hands on the hips, maybe with a little stamp, “Dude, what’s my angle? Why on earth would I show up at six a.m. if we’re all going to get the same thing in the end?”

But of course that question assumes that everything is all about the end. What if it’s not? What’s fair, after all? What if everything is all about the work itself? About being brought in? About having what we need?

It’s no accident, I think, that the wage paid to every worker in the parable is one denarius, which is understood to be the amount of money that a family in poverty needed at the time to exist for one day. The New Revised Standard Version of the bible translates the amount as “the usual daily wage.” The vineyard owner isn’t paying every worker ample, or abundant, but enough. One day’s worth of rent, shoes, bread. One day’s worth of what they need. This generosity is not measured in surplus, but in sufficiency, for everyone.

With so few details provided – for example, why aren’t all the workers out at six a.m.? Did they have good justification for coming out late, are they lazy? – with so few details provided, every piece of information takes on greater impact. So it’s certainly no accident, I think, that the owner goes out so frequently throughout the day and picks up all the workers who are waiting for work. There is no discrimination, no application process, no hiring criteria. Whether they are experienced, inexperienced, fit or out of shape, young or old, if they are out waiting for work, they are hired. Everyone who wants to work gets work. And it doesn’t seem to matter why they weren’t there earlier. Nobody asks whether they have a good justification. Everyone is brought into the kingdom. This generosity is not extended by invitation, but through radical inclusion.

I’m as big a fan of hard work as anyone. “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “Never put off until tomorrow...” and so on. But if we think that hard work is a means to an end, if we are expecting to be rewarded somehow for working hard, doing the right thing, being good, paying our taxes, turning out lights we don’t need, flossing, if we’re waiting for someone to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you and only you may now enter into my heaven...” Well, I think we are starting to figure out, if we didn’t already know, how that’s going to turn out. According to Matthew, and Jesus, and all.

What if everything isn’t all about the end? What if it’s about the beginning? What if it’s about bringing everyone in and giving everyone what they need? Even if they’re on welfare? Even if they’re one of those jerks who seem to get all the breaks? What if what they need is to know, with certainty, that they are valuable and beloved? What if the denarius we’re supposed to pay them is opening our hearts and our pews and our right speech to people who don’t “deserve” it? Being kind and patient and gentle with people who haven’t “earned” it? Giving people what they need, loving them, showing them love, in all the ways that love feeds people, even if they haven’t worked for it?

How many people that you love actually earned it? Earned your love before you gave it them, I mean? Especially you folks who have children in your life. Some slimy, discolored, wrinkly creature comes out screaming, pooping indiscriminately, relentlessly wanting something or needing something. Did you wait until those kids had demonstrated that they were worthy of your love before you gave it? Did you wait until they were successfully potty trained? Did you wait until they actually did their chores? “I didn’t love you until now, child, but you have made your bed well.” Or our lovers, your partners. Did they really do anything to earn our love before we started loving them? Of course, they have deserved it and not deserved it hundreds of times since, but love doesn’t really operate in a meritocracy. Love thinks it’s a myth, too.

You know what the good news is here. I think we know it, even as we might be stubbornly insisting that we’ve been there since six in the morning, we have worked through the long day and the hottest hours. The good news is that, no matter how hard we work and try to do the right thing and be good, we aren’t always. We can’t be, it’s not humanly possible. We can’t always “deserve” to be loved. Corrine could make the argument that I barely manage to deserve it most of the time. But in the kingdom of heaven, it doesn’t matter. Merit isn’t the criteria for reward. Everyone, everyone, gets what they need .

That’s grace. That’s the meaning of it. Free. Fundamental. For everyone, without exception. We show up at six a.m. some of the time, because we value the work, because it feeds us and energizes us, because it’s worth doing. And some of the time, no matter how hard we’ve tried to be “good” the rest of the time, we don’t get out there until five in the afternoon. And heaven and the things of heaven and the people who buy into heaven’s way of being pay us anyway, enough. All of us. What we need. Earning and merit and desserts are not part of the equation, only grace: mercy, reprieve, blessing, love, forgiveness, sometimes just enough for the day. Sometimes just barely enough.

Welcome home.

13 October 2008

“If It Is of God…”

Preached by Laura Cunningham
Presbyterian Welcome Revival
September 8, 2008 at Rutgers Presbyterian Church (NYC)
Acts 5:27-39

Thanks to Mieke and the rest of the Presbyterian Welcome board for the invitation to be with you tonight. It’s always a little risky when a girl from Georgia (me) and a boy from Texas (Chris) get together to plan an evening worship and start using words like “revival” and “testimony.” You can take us out of the south, but that old time religion – it sticks to you longer than leftover grits in a cast iron skillet.

I’m from Atlanta, though. Atlanta Presbyterians don’t do revivals, especially when their church is on Peachtree downtown next door to the “symphony awchestra” and “museum of aht”, as mine was. I had to learn about revivals from my Cumberland Presbyterian cousins on the farm in Tennessee, or my mother’s stories of growing up in a small town in North Carolina. Or from TV. Or movies.

Or more recently from political campaigns – all of them carefully staged events designed to convert believers to a cause.

Here’s what I know about revivals. There’s no order of service, at least not on a bulletin. A revival is singing, praying, preaching by someone, often a guest preacher. A person gives their testimony, and folks are invited forward for an altar call. In my mama’s hometown – especially at the Baptist church – these revivals could last until late in the night.

Hard to imagine that a real revivalist might have chosen the passage for tonight from Acts, but after this year’s General Assembly, after reading blogs and hearing accounts from those who were there, I found myself thinking back to what some might call the first Christian revival, the visitation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What happened to carry that Spirit forward? What made it such a success?

The beginning pages of Acts are filled with people giving their testimony about the work of the Holy Spirit, about Jesus of Nazareth and the power of God they experience in him. The apostles carry on Jesus’ work of healing the sick and teaching about The Way, just as the God of Israel had been at work through Jesus Christ. The religious authorities were none too pleased with these apostles, which meant that ministry was very dangerous work, often culminating in harsh punishment or prison time.

This evening’s passage comes from the second time Peter and John and other apostles are brought before the Jewish council. The first time they were arrested for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection in the temple, but released on account of the power of a healing. They are arrested again, imprisoned, and then released by an angel of the Lord, whereupon they go right back to the center of worship in the temple and start teaching again. These apostles just can’t help themselves. And the temple police bring them right back to the council.

No matter what the consequences, though, Peter and John are right back at it.
They are part of a gifted group of people. God’s Spirit keeps sending them back, not just to the streets outside, but to the temple courts, to the heart of the worshipping community, and to homes, the places where the Spirit lives and moves every day. They keep speaking the truth they know. And they keep enraging those in charge, to the point that the council wants to kill them – force them to break one of the commandments.

This is bloody, painful business. Jails… violence… flogging… I’ve wondered if anyone on the Council took Peter aside and said look, there’s this group called the Essenes, over at Qumran- you all have a lot in common with them. Ever thought about joining them? It might make things a lot easier on you and on us.
I have wondered if I would have made it as a Christian back then, if I could have gone through the excruciating pain that these apostles went through, if I could have gone through those lengths to obey God rather than human authority. Or would I simply have said forget this, who needs this kind of abuse?

I don’t need to tell anyone here that these last few years have been bloody, painful business for a gifted group of my brothers and sisters, many of whom have been asked, “why don’t you consider the UCC, or MCC?”, many of whom have migrated to other denominations. I have wondered, if I were in their situation, would I have gone through all this stuff that smells like a bull’s back side, or would I have simply said forget this, who needs this?
For many of my sisters and brothers, speaking God’s truth, giving testimony to God at work in their lives is bloody business. Nothing I would wish on anyone.

But in Acts, there’s some crazy Holy Spirit stuff going on. The church grows through all of this mess. Something powerful is happening. The book of Acts describes people lining up on the streets of Jerusalem, just so Peter’s shadow can fall on them.

The Holy Spirit speaks in words from Gamaliel, a member of the Jewish council, “if this plan is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them…” At least for some folks, it was obvious that something bigger was going on. For those with a love for the same God these apostles had witnessed at work in Jesus Christ, their testimony pointed to something greater than the differences that divided them. A wisdom that God, in the end, would not let this fail.

Gamaliel, a reputed teacher of Saul of Tarsus, a great persecutor of the apostles, eventually became known for his own testimony.

These words are powerful testimony. In our day of an image culture, when it seems like pixels put together in colors and shapes make the most difference, it’s hard to imagine. But it was the words and actions of the apostles that were causing all of this trouble. The power of their experience of God, as they had known God in the person of Jesus, caused this trouble. The Spirit was at work in them and through them when they were put on trial, and nothing was going to stop it!

In this day and time, I don’t know if this new amendment is going to pass all of the presbyteries. This is what I know: that you can keep bringing people, people who are called, who are gifted with the Spirit, who know how to share the story of Jesus Christ with others, you can keep bringing people up on charges, keep flogging them with whatever part of scripture or the book of order or confessions seems most convenient. But the Spirit of God is more powerful.
According to the wisdom of Gamaliel, if plans or undertakings are of human origin they will fail, but if they are of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.

In this case, I have seen the Spirit at work in too many of my brothers and sisters who have shaped my own call to ministry. My own spirit has been revived by the witness of too many of my brothers and sisters whose identities intersect somewhere with the letters GLBTorQ. You know those stories, too – you could tell too many of your own, or you wouldn’t be here tonight.

Tonight, I want to ask you to bear some witness yourself. I’m asking you to let the Spirit keep working in you, to help our church be a place that looks less like the Jewish council and more like the early apostles, to help us to be a community where all can share their faith.

Having recently returned from my native region, I can tell you that we need people to share their stories across presbytery lines, who can go north and south and east (maybe not much further east) but at least west, who will be witnesses to the Spirit at work in regions where people have tried to silence it.

In our Presbyterian order of service, we have what we call an “invitation”, but my Tennessee cousins would look you straight in the eye and say, “Shoot, honey, that’s an altar call.” Tonight I invite you to feel that same Spirit, unleashed at Pentecost, that blew through the early apostles, in the midst of their trials, and that keeps blowing within and without General Assemblies, even in the midst of today’s trials. May the Spirit move you, as it did the early apostles, to speak about new life. May all of our plans and undertakings be of God, because if they are, they will not be overthrown. Amen.

06 October 2008

Faith and Fear

By the Rev. Arabella Meadows-Rogers, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of New York City
Stated Meeting - September 27, 2008
2 Timothy 1: 3-7 and Mark 4: 35-41

Pioneers. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of clergywomen, and we named, Katie Cannon and Blanqui Otano and Peg Howland and Elizabeth Ehling, and Idalisa Fernandez, Pioneers in the faith, who risked and dared and faced hostility and fear.

This afternoon we talk about issues that divide us: race, class gender, language, country of origin. Difficult conversations, fraught with fear.

This summer I have been privileged to be a part of many leave-takings and many arrivals.: Jo Cameron, Ch Brewster, John Smucker, Scott Black Johnston, Charles Johnson….And part of my work every week is meeting with pastors, candidates, who want to be a part of the life of a congregation here. Each COM meeting, several annual reviews, several arrivals..times of change and times of hope and times of anxiety. And at each of them I was so aware of fear, and excitement, and hope, and expectation.. and fear, and fear, and fear.

I gave Charles Brewster a Russian doll to celebrate his retirement, one that opens to reveal another doll and another and another, and what I said was that I hoped his retirement would be about more mystery, more excitement, more new experiences.

But we all know that change, that is, mystery and excitement cause as much fear and dread as they do hope and expectation.

You know how children love the scary houses at amusement parks.

My cousin Will was about 4 when his mother took him to the scary house at the State Fair. And the car was careening around those dark bends, and scary things were tickling their necks, and monsters were rising up from corners, and Will was sitting, frozen and still and thrilled and scared, as each new shock came at him, . . . . .and then their car rounded a bend and 3 big musketeer-types rushed out the darkness and shouted, “Fire at Will!”

And 4 year old Will leaped up in the car, and quakily shouted back, “Not me! I’m your friend!”

We all want to make friends of what scares us, of what’s coming around the next corner. We all want to know that what’s ahead is more about hope and expectation and good things, and not about fear and churning stomachs, and scary times.

The disciples in the boat were afraid.

“Teacher, teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

How quickly they forget! That very day, Jesus had been teaching them in parables: on sowing good seed in good soil, on not hiding your lamp under a bushel, on the faith the size of a mustard seed.. He had been teaching them all day.

And now they got in the boat and forgot all he’d been teaching them. No faith like a mustard seed, no disciples acting like good soil, no bringing their lamp out from under the bushel to show them the way, very much afraid. This storm will undo them!

We want to make friends of what scares us… and how quickly we forget, when we’re afraid, of the good news we’ve been given. We do not see Jesus in the boat.

Our new stated clerk of the General Assembly, Gradye Parsons, this summer, preached on this passage, and he said this:

Get in the boat
Go across the lake.
There will be a storm.
You will not die.

A week later he was having heart surgery. I wonder if he remembered the words he’d preached.

I think I’d express it another way, but the primary sentiment still is:

You are not alone.
Jesus is there in the boat.

Get in the boat
Go across the lake.
There will be a storm
No matter what happens, you are not alone.

God is your friend.

Julian of Norwich said it this way:

Jesus did not say
You will not be caught in storms
Jesus did not say
You will not struggle
Jesus said you will not be afflicted
Jesus said, “You will not be overcome”. *

Friends, having spent much of the last year thinking and praying about this passage about fear, I want to say that I believe this presbytery, this denomination, is awash, and in danger of capsizing, because of its own fear.

Let me say it again, this presbytery, this denomination, is awash, and in danger of capsizing, because of its own fear. How do I know this? Because instead of meeting fear with friendship, we batten down the hatches, armor ourselves with platforms and positions, draw our wagons in a circle with those who agree with us, and we stop listening. We only lift the hatches to aim and fire wildly. We sing words of love one minute and shout words of anger as soon as worship is over. That’s fear.

I do not say that to blame, but to sympathize. I am a part of the problem as we all are. I don’t think I would have stood up in that scary car like Will did. I too have been too often stuck in my own fear, of what would happen if I really said what I thought, if I reached out across some invisible chasm and spoke vulnerable words, if I … I too have blamed others without telling them, have thought ill of people because of my own assumptions and perceptions without checking them out; I too have quit listening when I get afraid.

We are stuck in our own fear, and we do not see Jesus in the boat with us.

 We fear that we do not have all the answers.
 We fear that we will step out in faith and God will not be there.
 We fear that we cannot save our little churches, the churches we love.
 We fear that the church will not be there for our grandchildren and that we somehow have failed them.
 We fear to tell the hurting truth to each other and we cover up the hurt with anger.
 We fear that if we told the truth to each other, we might look ugly in our own eyes, or in theirs
 We fear we are alone.
 We fear we are alone.
 We fear we are alone

We are mired in our own fearfulness, and cannot even see that Jesus is there in the boat with us.

And let me say this about fear: fear freezes. It doesn’t flow. Fear CAN capsize that little boat. I’m a canoeist, and I know: the more afraid I get, the more I tremble and quake, the more the boat is likely to capsize, and the less able I am to trust the oars, the water, the boat, myself, or my partner behind me. I can’t see ahead of me to the other side, to the promised land, all I can see is the deep dark frightening water opening like a chasm right in front of me.

Fear freezes, doesn’t flow, creates distrust, and lack of vision.

We are mired in our own fearfulness, and cannot even see that Jesus is there in the boat with us.. with ALL of us, not with part of us, not with the people we agree with, or the people we’ve been talking to this week, or with just the others. Jesus is there in the boat with all of us, hoping and praying even while he’s asleep that we’ll quite our quarrelling and get about the business of being the church.

The popular saying is that ‘faith conquers fear’ or that God never gives you more than you can handle.

Frankly, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I would rather say that ‘faith attends fear’, and that God comes to meet you as you face the storm, sort of like little Will when he stood up to those musketeers. That’s when the unknown becomes your friend. You take a risky step, you waver and hover, you doubt and quake and then faith attends you like Jesus waking in the boat, and slowly the waters don’t seem quite so stormy.

This summer I read t he biographies of some of the early explorers—Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus, and Balboa,… who somehow found the courage to overcome their fears of the unknown and venture out into uncharted territory…and what I was looking for was, what gave them that courage? What got them over their fear? It wasn’t always faith, it wasn’t fear, it was courage to try something new. Courage is when faith meets fear, faith attends fear, and becomes its friend. Trying to go south along the coast of Africa to round The Cape of Good Hope, they kept failing when out of fear they kept close to the coast. It was when they took a risky step despite their fear and ventured farther out into the waters of the Atlantic that they found the warm friendly winds to help them go south.

We want to make friends of what scares us… and how quickly we forget, when we’re afraid, of the good news we’ve been given. We do not see Jesus in the boat.


It was a dark day in December, right before Christmas last year, when I got the initial cancer diagnosis, cancelled my plans to go see my grandchildren, and lay in a hospital bed waiting for more tests. It was a difficult three days and several months as the storms and the doubts and fear hovered near.

And I have to say this: my faith didn’t immediately conquer fear. I didn’t immediately see Jesus. I was frozen. I thought I was alone.

But as I cried out internally and tried to face the terror I felt, and as I prayed and heard others praying for me, I heard slowly, in the darkness, over and over again, a loving presence, a loving word, “I will be with you; I have called you by name, You are mine”.

Faith attends fear.

Let me say it again,

Faith attends fear. Jesus is in the boat with us, in the storms, in the dark.

The Spirit of hope, the Spirit of love, the Spirit of God will be there for you in your fear, the Spirit will be there for me in mine. It will be there for us, if we take a risky step together, if we commit ourselves to lift the hatches of suspicion and offer friendship instead.

Our faith grows as we take risks, act with courage, try new things, as w e quakily face the fears and doubts that assail us, and then at some point, we realize Jesus was there all along.

God is our friend, our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble, even when we cannot see God or think Jesus is asleep at the wheel.

Take risky steps.
Speak the truth in love.
Reach out across the aisle.
Trust a little more.
Trust God a little more.

The promised land is still ahead, and we are not alone.

We can face the future together, if we acknowledge the friends around us. God is with us.

Try this with me:

I have advanced cancer,
but God is my refuge and my strength!
I’m worried about the economy,
but God is my refuge and my strength
We worship in a small church,
but God is our refuge and our strength!!
We’re not sure about the future,
but God is our refuge and our strength!
Sometimes we cover our fear with anger,
but God is our refuge and our strength!
We yearn for a future filled with hope and faith,
God is our refuge and our strength!
I know that I am not alone.
For God is our refuge and our strength.
We know that we are not alone…
for God is our refuge and our strength!

Turn to your neighbor and say: God is our refuge and our strength!

Jesus has been here all along…

Thanks be to God. Amen.

* This quote was given to me by Presbytery Teaching Pastor Steve Shussett, Lehigh Presbytery, right after I was diagnosed with cancer. I have not been able to locate the exact location of the quote.

29 September 2008

For We Will Stand the Storm Together

by Anonymous

"We’ll stand the storm it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by and by
We’ll stand the storm it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by and by…"

What an amazing, tempest-tossed time in which we live! Between the financial crisis and the election/debate coverage it can be easy to forget to pray for Presbytery meetings let alone work toward 1000 Conversations…the waves are coming in sets.

In the midst of the chaos I find I cannot quite get this chant out of my head. It sounds somewhat like an African American spiritual meets Taize: it’s meditative yet sway-inducing. I take comfort in the Spirit of hope, community, and resistance in which the song was written. According to the composer, Bernice Johnson Reagan (formerly of Sweet Honey in the Rock), “The composition represents a unique musical expression of the myriad elements that inspired historical ‘life or death’ battles for freedom and survival, and which continue to sustain us in our ongoing struggles against oppression in contemporary times.” (www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/projectsLD.shtml)

The song does not make promises it cannot keep. Chanting it will not guarantee calmer seas, a great spot to dock or what the final vote will mean. Today perhaps it is enough to know we are in the boat singing together and the same Spirit that creates us and sustains us will also guide us through by and by.

I searched in vain to find a recording to share so that these words might musically enter your soul, too. Instead, I invite you to repeat the words over and over; first reading them and then without looking so that the phrases can begin to wash over you, too. For WE will stand the storm together…[we hope and pray] it won’t be long…WE will anchor by and by…We’ll stand…

22 September 2008

Prayer for Unity in the Midst of Difference

This prayer was offered the morning after a rigorously divisive debate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In recalling Scriptural commands to love God and neighbor, fellow student Douglas Grace reminded his classmates that our call to unity is greater than any perceived difference. A message especially alive and important in this year of denominational and national debates and votes.

I invite you to take the hand of the person next to you and to close your eyes. Take in a deep, loud breath – a breath by its very sound names the divine. A breath that is healing, sustaining and life-giving.

Creating, forgiving and affirming God, hear our prayers this morning. Many of us left this space last evening after lively and passionate debate; debate over issues that plagued your ancient children as much as their contemporaries – issues of justice, race, sexuality, equality, respect, liberation and independence; debate that raises sensitivities in some and perhaps, insensitivity from others. Debate and questioning which may result in frustration, hurt, anger, some not being heard or some feeling confused. Bring love, justice and peace to our collective communities and remind us of our ongoing bond here at Union and the commitment of respect, even within and among academic, theological or denominational difference. We have learned about tension and resistance; conquest and oppression; the Exodus; the phenomenon of oppression from an oppressed people; overall suffering and liberation – all from so many events and characters in our Bible. Let us unite around the common call to love our God and our neighbor. Help us to move beyond difference, beyond simple tolerance of the other, even beyond acceptance of the other, and into the ultimate of love; divine love that embodies each one of us! God of Wisdom, remind us that Paul still writes to us today that the opposite of fear is not righteousness, but love. Help us to see Your love in all of Your diverse creation. Guide us now, ancient and present God, this new day, as we learn from Isaiah about the creation of new heavens and a new earth; that former things shall not be remembered or come to mind, but all shall be glad and rejoice forever in what You, oh God, are creating: that of joy and of a people with whom You can delight!

And all of God’s people said, AMEN.

19 September 2008

The Radical Inclusion of the Rev. "Mister" Rogers

Fred Rogers, known around the world as everyone's favorite neighbor, "Mr. Rogers," was an ordained Presbyterian minister (Pittsburgh). Fred did not like what he saw on the early days of television and thought this great invention could be used to "broadcast grace." His then-local children's show was his ordained ministry. What may be not as well known was his deeply inclusive love.

He is universally remembered for the kind and tender way in which he talked to his child (and adult) viewers. One of his signature lines was a message of radical inclusion: "You make every day special just by being you!" He really meant it. There are stories of Rev. Rogers being asked to condemn someone who was gay but instead he looked the intended target straight in the eye and warmly assured them, "God loves you just the way you are." One of his over 200 songs he wrote was titled, "I Like You As You Are."

Another typical story relates an evening when he was to be the honored dinner guest at a wealthy home and upon learning that his limousine driver, Billy, would be sitting in the car waiting for him through dinner, invited the driver to eat with them, much to the bewilderment of Fred's hostess. On the way home from the evening, he sat in the front seat talking to the driver and learning about his family. When told they were passing the driver's house, Fred asked if they could stop and say hello. They stayed late visiting and Fred entertained the whole family (and many of their neighbors) with piano playing. A few years later Fred learned that Billy was dying of AIDS. He was on vacation with his family at the time but tracked Billy down to talk to him and offer him words of comfort.

The world was one neighborhood in Fred's vision and everyone belonged -- just the way they are. And in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, during an episode about missing one's parents and having bad dreams, shy Daniel Tiger tells Lady Aberlin that he wonders about things. He "sings his wonders" for her and she sings her reply of "what I believe."

[Daniel Tiger]
Who made the rainbow and the sky?
Who made the bird and let it fly?
Who made the hour?
Who made the day?
Who had the power to make the flower?

And who made the rain and made the snow?
Made us, and made us want to know?

[Lady Aberlin]
God made the rainbow, the bird, and the summer sun.
God made the mountains, the stars each and every one.
God made the sea and she made the land.

God made the mighty and God made the very small
God made the world made the people;
He made it all.

To which we might add, Amen.

08 September 2008

Prayers of the People

By Rev. Chris Shelton
Presbyterian Welcome
Worship & Response to GA
September 8, 2008 at Rutger's Presbyterian Church

Let us pray…

Way-making, Life-breathing, Song-singing God –
Into the chaos of this world,
You called forth a chorus of Light
and all the harmony of Creation.

In your Love, there is always something to sing about.
Hear us, as we shout our songs for justice.
Embolden us, as we lift our songs of the struggle.
Enfold us, as we cry out our songs of sorrow.
Embrace us, as we improvise our songs of love.
Sing with us, as we dance our songs of joy.

God of Grace and God of Glory, on thy people pour thy power.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

This road didn’t start here, we are but pilgrims on a journey.
We thank you for those who have gone before us:
serving in silence or shouting from the rooftops
bold preachers and gentle guides
wrestlers with identity, and wrestlers with you
students of your Story
celebrants of your glory
We thank you for leading us here, and we know you lead us still.

God of our Life, Through all the Circling Years, We trust in Thee.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Though walls enclose us, we are not alone.
Your body, your Church, is boundless.
Forgive us for the boundaries we try to build:
walls of racism,
dividing lines of sexism,
false distinctions of class and character,
fears and hates of homophobia,
idols of ideology.
Heal us where we are fractured.
Mend our broken places until we are made one in you.

In Christ, there is no east or west, in Christ no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Grant us ears to hear to voices long silenced, or long ignored.
Grant us hearts able to listen to those who would not listen to us…
compassionate listening:
hearing the heartache under the voice of anger
hearing the neighbor within the voice of the adversary
hearing your voice in the Spirit-filled silence.

And, grant us voices to speak.
Grant us words of compassion and courage,
grant us peace-filled words to still the storms,
grant us the fire of your prophets,
or the music of your poets,
or the whisper of your still small voice.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations…
Hear your people as we pray:

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Hear our open hearts, Gracious One,
and know our prayers, our groans, our hopes, our fears…
send your Spirit to pray with in us
where words aren’t enough…


Way-making, Life-breathing, Song-singing God –
Into the chaos of this world,
You called forth a chorus of Light
and all the harmony of Creation.

In your Love, there is always something to sing about.
Sing with us, sing through us…

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

--Rev. Chris Shelton

02 September 2008

What We Long For

by Rev. Barbara E. Davis
preached Sunday, June 29, 2008
First Presbyterian Church of New York City

Matthew 10:40-42; Exodus 17:1-7

When I was pregnant with my daughter Hannah, I learned quickly about the importance of drinking water during pregancy. As first trimesters go, mine was manageable; I was exhausted and I was a pickier eater than I had ever been, but I was happy with vegetarian sushi most nights – although I can’t speak for my partner, who for some reason wearied of it after a few nights in a row. I learned to snack throughout the day, eating multiple smaller meals. I had given up coffee before I started trying to get pregnant, so I drank tea in the morning and then water throughout the day. I thought I was doing pretty well managing all of these new routines until I passed out one Friday afternoon at Grand Central Station.

Karen and I were going to Conneticut for a conference that started that evening and lasted through Saturday. We were meeting at Grand Central, and I had arrived first. Standing there, somehow, things just didn’t seem quite right. Thankfully, I kneeled down and the next thing I remember there was a paramedic beside me along with a ring of police and heavily-armed National Guard officers. I was trying to explain to the paramedic that I was fine, just pregnant, when my cell phone rang – it was Karen asking where I was. I mumbled something about passing out and being surrounded by the National Guard, and I’ll never forget her response – “oh, I see you” as if it had been our plan to meet at that spot all along. After a short ambulance ride and two bags of fluids in the emergency room at St. Vincent’s, we were on our way home, having learned a great deal about limitations and the importance of hydration.

I don’t know if bags of saline count as cups of cold water, but they should. The passage from Matthew that we heard today models an expression of hospitality that overflows. It begins with a description of hospitality that equates it to a chain reaction: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Hospitality is like a line of dominoes, the challenge is to remember that we always want to get to that last one, the domino that embodies the divine presence of God.

Being hospitable to God is crucial, and yet it has presented generations with the problem of having a personified God whose face we are not able to see, we never know when God is among us. Jesus’ guidance on this problem was consistent and challenging: treat everyone as if they were the presence of the divine. He witnesses to this practice by eating with tax collectors, healing lepers, not shunning the woman with the flow of blood. He welcomes all those who might expect to not be greeted with much hospitality, and then reminds the people he is talking with that their tradition actually calls them to do the same.

Quenching thirst is a common metaphor in the Bible describing our spiritual thirst. “Cups of cold water” are one of the distinct metaphors for offering hospitality. Our congregation and Presbytery know about extending this kind of hospitality; we take pride in the fact that we sponsor the Evelyn Davidson Water Table in front of our building on this day every year. As the marchers in the Heritage of Pride march come down Fifth Avenue, whether they are prophets or righteous persons, they are in need of cups of cold water. It is a satisfying way to spend the afternoon, and frankly the interactions with all the people are reward enough on this day, but we should not think that having literally lived out giving cups of cold water means that our mission is accomplished.

The last verse of this passage from Matthew begins “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” When Jesus puts it like that, it sounds as if giving cups of cold water is the least that we are called to do. If you have nothing else, “even a cup of cold water” will do. In fact, water would be the least one would offer in Jesus’ time by way of hospitality. A visitor who was fully welcomed might anticipate a meal, their feet washed, and even lodging in exchange for news from where they had been traveling. A cup of cold water would be a simple gesture in comparison to the fuller limits of hospitality.

Another issue is brewing in these verses from Matthew and it is the issue of “reward.” This idea strikes a discordant note; given that a cup of cold water would be the least that could be offered, shouldn’t it just be offered without expectation of reward? The very idea of hospitality offered with expectation flies in the face of a whole body of Reformation theology, from Luther to the present, who try to break the connection between works and rewards. It’s a relationship too prone to corruption. Commentators understand this passage from Matthew in different ways, but one explanation that may be helpful to us today is that these verses are actually the conclusion of a larger teaching in which Jesus is explaining that the time of final judgment will be a time when all secrets will be revealed, especially one’s faith allegiance.1 Christianity’s early roots are connected with secrecy, mostly because of fear of persecution and rejection. The reward of sharing cups of water is about revealing one’s faith and breaking the cycle of living in fearful secrecy.

If offering cups of cold water in Jesus’ time were to reduce secrecy and fear, how many more thousands of years and millions of cups will this project take? Too many people still live in the grips of fear and secrecy. There are many kinds of secrets that our culture encourages people to keep. A relative who committed suicide, a loved one’s battle with mental illness, a friend’s disability, a struggle with alcoholism, a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation. In the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community secrecy and fear are still real and present issues, and the church of tradition stands as guilty as the culture it competes against in perpetuating homophobia. But there are places, like this congregation, where the welcome is wide and the work has begun. These places are like Massah or Meribah, where Moses got water from the rock, and the question was asked “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Testing the Lord is not always viewed favorably in the bible, and even in the Exodus story, the reader’s ear is tuned more to relate to Moses and to hear the Israelites as a bunch of complainers. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible outlines two patterns of the murmuring stories from the people’s journey in the wilderness. One is this pattern: a complaint by the people, followed by punishment from God, followed by intercessions, ending with reprieve. The second is the pattern followed in section we heard from Exodus 17 this morning: there is a need, a complaint is expressed, intercessions are made, a miracle occurs.2

This passage is challenging to our usual hearing, because when we stop and think about it, the people being in need of water is not such an unusual or demanding request. This pattern is not one where water had been provided in some way that was not the people’s liking or where the people were provided water and asked not to hoard it, as happened with the manna. The problem is simple: “They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.” It is Moses who seems irritated with the people’s need for water; Moses who accuses them of quarreling, Moses who suggests they are testing the Lord. Once Moses puts their request to the Lord, the response is simple and miraculous.

The elders are to go ahead with Moses until they find the Lord standing by a rock at Horeb (really this is what the text says), and Moses is to take the staff he used to strike the Nile River and strike the rock on which the Lord is standing, and water will come from it. Moses does what the Lord commanded with the elders, and the people are provided with water. It is almost as simple as the pattern outlined earlier: need, complaint, intercession, miracle.

Imagine applying this method to other problems in our life: gas prices, mortgage payments, health issues, daycare – it could all be as easy as finding that rock where God is standing and having a good staff, and good aim. The problem however is not just that we don’t come face to face with God on a rock very often, the problem is that like the Israelites we fall victim to being halfway to the promised land with one foot still in Egypt. That problem is highlighted right in the middle of this Exodus passage in verse three, which says: “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’” The problem is not that the people want water, the problem is that the people are looking to the past for the solution to being thirsty in the present, instead of believing that the thirst quenching water can be provided right then, right there. Egypt quickly becomes the good old days, and the promise of that day is lost in the way things used to be. The Israelites are halfway people in this passage and being halfway people lends itself to secrecy and fear finding footholds too easily in our lives.

Fear and secrecy worry me the most as my partner and I try to navigate our way through the maze of parenthood. We have many of the same fears that any parent has, is our child safe? Is our child learning how to treat others with respect? Are we responding adequately to her independent spirit? Is she eating enough vegetables and getting enough sleep? I never tire of watching her sleep, and my thoughts in that time are full of how much better my life is with her in it. But my partner and I have unique fears as lesbian moms, which center on how to respond to homophobia in front of our daughter so that she inherits strength from her parents and not shame or fear. Parenthood dismantles a layer of secrecy in a relationship; there is no longer room to pass for something other than who we are. To Hannah, we are her Mommy and Mutti – the name she calls Karen from her German heritage. Other people we encounter occasionally have trouble figuring it out.

The most difficult time so far was when we took Hannah to the emergency room near our home in Brooklyn with a very high fever. When we were moved into the intake area, the person filling out the paperwork asked us, “Which one of you is the mother?” Our unison reply, “We both are,” was met with another question, a clone of the first, apparently in more remedial form for us: “Which one of you is the real mother?” This question is an expression of being halfway people. We live in a world that expects children to have a mother and father, despite myriad of family structures lived out everyday. We live in a world that reinforces halfway thinking, and makes it difficult to live beyond that perspective. We all have one foot in that restrictive structure as we try to lunge forward past the halfway point. Being halfway people is not a place where we can flourish. What we long for is, whatever our circumstances, to never be asked a question like “Who is the real mother?” again. What we long for is for something to get us past that halfway point.

The fear that the world will never change keeps us from trying to change the world. God is leading us to the water in the rock, but it is up to us to decide if that water merely reminds us of Egypt or inspires us to something new. The problem is that in order to get past halfway, where we can no longer feel so committed to mistakes of our past, we must decide what tools are going to help us build our future. This decision is a decision about survival. This decision is a decision about healthy survival. The essayist Audre Lorde reminds us of this important point about the tools for survival: “Survival is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at this own game, but they will never bring about genuine change.”3

The call to begin a chain reaction of hospitality and the call to find and strike the rock at Massah are calls to bring about genuine change. These calls recognize the human condition without condemning the humans in those conditions. They call us to quit being halfway people and move into a place where we all can thrive. The cups and the staff are before us. They lead us to a way of imagining how we can all flourish, how our differences can make us stronger. Reach for them, they are just over there, just a bit beyond halfway.

1- Boring, M. Eugene. “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), p. 263.
2- Williams, Michael E., editor. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Exodus – Joshua, vol. II. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1992), p. 73.
3-Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA, 1984), p. 112.