31 March 2008

Jesus Breathed

John 20:19-31

Imagine the disciples on the third day after Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine their conversation - were they wondering what their next move was to be? Though they were in fear, were they calmly waiting for Jesus to reappear in fulfillment of the scriptures? Were they speculating about how long it would be until he would reappear? Did they maybe fear that he would reappear? Did they even believe that he would?

We don’t know what the disciples discussed between the time that Mary Magdalene announced that she had seen Jesus and the time that he appeared to them. One might assume, though, that their expectations upon seeing him were great. When Jesus appeared to the disciples, however, there were no storms, no puffs of smoke, and no voice from the heavens. He appeared among them quietly, showed them his injured hands and side, and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then simply, he breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. …”

Jesus breathed on them.

When you felt God’s call, what did it feel like? It may have been a slow, calm, dawning of the heart and soul that you were being called. It may have been an exciting, abrupt epiphany, or just a gentle “whoosh” through your body and soul. For others, it might be that God’s call was born in you while in the womb. No matter when or how God’s call arrived, consider that the breath that Jesus breathed onto – through - the disciples that day might be what was felt by you when the awareness of your call came to you. That exact breath. That exact breath, through the mystical power of Jesus, breathed especially onto you.

When you are before your session and your CPM, … when you are courageously speaking the truth of our community to our brothers and sisters in Christ who feel challenged by you as you live out your creation and your call, … take a deep breath to remind yourself of Jesus’ breath on that day. That exact breath. Remember, with hope, His words to us all, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” Allow his sustaining breath to flow into your heart, receive the Holy Spirit, and go in peace.

Our Divine Creator, we thank you for the gifts of your spirit. We thank you for the healing breath of Jesus, and for the great gifts of community that we share. We thank you too, for your ever-present peace and endless hope that knows no boundaries. Please grant us wisdom and courage, and help us remember to always love and care for one another through our differences. For we, with our brothers and sisters, are all one in you even when we forget. Thank you for our calls, and for the growth along the way that you provide. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

24 March 2008

Going Ahead of You

Matthew 28:1-10
by Rev. Chris Shelton
March 23, 2008 - Easter

The Easter Season overflows with expectations. It always has, and it always will. We all gather at Easter, largely because we expect the joyous music and the happy hymns. We come expecting to see our dear friends and family, expecting that most everyone will be dressed their best and happy to be here. We come expecting flowers fresh and in bloom. We come expecting a day of feasting and friendship. We come expecting Spring…as it waits just around the corner.

Easter has always started with expectations…so many years ago, when dawn first lit the skies and the women journeyed to the tomb, they, too, went to that graveyard with many expectations. They surely expected that their own sadness might get the better of them, and so they traveled together for support. They expected that they would find the body of their dearest friend and teacher—still bloodied, but now in the tomb. They expected harassment from the soldiers that guarded the sepulcher. They expected to use the last spices and oils their money could buy. They expected many long days of mourning. They expected ridicule and shame. They expected that their hopes had finally been dashed on the hard rocks of life's chaos. And, they expected that they would have to roll a mighty stone away.

Yes, the story begins with many expectations. The women rise with the sun expecting everything to be the way it's always been. At some level, they rely on it, we all do – the safety of the familiar. Things are what they are. Someone dies, they stay dead. A movement fails, it's over. Evil crushes goodness, goodness stays crushed. The women come to the tomb to mourn, to finish embalming the body, but, as the gospel tells us, the tomb is empty. And they are, to say the least, perplexed.

Don't you hate it when life brings you those unexpected surprises? You're gliding along smoothly and suddenly you hit a roadblock you didn't expect, a detour; the bridge is out and you can't get where you thought you were going. It's disorienting when something happens that you can't control, or you don't see coming. They didn't expect the Messiah to be a carpenter's boy. They didn't expect him to challenge the authorities. They didn't expect him to heal the sick and embrace the outsider. They didn't expect Jesus to end up on a cross. They didn't expect to find the tomb empty. And now the rug is pulled out – they don't know what in the world might happen next.

The Good News begins, not when our expectations are met, but when our every human expectation is shattered and left in the tomb.

Now, God has known the stubbornness of humanity for a long, long time, friends. God knows we tend to be a trifle dense – and goodness knows the good Lord is aware that sometimes we just don't get it. When things change, we too easily find ourselves paralyzed in fear or doubt or confusion. And so, in this story, God sends an unexpected but welcome messenger. An angel sits atop the stone saying to them:

"There's nothing to fear here. You are looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to a cross. He isn't here! He is risen, just as he said. Come, look at the place where he had been placed… Now, don't stay here – go quickly and tell his disciples. He is risen from the dead. He's going on ahead of you!"

And so they go, and on the way, again unexpectedly, they see Jesus. And though they try to stop there, he urges them on, saying, "Go and tell…" And so they go on some more, and they tell the good news. And Jesus comes among them again, saying to them all, "Go and live the story, in all the world…"

Just when they expected that the story was over, they are commissioned to set out on a journey where expectations are no more.

Sisters and brothers – it's the Season of Resurrection. I know you've all come here with lovely expectations. We all expect the music and the flowers and the friendship, and that's all wonderful. Even still, I'm here to tell you that Resurrection isn't about expectations. You may have expected that you came here to hear about Jesus' Resurrection – and you did. But, my guess is that most of you have heard that part before. Perhaps you didn't expect that this story is, in the end, not so much about Jesus' Resurrection as it is a story about our own.

It's Easter – and its time to get up and come out of the tomb. In the Reformed tradition, every Sunday is Easter Sunday – every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection – and so every Sunday we ought to be leaving our tombs farther and farther in the dust. It's time to leave our expectations behind. Jesus has gone on ahead of us, and is yearning for us to catch up.

The resurrection to which Easter calls us – our own – requires that we prepare to find God where God is, by opening ourselves to the world around us with seeing eyes and listening ears.

At the tomb, the women were frightened, not of death – we know death. What frightened them was the unknown -- the prospect of new life. At Easter, Jesus comes to us not out of the tomb—for no one ever saw him alive again in a tomb—but Jesus comes to us fully raised up in ministry, in identification with our common life, and in solidarity with the oppressed—moving us and everything together towards a human future. And he speaks his gospel: Do not be afraid. Go and tell.

That means that we must be prepared to be surprised by God in strange places, like death valleys, and graveyards, and execution chambers, and prison cells and beds of pain, and mud huts, and halls of justice, and bars, and back alleys, the hell holes of war, the sanctuaries of peace, the caves of fear, the pits of depression and the trails of tears.

That means that God will meet us in ways and in places we never thought we'd see and through words we never thought we'd hear. We must allow others – even those whom we have until now refused to consider – to open our hearts to things we do not expect.

It means putting down the social fears that insulate us from one another. It requires that we clean out from our vocabulary the words that speak of our contempt for "liberals," our frustration with "radicals," and our disdain for "conservatives." To live a resurrection life presumes that we will reach out to each other – to immigrants and those of any color; to the strangers, the prisoners, and the poor; to the different and indifferent all around us; to gay and straight, to able and disabled, to the strong and the weak, the far and the near – so that we can see visions with them; and cry in pain and for justice with them; and see what stones we can move from the front of their tombs.

To live a resurrection life means we reach out with compassion, kindness, humility and quiet strength. It means we are quick to offer forgiveness to others, it means we act with love more often than we could ever imagine toward more people that we would ever expect.

To live a resurrection life means we are willing to let our expectations rest in the tomb, following God wherever God leads…

Ultimately, Easter is not simply a time of celebration. It is that, but it is also a time of decision. Are we serious about living this resurrection life, and acting like it?

Perhaps our eyes need to be open for the angels which still sit atop life's many tombs. Perhaps our ears need to be open as they tell us yet again – Jesus is not here, but is going on ahead of us.

The promise is true and the news is good. Christ is Risen! And he still goes on ahead of us. Dear friends, let us leave behind our own tombs and follow. Amen.

Note: Particular thanks to Sr. Joan Chittister for her inspiring words in "Easter Calls us to Resurrection-Our Own." (www.bnet.com, April 2001.)

17 March 2008

Poor People's March

by Rev. Mieke Vandersall
St. James Presbyterian Church
March 16, 2008

Psalm 118
Mark 11:1-11

It started out a week like others before. It was the beginning of Passover and to celebrate there was always a grand procession to Jerusalem, a march for those with access to the Emperor's Club. Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, and his boys came up from Caesarea Martima, a beautiful resort town to the west where he lived in a lap of luxury. There was a procession planned, an imperial procession, like all the years before. From the west, Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem making his way towards the recently remodeled temple that Herod built before he died. The temple had become the center and administrator of all things political. And so, the temple, modest before, had spacious courts now, elegant colonnades, excessive gold and marble covering the grounds. Pilate worked his way towards the temple and then into his city home that Herod had taken care of as well before he passed, with columns of colored marble and glittering fountains, shaded pools, ceilings painted with gold and vermillion, chairs of precious metals inlaid with jewels, mosaic floors with agate and lapis lazuli, a dining room that could comfortably seat 300.

Jerusalem was the city just ruled by "Herod the Great," or "Herod the Monstrous" according to many Jews. He spent a lot of cash, abused a lot of people and stole a lot of land to get it, had perfected the art of oppression, and near the end of his reign was psychopathically paranoid. He made the temple into one like no other and set himself and all who followed him up for luxurious living.

Soon after Jesus was born, Herod died.

After Herod's death Rome divided up the kingdom into three parts, each ruled by one of his sons. Local elites continued to be chosen to administer the day-to-day oppression, business as usual. In 6CE the ruler of Judea and Samaria, was removed and his role was assigned to the temple and its authorities. Pontius Pilate was appointed top dog. The temple became the central economic and political institution in the country. The temple was not unlike other political institutions of its day, and of today too. It had all of the defining characteristics: rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation of oppression.

To say the least, Jesus was critical of this arrangement. Unrest had begun to gather.

But yet, it started out a week like Passovers before. Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, came in from his sweet pad on the coast with his horses and his riches, his soldiers and his power, his access to the Emperor's Club. He processed in just to remind everyone of his power, just in case they didn't pay their taxes, or give up their property when asked, he processed in just to remind everyone of what he could do if there were any revolts, any protests, any "problems" during the Jewish festivals.

Passover is the festival to celebrate the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire. And so if one puts two and two together, this week may be a perfect time for the working Jews to start a revolt, to demand liberation.[1]

This Passover would be different from all the others.

In the face of this, there was another procession that day, the one we read about in Mark's gospel. We don't know how well publicized it was, this poor people's march. We aren't sure if those who attended this procession were punished afterwards for bringing their attention away from the royal march. We don't know if those who attended this other procession were in on the plan, if Jesus thought he would have a good solid group of allies who attended his march. We don't know if Pilate had his spies attending, snapping pictures of the offenders to turn in to the authorities.

Jerusalem wasn't such a stable environment. Memories were recent of persecution of those who had spoken in opposition to the domination system. Rebellions were not so far away, which resulted in loved ones taken to slavery. And the stories were told through the generations of the exile, the exile, the time when the people were divided, the wealthy sent away, the others left behind, with questions so big swirling about that the anxiety could be felt like pollen in the air, with doubts so deep that sleep was never easy.

And so those had the nerve to boycott the other march, the royal, rich march for those who entered the Emperor's Club. For those who had the nerve to attend the poor people's counter protest march. For those, they came laughing with nervousness, walking on egg shells waiting to see what might happen.

After so many years of attendance at the royal march, where they would never in their lifetime be able to as much as touch the horses and the gold and the jewels, the Jewish peasants could see a bit more of themselves in this procession. Instead of majestic horses pulling beautiful carriages, there was a colt, one single little colt. Instead of fancy saddles lined with gold and royal fabric the colt was covered in cloaks, jackets of the poor. Instead of perfumed rose petals spread along the road there were palms cut from the fields. The cloaks, the branches were not only of the people but they were also connected to religious festivals and kings of long ago. They represented a different kind of kingship, a different kind of religious devotion than was being used during these days to lift a few up at the expense of the many who supported them.

So perhaps those who had the guts to attend the counter-protest-poor people's march, who had the guts to organize the march, to go ahead and find the colt, to strip themselves of their cloaks to protect the colt were just tired enough of the corruption, of the greed, of the religious oppression based system of the Emperor's
Club march which did anything it had to do to get the money that it needed and the power that it thrived on. Perhaps those people were just tired and didn't want to go through their lives anymore saying that they hadn't tried, they hadn't spoken, they hadn't risked their lives.

And so the shouting began: "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! Hosanna! In the highest heaven Hosanna!" Hosanna, meaning "save now"[2] was shouted at Jesus riding in on the little colt with the goods of the poor protecting him. Save us now! Save us from oppression! Save us from Pilate! Save us from ourselves! Save us from the lies we have heard and told and ingested and believe!
Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

And into the temple he entered, the temple that had become the source of tension, the source of power, the source of decision-making, where most were not allowed in. He entered the temple, and it was late and he was tired. So he saved his energy for the temple for Monday, after he had gotten some sleep, some time to take in what had happened already this Sunday. He was to continue the turning on its head that had happened on Sunday on Monday as he cleansed the temple of its exploitation, of its cruelty, of its abuse of power.

How quickly our shouts become "Crucify Him!" by the end of the week when we begin to be scared, when we take it in, what it means to be saved, to fight for salvation, to fight for freedom from all of our oppressions, from all our systems we have put comfortably in place which, while they may not be what we need most, are those we know. How quickly our shouts become "Crucify Him!" by the end of the week when we think it is easier to kill the messenger than it is to change ourselves, to change the systems and structures that allow for and thrive on the Emperor's Club. How quickly our shouts become "Crucify Him!" by the end of the week when it sinks in how hard it is to change our religious institutions that hold the keys that create cultures of welcoming some and rejecting others, giving those with enough power even more and stripping those with nothing of the little they have. How quickly our shouts turn to "Crucify Him!" when it sinks in how different our churches and our governments and our places of employment and our families would have to be if we listened to Jesus who shows us how we might be saved, from ourselves, from our history in the counter-protest poor people's march that we remember today.

How quickly then do we realize what we have done without being able to help ourselves. How did our cries go from Save Us to Crucify Him? How did these words come from our mouths? How did our hearts allow it?

It started out as a normal Passover week, or so they thought. A royal procession was planned, the festival was ready to go, the holidays a time for celebration.

No one knew though that these other plans had been in the works for quite some time, the plans for imagining this other world. Rosa Parks didn't just sit on the bus one day because her feet hurt. Jesus didn't just decide to ride into town on a colt one day because he was tired of the insanity of the royal march. Liberation doesn't just come one day because those in power just decide to change the systems and structures in place that continue to make it harder for some over others to survive and thrive. None of this just happens.

It started out as a normal Passover week, or so they all thought. A royal procession was planned, but this year it was to be different. A new procession was to begin, a new tradition was started that we have the strength to enter into each year still. A gift of a march made from common elements, of holey coats and branches, a gift of a march made from the stuff that makes our homes and covers our backs are what lead us today into liberation, into salvation. Hosanna in the highest!

[1] The above 7 paragraphs were heavily taken from pgs. 1-30 in Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan's The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, 2006, Harper SanFrancisco
[2] From footnotes on pg. 1831 in The New Interpreter's Study Bible, 2003 by Abingdon Press, Nashville.

10 March 2008

The Dangerous Healing

The Dangerous Healing
sermon on John 9.1-41
First Presbyterian Church of Hartford, CT
More Light Sunday, March 2, 2008
By Heather W. Reichgott

I was fifteen when I fell in love with my wife Gillian. Well, since we were both girls I didn't call it love. I called her my best friend. But soon I discovered that everything was much more interesting and exciting when she was involved. Playing the piano was an interest, but playing the piano while she played the violin was a joy and delight. Reading was a way to pass time, but reading the same books as Gillian was an adventure. And of course, I wanted to be physically close to her all the time. This was awkward. Eventually I figured out that really it was more than a friendship, and more than the little flickers of interest I'd have for a male classmate once in a while: it was love.

We grew up in a conservative semi-rural area outside of Philadelphia. The word "gay" was an insult. I only knew one other gay person in my school, and from his experience I learned that being gay meant a series of abusive relationships with older men. It didn't look like fun.

I was trying to figure out religion at the same time. We went to a Presbyterian church, where I had vociferously refused to be confirmed the year before. I didn't understand what someone called Jesus who lived 2000 years ago had to do with life today, and I wasn't so sure about all of this business with miracles, either. Then we moved across the country to Seattle. I was heartbroken at leaving Gillian. We started attending another Presbyterian church where all of a sudden the sermons started making sense. The ministers spoke of a God who loves us more than anything, only because of God's own grace and not because of anything we can do, and that God sent his son Jesus to be our Savior and Friend. And one night when I was feeling particularly upset, that same Jesus appeared to me in a vision, and that was the end of my resistance to Christianity.

The sermons at this church were also very antigay. More than once I heard homosexuality compared to alcoholism from the pulpit: an addiction, a desire one may feel but must not act on. I was a zealous new Christian and therefore I did not want to be gay. I tried very hard not to be gay for a few years, tormenting myself secretly for my friendship with Gillian, when previously all I'd felt about the friendship was gratitude.

In college I was a religion major. I got used to reading whole books of the Bible, not just isolated verses here and there. I discovered that there are two different stories of Creation, that there are truly horrific laws in Deuteronomy, and that the closest thing to a romantic love story is about the love of David and Jonathan, in 1 Samuel. Meanwhile I was getting to know many gay and lesbian people, and found them to be normal human beings.

Since then I have found a strange place in the church as a lesbian Candidate for ministry. I may be stuck as a Candidate forever. Or I could be ordained next year if the church changes the rules. It is weird and wonderful. And my greatest strength is still the gospel of Jesus Christ, which I heard for the first time in that church in Seattle. My faith is preserved by the grace of God, and by what some very antigay preachers taught me about grace.

I am standing before you as someone who has been healed: healed from suspicion about Jesus Christ, healed from poisonous homophobia, healed from ignorance of Scripture, and healed from ingratitude about the most wonderful woman I've ever known, a woman who is now my wife. Being healed has not simplified my life, however. Instead it's become much more complicated, and in many ways more difficult.

For the man born blind, the healing itself is easy and straightforward. Jesus comes up to him, spits, makes some mud, puts the mud on his eyes, tells him to go dunk himself in a certain fountain, he does it, and he sees. The man is certainly amazed, but he does not seem to have any internal conflict about it. He receives the healing. He goes away seeing.

The trouble comes when other people don't know what to do with him. First they're not even sure who he is. It's the sighted people who can't recognize their own friend and neighbor! Then they interrogate him. How did you get your sight back, anyway? What are you saying about this Jesus character? How dare you, how dare you be healed? They interrogate his parents--and they become wishy-washy and back down, refusing to support their son.

Even the writer of the gospel doesn't quite know what to do with him. He is awkwardly called "the man who used to be blind." Have you ever seen the Monty Python movie Life of Brian? It's a take-off on the life of Christ. At one point in the movie we meet a man who is sitting on the street calling out, "Alms for an ex-leper!" When questioned, he replies that he used to be a leper, and made his living by begging. Jesus came along and healed him--but all he knows how to do is beg. So he's still begging, but he's an ex-leper instead of a leper. And even in the Scripture, our man born blind is still "the guy who used to be blind." He is a confusing person.

That is why his healing is dangerous. No one knows what to do with him. It's always easier to get rid of something unknown than it is to live with the unknown and learn to understand it.
And in order to understand him, the people around him must change some of their basic views about the world, and they must change their beliefs about the man called Jesus. There is no way to deal with the healed man unless the community is willing to be healed as well.

This cannot be a friendly dialogue among people with differing views. They have to change their views if they are to live with the healed man's presence. Now really, these are pretty traditional views and in general would be acceptable in their time and place. It wasn't so strange to believe that disability was due to the parents' sins. It wasn't so strange to believe that a man who wandered around claiming to speak in the name of God was a charlatan. Those views only become untenable when the people are confronted with the formerly blind man, and his dangerous healing. If the formerly blind man is here, if he has been healed, if Jesus opened the eyes of the blind--they have to choose whether to believe their old prejudices, or whether to believe what's right before their eyes.

Some of them get it. And like us when we're in the middle of a change of heart, they start stumbling out of their prejudices. They're the ones who say in verse 16, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" But others don't get it, and so they start arguing among themselves. The Greek word for it, in verse 16, is schisma.

So now we have a recently blind man who sees, a Christ who performs the healing and then apparently wanders off leaving the healed man to his own devices, and a community that falls into schism because of the mere presence of the healed man. The community reacts by punishing and blaming the man and his family. The parents are afraid to say too much in their own son's defense. The man is asked to explain himself over and over and over.

And so I ask you today: Does this sound at all familiar? I ask you, a wonderful new More Light congregation, on this day when we're paying special attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the life of the church: Does this sound at all familiar?

The story of the man's interrogation reminds me of my friend Sara, a transgender woman who was under care of Boston Presbytery for a long time. She was interrogated in dreadful ways at presbytery meetings. Now the Presbyterian Church has no rule against the ordination of transgender people. None. But there is so much prejudice that it makes the whole process worse than if you are gay or lesbian. Ministers and elders stood up at these meetings and asked Sara "How can you destroy God's creation?" They quoted Scripture about men not wearing women's clothing, never mind that they themselves were standing there in clothing made of mixed fibers and ate shellfish at dinner, never mind Sara saying over and over again that she is a woman and that's why she wears women's clothes. Never mind that Sara is a brilliant preacher and has a gigantic heart and knows more about the same Scriptures than any of those people, precisely because she had to sit with them for a long time before she transitioned.

LGBT people are asked to explain ourselves to the church. People ask "how can you be gay and Christian at the same time?" "How do you justify your lifestyle given what the Bible clearly says?" Seminary classmates asked me if I'd ever heard of Romans 1. Of course I have. I used to torment myself with Romans 1 as a teenager. My usual comeback to that is "Haven't you ever heard of Romans 2?" But no one has Romans 2 memorized, more's the pity. So people just looked at me in confusion. It's as if being a lesbian Christian is supposed to make you an expert on the Bible, church history and polity. You have to have explanations and comebacks and well-thought-out arguments to justify your existence in the church on a week-to-week basis.

The man born blind is not like Sara and me. He doesn't have any well-thought-out arguments. People question him. People challenge his right to be where he is. He only answers with the experience he's had. He tells them about the healing. He doesn't make any claims about who Jesus is, or explain what happened. He just says he was blind, and now, he sees. The evidence for that much is written on his body. He just keeps saying, in simple words, what happened to him. He was blind, and now, he sees. He leaves it up to Jesus Christ to come along eventually and say to the Pharisees, well, if your piety can't make sense of something that really and truly happened to this man, maybe your piety is the thing that's really blind here.

The healing of the blind man was straightforward. The healing of the community from its blindness is much more difficult. The community, now, has to learn to see the man who was blind. And to accept the possible consequence of what that means. They have to learn to share in his dangerous healing.

Before we end, I want to return to this business about sin. Sin comes up so much in the text. The man's parents are blamed for sinning and producing a blind son. Jesus is called a sinner for healing him on the Sabbath. And sin comes up so much in the church when we talk about LGBT people. We get labeled sinners, and the thing that is sinful is our gender, or our love for each other. Now not only is that labeling sin something that isn't sin at all. It also makes our real sins invisible. According to the church, it hardly matters whether I'm faithful to my wife or not. I've never cheated on Gillian, but I'm appalled, and you as Christians should be appalled too, that the Presbyterian Church assigns the same moral status to fidelity and infidelity. Not to mention the moral status of whether I hold up my end of the bargain in day-to-day married life. Or whether I'm even kind to my spouse. The church doesn't care. It only cares that she's a woman.

Jesus never says that the man born blind is not a sinner. He never says that the man stops being a sinner. He only says that his sin has nothing to do with his blindness. And so when he is healed, and no longer blind, the community now has to view him as an ordinary person. Was he born into sin? Only in the same way that we're all born into sin. Does God judge him? Only in the same way that God judges all of us. The community does not get to have its one special set-apart sinner any more. And they want their one special set-apart sinner very badly--because they don't want to think about the sin they all have. So things get very dangerous for the healed man. And yet, he has been touched by Jesus Christ, and the whole community has the capacity to be touched by Christ in the same way--if they share in his healing, and commit to facing whatever danger may come to them as a result.

In becoming a More Light Church, you have given the Presbyterian Church many gifts.

You have made it public that the First Presbyterian Church of Hartford, Connecticut is not going to condemn gay people for being gay. You have rolled out a rainbow-colored welcome mat. You have decided that any danger, any flack you receive as a result, is worth it.

You have added yourselves to a growing number of Presbyterian churches that stand together and say, in the face of all the voices that say otherwise, that God is doing good things in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and that the church only harms itself by excluding us from full participation in its life.

LGBT people are accused of causing conflict in the church, just by existing. You have decided not to condemn us nor to argue about us, but to embrace us. Unlike the Pharisees, you have decided to embrace the dangerously healed ones, and in so doing, to hope and pray for the healing of the whole church.

But perhaps the most important gift is that you have decided to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as people. Just as broken and just as much God's children as everyone else. Sinners and saints, just like everyone else. Needing a community of faith to rejoice with our joys and to pull us up when we fall, to value our gifts and to call us on our crap, and to sit with us at the banquet of the Lord's Table.

And as we come to the Lord's Table, may the Holy Spirit make us aware of Christ's presence. He is here in this bread and this cup as a living body, not a dead one. When we gather here, we become his living body too. This table is a dangerous healing, just as surely as the man born blind. Coming to this table, we enter into the end of that man's story, where Jesus says at the end of a long journey, to someone who has lived through a miracle and through all the danger and conflict caused by that miracle: Do you believe in the Son of Man? ... You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.

You have seen Him. You are witnesses. He is among you. He has been talking to us through this Scripture and at this table our whole lives long. He is able to heal us. And he is most certainly able to endanger us with that healing. May the Holy One continue to open our eyes to the presence of God--wherever it may lead. Amen.

Gagnon & The Word - Romans 8:6-11 & Psalm 130

-By Rachel Landers

This week, Robert Gagnon came to my school, Princeton Theological Seminary--although some could argue that he showed up a month ago when tensions began to intensify, and conversations were whispered in the lunch room.

There were many who decided not to go to the Gagnon Lectures on Homosexuality and the Bible. There were many who lauded this event as finally getting an equal voice at the institution. Both sides have admitted that there was probably not one person going to the lectures with an open mind.

I went to two of the lectures. Gagnon, though he has the pastoral presence of an angry duck, has done a good deal of thoughtful, academically rigorous, and scripturally-based exegesis on the Old and New Testament, focusing not only on specific verses, but on the general themes upheld and condemned in the entirety of Scripture.

After one of the talks, I even got the opportunity (though most of my fellow-LGBT supporters thought I was just downright masochistic) to speak to Gagnon at length about how he understood gender norms.

The conclusion that I came to is this: Gagnon is in the body of Christ. I don’t think he is an evil man trying to use Scripture to validate his world view … any more than the rest of us do. And whether or not he’s ultimately right or wrong (I happen to think he’s coming to some gravely misguided conclusions), I think he’s done his bible homework. And I even think (I think) that he sees himself as coming from a place of Love. Heck, I’ll say that he is coming from a place of Love. The presuppositions he begins with—that Scriptural witness is clear about the eternal damnation of those who engage in (or encourage people towards) homosexual relationships—necessitate his desperate, fanatical ministry.

I am writing this devotional (and I promise, it is a devotional!) late in the week, because I have spent these last few intense days trying to save the seminary by single-handedly maintaining dialogue between the conservative conservatives and the conservative liberals. I have seen some success, and some good conversations have been started, but what I’ve realized the most is the extreme brokenness of all of us as individuals and as a community. So when I looked at the lectionary texts for this Sunday I came to them broken open. And I read Romans 8:6-11 like this:

Romans 8:6-11

(6) To set the mind on the flesh is death,
Oh no. It’s a flesh/death passage.

but to set to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

(7) For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, (8) and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Gagnon talks about death to the self. Surely he has passages like this in mind. If we continue to act in a way that some see as sinful, then they think we have set our mind of the flesh.

(9) But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,
What? Well, I’m pretty sure that many would say that I am in the flesh, based on my “unrepentant sinful behavior.” How can I be in the Spirit? What criteria have I fulfilled? What have I done?

since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
I’m in the Spirit, because the Spirit is in me. What does that have to do with what I’m doing for my own salvation? What sort of criteria is that? It’s God who determines who is in the Spirit?

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
Oh good. Back to sinful me.

(10) But if Christ is in you,
Which he is, says verse nine

though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

(11) If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
which he does
he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.


Now, I know many people who would read that passage very differently from me, and that’s okay. What is important to realize from this passage is that there is nothing we can do, no exegesis we can muster, no impassioned speeches we can deliver, no heartfelt private conversations we can open ourselves up to that will save or damn ourselves or anyone. We are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us. Not because of our denomination, or our orientation, or our interpretation. We are God’s people—all of us—wonderfully and gloriously and thankfully only because God has elected us to be so.

In Psalm 130 the psalmist cries “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” We are all death. We are all dead in the flesh. “But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” That is our proper stance. Recognition of forgiveness of our debts, and our proper response of a life lived in reverence.

The psalm continues, crying “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope … O Israel, hope in the Lord! … It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”

In these trying times of the PJC rulings, threats of church split, and our communities being stripped down to ugly bones, we need to remember the promise of the good news.

It may be discouraging. Every side sees death and division. But we are all children of a living God. What this means is we need to recognize what it means to be in the body of Christ. In all of our organizations, all our lectures, our testimonies, our arguments, we cannot breathe the life and truth that we see into others. It’s just not our job. Our will cannot defeat God’s will. Gagnon’s will cannot defeat God’s will.

Trust and hope in the Lord. And if we really trust, and really hope, then we will be able to understand more clearly how God has been working and breathing life into us, and everyone, even when we couldn’t see it. See it today, in your lives, and respond to it in reverence with your whole life.

07 March 2008

Open Letter to the Church

Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Date: March 2008
From: Your Candidates and Inquirers for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer
Re: Bush vs. Presbytery of Pittsburgh PJC Ruling Regarding Ordination Standards and G-6.0106b

We, your sisters and brothers in Christ, your colleagues in ministry, faithful members of Presbyterian churches are saddened by the recent ruling of the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) which singles out the requirement of fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness as an essential tenet of Reformed faith. This ruling contradicts some of the most important work of the Peace Unity and Purity Task Force, which put forward a more gracious and open way for us to live together as the body of Christ in the midst of our differences.

This PJC decision puts a wedge between theology and practice, belief and action, being and doing. It demeans the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer persons by again reducing our lives to sexual acts. It fails to recognize God’s ability to choose whomever God wills to serve the Church. It perpetuates the mythology that sexual orientation is simply a matter of behavior. It says that we are not filled with God’s grace.

Our Reformed understanding of Scripture teaches that the way in which we live our lives as responsible, faithful Christians is intimately connected to our faith. Our love, commitment, and indeed our manner of life is an inescapable expression of our faith as we seek to both know God’s will and to live into it. We are filled with the Spirit, a Spirit made manifest in our Christian discipleship and acts of Christian witness: by teaching Sunday School; giving our time, talent and treasure to our congregations; working in soup kitchens; financially supporting ourselves and paying tuition to Presbyterian seminaries; visiting the sick and shut-ins; working for justice; being present with individuals in their last days of life on earth; singing in choirs; tutoring children; yearning to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments; proclaiming the liberating and good news of Jesus Christ, and welcoming and raising new disciples to serve Him.

Many of us have found ourselves in holding patterns, serving in whatever capacities we can create while waiting for the church to open the door to the Holy Spirit and usher us into ordained ministry serving Jesus Christ. Many of us have been removed from the ordination process when we have been honest about the magnificent ways that the Holy Spirit has moved through our lives, calling us out into the world as whole people, burning with the desire to serve Christ. We have been removed because we cannot serve with our whole heart while hiding our sexuality and gender identities. A few of us have been ordained, some of us have been unable to utter the full truth of our lives, and others of us have been in spaces safe enough to disclose our full identities.

We fear that the direct effect of this ruling will be to once again impose upon the ordination process a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. We are a gospel people, called to proclaim the good news of how God has loved and redeemed us and freed us for joyful service. The good news of Jesus Christ is about witnessing to the fullness in which God has moved in our lives. It is tremendously painful and theologically suspect that our church should find it expedient that we must edit our
lives, denying our full humanity which Jesus came to fully redeem, in order to be acceptable candidates for ordination.

We live in hope for the healing of the church. We live in hope that all policies which hinder our voices and witness will be removed. We know that only when this day comes will we experience full participation in the life of this denomination. We live in hope that our sisters and brothers in Christ will know us, in the fullness of how God creates us, and affirm our gifts and call. We live in hope that policy decisions are not made on our backs but that we may be treated with equality and the respect we deserve. We live in hope that we will one day soon serve this church as Ministers of Word and Sacrament who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. We pray for that day with all of our strength.

1. Scott Anderson, John Knox Presbytery
2. Steven Andrews, Whitewater Valley Presbytery
3. Meghan Foote, removed from Sheppards and Lapsley Presbytery
4. Chris Gannon, Presbytery of Long Island
5. Sára Herwig, Boston Presbytery
6. Jenny Howard, Presbytery of Detroit
7. Lisa Larges, San Francisco Presbytery
8. Paul Mowry, Presbytery of New York City
9. Alex McNeill, Western North Carolina Presbytery
10. Melinda Nichols, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta
11. David Paul, New Hope Presbytery
12. Kathryn Poethig, Presbytery of New York City
13. Heather Reichgott, Redwoods Presbytery
14. Katie Ricks, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta
15. Anonymous, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta
16. Anonymous, Hudson River Presbytery
17. Anonymous, Pacific Presbytery
18. Anonymous, Synod of the Covenant
19. Anonymous, Synod of Lincoln Trails
20. Anonymous, Synod of the Mid-Atlantic
21. Anonymous, Synod of the Mid-Atlantic
22. Anonymous, Synod of the Northeast
23. Anonymous, Synod of the Northeast
24. Anonymous, Synod of the Pacific
25. Anonymous, Synod of South Atlantic
26. Anonymous, Synod of South Atlantic
27. Anonymous, Synod of Southern California and Hawaii
28. Anonymous, Synod of the Trinity

03 March 2008

Corrected Vision: A Meditation on John 9:1-41

By RevSisRaedorah©2008

Hinge Text: "If you were blind, you wouldn't be guilty," Jesus replied [to the Pharisees]. "But you remain guilty because you claim you can see." (John 9:41)

Although many family members wear eyeglasses and began wearing corrective lens when they were still in elementary and high schools, it was not until my third year in seminary that I realized that my vision was not as crisp and sharp and defined as it had once been. Tending to all of the old wives' tales of eating carrots, not reading while riding in a moving car, avoiding sitting too close to the television, and reading as much as possible under natural light near a window, I thought the need for corrective lens would not be an experience I would have in this lifetime! Accompanied by dull headaches after evening lectures and unconscious squinting of which others took note, my otherwise clear vision had begun to gradually wane nonetheless.

One spring afternoon, after a morning lecture, I walked the few blocks over from the seminary to a chain eyeglass store with an optometrist on staff. At the conclusion of my examination, he first complemented me that despite my family history of degenerative vision I had beaten the age odds and the rate of eyesight failure to require the very minimal corrective lens to improve my vision immediately! The optometrist wrote me a prescription for lens with a 1.25 strength correction. While handing me the prescription, he also informed me that the only reason to get the corrective lens prescription filled was to get my insurance to pay for a choice of fancy frames the eyeglass store had on sale. The optometrist further suggested that with such a minor correction needed, and that for reading small print only, I would fair better by purchasing the drug store variety reading glasses with the 1.25 strength corrective lenses. As a conscientious consumer, I took the latter route to introducing myself to the world of wearing eyeglasses.

Ever filtering life's serendipitous experiences as homiletic fodder, I see my wearing this corrective lens as a spiritual exercise in protecting my vision; as well as, in correcting my vision. What I learned was that despite our best kept spiritual disciplines, our vision can still gradually; stealthily wane from everyday use, over use, and indifferent use. I learned that attending to my diminishing vision in an expedient manner did very well preserve my current vision acuity, prevent a more rapid declination in vision clarity, and pre-empt painful symptoms associated with poor vision – i.e., headaches, squinting. From that day ten years ago until today – confirmed by annual vision check-ups – I still only need 1.25 strength corrective lens for reading only.

Reading this familiar story of a man born blind being made to see and seeing men charged with spiritual blindness, I saw with spiritual clarity what it is to see Jesus as the Great Ophthalmologist; and the need for His corrective touch in the Church today. Reading through this ocular pedagogue, the Pharisaic heart was found guilty of denouncing the Master, denying a miracle, and dismissing the man. Here the ecclesiastical leadership collectively denounced Jesus to be a sinner while just being Jesus, denied the verity of a miracle only because it was worked on the Sabbath, and dismissed the man's praise and testimony of his ontological encounter with God! What audacity! More emphatically, what skewed vision of the inclusive, holistic, affirming work of Jesus in the life of all who believe -- not just a peer-elected, exclusively elitist group among the believers. Just like the man here, who believed in the Lord and worshipped Him, so do I and the multitude of queer Christians who praise and worship Jesus for correcting our vision to see that we are indeed called, chosen, and elected to be in full fellowship with the Church and equipped with an inclusive, corrective theology with which to lead the Church in this 21st Century.

While reviewing the latest PJC ruling (on Bush) determining that heterosexual behavior to be an essential of our faith, I was momentarily outraged that my essence of being was once again relegated to sexual actions and thereby warranted my exclusion from full fellowship and service at the Lord's Table set by this denomination. More over, since then I have been experiencing lingering feelings of distrust of the persons and distress over the process of adhering to tenets of our faith which have been historically and theologically deemed "essential" and later "necessary" vs. this slightly skewed, yet influential, reinterpretation of being "necessary and essential." I've much to say about why my monogamous intimate erotic expressions would at all be necessary to the functioning and leading of a congregation, but to do so I would regress!

Through the ocular pedagogue in this pericope I better understood where my slightly clouded spiritual vision of a few people and some processes has caused some missteps and mistakes along my life's journey. Comparably, I noted where corrected spiritual vision gave me courage to boldly go where no colored queer clergywoman has dared go before! As I face more faces in ecclesiastical positions of the mainline denominational church positioned to determine the right and realm of my pastoral service to the Body of Christ, I face them with compassion, offering them the healing eye balm of the inclusive theology of Jesus to correct their vision lest He'd speak this indictment to these persons and this process, "If you were blind, you wouldn't be guilty," Jesus replied [to the Pharisees]. "But you remain guilty because you claim you can see." (John 9:41).