25 August 2008

Family of God

by Rev. Mieke Vandersall
Preached at Olivet Presbyterian Church, Staten Island
August 24, 2008

This past weekend my Godson and his mother, my best friend, were visiting the Big City. Crosby is almost five years old and has entered the stage where all kissing is yucky. Kissing on TV, his Godmother trying to kiss his forehead before he goes to bed. Just. Yucky. He has entered the stage where he won’t eat vegetables and only certain kinds of fruits. And things need to be organized a particular way or else he makes his upsetness known.

However, despite his five year old superiority, he does love holding his mom’s hand and my hand and walking down the street or at the Coney Island boardwalk. You see, he has figured out that we are family and family means you hold hands, just so you can feel connected to each other. Family means that you have energy that flows through you built on memories and hopes and dreams only sometimes spoken, but always felt when you hold hands, feeling the sea breeze.

My favorite five year old is trying hard to figure out what it means to be family. He wants to know how we are all connected with each other, who has what role in his life, and how comfortable and trusting can he be with someone who is a part of his family or, not a part of his family.

This past weekend he got upset with his mother when she called me her best friend. “Mom,” he exclaimed, “Aunt Mieke is not your friend - she is family!” He would ask questions like this, at the dinner table with his mother, my roommate, and myself: “Mommy, is that man,” meaning my roommate, “a part of our family?” And then, since not long ago when he asked if his mommy would ever marry his daddy and he received the response: “Mommy and daddy tried that and it didn’t work out,” he asked his mommy if she would marry me. All we could say was, “Sorry sweetie, that won’t work out either. But we are both your family and we love you very much.” He is trying to characterize that which he can’t see, he is trying to put definitions on to his relationships so that he knows how he is supposed to interact with people, so he knows who to trust and who should take care of him.

Isn’t it true that throughout our lives we are constantly sizing up how we are to interact with others, based on our relationship to them, or their relationship with people we know? We do this not only with people in our lives, but also in the church. This is part of what can be so hard and also such a growing time when congregations like yours are in an interim period. We have all learned ways of relating over the years with a particular person as our Pastor, and when this person leaves it upsets the roles we have always found ourselves in, it upsets even how we think we may know God. We have to learn again and anew who we are and how God speaks to us and who we say we are and who others say we are.

I think of what it is like when we gather together for rituals that mark change in our lives. All of our anxiety around familial relationships, around who and how we are defined comes to the surface. In my experience officiating at weddings I have noticed that the single-most stressful and contentious time of the entire process is most often the rehearsal. We gather around the day or the week before. We say a word of prayer and the couple thanks everyone for coming. There are always a million little questions. How do we know when to begin walking? Is the man or the woman on the left? Does the couple face each other or the congregation? But the big questions come out around the order of the procession. Before the rehearsal I have discussed the order with the couple. And every single time someone’s feelings are hurt, there is always at least a private fit that is thrown. Does the stepmother process? If so, does she go before or after the mother? What about the sister-in-law? Since the brother is a groomsmen, then she is left with no one to walk her down the aisle. These mini and sometimes not so mini-fits and questions revolve around the issue: who is a part of this family and who isn’t? What does flesh and blood mean? How are we supposed to interact? Who are we supposed to trust?

I notice that the most vulnerable in the family system, the ones that aren’t sure exactly where they fit, the ones that ask where they are in relationship to others, who ask the most: “is this really my family? Am I wanted in this family? Who do you say that I am?” provide the places of the greatest contention, hurt feelings, confusion, since what we do when we gather together for rituals as important and binding as things likes weddings articulate the essence of this question: “who am I in relation to these others, in flesh and in blood, how am I named, who do you say that I am?”

There are those times biblically when our roles and definitions are claimed and explored. Most of the time God is defining our relationship with God or each other. In creation God blesses all that is made. The rivers are named. God sees all of creation, of you and me as good. When the first human found a partner, the relationship was named between the two: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In Genesis, as Abram’s relationship with God changes, so does his name. Chapter 17 verse 5 reads: “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” His wife Sarai becomes Sarah as she finds herself no longer barren.

Names are often given very intentionally, as they name an experience or a relationship that has been established through a new birth. Sarah and Abraham’s son is named Isaac, which means “he laughed.” Remember that Sarai laughed first when she thought she was pregnant, for no way this could be the reality for a woman as old as she. Abram’s mistress, an Egyptian slave girl, whose name was Hagar, was the first person in the Scriptures to name God. She gave birth to Abram’s first child, Ishmael, which means “God hears.” God hears her cry in the wilderness, and she uses the word: “El-roi” which means “the God who sees” and the well, where God visited her “beer la hai-roi “ the well of the Living One who sees me.

In the New Testament, the second testament relational definitions are also present. Throughout the Bible in its entirety we read lists of family connections. Matthew begins with “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and”…on and on. It is important to tell from where we come and therefore to where we are headed.

And in Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven declared: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Parent is established at this point: God’s beloved. And we remember in our baptism that the relationship of choosing, of claiming, of being named by God is made known to ourselves and those who promise to support us in our journey of faith. In essence, God claims us as God’s own beloved, in life and in death, with whom God is well pleased. God names us in our baptism and claims that relationship of our Creator whose love never runs out.

The question of who we are, of who Jesus is, in relationship to his disciples, in relationship to the Roman Empire, in relationship to humanity for the rest of time comes to a head in our lesson this morning. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Humanity is?” Is it a trick question? Is he waiting to see if they really get it yet, not only his role in their lives but his role in the redemption of the entire world, from that day forward, his role in giving us a new way to live, a way of liberation and justice that comes from a place of God’s love, love that is not boastful or selfish, as we are told in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians?

So, who do we say Jesus is? The disciples tried to take a stab at it, they told him all the names that he had been called. Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah, others one of the prophets. Jesus isn’t one whose identity, whose relationship with humanity can be easily put in a box, even from the beginning times of his days walking on the earth. But this isn’t really the question he was asking, the question of who do others say that he is. He wanted to know, you know, who the disciples said that he is.

Simon Peter, the one who would betray Jesus and would also be the Rock on which the Church stood, he answered correctly: “You are the Messiah! The Son of the living God!” And despite Jesus’ knowing of Peter’s impending behaviors, in spite of knowing how much Peter would hurt him, would betray him – not once, not twice but three times – Jesus claims his own relationship with Peter, God’s relationship with Peter, and calls him Blessed. Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”

And then the pronouncement that comes to my Godson and to you and to me, that “flesh and blood” are not what determines the relationship between them, between us. It is not by flesh and blood that Simon Peter understands that Jesus is the Messiah, but instead our Creator is our connecting tissue, the arms that interlock while walking down the boardwalk, the hands that grasp in busy streets. It is Jesus who is our Messiah, the one who claims us, who identifies the Simon Peter in each of us and calls us still Blessed. It is Jesus who is our Messiah and is therefore our connecting blood across lines of difference which we have learned for too long we cannot cross.

Jesus is clear in his declaration of relationship with Peter, that Peter is Beloved. Peter is clear in his defining of Jesus, as Messiah, Son of the living God. In his times this was not an easy declaration, this slapped the face of the Roman Empire within which they lived and breathed, which tried to keep relationships across differences of class and political viewpoint separate and distinct.

And so regardless of our anxiety today about who we are in our own families of flesh and blood. Regardless of who others say that we are, how accurate or inaccurate those definitions may be. Regardless of the relationships where we feel most insecure and confused. Regardless of how comfortable we feel in this congregation in the in-between time that you experience. Regardless of the roles we are most uncomfortable in filling in our own lives. Regardless of it all, we can live in the assurance that Jesus gives to Peter, that we hear at our own Baptisms, that we are Blessed, we are God’s Beloved. We are given the freedom of connecting across lines of difference, difference that may seem insurmountable but with Jesus our Messiah, can be overcome.


20 August 2008

In Plain Language

Matthew 10:1-15
by Jenny Howard

Then Jesus summoned his disciples and sent them on a mission – a mission to heal, and to clean out the spirits of filth and decay.

And the names of the disciples were these: (your name here, and yours, and mine, ... and many others too numerous to mention).

Jesus instructed them, “There’s no need to go to the ends of the earth; the lost ones who need your help are right in your back yard. Tell them, God’s great love embraces everyone, and it is here, now – it’s all around us. Carry this love to the sick at heart; it will heal them. Use it to bring back to life those whose souls have died. Reach out and touch the dirty, the untouchables with it; it will cleanse them. Indeed, it even has the power to cast out demons.

"You received this love without payment; give without payment. You won’t need money or special equipment for this mission. When you’re doing my work, I’ll make sure you have what you need.

"Find someone who should hear this message of love, and stay with them until it’s time to find another one. Go in peace wherever you go, and share this peace with others. If someone refuses to share this peace and love with you, walk away – don’t take even the dust of their house with you. Their closed heart will have consequences, but that’s not your mission. Just take your peace with you, and keep telling people about God’s wildly inclusive love."

The above paraphrase is reprinted here with permission of the author. It originally appeared on the Cassandra Today blog.

14 August 2008

Joseph the Dreamer

By Rev. Susan Kenna
19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis 37:1-4,12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Please pray. Feed us God, feed us on your word, so that we might be people of hope, especially when the world around us slaps us around and seems to get the upper hand. We thank you for your faithfulness as we live our lives in service to you. Amen.

What I write here is not a well polished sermon, it doesn’t even come close! What I write here are really words to myself. I’ve taken the biblical texts for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time and mused over them for a time. I am thrilled because I found a little gem from each text. Compared to what I do on a daily basis, this musing was a time of play. I share a little bit of me here…the little girl and the grown up adult. …so, come on, play with me!

I have many images in my mind when I think of Joseph and his life’s story in Genesis. Some of the images are from my childhood years when I first heard this story. I picture his coat that is colorful, long sleeved and embellished with ribbons and fringe; a prized part of a wardrobe. I see Joseph the dreamer, the young man whose head is in the clouds and who shares his dreams with others, others who would just as well have him keep his dreams to himself.

But now, along with those innocent childhood images, I see violence, hate, and deceit in Joseph’s story. As glbt persons, it is easy to identify with Joseph; we live on the margins, scorned by all but a few of our sisters and brothers. The good news is that we don’t have to remain marginalized. We can dream. With the gifts God gives each of us, we will continue our work for peace and justice, and in doing so, be blessings to our world, even to those who scorn us.

Consider the gospel and epistle passages for this week too. Paul writes about hearing and believing. There are those who will not believe unless they hear and they will not hear unless some one tells them. We are the ones to speak out and tell those who need to hear. We reiterate what scripture says, that our Lord “is rich enough” (The Jerusalem Bible’s translation) and makes “no distinction.” God cares less about our differences. We all are God’s. God’s love is wide and God’s people are a rainbow.

My youthful thoughts of Peter walking on the stormy water focused on the negative, on his sinking down because of his lack of faith. Now, as one who has experienced stormy times in my life and lived through them, I notice that as Peter focuses on Jesus, he walks on the water too, his sandals don’t get wet. No doubt storms lay ahead of us as in our past. The best we can do is to ride out the storms and go through them as we focus and cling to the divine that is present within us and around us.

Imagine something with me. Imagine all of us on a boat, dripping wet as our colorful, long sleeved, embellished robes cling to our bodies as we ride the waves in the wind and rain, all holding hands with Jesus, laughing and singing because our dreams of inclusiveness and justice have all come true. Imagine!

Reverend Susan

04 August 2008

At the Water Table

Reflection on Pride March 2008
Rev. Bob Brashear
West-Park Presbyterian Church, NYC

I come to the Pride March from one step beyond...as an ally, friend. I come to the First Presbyterian Church at 5th and 12th in the Village because of the water table there where we give cups of cold water to hot marchers. Because the table is named for Evelyn Davidson, the wife of Bob Davidson, former pastor of the church I now serve.

Bob led our church to be the first More Light Church...the first church of any mainline denomination to openly welcome lgbt folks at every level of leadership thirty years ago. One of his greater moments was when he ran for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, its highest elected position. A doctor of the law, make that a Presbyterian elder, seeking to test him, rose to ask a question. “Rev. Davidson,” he said, “there is a rumor that one of your daughters is a lesbian, what do you say to that?” And Bob immediately replied, “Oh no, that’s not a rumor...that’s a fact. And her mother and I are proud of her and completely support her...and all of her brothers and sisters.” Davidson won the election proving what so many candidates have failed to realize...that to the average commissioner, openness, directness and honesty are more important than agreement. We’d rather know where you are and disagree than to have someone in there who will bend which ever way the wind blows. Those who seek to please everyone can never lead anyone.

Evelyn believed that the church was responsible for much of the hostility directed at lgbt folk. That the church had caused much hurt and pain. And that gay people needed to see a different face of the church. So she came up with the idea of the water table, to give a “cup of cold water”..in “Jesus’ name” to give welcome and refreshment to all who would pass by.

I see Charlie Mitchell at the table, once a volunteer Parish Associate at West-Park. Well past retirement age, but still filling cup after cup of cold water. I see Jon Walton, pastor of First Church, in his clerical black complete with collar and a red baseball hat with the Presbyterian seal on it wading purposefully into the crowd to pass out the water. I’m more reserved, stand a little further back, looking into faces to see who might be thirsty, then stepping forward. With each word of thanks that follows a cup, a moment of connection.

There are three young men standing in front of the table. One in a pelt of some kind, (where’s PETA?), one in a loin cloth and one with only a strategically placed cluster of green leaves. What they represented, I don’t know, but many marchers stepped out of line to pose for photos with them.

I remember the first year I did this, my whole family with me. My younger boys were, well, unprepared for some of the more overtly sexual displays of the day. Later that night, we sat on the floor with our friends Judy and Diane and their daughter Elana, a schoolmate of my son Nate. Finally one of them worked up enough courage to say, “But I don’t understand why...” and proceeded to describe what had upset him. Judy looked him straight in the eye aid, “ Well, there are some things about gay men I don’t understand either.”

The only way I can begin to understand it, from one step away, is that if society has forced on you an identity that focuses on only one aspect of your life, your affectional orientation, your sexuality, then the most subversive act in response is to take that, pump up the volume and put it right in their faces. Like sixties long hair or rap music, a performance art of protest.

I enjoy the more mainline contingents...the PFLAG group of courageous parents and friends who loved their children and opened the way to safe space for so many others, the SAGE group fighting for health and wholeness for Senior citizen gays in a young person’s world. And then the Lavender Light float with soul shaking gospel music flowing forth in a mighty stream.

I’m most of all glad that I’ve got here in time for the Latin groups. First the Peruvians in a cascading explosion of feathers and gold and color in profusion, ancient native costumes and gilded bodies. A procession fine enough for even the great Inca, Atahualpa himself. I wondered if maybe gay folk may have had a special role in that culture.

Then the Argentines, cosmopolitan and Euro. There’s a late model black Cadillac convertible and there on the rear, the very living image of Eva Peron. Voluptuous, graceful, black flowing gown, blonde hair pulled back, striking her iconic poses, playing to the crowd. It could have been Eva herself.

And then the Brazilians in a flowing samba stream. Some in soccer regalia from their national team, many more in full out carnival costume, the samba line behind keeping the rhythm rolling. Who were men, who were women. Who could tell? Who could care?

I think about what it means to fully embody a culture that is essential to who you are and at the same time know that the same culture may well want to keep you out. I remember the Latin women I’ve married over the years, often one Pentecostal, one Catholic. Drawn to West-Park by its dual Latino and More Light reputation. Feeling alienated from the church that shaped them, a culture that fills them and rejects them and even a community that often seems dominated by white professional class people. And how sad I have felt that despite the welcome my church gives that sooner or later I would have to say that our denomination is no more inclusive than theirs.

Thunder booms. A storm is coming soon. I know that my friends from Presbyterian Welcome are still down the line. That my Elder Jim is on the street or on the float. Along with too many others to name. That over the years, some of my members have come to safely test out a new identification, others to show solidarity and support and others just to celebrate being. And that this year, even as the rain begins to pour down, there is even more to celebrate. Our General Assembly has just once again voted to send to its Presbyteries for ratification the deletion of any constitutional language that would bar lgbt folk from full participation in ordained leadership. Maybe the thirds time’s a charm.

As for me, I’m proud to follow in the line of a courageous cloud of witnesses that stretches back 30 years. Saturday, at the Mets-Yankees subway series, a storm broke out, then a bright rainbow appeared over the rising new ball park beyond the outfield wall.. My son Dan turned to me and said, “Just the right weekend for a rainbow, huh dad?” Maybe this year...make that, may this be the year....