31 December 2009

Christmas: day 7

When I see one human being offer grace to another, I know that the Kin-dom of God is near.

Jenny Howard, Louisville Seminary, Louisville, KY

30 December 2009

Christmas: day 6

When living in moments of ordinary bliss, I know the kingdom of God is near.

Jackie Van Vliet
Rutgers Presbyterian Church

29 December 2009

Christmas: day 5

When people's voices are raised in song and not in fear I know that the kingdom of God is near.


28 December 2009

Christmas: day 4

When "people stop thinking in terms of religious affiliation," I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Takako Terino
Presbyterian Welcome Board Member

27 December 2009

Christmas: day 3

When justice rolls down like waters, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Ellen Pearre Cason

26 December 2009

Christmas: day 2

When an unwed mother carrying the child of the son of the most conservative member of the congregation is welcomed and assimilated into the church family, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

John Edward Harris, North Church, Queens, Flushing NY

25 December 2009


When I see two couples of same sex parents standing at the front of the church on a baptismal day with two other couples who are straight and all are beaming as their infant children are baptized, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. John Walton
First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

24 December 2009

Advent: day 25

When I see books like Who Will Direct the Choir? Homophobia and the Black Church getting published, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. Anna Taylor Sweringen

23 December 2009

Advent: day 24

When I see or experience true welcome/hospitality in a faith community - for ALL the diverse children of God - I know that the kingdom of God is near

Robin Blakeman

22 December 2009

Advent: day 23

When I look into the faces of the congregation and see Jen and Sara, who are married to each other, and Kham, who was born in Laos, and Vickie, who is intersex, and Sammi, who is transgender and married to Vickie, and Eliot, who is developmentally disabled, and Teresa, who has epilepsy, and Rich, who has done his prison time and is taking care of his elderly mother, and Alanna, who is looking after Lisa's two little girls, and Lisa, who is recovering from cocaine addiction, and John, who is single again, and Gabriel, who is autistic, and Melinda, who is Haitian- and Puerto Rican-American, and Tim, who is Japanese-American and his wife Jung Sun, who is Korean-American, and I see them all loving one another, then I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. Jean Southard

21 December 2009

Advent: day 22

When I "see" the possibilities for the future, I know that the kin-dom of God is near.

Debbie Blane

20 December 2009

Advent: day 21

When I see the family God has blessed me with, I know the Kin-dom is near.

Alex Hendrickson

19 December 2009

Advent: day 20

When we speak the truth in love, I know the kingdom of God is near.

Michael Poulos

18 December 2009

Advent: day 19

When my teen son creates more physical distance from me in the sanctuary but I catch a glimpse of him our of the corner of my eye getting spiritually closer to God singing out loud, raising his hands, lips moving in prayer, or dancing in the aisle, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

RevSisRaedorah, Pasadena, CA

17 December 2009

Advent: day 18

When my chosen family is gathered, I know the kingdom of God is near.

Alex McNeil, www.presbyqueerian.wordpress.com

16 December 2009

Advent: day 17

When I am in the presence of my LGBTQ under-care sisters and brothers, I know that the Realm of God is near."

Beth Van Sickle, Inquirer, PC (USA)

15 December 2009

Advent: day 16

When I am laughing with my friends, I know that the Kingdom of God is near.

Kate Davidson

14 December 2009

Advent: day 15

When I can survive breast cancer and a long painful treatment, I know that the kingdom of God is near in those who got me through.

Rev. Linda Anderson-Little, Pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in St. Louis
(and married to a Presbyterian Pastor!)

13 December 2009

Advent: day 14

When I witness (or commit) a selfless expression of love, I know that the Kingdom of God is near.

Chris Peet, New York Theological Seminary Student

12 December 2009

Advent: day 13

When experts admit that we cannot know for sure and we persist anyway, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. Beth Waltemath, Associate Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn NY

11 December 2009

Advent: day 12

When the Cubs win the World Series I know the Kindom of God is near.

Rev. Mark W. Wendorf

10 December 2009

Advent: day 11

When the table is set, and one by one, or in twos or threes, they come in, the hungry, the lonely, the brokenhearted, the rich, the settled, the just-getting-by, the suburban mom, the single dad, the teen-aged boy, the toddler, the crazy old lady, the star soprano, the shy young man, the nerd, the preoccupied, the too-blessed-to-be-stressed, the neighborhood drunk, the wild-eyed mystic, the of-no-account, the beautiful newborn baby in the arms of her older brother, the tenderhearted, the junky, the old man with the parrot --- when they all come in, in such variety so as to defy describing -- each one carrying their burden of dreams and joy and sorrows -- and the table is round, and there is space for all of them, and more come, and there is laughter, and sobbing, and riotous communion, and time for each to say what is in their heart, and all of them together dwells in the assurance of the boundless goodness of God's grace -- I will know that the realm of God is near.

Lisa Larges, Minister Coordinator, That All May Freely Serve, San Francisco

09 December 2009

Advent: day 10

When I see one church member ask another for forgiveness because the member knows he/she has offended the other, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. Mitch Trigger, First Presbyterian, Rockaway, NJ

08 December 2009

Advent: day 9

When everyone realizes & embraces themselves (and others) as created in God's image, unconditionally loved by God, and as children of God ...and all of us treat each other as sacred, then.......I know the kingdom of God is near.

Michael J. Adee, Executive Director & Field Organizer, More Light Presbyterians, Santa Fe, NM

07 December 2009

Advent: day 8

When people comment on preachers’ theology or insight or eloquence or even humor, and not their sexuality, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Pam Byers, Covenant Network of Presbyterians, San Francisco

06 December 2009

Advent: day 7

When I think of the people God has blessed me with, those who have brought me this far, I know the Kingdom of God is near.

Mieke Vandersall, Minister Director, Presbyterian Welcome

05 December 2009

Advent: day 6

When I see a deer watching me through my window, defying the odds of all kinds of weather, traffic, and suburban development, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Laura Cunningham, Pastor, Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church, Pearl River, NY

04 December 2009

Advent: day 5

When I see the faces of my small congregation on Sunday mornings, in all their variety of age and color and culture and orientation, when I remember their hopes and fears and joys, sorrows, and triumphs and see that we are all still here together, I know that the kindom of God is near.

Rev. Bob Brashear
Pastor, West-park Presbyterian Church
Manhattan, Upper Westside

03 December 2009

Advent: day 4

When cynics' hearts melt, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

Rose Darling, Broadway Presbyterian Church Liaison to Presbyterian Welcome, New York City, NY

02 December 2009

Advent: day 3

When I see hatred reduced to struggling for survival against love, I will know that the reign of God is near.

Jenny Howard, Louisville Seminary, Louisville, KY

01 December 2009

Advent: day 2

When a developmentally delayed teenager who can barely form a coherent sentence affirms his faith and is received as an active member, I know that the kingdom of God is near.

John Edward Harris, North Church, Queens, Flushing NY

30 November 2009

Advent: day 1

A friend of mine wrote this on her Facebook page: "At home, really sick. If I were straight and married to my domestic partner, I'd have insurance and I would go to the doctor and they would tell me whether or not I have H1N1. Instead, we have to have an affidavit notarized when she gets back and then send it to NYC and we might eventually get covered. Annoyed. Really, really achy." I found this heartbreaking, especially as one who enjoys the double privileges of both heterosexuality and marriage. Neither sexuality nor marital status should be the gauge by which we determine whether or not someone deserves health care. Everyone deserves health care, period. When health care is a reality for all -- for all -- then I will know the kingdom of God is near.

Rev. Ian Doescher, Calvary Presbyterian Church, Portland Oregon

29 November 2009

Advent Begins...

At church this morning, you may have heard someone read this:
“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Luke 21:31

When do you know that God's kin(g)dom is near? Every day during advent and up until the new year we will be posting sentences much like this one, each written by a different member of our community. We've got the official leaders of the LGBT Presbyterian movement, some of our member church pastors, board members, and many other less well-known but even more special voices to add. Please leave your comments during this time, either on the blog or via facebook, as we continue to expand and explore what it truly looks like for God's reign to be realized on Earth.

09 November 2009

God's Scrum

Lisa Larges and Beth Van Sickle

God is always making a way. Sometimes the material God has to work with is, let's say, "interesting." For the Israelites leaving Egypt, God makes a way by rolling back the water, so that the Hebrew children walk over dry land, with a wall of water on each side. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the way is made out of coats, and other garments, and palm branches , and whatever was at hand .

Sometimes, God makes a scrum. It's a term for a Rugby formation, but it's been borrowed by celebs and important public officials. In this case, a scrum is simply two lines of Secret Service Agents or body guards who create a safe path for the President, or official, or Hollywood star to pass through without injury.

There are now, a surprisingly large number of lgbtq candidates and inquirers for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. And perhaps God has brought us together to be scrum for one another. Scrums are made up of our own people - people that we trust to keep us safe when we encounter raucous people who do not support our Calls. Our scrums move through the ordination process with us, forming circles around us if need be, keeping an eye out for anyone intent on harming us. Through mutual love, respect, and honor of God's call to each of us, our scrum moves with us through desert wilderness into the promised land. When we feel alone, our God and our scrum is with us. When the night is dark, God and our scrum are there to light the path. God always makes a way.

02 November 2009

Special Project for Advent--your help needed!

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Luke 21:31

During Advent we anticipate the arrival of a baby who will change the world, reflecting on the meaning of this event in our daily lives.
During Advent, Psalms Modern is seeking folks to reflect on their experiences of church in anticipation of new ways to expand our ministry.

We’re asking you to think of the elements and experiences of church that mean the most to you personally and complete the sentence:
“When… , I know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Elaboration may be added but is not necessary. Please e-mail your statement to us at presbyterianwelcome@gmail.com no later than November 23, 2009 if you would like to participate.

27 October 2009

Claiming Vision (Mark 10:46-52)

Rev. Richard S. Hong
First Presbyterian Church of Englewood

The story of Bartimaeus, though brief, is a story that you could spend hours talking about, exchanging little “Did you notice…?” tidbits of information. Did you notice that they enter and Jericho and immediately leave – what happened there? Did you notice that he is the only person in Mark who is healed and is named? Did you notice that Mark explains that Bar-timaeus means “son of Timaeus”, even though anyone who has the least familiarity with Hebrew would understand this?

It is often easier to discuss trivia than face the obvious. And the obvious fact of this story is that a blind person, reduced to begging for sustenance, was not only ignored, people tried to silence him. And who did it? The very people who were supposedly following Jesus.

It’s easier to show off our learned study of the Scriptures than it is to face the possibility that we, as followers of Jesus today, are sometimes no different from the followers of Jesus in his day. How many Bartimaeuses are there in the world whom we are ignoring? How often do we wish that the persecuted and the oppressed would either go away or be quiet rather than assert their claim to healing?

Bartimaeus claimed his right to be heard. Today, for all who are being persecuted, for all made to feel like lesser people, his cry is your cry. Whether you are being told to be silent in the face of oppression based on your sexual orientation, gender, race, socioeconomic class – be like Bartimaeus and claim your right to the vision that God has for you.

The Bartimaeuses of the world need to speak out because it is too easy for us to overlook them. We read this story and it’s ho-hum … another healing story. They always get healed. It gets routine. We forget about the ones who are being ignored.

The way to be transformed into people who will hear the cries of the hurting every time is to stop reading this story from the outside and instead let the story get inside of us. Because inside each of us there is a Bartimaeus. Every single one of us has a place of rejection, of pain, of loss. Too many of us tell the Bartimaeus within us to be silent. We only allow the successful, popular, “socially acceptable” parts of us to be seen and heard while burying the hurting parts of our souls. When we do that even to ourselves, we become more like the followers who tried to silence Bartimaeus. We become oppressors rather than healers. But when the Bartimaeus in us experiences the healing love of Christ we learn to connect with every Bartimaeus around us.

So… Did you notice that Bartimaeus, unlike most of the people Jesus heals, follows him along the way? Jesus needs Bartimaeus to follow him. Because with Bartimaeus following him, do you think the next blind beggar will be silenced? It is easy to think that Jesus only needs or wants the successful, gifted part of ourselves. But Jesus – and by extension the Church – perhaps more than anything else we have to offer, needs the Bartimaeus in us. Because the Bartimaeus in each of us is where Christ meets the needs of the world. And when the Bartimaeus in us follows Christ, the Church becomes the community of those who will always listen for the cries of those whose healing is yet to come.

19 October 2009

A Reflection on Psalm 131

Rev. Jean Southard


O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child

that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

I grew up in the era of black and white TV, an age when Groucho Marx and Ed Sullivan ruled the airwaves and the episodes of “I Love Lucy” were not reruns. It was commonplace to hear Groucho sound surprised when a lovely blonde woman gave a correct answer on his quiz show. He would often ask in wonderment, “How did a pretty girl like you get to be so smart?” In a test of wills with her husband Ricky, Lucy never won outright, but had to get her way by scheming and conniving behind his back, which sometimes resulted in his tipping her over his knee for a hard spanking. What may surprise you is that I never questioned the appropriateness of that at the time. In my own household, the man was King. Upon reaching driving age, my older brother received a car. My sister and I did not. It never occurred to us to complain. It was only later, looking back through the lens of the women’s movement, that I found I could no longer tolerate such blatant assaults on the rights and dignity of women.

Psalm 131 appears to be written by a woman. Like me in my earlier life, she lived in an era when it probably never entered her mind to question the restricted role she was expected to play. She considered it a virtue to keep her eyes downcast and to leave the heavy theological arguments to the men. She had bought the line that she shouldn’t trouble her pretty little head with such matters. Her job was to bake the bread, sweep the hearth, tend to the kids, and when it came time to go up to Jerusalem for the great feasts, to stay back with the other women and children while the men went into the temple to offer their sacrifices for worship.

Women were not the only ones who were kept out of the temple. Men whose bodies were not perfect, who were blind or lame, disfigured in some way, perhaps with a cleft lip or palate, or with improperly reset broken limbs, with crushed testicles, dwarfism or hunched backs, with diseases of the skin, were not allowed to present offerings in the temple either. Women were in the category of physically imperfect men, and all were held away from God as though their presence would somehow contaminate God; or was it feared that God’s fiery wrath might consume these thought-to-be-inferior men?

For whatever reason the barrier was up, the temple was off limits, God was in “his” throne room and they were to keep their distance. But God is not bound by the cramped and limiting ways of humankind, for while the psalmist was demurely keeping her eyes downcast and thinking that she must think only lowly woman-thoughts, God’s own unbound liberating presence came to embrace her soul, as a mother wraps comforting and encouraging arms around a weaned child, giving her hope.

13 October 2009

Images and Idols Aside...

Ray Bagnuolo
Stated Supply Pastor and Head of Staff
Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House

Psalm 97, v. 6-7

From the lectionary reading for Monday, October 12, 2009

The heavens proclaim [God’s] righteousness;

and all the peoples behold [God’s] glory.

All worshipers of images are put to shame,

those who make their boast in worthless idols;

all gods bow down before [the true God].

Idols and images? “Worthless.” I know, sound like one of those commercials, and neither have ever brought me closer to God or truth or courage.

Instead, as the author suggests, the times that God has been most present are when the “boasts” evaporate and the image of God breaks through. Such manifestations are truly great moments of wonder, humility, and courage.

It was all there at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House during our celebration of “Coming Out Sunday.” Gathered friends of the church community were invited to tell their “coming out” stories as part of worship. Three spoke with eloquence and from deeply God-given places.

One very brave woman entered a place of transparency in her comments that can only occur when self has been set aside. She was in “God’s glory” of the psalmist; equal parts an amazing and terrifying transformation. She spoke from beyond herself and of a family that had been challenged by her coming out. She referred to the Scriptures, recalling how Jesus stated he had come to separate son from father, mother from daughter; she added sister from sister, reflecting on a visit with her sister that had ended just hours before. She closed by saying that what Jesus had come to do, he had done in her life. It was a profound moment.

As each speaker showed us, such courage of God’s glory occurs when we abandon ourselves to God, losing self in the process and touching the Creator and eternity all at once. It is experiencing a glancing touch of the Power that is so great, even Moses was only permitted to see it from a distance. We, too, saw it from a distance on Sunday. And, as much as it was unexpected, it was also a reminder that we live and work in the presence of God at all times, too often restricted by assorted images and idols. In our midst are those who regularly set aside illusion and bless us with their courage to let the world see who they really are, and in so doing, allowing the rest of us to see God in a different and life-changing way.

Our movement for the end to marginalization in this church is a call to end the worthless imagery and idolatry that has confused too many into believing silence or ambivalence is ever an honest approach in the face of others’ suffering or the witness to God’s wonderfully diverse creation.

How grateful we can be to those who continue the radical love of setting aside self, so that the shining light of God’s presence makes it through, all images and idols aside.

05 October 2009

The Weak and the Lowly

By Sharon

Please join me in reading Psalm 85: 1-4
1God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2"How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
3Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Usually I do not like to think of topics such as God’s judgment. When I hear the word ‘wicked’ I want to think that we all have tendencies towards wickedness and these type of Psalms help us to pray against that in us. The problem for my Presbyqueerian community is that we have painful baggage with the word ‘wicked’ and the church. When we feel falsely judged we want to lash out with words that condemn those who condemn us. I have done it plenty of times. But am I in a place to judge?

I live and work in a ghetto of Atlanta. It is the fall after I graduated from seminary, and I am trying to figure out how to live and be; how to lift up the lowly, to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute (v.3).” That is a pretty heavy calling for we who follow the Juedo-Christian tradition. Let us not forget the dark corners of the world besides the ones we kick it in. In my context, I feel that the weak and the orphan are the children who are abused and neglected in this forgotten section of Atlanta; the prostitutes who have gone to that ‘lowly’ of a profession out of necessity for survival. In my situation, it is so different from my seminary bubble. People do not fight about LGBT issues here. They just try to survive. It is nice, to be honest, to be out of those psychologically damaging circles that do or don’t stand up for justice for we who are called to ordained ministry but forced to do other jobs (like mine) when we get out of seminary.

Now I find myself laughing at gay jokes in the very poor African American community within which I live and work. Isn’t that crazy? I was an activist for us at seminary but now my focus is tutoring math in Atlanta Public Schools through Americorps. When a kid uses ‘gay’ as an adjective, it means weak. I can ask them what ‘gay’ means? Usually when I say there is nothing wrong with being gay, they don’t use the word anymore. Before, they were using it in a way that was hurtful but also getting a few laughs. I hope that as I serve the needy kids in this community that I can spread love to them and teach them about the love of God in what words they use for insults. Everybody in my school seems to need to be ‘hard’ and show no fear because that is the culture. But I know that many of us are weak because we cannot maintain this badass image after school. It is when we can be vulnerable with each other that we can bond; and there God’s grace meets us after a day of chaos in a school of critical need.

‘Gay’ used here is much less hurtful than ‘gay’ used in church circles. When, O God, will you bring justice to those who are hurt deeply by hateful words, by wicked words? When will you bring justice for those who are raising themselves in the sixth grade?

28 September 2009

Community as Resistance

Rev. Sarah Wiles

I was ordained yesterday afternoon. In the midst of the congregation that baptized me, taught me, nurtured me, confirmed me, let me go, welcomed home, and married me, I knelt down and felt the weight of dozens of hands. I stood in their midst and made promises, and raised my hands at the end of the service in blessing. These moments felt like they had been a long time coming.

This coming Sunday is World Communion Sunday and I'm in the midst of sermon preparation. 1 Corinthians 11 has been calling my name--the latter half of that chapter where Paul recites the words of institution that we still use in one form or another throughout our church. He is reminding the Jesus followers in Corinth of what is essential in the Lord's Supper. The point, he insists over and over throughout Corinthians, is not individual holiness or wisdom. The point is that we're all in this together. That's why it is essential to Paul that the community wait until everyone is there so they can partake together. For Paul, the community is a site of resistance. It is a source of identity that is separate from and counter to the Roman identities tied up in wealth, gender, and family lineage. As a body they live out a subversive reality--a reality that insists on equality, inclusion, and most of all, love.

As I prepare for a sermon, I find the text and themes simmer inside of me, bubbling up from time to time. In the mix of joy and astonishment that I was feeling during my ordination yesterday, I realized I was also carrying grief and anger at our Presbyterian community and the wider church. This Sunday for the first time I will preside at a table and recite words of institution that are very similar to the words Paul taught us, but though I and other ministers of the word and sacrament may speak these traditional words, the reality is that our church is not being faithful to the tradition which Paul handed on in Corinth. Our community is broken because we honor and acknowledge God's call only when it comes to certain people who live or look or love certain ways. When God calls some people, we as a denomination dare to reject that calling, assuming that our standards are more right than God's. This was the grief and the anger I carried yesterday. I carried it in the form of faces of people I love--people that I know to be called by God, people who have taught me as Paul taught the Corinthians, people who have proclaimed the Word to me, people who have loved me and ministered to me, people who are my colleagues in ministry though our denomination refuses to be faithful to God's calling.

Paul's letter to the Corinthians is still in our canon, reminding us that we are heirs to a tradition that does not judge as our society judges, that our task is not to satisfy ourselves first, but to wait for one another at the table, following God's calling into a community that is whole. Because the truth is that until that day when we welcome all of God's children to feast at the table and preside at the table, our table is not complete. That day of openness to God's calling is coming, I'm certain of that. It may not get here as quickly as we'd hoped, and it won't get here without more faithful struggle. It may come in bits and pieces as a few are ordained here and a few there, while others face trials and long waits, but it will get here. When that day comes, what a feast it will be.

14 September 2009

The Politics of a Name


One of my favorite things about worship at seminary is weekly communion. We go up to receive the elements and because it’s such a small place most of us classmates are addressed by name. “The body of Christ, given for you Jessica…The blood of Christ shed for you, Luke” and so it goes down the line, each of us called by name by another servant of Christ. It makes my communion experience that much richer, that much more of a reminder that I am part of a true community of believers. In so many different ways names are important. When we name things we give them agency, we give them power. I think a lot about names when I’m doing work in Eco-theology. It’s a lot harder to tear down a forest of redwoods than it is a bunch of trees. And how much more interesting is it to point out a field of peonies instead of a field of red things. In Eco-theology we use the name to build a connection with an object, but that certainly isn’t the only way names are used. When someone calls you by name it means more than if they just call after you with a “hey, you there!”. My name is an integral part of my identity. My first name, like the first names of all of my siblings, is biblical. A daily reminder of where we as Christians find our foundation. My middle name is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. This connection to her and her family is extremely important to me. My last name is my connection to my father's family, with ties all the way back with Lewis & Clark. These names are part of my personality, they’re how I introduce myself, how I identify myself to others. And none of them will be used in this blog entry. It’s hard for me to write this entry and not put my name on it. I’m proud of who I am, of what I’ve accomplished thus far in my life. I’m proud of the connections that my name brings up for me. And yet I can’t sign my name to this piece of writing.

I went on the Presbyterian Welcome retreat this past summer and met lots of wonderful people. We called each other by name, we played together, we cried together, we talked about our faith together, laughed together, made s’mores together. I made friends on that retreat, and tell stories about the retreat, but I will never tell a story that includes the names of the people I was with. In the Pixar movie “The Incredibles” we see a family of superheroes navigating life with dual identities. In one scene the mom is talking to her kids about the importance of identity--handing her kids masks she tells them “Put these on. Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.” Many queer Christians, myself included, go through life with varied masks on, protecting ourselves from different people or situations we know will be unpleasant. How we choose to identify ourselves has a great impact on how we are received and encouraged in the church. It’s been hard for me to go back into the closet as I move forward with seminary and becoming an Inquirer. I feel that the church is a place where all should be welcome, where all should be free to serve out the call we hear from God. Organizations like Presbyterian Welcome, More Light Presbyterians, Covenant Network, and That All May Freely Serve are working to support queer Presbyterians in their attempt to live out their calling. The PC(USA) has come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

31 August 2009

Defining the Ones Who Defy Definitions

Steven Andrews

I am a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman.

And that’s odd, but is it queer?

I am a newlywed—by the time you read this blog, I will have been married for only two days—but I have been thinking for some time about the implications of my relationship for my affinity identity. We are in a monogamous relationship, so when we fell in love, and got engaged, and got married, I wondered, during every step of the journey: am I still bisexual? If the other side of my bisexuality will never be expressed again, can I still use that word to describe myself? Where’s the line between what I do and who I am?

I have already gotten in trouble for asserting my bisexuality. My original sponsoring congregation was a small church in Indiana. When I joined the church in 2005, I didn’t tell anyone about my affinity identity. I reasoned that I was more attracted to women than men, anyway—that there was no reason to risk the career track I was on or damage my relationship to the church. I could think of myself as bisexual in the meditations of my own heart, but there was no reason for me to express the dangerous side of my sexuality. I could pass as a heterosexual. It wouldn’t be a major loss. In this way, I came to think of church as a place where people hide who they really are; I thought concealment and deception were part of what it meant to be an active member in a church.

In 2007, I left Indiana and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where I began my theological education at Columbia Seminary. That was when things started to change. My church roots expanded. I met other queer Christians. I became more confident in my identity, not only as a bisexual, but as a human being. I came to know people who had been deeply wounded by the church’s negative stance toward queer individuals. I became confident enough and determined enough to do something about that, and I knew the most effective thing I could do was to “come out” to that church back in Indiana.

So in November 2007, I began to have conversations with people back home about my affinity identity. I owned bisexuality. I claimed it as who I was. My relationship with the church was strained for a while; our relationship ended in May 2008, when they found a pretense to revoke their original endorsement of me. Needless to say, our parting was not pleasant. But I stood my ground. I was honest with them, and I think that was more important than being pleasant.

I was able to remain under care of my original presbytery, which allowed me to transfer to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. My new home church is a welcoming and inclusive congregation in Atlanta—Ormewood Park—and it has been, in every way, a refreshing surprise to me. I have been able to be myself there, and not just in terms of identity, but in every aspect of who I am. I can say crazy things during Sunday School and they still love me. We have a warm church family, based on real intimacy and vulnerability. They have shown me that church can, indeed, be a place where people are honest.

Throughout the transfer process, I have been honest with my new church and with my new Committee on Preparation for Ministry about why and under what circumstances I was transferring. I have told them that I am bisexual. I have owned that name and claimed it as part of who I am.

But now what do I do?—what do I say?—and what’s the line between the two? Am I a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman, or am I a heterosexual man in a heterosexual relationship? Is there a way to think of bisexuality as something more than an expression of who I’d like to be romantically involved with? I think there is.

For instance, I am more feminine than a lot of men I know. I enjoy reading and writing poetry. I’m not particularly athletic. I’m an empathic listener who thinks emotionally, not rationally. My hands are small and soft; my lips are full; my torso is slender. Even after the wedding, these things remain true. Can I think of these things as aspects of my bisexuality? I have before. If I continue to do so, am I being stereotypical? Am I saying all gay or bisexual men are less manly than other men, or speaking in terms of a gender binary many of us are working to shatter? Despite the import of those questions, I know I am not like other men, and I know this realization has been a part of my developing affinity identity. I don’t know what to say about the gender binary, but I do know this: my feminine attributes are not a threat to my masculinity. They are an expansion and redefinition of my masculinity, and they help me understand what it means to continue to call myself bisexual.

More importantly, though, I know a little about the spirituality of bisexuality. We are people who are open to finding all kinds of love in all kinds of places. In the words of Adele Stan, to us, “a person’s gender is just another attribute, like the color of his eyes, or the texture of her hair.” We see through the traditional definitions and look beyond the traditional boundaries to embrace affection in all forms from all directions. Some people say our ability to love is reminiscent of God’s unconditional love, and while I’m not quite willing to own that myself, I will note that it has been said. For my part, I am still a person who is open to finding all kinds of love in all kinds of places, even if my romantic attentions are focused on one, wonderful woman.

And she has been wonderful. She doesn’t want to be accused of turning me hetero; she wants me to continue to assert my bisexuality, my queerness, or whatever I choose to call it on any given day. And her desire gives me hope that I can sort all this out—that I can figure out what it means to be a bisexual man married to a heterosexual woman, and that I can assert both those truths without contradiction—that I can be honest with myself, with the church, and with the world.

24 August 2009

Letter to the Christians in Queerdom

By Alex McNeill
Based on Ephesians 6:10-20

I knew when I came out that I was accepting a call to a spiritual battlefield. For the church that raised and nourished me, the church which gave me the tools to question and discern God’s will for me, the same tools which led me to understand that I was both queer* and called to ministry, was suddenly the very place I would be denied to put God’s gifts to use. I knew that part of God’s plan for me included a battle of sorts, and at the very least as a queer person called to work in the Presbyterian Church, I had a long road ahead. However, I knew that I loved this church too much to let it off the hook for discrimination or to leave it behind to sort out God’s plan for it without me. So I prepared for battle. After coming out into this realization, I had never felt so alone. I thought I knew what preparation for this battlefield would look like: a cloak of firm resolve, a shield of detached coolness, a sword of academic rebuttals of the 'texts of terror,' a breastplate of moral fortitude. My goal then was to arm myself in such a way that in meetings with my CPM no matter what was thrown at me, my armor would deflect it from touching me. I thought that my armor came from within. God had called me to this task, and it was up to me to prepare for it.

Fortunately, as my experience in my CPM, and this passage from Ephesians proves, I was not alone, nor was it up to me to craft my own armor. From a feminist perspective, the idea of Christians at battle conjures up a lot of pretty awful aspects of Christian history and patriarchal ideals of dominance and might. However, I love what the author of this letter has done to turn battle imagery on its head. As Rev. David Cameron put it in the Union PSCE blog "Join the Feast," the author of this letter "reinvents the image in a most non-militaristic way. He appropriates the common parts of armor – belt, breastplate, shield – but he assigns them uncommon values: truth, righteousness, faith. Consequently, the armor, usually a symbol of self-reliance, is transformed into a symbol of utter dependence on God."

Thank God I'm not a one woman army. I learned that in my first CPM meeting to become an inquirer. As I sat facing many in the room who on principle would never have voted to allow an openly queer person take any steps towards ministry in the Presbyterian Church, I slowly lowered my weapons of 'firm resolve' and 'detached coolness' and became radically open to the workings of the Holy Spirit. With the knowledge that God had called and prepared me for this meeting, knitting my armor since birth, I felt suddenly calm. Rather than feeling powerfully invincible, I felt the radical power of utter dependence on God to get me through it.

As Christians called to serve the Presbyterian Church but who face difficult trials, meetings, and committees for the sake of who we love or how we present to the world, I believe this text has a lot to say to us. Imagine this is a letter to the 'Christians in Queerdom.' Perhaps we are not standing against the 'wiles of the devil,' but we are in a struggle. We might walk into rooms filled with people who might not yet believe we have a valid call to ministry. We might need to have difficult conversations with family or colleagues about how we understand our calling to be to be inseparable from our sexuality. We might be wrestling with our own acceptance of how deeply God's call extends to us.

Thankfully, we are not alone. God is with us, and by creating a community for ourselves we have been working on our armor together. My armor is not a sword or a shield. It is the food coloring dyed t-shirt we made at the Presbyterian Welcome retreat, a friendship bracelet knotted by prayers for my ordination, it is the knowledge that through God, by God, and with God this journey is one of the fundamental tasks of my ministry. God has created all of us to be in community with one another so that we can repair our armor together, so that we can remind each other that God is with us, and that we are working to bring God's vision for the Church into being, on earth as it is in heaven. Together we can declare boldly the gospel of God's radical inclusion. When we walk together, pray together, and come together as a community to ready ourselves for this struggle, we are marching in the light of God, Siyahamb' ekukhanyen' kwenkhos'.

*note: I use queer as an umbrella term for all aspects of the sexual and gender diversity rainbow; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

10 August 2009

John 21:1-19 – Some Observations

Sara J. Herwig

Imagine how the disciples felt after Jesus had died and was buried. There friend, their Teacher, their Messiah was gone from them. What were they to do now? Grief mingled with fear seemed to creep over then and immobilize them.

Some of the disciples were on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, and Peter was among them. Peter had always been a man of action and strong words. Sitting around by the water was not something he was used to doing. So he told the others, “I’m going fishing.” Once again, Peter moves. It didn’t matter to him in what direction. He just had to do something. And what better thing to do than go fishing in the waters he had fished for most of his life and knew so well. It would be a comfort to be out on the sea again, casting the familiar nets into the water, and pulling in the fish. It would be familiar. Which one of us in times of grief and fear would not seek the familiar, the things that have always calmed and comforted us most? The things that too often keep us from doing the hard things God asks of us. Like Peter, many of us would want to do something, something to take our minds off the pain, even for just a little while.

The disciples were out on the water all night, but they caught no fish. They returned to the shore with nothing in the boat but themselves. And as they draw near to the shore, they saw a figure standing by a charcoal fire. As they drew closer the man spoke to them. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered, “No.” An answer that must have been a frustrating admission for Peter who had been a fisherman all his life. The man told them to cast the net to the right side of the boat and they would find some fish.

Peter must of thought this man was a bit off his rocker. They had been out all night. No one knew these waters better than he. But the disciples did as the man told them. And now, after no catch all night, they weren’t able to haul the net in because of all the fish. One of the disciples exclaimed, “It is the Lord!” Peter once again was moved to action. But this time there was purpose and direction. He put on some clothes, jumped in the water and swam to shore. Once he realized who it was who called him, he could do nothing else but go, no matter what hindered him.

The disciples arrived in the boat, and Jesus simply said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have caught.” And they sat by the fire and watched their teacher break the fish, cook them and offer it to them, as they had a hundred times before.

Then Jesus called Peter aside. He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answered, “Yes Lord, you know that I do.” And Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Again Peter answered, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” And Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”

Then a third time Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt, and probably a bit frustrated. Where was this all going? Peter replied, probably with the hurt and frustration in his voice, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”

We are not told what Peter made of all this. But perhaps he recalled that on a cold night not so very long ago, he stood by another fire and was recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples. Three times he was asked if he knew Jesus. Three times he denied him. I don’t think the three repetitive questions Jesus asked Peter about love were meant to frustrate or hurt him. Here was a chance for reconciliation, for forgiveness. His three declarations of love for Jesus wiped out the three denials. And he was given a command to act on it. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Peter was to turn from fisherman to shepherd, to care for God’s people.

Those of us called to ministry are no different than Peter. We too have denied Jesus in one way or another. But there is reconciliation, and there is forgiveness. And even to us the command to tend and feed God’s people is given. The call is not easy. There are many things that block our way. Sometimes we feel that we have been on the lake all night with nothing to show for it. But then Jesus comes to us with forgiveness, a command for action, and gives us the strength to persevere and to help each other in the task of being God’s shepherds. May we each hear anew God’s call in our lives, and be disciples of action.

03 August 2009

Love Without Expectation

By Anonymous

The Presbyterian Welcome retreat in July was an eye-opener for me. Not only am I new to Presbyterianism (yes, I bought a "handbook" at Barnes and Noble), but I am new to PW, and only about six years into a religious walk within community. That is to say, I left my church quite young (at 19) and spent as many years 1-on-1 with God, only to begin again with a church community six years ago.

For me the retreat spawned a theme of expectations. Mine were simple: I'd never been to one before, so I had no idea to what to expect. Would it be so intellectual I'd be lost? What would the worship be like? And most importantly, what if I really don't feel like doing all of the activities? I knew only one person there - what would I do if she didn't want or was too busy to spend with me? What if no one accepts me there (acceptance, as GLBT people know, is NEVER guaranteed)? And I had two very serious spiritual expectations: to have the deep conflict I was feeling about my home church resolved, and to regain a full, central focus on God. There were other expectations, too, inherent in the retreat organization: for all to agree to the retreat covenant, for all to participate, for all to be open to everything, for all to share, for all to feel welcomed, for all to belong. But I think perhaps the overall expectation might have been that it would be easy, that we'd all know how to "play."

The end result? As is always the case, when a person takes one step toward God, God comes rushing to greet that person. I never met so many gentle, truly tender, incredibly brilliant, sincerely God-loving people in one place in my life (well, aside from a church I love in Phoenix, Arizona). Each of us brought our own spiritual tide and presence as given by God, and the currents often criss-crossed and crashed about, but even as water does, all blended together. It was a pleasure to see and experience.

I am grateful for those who gathered me in and glad to be one who could gather others in, and I thank God for seeping into the otherwise sealed pockets of my fearful resistance and insecurity.

29 July 2009

Inspired by GLBT Candidates for Ordination

I was utterly blessed this past weekend by the privilege of living and worshipping with about twenty gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (and yes, every single one of these widely different possibilities were present) Presbyterians called to ministry. All are heading to, currently studying in, or have graduated from theological seminary. All are at some point in the long process of Being Under Care of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, moving toward examination, acceptance of a call, and ordination to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament.

At the same time, being with these bright and faithful GLBT folk — mostly but not all, pretty young — is utterly heartbreaking in the wake of the defeat of Amendment 08-B in the PCUSA. The church came so close to opening the way for them to finally be considered on their merits just like other people.

And still, close is no cigar. Close continues to mean severe decisions between forsaking one’s friends by remaining closeted in order to satisfy the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, or coming out to the Committee and risking the painful possibility that he or she may be stalled in their response to God’s call.

Jesus weeps at the failure of the church to care for its children. And yet these tortuous calculations continue to be forced upon some of the church’s best minds and hearts.

And being with these loving spirits is so utterly uplifting and inspiring. Worship with them is so wonderfully, awesomely creative. We did the Presbyterian thing with words: Scripture, interpretation, spoken prayers of confession and intercession and benediction. But we also studied and prayed in the ways familiar to many in our younger generation— we danced and fell on our knees and sang and played the roles of the disciples and people and children in the text. As we wait for the church, we commissioned ourselves for ministry, supporting one another in our journeys of faith and work.

But this commissioning was not the first step toward ministry for these GLBT folk. All of them are already engaged in meaningful service, both paid and voluntary, caring for people inside and outside the church. This commissioning was a confirmation of their choices to get on with ministry while the church slogs its way to the place where Jesus will greet it because He is there now and has been there all along, embracing and sending forth as disciples these GLBT children.

Jesus shouts for joy at the praise and prayers and service of His beloved GLBT disciples.

It was such an honor to witness their stalwart faithfulness!

Reverend Janet

06 July 2009

Trusting Power

Jenny Howard, guest preacher
Northside Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, MI
6/21/09 More Light Sunday

1 Samuel 17:22-23, 32-49
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Good morning! Welcome to Northside’s annual More Light Sunday observance.

More Light Sunday, of course, is not an official Presbyterian holy day. Oh, no. It’s a recent custom, started five years ago by More Light Presbyterians, which is an unofficial, grass-roots organization within the Presbyterian Church (USA). This organization explains on its web site that More Light Presbyterians is “a network of people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church.”

More Light Sunday, then, is a Sunday, usually in June, for all Presbyterians “to recognize and celebrate the presence and gifts of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in our local congregations …. [because] we believe in a Gospel and a Church for all God's children.”

Now, before I say anything further about More Light Sunday, let me say a few words about this morning’s Bible readings. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do, say something about the Bible readings; that’s what you’re all expecting, right?

Today’s Bible readings are from the Lectionary. As many of you know, the Lectionary is the calendar of agreed-on Scripture for each Sunday, used by many Protestant churches. It’s a three-year cycle, so three years from today, I should be able to re-use this sermon.

My point is that these readings were not selected specially for More Light Sunday. No, these are pretty ordinary readings. David kills Goliath; Jesus performs a miracle – calming the storm; and Paul preaches reconciliation between an unruly congregation and the larger faith community.

You’d think for More Light Sunday we’d use something more like this familiar verse from the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” Or this well-loved verse from the prophet Micah, which was the theme Scripture of our most recent national General Assembly: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

More topically, following the defeat of “Amendment 08-B”, which would have allowed the ordination of lesbians and gays – in view of the defeat of that amendment, the national More Light organization suggested these two verses, the first from the Gospel of Luke:

"Christ also taught them by a parable that they must always pray and never lose heart."

and the second from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

"So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap in harvest time, if we do not give up."

But to me, the official Lectionary readings that just happen to be scheduled for today are excellent More Light Sunday readings. And I’m going to tell you why.

First, though, a brief congregation participation moment, to give you a chance to stretch, and make sure everybody’s awake. I’d guess your answer to this might be shaped to some extent by your politics. Raise your hand if you don’t trust power. Now raise your hand if you do trust power.

When I’m done, I hope that I will have persuaded all of you to trust power.

Let’s look at power in today’s readings.

First, Goliath. Now there’s power. We didn’t read all the details about this guy today, but here are a couple of highlights from earlier in the chapter. Goliath was 9’9” tall. His armor – not counting the armor on his legs or the helmet on his head, just his coat of mail – weighed 125 pounds. The head – just the head – of his spear weighed 15 pounds. It’d be like throwing a stick with a bowling ball on the end. One powerful warrior. And yet, David – the youngest, probably scrawniest of 8 brothers – David beat Goliath. How did he do that? You might say by being a really good shot with his sling, but that’s just the weapon he used. How did this kid, too young to join the army, beat this gigantic, battle-hardened soldier? David told us when he uttered the last words Goliath ever heard: “Know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

Hold that thought as we re-visit Mark’s story of the boat in the storm. Jesus has been regaling the crowd with one parable after another. While they’re still scratching their heads, he tells the disciples to hop in the boat and go to the other side of the lake. The “lake” is the Sea of Galilee, 8 miles wide and 200’ deep in the middle. Several of the disciples are fishermen, remember, so they’re steering the boat. Jesus is tuckered out from all those parables, so he’s taking a nap in the back of the boat. I can imagine the conversation: “James, it’s getting cloudy, and the wind is kind of picking up.” “Right, John, I know.” “Don’t you think we better turn back?” “John, Jesus said to cross to the other side of the lake.” “I know, James, but…” “John, do you want to wake Jesus up and tell him we decided not to do what he told us to do?” “Well, no, not really…” Now, archaeology tells us something about the size of these 1st century fishing boats… roughly, you could put one in the middle aisle here. We also know how much power a serious storm can pack on the Sea of Galilee: the waves can be as high as 10’, like as high as the ceiling here. The disciples were afraid – with good reason – that these powerful waves would sink the boat, and they’d all be stranded in 200’-deep water, in a storm, miles from the nearest shore. Picture it – everybody’s working furiously to prevent that disaster – maybe four disciples pulling at oars, a couple of them manning the tiller, and one standing lookout, and the other five trying to bail water out as fast as it comes in. And one person is not doing anything to help out, he’s … in the back of the boat, sleeping! It’s easy to understand why the others shook him and yelled, “Wake up! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?!” Jesus, waking up, takes a look around, rebukes the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And suddenly, eerily, it is calm and quiet. Then Jesus rebukes the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Still no faith?” and presumably resumes his nap where he left off.

Here, just like in the Goliath story, we see that God can defeat any adversary, no matter how powerful – whether it’s a storm on the Sea of Galilee, or a 9’9” warrior.

Clearly, then, the lesson for today is, as long as you have God on your side, there is no power that can’t be defeated, and you will prevail! And from the verses about justice that I quoted earlier, we know that God is on our side in this whole inclusive-church, ordaining-gays-and-lesbians business! So all we have to do is have enough really strong faith, and ask God to get rid of our adversaries – either killing them like Goliath, or at least making them be still, like the storm! Right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!


No; as usual, it’s more complicated than that. And as is so often the case, it falls to Paul to teach us how complicated, messy, and difficult it really is.

Paul, of course, is not dealing with the question of ordaining gays and lesbians. Heck, they didn’t even know what gays and lesbians were back then, not in the way we use and understand those terms today. But Paul does have his hands full with the church in Corinth.

We don’t have to know what the specific dispute was that led to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, though it does seem to be some kind of leadership struggle. Somebody else is trying to take control of the church in Corinth, and to oust Paul, or at least oust Paul’s authority. But even though we can only speculate about the details, we do know what today’s reading – the beginning of Chapter 6 – is about: reconciliation. Paul is offering an olive branch to his adversaries in Corinth. He’s not backing down about what he and his followers believe; in fact, he says: “We have commended ourselves in every way…. by genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” Convinced as he is, though, that the “power of God” has given him the “weapons of righteousness”, he does not call for God to smite his adversaries like Goliath, or still them like the storm. Instead, he offers them “genuine love” and “truthful speech”. He reaches out to them, “Our heart is wide open to you…. open wide your hearts also.”

In the real world of real people, Paul knows that victory without reconciliation would be hollow indeed. His goal is not to “win” so that his opponents “lose”. His goal is to build a church that is as inclusive of all God’s children, as it is faithful to God’s Word. For this more nuanced goal, Paul can’t just call on the power of God to set things right and let it go at that. Paul knows that he must himself follow God, must do what God has called him to do. He knows he must love his neighbor – even if his neighbor is vying with him for control of the church in Corinth.

He must trust that God will use God’s power in the best way that it can be used. Work for what is right, and trust God’s power.

And that more nuanced, difficult, complicated, messy goal is ours too, in the struggle to open the church to the ordination of anyone who is called by God to serve in the ministry – anyone, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or “straight”.

Our goal is not to build a majority so that, in the democratic Presbyterian process, “we” can defeat “them”. Our goal is not to be such a thorn in “their” sides that “they” finally give up and leave “our” church to “us”. Our goal is not to have God make “them” be still, shut “them” up. And our goal is certainly not to have God give “us” the power to physically, violently defeat “them”.

Nor are we called to surrender our beliefs. Wherever God has given us the light to see justice, we are called to speak the truth about justice. We are called to work for justice. We are called to lead the whole church, called to reach out to all people, called to build a church that is as inclusive of all God’s children, as it is faithful to God’s justice.

We are called to trust God to use God’s power in the best way it can be used. Work for what is right, and trust God’s power.

01 July 2009

An intern takes a march down 5th ave: Thoughts on the 2009 Heritage of Pride March

If there’s one thing I’ve learned to appreciate, it is the amount of pure standing that a parade marcher endures in one event. When factoring in prep time and the entire length of the route, members of the Presbyterian Welcome leg of this year’s Heritage of Pride march found themselves flat out standing from 11am to almost 6pm on Sunday June 28th 2009.

It was the first time I’ve ever marched in a parade. In fact this past week has delivered a number of firsts for me: my first internship, my first time in a work environment, my first time celebrating Heritage Pride in New York City (in three years at college in New York I’d not yet done so till Sunday).

Of course, when the NYPD (many, MANY thanks to them for helping to make this amazing event as danger-free as possible) put the brakes on the parade for the 50th time to allow traffic through, you have to make the best of the situation. Being an actor, I can never say no to extra face-time in front of an adoring audience. Although I’m sure it wasn’t (just) me they adored! It was (also) our many brilliant signs (“Fierce, Fabulous, and FAITHFUL!”. “Presby-QUEER-ian!”). It was our enormous, red banner, with golden flames and “FLAMING FOR CHRIST” emblazoned across it. It was our “Flaming for Christ” buttons, the Atomic Fireball candy we gave out. It was the choreographed flight patterns of our Doves on Sticks, swooping high above our heads in (almost) perfect synchronization.

And I think I can say safely that the crowd ate it up. I’m not sure if they all happened to be aware of what Presbyterian Welcome’s mission was or whether they simply found the principle idea of Queer Christians to be worthy of cheer. But during the final stretch, as we marched down Christopher street, where the crowds were even thicker and closer, and the cheers were louder, as I was cheering louder to match them, I found myself thankful my legs endured that entire march. By the march’s end, I had this feeling in my heart, a feeling like an entire city has just given me its love, enthusiasm, support. I hope as the weeks of my internship unfold, I can give as much love, enthusiasm, and support to those people Presbyterian Welcome serves as New York has given the LGBTQ community.

My name is Ned Raube-Wilson and I think I’m going to like interning here.

29 June 2009

A Pride Sermon

Rev. Miller Jen Hoffman
Binghamton Congregation of MCCNY
Mark 4:26-34

In today’s parables of the planted seeds and the mustard seed, there seems to be nothing particularly Pride-full in evidence. The seeds don’t appear to be transgender seeds. Mustard is not a particularly homosexual spice. It’s enough to cause a person to wonder, I imagine, why use the regular lectionary-assigned weekly texts for today? Why go with the same stories that everyone-else-not-celebrating-Pride-today is reading? Why not choose something different, something gay-er, something more gender-bent?

And I have to begin by answering that this is our fifth Binghamton Pride service, and surely I have already preached on all the good queer and genderqueer texts. (Never mind how many years Rev. Pat has been doing it in New York City.) We must be so over those affirming characters. There is really only so much a person can say about Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, the gay Roman centurion, Prisca and Aquila the lesbian home-church leaders, Deborah the trans judge,‘adam the first intersex being, or the Ethiopian eunuch. Surely I’ve bored you senseless with these positive stories of our ancestors in the bible and how they illustrate that we are not only in the bible, we are often models of faith and integrity and courage. I imagine that you’re tired of hearing shameless tales of queer and trans biblical spirit and strength.

You know of course that I’m joking about that. We never get tired of hearing that stuff. And, besides, everything I’m going to say today you’ve already heard at least five times, too.

As for the bashing texts, I suppose that I could tell you again that the bible does not condemn us for being lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer-allied – because it most certainly does not. I could talk about Hebrew and Greek translations. I could point out any number of biblical laws that hardly anyone knows are there, let alone pays any attention to, at the same time that they pull out and wave around a handful of verses they take to mean we are judged. I could talk about the context of those passages and how they are, every last one, talking about something else entirely different than our adult, consensual relationships and our informed and lived gender identities and expressions. But, frankly, there’s not much fun in talking about the texts of terror. There’s no woo-hoo in it, really.

And then there’s the whole I-heart-parables reason for keeping this reading today. Parables are these really amazing lessons. Parables are part Zen koan (like, What was your face before you were born? What is the sound of one hand clapping?), and they are part riddle (like, As I went to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives; Each wife had seven sacks, Each sack had seven cats, Each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?), and they are part fable (like, slow and steady wins the race, birds of a feather flock together). What’s not to love about these fabulous Gordian story problem-poem-moral-puzzles?

And parables are conspicuously queer. Seriously. Not so much in the sense that they so-called cross-dress or are attracted to other same-gender loving parables, but because they absolutely mess with expectations. They undermine the status quo. They sabotage the way things are and the way things are “supposed” to be. And they recruit. They’re famous for it. If anyone tries to give you some pat explanation for a parable, some proper, “spiritual” interpretation, just laugh. They must be joking. Because parables defy proper. They spit on “appropriate.” Let me tell you, parables in general are us forty years ago on a hot, damp, humid late June late night at the Stonewall Inn finally and completely fed up with proper. And appropriate. Parables do not stay in the paddy wagon. They say things like “God’s reign is like mold and weeds,” and “Throw a party for your rebellious child,” and “ninety-nine birds in the hand are significantly less important than one, possibly dim-witted, one wandering around in the woods.”

So, finally, this is why we are keeping the lectionary readings for today. Because they are parables. Because they are about God’s reign. And so they are de facto, in toto, by definition, about us – our movement, our people, our Pride. They are about the inevitable miracle of justice and equality and kindness and people having each other’s back. And, as it happens, at least one of the Greek parables is a burlesque, according to my boyfriend John Dominic Crossan, on par with Fannie Brice and Hedda Lettuce. (I said that last part, not Crossan.) But more on that later.

The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, the sower does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with a sickle, because the harvest has come.

Here is the parable of inevitability. The parable of certainty. It’s perfect, as a parable, because if we know anything, if anything is commonsense or logical, it’s that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and not even taxes if we are following the processes of half of President Obama’s cabinet nominations, and not even death if we paid any attention at all in April with the whole stone-rolled-away, “why-do-you-seek-the-living-among-the-dead” celebration. Nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Pema Chodron has written a dozen books about it, chaos theory made it a science, Thomas made his name on it. Uncertainty and doubt lurk around every corner and under every bed, waiting to grab your foot and gnaw on your bare ankle when you get up in the night for a glass of water.

But the parable of the scattered seeds says different. The parable says, it’s coming. Period. No qualifications. No, “if you build it, they will come,” just “They will come.” It won’t happen based on whether you struck while the iron was hot, were early to bed, or used two heads. It’s coming, like it or not, ready or not, allee allee in come free.

It’s a good time for this promise. It’s helpful to know that, while we struggle with family illness or making ends meet or conflict with whoever, it’s heartening and comforting to know that God’s rule is coming and will bring with it good news for the poor, release for the captives. It is coming and it will set oppressed people free. Nothing can stop it.

It’s a good time to know it, while Republicans and Democrats fuss in the New York State Senate over who is in power and whether or not to vote on marriage equality. They can’t stop the reign of God. It’s helpful to know it when the people, supposedly of California, passed and the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, they can’t stop the reign of God. When men who fear and hate Jews open fire in our monument to Jewish tragedy and recovery, and who profess a love of life but kill Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church, and who kill our trans sisters every week around the globe, they can’t stop the reign of God. They can flout it, they can fight it, but they can’t stop it, this parable says. God’s reign will out.

Magic beans are real. Love does conquer all. Good things do come to those who wait. It’s a sure thing. God’s reign is coming, and God’s reign does not remotely resemble appropriate and proper, is not comprised of principals or dignitaries but of interlopers, anarchists, and scum. That’s us, by the way, but in a good way. More on that in a minute.

I love that the parable is edgy and uncomfortable. It challenges us to consider our action without ever naming action. In fact, by specifically excluding our efforts it might intentionally grate against our very notions of enterprise. The earth produces of itself. Does this mean we don’t have to do anything? Is it saying go to bed? That our efforts don’t matter? Does the parable encourage apathy and indifference? Oh, sweet Gordian story problem-poem-moral-puzzle, what am I supposed to do to change the world? Aren’t I supposed to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with my God? Aren’t I supposed to be, at least, a small group of thoughtful and committed people? Aren’t I supposed to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and visit the sick?

At the same time that hostile actions by our opposition will not stop God’s reign from being realized, neither will our own apathy, indifference, or excuses. The story tells us that somebody scattered the seed. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, for example, scattered the seed and passed marriage equality for all of us, straight, gay, bi, transgender-with-or-without-transitioning. Vermont especially, bless them, already had that bogus Civil Union half-measure in place, and they went out of their way to make things right. Miami, for example, scattered the seed and became the third municipality in Miami-Dade County to adopt a domestic partnership ordinance. The Argentinian bank Banco Provincia scattered the seed – have you seen this? it is incredible – and created an ad showing a non-trans man talking to and reaching out to and apologizing to a trans woman.

Will Ferrell scatters the seed. That’s not a euphemism, although it sounds like one in the same sentence as his name. Will Ferrell is my new boyfriend, no disrespect intended to John Dominic Crossan. Ferrell, married, talented, popular, goes out of his way in his movies, maybe especially the latest Land of the Lost to interrupt and challenge homophobia and gender stereotypes. It’s not even subtle. One example: his time machine is made from parts of a boom box that still have show tunes from A Chorus Line embedded in it, and when another character says “That’s kind of gay,” he replies, “Yeah. It is great.”

Somebody is scattering seeds. And if it isn’t us, it isn’t us. But it will be someone else, and the commonwealth of God’s wholeness and healing, of human worth and dignity for everyone across our differences, of God’s loving and peaceful reign will happen and, well, I guess we’ll have missed out of the grassroots movement. But that’s not really the parable’s concern. That seems more or less left to our conscience and our love to work out. But the parable insists that Change and Good and Right is a sure thing, it’s a promise. Life produces of itself. Watch for it. It will come.

And then ... Mark brings on the camp. Finally. The reign of God is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

This is The Onion of parable, the National Lampoon of Zen koan. The Gypsy Rose Lee of scripture. Because in our Hebrew reading for today we see that the dominant image of divine strength and power is the great cedar of Lebanon. “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.”

The parable, Br’er Rabbit that it is, prankster, queer agitator, gender-bender, coyote trickster, takes the symbol of the cedar tree – imagine the California sequoia or redwood or the lost American chestnut or the Texas sycamore, something regal and imposing and majestic – and replaces it with the first-century Palestinian equivalent of a dandelion. It’s absurd. It’s hilarious.

It’s like the scene in The Princess Bride when the prince and Buttercup are to be married, and there’s a huge cathedral and a priest in full vestments and a grand organ interlude, and “the impressive clergyman” finally begins to speak... “Mahwage. Mahwage is wat bwings us togevver today. That bwessed awangement...”

It’s not what we were expecting. It is deliberately unsettling, disturbing our “secure mythological world” (Boring). It’s heresy, second cousin to anarchy, un-American. It’s queer. It’s genderqueer. It is God.

God’s reign, immanent and inevitable, is a dandelion. It’s a mustard plant. Something that makes good soup, has healing herbal properties, gives comfort and shelter to any number of ecological systems – and often goes absolutely unnoticed as anything but a pest. What most people, the “proper” and “appropriate” people, see is an untamable, uncontrollable weed that takes over the cultivated, geometrical, manicured yard and garden, pungent and dangerous, attracting all kinds of unwanted, unsavory characters (Crossan). That’s us, friends. This is us to a jot and tittle.

God’s reign is in unexpected places. People looking up are told to look down. People looking to royalty and presidents are told to look at women, lepers, children, the poor. People looking at the straight, staid, missionary-position, Banana Republic, well-groomed, white middle-classes are told to look ... for us. The pierced and tattooed, cross-dressing, dyke, odd, off, queer, freaks. Maybe you don’t think of yourself that way, that’s okay. We don’t all claim the same language, and I’m just trying to make a point. That the mighty stream of God’s just and good rule is coming from off-center. From the margins. Where we are and live and love and work and play. That’s a promise. That’s our promise.

The world needs us. The Kingdom of God is itself, in fact, only realized when everyone is at the table. It’s not a matter of being merely wanted, merely invited, merely welcomed. We are needed along with every other being, whether coveted or castaway, whether central or invisible, we are needed because we are all needed to make it real. And I mean us just as we are, just like this. Not mainstreamed or “converted” or “cured,” but with all of our glorious dapple and couple-colored, fickle and freckled, pied beauty.

We are needed. And God’s reign that we are an indispensable part of is a sure thing. And that’s very, very good news, indeed. Happy Pride. Peace.

26 June 2009

Dear Friends,

The “Heritage of Pride” parade takes place this Sunday in New York City. Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer people and those who love and support them will march from 5th Avenue & 52nd Street to Christopher & Greenwich Street. to celebrate who God created them to be and to demonstrate their pride in themselves and their communities.

The Bible warns against excessive pride, but it is a healing and empowering emotion when you have been treated as if being who you are and loving who you love is shameful. Most people know what it is to have experienced shame in their lives. Shame is an effective means for social control and has worked to keep people silent and undermine their self-worth. It can lead people to living dishonest and inauthentic lives. Shame tells sensitive little boys that they are unmanly and little girls who’d rather wear pants than dresses that they are unnatural. And as for those who do not fall within the gender dichotomy at all – well, as my friend Dina says, “Fuggedaboutit.”

Pride breaks the crippling hold shame can have on people. When thousands of individuals carrying banners and balloons march in public, it is a healing light streaming into the shadowy closets where shame thrives and tries to suffocate the spirit. I believe that Heritage of Pride Sunday can speak to all of us who feel different in some way from what is too readily considered “normal.” It can remind those who follow Jesus that He, too, did not fit the norm. An outsider who proclaimed that another kindom was being born into an empire that seemed invincible, Jesus was quite at home with those others condemned and taught that each of us is a reflection of God, that we carry within us a piece of the divine. God bless all who march this Sunday – and let your light shine.

For more information on the Heritage of Pride Parade, go to http://www.flamingforchrist.org

Peace to you,

Elaine Connolly
Jan Hus Presbyterian Church

22 June 2009

Flaming for Christ: with wounds on its sides

By Takako Suzuki Terino

We often speak of the church as one body of Christ. Then we speak of the need for healing and reconciliation. Just as Jesus was sent to the broken world to bring healing and reconciliation, so we the church, which is his body, are sent out to the world to bring healing and reconciliation. Sounds good.

But let’s take a closer look at this body. How did the church come to have this body which we dare claim to be the body of Christ? It was Resurrected Jesus who appeared to the disciples and made them apostles by sending them out into the world. When the promised power of the Holy Spirit came to them, life was breathed into them and the church was born. We the church thus became the body of Resurrected Jesus, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. But the peculiar thing about this body of Resurrected Jesus was that it had wounds, the wounds that had killed Jesus on the cross. Jesus showed these wounds to the disciples so that they could know it was really him. They are surely the mark of Resurrected Jesus, whose body we are.

These wounds of Jesus have often been romanticized. For some, they speak of Jesus’ compassion for the world that Jesus loved us to death. Hallelujah? No, we cannot adore and worship these wounds, because we do not celebrate Jesus death. Indeed, we ought to be furious about these wounds, because they are nothing other than the mark of injustice that sucked life out of the earthly Jesus. These wounds are evil. Rather, what we do celebrate and worship is the mighty God who overcame this evil and brought Jesus back to life, with wounds and all.

Of late, when we speak of the need for healing and reconciliation, we are often talking not about the world in general but about our own church. Every defeat in our effort to bring justice to our church polity is a new wound on the side of our body; every loveless confrontation with an opponent, another self-inflicting stab. Yet, we dance gingerly around these wounds as we grope our way for healing and reconciliation. Yes, we are marked by these wounds of injustice, but we must resist the temptation to romanticize them as merely a sign of our sinfulness for which Jesus died. For it is not the life-sucking wounds but the power of God who overcomes them that makes us, the church, alive and flaming for Resurrected Christ.

Now let us go and spread the Good News down Fifth Avenue, flaming for Christ!

08 June 2009

The Church’s First Mistake

Acts 1:3-17, 21-26, 2:1-12
Rev. Chris Shelton

It didn’t just come from nowhere, you know – that Pentecost Spirit. The rush of the wind – the dancing flames – the seemingly drunken disciples…it didn’t just show up, as if returning early from some delightful South American vacation. The Spirit came, not because its Blackberry reminded it, or because the Presbyterian Planning Calendar told it that the day was appropriate. The Spirit came and took the disciples by storm because it had to…it couldn’t delay another minute.

To get there, though – to listen for why the Spirit so urgently arrived, we have to go back. We have to rewind the tape we so eagerly fast-forwarded. We do love the pyrotechnics, the mystery, the drama of it all…let’s face it, the flames… But that’s not where the story starts. First, we return to a hillside near Jerusalem.

Listen for the Spirit speaking in these verses from Acts, chapter 1.

3 After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God. "This," Jesus said, "is what you have heard from me;
5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the our great Parent has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two mysterious ones in white robes stood by them.
11 They said, "People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away.

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said,
16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus--
17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry."

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,
22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection."
23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
24 Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen
25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place."
26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

I think Luke deserves a commendation. Luke, you may recall, is the traditional author of our story, the author of the New Testament’s two volume series – Luke and Acts. Tradition also tells us that Luke was a physician. What tradition has never revealed until now, is that Luke was clearly a Southern Gentleman. Trust me, it takes one to know one. This is clearly revealed here in chapter one. Did you see it? I know it’s tricky – you actually have to listen for what Luke didn’t say. He didn’t say, for example, that Peter could occasionally be a blathering idiot. Eh, perhaps I’ve been among the Yankees too long. Suffice it to say that Luke gently, mannerly, overlooks the fact that the disciples have made the first mistake of the post-ascension church. They did not do what Jesus asked them to – they did not stay put and wait for the Holy Spirit…they tried to go it on their own. And in so doing, a rather unfortunate pattern of the church was established…

But Luke doesn’t say a word about this – he just tells the story in a gentlemanly way. And I don’t fault him for it…and I don’t fault those early disciples either. I mean, really, they’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster these last several weeks. Jesus leads them into Jerusalem on a stolen donkey as the crowds celebrate. Next thing you know he’s in the temple, turning over the tables. By Thursday, he joins them in a meal of memory and promise – mystifying them with the broken bread and the outpoured cup. Before they know it, they’re out in the cold of the night, trying to keep awake with little success, when soldiers are on them and Jesus is lead away. In fear they scatter – just a few of them seeing the trials, and ultimately the crucifixion. After fleeing as they did, who knows how, but somehow they found each other – fear draws people together, I guess. After hiding out for a couple of days, they get the rumor from some of the women that the tomb is empty – and then Jesus seems to be popping up all over the place…on roads, through walls, at tables, in gardens…sometimes you can touch him, sometimes you can’t…

Some of them, bewildered by it all, try to go back to work at their fisher boats – but Jesus turns up at the seashore, as if to call them again.

Finally, they’ve come back together and are gathered on a hillside. It’s been 40 days, and it’s just settling in that Jesus is really alive and with them. Someone dares to ask what they’ve all been thinking – “Is it time, Lord, are you going to restore Israel now?” It’s awfully hard to shake an idea once you have it. Even after all this, they still think his mission was to set Israel back apart from the rest of the world. They have yet to embrace that his Kingdom, his Israel, is without borders.

“Just wait,” Jesus says, “God’s timing for all things – not yours…no matter how much it may drive you crazy.”

And then, he’s gone – lifted into the clouds. They stand there staring, mouths again agape. (I editorially suspect that Peter thought back to the last time Jesus had done such a physical miracle…remember, the walking on the water bit and how he had wanted in on it …and thought to himself, “I wanna fly.” But I digress.)

Angelic types have to swoop in as if to say, “People – stop staring and get back to doing what Jesus asked you to do.”

So – somewhere in all of this – a mistake was bound to happen. Did they go home and wait until the Spirit moved? Did they follow Christ’s lead and prepare themselves for the coming of the Spirit? Did they reflect on Christ’s call in their lives and how they would soon be sharing the Good News in all the world, and inviting others to join in the witness? No. They did what all good Christians seem to do when avoiding Christ’s call. They tried to figure out ordination standards.

I mean, I do give them some credit. Their system was much less bloody than our Presbyterian one. Thinking they needed to fill in the gap left by Judas, they hold a lottery to see who gets to be the new number 12. Peter says that this is to help them decide who shall “become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater… By now you’d think he’d understand that they all are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection – that we all are called to be witnesses.

Peter posed it as a choice, a vote, between Joseph Justus and Matthias. The lot fell on Matthais. My heart goes out to Joseph Justus – the first ordination denied by the church. I suspect, and tradition tells us that he went on to preach anyway, with or without the credential, and with out without the pension plan. But we keep living out this pattern – we forget the joyous news of the Resurrection will not be confined, any more than Jesus was confined by a tomb, and it is for everyone to share… we’ve kept out persons of color, folks who’ve been divorced, persons with disabilities, the struggle for women goes on, and the journey toward inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the church seems an especially long one, lately… But I digress again, or do I?

Gentlemanly Luke doesn’t point out this mistake… He simply records that they did what they did. But now, you see, here’s where we get to flip the page to see what happened next. Narratively speaking, at least, the wind begins to blow, fire from heaven comes down, and before you know it everyone is speaking, and everyone is hearing in their own languages. The Pentecost Spirit comes storming in, because it had to, it couldn’t wait another minute. Charging in as if to say – “this Church, this message, this New Life will be for everyone…and no walls, no votes, no nothing, will stand in my way.”

Not as gentlemanly as Luke, that Spirit, I guess – or as ladylike if you prefer…but still willing to put up with a lot…

I want to celebrate that just last week we glimpsed that Wind still at work. Our church of ancestry, the Church of Scotland, did what our own PCUSA has been struggling to do. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has affirmed the call of the Rev. Scott Rennie – who becomes the first openly gay and partnered minister in the history of that denomination. I am proud to call Scott and his partner David dear friends. I like to think that Joseph Justus is proud, too – knowing that there’s one less person who has to know the sting of a vote that tries to confine the Spirit.

It’s fear, that restless demon, that we face down in the long run. It was fear that got the better of Peter…and I know I’ve been hard on him, but God loves Peter, by the way. But Peter fell prey to his fears – he didn’t wait for the Spirit like Jesus said. He wasn’t sure what the Spirit was going to do anyway – or what it looked like. He thought maybe he could control the Spirit by getting out ahead of it…keep it in line…keep it comfortable, keep it safe. He was afraid of what might happen if it got out to everyone. And so, Peter figured, let’s keep it to ourselves…let’s define an “us” so that we can keep out the “them”… and we can decide this thing by a vote.

Scott, in the week leading up to the vote in Scotland, was asked by the Press about the anxiety of it all. "There is so much fear in this debate," Scott said. "And fear is the antithesis of the gospel. The gospel is about hope not fear, love not loathing.”

Someone else asked him, “what do you have left if you lose?” I’m sure he gave a bright smile as he responded, “What is left? Well, the good news and the hope of the gospel is left. The constant possibility that people and society can be transformed to be more just, more peaceful, more loving. The whole notion that the kingdom of God can come. It's not bad to be getting on with."

Now there’s a Scottish gentleman for you.

Indeed, friends, as we grapple with the grief of this vote…mixed with the joy of the strides we have made…we must surely keep in mind that we grapple with nothing new. The Church is still reckoning with its first mistake. And thank God, the Spirit still is, too.

And there will be more mistakes to come, goodness knows – but as Scott reminds us, and as Joseph Justus surely knows – the Good News is still there, and we all are included in it. Not one will ultimately be left out. The Resurrection is still unfolding! And, no matter what some may say – no matter what the ballots read – no matter what Peter or Parker or any Presbytery may try to tell you – we all are called to be witnesses.

And I feel the wind blowing.

01 June 2009

Getting to know the Ethiopian eunuch

Rev. Mieke Vandersall

Riverdale Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2009

Acts 8:26-40

When I was a seminary intern at Second Presbyterian Church I learned an important lesson when I was given the charge to preach on what was considered “Thanksgiving Sunday.” I didn’t even mention Thanksgiving and let me tell you did I hear about it. You see, I didn’t realize that Thanksgiving was a liturgical holiday, but after that Sunday I understood what people’s expectations are for such days.

The thing is holidays like Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, Fathers Day too, in some places July 4th as well are a big old trap for preachers. There is pressure to preach touchy-feely, Hallmark sermons these days when yet they aren’t liturgical holidays. Mother’s Day can be especially tough because it is such a complicated day for so many. This is all to say that I am aware of expectations many of us bring to this day and while this sermon might not be a “typical” Mother’s Day sermon it is one that I believe is an authentic exploration of who God is, how God is revealed to us in the text and the intimacy with and acceptance of God which we all crave from people as close to us as our mothers.

This week I was talking to my best friend, who is a mother, about an Oprah show she saw—maybe some of you have seen it too. On this particular show were two mothers who had recently lost their children to suicide. Their young boys killed themselves because of the homophobic taunts that they had been hearing at school. They were sweet boys, sensitive, and had been called those names that I don’t dare repeat here in this pulpit but you know all of them. Some of you might have been called those names before or even used them in lives past.

The boys weren’t necessarily gay, I think they were so young that they didn’t even have the language to understand the difference between sexual orientation and expression of gender, which you know are two very different yet connected things. It didn’t matter if they were gay or not, because the words, the schoolyard taunts, the words that indeed hurt more than sticks and stones, they made it clear than any deviation from norms of masculinity are an offense worthy of punishment by self-loathing to the point of suicide.

To prevent a mother’s nightmare, one of the mothers of one of these young boys went to the school authorities and asked them to intervene when the taunts began. She could see where this road was leading and the mama bear she is, she went to ask them to please do anything to make it better. There is so much that can be done to prevent this, you know.

I thought of the Ethiopian eunuch as Stefanie and I were talking about these young boys and her fear, as a mother, for her own child, my godchild. He is a delightfully well-mannered, sensitive little boy who loves learning and has an active and engaged imagination. The world is his oyster, all to explore and to enjoy and to experience. What can we do to allow him to grow into his best self, into the gift of a human being that God has given us? This became the question we batted around.

First, I guess we should talk about what a eunuch actually is. Eunuchs are males whose testicles have been removed. In biblical times, in this particular community, eunuchs were considered sexual minorities because of a prohibition in Deuteronomy that keeps them from the worshipping community of Israel. And so that is that and the eunuch finds himself on the margins of mainstream Israel.

Eunuchs are a third gender—an expression not stereotypically masculine or feminine but something else, who, in the time of the writer of Acts was castrated and was distinguished by certain patterns of dress, speech, physiology and overall affect. While they were tremendously marginalized in some ways, not even being allowed to worship, not permitted into the community that they had been born into, they were also revered. One commentator believes that eunuchs make a “perfect servant,” perfect because they had no allegiance to family and could not jeopardize the dynastic lineage by their own offspring. Indeed they were able to move across gender and social boundaries and were often considered holy men because of their ability to access spiritual realms. (West, Mona, “Acts of the Apostles” in Queer Bible Commentary, SCM Press, London, 2006:pg 573)

The eunuch in our story today was a pretty important fellow. He was a court official of the queen of the Ethiopians, Ethiopia being the place that was thought at the time to have the most beautiful people in the world (Anna Carter Florence, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/florence_4802.htm). He was the queen’s court official and not only that but this person’s job was to care for her entire treasury. He dealt with wealth and privilege day in and day out.

And yet, yet…he might be close to the top of society but not quite. An important character he is, perfect for service, service with clearly defined rules and boundaries that the individual has no control over setting. Important, rich maybe, a servant but out of the realm of receiving service, out of the realm of receiving grace or mercy or understanding or friendship or love, all because of his sexuality or the removal of it, and his expression of gender.

So here was this one, full of privilege on one hand and completely stripped of his humanity, of his heart and soul on the other, who was coming from worship in Jerusalem, from a long religious pilgrimage. It is curious, isn’t it. Because of the Deuteronomic clause, he wasn’t allowed to worship. Was he disobeying the rules? What was it that convinced him that he should try anyway, that he could access God even though the world had told him “no” over and over and over again?

This individual might have been what was known in the book of Acts as a “God-fearer,” someone who believes in the ethical principles of the Torah and who reveres the God of the Jews, but does not follow the law in its entirety, nor submit to circumcision” (West, pg. 572). But here he was, one who journeyed far, very far geographically, he was on a long pilgrimage to go and worship, which is a “mark of his profound religious devotion, since the farther one journeys the more devotion one exhibits” (Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles” in The New Interpreter’s Bible”: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume X, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: pg. 143).

Here was someone that because of his very nature, because of something about his body, he could not help or do anything about the fact that he was outcast, was only marginally welcome, and yet perhaps a God-fearer, perhaps one who still found himself in the Scriptures of his ancestors, the traditions of his people, the rituals of his understanding.

And so this individual follower we have, powerful, rich, connected, a “perfect” servant, maybe even especially connected to God, he had it all, and yet a eunuch he still was, no doubt the source of whispers and pointed fingers and nasty words on the playground. He was one that no one was allowed to touch or have a meal with or share a home with or…you get the picture.

This treatment would break a mother’s heart.

We have someone different, with a ton of privilege and yet at least officially void of companionship, friendship, and understanding. We know little about the beauty of the soul of this person for the rules that is stacked up from the generations that keep us and everyone else from knowing him, really knowing him.

So even though very few people actually know this man, because they would not talk to him or seek his companionship but only his service, the gospel-writer gives us a glimpse into his devotion and his curious heart and his active mind. We meet him this morning in his glorious chariot, coming home from worship, from where he is officially not permitted and he is reading Isaiah. Listen to Isaiah:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.

Does he find himself here? This is what I want to know in this passage. Does he feel like a sheep led to the slaughter? Does he feel like a lamb silenced before his death? How can he not see himself here, as Philip, the evangelist on assignment by an angel climbs up in the chariot and sits next to the this person who only serves and is never served. He sits next to him and maybe puts his hand on his knee and talks to the man about the scriptures, maybe he told him that yes, he could find himself in the Scriptures, yes, the promise was for him too.

You see Isaiah continues

In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.

He had to have known that this was written for him and for me and for you, for times when justice is denied, when the systems and structures and traditions built up for so many years fail us, for when we feel like our lives have been taken away.

I also read this in context of the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church, our denomination, to continue maintaining what is known as the homophobic and heterosexist “fidelity and chastity clause” of our constitution. Last June it was recommended by the highest body of the church to the presbyteries, or lower governing bodies to remove this clause which most effectively and directly negatively effects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and it was up to the presbyteries to ratify this decision by 50%. I have been through five previous attempts to change our constitution and this year we have come closer than we ever have in the past to reaching the 50% goal, but not close enough. And so the clause stays and we continue to lose tremendously gifted GLBT individuals called to ministry, because of it. This week alone I have counseled three gay and lesbian people who just can’t wait any longer to serve and are moving their membership to the United Church of Christ. Through these kinds of actions we continue to give the message to our children who feel like they are different in any way that God doesn’t approve of difference, that God approves of schoolyard taunts.

This breaks my heart. It breaks my heart for those of us who are GLBT and suffer in the church in so many ways—and yet stay because this is our home and this is where our God has called us. It breaks my heart, yet on this Mother’s Day when we think of the children who are raised knowing, even in welcoming congregations like this one, that to be queer, to be different, is not acceptable to so many others who claim the name of Christian. The actions of homophobia and heterosexism in the church are nothing more than an abomination, a scandal to the gospel. And that is why we work together to witness to people like the Ethiopian eunuch, and all of the parts of him that are in us.

I am not concerned about our church and all churches changing. I am not concerned because I have seen churches changing over the years, slow, steady change. Change is on the way and change is here. And we have come so much further this year than in years past. However, my concern is for those who are in the midst of the pain the church causes right now and right here. It must stop and we must stand up to stop it, we must like Philip get up in the chariot and open the Scriptures and realize that we are all there, that salvation is for every single one of us, that freedom is free and available and it is not up to us to monitor it.

Philip sat with this person, not a eunuch or a man or a high-falutant servant or an outcast but a person and began to speak, telling him the story of the scriptures, telling him the story about Jesus, telling him that in Christ there is no east or west, no slave nor free, in Christ we are all valued, we are all given a common playing field where we can shine in the particular gifts that God has given us.

It is a pretty amazing thing, that promise. All the walls we erect, all the names we are called that sometimes kill, they aren’t permitted in the kingdom of God. They are the ones outcast, not the people they are targeted against. And this person in his chariot, and Philip they are riding along and they came to some water and he was so excited about this gift, this promise, this belief in his very own goodness enough that he needed to stop, acknowledge it, ritualize it, participate in the cleansing act of water and get baptized.

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And so he commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And here we have it, one who had been on a long and hard pilgrimage, who was tired and worn out, who had been told “no” over and over again in his life and he frees the shackles from his heart and asks: what is to prevent me?

What is to prevent us? What is to prevent us from believing and acting upon that belief that there is enough room in the kingdom of God for the eunuch and for Philip and for you and for me, for religious conservatives and hippies, for politicians and tax-collectors, for artists and for musicians, for GLBT folk and for straight folk, for those we can’t stand and for our best friends. Indeed, here on this Mother’s Day of all days, can we not acknowledge and celebrate all children?

What is to prevent us?