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.