Sunday, July 19, 2015

Did I Stutter?

Image result for jesus meme "did I stutter"

A few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner publically announced that despite our previous understanding of her, she is in fact, a woman.  She altered her physical appearance and her manner of dress so that her outside could more closely match who she is…so that when she looks in the mirror, she recognizes herself.  She made this bold transition in a very public way, and given the trajectory of her life to that point, I’m not certain she could have done it privately. 

And, Lord have mercy, has she paid for it.  She’s been bashed by media, subjected to overt sexism (as though her identity as a woman gave everyone the right to comment over her physical appearance, to make her a sex symbol or a comedy act), verbally abused by people who have never once shared conversation with her.  Memes have circulated which call her out of her name, dehumanize her, make fun of her family, insist upon referring to her as a man...if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you might Google search “Caitlyn Jenner memes”, but I promise you, the gall will likely rise into your throat and leave you nauseous and angry. 

You know, this kind of abuse and subjugation is so very very common in the lives of Transgender people, and indeed in the lives of Two-Spirit, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (and sometimes even in the lives of our allies).  If our existence might “make someone uncomfortable” we are advised to be quiet about our very selves.  Woe to the LGBT person who refuses to remain silent.  He or she or they risk alienation from family, ridicule from society, rejection from the church. 

Last week a transphobic, hate-filled meme (an internet picture with words super imposed) began to circulate.  It showed a U.S. Army soldier who has lost both of his legs in combat side by side with Caitlyn and the words were nothing short of disgusting and hateful, but in nutshell, the meme suggested that the soldier was blown apart in the Middle East to give Caitlyn the freedom to become a woman.  The last sentence of the meme said, “Guess which man made the cover of Vanity Fair, was praised for his courage by President Obama and is to be honored with the ‘Arthur Ashe Courage Award’ by ESPN?”  (Now, listen, this is important:  I believe there are many kinds of courage.  Caitlyn Jenner’s courage does not make the soldier’s courage insignificant.  Nor does the soldier’s courage nullify Caitlyn’s.  There is more than one way to be courageous in this life.) The super dangerous part about this meme is that the writer was not some no-name coward, he’s a well-known Hollywood type which makes his venom all the more damaging simply because of the privilege of his verbal reach.  In other words, people listen to this guy because he’s managed to “make it” in popular culture.

The treatment Caitlyn Jenner has received at the mouths of society isn’t remarkable. What is remarkable is her willingness to allow her life to be made public so that others may learn from it.  During her acceptance speech for the ESPY award for courage, she said, “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead.  Because the reality is…I can take it.  But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”

Courageously, she’s allowed herself to be used as a lightning rod for the wrath of a society…and for a church…which, remarkably, two thousand years later, still hasn’t learned that there’s a place at the table for everyone.  That God finds value and indeed great delight in the outsider….that for God, all distinctions between good and bad lie not in identity or sexual orientation or skin color but rather lie in behavior. 

In the lesson for today from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes to a church largely composed of Gentiles, and it seems that perhaps, they’ve forgotten just where they’ve come from.  Initially the church was composed of two separate groups, Gentiles and Jews.  One group was considered outsiders, the other insiders.  These two groups of people were separated not only in terms of their beliefs… their identity as they understood it…but they allowed their understanding of themselves to separate them one from another.  Each group rejected the other.  They would not allow one “of them” to sit at their own tables.

But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is chock-full of the good news that God has brought these two groups of people together.  “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  But here’s the part that we often miss, the breaking down of the dividing wall brings unity, right?  But it does not demand uniformity…it does not require that we all be the same!  Paul goes on, “(Jesus) reconcile(s) both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”  Nowhere in this passage does it suggest that one group is more valued by God, that one group is better, that one group is wrong, that one group has to deny their identity…their very being…for this reconciliation.  No.  Both groups are welcomed into the expansive Body of Christ that each person, marvelously made, may take part in God’s continuing story of renewal and re-creation in the world.

Through the cross, the dividing wall that separated both groups is removed.  And Jesus leaves us with a new commandment, “Love one another.”  And this is where my all time ever favorite meme comes into play.  In it, Jesus says, “OK, so here’s what I want you to do.  Love others just as I have loved you.  Take care of them and don’t judge them.”  And the disciples ask, “But what if they’re gay? Or worship other gods?  Or don’t worship any god?”  Jesus responds, “DID I STUTTER?”

The Creator looks at this creation, at the wide variety and diversity of this beloved creation, and declares us, all of us, “very good”.  In the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, we are reconciled to one another…we are compatible, we are called to live in harmony…not from a place of changing our neighbor so that we feel comfortable…but from a place where we can celebrate the wide imagination and creative action of God in our own lives, in the lives of our neighbors, and in all the world. 

Jesus calls us to “Love one another.”  Which should be easy enough.  After all, through him we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  We are one in Christ!

We are called to love one another.  To love our neighbor.  To celebrate the diversity of creation.  To find value in those whom God has called “very good”…which is all of us.  Even, or especially, Caitlyn Jenner.


as always, thanks to those who helped with the creation of this sermon:  the good folks at Working Preacher, the creator of my most ever all time favorite meme (whomever she, he, or they may be), and the writer of this column at CNN.  You rock.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

On Rejection and Hospitality

Mark 6:1-13
Let’s be really honest.  This is a weird story.  Set against the remainder of the Gospel of Mark, it’s almost a non-story…and the word “immediately” doesn’t appear even once in this passage.  Strange indeed.  It doesn’t have the narrative flow we are used to and it isn’t clear at first pass just what the heck we’re supposed to do with this today.  So, I had to go back and read it a half dozen times…and then ask Terry to read it aloud.  (He does character voices if you ask him real nice.)

And finally, I heard it…it’s TWO stories. 

Here’s the first:  Jesus left the home of the little girl whom he had restored to life and returned to his hometown of Nazareth.  The disciples came along.  On the Sabbath day, he taught in the synagogue.  He was a total hit!  Everyone was impressed.  “Wow!” they said.  “We had no idea he was this good!”  and “How did he get to be so smart, so wise…have so much to say?  So much ability?” 

But then they turned on a dime and started talking bad about him.  “He’s just a carpenter—Mary’s bastard kid.  We’ve known him forever.  Who does he think he is?”

Jesus told them, that now famous saying:  Prophets have little honor in their hometown.  He wasn’t able to do much there.  He healed a few people, but that’s it.  He couldn’t get over their stubbornness…he was amazed at their unbelief.

Now why was this amazing?  Because for his entire life, Jesus has had folks teach him the Scriptures.  And he’s been a fabulous student.  And what has Jesus learned from these folks in his neighborhood?  He’s learned that all throughout the history of their people, God has chosen the least, the outcast, the weird; God has chosen the unlikely to do amazing, important, incredible things! 

Jesus has heard the stories of Sarah the barren woman, of Moses the stutterer, of Joseph the youngest, of Jacob the thief…and these stories have begun to ignite his desire and imagination for the liberation and the freedom of his own people from Roman occupation.  If God has done it before, God can do it again!

But the folks in the old neighborhood don’t seem to get it, and so Jesus left.  He could cure illness, but he couldn’t cure stubborn hearts.

Here’s the second story:  Once he realized there was not a lot he could do for the folks of Nazareth, Jesus called his disciples and told them to go out to teach and heal.  Jesus gave them authority and power to deal with the unclean spirits...or evil opposition or the empire.  And he gave them some pretty clear instructions: 

         “You don’t need any special equipment for this,” he said.  “Keep it simple.  You are the equipment.  No fancy hotels.  Find a modest place and hang out there until you leave a town.  Be content in the simplicity.

         “Now, if you aren’t welcomed, if no one will listen, just go.  Don’t make a big scene.  Shrug it off and walk away.”
         Then they were off!  They began to preach and to proclaim that God wants something different for humanity.  They send evil away, they anoint the sick and heal their spirits.

So, you see, the disciples’ ministry begins to mirror the ministry of Jesus.  They aren’t called to do something new, but they are called to continue the ministry he’s already started. 

         What does this mean for the church today?  What does discipleship and ministry look like in Marysville?  How do we continue the ministry of Jesus?  How do we anoint the sick, help the blind to see, heal spirits, and oppose empire?

         Maybe it looks a lot like hospitality.  Maybe it means we fling wide our doors and invite folks into our church, into our company, into our lives.  Maybe we offer space in our world for “the other”.

Or does it?  Remember the first story in the gospel lesson?  Jesus’s life and words are cause for offense and ridicule by the very people with whom he has grown up.  Jesus does not receive hospitality, but he sends the disciples out to be dependent on it.  He also prepares them for rejection.
         You see, Jesus never imagined that his followers would have a place of privilege.  And here we are, over two thousand years later, in this country at least, in positions of privilege and power.  Jesus never imagined that his followers would have widespread cultural acceptance, and yet, in this time and in this place, Christians, especially white ones, are the cultural norm…or that’s what we’ve come to believe and to proclaim and to claim for ourselves.  The people who have come before us beginning with the drafters of the Declaration of Independence lived in privilege, called it God-given right at the expense of others and passed that legacy of power, of privilege, of empire right on down to us…and we have been grateful to receive it.

         But as we re-read the Gospel with scale-free eyes (oh, we hope), we see we’ve gotten it terribly wrong!  We are the guests.  And we’ve been behaving as though it is our place to welcome the “other”.  We have welcomed folks into our churches.  We have made a space for folks in our company.  We have invited folks into our lives…welcomed them to our tables. 

         And in doing that, we’ve perpetuated our position of power.
         Welcoming others is easy.  We remain in control of cultural norms, liturgical musts, even the menu.

Maybe instead, we need to take on the vulnerability that’s implied in being a guest.  And we need to accept invitations into other homes, other neighborhoods, other places of worship.  We need to become intimately acquainted with vulnerability.  With asking rather than assuming.  With receiving rather than taking.
Maybe that way, we can more authentically be disciples of Jesus.  It won’t strip us of our privilege, but maybe it will help us to see the world a little differently.  Maybe we will be able to see all of the places that we benefit because of legacy.  Maybe it will give us the courage to speak truth to power in those places.  Maybe it will give us strength to use our privilege for the benefit of those without it.

But, my friends, I don’t know yet how we do that exactly.  And so I am asking for your help today.  Go home and pray and meditate on what resuming the role of guest might look like here at St. Philip’s, in Marysville, in your neighborhoods, in your work places.

Whatever being a guest looks like, I can assure you that others who sit in places of power and privilege will most assuredly not like it when you shake up the status quo.  When you question how certain sets of people are set up in this country to succeed without even thinking about it…just by virtue of their birth.  It makes folks uncomfortable.  It will probably cause some of them to withhold their hospitality.  And guess what?  I bet that means you’re doing it right.

         Hear the good news:  Jesus expected us to be rejected.  And he gave us some clear instructions on how to deal with that:  Shake the dust off your feet and keep going.  Shrug your shoulders and walk away.  But don’t allow yourself to be silenced. And remember, Jesus will be with us…always.


*thanks to Working Preacher, Lectionary Lab, Eugene Peterson, and Terry Kyllo for all the assistance