Monday, November 9, 2009

[visioning] words within the Word

[Background: this is a vision for my church. It's also a story about me. Writing this was a way of thinking through the kind of church I want to be a part of, and why, for Seers, our church visioning group. This version has been edited slightly a lot for public consumption.]

words within the Word: a vision for Abiding Peace

This is a girl. She's twenty-four years old, lesbian, partnered, white. She is cisgendered, which means she is not transgender or genderqueer but has given a lot of thought to this, and she is temporarily able-bodied but knows she could become disabled at any moment. She is shy. She is smart. She is a Christian and that means she believes in the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ and she has grown up in the church and devoted her life to the church and loves the church more than anything in the world and is trying to translate all those "churches" to "Christ." She is growing up in Christ, she has devoted her life to Christ, she loves Christ more than anything in the world.

The Church is the Body of Christ, broken and bruised and crucified and called to Resurrected life. The church is made of disciples, called to follow the narrow way that Jesus set before us, to sell all we have and give the proceeds to the poor, to abandon everything, to risk all we own, to love the Lord our God with heart and soul and mind and strength, everything we have, everything we are. The church is made of apostles, called to share the Good News with the whole world. Kingdom come! (right now, right here!) The world is turning upside down and you are invited.

This is a girl. She's very shy. She's always shy, it's not your fault. She's so shy that she will sometimes sit with people she loves, people she trusts implicitly, and be unable to speak. She's very shy. She's so shy that social settings make her unbearably anxious, so shy that she had to call her best friend for a pep talk before the first Seers meeting, so shy that she sometimes has to write down prayer requests before she voices them aloud. This girl lives on the furthest I end of the Introvert-Extravert scale.

This is a girl who can't say this without writing it down.

My beloved friends in Christ,

I can't think about the future without thinking about the past -- my past, our past -- and the present -- our present -- and my future -- and ours.

I speak for myself, as I dream about our future.

In the beginning, God created the world,

I was born twenty-four years ago, in Massachusetts.

and it was good.

My parents were American Baptists, so I wasn't baptized as an infant.

In the beginning, God brooded over the face of the deep, separated the waters into sea and sky, birthed the world into being.

But I was raised in the church.

Since the beginning of history, people have brought praise to their Creator.

I spent my childhood in the church. I started Sunday school when I was three. I started taking Communion when I was four. I proposed marriage to my best friend Erik in the hallway of our church when I was six.

And history is the record of all that has happened, the stories that form the one Story that tells people who they are and who they are called to be.

Before I started school, I told time by the church year, Advent calendars and Easter bonnets.

It's the story of birth and death and rebirth, Light and darkness,

I was a child at First Baptist Church of A Typical New England Town when I first felt the urge to sob while singing "Were You There?"

the story of a God who loves the world and its inhabitants so much She breathes new life into them at the moment of death

I didn't identify as a Christian until I was in my late teens

the story of a God who loves the world so much He became incarnate in the body of a backwoods Jew for us,

but I was a Baptist and a Protestant and a church-goer since I was born.

the story of a God who loves the world so much She summons out prophets and saints and apostles and poets and visionaries and workers and martyrs and agitators and organizers and activists and disciples of every kind and temperament in every age, to be the church, the continuing Incarnation of God in His world.

It was at FBC that I learned what it was to be part of a church.

We are the Bride of Christ, the People of God, the branches to Jesus' Vine and the Body of which Christ is Head. We are the church on earth, a foretaste and forerunner and forbearer of the Kingdom of God.

When I was about six, the chair of the Board of Deacons at FBC was convicted of raping and murdering little girls.

Sometimes, the church is broken beyond fixing.

The autumn I turned eight, my family moved to New Jersey and we became part of a dually-aligned American Baptist/United Church of Christ congregation, Old First Church.

We are human and therefore broken, but we are Christians, redeemed from brokenness and called into discipleship, living in emulation of the One we call Lord.

Old First became my family.

The Church Universal is shattered and splintered, broken and in need of mending.

There my dormant talent for public speaking awakened, there I served on the worship committee, my parents served as deacons, we all served as lay readers and ushers and acolytes and occasionally guest preachers.

And yet, the Church remains the body of Christ, and each small-c church holds the potential to be a living witness to Christ's continual presence in the world.

When I was twelve, my Sunday school teacher was a smart, sarcastic, wise and wonderful lesbian Christian.

I bring my whole history, my whole life, my whole being, a full and terrifying range of emotion, into the presence of God when I go to church,

Her name was Jeane.

and I never leave church, because I am always in spiritual communion with you and always shall be.

She died when I was fourteen.

We bring our brightest joys and deepest sufferings to church, and share them in common, because we are one body, one family.

Four days before she died, Jeane was accepted into the M.Div program at Andover Newton Theological School.

All believers are called to a life of ministry, to proclaim the Good News in word and deed, in their churches and in the world.

I preached my first sermon two months after Jeane died.

But God Calls out people with extraordinary gifts to be ministers in unique ways, and for the care of local churches God Calls pastors, to lead and teach and heal and love their flocks in Her name.

Everything that is important about me, I learned at church. That I am a lesbian, and how to be an out, devout lesbian with a Call. That I am a free-thinking, seeking, searching, rational Theist in the best traditions of New England Unitarianism, and that I am invited into the ever-flowing creative dance of Trinity. That I am a Christian, born and raised, and that I am a Christian, born again, a person who has chosen that identity, heard God's call, and said yes. How to grieve, and how to be in relationship. How to be part of a family, and how to say goodbye. That people, self included, are broken and flawed and sinful, and that we are beloved children of one Father.

The Church in every time and place is called to sing new songs, to put new words to an ancient faith.

I went through confirmation class when I was fourteen and considered baptism. I wanted to use a baptismal rite from Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations.

We worship as we always have, bringing a joyful sacrifice of music and praise to a Living God who hears all pleas before we give them voice.

My pastor told me the rite would be more appropriate in a UU church.

We talk about God the only way we can, bound by the limitations of our language and logic, using the gestures and symbols of worship, our standing bodies, our kneeling bodies, our sitting bodies, our hands outstretched, our voices joined, the candle, the Cross, the font, the Table, to reach beyond words for the Infinite.

That's not the only reason I wasn't baptized that spring. But it's one of them.

The church embraces our whole lives, offers ritual and comfort and a truly Good Word for every moment. When we dedicate infants, baptize those who come to the font to say YES to God, bless new relationships and dissolve broken ones, offer healing to the broken and broken-hearted, mourn deaths, invent or adapt rituals to celebrate and mourn and mark new passages, we acknowledge the truth that God is present with us from before birth to after death.

In the church that I love we will all speak our own God language. We will mark passages in people's lives together, but with the language and ritual that is most appropriate for them. Some parents will dedicate their children to God and as a congregation we will pledge our support and welcome tiny new members into our family. Some children and teenagers will come to know God and express a desire to pledge their lives to Her. They will ask to be baptized, and we will baptize them with water in the name of the Triune God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. Some adults who come to our church unbaptized will come to know God and express a desire to pledge their lives to Him. They will ask to be baptized, and we will baptize them in the name of the Triune God who was revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not believe in infant baptism.

The church is the place where our lives, our joys, sorrows, triumphs, failures and sins are transformed.

Three months after Jeane died, I came out as a lesbian

The church is commissioned to turn society upside down.

to my entire eighth grade class.

In imitation of Jesus, the church welcomes the outcast and declares a preference for the poor.

I would not recommend this to a friend.

The church is called to welcome all people in their glorious difference, to be a house of prayer for all peoples.

High school was misery. "If you don't shave your legs, no girl will ever like you, Ruth Ellen -- unless you want to be the boy?"

In the church I love, gender conformity is not in the non-existent dress code. People come to church in pajamas and prom dresses, in six inch stilettos and bare feet. Men wear jeans and t-shirts and women wear suits and ties; femmes wear our Sunday best and butches wear leather jackets.

Stage whispered to the poor sophomore boy who had a crush on me, "The girl you like is a DYKE."

The church I love is proud to be Reconciling in Christ. We wear rainbows on our signboards and website, in our pastor's stole and in our adcopy and sometimes, draped over our Cross.

Church was the place I felt safest.

The church I love is uncompromising in its welcome of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

I wasn't out to my whole church family, but I knew that if I came out, it would be okay.

The church I love is a place where coming out is celebrated, where no one hides, and no one lies. The church I love is a place where no secret is too terrible, no prayer too simple, no depth too private, to be shared. The church I love is one family, knit together in Christ.

My best friend in high school came from a Hindu family.

The church I love is a place where people of all faiths are invited, but the message proclaimed in word and song and deed is unapologetically Christian.

Everyone assumed we were dating.

The church I love is a place where I want to bring all my friends, because it brings me such joy that it overflows and begs to be shared.

My best friend from high school is the best ally I've ever had.

The church I love teaches all her members to be allies, to recognize our privileges, to learn about histories of injustice and to insert ourselves into those histories as peacemakers and prophets.

She went through hell with me, and she never once complained.

In the church I love, no one ever needs to face hell alone. When members of our body face loneliness or hunger, homelessness or abuse, freezing weather or brutal families, they are embraced with our love, our prayers, and our actions. We welcome each other into our homes, share what we have with each other, food and shelter and money and joy.

I left New Jersey for Virginia when I was fifteen. I knew I would never have another church like Old First, the church I grew up in, the church where I learned to love and grieve.

The church I love is the kind of church that people fall in love with.

In Virginia, I went to school at Mary Baldwin College and church at St. John's United Church of Christ. I was terrified of the homophobia I might find at non-UCC churches in the South.

The church I love is not a place that people attend out of terror or desperation. It's not a church that is merely the best of a lot of bad options. The church I love actively invites people to share in our life together because we want to share our joy and love with the whole world.

St. John's only celebrated communion twelve times a year, at random intervals.

The church I love shares the Eucharistic feast together as often as we can, following Jesus' instruction to do this in remembrance of him.

There was no fellowship hour at St. John's.

At the church I love, fellowship hour is an extension of worship. We use one space for business, for worship, for fellowship, to emphasize the continuity of our life together. We welcome newcomers and introduce ourselves to them. We share stories from our weeks, make plans for upcoming church business, talk about what we've learned in Sunday school and the prayer requests we've shared, critique the sermon and eat brownies, drink coffee and live, joyfully, in communion.

At St. John's, the most important holiday of the year was the Fall Supper, epic fundraiser and source of semi-friendly competition with the other local churches over who could make the best pies.

In the church I love, the most important holiday is Easter, which we celebrate every Sunday, every sunrise, with the sure knowledge that in Christ's Resurrection, God defeated sin, evil, and death forever.

For one semester, I attended the high school Sunday school class at St. John's.

In the church that I love, religious education won't be segregated by age or grade-level or baptismal status. As much as possible, we will learn together -- children and teenagers learning with adults when they are old enough to want to -- about the stories we share, the history we have, the issues that confront us. All our learning will be focused on the question of how we live our faith today.

One of the many Sunday school curricula in Jeane's classroom had a fun roleplay scenario starting, "You are protesting outside an abortion clinic."

In the church that I love, we won't use that curriculum, or any prescribed lesson plan that contradicts our belief that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to Godself and that, as the Body of Christ, we are called to be instruments of that reconciliation.

I didn't serve as a lay reader until I'd been at St. John's for over a year.

In the church that I love, people's gifts will be searched out and talents shared. People will read and sing and paint and dance and cook and count money according to the talents given them, and we will encourage each other to stand on tip-toe to reach new places, achieve new skills, find new ways to serve the God of our ancestors.

While I was attending St. John's, I went to an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at a Lutheran church. When I got back to my dorm I crossed "Lutheran" off my list of "denominations I might join someday" because I was given wine at communion.

In the church that I love, wine and grape juice will be offered side-by-side, recognized by all to be equally valid elements. In the church that I love, I will never be pressured to drink alcohol.

I loved the pastors at St. John's, but they were a poor fit for the congregation.

In the church that I love, many dreams will blend together to create a vision-collage. Recognizing that our dreams and ideals are different, we will joyfully make sacrifices and compromises for each other, knowing that at other times, sacrifices will be made to accommodate us. Sometimes we will worship using traditional language and music, sometimes with contemporary language and music, sometimes in languages other than English. Sometimes we will worship under fluorescent lights so that all can see, and sometimes we will worship in the dimness of candlelight. Sometimes we will disagree.

Those pastors left St. John's after my sophomore year of college.

The church that I love will have a coherent vision of itself that is not dependent on the person who serves us as pastor. Loved by our pastor, yes, we will love each other with the love we are called to by our Lord.

I stopped attending St. John's a year later for reasons I won't share publicly.

In the church that I love, no one person will have the power to drive another away.

No one ever contacted me to ask why I didn't come back.

In the church that I love, every member will be loved and valued and sought after and wooed back, as God searches for a lost coin, a lost sheep, a prodigal son.

I think most people didn't even realize I was there, let alone a member of the church.

In the church that I love, everyone will be noticed and valued.

When I graduated from college, I came back home to live with my father and sister in Massachusetts. I attended First Congregational Church of Another New England Town with them. I liked that church a lot, but I didn't love it.

The church I love will be full of passionate people.

The pastor of the church I love will preach inspired sermons that speak to the heart and core of the needs of the congregation and its members.

The church that I love will have a passionate mission statement, because we will be passionate about our mission -- to share the Good News with all the world in word and deed.

The pastor at First Cong once asked me how to let GLBT people know they (we) were welcome without becoming Open and Affirming, or using words like "sexual orientation" on the website or church literature.

We will let people know they are welcome by saying, "You are welcome!" with clear, crisp words and warm, welcoming handshakes and hugs.

Children left the service for Sunday school.

Children will be invited to participate in the service as soon as they are ready, in fulfillment of our promise to nurture them in the life of faith. Children and adults will be welcomed because they are children of God, and valued for the talents they have, active and dormant, for the gifts that they bring, for the fact of their presence.

First Congregational Church UCC of Typical New England Town drew congregants from, mostly, Typical New England Town

Abiding Peace Lutheran Church draws people from all around the metro area, because it offers something unique and valuable that cannot be found elsewhere.

When I was twenty I went to seminary. When I entered I was a shy, depressed girl who knew a lot about theology. When I left, sans degree, I was a shy, depressed girl who knew a little more about theology and had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

The church that I love will change people's lives.

When I was at Andover Netwon Theological School, I was a member of BGLANTS, the alphabet soup queer student community.

The church that I love will never be partitioned. It will never have a women's fellowship, a men's bible study, a children's choir, a gals' night out, a ladies' sewing circle, a youth group. While acknowledging that minorities and oppressed groups sometimes need safe, private spaces to regroup and be together, the ideal of the church will always be unity in Christ, where people of all ages learn from each other's experience and wisdom, where people of all ethnicities learn from each other's cultures and traditions, where people of all abilities and disabilities help each other and share their gifts.

We talked a lot at BGLANTS about how, as an Open and Affirming and Welcoming and Affirming institution, ANTS had the obligation to proclaim that welcome always, regardless of whether it was politically expedient, and to address homophobia and transphobia swiftly whenever they were encountered.

We will all learn to be allies. We will learn to recognize and acknowledge our privilege and to set aside our culturally accorded superiority and listen to each other's stories. We will learn to work for justice for all, beginning in our community, reaching for the Kingdom. We will enter the church with prejudices and -isms, and we will acknowledge them as sinful and work to repent of the injustices with which we are complicit.

There was Wednesday chapel at ANTS, different every week, divvied up among fellowship groups. I saw the many, many ways that people worship.

Some people will bring sermon callbacks from their traditions, and they will be valued. Some people will mouth off to the pastor, and they will be sternly punished. Some people will dance, and some people will sway, some people will weep, and some people will wave their arms in joy. Some people will genuflect, and bless themselves at the font, and some people will remain seated during the Gospel. Some people won't cross themselves, and some people will whisper "debts" and "debtors" or "trespasses" during the Lord's Prayer. And we will delight, knowing that God delights, in the different ways in which we bring Her praise and celebrate His presence among us.

After I dropped out of seminary, I moved to Kansas to live with my long-term girlfriend. Four months later, we visited Kansas City, she as a prospective student at a venerable Kansas City school, me as a prospective inhabitant of the city.

The church I love will be in Kansas City. We will move here from many cities and towns, both coasts of this continent, many countries. We will move away again, and still remain joined in Christ. But we will be in Kansas City, responding to the needs of this community, the cries we hear around us, the communities in this city that we can serve. We will seek ecumenical and interfaith partners in this city, join hands with non-religious political allies in this community, focus our life together in the tangible space we share.

The night before I attended Abiding Peace for the first time, I went to a terribly fancy restaurant with my !in-laws. My !mother-in-law told me, "Just wear what you're planning to wear to church tomorrow." I was way underdressed at the Peppercorn Duck in a denim skirt, but I knew I wouldn't be underdressed at my church.

The church that I love will be a place where people can always dress in the way that makes them most comfortable. No one will ever be underdressed, not on Christmas Eve, not on Easter. Some of us will wear fancy new dresses and hats, suit and tie, knee-length skirt, and some of us will wear torn jeans, and some of us will wear princess hats and Batman capes and some of us will cross-dress and some of us will be in drag and some of us will be in our pajamas and some of us will be on the way to a softball game and we will all bring worship to our God.

I'd searched online for GLBT-friendly churches in Kansas City and found two to check out first, Abiding Peace and Broadway Church. Based on our website. I made notes that Abiding Peace was in "KC, MO. Lutheran. Def. queer friendly, active. ♥." The bonus heart was because our website said, "Music is one of the ways we worship and our pianist allows our voices to shine, even if not all of us are musical... well most of us are tone deaf, but still we have a blast."

In the church I love, we will all raise our voices in song, especially those of us who are tone deaf.

We drove past Abiding Peace on Saturday, just to make sure we could find it the next morning. My !in-laws weren't convinced that it was a church, even when I pointed to the sign.

The church that I love might not look like church. We will never conflate the church building with the Church. We may move out of our storefront. We may worship in a beautiful New England style meetinghouse, have a sanctuary with gorgeous stained glass windows, meet in a warehouse or an apartment or a gigantic old mansion, but we will be the church. We will shape our worship space to the needs of the community, the practical needs of disabled and ill members, the emotional needs of people who've been hurt by churches that looked and sounded like church but didn't act like it, the theological need for the ministers and the people to worship together.

I arrived at worship that first morning about two minutes late. Pastor Donna welcomed me from the altar, then laughed, then apologized for singling me out, then led a service that was way more liturgical than I was used to. I fumbled through the bulletin, confused and awkward, and when I left church that morning I was madly, madly in love.

We go to church to touch the face of God.

I joined Abiding Peace just under a year ago. She will always be my family and my home.

Being committed to the church means being committed to its whole life: financial, spiritual, interpersonal. Discipleship is about stretching, reaching right into paradoxes and touching the truth: the Kingdom of God is coming. The Kingdom of God is already here. We are the builders, the gardeners, the day-laborers, and we can't be content, even when we're happy. We are at once filled with the joy of the Resurrection and the pain of the Crucifixion. We are heirs to great treasure, and we are citizens of a suffering world. We live in communion with each other and with God, and in that communion we feel the joys and sorrows and birthing pangs of the whole world. We have Good News that we must share. And to do that we need more bodies and more money and a bigger building..

These are my dreams for the church. Maybe the rest is just a lengthy, necessary prologue, because these would not be my dreams if I weren't me, if First Baptist and Old First and St. John's and First Cong hadn't been in my life before Abiding Peace.

Old men will see visions and young women dream dreams.

Like every one of us, I am a unique person with special, individual needs.

Church is not the place where we pretend to be well.

To be safe and accessible for me, church needs to be a place where I can lie on the floor and cuddle a puppy dog, after the service usually, but during service if I need to. Church needs to be a place where I can leave abruptly without having to make a desperate effort to catch someone's eye to say goodbye. Church needs to have a place that is private where I can go and curl up if I want to be away from people for a little while. Church needs to be a place where I can be exuberant one week and crash-landed the next. This church is a safe place for me primarily because it proclaims, from floor to rafter, that all are welcome, all are welcome, ALL are welcome here, exactly as we are.

The church I love will be accessible to people with all sorts of mental and physical and emotional illnesses and atypicality. We will have money set aside and an ASL interpreter on standby. When we choose a new worship space, wheelchair accessibility will be a priority. We will continue to be church for people whose illnesses leave them housebound, wrapping them in our prayers and bringing the Sacrament to them -- the pastor, and the rest of us too, because we are church together. The church that I love will bend and fold to welcome and envelop new members with new needs, will stretch and search to accommodate the new needs of our new members.

Right now, I spend most of my time at church. When I was working, I would come to church after work two or three times a week. I would pray, and meditate, but mostly, I come here to feel safe.

The church that I love will be accessible to all people at all times. We will leave a chapel unlocked and open for prayer at all hours -- a Bible, votive candles, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a miniature altar -- a place where anyone in the city can come to seek and find God, to touch God's face.

I was too painfully shy to ask for a ride to the airport last Christmas -- but I got one anyway.

The church that I love will make a spiritual practice of helping one another out of our abundance. Asking for help -- for rides, for furniture, for tutoring, for computer help -- and offering goods and services -- massage, knitting lessons, an ugly but serviceable couch, a baby stroller -- "If you or anyone you know could help with that...." "If that would be useful to you or anyone you know...." will be something we do together regularly in church, like sharing joys and concerns, like sharing announcements, so that we can make real the legacy of the early church to share everything in common, to give to each other according to the needs of each.

I hold morning prayer every morning at church for a congregation that consists, if I'm lucky, of a cricket. I do it for myself, to begin my day with God, in this room that contains the memories of all the songs and hugs and Good News we have shared.

In the church that I love, we will pray together at Matins and Noon and Eventide as we are able, marking with the Hours the continual presence of God in our lives and the constancy of our communion with one another.

To get morning prayer started, I said, "Hey, Pastor Donna, can I do morning prayer?" and wrote a service.

The church that I love is already full of beautiful, creative, visionary people. The Spirit will continue to burst forth with new ideas, and people will lead ministries that they are passionate about, and other people will join those ministries, participate in those ministries. We may have a hiking group, or a knitting group. We may have a chorus, or a bell choir. A group that prepares a hot lunch for the homeless once a week, a group that creates artwork together, a group that studies AIDS and advocates for the HIV+/AIDS community in Kansas City. Fellowship groups, yes, but more. Shared ministries -- to see together the handiwork of God in nature, to create prayer shawls, to praise God with song, with service, with art, with advocacy. The church that I love will be in constant prayer of every kind.

Once, when I was an almost-teen, I biked eight miles to church because my parents were going elsewhere and wouldn't drive me. If it were up to me, I'd be at church all the time.

The church that I love would always be open. The church that I love would always be together. We'd have our meals in common, have our prayers in common, have our living space in common if it were possible. The church that I dream about is a convent/commune/cult, with one gigantic house that we share, with one central room for Sunday worship and for meals and for meetings, with smaller rooms for smaller services and meetings, bedrooms upstairs, one for everyone, because we're all introverts, here, rooms where we could put visitors up for a night -- a homeless shelter and food pantry next door -- we'd share all our meals in common with the men (and women) from the shelter -- floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a piano. And everything in common. Community garden, growing our own food? Most of us would work, because this would hella not be cheap, because of Wesley's admonition to earn as much as you can and give as much as you can -- and we'd give it to the poor, and share it with each other. And pay our pastor, because in the church that I love, Donna will be a full-time pastor, and we will all be members of the priesthood of God. And we would pray without ceasing.

...if it were up to me, I'd be at church all the time.

At the least, there would be soup suppers in Lent and evening prayer in Advent. Or an evening together every week, for food and fellowship and study. At the very least.

I am a little underwhelmed by our National Coming Out Day service.

The church that I love will observe National Coming Out Day, and Black History Month in February and Women's History Month in March and GLBTQQIA Pride in June. We'll celebrate, and pray, and name in our celebration and our prayers, our liturgies and sermons and songs, the specific welcomes that we embody.

The first time I knew that I had met a gay man was at a World AIDS Day service way back in my preteens.

The church that I love will mark days of communal mourning. We will mark World AIDS Day, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Yom HaShoa and the bitterness of Columbus Day. We may mark some of these in our church, and others in the broader community. Some will be mentioned only in Joys and Concerns, and others may be the cause of week-long vigils. But we will make it a spiritual practice, as a congregation, to stand in solidarity with and to mourn with communities that are oppressed.

Once upon a time, I was a sixteen year old girl in love with a church I had to leave. I thought I would never love a church like that again, that I couldn't, that no church would be family the way the church I grew up in was family.

I was wrong.

The church that I love will defy the world's expectations of what a gay church looks like, what a Lutheran church looks like, what a small church can accomplish. The church that I love will defy her members' expectations of ourselves, lifting and prodding and nudging and pushing us in the direction we're meant to go, into deeper discipleship and communion. And the church that I love will defy herself, our visions of what she must be, our dearest hopes and most closely held assumptions. Because the Church that I love is the Body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is always breathing new life into her.


Edit: Sources: "words within the Word," "proclaims from floor to rafter," and "All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place" are from our favorite Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymn, "All Are Welcome". "We come to church to touch the face of God" and "This is not the place we pretend to be well," are Pastor Donna quotations.

[sermon] Bread of Life (no snazzy title)

Preached at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, 2009-08-02

Lectionary texts:
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the thoughts and meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

How do we talk about signs? How do we talk about sacraments? I could get out the whiteboard from the hallway and write, very clearly, "God!" "Jesus!" "Body of Christ!" "Bread of Life!" "Holy Communion!" "Church!" And that would look very pretty, but I wouldn't know what connecting symbols to put between them. An equals sign? Church=Jesus? Well, no. I took logic in college; I could put "logically equivalent," but no, that sounds worse. God is logically equivalent to the bread of life? That's not the kind of concept that describes our living, loving, life-giving God. Another logic class term: maybe, Holy Communion implies the Body of Christ.

I like that better. I like that better because it suggests the inequality between these two parts of the sign. The arrow points in one direction. Holy Communion implies the Body of Christ, but "Body of Christ," doesn't necessarily imply "Holy Communion." It is true to say that Jesus is a sacrament of God, that Jesus revealed God to us, but it would be incomplete to the point of untruthfulness to say "Jesus is God." Jesus is more than a messenger of God, more than a prophet of God, more than a sign-post saying "God is that way," -- but Jesus is also not all that we know of God. He was and is the fullest and truest revelation we have of God, but we also know God in thousands of other small-s sacraments, other words, other objects, other events, other people, that embody God and point beyond themselves to the fullness of God's self.

A sacrament is not a symbol or a metaphor or an analogy or an allegory -- it is a special kind of sign, one that we understand through our experience of it. I'm going to talk about the Bread of Life, but nothing I say will be as true a description of the Bread of Life as the act of sharing it during our communion service.

So a sacrament is a sign, and the Bread of Life is an especially potent sign for us because it is central to our life as a church. It is a sign that points in multiple directions, past and future, Godwards and us-wards, a sign that reminds us of the many meals we've shared before, the countless times that God has shared bread with God's people, the ultimate sharing that is the Body of Christ -- and it points us towards deeper truths about God's generosity and the life-giving and life-sustaining power of God's love.

The bread we share is the bread of life.

This [frosted animal crackers] is the BREAD OF LIFE. This is actually manna, and I know it doesn't look like "a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground," but when Pastor Donna and I taught our Vacation Bible School kids the story of the Exodus, we told them that this was manna, and Pastor Donna wouldn't lie, so I give you this manna, direct from God to Pastor Donna to me to you, the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

We have to start with the bread. We have to start with the physical, tangible, edible bread that God gives us to eat. We have to start with the physical abundance in the world, enough food for everyone to be satisfied. We have to start with the story we read last week, the feeding of the multitude with five loaves and two fish; we have to start with people wandering in the desert, desperately starving for food.

We have to begin in and return to the desert because we need to eat, every day, to survive as the strong and healthy creatures that God wants us to be. We can't collect manna today and expect to be fed for a lifetime; we'll need to eat again tomorrow, and the next day. We will always be dependent on God for our physical survival and we will always need the nourishment of the Bread of Life to go on living.

We need to return to the desert because that's where we began. We need to return to the desert and experience anew, every day, the bounty of God's larder. The food we eat -- the carbs and fats and proteins that we put into our mouths -- is the Bread. Of. Life.

Jesus knew this. He knew this when he told some of the multitude, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

You know what, Jesus? It's hard to see signs when you're starving! It's hard to say a grace before meals when you desperately want to dig in, and it's hard to experience bread as a symbol of anything but bread when you don't know where your next loaf will come from.

But most of us in this room do know where our next meal is coming from, and we know something else, besides. We know what food the Son of Man will give us; we know where this story is going and what road Jesus is on. We know that, sooner or later, we'll come to the upper room and share a Passover meal with Jesus, and we know, because we've read ahead in the bulletin, that this matzoh? [raise it up before the congregation] became THE BREAD LIFE for Jesus' disciples. We know that we will share bread that is Christ's own body, that God doesn't stop at giving us a meal -- God gives us God's Own Self to eat.

There is no point at which the Bread of Life stops being bread. There is no point at which communion bread stops being physically nourishing, at which matzoh becomes dust in our mouths, at which we are eating a spiritual meal without a physical component.

I am a theologian by training and temperament and this is the point where I desperately want to explain, where I want to say "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation" and "sacramental union" and unpack what Martin Luther meant when he said that Christ is "with, in, and under" the elements of communion.

[deep sigh]

But that would be counterproductive.

Sacraments aren't the kind of thing you explain; they are the kind of thing you experience. What I know about the Bread of Life doesn't come from a year and a half of seminary; it comes from twenty years of sharing that bread in communities like this one with families of faith like you.

In a few minutes, we will all remember together what Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed; we will all say together the words of Institution and remember that Christ told us that this bread is His Body. The Passover feast that Jesus shared that night is forever a sign for us -- a powerful sign, a life-changing sign -- that God gave God's Son to save, sustain, and nourish the world for the remainder of time.

Remembering that meal also reminds us that God gives us more than matzoh and bitter herbs, the stuff of survival but not the stuff of thriving. No, God provides us the milk and honey of abundant life, and that provision, too, comes in the Body of Christ. It comes in the reminder that Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, that Jesus shared a final meal and his very body with deserters and betrayers. Jesus shared fellowship, joy and laughter, jokes and stories, hard work and long, lonnnng walks with dear friends, and as we share His Body, the Bread of Life, we are invited -- no -- welcomed -- no... enticed, seduced, lured into abundant life.

"Eat your fill!" Jesus says. "There is food for all in the Kingdom. But don't be satisfied with fast food and hurried lives, with desperation, with always longing for richer foods or larger houses, for things that you can't have."

God provides the whole world with the bread of life, and all creation lives on this bread. I met a family of mold the other day that is living off bread that my partner and I left too long on the kitchen counter, and the mold seems completely satisfied with its subsistence-level existence on our -- or rather, God's -- bread.

But I think God wants something more for us.

In fact I know that God wants something more for us, because more is given in the feast we are about to share.

As we share Christ's body, we are invited to become a part of It. As we consume Christ's body and blood, we are consumed by the overwhelming love of God +, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We [arms wide] are the BREAD OF LIFE.

As we read in Ephesians, we are the Body of Christ "joined and knit together by every ligament.. building ourselves up in love."

When we bless the elements, we will transform them, and they will be a sacrament for us of Christ's body. And when we share these elements, they will transform us, and we will become a sacrament of Christ's body, called to be the bread of life for the whole world.

We will be reminded that we are part of the communion of saints, living and dead, sure in the knowledge that this is the bread of life, the bread of abundant life, and the bread of eternal life. We will be be joined with God's children in other churches and in other cities and on other continents, and we will be marked with God's own seal, as Jesus was, to be the bread of life for the world.

God has done the difficult part; God has provided a bountiful harvest, food enough and wealth enough to feed the whole world and have twelve baskets -- twelve hundred baskets -- left over. It will be our job to share that food, to distribute it where it's needed most. We'll do this in one way after service, when we share a meal with our homeless friends. We do it in another way when we serve at Shalom House, and when we provide food for Northland Assistance.

But we are not just bread -- we are the bread of abundant life. Once again, God has done the diffi -- the impossible part. Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry." Our call as the church, the body of Christ, the Bread of Life is to make sure that that is true. Our job is to feed the world with our selves, with our bodies, with our lives -- but we have already been transformed by God for this job. We've been prepared and pampered and fed by God, and now? Now we feed our neighbors and welcome our friends and invite the world into the abundance of God's banquet, into the neverending bounty of the bread of life, the body of Christ. Amen

The hymn of the day is #496, "One Bread, One Body"

[lgbt] "sodomy, it's between God and me"

The first lesson at Mass this morning the morning in June when I originally wrote most of this was part of Genesis 19. I would give you a more exact verse citation? But I was less paying attention than twitching in fear. I think we started with v. 24, "Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfer and fire from the LORD out of heaven," and then Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt and we didn't actually hear why it was that God destroyed Sodom, which as you and I and most of the delegates to the ELCA Central States Synod Assembly know was:
  • lack of hospitality

  • sexual violence

  • nothing at all to do with loving committed same-gender relationships

But though you know that and I know that, I didn't know if the priest knew that. His homily was about the Gospel reading. His prayer that began, "Since we read part of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah today, we pray for those suffering from..." ended with "natural disasters: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes..."

Did you tense up in the middle of that sentence? I would have, if I hadn't already been a ball of tension, ready to flee at the slightest hint of condemnation.

The description of Sodom's wickedness isn't in the lectionary. [Romans 1 is Epiphany 9A, should there be 9 weeks in the Epiphany.]

Which is possibly kind of a shame, because it means we don't get to reclaim it. Because "Sodom" is not shorthand for sexual violence against women or a lack of hospitality to strangers and I know that whenever I hear the word, which is why I spent five minutes at Mass this morning cringing.

I go to midday service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal, and our gospel lesson was Luke 9:51-62. Vv 57-62 are difficult, troubling words about the costs of discipleship, but I was more struck by the first part:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

The LORD (Lord) rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire (do you want us to command fire) from the LORD out of heaven (to come down from heaven) and he overthrew those cities (and consume them?)

(But he turned and rebuked them.)


There are a lot of places I could go from here. One text. My (queer Christian woman) experience (fear) of one of them in a location (Kansas) in a context (early twenty-first century USA). Another text from another lectionary with unexpected parallels.

So what?

So I think it's more helpful to think of both stories as showcasing conflicting human impulses toward retribution and mercy. The destruction of Sodom is the occasion for Abraham's bargains with God for the salvation of Sodom for the sake of fifty forty-five forty [...] ten righteous inhabitants. Abraham and God, Jesus and James and John:

it is absolutely not about a New Testament God and an "Old Testament" God, any more than it's about merciful Hebrew patriarchs and hot-headed early Christians. It's a continuing conversation about judgment and mercy, turning and turning again: repentance.

Lot's wife turns to look back; Jesus turns to face his disciples. Turn and turn again. Repent.

Before we can follow Jesus, we need to acknowledge that the potent, powerful desire to rain fire on our enemies is part of us too.

In Sunday school several months ago I asked about praying the vengeful parts of the Psalms, and one of the answers I got was, pray those parts as confession. We wanted you to rain fire from heaven, God, to smite our enemies utterly and crush them underfoot, and we are most grievously sorry.

That's one answer. Justice fire mercy and judgment.

Or this:

I'm a sodomite.

It's terribly dangerous to identify ourselves myself with the sinners in the story, because the inhabitants of Sodom were sinful in ways that have nothing to do with queer sexuality. When we talk about welcoming and affirming glbt people into our congregations (and affirming ourselves as glbt people and beloved children of God), we have to be really clear that affirmation means, "Your queerness is not sinful. Your desires are not sinful. Your lifestyle is not sinful. Your partnership is not sinful."

So that's not what I'm saying when I say, "I'm a sodomite." It has nothing to do with my sinful nature -- it has to do with my location when I hear the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the historical and contemporary uses of that story, which doesn't and can't exist free of its homophobic history, not for me, probably not for many other queer people.

It means, when I hear that story, I don't identify with God or Lot or Lot's wife or Lot's daughters. I identify with the Sodomites, and that means that when I hear James and John asking for fire to come down and consume a village of Samaritans... I remember that I'm a sodomite, and this story feels viciously familiar.

And after spending a morning cringing in the margins, when I move to a place of privilege, when I am most easily identified as white, able-bodied, and young, when my queerness and femaleness are less relevant -- I take my margin experience with me and remember, and turn, and repent.