Thursday, September 23, 2010

[worship] the macaroni metaphor

I'm working on a new project to be posted at this blog, and I suspect I will refer to this image a lot, so I wanted to give it a special post. I also, of course, hope that everyone in the field will adopt this model for theologies of liturgy, but that's a different issue.

The Kingdom of God is like this: in Sunday school, when I was young, we made Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day presents for our parents. For our mothers, we made jewelry boxes, for our fathers, paperweights. The medium was the same, though. We took an object (jewelry box, rock), glued macaroni to it, and spray-painted the whole project gold. Our parents (I imagine and can only hope) loved those projects, not because our parents lacked any basic aesthetic sense, but because we were our parents' children, and they loved us, and they knew we had spent time and love to make this gift that was, therefore, infinitely precious.

Our worship is like that. And it is exceedingly pleasing to our Divine Parent.

[all are welcome] let us/let us build a house/a house where love can dwell

The gathering hymn this morning is "All Are Welcome." It is #641 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (c)2006. It can be found in the section of hymns categorized as being about "Community in Christ." It was written and scored by Marty Haugen. Words and music are (c) 1994. Here are the lyrics if you want to follow along at home.

So, a couple of words about this hymn. One, it was cited at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [ELCA]'s Churchwide Assembly in 2009 as an argument in favor of the pro-lgb* resolutions (the issues on the table were ordination and marriage), and two, we sang it at my home church to celebrate the passage of those resolutions and three, we sing it at my home church as often as we can get away with it. It's a pretty great hymn.

*t intentionally left off; trans issues weren't addressed at Churchwide

It starts like this:

Let us build a house where love can dwell

The hymn is in the imperative voice. But it's a special kind of imperative. It's the kind of imperative with which people say, "Let's be friends." "Let's get married." "Let's start trying for a baby."

It's the kind of imperative to which the implicit answer is, "Yes. Let's." Let us do that thing that sounds so good when you put it like that. In fact, it reminds me a bit of this image from Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life written and illustrated by Daniel Erlander:

[image shows a priest in chasuble and alb and a nun in habit and wimple. She wears a cross necklace and a rosary dangles from her waist. The priest's hand is open and reaches to the nun. The nuns hands aren't visible. He says, "Would you help me set up a Lutheran parsonage?" She says, "I thought you'd never ask."]

The priest is, in fact, saying, "Let us build a house where love can dwell," and the nun answers, "Yes. Let's."

When we sing "All Are Welcome," we are the singers and the sung-to. We are the speakers and the one addressed. This hymn, like many in the section of the hymnal labeled "Community in Christ," takes advantage of the core reality of the genre hymn -- a hymn is meant to be sung by a congregation of the faithful. When we sing we sing each one to each other, reminding ourselves of our stories, our beliefs, our call, our relationship with each other. All hymns do this; hymns like this one do so textually. The primary meanings in this hymn can be found by understanding the words as being sung by and to members of a Christian community. The hymn is, in fact, very like a vision statement for a church -- we will do this thing (we will build a house where love can dwell; this is what it will look like). The imperative tone offers a gentle, ready challenge -- Let us. Yes, let's.

Because this is a sacred text, though, both speaker and hearer may also be understood as God. In some hymns (e.g., "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry,") the image of the Divine Speaker and the human speaker are deliberately confused, tangled, become metaphors for each other. Nothing so complicated happens here, and yet -- this hymn is meant to be sung in a worship service in which the Holy Spirit has been invoked, and She is, in fact, the Master Builder. Any Christian project has implicit in its conception the participation of the Holy Spirit; without Her guidance we and all our projects are doomed to futility.

And just so, the words of this hymn are a gentle challenge not just from our fellow worshipers but from God. God is building a house where love can dwell, you see, and we are invited, asked, and encouraged to build that house with Him.

Let us build a house.

The house is, clearly, a church. It is also The Church. It is also the coming Kingdom of God. These meanings cannot be divorced from each other; Christian grammar demands that each layer implies the next. When we build our house, we are, in fact, building one room in a House of many rooms. But it is not an isolated building block, our house. Its relationship with the rest of the House is like the relationship of the various organs to a body, the relationship of all our worshipers to our church. Each different, each vital. When we build a house, we are building part of God's House, and the kitchen doesn't say, "I wish I were a roof," and the billiard room doesn't say, "I wish I were connected to the lounge via a secret passage!" All the rooms are essential and they are all connected, and in building our house, we build up the House.

Let us build a house where love can dwell.

"Love" here is not capitalized. That doesn't mean it's not a metaphor for God, though. God is love. When we build a house where love can dwell, we build a place where God can dwell. But this is a dwelling-place for God conceptualized differently from the Holy of Holies or any cathedral you have seen. The important thing about this house is not how much gilt adorns its pillars. This will only be a house where God can dwell inasmuch as it is a house where love, plain, uncapitalized, everyday love, can also dwell.

Yeah, uncapitalized love is really a sacrament of capitalized Love. It is one of the ways God chooses to make Godself known to us. When we build a house where love can dwell, the Love of God will be present there too.

The rest of the hymn will elaborate on what it means to build a house where love can dwell, and we'll look at it together. Most of the hymn is future and/or imperative. The refrain, "All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place," is present tense declarative, and I'll talk more about what that means (as a declaration, a prophetic word, a moment of eschatological immanence) when we come around to the first refrain. I'd also like to use the five refrains to discuss concrete issues of welcome that contemporary churches face, what it takes to bring that promise into reality.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

[sermon] the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)

[Sermon for the people of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, preached 2010-07-25. Colossians 2: 6-19. Parts of this sermon have been (re)written and expanded and differ from the original proclaimed sermon.]

I don't usually use anecdotes about members of the congregation as sermon illustrations, because I was a preacher's kid and it didn't take me long to get royally tired of hearing stories about my bad behavior from the pulpit. But I am going to talk about a member of our congregation today.

Annie's not worshiping with us today, this precious little red dog, because she had this growth on her ear that turned out to be cancerous. She had surgery to remove the growth and the ear flap too, and now she's not doing so well, and her mother keeps freaking out when she sees little fatty growths on her dog's body because, let's face it --

-- growth is scary.

Paul tells the Colossians that the Body of Christ, the Church, "Grows with a growth that is from God," and that's Good News. But how do you distinguish it from the other kind of growth, the scary, creepy, insidious growth that is cancer?

That's the fear, right? If we grow, if we change, if the church shifts, maybe we won't be the Body of Christ anymore. Maybe we'll be a tumor.

Cancer is mutation. The DNA in cells mutates, and the mutated cells reproduce, and the cancer spreads and crowds out the Gospel cells.

The Body of Christ is doing its job (our job) when we're replicating the Gospel DNA at our core, spreading the Good News. There is one Gospel, but many ways to name it -- "God became flesh and dwelt among us," "In Christ we are forgiven," "Love your neighbor as yourself, and everyone is your neighbor," - and there are other articulations in word and song and art and dance and most importantly in these sacraments [touch water, bread] -- so this morning we're going to use Paul's articulation of the Gospel and remember that it points to the rest. Paul says that we died with Christ through baptism and are raised with Christ through faith in God. We are dead to sin and evil, we are not subject to death -- we are part of Christ, part of Christ's very Body. Good News. Good News indeed.

We share one Gospel the way every cell in your body shares DNA, but like DNA the Gospel is an amazing set of instructions. Each part of the Body of Christ serves the Gospel -- but we it in so many diverse ways.

So what is cancer? Cancer is anything that thwarts the Gospel, that holds at its core not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but some other message.

There are parts of the church that do not directly serve the Gospel, of course. The church is a millennia-old institution, and there is plenty of graft. If we were to go through our church we'd find plenty of paper and words and liturgy that aren't essential to the Gospel. They are beautiful and even useful, but they are not the core of our faith. We could lose the hymnal and still be Christians.

But that's fine. Or at least, that's inevitable. There are benign growths in the church, things that have been added on to the core of the Gospel that don't detract from the real work of living that Gospel. A budget, for example, is not essential. It doesn't, in itself, proclaim the Good News of our death and resurrection with Christ. But it is darned useful.

The worry comes when the mutant cells spread, when their importance overpowers the Gospel, replaces the Gospel. Paul gives us examples of cancers that threatened the church in his time --

like secular philosophy. That's something that comes into the church easily, and sometimes it's helpful. Secular feminism provided and continues to provide a powerful critique of the patriarchal institutions that inhabit Christianity -- a patriarchy that is itself cancerous, a patriarchy that seemed to be essential to the church but in fact masked the Gospel, which is a liberating word to all people.

I am a feminist. I am a big fan of secular feminism; it is one of my favorite secular philosophies. Feminism has a place in the church. But if feminism overpowers the Gospel, if the church starts spreading feminism and advocating for women's issues at the expense of being a Gospel church - then feminism has turned cancerous. It has distorted the original message of the Gospel.

Paul also gives the example of angel worship. "Angels", in Greek, are "messengers" - the same root as "evangelist," a Good-News-Bringer. There is certainly a cult of angel worship in our country, a belief in guardian angels and a delight in angel kitsch -- but there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

So, how do we tell the difference? When our church grows -- and let me give you a hint; this period of discernment that we're in is about growth -- how do we tell?

It is important that we know what the Gospel is, and judge all things against it. If we know who we are and what we believe, then the growth that comes will be Gospel growth.

But we must be prepared to fight cancer. The treatments for cancer are painful and hurt the whole Body -- chemotherapy is poison -- and it is difficult to eradicate deep-rooted growths. We must be prepared for surgery, prepared to remove parts of the Body -- keeping in mind that these parts may be structures or institutions but never people -- people are creatures, and sinners, and redeemable, and can never be entirely cancerous.

And we must be prepared, as we examine our growths, to be surprised. Those lumps on the back of the Body of Christ? Just may be wings. Amen.

[A week after I preached this, Annie, precious little red dog, went to be with God. I assume she has both ears now, and also wings.]

Sunday, July 4, 2010

[sermon] Living in Sin

[sermon for the people of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church. Preached 2010-07-06.]

Luke 7: 46-50

Living in Sin

I have Good News for you -- wonderful news -- gospel news -- you are an incorrigible sinner! You are living in sin.

That phrase has been co-opted to mean cohabiting with a person with whom you aren't in a publicly committed relationship, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about LIVING in sin, living in a sin-drenched world. Being born into sin and growing up in sin and being steeped in sin.

Living in a world of broken promises. A world with no right choices. A world where, by going about our daily lives, we sin. We are gluttons, consuming the world's energy and polluting its resources. We are disconnected from each other by cultural mores that define the spaces between us with privacy and shame and keep us from life-sustaining, nourishing relationships.

I, personally, think uncharitable thoughts about fifteen times an hour.

We spend money on luxuries. We are soaked in inescapable privilege. We do not do all the good we could do.

We are lazy, slothful, arrogant. We sell ourselves short and deny the goodness of God's intention for us.

No matter which way we turn, we sin, because we live in a sinful culture and are part of a sinful species. We are called to perfection and we fall short.

When we make a searching and fearless moral inventory (Step Four) we discover that we are powerless over sin. We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves.

I know the last time you 'went to confession' -- it was only a few minutes ago. And I gave you space for that fearless moral inventory, and maybe you used it, and maybe you confessed to God, in the safety of this holy place, the nature and extent of your sin.

I hope so.

I hope you realize that you, just like everyone else, just like me, are sinful. Because knowing is so much more joyful than not knowing.

This morning's gospel tells us about two sinners -- one a woman of the city, the other a Pharisee named Simon.

I say they're both sinners, but I could just as easily say they're both human. To be human is to fall short of God's glory, to take actions that thwart God's plans, to be unheroic and cowardly and judgmental and slothful and sinful.

But we know, specifically, that these two humans are sinners, because the text tells us. It doesn't tell us the nature of the woman's sin -- no, it really doesn't! -- just that she is a woman of means, a sinner, and faithful.

Simon, on the other hand, is inhospitable, unloving, self-righteous, and judgmental. He sins in failing to anoint and welcome Jesus, and he sins in judging the woman who does. Simon is a sinner like lots of us -- a self-righteous sinner with a log in his eye. He is religious and good at religion. He is good at the Law, and you know what? I bet he's good at giving alms. He invites Jesus into his house! He sets a place for Jesus! -- He knows, let us say, that just living, and not burnt offerings, is pleasing to God. He is a Pharisee, which means he is moving away from Temple-focused, sacrifice-rich Judaism. He interprets the law for daily living for diasporic Hebrews under occupation. He's very good at this.

And he is miserably unhappy, because he refuses to accept the Good News that he is a sinner.

The woman has accepted this news. She's absorbed this news into her skin, and if Simon's reaction is any indications, she's reminded of it daily by people in the city.

Nevermind them, though -- she's learned to ignore them.

It's the way queer folks are ignoring protesters at Pride events this weekend -- those sad, miserable-looking men and women holding signs that tell gay, joyous marchers that we are sinners. Duh, we know that -- at least, I do -- although not at all for the reasons the protesters think.

If you pretend you aren't a sinner -- if you fight and fight and fight against all your body's urges -- if, like Martin Luther, pre-lightning bolt, you tally every evil thought as if you could exorcise the sins by listing them 00 if ou make a fearless searching moral inventory of Them, of the religious right, of Roman Catholicism, the Republican party, the people marching in the parades you don't approve of -- you will be miserable like Simon.

BUT, if you hear the Good News, and let it change you -- if you believe the Good News --

-- you will be like the woman and throw yourself at God's feet, begging for mercy.

You will not count the cost or consider the consequences, because you will know you can't save yourself.

You will not wonder when the money you spent on the ointment might've been better spent, because you will know that, no matter how wisely you give, there will always be better causes, more equitable distributions.

And God will welcome you home, wash away your tears and forgive your sins and turn you around to face the world again, telling you to try, this time, to fail better.

So you will try, and you will fail, and you will confess, and God will forgive, and you will repent, and you will try again --

and like the sinful woman, you will come and go in peace.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

[sermon] dance with the One who brought you

[Delivered 2010-06-02 at the Kansas City Interfaith Pride Service, hosted by Spirit of Hope MCC, speaking on the given theme of Then - 1978]

Dance with the One who brought you.

In 2008, I moved to Kansas from Massachusetts for the only reason that a sane queer person would move from Massachusetts, the state that pioneered equality marriage, a state where there's been a Pride parade in the capitol city every year since Stonewall, home of my big fat queer family where I'm not the first but the fourth person in my family tree to identify as queer. I came because I was in luuuuuuuv.

In 1978, I wasn't born.

In 1978, my mother was 16 years old and going to Baptist Bible Camp and being told that even though she was a fine public speaker, she wasn't being called to the ministry because God didn't call women.

In 1978, my mother had no idea that she liked girls. The idea wouldn't occur to her for another two decades.

In 1976, Carter Heyward, a pioneering lesbian theologian, was making history because she was ordained. It wasn't historical because she was queer; it was historic because she was a woman, among the first batch to be extraordinarily ordained, contrary to the policy of the Episcopal Church in the USA.

So in 1978, this twentysomething queer girl [cock head -- woman? no, this was 1978, she was definitely a girl] from Boston flies to Kansas City to live with her girlfriend.

We met at a women's college, before "women's college" was synonymous with "dyke haven." We didn't come to college expecting to find a girlfriend; people were telling us, quite seriously and worriedly, that we'd have a hard time getting our M.R.S. degree at a girls' school. We were planning to pursue careers, not unheard of but not usual. I knew I liked girls, but I also knew that it was just a stage and that I'd grow out of it soon. That's what all the books told me as I secretly marked the pages that mentioned this little problem about liking girls. It was just a stage and I'd stop when I grew up.

It wasn't something we talked about at church. I knew other churches did, in a pretty horrific way, but I grew up in mainline churches that preferred to think that this wasn't happening, that this movement was outside religion and apart from it and that the church didn't need to have a response to the gay rights movement because the gay rights movement wasn't asking for one.

So then I met this girl, right, and suddenly it was important for me to tell the people I cared most about, the people who were part of my church, my family.

I came to Kansas City in 1978 and I wanted a place where I could worship -- and now I had to make a choice.

And even though, secret, not all of us are from 1978, it's a choice all of us have to make.

Dance with the One who brought you.

But what brought me here, to Kansas City in 1978, a femmey Christian dyke with a backpack full of books?

What brought you here, tonight?

What brought this church into being, and what brings the other churches and communities in the Coalition into being and together?

How do I choose? Can I forgive the denomination that kicked me out, the church that scorned my spiritual mothers and fathers, a religion that executed people like me?

Will the old forms still hold me? As I fall in love with Christ all over again, will any hymns bear that love, or must I write new lovesongs for Her?

Will new communities sustain me? Is there enough depth in them for me to put down roots, twisted and ancient?

Where will I find the stories that will speak my history?


Story has currency in the queer community. Story is the thing that we take with us, the thing that holds us together, the thing that embraces us as a community.

"When did you know?"

"How did you know?"

"When did you come out?"

Queer is a thing we are, but it's also a story about where we were. I'm a lesbian because I've fell in love with a woman when I was twelve. You're transgender because you were labeled female at birth and now call yourself male. You are genderqueer because yesterday you bound and packed and today you're wearing a lacy dress. You're bisexual because, although you're married to a woman now, you dated mostly men in your twenties.

And story is the way we find our way into community. Even in those years that don't stand as decade landmarks, the Pride festival is an anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and in joining the festivities, we join a story that's punctuated by that rebellion, claim kinship with the queer folks who fought back forty-one years ago.

The queer community has a fascination with our own history. Part of that history has been hidden from us, erased with words like "friendship" and "spinster." It's a history that must be uncovered obliquely. We look at our own family trees and see the maiden aunt and bachelor uncle and we wonder, but will never know. We reread old stories and claim them as our own. We look at the Bible and see Naomi and Ruth and David and Jonathan and say yep, those are ours. But it's a history that has to be claimed, a history that had to be written, within the last century. And it's one that as queer children or adolescents or young adults or older adults we had to rediscover for ourselves because it's not taught in schools like our country's history or around the dinner table like our family history, our cultural history.

So there are two reasons we're attached to queer history -- because we have to go out and claim it. And because we are in the middle of making it.

What has brought us safe thus far?

Who has brought our history to this point?

Who brought you here?

What brought you here?

WE have done the bringing.

If you've been out there making a noise, some lonely gay man heard it.

If you've been in here, building a place, a nice gay couple found it.

If you've been way, way out there in your denomination, witnessing to a Love that's greater than any law, you've been singing in justice with a cloud of saints.

If you've been joining your heart to the universe, if you've been praying for a day of justice, if you've been davening or dancing or breathing your intention, you have been changing the universe. You have been bringing people to this place.

If you've held your lover's hand in church, if you'e told your grandma you're bringing home a personfriend whose preferred pronoun is "ze" --

you've been making history.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends toward justice.

The universe is bending toward justice. The universe, the Spirit, All-That-Is, God, all Goddesses and Gods, bend toward justice. We are dancing toward justice, and we are not dancing alone.

I don't know most of you, so I don't know what's brought you to this place today.

For some of you, Spirit of Hope is home, and the call to come here was as familiar as the call to come on Sunday mornings. Some of us come from other Coalition churches. Some of us come because we are proud of our queerness and long to honor that. Some of can do that at our home churches, and some of us can't. Some of us have come to a church today with a sense of suspicion, even though we've been promised welcome.

Some of us are old enough to remember when this was the only choice for queer people in search of a spiritual home, and some of us are old enough to remember when there was no choice, and some of us are young enough that we can't believe there was ever such a time.

Take a moment and think about what brought you here this evening. Was it an invitation from a friend? The movement of a spirit? A question? A doubt? A hope? This is an Interfaith Pride service, so I'm going to guess that everyone here has a little bit of faith, and a little bit of pride. Hold tight to those. What do you have faith in? What do you base your hope on? What matters so much that you will give your life to it, to him, to her, to hir?

What are you proud of? What's offbeat, eccentric or queer about you, what's so true about you that you must share it if you will live authentically?

What faith, what pride, what spirit, brought you here?

Dwell with that for a little while. Who brought you here tonight?


As a people, we've been brought here by the powerful moral arc of history. We've been brought here by the courage and strength and deep faith of our ancestors. Tonight we're going to join hands with those forces, join our strength with theirs, and look into the future together.

As you look, I'd like you to dance.

Dance with the One who brought you.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

[Christology] Jesus is my Girlfriend

[my usual disclaimers about being lesbian and Christian are relevant here, but perhaps most importantly and inescapably in this reflection, I am an English-speaker. While the limitation of language is, of course, part of the point, it is also worth mentioning upfront and remembering throughout: I am fluent in English and only in English.]

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." - Luke 13:34, NRSV.

What if you never used gendered pronouns for God?

Well, if gender is a deeply ingrained marker for you, if it's part (perhaps an important part) of how you perceive people (including yourself), you might feel God was a wee bit impersonal -- a bit like the Platonic Form of a Person, maybe, without gender or sex or sexuality or skintone or eye color or an accent or affectations or mannerisms or in fact any of the things that make us people.

And perhaps if you have lived in (and still live in) a culture where "people" default to white middle-class college educated cisgendered WASPy straight men, perhaps you might envision God -- in the privacy of your own head -- as being an old white man, just like He God is depicted in so many works of visual art.

Perhaps the discipline of never using gendered pronouns for God would make your experience of God distinct, would remind you that God is transcendent, unlike us, unlike you, and you would be careful not to attribute to God your own human thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps you would adopt a discipline of using personal pronouns, of addressing God, and thus experience God not as Mother or Father or Bride or Bridegroom but as Thou, personal, intimate, and unutterably Other.

Perhaps the discipline of never gendering God would help you to find other metaphors for God: Rock, Spirit, Breath, Word, Wisdom, Flame. Perhaps you could look at that list of sexless concepts and forget that anyone, anywhere, has envisioned Wisdom as feminine or Fire as masculine.

Perhaps you know a God through meditation Who is so transcendent and other that you could not imagine gendering God anymore than you could imagine holding God's hand or kissing God or running to embrace God early in the morning in a quiet garden.

What if you never used gendered pronouns for God? What if you never used gendered metaphors for God? If God were Parent, Child, Sibling, Spouse, Monarch instead of Mother, Son, Sister, Bridegroom, Queen?

There are non-gender-specific, personal metaphors for God that are a lot more evocative than "sibling," of course -- Lover, Shepherd, Potter, Prophet.

What if you never gendered God? Perhaps your language for God would be rich and evocative, creative and nuanced, every word carefully chosen, first because of the newness of the discipline, then because of the joy of finding new ways to tell old truth. Perhaps you would become more aware of gender as a construct, of the unconscious ways we use gendered language all the time. Learning to use inclusive language is an exercise, a discipline, that renders visible the invisible and omnipresent structure of gender in our culture.


Noli me tangere. John 20:17, Vulgate.

This tiny scrap of scripture has been central to my spiritual and academic life (which are, by their nature, one) since I was a senior in college and writing a thesis (if the kind of theology I do -- speculative, constructive, inventive, creative, poetic, imaginative and only discursive when it can't be helped -- can rightly be anything so formal as a 'thesis') about the romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary called Magdalene.


So he went his way, and was alone. But the way of the world was past belief, as he saw the strange entanglement of passions and circumstance and compulsion everywhere, but always the dread insomnia of compulsion. It was fear, the ultimate fear of death, that made men mad. So always he must move on, for if he stayed, his neighbours sound the strangling of their fear and bullying round him. There was nothing he could touch, for all, in a mad assertion of the ego, wanted to put a compulsion on him, and violate his intrinsic solitude. It was the mania of cities and societies and hosts, to lay a compulsion upon a man, upon all men. For men and women alike were mad with the egoistic fear of their own nothingness. And he thought of his own mission, how he had tried to lay the compulsion of love on all men. And the old nausea came back on him. For there was no contact without a subtle attempt to inflict a compulsion. And already he had been compelled even into death. The nausea of the old wound broke out afresh, and he looked again on the world with repulsion, dreading its mean contacts. - The Man Who Died, D.H. Lawrence

Jesus asked, "Who touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me." - Luke 8:45-46, NRSV.

It got stuck in my heart my first semester at seminary and it won't unstick... when Jesus Sang the Stone Butch Blues:

She does not touch, learns not to touch, discovers to her horror the draining of touch, the power of touch, the healing and the scarring that is skin touching skin, daubed spittle and fingertips, aching with sensation, nerve endings and desire...


People have very kindly not asked me why I've suddenly become so freakish around my pronoun usage, why I sing or say "Child" and "She" or "Ze" when everyone else is saying "Son" and "He." And yet I have an instinctive defensiveness around this topic, a fictional interlocutor against whom I defend myself admirably, as if theology were a contest and not a conversation, as if I could tell you what your relationship with God looks like. That, as they say, is between you and your God.


I have worshiped mostly in contexts where the First and Third Persons of the Trinity are referred to with gender-neutral language most of the time, to the point where hearing "God -- He" is not just a little jarring to me.

Jesus, of course, was male.

Of course.


There are three ways that we understand the Body of Christ. One is female, one is male, and one is genderless.

The bread we share at the communion table is for us the Body of Christ. This bread is tangible, physical, palpable; we can feel and taste and smell it, and to us it is the very Body of Christ. It is a capital-S Sacrament of God's presence in the world. It is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

The Church is the Body of Christ. She is Christ's hands and feet and voice and heart in the world. Paul explains to the Corinthians in eloquent detail how the Church -- She, we -- is Christ's Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Jesus' body was the Body of Christ. Jesus' body was male, and Jesus was resurrected: actually, physically, tangibly, literally. Jesus died, and lives again. Christ is Risen. Magdalene encountered the living Christ in the garden on Easter morning. He is risen indeed.


He says, "Noli me tangere."

The risen Christ is not quite the Jesus who died.


"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40, NRSV.

The Second Person of the Trinity -- Son, Christ, Word, Wisdom -- is that Person Who becomes incarnate. The Incarnation was Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, God's Beloved, God's Chosen, the Word made flesh.

And Jesus was, presumably, male-bodied. Was identified as male by Jesus' contemporaries. Identified Christself, without question, as male.



In 1981, Rosemary Radford Reuther asked, "Can a male savior save women?" and those of us who ask it with her have been told (I assume it's not just me) that Jesus' maleness is not important, no more than Jesus' thirtyness or able-bodiedness or Semiticness or 1st-century-CEness. What is important is that Jesus was particular, scandalously particular, that God chose ONE BODY, just like each of us has one body, that Christ's humanity was, just like our humanity, particular and contingent.

In 2006, I wrote:

If Jesus was human -- and he was, fully human, subject to human temptations, emotions, and desires -- then his human particularity becomes overwhelmingly scandalous for me. If Jesus was the perfect embodiment of God's intention for humanity, if Jesus' relationship with God was one of total trust, complete obedience, and mutual confidence, then the particularities of this one human person become problematic. This one human, Jewish, aged thirty, poor, so tall, and, most troubling for me, celibate (probably) and male (definitely) knew God as no one else has. I feel in my discomfort my own gender essentialism; Douglas John Hall notes that imaging Jesus as a young white male excludes "the weak and handicapped, the old and feeble, the members of nonwhite races, and women" (490) and in a footnote describes a study of Christ images in the visual arts -- Christs of all colors, but all of them men. I find myself saying, "But of course, Jesus was male;" gender is essential for me in a way that race is not, for obvious reasons. As a white woman, I can ignore race, pretend colorblindness, but I am always aware of gender, and as a queer white woman, I am always aware of sexuality.

When James Cone says that Jesus is Black in every way that matters, that the essential point of Jesus' humanity was his identification with the oppressed, not his skin color (which of course was not "white" according to our categories), he is perhaps making a true statement about the Black experience and what it means; to say that Jesus is female, I feel, is qualitatively different and a more difficult intellectual move. The tradition informs us that the importance of Jesus' particularity is not his particular aspects -- age, sex, race, religion, sexuality or lack thereof -- but his full participation in an essential aspect of humanity. To be human is to be a particular human; no one is "human in general." Jesus cannot be identical to me, his attributes identical to mine, any more than I could be identical with my father, my sister, [or others with whom I share deep intimacy].


For black liberation theology, as for all liberation theologies, Christ identifies entirely with the oppressed and downtrodden of any society. In this connection, as a white person of privilege, I cannot begin to speak, but only listen and accept the real, physical liberation that Christ offers to the world's poorest and that is so desperately needed.

At the same time, with the imagined feminist theologian in Migliore's dialogue (pp 298-299 especially), I must supplement the discussion of economic injustice with acknowledgement and discussion of, to claim Migliore's word, "linguistic" oppression, but, moreover, the hegemonic thought patterns that color our ways of thinking God, Christ, redemption, resurrection, and the whole panoply of related concepts. At one and the same moment I accept with almost mantric faith that Jesus Christ died for me, that I am a sinner and that I am redeemed, that even at my most despairing moments I am the beloved child of a God who loves me enough to suffer with me and die for me, working a redemption that I cannot hope to understand, that the drama of Christ's passion is the story of God's love enfleshed in a human body. I believe, incredulous, confused, that Christ is Lord and savior. I believe in a gendered Jesus who was fully human and who loved God with all his heart, and a Christ beyond gender and history who loves the created world, humanity, and me enough to die for us, and I believe at the same time that there is no distinction or difference between them, so much so that I find any discussion of two natures disingenuous and confusing [...]

[Cited: Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context; Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology; James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation]


Why do you use gender-neutral or female pronouns for Jesus? no one has asked me.

The smorgasbord of quotations and ideas above provides context, I hope, for two answers.

1. "Inclusive language" for God frequently results in God-talk that is entirely neuter except for the male pronouns that are, unquestioningly, used for Jesus and by extension Christ*. The result is that all the pronouns used for the Godhead are male.

*I'm not entirely comfortable with using "Christ" as shorthand for "the Second Person of the Trinity," but the usage is ubiquitous and, I think, understandable to my readership. "Jesus" is "the historical Jesus," a human person who embodied Godhood; "Christ" is "the Christ of Faith," coeternal with the Creator and the Spirit, God from God, Light from Light, of one being with the Creator, the Word and Wisdom of God. The relationship between "Jesus" and "Christ" you can fill on for yourself until such time as I write a book or seven, and until then I won't ask too hard why "Anointed One" became God's middle Name.

2. Jesus' maleness has made me uncomfortable for a long time. It makes me uncomfortable because I find deep resonance in the metaphor of the Church, and the soul, as the Bride of Christ, and I am a lesbian. It makes me uncomfortable because, despite all the women who surround Jesus in the gospels, the women who provide Jesus with money and ointment and service and tears and who are the first apostles, we are still left with the image of many men and women serving one man. It makes me uncomfortable because when we speak of God without pronouns and without gender, Jesus' gender shows up more starkly still and feels indisputable, ironclad, of course.


But it doesn't have to be.

This is the conclusion of another paper I wrote in Fall of 2006, modified slightly:

Every writer realizes that, in recounting or writing or inventing Jesus’ words, she or he or ze changes those words and their meaning, discovers or invents or both a new Christ, responds to "Who do you say that I am?" with an answer that will never perfectly reflect the Jesus of history, who cannot be known to us, but is recounted only in stories already embroidered. We may choose, with the questers for the historical Jesus, to carefully pick out stitches in an attempt to discover the texture of the original cloth. Or, with the authors we have studied this term, we might take up our needles, choose our own threads, add our own images to those we have received, sometimes overlapping those images, sometimes discarding them, sometimes simply changing the color. We cannot know who Jesus was, but only who Jesus is, for us, today.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

[sermon] "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

[Sermon for the people of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, preached on February 14, 2010.]

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9: 28-37

Nothing Gold Can Stay

It's the feast of Saint Valentine, and so I'm going tell you a love story.

The story goes something like this: a young woman, just blossoming, sweet sixteen and never been kissed, radiant with newfound freedoms, becomes, for the necessary moment, a princess. And at the necessary moment, her princess or her prince arrives for her, unveils herself or himself, and the world looks --

inside out.

And the girl's heart is

upside down.

And everything is gold.

An ordinary girl is suddenly beloved, and transformed, illuminated. Her face lights up and her insides are warm, and she is radiant and her ordinary clothes are dazzling white.

Love casts a spell on her, and the ordinary boy who was her best friend is the young wizard who will make her world shake; the loud-mouthed girl who was her lab partner is her knight in armor who will whisk her away on a black steed.

Like all magic, this spell comes with an expiration date.


We were each other's for twenty-four hours, my boy and I.

When the spell broke and he came to his senses (and decided that loving his lesbian best friend from afar was quite different from actually having her), my boy shared this Robert Frost poem with me:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

"Nothing gold can stay."
"Nothing gold can stay."
"Nothing gold can stay."

Since this is Transfiguration Sunday, I'm going to tell you a love story.

It goes something like this: Four dear friends spend all day climbing a mountain together -- mostly in silence, because strong and well-traveled as they are, mountain-climbing isn't easy on them. There are a few close calls when one of them nearly slips and has to quickly grab a friend's hand for rescue. It's good for them to be apart from the crowds, for once, because these days they're always surrounded by people, most of them wanting something. They reach the mountaintop late evening, utterly exhausted, and all of them are ready for sleep, but they've come up here to pray, and one of them is actually going to do it.

So the others keep their eyes open as best they can, because they love their friend and admire their friend and are, as a matter of fact, a little besotted with their friend -- not in a romantic way, of course. It's only that they've given up their lives for this person, have given up family and financial security and the chance of a long lifespan, and one of them has just declared that, in his considered opinion, their friend is the Anointed One of God.

So these sleepy-eyed friends are rewarded with what is, at the time, the most magical moment of their lives (later there will be deeper magic, from before the dawn of time, but that is a story that must wait seven weeks for telling). They see their friend transformed, transfigured. They see the greatest prophets of their faith in living color and realize that their own friend is greater still than these prophets they've revered their whole lives.

At the necessary moment, the veil lifts entirely, and they see their friend transformed and hear God's own voice, announcing, "This is my Child, my Chosen, my Beloved. Listen to this one!"

They are entranced, enchanted, and everything is gold. Their friend, their beloved friend, face glowing and clothes glittering, is the Chosen One of God and they have witnessed this moment. They will never be the same. How could anything be the same ever again?

Like all spells, this one comes with an expiration date.

The next day, they descend the mountain and go among the crowds again, still demanding, still suspicious, still completely, painfully ignorant.

Nothing gold can stay.


So, here's the thing about glitter.

[begin pouring glitter into the glass bowl]

It never goes away.

I worked in a craft store for two years and the thing about glitter is, it never goes away. "Clean-up in the glitter aisle" means sweep and mop and try your best, but there will be glitter in the cracks between tiles and glitter under the shelves and glitter in your hair and under your fingernails and in your apron until Kingdom come.

When I bought seven and a half ounces of glitter last week for use as a sermon illustration, the containers immediately began to leak. Containers may be airtight or watertight, but there's no such thing as a glitter-tight container. You touch glitter, and you will have glitter with you for the rest of your days.

Nothing gold can stay. The shiny fades and the romance wanes and you fall out of love and you come down from the mountain, and you're left with glitter in your hair, a poem, a memory, bewilderment and maybe a little fear, facing the world again after you've seen paradise.

So what do you do with transcendence?

There are moments in our lives when everything is clear and pure and right, when we see the world as it ought to be. We look at loved ones, strangers, enemies, and we see the glowing, dazzling face of Christ. We look at ourselves and know that we are beloved children of God; we look at the work our church is doing and we see the heart of the Gospel in our midst. The chord of music that is God's True Name, the landscape that is God's face, the poem, the painting, the lovemaking, that show signs of God's inbreaking Kingdom.

And then there are the other 525,599 minutes of the year.

There is the mountaintop experience when, with Peter and James and John, we see Christ's transfigured face. And then there's the inevitable descent. We try, with Peter, to remain, to build tents and set up altars and reread love letters and return to the place where we met God, and we find, with Peter, that nothing gold can stay.

We can't return to the mountaintop. We can't go home again. We can't become sixteen again. Once we come down from the mountain, we have no choice but to head towards Jerusalem, to follow the path that's set out for us, to go forward -- because there's no going back. But some dusty day on the road to Jerusalem, Simon Peter runs his hand through his prematurely graying hair and looks at his fingers and sees that they're covered in glitter.

We take mementos with us. We take photographs, we buy souvenirs, we save love letters, we carry wee jars of glitter that is sure to get all over everything, [pass around the bowl with the wee jars of glitter] and we look at photos, nick-knacks, letters, shiny, and remember that we have been transfigured.


changed forever.

Gold goes, but WE stay, and the change stays with us.

It's our nature to forget, of course. It's in our nature to revert to our old ways of acting, our old ways of seeing. We come down from the mountain and see that the world has not changed, and we are tempted to despair. We come down from the euphoria of first love and the agony of heartbreak and swear we'll never love anyone again, and we forget what God's face looks like, forget that we've seen God face to face, forget that we have been named Beloved. Like Peter, we see God face to face, and like Peter, we deny God.

But like Peter, we're forgiven, and like Peter, we are transformed people. We are people who've been baptized with the Holy Spirit, people who've been fed with the Bread of Life, people who've seen God face-to-face, and we can never unsee, never unhear, never untaste, never unknow --

We are God's.

We are chosen.

We are beloved.

We are transformed for a life of service, transfigured for a life of dignity, transmuted for a life of love.

We are fairy-tale princesses, and we are beloved. We are fairy-tale knights, and we have the power to change the world. We are fairy-tale wizards, imbued with the deep magic of God's love. When the mountaintop fades into the distance and is finally no longer even visible on the horizon, when the dazzle dies and even the last shards of glitter have been washed from our bodies, when all the gold is gone --

we will still glow from the inside out.