Sunday, June 28, 2015

[sermon] on activism, shame, power, and pride

Sermon for the people of St. Mark Hope and Peace 2015-06-28

Primary Preaching Text: Mark 5:21-43
Secondary Text: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

I fully intended to talk about David today.

If you're my friend on Facebook you might have seen that weeks ago I posted excitedly about this text being appointed for this day, the eve of the 46th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. The love of David and Jonathan, and particularly this text from Second Samuel is beloved in many lgbtq Christian and Jewish spaces because we can so easily claim David as one of our own -- especially for gay and bisexual men, this is a story that we can look to and say unabashedly, David is one of ours. Rev. Nancy Wilson, current moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church, says, exuberantly and with exclamation points, that David is the most clearly bisexual figure in the whole Bible.1

I was planning to preach about David until yesterday afternoon, when I finally noticed the woman who'd been tugging at my sleeve all week. My plans to talk about David, central to the institutions of both church and state, and what Rev. Wilson calls, a bit anachronistically, his "same-sex, lifelong relationship" with Jonathan, were disrupted and interrupted by a person on the very fringes of society, a person in desperate need who demanded -- and demands to be seen and heard and healed.

In this complicated moment in our nation, when joyous news from the Supreme Court and tragic news from Charleston compete for our emotions, the woman with a flow of blood speaks more fully to my identity as a queer person and our identity as a Reconciling in Christ church than does King David with all his power.

The woman with the flow of blood is the filling in a sandwich story about the healing of Jairus's daughter. Jairus is a person of power and influence, a leader in the synagogue. He summons Jesus to heal his sick daughter, and Jesus goes with him, and on their way, they're interrupted by a woman who has suffered in many ways for the way her body is made.

There are physical torments of her constant hemorrhaging, and the ungentle and unsuccessful cures she's endured from a stream of doctors, and then there is the cultural torment of being perpetually unclean. She is excluded from her society, rendered untouchable by the flow of blood she can't control.

She has nothing to lose. She's spent all her money on ineffective doctors and she had no social capital to begin with. Her physical condition has deteriorated, and she constantly endures rejection. Everything in her culture has taught her that bodies like hers, and her body in particular, are shameful.

So she reaches the point beyond shame, beyond propriety, beyond fear, where her need for healing is greater than any force that would constrain her.

Forty-six years ago, the patrons of Stonewall reached this point. The police raided a gay bar, as the police did. And that night, when tempers were hot, when activism was in the air -- Vietnam, civil rights, women's liberation -- that night drag queens and trans women, bulldykes and sex workers, homeless youth, most of them people of color, all of them people who had nothing to lose and so nothing to fear -- that night those patrons of Stonewall Inn refused to comply.

A few years earlier, transgender and transsexual patrons of Compton's Cafeteria reached that point, and they threw first coffee, and then dishes and furniture at police in protest of harassment and mistreatment.

The nineteen-eighties and nineties were full of those moments, and ACT UP, (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) picketed and protested to draw attention to the AIDS crisis, to demand access to medical intervention, to share accurate information about HIV transmission and safer sex. A people dying of AIDS screamed that "SILENCE=DEATH" and refused to be silent.

This past Wednesday, Jennicet GutiƩrrez, an undocumented trans Latina activist, reached this point at the White House LGBT Pride Month Reception. She interrupted President Obama's speech to shout, "Release all GLBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations!" She later wrote, "In the tradition of how Pride started, I interrupted his speech because it is time for our issues and struggles to be heard."2


In the tradition of Pride, and in a tradition older than Pride. In the tradition of Jesus, who announced in the Nazareth synagogue that he had been sent to proclaim release to the captives, and in the tradition of Isaiah, whom Jesus was quoting.

And in the tradition of a nameless woman with a hemorrhage, who had endured all that she could endure.

She didn't ask.

She took.

When we remember the activism of the previous century, we sometimes sugarcoat it. Last fall we saw many white lgbtq people deride the protests in Ferguson, crying, "Remember Stonewall! Peaceful protest is totally possible!"

Oh yes. Remember Stonewall, with thrown pennies, thrown bottles, thrown shoes. Remember the patrons who thought to set the bar on fire.

We don't need to condone violence to remember that it's part of our history.

The path that led to the Supreme Court decision this week that legalized same-sex marriage across the country was not always peaceful and it was not always nice. It did involve middle-class gay men and women asking nicely if they could please have their rights now, if it's not too much of a bother.

And it involved thrown shoes and burning police cars and groups called Lesbian Avengers and Queer Nation and Transexual Menace. It involved shouting and crying and name-calling.

There are couples who have waited patiently for decades to get married, and we rejoice with them this week.

And there are couples who got married decades ago who fudged applications for marriage licenses, people who changed their names to more gender neutral alternatives.3 Further back in time, there are people who didn't ask, but simply lived as members of their true genders, butches and trans men who married women and were their husbands.

There are Lutheran pastors who waited patiently for ELCA policy to change. And there are Lutheran pastors who were ordained extraordinarily years before the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

There are people like Jairus, people with power and with a lot to lose, who got on their knees and begged.

And there are people like the woman with a flow of blood, people with no institutional power and nothing at all to lose, who reached out and claimed power, demanded healing.

Violence is still not God's will for God's people. God still doesn't want us to harm each other; God doesn't want us to take what's not ours. God has made that perfectly clear. We can and should feel conflicted about those parts of our history. Reaching out and touching a person in a crowd -- on purpose and without permission -- is a blatant violation of bodily autonomy, and that is also not okay.

But it's understandable.

Activism is not pretty, because it arises from the mess we've made of the world.

There is a point of desperation where everything falls away but the need for healing.

From the outside, it's a stillframe, a single moment in time of explosive rage, or uncontrollable weeping, or a woman reaching out her hand.

But inside, it's year upon year of oppression and pain.

It's the experience of an African-American woman, a single mother working two minimum wage jobs, whose body bears the aches of standing all day every day, of working through illness, of walking the long mile from work to the bus stop, the half mile from the bus stop to day care, from tensing whenever she sees a police officer. Whose face aches from smiling at customers and wishing them a nice day. Whose heart aches from the death of her husband to gang violence, the incarceration of her brother, and the endless, endless news stories about anti-black violence, and the stories her friends tell that don't make the news.

It's the experience of a transgender woman whose body aches with an undiagnosed condition because she can't access a health care provider who will treat her with dignity, whose muscles are tense from cringing whenever she walks alone after dark, who spends day after day warding off crude sexual advances but who can't find a partner who loves her for herself.

It's the experience of an African-American man, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, whose body aches from sleepless nights, whose head aches from recalcitrant congresspersons, and mostly, whose heart aches with the death of his siblings in the place that was their sanctuary. It's the experience of President Obama, whose wisdom and education and credentials and deep faith are invisible to those who, still, after eight years, see only the color of his skin.

It's the experience of the heroines and heroes of Stonewall, women like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson, who sold sex and took drugs and sometimes lived on the streets and felt themselves excluded from the movement they'd started, pushed to the side for the sake of the politics of respectability.

It's the experience of a woman whose body is despised by her society, who's been abused by the medical establishment, and who lives in poverty, alone and outcast.

Let me be clear, these experiences, all of them, are only part of the story of people's lives. There are moments too of transcendent joy, moments of beauty and love and laughter.

But in this time of grief, in Ferguson and Charleston and all the places in between-- this is a moment that's poured onto people already hurting from year after year of violence and fear.

This is a moment of pain, but also a moment of possibility, a moment of promise.

Those moments in scripture, those moments in history, this moment now --

The moment when survival is more important than manners, when the only words that will give voice to anguish are not polite words, when power that's been stolen from people and hoarded by institutions must be reclaimed --

that moment when with thrown rocks and raised voices and a hand lifted up to touch the fringes of power

that moment of desperate hope reaching up from anguish

it's that moment when God's power flows like lightening into the hands of God's people.

God can transform a bleeding woman's desperate faith into healing and restoration. God can transform angry arson and vandalism into the rainbow people who rejoiced on Friday. God transforms debt into jubilee, slavery into freedom, death into life.

The world fills us with shame -- for the shape of our bodies and the depth of our grief, for our passions and our pleasures, for the places we live and the clothes we wear, for the color of our skin and the fluency of our language, for who we love and for who we are.

Activism is the moment when people who have been made ashamed become shameless, because we have nothing left to lose and no other recourse left.

And grace is the moment when shame and shamelessness alike are transformed into pride.


1Wilson, Nancy L. Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Print. 146.

2GuttiƩrez, Jennicet. "I Interrupted Obama Because We Need to Be Heard." Washington Blade. Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc, 25 June 2015. Web. 28 June 2015.

3Eckholm, Erik. "The Same-Sex Couple Who Got a Marriage License in 1971." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 16 May 2015. Web. 28 June 2015.

Monday, June 22, 2015

[sermon] on David & Goliath

Sermon for the people of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church
preached 2015-06-21

Primary Preaching Text: Selections from I Samuel 17
Secondary Text: Mark 4:35-41

It might be pleasant to believe that God orchestrated David’s entire life to prepare for this moment, that God sent the bears and the lions for David to practice on, whispered in Jesse’s ear about the ten cheeses, set those five smooth stones in the brook.

Because if that’s so, then every difficulty we encounter has also been orchestrated by God. God has a plan.

The Philistines had a plan. Goliath had a plan. They had advance preparation. Goliath had been a warrior from his youth. He was prepared to do battle and to do it well. Everything in his life had led up to the moment when he challenged any Israelite who dared to try his strength. For the most part, God doesn't have plans like that.

What God has are fantastic improvisation skills.

We do not have a God who stirs up storms or raises up giants to prove God’s power. We do have a God who confronts storms and giants and deficit budgets and the horrors of institutional racism with power and creativity and whatever tools are at hand.

David has trained his whole life for this – not by preparing for battle with a giant, but by doing the things he’s called to do – shepherding, playing the harp, carrying cheeses.

If we don't have physical strength, God will use our skills with a slingshot.

If we aren't gifted orators, God will give us siblings who will do the talking and use our faithfulness and leadership abilities.

If our faith is weak, God may roll God's eyes, but God will guide us to use our seamanship to weather storms.

If our pockets are not deep, God will use our creativity and our generosity and our friendship networks and our attics overfull of antiques.

Saul offers David armor, and David tries to wear it, but he can barely walk. Logic and tradition say there's a certain thing you wear when you fight giants, that it's foolish to go into battle without a sword, but it's even more foolish to go into battle wearing armor that doesn't fit. A slingshot is the right tool for this job, not because it's the only thing that will fell a giant, but because it's the tool that David is best equipped to use.

When we find ourselves facing giants, or storms, or lions and tigers and bears --

Whether they as devastating and inhuman as an earthquake or as insidiously, terribly human as systemic racism...

Giants taunt and torment us, and if we try to do battle on their terms, they will always win.

That doesn't mean we aren't required to be flexible. We are, exceedingly. But we have to flex the muscles we have, not the ones we wish we had.

We also want to take care with the gifts that we choose to develop. The old truism that if you have a hammer, all the world's a nail is not at all humorous if you consider the NRA board member who claimed earlier this week that murder could have been prevented if members of the Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston had taken guns to midweek worship. I'm pretty sure guns are the wrong tools for dismantling systems of racism and violence. Audre Lorde is right -- the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.

There is another side to this, deeper and more difficult. God uses our giftedness with slingshots or ships. But God also uses our flaws.

If you were here last fall, you might remember that we last encountered David at a moment of disastrous sin, when he abducted Bathsheba and had her husband killed. Not a proud moment in David's life, not how we want to remember him. We much prefer the story in front of us today, for all its gore and violence.

We are going to walk with David for the next four weeks. It is definitely odd, to join up with David at this moment in his life, knowing that he will become a king who sometimes abused his kingship in terrible ways.

But right now David is just a kid. A young man, taught from childhood to despise the Other, that Philistines are less than human, that killing them is doing the world a service. Perhaps hearing his soldier brothers boast of the numbers of Philistines they've killed.

This is the third story in the Bible about David. The first is the story of how David's father, Jesse, paraded all his sons before the prophet Samuel, and it was David, youngest and least, who was off tending the sheep, who was anointed by Samuel.

The second is the story of how David was a talented harpist who entered into Saul's service to soothe him when he was tormented with an evil spirit.

And the third, and best known, is the story of David and Goliath. There are some contradictions in the particulars of the stories about David -- but the themes are consistent. This is what Israel remembered about her beloved king: that he was handsome and charismatic, skilled at music as well as war, that he came from humble origins, a youngest son, a shepherd, an armor bearer in Saul's army. That he was full of courage, and that he was full of God.

This is what we know about Goliath: Goliath is a big man. When you're nine and a half feet tall, that's certainly the first and frequently the only thing people notice about you. If it's how everyone around you defines you, it becomes part of your identity too. Goliath is a big man, and he was trained from youth to be a warrior.

When we tell this story to children, we talk about the boy hero David, who defended Israel from a giant the way he defended lambs from bears and lions, and the giant, like lions and bears, becomes an inhuman, monstrous figure. We tell children about the stone that killed Goliath, but we mention less frequently that he cut off Goliath's head with Goliath's own sword, and less frequently still that he carried Goliath's severed head all the way to Jerusalem, a trophy of war.

Those parts of the story make us a little uneasy.
We should feel uneasy about David. We should be uneasy of the gore and violence in this story.

We should remember that David is not God, and we should remember that Goliath too was God's child, and that God grieved his death.

We need to know that sometimes there are no good solutions, just solutions that are less bad, and that God's creativity and God's redemptive power are endless. God uses sinful broken people because that's the only kind of person there is. But we also need to know that war is not God's will for humankind.

So here we are, a people of peace -- peace in our name and peace in our mission -- people committed to proclaiming peace -- and we have in front of us a story of violence. It's hard to face that violence. We'd rather ignore it, or treat it like video game violence. This is folklore, after all; it did not really happen exactly like that. We treat it as a metaphor, say that we "do battle with" systemic evil, identify our giants with faceless, inhuman systems -- the payday loan industry, white supremacy, terrorism. Perhaps that metaphor is helpful, sometimes. If nothing else it reminds us that the stakes are life or death, that people who would deny others health care, people who would deny others a living wage, would deny people life. But if the stakes are life or death, we must be on the side of life.

I would like to ignore the violence, or make it into a metaphor.

I can't look away from it, not this week. Not when nine people are dead in Charleston because a young man -- a Lutheran, our brother -- so awfully and tragically misunderstood what God wanted. Because he believed about black people the things that David believed about Philistines.

So David slew a giant. A charming young man who was sure he was doing what God wanted kills a man who has been threatening his people. And yes, Goliath was, quite literally, asking for it, and yes, it was war and that's the nature of war, and doubtless more lives would have been taken if they hadn't resolved it with single combat... but it is still death, and God still grieved, and when we think about the tools we have at hand, it's not enough just to say that God will use whatever is available, although, yes, God, being endlessly resourceful and creative, will use whatever is available.

We can acknowledge the painful truth that sometimes there doesn't seem to be a nonviolent solution. There was no peacemaker or negotiator between Socoh and Azekah, where the Israelites pitched their tents, but there was David, David and his slingshot and the five smooth stones from the brook.

And God's redemptive power is greater than the greatest evil we can do.

God does not sanction or condone or encourage warfare. But God does God's redemptive work through the means that we provide.

And to join in God's work in the world means using the tools we have, the gifts and skills we're given and the smooth stones we find, to work God's redemption. It means seeking out brokenness and working to transform it. It means confronting the concrete realities of injustice and racism, deeply unpleasant and difficult as that is.

Violence and sacrifice and death are some of humanity's favorite tools. The perpetual battle between Philistines and Israelites demonstrates that. So does the tragedy in Charleston. And so does the cross. And nothing demonstrates God's ability to take tragedy and transform it into redemption better than the cross.

Sometimes there is no good solution. That's not particularly heartening news, perhaps, but it is true. Sometimes the giants in our lives can only be slain, not redeemed. Sometimes we capsize. Sometimes people are murdered at Bible study. Sometimes God makes God's way to the cross.

This is true.

And in the bleakest of hours, God is present, building hope, proclaiming peace, and using God's people to redeem and transform and resurrect everything that is broken.

This is also most certainly true.