Wednesday, November 8, 2017

[sermon] the veil is thin, the misuses of authority, and other spooky topics

Sermon for the people of God at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church
All Saints Day Observed 2017-11-05

Preaching Texts: Matthew 23:1-12, Micah 3:5-12.

This is the time of year when the veil between life and death is thin.

For those of us who are a little touched – a little superstitious, a little psychic, a little mystical – it’s a thing we can feel, this time of year when the leaves turn colors, then shrivel and fall, when the first frost comes – the veil is thin and ghosts and spirits are closer than normal.

This is the time of year when pagans celebrate Samhain. This is the time of year, a medieval rabbi tells us, when “there is a night when the souls come out of their graves."

People of many faiths have noticed that this is the spooky time of year.

Which is why we celebrate All Saints Day on November 1, and the day before, October 31 is All Saints Eve – or All Hallows Eve – Halloween.

And the day after, November 2, is All Souls Day.

Some traditions draw – or have drawn in the past – a distinction between All Saints and All Souls Day, where All Souls Day is the commemoration of all the “faithful departed,” that is, all Christians who have died, and All Saints Day remembers those faithful departed who were especially good at being Christian.

We like to divide things into categories, especially when they’re scary – when the spirits of the dead are hovering, we like to be able to sort them out, make them a little more susceptible to our logic and our categories.

It is this distinction between “Saints” and “ordinary Christians” that I want to talk about with you, this All Saints Day Observed – because in life as well as in death we are fond of dividing people into categories.

In many Protestant denominations All Souls Day has been eliminated, or All Souls and All Saints have been merged, working on the assumption that all believers are saints (and of course, that all believers are sinners, even those who are saints), which is in keeping with the faith of our ancestors – the faith of Paul, who addresses letters to the beloved saints of Rome, of Corinth, of Philippi.

And, of course, in keeping with the faith of Jesus, who tells us to call no one rabbi, or father, or instructor – those titles of honor, like bishop, or pastor, or saint, that separate “ordinary Christians” from “super extraordinary special Christians.”

Jesus is addressing an audience with two parts – the crowds, and his disciples.

This is Holy Week, and Jesus has been teaching in the Temple all day, answering challenges from various factions. The crowd that greeted him on Palm Sunday has followed him into the Temple and has been enjoying the show – the overturning of tables, the parables, the arguments with Saducees and Pharisees. The verse that comes right before our passage tells us that from now on, no one dared to ask Jesus any questions. He has overawed them. And, knowing that it is Holy Week and that he is heading to the Cross, Jesus has some final instructions. There are still several more chapters of Matthew’s Gospel before the crucifixion, but this is Jesus’ last chance to address the whole crowd.

So, here is this crowd, gathering for Jesus’ sermon, and he opens by saying that they’re to follow the Pharisees’ teaching, although not their example, which is not a huge surprise – Jesus, like the Pharisees, teaches that religion is a part of life, affecting everything you do.

Jesus identifies the Pharisees who “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,” those who don’t just wear religious attire but make their religious attire obvious so that everyone knows that they are very religious. Their phylacteries are boxes holding scripture, designed to remind the wearer of God’s goodness and might in rescuing Israel from Egypt, and of the commandment to love and serve God with heart and soul. But in their ostentatious form they serve more to remind the viewer of the piety of the wearer, rather than to remind the wearer of his obligation to God.

Jesus enumerates the privileges that these very visibly religious people have: the best seats at dinner parties, the best seats in the synagogue, respectful greetings from everyone they meet.

And Jesus says, to his audience of Pharisees and ordinary people and his own disciples, it’s not supposed to be like that, not for Jesus’ followers. They aren’t to claim titles like “rabbi” because Jesus is the only teacher they need. They aren’t to call anyone Father because only God is worthy of that title.

The greatest title in the Kingdom of God, the title that Jesus’ followers should aspire to? “Servant.” If you try to exalt yourself, you’ll be made humble. And the servants will be lifted high.

There is a system – I would say “the old system” but let’s be real, it’s a perpetual system that reinvents itself generation upon generation – that designates some people as “holy” and then gives all sorts of material benefits to those holy people.

The way the system works doesn’t just benefit those to whom those benefits accrue, though. They are part of a system of exchange, where “ordinary people” will give extra respect to religious people in exchange for the religious people “doing their religion” for them.

There are several problems with that. It gives too much power to some people. It gives too little power to others. And most importantly, it gives too little power to God.

-It is not good for anyone to have too much power, in any realm. It’s why our system of government is designed so that no one branch has unchecked power.

There are some people who are not worthy of the authority that we give them. Like those religious leaders in Jesus’ time who put on a show of being religious, wearing the right clothes and saying the right words, but failing to do the right thing, or like the prophets of Micah’s time who “gave oracles for money,” who prophesied good things to those who gave them good things to eat.

We know that the prophet Micah comes from a small town called Moresheth, southwest of Jerusalem, and that he lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ.

The rest of Micah’s biography is found in the passage Rick read this morning. “As for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and Israel his sin.”

Micah condemns a variety of people with formal religious titles – seers, diviners, and the official prophets employed by the king or the Temple to provide guidance. His complaint is that these officials have become mercenary – they will provide good news for the right price, but predict – or perhaps summon – catastrophe against the poor.

Micah contrasts the official prophets, corrupt, greedy, and cut off from God, with his own calling. Micah has been filled with God’s spirit and power, with God’s justice and might and the authority to declare God’s justice to the people of Judah.

The measure of power and authority is not in the job title “prophet” – or “teacher” or “saint” – but in the act of prophesying or teaching.

So, let me be clear, when I talk about “religious authority,” I realize that we are a church with a pastor, a bishop, a presiding bishop, all of whom are faithful and hardworking servants of God. When it comes to whether we have religious professionals, people called “teacher” or “father” or “pastor” – that ship has sailed.

And, while I think there are certain dangers and temptations that are particular to some vocations, there are also moments when all of us are tempted to let other people take care of “doing religion” for us. And those of us with some authority in the church – absolutely including lay leaders and certainly including me – must be careful with the responsibility that comes with that authority and not, well, let it go to our heads.

In a couple of weeks, at Thanksgiving dinner tables around the country, people will turn to their aunts and stepfathers and family friends and say, “You’re a pastor. You say grace.”

We are all equipped to pray. We are not all equally eloquent, but we are all equipped to give thanks to God for God’s gifts. No advanced degree or specialized vocabulary required.

Saying grace at Thanksgiving is a small thing, but there are bigger things that we are willing to let other people be responsible for. Things like building hope, and proclaiming peace, and preparing a way for the Lord.

When I say we let others “do our religion for us” I mean a variety of things.

I mean the belief in magical church fairies who come and set up chairs for events and wash communion cups.

I mean looking at religious people we admire – like the saints we remember today – and deciding that we’ll never be that brave or wise and generous, so we might as well go on being cowardly and foolish and selfish.

I mean, very concretely, the feeling of pride I had when Pr. Donna went to Ferguson three years ago, as if her marching was something I had a claim to.

And to some extent, I mean things that are individual. We are not all called to the same tasks or the same professions. We have many kinds of relationships with God.

and God has designed the Body of Christ so that we each have unique and important gifts, and lack other gifts, so that we must rely on one another.

But no one’s role is sitting passively. There is some role, some task, for which God has uniquely sanctified you – for which God has made you a patron saint.

Maybe you’re a patron saint of paperwork, or of cheerful customer service, or of driving people to church. Maybe you’re a patron saint of low-wage workers, or immigrants, or transgender people.

There is work that only you are equipped to do.

And there is work that we are all called to do. We are all called to pray. We are all called to give from the resources we have. We are all called to study scripture.

We are all called to love our neighbors with active, giving, sacrificial love.

We are all called to the communion table, and called to share its joy with the world.

When we assign teaching and prophecy and holiness to an elite group of people, we remove it from ourselves, put holiness – its power and its obligations – out there, or up there, or back there [gesture to the chancel] or, in the case of the saints remembered today, back then, completely outside the realm of the living.

But this is the time of the year when the boundary between life and death is thin. And holiness has a way year round of slipping past the boundaries we try to place around it. Holiness escapes the walls of the church, the pages of scripture, the lives of departed saints – and makes the whole world holy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

[pride] Ours is the Task

Ours is the Task: a Litany of Remembrance and Commitment
(Written for the Kansas City Pride Interfaith Service 2017-05-31)

The core of the Litany that we’re about to say comes from the novel Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearheart.
[Gearhart, Sally Miller. The wanderground: stories of the hill women. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1984. Print. Page 196]

I was reading this novel when my friend Jeane died in 2000, which is probably why the ritual of grief that ends the novel engraved itself into my heart.

If you so believe, then so it is:
Ours is the task,
Yours is the passing.
And, although you may, you may not come again.

If you so believe, then so it is
If you so believe, then so it is

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

And although you may, you may not come again.
And although you may, you may not come again.

We gather tonight as people of many faiths and none, believers and wanderers, pilgrims and proselytes, converts and clergy. We believe in many Gods and none, in many paths to many destinations.

We believe in the transforming power of community and of faith itself.

If you so believe, then so it is
If you so believe, then so it is

We gather tonight to promise each other, our communities, our Gods and our universe that we will stand together for justice.

We are many people, of many faiths, many colors, many genders. We have many ways of worshiping, many ways of loving.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of building bridges out of our differences, weaving flags in many colors, writing poetry in many languages, learning from one another and loving those we do not understand.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of telling our stories, naming our heroes, remembering our ancestors. Ours is the task of insisting that trans women of color and homeless youth are not erased from our memory of Stonewall. Ours is the task of honoring the messy, complex identities of our forebears without collapsing them into the categories that we prefer today.

Ours is the task of reminding the world that we were not the first men to marry men, not the first women to kiss women, not the first people to realize that gender binaries can’t hold us.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of solidarity. It is ours to realize that when any people suffer, when any people are not free, when any people live in danger, we must work for liberation.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

It is our task to be specific and fearless. It is our task to practice saying, "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," "transgender," and "queer" precisely and clearly.

It is our task to protect Muslim women riding the bus.

It is our task to end child marriage in all fifty states.

It is our task to raise the minimum wage.

It is our task to write and speak, to remember and pray, to comfort and grieve, to protest and publicize and protect. It’s ours to give what we can from what’s been given to us.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved ancestors: Harvey Milk, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Leslie Fienberg, Brenda Howard, Audre Lorde, women and men and queers of all genders, people of all kinds, to whom we owe our communities, people remembered and people lost to history –

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved ancestors who died in the closet, who never found names for yourselves, whose names we’ll never know:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved generation lost to AIDS, dying fearlessly on statehouse steps:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved who have been martyred recently:
The 49 victims of shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando
Gay and bisexual men murdered in Chechnya
Brenda Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, and nine other transgender women of color killed this year in this country:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

We name the horror of your deaths and the beauty of your lives, and with hope and doubt, with faith and fear, we remember you, we honor you, and in your name we say

OURS is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

And although you may,
And although you may,

You may not come again
you may not come again