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Oct 24, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite C
It’s the loveliest thing about swallows,
The moment they come,
The moment they dip in, and are suddenly there.
For months you just never thought about them
Then suddenly you see one swimming maybe out there
Over our bare tossing orchard, in a slattery April blow,
Probably among big sloppy snowflakes
And there it is – the first swallow,
Flung and frail, like a midge caught in the waterskin
On the weir’s brink – and straightaway you lose it.
You just got a glimpse of whisker and frailty
Then there’s nothing but jostled daffodils, like the girls running
In from a downpour
Shrieking and giggling and shivering
And the puckered primrose posies, and the wet grit.
It’s only a moment, only a flicker, easy to miss –
The first swallow just swinging in your eye-corner
Like a mote in the wind-smart,
A swallow pinned on a roller of air that roars and snatches it away
Out of sight, and booms in the bare wood
And you know there’ll be colder nights yet
And worse days and you think
‘If he’s here, there must be flies for him’
And you think of the flies and their thin limbs in that cold.
I spent this week giving attention to birds. I’ve stood still by my window waiting for birds. I’ve stopped mid-conversation to see a bird on a bench tilting her head toward me. I’ve waited in the open spaces where there are no birds; I’ve observed their absence. I’ve looked at pictures, carefully drawn by patient hands, pictures of speckled eggs and spackled nests. I’ve leafed through photographs of grackles and cowbirds, nuthatches and waxwings, kinglets, larks, and ibises.
I spent this week giving attention to birds, because Jesus seems to think that’s something we should do with our time. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells the crowds gathered around him on the side of a mountain. Look. Notice. Give attention.
We’re in good company when we take time for birds. There’s a whole Christian tradition, though not well known, that has paid special attention to animals of all kinds, including birds. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to construct “books of nature,” called bestiaries. Christians at this time assumed that embedded in the natural world were lessons for people, that in the lives of animals we would discover lessons about who God is, that God is somehow revealing God’s self through things that creep and crawl.
Each animal unveils something about God and God’s desire for human life. This week the Scripture pulls our attention towards two birds in particular – sparrows and swallows. We hear about them in Psalm 84:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Sparrows and swallows share some things in common. In the psalm they are building their houses, their nests in the Temple. This isn’t surprising. Swallows and sparrows have lives that are near to ours. They are found where there are people because these birds build their homes in pre-existing structures. In order for them to survive, to lay their eggs they need us.
I learned a lot about these birds as I gave them my attentive regard. I learned that barn swallows pick pebbles of mud and clay from the ground, molding them into a cup nest. The birds will return to the same nests for some twenty years. In the ancient world sparrows were sold for pennies, the burnt offering at the Temple by the poorest of God’s people. They are ubiquitous. An author from this century describes sparrows “as a troublesome and impertinent generation, [that] nestle just where you do not want them. They stop your stove- and water-pipes with their rubbish, build in the windows and under the beams of the roof, and would stuff your hat full of stubble in half a day if they found it hanging in a place to suit them.”
Sparrows and swallows found refuge in the Temple. The Temple was the place where God’s life ran free. It was the place that gave shape for God’s spirit, the holy place, the place to which people drew near to draw near to God. Here God welcomes sparrows to pack the dirt of their nests, to line the nest with feathers, to brood patiently over a clutch of six eggs, always one egg noticeably lighter than the others. God gives them attention. And W\when we give attention to birds we are as God is. When we do this we’re enfolding our lives into God’s life.
God’s attention is attentive regard. God’s attention is delight. I read an interview with Mary Oliver, the naturalist poet, who told the journalist memories of her late spouse, whom she called “M”: “It has frequently been remarked about my own writings,” Oliver said, “that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
Mary Oliver’s words remind me of a friend who is an ornithologist. When we talk outside, every once in a while, he pauses, so I pause, and I follow his eyes to a tree, to a branch, to a flutter of movement, then he’d tell me about his surprise at seeing this bird, this particular bird, here in our neighborhood. As the bird hops from branch to branch, both of us become distracted by this dance in the tree, surprised by what we notice.
I imagine that God is like this, like my neighbor. The God who goes about, doing all the important things, important business, yet who can’t help but be distracted into attention for birds, the surprise of these creatures, the distraction of delight. What takes practice for me–this discipline of paying attention–is simply how God is. In God’s life all created things have weight, they cannot help but call attention. God cannot help but be drawn back to them. And in turn God’s love draws us into the distraction. God invites us to notice that there is a bird nesting at the altar, invites us to be drawn into the lives of other.
In the bestiary manuscripts I mentioned before everything is supposed to be a lesson. There are thousands of these texts and their accompanying pictures, each beast revealing a moral or spiritual lesson. I noticed that the manuscripts tend in two directions. Some quickly move from the description of the animal to the lesson discovered therein – this fish is like the Trinity, this pelican is like the sacrifice of Jesus, this rabbit holds a moral lesson.
But on some pages the monks are carried away by the depictions of the animals themselves. They get distracted figuring out the exact color of the swallow’s breast, distracted in describing the deep cross of the scissor tail, wondering about swallows who catch insects as they fly. After a while the writer catches himself in the distraction of these descriptions, manages to tack on a pithy phrase at the end about how God is like this or that. The writer forgets that the bird isn’t the thing itself. The writer is distracted by creation, distracted into attentive regard.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve met with many of you, I’ve enjoyed getting to know all the ways you are distracted by the things that distract God. In looking to birds I’ve become curious about all of you, those of you who have built into your lives a capacity for distraction. I’ve learned it by your attentive regard to those at the margins of our church, the people who are difficult to love. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in rocks, you stop to pick up something remarkable where I see ordinary gravel. I’ve learned it from those of you who delight in our children, the one who spend Sunday school with my toddler, the one who gathers up a clutch of preschoolers from around our neighborhood. I’ve also learned it from those of you who have given attentive regard to yourselves—the ways you give your own life the attentiveness that reflects back a God who loves you.
As I gave my attention to birds this week, as I began to think about your attentiveness I started to notice that my attention was drawn more and more to other things, ordinary scenes in my life that I often overlook. At the public library I saw a woman hard at work, using a computer reserved for job searches, looking for employment opportunities. Her two children, toddlers, were crawling under the table, around her chair, jostling for the coveted spot between their mother’s feet. I saw another mom, gently rocking her stroller back and forth with one hand, her little one bundled inside, napping, while pecking at the keyboard with her free hand.
As I watched them all, I remembered the words of an ornithologist who described a species of sparrows that builds nests out of whatever is available, sparrows that make life out of whatever they can find. As I looked at these little sparrows, nesting under the computer table, I thought about other nests: the homes built for overlooked people. Tent cities and refugees in camps, shelters cropping up in the woods, the people who sleep in cars, on a friend’s couch, under the doorways of church buildings—and how God can’t help but pay attention to them, how they draw God’s attention, how God’s eyes turn toward them.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus points to sparrows because they remind us that God gives us what we need. But I do wish Jesus lingered here a bit longer, lingered here with the birds before turning to us, stayed where Psalm 84 gives attention. I wish that he’d lingered on those mama swallows whose babies chirp, mouths wide for insects; those thick, dark nests made pebble by muddy pebble; those freed bodies flitting about the open air of the Temple. This is the goodness, the unexpected and unasked for pleasure of simply being received as we are. What we learn from sparrows is that delight in the unexpected intrusion of another is to dwell in God’s life. What we learn is that God’s distraction for us is love.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
A woman. A vulnerable woman. A woman without social or political power. This woman finds herself up against a heartless bureaucrat who cares nothing about justice. And she pushes back. She nags and fights until justice prevails.
Today Jesus tells his disciples a parable. And when I heard it I thought, “this sounds so familiar.”
I realized why after Brenda mentioned the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” at a meeting we were at earlier this week. That’s where I’ve heard this story before.
“Pray The Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary about the end of the long civil war in Liberia. Liberia is a country that was settled by freed slaves at the end of institutionalized slavery in the U.S. Over time conflict arose between these American transplants and the indigenous peoples. Further tensions grew over the mixed religious landscape – both Muslim and Christian. The income gap widened, anger flared, joblessness was rampant, the ruling elite ignored the cries of the people. And in 1989 Liberia erupted into a civil war that lasted over a decade. Thousands were killed and displaced. Rape, looting, the recruitment of child soldiers, sectarian violence – all of this was part of the normal rhythm of life in the country side.
Until one day a group of women had enough. It started with a dream, a dream from God to gather women to pray. And that prayer became the force through which a peace movement began in Liberia, a women’s peace movement. It was a movement that required persistence, a movement that began with Christians who were joined by Muslim women. It was a movement that was dangerous, subversive, and demanding.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” isn’t a movie with a central confrontation between a group of women and a bunch of warlords. Instead, it’s a film about tenacity, about weeks of sitting in the fish market while President Taylor drives by without a second look. It’s about a peace movement that spans years, required adaption, travels across countries, a movement that grew to thousands of women refusing to be silent over and over and over and over again.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
The parable is about two things. First, it’s about prayer, about how God loves us and wants us to pray because prayer has something to do with justice. And second, the parable is about the way the world works, about the way justice prevails in the face of persistence. Somehow these two things go together. Leymah Gbowee and the Nigerian women’s peace movement unite this parable for us, putting the pieces together. Leymah shows us the faith of the persistent widow.
Luke has been taking us through this lesson of faith over the past couple months. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus’ teaching that faith isn’t a commodity, a paycheck you cash in. Instead it’s a disposition of life, a way of being and acting in the world. And today we hear more about faith. We get a template, a blue print for this faith, a few more details on this disposition. Jesus wants us to be like this woman: tenacious, resilient, relentless in our prayer as a pursuit of justice. “When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus wonders, will he find the faith of this woman, will he find women like this one on earth?
That’s why Jesus calls prayer a need, a necessity. Jesus doesn’t pass it off as something we do to make ourselves feel better. Prayer isn’t lifted up because it calms us down, distracting us from action. We need to pray because praying opens our lives and our imaginations to the justice of God. Praying keeps us aware that God is nothing like the wicked judge, God is nothing like one who scoffs at justice.
The believers to whom Jesus directs this parable are not just the disciples. This is a parable for us, for those of us who see injustice run rampant all around us. It’s a parable for those who need to be reminded that God is with us and for us, that God is with those who are broken, distressed, and disheartened by the evil we see.
I have been particularly disheartened at the shadow of the unjust judge that has loomed over our country. Over the past two weeks I’ve listened as Christians defend rhetoric of sexual assault. I’ve watched Christian women use the robust and rich theological language of sin and forgiveness to get a presidential candidate off the hook. I’ve watched as over a million stories of sexual assault poured in over Twitter. I’ve heard my friends publicly tell their stories about sexual assault for the first time. I’ve heard silence from many of my brothers where there should be a resounding condemnation. I’ve been told sexual assault is common, everyday speech for men, “locker room” talk, the kind of language I should expect and accept.
I suspect that Leymah Gbowee was taught to expect and accept the brutality of sexual violence that accompanied the Liberian civil war. As I watched the film about the Nigerian women’s peace movement, I was struck by the weariness of this endless violence. I was struck by how Leymah, a single mother with three children, a woman five months pregnant at the time she received her dream, a poor woman with no power—I was struck by how Leymah had a dream about praying her way into peace.
Leymah had a dream. She dreamed about prayer, and that prayer grew. It’s a prayer that brought together women from across her country, women brought together across religious lines. It was a prayer that started with the mouth, and the prayer got louder. The prayer grew feet. It grew arms. It grew a heart. It grew lungs. It was a prayer of persistence and organization, the prayer of a widow who is relentless, who will not cease her prayer until her demands for peace are met.
If we ever doubted that prayer spills out into protest against injustice, the persistent widow makes this plain. One of my favorite lines in this parable–apparently tamed for us, the gentle English-language readers–is found in widow’s outcry against the judge. A literal translation says, “This widow keeps bringing all this trouble, I will grant her justice so she stops giving me a black eye.” This is language borrowed from a boxing match, a “fearless macho, judge cornered and slugged by the least powerful in society.”
From judge’s perspective, from the position of power, this woman is trouble. She won’t leave him alone. She’s puts her whole life into her protest, all of who she is—showing up at his house, pounding on his door, crying out for justice. If she can’t sleep she won’t let her oppressor sleep. She doesn’t play by the rules imposed upon her by culture, by what others say women are allowed to do, by what others say women are allowed to be.
Sometimes we’re asked to do this, to act like this woman—to let our desire for justice lead us outside the bounds of culture, outside the bounds of pre-scripted roles, outside the expectations imposed upon us by the judges of social acceptability. What the widow displays is the actions of one acting outside her role. Those of you who are women and have found yourselves described as “aggressive,” as “angry,” in your confrontation of systems of coercive power—you have a very good idea of what is happening in this parable. The judge gives a sarcastic response to a woman who has gone outside her station to protest. Her power is her relentlessness, her willingness to do whatever it takes.
Echoing back from today’s parable are Leymah Gbowee and the women of the Nigerian women’s peace movement. Echoing back is every woman who has prayed for the strength to report a sexual assault, every woman who has told her story to help make others brave. Echoing back is every woman whose prayer has grown to a protest, whose prayer has become a movement, a black eye on a system of oppression – women who acted in the way women were not expected to act, women whose prayer grew legs and lungs, women who would not stop, would not rest until justice was done.
This week I am longing for a movement of prayer that erupts into protest. I am longing for my sisters and brothers to speak out against sexual assault. There is nothing braver than persistence of this kind in the face of evil. It is a bravery so intense it requires, it needs a God whose whole entire being, whose life even unto death is bound up in bringing the justice to the earth, whose life is bound up in your life.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
 Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (641).
Oct 9, 2016
2 Kings 5
Raleigh Mennonite Church
I knew it was only a matter of time before Tom and Malcolm were hit by a car. The brothers live up the street from us. Almost every day, shortly after one of our family vehicles pulls into the drive, I see the boys, nine and eleven, leap from their porch and onto their bikes. A smooth, long hill leads from their house at the top of the hill to our house at the bottom. But you have to cross one road to reach our front door.
It’s that road that always scares me. The boys seem to pay attention for oncoming cars but I always hold my breath as they near the intersection, as they careen through the stop sign.
Etta and I were getting out of the car when this familiar scene played out. I turned just in time to see Tom riding his bike, Malcolm standing on the pegs behind him. Tom couldn’t see. He couldn’t see the white car driving down Englewood.
There was a screech and a loud thump as I watched the car swipe the front of the bike where Tom was sitting. The white sedan smashed into his left leg.
This week I’ve been thinking about little lives, lives that pass by without much notice, lives like Tom’s, lives that declare their smallness, lives that are fragile in their smallness.
We hear about a life like this in the Scriptures today. It’s a life that passes by if we don’t look for it, if we don’t pay attention.
Namaan, is a wealthy, well-connected military general from Aram. And he has a humiliating problem. He’s got a horrible skin disease. It probably looked bad, itched terribly, and made it embarrassing for him to be in the company of others especially as an important person in his country.
We learn that in one of their recent military campaigns Namaan’s armies took some of the people as slaves. One of them was a little girl. In the original Hebrew, the verses emphasize how small she is, small of size and small of importance. She’s a “little little girl,” a nameless slave from a conquered people. Surprisingly, she speaks up. She turns to Namaan’s wife with a possible solution to his skin disease. “O, that my master was with the prophet in Samaria, then he would be healed.”
And then she seems to disappear from the story. She is given just one line, one sentence bravely spoken to the mistress of her house. It’s more than a request. It’s a longing, a desire for healing, healing for a military general who ripped her from her family, enslaved her, brought her to a land far from her home where her future is dim.
We have no idea why she responds this way, why the little little girl doesn’t leave Namaan to wallow in his sores.
We aren’t told anything about her story. The narrative moves on, doesn’t give us time to wonder. What happened to her family? Were they murdered in front of her? Were they, too, taken as slaves, a family torn apart by a politics outside their control? Was she afraid? Did she cry at night? Was she seven or eight or nine? Did she still play make believe games in those moments between carrying pans and gathering firewood? Did she gather scraps of cloth and cornhusks for make shift dolls?
The story passes by her without dwelling on any of these questions. The story moves on to more important things. Namaan hears of the little little girl’s exclamation. And, in his importance, goes about seeking his healing the way important people do. He relies on his connections to get him into Israel, a letter from his king to the king in Samaria. He gets payment ready – gold, silver, and expensive clothing. Namaan goes where important people go. Powerful people do powerful things, so he goes to the king of Israel assuming that’s where he’ll get this miraculous healing.
Of course, it isn’t the king who can help Namaan. It’s an easily excitable, kind of angry, bald-headed prophet who won’t even bother to come out to deliver a message to the great and majestic Namaan. That’s who has the power to offer God’s healing, not the king.
Namaan is mad and he’s about the get madder. The instructions from the prophet for this healing are not, as he anticipated, some hocus pocus, waving of hands. Instead Namaan is to bathe in the sewage filled waters of the Jordan.
As we enter this story we find that we think we’re being taken in one direction only to discover the prophet turning us around and telling us to go the opposite way. We read this text standing in the shoes of Namaan. He’s gone about this the way important people do. Namaan does what he knows. He employs the bluster of kingly affairs, pompous parades, cash gifts, and diplomatic exchanges.
Here at the end, he’s stripped of all of this. He’s reduced to a naked, scabby mess of a human being, bathing in a polluted river.
What comes out of the Jordan, what emerges, we find, is a person with skin like a child, with skin that looks like a little child. The Hebrew text offers hints, helping us along, using the same word to describe both the reborn Namaan and the little little girl who initiates this healing story. He has put on her skin. His body is like her body. All this time, God was turning the story back to the one we and Namaan passed over, the one we disregarded – a nameless slave child, a very little girl.
The ancient Jewish Rabbis have a saying. “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Namaan sees importance in political connections and wealth. And he learns that the God of Israel is the God to whom all are precious. God sees as God is.
I wonder if, standing naked on the river bank, wiping away the stinking mud, if Namaan realized that God loved him. I wonder if he found that his life meant something to God, that God loved him, all by himself. I wonder if, stripped of wealth and power, Namaan came to know that he was as precious as a little little slave girl.
This morning the street outside my house is quiet. The ambulance and fire engine are gone. There’s no trace of the crash that happened earlier this week. I’m thinking again about Malcom and Tom, how their little lives, so insignificant in light of the power and wealth of our world, how their lives are so precious to me, so precious to God.
When I heard that horrible crash, Tom’s scream, I started to run. It was instinct. I left everything in the street outside my car – my purse, my groceries, even my two-year old. I turned and I ran towards Tom.
And God is like that to, leaving everything behind to run after you, leaving her own child in the street to get to you. God does not see things as they are. God see things as God is. And when God sees you, when God sees the smallness of your life, when God sees you stripped of everything, with nothing left, God sees a beloved. God is always leaving everything behind and running towards you.
What we learn from Namaan is that wealth and privilege obscure belovedness. We learn that we try all the time at self-improvement, at putting on things to make us more loveable, worthier of love. It is only in the stripping, in the leaving everything behind on the shore of the Jordan, it is only when there is nothing else that could possibly give him worth that Namaan discovers he is truly loved, just as he is. This is the real healing miracle of the story. He is loved like a little girl, a slave, loved immensely, without measure, simply as he is. There is nothing he can do or own or say that could decrease or add to this love.
When I think about my children playing with the boys up the street I remember the precious things they manage to find and collect. Acorns and leaves, berries and empty containers, bright pieces of plastic, old beads. I’m always surprised by the things that children find interesting, the things in which they take delight. I can’t always see. And children help me look closer, to see things not as they are but as God is. Maybe that’s what the little little slave girl in today’s story saw when she saw Namaan – past the sores, past the wealth, seeing instead as God saw Namaan, seeing someone precious.
Because God is like this, too. God sees you, nothing more or less than you. God sees as God is. And God sees beloved.
Oct 2, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite Church
What is faith? That’s the question that animates the Gospel lesson today. What is faith and how do you get? How do you keep it? Get more of it? Or are those the right questions to ask?
Throughout Luke we see Jesus pushing up against an idea about religion assumed in these first questions. It’s a constant struggle because this idea of faith as a commodity was in the cultural water of the day. To treat faith as a commodity means that faith is like a possession—something that can be given and taken away, banked and used, stored up and spent. This way of thinking about faith was all around Jesus, but most noticeable in the religious conviction of the Pharisees.
It’s for this reason that the Pharisees are consistently the antagonists in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus spends a lot of time calling them out as an example of bad behavior, bad belief, a way of doing religion that misunderstands the Law and takes advantage of the poor.
If there is one thing Jesus cannot stand it is when his own disciples can’t break out of this framework, when they replicate the Pharisees position of faith as commodity and transfer it to him. And that is what our Gospel story is about today. “Increase our faith!” the disciples exclaim.
The disciples are mimicking what they see around them. For the Pharisees rule-keeping was the way to get more faith. You got points, money in your religion bank, by being good at following the rules, coming up with more rules, holding others to the rules. And the most important rule of all was to keep separate, to remove yourself from the stain of sin. That’s where you could really rack up dollars.
Piety as a value, something you earn, earned through separation from and exclusion of the vulnerable – that’s what Jesus doesn’t like about the way the Pharisees go about their religious lives.
Jesus’ disciples are part of this culture. People think about religion as being pious, of relating to the Law and to God as a way to receive faith, to increase it. The disciples take that same paradigm and turn it towards Jesus. Give us more, they say. We believe in who you are. You are the Lord, the Lord of the Law, the one whom God sent. So now you can switch the banking rules. You can give out the faith. And when we get some of it, then we’ll show those Pharisees who is truly pious, who is truly religious. We’ll be the ones who are honored.
Jesus is frustrated by this response. Guys, come on! we imagine him saying. Faith isn’t something you get. It isn’t a form of currency to be increased! Faith is a particular disposition in the world.
Jesus tells them faith is like taking a set place in a society where there are ways of life, particular work you are given to do because of the role you play. You don’t get a reward out of it. There’s nothing earned. To join with Jesus means you work for free because what you’re doing isn’t actually work, even when it’s hard, even when it demands. Discipleship is devotion. The disciples want a paycheck, but Jesus wants companions—people who will be by his side during his trials, and people who will gather around a table, who will draw near.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus shows the disciples what this means through his life, through his ministry. A disposition of faith means putting your body next to other people’s bodies, in particular the bodies of the most vulnerable. Jesus, God in flesh comes to earth and he puts his body in the vicinity of the bodies of victims, of sinners and tax collectors, of the sick and disabled, women and children, of laborers, of lepers, of sex workers, of the poor – all those whose bodies will not conform to the dictates of the Law.
It’s the opposite of what the Pharisees have lifted up as good religion. Instead of separation as a way of amassing faith, Jesus shows us that faith is putting our bodies alongside vulnerable people, drawing near to the people Jesus draws close to.
And when Jesus does this, it eventually gets him killed. In Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is put to death on the accusation of sedition – he draws so close that he ends up looking like a political zealot. “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place,” to Jerusalem, the capital, his accusers say. Jesus dies under Roman law because he looks like the oppressed. This is what faith looks like – proximity to the vulnerable, unto death.
James Cone takes this one step further. Cone is the father of black liberation theology. And for him God does not simply draw near to the bodies of the oppressed. Jesus is God put into these bodies. Jesus is enfleshed in the oppressed. For Cone, as a black man in racist America, this means that Jesus is black—as black as Cone’s own body, skin like his skin, flesh like his flesh.
I passed his text, A Black Theology of Liberation, on the church bookshelf this past week. As I picked it up and thumbed through the pages I was struck by how contemporary his words sound, how relevant they were in light of the videotaped shooting deaths of black men we learn about almost every week. Cones words, written in 1970 could be written today.
Cone tells us that, if we want to look for the body of Jesus today, if we want to try and understand the body to which Jesus drew near and entered 2000 years ago, we can see a Jesus who is black. Jesus, Cone tells us, is the “Oppressed one whose earthly existence was bound up with the oppressed of the land” (202). The body of Jesus is the body of Terence Crutcher, it is the body of Keith Lamont Scott.
What I have learned, what white people have learned, is that as we encounter this Jesus, in putting our bodies in proximity to the oppressed, we must make ourselves receptive to anger. I imagine that most of us are in line with a Jesus who turns away from a payment system of faith to a disposition of discipleship.
But the riskiness of the call of discipleship is that we will not resist the anger that comes from those to whom we draw near. Putting my white body in proximity to suffering, to those vulnerable to police violence, racial profiling, unfair drug sentencing, red-lining, voter discrimination – it means putting my life in the way of confrontation of our witting or unwitting participation in racism.
I think that often times Christians in the Mennonite tradition sense imminent danger in anger. We sense that anger should be stifled, that anger is inherently violent. I also sense that the Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel is calling us to a discipleship where we can receive the anger of another.
This is where Jesus words become difficult for me, when I am asked to “stand still and listen to another woman’s (or man’s) voice delineate an agony I do not share, one to which I myself have contributed” (Sisters Outsider, 128).
Audre Lorde has helped me give language to the challenge of Jesus to stand near to the anger of my black sisters and brothers, even as I find voice for my own anger in a sexist world. She reminds me, “it is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (130). When we turn away from anger, we are turning away from the oppressed and insights of these stories. Rather than danger, for Lorde, “anger is loaded with information.” Anger is a spark, a chisel, a flame.
Lorde sees anger as productive, as a kind of miracle of power and growth. We can hear the response Jesus gives the disciples when they ask to have their faith increased. Jesus tells them “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.” Somehow drawing near, putting our bodies in proximity to vulnerable bodies, not resisting the anger of the oppressed, making space for anger without hatred – somehow this disposition of life will actually do something, it creates something new through our difference. It could cause even a tree to flourish in the sea.
It is World Communion Sunday and I am reminded today not only of the beautiful diversity of the universal church, and of our common bond in Christ, but also of the oppression of Christians and their neighbors around our world. Today I am reminded of the anger that wells up in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as the U.S. continues its unrelenting campaign of drone strikes. I am reminded of our ignorance as tens of thousands of our sisters and brothers are killed by militant groups in Nigeria. I am reminded of those in our own country who continue to suffer from racism while the white church cowers in silence, refuses to draw near, or condemns the anger of suffering.
As we celebrate Communion with a world-wide church, we do this in remembrance of Jesus, the one who calls us not to accumulation of faith, but to bodies drawing near to vulnerable bodies, bodies drawing near to anger and hurt, a church ready to see how this kind of faith is, in fact, miraculous.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Today’s Gospel lesson wins the prize for slimiest story in the New Testament. It is a story that demonstrates a consistently bad economic system, top to bottom, and no one comes out looking very good.
There’s a wealthy man who has a manager, someone who handles his property. Being a manager was a good job, but it was a job for slaves, the best job a slave could have. It was so good, in fact, that freemen would sell themselves into slavery in order to become managers for the wealthy, to live under their patronage, to be the beneficiaries of this form of friendship.
This manager slave – he’s bad at his job. He starts to panic when he realizes he’s squandered the stuff he’s been charged to protect. He’s going to get fired. But the manager doesn’t want to work. He doesn’t want to beg. So he cooks the books, forgiving a serious portion of debt from a few of the people who owe his master money.
It’s a bad system. It’s a system that flourishes because of slavery, indebtedness, classism, and amassing wealth. It’s an economic system that grinds on, crushing the vulnerable who happen to get caught in the gears. It takes for granted the fact that the Torah specifically forbids charging interest as a form of usury. But here we have it, God’s people deeply embedded in oppressive economy.
Luke doesn’t imagine a way out of this. Everything that happens takes place from within, inside the system. There’s something tragic about this story. In Luke we don’t get a sense that economics can be reformed, that we can stop the machine from rolling along. It’s there. We’re all bound up in dirty money. We eat, live, work, breathe, and survive by it.
But every once in a while, every now and then, someone manages to throw in a wrench. Every once in a while someone manages to make mischief, a disruption that temporarily defies or ignores the economic rules everyone else calls just.
In this parable the reasons for changing up the rules are slimy. What the manager wants is to protect himself. He doesn’t want to be shamed by digging ditches. He wants to assure his future. And he’s smart. The manager knows how the system works, who benefits, what’s at stake, how to make the money work for him, how to get something out of it. He knows how money makes and then controls social arrangements, how it keeps everyone in their place.
Jesus looks at this scene and I imagine he laughs and shakes his head. Here’s a guy paying attention, he says to the disciples, to the crowds, to us. What if his disciples paid attention like this? What if Jesus’ followers actually knew how the system worked, and what if they caused some mischief.
A couple months ago a talk show host gave away $15 million–$15 million of medical debt. The show is hosted by John Oliver and on it he did a segment on the debt-buying industry. U.S. banks currently own 12 trillion dollars of consumer debt. That’s anything from car loans and house payments to college loans or medical or credit card debt.
These banks sell off our debt for pennies on the dollar to a collection agency. Those agencies do their best to collect the debt owed. If they can’t track you down, you don’t have a job, or you can run really fast, then the debt becomes less valuable. The agency will sell it again for even less after writing off its purchase price. At the bottom of this food chain, after multiple depreciations through sale, are unregulated, independent debt collectors–the last ones to buy. They purchase the debt at an absurdly low price and then try to collect it from those who owe, even if the statutes of limitation are up on those debts.
John Oliver created a company on-line to buy this debt at the very bottom. He called it Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP, like the fish that eats detritus. For $60,000 Oliver’s company purchased $15 million of medical debt. This was debt that was too old to be collected under state law, but a loop hole allowed for CARP to continue to try and collect.
Yet instead of harassing his debtors with late night phone calls, Oliver simply forgave the debt. In good TV theatrics he brought out a giant red button and said “are you ready to make television history?” And then he forgave the debt. Just like that. With a giant red button.
Something happens when debt is forgiven. The absurdity of a system is exposed. Because someone was paying attention, we get to see that absurdity, how oppressive economies devastate people’s lives.
But Jesus goes a step beyond this. He’s asking us to pay attention to the way dirty money operates in our economic system because the good news of Jesus Christ requires the disruption of those systems. Throughout the Gospel of Luke the good news is the reversing of social boundaries, boundaries maintained by economic disparity. It’s what Mary sings in Luke 1,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
And in today’s strange, sleazy parable we discover that something else happens when we engage in the mischief of dirty money. We become bound to one another. We become bound in some unspeakable way. It isn’t a legal matter. No papers are drawn up. No deeds signed. There is simply a recognition that something has been overcome. Something that forged a steely trap of enmity is broken. The forgiveness of the debt makes it possibly to see, even if just for a moment, outside the system of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, a system of reciprocity, of payback.
Luke’s Gospel lives close to the people around it, intensely focused on real life, its ear to the ground, attentive to the complexity of daily human life. Luke’s is theology in the dirt.
And so I wonder if Luke knew from looking around him that there are debts we forgive that bind us to one another. There are two types of patronage happening in the story we heard today. The first kind is the strong taking in the weak, the poor indebted to the rich. This kind of patronage is fickle. It depends on getting the job done right. It’s about keeping in line with the system, acting according to the rules.
But there’s a second type of patronage here, another type of friendship. This is the kind that forms between people at the margins of wealth, the periphery of power—between those who are casualties of the system, because they have to, because their lives depend on the dehumanizing system, and they can’t live without participating in it. Luke seems to point us towards these people, towards those who know the system and can find ways to play tricks, to act shrewdly and in the process to find one another.
I wonder if Luke saw, as he wandered the countryside behind Jesus, the ways people overcame social class through this kind of shrewdness. I wonder if he saw how dirty money can throw a wrench into economic systems. I wonder if he knew that, sometimes, we end up finding that we are bound to one another—we are bound together as we pay attention, as we make trouble within a system we cannot escape.
Jesus tells his story as a signpost of heavenly homes. He tells us there is something that outlasts oppressive economics, and that is the bond of love, the debt of love we cannot repay. I was reminded of this last week when getting an update on one of the members of my former church. Kate is dying at a faster-than-average rate from cancer. And Kate also recently learned that she lives in the same town as the doctor who discovered her rare, genetic form of cancer. The doctor who made this discovery won a Nobel Prize for the thousands of hours he spent in the lab discovering her genetic mutation.
Kate, for the debt owed to this man—this doctor who has made it possible for her to extend her life, for her to parent her child a bit longer, to be married a bit longer, to finish writing another book – because of this debt, Kate showed up at his office, and she gave him cupcakes.
The goods we possess, the work of our bodies, the wealth we gather – all of this exists within a relentless system. That’s what Luke tells us. It’s a system of death and destruction. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel isn’t confident that we can redeem these entrenched, tragic economic practices. But this Jesus has seen that every once in a while we have a chance to trouble old economic habits, even if it’s only for a moment. And when this happens, when we do this, when a brief interruption occurs, we participate in the hospitality of heavenly homes.
Luke also reminds us that there is no way to disambiguate our financial and personal lives. Economy is always personal. There are always people who are hurt, who thrive, who starve, who gain, who lose. And Luke pulls no punches when he tells us there is something that keeps us apart, something that creates barriers within the beloved community, something that keeps us from the service of God. When we yield to the system, when we refuse to engage, when we don’t pay attention we have been unfaithful.
Jesus, instead, welcomes us to peer into heavenly homes. At the door of the father welcoming home his wayward son, in the home of the woman rejoicing over her lost coin, in the sleepy flock together at last because all have been left to gather in the one – in each of these stories we discover that there are debts we cannot repay, and there is no way of ever coming to terms, to evening the scale. Instead we live in the constant debt of love, perpetually indebted, eternally giving what we have.
In Luke we are redirected to a life in which there are no strings attached, where we look out for places where, even within the vast corruption of Mamon, we are able to carve out moments in which we are bound to one another, where social barriers are eradicated, where we break the rules.
Brothers and sisters, we are all holding out cupcakes to the Nobel Prize winning doctor who discovered our cancer. We are always finding ourselves unable to repay another, clinging to the bond that forms us, one to the other. In these moments, Jesus says, you will find yourself in God’s home—dwelling in our bond of love, living into the gift of God’s love, heavenly love drawing us into a new world here and now, in our gifts of friendships.
Raleigh Mennonite Church
Sept 4, 2016
A few weeks ago I was taking a writing class near St John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And while I was there I spent some time with Abbott John, the leader of the Benedictine community.
Whenever I’m at St John’s I make a point to attend morning prayer with the monks. In the choir behind the altar there’s a section for the brothers, and then a section for people like me. At exactly 7am the brother process in through the back of the sanctuary, robed in their identical black habit. We pray our way through the psalms, lift our chants, intercede for our world, remember the saints, and then we go to breakfast.
But something happens in between, in those short minutes between morning prayer and meal. Almost all the brothers change out of their robes. I pick out most of them in the cafeteria, talking to students, waiting for the timer on the waffle maker, ladling scrambled eggs onto a plate, all of them blending in with the rest of us, wearing suits and ties or sweatpants or t-shirts.
I asked Abbott John – what’s that about?
He told me that the habit functions to identify their community–and the place where they need to recognize each other is in prayer, because that’s when they are all together. That’s the time the habit matters – that’s when they are to remember that they are a body, when they look around and see other selves looking back at them.
I was thinking about the monks as I read today’s Scripture. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to his trial, to his death. And along the way he has found himself greeted and fed and believed by scores of people.
But eating with Jesus, walking with Jesus on the road – that isn’t the same thing as being a disciple. Being a disciple means something else. Being a disciple means constantly reassessing the core of your self-identity. It means being willing to reassign that identity based on the words of a ragged, homeless carpenter who, I must say, rather flippantly tells you to skip the next family reunion. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
In one way, Jesus’ difficult words in Luke 14 are a way to weed people out, to thin the crowd. This is like the organic chemistry course of med school. It’s there to show you how hard it can be and that this isn’t for everyone. Carrying the cross, whatever that means, has something to do with death, something to do with leaving behind family, friends, neighbors–the basic components that make up our identity.
But if discipleship is being called out of one place of identity-making, it is also being called into another. It is being called into a body.
Last weekend some of us were on the church retreat. On Saturday morning we gathered outside the main lodge to get ready for the low ropes course. I was ready to walk down with everyone, through the woods and to the area where we would be working together. But instead we were handed blindfolds.
The instructor told us that one of us would be the car, and one would be the driver. That translated to me being blindfolded while Kim stood behind me. She couldn’t speak but we came up with a system for communicating: right, left, brake, accelerate. And we were off.
The way was slow, over rocks and roots, slight rights, adjusting course. But Kim was a good guide. I trusted Kim. I trusted that she wouldn’t let me show up to worship the next day with a black eye from running face first into the limb of an oak tree. It was trust that grew as we walked, as I saw how attentive she was to rises in the root structure, how she slowed my pace or adjusted to keep me out of the way of the trees. She taught me what to do when we changed roles, when she couldn’t see anymore, when I was the one guiding her along a path filled with obstacles.
Along the way, through the trees, we became a body. As we walked, together, I was reminded that the church is also called out of familial identity and into a body, called into a life where we look out and see ourselves staring back. It’s a risky proposition because being a body is risky. Being a body means continuing on the way when a part of the body is sick, when a part of the body is weak. Being a body mean being affected by those who make up the body, to recognize that the health of the body is bound up within its parts. It means trusting that the part that can see is taking you to a place where you will be well.
We are a church, the body of Christ, and we are on the way, through the trees. And when it begins to matter that you’re a body, when that starts to become clear, is when you find yourself walking where there are obstacles, when roots and rocks and branches are on the path.
Dear friends, there will always be roots and rocks and branches on the path. If there is one thing Jesus assures us of, it is that our journey to discipleship will be marked by conflict. Conflict with each other, with our community, with our culture, with the world. There is no getting out of it. There is no way around it. It is the way.
What it means to be a body, to pick up your cross, is to walk along this rocky path and to trust the body with your life, to trust that, even as other relationships become tenuous and fail—to trust that we are figuring out a way through this, to trust that Jesus has brought us here, together, as a body, as part of one another.
I cannot guarantee you much, but I do know this – we will disagree. At some point you and I will find ourselves with political differences, or with different theological priorities. One of us will say the wrong thing. Probably me. We’ll mess up. We may hurt each other. We’ll forget that we’re a body, forget that we need each other. At some point we’ll have to do something hard, to make a difficult decision. We’ll feel our body groan. I know this because Jesus promises us that this is going to happen: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me,” he says, “cannot be my disciple.”
I also believe that Jesus promises us that we have everything we need to be a body. We have everything we need to tell each other how we are doing at the work of being one body, together. And we need to talk to each other, to figure out the signs to communicate when there are roots ahead, when we need to slow down, when our body is tired, when we need take more time, or when we need to take bolder steps to get further down the trail.
That’s what I’m hoping for us, for this part of the body of Jesus Christ that is made up of you and me. I’m hoping that when we disagree, when things are difficult, when we’ve fallen down, that we’ll let each other know we were hurt, that we’ll take the time to find each other, to say that something difficult happened and we need to make it right. I hope that we’ll take time to pay attention for the ways that the body is fragile, fragile in grief and sorrow, vulnerable to rejection, the times when we will need to be led by those who can see what we cannot see.
And when we count the costs and say yes, when we voluntarily give our lives over to being in this body, we do not simply become a sign of Jesus, a sign of peace, a sign of the resurrection. We actually become the risen body of Christ. We become Easter. This is why we sing those words, “we are each other’s bread and wine.” You become the broken body. You become the body taken into my body, a body always rediscovering itself, always coming to see itself anew, always in resurrection.
In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia wrote a rule for his monasteries, the Rule of St Benedict. One of my favorite sections is called On the Reception of Guests. I love that these brief paragraphs are squeezed between a chapter called “Brethren Who Go Not Very Far Away” and “Whether a Monk Should Receive Letters or Anything Else.” The Rule is a practical guide, a way for a body to function in all its minutia.
So when a Benedictine monk is greeted by a stranger, the instructions are precise and practical. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He (Jesus) is going to say,” writes Benedict, “ ‘I came as a guest, and you received me.’”
When a guest arrives, it is as if Jesus Christ has come, as if the body of God, the body of which you are a part, has entered the room. This guest should be announced so that everyone can greet her with charity. The monks are to lay themselves on the ground before her, because they are adoring Christ in this stranger. There is foot washing. If there is a fast it is broken to provide food for the guest. The poorest are to be received with the most lavish welcome because, it says, “it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
Can you imagine them, the monks opening the door for the old beggar woman who knocks, meekly, hoping for some table scraps? A brother looks back at her, surprised and delighted. Rejoicing, he calls to the others – Jesus Christ has come to stay with us. He looks back at the woman. He sees his face, another self, looking back. He falls down before her, in adoration, in devotion.
We are not a body for ourselves, constantly assessing who is in and who is out, always policing our boundaries. We are a body that is constantly being surprised by who we already are, by discovering who is already within us, discovering how we are always becoming a body, always reconstituting, always following Jesus’ call of discipleship to seek the body’s grace.
This makes us incredibly vulnerable. We are picking up a cross when we say that we will no longer place our identity in family relationships, but instead that we will be a body, that we’re open to being remade by others, returning again and again to a looking back and seeing each one as Jesus. It’s a risky proposition. We do not enter into this life lightly.
I also know that there is nothing else I would want than to be a body with you, to be the risen body of Jesus, to see myself staring back in each stranger, to see myself when I look at you. I know that you will be there when I cannot see the way, and that is enough. I know that at times we will be walking a long time, and you may think we’ve been forgotten me. I know there will be times when it will seem like we’re going to run face first into nettles. And then I’ll feel the tap on my shoulder. We’re together, because you are here. We are each other’s bread and wine. We are a body.
Duke Memorial 7/10/16
The priests I saw were men, all of them. In my head I have a memory as a little child of one woman among them, but then she was gone. Every Sunday, behind the altar, in the pulpit, hands raised above the bread and the wine – all of the priests were men.
In the church I grew up in I almost never saw a female pastor, and never heard a woman preach. It would take 19 years for me to hear the voice of a woman proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit. 19 years.
I have another memory from childhood. I was reading the Bible, 1 Timothy 2. Tears soaked the pages of my NIV Adventure Bible. “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” The words burned on the page.
For years I would come home from church and reenact the Sunday morning service, singing the words of institution for the gathered church of my stuffed animals. I had neatly arranged them in a semi-circle on my canopy bed, a few pieces of Wonder bread and a paper cup of water, the body and blood of Jesus for my beloved toys.
And those words from Timothy. They hurt. They hurt me. What could it mean for me? What could it mean for a little girl who felt this draw, these words of consecration spilling out into this little bedroom church, a little girl that would later become me, one of the pastors here at Duke Memorial, preaching before you today.
The good news is that my feminist, divinity-school-educated dad found me crying that day reading Timothy. He explained cultural context and local setting. And he hugged me. And he told me I could be anything I wanted to be.
But it was hard to believe. Because it’s hard to be what you can’t see. And that’s why I’m thankful for the window that preserves the memory of Tabitha, always here before us, always in our midst. Today I give thanks that, as I look back, I can see how Tabitha has always been preaching, always been proclaiming the Gospel in the pulpit of the world, even when she was blocked from pulpit of the church.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and to acts of charity.”
A disciple and her name is Tabitha. This is the only time in Scripture when we hear the name of a female disciple. Tabitha, the one who does good works, who gathers a church of widows, a church of the despised and disenfranchised. Tabitha a widow-priest. Tabitha, the disciple who stitches together tunics and robes, hands them out in the street, clothes others, clothes them in dignity and strength.
Widows in the time of Tabitha were blocked from every avenue available to maintain a financially sustainable life. Tabitha finds a way, uses her ingenuity and skill to create a cottage industry of clothing making. She gathers the widows around her, makes a new life possible for them. Tabitha was their pastor, their priest, the one whom God had sent to remind them of God’s love, to bind them together, to make possible the Good News of Jesus Christ among them.
This is what happens when Jesus comes into the world. All the sudden things are turned upside down. All the prophecies, all the promises begin to come life. You see them happening. The Good News of God’s love begins to move out into the world and to move in ways that people did not expect.
And in Tabitha we see this unfolding. Tabitha – a hybrid, both Greek and Jew; a woman; a disciple of Jesus – she is the juncture at which the Gospel begins to move beyond ethnic Judaism and to the Gentiles.
I cannot underscore the strangeness of this for the people in Tabitha’s time. Each morning faithful Jewish men of the second-century offered a morning prayer: Thank you God I was not born a women, a Gentile, or a slave. There was no less likely place for God’s spirit to erupt into the world than through Tabitha, no one less likely than this widow, this woman, this partial Gentile to be called God’s disciple, for her body and her community to empower the movement of the gospel, for her life to be the engine for the good news as it spreads to the gentiles, to the ends of the earth.
Of course, Tabitha is not the first the woman to follow Jesus. Many others came before, and many others would follow, women who stayed at the cross when men would run, women who drew near to the grave when men hid in fear. Junia and Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of Jesus, Susanna and Priscilla, Phoebe and Lydia. Against the sexism of the culture and religious institutions of the day, the Gospel goes into the world, to Gentiles, to the poor, through the lives of women. But something is different for Tabitha. She is a disciple. As the Gospel grows in Acts so too does the power and role of women in the church.
Over time the church has strayed from this founding story. Over time the church forgot that women had fueled transformation with their ministries and miracles. The prophetic word of women, some called to ministry, others cast into it by the circumstances of their lives, by disenfranchisement and the tragedies of their communities – the prophetic word of these women fuels the Gospels movement.
Over time the church began to look more like the world. And in the world the picture for women was bleak.
Worldwide 30% of women have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
1 in 5 U.S. women will be sexually assaulted on their college campus during their undergraduate years.
In United States white women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men with equal experience and education. Black women earn 64 cents on the dollar and Latina women 56 cents.
In 2015 102 unarmed black people were killed in police shootings leaving 102 widows and partners to pick up the pieces of family life, to provide financial stability, to grieve spiritual and emotional trauma.
The world is not a place where women thrive.
The church is not supposed to be like the world, but we’ve had trouble living up to the Good News of Jesus lived in the life of the disciple Tabitha.
Female pastors also experience the gender pay gap, earning 85 cents for every dollar earned by our male counterparts with the same experience and education.
While female clergy continue to grow in number throughout mainline churches, only two of the largest one hundred Methodist churches in the United States are led by women. Two out of 100.
Currently only 1/5 of the top leadership roles in U.S. Methodist conferences are held by women.
While women make up 58% of worshipers in the pews, 72% of ordained clergy are men.
This year we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the Methodist church. We celebrate the ways the church was led back to its original vision of women preachers, this original catalyst of the Gospel. We were led by Grace Eloise Huck, Marion Kline, Maude Jensen, and Julie Torres Fernandez, the first women to be ordained as elders in the Methodist church.
Over the past two decades this church has heard the call of Tabitha, has made space and place for those disciples of Jesus who would follow after Huck and Kline. This pulpit, this altar, have been the place of ministry for a cloud of female witnesses–Tabithas who have heard the call of God, who responded to the call of God on their lives through preaching, teaching, and leading. Ellen Metcalf, Ruth Harper Stevens, Lisa Brown Cole, Ginger Thomas, Laura Crosskey, Gair McCullough, Debra Brazzel, Laurie Hayes Coffman, Para Drake, Susanne Sartelle Priddy, Heather Rodrigues, me, Chelsea Johnson.
That’s why Chelsea is with us this summer. Chelsea is a high school student, a young woman who, like me, grew up without seeing women in pastoral ministry. This summer she’s one of our pastoral interns. She saw something different here. She saw week after week women in this pulpit. She saw Gair pastoring in our church. Week after week she heard female voices. And she believed. She believed that God could call her to be a pastor, could call her to the ministry of the church, the Good News, going forth into the world in her.
But we also know that women power the Gospel in the sanctioned space of the pulpit only because there is a long history – the history of Tabitha – of women preaching in unsanctioned space, preaching off the record. Tabitha reminds us that women have always proclaimed the Gospel in the midst of economic and social inequity. Some women sensed a call, were confirmed in that call, took hold of their office. But long before and still today women preachers proclaim the word because they are called through the circumstances of trauma to be both widows and priests, to face terror and there create space for liberation and justice. It is because of the leading of these women, the example of these women, overwhelmingly women of color, that women like me now occupy sanctioned space for preaching and teaching in the church.
We see women, Tabithas, growing in numbers in the pulpits of the street, in the pulpits of the kitchen, the pulpits of the neighborhood community center. These are the widow-priests, those, who like Tabitha, gather communities around them, who minister to neighbors and families quaking after times of grief, after the traumas of gun violence that plague our country. After each of these shootings, after each death, a community is left traumatized. Children without fathers and mother. Friends bereft. Family members in shock. A people ripped apart. Widows, the partners left behind, have become the gatherers of these grieving people, clothing the distressed and broken-hearted with garments of comfort.
They also call to us into the streets, preaching the prophetic word against our nation’s obsession with guns, preaching a prophetic word against our lack of political will. Widow-priests gather us, show us how to make our grief and our politics one, show us how to take everything personally, to refuse to let tragedies be silenced by time. We are called to listen as their cries of sorrow become cries of rage; as they demand an account for our silence.
We do well to heed their voices, to follow after Tabitha, to let her lead us. The partners of Pulse shooting victims. The mothers of Sandy Hook. The wives and mothers of Brent Thomas, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. The girlfriend of Philando Castile. The wife of Alton Sterling. The upending Gospel, the Gospel of peace is found here in their cries, the widow-priest who holds weeping children at the dinner table, the widow-priest with a megaphone proclaiming that black lives matter, the widow-priest that stave off her fear and despair by gathering others together, refusing to let violence silence love.
Diamond Reynolds found herself a widow-priest this week, a woman who watched her fiancé, Philando Castile shot four times, her child a witness in the back seat of their car. Her voice proclaims these words: “We are innocent. We are innocent. We are innocent people.”
She follows in a long line of strong black women who are Tabithas, priests of the street who hold up a megaphone to the Gospel. Diamond is a priest, in the line of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who tell us “I had to turn my sorrow into a strategy, my mourning into a movement.” Carr preaches, “I will walk, speak, rally, whatever it takes until justice is served.”
That saying, you can’t be what you can’t see? Because of widow-priests like Reynolds and Carr, because of Rev. Huck and Rev. Jensen and Rev. Torres Fernandez, because we continue to bring our little girls to see strong black women leading protests in the street, to see women preach in the pulpit – because of this a new generation of little girls will grow up knowing they are the engine of Jesus’ gospel, the turning point where good news for some becomes good news for the world.
‘‘Mommy I love you.”
The first text came in at 2:06 a.m.
‘‘In club they shooting.’’
‘‘Trapp in bathroom.’’
‘Pulse. Downtown. Call police.’’
‘‘I’m gonna die.’’
‘‘I’m calling them now.
U still in there
Answer our damn phone
Mina Justice looks out into the pitch black of a muggy Florida night. She’s waiting, staring at her phone. She’s waiting for her screen to light up with words from her son Eddie, reassurance that he is still alive. Arms extended, a mother waiting for her child, a mother whose child is in danger.
Look. (Gesture towards the Jesus window)
Jesus looks out over Jerusalem, his arms extended to a child, a mother whose child is in danger.
“They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you.”
Look. (Gesture towards the Mary window)
Mary grasps the child in her arms, the fierce protection of a mother burning across her face. Her eyes burn. She can’t keep him there. She already knows that this body, so recently a part of her body, within her body, will be broken apart. Still she holds him as long as she can, before the city kills him.
Simeon’s hand outstretched over the squirming baby. His hand, shaking with the tremors of age lightly touches the laughing face.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he says, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Simeon lifts his hand, the same touch on Mary’s forehead. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
As I look around in the aftermath of the massacre at Pulse in Orlando last Sunday, I see lives in the ruins. These are lives that bear witness to the devastation of grief. Some of the stories that have risen to the surface are the stories of mothers. A mother killed while dancing with one of her eleven children. A mother waiting at home for her child to text her, letting her know that he’s safe. A mother, in the aftermath, trying to claim the body of her undocumented son.
What these mothers have learned over time is that their children are not safe. In the United State they are not safe as Latinas and Latinos, and they are not safe as gay men. Mothers reach out their arms and they weep for the children who they know are in danger. Jesus. Mina. Mary. All lives bearing witness to a grief that refuses to be resolved.
It took reading Eddie text to his mother, Mina, for me to become fully present to this grief. When I hear about gay boys gunned down in a nightclub, I find I am standing in the skin of their mothers. When I look at Jesus weeping to Mary holding fast, I see the same picture, the same mother. I can see myself in their grief; I can find Mina and all the mothers of those killed at Pulse; I can find them all bearing that grief in their bodies, the grief of a mother.
This is the third time I’ve been called upon to preach after a mass shooting. I preached to children the Sunday after Sandy Hook. One year ago today I was with you, with you after the devastating church shooting in Charleston. Here we are again. God’s beloved are in peril again. God’s beloved are being killed.
I struggle through the weariness of this grief. Friends, I’m tired. I’m tired of standing up here, behind this pulpit marking up the tally. The most children killed in a modern mass shooting. A mass shooting disrupting the safety of the black church. Mass shootings perpetrated again and again and again and again with the same military-grade weapon. A mass shooting motivated by hatred for queer people.
Then I see the texts sent by Mina Justice, the texts sent to an infant she once held in her arms, Eddie, her beloved. Jesus above the hillside, crying Mina’s tears, crying the tears of all mother’s whose children are lost to violence, children who go into a world that hates them, that wants to destroy their bodies. Jesus reminds us that to follow after the Savior is to continue on to the heart of this grief, to put ourselves into a place to be fully present to this trauma, to give witness to tears.
What we’ll find, as we follow after this Jesus, is that weeping for these beloved reorients our political life. Rather than a politics tethered to individual rights, nationalism, patriotism, or economic prosperity, we are asked to form a political life rooted in grief. This is what Jesus did. Jesus looked at the city and wept.
Today we find our faces, like Jesus’, weeping towards the city. Stay here for a while, we hear him say. Stay here until you only see the city, our nation, this country, Orlando, Charleston, your enemy, your sister, your queer neighbor or son, stay here until you see them all through a veil of tears. Let tears blur your vision, until you can no longer tell where your life ends and where their life begins, until you can no longer see the difference between your tears and those of Mina Justice. Get so close that your tears are mingled with hers. Allow that grief to sustain you; let that sense of human vulnerability sustain your politics.
There were a few of us who didn’t go to a church to pray about Orlando. While Christians have been trying to decide if gays and lesbians are welcome here in the church, welcome to be blessed and serve and worship, LGBTQI people have sought sanctuary elsewhere. While we as Christians couldn’t make up our minds, queer folk began to form communities in clubs like Pulse, where the massacre occurred on Sunday. When we, the church, would not be a place of unqualified acceptance, of belonging and nurture, queer folk made their own sanctuary, a tight-knit community where you can be who you are, be accepted without condition.
So this week we some of us from Duke Memorial went to grieve beside LGBTQ people in their place of refuge here in Durham, at The Bar. We were there, some as queer, some as allies, all to stand and grieve together. I heard voices, one by one, as candles were slowly lit, as light began to filter through the gathered body. “Another world is possible,” I heard them say. “You are beautiful.” “Our grief is not a weapon.” “I see you.”
One voice stood out, that of Qasima Wideman, a queer Muslim from Raleigh. She told us the story of how Islam’s compassion had shaped her way of being in the world – how she’d only seen her father, a Palestinian Muslim, cry once – after 9/11. She told us how, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center, her mother began to wear hijab so everyone in their neighborhood–everyone they met–could see that Muslims are kind and generous, that they are not all terrorists. These devout Muslim parents raised Qasima; they taught her about life.
And then she told us how she wished she could have known Omar Mateen “before steel walls were built around his heart.” Qasima wished that she could share tea with him, tell him about other gay Muslims. She told us how she wished she could have wept with Omar Mateen. Turning to us, in the crowd, she said, “I hope we can begin to know each other now.” These were words inviting us into another world, words from a traumatized community stretching out arms to Omar Mateen, reaching out with arms of compassion.
We wanted to draw near because we knew that Jesus does not stand far from the city for long. Jesus draws near. He allows his body to be drawn into the a city that did not, could not “recognize the time of visitation from God.” He lets his body be taken into the city. When the time comes, the child crushed within the walls of Jerusalem will be him – Mary’s baby, God’s son. And still, and still Jesus draws near, a mother’s love burning within his heart.
As I’ve thought of Mary this week–as I’ve thought of Jesus, his arms outstretched–I thought about a project called Your Holiday Mom. Recognizing the high number of LGBTQ children estranged from their parents, a group of moms got together to offer support, a sort of holiday surrogacy conveyed through letters. These letters contain the words children wish they could hear from their parents, their longing to be embraced by a family. These pictures in the windows, they’ve helped me imagine the words a mothering God would extend to those 49 men, boys, women, and girls who died at Pulse last week.
These beloved, crushed within the walls of the city – we remember them today as God’s beloved, in the hands of the God who drew near, who took this suffering, this unbearable suffering into own body. This letter I will now read addresses each victim, each child by name.
I invite you, if you’d like, to come forward and light one of the 49 candles on the rail. Come now. Come as you are led.
Dear Stanley, Amanda and Oscar.
My beloved Rodolfo, Antonio, Darryl, and Angel.
Dearest Juan, Luis, Cory, Tevin.
To Deonka, Simon, Leroy, my heart.
Beloved Mercedez, Peter, Juan, Paul, and Frank
Dearest Miguel, most beloved Javier.
To my children, Javier, Jason, Eddie, and Anthony.
My joy, Christopher and Alejandro.
My delight, Brenda and Gilberto
Dear Kimberly and Akyra, Luis and Geraldo, Eric and Joel
Beloved Jean and Enrique, beloved Xavier and Christopher.
Dearest to my heart, Jean and Yilmary, Edward, Shane and Martin.
My joy, Jonathan and Juan.
My heart, Luis.
Beloved Franky and Luis.
My beloved children,
I want you to know I could not love you more. You, with your fierceness and fear, the way you have shown up for this difficult life and have danced and made community in spite of everything. I am so proud of you. I have wanted nothing more than for you to know how deeply I love you, how the world is brighter for your presence, how I would give anything to make a better life for you.
I want to keep you safe in this world, and it has been the greatest sadness of my life, my daily trauma, to know this world does not see you as I do. I have wept for you and I have rejoiced in the sweetness and beauty of your life. But I am for you. I have always been for you, my love for you pouring out before there was time. My body is your body. Your grief is my grief.
Take all of my love. It is yours, yours without reservation or qualification or condition. Yours completely. My dearest, my beloved. I give it all to you.
How many tears does it take?
How many tears must you shed in order to clean someone’s feet? How many cups of tears does it take to wash the mud and feces of Nain’s streets from the soles of Jesus’ feet? How many gallons of tears must fall to make Jesus clean?
Today we hear the story of a woman who draws us into her life with tears, tears of a woman who recognizes that her body is out of sorts with the law, a body seeking a place to become fully herself.
“If this man were a prophet,” Simon the Pharisee chastises Jesus, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
She is a sinner.
Jesus refuses follow Simon’s logic. Jesus refuses to let the law determine what this woman can and cannot do. Instead, Jesus lets himself be drawn into her world, to be invited into her life, as she takes his feet in her hands, his body into her life.
Here, in Simon’s house, we see a conflict between purity and impurity, violation and reception—two worlds collide. On the one side, a moral code determines Simon’s table fellowship; on the other, a woman invites Jesus into the transgressive love of God.
The conflict occurs around the Pharisee’s table, where this woman decides to be who she is, because all she knows is that she wants to be near to Jesus. A Pharisee’s home, a shared meal, a site of ritual purity, of expectation, of law-keeping. She bursts in, weeping, grasping, touching him. She bathes Jesus’ battered feet in her tears.
Jesus receives her. He receives all of this – an act of lawlessness. It goes this way for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus does not often instigate transgression. Instead, he receives the lawlessness of others – their bread, their dead, their tears. Jesus becomes the judge over the law, a judge that calls into question the law itself, a judge that makes room for the law’s transgression.
The whole law against this woman, this sinner, and her footwashing. Luke’s version is the only of the four Gospels without the command to wash each other’s feet. Instead we have this story. It’s as if this absence, the absence of Jesus bending down before Peter, basin and towel in hand—it’s as if this story, this woman, as she anoints Jesus, she gives us the origin of the command “wash each other’s feet.” In our own footwashing, in our loving, in our chasing after one another’s tears we become re-enactors of the anointing, re-enactors of this woman’s transgression. We follow after her. We let her body shape our bodies. We take part in her reshaping of law’s possibility.
Jesus learns from the woman. Jesus re-enacts the anointing and teaches his disciples to do the same. “When you follow after God, when you live your life,” we can imagine him saying, “look for tears, look for the moment that overwhelms you with love, a love that looks like lawlessness—because that’s where God happens, that’s what God does to us and to our world. Learn it from one another.”
So we wash each other’s feet. We wash feet because we are always negotiating what love looks like, always testing among ourselves love’s lawlessness. This is what the Pharisees, the law-keepers, find most perplexing, most frightening about the woman anointing Jesus. She challenges the stability of the law. She challenges not just boundaries but the law’s purpose. I remember the words of Yehudah Amichai, “We begged you, Lord, to divide right from wrong, and instead you divided the waters above the firmament from those beneath it.”
We begged you, Lord, make it clear, give us stasis, give us history without disruption, a world without change, bodies that conform to our predispositions. We begged you, Lord, don’t let us lose our grasp. Give us control, a perennial word, passed down in the hands of men, the guardians of society. We begged you, Lord, divide right from wrong.
In Jesus we are not given the comfort of regulation. Those who approach Jesus take that from us. The ones who pluck grain on the Sabbath, the one who brings Jesus to the open mouth of the beloved’s tomb, the one who lays before him a dead child – all these lives are occasions for violation of the law. Instead of assurance we are given tears. Wash each other’s feet. Follow the path of tears, the flood of tears.
The woman draws near, the trembling hand carrying her precious oil, the hours of weeping, kissing his feet, the intrusion of her body, and in doing so she reconfigures the law. We’re often caught in a web of the law. We prefer to reinvigorate rules. Jesus and the new law, we often say, a new law to replace an old law, a new code to follow the Savior.
The woman takes this from us, too. She takes from us even this stability. Instead she shows us how the law is unraveled in a gradual rediscovery of its porous boundaries. Through this woman’s body, her life drawn near to Jesus, the law now placed in a new relationship, turned in on itself. The law now makes space for lawlessness; the law now as an arena for transgression, forgiveness as the undoing of the law. Jesus repurposes law, law that highlights how powerful love can be, the way an act of love washes away the power we thought the law had over our lives, washing away the law with a stream of tears.
At the heart of this lawlessness is the unnamed woman. So often we think of someone’s namelessness– the failure to give name–as an abuse of patriarchy, typical of first century Palestine. But, here in Luke, the absence of a name frees from the past, liberates this woman from a law that she has renegotiated, a legal framework that no longer defines her.
Today I need Jesus to be for people like this woman. I need for Jesus to be receiving into God’s eternal love 50 people who felt that their bodies and their lives and their sexualities collided with the world around them. I need a Jesus who follows after these beloved and tells us to do what he did, to follow after these beloved who witness to us the lawless love of the anointing woman.
I’ve been thinking more about transgender persons, queer people, those whose bodies are being loosed from what was predetermined, from stable categories, bodies more immediately making and remaking, The anointing woman, too, is a body in process. She is freed from our grasp, freed from the grasp of her community, from our moral categories, from our laws. Like bodies out of sorts with assigned biology, she is untethered, set outside the name given to her, the identity imposed upon her.
Simon the Pharisee, confined by his name is cemented into the text. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus says his name, roots him to the law he does not yet realize also holds him fast. “Do you see this woman?” But the woman – the woman remains nameless, outside of Simon’s grasp. He cannot see her; she is too far away. She is freed into the lawlessness of love she invites.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells Simon that this nameless woman has freed herself through violation of the law through love. She is becoming outside of her past, opened up to a lawless world. She is still here each time we wash each other’s feet, each time our tears flood one another’s lives, when we follow the tears that flow out of Florida, a river of tears. Footwashing invites us into the memory of this lawlessness, invites us to follow after the memory of this woman, freed into the law and freed from the law and for the law’s remaking, in our tears, with our hands, filled with love, with grace, with grief, filled with God’s life.
Trinity Sunday – 5/22/16
O God, you withdraw from our sight
that you may be known by our love.
Help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden
and surrender all certainty
to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ.
In many churches today people are thinking about the Trinity – God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that means that today people are going to say many weird things. It’s hard to talk about God. It’s hard to get our minds around this thing about God being three and one at the same time. But we keep trying.
I’m sure many of us here have stumbled upon an image or two, helpfully offered up to try and get this Trinity concept into our heads. The Trinity is like an apple: seeds, fruit, and skin. The Trinity is a like a candy corn: you know, with the three different colors. Or like an egg: a shell, a yolk, and whites. Three in one shampoo; a mother, daughter, and grandmother; water, ice, and steam; a three leafed clover.
There are so many examples and so many ways to get the Trinity wrong. Because every time we start talking about it, every time we try to consolidate the mystery down to a metaphor we end of falling into one heresy or another.
Modalism. Adoptionism. Arianism. Sabbelianism. The heresies of the church fall onto one side or another. They either emphasize the oneness of God at the expense of three separate persons, or they create a hierarchy out of God, elevating one person over the others. There are a lot of ways that trying to talk about God can get us into trouble.
I have to admit, I always feel cautious when talking about heresy. After all, Anabaptists have been called heretics since our inception. It’s a word that’s often used to scare people, to designate who is in and who is out. The British theologian Rowan Williams has helped me appreciate what the church intended to say when it talked about heretics. Heresy wasn’t just about keeping out opinions the church didn’t like. It was also the way the church denounced doctrines that cleared up mystery too quickly.
That’s the problem with saying the Trinity is like candy corn or a clover. It’s too easy. It’s too neat. Heresy gets out all the kinks, gives your mind something to hold on to. Heresies turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus or a genie whom we can manipulate with our good deeds. God is stranger and wilder than that. If you understand it, it is not God.
What I think is behind all this piling up of heresies around the Trinity is that we’re a people who easily fall into idolatry. We like to have a God we can wrap our minds around. We like a God we can control, a God we can move from place to place, to pick up from over here to be placed on our side. Since the beginning of time that’s what human have wanted. We’ve wanted a God that will do what we want, when we want, no questions asked. Heresies remind us not to get too comfortable with the gods of our own making.
The Russian Orthodox church avoids idolatry by prohibiting icons of God the Father. The exception is the icon of the visitation of the three angels to Sarah and Abraham at Mamre, in Genesis 18. Here the Orthodox church sees in this story an image of the Trinity. God appears quickly, without fanfare, in a flash, three who are one, and then the strangers who are the godhead disappear again. They’re off silently, into the night, the sound of laughter still in the air.
There’s something strange and wonderful about this. Here in the Old Testament, in the middle of a story, the Trinity shows up. God makes a way into the story. God get into the narrative of the life of Sarah and Abraham. God story can’t be told without their story. God’s identity woven into their identity.
I have a copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon depicting this scene. I keep it around to remind me that God shows up in human lives, that God finds and surprises us, like a guest, like a friend, when we least except it. In Genesis 18 we find Abraham, resigned to his infertility by Sarah, intent to find another way around the problem of inheritance, greeted unexpectedly. There’s no lead up, no foreshadowing. The Lord appeared, we read. While the narrator informs us, the reader, that this is God, Abraham instead sees three men. People enter Abraham’s life, eat at his table. Abraham winds his life into their life. He greets them, runs to bring these strangers what he has, to bring them a little bread.
And God welcomes this. God welcomes the hospitality of the little bread. God, the three in one, whole and without need – this God receives. God takes the gifts of meat and milk.
But there is more surprise here, more richness. They say that Sarah will have a baby. Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son. Abundance is met with abundance. God, present in bodies, in stomachs that eat, mouths that laugh, wombs that gestate, hands that touch. Is anything too wonderful for God?
In Rublev’s icon the three persons of the godhead sit round Sarah and Abraham’s table. If you look closely you’ll see that they have identical faces, but two turn towards the third. They turn our attention towards the Father. A tree behind the middle person reveals that this is Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse. The third, it seems, is making a gesture of blessing, inviting us to the table, inviting us to sit and eat beside God, to take of the abundant surprise, the laughter-inducing surprise of God’s love.
I love Rublev’s icon for this depiction of the Holy Spirit, inviting us into God’s life, inviting us to weave ourselves into God’s life. We are invited to eat at that table, to know God by sharing God’s life.
I’ve let my imagination for the Trinity be shaped by stories, stories where we are invited into the gift of God’s life. One of those stories is about three of my friends.
Two months ago my friend Ann started to feel pain in her foot. It wasn’t uncommon. A car had hit her several years ago. The resulting injuries had left her open to a variety of debilitating infections. But when the pain continued, climbing up her leg she knew it was time to go to the emergency room. It was there she got the news. This kind of infection couldn’t be cured. The surgeon would need to amputate her leg, just below the knee.
Ann was frightened. We were all frightened. There was barely time to grieve before the surgery.
Ann is a woman of great faith. And one way she deepens that faith is by coming to church each morning for prayer. Cullen, my friend and colleague, started this practice last year. Each day at 7:30 in the morning a little band gathers in the sanctuary to pray. Sometimes the woman who works at the bank across the street stops in, and a few times a month we are joined by the guys who call our church property their home.
But Alberto comes almost every morning. We met him last year when he came to the church looking to see if we had any work for him to do. Alberto’s only language is Spanish, so most of us get by with our pathetic high school language skills. Alberto is patient with us.
Sometimes morning prayer is small, just Alberto, Ann, and Cullen, a little trinity in themselves, hands held together as they close in the Lord’s Prayer, Alberto in Spanish and Ann and Cullen reciting the words in English.
When Alberto heard from Cullen what had happened to Ann, why she wasn’t at morning prayer, he was frantic. “Hospital.” He told Cullen. “Hoy.” Today we’re going to the hospital. We have to see her. Cullen did his best to communicate bus routes and room numbers, not quite sure the information he was giving was accurate or communicated correctly.
Cullen showed up on time, hurrying from one meeting towards the hospital elevator, not fully expecting that Alberto would have the time or energy to navigate an hour of buses or the vast Duke Hospital system. Cullen pushed the button for the sixth floor and as the door were about to close a hand stopped them. As the doors widened again there stood Alberto. “Muy rapido,” he scolded Cullen as they rode the elevator to Ann’s room.
The three of them sat together. As Ann shared her insights into what God was teaching her about pain and disability, Alberto nodded gently, affirming the sound of Ann’s voice. They stayed for an hour. Alberto brought Ann a Spanish version of the Bible. Towards the end they took hands, as they had so many mornings, and prayed the prayer Jesus taught us, in Spanish and in English.
And God is like this, too. One body but different, speaking a common language of prayer but in different tongues. God is like this, bearing gifts in God’s self, gifts of presence and prayer. God is a body that is broken but also whole, a body made of strong parts and weak parts, bearing scars, all bearing together. God is like this, always returning to one, always returning us to oneness. God is like this, a relation of love, a being that cannot be without all it’s parts, a shared life bound up in love.
We don’t get this from metaphor, or from charts or graphs. We know God in our lives, in the times where we are drawn into the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We encounter the Trinity when we are drawn into the lives of others, when we are surprised by the life of another, surprised by God’s abundance, surprised to see our lives reflected back in a community like this one, a community bound to God’s life, woven in to one another.
This is why heresy is so destructive, and has been so devastating to the church in the course of our history. God is mysterious, ever opening us to new possibilities, new surprises, new laughter. And people are like that, too. God is a relationship of constant unveiling, just as we are constantly opening ourselves up to friendship, to being surprised by the stranger who finds her way to our door. We can’t clear up the mystery of one another. When we do, we’re committing the heresy of certainty, certain that this person is too different, too strange, too dissimilar to be mine. The Trinity welcomes us into the strangeness of one another, letting the other be strange and still be ours.
What a mystery. What a mysterious, wonderful gift.
 Isaiah 55:8-9