So, Sometimes I Preach, Too

I fellowship with a religious community of Episcopalians in Toledo, Ohio – Trinity Episcopal Church. We are in the midst of an interim period after our previous rector resigned mid-summer to pursue a new calling of God on her life (may she and her wife be blessed). Now, as we first search for an interim rector (a priest who is specially called to help churches in leadership transitions), some of our lay members have been called upon to offer the sermon during our Sunday worship services. It befell me to do this on Sunday of this week. I’ve had a number of people ask me to share my words more widely. I do so with no small amount of hesitation as these are not “my” words really, but rather what I believe to be the outcome of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To any extent that these words bring life, the honor and glory goes to God alone. To any extent that these words bring pain and suffering, the accountability is mine alone to bear for clearly I have mishandled the message of God. Without further preamble and largely unedited except for adding hyperlinks to a couple of things that aren’t necessarily public knowledge, what follows is the message I shared with my faith community last Sunday. I hope it feeds your soul and provokes you to new action.

Sermon for September 13, 2015

Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo

Good morning. I would like to begin by first reading into your hearing the Old Testament and Psalm appointed in Track 2 of the Revised Common Lectionary for today [September 13, 2015]. It was through these lessons along with James’ epistle and Mark’s gospel that the Spirit seemed to be speaking to me most clearly. I humbly offer these meditations to you today.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of a teacher,

that I may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens–

wakens my ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

It is the Lord GOD who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Psalm 116: 1-8

1          I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
“O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

5          The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

7          For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

Let the Lord add a blessing to the reading of his word. Amen.

As I read and meditated on each of these lessons from Isaiah, Psalm 116, James, and Mark’s Gospel, I believe that I see the Church as the subject and object of each lesson. When I say “the Church” in this context I mean both God’s Church universal, all of us who claim to be followers of Christ both within and beyond the Anglican Communion. I should pause here quickly to explain myself: We – and I do include myself in this – like to make distinctions amongst ourselves for the sake of our own egos and self-righteousness, but neither God nor those who watch us attend to them. Yet, while I believe this message has relevance nationally and internationally, I am also speaking to this West Mission Area of the Diocese of Ohio, as well as to all of us gathered under the sound of my voice as Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo.

Let’s hear from that text in Isaiah again, but this time put the Church into the passage (Isaiah 50):

The Lord GOD has given the Church

the tongue of a teacher,

that the Church may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning GOD wakens–

wakens the Church’s ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened the Church’s ear,

and the Church was not rebellious,

the Church did not turn backward.

The Church gave their back to those who struck the Church,

and their cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

The Church did not hide their face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps the Church;

therefore the Church have not been disgraced;

therefore the Church have set their face like flint,

and the Church know that they shall not be put to shame;

GOD who vindicates the Church is near.

Who will contend with the Church?

Let the Church stand up together.

Who are the Church’s adversaries?

Let them confront the Church.

It is the Lord GOD who helps the Church;

who will declare the Church guilty?

The Church has been given the tongue of a teacher, but we must remain attentive to listening and learning anew every day so that we know how to sustain the weary with a word. Who are they that are weary? God has never been most concerned about those who claim weariness from going to work every day, or having to sit in traffic and construction zones in their air-conditioned, leather-seated cars, or those who are tired already of political posturing and presidential campaigning.

No, the weary who need to be sustained with the words of the Church are those who are oppressed under the thumb of oppressive structures and systemic violence. These weary are Syrian refugees; they are sex workers; they are those who are unhoused; they are indigenous peoples across the globe; they are those impoverished by our greed, materialism, and capitalism; they are Black lives imprisoned and executed by overly aggressive policing. These who are weary are trans* people, who have endured the news twenty-three times this year of our kin being slaughtered in the streets:

  1. Papi Edwards
  2. Lamia Beard
  3. Ty Underwood
  4. Yasmin Vash Payne
  5. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus
  6. Penny Proud
  7. Bri Golec
  8. Kristina Grant Infiniti
  9. Sumaya Ysl
  10. Keyshia Blige
  11. Vanessa Santillan
  12. Mya Hall
  13. London Chanel
  14. Mercedes Williamson
  15. Ashton O’Hara
  16. Amber Monroe
  17. India Clarke
  18. C. Haggard
  19. Shade Schuler
  20. Kandis Capri
  21. Elisha Walker
  22. Tamara Dominguez
  23. Jasmine Collins

Made weary by their deaths and yet at times unable to mourn our dead because they have been misnamed and mispronouned, adding yet another violent erasure to the physical one that took them from us and another weariness to endure.

It is the voice of the weary who narrate Psalm 116. Here, I see the Church this time in the place of the Lord, because as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Let’s hear Psalm 116 again with that understanding:

1          I love the CHURCH, because they have heard the voice of my supplication, *
because they have inclined their ear to me whenever I called upon them.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the CHURCH: *
“O CHURCH, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the CHURCH and righteous; *
our CHURCH is full of compassion.

5          The CHURCH watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and THE CHURCH helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the CHURCH has treated you well.

7          For THE CHURCH has rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the CHURCH *
in the land of the living.

Would all those who are weary in this country, this city, be able to give this testimony? Can the Church say in truth that we have not turned our backs, that we have given our cheeks to those who slander the name of God? In essence, as Jesus asked his disciples in Mark’s gospel account, “Who do people say that [the Church] is?” Who do people say that Trinity is? [Feel free to insert the name of your congregation here.]

In answer, many of us may want to set ourselves apart from the likes of Kim Davis or Westboro Baptist Church.  Yet, to the world, if we call ourselves Christians, we and Kim Davis have more in common than we do different. To those who watch us, Trinity and Cedar Creek and Cornerstone and First Church and St. Paul’s are all cut from the same cloth. A cloth that either smothers or comforts, chokes or covers. But as James writes in the lesson from the epistle for today, we who are called to teach – and we have already learned from Isaiah that the Lord has given the Church the tongue of a teacher – are held to a higher standard. Indeed, we ought to be because we are God’s representatives on earth. If even but one part of the Church has rejected that morning call of Isaiah to wake and to listen and learn, then we are all guilty. We must not be so smug as to be content with our own progressivism, thinking ourselves safe from criticism. No, God calls us all to account for each other. The apostle writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [People of God], this ought not to be so.” From the same church, people come to stay and people leave with bitterness in their mouths. People of Trinity, this ought not to be so. We must commit to the hard work of consistently clarifying who God is for a world in pain, standing in open opposition to those who, like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time, use the Name of God to inflict all sorts of misery and provoke to weariness the most weak and vulnerable among us.

To speak a word to sustain in the face of weariness is to deliberately and intentionally set oneself against what is easy, popular, or comfortable. As we walk this Via Media[1], let it not become a Via Wishy-Washy, let us not compromise delivering a truly sustaining word that is full of compassion, which rescues lives from death, dries tears and steadies feet to run. Let us not be ashamed of Christ’s call to give it all away for the sake of attempting to save our own lives.  Instead, let us rather set our faces as flint and dare to be criticized, to be ostracized, to lose members and income and buildings, while we allow the holy fire of the Spirit to compel us ever onward. To deny that this is necessary, vital, and yes even commanded by God is to be like Peter in today’s gospel lesson, holding on to our own security and comfort content to watch the world go to Hell in a handbasket.

To take our message to those who are weary, we must not just leave the building but also bring others with us into the building to receive help, strength, and encouragement to go on. To be spat upon and insulted, the Church, like Jesus our Savior, must be first willing to speak the Truth that inflicts discomfort on the comfortable and wounds those who are whole. Through our building and through our outstretched hands and uplifted voices, let us be CHRIST who is loved and walked alongside of. We must see ourselves as ONE with those who are oppressed and marginalized, not us and them, not church and unchurched, but all in need of the water of everlasting life. As the Church stands up to BE the Church, not just go to church, the Lord GOD will help us and vindicate us.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  Thanks be to GOD.

[1] This is an Anglican/Episcopal Church thing. You can read one perspective on it here.

Lessons from Zora

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” Zora Neale Hurston.

Today is Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday. She was an anthropologist, folklorist, poet, short story writer and novelist, black cultural critic, suspicious of racial integration, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, a co-conspirator with Langston Hughes, a Black queer woman, and an all-around bad ass. I imagine her to be the ideological mother of women like Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. She is one of my favorite authors and I celebrate her life and her legacy today.

A couple of my sister-friends are also,  and one in particular has been posting quotes from her work all morning. They are all fabulous, but the one that opens this post hit me square in the chest with the power of its truth.

Too many people – too often I have been in the number – are silent about our pain. We keep our mouths shut for various reasons: to “protect” someone else’s feelings, to keep the “peace,” to maintain “control,” or just because we are afraid of what will happen next if we speak our whole truth – pain included.

But Zora’s truth-telling is liberating. When we don’t share the truth of our pain, we actually surrender control to someone else to author our story. We protect power, oppression, and dominance. We erect an uncomfortable peace, that really is no peace at all. Like the woman attempting to rest on a pile of mattresses, the “pea” of our pain discomforts us, no matter how deeply we attempt to bury it. We cripple our authenticity by holding in our pain, allowing it to rot us from the inside out.

It’s one of the motivations for my research on the college experiences of African Americans and other Blacks who attended elite, small, private, liberal arts colleges in the Great Lakes region between 1945 and 1965. To reveal the whole stories of these young adults, including whatever pain was there, so that others can no longer pretend that all was well with them and they just “enjoyed” it. But this isn’t the only resonance this quote had for me.

Today’s reading in my online devotional run by a group of Jesuit priests (I don’t have to follow all their dogma to appreciate their approach to worship and creating “sacred space”) was from the biblical account in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4 where the writer tells of Jesus’s early ministry in Galilee, his hometown. In the passage, the reader is told that Jesus healed all manner of diseases and illnesses, that people came from even “beyond the Jordan” (really far away) to be healed. Jesus is reported to have preached a message of repentance and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

I wondered why all this talk of healing diseases was so central to the author’s introduction of who Jesus was and what he did on earth. You all reading this are probably wondering what this has to do with Zora and her quote. Metaphorically (and often literally), disease is painful. Our pain – physical, psychological, spiritual, mental – inhibits our healthy functioning.  Sometimes the effects are barely noticeable, but left ignored and unspoken, pain begins to affect us more and more until we have to radically alter our daily lives just to be alive. Or it kills us and death comes metaphorically as the quenching of our own fire. We move about, zombie-like, posing as human and devouring other people who get too close.

In order to seek Jesus for healing, they had to be open about their pain: where it hurt and for how long, perhaps what happened to bring about the onset of their pain, the effects of their pain. All this had to be put on display. Even if they never spoke it aloud before their healing (thinking of the woman who was healed touching the hem of Jesus’s garment), they had to acknowledge it loudly to themselves.

Everybody who was ever sick didn’t get healed by Jesus. Not everybody came to Jesus. Perhaps they didn’t come because they hadn’t heard. Or maybe because they weren’t ready to tell this stranger Jesus all about their troubles. Or because they had shared their pain with someone before and been rebuked, laughed at, told it wasn’t that bad. And so they kept their pain to themselves and maybe people around them figured it really wasn’t that bad and maybe that they even liked being that way.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

This is truth. And. In order to be loud about your pain, you have to ignore the critics, hope past the old rejections, and see – in the first place – that you are indeed in pain.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today (she would have been 123 years old, born in 1891, died in 1960), dare to feel your pain and tell it. Tell it. Tell the truth and shame the devil who tells you that you like being this way, and who at your death will boldly lie and say you enjoyed it.

Happy birthday Zora, happy birthday.

The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston

A Selah Moment

I was going to post a very passionate reflection today about being an angry Black woman and the value of anger as a tool of resistance. But I’m going to save all that passion and fervor for Monday. Today, I want to take a selah (I explain more at the end about selah) moment, to just pause and be silent, in a way anyway.

Selah.

In honor of and out of respect for the victims of the terrorist shootings (because terrorists aren’t just Islamic Arabs – there’s a great article by David Sirota on this), I’m choosing to silence the other thoughts and ideas running around in my head and sit in silence. I’m posting so my readers know this is an intentional choice not to add to the noise and the talk – and there is a great deal of talk going on right now. Some of it helpful like Sirota’s piece linked above. Some of it not helpful as it reinforces stereotypes and inflicts pain on marginalized groups.

Selah.

There is value in pausing; value in silence. For me today, it shows my faith that others will speak to this better than I; my hope that we will as a society realize our accountability to each other; and love of peace.

Selah.

Perhaps we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters who have begun the fasting period of Ramadan – a month-long pause if you will. As Najeeba Syeed-Miller wrote in her blog post preparing for Ramadan, this holy observance is about practicing a model of conflict resolution and serves as a powerful reminder to produce peace in one’s life.

I think we could all benefit from pausing in silence to practice how to produce peace, instead of producing more and more violence in our world.

Selah.

*Selah is a kind of musical notation used in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the Psalms, which were meant to be sung, to signal to the musicians and congregation that it was time to pause and reflect on the words that had just been sung. It made the psalm more meditative, more prayerful. Today has been one giant selah moment for me.

A Fair Balance

It’s only July, still about four months before the November elections, and I’m already tired of the political ads from both sides. Contrary to much of the current discourse, this isn’t new. Check out this 21st century retooling of the negative campaigning that happened in the 1800s where candidates attacked each other’s physical appearance, sexual appetites, and questioned their biological sex (yes, “hermaphroditical” was used to describe John Adams by Thomas Jefferson): Attack Ads, Circa 1800.

Ugh.

Another thing that isn’t new is the debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay, support for the poor and working classes, and the rights of corporations to pursue unlimited profits – at the same time, the purpose and value of higher education was questioned as proponents of a classical curriculum emphasizing breadth of knowledge meant to “discipline the mind” defended themselves against those advocating for a more utilitarian curriculum that would be directly connected to training for specific trades, particularly mercantilism (aka, business); see the Yale Report of 1828 and this article by Jack C. Lane in 1987. These same debates were also seen in the 1800s as neo-republican ideology swept the country advocating for the freedom to pursue individual success without the constraints of government. Wrapped in what Frey has called a mis-reading of Puritanical ethics, neo-republicanism was as much a religious ideology as it was a political one.

Frey argues for a closer reading of Puritan ethics that would reveal that individual success was always meant to be constrained by investment in the common good. Perhaps, but a close reading of the Bible itself would reveal that the current polarization of the right to pursue wealth against a populist support of poor and working class is far afield from the Christian ethics preached by the religion’s earliest followers.

The Common Lectionary for July 1st used in many liturgical denominations, including Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide, Lutheran churches, and Catholic parishes used Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth as the epistle reading for the week. Here’s a portion of the passage (if you want to read more – the selection begins at verse 7 – click here):

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, New Revised Standard Version

The passage is about voluntary giving or donations, not taxes imposed by the government in fairness to biblical exegesis, but I think there’s a larger point that is transferable between the two contexts. In Paul’s time, the government couldn’t be counted on to take care of the poor. In fact, poverty often led to enslavement. So the new communities that were forming to follow The Way – that’s what the earliest Christians called themselves as they attempted to practice the way of life that Jesus lived on earth – had to create their own structures of organization and oversight – what some might call government. There were leaders and representatives, folks (like Paul) who traveled to spread news about new policies and practices to be adopted. And during this time, the government – Rome – did impose taxes on its citizens and surrogates and typically the surrogates were under a heavier tax burden than the citizens, even though the citizens were usually far wealthier. So when Paul writes this letter to Corinth, pleading for them to give more because they had more, so that they could help the Christians in Jerusalem, he’s trying to teach them another means of following The Way. Later in this letter, Paul cites the Macedonians’ giving, which was greater than that of the Corinthians even though they were poor themselves. Again, Paul wasn’t asking for the Corinthians to become destitute in order to help some other folks, so that everybody would be poor, nor so that those being helped would end up with more than them. Paul wasn’t even asking for everybody to have the same amount either in a communistic (different from communitarian) economy – a common accusation by those who reject calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Equal (a = b) and fair are not the same thing. Fairness and justice don’t always call for things being the same (sometimes they do though). Neither hard work nor inherited gain give anyone the right to hoard their wealth. What is the fair balance? I don’t know, but I know we don’t have it when there are people who are going into bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, who don’t have enough food to eat, who are living out of cars or on the street, while others have so much they literally don’t know what to do with it.

For me, it’s just that simple. I’m not asking for our government to be run according to my Christian ethics (we aren’t a theocracy you know), but I do allow my Christian ethics to guide my political stances and how I vote.1 I also want others who claim to be using Christianity to guide their political stances and voting records to think carefully and reasonably about their orthodoxy using the best biblical scholarship and thinking we have access to. I don’t hear that from most of the folks who are howling over how unfair it is to raise taxes on the wealthy and on highly profitable corporations.

This premise that no one has too much or too little isn’t unique to Paul and Christianity; indeed you can find it as a central premise in any communitarian ethic across religious and secular traditions. It’s also an ethic this country has practiced at times throughout its history and during those eras, we were a stronger nation that began to realize some of its greatness (see my thoughts about being a great nation in my earlier blog post from July 5th).

I want the “fair balance” that Paul calls for to become a reality in this country and right now, we don’t have it. We have a lopsided balance that I sincerely believe will threaten the future of this nation if left unchecked. Paying attention to European history (amongst other places around the world) will show that when things get so lopsided, the poor and working classes revolt and some folks in power lose their heads. Just saying – something to think about. I happily pay my taxes (although I don’t happily fill out the forms because those things are a headache) and would happily pay more if I earned more. It’s my responsibility to the common good, to be invested in the success of my whole community, not just myself.

“A rising tide lifts all boats” – at least it should anyway. But more so, when some boats are allowed to run aground while others sail on, safe harbor for anyone becomes hard to find.

A fair balance for our nation and a fair balance for our world. That’s what it means to live in community with one’s neighbors, whether down the street or across the ocean.

Notes:
1 If you think you know what those are based on what you hear in the media, think again. I am comfortable identifying myself as a “progressive Christian.” For a short clip on what that means, check out Fred Plumer’s explanation (7:16 clip) or go to the website for The Center for Progressive Christianity.

References:
Frey, D. E. (1998. Individualist economic values and self-interest: The problem in the Puritan ethic. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(14), 1573-1580.

Lane, J. C. (1987). The Yale report of 1828 and liberal education: A neorepublican manifesto. History of Education Quarterly, 27(3), 325-338.