A sermon preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
January 5, 2014
When I began my first year at seminary, it was as a religiously wounded young person who had been spiritually mistreated throughout my youth and young adulthood, in the same way that I imagine many of us in this congregation have been. When I was in high school, my personal salvation had been linked to all kinds of things: I must not drink, I must not be pro-choice, I must not have sex before marriage (in fact I really should not even kiss before marriage), and God forbid that I might come out as queer. During my sophomore year, one of my teachers told the only Jewish student in school, in front of 30 other students, that she would go to Hell if she did not “accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.” To this day, I shake to remember the abuse of power and the anti-semitism inherent to my teacher’s action.
To be clear: there were many things that were perfectly nice about my high school experience, and I also remember parts of those years as more nuanced than the broad strokes with which I’m painting now. But what I felt, I know to be true. And I felt confused and hurt by many of the teachings endorsed by those in leadership at my school. And, despite my misgivings, the psychological, social, and spiritual consequences of challenging these teachings proved to be too stressful for my teenaged self. I feared the wrath of God. So I believed what I needed to believe; I said what I needed to say, and I hoped it would be enough to help me escape the fiery confines of Hell – which, others assured me, was a very real place.
By the time I arrived at seminary, I had done enough processing to know that none of these things would condemn me to an eternity in Hell – I even knew that there were reasonable Christians who doubted Hell’s existence altogether! Nevertheless, on my first day at seminary, I told people that I was “culturally Lutheran” – but I couldn’t quite bring myself to carry the identity of “Christian”. Unable to make sense of how to rectify the pain of my adolescence, I had six months earlier left Christianity behind in frustration and anger, telling myself I was only going to seminary as an academic pursuit.
And yet, by the end of the semester, although I could not yet identify it, and wouldn’t for years to come – and although I could not interpret it, and although I did not know from whence it came, still I knew that a star called to me from out of the deep. And I felt deeply compelled to follow it.
We humans have long been taken with the night sky, searching for answers in the patterns of the stars’ passing, or traversing the oceans with the north star as our faithful guide. We read our horoscopes (albeit with varying degrees of seriousness), predicated by the locations of the constellations at a given moment in time. We tell futuristic stories with characters who are pioneers on space’s next frontier, and we catapult our astronauts and galactic machinery to places like Mars, and the Moon.
The stars hold so much mystery for us, and yet we are surrounded by them. We are hemmed in, crowded, enfolded by all the questions and ideas and possibilities the universe has to offer.
Perhaps for this reason it is something of a shame that our story of the wise men and the star has lost some of its original context. Christian tradition determined long after the time of Matthew that there were three wise men, and that in fact they were kings, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Lovely though the story may be, the Magi were not kings but royal priests thought to come from Persia, in the East, and they were often advisors to kings and leaders. They were dream-interpreters, sages, teachers, and yes – they were followers of the stars.
Richard Horsley, author of The Liberation of Christmas, claims that the Magi were figures of religio-political importance in the ancient middle east, known for their wisdom, but also for their political role in affirming or denying divine support for a king. The Christmas story we tell – of the Magi’s recognition of the infant King of the Jews in the time of Herod – is at once a political story of rejecting the onerous and oppressive rule of Rome, AND it is a profoundly religious story of reading the symbolism in the night sky and following the star to Bethlehem.
Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong adds his voice to the mix on the topic of the magi. Like Horsley, he says rather than focusing on whether the story of the star and the magi are historically or literally true, as readers of the text we ought to seek rather the truths inherent to the story. In doing so, Spong points to the use of the Jewish literary tradition known as midrash, which expounds upon Biblical stories, often filling in gaps in the storyline, and bringing new meanings to familiar ideas and motifs.
For example, the author of Matthew may have been using midrash when constructing the story of the Magi and the star. By inserting the Magi into the story – these mysterious teachers from a faraway nation – Matthew made new today’s prophetic text, Isaiah 60, which prophesies all nations being drawn to the light of God. Similarly, Matthew gave reference to texts like Numbers 22, which tells the story of a seer from the East who sees the star of David at its rising. The recasting of these familiar stories within a new context was never intended to be understood as literally true. Instead, it was a literary tool, employed to convey a meaning about the world as it should be: a world free of oppression, a world in which love abounds, a world in which an equal number of stars carpets all of our skies.
Knowing what we do about the Magi, I like to think of them not as followers of just one star, but as perpetual star-chasers. What dreams, and whose dreams, had these Magi divined before discovering this infant, Jesus? What mysteries unfolded in their minds as they gazed up into the star-studded sky? And as they departed along their way, what new star guided their path?
The gleaming star of Bethlehem represents so much more than a pretty story. Depending on how the story is told, if we are lucky, the star can be the voice of God, calling us to the place where human life encounters the Divine;
Or, depending on how the story is told, the Star may also be portrayed as the single beacon of truth leading all of humanity to one and only path to salvation.
That might not sound so bad, unless you overlay it with memories like I have from high school, or other experiences you might have had in your life. For those of us who identify as inclusive or progressive Christians, we often struggle with the knowledge that some parts of our tradition intentionally, even hatefully, exclude others. We struggle with the categories of “saved” and “unsaved” – perhaps we might even wonder where we would fall on the spectrum. Certainly I am Christian. But do I “accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior?”
The question reads more as a cultural signifier than a confession of faith.
And so we are presented with more questions: What does it mean to be Christian today? Who is it that we say we are, and how should we communicate that identity to others? What role does the title “Christian” assign to us – in what ways does it restrict us, and in what ways does it release us to be who it is that we say we are?
The answers to these questions are as varied as the stars in the sky. Each one can lead us to a infinite number of places, to magnetic black holes and cream milky ways and gleaming northern lights. One could get lost amidst the deep.
And yet, here we sit, all together, on this very frigid January morning. The temperature today will not make it above zero, and school is cancelled statewide tomorrow because it’s so cold. Our church has no parking lot, and exposed skin can get frostbite in less than ten minutes in these temperatures – and still – here we are, gathered together today.
What star compelled you here this morning?
Was it the star of hope, that small but steady flare that rises early in the twilight, climbs high into the atmosphere, and does not fade ‘til dawn?
Or was it the star of grief? That star which originates in a big bang!, streaking hot across the sky, pummeling downward with breakneck speed until it settles – but never coming fully to rest?
Was it the constellation of community, which weaves its graceful dance across the night, twinkling like a cluster of festive flames across the universe?
Or was it the star of wonder, peering out from the darkest depth of the most velvet black, the light of it having traversed millions of miles and eons of years to find its way, right here, right now, to shine down on just
For our lives our rife and ripe with a vast carpet of stars. They are beyond us and behind us and within us and between us, each one glinting a clandestine whisper of love.
Like the Magi of the East, the stars we chase are multiple. There is not only one star in the Universe, waiting ominously to be discovered. No, there are infinite quantities of constellations, each with its own meaning as they splash their way through the night.
The stars lead us to each other. They lead us to the Sacred. The stars lead us home.
We drove down the street on a blustery day in East Detroit, pulling off to the side of the road to step out into the drizzle and the grey. As we emerged from the shelter of the vehicle, what I could describe seeing are the same tropes many people talk about, when they talk about Detroit. The boarded up and burned out and abandoned homes. The razed lots, the empty streets.
But then we turned a corner, entering a stretch of blocks which was the reason we came to Detroit in the first place: an art installation called the Heidelberg Project. Blending art and street, the Heidelberg Project reclaims abandoned homes and lots, creating an open conversation between discarded objects, the streets of Detroit, and the people who come to visit the place.
Let me be clear: this is not a neighborhood beautification project. Some of the homes are splashed with bright polka dots that spill out from the front porch to the sidewalk to the street, bringing whimsy and childishness into an area which for years has been characterized by redlined blight and poverty. Others are covered with oversized stuffed animals, stapled, misshapen, and weathered by time and rain – a grotesque nod to those who once inhabited the space, to the passage of time, to abandonment.
People tell stories about Detroit. We like to think we know what happened in the city’s history: the rise of the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s promise that each worker ought to be able to buy his own car, and even for a brief moment, the promise of Detroit as a beacon for racial equality. Then, the closure of various factories led to sweeping unemployment, highlighting racial divides across the city. Wages depressed. The interstate plowed through the city, destroying vital areas of town, particularly the neighborhoods where black folks lived. The 1967 riots ensued. Vast white flight, paired with the devaluation of homes, meant that many houses were simply abandoned by their white owners as they streamed out of the city. Much of this time, the cheerful music of Motown was touted for bringing people together, even as the city, in many places, literally burned to the ground.
In some ways, Detroit reminds me of ancient Jerusalem, the Israelite capitol that was razed again and again by its empire neighbors, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans. Of course, the repeated destruction of Jerusalem was not necessarily within Israel’s control. Instead, it had much more to do with power to control resources. Because it held the trade routes that ran from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the narrow passage that made up Israel was especially coveted by whatever up-and-coming Empire was next in line.
More recently, the way we within the United States struggle for resources has become somewhat more “civilized”, shielding ourselves from direct contact of violence. Instead, with our silver sword of capitalism we defend any action that turns a profit, cannibalistically ravaging our own cities and our own people through the powers of the pure market run awry.
Walking through the art in the blocks of Detroit, I felt at once hopeful for the resurgence of the city and deflated for this place that some once called home. I felt provoked: Provoked to ask questions about who once lived here and what their lives were like; about who still lives here and what their lives are like. I wanted to know the various iterations this neighborhood took on over the last century, what external forces and structures created a system that turned its back from this place – and who made the decisions resulting in that system. More than anything, I felt an uncomfortable disturbance dwelling deep inside me.
Because it is not only wars and empires that raze and ravage the cities of God. Often, we tear one another down more indirectly – through the suppression of wages, through unjust financial practices, through the disinvestment of our government from certain people and certain places, through looking the other way when our neighbors are in economic pain.
Wages deflate beneath a living wage, and the standard response is to ask why the poor don’t just work harder. But a person should be able to work full time and support her family above the poverty rate.
People go hungry, and the standard response is to ask if they are really budgeting correctly. But when there is enough food to feed the world’s population, no one should have to go hungry.
A woman is bought for sex, and the standard response is to ask why she chose that profession. But the real question should be: how is it that we came to live in a world where a price tag is put on a human body?
These arguments are so pervasive that it is easy to read texts like today’s in 2 Thessalonians and hear the standard response ringing through our minds. Ah, we read: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.” Yes–such true and vast wisdom!
But a closer reading of the text reveals that the people to whom Paul is referring aren’t just refusing to work. Instead, they are active – but they are putting their energy to ill use, what Paul calls “mere busybodies,” stirring up discord in the community. This passage has nothing to do with whether or not a basic safety net should be in place in society. But it is about how to solve problems and be in community with one another – especially when the gossip of a few can destabilize the whole.
Paul isn’t talking about the work ethic of a few – he’s talking about work ethics of the whole.
And in a very real way, the prophet Isaiah addresses work ethics, as well.
At the time when this particular text in Isaiah was written, most scholars believe Israel was under the thumb of Persia – a period of time marked by the contractual agreement Israel had with Persia, promising extra labor and taxes siphoned from Israel – like the cream skimmed from a brimming pail of fresh milk. Or, rather: like half the milk poured out onto dry ground, nutritious nectar wasting away, nourishing instead the thing that oppresses.
The standard response at that time might have been that Persia had the power – that this was what Israel had to do to keep the peace, to maintain status quo, merely to survive. But Isaiah is very clear about the Jerusalem that God will make new again: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.
God’s new world cuts against the standard interpretation of the economics of power and resources. God’s vision of a new world is material – but it is a world in which a body’s daily work means also its replenishment at mealtimes and at night. God’s world both boggles our understanding of the way things are, and restores our vision of the way things ought to be.
Earlier this week, one of the houses in the Heidelberg Project was burned down – arson was suspected. It was the second time in six months the Project has experienced this type of vandalism, and when I was there two weeks ago, I walked amidst the remains of a different house, the ashes still fresh, but wet and cold from the rain.
I felt despair when I saw the remains of that house, and when I read this week that another had been set to flame, I felt it again. A loss of hope: that the beautiful, creative things in this world are more often set to flame than they are celebrated.
But even in death we are promised new life. I noticed, walking in amongst the ashes, bright pops of color and new discarded objects that someone had placed within the rubble. Even in its destruction the house took on a new form, not ceasing to exist, but becoming different, confounding, troubling; provoking even more questions of anyone who chooses to engage with it. This, too, is how Detroit will rebuild: in the destruction and provocation and regeneration of all that it is.
Isaiah offers up hope when the world feels beyond despair once more. When the standard responses crowd the mind, when it feels impossible to know how to continue on, God promises the hope of a world made new. Like a ravaged city that provokes and disturbs us, the way of God generates in us the will to rebuild, to start afresh, to make our world anew. Like a bright green dot unabashedly painted on an abandoned home, the way of God jars the senses awake, bringing the head and the heart into a new understanding of this world order,
so that we may train the wolf to lay down with the lamb;
so that we may tame the lion to eat straw;
so that together, we may bring the fierce things of this world to be made new.
This is a memory I return to like a ritual. A streak of blood flashing through the air, men crowded close around my beloved brother and cousin, tough blows falling like a heavy rain, the pronounced sense of powerlessness in the vain screams I lifted up to no one.
It was nearly a decade ago that my brother, my cousin and I were attacked by a group of men on a poorly lit street in Quito, Ecuador. We survived, but each of us have struggled in our own way to make sense of it, alternating between panic attacks, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and, of course, in my case: writing sermons about it.
At the age of 22, this was the first authentic glimpse I’d caught of my mortality – of all our mortality. The bone and the blood and the vomit and the tears I witnessed that night congealed to form a mortar sealing my fate: my body is penetrable. I now understood with horrible clarity that this skin we wear is not a wall of bulletproof glass, but rather a porous barrier through which worldly molecules are sucked in and spat out, like the creams we spread on our elbows, like the sweat we emit with exertion.
Our homecoming one week later was to a gaggle of loved ones awaiting our arrival at the airport. Haggard faces greeted us, worried eyes and puckered chins, as we paraded down the escalators attempting to prove our relative health and general aliveness. We were not very convincing, but as our bodies were embraced, as familiar arms enfolded us, for me at least, my healing began.
That moment of healing — that embrace, right there — is how it is with love.
You may find this a strange way to begin a sermon on the Song of Songs. After all, just moments ago I was reading aloud one of the most delicious texts in the Bible, a sensual and erotic traversing of a lover’s body from toe to head. And yet we all know, at the core of who we are, that even as we embrace one another with the most intimate of grasps, to love another is to risk terrible pain. We love in the midst of life, which is also to say, we love at risk of loss.
The Song portrays this risk as Danger. Do you remember the watchmen of the night, the sentinals who in chapter 5 strip the woman, who beat her and bruise her, simply for walking about the town at night in search of her lover? In today’s passage, we hear the woman wishing her lover were like a brother to her. It may sound strange to our ears, but her wish is logical. At that time, she could be seen with a brother in public, even kiss her brother in public – but not so with an unrelated man. To do so was a violation of social norms, a dangerous act.
Gender roles were notoriously strict in ancient Israel. Most of us know that adulterous women in ancient Mesopotamia were often stoned to death. What we often don’t remember is that very few women who behave out of the ordinary in the Bible are praised for it. Israel in biblical texts is frequently portrayed as God’s adulterous wife, who in the book of Hosea is stripped, exposed, and beaten for her infidelities. Sex in the Mediterranean was first and foremost seen as an expression of power, with two actors: the superior, penetrator; and the weaker, the one being raped. To be a woman was to be understood systematically and unquestionably as the inferior, weaker sex.
Within this broader context, it is certainly remarkable that the Song portrays a female character who not only names what she wants, but also pursues it unapologetically. For any ancient Israelite text to celebrate female desire, the female body and female sexuality – and to have it upheld in the canonization of the Bible – is enough to make any modern-day feminist weak in the knees. I mean, look at this stuff!
In chapter seven, the woman in the poem is compared to a queen, with rounded thighs like jewels and a nose as elegant as the tower of Lebanon. Her breasts are first compared to twin gazelles, then to coconuts at the top of a stately palm tree, and finally they become like clusters of grapes on the vine – significantly sweeter, closer to the ground, and easier to pluck than your average coconut or gazelle. As the lover’s passionate description of the woman continues, we, the listeners, are brought in closer to her, more intimately learning of the apple-sweetness of her breath, and of her kisses, which are compared the smoothest, sweetest wine, gliding over lips and teeth.
“My beloved is mine and I am his,” she declares in avid response to her lover’s adoration, and she calls him forth to the fields and the vineyards, where the pomegranates are in bloom, and where she has saved up the choicest fruit for him to consume.
Since her lover had previously compared her breasts to grapes on the vine, I think we can all safely assume that she isn’t exclusively talking about… fruit.
And yet danger is never far around the corner. These two chapters of the Song, as with most of the Song before it, are fraught with unrequited longing, with an undercurrent of tension and danger throughout. The woman repeatedly expresses her wish to kiss her lover in the streets of the city, and she adjures the Daughters of Jerusalem, her audience, not to wake love before it is ready – presumably because it may be too dangerous to do so. Later in chapter eight, she must defend herself and her actions to her brothers, who see her as a child and threaten to lock her away from the rest of the world.
Any of us who have loved, romantic or not, know what it is like to have our love threatened. For my family, the night I and my brother and my cousin were attacked, the danger was also men in the streets of a city at night, who threatened to take our lives. But Danger comes in many forms. A friend of mine recently gave birth to a stillborn child; the danger she faced was pre-ecclampsia, and it took her child before they were even able to meet face-to-face. For some, Danger is named racism, and allows a man to legally shoot and kill a 17-year-old boy for playing his music too loud, as was the case for Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. Some of us face danger in the form of our own inner demons, depression or addiction or anxiety, which try to convince us that we are unlovable, or undeserving of love. And heartbreaking loss comes still in the form of divorce, sexism, betrayal, homophobia, anger, abuse, misunderstanding. At times it can feel as though Danger stalks us from every angle, ever-present, as vigilant as the watchmen of the wall.
To love others is to risk the pain of loss. And yet the act of loving others in spite of this loss is to defy death itself, to stake claim to the idea that love is strong as death.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, says the woman in the Song – for love is strong as death. Yes, set me as a seal on your arm, for passion is as strong as the grave!
It has become a recent trend for couples, when they marry, to tattoo their wedding bands on their fingers. But the woman in the Song goes even a step further than that. She is not even hoping even to be branded upon her lover’s heart, as our modern ears might hear it, but to be made a part of his seal, which in the ancient world would have been something like his signature.
A person’s seal was dipped in ink and rolled upon a sheet of paper. The opposite impression, much like a modern-day stamp, acted as the individual’s signature when sending a letter or signing a contract. They were often worn on a chain, hung around one’s neck – coming to rest atop the heart – or around the arm or wrist as a bangle. When the woman commands her lover to set her as a seal on his heart or his arm, she was not merely asking for their love to be branded upon his being, but indeed that she become as much a part of him as his very identity.
Were she branded upon his heart as a memory, his love would die with his death.
Were he to set her as a physical, permanent seal on his body, it would turn to dust just as quickly as would his body.
But to incorporate their love into his seal, into his very identity, the woman believes, is to transcend and outlast death. She becomes a part of him, in life and in death. His signature remains in significant documents, his identity in the memories of the community, his very being, even in death, bound up in hers.
When we give of our love to others, we are tapping into the essence of who we are as human beings. When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, we change and are changed by those who we love. It is in the experience of mutually reaching out to one another, with our bodies and our hearts and our minds, that rebelliously defies death’s sting.
In this way we confront death: in the act of loving, embracing, connecting, holding, conversing, admiring, laughing, touching, consoling, stroking, clutching one another. We love in spite of death. We love in the midst of death. We love at risk of death. We love in defiance of death.
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave…
[So] Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
upon the mountains of spices!
Come to the garden.
- What’s church for?
- Why do people go to church?
- What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
- Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?
These questions HAVE been on my mind lately, but they acquire a completely different feel when voiced in the context of the conversation happening on the blogs I mentioned above. Specifically, the conversation is around whether Solomon’s Porch, an emerging Christian church in Minneapolis, which is also queer-friendly (which, I think it should be said, I only know through following this conversation online), should produce and make public some kind of statement about being something like “open and affirming” (to use my UCC lingo) to queer folks.
The conversation is a lot more complicated than that, but since it’s already there for your reading pleasure, I’m not going to go to any greater lengths to describe it. I will, however, quote part of the comment I posted:
Solomon’s Porch does not exist in a vacuum, and all kinds of -isms are rampant in our world, heterosexism obviously being one of them. My question is this: does Solomon’s Porch exist only to be the church for its insular community, or does it also wish to be a Church for the larger world? Does it want to have a public face, or are its positions only available to the people who attend church there? And perhaps more broadly: is the Church/are Christians called to change the world? And more importantly, how?
Recently I re-read the gospel of Luke, and I was *shocked* to re-remember just how RADICAL Jesus is. He is constantly going against the grain of (Roman, pharisaic) society–standing for the oppressed, etc–and he is PUBLIC about it. Explicitly so. I guess he never issued a hard-copy, political statement, but his followers sure did: that’s how we have the Gospels. So what does that mean for contemporary followers of Jesus? Is it enough to support only the queer people who come through the doors of our congregations? But what about those who never find the Porch?
And does the Porch have a responsibility to be a leader in the progressive evangelical world in not only welcoming queer people into the pews, but actually *saying* something about it too? How else are the rest of us, outside your community, supposed to know what “welcoming everyone” means? Doesn’t almost every Christian church use those same words?
If we lived in a perfect world we wouldn’t need flags or rainbows or parades. Perhaps the community in the Porch doesn’t need to have a “Statement on LGBTQ Issues” — but I would argue that it desperately needs to be Public and Explicit about its position on queer folks. There is power in your church, and staying publicly silent IS making a statement. The Porch community may not need it, but queer people who live outside your community do.
A couple of weeks ago I got into a discussion with a friend about the degree to which people are political actors: does the way we dress, the way we look, the way we act, send out political messages to others, REGARDLESS of our intent? My answer to that is yes. We can’t control the way we are perceived, but we can understand and be conscious that all of us enter into the world each day as political actors, whether we like it or not. People WILL read us a certain way, even if they themselves also have a responsibility to look past the surface. The question at hand is: is that important to you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?
I think the question is the same for religious institutions, religious churches, and spiritual communities alike, and I think it’s where the Emerging Church movement kind of has things backward. I get that it’s about transcending modernist labels and identity politics, but I would argue that an Emerging Church is no less of a political actor than other churches,whether they like it or not.. Transcendence of identities might happen within a community of one or two hundred people, but to anyone else OUTSIDE the emerging movement, the community looks no different than any other. So what should they do about it? Well I would argue, of course, that for this reason, emerging churches, too, need to be intentional and publicly clear about how and where they place themselves in the world.
So, to return to the original set of questions that I asked:
- What’s church for?
- Why do people go to church?
- What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
- Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?
The way we answer these questions informs how we try to solve the above conversation. My vision of church begins as a place of radical inclusion, so much so that I do not just welcome the Other, but that I am the Other, and where the Other is Me. We do not need to reach out our hands to help our neighbors, because we ARE our neighbors, connected through a common humanity. In this kind of construct, we don’t have the privilege to “struggle” with an “issue”. I am compelled to name the injustice the Other suffers because for that person to suffer means I suffer too.
In my vision of church, participants not only “walk the walk” in their personal lives, but also bind themselves together to create a collective power in order to combat systemic injustice. Jesus didn’t live in a vacuum: the parables he taught, the people he embraced, and the illnesses he healed made social commentaries upon the world around him. He upset people in power, and was killed because of it. If we really live in the model that Jesus set, then we are also called to fight the abuses of power in our world. But first we actually need to NAME what is wrong with the way things are, and envision what a better world might look like, especially if we expect things to change.
This video is an example of a place that I think does a good job at least trying to be a place of radical inclusion, even if not always perfectly: Union Theological Seminary. The video is long, but even watching a few minutes will give you a sense of what I’m thinking about.
I know I’m throwing out some Big Talk, and I can’t profess that either my congregation or my life lives up to my radical vision of what I’d wish for the church to be in this world. But one has to start somewhere. This is the first time I’ve tried to put together something constructive (as opposed to deconstructive) about what I think the church should be, and it does reflect what might be emerging as my personal theology. So please: give me your feedback, your pushback , your questions, your thoughts. But know that I’m not offering these statements in a spirit of ultimate truth. I’m just trying some of this stuff on, and am going to continue to hone and build upon these ideas. Help me figure out if it fits, yah?
It took me three years to complete my Master’s degree in Divinity. Of those three years in seminary, I attended a Sunday morning church service perhaps five times. It wasn’t a lack of interest, and I certainly wasn’t trying to abandon organized religion. Despite a commitment to my faith community at seminary, and a deep regard for faith-based justice work, something was lacking to compel me to attend a local community church every week.
Today, I usually grumble to myself while getting up on Sunday mornings for church. The community is great, and I adore the ministers. But at the risk of sounding wholly un-pious, I sometimes skip the service for no other reason than that I’d like to sip my coffee in peace, listen to Speaking of Faith on NPR, and do a crossword puzzle.
In “the Church” (that is, the often mainstream and Protestant church) these days, there seems to be a lot of panic around the topic of young people: Where are they? How can we get them to come here? Why aren’t they interested in Sunday morning worship? Don’t they care about faith; values; community?
I certainly consider myself as a person who cares about community, faith, ethics, social justice, and even The Church. But sometimes—and I say this as someone with a degree specializing in parish ministry—the Sunday morning worship experience seems too creedal, too suffocating; trying to claim me too much as its own. In the midst of the grand pillars, the soft candlelight, the hymnody, my ancestral tradition, the question remains: what if I want to change my mind?
Rather than courting me as one more young-person’s-body in the pews on Sunday morning (as the Church sometimes does), I’d like to be appreciated as an individual whose identity sometimes transgresses traditional religious boundaries. I’m Christian, but I’m definitely not all that concerned with other people’s spiritual salvation. And although I belong to a congregation, my faith life doesn’t abide in a church alone.
One of the most spiritual experiences I had in seminary was outside the seminary walls, on the floor of a yoga studio in New York City. It was in savasana, after a particularly compelling practice, that I realized my seminary education was changing my religious life in an entirely irreversible way. Never again would I approach the Bible with the same sense of awe, assuming that hidden beneath the Hebrew and Greek was a Truth yet to be revealed. The Church became the church. The Bible became the bible. God even took on god’s own flaws – overtly masculine, strangely hierarchical, at times wrathful. As I, a Christian seminarian, opened my heart to a Buddhist practice, I found a space to mourn and accept the changes in my faith.
Instead of believing in something explicit, I now just have faith that there is something to believe in. My faith is that Good exists, and that good is what I call God. It is not that I am not reflective, or that I don’t care, or that I am not committed to what I believe. It is that there are very few religious institutions that are flexible enough to allow me to be constantly changing my own definitions of belief, ethics, social justice, and truth.
It is my experience that many fellow young people I meet also have conflicting feelings about the creedal necessities of religion. Despite caring deeply about theological concepts and ideas, it is sometimes asking too much to identify too closely with hard and fast beliefs. In a world of crossing boundaries, flexible identities, and intermingling concepts, mainstream Protestant churches have unfortunately become institutional fundamentalists. Too afraid to lose their own identities, they have begun to claw and grasp at the last hope for tomorrow: young bodies in the pews. Too busy gnashing their teeth at the absence of young people in their midst, they are not listening to our voices as we say we’re here. We care. We matter.
Change the infrastructure. Give us a voice. Let the institutions fall.
It is the classic story. We all know and love the well-worn features of the beautiful Christmas narrative: the angels, the shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem, the star shining brightly, and the miraculous event of the virgin birth. Transcending all else, this is a paradox of child birthing child, of holy producing holy. It boggles our minds. What can we do but walk away perplexed—much as Mary herself was?
When I was about 13 years old – Mary’s age, at the birth of Jesus – my pastor preached on this text. If I were to be honest with myself, it was probably one of the first times I felt that nebulous “Call”, a moment in which a person feels inspired to serve outside herself, perhaps in honor of something bigger than herself, something divine.
Pastor Judith spoke of Mary’s youth, and she talked about what an incredible feat it was for a girl so young to be ‘chosen by God’ to perform this amazing task of bearing and birthing God’s own child. I remember feeling empowered. I also was only 13, but if God chose Mary to do something that important, surely I could be capable of something wonderful, too.
Some time later, in college, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the armpit of a smoking volcano, Quito is a city of nearly 2 million people. In the center of the city is a surprising hill, jutting up as quickly as it falls, on the top of which stands a statue of – who else? – the Virgin Mary. In this version, Mary is a winged goddess, standing on a serpent and reaching up toward the heavens. From anywhere in Quito, even from miles away, you can see her looking down over the valley. It’s hard to tell whether the Virgin or the volcano casts a greater shadow over the city.
I asked my new Ecuadorian friends what they felt growing up under that Virgin Mother. Despite their devotion, these young women admitted the difficulty posed by using her as a role model. How, they asked, is a human woman to be expected to both remain a ‘virgin,’ and yet also become a mother? What is the value in placing such societal importance on virginity? And why, when she herself is so powerful, does the figure of the Virgin Mary stand as the ultimate model of female submissiveness?
These are questions crucial to the way we understand the Christmas story. Have you ever stopped to wonder why it was necessary for Mary to be a virgin? Would it have been any different if God had caused the pregnancy of an already-married woman? To answer that, the reader must begin by understanding that the author of Luke was not writing in a vacuum. His words and thoughts, like ours, were influenced by the culture in which he wrote. And during his day, there were no DNA tests.
It may seem a strange point to make. But in a world in which there was no way to prove paternity, the virginity of a woman was everything: it assured new husbands that the child his wife just birthed was actually his own! This is why in the gospel of Matthew, we see Joseph struggling over whether or not to wed Mary after she becomes pregnant: Matthew is showing us that Joseph knows the child is not his. So Mary’s virginity in Luke is present as an agent to assure us that Jesus is God’s child.
The Gospel of Luke was also written for gentiles. Within the Roman Empire, virgin goddesses like the Greek hunter Artemis, or the Egyptian mother Isis, dominated the civic/religious scene, and this Christian movement was fashioned and defined by its new converts. So temples previously dedicated to Artemis were transferred to Mary. The feasts and festivals in honor of Isis, which celebrated all the fertility and promise that virginity symbolized, instead came to honor the Virgin Mary.
The tradition of Mary’s virginity when it first emerged thus meant something very different than what it means for many today: instead of an avoidance of sexuality, it rejoiced in the possibility of the new life that would emerge from her body. If anything, virginity in the ancient world was a promise of what was to come, not a preservation of purity, of things as they once were.
The Annunciation text describes how Mary became pregnant by God. At that time, it sounded to the gentile listeners a lot like Greco-Roman myths in which Zeus or Apollo descended to earth to mate with a beautiful mortal woman. Even in Genesis, we find a story in which divine beings—the nephilim—came down to impregnate human women. The idea of a god sleeping with a woman was not a new concept in the ancient world, and so this Annunciation was not nearly so sterile a story as we consider it today.
In fact, the Annunciation tells of a very charged encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. As the angel detailed, Mary was to be overshadowed (Gk: episkiazo) by God’s presence, an experience which ancient authorities such as Philo tell us was a union of a human’s soul with the divine, struck through with sexual connotations. Some ancient Egyptian texts even go so far as to speak of the seminal emission of the shadow of a divinity, so powerful that it could engender a woman’s pregnancy.
Have we really been missing, over the past 2,000 years, such blatant allusions to eroticism in the supposedly PG Christmas story?
What is fascinating to me about reading the text in this way is that it allows us to approach it in a way that contemporary American life rarely does: through the fusion of the spiritual with the sexual. So many representations of sexuality today only allow us to see it with our bodies: gyrations, appendages, flesh, and nothing more. Similarly, so many representations of spirituality today only allow us to experience it completely devoid of our bodies: emotions, logic, heart, and with restrictions on how we may use our bodies, and in what ways. Must the two be so separate?
Consider the sensation of reading a moving piece of prose, solving an elegant mathematical formula, hearing a piece music that transports you elsewhere. Is it really so different from the sensation of a good run, the warmth of sun upon skin, or the pleasure of clasping lover to breast? Listen to these words: wholeness, reverence, relationship, meaning, safety, transcendence, trust. Do they describe spirituality to you, or sexuality? Must they represent only one at a time?
So when I read Luke’s Annunciation text, I think he is playing with the boundaries between spirit and body, allowing the two to puddle together and intermingle. His logic might have been: if Mary encountered God and became pregnant, surely it was a spiritual experience, and also, inevitably, a sexual one.
This, then, is no story of a chaste and quiet virgin, the one whom we have always been told Mary must be.
Instead, this is a story of a brave young woman whose passionate, erotic encounter with God began a movement so powerful that it changed the world.
Rather than representing timidity and submission, Mary encourages us to step boldly into new possibilities, to live into our full selves, and to give birth to love and compassion wherever we go.
The world still thinks of Mary as perpetually a virgin, although the gospels themselves tell us Jesus had brothers and sisters. It still considers her asexual, as if this text were not imbued with eroticism and sensuality. And we make Mary’s role in the Christmas story about her virginity without even considering the text, or its implications for women and men in our world.
But the Christmas story is not and should not be about virginity. It is about that spiritual and bodily act of giving birth to the promise of life, and of love, for everyone.