A vast carpet of stars

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.

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Photo by Zanthia on flickr

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.

Photo by redeye^ on flickr

Photo by redeye^ on flickr

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.

But why?

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
exactly
you?

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.

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In Defiance of Death

A sermon preached on Song of Songs 7-8
University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

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.


the big reveal

The decision is made! Can you believe it?! Head on over to my newly-minted style blog (“newly minted” so I don’t have to bug people reading here, about stuff they don’t want to read about) for more about which pair I chose, how I made the decision, how to get a pair of your own, and to see more photos. And if you like the new blog, give me a follow, eh?


powerless muffins

as i write this post, i have some muffins in the oven: muffins i’m sure are going to turn out too hard, too dense, not sweet enough, not nutritious enough… i’m on a health kick lately, so they’re whole wheat-oat bran-blueberry-walnut-coconut muffins. there’s not actual sugar in them (except what you find in applesauce). there’s no butter or oil in them (except what you find in peanut butter).

you see, it seems that when i can’t solve the problems i face in my job — curing injustice, or righting inequity, or (duh) discovering the answer to world peace — i turn to cooking, to gardening, to things that make me happy in a very immediate sense. thus, my ridiculously healthy, hopefully delicious, but probably imperfect muffins.

the muffins are still in the oven, and i just checked on them, sticking a fork in the middle of one. they weren’t  fully baked, and some moist not-quite-cooked muffin came out on the fork… so i tasted it. BE WARNED: these are not muffins for those who like their muffins sweet. this are some hard-ass, super bran-y muffins.

i began by combining the dry ingredients: 1 cup whole wheat flour, half cup oats, half cut wheat bran, half cup coconut flakes, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp nutmeg (or cinnamon), 1/2 tsp salt.

then, i combined in a separate bowl the wet ingredients: 2 eggs, 1 and a half tbsp greek yogurt, 1 cup applesauce, half cup peanut butter. (by the way, by now i know i also know i should have added about another half cup of milk or so, probably some more sweetener, and about a tsp of baking soda).

adding a half cup each of (frozen) blueberries and walnuts, i mixed together the wet and dry ingredients.

i spooned the batter into twelve greased muffin tins (i used canola oil spray), and baked them for 30 minutes at 350 degrees fahrenheit.

actually, these didn’t turn out nearly as poorly as i thought. if you warm one up, and smother a little butter on it, you have a hearty meal for the morning, even if it’s not as sweet as i wish it were. (probably that’s for the best!)

i suppose that there’s something satisfying to creating for myself an (even imperfect) muffin, when i feel so powerless in the face of so many things i feel i can’t change. minnesota right now is going up against some pretty ugly legislation(s?), from eliminating general assistance for the poorest, disabled single adults in our state, to enshrining hateful, bigoted discrimination in our constitution (though what other kind of discrimination is there?). i know many of my friends and colleagues would encourage me to not lose heart… and i won’t… but.

but there are times that what i need is to resort to activities where the result is predictable, and even when i fail, i’m not letting down anyone else when i do so. i love to cook and to bake, because i get to be creative. but when my creativity sucks, at least the only person who suffers the consequences are myself (or perhaps B, and he doesn’t mind).

feel free to try your own version of these muffins. and if you get a better version, leave it in the comments below!

finally: DON’T FORGET to let your elected officials know how you feel, about the issues i mentioned above, and about anything else that’s important to you. for the sake of my sanity, please, use your intelligent and  thoughtful voices for good.


honeymooning

my last post was a letter to my love, so what is more appropriate for this post than sharing some photos of my grandparents in love?

Some weekends ago I was helping my parents clean out some boxes from their move last year. We stumbled across some family pictures that I’d never seen before, of my grandparents, George and Alice, on their honeymoon in 1929.

I love this photo of my grandma (the same grandmother, by the way, who lived on the farm in South Dakota). Her high Norwegian cheekbones, crazy hat, and curly hair are so charming, and her smile even looks the same as I remember it. She’s so cute, and so stylish! The 14-year-old me never would have guessed it.


There is so much loveliness to be had in these photos, memories that aren’t my own, but which hold a piece of my own identity.

May you all have such beautiful honeymoons, filled with style, with substance, and a very long future.


Christmas at the farm

Every year our family spends Christmas Eve in South Dakota. My mom grew up on a dairy farm outside of Sioux Falls, which for her meant hard work–but for me, it meant family vacations building forts in the woods and getting lost in corn fields.

My grandmother passed a number of years ago, and since then the family has struggled deciding to what degree to keep up the farm. Every time I return, it is with some uncertainty as to which buildings will still be standing. So this year I grabbed the camera and tromped about in the snow, my fingers turning red as I snapped a few shots.

I’m fascinated by these old buildings. Mom, it seems, has countless stories about milking the cows and caring for weak runt piglets, of taming feral cats and doing work in the fields with her father. She famously tells about the two vacations of her childhood: first, to visit her sick uncle out west; and second, to attend his funeral a year later. This hard lifestyle, she claims, is in part why her father died before his time.

As the farm stood silent this Christmas, I thought about all the years it buzzed with activity: cows to be milked, food to be made, chores to be done. A day like any other, with the exception that at its end, a family gathered around a warm table and a fragrant tree, and spoke deep midwinter blessings to one another.

See more pictures of the farm on Flickr.


What’s church for, anyway?

I’ve been following along with a really interesting conversation on a couple different blogs lately that feeds into some stuff that’s been floating around in my head lately. Namely:

  • 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?

United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN

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?