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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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?


my virgin mary: birthing compassion, eschewing ‘virginity’

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.

The Virgin presides over Quito, Ecuador

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.

Ancient temple dedicated to Isis, in Delos, Greece

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.


a bone to pick

with my in-between-y theological views (but does anyone have ideas that are not in between something and another?), i’ve often felt ostracized by one group, and then another.  i’ve been told to stop reading the footnotes in a bible study because it will prevent me from gaining access to ‘god’s truth’.  and on the other hand, i’ve been judged for not being extreme enough, not being left enough, very much not being prophetic enough.  most people tend to fall between the extremes, and it is among we middle-grounders that dialogue and compromise is most prevalent.

because of this, a sojourners article caught my eye on my twitter feed that made me consider the middle ground again: caught between two worlds: progressive and evangelical. the author, aaron taylor, speaks about the ostracism he felt while working with a Christian Peacemaker Team in the west bank of palestine, and at first, i was able to relate with his sense of isolation.  the only evangelical of the group, he worked alongside theologically liberal christians for peace, and experienced their questions and probing about why he feels that jesus is the only true way to god.  he questions, “I wonder if we’ve gone too far in laboring to share physical bread with the masses that we’ve neglected to share the “Living Bread” with the masses.” Read the rest of this entry »


Commissioning my self

This week, my heart is in a state of delicate preparation: I will graduate from seminary. The past three years at Union have been those of a constant prodding: a loosening of scripture from bonds of intolerance and injustice, a massaging of my heart to understand (if not to forgive), and an unfolding of my mind to questions, to uncertainty, and to flexibility.

Some years ago, before coming to Union, I went to the Boundary Waters (on the Minnesota-Canada border) with a group of friends from bible camp. A seemingly endless chain of cold, clear lakes linking upon lakes, the Boundary Waters provides peaceful respite from motor-boats, pontoons, and other forms of civilization. There, one’s heart can wander amongst the stars even as the body submerges the mind, relentlessly sweeping away useless thoughts as a paddle cuts through water.

Lake Saganaga, Boundary Waters

Lake Saganaga, Boundary Waters

This trip, however, my heart could not wander freely with the stars. Instead, it is the moment in my particular history to which I pinpoint the death of my ‘faith’, at least as it existed at that time. Read the rest of this entry »