Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Disconnect

Reflecting on How Church Leaders Forget What the World "Outside" is Like*

One theme in this work at Faith in Public Life that keeps popping up is the incredible disconnect between faith leaders and people of faith. This struck me most strongly at a Brookings Institute panel event, "Religious Activism and the Debate over Immigration Reform," in which Jim Wallis opened and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an Evangelical and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, and Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, participated. The place was full, and people seemed to really respond to them, but the audience was full of media-types and staff of faith-based organizations. My problem with this group of people was that every single one of them used the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger as the reason behind why they support comprehensive immigration reform.

While I don't disagree with such a statement theologically, I had heard a presentation just a few day before by Dr. Robert Jones on a study (PDF)on religion, values, and immigration. He found that this language of welcoming the stranger is not as effective in religious communities as these leaders seem to think. Language that focuses on family values (keeping families together) and human dignity reach people much more. He says this is for two reasons: biblical illiteracy and a conflict with our cultural imperative to "not talk to strangers."

Messaging is incredibly important for faith leaders. We are to be able to reach out to congregants, but so often what we think we are communicating is not the same as what speaks to people. Here, we had four influential leaders who were unaware that what they preached did not touch people in the way they thought it did. There is a huge disconnect. So many of these leaders are stuck in academic or intellectual or bureaucratic church worlds such that they are clueless to messaging that really reaches people outside of those worlds. And it is those people, the people on the outside, to whom we are to minister.

Now I do not mean to say that there is a pew-pulpit divide over whether or not Christians support comprehensive immigration reform. Faith in Public Life has published two fact checking blog posts specifically dispelling misconceptions that faith leaders support reform but everyone else just wants more troops on the border spread by Fox News types. The disconnect that I am talking about is different because it is a disconnect that is often fostered in seminary and church bureaucracy, separating churchy folk from those working "outside."

This disconnect is so important for me to remember as I continue my studies and the ordination process, continue through to parish ministry. As a pastor, I want to know what messaging touches people most. I want to know how to educate people, as well, but, as a member of a bureaucratic mainline church, I must work to keep myself from getting lost in this disconnect. At Faith in Public Life, we do that first of all by reading the news, to learn what is going on in the world. But Faith in Public Life is also concerned with effecting change and so we learn how to communicate ideas to educate people and get them excited for change as well. We reach out and stay in touch with what is happening outside of our own little church worlds.


*This summer I am a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed non-profit experience if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Common Ground

Reflecting on How Pro-Choice and Pro-Life People Can Work Together*

This summer I am a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed non-profit experience if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision. I hope to write a few reflections on this experience throughout the summer.

Before starting to work at Faith in Public Life, I read their blog and really commended them for their work on sexuality education (which I blogged about), immigration, and their work against the anti-gay bill in Uganda, but I really struggled with their health care work because they focused on dispelling myths about abortion and the bill. It is important to dispel such myths, certainly, but I was wondering why they were focusing more energy on dispelling myths than telling Congress that women's health must be remembered in this bill.

And while I still am absolutely committed personally to making abortion legal and accessible to all women, I have really come to appreciate the work that groups like Faith in Public Life have been doing on common ground on abortion. This means working with others towards a common goal--- reducing the number of abortions.

Now, some feminists reject this goal, focusing instead on destigmatization. They have no problem with abortion as birth control. I must admit that I do not either, but I think using abortion as a form of birth control except as a last resort is completely irresponsible in a society in which STIs are so widespread. I think that such focus on destigmatization negates the focus on prevention. I want to live in a world ultimately where abortion is obsolete not because of some desire to save potential lives, but because I want to live in a world in which when people have sex, they hare having safe, protected sex each and every time. This means not only that condoms and dental dams would be readily available in this perfect world, but that people would be educated enough and respect each other enough to not have sex unless it is safe.

This is not maybe the same vision of some pro-life advocates who may not be as positive about sexuality, but ultimately the goal of reducing abortions is the same. That's what common ground is: a focus on prevention, on actually working with the other side to make changes everyone can be happy with. It is not a compromise in which everyone leaves unhappy--- for instance, if common ground meant that we had to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers that lie to women or that we had to put up with more abstinence-only education. More and more pro-life Christians are realizing that to reduce abortions we must have comprehensive sexuality education, which is evident in recent statements from the National Association of Evangelicals that support contraception. So common ground is focusing on a point at which we can agree and actually affecting change.

This has so touched me since starting at Faith in Public Life because it reminds me why I have chosen to work for justice from a space within the faith community: to live in a just world, we must be able to reach out, to work with those we don't agree with. But we also cannot compromise to the point that nothing is done (as in politics). Common ground is that way we work together to actually get some radical change done. It was how health care was passed, and continues to be important to public policy.

UPDATE (kinda--- it's more like further reading): Check out this post from the blog Abortion Gang, Preparing Religious Leaders to Support Women and Choice. It really speaks to the fact that faith leaders are so ill-equipped to talk about sexuality let alone deal intelligently with issues of choice.


*I do recognize a difference between pro-life and anti-abortion. I use anti-abortion to refer to extremists who kill or want to doctors and who picket abortion clinics and hurl hateful insults at the women who enter them. Hate is not pro-life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Castor Oil: A Reflection on Being a Radical Feminist and a Progressive Christian

This is a reflection documenting where I'm coming from, trying to bridge some gaps. It was written in preparation for my summer work as a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed non-profit experience if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision. I will write a few reflections on this experience throughout the summer.

"At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality."
-Che Guevara

I have been a feminist and a Christian from the time I was able to make conscious decisions for myself. The two go hand in hand for me really: the vision of a just society that feminists are fighting for is for me the kindom about which Jesus preached. Yet in USAmerican society, these two have been separated, particularly with the coming to power of the religious right that culminated in the 2004 election in which George W. Bush was re-elected. So as I was finding a place for myself, I initially grounded my work in secular feminist organizations, avoiding the Christian label that was so often tangled in the rhetoric of the right. While I hold the work of secular feminists, particularly radical feminists, to be of absolute importance to transforming society, I found the radical-ness of progressive Christian organizations to speak better to my understanding of the transformed society I was working towards as a feminist and a Christian.

I consider myself to be a radical feminist (though I know many radical feminists would disagree with my assessment because we're kinda judgmental like that) because I am committed to radical transformation that is not rooted solely within gender equality, but rather rooted in standing up against all forms of oppression as they intersect. As a senior in college I and several friends threw ourselves totally into a feminist project of addressing sexual violence on campus and violence by Christians against women at a local clinic that provided abortions. We stood as witnesses, refusing to allow such violence go on in silence assent. Yet I felt like Jonah--- not in the sense that I ran from the work, but I felt like Jonah at the end of Jonah 4 when he's sitting under the castor oil plant sulking.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Jonah preaches to the sinful people of Ninevah, telling them that God knows their crimes and will destroy their city. The people of Ninevah repented, so God decided not to destroy them after all. God's act of forgiveness makes Jonah angry because Jonah does not like those in Ninevah and wants to see them destroyed. He goes off out of the city in a rage. He sits down, sulking, and God causes a castor oil plant to grow over him, to protect his head from the sun. Because castor oil is used as a laxative, this is God's way of telling Jonah he's full of shit and has no business sulking. Jonah doesn't get it. Then God kills the castor oil bush and Jonah gets mad again. The God says to him:
"You feel sorrow because of a castor oil plant tht cost you no labor, that you did not make grow, that sprouted in a night and perished in a night. Is it not right, then, for me to feel sorrow for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?"*

Now do not get me wrong: no one repented at Dickinson. None of the protesters outside of the women's clinic who harassed women as they entered the clinic repented. Yet, my activism in this context was one in which I preached about how wrong THEY were. When people in Greek life wanted to meet with us and discuss how to change, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with these people. I loved to tell them how wrong they were and then wanted to go off and sulk outside off campus, waiting for it to implode, I guess. I was angry all the time and I hated most people. Now, I want to note here that anger is necessary, but for me it was unhealthy to be in that constant state of anger that was driven as much by hate and disgust as by desire for transformation. So I was not happy.

It was in seminary, in my faith community, that I felt restored to be able work towards transformation in a way that to me was less like the way Jonah worked for transformation and was more like...well like Jesus, someone who preached, certainly, but someone whose message of transformation was lived out in community. Someone who worked with the "sinful" people rather than just preaching at them and then leaving. This is not to say that such transformative work does not happen in radical feminist and queer communities (see a great blog post from Enough, an awesome anti-capitalist blog, on transforming community that is not connected to faith work and is beautiful), but it is within the faith community that I have best experienced what radical societal revolution can look like.

The revolution that is transforming our society to look like that kindom is not someone preaching repentance and then leaving to sulk under a castor oil bush. That person (me) is full of shit. The revolution involves a love of people that nurtures a hope that we can all work together for transformation. Sure, as Che said, the love aspect of revolution sounds hokey, but if we really want to begin to live in something like that vision of a transformed society, we ourselves have to transform, have to make an effort to reach out instead of retreat within ourselves. To be guided by a great feeling of love.


*Jonah 4:10-11, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (Sheed and Ward 2007).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Disrupting Dinner in Luke 7:36-50

This is a sermon I wrote as my final in Biblical Literature: Gospels, Epistles, Apocalypse taught by Dr. Althea Spencer-Miller.1


Luke 7:36-50, this story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus, is about disruption. Here, Jesus and the disciples are just lounging about at Simon's, talking and eating. Maybe they are talking theology. Maybe not. The point is that here they are in their own world and this woman--- who is a sinner, the author reminds us--- crashes their party. She transgresses into this world they have made for themselves.

And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.2

These are the words from which we begin. We are left to imagine for ourselves her entrance into the scene. Did those who served Simon the Pharisee welcome her inside knowing her plan before the meal, allowing her to wait in the shadows until Jesus was reclining at the table? If so, she could have emerged quietly to place herself at Jesus' feet so smoothly perhaps she would not be noticed at first. Did she push her way into the building until she found herself at Jesus' feet? Pushing her way in could have alarmed Simon and his other guests. Certainly each possibility, and there are many others, has much different consequences for the ways in which she was disruptive, but the author leaves it open, writing only that when she learned Jesus was at Simon's house, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment with her.

But however the woman comes to Jesus' feet, she is ultimately an interloper. She has crossed into a space constructed such that she and her emotions are unwelcome. Yet she brings with her sacred space. Here she is a woman, a sinner crossing into a space seemingly reserved for men, the educated, the religious, yet she is not a sacrificial goat. She is not like the woman accused of adultery in John 7:53- 8:11, presented to Jesus as a sacrifice, forcing him to chose between her and the law of Moses. Instead, the woman who is a sinner in Luke 7:36-50 is a priestess at the crossroads.3 She enters into Simon's house with her alabaster jar to make sacred the space, ministering to those witnesses at the table; her presence is disturbing in a prophetic way. She disrupts.

Introduction to Interpretation

Now we have established where the sinful woman is, but before exploring the text further, we must establish where we are as interpreters.4 We are not approaching this text from a void, but are influenced by our social locations. For instance, you will notice so far that when I speak of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, I have not referred to her as a prostitute. There is absolutely no textual evidence to label her as a prostitute; it is tradition that has imposed a misogynistic view that a woman's greatest sin is a sexual sin, thus, if the sinful woman in this story's sin is so great she washes Jesus' feet with her own tears, it must be a sexual sin.5 Notice that when a man is presented as a sinner in Christian scriptures, we never once ask ourselves if his sin is sexual in nature, but tradition has us labeling women like this woman and Mary Magdalene as prostitutes with no textual evidence. The label prostitute could have been used by ancient church leaders as a way to discredit women's prophetic voices in scripture as a way to discredit women's prophetic voices within their communities.6

My own location as a feminist calls me to bring into question traditional understandings of this story of the woman anointing Jesus. However, I am also a white, middle-class, US American woman, and therefore am susceptible to readings of Luke 7: 36-50 that do not challenge traditional interpretation or that instead glorify the woman's gender in a way that does not question her work. Therefore, I am attempting here to read this passage with you as a feminist who is in process of grounding my feminism in queer, womanist, and particularly border-crossing theories. Though I must be careful to avoid appropriating and assimilating such theories since I am white, middle-class, and USAmerican, I feel that feminism is not prophetic without roots in queer, womanist, and border-crossing theories. If we are to understand the prophetic nature of the disruption that is the woman with her alabaster jar anointing Jesus.


So let us return to the story.

She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.7

The disruption this woman brings is not merely through her uninvited presence. Her presence alone is a transgression; however, presence can easily be blotted out of the minds of those seeking to preserve that safe, closed world they have created for themselves. This woman is disturbing. She not only crosses the border into a world where she did not have a place, but she does so with such emotion. She weeps with her hair unbound, disheveled, disturbing with her presence, appearance, and actions.

How does this initial picture of her bathing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying his feet with her hair strike us? I think today for many of us this is a very erotic image. This returns us to the way tradition has forced onto this woman the identity of prostitute, so her actions are always suspect as being somehow sexual. For many societies, women's hair is seen as sexually connotative, causing men to become lustful animals if it was revealed. Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul commands women to cover their hair when prophesying, calling prophesying without a veil disgraceful.8 His anger to the Corinthian community does not seem to fit with his assertion in Galatians 3:28 when he claims that male and female do not exist within the one-ness of Christ. So here we see how in early Christian communities there was a struggle over what women's place as prophets was--- a debate that continues today, particularly around ordination as not all mainstream denominations even ordain women yet.9 Claiming this Luke passage as sexual is a way that the early church could discredit the unsettling behavior of this woman, hair unbound, touching Jesus Christ.10

Yet did early Christian communities see this woman with unbound hair to be as erotic as we might today? Certainly, as can be seen in Paul's desire to curb women's power for fear that others will reject Christianity based on the power women had within the community. However, some have pointed out that in Greco-Roman culture, unbound hair on women is often a symbol of grief as well as gratitude and supplication in worship to the gods.11 Scholars believe Luke was written to a community familiar with Hellenistic customs and living with a tension between traditional Jews and the budding Christian movement,12 indicating that the readers would be familiar with Greco-Roman customs concerning women's hair. For instance, seminary professor Charles Cosgrove points out that Sabine women of ancient Italy, made famous in numerous works of art in the Renaissance and who were abducted to be forced into marriage with Roman men, begged for peace by entering the battlefield with disheveled hair.13 In ancient Greco-Roman texts we see numerous examples of women unbinding their hair to symbolize their grief and plead for peace from the gods.

Could the woman in Luke 7:36-50 be read as grieving? As a transgressor, border-crosser, disruptor, this woman most certainly would lament. However, her grief perhaps does not fit against Jesus' parable to Simon and Jesus' own description of her.

"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?"14

Here, Jesus answers Simon's internal monologue of disgust over the idea of Jesus allowing a sinful woman to touch him with a story. This story places God as the creditor and Simon and the woman as the debtors, as the sinners. Then, Jesus interprets the woman's actions for Simon:

Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.15

Here, the woman could not be grieving over forgiveness, could she?

But that depends on what forgiveness means. According to scholar Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "the Greek word for forgiveness [used here in Luke], aphesis, is the same root used for 'release' in Jesus' inaugural proclamation."16 The inaugural proclamation is a reference to the story in Luke where Jesus returns to Nazareth and reads from the scroll:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."17

So then when Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the story of the woman, he is saying that she has shown great love because she has been released. For me, release signifies liberation. Sin, then, can be read as oppression.18 God as Liberator has released this woman and Simon from oppression. Though we do not know the woman's background, we can presume that as a woman she suffers at the intersection of the Roman imperial oppression as well as sexism, whereas Simon may only be oppressed by Rome. Still, liberation is a beautiful thing, yes? Why the grief?

I see this woman's tears, her unbound hair as an expression of gratitude for liberation, the focus on Jesus' body is also grief. As I mentioned before, she is creating sacred space in her transgression into Simon's home; she is a priestess rather than a scapegoat because she is released, according to Jesus. The great love she is showing is gratitude, but is gratitude tinged with grief. She is lamenting Jesus' death. I will begin to look at this more as we explore the parallel versions in the other three gospels, but the act of anointing in itself is incredibly prophetic in the scriptures. The word Messiah, or Christ in the Greek, means anointed one. The only human to anoint Jesus in Luke's gospel is a woman, this woman in Luke 7:36-50.19 Though Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism when the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove,20 this act by a human cannot be overlooked as it has been:

She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe is feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.21

This great love she has shown in gratitude to the Liberator is also grief that his work as the anointed Liberator will result in his death. Jesus' work is also a crossing of borders, a disruption, and that disruption is not a purely joyful act for it does not always end well.

Looking at Luke 7:36-50 alongside the Parallel Stories in the Other Gospels:
Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12-1-8

When we focus on the anointing in Luke 7:36-50, as interpreters we must remember how we are influenced by the other gospel stories of the women anointing Jesus. In all four gospels, there is a story in which a woman anoints Jesus. The authors of Luke and John describe a woman anointing Jesus' feet, whereas the authors of Matthew and Mark describe a woman anointing Jesus' head. Only in the gospel of John is the anointing one named: she is Mary of Bethany, grateful for Jesus' restoration of her brother but seeing that Jesus' work would lead to his death. The others are unnamed, and they come to the house of Simon the Leper rather than Simon the Pharisee. And Simon is not the one who questions the actions of the woman; rather it is the disciples in Matthew and Mark, and Judas in John, who question her. Jesus, in these three stories, focuses not on the woman's love, but on the anointing itself as a prophetic anointing for burial.

I am turning us to these stories not to turn to the gospels to add up all the parts of the stories into one big mess, as is done at Christmas when we add the magi from Matthew to the shepherds from Luke with the prologue from John and call it one story. However, looking at the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke in particular help us to see what is important to the author, presuming that Luke and Matthew both used Mark as well as their own independent sources L and M respectively. Luke's account of this story is completely different from both of these because the issue here is not the cost of the ointment as it is in the other gospels when the disciples say:

"Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor?"22

Luke mentions nothing about money. Instead, Luke portrays Simon as disgusted that Jesus allows a sinful woman to touch him, to disturb their meal, to trespass into their lives. The story in Luke is one that is about disruption in ways that the other gospel stories are not.

Recognizing the Tensions between Resistance and Entanglement23

However, bringing up the ways other gospel writers depict this story of a woman anointing Jesus brings to light other interpretations that we must acknowledge. We are dangerously deluding ourselves if we think that our reading of the text is the only reading or even the best reading. We must make ourselves aware of the diversity of interpretations in order to best understand the consequences of our text. Textual meaning is unstable,24 so here, we will look at some of the ways in which Luke 7:36-50 can be read not as a disruption in which the woman doing the disruption is a prophet-priestess, but instead read in a much more passive way.

Scholars like Jane Schaberg suggest that the gospel of Luke is not as liberatory of a gospel as one might think. She claims that the woman's anointing in the story cannot be related to Jesus' death as I have related them. The authors of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are explicit that this story of a woman anointing Jesus is a story of anticipation of Jesus' death, whereas Luke places the story much earlier in his gospel and changes the focus of the story entirely. Thus, the story can be read such that the woman's prophetic power in the Luke story is taken from her rather than evident in her border-crossing.25 In this reading, the woman has very little agency. She acts, but her action is to praise Jesus for forgiving her. Surely this gratitude is positive, but when the woman is presented only as praising, she loses so much power in the situation. Jesus is the one who acts here.

Similarly, reading sin as oppression and forgiveness as release is not the only way to read this story. Many of us are much more familiar with the idea of sin as disobedience, and see this story as a much more individual story, focusing on forgiveness of sin as a forgiveness of personal disobedience that does not take into account the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor. So again, reading Luke 7:36-50 as a more individualistic story ties into reading it as not prophetic: here, the woman is helpless to do anything but praise God, for it is God--- and Jesus, which also alarms those at the table with him26--- who forgives. All we as individual sinners can do is praise God when we too are forgiven.

Recognizing these different readings of the same text helps us better situate ourselves in our own interpretations. We must recognize the validity of other readings in other contexts to better understand what our interpretations are not saying. Scholar Stephen Moore in his study of Revelation reminds us that, while it is ethically important to read texts as liberatory, these texts have been used throughout the ages to support imperial hetero-patriarchy with good reason.27 Interpretations of Luke 7:36-50 as silencing and denying women's agency as priestesses are as rooted in the text as our own interpretations. We must inoculate ourselves from the idolatry of thinking there can only be one interpretation so we can hold ourselves accountable to our readings.28 What are the ethical consequences of our interpretations? What does it mean for our community to read the woman anointing Jesus as grateful rather than disruptive?

However, the fact that there is not one interpretation, not one fixed meaning, reminds us Luke 7:36-50 and the bible itself is a hybrid text, a crossroads text.29 I read this story of the woman anointing Jesus with ointment and her tears as a crossroads text in the way she is disruptive, but even when we read this story differently, it remains a crossroads text because that is what scripture is. Retired bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of Harvard Krister Stendahl exclaims, "What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled."30 As we move into the impact of our interpretation of this story of disruption in our own community, let us remember that ultimately in interpreting we need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled.

Disruption in Our Community

Luke 7: 36-50, this story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus, is about disruption. She disrupts Simon's guests' meal, kneeling at Jesus' feet, her unbound hair unsettling in such a setting. And instead of rebuking her, Jesus turns to Simon and the other uncomfortable guests, asking if they see this woman.

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."31

Here, we are told that this woman represents for us as Christians "proper" Christian behavior, though Simon and those at the table with Jesus are greatly disturbed by the extravagance of her actions towards a man who does not seem to care that she is a sinner. Instead of reprimanding her, instead of trying to dilute the emotion in her actions to make those at the table more comfortable, he tells them that her faith has saved her.32

What would it look for our community to have such faith? How do we translate the woman's behavior to our own contexts? With the words of this story within us, "how then shall we live?"33 To answer this question, we must return to her role as a priestess in her creation of sacred space by her very crossing of borders. She made people uncomfortable with her extravagance: shouldn't we? So, we are called to be that woman, looking for Jesus within our own community.

And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."34

There are those within our communities who are in need of that prophetic love, who need to be anointed with gratitude even as we grieve for the situation in which they are. Think of those whose feet have been bloodied from walking for miles through the desert in search of food and work only to find abuse at the hands of employers and neighbors in this new land. So we are grateful for the thankless work these folk do for us, but it should be a gratitude tinged with lament because we know that theirs are feet like Jesus'. It is this lament that should be driving us into houses like Simon's, disrupting the conversation to make people uncomfortable. Those are the feet that we should wash with our tears and dry with our hair, anointing them in the knowledge that these are feet like Jesus', feet whose journey for dignity may lead to the death of detention centers and denial of human rights.

Here, we see that not only is the woman in this story the trespasser, but so his Jesus. Jesus has forgiven the woman, has released her, and so Jesus presents their story, the story of him and the woman, to those at the table with him as a radical alternative to how as Christians we are to live, a new way to strive for a better world.35 Because, that is what this story in Luke 7:36-50 is about: how to live the struggle for a better world. Yet, we are at the crossroads in this text: Jesus is telling us that we ought to be the woman here when we too often are Simon and the uncomfortable people at the table with him, more concerned with the fact that our dinner has been disturbed than Jesus' message of release for the captives. Instead, let us turn to that question that comes up for us when we read the last verse of this story:

And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."36

What would it look for our community to have such faith?


1Because this sermon is for a final, and I made some formatting decisions based on this. The lengthy footnotes are to show how I am incorporating my academic work into this sermon. The formatting choice of headings is a way in which to create space for modifications if I were to use this sermon. Indenting and italicizing the biblical passages, though not proper citation format, is intended to better highlight these passages as they are the foundation for the sermon. In addition, this sermon is more intellectual than those I have preached before in part because I have not preached since attending seminary but also because the churches at which I have preached are not intellectual churches. Whether or not the church is intellectual, though, I see sermons as an important place in which to educate and encourage the congregants' exploration of texts and theologies.

2Luke 7:37, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).

3Here, I am using language and theory from Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, second edition (San Francisco: Aunt Luce Books, 1999), specifically page 102. This theory and that of Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-viewed, ed. Ingrid Kitzberger (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 267-291, which is based on Anzaldúa's theory ground my work in this sermon.

4In this section, I rely primarily on Dale Martin, "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency." Sex and the Single Savior, (Louisville/London: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 1-16.

5While many biblical scholars comment on the fact that there is no textual basis by which to name this woman as a prostitute, I draw specifically here on the work of Barbara E. Reid, "'Do You See this Woman?': A Liberative Look at Luke 7.36-50 and Strategies for Reading Other Lukan Stories against the Grain," A Feminist Companion to Luke, edited by Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickinstaff (New York: Sheffield Press, 2002), 106-120.

6While understanding this traditional way to discredit women, I still believe that we can reclaim the label prostitute in reference to these church leaders to challenge the ways in which women's greatest sin is constructed as sexual. I have not fully explored this idea, but I thought it important to mention here as a possible place from which to introduce queer theory.

7Luke 7:38, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

8First Corinthians 11:5-6, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

9I refer here to the work on 1 Corinthians and the the Acts of Thecla in exploring the ways in which women were resistant to Paul and others' misogynist understandings of women's roles within the church: Antoinette Wire, "Women Prophets in the Corinthian Church," In Conflict and Community in the Corinthian Church, Ed. J. Shannon Clarkson (New York: United Methodist Church Women's Division, 2000), 35-52; and Beate Wehn, "'Blessed Are the Bodies of the Virgins': Reflections on the Image of Paul in the Acts of Thecla," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (2001), 149-164.

10Again, this is a place in which there is room to explore the sexuality in Luke 7:36-50 with a grounding in queer theory. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to explore the queerness of this passage in this particular sermon.

11I turn here to the work of Charles H. Cosgrove, "A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the 'Sinful Woman' in Luke 7:36-50," Journal of Biblical Literature 124/4 (2005): 675-692. While Cosgrove is a professor at an evangelical seminary, I still found his work on the meaning of hair in the Greco-Roman world to be very interesting. This is a place, however, where more interpretation could have been done in light of the meaning of hair within ethnic communities today.

12Ronald J. Allen, "The Story of Jesus according to 'Luke': The Gospel of Luke," Chalice Introduction to the New Testament, ed. Dennis E. Smith (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2004), 179-180.

13Charles H. Cosgrove, "A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the 'Sinful Woman' in Luke 7:36-50," 684.

14Luke 7:41-42, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

15Luke 7:47, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

16Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "The Gospel of Luke," In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 168.

17Luke 4:18-21, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

18Liberation theologian James H. Cone writes that salvation is liberation in God of the Oppressed (Harper San Francisco 1975). Andrew Sung Park, also a liberation theologian, writes that we must complicate our understanding of sin because sin as the great equalizer does not convey the reality of the oppressed's experience as the sinned against in The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993). Here I attempt to bring both theologians into my understanding of who this woman in Luke 7:36-50 was/is.

19Jane Schaberg, "Luke," Women's Bible Commentary, expanded edition with Apocrypha, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 374.

20Luke 3:22, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

21Luke 7:38, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

22Matthew 26:8-9, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. This verse is almost identical to Mark 14:4-5 and John 12:5.

23This heading comes from Stephen Moore's work on Empire, "The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah: Representing Empire in Revelation," Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006) 123. His postcolonial reading of the text reminds us of the ways in which liberation hermeneutics can neglect the struggle within a text, that struggle within ourselves, in which we navigate resistance and assimilation.

24Dale Martin, "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency," 4.

25Jane Schaberg, "Luke," 375.

26Luke 7:49, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

27Stephen Moore, "The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah: Representing Empire in Revelation," 122.

28Dale Martin writes that interpretation does not mean that "anything goes" but rather that "...we may read texts to derive legitimate meanings" in "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency," 2.

29Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," 275.

30Krister Stendahl, "Why I Love the Bible: Beyond Distinctions of Intellect and Spirit," Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35.1 (2007).

31Luke 7:44-47, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

32Luke 7:50, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

33At the end of Clarice J. Martin, "The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: 'Free Slaves' and 'Subordinate Women,'" Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress), 231, we are presented with this question concerning our interpretation of the Haustafeln in the light of USAmerican history of racism and sexism. It is a question we should ask ourselves each time we read a text.

34Matthew 25:40, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

35Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," 290.

36Luke 7:50, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


We don't like to touch each other without that barrier of latex gloves between us. We have been taught to be afraid of germs--- cold germs, more insidious viruses--- and not for no reason. Today, we live in a world terrified of diseases we cannot cure, diseases within our blood, diseases like AIDS. Unfortunately, fear of AIDS is less a fear of catching a disease and more a fear of "catching" poverty, blackness, and homosexuality. We have linked HIV/AIDS with the picture of poor black people in Africa, as though white USAmerican culture can begin to understand what Africa means in my lifetime, giving us a chance to send off money to assuage our guilt but continue to keep that barrier between us so we won't catch anything.

But HIV/AIDS has also been linked to a picture in which men have sex with other men. It is this picture that provides the religious right with fodder to call for a repentance that leads to hate rather than to salvation. And should we forget that this picture is indeed linked to our fear of HIV/AIDS, we need only to look at the questions the FDA asks to see if we are eligible to give blood:

You should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV.You are at risk for getting infected if you: are a male [or a woman who has had sex with a man] who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.

Here is homophobia at work. Initially, this was put into place because the virus wasn't understood well enough, and we did not have the ability to screen properly for HIV. But it is now 2010, and we are still stereotyping people as sick, still trying to keep that barrier in between us so we won't catch the gay.

In college, a few students I knew began a national college mobilization called the Fight to Give Life to remind us that men who have sex with men are not engaging in a fundamentally risky behavior that forever prevents them from giving blood, as the FDA would have us believe. It doesn't make sense: couldn't they have tested negative for HIV? This is a deliberate stereotyping of gay and bisexual men, a deliberate construction of a barrier between straight and gay,labeling gay as always dirty, even if there is no medical evidence. Let's not mix blood, for fear of the taint of their sexuality.

And though we should not demand to be convinced by numbers, I was drawn to this study (found on this site, done by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law & Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law using data from the American Red Cross and the US Department of Health and Human Services regarding blood donation patterns in the US population. According to it, "Completely lifting the ban would add an estimated 219,000 pints to the blood supply and 903 organ donations each year. A more limited revision of the policy, which would limit blood donation by those men who have not had a male sex partner in the past year, would yield an estimated 90,000 additional pints of blood and nearly 370 organ donations annually. Finally, changing the blood supply policy to restrict donations by men who have had sex with men in the last five years would result in an additional 70,000 pints to the blood supply each year." So without even discussing blatant discrimination, these numbers speak to how ridiculous this federal ban is.

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability meets to discuss the possibility of lifting the ban, which people have been working to overturn for years, most noticeably in 2006. The ban is not medically sound, as scientists and American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers insist. The only reason it is still in effect is homophobia. As a person of faith, I reject such a dehumanizing ban that acts as a barrier preventing one human being from reaching out to help another, from one who wants to share hir wealth of resources with someone in need. I am standing up to say something about it. I don't want this committee meeting to go by as it did in 2006 when such a discriminatory, medically unsound, unnecessary ban was upheld. Educate yourself so we can work together with those who have long been in the fight creatively to overturn this ban.

To learn more about the history of the ban and how people have worked against it, visit the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) website.

UNFORTUNATE UPDATE FROM HRC: "In a setback, today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability, after a two-day meeting, voted to recommend that the lifetime blood donation deferral policy for gay and bisexual men not be changed, citing insufficient scientific data to support any revision. However, the Committee did acknowledge that the current policy is imperfect and recommended additional research to support a policy that would allow low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate. The Committee's recommendations will now be considered by the Assistant Secretary for Health."

This kind of failure on the part of this committee cannot continue. This needs to become an important issue for people of faith especially to recognize and support.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Connections: A Reflection on Annual Conference

When my mother, a United Methodist pastor, asked me in 2008 to be the lay delegate to Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference* for our charge,** I was so excited to be part of such an intensely United Methodist event. When my mom told me she wanted me to go because she felt bad about asking people in church to be bored with church politics that usually did not speak to the realities of our rural churches, my excitement was only slightly deflated. That first year as a delegate was maybe not quite what I had hoped, but because it was new I was still giddy. Since then, two subsequent experiences as a delegate in 2009 and 2010 have left me question the beauty of Methodism that had caused me to get a tattoo of the cross and flame when I turned 18.

When my mom first came to our charge, a wonderful couple Libby and Stanley Butler, who have since passed away, were the lay delegates. Then, conference was held at universities big enough to house delegates--- which many annual conferences continue to do today. The Butlers used to take their RV to the campus and camp out with some other delegates, which is just a beautiful picture to me because camping together fosters a much deeper connection than what we do now, which is stay at the exorbitant Marriott in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Jesus is not at the Marriott, no matter how loudly we worship. How can we as Methodists reach out and connect with one another in such an embarrassingly opulent space? We follow this guy who was born in a barn: how dare we praise his name from underneath enormous chandeliers in the Marriott ballroom?

Such purposeful forgetting of Jesus' origins is not a new thing, of course. Gathering in a Marriott is not the most egregious thing we who call ourselves Christians have done to deny the gospel we claim to follow. However, as Baltimore-Washington United Methodists, changing our venue to someplace less opulent would be a step back towards that vision of the gospel. I'm sure we could find a barn or something in Maryland big enough for everybody.

But suppose we did move to a barn for annual conference? We would still be plagued by another piece of Annual Conference that seems to very far away from what a connectional system means: our legalistic bickering. We don't listen to each other. We fight about particular passages,whether or not we know what we're talking about, forever, and then, more often than not, still vote to pass the original, untouched legislation. People propose ideas that should not be legislated (ministry needs to happen without a mandate that just add more bulk to an already obese bureaucracy). As I sat there with my voting card this year, I just kept apologizing to God for our behavior.

So sometimes I do ask myself why I'm doing this, why I can't disentangle myself from the United Methodist church. I told myself when I got the United Methodist cross and flame tattoo that, even if I stopped being Methodist, the tattoo on my back shoulder was a reminder of my roots. I think today it is more than that: it reminds me that wherever I turn around, constantly pushing me forward, is the United Methodist Church. I can't get away. But as I spent time with my friends both clergy and laity, as we reconnected, I knew that the United Methodist Church is my home, in all its dysfunction and in all my dysfunction. I got to see and talk to a bunch of amazing uppity preacher women who I really only see once a year. I reconnected with friends from mission trips past, from my district, new friends from Baltimore Washington Area Reconciling Methodists (BWARM). I met a woman who showed me pictures of her granddaughter, and told me about how her daughter struggled with giving birth because she did not want to get her partner, who is a woman soldier, in trouble as Don't Ask Don't Tell is still in effect. Sharing such an intimate part of your story with another human being is a real God moment. I ate dinner with another woman I had not met before the first day of conference who saw me on the last day and gave me a huge hug as though we had known each other forever. I sang a beautiful song, "For Everyone Born" (you can listen to the song and others within the praise book of the same name here) with beautiful friends during the ordination service for people I did not know but rejoiced to share such a special moment of their lives with them. I hung out with my mom. These are the connections that matter, the connections that make up the picture of a connectional system.

The beauty I saw at 18 is still there, but different, complicated. Still, can anything uncomplicated really be all that beautiful?


*For those of you non-Methodists, Annual Conference is the annual meeting of lay delegates (determined by size of the church, I think) and all clergy. Here we vote on legislation and worship together.
**A charge is more than one church put together as one unit, usually for financial reasons. It is different from a cooperative parish, which seems to be more popular in Washington DC, basically in the number of delegates to annual conference: cooperative parishes get one per church but charges get one total.

Playing the Cello

This is the adapted sermon I preached at St. Paul, Norrisville, and Ayres' Chapel United Methodist Churches on Peace with Justice Sunday on May 30th. It was my first sermon at my home churches, and the best one I have done so far, but it still needs work. What follows has been edited.

Romans 5:1-5: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

...I hoped one of the passages for this week would be a verse like Micah 4:3:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares...nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they lean war any more.

I have always found this verse to be beautiful. It is engraved in the wall of the Church Center to the United Nations in New York. But this is not the verse that the lectionary brings to us today. Instead, we have Romans 5:1-5, whose message is haunting in a much different way.

These verses point us away from defining peace in opposition to war and points instead to defining peace as a lifestyle. While war is absolutely critical for Christians to confront, Romans 5:1-5 point us to a larger picture of peace, one that focuses on our own community way of life, not limiting itself to a discussion of the military. I am talking about, as we read in Romans 5:1, what having the
peace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ

means, what it looks like.

This peace of God is peace with justice. For me, that means hope. I don't mean a hope in which we wait around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the Apocalypse. That to me is a hope that disappoints because it violates a huge part of my faith that is based on James chapter two when we read that faith without works is dead as the body without the spirit is dead. This morning, we are reminded instead that
hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

But still, we are left wondering what this hope looks like. As many of you know, I have been to Bosnia six times and I often read about Bosnia, so the story that immediately comes to my mind is from John Paul Lederach's The Moral Imagination. It is the story of an internationally renowned cellist who had refused to leave Sarajevo during the genocide in Bosnia named Vedran Smailovic.

His story for us begins on May 27, 1992, the day of the infamous Bread Square Massacre, a day that haunts the memories of Sarajevans. During the war, bread was scarce, so when a store got a hold of it, everyone rushed to wait in line for bread, not knowing when next they could find it. On this day, May 27, snipers locked in on those waiting in line and murdered 22 people. The shooting made it difficult for anyone to go help the injured.

Smailovic said, "Filled with sorrow, I eventually fell asleep at dawn, and was awakened by new explosions and [the] shouts of my neighbors, who were carrying children and blankets to shelters. I went to the shelter myself and returned home after the shelling was over. I washed my face and hands, shaved, and without thinking, put on my white shirt, black evening suit and white bow tie, took my cello and left home.

"Looking at the new ruins, I arrived at the place of the massacre. It was adorned with flowers, wreaths and peace messages; there were posters on local shops saying who had been killed. On a nearby table was a solemn book of condolences, which people were signing. I opened my cello case and sat down, not knowing what I would play. Full of sadness and grief, I lifted my bow and began to make music."

Smailovic's action was so small in that he only did what he knew how to do: play the cello. And this action stirred the hearts of his friends, who begged him later that night to play more. "I understood then," he wrote, "...that music heals, and that this was no longer a purely personal issue." So for twenty-two days after the massacre, one day for each person killed in the Bread Massacre, he played his cello, despite the unceasing shelling.

Now, I don't know if the cellist of Sarajevo is a Christian or not, but his actions here define for me what peace with God through Christ looks like. This is not peace in the sense that we're all supposed to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. This is peace deep within the soul, still standing in the face of the horrible senselessness of violence. Peace is the movement of the Holy Spirit within the cellist as he played to strengthen those around him, to give the people in his city a vision of hope.

Lederach continues the story, writing, "On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, 'Aren't you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?' Smailovic responded, 'Playing music is not crazy. Why don't you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.'"1

Here is ministry happening. Sure, it looks crazy. Really crazy. But isn't that what Christianity is about? My systematic theology professor last semester frequently referred to Jesus as "that crazy bird Jesus," and for good reason. Jesus did all sorts of things in the name of justice through simple actions like eating a meal with sinners that people thought were crazy. Yet if someone asked Jesus, "Are you not crazy for modeling the kingdom of heaven in a world that is anything but?" He would say, "The kingdom of heaven is not crazy. Why do you not ask those against me if they are not crazy, preaching violence and hate while I'm just loving people?"

But Jesus is more than just crazy. His message of peace, his peaceful actions are like the cellist of Sarajevo's: they are dangerous. The cellist was dangerous because he stood up to the Yugoslav army laying siege to Sarajevo and showed them that he could not be defeated. He was dangerous because his message was one of hope that got caught in the imaginations of the suffering around him. Jesus too stood up to the Romans and the Jews content with Roman rule. He was dangerous because his message was one of a different life, a different world, as he describes in Luke 6:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you...

Jesus' vision here is threatening to those with power. He lifts up the suffering, the excluded, as the ones who are truly blessed. He is giving the suffering around him a vision of hope such that they will not be destroyed by those in power.

When Jesus speaks of suffering it is to point out the injustice of the government and of the religious establishment, and to point out that God favors those who suffer. But the passage in Romans seems to have a different understanding:
we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope

Boasting of our suffering does not seem to me to fit into this vision of Peace and Justice that Jesus is describing with the blessings in Luke. As Christians we too often glorify suffering because of this understanding that it leads to endurance to character to hope, as we read in Romans. Thus, we rationalize that is suffering leads to hope, it must be a good thing, right?

This is so dangerous. I took a class in seminary this semester called religion and the social process, and we had a woman come talk to us about domestic violence and the church. She said that religious women who are victims of intimate partner violence often stay because they feel that their suffering is a trial that God wants them to go through to make them stronger. This is not true, but it comes from a theology that we take right from passages like this one. But let's start to read it in a different way.

If we go back to the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, the suffering that he and those around him underwent surely was not God's way of making them stronger. Why would Jesus preach against the tyranny of Empire and the religious establishment as definers of culture if he was describing a tyrant God who enjoys watching us suffer? I understand God as the God of justice, so when we read the story of the cellist, we see that he, after enduring suffering long enough, has the strength of character to rebel against his oppressors. It is his action that produces hope.

So what does that mean for us? This isn't Bosnia in the 90's, we aren't running from snipers when we go out for a loaf of bread. But I think that this peace with God thing that we see in Romans shows us that peace is more than talk restricted to USAmerican foreign policy. I think that our foreign policy is our concern, of course; however we need to look within ourselves and our local communities to understand concretely what this peace with justice, peace with God thing looks like, crazy as it is.

For example, this summer I took a class in community organizing and met Sarah Plowden, an older woman who is an organizer with a church who is part of East Brooklyn Congregations, a group who transformed Brooklyn from the murder capital it was in the 80's to a coveted--- well maybe not for us country folk, but for many people--- place to live. Sarah was from a family of sharecroppers in the south during segregation, lived through the horror of lynching that was rampant in the south, moved to Brooklyn only to find that she had to step over drug addicts to get home. She said there were two stairways in her apartment building but they couldn't use one because it was controlled by drug dealers. She suffered in these living conditions until she had the boldness of character to say that she could not live in those conditions anymore.

She and some other women in her community got their churches involved in campaigns that started small at first, like demanding the city give them road signs. When they had tried to meet to discuss issues, they found it difficult because there were no road signs by which to determine where they would meet. But from this first action, they were able to engage in progressively bigger actions until the police department began responding and getting rid of drug dealers in their buildings. Finally, they were able to get land from the city to build thousands of homes called Nehemiah homes. These are not like government-funded affordable housing, rather they are opportunities for people to become first time home owners. These homes have completely transformed the landscape of East Brooklyn. Sarah Plowden reminds us that one has to "forget not to take risks," as she said. This is a woman who had a vision of a better community and instead of working to save money to move far away, she worked to stay and create a better life for herself, her children, and her neighbors. May we all have that boldness as she did to do for herself what she could even when it looked "impossible."

What is it that drives us, impassions us? Do we want to build better schools for our kids who may be suffering from bullying or who may not be learning as much because they don't have enough books or calculators? Do we want our families and our neighbors' families to live without fear of violence from loved ones? Do we want our families to eat good food produced ethically? This is an issue that I am passionate about after learning about the horrors of factory farming and after seeing a huge change in my energy and mood after changing my diet to reflect my ethical concerns. Now I am just one person, but I am committed to educating others about food justice and raising my children to eat ethically, so this one action of where and how I choose to spend my money is catching.

And so we come to progressively bigger questions too. Do we want everyone in our community to be drinking clean water and breathing clean air? Do we want county and state politicians who care more about us than the interests of multi-national corporations? The answers to these questions, whatever they look like, are all actions like Sarah Plowden's and the cellist of Sarajevo's, actions of hope that start out small, actions that come from God's love poured into our hearts. They are little actions, but ones that make up what it is that peace with God looks like.

These little actions are about turning the tables to make first our community and then our world be one of peace with justice, even though it seems crazy in a world where injustice seems to be the natural law. But we can take these issues that we care about and transform first our homes, then our communities, and then, who knows?, so that we are turning the tables as Jesus does to present our vision of God's peace, saying as the cellist did, "Playing music is not crazy. Why don't you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello."


1 John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005), 155-156.

Biblical quotations are from The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.


Now that classes are finished, I will hopefully resume my two plus posts a month.