Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Saying Grace

This is adapted from a story I preached for my liturgy class' Worship Design Project with Dr. Heather Murray Elkins. The scripture we used was 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, about how the body of Christ is made up of many parts, but it is still one body. We followed the story with an invitation to the table for a love feast, or agape meal.

Le Capitol, the center of the city
I studied abroad in Toulouse, France, in 2007 with about ten other women, most from my college but a few from other schools. None of us were really close before studying abroad together, but there is something about being thrown into a foreign land where everyone speaks a foreign language that can bring you together.

First semester living abroad is always really difficult, especially for those of us who had never been so far from home before, and especially around the holidays. So the director of our program, a petite French woman who would take one kernel of popcorn just to taste it and then be done, decided to throw a Thanksgiving dinner for us. I was actually a little upset about this. We were not eating dinner until 8 pm, which is what you do in France, and had been a sore point with me since I got there. I mean, Thanksgiving dinner cannot start at 8. You start making pumpkin pies in the morning while watching all the really bad pop stars lip sync to their really bad pop songs in the parade, and then you take a nap and then everyone comes over ready to eat non-stop for the next several hours. That's what it's about right?

A sculpture in Centreville
But I tried to let it go and focus on making something special for the dinner. We had all split it up and offered to bring something. I was bringing peanut butter cookies. Not quite tradition, but pretty USAmerican I must say. I had to go to three grocery stores before I found anyplace that even sold peanut butter. And when I brought the cookies and put them down among the other food, I was surprised at just how wonderful of a meal we had put together. I had never had pumpkin pie that good--- it was made from real pumpkins! I've only ever had it from the can. I had also never had champagne at Thanksgiving before. Or saltine toffee. And even the food I had had at Thanksgiving before, the myriad of brilliant green vegetables, the cranberry sauce, the mashed potatoes, and, though I didn't eat this because I'm a vegetarian, the turkey--- all these things others had brought with them to the table made the night one of the yummiest Thanksgivings I had ever had (don't tell my parents; they are good cooks and I don't want to hurt their feelings).

But more than that it was one of the best Thanksgivings I had ever had. Here we were, women feeling very alone in this new place with a few Frenchies thrown in, none of us with anything really in common other than that we were far from home. Ollie, for instance, she and Alison brought the saltine toffee. Ollie was planning to go into corporate fashion for a while. I don't know how many of you actually know me, but my own sisters and mother who are much more fashion conscious than I am are embarrassed to be seen with me--- and yet Ollie never ever even talks about clothes with me. And Alison, who helped Ollie with the toffee, grew up in New York City, which is so far from the corn fields of Harford County Maryland where I grew up. And Kristin, who is graceful and a dancer--- she was there that night too. She and Priscilla brought the pie. I don't know if any of you have seen me dance, but uh, Kristin and I definitely have nothing in common there. And Priscilla, though we did enjoy sharing a good nutella crêpe together--- Priscilla is so sophisticated and has seen so much of the world whereas I am third generation (at least) Harford County and had never been that far away for that long alone before.

The list is long of the folks there that night and how different we all were,* the different places we were all coming from academically, geographically, culturally. But all of us came to the table together to eat and talk and just be together in the warmth, stuffing ourselves silly as you should on Thanksgiving.

But all of us came to the table together to eat and talk and just be together in the warmth, stuffing ourselves silly as you should on Thanksgiving.

As I left that night to walk back to my apartment, doggy bag in hand--- not a very French thing to do, but I could not pass up that food. I realized that because of the time difference we had been eating at the same time as my own family: 2 in the afternoon in Maryland, 8 at night in France.

In French, Thanksgiving Day is translated as le jour de grâce or le jour de l'action de grâce. The word used for thanksgiving here is grâce, which we would usually translate not as thanks but as grace. And this night for me was a very grace-filled night. We had come to the table, each bringing something of value to share together, each of us bringing the weight of our own homesickness, and of our own wonder at this new country. But there were also some who are kept from the table, who make us recognize our privilege and remind us that the table God intends for us to build is big enough for all of us.

And so we come to this table to share together. Hungry--- I hope--- but we come, bringing with us all that is ourselves to share, and hoping to create a table where there is always room for one more.

*I wish I could include an anecdote about each of the women who I was in France with, because they are amazing and continue to do such amazing things!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Brother's Keeper

God of love, we have sinned
replacing You with our fears, values, prejudices and our laws.
Move us from hardness to compassion,
from guilt to forgiveness,
from apathy to action,
from complicity and silence to justice.
Heal our brokenness and the wounds of your creation. Amen

This we prayed on November 20 at the symposium on hate crimes held at Grace United Methodist Church, 125 W 104th Street, New York City. It was a beautiful church, and throughout the day we watched the sun shine through the stained glass dove above the altar as we sat together and confronted what it means and what it would look like to commit ourselves to the work of ending hate violence. The symposium, called My Brother's Keeper: People of faith confront hate crimes, was sponsored by the Conference Board of Church and Society, the NYAC Immigration Task Force, the NY chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, Methodists in New Directions, the Conference Commission on Race and Religion and the Conference Committee on the Status and Role of Women.

The symposium was so beautifully woven together with lecture, worship, discussion, and art. We began with worship, opening with a song whose lyrics were "I am not forgotten; God knows my name"--- a powerful reminder of those communion of saints for whom we gathered today to stand up against the violence that makes people "forgotten."

For there are indeed so many who are pushed into forgotten-ness. Dr. J. Terry Todd, Drew professor and member of the keynote panel "How is the Hate Sponsored in Church and Society? How is the Hate Countered?" along with doctoral biblical studies student Rosario Quinones and civil rights lawyer Fred Brewington moderated by Dr. Traci West, spoke about the three periods of anti-immigrant fervor in the USA, weaving political cartoons from the 1880s with pictures from Tea Party rallies to reveal how the same rhetoric gets repeated again and again. And though he began by focusing on immigration, he reminded us that it is not coincidental that the rise of the Klu Klux Klan coincided with the period of anti-immigrant fervor from 1880-1924.

He ended his part in the lecture, though, with the adoption in 1972 in the United Methodist Church of what we call the incompatibility clause: "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Originally the Committee on Christian Social Concerns wrote a sentence to declare acceptance of people of all sexual identities, recognizing everyone's sacred worth, but on the floor the language was changed to "incompatible." Fred Brewington said during his part of the panel that the incompatibility clause turns the bible into a weapon. And that, we began to see, is hate speech.

The day really centered around showing us of the intersectionality of anti-immigrant, racially-based, and homophobic hate crimes, as you can see from the keynote panel. The literature also reminded us about those hate crimes against Muslims in the city this year, though it was not covered as much throughout the day. There was a theatrical performance brought to us by the Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja out of Long Island, that spoke to us of the real-life events of the murder of Marcelo Lucero, thus documenting how hate crimes happen. Here, we kept hearing the words so prevalent today in our own anti-immigrant fervor: "It's not about race, it's about rule of law." And we kept seeing the bodies of immigrants broken and bruised alongside these words, proving how empty those words really are.

Bishop Jeremiah Park, who I was very proud to see there as too often bishops avoid events like this, brought us a letter announcing the coming statement from the Council of Bishops that says:
"We as people of faith are charged to build the beloved community because Christ has broken down the dividing walls and ended the hostilities between us. Yet we continue to build walls in the church and in the world, which separate us and cause our hearts to grieve...In the United States, there has been an escalation of violence, related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious preference. This escalation included personal attacks, bullying and vicious criminal acts of violence to the mind, body and spirit of persons. These actions diminish life for the victims, the perpetrators and the total community. They are ultimately insidious and irreverent attacks on the sacredness of God given life."
We as people of faith, must work to build this beloved community, one free from hate crimes and hate speech.

To educate yourself more, visit the Center for Preventing Hate and join the conversation on the My Brother's Keeper Facebook page.

As Rosario Quinones said, the blood of those impacted by the hate is, like Abel's, crying out from the ground. We must move, as the prayer says, to compassion, action, and justice to repent from this sin of fear.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anti-Abortion Lies

Thursday morning I checked my Drew email and found this email:

Dear All,

Drew Students For Life with the Morris County Right to Life will make available pro-life pamphlets to the Drew Community. This brochure under the name "You Can Stop Injustice" educates all students when life begins, what are the emotional, physical, as well as psychological impact of abortions. This pamphlet has scientific information that links abortion to an increased rate of breast cancer and that abortions affects poor minorities the most.

All are welcome to read the pamphlets including pro-choice students to help understand the pro-life side.

We hope you enjoy the pamphlets.

I don't know where these pamphlets will be available. I don't know anything about this group, it seems to be new, and I think it is an undergrad group. What I do know is that when I read this email, I was livid, particularly because the email itself states the lie that abortion is linked to breast cancer unashamedly. I can only imagine what the pamphlets themselves say.

Abortion is not linked to breast cancer, yet I don't know how many times this has been shouted at me by anti-abortion extremists, I don't know how many times I've read it on websites for so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers (see also, the U.S> House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform's 2006 special investigation [PDF] on federally funded pregnancy resource centers), I don't know how many times I've heard it even from generally well-meaning pro-life people. But it is a lie. Medical consensus is that abortion is not linked to, does not cause, breast cancer . What I have been told by anti-abortionists is that because the development of milk in the breast is cut abruptly short by an abortion, it leads to breast cancer later in life. This is absurd.

In fact, one time my friend Jess and I were counter-protesting outside a clinic and, though you are not supposed to engage anti-abortion protesters because they are often violent, Jess finally was so curious she had to ask, "So do women who miscarry also have a higher risk of breast cancer?" And the guy said to her, "Oh no, God protects those women." Of course. Because God's an asshole.

One of the reasons that this kind of behavior makes me to angry is that if your cause is so noble and moral you should not have to lie to women to convince them to agree with you. This is a little problem the Right in general has, however (see the Tea Party, anti-gay rhetoric, and anti-health care rhetoric as well), and yet few people are willing to call them out on it. As Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini write in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, we won't call people out because in this country the "enemy" is not unethical, unjust behavior like the way the Right lies to try to convert people to their cause; no, the problem is rather "extremism," being seen as too far to either side. Thus, we are forced to tolerate this "two sides to every story" mentality to keep from appearing as though we are siding with one group over another.

However, as can be seen in this case, there are not "two sides" to this story. On the one hand, you have a lie that abortion cause breast cancer. On the other you have a medically established reality that that is not the case. However, pointing out the lie implicates you as being too partial.

The bottom line is that people can be pro-life all they want. But when they lie in order to encourage women not to have abortions, then we need to stand up and reject those lies instead of being cowed into saying "well, that's just the other side to the story."


*In this blog I go back and forth between pro-life and anti-abortion, but they mean different things to me and I was trying to capture the different meanings when I used them in different ways. 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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What Saints Look Like

This is the adapted sermon I preached on Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Kearny, New Jersey, for All Saints' Day on October 31. As both my partner Aaron and my friend Rev. Nancy Webb said, it sounds just like my mother's sermons. Ha. Anyway, I have preached before multiple times, but never have I designed the service in its entirety, printed the bulletins, and then served as the leader of the congregation by myself. This congregation is the smallest in the Gateway North District--- 6 to 15 people on a Sunday, 7 this Sunday--- but one that is entirely committed to the work of the church.

It was such a blessing to be with these welcoming people, but I was nervous about leading. First, I was in this tiny chapel with only seven others, but I was expected to be behind the pulpit. It felt like forced formality. Then, I had printed out the scripture using the NRSV translation, so when they found it in their NIV bibles, they were really confused. I spoke too fast when preaching, and the hymns I picked were only three verses each (I don't know what hymns the congregation is used to, and there is nothing worse than being asked to sing seven verses of a song you don't know when there is no strong musical voice to follow!), so the service only ended up being forty minutes. Still, the passing of the peace was one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced because everyone hugged and kissed me and I could really feel the love of Christ in everyone in that room.The sermon that follows has been edited.

...Tomorrow is All Saints' Day, a day typically celebrated more in the Catholic tradition than Protestant tradition. When we think of saints, we often think of martyrdon and that process of canonization that is usually associated with saints in Catholic traditions. But my mom always used the holiday to explain to us that our church believed that we could all be saints. She used to say during the church service, "Let me show you what a saint looks like." And then she would hold up a mirror, so we could see our own reflections.

All saints aren't dead saints,1 she was saying. But if, for us, to be a saint you don't have to go through a process of beautification as in the Catholic Church, and if saints don't have to be dead to be saints, than what is a saint? I have heard many a time from folks that my father must be a saint after they meet me and my two younger sisters together. I think those people are insinuating that us three girls are a bit of a handful, which is untrue because we are angels, so I don't think that accurately captures the meaning of sainthood either. This is where our gospel lesson for this morning comes in.

When I saw that the gospel lesson we read this morning came from Luke's version of the Beatitudes, I was a bit perplexed and asked myself what this had to do with saints. But in reading a bit more, I saw that this passage is describing what a saint is. Jesus says:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is 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 on account of the Son of Man.

Jesus is saying that the poor are saints, the hungry are saints. Those who weep are saints, and those who are hated and reviled are saints. It's hard for some of us to think of those living on the streets as saints. It's hard for some of us to think of Muslims and gay people as saints, though they are often reviled and excluded from our very churches. And it's hard to think of ourselves as saints when we weep over the loss of loved ones. After all, those pictures of saints we see with the halos and stuff show them smiling and peaceful looking, right?

But the description of sainthood does not end there. At the end of the passage we read today, Jesus moves from a picture of what a saint is to how we can all become saints.
...Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Here we see that to be a saint is not just to be poor and in mourning, but it is also to make a personal decision day after day to live in a way that brings to life this Sermon on the Plain. Great. Ok. So now what? I mean, these are not some easy how to's that we can all just start doing right now no problem, right? Loving your enemies? Turning the other cheek? If someone takes our stuff, don't ask for it back? It is when we read things like this that I really agree with one of my professors who referred to Jesus as "that crazy bird Jesus." Jesus must be one crazy bird to think that we can really live this way.

I want to paint a picture for you about just how crazy this work of the saints is. This is a story about Bishop Peter Storey, a Methodist bishop and ecumenical leader during apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a violent legal system of racial segregation--- much like the system of segregation and Jim Crow here in our country before the Civil Rights Act was passed--- in South Africa in which the white minority called Afrikaners ran the country and committed horrible acts against the black African population. The system was put in place in the 1940s and was not overturned until 1994. This story is in Bishop Storey's words and for me it really illustrates the work of the saints:

A young Peter Storey

"I once received a phone call," Bishop Storey writes, "in the early hours of the morning telling me that one of my black clergy in a very racist town sixty miles from Johannesburg had been arrested by the secret police. I got up and drove out there, picked up another minister and then went looking for him. When we found the prison where he was and demanded to see him, we were accompanied by a large white Afrikaner guard to a little room where we found Ike Moloabi sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit and looking quite terrified. He had been pulled out of bed in the small hours of a freezing winter morning, and dragged off like that. I said to the guard, 'We are going to have Communion,' and I took out of my pocket a little chalice and a tiny little bottle of Communion wine and some bread in a plastic sachet. I spread my pocket handkerchief on the bench between us and made the table ready, and we began the Liturgy. When it was time to give the invitation, I said to the guard, 'This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.' This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike because one always gives the Sacrament first to the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters— the ones that are hurting the most— and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, 'In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,' and very stiffly, the guard reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.'"2

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Here is a man who is doing the saintly work of that crazy bird Jesus, who is

Loving his enemies, doing good to those who hate him, blessing those who curse him, and praying for those who abuse him and his friends.

His friend Ike has been taken violently from his home for no other reason than the color of his skin. And yet, he with the smile of assent of Ike, takes the moment to offer grace to the guard who represents the system of oppression they live under. And he shows that to do this work, he isn't becoming some sickly sweet spineless guy, not like that picture of the saint with the halo, but someone filled with the Holy Spirit to stand up for the least of these. This is how to become a saint.

Luckily for us, we are a people who believe in the work of the Holy Spirit. The text from Ephesians reminds us this morning that we

were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

Marked. That is such a strong word to me, reminding us of the power that is in our baptism as Christians. It reminds us that whether or not we think we can do it, the Holy Spirit moves among us and within each of us to make us holy, to make us even love our enemies, as Bishop Storey did.

So let's look again into that mirror that shows us what a saint in our own community looks like. What are ways that we can be saints together? So many of you already do saintly work each and every day. Think of your Vacation Bible School work! This is a true example of what Jesus ends his how-to of sainthood:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Here you are, reaching out to the community around you to bring a little light into children's lives, to give to these children what we all hope to give to our own: the love of Christ. It is also standing up, I think. Standing up to the culture of disconnect that we live in. Do you know what I mean? We live in a culture where no one knows our neighbors. Where one of the richest counties in the nation where I am living while I go to school is only sixteen miles from Newark where one in three children live in poverty. To open your church doors to the children in the community is such a gift. It is acting as Bishop Storey did in a way of standing up to the culture to be that picture of saints that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Plain. It is living into, as is written in Ephesians,

the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.

I don't know how many of you attended the District's Vacation Bible School Celebration several weeks ago. It was a powerful moment of communion with the saints in this area. One thousand children participated in the Vacation Bible school programs across the district, making the connectional church a reality. Here there were churches from across the district sharing resources to make real ministry and real sainthood possible. I saw the face of God in those children singing their bible school songs to us at this celebration service.

Too often, we think that Saints can only be perfect people that we have only seen in pictures. But we know that there is another image of a saint that we can look at in our own mirrors. And remember, as we celebrate this All Saints' Day, saints don’t always know they’re saints, or feel saintly all the time.

My prayer for each of you this day, is that you allow those holy things to happen in your lives. Be a saint. Allow the Holy Spirit to use you.

Thanks be to God.

Faithful God, Our True Witness,
Give us the strength and wisdom to live lives
of love, peace and acceptance
in a world fraught with hatred, dissension and exclusion.
Help us to reach out and love
both those who are oppressed and those who oppress.
Guide our journey
that we may live as saints
in remembrance of those saints who have lived before,
those saints who live among us, and those who are to come.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.3
All Saints Day I (1911) by Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky


1Taken from the "Who's out in the conversation?" lectionary series for All Saints' Day.

2Peter Storey, "Table Manners for Peacebuilders: Holy Communion in the Life of Peacemaking," Conflict and Communion: Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ's Table, ed. Tom Porter (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 61-62.

3Prayerfully Out in Scripture, from All Saints Aren't Dead Saints,

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

Believing Out Loud Together

So this post is a while in coming (it is one of those semesters): October 9-11, 2010 was the weekend of the first Believe Out Loud Power Summit, a space in which people from across denominations and secular organizers (! what a crazy partnership!) came together to brainstorm, plan, and organize for change, to make the Christian church inclusive of all of God's children, including those of all sexualities and gender identities. It was also the kickoff for Reconciling Ministry Network's Believe Out Loud Together Campaign intended to change the Discipline, our United Methodist book of laws, in 2012 at our General Conference.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.
-1 Peter 3:15

In 2008 I didn't realize just how surrounded I was with progressive Methodists, so I was terribly naive and so was stunned at just how horrible a loss we suffered. I was going to a reconciling church, becoming involved in the global UMC, looking "secretly" at seminaries, and I could not believe the strength and maliciousness of the Right. Here I was thinking that the UMC, though not nearly as welcoming at the Unitarian Universalists or many United Church of Christ folks, was close to being there, and yet, at General Conference, we could not even pass a statement saying "we are not of one mind on the issue of sexuality." That is a sad testimony of the state of Christianity and the United Methodist Church.

But at the Power Summit, surrounded by veterans and new folks of the welcoming movement across mainline denominations, I felt so uplifted. It was a renewal, but one that was focused, one with a purpose and tools to accomplish our goal of an inclusive church. Now, I know I am surrounded by a community that will change things in 2012. And we will hold each other accountable. Because we cannot afford to live under the hateful policy of our church.

One of the moments in the conference where we as United Methodists really saw where our denomination is was when they lined up the denominations in terms of how welcoming they are. The UMC was far behind everyone else because now the Episcopalians, the UCC, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians--- all of these mainline churches have welcoming policies. And the UMC policy is still that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. To see the differences in polity were striking.

But we also saw how well organized we are compared to many of the denominations. And Rev. Troy Plummer, the executive director of RMN, pointed out that you can change the legislation top-down all you want but will that really change the church? Rather, we ought to be working from the ground up. And we are.

I am going to school in the Greater New Jersey Conference where the lack of reconciling congregations is absolutely appalling, especially given the seemingly general friendliness and openness of most folks towards the issue of sexuality. But openness and friendliness of individuals is not enough. After all, if you aren't deliberately including, you are excluding people. So one of the most important things as organizers in the church that we have to do is get people to believe OUT LOUD together. Seventy percent of clergy say they are supportive of LGBTQIA issues, but only 7 percent have said anything about it in the pulpit. Right now, for us, we need to be focusing on that 63 percent of people who are supportive but not talking. Part of this means creating a supportive network so people don't feel alone when they speak out, but part of it is holding people accountable. Saying that it is not acceptable for us as Christians to stay silent.

Another piece of this work of believing out loud together, though, for me, is that we have to remember, as Beth Zemsky reminded us, that we have learned about difference and about how to make people into the Other through people we love and trust. So that is why we are going about changing the church through stories (see one of mine here). We are about changing the church through relationships, from the ground up.

As Rev Debra Peevey said, the secular world is hiding behind the church, using the church as an excuse for bigotry. And we let them. But I, for one, am not going to let the church be a place of hatred and exclusion. I am committed to changing the hearts and minds of those in my faith community so that when we say Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds, we mean it.
Reconciling United Methodists at the Power Summit!

To learn more about RMN's campaign and some more details about the Power Summit, check out Audrey Krumbach's refection.