Isaiah 58, verses 9-12 from the Message translation: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places--firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. Just a note: the “you” here is 2nd person plural: all y’all
During the pandemic, I found myself hungry for my momma’s homemade bread. Toasted. With butter. But my mother was not yet healed enough to make it. In fact, even though she has rallied—not once, but twice—from major surgeries since 2020, she probably will never make that bread again. So, my momma gave me the recipe; and I made it. And I continue to make it. That recipe is actually my grandma’s recipe; I love seeing her recipe with her handwriting. And I love that bread.
But my momma made it just a bit differently than my grandma; she changed one small step because she had different tools and utensils than my grandma so her shift to the recipe made it a bit easier. Grandma’s bread 2.0. And, after the first time I made the bread, I made one small adaptation myself. Just a bit less salt. So now it’s grandma’s bread 3.0. It’s still grandma’s bread, but it is now in its 3rd iteration. (well who knows: grandma probably got it from her momma and changed it a bit too.) But it still feeds the body and soul (not to mention it smells like heaven), but a bit of the what and how of the recipe has changed.
Church is like my grandma’s bread. It is iterative. It is always becoming.
But most of us think and treat church as if it is a done deal—all already figured out and created—and our work is to simply keep passing it forward. And we can do that, but we are finding, and will continue to find, that if we do that, the body of people we pass it forward to will be a smaller and smaller number. Because the iteration of church that worked in the past—or the one that works for us—-isn’t the iteration of church that works for the present and upcoming generations. Now, that’s some Gospel truth. Each generation isn’t meant to pass forward what’s been passed to them, exactly as it was given them. Each generation is to receive, but then adjust for the current reality and world they are living in—and to make room for what is upcoming and pass forward this thing that has space built in it for the next generation to adapt for their reality. Church is a movement, not a monument; it is always becoming. Like God, it is created and is always creating.
Take Redeemer Lutheran. We started 30 years ago with thoughts and plans about who we were as a body of people, and how we would be that people. And some of those thoughts and plans are in place, and some have had to be let go of because they no longer fit the current reality. Redeemer started in Bannach school, then this part of the building was built. We used to have a Preschool, so the gym and some classroom space and smaller gathering areas that are in the newer part of the building that was built in 2010/2011 was used for them. The Preschool is no longer here, and continuing to expand the building no longer seems like the best use of money and time. The reality we are living in is not what it was back in the 1990s. (and frankly most of my colleagues who have bigger buildings because that was a sign of a successful church, wish they didn’t.) The way forward that was dreamed of in the 1990s may not be the way forward we dream of in the 2020s. Even in 30 years there’s been a big shift. And if we hold onto the dreams of the 1990s and demand that’s the path we build, we will be building a path for a reality that no longer exists.
Or what about the Episcopal Church of the Intercession? It started 170 years ago; I bet those church dreamers would never have dreamed Intercession as it is today. They would not have dreamed of us in this space. And they certainly would not dreamed I would be standing in front of you---a woman with a collar!
So, were they wrong? Were they short-sighted? Those Redeemer and Intercession dreamers?
No. You can only dream in the time you are in. But the trick to dreaming, the trick to building a community is that as you dream—standing in the present—you have to look to the future and train your eyes and hearts to see what is coming rather than to turn and look back to what has been. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Here’s the other thing about church: it isn’t mine. It isn’t yours. It is always ours.
Often we treat church as if it is the YMCA. We pay a customer fee, and then we come and take part in services, or we expect to receive services. We’re a member, and it is the staff and the workers who put the things we wish to attend together and we come and take part as it benefits us. But the church is not the YMCA; it is not a fee-for-services kind of organization, and we are not consumers here. We are disciples.
A church is a school of love. It is where we learn love, where we practice love, where we embody love. It is where we see what love looks like and come to know what love costs.
A local church is a collective. A collective with a mission. Our mission is to restore all of humanity and all of creation back into right relationship with God and one another—through the way of Love that we know as Jesus.
Collectively we fund the mission.
Collectively we provide the energy and effort to live and move forward the mission.
Collectively, we invite, welcome and connect people to build and grow the community.
Collectively we bring our talents and time to provide gatherings that will train us and equip us to live out the mission.
Collectively we dream and sow the seeds that will build the mission, that will give the mission legs and movement, carry it forward to the next generation, the next iteration.
Collectively: as a body of people whose eyes are focused on the one needful thing: Living Love Out Loud.
Listen, it would be easier if church was something that came in a box and all we had to do was read the instructions and put the pieces together and choose which stickers we put on and which stickers we throw away and then we just use the hell out of it until we die, or it dies. And we can do that. Frankly, I think we have done that in Western Christianity—acted as if we were handed a box with all the answers and if we just do it hard enough or loud enough or pretty enough….
But, at its heart, a local church is a gathering of folks who are dreaming together, listening together, so that they can be the living body of Jesus in this world today. In the present moment and reality while preparing to be able to live and move and continue the mission in the moment and reality that is coming over the hill. We are making ourselves available to learn and be equipped to meet the folx on the margins and bring them to the table–or to bring the table to them. We are committed to be vessels of healing, of connection; to be bringers of hope, joy and peace. Beloved, the why has never changed; the why is our mission. But the what and the how change with the times. Sometimes slightly, sometimes shockingly different. If we demand the how and what to remain the same, the why gets lost, like a candle that finally flutters out–overcome by the melting wax—it sputters out.
Recently I read this marvelous book, it’s a children’s book called The Orphan and the Ogress by Kelly Barnhill. I want to recommend it to you. If your child is old enough to read it themselves, get it for them. Or get it and read it together as a family. Or, if you want, we could have a short-term book club for it. It’s that good. Let me just share this bit with you; This bit that reminded me of what church can be:
“A kind of place situated in the midst of a less than kind community. And perhaps that is why someone chooses to give to us. Or perhaps it is because we ourselves are kind. Or because the benefactor is kind. Or because we desperately need that kindness. Or because the benefactor has more than they need and feel obligated to share. Or because they simply enjoy sharing. Or perhaps it is some other reason that we can’t even think of. But the reason for kindness is never as important as the fact of kindness…….
….It was remarkable….how it took only one person deciding to do good things and then convincing others to join us, to create a cascade of good deeds, each one sparking the next. Just think if everyone decided to do good. Just think if everyone decided to do so every day. Or, if not everyone, what if some did, and it still expanded?....
We have been told since we were small that the bad outnumber the good. But I do not believe that is true……One good person can inspire other people to do good things. Good is not a number. Good is more than that. With good, the more you give, the more you have. It is the best sort of magic.”
Beloved: You are called. You are.
Not just those who wear collars. Or those who are elected leaders. Or those who seem to have it all together.
None of us has it all together.
All of us are holy.
All of us are worthy.
All of us are called.
Called by the One who set the stars in the sky.
For too long a message that Christianity has put out into the ethos—pretty much from every denomination or flavor of Christianity—is the message that some folks are not legit. Not legitimate enough.
They are not baptized.
They have messed up too badly.
They do not believe the right things
Or participate in the right practices.
Beloved: this is not Gospel. Nor is it Jesus.
Oh, I know—at the start of Jesus’ ministry—before he begins, he gets baptized. Not because he needs it so much, but because Jesus is showing us, as fellow humans, what we need.
And at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
But friends, the Baptism ritual—the sacrament of Baptism–did not exist at that point. It began later in the church as a way of bringing folks into the community. And yes, John the Baptist was baptizing, but that was a ritual about forgiveness—more like what we call reconciliation when a person seeks a confessor and asks for absolution (which is available and offered in both the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions).
When Jesus says Go and baptize folks in every nation, Jesus wasn’t talking about the ritual, the sacrament. Jesus was talking about helping folks to begin a new way of life. Walking with folks and introducing them to another way of living–the Way of Love, the Way Jesus shows us with his life, his ministry, his death. This isn’t about ritual; it’s about how we live.
Now, for me, the ritual can have very great meaning. And humans are wired for ritual. There’s something about ritual that helps the purpose and meaning behind the acts to sink into our bones, our spirits, our hearts. I am not saying the ritual has no purpose. I am saying we have missed the point.
We think the ritual makes folks legit. Beloved, in God’s eyes, everyone is already legit. Everyone always has been; everyone always will be. The ritual is a means to empower us to let go of a life that prevents us from knowing the wholeness and wellness God desires for us–no matter what situation or circumstances or physical realities we find ourselves in—to let go of that old life and to reach out and receive the life God desires for us. The life where and when we recognize our connectedness to all others, all of Creation, and to the Holy Three who is a One. The life that equips us to live the truth that we are bound in a web of grace, caught up in salvation, if only we can believe it, expect it, anticipate it and learn how to trust that as our foundation, our identity.
This Baptism isn’t a one-time event; it’s an ongoing process. I have shared with you before that the Greek word, Baptizo, is the verb that is used to describe pickling. Yep, pickles are simply baptized cucumbers. This verb, baptizo, means to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge. It isn’t just that moment on a Sunday morning when the family wears their best and lots of photos are taken. Baptism is every time we hold our hands up to receive the blessed bread and wine and consume Jesus—kneeling next to friend, foe and stranger because we are all guests at the same table. It’s every time we let the Word pierce our hearts and change our understandings, our worldview, our judgemental opinions. Baptism is all those moments we recognize the divine in beauty—be it art or music or nature or silence. In Scripture, God and beauty and holiness are all wrapped up in one another; is it any wonder that beauty engages our soul?
Our baptism, our pickling in the brine of Jesus–which is simply the juiciness of love–happens when we recognize a person as a fellow human, a sibling, and treat them accordingly. When our neighbor’s suffering becomes our own; when our neighbor’s joy becomes our joy. When injustice makes us so angry that we feel the need to turn tables, and then we actually go and do it by demanding change to oppressive and unjust systems and policies. These are all baptismal moments and events that shape, reshape and form us.
Did you notice the first thing Jesus does after he is baptized? He gathers with others. Come and see he says, soon to be followed up with and Come and follow me. Gathering with others, building community, is step one of baptism because Jesus knows this work of healing Creation is not a one woman or a one-man job. It is community’s job, the work of all humanity. Together It’s my gifts, and your gifts, her gifts, his gifts, their gifts—working together. My resources, your resources, her resources, his resources, their resources—working together. Come and see; Come and follow. Baptize. Gather. Go.
That Giving card we sent out this past month—often referred to as Stewardship—that’s not just the church asking for money. Don’t get me wrong, to continue as the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran we need money–and most of our income comes from you. But giving, our generosity, is baptism. It’s a moment of pickling. Of recognizing that what I have isn’t really mine; I have been given the opportunity to be a steward of what I have so that I have the opportunity to use it for the work of Love. In my life, my family’s life, our community’s life, in the re-creation of Creation. We ask you to fill out the Giving card because it is discipleship; it is a chance to be like Jesus, the One who laid everything down so that all can have more, so that all can have enough.
That’s why we are here. For another dose of pickling. To gather with our fellow cucumbers and pickles-in-the-making and to submerge ourselves in the Jesus brine. So that we can go. Go and do whatever bits of creation healing we can do as this upcoming week unfolds. Knowing that we will return next week, for another dip into the baptismal waters, holding our hands and hearts out for more Jesus as we become more and more like Jesus—-agents of Love, Healing and Mercy. This is what it means to be church; what it means to be Beloved Community.
As Isaiah reminds us today: God says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up [only] the tribes of Jacob and to restore [only] the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
That’s you, Beloved, that’s you. Pickles and Lightbeams. And all God’s people say: Amen.
What’s in a Name?
We hear two different names in our Nativity stories, assigned to this newborn baby: Emmanuel, meaning God is with us, and Yeshua.
Yeshua is the name Mary and Joseph were told by the angel to name their firstborn. Yeshua, meaning the one who saves, that we translate as Jesus.
The One Who Saves: Salvation is at the heart of the meaning of the name of this One we proclaim and profess to follow. But there are all different means and ways of saving. And as the church, a gathering of followers, perhaps we should especially focus on how it is that Jesus saves. Not doctrinally or dogmatically, but experientially. How did Jesus save as Jesus lived, as Jesus loved? What does this saving actually look like in the flesh?
In the story of the woman at the well, the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in Scripture, Jesus walks up to this unaccepted and cast-aside woman—joins her where she is, listens, accepts what she has to offer, and builds relationship. A relationship that leads to transformation for the woman and many others in her community.
In the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus is required to humbly re-think what he has learned and allow for this woman to enlargen and enlighten his view, his own doctrinal wisdom.
In the story of the young girl who is believed to be dead, Jesus arrives, believing in—seeing— her life rather than her death. Jesus takes her hand and calls for her to rise up. Talitha cumi: rise up, young woman and live.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear of a neighbor who gives of his own time, his treasure–who sets aside his schedule and agenda to meet a dire need of a stranger. Taking the wounded to a place of refuge and calling in others to help with the healing, providing what is needed because he can, and then vowing to return—not simply considering his work finished because he has done what he can in the moment; this is not a transaction, but the blossoming of a relationship—whether it be short or long. A relationship of healing, of presence, of laying down one’s life for another.
In the feeding of the thousands, when the disciples are overwhelmed by the task to feed so many hungry and ask Jesus where the food is going to come from, Jesus says: you feed them. And the process of each seeing what they have to create a commonwealth of food, drink, of sustenance begins. And together they discover not only do they have enough, they have more than enough, an abundance with baskets and baskets of more.
Beloved, it is Holy Name day. What does our Name—as followers of the way, really mean? As the church we are being called to reconsider how it is we see ourselves. Historically, as we have “served others,” we have seen ourselves as the Benefactor. The one who has the resources, the answers, the proper and correct ways of being that we then offer to the less fortunate. We are the blessed and we bestow God’s blessing by giving to the less blessed. Our way of living and giving allows us to see ourselves as the great Benefactors, often casting ourselves as white saviors. This is a hierarchical system that then requires the receiver to exist on a lower status, a less-blessed, less-privileged position.
Jesus lived and moved from a status of mutuality, of reciprocity. Knowing that each of us needs the other, that our wellness comes from interdependence, not hierarchical generosity. Jesus knew the hungry among the thousands had much to share. Beloved, I wonder what inspired them to loosen their grip so that what they had was no longer “mine” but “ours”? What will inspire us?
Systems of mutuality have a primary purpose to satisfy common needs instead of growing private and personal profit. Mutual societies are managed according to principles of solidarity and unity rather than creating pockets of privileged preferences and desires. Jesus lived by the code of: I will walk with you and together we will know the wellness and wholeness God desires and provides for us in this life that has both glory and misery, both suffering and sustenance. Jesus moved from the Mystery of love’s generosity–which can not be fully captured by data or numbers, but is best shown and known through story and relationship.
Beloved, let us re-order ourselves and our lives to become who we most truly and authentically are called to be: a mutual community of reciprocity, of love, of compassion and healing. We may very well become a mystery to many around us as we incarnate this one we know as Yeshua–the One who Saves. Let us be neighbors instead of benefactors.
Oh, I know. Being a true neighbor is much harder than being a mere benefactor. Just ask anyone who volunteers down at One Big Tent. We are constantly messing up, relearning, and challenging ourselves as we learn how neighbor is different than benefactor. It requires relationship rather than transaction. It requires vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy rather than a distanced giving. It is a laying down of one’s life, a giving of one’s very self–the meaning of both the cross and the manger.
For the incarnation, Jesus’ birth, is one moment given to teach us an eternal truth: I am in God; God is in me. God is in you; you are in God. We are in each other. God dwells among us.
Yeshua: the One who Saves.
What’s in a Name? It all depends on how you live it out.
Meister Eckhart wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”
What good is it? Isn’t that our question? It is our question about Church—going to church, belonging to a church. What good is it? It is our question about Christianity, about religion, about faith in general. What good is it
What good is it when there are church buildings all over the place and the world is still a hot mess? If there is still poverty, hunger, and many folks who are unhoused? If God still allows racism, misogyny, warfare and gun violence? What good is it if God doesn’t come down here and fix these problems?
Beloved, that’s not how God works. Christmas tells us that. This beloved story that is our story tells us that God doesn’t magically fix things because we are good or perfect or holy. Or because we get our religion just right. Unlike humans, God doesn’t move from a “quid pro quo” mindset. We may have been taught to believe that if we get our religion just right, then God will be pleased and fix things down here. And—of course—and then we will get to go to heaven.
Beloved: that is just not how God works; it is not the point; and we really need to let that understanding of God and faith go. Following Jesus is not about earning the golden ticket into heaven. In fact, none of the major world faiths are about that. They are about how we live. Here. Now.
Christmas shows us how God works. In the midst of the Roman empire–when folks are struggling—working hard and still not making ends meet. When too few have too much, and the tyrant makes life miserable for so many, God doesn’t wave a magic wand and collapse the empire. God sends a baby. God joins humanity. More than that—-God dwells, God lives, IN humanity.
And Beloved, there’s something that happens when the Holy, the Sacred dwells within us. It seems to release what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.” The holy within releases the force and power of love inside us. Christmas, after all, is a conspiracy of Love. Because Love attracts Love. Love empowers love. Love begets Love.
The holy resided within the One we know as Jesus—completely and entirely filled his being. And so his life was a life of healing, of restoring the outcast and marginalized back into their rightful place in community. His life was forgiveness and reconciliation, of feeding and providing water to the thirsty. He was a Kingmaker of Hope, of Love, of Peace and wellness.
And then there’s Mary. Mary who says yes, consents to becoming pregnant with Love and then giving birth to love. And this birth was like all other births: dangerous, painful, sweaty, bloody—requiring her focus and giving everything she had to birth Love into the world.
Our Christian faith gives us Mary and Jesus so that we will understand who we are. Who we are already and who we are always becoming.
Because the work of Jesus and Mary is now our work. Each generation’s work; every follower’s role: to say yes and become pregnant with Love. And then to do the hard labor to birth love into the world, again and again and again.
And not just any kind of love, but the love that in the Hebrew Bible is known as “hesed” Judith Valente in her book, How to Live; What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches us about Happiness, Meaning and Community, tells us that hesed connotes “...a kind of mother love, an extravagant love, a lasting love, a love pulsing in the gut, filling the bones. (75)
What if Christmas is more than a story with a “Hallmark” moment when we feel temporarily warm and fuzzy, joyful and generous—and instead: What if we understand Christmas as God’s ongoing conspiracy of love that heals and restores all things?
Beloved, as we allow Love to fill us, to become our what, become our how, become our why—then we become empowered to move to the hostile places, the gaps, the wilderness spaces and simply be. Be who we are. Love. And that love attracts more love. And then Love finds ways to fill the gaps, bring order to the chaos, and grow new life in the wilderness. Love is the power and force that turns hostilities into hospitals where reconciliation and healing take place—restoring Creation, and humanity to its balanced glory. Peace on Earth and good will for all people.
We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God—and this broken, beautiful world—is always waiting for love to be born. What good is it? Oh, Beloved. It is the very good that turns this upside down world right side up again. Happy Christmas.
James Baldwin wrote: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change if it is not faced.
Each year the Church calendar invites us to focus on Mary; for this I am grateful. But, Beloved, Mary—the mother of the Holy One—the woman who was chosen and asked; the woman who said yes and consented; the woman who gave birth to Love, to God, into the world—-she has been hijacked. By the very Institution for which I work and the reason we come together–the Church.
And part of that hijacking takes place in our readings today. Today’s reading from Isaiah took place when Israel was at war. At this point of time, it wasn’t the Israel we know now with boundaries and certain geographical locations. There was an element of different tribes of people—different nations within it. And different kings and rulers. Ahaz was the king of the southern part of Israel—known as Judah. But the northern kings of Israel and the area known as Aram–which is Syria today—were working together to invade Judah and replace Ahaz with a puppet ruler who would support their coalition. Ahaz was worried for his nation, his people—but also for Jerusalem and the prophecy that someone from the line of David would always rule there. As we learn in Matthew chapter 1, verse 9, Ahaz is a descendant of David. So not only the nation and the people, but a central prophecy for the Hebrew people was on the line.
After Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, which God had already offered to give, God ignores Ahaz and sends Isaiah to share the sign: A young woman of marriageable age–in Hebrew the word is almah—will have a son and the son will be named Emmanuel. And by the time the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, these Northern Kings and Aram will be gone. As will the threat to Judah. It is not a promise that the warfare will immediately end, but that Judah will still be intact—along with the prophecy—when the dust settles. All shall be well. So this sign—not of a virgin, there’s a specific Hebrew word for that–but the sign of a young woman of marriageable age giving birth to a son who is known as Emmanuel is given to Ahaz to assure him, to give him hope, during a very difficult and fearful time.
But the language and purpose of this verse changes when we hear this same quote from Isaiah as it is in Matthew’s Gospel. Even though Matthew most likely had access to the scrolls on which Isaiah’s books were written, he offers us just a little bit of a different version. The Greek in Matthew’s Gospel says: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. No longer just a young woman of marriageable age, but very specifically a virgin.
Now folks, times change but humans are humans. Even back in Jesus’ day young women of marriageable age had sex before they began to live with their husband. Back then it could be a punishable offense—even to the point of death—but it depended on how it was handled. It could be embarrassing for both families or settled within both families. Or as we hear today, settled by Joseph choosing grace and courage thanks to God’s messenger giving him some insight.
But why the heck does Matthew make a big deal of Mary’s “virginity”? Well, for a couple of reasons, one of which you may or may not know. At that time and in that culture, a virgin birth was a sign of importance. Jesus wasn’t the only one in history to be called a “God-man” —one who is both God and man. In fact, the Roman Emperor when Jesus was born made this claim. From the article “One of Many Virgin Births,”
A virgin birth, or a conception between a god and a woman, was a commonly understood and accepted concept in ancient times…….When ancient people wanted to make someone out to be more than a normal person, they [included details] for their story that showed how he received his divinity from someone or something. We know this because the ancients said so themselves. When Caesar Augustus was claimed to have been the son of Apollo, it wasn’t to show how Apollo had done a miracle; it was to show that Augustus was a son of god and had a right to rule. God and the Gospel writers seem to have had a very specific reason for the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus: there was a new king in town. ……The way ancient people figured it, to have a god-man here on Earth, you needed two things: a source for his godness and a source for his humanity…..The miraculous births in these stories show their audiences that these godmen were different from regular men.
The evangelist, Matthew, had a very specific agenda: he was trying to convince folks that this Jesus was THE MESSIAH. He was shoring up the newly formed church (writing about 50 or so years after Jesus’ death) and also trying to convince the rest of the Hebrew family that this Jesus was the One.
But Matthew was doing something different with the God-man here than had been done before. Rather than, as the Emperor Caesar Augustus had done—using Apollo only to shore up his own reputation; Matthew was also declaring God’s capacity to do the improbable and the impossible in and through humanity. This was a two-for-one purpose: elevating the status of Jesus in this society by using the means society offered while also revealing God’s capacity to do miraculous things.
I have no real quarrels with the Virgin Birth; I am not denying it. I can wrap my head around it as Mystery, and I can also hold it gently with a more logical explanation. It is a tenet of our Creed—for good or for ill. My quarrel is what the Church has done with it.
You see, back in the day and for generations and generations—frankly right up until the last couple hundred of years: the Church’s narrative shaped human thinking, human culture, human expectation and human beliefs. It shaped how we see each other and it shaped the hierarchy of human worth and value. And the Church took that word “virgin” with the purpose of creating a “Gold”, a “God”, standard for women that has devastated, oppressed and crushed women ever since.
Beloved: the world is created for all of us, but all of the systems that we live in were created by and for the male of our species. And so is the Church. And while our world, our systems, our institutions and hierarchies have been forced to allow women to have some power and some status, some voice and some authority in their realms, the systems haven’t changed. The systems do not adapt their ways of being and how they are structured and function. Instead, the expectation is that women will adapt and reshape themselves to fit into these male-centric ways of being and structures. And as all my sisters here know: that is exhausting. And it erodes our gifts that are game-changers when they are brought to the table. And many times we do not even know we are adapting and changing: silencing ourselves, asking for permission to offer our suggestions and ideas, making ourselves smaller so we take up less space—we do not even recognize we are doing it because it is our 24/7 reality and just how things are. We learn how to do it right along with talking and walking and breathing.
Beloved, it does something to the human spirit when you realize that when you are at your best the world around you requires you to be something less than that in order to be heard, to be seen, to be taken seriously. OH, I could go on and on, but there is only so much time right now.
Perhaps even more devastating is what happens to our infant girls, our toddlers, our school-age girls, our teens, our young women—to all women with that word: Virgin. If Virgin Mary is the gold standard, anything less is shameful. That is the message we get so very early in our lives. That a key characteristic of our goodness is tied into our virginity, our sexuality—not our brains or our capacities or our gifts and talents—but to our ability to say no to sex until the Church has deemed it allowable. Even though our male siblings are not held to the same standard; in fact, they are encouraged otherwise. Their maleness is tied to their virility while a woman’s is tied to her chastity. The Church set up the dichotomy of Virgin or Whore and every female since then has suffered for it in one way or another.
The church had a choice with Mary: what would its focus be: the theotokos—the God-bearer, the one who says yes in faith to the Holy and courageously and boldly gives birth to Love in the world…….or to present Mary as the Virgin Mary: meek and mild, submissive and calm, playing her part—but not too loudly, thank you very much.
I know: I may be making you uncomfortable. But I am comfortable with that. I am comfortable because as a 56 year old woman, I have lived with the Church’s intended or unintended consequences my entire life. I still do. I am comfortable with making us all a bit uncomfortable with this Truth because I have a daughter, nieces, granddaughters for whom I want the world to give them more room to breathe, to embrace their feminine gifts that go beyond the shape of their bodies. I want them to have room to utilize their God-given gifts and to grasp and demand the power that is theirs to offer toward the healing of Creation. When all the institutions, systems, governments, and ways of being are male-centric—this 50% or more female and nonbinary Creation becomes broken, violent, destructive and unwell. Beloved, we can and must do better.
I know those of us sitting in this sanctuary were not at the tables when the Church made these choices and decisions. But we are sitting at the table where this choice is still served and consumed. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change that is not faced.
Oh, Beloved, Advent and Christmas is nothing if not an opening for new life to come to being. It’s not just silver bells and situational joy and merriment. IT is space for the real work of Christmas to be born and raised up. So let me leave you with this poem by poet Kaitlin Shetler:
god is a mother
and with that
the world stops
the world always stops
when woman and
as if the
when in reality
it embodies it
when jesus turns water
but when women turn breasts
a broken man’s body
is celebrated each sunday
while a broken woman’s body
is just hidden away
and it’s no wonder
that mother is a word
used by men
to demonize those
who don’t claim the name
and weaponized to shame
those who step out of line
plays the role of nurturer
built and led by them
she is neither quiet
she leads confidently
she questions authority
she commands respect
which might be the problem
for mother god
did not gather us up
but took her time with it
she fed us milk
birthed our souls
and broke her body
and the permanence
can be uncomfortable
and to disentangle god
to disentangle god
because seeing god as mother
is one step closer
to seeing god in me
and it’s in that
i am truly
I have a really good friend who has said, more than once, that she hesitates to talk about her faith or God with other folks because she often feels like she doesn’t know enough—that she might mess up the theology or not get it just right. That, somehow, when it comes to God, she isn’t smart enough. Even though she is one of the most love-filled, faithful folks I know.
Maybe you feel that way too. Like you’re not “God-smart” enough to really get it right when talking with others. But did you hear Jesus’ answer today when John the Baptist asks Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Jesus doesn’t give a creedal answer. Jesus doesn’t use doctrine or dogma. Jesus says: What do you see happening? “.... the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”
It isn’t doctrine or dogma—saying the right things and having the right head knowledge that Jesus points to in order to know who God is and what God is all about—-it is participating and witnessing the signs of the kingdom. It’s all about the signs–God’s love breaking into the world. Now, don’t get me wrong—there is plenty of head knowledge about God. After all, I went to seminary for three years, I sure hope it wasn’t a waste of time. But Advent is about that head knowledge moving down into our heart and then breaking out as action—loving, life-giving, liberating action–out into the world. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
There’s just so much Good news today, Beloved. Isaiah tells us of a highway. Now, in Hebrew scripture and storytelling, this highway is the one created and walked smoothed by thousands of people on their way back home after exile. Isaiah tells us: “A highway will be there. It will be called the Holy Way. The unclean won’t travel on it, but it will be for those walking on the way. Even fools won’t get lost on it. No lion will be there and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it.”
This highway is for us. After all, we are the ones who so often exile ourselves from God who is love; God who is our only home. We lead ourselves astray. I mean that’s the story since Adam and Eve—we choose to live in a way that exiles us from Eden. We choose self-centered ways instead of the other-centered ways that keep us in right relationship with others, which then keeps us in right relationship with God. After all, that’s home: when we live in right relationship with God and all others. A bible word for this is righteousness. And Justice. And Salvation. We complicate it with catechism and doctrine and dogma—using words that seem too high, too lofty, too out of reach. But it is simply put (although still very challenging): Love God; Love neighbor.
And the Way is this highway; this highway Isaiah tells us is holy. The word “holy” in Hebrew means “set apart”. Not in an exclusive way. Not in a perfect way. But set apart as in: “not like the everyday society and culture around us” kind of way. Because this Way of Love is all too often not the way this capitalistic, every person for themself, dog-eat-dog world chooses. The highway home to Love, Sacrificial Love, is holy—set apart. A new way to walk in the world.
And this highway is for everyone. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Ha, Jane! You weren’t listening….Isaiah says the unclean will not walk on it and it is for the redeemed. Beloved, do you remember that story in the 10th chapter of the book of Acts—when Peter is told to eat the food that has appeared in his vision, food that religious law had told him is unclean—the Spirit makes certain Peter comes to understand that anything God has made is clean, not unclean. This later leads Peter to accept the Gentiles as God’s people. No unclean walk on this Holy Way because there are no unclean. Whatever God has made is clean. And yes, this holy way is for the redeemed, but as Jesus makes clear on the cross—redemption is for all people. There are no unredeemed. Because, according to the Word, Salvation is for all people. A gift for all. But like any gift—it must be accepted. It must be taken. It must be owned—for that gift to become mine. For that gift to become yours.
And not only is this Way for everyone; there is no “trap” set for you there—no lions and predators to eat you up if you get it wrong. And, in fact, if you keep walking the way: you can’t get it wrong. It is “fool-proof” for no fools walk there. All the anxiety, fear, and doubt in ourselves that we tie up into getting this right is our own doing. Man’s own creation. God makes it foolproof and all-inclusive. And asks us to begin by trusting our hearts to the One who set the stars in the sky. Giving sacrificial Love permission to unpack its suitcase and get comfy in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies—as we become our truest identity. And Beloved, we are always becoming.
Theologian and scholar Marcus Borg wrote: “The Christian life is not about pleasing God, the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
This relationship with the Holy, when Love takes up residence within us and becomes our Why, it is an awakening, an epiphany, and it causes us to see our neighbor differently, this world differently, ourselves differently. As David Suzuki puts it: “The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore….if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber….if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity….then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge to look at the world from a different perspective.” Or as Isaiah says:...."Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared."
Beloved: in Scripture, the signs of God’s reign are never the rich getting richer or the powerful maintaining their power and authority and status. When love breaks in, it is always, ALWAYS when the poorest, the weakest, the marginalized and the outcast among us are lifted up, healed, cared for, included and restored to community—a homecoming. Shalom. That’s the Kingdom come. And it isn’t some ethereal, distant, disconnected God out there who causes it to happen. It is the God that lives within us—within humanity—the Living Body of Christ who is made up of both flesh and Spirit and who is always becoming and always raising the dead from life. Steven Charleston writes: I am willing to take the risk of love because I know the source of love.
When we are willing to take the risk of love, the sacrificial love we know in Jesus, when we can love others and all of Creation before profit, before convenience, before our comfort, our preferences, when we wake up to the truth that this Love lived out is the highway to our own wellness and wholeness, when we take the risk of this love—knowing many will call us nonconformists, foolish and rebels—then, Beloved: Peace on earth and goodwill for all peoples. Beloved, we know the source of love; let’s take the risk.
Lists. We all have lists. For example I bet right now, in your head—and probably in your heart too—you have a list of folks who you struggle to tolerate. People who really irritate you and you just do not like. They may be people you know or people in politics or people you haven’t met but who are in the news. They may be a type of person or a group of persons or even someone who was once a friend or neighbor, a co-worker or fellow church member.
When we hear this reading today:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We all have those folks from our list who come to mind and we think: Yeah, Jesus. Go get’em! Put that axe to that tree—throw that chaff into the fire.
Am I right?
But, Beloved, if we think the trees and chaff are people, that means God is perfectly fine with some people being axed down and some people being thrown into the pits of an unquenchable fire. And there are versions of Christianity that profess this as Biblical truth, as Gospel—and this reading is one of the reasons why they profess that.
But this translation of the reading would also mean that God’s desire for all creation—and all people—to be restored to right relationship to God and each other—that God’s desire is not going to happen. That salvation isn’t for all people, but only some people. That God is not going to get what God wants, and therefore, there is a power that is greater than God’s love.
Beloved, this cannot be the appropriate way to read and understand what John the Baptist is saying in the Gospel reading.
Today, I want to invite us to hear this prophetic description of Jesus’ role in the world just a bit differently.
Beloved, what if every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit isn’t a person? Or if the chaff isn’t bad people or the people on our list who get thrown into the fire? What if, instead, within each of us are thoughts, beliefs, habits and practices that get in the way of us living Love out fully and boldly 24/7? So within each of us are trees that need to be axed and chaff that needs to be burned. What if it’s not people who need to be cut down or people who are banished to the unquenchable fire but it is the pieces and parts within each of us that following Jesus puts an end to? A refining fire that burns away the dross to leave the gold?
After all, John the Baptist is calling us to repentance; the first words out of his mouth today are: Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven draws near. And of course, the Kingdom of heaven that draws near is Jesus. Within and through Jesus—his life, his words, his actions, his ministry—God’s reign can be seen, known, experienced and shared. As the Body of Christ comes near, so does God’s Kingdom come.
And John is telling us that repentance is required to see, know, experience and share that kingdom. This Kingdom we hear described in Isaiah when the way of life we are living right now, the way that is based on prey and predator, based on violence and warfare, based on imbalance of power and wealth, based on individualism rather than the Common Good–this way of life ends, and the Kingdom of heaven begins a new way of life. A way of life that is based on Love, on interdependent relationships. A life, a reality, where they will not hurt nor destroy no more on all God’s holy mountain. Repent, John tells us, Repent and Prepare the Way for God’s Love to come in through the wasteland that humanity has created.
Repent. This word means to turn around, do a 180, or as Biblical scholar Sara Ruden puts it: to change your purpose. In Jesus we see this as turning from a self-centered life whose purpose is me and mine to having an other-centered life whose purpose is we, us and ours. Turning from individualism to community, from us vs. them to we all belong to each other. We all depend on each other. We are all each other’s business.
It’s Advent: Repent. Turn around. Take up a new purpose. So, I’m gonna ask you a question—one that I do not want you to answer right now, but a question that I do want you to take seriously and to answer for yourselves. Maybe, when you are ready, share your answer with another trusted person who can help hold you accountable to your answer. Because humans generally need accountability when it comes to the hard things. So, here’s the question: What are you doing to turn around? To take up a new purpose? To identify the chaff within you that needs to be burned? And then what steps are you taking to let that controlled burn take place within you?
Beloved:The Kingdom of heaven draws near. And as the Prophet Isaiah tells us: On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The root of Jesse—who we know as Jesus—-Jesus stands as a signal to all peoples. A signal: which is a sound, a gesture, an action that is used to convey information—that is used to begin a chain of events. Jesus stands as a signal to all people; his life is a series of actions that is meant to convey to us how to live— which then begins a chain of events– a ripple of effects of living differently that leads to loving, life-giving, and liberating repercussions which then change the world as we know it. This dog eat dog world is cut down at the root and thrown into the fire.
When the One who is Love becomes our signal, we become the Living Body of Christ in the world today. After all, that is what we profess. That is what we declare when we are baptized and say yes to God as our King. We are not just saying yes to trying to be good or trying to be nice or trying to do the decent thing most of the time. We have signed up to be the LIVING BODY OF CHRIST IN THE WORLD TODAY. The very place God dwells. Generation after Generation.
As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body on earth now but yours.
“...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Sounds like a dream. And it is: God’s dream—for all of Creation and all of humanity. But to our ears, it sounds like a “wish” dream—like an impossibility, an improbability. This God vision Isaiah shares with us today seems so far off because the human ego would never choose it; the human ego never does.
This is why we are called to put our “Christ” on—to let the holy, the divine, be born within us. This is the revolution Jesus initiates and instigates into the world—the overthrow of our self-centered hearts—a complete regime change within individual hearts that turns the world as we know it upside down. But actually right-side up.
Beloved: how do we get there from here?
At the first Advent, Jesus as Love-in-the-Flesh is born into the world. So that the world might know that living this Way of Love as a human being is possible. So that we may begin to believe that this is Our Way.
Thus begins the Second Advent: Humans learning how to live as humans are meant to live: with love at our center. What Love asks of us is that we choose this Way for ourselves. We cannot control or demand this from anyone else. We can ONLY choose it for ourselves. It is so much more than attending a worship service each week or joining a committee that does the church work or earning a badge for attending the most Sunday school classes. Those are all good things—but only when they are practiced in order to seek a deeper and more meaningful purpose. These practices, these habits of worship, study, prayer and gathering—we are called to them all so that we can tend to our interior lives—these practices are markers and pitstops on a path to a deeper interior life. The revolution within us that unleashes revolutionary love into the world.
Each year, the Church gives us this Advent season to do the work of cultivating, of fertilizing, of cleaning up and making room so that Love can take root within. Or, if we have been around for a few seasons, for Love to be pruned and strengthened, for the roots to sink deeper and spread wider all so that our lives can more consistently, more intentionally, and more purposefully harvest and midwife Love out into the world: the third Advent. That time when instruments of warfare and destruction will be turned into tools of growth, nourishment and life.
And the purpose? Why do this? Why live differently? Why bother? After all, we know we will probably not live to see those swords turned into plowshares and those spears become pruning hooks. But Peace is still within our reach—and if Jesus is any clue—we can actually have Peace 24/7. Because Peace isn’t primarily when there is war no more (although I still believe that is the ultimate desire of God). But even in the midst of warfare: external and internal; even in the midst of loss, disease, and struggle, we can have Peace. We can give peace.
Because Peace means having the ability to remain whole, to remain centered in the middle of whatever life brings. That the chaos and pain of life can not completely undo us. Peace means we know who we are and whose we and we trust that we are held in a larger narrative which exists beyond the close narrative of our everyday lives, the “in-our-face” narrative of social media and politics and human cruelty. Peace believes there is a goodness, a wholeness, a force of Love that exists beyond this limited, earthly narrative, that there is a Power to restore us outside of this time continuum, this earthly life, this narrow band of existence that begins with our birth and ends with our death.
With every fiber of my being, I trust in this truth of another narrative beyond the dash between my birth and death. I believe in a forever reality that sometimes shimmers for me beyond the veil. It shimmers whenever I see Love exchanged; compassion cultivated; when kindness overcomes cruelty and we live as good neighbors. I think this may be the truth that Jesus tried to breathe into those gathered disciples who were witnessing his life beyond death. This “Peace be with you” Jesus extends three times to those scared witless friends who were coming to realize just who this King, this Messiah, really is. And as they were just beginning to realize what they must let go of in order to truly gain their lives.
I think this is why Christmas–and holy days like it: Hanukkah in Judaism, Rohatsu in Buddhism, Winter Solstice for Pagans—why these holy days are so loved, so treasured. Even by those who do not believe in the existence of a God. Because in our DNA—in the marrow of our bones—we do believe in this better reality that shimmers just beyond our touch. We do believe we know better, that we can do better, that we can be better.
So, Beloved, let us lean into the conversion of our hearts. Let’s do the work of Advent—cleaning up and making room in our interior lives for Love to move in as our constant companion. So that as we approach our neighbor, like our Buddhist siblings, we can say, “Namaste: The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Maybe when we share the Peace, we should say: The Christ in me greets the Christ in You. Or even better (and more challenging): The Christ in me sees the Christ in You. Or The Christ in me loves the Christ in You. For this, Beloved, this turn, this labor for Love to become our heart and well-spring—this is how we, as humanity, can actually move beyond the human ego. This is how we can choose the better Way. How we live a better world into being.
Happy New Year, Beloved. It is time to begin again. Stay alert. Love is always longing to be born.
So, an unusual thing happened on Tuesday, I was working here in the church building and came out of the sanctuary into our welcome area, and there was a man who used to belong to Intercession, but who–when the Episcopal Diocese decided to allow same-gender marriages–who felt we had gone beyond the pale and chose to leave Intercession. So, I hadn’t seen him for 5-6 years.
But there he was and he said he needed to speak with me; that God seemed to have some lessons for him to learn. He started with reminding me that he was a pretty black and white thinker and then he shared that their grandson had recently come out as transgender. And he and his wife loved his grandson and they want to support him, but they had spoken with their pastor, and they believed his choice of lifestyle was a sin. The man was seeking a second opinion of sorts.
I tried to explain that his grandchild wasn’t choosing a lifestyle. She was choosing her life. I asked him what it would be like if he looked in a mirror and saw a woman staring back, and the world treated him like a woman—even though he knew he was a man. The pain that would cause. The unbearability of it. I told him his granddaughter was making it clear that she could not live the lie any longer—that the lie was more dangerous and harmful to her than the pain and struggle that will come from living her truth. We talked longer and further, and I am glad to say that when the man left he felt as if perhaps he would be able to sleep for the first time in a long time. And then I said, Following Jesus so often requires us to unlearn what we have learned in order to grow deeper, and go deeper, with God.
Unlearning….letting go of what we have learned—from society, from our parents, teachers, from friends, from experiences,--even (and sometimes most importantly) from the Church. Unlearning in order to make room for the Truth, God’s truth.
That’s at the heart of what I am taking away from these lessons this time around…
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come.
This is a way of understanding God that we see and hear all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: If you are good, God rewards you and if you are bad, then God punishes. It is a way of understanding God that we still, all too often, believe today. This understanding leads us to say things like: Why did God make this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me? We think when bad things happen it is God’s doing. That God is choosing suffering for us; that God is causing our pain.
And then there’s also this nugget in Paul’s letter: No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.
This nugget often gets reiterated as: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Beloved: That is bunk. Absolute bunk. And, it’s a very poor interpretation of God’s Truth.
Frankly, Paul’s got it wrong. Wait! What! How can I say that? What’s that preacher woman talking about!
First of all, let’s remember—Paul is processing theology. Just like us, he has become enthralled and enraptured with the Way of Love, and as Paul seeks to expand Jesus’ movement, he is also trying to figure it out and what it all means—just like you and I. And even though Paul is living in the midst of Jesus’ recent life and has had an incredible story of transformation, he still gets it wrong sometimes. Just like you and I.
Too often, we think of Paul as unable to err, but Beloved, Paul is a human, like us. A human being who has become convinced that his life is God’s, and out of utter gratefulness, he seeks to share and spread what he knows of God. But, sometimes, he gets it only partially right, because like us, sometimes he has to unlearn in order to learn.
And the second reason I can say that Paul probably didn’t get it all right: Jesus. In Today’s Gospel the people come to Jesus and say: Didn’t those Galileans die because they sinned? And Jesus says: Nope. Jesus goes on to say: Do you think those that died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were being punished? Nope.
Nope, Jesus says: And then Jesus says: if you don’t want to die —Then, Beloved: Change your hearts and lives. Live differently. Be transformed. Turn from your ways to God’s ways. Jesus unequivocally denies that God is a God who punishes us due to anger or disappointment. This isn’t the only time in Scripture Jesus says such things, but it is one.
And not only do Jesus’ words today make it clear that God is not a God of quid pro quo. God does not live by tit for tat. We do, but God does not. As Isaiah reminds us: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.
Jesus tells us, and then Jesus shows us in his life and death, that God is not a God of punishment. God is a God of covenant, a covenant from which God refuses to walk away. God is a God who delights in life, not death. God is creative and recreative, not destructive. God is loving, life-giving and liberating. On the cross God says: I forgive. God says, come with me to Paradise, God does not say: now you just wait and see what I’m gonna do to you. Boy, are you in trouble. Beloved,God says: Forgive. Come.
Yes, sometimes, like with the Galileans, our actions have terrible and painful consequences—for ourselves and for others. But God does not cause our suffering—sometimes our actions do. Sometimes our words do. Sometimes our choices and beliefs do. And then, God comes to us and finds us in the midst of the healing, the reconciliation, the forgiveness, the mercy and the grace that must follow.
And yes, sometimes towers fall upon us. Accidents happen. Bad luck, bad timing falls our way. Disease happens. God is not choosing those things for us to see how we will handle it all. God mourns with us. God despairs for us. And then God comes. God comes in the healing, the reconciliation, the reparation,the rebuilding that must follow.
If you walk away with nothing else, here is the unlearning I hope sinks in today: God does not cause our suffering. God does not give us suffering. From the Book of Wisdom, chapter 1, verses 13 and 14: God did not make death, and God does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; that they might live.
God is a God of life and resurrection. And God, the Creator, knows that pain and suffering will happen, does happen, and in fact, is inevitable. Death and resurrection is part of what sustains and equips this Creation.
Beloved, God’s promise is not if you are good enough or follow the rules closely enough or that if you show up into a church building 52 Sundays a year you will not have pain or suffering. That you can, somehow, avoid death. And none of this—not a lick of the Way of Love—is about getting into heaven. But, when we live the Way of Love–we taste heaven. We experience heaven; we embody it for others and make it reality for others.
God’s promise is not about a golden ticket into the happily ever after. God’s promise is that God will carry us through. Carry us through whatever life brings. Carry us through when our choices have mucked it all up. Carry us through when our boat is swamped in the storm. Carry us through as we stand beside the tombs and wail our pain. Carry us through when we feel alone in the wilderness, when we hunger and thirst because we know that there is more to be had but it seems beyond our reach, when we are besieged by injustice and the cruel inhumanity that we serve up to each other.
And Beloved, our God of the covenant just keeps showing up. God shows up in the silence , during the storms, in the war-torn maternity hospitals and at the empty tables of hunger and poverty. And in Jesus, the promise is that God will show up for us and with us in human form. God shows up in the friends who listen, bring us dinner, write us cards, lift up prayers. The family who comforts us, sits by our bedside while we heal. The strangers who show up just when we need it. The neighbor who reminds us of our own humanity. The child who reminds us that we are made in God’s image.
So, let’s end back up to where we started—with the story where I began. The man who came to see me admitted that he was a “black and white thinker” —often having trouble accepting folks he called “atypical.” Beloved—we often want a binary world: this or that, good or bad, male/female, friend or enemy…..And when things, or people, do not fit our binary schematic—we deem them “atypical” or “broken” or a “mistake.” Recently, someone asked me why God would create someone whose body didn’t match their gender.
All I can say is that God created a Creation that includes male, female, and many other gender identifications. God created a Creation that includes heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous…..
These spectrums are not only in humanity but are all throughout Creation. What if the unlearning we need to have is that the “normal” isn’t binary? What if Creation’s normal is a spectrum? Not this nor that, but all of the beautiful above. Just imagine what letting go of that learning might do in leading us toward Shalom.
To quote W.H. Auden:
All I have is a voice
to undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Beloved, we must love one another or die.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.