Sanctuary

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 19, 2016, the Sunday following the murder of forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida

 

Jeremiah 31:10-17, John 20:19-23

Here’s something most people don’t hear from their pastor on a typical Sunday morning:

I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. Yep, it’s true.

Of course I went to college in New Orleans when the drinking age was still 18. So there were some late nights at Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter.

But beyond this youthful exploration of freedom, when I met my wife Lourdes in my late 30’s she was working as a cocktail waitress at the Outrigger Reef Hotel on the beach in Waikiki. I courted her at her poolside bar, called the Chief’s Hut. This was a warm welcoming place where tourists from every walk of life sat side-by-side with locals coming off the beach for a little refreshment. Young couples on their honeymoon and retired couples taking their dream vacation sipped Mai Tais and Pina Coladas next to leathery-skinned beach boys who brought beer in their own coolers. There were truck drivers, bankers, even a retired Baptist minister and his Sunday school teaching, organ playing wife.

I once preached as sermon about the Chief’s Hut as an example of hospitality that churches might seek to emulate.

Early last Sunday morning, a hate-filled tragedy played out at a gay bar in Orlando Florida when a gunman shot and killed forty-nine men and women and injured fifty-three others. In the days that followed some of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues took the opportunity to talk about their experiences in bars, specifically gay bars.

One of my seminary professors, Sharon Fenema writes: “When I was first coming out, the only places I could go and feel safe, feel like I could be myself, sense the presence of the Holy in my body, mind and spirit were the gay clubs. To dance, to celebrate, to see other people like me, my family, my community – was all I had keeping me alive some days.”

My best friend Michael writes: “Every tragedy has its unique DNA. For gay men of my generation, the clubs were sanctuaries, places of safety, fellowship, community organizing and self-discovery.”

I have felt the presence of the Holy that Sharon describes and observed the sanctuary Michael identifies. You see, not only have I spent a goodly amount of time in bars in general, for a straight guy, I have spent a lot of time in gay bars.

For three years in the mid-nineties I led an AIDS service organization that coordinated volunteer support for people living with HIV and AIDS. Gay board members and volunteers for that organization would invite me to the well-known gay bar in Waikiki, Hula’s, for a beer. Not only was this a safe comfortable place for them to meet, I think they saw this as part of the acculturation that was necessary for me to better serve a predominantly gay constituency.

Then, right around the time Lourdes and I started dating, my best friend Michael, the one I just quoted, began dating the man who is now his husband, Stacey. The four of us became fast friends and would often double date, ending our evening at Hulas for drinks and dancing. I don’t know that I have ever experienced such freedom, such abandon. People could be themselves and know they wouldn’t be judged. It is a beautiful thing.

I share about my visits to Hula’s not just to describe or affirm what I observed in the sanctuary of a gay bar, but because I experienced it too. I say with all the love in the world that my wife Lourdes is somewhere on the diva-drama queen spectrum which, when paired with my pastoral identity, makes us a unique couple. There, in the midst of all these men and women who were rejoicing in who God created them to be, Lourdes and I felt safe and free to be who God created us to be. We fit right in!

UCC minister Quinn Caldwell, picks up this theme of sanctuary in the Still Speaking Daily Devotional that appeared on Tuesday. He writes:

For me it was The Common Ground in Ithaca, NY, a magnificently seedy roadhouse several miles outside of town.  It had a gravel and grass parking lot, a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, and an all-age cast of regulars you could easily have built a sitcom around.  My husband will tell you about The Park in Roanoke, VA, which he and his college friends would drive 45 minutes to get to every weekend, and which they talk about today like it’s a homeland from which they’re in unwilling diaspora.

Ask any queer person you know, and chances are they’ll have a story to tell you about a place like this.  They will tell you about how they found a family there, how they found themselves there, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor there, how much they learned there, how they found love there, how they learned to be bold there, how they dressed like themselves for the very first time there, showing off their glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.  That note you hear in their voice as they tell you about it?  That’s gratitude, and reverence.

50 dead and more than 50 wounded hits hard anytime and anywhere.  But for many queer people, what happened at Pulse hits as hard as shootings in churches hit for Christians, as hard as shootings in black churches hit for black Christians.  It’s not just the death toll.  It’s not just that it was a hate crime.  It’s that it happened in a sanctuary.

The passage from Jeremiah echoes some of the themes we find in the Orlando shooting. Jeremiah is communicating God’s promise to the Jews, a return home from exile. There shall be a time when “young women (will) rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy” says God. Indeed, to those who found sanctuary at Pulse night club last Saturday night it probably felt as if that promise of a return from exile had been fulfilled. In a holy respite from judgment, young men and women rejoiced in dance and were merry.

The Jeremiah text then shifts dramatically, from rejoicing and dancing to lamentation and bitter weeping. There is reference to Ramah, a town five miles north of Jerusalem through which Jewish people travelled on their way to exile in Babylon. Rachel, here representing the nation of Israel, weeps for the continued suffering and death of Jews in exile, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.

A voice was heard from Pulse, lamentation and bitter weeping, and we refuse to be comforted because these children are no more. Gays and lesbians continue to fear for their lives in exile.

The Jeremiah text mirrors the emotional whiplash between joy-filled dancing in response to an experience of God’s love and acceptance followed by inconsolable anguish in response to the death of God’s children. The grief is even more bitter when violence penetrates the promise of sanctuary. Caldwell responds to this violation in this way:

Here’s a true thing: every sanctuary will be invaded, by madness or death or slow decay, sooner or later.  Even the Temple in Jerusalem fell.  Even the body of God was penetrated.  But here’s what Christians believe: that body is still our refuge and our might.  That the lord of the dance(hall) wouldn’t stay dead.  That his pulse wouldn’t stop pulsing.  That they couldn’t take our Sanctuary away.

 In the Gospel lesson from John the disciples seek sanctuary, seal themselves apart, following the murder of Jesus on the cross. Caldwell reminds us, “even the body of God was penetrated,” and here Jesus shares his woundedness with the disciples’ own suffering, there is no escaping the pain; but Jesus also communicates peace and forgiveness and new life. Jesus reminds the disciples that his pulse won’t stop pulsing, then sends them out to share this love and acceptance with a hurting world.

This is the other reason I told some of my own stories this morning. I recognize that for some, the preacher sharing about his wonderful experiences in a gay bar would be taboo. But what does that taboo communicate? If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary? Let me say that again. If we cannot celebrate the ways and places that gays and lesbians feel most accepted, safe and free, can we as a church legitimately claim to be a sanctuary?

So let us weep with Rachel, refusing to be comforted for the death of God’s children, of our children.

Then, let us ask God to prepare us to be a sanctuary.

Let us pray that Quinn Caldwell’s words about gay bars may come to apply to us and our church.

May those who are most vulnerable and threatened tell of how they found a family here, how they found themselves here, how they felt safe for the first time on the dance floor that is this sanctuary, how much they learned here, how we found love here, how we learned to be bold here, how we dressed like ourselves for the very first time here, showing off our glitter, or butch haircut, or size 13 high heels without fear.

And should that happen… when this happens, may we respond with gratitude and reverence.

Jeremiah concludes:

For there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.

 

 

Published in: on June 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy St. Ambrose Day, Rod!

Today is Saint Ambrose Day.

Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and its accompanying website regularly integrate reflections on the lives of saints, ancient and contemporary, into daily prayers. Today’s prayer introduces Ambrose of Milan (339-397):

A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”

Addressing Roman Emperor Theodosius about a massacre he had authorized at Thessalonica, Ambrose of Milan wrote, “You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to repentance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocents to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can.”

The life of Governor (and Bishop) Ambrose stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the disgraced and ousted Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was today sentenced to fourteen years in prison for corruption. Where is our Ambrose?

Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

Retelling Redemptive Stories: Leah and Casey Anthony

Based on very little biblical evidence, scholars have often reached the verdict that Leah is the ugly, less desirable sister who was rejected by Jacob in favor of her younger, more attractive sister Rachel. Midrash brings sacred imagination to the biblical bits of Leah’s life to weave stories that reveal Leah to be strong and compassionate. These stories redeem Leah and her reputation in history.

Casey Anthony has been almost universally condemned. Can we pick up her story at the courtroom exit and use our sacred imagination to craft narratives that are redemptive, for Casey and for ourselves? What would such a story look like? Where would we begin?

Anchor Baby Jesus

Was Jesus the first “anchor baby?”  This offensive term is being used by the right in accusing immigrant women of coming to the United States to “drop” their babies just so they can become citizens and “anchor” their family here.  This language is cruel and offensive on many levels, not least in that it completely dehumanizes both the mother and the child. 

But it occurs to me that Mary could be accused of this same alleged practice.  After all, she was a single mother (“engaged” but never married) from Nazareth who travels to Bethlehem to register herself and her baby as citizens of Rome.  Emperor Augustus’ purpose in conducting this census was to make sure that everyone paid their taxes.  But it is also true that by registering in this way, Mary claimed all the rights and benefits of citizenship for herself and her child.

Jesus was born a Roman citizen.  But instead of anchoring his family to Rome, Jesus anchors all humanity to a love and justice that transcends all borders.  Instead of inflicting a cruel and offensive dehumanization, Jesus allows all of us “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb 11:13) to be fully human.

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 8:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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Hope vs. Optimism

Paul Raushenbush’s column responding to the historic passage of health care reform defines hope beautifully, regardless of which side of the health care issue you are on.  Here is an excerpt:

Now that this major victory has been won in Congress today, I realize that what I really had at the start of President Obama’s term was not hope, but optimism — and optimism won’t carry you very far in politics, faith or life. Hope is different than optimism. Optimism assumes that everyone will be happy clappy and go along with the program, and then crumples when they don’t. In contrast, hope inspires endurance, and requires serious work. Optimism is a luxury for those who can afford to lose. Hope is for people for whom there is no alternative but to persevere. It was not optimism that carried the great civil rights movements of the last century, it was hope that made a way when there was no way, and squeezed justice out of the bitter fruit of persecution. Hope is tied to a belief in something greater than oneself (if only the collective wisdom of humanity) that wills this world to be a better place. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote “Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Hope is the knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time. That history is not a trash bag of random coincidences blown open by the wind, but a long slow journey to redemption.”

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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