Sunday, October 4, 2015

Will Kim Davis ever go away?

This was the sermon preached on October 4 at Holy Trinity. The text was Mark 10:2-16.

Will Kim Davis ever go away? She’s the clerk of courts in Kentucky who refuses to marry same sex couples, even though it’s her job to do so. She’s gone to jail for what she believes. She’s convinced she’s right about marriage being only between a man and a woman, and there are a whole lot of Christians who agree with her. When we argue that Jesus never said anything about this topic, they will insist that, in fact, he did, and this is the text they go to: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Now, I would argue that Jesus was answering a question about divorce here, and in the course of his answer, he described the way marriage was in his day. Of course, in his context, he never would have said, “A person shall leave their parents and be joined to another person, according to their sexual orientation, and the two shall become one flesh.” That’s absurd. Given the context of Jesus’ world, he never would have said anything like that.

It’s hard to argue with a fundamentalist about the scriptures. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we meet them on their level. They clobber us with Bible verses and we clobber them back with some Bible verses of our own.  That never works. And it’s not the way we Lutherans read the Bible. The Bible is not a weapon, or a rule book, or a collection of ideas that come straight from God so we need to accept them unquestionably. That’s just not how we read it. We question the Bible, we wrestle with it, and we’re okay with disagreeing with it at times. We struggle to understand the original intent of passages from the Bible and how that intent might translate into our present context. In other words, we don’t read the Bible the way conservative Christians do, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever agree. I don’t know what we can do about that. 

There’s more than just a different way of interpreting scripture going on. We’re not reading the words with the same eyes, hearing the words with the same ears. Recently, among people who make it their life’s work to study the scriptures, a new field of study has emerged called polyvalence. Polyvalence, refers to the way a text means different things to different people and many of those different meanings can be predicted based on things like gender, age, nationality.  In other words, we cannot assume that we all draw the same meaning out of a text. 

The Biblical scholar Mark Alan Powell has done some mind-blowing research in this area. He’ll do something like take a Biblical text and find out what it means to one audience and then compare that to what it means to another audience. For instance, he looked at the story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and told a story to answer the question. A guy was robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Then some good religious types were traveling that same road, they saw the half dead man, and they walked on by. Finally, it was an outsider, a Samaritan, who stopped to help. As Americans, the meaning for us is generally that we should stop and help people who are in trouble, we should be like the Good Samaritan in the story. 

However, Powell spent some time in Tanzania, and he learned that this is not the meaning Tanzanians pull from the story. For them, the main point of the story is that people who’ve been robbed, beaten and left for dead can’t afford the luxury of prejudice. They should accept help from whoever offers it. God can work through anyone, including those we might regard as heretics. So, for us, the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is, my neighbor is “anyone who needs my help.” For a Tanzanian, the answer is “anyone who helps me.” For the Tanzanian, the Good Samaritan is not just a moral story about how we need to help those less fortunate. It’s about empathizing with the marginalized and the powerless. This difference in meanings across cultures is an example of polyvalence. 

It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the first part of today’s gospel is a text rich with polyvalence.

  • Think about what this text means to Kim Davis.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have never been married.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who are married to someone of the same gender.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married to the same person forever.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who are divorced or separated.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, and are now married to someone else.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, married, divorced, married, divorced, married… Oh wait, we’re back to Kim Davis, aren’t we?

Why is this important? Because it’s not just a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong when we read the Bible. The circumstances of our lives affect the meaning we draw from a text like the one we have today, just as surely as the circumstances of her life affect the meaning Kim Davis draws from this text. 

I can make an educated guess about the meaning of today's gospel by considering it in context. I can look at the way women and children were treated as property to be discarded by men without a second thought in Jesus’ world. And I can look at the literary context of this teaching about divorce, particularly in light of what follows about welcoming and blessing children. And I can say with confidence that Jesus' teaching is about protecting those who have no rights and no power in society. So, at its heart, this passage isn’t about divorce at all, but it’s about the value of those the dominant culture sees no value in protecting. I can make a pretty strong case for that, based on the evidence. Ironically, I also could make a case for protecting the rights and well-being of LGBT folks, based on the deeper meaning of this text! But that doesn’t change the meaning others will draw from it. 

We need to recognize that and somehow deal with it. How do we do that? I wish I could tell you, but I’m still working it out, too. I do know it’s important that the perspective of progressive Christians be heard as we wrestle with how to apply the truths we find in the Bible to life in our contemporary context. We can’t allow conservative Christians to speak for us. But we also need to recognize that not all Christians understand the Scriptures the way we do. It’s a challenge—one I pray we will meet with love.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The witch is in!

I’ve been in a wickedly witchy way all day, so prepare for a rant. I really don’t want to be judgmental, but there are some people who just draw the judgmentalism right outa me. What they do at home is their own business, but when they share space with others, like a church for instance, they need to show some consideration. After nearly four decades of ordained ministry, I hereby decree that I have had my fill of the following:
  • People who bring coffee into worship, stow their half-empty cups under a pew and leave them there after they go home.
  • People who throw their gum on the floor where someone else steps in it and grinds it into the carpet.
  • People who use up all the paper in the copy machine and don’t bother to refill the drawer.
  • People who jam the copier and walk away without unjamming it, or at least leaving a note of apology.
  • People who use the last staple in the stapler and don’t bother to fill it for the next person.
  • People who finish up the toilet paper, or all but the very last square of toilet paper, and don't replace it, with no concern for the next person who will be paperless in a situation where a person never wants to be paperless.
  • People who clog the toilet so it overflows and then don't bother to mention it to anyone. This is right up there with people who take a major dump and then leave without flushing.
  • People who use the microwave, their food splatters all over it while they’re cooking, and then they don’t bother to clean it out.
  • People who go to toss their paper towel in the trash can in the restroom, miss their target and leave the crumpled mess on the floor.
  • People who use the church kitchen and walk away with dishes in the sink, or crumbs on the counters or an overflowing garbage can.
  • People who finish their cigarettes and then flick the butts on the ground.
  • People who park in our public parking lot and don’t want to take their trash with them so they leave it in on the ground: Miller cans, Starbucks cups, McDonald’s bags, etc.
What do all these people have in common? They have absolutely no consideration for those who come after them. They do whatever they damn well please, make a mess, and walk away. Just who do they think is going to clean it up? Who is going to do what they left undone? Who is going to undo what they’ve done? They are careless, and by that, I mean they don’t care about anyone other than themselves. They are the center of the universe and the rest of us are here to serve them.

I put the person who walks away without replacing the toilet paper in the same category with all people who have no consideration for those who come after them. If you’re capable of splattering the inside of a microwave and leaving the mess for the next person to clean up, you are right up there with people who abuse the environment without regard for those who come after you. And if you can walk away from a copier that you’ve jammed, you clearly aren’t ready to take responsibility for the way your actions impact the world around you. If you will toss your beer can in a parking lot, you will just as surely toss people aside when they no longer serve your needs. I know there has to be a correlation between those who are inconsiderate in little ways and those who are inconsiderate in big ways.

I have no patience with this behavior. If I knew who did these things, I’d ask them to clean up their own mess, but they always dump and run under a cloak of secrecy. This makes me think they realize that they’re wronging the rest of us. But I have to wonder if they feel any guilt about it. Do they care that this is not the way to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

If I were a real witch, I'd banish each person who does such things to his or her own little planet where they can make all the messes they want and then walk away. Of course, they’ll be stuck with a massively messed up planet if they don't eventually take responsibility for their actions. But that would be their problem, which is exactly as it should be. With all of them banished to their planets, then the rest of us could spend more time cleaning up our own messes. I know I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pope Backlash

I'm troubled by all the backlash about Pope Francis having a conversation with Kim Davis. Why does the pope have to be perfect in every way before we give him credence? He's a human being, a saint and sinner like all of us. He does some stuff I don't like (such as supporting an exclusively male priesthood), but that doesn't make him the devil incarnate. It just means that I don't agree with him on some points. Why does the fact that the pope did something many of us don't like negate all the good he did in his visit to the US?

How quickly we turn on those who don't meet our expectations. We're all in or we're all out. I don't know which is a greater problem -- the need we have to idealize people who are flawed like all the rest of us, or our propensity to attack them when they fail to meet our expectations. What's the deal?

It's much like people who leave the church over one negative experience, or those who discount all of Scripture because they can't buy every word of it hook-line-and-sinker. I'm reminded of when Jesus said, "whoever isn't against us is for us", which happened to be our reading last Sunday. He didn't say whoever isn't for everything we're for is against us, which seems to be what we believe. We are quick to draw lines between ourselves and those who disagree with us. Those who don't see things our way become the enemy. Really?

I encourage those who are ready to throw everything the pope did last week out with the Kim Davis bathwater, to examine why they have reacted this way? Why did you expect so much of a human being? And why has his failure to meet your expectations caused you to dismiss him completely?

Can we stop drawing lines between us and them? (Them being everyone who disagrees with us.)People aren't either good or bad. The world can't be divided into friends or enemies. Life is a lot more complicated than that.

I'm not here to be the hero in my little life's drama, doing battle with every evil foe I encounter. There is as much evil in me as the next person, and as much good, too. I know the same is true of Pope Francis. That's why I'm giving him a break for doing something I wish he hadn't.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Political Correctness. Who cares?

When did being politically correct go out of fashion? The words politically correct have become the butt of jokes. In some circles, it’s considered an insult to accuse someone of being too politically correct. What’s up with that?
Perhaps the problem is using the word politically. I know many people bristle at anything relating to the word politics. But the thing is, most of the people who are leading the charge against political correctness these days are politicians. Some have made a name for themselves by deriding political correctness. “Let’s return to the good old days when we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct, when we were free to speak our mind”, they’ll say to the cheering crowds. I’m not cheering. I’m disgusted.
The intent of political correctness is filtering what we say so that others are honored and respected. And this is a bad thing, why? Because we don’t care about running roughshod over the feelings of others? We don’t care about how they prefer to be addressed? We don’t care about how words are often used as weapons to keep others in their place? In short, because we don’t care.
My recollection of the “good old days”, as a woman who grew up in the 50s, is that it was a time when old white men did all the talking. These days, women, people of color, the disabled, youth, immigrants, and others have found their voice. I suspect that those who are opposed to political correctness are really just hoping to disrespect, belittle and bully any voices that are not their own into silence.
When political correctness is disregarded, compassion is disregarded, as well. And perhaps just plain old human decency.
I may not always do a great job of being politically correct, but I’m trying. Not because I care about following the latest trend, but simply because I care.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Afraid to ask

Preached at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Charlotte on September 20, 2015.
I’m afraid to ask. Have you ever said that, or thought that? I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid to ask my boss for a raise. I’m afraid to ask someone I’m attracted to on a date. I’m afraid to ask the doctor what my prognosis is. Generally speaking, being afraid to ask is motivated by one of two things.

First, you may be afraid to ask because you don’t want to appear stupid. You register for an upper level course and suspect that you may be in over your head. You arrive for the first class and the teacher starts talking about Gazibray’s Theory. All the other students in the class seem to know all about Gazibray’s Theory. You’ve never heard the word Gazibray before and you have no idea what Gazibray’s Theory is. But you’re afraid to ask because you don’t want to appear stupid.

Your new neighbors invite you to dinner. They are from Somalia and they like to practice their English with you. At dinner they serve you a very strange looking dish, the likes of which you have never seen in your life. You don’t know if you’ll be able to eat it, but they’re such lovely people, so you cautiously take your first bite. It actually tastes pretty good. You wonder, what am I eating? But you’re afraid to ask because you don’t want to know the answer. That’s the other big reason we can be afraid to ask. We don’t want to know the answer.

I’m afraid to ask. In today’s gospel lesson, we read that after Jesus once again laid out the way of the cross in his future, his disciples still didn’t understand. And they were afraid to ask. Was it because they didn’t want to appear stupid? Or was it because they were didn’t want to know the answer? They were afraid to ask.

Now, in all fairness to the disciples, at this point in Mark’s gospel, this is the second time Jesus has taken them aside to tell them about his upcoming suffering, death and resurrection. So, they still don’t understand, but really, it’s a lot to take in. This is not what anyone was expecting—a promised Messiah who would redeem Israel through suffering. They couldn’t get their heads around it. And that’s understandable. But the parts that’s a little harder to understand is that, given their confusion, they were afraid to ask any questions.

It may have been because they didn’t want to appear stupid. Or maybe they didn’t want to know the answer. But they were afraid to ask.

I suspect that there may be another reason going on here and that’s that they didn’t want to appear unfaithful. For when you throw religion into the mix, questions become more than simple questions for us. We often view them as a sign of faithlessness. It’s all too typical among God’s people for questions to be withheld. We pretend we don’t have questions. And yet the deepest mysteries of life can only be approached with questions. Why do good people suffer? Why are human beings so brutal with one another? Why does evil succeed? Why did God create such a messed up world? Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?

After Jesus’ disciples avoid the questions they were afraid to ask, notice what happens. They begin arguing among themselves over petty issues of rank and status. When they avoid asking hard questions, they focus on posturing about who is right.

Imagine how the story might have gone differently if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions. What kind of conversation might have resulted? How might it have strengthened the relationship they had with Jesus? But that’s not what they did. They were afraid to ask. And yet, they were not afraid to ignore what Jesus was saying and argue amongst themselves, completely missing the point.

Instead of struggling to understand the meaning of the cross and all that stuff about taking up your cross and following him and giving your life to save it, they immediately went to a scene of coming glory when they will be rewarded with power and status.

When Jesus heard them, he saw another teachable moment. He brought a child before his disciples and told them that they aren’t get what he has been telling them unless they can learn to welcome that child into their midst. A child, who was following his own curiosity, hanging around these men and their teacher, and likely disobeying his mother by doing so. A child, whose heart and mind was not yet set in concrete. A child, who was still curious. Curious about what it might mean to become a man. A child, full of questions.

Jesus might have proven his point about serving those who are at the lowest rung on the ladder in society another way. He might have talked about welcoming a woman into their midst, or a leper, or a Gentile. But he chose a child to make a point to his disciples who were afraid to ask.

It doesn’t take long for us humans to learn to be afraid to ask questions. But that fear is a learned thing for us. It doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is curiosity and questions. Lots of questions. Every child passes through a phase of asking question after question and driving their parents nuts. What’s that? It’s a bunny. What’s it doing? It’s eating. What’s it eating? Lettuce. What’s lettuce? It’s a vegetable. What’s a vegetable? It goes on and on.

Some of my favorite moments with children are in the questions they ask. Once when my daughter was young, she had seen way too many reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver”, which I told her I used to watch on TV when I was a little girl, and she asked me, “Mommy, was the world black and white when you were a little girl?” It was a good question. And as I thought about it, the answer to that question is, yes. The world was black and white when I was a little girl. 

Back when Henry was four years old, his mother Angela shared with me some of the questions he was asking. These are the questions a four year old boy was asking about God over the course of two days: 
Does God die? How is God Jesus and God at the same time? If God doesn't die, why didn't God make it so we don't die? Does God like the cold weather? Does God like pirates? Do pirates do bad things to God, too? Where does God live? Was God ever a baby? Does God love sharks? Why did God make sharks? Does God talk to us when he isn't right here?

Henry alternated between calling God a
he and a she. Angela wondered if maybe he was thinking of his pastor as God. He told his mother that he met God once and told her what he liked, and that God had brown hair. When his mom told him that she, too, asked God why we had to die, but that God didn't answer, he said, "Well, if you two are kind of close, maybe you could ask again and she will tell you."

That’s the kind of perspective Jesus was telling his disciples to welcome into their lives—his disciples who were too afraid to ask.

I don’t know where we get the idea that asking questions is a sign of faithlessness, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re afraid to ask questions because we don’t want to appear stupid, or maybe because we’re afraid of the answers. 

I suspect our biggest misunderstanding as people of faith is that we think questions need to have answers. And that has nothing to do with the life of faith. Faith is not about finding answers to questions. That’s knowledge. Knowledge is a good thing, but it’s not to be confused with faith. Faith is about learning to live with the questions. It’s trusting God when there are no answers.

A big part of what it means to be a loving not judging community of faith is giving people a safe place to live by faith—to ask questions, and let them live.

 Here’s a poem Gerhard Frost wrote about this:

 Never kill a question;
it is a fragile thing.
A good question deserves to live.
One doesn't so much answer it as converse with it,
Or, better yet, one lives with it.
Great questions are the permanent
and blessed guests of the mind.
But the greatest questions of all are those which build bridges to the heart,
addressing the whole person.
No answer should be designed to kill the question.
When one is too dogmatic or too sure,
one shows disrespect for truth and the question that points toward it.
Beyond my answer there is always more,
more light waiting to break in,
and waves of inexhaustible meaning
ready to break against wisdom's widening shore.
Wherever there is a question, LET IT LIVE!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who is he?

“What are people saying about me? Who do they say I am?” Jesus asked.

Some say you are the one who will make them rich and successful.

Some say you’re the one who will get them elected to public office.

Some say you’re the one who is always on their side in battle.

Some say you’re the one who sends people to hell if they don’t believe you’re God.

Some say you’re the one who always agrees with them.

Some say you’re the one who hates all the same people they do.

“Hmmm. Interesting,” he says, “But that’s not who I am. If you want to know who I am, here’s a clue… Who I am is not very different than who I’m calling you to become. Who do you say I am?”

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.  --   Mark 8:35, The Message

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why I can't hate Kim Davis

I can’t bring myself to hate Kim Davis. I don’t agree with her position on marriage equality, and I think she should have resigned when she realized she could no longer do the job she was elected to do, but I don’t hate her for that. She believed in her heart that what she was doing was right, and she was willing to go to jail for it. I admire her for her courage, although I agree that she belongs in jail for what she has done, or rather, for what she has refused to do. I hate the decision she made, and I hate it that she has hurt so many people who simply wanted to marry the one they love. But as a human being who was just as surely created in the image of God as I was, I can’t hate her.

If you know me at all, you know that you can usually find me way left of center politically. And I’ve noticed, lately, that it seems like every week we liberal/progressive types find a new person to hate--whether it’s a police officer who kills an unarmed black kid, or a politician who says offensive things about immigrants, or a county clerk who refuses to marry gay couples when it's her job to do so. We seem to thrive on having someone to hate. Because we perceive ourselves as open-minded, loving people, our hate must be justified, so we demonize the object of our hatred as someone who is pure evil, through and through. But folks, there is no truth in the demonization of others. The truth is, there is evil in each of us, just as there is good in each of us.

The demonization of Kim Davis helps otherwise kind people rationalize the venom they spew about her. There are tweets going around that have supposedly been sent from the person who works next to her. They are shared as if they are proof that the woman is crazy. I’m having trouble understanding how that might justify hating her, even if it were true. A lot of folks have made a huge deal out of the fact that she was married four times. It’s viewed as a sign of her hypocrisy about what constitutes a Biblical marriage, and that may well be. But if we’re going to start hating everyone who is hypocritical, we’d better avoid mirrors. As a person who has been divorced twice, when I heard she had been married four times, I felt compassion for her. No doubt, as someone who considers herself a Christian, her divorces are a source of great shame in her life. Attacking her shame is certainly an effective way to hurt her, if that is the goal. Those of us who have been publicly shamed by others know that all too well.

All summer long I have been rehearsing with a local chorus as we prepared for a concert to benefit two organizations that are working to fight against bullying: the Tyler Clementi Foundation and Time Out Youth. Both organizations are particularly concerned with bullying that has been, and continues to be, so damaging to LGBT kids. It seems that everyone who is a part of the gay/lesbian/transgender community has been a victim of bullying in some form, and they feel strongly about it. It angers and hurts me that people I love so dearly have to endure this; I would do anything to stop it, if I could.

Last night, I floated home on the love that had filled the auditorium during our glorious anti-bullying concert. Then I sat down at my computer to look at my Facebook feed ... and my heart sank as I read one hateful post after another about Kim Davis. You have to understand that I don’t get Facebook posts from people who disagree with me. Those people are quickly unfriended. So these posts were from my tribe: progressive Christians, liberals, LGBT folks and their allies. As I read them, I felt sick inside because I realized that I have often hopped aboard the hate express, too. But I can’t get on this time. Maybe I’ve grown. Maybe spending an entire summer singing songs about bullying has affected me. Or maybe pastoring a congregation whose motto is “Loving Not Judging” is changing the way I think. But I just can’t bring myself to hate Kim Davis.

I want my friends to know that I love you enough to remind you that the solution to hate is never hate. I understand that it may feel good at the time to lash out at those who have hurt you, but hatred never leads to healing. It only leads to more hatred. Those of us who are so opposed to bullying especially need to notice the blind spot we ourselves may have when it comes to bullying others. I pray we all can step outside our own hurt just enough so that we don’t become the very thing we hate in others. The world can become a more loving place when we practice love with those we could so easily hate. Jesus had a lot to say about that, and I'm convinced he was right.