I preached this sermon at Connexion on March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday of Lent). The texts referenced are Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13:1-9. 

This past week, I got to see one of my personal idols, Laverne Cox. Some of you may know her as Sophia Burset on a little Netflix show called Orange is the New Black. Her career is made of many notable ‘firsts’ – she was the first transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Special Class Special, the first trans person to appear on the cover of Time and Cosmopolitan magazines and, fun fact, the first openly trans person to have a wax statue of themselves at Madame Tussauds.

Laverne was at the University of Pennsylvania as a guest of an LGBTQ student group. The house was packed. Laverne shared quite a bit of her story with us- the pressures of fame, her journey of entering therapy and finding healing for herself. There is one statement that she made that has stuck with me all week.

Laverne told us about how when she first moved to New York to launch her career she thought she would be famous within two years. In reality, it took twenty years before she landed her role on Orange is the New Black. She learned after patience, rejection, and frustration that the work she felt called to would happen “on God’s time, not my time.” It ultimately wasn’t up to her, and she learned to trust that everything would work out – and it did, several times over.

“God’s Time. Not my time.”

There’s a persistent belief in our society that if we are patient and work hard enough, we will get everything we want, and we have a lot of platitudes in our culture around patience. We say things like, “Good things come to those who wait.” But in reality these statements have been used to continue people’s unjust treatment and silence dissent. The powerful and privileged can tell the oppressed that they’ll get their slice of the pie if they just work hard and be patient, all the while continuing to hoard a whole bakery’s worth.

But I think Laverne was getting at something much deeper than this. In Christian belief we have a concept called kairos – this idea of God’s appointed time for something. Scripture says, “Only the Father knows the hour.” This idea of God’s time subverts our expectations and stubbornness. An ideal time to us isn’t necessarily the same to God.

We have today the story of the burning bush, and I want to focus on the latter portion of the story. Moses is awestruck by this bewildering sight and also terrified at realizing he was in the presence of God. The Lord says to Moses, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Moses is suffering from imposter syndrome. Have you interviewed for a job, gotten the position and spent the first week or month wondering if we were actually qualified for it? Or if you’re a new parent, perhaps you’ve held your baby and thought, “Am I really ready for this?” How many of us have felt the burning call of the Holy Spirit in our very bodies and yet doubt that it could be real? How many of us make excuse after excuse to deny what we feel in our souls? How many of us have asked that very same question at some point in our lives, “Who am I to do this?”

Opportunity and challenge come and find us whether we are ready for them or not. That is kairos. It is God’s time, not ours. God has orchestrated a magnum opus, and we are playing our part in the symphony. You may have wanted to be in another movement, but God wanted you where you are. Your part is critical, because the music wouldn’t sound the same if you were in a different place.  Kairos reminds us that we may insist that we aren’t ready when our part comes, but God has been preparing us.

The Gospel reading today is a very interesting choice. I want to turn your attention to the parable Jesus shares with the people in this passage. We hear about a landowner with a vineyard who comes upon a tree that hasn’t borne fruit yet. ‘So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

Now based on the all of the judgment and bloodiness that comes before this passage, we are inclined to think of God as being in the position of the landowner judging his crops, and the trees are a stand-in for us. We all have to get right with God and bear fruit, or else we will be cut down and thrown into the furnace.

But I want to offer you another interpretation of this parable. What if instead of playing the landowner in this story, God is actually the heroic gardener? The gardener sees potential in this tree, sees it worth, and wants to save it. So he says to the landowner, give it another year. Let me give this tree some fertilizer. In due time it will bear fruit. It’s not about when the landowner believes he should have fruit, but when the tree is ready. Just in case you were wondering, it actually can take up to five or six years, not three, for a fig tree to bear fruit.

Our capitalist society values productivity. We are told that our worth is bound up with our position in society, the amount of money we make, our material possessions. If you aren’t successful by a certain age or station in your life, you must have failed.  This thinking doesn’t take into account that our society also denies people resources they need to survive, and it refuses to acknowledge that some people’s successes are built on the pain and oppression of others. (But I digress.)

God operates on different standards and measures. God looks upon the lowly and says, they are not worthless, because I made them.

God sees potential in us that the world doesn’t see, and God places us in different parts and scenes of the grand performance of life. That is why God chose Moses, despite Moses wondering aloud if he was the right choice, despite his hesitancy. That was the moment, and Moses was the person. That is why the gardener says, Give this tree the chance it deserves. Give it time. God’s time, not your time. It is up to us to discern the movement of God in our lives, and to rise to meet the opportunities presented to us.

In this Lenten season of preparation, we move closer to Holy Week and the shadow of the cross. We see God’s time playing out in each painful step of the walk to Calvary. Lent makes us very aware that there are things we may not want to face. With the universe running on God’s time, we will have to face them whether we want to or not, like Moses witnessing the blaze of the burning bush and being called by God to lead his people to freedom. But, like the gardener, God is preparing us to meet the challenge.

I preached this sermon at Germantown Mennonite Church on January 27, 2019 (Third Sunday after Epiphany). The texts referenced are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21.

A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend over coffee. This friend of mine is a longtime pew buddy – we’re both queer, both grew up Catholic and later became Episcopalians, and actually attended the same church for a little while. My friend told me about their recent experience bringing their parents to church with them one Sunday. Their family is still very Catholic, so they were used to all the smells and bells and high church stuff that comes with going to an Episcopal church. What was weird for my friend’s parents were the congregants at this parish. The people there were apparently a little too inviting. They asked my friend, “People…know your name here? You have friends at church??”

I could understand where my friend’s parents were coming from, because I was raised in a Catholic parish where it wasn’t really normal to linger after Mass on Sunday. My church growing up had a hospitality hour maybe once every 3 months. It was normal to get your communion and go home. You didn’t really get to know the folks who sat in the pew in front of you. Chances are, the longest interaction you might have had with someone other than the priest was during the passing of the peace, and even that was a very small window. Just recently my mom asked me, “Do they shake hands during the peace at your church?” And I said, “Yeah… we do.” Because, apparently, at the newer church my parents attend now, they just wave across the aisle or flash the peace sign. A lot has changed since I left the Catholic Church over a decade ago.

Now I don’t mean to throw shade at an entire denomination, and I know that there are plenty of non-Catholic churches like that out there too. But after years of spiritual wandering and seeking, I’ve come to really appreciate and expect that warmth and intimacy in a church. I’m more than happy to go to a place where people know my name and ask after me on Sundays when I’m not there. I want to go to a place that feels like home. Having a worshiping community  is really important to me and in many ways is an extension of my family, so much so that when I’m dating someone I will invite them to go to church with me before I take them home to meet my parents. (I mean… maybe not on the same day…although that could also work.)

As a queer person, I know that my presence is not always welcomed or tolerated in church spaces, and being nonbinary and a person of color just adds to that alienation. So I do not take for granted the peace that comes with being in a place that sees me and welcomes me as I am. If you have ever been rejected by a faith community and found a place where you feel accepted, I trust you know what that feels like. That feeling of finally being able to breathe. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, but it does mean you can let your guard down a little bit.

I don’t go to church just to feel at home, though. I go to get fed, both spiritually and physically. I go to sing. I go to be with friends. And I also go to be encouraged to grow more into the stature of Christ, and I can only do that in community with others. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget who my neighbor is, and I need my community to remind me. Sometimes I’m tempted to treat people unkindly because society is unkind to me, and I need to be reminded that as a Christian that I’m called to live differently. Sometimes I despair at the state of the world and I need to be reminded that not all is lost; that after death, there is resurrection.

Church community lives in a tension of comfort and challenge. It’s a balance. We want people to feel at home, but we also have to be willing to speak difficult truths to each other at times. You cannot authentically support people who suffer without confronting the systems and powers that oppress and hurt them. When we spend too much time making folks in our communities comfortable, then the church begins to lose its prophetic witness. At the same time, we cannot be in a state of constant critique and rebuke, because it is exhausting and not constructive. It depletes our spirits. We have to nourish each other, with songs, with prayers, with the kiss of peace, with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We also have to be held in community in order to grow. We have to trust each other enough to be called into deeper love.

Our two scripture readings this morning illustrate these dual actions of comfort and challenge at work. Let’s look first at Nehemiah. The events in this morning’s reading take place after the Israelites have been liberated from Babylonian exile and are trying to regain some kind of normalcy. Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and Ezra has gathered the people together to listen to the words of the Law, so that the people could be re-instructed. Something beautiful happens. “Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites… said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

There is immense comfort in hearing something familiar. I may feel lost when I’m visiting a new place, but if I happen to hear someone speaking Spanish or playing reggaeton, I instantly feel a little bit at ease. We have in this reading a portrait of a people who were exiled and divorced from their religious customs, and so to hear the words of the Law again makes them emotional. Even if some of them have heard those same words dozens of times before, that moment of being in community after shared trauma transforms their understanding. So it is for us as well. You may have heard Psalm 23 one too many times in your life, but if you’re having a rough week and read or hear that same psalm, it takes on a whole new meaning for you.

Nehemiah tells the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord”. You survived. You’re home now. Celebrate. Be glad. Share your blessings with others. This is the restorative work of community. But this also a moment of challenge. The law is read again with the expectation and hope that the Israelites will take this moment to rejoice but also to recommit themselves to God, to remind each other of their covenant with their Lord.

Now to our Gospel reading, which is a favorite of mine because I love the drama. Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. He stands to read and the scroll that just so happens to be from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he sits down and says that today the scripture has been fulfilled.

This is one of those sassy things that Jesus can do because of who he is but if we did them they would be weird or inappropriate. Can you imagine if I walked into my parish in the middle of service, read a passage from Isaiah and then told the church, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. And that’s THAT on THAT.” 

…It would probably not look good for my discernment process.

This is Jesus’ mic drop moment, right? Because he is saying to the religious authorities of his day that he is coming to shake things up. He is holding them accountable to their duties to serve the people. And for some of the folks in that synagogue, that may have been a comfort to know, but we read just a few verses later that Jesus is chased right out of Nazareth, so clearly, not everyone was a fan. Confronting people doesn’t always work out, but it’s not too long after this moment that Jesus begins to call his first disciples and build his own community that cares for him and carries him throughout his ministry up to the cross. Even Jesus needed community.

In his well known work We Drink from Our Own Wells, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “Spirituality is a community enterprise. It is the passage of a people through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.” We cannot follow Jesus in a solitary way. That’s why as much as church may frustrate us, if we are serious about this whole Jesus thing, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need others to face the turmoils of the journey. We have to brace ourselves and lean on each other, but we also have to be willing to hold each other accountable to the things we say we believe and to the work God calls us to do.

Community is hard, but it is the only water we have to drink. So gather together, “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions…to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Amen.

I preached this sermon at the Queer Christian Fellowship Conference on January 13, 2019, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The texts referenced are Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

I want to tell you a story about the worst date I have ever been on. I went out for coffee with a guy who was studying to be a podiatrist (that isn’t the bad part), and we were making small talk. Now first date conversations are usually bad, but at one point we were literally talking about the weather. That’s when you know it’s not going to work out. So we’re making this awkward conversation and suddenly he asks, “Has your voice always been this high?” I skipped class to go on this date, y’all!

I answer, “Yes – it always has. I got bullied a lot in high school over it, but I’ve come to love and accept it as a part of who I am.”

He then says, “You know, I know exactly what that feels like, because my voice is so deep that when I order food at Chipotle, they can never understand what I’m saying.”

He was being really genuine, but I hate to say that years of suffering homophobic abuse in high school, enduring femmephobia from cis gay men, being misgendered every time I answer a phone, and feeling anxious just opening my mouth in public is really not the same as experiencing some awkwardness while trying to order a burrito.

I tell you that story to illustrate the way that many of us have been taught to express empathy for someone. When a loved one shares something hurtful that they’ve experienced with us, like a rough breakup or losing a job, we naturally want them to know we care, so we try to find a similar experience in our lives to show them that we’ve been there.  The desire is noble – you want to connect with someone you care about in their moment of need and let them know that they’re not alone. But in bringing up your own experience to “match” theirs, you’re now centering your own story, and making them feel bad for you. Now if a person asks you directly if you’ve gone through something similar, then yes, it’s totally fine to bring up your experience. But otherwise, sharing your own pain isn’t the best way to express support; more often than not what someone needs in that moment is to know that you’re listening to them, not to feel assured that you know “exactly” what they’re going through and can offer them some sage advice. This is important because in the grander scheme of things, without properly practiced empathy, we cannot build authentic solidarity with other people in our movements for justice.

So how do we cultivate empathy?

We have to be aware of our privilege and our limitations. Even as LGBTQ people we may hold privilege over others. My struggles as a nonbinary queer able-bodied Latinx person are different from that of a cisgender, bisexual disabled Black woman. Although there may be aspects of our experiences that are similar, I cannot fully relate to her experience. White LGBTQ people do not share the same racialized experiences of LGBTQ people of color. Cisgender LGB and Q folks do not experience transphobia and may not fully understand the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people, and so on. This awareness of our differences isn’t meant to divide us as some people claim, but it is to honor the journeys of all members of our community. So because we don’t know what it’s like, we must listen deeply and attentively to other people’s experiences.

In an intentional community that I was once a part of, we were trained to “resonate” with people’s stories, to listen deeply to what they were sharing, to notice the physical feelings and emotions their words brought up for us and share them with the other person. When someone shares a story with you, listen deeply and be aware of your body. Does it make you tense? Does it make you feel cold? Hurt? You can then gain a sense of what someone was feeling in that moment. Share those feelings with the other person. Let them know you see them and hear them. The point of empathy is to enter into someone’s experience, however brief, to make a connection with them and make them feel less alone in their pain and grief. It’s through making these connections that we can build better relationships both in our personal lives and in our movement work.

We celebrate today the moment when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. Now we understand baptism as the washing away of sins – so it’s unusual that Jesus chose to do this, because he did not sin. But Jesus chose to do it, because Jesus is God entering into our experience. One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’, but I like to translate it as God’s solidarity with us. He knew what it was like to be human in the most intimate of ways. Jesus listened to people who didn’t hold power in his society, advocating for their concerns and naming them as loved by God when society treated them as anything but. When we talk about becoming more Christ-like, we should be practicing this level of empathy and concern for others. When we become empathetic, we learn to listen deeply to other people’s pain, to follow their lead rather assuming we know the best way to fix something. Jesus’ ministry models for us what it truly means to be in community with others.

It’s important to name that empathy and solidarity do not magically take away other people’s pain, because we cannot uproot unjust systems overnight, and it takes more than simply being in relationship with others. Empathy is the foundation of a much larger, longer struggle of life and death. We may not even see the fruits of our labor. But solidarity is a promise we make to each other, to make concrete our dreams for a world that is more loving and more beautiful than the oppressive nightmare we currently live in. In the passage from Isaiah this morning the text says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned”. God does not say, “You will walk through the waters and you will not get wet. You will walk through fire and you will not feel the heat.”  But God does say I will be with you. When you’re rejected, when you aren’t treated with dignity, when you’re forgotten by other people, I will bring you through. This is God’s solidarity with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is this love that embraces us with arms stretched out on the cross.

So today, let us recommit to building stronger connections with each other. Jesus shows us the way. Begin with listening to those around you, those who are different from you. Hear what their concerns are. Walk with them and amplify their voices. Enter into their experience. As you leave this conference today, I pray that your hearts continue to open, that you continue to develop stronger solidarity with others, so that together we can build a better world. Amen.  

But She Believed

I’ve grown more cynical as I’ve gotten older. I know this and I own it. Part of the issue is as I’ve become an adult, I’ve become less of a big picture thinker and more of a detail oriented person – not that being a big picture person is bad, or that being detail oriented automatically predisposes you to being cynical, but you start to realize how much work goes into things you thought would be so easy and natural.

The other part of it is more grounded in the times; every day my phone or computer delivers constant updates of tragedy and heartbreak. Every hour there’s another school shooting, police brutality, queer bashings, environmental crises, I could go on, but I’m fairly certain you probably feel the same way. Elected officials tasked with serving people serve only themselves and the corporations they get donations from. Church leaders cry about the name of Jesus being twisted in the public square for decidedly un-Christian legislative agendas but they don’t do much else about it but hem and haw and play it safe…All while people die easily preventable deaths.

It is hard to feel hopeful. It is hard to not feel constantly powerless. It is exhausting trying to convince people they should care about other human beings or about the planet they live on, about the kind of world they will leave to their children. There is a nihilistic side of me that rears its head from time to time, that says, “Well, we probably don’t have long on this planet anyway, at the rate we’re going.” I hate that my mind goes there, y’all. I really do. That isn’t who I am at my core. But some days, all I have is anger and pain and these feelings of futility, and that’s okay, because my emotions are valid, but I want to move forward. I want to hope again. I want to get off my ass and do something.

Psalm 37, which is today’s appointed psalm in the Daily Office Lectionary, really spoke to me this morning in this place of hopelessness (here are verses 1-2 and 11-14):

“Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.

For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more; *
you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land; *
they will delight in abundance of peace.

The wicked plot against the righteous *
and gnash at them with their teeth.

The Lord laughs at the wicked, *
because he sees that their day will come.”

Ironically, I realized later this morning that I had read the ‘wrong’ psalm, because today is the feast of the Visitation, so there’s a whole separate set of readings. Psalm 37 still felt right for me though. This feast is the day on the liturgical calendar is when we mark the story of Mary, Mother of Jesus, visiting her cousin Elizabeth to announce the good news that she was to bear the child of God (Luke 1:41-44, emphasis mine):

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Elizabeth reminds us that Mary could have told the angel Gabriel that he was full of it. “Me, bearing God’s child? Nah. You lyin.”

But she believed.

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

Artwork by Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS

In the subsequent paragraph, confirming that belief in a God who transforms and transcends limitations, Mary sings her song of praise, the Magnificat. She praises God for bringing deliverance, for casting the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the outcasts, for feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty handed. Her words are a prayer for many of us in the church who live under the weight of oppression.

This interaction between these two women experiencing miracles is subversive. It echoes the hope of the Psalmist quoted earlier, God laughing in the face of the world’s cruelty because God has other plans.

The hope and expectant joy of marginalized people- in this case two women living under an imperial regime- is a radical act!

In a world that tells us we are worthless, that tells us we are the cause of our own suffering, that tells us not to dream because our dreams are impossible – to refute all of that and say that our God is bigger than these human made chains, that’s fucking revolutionary.

That is Mary’s belief, her hope. Hope is what sparks revolution. Hope is the embryo of a new future, that with time and care, gestates into new life.

My beloved friend Hye Sung wrote recently that presently in our time Jesus is “calling together a people, shaping them even now in their shared pain, that they might birth something new. I like to think of these people of Jesus as doulas of the apocalypse: they are loving a new world into being. Present to the struggles of the people. Grounding the violent pangs of birth in mercy and through faith.” As I reflect on Mary and Elizabeth celebrating the life growing within them and the revolution that was to come, I know that I am part of this call spoken of by my friend. I hear the Spirit speaking to me, and sometimes I want to tell Her to stop bugging me so damn much, but I know She’s right. I know it won’t be easy work by any means.

But I will begin with hope.

Like many Episcopalians, I was immensely excited to hear that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, would be preaching at the Royal Wedding. The news was a really nice bright spot in what seems like an endless barrage of violence and cruelty that seems all too normal. I wasn’t sure if I’d watch the wedding, because I’m not particularly interested in the British Royal Family (though I am *highly* interested in the fashion that accompany these functions), but I decided to at least watch for Bishop Curry’s sermon. We cannot underestimate the potency of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church making an address to one of the remaining bastions of imperial power in the world. The fact that Presiding Bishop Curry would also be preaching after the Episcopal Church was more or less punished by the rest of the Anglican Communion for affirming LGBTQ people was also not lost on me.

And the Presiding Bishop did not disappoint. He could have made it a standard, droll wedding address about love between two people, but instead he spoke (for 13 glorious minutes, much to the disappointment of many dusty white people) about the radical, transformative power of love in Jesus.

I’m still digesting Bishop Curry’s words, especially this paragraph (emphasis mine):

“Oh, that’s the balm in Gilead! This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it. He died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world, for us.

That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”

Bishop Curry brought the fire to St. George’s Chapel!

I admittedly get a little cynical when I hear love talked about in this way, if only because the world has made me so skeptical, so unconvinced that we can truly do anything other than hurt each other, sometimes in the very name of ‘love’. This isn’t the unselfish love spoken of by the Presiding Bishop, but rather love of power, love of money, love of nation, love of war. Humans are deeply enamoured by the things that are slowly killing our neighbors and ourselves. But, Bishop Curry reminded me, Harry and Meghan, and the millions of other people watching via livestream that it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus offers an entirely different avenue than what we assume are the only ways forward.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. OWEN HUMPHREYS/AFP/Getty Images

I’d like to think that the Presiding Bishop wasn’t just preaching to Harry and Meghan, or even to the millions of spectators enjoying the Royal Wedding, but also to the Church. The Church so often forgets what Jesus’ self-emptying, unselfish love looks like. The Church, across denominational lines, censors or sanitizes the dissenting voices of people of color, women, disabled folks, and queer and trans people within our ranks out of a desire for “unity” because we are not content to gather crumbs from under the table. The Church loves being in proximity to power. The Church hoards its wealth or spends it impractically while its own employees live in debt. The Church is not often willing to take big risks for love, because love comes with repercussions – changes in power, redistribution of resources, discomfort – that it doesn’t want.

But, as Bishop Curry said, love is precisely what Jesus died for. It’s what his whole damn ministry was about. A love that embraces everyone, even at the cost of its reputation. A love that gives without second thoughts. A love that is willing to speak the truth, even when it means suffering through uncomfortable consequences. A love that puts itself on the line.

Yesterday was Pentecost, one of my favorite days of the church year. We sang a lot of my favorite hymns, including “Come Down O Love Divine”, which left me a weepy mess. I was struck again by the words of the Prophet Joel in Acts:

“This is what I will do in the last days, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.
Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message;
your young men will see visions,
and your old men will have dreams.” (Acts 2:17, GNT)

The Spirit of Love is still being poured down on us. Those words keep my hope alive, that we can, as Bishop Curry said, harness the power of sacrificial, redemptive love and truly transform this world, if we want to.

Seeing Myself for the First Time

“I have chosen to struggle against unnatural boundaries.”

– Gloria E. Anzaldua

I have a distinct memory of being maybe 6 or 7 years old and really wanting to paint my nails.

I don’t remember whether or not I had been explicitly told by that point that nail polish was “not for boys”; I implicitly knew that I would be punished if I was found giving myself a manicure. So rather than taking a risk by putting on pink polish, I reached for my grandmother’s bottle of topcoat. “It’s clear,” I told myself, “So no one will see it.” It would be my little secret, and I would have the satisfaction of having painted my nails despite there being no color. Granted, my mom did find it odd that my nails were a little extra shiny that day, but I don’t remember being scolded or punished for it.

That’s how my gender has been for most of my life – skirting by, flying low, taking the tiniest bit of risk as not to be seen. I have always been drawn to softer, “feminine” things, they have always been innately appealing to me. I loved watching people put on makeup. When I would accompany my mom to the nail salon I would be mesmerized as I watched the nail technician create miniature works of art on people’s nails. I’ve always wanted to wear bright pastels and floral prints and dresses and all kinds of things considered to be “only for women”. And I have tried dipping my toes in the waters here and there but have managed to have those impulses socialized and shamed out of me by my family, my peers, and more recently in my life, hypermasculine gay men.

I have up until now accepted my cisgender-ness as a fact, never questioning, never asking “Well, maybe…?” out of fear and a desire to, again, fly low and out of sight. I have never felt safe to really think about the question. When your body is a site of violence, your trauma and anxiety demands you avoid everything that would jeopardize your safety, even in the smallest way.

So I kept shelving the conversation. Kept making excuses. My mind would ask me, “Are you really a cis dude tho??” and I would always answer yes. When people would refer to me as a “man” I would bristle and feel sick, but I would tell myself, “Well, that’s because masculinity and ‘manhood’ is associated with so much toxicity, you just don’t want to be associated with that.” But the more I probed that thought, the more it really didn’t hold up. As I tried pushing away the thoughts, they grew louder. I thought, ‘Well maybe I am more genderfluid or nonbinary, but I don’t necessarily feel safe exploring that,’ as I live at home with my parents. I became more depressed and frustrated.

A few weeks ago I was in Boston. I lived there for a year and I made a lot of really amazing, beautiful queer friends up there who always see me for me. Even though Boston is racist and blindingly white, it is a city that allowed me, free from the watchful eyes of family and peers, to step completely into myself in ways that Philadelphia has not. While I was up there, I made a spur of the moment decision to buy hella makeup – lip gloss, highlighter, some liquid eyeshadow, $5 press on nails that turned my hands into talons. I went over my friend Alice’s house for a birthday party that weekend and wanted to really glam it up. Because of the aforementioned press-on nails- which left me looking fierce but incapable of doing much of anything – my friend Lily did my makeup. I remember looking in the mirror when she was done. Looking at the highlighter, the lips, clothes that made me feel like me, and I said, “Look at yourself, bitch. You look like you.”

I wanted that feeling to last forever.

So when I came back home I thought about what that experience meant for me and named it, for the first time: I decided I want to use they/them pronouns because they feel most aligned to who I am.  Nonbinary femme is the best description. Nonbinary because the gender binary cannot hold me. Femme because…

Femme is everything that I am.

Femme encompasses all the words and phrases that describe me: soft, a little fiery, sensual, perra, loud when I want to be, strong, atrevida, extra, glam.

So this is me. Your favorite femme.

I still feel afraid though.

I think about the harassment and violence that queer & trans folks, especially trans women of color, face on a daily basis for being ourselves and living our truths.

I think about the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence I have endured over the course of my life for stepping even just a little bit out of the norm.

I thought about all this when I was in Boston, on the T, going on a Target run. I had painted my nails a bright, neon pink in a shade called “Girls Tell All”. I was a little nervous about showing my nails off and so I kept them either in my pockets or covered up with gloves, since it was cold out. My stop was coming up, and I got up to make my way to the door. I made a conscious decision not to cover up my nails as I reached for the pole to hold on as the train came to a stop. Sometimes even the tiniest actions are great risks that require courage. I was nervous, but in the same moment I felt a calm wash over me. I felt as though maybe a queer ancestor was speaking to me, inhabiting my body for a brief moment, because I began to tell myself:

“Nothing in life is without risk. Just stepping outside the house every day is a risk.”

Some sort of violence or danger could occur at any moment, regardless of how you go out into the world. We are never truly 100% safe, except perhaps in the spaces we construct ourselves and with the people who love us for us, and even then it is never truly guaranteed. But the point is, I don’t want to live my life in constant fear. I don’t want to fly low anymore.

I want to live boldly, as the person God made me and calls me to be.

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What It’s Like Being a Boricua in Diaspora After María

I am a Puerto Rican child of the diaspora. Both sides of my family are from a town called Barranquitas in the central part of the island. It’s up in the mountains, about an hour’s journey from San Juan. Although many of my relatives have left the island to come stateside, some of my family is still there in Barranquitas, in the houses I played in as a child. I remember dreading the drive there because of the amount of curves and changes in altitude in the mountain roads (it would take some time before I discovered dramamine was a thing). But as I got older, I grew to love the drives, looking out into the valley and seeing nothing but trees, streams, and the occasional house while listening to my mother’s stories about my jibaro ancestors.

I think about my family, the friendly strangers, those houses, those mountain valleys every day since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, flooding the entire island and leaving my people without power or drinking water. I cannot even begin to imagine the hell that my fellow Boricuas are living through right now.  Every day there’s new photos and reports on the conditions of la isla. Towns have been devastated. Entire swaths of the island, including El Yunque National Rainforest, are unrecognizable. Folks are running out of food. Hospitals are in need of diesel power to run generators that will keep patients alive. Already two of them have died in a San Juan hospital, and another has died from not being able to receive dialysis. Houses have become death traps. There is no cell service, so residents cannot call for help or communicate with their loved ones outside the island. Lines for fuel and food stretch on for blocks in some cities, and the wait is several hours. In San Juan, supplies are arriving but there are no drivers to deliver supplies. It may be weeks, possibly months before any of us in the diaspora are able to hear from loved ones.

It is hard to focus on work when I’m overcome with a desire to check the news for updates, for word from family, anything. In the days immediately following I retweeted and shared practically every mention of Puerto Rico because it seemed as if no one was talking about it. Social media is a mixed blessing in this respect. It is easy to feel as if no one cares when you share article after article about a crisis and no one responds. At the same time, I’m in a few Facebook groups made of Puerto Ricans, both on the island and outside. There are thousands of posts by people looking for any information about their loved ones. Those on the island who are able to get a cell signal post to say they’re okay, or that they’ve spoken to so-and-so’s relative, and they’re okay. Every post like this warms my heart like as if these are members of my own family. But still, my mother’s calls to her uncle or to my aunt go to straight to voicemail, and we do not know when we’ll hear their voices again. The anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing if people you know and love are okay as you watch a disaster unfold is a feeling I would never wish on anyone.

I can only watch as a humanitarian crisis unfolds on my island and the United States Government takes its sweet time to respond.

I am disgusted.

I am enraged.

But I am not surprised.

The United States Government has never given a damn about the people of Puerto Rico since they invaded in 1898.

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Image from Defend Puerto Rico’s “CitiCien” artist exhibition in Philly.

Every non-Puerto Rican I have seen calling for attention and aid to Puerto Rico frames it as an appeal to help “our fellow citizens”. Every time I read I cringe. Fellow citizens. It reminds me that Americans will care only because my people are also “American”. If that were not the case, many of them would likely not bat an eyelash. Even so, my people may be “American” but we are (mostly) not white nor do we speak enough English for Americans to treat the crisis with the seriousness and swiftness it demands. When I brought up this fact recently, a white person tweeted at me to say that he was sorry “we” (read: white people) have “fucked things up so badly that we’ve forgotten about our own.”

“Our own”.

I realize he meant “our fellow American citizens” but I cannot help but read it as our possession. Our colony. I politely correct and ask him not to frame this in terms of needing to help fellow “citizens”, especially since Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States only as a consequence of colonialism, not some benevolent gift of the American government. He tells me that the “negative historical context” is irrelevant, Puerto Ricans are still citizens, as if that statement magically erases a century of American imperialism and neglect. Puerto Ricans are citizens thanks to a law passed by a government that Puerto Ricans did not elect, a government that did not speak the language of its colonial subjects nor made any effort to understand them, a law passed so that the United States could have more bodies to fight its wars. Don’t remind us of our “citizenship” when the suffering and indignity it carries with it outweighs what little benefits it yields.

I remind myself to disengage and take care of myself, but I can’t help but feel like that would be looking away and I can’t do that to my family, to mi gente. Fellow Boricuas I speak to echo this feeling. We are emotionally exhausted, frustrated, desperate. Our hearts and souls are there, en nuestra tierra.

If you’d like to donate to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in the most vulnerable parts of the island, contribute to Defend Puerto Rico’s YouCaring campaign here.

Recently my mind has been bugging me endlessly with the question of, “What are you doing?”

This isn’t a theoretical/philosophical question but more so the practical question of, “How am I contributing to the world right now?” Last week I attended a really wonderful gathering of folks my age called the Millennial Leaders Project at Union Theological Seminary in NYC and although it was really healing and great to share space and hear other folks’ stories, my imposter syndrome was constantly comparing myself to my colleagues and getting in my face asking me, “Well what are you doing now? Why aren’t you doing x, y, and z? Why don’t you read enough?”

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“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” [Matthew 10:40]

Jesus speaks these words at the end of a long sermon commissioning the twelve apostles to go out and proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Jesus tells them all this and then tells them don’t worry about bringing a bag, or a tunic, or money, or whatever. These apostles would have to depend on the hospitality of strangers in the places they visited. The church from its inception has relied on the kindness of strangers, for those who welcomed the apostles welcomed Jesus. The early church depended on hospitality and it was charged with extending that same hospitality to others, and so today we Christians strive to be a people of welcome and hospitality.

“Welcome” is a hard word for me – because I really want to believe people when they tell me I’m welcome in a space but it’s hard to accept that welcome at face value when their actions tell me differently. Like many of my fellow Millennials, I have been burned by community, hurt by churches and groups and fellowships that said they welcomed me and all that I am, only to be disappointed when that welcome proved to be conditional. I am often welcomed into progressive, liberal spaces because I am a queer brown person with a “prophetic” voice but I am quickly seen as a troublemaker when I ask hard questions and refuse to settle for scraps at the table. Or other times, my friends and I are welcomed and invited to the table if we all dress to the nines and serve you Sunday best church lady realness but not when any of us walk into your church with dyed hair, tattoos, or, Heaven forbid, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Many places are eager to lay out a welcome mat for people like me, but are not sure what to do with us once we walk through the door.

But, perhaps foolishly, I continue to show up to church, I continue to read and study my Bible with others, I hatch plans to start theology study groups, I continue to do my best to love and welcome the stranger in my midst. I’ve been asked more than once, why I would dare return to Christianity after having experienced so much abuse, so much pain, so much nonsense? I can tell them quite simply that the answer is… Jesus. Shocking, I know. The church’s welcome may sometimes ring hollow, but the love of Jesus, with his arms stretched out on the cross can welcome and envelop all parts of me. Jesus welcomes me in when I’m happy and pleasant, and Jesus welcomes me when I am messy. Jesus invites me in after calling people out on social media, when I’m pissed off, when I burn bridges, when I refuse to be polite. Jesus sets a place for me at the table at all times of the day and Jesus feeds me the bread of heaven even when I want no part of it.

This is the welcome we are called to embody.

Some churches will loudly proclaim that “It doesn’t matter to us who you are – you are welcome here!” But actually, it does matter, because Jesus loves each of us as we are, in the fullness of our identities – and when we say it “doesn’t matter” we’re essentially saying that you’re just another body in the pew, we don’t need to know your life story, just show up! Nobody wants that. In order to truly practice the radical welcome of Jesus Christ we must build relationships. We must foster and nurture connection. We must see people for all of who they are.

One of my good friends once said something that will always stay with me – she said that people have different “textures” – someone you know could be the happiest person in the world one day and then the next be sad, distraught, or pissed the hell off. And so often the temptation is to only see a person in one of those textures, and not the wholeness of who they are. So we must accept people and all of their textures!

If the church has any desire to stay true to what Jesus has commanded us, we must be truly welcoming. We must listen to people’s stories, and build relationships with them. We must welcome people even when we are challenged by them. We must continue extending hospitality to the strangers in our midst, especially in this country, where the government continues to criminalize Black bodies, threatens to kick off millions of people from their healthcare coverage, shut out Muslims from entering this country, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

We once depended on other’s kindness hospitality – and now we are called to extend it to others.

I recently took up embroidery as a hobby. I learned a little bit from watching my roommates Alice and Lily as they both began embroidery in their free time this past year. Embroidery is incredibly soothing, although meticulous. You have to thread a needle every time you want to switch colors, which is agonizing (for me, anyway), and you then have to engage in stitch after stitch after stitch until your design finally comes to life.

Something I learned quickly is that if I’m not careful and mindful of my stitching, my thread will inevitably get knotted really quickly. Sometimes the knot is easy to pull loose; other times a tiny knot can grow into a huge, unmanageable one that could take several minutes to undo. I’ve learned sometimes it’s a lot easier to cut the knot and salvage the usable thread rather than trying to spend all my time undoing one big knot. Some might say it’s wasteful, I see it as prioritizing my time and energy.

I just ended my year of service with Life Together. I had originally signed up to do a second year with this program, but after repeated experiences with institutionalized racism and intense soul searching, I rescinded my contract and decided to move back home to Philadelphia. Looking back, I had some great experiences at the church I was serving and I made some beautiful friendships – but I also spent a good portion of this year doing a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional labor for white folks trying to “understand” racism in my service year program. I witnessed cultural appropriation happen in worship spaces and then have white folks get defensive and emotional when called out on it. I heard the pain of other people of color who got passed over for leadership positions. I had to listen to white people time and time again apologize for racist actions and watch as they continued with racist behavior even after I and many other POC called them out.

I recount the above experiences to remind myself that they happened, because society has taught me to always second-guess and discount my experiences and those of other people of color. Society says we are not to be believed when we share our experiences of discrimination. Mainstream Christian society in particular discounts our experiences, or when we are believed, many white Christians look down upon the ways we speak the truth, or shame us for not desiring “reconciliation” with oppressors. I’ve internalized this narrative and I hear it in the back of my mind every time I remember my experiences with racism.

“You could have handled that better. You burned that bridge. That isn’t very Christ-like of you. You need to reconcile with them.”

In the minds of many white Christians, reconciliation and forgiveness on the part of people of color seem to be taken as a given. POC are so often pressured implicitly and explicitly to forgive and reconcile, without taking stock of what forgiveness and reconciliation would actually take. We are called to have limitless reserves of grace for white oppression, for white guilt, for white nonsense, and yet white society offers us none in return, or when grace it is offered, it is on the condition that we behave “respectably” and communicate ‘nonviolently’, i.e., censor ourselves.

When I think about my experiences with this community and how I handled it, I know that when I called people out and left without saying goodbye, I acted from a place of great anger and pain. And I’m fine with that. I don’t regret what I did. To have censored my language, my story, my pain, would have been doing an immense disservice to myself and other people of color who experienced the same things. In this case I chose to cut loose a knot in my spirit rather than painstakingly pulling it apart, because I knew that would have necessitated an immense investment of my own emotional resources that I did not have. It pains me more to twist and contort myself to be acceptable in the eyes of progressive white society than knowing my words and actions may ruffle feathers.

This experience also taught me a lot about what church is supposed to be and what it currently is. My internship program boasted that it aims to produce new ways of doing and being church, but it is also a microcosm of what the church is. And so the liberal white racism I encountered in my program is just a sample of what is going on in the church across denominational lines.

What I’ve learned more and more is that the church these days is not interested, despite what you may hear, in yielding its proximity to power. The church is interested in comforting the already comfortable. The church is interested in racial justice work because it is the Right Thing to Do, but not if it gets too uncomfortable. The church does not want to question the systems of economic and racial violence that keep people lining up at its doors for services – it just wants to continue providing the services. Mind you it isn’t wrong to continue feeding the hungry, but if we don’t question why people are hungry and if we don’t work with them to end ongoing cycles of economic violence, then the hungry will never truly be free.

I truly believe in my spirit that, in this day and age, if you are a person of privilege and you can walk out of your congregation on a Sunday not feeling shaken, not questioning the systems of power you benefit from, not ready to yield your resources to the most marginalized in your midst – then the church is failing. If all you take away from church on Sunday is a beautiful liturgical experience with the very best hymns and choral pieces and not an understanding of what the Gospel is calling you to do in the face of police brutality, violence against Black and Brown bodies, environmental degradation, and rampant xenophobia, then perhaps you need to revisit what it means to be a Christian.

I know that the church is dying. At first when I read the statistics and the think pieces, I confess that my initial thought was about job security – What does that mean given that I feel God is calling me to be a priest? Will I have a job? But now truly I think it is better to let the church that doesn’t use its prophetic voice to question and rebuke the powerful, out of fear of being “too political”, die. The Spirit will ensure that something new, something different, something bold will emerge out of the ashes. The Spirit will show me where my place will be in that new growth.

For right now, in this moment, my spirit is tired. I’m exhausted. I remind myself every day that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to not know what is up next. I experienced a lot of messed up shit in the past couple of months, and I deserve to restore and heal myself. So for now I will keep stitching, undoing knots sometimes, other times cutting them out. And with patience, a new picture will emerge out of all those tiny stitches.

 

 

 

 

Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter. Edited.

Before I begin my sermon today I want to say some words in solidarity with my LGBTQ family in the United Methodist Church. This past week, the Judicial Council of that church ruled that the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who was the first openly lesbian bishop in that denomination, violated church law. Even though she was elected and called faithfully by the people she served, her sexual orientation and marriage to a woman deemed her “unfit” to be a bishop – because the UMC declares that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. That same council also affirmed in separate rulings that two different conferences of the UMC must abide by church law and inquire about the sexuality of candidates for ministry.

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The other day during Morning Prayer I found myself reading a passage from Ezekiel, the famous “Valley of Dry Bones” vision:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37:1-5)

This is probably one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.

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