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.