Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Sermon on the Occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Sarah Perkins



I had the honor of preaching at the ordination of my friend and colleague Sarah today. We were an all-women ordination commission. And it was lovely. Below is the sermon. (Note that since Sarah's mother is a New Testament professor, I opted not to preach on a NT passage - I couldn't bear to mess that one up. LOL.)




There is a trap waiting out there for ministers in the United States. Do you not perceive it? The trap that ministers fall into is confusing the Good News with Nice News. Sarah and I were at a conference a few years ago where the Rev. Jose Morales preached on this distinction, and it has stayed with me.

I’m not all that opposed to nice. When I think of nice, I think of a vacation place I once stayed at with a garden wall covered with tiny pots of succulents and a small bamboo garden. I think of the time I was helpful to a flight attendant trying to handle bags in the overhead compartment on a flight packed full of business travelers and she thanked me for being nice.

This passage sounds nice. Water in the wilderness, new thing springs forth, etc. Don’t worry too much about the beginning where the chariot and horse, army and warrior lie down and are extinguished like a wick, which sounds less nice.

Nice news is palatable, especially for those of us in the U.S., where it’s possible we have confused material comfort with wholeness, relative wealth with safety, security with peace. We reduce Jesus to What Would Jesus Do, we reduce the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to one speech that is misinterpreted to shore up the dangerous myth that ignoring racial difference will eliminate inequality. It sounds nicer. We take the prophetic word, and we shift the words of the prophets away from us towards the other. We assume we are standing with the prophet, with the benefit of hindsight, instead of being the people to whom the prophet speaks. We preach it as though we are the ones being liberated, instead of the ones creating oppression and inequality, from whom others need liberation. We take the prophetic word and name ourselves as Christians as the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Nice news is how we end up with congregations full of people striving to be “good people,” believing that civility across differences and regular church attendance are synonymous with faithful Christian living. Confusing good news and nice news is how we end up with white Christians unable to have a nuanced, accountable conversation about racism and white supremacy. Christian men and too many women unable to have effective conversations about gender and power. Most Christians unable to have thoughtful mature conversations about human sexuality. And let us not talk about colonialism, enslavement, and capitalism, relative to our endowments and our buildings.

Because it’s not nice, right? It’s not nice to speak of politics at the Thanksgiving table. It’s not nice to bring up religion with an acquaintance. It’s not nice to ask your conservative auntie to quit sharing transphobic memes on Facebook. It’s not nice to ask if people with means are totally okay with removing their own know-how and energy and caring from underprivileged under-resourced public school systems because they don’t have the time to make structural change on the backs of their own children at the expense of other people’s children. It’s not nice to talk about how white teenagers from a wealthy private school who travel to DC to speak out against the agency and health care of pregnant people are not innocent, but are willing participants in and beneficiaries of centuries of white supremacy and colonialism. Or how one city’s failure to adequately plan for transportation infrastructure is doing a good job of reinforcing poverty and damaging the planet, and making it difficult for people struggling to make ends meet to get around. It’s definitely not nice to point out that being a legacy admitted to a prestigious school is a way that primarily whites continue to benefit from the legacies of slavery, genocide, and centuries of discrimination.

Nice becomes a weapon. We use it to verify our own goodness, or confirm the evil of others. Instead of letting the Scripture stand in its complexity, and what it means to be in relationship with a creator under all kinds of circumstances, particularly a creator who comes across as capricious at times, and a people who are immature in their faith. And that weapon of nice-i-fying the Scripture means those who most need good news in their life are robbed of liberation.

This passage isn’t nice. It was written during the time of exile in Babylon. It refers to the flight of the people out of slavery in Egypt. The passage begins with what God has done. The promised liberation is accompanied by the transformation of the non-human world.

This deliverance of which the prophet speaks is a reversal of what took place in the Exodus, or a new Exodus. The new thing God will do is deliverance and a world that is greener, more lush.

It’s not a done deal, though. According to this passage, it hasn’t yet happened. The people are still stuck in exile. There isn’t a highway in the desert, or rivers turning the desert green. Deserts are beautiful – but they are deadly.

Just like the hearers… we know some things.
We know what the desert is like. We know what lushness is, where there is plenty of water.
We know God saw these people through exodus. We know God saw these people through exile. We have advance knowledge that God will continue to see these people through. We know what God has been capable of. But that doesn’t mean we know all of what God can and will do.

God isn’t done yet, the prophet tells us. What we, the church, know of God is not complete.

One of the gifts of our relationship with God is this, the promise of the new thing. Who could have known that the church could call queer pastors, gender non-conforming elders, divorced people, people of color?

I am just old enough to have known most of the firsts. The first black lesbian divinity school dean. The first woman president of a PC(USA) seminary. The first Korean American woman ordained. The first African American woman ordained. The first out gay person ordained. Gen X and millennials largely missed our chance to be the first in that large, historic sense, because those who went before us paved the way, and we are followers of the paths they laid. But we can still be the first, the new thing, for individuals whose religious worlds are different from ours.

How we show up – what we look like, which social categories we fit into – this isn’t neutral. Our bodies are political. The incarnation of Jesus was political because it was embodied in a particular being, an occupied body.

Those of us who show up in the world spark possibilities for others. That’s why the white supremacist heteropatriarchy is so damaging – not just because it kills bodies, but because it restricts the imagination itself. To get hung up on the former things – in the Hebrew, the first things – God has done, is to limit our own imaginations.

For those of us who embody something outside what we in the predominantly white church are socialized to expect in a leader, when we enter into the room, our body blows open the constraints. Our embodiment makes a claim about the nature of God, by which vehicles God works. This can be dangerous. White men who speak challenging words are heroic; women of color who speak challenging words are aggressive, or angry. But still we speak, because we are compelled to speak for ourselves and for all the girls of color whose lives we may still impact. We may be the first for someone else, and we represent something new.

Ministry is not exactly full of new things – it’s sort of the same things lived out in new beings – life, death, suffering, joy, the search for meaning, the exploration of the Spirit, the dysfunctional family dynamics. It’s the one more difficult diagnosis, desperately seeking words of meaning after another mass shooting. After all, it means preaching deliverance in a time where exile is real, where refugees flee and end up imprisoned in tents on the border, or islands off the coast, or where our own country had no way to track the children seeking refugee status who were separated from their parents, or where the first peoples of this land have yet to be treated with the dignity they are owed.

When I decided to leave the west coast where I grew up and New York City where I had my first job, to attend seminary in Chicago, an area of the country I had thought about maybe twice in my life, I thought about metaphorical exile a lot, which is what happens when one grows up with the privilege of feeling rooted and grounded in a place, and chooses to leave.

This passage is not about me or people like me. This exile is not self-imposed or about existential angst, but the result of physical displacement. In a world of involuntary exile due to economic inequality, war, and climate change, the proclamation of deliverance from exile in Babylon feels so deeply necessary.

Some of us know a lot about what exile feels like in our bodies and some of us have no idea. As 21st century North American hearers, we probably can’t assume we are the ones exiled… perhaps some of us are the Babylonians who have imprisoned entire peoples for our own gain.

Suppose the new thing is hearing the good news as the ones who are the cause of so much suffering in the world.

In the day-to-day work of pastoral ministry, or chaplaincy, or the ministry of educating, music ministry, or social services, we offer words of consolation and assurance. We show up to be present in times of joy and despair. But the ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament means we speak other words, as well. The good news words. The difficult words. The words that name the truth of what is happening around us, to us, and the words that name what God has promised.

Ministers of Word and Sacrament have to struggle with the not so nice words and the pressure to be civil and diplomatic in exchange for job security, stability, and a place to live out our call that is bearable. But we are not exempt from speaking other kinds of words, the good news words, the difficult words. We can’t just skip right to the desert blooming, and animals joining the same religion as the people.

That is the call. To lift up what is really happening while reminding all of us of the possibilities, the new things God will do. Truths are not always fun – that’s where poverty, discrimination, increased productivity for decreased wages, environmental degradation, and abuse live. Truths are multiple, though. It is also true that we are beloved. That God has pulled the people out of exile and slavery. That God has called people of exile and people of Babylon to be faithful sharers of the Gospel.

And, based on evidence across the ages, from every time and place, remind people of what is coming next.

This new thing God is doing – this isn’t about one ordination. This is about what we as Christians are called to proclaim in a world that allows for mass casualties through war and economic inequality and does little to prevent mass extinction of other creatures due to climate change and habitat loss. The total transformation of the desert from an arid place to one through which rivers run – that is what the prophet tells us God is capable of doing.

What we know as Christians from the truth of the resurrection is that death does not have the final say. God will make a way in the wilderness. It is difficult to remember that… but that is what you do, day in and day out. Not nice news. Good news.

May it be so.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Generations and Cornerstones

Wednesday, May 10
Presbyterian Center Chapel

I hate it when people preach about buildings, and often using this passage. Buildings are so 1950s. It’s 20-freaking-17 and we’re going to talk about this cornerstone concept. And buildings. I hate myself. But it turns out infrastructure is a real thing still, so here goes.

Not being in construction or engineering or architecture, I had to look this up. Using a stone to anchor a corner is a big deal. The cornerstone has to have an exact 90-degree angle. You might need to flip it around or try another stone to find that right angle.

Buildings made of stone are beautiful and sturdy. A solid foundation. After all, the author says, this is the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

This time in the early church is about building identity. A solid foundational identity as a people of faith means one’s Christian identity can handle the onslaught of challenges. Typical human measures for a stone in a building find that stone wanting, but by God’s measure, that stone is so perfect it becomes the cornerstone. You can’t build a building without a cornerstone.

Jesus is the living stone, and so are the people hearing this letter, to be “built into a spiritual house.”

When I first saw the Gothic cathedrals in New York, I found them amazing. Rockefeller Chapel, at the University of Chicago, is incredible. But of course these sorts of buildings are not usually found in my native west coast, unless they have been recently reinforced and brought up to code. In earthquake country, unreinforced stone buildings are a terrible idea. They are too rigid to hold up safely when the ground moves. They are brittle.

What happens when the church uses the world’s standards to measure itself? Living stones become overly rigid, unable to shift with the changing landscape of ministry.

If I were to stretch generational theory to the limit and maybe beyond… I read an article focused on Generation X, born roughly between 1960 and 1980, of which I am a member. We are fewer in number than surrounding generations, and, in the church and the workplace, generally caught between the mutual obsession Boomers and Millennials have with each other.

To paint broad stereotypical strokes, the particulars of which can apply to anyone, since there are exceptions to every rule, at this point in the workplace, while Boomers are obsessing over their legacies (which often means buildings or endowments) and Millennials are being flexible and adaptive (and feeling superior about it, looking down on the very institutions that make their lives possible), Xers are exhausting ourselves by doing the work, making sure everything runs, so all of us get our paychecks. The Xers are Jan Brady. The plain one who doesn’t have the time or energy to think big thoughts, and is constantly trying to translate between Boomers and Millennials so the workplace can function day-to-day.

Gen Xers and those who operate like us are so wrapped up in the valley between two very visible shiny crests that we have lost the critical edge that seeks transformation. We are the son who stayed behind to work the farm, because who else was gonna do it, and grew bitter and cynical because we have worked through more recessions than preceding generations, have very little to show for it, didn’t get participation medals, and feel passed over and unrecognized between two genuinely gifted generations.

Living stones are flexible, chosen by God even when society rejected them. But when we mistake the world’s measurements for what makes the best stone, we can become brittle. We can mistake actual stones, physical buildings, endowments, for living stones. We can worry about this building instead of the living stones this building serves. We get trapped by the fetish for legacy, wrapped up in the preoccupation for adapting, and our own self-pity because without us the place would fall apart, and forget people are thirsty, hungry, imprisoned, enslaved, worried about their healthcare leaving them broke. Instead of allowing ourselves to be built, as living stones, to be flexible and grateful and faithful, we end up trapped by our own rigidity.

The author of 1 Peter says:
Once you were not a people,
 
but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,
 
but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10).

Who the hell cares about an actual building when people are terrified and hungry? We have received mercy. We are God’s people. Maybe we don’t have to be the ones to save American institutions. Maybe we have already been freed. We have a church to serve. Amen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Persistent Women

The following is the text of a sermon preached at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on February 17, 2017. The Scripture reading is Luke 18:1-8.


Persistent Women

I’m tired, y’all. I know you might be tired too.

We all have a grind, whatever it is, learning, or teaching, or writing, or attending committee meetings, or making sure our parents are okay, or raising kids, or working to pay the bills, or discerning our call, or being active in our communities. Oh, and if we’re partnered, keeping that whole relationship healthy and whole, too. Most of us do five or six of these things at a time. And having a government in upheaval, whether or not we agree with the policies, is stressful on top of all that.

Some of us pray more frequently nowadays.

This parable from Jesus is about prayer. About the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Most people I know who come from religious families speak of the women who raised them who are fervent, faithful pray-ers. If you stick around the church, you will notice it’s often women who show up to make things happen, who pray unceasingly.

Now, that could be because women live longer, and our churches are full with a particular generation. Or it could be that women speak more honestly with each other about our spiritual lives, because of how patriarchy has shaped men. Regardless, women are often the most present models for a faithful life.

I love that Jesus’ story didn’t feature as its exemplar a man, which would have been his prerogative, and easy enough in a patriarchal society, but this is the gospel of Luke, after all.

Instead he used the image of a widow. Not just a woman, but someone without a husband, without rights, without standing in society. Widows were the poorest of the poor, along with orphans, and immigrants. Women who married left their families and joined their husband’s families, so without a husband, many were without a family at all. Most did not have rights to inherit land or wealth.

This widow petitioned a judge known for not fearing God, not respecting people. Instead of looking at this judge, and giving up on her own cause because of the judge’s record, she went and asked anyway. She pestered him until he granted her justice against her opponent.

Jesus’ widow was no delicate flower. The literal translation of the word translated to “wear me out” is actually “to hit under the eye,” like in boxing (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2, Gregory Allen Robbins, p. 131). This judge is worried that a woman will give him a black eye. Most of our contemporary examples of persistence are held up as morally superior, never raising a voice or a hand. But this widow Jesus describes is using all of her tools. Respect.

This is a frustrating passage, though. It contrasts this unjust judge, an extreme example, with God, who is just, willing to bring about quick justice. It is frustrating because that’s not what we see. We don’t see a world that caves quickly to demands for justice. God doesn’t respond to every prayer the way we would like. We see record numbers of refugees, wars and upheaval that will not end, persistent food insecurity, stubborn poverty, the new normal of opioid addiction and overdoses. What is our evidence that God is a just god?

Some of us are results-oriented. Those of us shaped by western ideals like to look down the line at our goal, or want to see how outcomes match the original intent of a given process. If those of us in non-profit leadership had a dollar for every time a board member or a community member asked us how our methods brought about intended results, we could probably fund our own organizations pretty easily. And for those of us whose organizations are self-sustaining, we do have to care, a lot, about results. Our actions and methods and processes must be effective.

Some of us treat our faith this way. Prosperity heretics spin lies to enrich themselves and fool those of us they ensnare with false hope: that a faith, a life, lived a certain way, will result in material gain. That physical comfort and luxury is the result of the right sort of faith. If only you believed in your own positive thoughts and prayers, you wouldn’t be struggling.

Hold on to your hearts. Faith is not about results. Faith is about who we are and who we are called to be. Faith is a process, not a goal. The widow who kept coming back to demand justice against her opponent from a judge known to have no respect for God or people… Jesus portrays her as someone who hopes against hope.

This is not a call to persist, because it will pay off in the end.

No, it is a call to persist. Regardless.

We will be denied. Millions of people every day are denied, no matter how they plead. Justice is not done, usually, or at least it seems, in our time.

It would be a mistake to read this passage as Jesus saying God is the unjust judge. That would be horrible, seeing God as a grumpy ill-willed man in power who could put off someone in a vulnerable situation until she pesters him to the breaking point. In fact, the judge is the contrasting figure to God’s justice. After all, if this judge guy who only gave in because he was annoyed, could grant justice, how much more quickly will God, who is just?

But if you’re anything like me, God’s time can be frustrating. Immigrants are being detained and deported, refugees turned back after jumping through 83 hoops to get here. People who make decisions that negatively impact millions of people around the world, people who profit from misery, live long and healthy lives, while people who wouldn’t hurt another living being die too young.

It takes faith to keep on keeping on.

Miguel de la Torre says “we are called to seek justice, not because it is easy or because in the end we will win; we are called to seek justice, regardless of the consequences, for the sake of justice” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2, p. 132).

The way Jesus describes this widow… This widow didn’t sit back and pray, expecting God to fix this judge problem she had. She showed up. She persisted. She boxed.

People we know who create change pray. But they also don’t wait passively for God to change things. They know God gave them agency, determination, and compassion sufficient to make change.

We all know persistent women. I used to think persistent women were awesome because women are awesome. But I am seeing how God works through these women. You and I know these women. We know women who became engineers and physicians and business owners and senior pastors and professors and mothers because they were stubborn and persistent. We know women who crossed borders, gave their children a better life, managed to leave abusive situations because they were determined and persistent. We know women who were raised in awful situations, but were better parents than the parents they knew, persisting in loving their own children. We know women who are the “firsts,” the first to graduate college, the first dean or the first engineer or the first senior pastor or the first president. We know women who work to make others the first. We know women who pray, and then go to the streets, or the legislature, or schools. They live their prayers out loud.

In the face of these women, who risk their social standing, disapproval, violence, their community, who are we to give up before we start, just because the judge to whom we plead is known to neither fear God nor respect people?

Are we in this struggle because we are sure we can win? Sometimes. But sometimes we’re just in it because that’s how we can sleep at night. That’s how we make things right between us and God.

I have always maintained that you can tell how just a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable, whether that be immigrants, or children, or women in a patriarchal system. Our call is to pray, and our call is to work towards justice for those most vulnerable. For women, all women, not just those of us who are married, not just those who are mothers, not just those of us whose womanhood matches the gender on our birth certificates, but all women. Because a society with women who have access to education and human rights is also one in which children flourish, and families have higher incomes. Because Jesus recognized the full humanity of the most vulnerable. Because God made each one of us, and it’s past time for all of us to act like incarnation truly matters.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Honoring our Grandmothers

Have you ever been in a space where people speak movingly about the faith of their grandmothers? I always think, “oh, that’s interesting you have Christian grandmothers who talk about their faith.”

My two paternal grandmothers were secular Jews. I saw convictions, not religious practice. My maternal grandmother was Presbyterian, but she certainly didn’t talk about it with me. I saw her actions more than anything else.

Yuriko Nishita, my maternal grandmother and my last living grandparent, lived among us from January 31, 1926 to November 29th, 2016.

I do not have all the facts about my grandmother, and I may have gotten some of the details wrong. What I do possess is my experience of her.

She loved me and made sure I knew it, and she was salty. Whoever came up with the stereotype that Asian American women are meek and quiet probably never met anyone in my family. Over half of the women have (or had) sharp tongues.

In 2010, I told her I had gotten a new job in Atlanta after years in New York and Chicago. I was so excited, because that job was a great opportunity. She said, “Aren’t there any jobs in California?” When I got a job in Kentucky, I told her at least it was further west than Georgia.

I tried to hold her elbow once as she walked to lunch with me and my partner. She snapped, with a smile, “I’m not that frail.” I let go.

Here’s one of my favorite photos of her.


She was a California girl, born and raised. She was Nisei, the second generation of Japanese Americans in the U.S. Her biological father died when she was very young, and her mother’s new husband didn’t want to have to raise so many children, so my grandmother was given to an older, very loving, childless couple to raise. Her adoptive mother died when she was still quite young. The only years she lived outside of California were her teenage years spent in the World War II concentration camp for people of Japanese descent in Topaz, Utah.

As a young woman, she went to Oakland and worked for her room and board, wanting to be in the city instead of on the farm. She didn’t attend a four-year college, but all five of her daughters did (Cal Berkeley, by the way, being the only acceptable school, so I believe I was among the first to disappoint the family in that regard). She traveled the world with my grandfather, who worked internationally as a landscape architect.

Here’s a really cool photo of the two of them somewhere in Europe. Look at those two, all up in the nature in the middle of some architecturally spectacular town square.



She spoke in the plural “we” for as long as I could remember, on behalf of herself and my grandfather. I used to think it was about patriarchy, but now I think it was more than that. It was about her identity. We. Collective.

She experienced a lot of death and displacement in her early life. And in turn, her life taught me gaman (George Takei’s musical “Allegiance” has a song named “Gaman”). I know, I’m dramatic, but I have my own capacity to suck it up and endure. She survived breast cancer, and the second time cancer showed up, she lived far beyond what I had anticipated. She once said, “I might surprise you.” She usually did.

When she met my partner for the first time (who is Puerto Rican), I was slightly nervous. My grandmother smiled, shook hands, and spoke words of greeting in perfect Spanish, surprising every one of us. (I mean, what the hell? Who knew she spoke Spanish?)

My grandmother, for all my small disagreements with her, was a loving, deeply pragmatic, Japanese American woman, who believed in art, nature, beauty, hospitality, tea, gay rights, civil rights, and keeping up with the news. She didn’t coddle your feelings, even as she was kind and generous.

I’m not the kind of Christian who learned about prayer, hymns, service in the church, or Sunday School from my grandmothers. I learned being a Christian (or a Jew or a Buddhist) doesn’t solve your problems for you, when your problems are caused by structural oppression and discrimination. I learned that people should have convictions. I learned from all my grandparents to feed people, and to sometimes feed them a lot. I learned that anxiety about God is overrated. I learned that art and beauty matter. I learned education is the priority. I learned we are more than individuals.

I learned to use my sharp tongue in love. So here it is: I’m terribly disappointed my grandmother lived to see the election to the office of President of the United States someone who threatened to bring back internment camps for Muslims, many of whose supporters believe the Japanese American internment camps were a good idea.

In honor of my grandparents (and perhaps in honor of the work yours did or the indignities they suffered, too), let's not repeat history. No person of any age, race, ethnicity, or religion deserves to be put in a camp to satisfy American bigotry thinly veiled under the guise of security (something that is unsupported by intelligence). This happened after Pearl Harbor, after the attacks of 9/11, and we live on the verge of it happening again.

My family might be college educated and relatively assimilated, but I still see the material and psychological impact internment had on us, even two generations removed.

I owe her. We owe them. So buck up, kids. We have four years to fight like hell in honor of our grandmothers because we were loved and we love (and even if we don’t really love each other, we are bound to each other anyway). We need each other. We are more than individuals. We. Collective.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Resources on Sexual Orientation, Biblical Interpretation, Same Sex Marriage (and Marriage, generally speaking), and Being a Christian

Here's your one stop shop for resources we offer from the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, via TheThoughtfulChristian.com. The majority are geared toward a more general Christian audience than just Presbyterians. Happy reading!

Books

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart, by Mark Achtemeier

UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality, by Colby Martin

Mom, I’m Gay: Loving Your LGBTQ Child and Strengthening Your Faith, by Susan Cottrell

Permission Granted: Take the Bible into Your Own Hands, Chapter 4, by Jennifer Grace Bird

Inclusive Marriage Services: A Wedding Sourcebook, edited by Kimberly Bracken Long & David Maxwell

From This Day Forward: Rethinking the Christian Wedding, by Kimberly Bracken Long

What the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?, Chapter 9, by Martin Thielen

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, Chapter 11, by David P. Gushee

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, by Jack Rogers


Downloadable Studies

Human Sexuality: Knowing the Terms and Definitions in the Context of God’s Love

God’s Gift of Human Sexuality

A Reformed-Presbyterian Understanding of Human Sexuality

The Bible and Homosexuality, by Susan R. Garrett & Martha Bettis-Gee

Same-Sex Marriage: For Better or for Worse? (Youth Study), by Adam J. Copeland

Same-Sex Marriage: For Better, for Worse?, by Nancy J. Duff