Curious Theology

God-talk in the form of a question.

Pretty Things with Glittery Palms (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 4/13/14)

(Mark 11:1-11 & 15-19)

I used to hate getting my palms messy.

I hated chalk dust, I hated pizza grease, I hated dried glue.

I hated Little League baseball, where I was doomed to play Right Field, that dark netherworld where nothing ever happens in Little League except for this queer little kid, one day, picking up something that looked like a discarded shirt, but actually turned out to be a bloody, dead kitten. 

I loved pretty things. I hated messiness.
I also hated parades. I hated heat and sweat and tired feet and no-access-to-a-bathroom-to-wash-your-hands-for-sometimes-hours.
And I especially hated glitter.

But before you think I was just a pint-sized killjoy, let me tell you about two pretty things I loved: Jesus and David Bowie. And though this may be the only sermon in existence that places these superstars side-by-side, I know why they both appealed to my young, queer little heart: They are both chameleons. Bowie shifts from image to image, style to style, character to character, defying gender and sex and definition, while still remaining, at his core, a human being whom we think we know. Bowie does this image-bending to himself. With Jesus, we do the image-bending for him. 

So how many different Jesuses are there? Billions. Whether you believe he was God incarnate or whether you believe he was just cool or whether you believe the world would be better off without him, inside each of us who have ever heard his name, there’s an image, maybe several ever-evolving images, of who Jesus is, could be, should or shouldn’t be. We create the Jesuses we want to follow and the ones we want to question.

Well, today, I want to make a bid for balancing out that pristine Easter Jesus we’ve created, the one who died to save us as long as we’ll accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, with another kind of Jesus. I believe the best Biblical image of Jesus is right there in today’s Ancient Testimony. This is Passion Jesus, the Jesus of Palm Sunday and Monday, the rabble-rouser who playfully enters Jerusalem in full lampooning style, staging two incredibly well-orchestrated, outlandish bursts of radical queer protest street theater.

Now, next week, we can celebrate Easter Jesus to our heart’s content. Easter Jesus can be of infinite use, and I’m sure we’ll explore that, as we should. I, myself, prefer Passion Jesus to Easter Jesus, but it’s much like intense Bowie fans preferring Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke or, God help us, the Goblin King from Labyrinth. If we care enough, we’ve all got our shifting favorites and neither Bowie nor Jesus is safe from our hip, critical eyes.

But the image of Easter Jesus, at its worst, does true harm, both to our inner selves and to those for whom the Bible has only been known as a rule-spouting, hate-sputtering, identity-punishing weapon. And, even though I used to prefer comforting cleanliness, I have been converted to dirty, do-it-yourself-ness. I even like parades and marches and messy palms. So, today, I offer three interconnecting thesis statements (I still like a little bit of order), three thesis statements contrasting the dangers of pristine, saving, untouchable Easter Jesus at its worst with messy, troublemaking, glittery, on-the-ground Passion Jesus at his best.

Thesis 1: Easter Jesus, at its worst, furthers the status quo. Passion Jesus is queer as all get-out.

In the Gospel of David Bowie, Chapter “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie exclaims: “Oh! You pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane? Let me make it plain: You gotta make way for the Homo Superior.”

On Palm Sunday, Passion Jesus and his followers burst into Jerusalem, having already driven their own Mamas and Papas insane, and they made way for the Homo Superior by carrying out a well-planned, scripture-based act of non-permitted, non-violent protest. This orgasmic colt-riding, palm-waving entrance finds its scriptural basis in old prophetic writings by Zechariah and models itself on such traditional acts of street theater like those of famous kooks Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Passion Jesus knew what he was doing and what he was doing was using tradition to make trouble.

Remember: There were two processions riding into Jerusalem on that Sunday. The major, permitted one was that of Pontius Pilate, a representative not only of imperial power, but also of imperial theology, through which Caesar was not only the ruler of Rome, but was thought to be, literally, the Son of God. Pilate was entering Jerusalem as a divinely-appointed hall monitor.

So on the other side of town we’ve got Passion Jesus and his palm-waving circus. Now, sure, Passion Jesus’ donkey show is a seriously-planned protest. But it’s also low comedy, a lampoon, a camp, playfulness at its most foolish. In Mark’s words, Jesus orders his followers to grab him a colt and it’s well worth the chuckle to imagine the queerly ridiculous, theatrical image of a rag-tag crowd bowing in histrionic worship as Jesus, weighing down an annoyed, mangy, Shetland-sized ass, hobbles slowly into the city, a funhouse-mirror reflection of Pilate and his threateningly-majestic stallion.

Passion Jesus is a comedian with no respect for the dominating systems of the world and these dominating systems of political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization of empire, were back then, and are now still, thanks in part to our Easter Jesus, the status quo. Passion Jesus is acting up, he’s reclaiming the streets, he’s building excitement in his followers while simultaneously sticking both glittery middle fingers up to the oppressive status quo through queer performance art.

Passion Jesus is queer because, even before this radical spectacle, he’s been hanging out in the country, spouting the words, “repent” and “believe,” and these words are much queerer than we stuck-in-the-Easter-mud Christians have been taught. At their ancient roots, “repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have,” and “believe” means something more like “to trust and commit yourself.”[1] So when Jesus tells folks to “repent and believe in the good news,” he’s asking them and us to look beyond those status quo systems, those boxes of normalcy, those stultifying binaries we’ve created, to trust that there is a better way and to commit ourselves to working together to find it.

Sadly, our Easter Jesus, at its worst, has co-opted these words and made them scary, paralyzing edicts. We throw “repent” and “believe” around like they’re The Law, and neither sounds very fun.

But Passion Jesus playfully embodies these words and takes them back to their original meanings, showing us that there’s a whole lot of fun to be had while you’re figuring out how to find a more inclusive way, how to ask more invigorating questions, and how to eviscerate the straight-laced systems that have bound us up for too long.

Thesis 2: Easter Jesus, at its worst, is “meant” to die. Passion Jesus earns his death.

We give this version of Easter Jesus a whole lot of airtime. This is the Jesus who was sent down to the Earth as if he were some personified version of Noah’s Flood, divinely charged to die for our sins, wait it out for three days, resurrect, and then come back and punish all of us who won’t quote-unquote “repent” and “believe,” and it’s all part of some plan that leaves us feeling powerless and just a little bit evil.

But Passion Jesus doesn’t need this plan, because his Palm Sunday spectacular, followed by Monday’s temple-demolishing stunt, clearly shows an activist with nothing left to lose, an activist who is willing to take his message as far as he needs to, who is not afraid to die, because he is earning his death through on-the-ground, messy, confrontational, direct action.

If we only trust in saving, punishing Easter Jesus, we create the totems and blood sacrifices lambasted by James Baldwin [2]. Crosses keep ourselves from accepting the fact that death is coming for all of us. Fighting to make our lives more beautiful, more glittery, more messily inquisitive, is the livelier way to live. It’s the only way to know that, when death comes, we’ve earned our rest.

There are those with no choice but to face the fact of death. And then there are those who have to make the choice, who have to step outside the comforts that our privileges have given us, in order to fully live. I, a tall, white, sometimes-anonymously-gay man with so much money I can afford to have a whole crap-ton of student loan and credit card debt, I need Passion Jesus to continuously kick me in the butt with his glittery stiletto heels. Queer-as-all-get-out Passion Jesus looks a whole lot like those queer folks who still get hunted down on the street. He flips over tables and screams at the top of his lungs because he has to. He has nothing left to do but try to make life safer, more open, more gorgeous, and more glitter-infused for those who party in the shadows because they’ll be killed in the light.

Passion Jesus earns his death by living more authentically than I ever have. Passion Jesus gets his hands messy with confrontation. He doesn’t save us through some divinely-planned sacrifice. Instead, he shows us that we must live as authentically, as passionately, as glittery as he did if we are to have any hope of ever saving ourselves.

Thesis 3: Easter Jesus, at its worst, merely asks us to be spectators. Passion Jesus compels us to be “spect-actors.”

This term, “spect-actors,” comes from Augusto Boal’s theories of Theatre of the Oppressed. In Theatre of the Oppressed, the barrier between performers and spectators is demolished, creating a populist platform for the voiceless to make some noise. In the world of Theatre of the Oppressed, nobody sits and watches. Instead, everyone is asked to look at the scenes presented and to join the narrative, transitioning from a role as spectator to a role as “spect-actor,” changing the plot, devising communal solutions to pervasive problems, and putting themselves in one another’s shoes in an effort to transform reality for all.

The image of Easter Jesus, at its worst, keeps us sitting, slack-jawed, amazed at all he has done, dumbfounded by his sacrificial act of dying for our sins. It invites us to watch and wait, certain that, if we only believe in all the things decided for us about Christology, atonement, and blood sacrifice, we’ll be alright.

But Passion Jesus implores us to follow his lead, to embody our most authentic selves and embrace the differences and connections between us all. Passion Jesus gives us no choice but to jump up as “spect-actors,” joining in the parade, in the acts of civil and uncivil disobedience that remain necessary in a world still so frightened of thinking outside the box.

Spectators don’t repent or believe. They sit and receive and don’t get their hands messy.
Spect-actors repent and believe so fully that they can’t stay clean.

Now, if you think that the dividing line I’m drawing between Easter Jesus and Passion Jesus leaves no room for the idea of resurrection, have no fear. I think Passion Jesus was and is resurrected, just differently, because his glittery spirit jiggles inside us and around us every day. We are the resurrected Passion Jesus as long as we passionately choose to be. Passion Jesus acts up through our big actions, our little actions, our actions completed with humor and seriousness, as long as they are authentic actions.

Passion Jesus is resurrected over there in Moon from Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, in Amanda from Dead Darlings, in Ken from Queer Nation, in Jacqui and Lee from our Reproductive Rights Initiative, in Michael Conley from the West Village Chorale, in Jane, Grace, Keen, Donna, and our entire New Sanctuary Coalition, in Sadat Iqbal over there, who works at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, the group that provides supplies to Kim Kelly and her heroic harm-reduction kit-making team, in Ruby from Teddy Cares, in Doris from Community Board 2.

And Passion Jesus is there in you, you, you, and all of you, pouring your hearts and souls and sweat into queering the norm, shaking up the status quo, because the world needs your passion and you have nothing left to lose. You feel that thing inside you threatening to explode through your chest, showering glitter bombs of justice all over the street. You might not have a donkey, but, as long as you balance your high-horse with a bit of playfulness, your passion points you toward a new way, questioning your own presumptions and forcing others to question theirs.

So, today, I invite you to do exactly what each of us up here has been symbolically doing throughout the service. There’s a pool of glitter for the taking. You’ve got the whole rest of the day. Get your palms messy. Dip yourself into everything you sometimes ignore. Reclaim the streets and make your own parade. Flip over the tables of all the comfortably clean systems and shout praise for those who need us most. Queer every boundary. Be the glitter you wish to see in the world. Don’t wait. Don’t spectate. Activate. That is exactly what Passion Jesus would do.

__________

Ancient Testimony
Mark 11: 1-11; 15-19

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves;16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

__________

Modern Testimony
James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time
"Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life."

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Works Cited:

[1] Marcus J. Borg & Dominic Crossan, The Last Week.

[2] see the Modern Testimony, from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

Granny Gospels (a sermon presented at Greenpoint Reformed Church, 12/1/14)

(Matthew 24:36-44)

The apocalyptic nature of today’s gospel lesson would probably make both of my amazing grandmothers wince. Though my father’s mother Mildred and my mother’s mother Ruby were both women of Christian faith, they both also tended to steer clear of the murkier details of the Bible, instead opting to simply live good lives, making good food to serve to people who were also simply trying their best to do good.  The gospel of Mildred and Ruby was basically, “You just try your best and I’ll tell you if you’re doing it wrong.”

But, even though my grandmothers would never call themselves prophets, in exploring today’s scripture, I am reminded of two memories, one from each of them, that not only illustrate Jesus’ powerful words in the gospel of Matthew but also shine light on the unique sense of madness and merriment that always accompanies this season we call Advent.

So Memory #1: Mildred Bucey, my paternal grandmother, was famous for several phrases, but my favorite was her annual response to any child’s antsy query about what gifts to expect on Christmas morning. My grandmother would stiffen into her charmingly self-righteous stance and answer, “It’s too close to Christmas to be asking questions.” And, if you knew what was good for you, that was the end of it. Even if we kids had forgotten during the year since the last time we’d heard this, we were quickly reminded by her clipped delivery and her cocked eyebrow. We knew it. It was most definitely too close to Christmas to be asking Grandma Mildred any questions. We’d hush and wait, alert and warned, for the time that Grandma Mildred deemed appropriate. Lesson learned.

And Memory #2: Ruby Marsh, my maternal grandmother, was famous for her own riff on the same idea. Legend in the Marsh family had it that my Uncle John, when just a tyke, had wanted nothing more one Christmas than his very own globe. He’d prayed for it all year, and, when a package appeared beneath the Marsh family Christmas tree several weeks before the 25th, John sat for hours, poking every nook and cranny of the wrapped treasure, shaking it for signs of global possibility. When this poking and shaking failed to offer any conclusive satisfaction, my uncle began to accost my Grandma Ruby with an incessant and insistent chorus of, “I know it’s a globe.” “I know it’s a globe,” he would blurt in an attempt to conjure reality out of purely persistent fantasy. “I know it’s a globe. I know it’s a globe. I know it’s a globe.” This terrorism went on for several days, until it erupted in my Grandma Ruby yanking the package from under the tree, shoving it into John’s lap, and forcing him to open it a full week before the appropriate time. And guess what: It was a globe. But the joy of getting what he wanted soon wore off, as John realized that he had nothing left to open on Christmas morning. Lesson learned.

Grandma Mildred and Grandma Ruby: Modern-day folk prophets.

And though I don’t want to take away from the brilliant originality demonstrated through these simple, off-the-cuff teachings, I think my grandmothers’ lessons are situated firmly in the tradition of today’s Gospel of Matthew lesson. Jesus’ words here are part of what is known as the “Olivet Discourse,” which is found in all of the synoptic gospels, and in which Jesus offers an illustration of the trials that will be faced by the faithful in preparation for the coming of the Son of Man.

Now, there’s much debate over what Jesus is predicting here and whether it’s really a prediction at all, but what I think is most important is the fact that he basically doesn’t give us any information that will be immediately helpful. Jesus is a total tease. Elsewhere, we get some pretty crystal-clear Jesus rules, but, here, if we’re looking for explicit answers as to when and where and how all of these things he predicts will happen, we’re out of luck. If Grandma Mildred had been there on the Mount of Olives, I’m pretty sure we all know what she’d say.

But, much like Mildred, Jesus is saying here, “Don’t look for immediate answers about what’s coming. Answers will put you to sleep. Instead, keep yourselves awake through your constant and vigilant attention.” If we know when everything’s going to go down, we’ll end up lazily lounging around until the latest possible moment, waiting for a last-minute move for good behavior just before it’s necessary. It’s the anticipation that keeps us hanging on. It’s the hope and the not-knowing that propels us into a life of active care-taking of ourselves and those around us.

Clearly, Ruby’s lesson lines up here as well. If Jesus makes us open the package now, long before the appropriate time, we’ll not only have nothing joyous to discover on that day, but we’ll also become lax in our behavior, disappointed and dissatisfied by our consolation prize and no longer thinking we have anything to look forward to. Lesson learned.

This teaching from the Mount of Olives also corresponds to the Advent season that begins, once again, today. Advent, in its slowly unfolding weeks of expectancy and promise, is one of the greatest gifts-before-the-gift that we could ever receive. Over the course of four Sundays, our hope grows so large that, by the time we reach Christmas Eve, it’s bursting with gorgeously-unfulfilled possibility. Without this, the fulfillment the next morning is meaningless. Without it, we atrophy in our own been-there-done-that attitude. Without it, there’s no wonder.

Another modern-day folk prophet, Mr. Fred Rogers, compares the Holiday season with “the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasure is in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending.”

The saga of Advent serves as a sort of communal story-hour, one where we are allowed to again be like children, listening to a tale we’ve heard so many times before, but which still offers twists and turns that have the power to continually surprise. It’s an annual gift whose familiarity simultaneously offers comfort and awe. The comfort keeps us feeling safely cared-for and the awe keeps us engaged, awake, and ready for action.

So why should we stay engaged, awake, and ready? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But the more we practice with one another, the more we tell the story and delight in the not-knowing, the more we become a community. Admitting that we don’t know the answers not only bumps up the excitement, but also actively puts us into a state of vulnerability that opens our hearts to the vulnerability of others. If we go through life sleepily insisting that we have all the answers, we’ll not only miss the big reveal, but we might also get something we didn’t want instead. If we think we know it’s a globe and we insist on this answer, our own answer, to the point of exhaustion, we’ll end up alone and miserable, wallowing in our own self-satisfied loneliness.

If we can simply accept that we, none of us, know the answers, that only the Creative Hand of the Universe knows these answers, it frees us to live as fully-engaged Christians. It frees us to do the selfless work and leave behind the selfish worry. Thanks to Jesus, we know both that something’s coming and that we have no idea when to expect it. We know somethings coming. That’s why we tell the story. That’s why we gather and light the candles. That’s why we celebrate the anticipation of the familiar and the wonder of the unfamiliar.

My mother used to whip out the globe story whenever she heard me worrying about what was coming next. It became a myth whose retelling reminded me that the present moment is the present. The gift of today requires that I give my own gifts freely and attentively, not sleepily and sloppily. I can assure you that I was an ornery child and my ornery nature required the retelling of this story many, many times. We are all ornery children. We require the retelling of these stories many, many times, if only to knock us back off our high horses and back into the trenches where the real work can be done.

Our faith asks us to do something extremely difficult and only in community can we even begin to get it right. We are required to seek the answers, to seek the truth, but we’re also required to never assume that we can do this on our own. We remember and retell and reimagine these stories in order to remind ourselves that, in the familiar cycles of our human year, there are divine bursts of wonder waiting to surprise us, if only we can stay awake to notice them. We won’t know when these bursts will happen and that’s a very good thing. And, should we ever think we’ve got the pattern figured out, should we ever think we know what’s inside the apocalyptic packages God’s got wrapped up for us, let us sit back and tell ourselves it’s never too close to Christmas to be asking questions, but it’s always too close to Christmas to insist on easy answers.

__________

Ancient Testimony
Matthew 24:36-44

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Note-Taking and Poetry-Making (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 8/11/13)

(Mark 14: 3-9)

This past Wednesday, our Meeting Room was filled, once again, with the smells, sights, tastes, and sounds of Bailout Theater. Our team of Bailout Kitchen All-Stars, led by the incomparable Christine Binder, served slightly more than one hundred people who then journeyed up to our Loft Salon to hear a line-up of four eclectic musical acts. Each act featured at least one regular Sunday morning congregant. It was, at the risk of overusing a term I’ve been told I exhaust, awesome.

And, as I stood in the back of the Loft, watching Jeff, Michelle, Kate, Jonny, and their fellow artists conjure up melodies and harmonies that could only come out of each of them, I heard another sound.

At the end of each song, while the audience applauded, a sixty-ish woman sitting right in front of me would let out a gigantic, unapologetic yawn. Like this: [YAWN]. This continued through the first performer’s set, then into the second performer’s set. Like this: [YAWN]. After every song. And here I was, right behind her, the proud-papa curator of the evening, growing increasingly upset. How could she have such disrespect? Didn’t she understand the revolution intended at Bailout Theater? Didn’t she understand that we’re all in this together and that we’re actively trying to transform ourselves and one another? Didn’t she understand that this is about having a MOMENT, not worrying about POLITICS or SADNESS or SIN or EVIL, this is about ART TRANSFORMING US ALL THROUGH THE POWER OF JUST BEING ART, and, no, it’s not naïve, you have to GET ON BOARD OR DIE?! [YAWN].

As we moved into our third performer’s set, I could feel myself shaking, and I found myself losing all confidence in not only why we nurture the arts at Judson, but also why people nurture the arts at all. I began to spiral down a funnel of fear that second-guessed all of my theological goals for Bailout Theater, for Magic Time, and basically for the entire human race. And, as she let out her umpteenth [YAWN], I finally, leader-like, leaned forward and gently, leader-like, put a couple of fingers on her shoulder. She turned to me. I asked, leader-like, “Are you alright?” She looked at me, simultaneously puzzled and elated. “Oh, absolutely,” she answered. “They’re wonderful. I’m just so tired.” Then she added, a bit concerned, “Are you alright?”

Was I alright? Hm. Apparently not. Apparently, I needed a reminder as to why we get together for these events in the first place. So I took a breath and decided to be alright for the rest of the evening and try to figure it out later. She yawned some more and proceeded to have a grand time. And I decided to spend some days thinking back on why I stay here at Judson, why I ask us all to keep these programs going, and how I think the arts fit into this tirelessly socially-engaged community.

Now, luckily, having the greatest job in the world here at Judson means that I get to not only have moments like that, but I also get to turn those moments over and over again in my head as I prepare things like sermons. And, luckily, another thing I have access to are sermons by our past ministers. And, luckily, one of those ministers, Al Carmines, left behind a string of sermons that chart his own circuitous journey through what art can, will, and should mean in the world.

So, as I began to reflect on my experience this past week and connect it to the theological and artistic goals I have pursued over the past four years, I came across a reflection from 1968, in which Al dissects this morning’s Ancient Testimony reading. For Al, this daring wildwoman’s act of extravagance, her gall at taking a moment to pour out the gift she had to give, offers an appropriate metaphor for the artistically-minded individual. Artists, like the woman in our passage, are used to being questioned for their extravagances and condemned by folks like the disciples, for wasting time and money that might be used in more responsibly rational ways. But Jesus tells them to “Let her be.” He does not instruct the disciples to pray for her or correct her for next time. He acknowledges her act as something that Paul Tillich calls, “Holy Waste,” a moment of ecstatic overflow of the heart in reaction to the love of God. This type of waste is unavoidable. According to Al, we must embrace these inexplicable, apparently useless acts of extravagance.

Now, this would all be well and good and enough for a sweet, pro-arts sermon. But I also have access to evidence of a shift in Al’s thinking. Al changed his views on the artistic offerings of the individual and their connections and responsibility to the polis, the people, the community. True, that first sermon seemed to line up with what I’d known of Al thus far, that he had spent the early days discussing the importance of creating art for arts’ sake. But Al’s 1970s sermons reshape his theretofore self-proclaimed, “a-political” stance. While he maintained a continued appreciation of individual artistic offerings as personal things, Al also pinpointed the obligation each individual artist has to engage the problems, needs, questions, and sins, indeed the politics, of the entire community. We can do this while still engaging our more socially-responsible, disciple-like sides that question the practicality of these acts of extravagance. Using art this way makes the artistic act not merely a self-involved expression of inward-focused acrobatics, but one of active grappling with the issues confronting the whole population.H. M. Koutoukas

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Ancient Testimony

Mark 14:3-9

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

 

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Modern Testimony

from The Scourge of Human Folly by Charles Ludlam (founder of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company)

As far as politics is concerned, I think this is something that has to be induced. It’s a question of establishing a political system, but it is also a question of using a political system — to make a life…

Clearing the way is part of the process, but I think there is the element of enhancing society, making it better, improving it and building new structures. Just tearing down old structures is not enough.

There are rewards for architects, we honor architects. But how many architects are honored for tearing down a building?

Revolution is the opposite of the function of art. With revolution you can’t really have art, because it’s a change, a shifting away from the structure. Artists are trying to make the best of the situation now and improve it from within. They are not assaulting it from the outside, trying to batter it down…If you are able to change it from inside, you can make it what you want it to be.


Al Carmines, Beyond the Rational, sermon preached at Judson Memorial Church on June 16, 1968.

Paul Tillich, The New Being: Chapter 6: Holy Waste, 1955.

Howard Moody, A Voice in the Village, 174.

Hooray For Church! (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 8/4/13)

(Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16)

Now, I know it’s not Pride Sunday, but I’d like to start off today by sharing my second coming-out story. It’s true, I had to come out twice. And, oddly enough, my second coming-out was infinitely harder than the first.

See, I’m one of those lucky people who had the luxury of coming out as a 20-year-old gay boy to a family so excited and eager to embrace a 20-year-old gay boy that it almost prompted me to pop right back into the closet. I was so ready for a sob-fest. I am the son of a preacher man, after all. But my family was so supportive, it was overwhelming. I even went so far as to leave the church and declare the theater my new spiritual home. Even then, my family accepted me so readily, it was almost disappointing.

But my second coming-out. Now, that brought all the awkwardness I’d been so sad to miss out on the first time around. My second coming-out felt far riskier. This time, I was 29, and I’d been out and proud as a gay, rational, hip artist for a decade. I had amazingly cool, queer friends who loved me and tolerated my art. I was living the prodigal son of a preacher man’s dream.

And then, much to my chagrin, I started to feel the grip of that same crab characterized in Anne Sexton’s poem. It started out as a slight pinch, a tickle, a quiet inkling that I was ignoring something, that there is something bigger going on around us and that we are all connected in deeper ways than I’d ever allowed myself to imagine. It still feels strange to admit it: I encountered a paranormal experience.

So this tickle, for better or worse, was my “calling.” And I thought, “Oh, crap. I had it all figured out. I even came out to my preacher man father and it went wonderfully and now I have to go and mess it up by having faith?”

Well, I began to come out, tentatively, to my hip, queer, artsy friends. And suddenly,  I was faced with all of the challenges I’d thought would go along with my first coming-out. Now I was fielding statements like, “I guess I just feel kind of betrayed by your choice,” or “Well, you’ve just never seemed that way,” and the amazingly appropriate question, “Are you sure this isn’t just a phase?” See, during my first coming-out, it was easy to answer questions. Why are you gay? Because I am attracted to men. Its not so easy when your answer to the questions is Because I am attracted to an invisible, primordial force that is pulling at the tenuous strings of my fragile soul.

But I was and am a believer. I have faith. And, as hard as I fought to not have this faith, I’ve now come to realize that it’s something that’s always been there, even when I didn’t know it, and it’s completely compatible with my rational, queer, less-and-less-hip-by-the-day life. In fact, Ive realized that my love for the art of this world, particularly the performing arts, has kept this faith alive, even as I ran from and then back to the church.

Because, much like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who provides our meditation quotation on today’s bulletin cover, even when I lose my faith in God, which happens daily, or my faith in Christ, which happens hourly, I never, ever lose my faith in the world and in how gloriously interconnected its mysteries make us. And it’s art, it’s the theater, it’s the stories we imagine for ourselves and others that keep my world-faith alive enough to continuously pull me back to a certain kind of God-and-Christ-faith.

In todays Ancient Testimony reading, we find a motley crew of Bible folk populating this chapters Faith Hall of Fame. They, unlike the narrator of Sextons poem, have completely trusted the nagging faith-grips that prod them from within. The Book of Hebrews was most probably written as an eloquent plea for the faithful to remain faithful, and the books crowning jewel is in this eleventh chapter, where the reader bears witness to this long line of faithful ancestors who, as the reading states, lived in faith and died without ever seeing the promises of that faith come to full fruition, except from afar. These people felt the tickle and allowed it to propel them to change their stories, reinvent their narratives, and follow something they couldnt quite see, even in the end.

Now, I dont know about you, but I attempt to live in the real world, the rational world, even with my little faith-crab eroding my rational body from the inside out, so this bit of imaginative history, at first glance, seems like a whole lot of faithful anticipation without the ecstasy of release. But one amazing thing I hope weve maintained, even as weve evolved into haughtily-rational beings, is our  awesome collective imagination. And its this imagination that helps me to realize that, even as I stand here, a person of faith in a long line of historical and fictional and historical-fictional people of faith, I dont have to see to believe. Weve got our imaginations for that. My personal imagination mixes with your personal imagination and they pour into the gorgeous stew of our collective imagination.

So lets imagine for a moment that I dont have an imagination. Lets imagine that you dont have an imagination. Lets imagine that none of us have what Wallace Stevens calls the only clue to reality. Lets imagine the world is completely devoid of this clue.

What would be the guiding force in our daily lives? What would propel us forward? Sure, we might start to pick up on things simply by being out in the world. We might learn tricks for getting by. We might see behavioral examples around us. But we would have no analogous means of exploring these examples. The connection between the things we see with our eyes and the relation of those things with our own experience would be non-existent. Each imagination-less creature would lack the tools to move forward and, if the world were only full of such imagination-less creatures, well, there goes any ability to create and, eventually there goes everything, including us. Who are we to dream, Anne Sexton asks. Maybe were no one, she suggests.

Well, if youve already started your descent into imagination-less rationality, perhaps no Community Minister of the Arts will be able to convince you otherwise, but what I can do is attempt to create a space for us to present our encounters with the invisible things, the strange things, the scary things, the inexplicable things, those things that have frightened the bejeezus out of each of us, and let those encounters speak for themselves. This is how both church and theater began: Primitives gathered together, telling stories of superstition and transformation. And it was real.

When I first got together with Nate Weida to write the little ditties that youre singing at todays service, we originally wrote them to accompany a quote-unquote secular service called, Hooray for Church!, which we plan to hold once a month, starting in the fall, to accommodate the non-or-at-least-questioning-Christian folks who have been attending our Wednesday night arts events.

Now, Nate pretty staunchly questions the historical and present-day dogmas of Christianity. But Nate also creates gorgeous music and drama in compositions that have played at both of our churchs Wednesday night programs. In each of these pieces, Nate imagines narratives for characters unlike any that Ive ever seen. Characters sing and dance and chat about things both large and small, and, after each of these events, I have left feeling as if my faith has been torn down, rearranged, patched-back-up, and reignited. Characters like me and characters unlike me are living out huge ideas right before my eyes, and suddenly I have an artistic example to follow. Nates imagination, received by my imagination, are making his art do that to my heart. His personal acts of creation compel me to create changes in my own life.

The same thing happened at both shows that just finished runs in our very own Gym at Judson. After these events, I left the theater reinvigorated to become a different kind of person than Id been an hour before Id walked in. Huge ideas played out in front of me in a funhouse mirror where I recognized and didnt recognize situations and behavior. I left with renewed faith in my ability to create new narratives for myself. The imaginations of these artists, reinterpreted through my imagination, made their art do this to my heart. Their own personal acts of creation now propel my own acts of creation.

But before you think Im just the Arts Minister just chattering about art and hearts again, I want to remind you that this service is not simply about artists. This service, in my mind, is about faith and the supernatural and what those things have to say about one another. Because I believe that imagining our own paranormal encounters to be real, true events and using them to transform ourselves has the power to trickle away from us and transform everyone. This is what both theater and church at their best do. They allow us to sit for a time as spectators and even critics, and then send us out into the world to create as creators.

So, to help me steer this exploration home, I want to cite two terms from religion professor Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University. Dr. Kripal has spent much time exploring the human relationship with the supernatural and how our modern-day popular artistic output represents an unceasing human draw (I would call it a faith-crab), a draw toward a grappling with the unknown, the frighteningly familiar unfamiliar. Essentially, Kripal believes that, no matter how far we might think we have run from traditional faith, no matter how fully we think we have evolved from a mindless Christianity to a more rational, secular existence, we still have that crab tearing at our insides and thats because the universe is a gigantic, living organism, one that desires to pull us toward unity with one another through the communal sharing of our own individual, personal experiences, especially the freaking weird-as-hell ones. 

Kripal names the two steps of this process, Realization and Authorization. In the first step, Realization, a human realizes that he or she is being written by the paranormal, that the universe and its mysterious events are literally creating who we are, that, like fictional texts or narratives, our lives include events that are waiting to be read by us in order for us to participate in the act of them transforming us. We are part of the myth that is busting to reveal itself to us through the material world. The second step, Authorization, is where things move beyond spooky to truly empowering. This is the step where we realize that, if the universe and its paranormal mysteries can be writing us, we can take the story back, make that narrative our own, read the symbols in front of us, share those symbols with one another, and activate ourselves and others to become the authors of our own impossible mythology, thereby making us better people living in a better world, regardless of whether we can see clearly the road where our acts of being better will lead.

Though Kripal sticks mainly to science fiction and comic books as examples, and though for our purposes today, we asked you to share your weirdest encounters with the paranormal, I think we can expand these ideas to encompass an even broader array of experiences and narratives.

This happens through imagination and, more specifically, analogous imagination. Even as we exist as rational beings in a rational world, we can look at stories, whether they be Greek myths, historical science fiction from the Bible, or brand-spanking-new plays in our very own Gym, and use analogy to connect those stories to our own existence. We see characters like us and not like us. Better than us, worse than us. More thoughtful, less critical, whatever. From there, we question our choices, examine our options, and proceed to progress. We can choose to give more credence to the story of a long-dead friends message on the answering machine or to the unexplained disappearance of a clairvoyant, 20-year-old cat. But, with both, we are creating.

We can also use Jesus and the astonishing interlocking web of narratives that followed his arrival, death, and disappearance. Or we can use other symbols that we may or may not call God. What matters most is that these symbols propel us to love, to ask questions of and to be patient with others, to awaken within ourselves a wholehearted desire to be the best people or cats or crabs that we can be. If the story isnt doing that or at some point ceases to do that, if the analogy is angering you or paralyzing you or doing anything but opening up your heart with art, youve got to scrap it and find another one. Thankfully, the universe is busting with them.

The hall-of-famers in our Ancient Testimony had faith, they believed, but that faith didnt cause them to rest on their holier-than-thou laurels. Instead, their faith pushed them toward an idea of heaven that might seem silly to us today, but which, if we use our analogical imagination, might be just the thing to keep us moving or at least to keep telling each other weird stories until it jumpstarts our motors again.

The universe is offering us freaky gold. We can choose to ignore it all, but its going to keep coming at us. We might as well take back the narrative thats narrating us. Maybe we can say, Hey, those stories of Jesus make me want to be better. I think Im a Christian or Hey, those stories of [blank] makes me want to be better. I think Im a [blankian]. As long as the symbol is revealing to you that youre part of the story and always in control of the story, I think youre good to go. As long as the story is creating you into a creator, keep using it.

That is how, I am proud to say, I always end up back at my Christ-faith. It works for me. That is how I always end up back at my God-faith. It works for me. And that is how I never, ever stray away from my world-faith. It works for all of us. Hooray for that. Hooray for us. And Hooray for Church.

Let us pray:

Creative Hand of the Universe:

Thank you for the stories. Make us authors of the impossible. Create us into creators. Keep busting open to reveal to us the silly, the scary, and the sacred.

Amen

——————————

Ancient Testimony
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faithour ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.

———

Modern Testimony
The Poet of Ignorance by Anne Sexton

Perhaps the earth is floating,
I do not know.
Perhaps the stars are little paper cutups
made by some giant scissors,
I do not know.
Perhaps the moon is a frozen tear,
I do not know.
Perhaps God is only a deep voice
heard by the deaf,
I do not know.

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.

I had a dream once, 
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?

———

Works Cited:

Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: 137.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: 28; Authors of the Impossible: 269-271.

A Light That Never Goes Out (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 6/30/13)

(Matthew 5: 13-16)

This is not a sermon about El Salvador.

True, Donna and Michael asked me to preach a bit on my two recent trips to that beautiful country, but the truth is, I feel about as comfortable objectively exploring my experience of the history and situation of El Salvador as I do objectively exploring most any verse of the Bible, which is to say not very comfortable at all, but please don’t tell anyone at Union Theological Seminary until I have my diploma safely in hand.

No, this is not a sermon about El Salvador. But this is a sermon written after two immersive and life-interrupting trips to El Salvador and I believe it to be the first of a future lifetime of sermons that will probably always be, in at least some way, informed by my time there.

So let’s look at the quotation on the cover of today’s bulletin. It’s not something I read in a book. It’s a simple statement that was offered to me in a meeting with Patricia García, also known as Paty, who is a member of COMADRES, which is the Committee of the Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, the Disappeared, and the Politically Assassinated of El Salvador.

COMADRES formed in 1977 with the aid of Archbishop Oscar Romero and, through the unshakable strength of the organization’s first members, this group overcame constant threats, rape, and torture before, during, and after the country’s brutal civil war. Their main focus, from the start, has been to support individuals and families as they search for the bodies of their loved ones who have been assassinated and “disappeared.”

Now, this word, “disappeared,” is a different kind of verb in El Salvador. It’s something that is done to a person. A person doesn’t simply disappear. A person is disappeared by another person or, in most cases, a death squad of persons. Many of these disappeared have never been found, alive or dead, and COMADRES insists on its existence until every last one of them is found.

Paty has much to say about pain and about the word, “disappeared.” She even shocked me by casually introducing one of her stories with the words, “The second time I was kidnapped and tortured,” without ever having described the first time, leaving my own imagination to fill in the blanks.

But one of the most significant pains that Paty noted was the fact that COMADRES, after twenty-six years of struggle, has yet to be officially granted status as a Non-governmental Organization. And why is this? It’s because they refuse to extract the word “disappeared” from their name. Apparently, the Salvadoran government will let COMADRES acknowledge that scores of people have been murdered, but it won’t let them acknowledge that there have also been scores of Salvadorans who have simply been disappeared, never to be found again.

The pain that propels Paty is common in El Salvador. When I returned for the first-ever Salvadoran LGBT human rights conference in March, the pain took on an even more complicated dimension. I saw queer communities struggling to pinpoint just how to fight for rights attached to their sexual orientation and gender identification in a country that is still reeling from a civil war that stripped most citizens, regardless of their identity, of the basic right to live.

By the way, most of you know that my favorite letter in our acronym is the “Q,” but I leave it off when talking about El Salvador, because they haven’t yet officially added it to their own version of the acronym. In fact, when my group used the traditional LGBTQ version in our meeting with a Salvadoran United Nations executive, I watched as he whispered to his assistant, who whispered to her assistant, who whispered to her assistant, who whispered to another executive, until they finally looked quizzically at all of us northerners and admitted, “We do not know what you mean when you say, ‘Q’.” So they leave it off. For now. But we cannot.

El Salvador changed my life. So why is this sermon not about El Salvador?

Because, even though I thought I needed to fly south to a quote-unquote developing country in order to combat anti-queer violence, upon returning home, I was quickly reminded that anti-queer violence and hate is happening all around us, all the time, even in our fabled gay ghettos. By now, we all know that the recent upswing in reported anti-queer violence in New York City is skyrocketing into double digits.

Our community is scrambling to hold candlelight vigils, organize rallies, promote marches, and this is all absolutely necessary.

But, as I myself have been scrambling to join these vigils and rallies and marches, I’ve come into contact with some members of our community, particularly those of color, those who are homeless, and those who identify as transgender or genderqueer, and they have reminded me that this violence goes unreported all the time, particularly when it is inflicted on our trans population, our homeless population, and on our populations of color. As I hear these stories, it’s Paty and COMADRES and their struggle to hold on to the word “disappeared” that sticks in my mind.

See, in El Salvador, the queer folk know that their world is not post-queer. And now, as violence rises in New York City, we savvy post-queers are being reminded that we’re not safe, not yet, and we actually never have been. Sure, we white queers, particularly the ones who resemble the white, affluent couples in most every Marriage Equality ad, we have been able to lull ourselves into believing that the only people who really want to inflict harm on us are the surreal members of the Westboro Baptist Church. But we’ve been wrong and our privileged blindness is disappearing our fellow queers, those who we don’t see attractively redecorating apartments on television.

We, as a queer community, even as we celebrate immense progress, are in danger of inactively disappearing our own people. Our Marriage Equality campaigns have embraced the institution and ignored the less easily assimilated members of our queer community. Our visibility is helping kids to come out at younger ages, but some are being kicked out of their homes, coming to New York City to find community and, in a terrible twist, being booted off of the piers by the very residents of the Village who came here decades ago to find their own safely queer space.

Now, I realize that this brand of “disappearing” is different from a systematic and active disappearing, but it is our inactive participation in this disappearing that troubles me the most.

One of my favorite authors, Steven Millhauser, has a short story called, “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” in which a woman literally dematerializes one day, much to the surprise of her inobservant neighbors. As the townspeople struggle to understand how Elaine has disappeared into thin air, they discover that it is the years of collective disinterest from those around her that has been her downfall. As this realization dawns on them, the narrator laments:

 “[Elaine] is not alone. On street corners at dusk, in the corridors of dark movie theaters, behind the windows of cars in parking lots at melancholy shopping centers illuminated by pale orange lamps, you sometimes see them, the Elaine Colemans of the world. They lower their eyes, they turn away, they vanish into shadowy places…they are fading, fixed as they are in the long habit of not being noticed. And perhaps the police, who suspected foul play, were not in the end mistaken, for we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearance.”[1] 

That’s gorgeous prose about an ugly reality. But it’s not my intention to leave us depressed, even gorgeously depressed, this morning. Because I think, even with this devastating increase of reported anti-queer violence, we have hope, we have a light, and it comes from acknowledging the pain that still haunts us and using it, much like Paty, to push us toward a blindingly bright future.

So let’s take another look at the photo on the cover of today’s bulletin. This mural adorns one wall of the COMADRES office and is one example of countless walls throughout the country. You can barely walk ten feet without being faced with the pensive smiles and suggestive silhouettes of those who have been murdered or disappeared in the country’s history. And the remembrance doesn’t stop with the mural. Salvadorans want to talk to you about each mural, each face, each life that has been lost. These murals make up the background of Salvadoran life, but they don’t simply sit, unnoticed. They are maintained, they are displayed, they are discussed.

In El Salvador, the veil between life and death is so permeable as to be non-existent. The dead are always looking out at the living from their fixed places on each wall and the living encounter the dead on most every corner they pass. This is not morbidity. This is life at its most viscerally activating.

Many of you in this room joined the rally that followed the assassination of Mark Carson just blocks from this building. Two things amazed me that day. The first was how many of us took the time, probably because we were so furious and terrified, to come out in the middle of a weekday afternoon to raise our bodies and voices in protest and solidarity. The second was how many of us I saw on my walk uptown, through Chelsea of all places, casually sipping happy hour cocktails, and asking me why I was carrying a sign.

“Mark Carson was murdered,” I would answer.
“Who?” I heard several times.
I was apoplectic by the time I reached 38th Street.

This is not an exchange that should take place when we are under attack. And we are under attack much more often than many care to believe. Amazing things happen when we choose to accept and believe that pain is happening all around us and must be countered with light. Stonewall happened when we chose to believe. ACT-UP, the AIDS RESOURCE CENTER, Bailey House, the GMHC, and our very own safer injection and sex kit parties here at Judson happened when we chose to believe. It’s time to believe again that holding a candlelight vigil for one night and a rally for one afternoon can’t and won’t keep our lights lit.

Every afternoon must be a rally and every night must be a vigil. This isn’t morbidity. This isn’t living in the past. This is staying true to the wounds of our ancestors, staying true to the wounds of those around us who need the most support, and staying true to the gospel of what a queer-celebrating country and world might look like and achieve.

Many of us have gotten pretty good at not disappearing ourselves, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even I kept the fullness of my self from my family for years, fearful that they might not accept me. When I finally, tentatively, came out, they basically said, “Thanks for catching up. We’ve been waiting for you.” They un-disappeared me within seconds.

But many others are disappearing in the noise of our hopes for Marriage Equality. Don’t get me wrong. Marriage Equality is a necessary thing. Equality is a necessary thing. But this fight sometimes leaves behind those queer folk who are just trying desperately to survive without compromising who they are. Our vigilance against HIV/AIDS has softened into a cool acceptance of the disease that breeds a dangerous, lazy relationship with sex. Our coolheaded attempts to promote ourselves as happy, often white, abnormally attractive couples has created a new binary in which genderqueer and transgender folks are left in the dark. And don’t even get me started on the Voting Rights Act debacle that came down like some evil sibling of our more celebratory rulings this week.

So what do we do? Well, I think the answer comes from the queerest one of them all, and you know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Jesus. He says to hold tight to our saltiness, to keep our brightness, to refuse to be thrown out into the world just to be trampled because we’ve forgotten what made us queerly unique in the first place.

Our queer identities were designed, as Oscar Romero says, to provoke, to disarm, to get under people’s skin. Our lights were designed to flame freely and to get us in trouble. That’s why our past and present are so filled with pain. And it is the embracing of and the transformation of this pain that not only gives us the pride that we should have every day of our lives, but also gives us the imperative to continue to take care of those most in need of community, those who are being raped, killed, and harassed every day of their lives, those who can’t yet dream of freely sipping a happy hour cocktail on a Chelsea sidewalk.

If we disappear the pains of our past and the saltiest lights of our present, we will eventually forget who we are and why we exist at all. If we disappear those who still seem the “queerest” of our population, we will eventually disappear ourselves. And then there will be no saltiness to make the world take notice and question its assumptions. There will be no light to burn ahead, showing the liberating queer possibilities that come from questioning the false gospels that have gotten us into this binary-based mess in the first place.

We have some of the most amazing ancestors in the world, we have some of the most miraculous martyrs, and, even if their faces don’t cover every wall of the city, we must keep the memories of them emblazoned on the walls of our minds, we must fill our conversations with talk of those who came before us, went before us, died in front of us, or died all alone. We must hold these portraits, like David Johnson’s paintings of the residents of Bailey House that you see behind me (Bill, Maria, Gino, Gwen, Clarence, and all of our ancestors who are not represented here), close to our hearts.

Because we are the ones who are surviving, we are the ones who now carry the candles and the signs, we are the ones who now embody the salt and the light of queerness. We have the power to un-disappear all of the fabulous people of our community who are lost in the shadows of even our most profound victories. Let us keep both our saltiness and our light held tight enough to keep us remembering and raised high enough to keep us moving, leading all toward an idea of equality we’ve only begun to imagine.

Let us pray:

Creative Hand of the Universe:

Thank you for the trust. Thank you for the salt. Help us to be a light that never goes out.

Amen

_____

For Your Meditation
“In addition to the strength given to you by God, I think it is pain that pushes you forward.”    Patricia García, member of COMADRES 

Ancient Testimony
Matthew 5:13-16
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Modern Testimony
From Archbishop Oscar Romero
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed–what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in.”

_____

Works Cited:

[1] Steven Millhauser, “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” in Dangerous Laughter, 35-36.

Fifty Shades of Solomon (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 8/26/12)

(Song of Solomon 2: 8-13)

Not too long ago, while riding an ever-creaky C train into Manhattan from Brooklyn, I had one of those only in New York moments that went from making me smile hard to making me think hard. I was in the middle of a three-seater bench, wedged between two women, both middle-aged and both dressed rather classily. Each had an e-reader, one an iPad, the other a Kindle. Each was equally engrossed in what she was reading. But the best part was the combined effect of what they were reading on me, their smiling, thinking, nosy neighbor. See, the woman to my right was reading the Bible, the worlds best-selling book. And the woman to my left was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, the first scintillating volume in the erotic Fifty Shades Trilogy, which just topped forty million copies sold, despite mostly vicious reviews.

Now, for anyone who doesn’t know what the “Fifty Shades Trilogy” is, suffice to say it’s a series that provides readers with countless peeks inside a sado-masochistic sexual relationship between an older billionaire man and a younger smitten woman. As one reviewer puts it, the author EL James “writes as though she’s late for a meeting with a sex scene.” [1] I’ve only read a few pages here and there, but I can assure you that this review is quite accurate.

Ill assume I dont have to tell anyone the major plot points of the Bible, so Ill just say that watching both of these women hunched over their backlit tomes was a mind-bending opportunity. And it grew ever-more-mind-bending when I realized that the Bible-reader was scanning chapter two of Song of Solomon, that ancient erotic love poem that quivers teasingly smack-dab in the middle of our Christian Old Testament. I quickly pulled out a Sharpie from my bag and scrawled on the inside of my palm, like a crazy person: Fifty Shades. Solomon. Sermon. And so here we are.

As the Fifty Shades Trilogy has skyrocketed in popularity, journalists and critics have taken it upon themselves to delve deeply into figuring out just how this series has infected the psyches of so many in such a short period of time. New Yorkers can barely take a subway ride without seeing at least three copies of each of the books and, as my friend Amanda said just yesterday, Most any every woman you see with a Kindle is probably most definitely reading those books. Well, I know one woman who is reading something else on her Kindle, namely one of the most sacred books of all time, but as its Song of Solomon shes reading, Ive been wondering over the past few weeks what the real difference might be.

Certainly, Song of Solomon has some risqué imagery that might seem out of place in the Biblical canon. But, after scanning through Fifty Shades of Grey and then digging more deeply into Song of Solomon and its unique place in our Bible, I would venture to suggest that its the astonishing way that Song of Solomon can be read in both a literal way as well as a metaphorical way that not only differentiates it from other erotic writings, but also offers all of us seeking-if-not-altogether-Christian readers the chance to use its imagery and narrative to lift up some of the most maddening, base, and complicated aspects of our own relationships to love and sex as things worthy of true spiritual exploration.

You might have noticed on our bulletin cover this morning a photo of a beautifully hardworking team of Judsonites. This crew participates regularly in a partnership program between Judson and the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, at which volunteers put together safer injection and safer sex kits to prevent the spread of things like HIV/AIDS, HCV, and other preventable-but-still-fact-of-life diseases. I asked our own Kim Kelly to serve as liturgist today, because this project has been Kims baby since its inception in the early 1990s and she and her stalwart crew have ushered it into being the longest-running ongoing ministry at Judson, outside of our Sunday morning worship service.

These safer injection and safer sex kit meet-ups were one of my first introductions into the spiritual life of the Judson community. Though my own schedule keeps me from joining them as often as Id like these days, I still count these gatherings as the best way to learn about Judson and, really, to learn about anything at all. But theres another reason why I think these gatherings are so important and, although there is, of course, inherent worth in the fact that these kits are made at all, I think its particularly important to acknowledge that these kits are being made at a church, by members of the church. See, most churches that I knew growing up would not only shy away from having a decades-long program that acknowledges that drug use and sex exist, but would also shy away from acknowledging, at least in the pulpit, that Song of Solomon, an epic, erotic love poem, is both in our Old Testament and is pretty darn sexual.

There is a lack of consensus on whether Song of Solomon is to be read literally or metaphorically. What we do know is that it is indicative of other Ancient Near Eastern erotic writings and that it was for some time one of the most widely read and discussed parts of the Christian Biblical canon. According to my Old Testament professor David Carr:

there are more Latin manuscripts of the Song than any other Biblical book, and there are more medieval sermons on the Song than all other Biblical books except the Psalms and John. Forancient men and women, the Songwas their fifth gospel. It was read more often in some contexts than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” [2]

Back then, readers held the book’s lustful and loving exchanges between two smitten lovers as a celebration of the relationship between God and Gods people. But, starting in the 1800s, Biblical scholars began to explore the possibility that the book was not about God and Gods people, but rather about the relationship between two human beings that lies outside of the societal constrictions of marriage. Professor Carr has spent much time and many pages arguing that we might be able to join these two readings so that the book can be counted as both a metaphorical representation of our yearning, painful search for Gods favor, as well as a literal representation of our yearning, painful search for one anothers favor. I tend to agree, and that is why this service today is so filled with imagery and words that span the countless permutations of spiritual and human lust and love.

So back to the Fifty Shades Trilogy. As suggested by many critics, the interesting thing about what Ms. James attempts to do with her novels is that she seems to aim for the elimination of metaphorical possibility altogether. Her erotic scenes are erotic and nothing more, set pieces designed to stimulate the reader, titillating that reader into a state of arousal. They function as nothing more than a means to an end, and it appears that Ms. James does not intend for them to do anything but. Gone even are the clunky, awkward, laughable sexual metaphors of those infamous Harlequin romance paperbacks . This is bare-bones stimulation that aims to be nothing more. Dont get me wrong; this is not necessarily an invalid hope for ones prose, but, in my opinion, it does differentiate the merely erotic preoccupations of Ms. Jamess novels from the promisingly suggestive dual-meanings embedded in each and every line of Song of Solomon. Quite simply, Song of Solomon, positioned as it is among much more overtly religious Old Testament texts, is imbued with line after line of gorgeous poetry that works to both uphold our basest desires and fears, while simultaneously suggesting that we might fuse our deepest yearnings for the love of one another with our deepest yearnings for the love of God.

When I was a teenager in Northeast Ohio, the moment that I decided to leave the church came when I read a supplemental sidebar in a Teen Study Bible that described homosexuality as an unforgivable sin. I still remember that day as a somber, confusing, life-altering one. Who knew that such careless words from some conservative Christian editor somewhere could throw me, an aspiring seminarian, so off-course for so many years? Thats power.

I remember thinking that day that I had lost God. That I could no longer connect with God. That God had broken up with me. That God no longer thought that we would be good for one another. I spent about ten years mourning my lost relationship with God, watching God have other successful relationships with new people, yearning for the love that I felt had been cut off too soon, with no sufficient explanation, terrified that my scars would make me too damaged and messy to enter any kind of new spiritual relationship.

I also, in those ten years, began to have romantic relationships with human beings. A similar cycle of yearning, excitement, fulfillment, disappointment, failure, pain, and healing took place. But, even when the healing took place, the cycle would simply start over again. I remember that our own Christine Binder sang one of singer Regina Spektor’s songs here at Judson a while back in which Ms. Spektor describes this cycle perfectly with the following lyrics: “This is how it works. You peer inside yourself. You take the things you like and try to love the things you took. And then you take that love you made and stick it into someone else’s heart, pumping someone else’s blood. And walking arm in arm, you hope it don’t get harmed, but, even if it does, you’ll just do it all again.” [3] That is the gospel of Regina Spektor and I would argue that truer words have never been spoken.

It is the fact that we all continue on this cycle, even when in happy, healthy, long-lasting relationships, which makes it so important that Song of Solomon is included in our Old Testament. The two human beings, in the text a man and a woman, but in actuality just two human beings who could really be anyone, go from excited courtship filled with deliciously painful yearning and fulfilled then unfulfilled desire to excited  consummation filled with deliciously painful yearning and fulfilled then unfulfilled desire. We recognize this journey. We get on it, we get off it, we get back on it, we curse it, we crave it. And then we do it all again.

I tend to believe that most of us also do a similar dance with our own spirituality. And, though were sometimes told that our faith should be unshakable, I think allowing our faith to shake a little bit is probably definitely pretty OK. Life is messy. Love happens. Addiction happens. Sex happens. Disease happens. Fights and breakups and beginnings and endings happen. Sometimes we are the hurt. Sometimes we are the hurter. Human mistakes must happen, be acknowledged, and then be viewed as learning aids. And though there are some churches out there who claim that a human beings relationship with God is so above and beyond all of this that these things should not be discussed as spiritual matters, I truly believe that the fact that Song of Solomon is nestled in among our most sacred scriptures disproves that suggestion.

What we’ve got is a sacred book that works on both a human and spiritual level, and thats a revelation. The book is nestled within the Bible just as Kims kit-making parties are nestled within the physical building and the spiritual life and outreach of this church. Can spirituality take us to a place beyond our base desires? Certainly. But spirituality and God and our connections to both can also be found pulsing inside everything that hurts us, everything that embarrasses us, and everything that makes us think we cant get up and do it all again.

Our Bible is chockfull of texts that can be read in multiple ways. The Bible has both books that heavily utilize metaphor and books that are somewhat clearer in their lack of metaphor. But the history of the multiple divergent readings of Song of Solomon” is extra-special. It offers us a chance to make connections between something that we all know quite well, which is the cycle of human emotion that accompanies love and loss, and something that we might not know as well but try to know, which is the possibility for human connection to a higher power. The imagery and ache within Song of Solomon is something we all recognize, no matter how happy we are to be in a human relationship or how sad we are to be out of one. But, when also used as a metaphor between human and God, that ache takes on spectacular dimension. We learn to celebrate our cycles as the opportunities for education and expression and spiritual development that they truly are.

The fact that we here at Judson recognize and accept the untidy business that is life and refuse to push it under wraps in an attempt to reach for something higher is unique and necessary. It helps us to open our doors to those who have felt the doors of other churches closed gently in their faces. It helps us to heal one another while healing ourselves. It helps us to appear weak and needing in front of one another without fear that we will never be trusted to be strong again. For a church with such an active, smart, engaged, questing congregation, this is the only way to go on. We gather on Sunday, on Wednesday, at the kit parties on Tuesday or Thursday, on every day, we smile and see how were all doing, we acknowledge pain, hope for healing, laugh and cry, and then we do it all again. This is church. This is life. This is love. And this is God. May we continue to separate them when we must and hold them all together when we must, knowing that this is simply how it works.

Let us pray:

Creative Hand of the Universe:

Thank you for the cycles. Thank you for the chances. Thank you for the changes. This is how it works. Help us to do it all again.

Amen

_____

Ancient Testimony
Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

The voice of my beloved!
   Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
   bounding over the hills. 
My beloved is like a gazelle
   or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
   behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
   looking through the lattice. 
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away; 
for now the winter is past,
   the rain is over and gone. 
The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land. 
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
   and the vines are in blossom;
   they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away.

—-

Works Cited:

[1] Zoe Williams, Why Women Love Fifty Shades of Grey, The Guardian Online.

[2] David M. Carr, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible.

[3] Regina Spektor, “On The Radio.”

The Good News About Bad Art (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 8/12/12)

(Romans 12: 2)

Just in case you begin to wonder over the next few minutes, no, it doesn’t escape me that I’m attempting the presentation of a sermon that celebrates failure, while simultaneously hoping that that same sermon succeeds. It seems I’m just one in a long line of preachers who preach what they do not practice, and I wouldn’t want to upset that proud tradition. So here goes:

Last week, we invited several of our Bailout Theater artists to come into our space on a Sunday morning, so we might explore the five pillars that sustain our arts programming here at Judson. We experienced the sometimes irreverent, sometimes raw, sometimes under-rehearsed, always interesting artistic offerings and attempted to find theology in what they were singing, saying, and dancing.

But there’s one more pillar that we didn’t overtly explore in depth last week, though it hovered around the edges throughout the entire service. This pillar is that of “Failure,” and this one little word is a huge part of our arts experiences here, as well as some of our worship experiences. I like to think of these experiences as continuing attempts at striking a balance between manufactured success and authentic failure.

So, something amazing happened to me following last week’s service. We had eaten together. We had laughed together. We had sat for what seemed like just a smidge too long together. And we were all eager to have some cake for Jane’s birthday and continue with our day. But while everyone else was enjoying that cake, I made a new acquaintance. A young woman waited patiently to speak to me and when I finally turned to her, she changed my life.

It started innocently enough. This woman asked if she could ask me a question. I was still on a post-worship high, so I eagerly invited it. She began: “You said at the beginning of the service that this was an experiment. Well, I’m visiting from another church where my pastor told me that I would really enjoy the services at Judson. So now I’m wondering if I should come back to see one when you’re not leading, because I really hated that.”

Now, this was truly an amazing moment. I was floored. I was immediately entranced by how wounded I felt at that precise moment. It was palpable. I could feel my skin hurt, my eyes water, my throat close. We went on to have a perfectly civil conversation, and she made her exit, perhaps unaware of how much she’d transformed me. Sure, it took a good twenty-four hours for that transformation to not feel like sharp daggers repeatedly stabbing and deflating my lungs, but it did eventually happen.

The original impetus for the title of this week’s sermon was a desire to talk about failure at Judson’s playwriting program Magic Time. The Magic Time philosophy encourages playwrights to throw something raw up on our stage. It also encourages audiences to simply embrace the immediacy of what leaps out of a playwright’s head and heart, whether it completely succeeds, which is uncommon, or at least somewhat fails, which is extremely common. Today’s theater audiences have grown accustomed to plays that have been developed to death. But we ask audiences to instead give themselves over to something completely unshaped. We ask the audience to risk failure with us.

But failure is something that is quietly laughed about, especially in this success-driven country we love. The word “Fail,” with a capital “F,” has even entered our popular lexicon, defined by the always informative Urban Dictionary as “the glorious lack of success,” with the following example of the word used in a sentence: “A baseball player swings at a ball and the ball instead hits him in the groin. FAIL!” [1]

My sermon idea exploded thanks to my encounter with my young friend last Sunday. I’ve spent the last week poring over her reaction to the worship service and my own reaction to her reaction. See, I realized in the heat of the moment that I was responding to this woman’s response with a split personality. On one side was my artistic/creator personality, which felt bruised by the fact that she was criticizing something I had meant as a love letter to Judson. On the other side was my ministerial/worship leader personality, who knew that I was being faced with an extremely important moment: I had led a worship service which had failed to nourish and engage at least one Judson visitor, if not many others.

Now, at Magic Time, we like to believe that the playwright doesn’t “owe” anything to the audience member. That audience member is coming to be a part of an experience, knowing that that experience will be sketchy and bumpy. But does a worship leader “owe” something to a congregant when that congregant is coming to be spiritually nourished and engaged? If so, I had seriously failed.

I like today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans because I’ve never been able to fully wrap my brain around it. Sometimes I think I get it and other times I think I’m fooling myself. Last week, I spoke of using twelve-step lingo when we speak of God, so that God as we understand God can apply to anything we do, as long as we are being authentic and honest with ourselves and others when we do it. Paul probably meant something else. He meant that we should give up the lower things of the world, knowing that we should instead give ourselves up to holier endeavors. But I’d like to believe that we might be able to appropriate Paul’s words today in regard to failure, criticism, and transformation.

When a Magic Time play fails to immediately move an audience member, I like to believe that that failure still provides a seed of transformation for both the artist and for the audience member. Likewise, the initial burst of criticism that might fall from an unmoved audience member might in actuality be not a deadlock of misunderstanding, but rather the seed of the very moment of catharsis that they think they missed during the performance. In reality, “failure” only exists if there was an intended goal in the first place that was left unachieved. If we agree on not having an intended immediate goal, then there’s actually no danger of failure. Writer Mark O’Donnell, who passed away this week, said of his own modest hopes for connection through creation: “I love writing novels, even if only a few thousand people read them. Here’s my soul, I hope it appeals to your soul.” [2] I wonder if we could think similarly when it comes to a failed worship experience.

Surely, we live in a time when we’ve begun to count on being let down. When I was working at a theatrical literary agency, where I assisted two amazing arts advocates, I encountered some unexpected negativity. Indeed, the agency was filled with people who ostensibly loved art, especially theatre. But, I also found that many of these same people, in reality, also pretty much hated going to see shows. I would hear groans all the time. I would hear people complain about every obligation, hoping that what they were being forced to attend that night would be “good” and wouldn’t be “bad.” And this didn’t just happen at the agency; it happened in most theatres I entered. I would hear teenagers, and elderly folk, and everyone in between, acting utterly terrified that the art they were about to see would not live up to their expectations or that it would be “bad.”

I attempted to counter this negativity by finding a church where art is viewed as sacred. But, no matter where I go, I have never escaped these tricky words we all use, these unassuming one-syllable judgments: “Good” and “Bad.” No matter how Christian or Christ-like any of us are, we’ve got this in common. We’ve all got opinions. My mother has a good old Southern saying about opinions that I’ve graciously edited out of this sermon. Feel free to ask me later; it’s a fun one. Regardless, what she says is true: Everyone’s got an opinion. Heck, it isn’t even Christ-like to not have opinions, because even Christ had opinions. And Paul definitely shares opinions throughout his letter to the Romans. But maybe the answer lies in not letting our opinions be the final word.

So here’s what I think people, including myself, do when we approach a piece of art and, perhaps, when we arrive for a Sunday morning worship service: I think we hope that the artist or worship leader will have thought long and hard, will have worried and worked incessantly to create something that will offer a moment so cathartic, so spiritual, so mind-blowing that we will be able to leave feeling as if we have been emptied and refilled, all in seventy-five to, at most, ninety minutes. I think we want to feel safely challenged, mildly educated, and held. But the problem is: Sometimes this moment doesn’t happen. Perhaps even more often than not, we sit through something and realize that the artist or worship leader is failing and we denounce this experience as one of those experimental failures we all sort-of-don’t-want-to-but-still-sort-of-dread.

So what do we do when this happens? What do we do when the show or service we’re attending ends not in manufactured success, but in authentic failure? Well, I think I’ve realized that one thing we might decide to do is to allow that experience, that failure of an experience, to add to the big stew inside our minds that might lead us toward our next personally cathartic moment. Sure, we didn’t get the cathartic moment we wanted at the precise time that we wanted it, but that doesn’t mean we will never have another cathartic moment again. And I’ll just bet the next cathartic moment we have will, in some way, be informed by the failed, non-cathartic moment we just experienced.

This is the transformation that I think possible in moments of failure, whether you are observing the failure or committing the failure. We can choose to let criticism and dismissal be the end of it. We can choose to believe that we’ll have to look elsewhere for something “good” that will give us what we desire. But I fear that this type of thinking might conform us to staying grounded in this world, as Paul fears. Instead, what if we shrugged our shoulders, claimed the effective bits, marveled at the ineffective bits, and decided to allow ourselves to still be transformed? What if we allowed our questions as to why something was “bad” to change us, not so that we end up liking it, but so that we end up appreciating it as something we’ve experienced? Because, no matter whether we liked it or not, it happened. We can try to learn from failures, but the fact that they were failures will always exist, so we might as well think them worthwhile.

The only thing that I don’t “like” is when I don’t believe that people are being honest with me, when I don’t feel like they want me to see the lines they just flubbed or hear the notes they just cracked, when I feel like they don’t want to allow themselves to appear fragile and fallible and generous and dangerous right in front of me. In fact, that kind of authentic failure gives me so much more joy than when I experience merely manufactured success. No matter what we want to achieve, it will never be perfect, so, when it’s not, maybe that’s actually the perfect part. It’s when we’re truest to ourselves.

Are we as humans all involved in the business of manufactured success? Of course. Success can only happen when we manufacture it. And, along these lines, some cathartic, ecstatic moments that happen within a play or in a worship service sometimes are truly the result and success of finely-honed and manufactured plans on the part of the artist or worship leader. But it’s the moments of authentic failure, those moments when we all sit and wonder, “Is everyone else seeing this? Is everyone else as embarrassed or bored or terrified as I am?,” it’s those terrifying moments that we remember for days, weeks, months, and years. These moments do transform us, maybe not in the way we’d hoped, but they do. We hold them inside us and, though we might be too embarrassed to tell anyone, they unshackle us from the boring successes of the world and lift us into the transcendent possibilities for transformation present in each embarrassing moment of non-success. May we all continue to throw ourselves onto this big stage, smiling and cringing, flubbing and cracking, and always, always unabashedly succeeding at failure. Mediocrity will always be in the eye of the beholder, so go big or go home. Here’s my soul. I hope it appeals to your soul.

Let us pray:

Creative Hand of the Universe:

Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to count them all worth our time.

Amen

_____

Ancient Testimony
Romans 12: 2
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

—-

Works Cited:

[1] Urban Dictionary: “Fail.”

[2] Mark O’Donnell, from an interview on believermag.com, August 2004.

Bailout The(ater)ology (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 8/5/12)

Pillar 1: Food

So what in the heck goes on here every first Wednesday of each month? What are we doing? Why do we keep doing it? What exactly is Bailout Theater? Some of you might think you know the answer to that question and I would say, no matter what you’re thinking, you are probably right. Because those of us who participate in Bailout Theater do a pretty good job of restraining ourselves from defining what it is. You could say that this restraint grows out of fear that defining it might risk the exclusion of those who might define it differently. You could say that this restraint grows out of fear that defining it might tarnish the magic that happens when we just gather together, fly by the trusting, hardworking, slightly insane seats of our pants, and let it happen. These fears of definition are certainly taken into consideration whenever we attempt to concoct language for our website or when we attempt to say to our friends, “No. You really should come. Yes, it’s a church, but it’s not like a churchy-church-church…it’s like a cool church where they don’t really do churchy-church things, but it’s still like a non-churchy-church church.” You know you’ve done it.

And though my intention today is not to define Bailout Theater, I think it can be infinitely nourishing for our community to stand back, take stock, laugh at ourselves, pat ourselves on the back, and ask: What are we all doing here?

I’ve invited several of our most generous artists from the past few years of Bailout Theater to join us today so that they might see what happens within these walls before the sun goes down. They already deserve our respect for simply being awake and with us this early in the morning, as I know that at least some of them don’t typically even see the inside of their apartment before 11am, let alone the inside of a church. But I’ve brought them here for several other reasons as well.

Bailout Theater, in my opinion, is a sort of midweek worship service. Sh. Don’t tell anyone. And, by being a sort of midweek worship service, it acts as an extension of the Sunday morning service at which we currently sit. And, by acting as an extension of the Sunday morning service, it acts as an extension of the ministry and spiritual life of this church overall. Whether you agree with me or not, we’re going to experiment today and ask ourselves: What is church? What are the elements that construct it? And, as more and more people turn away from churchy-church-churches, how do we continue to be a non-churchy-church-church that matters?

There are five elements that make up Bailout Theater. You see them in all of my exhaustive, exhausting emails. They’re the pillars that hold up the program, even as we continuously wonder whether the program itself will even continue. Today, we’re going to explore these five pillars: Food, Art, Community, Space, and Free. Yes, I know that last one is an adjective, not a noun, but we’ll get to that later.

For now, let’s start with Pillar Number One: Food. You’ve got it right in front of you. Christine and our whole Bailout All-Star Kitchen crew are cooking it as I speak. It’s the thing that literally keeps us alive. This meal you’re sharing today, this hodgepodge of generous donations and awe-inspiring reconstitutions is representative of the meal that is served, shared, and enjoyed at every Bailout Theater event.

J.R.R. Tolkien, though he’s much better known for his prose about hobbits and elves, once said, “If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.” [1] Well, we’re pretty merry at Bailout Theater and at Judson in general, so we must be doing something pretty close to right. Today, the food you’re enjoying had its genesis in meetings several years ago that occurred between some of the Judson staff and congregants. They wanted to respond to the blossoming financial crisis with something that was like a soup kitchen, but not really a soup-kitcheny-soup-kitchen-soup-kitchen. We have a habit of wanting to be a little different. What resulted was an all-inclusive platform where our building doors were opened wide to invite in anyone who wanted to simply come and watch a movie and, oh, by the way, also eat some free food. Those of you who were in those initial meetings know who you are and we thank you from the bottoms of our Judsonite hearts.

Eventually, I came around and, eventually, and more importantly, Christine Binder came around, and Bailout Theater evolved, clunkily, beautifully, deliciously, into what it is today. So, to show our appreciation, would you join me in the Call to Worship printed in your bulletin? Speak loudly, so Christine and her crew can hear you over the sizzling garlic.

Pillar 2: Art

So we move on to our second pillar, another foundational pillar, the pillar that typically keeps the remainder of our Bailout Theater audience coming back each month. This second pillar is Art. It seems appropriate that we might talk about art at one of our famous Judson Agape services, because, as author Chuck Klosterman so beautifully puts it, “Art and love are the same thing. It’s the process of seeing yourself in something that is not you.” [2] Though Klosterman is speaking of romantic love, I think we can agree that agape can be quite similar, particularly agape done Judson-style.

If you’ve been to one of our arts events in the past few years, you have probably heard me say repeatedly in my opening speech that I firmly believe artists are this world’s modern-day equivalent of the ancient prophets. They themselves, as well as their artistic output show us where we’ve been, where we are, and what we could become, good or bad. The ancient prophets, those faithful, kooky men and women who seem so far away now, those who dedicated their lives to proclaiming words that often went unanswered, misunderstood, or even unheard, are, I believe, vibrantly present within all of the artists who take the time to enter our building, reach out to our community, and offer the purest representations of what lies within the deepest nooks and crannies of their and our hearts. Is it sometimes messy? Yes. Is it sometimes offensive? Absolutely. Is it sometimes completely the opposite of your taste or my taste? Awesomely, yes. But art is not supposed to necessarily be to your or my taste. Experiencing art is and should be the process of experiencing something you’ve never thought before. It should even sometimes be the process of experiencing something you hope to never think again. Prophets have a tough job. That’s why it’s so important that they have a safe place and a generous audience available to them.

We don’t have time for a full history lesson this morning, but if you know what started to happen artistically here at Judson in the 1960s, please raise your hand. All right, any of you who don’t have your hands up, look around and spot someone you can interview after the service. It’s a fascinating story and it informs everything we do at Bailout Theater today. Don’t leave today without connecting with one of our Judsonite historical human encyclopedias. They know who they are and they are eager to meet you!

Ministers Howard Moody and Al Carmines, along with countless others, shaped something here fifty-some years ago that was not just an arts program. It was an artistic revolution. It resulted in nothing less than a church, one of those crotchety establishments that grows increasingly more of a dirty word as time goes by, opening its doors, hands, and hearts to the offerings of its surrounding artistic community. Not only was Judson simply revolutionary because it was offering space and a platform to little-known artists, but Judson was even more revolutionary in its interest and success in integrating the spirit of this artistic community with the spirit of its own religious community.

Today, I, along with all those who support Bailout Theater in every capacity, have the same philosophy. The art that happens here on Wednesday nights and on any other night where we can wedge in a happening, is theology. It is God-talk in its purest form. And when I say “God,” I’m using twelve-step lingo, as in “God as we understand God.” Sure, we’ve got atheists performing. We’ve got agnostics performing. We’ve got damaged Christians performing, devout Buddhists performing, and even some…gasp…actual happy Christians performing. But here’s the thing: We hardly ever say the word “God.” Instead, we conjure it together, in every note of a singer like Jonny or Sara or Heather’s songs, in every line of a poet like Moon or Isaac or Amanda’s prose, in every graceful step of a choreographer like John or Carlye’s dance.

Are we using the works of these prophets without their consent? Are we appropriating their art for our own selfish, political, theological reasons? Perhaps. But we’re not doing anything different from what happens to their offerings in any other venue. At any other venue, any theater, bar, loft, or street corner, their art would be experienced and scrutinized, judged and critiqued, accepted or condemned, appropriated or dismissed. It happens all the time. Art is a part of our lives every day, whether we think we like art or not, and we’re constantly evaluating and then ignoring it.

But what does happen here at Judson that’s different from most other venues is that we make art sacred. We’re not simply a church that rents out a particular space for particular rental fees, though that would be a significant contribution in itself. Instead, we ask artists to enter into our community, to offer what they have to give, to take what we have to offer, and to feed the revolution of this program by participating in a sort of co-evolution. The revolution of our arts program can be found in the fact that it exists at all, but the evolution within our arts program is my favorite part. I see it happen several times a week. I see it in the wide eyes of all artists who have become so accustomed to the word, “No,” all artists who have wilted into abused salespeople who are constantly trying to prove why they should be allowed the opportunity to sell what they are so eager to give away.

All we ask an artist to do is to be honest and open. In return, we are honest and open. This honesty and openness evolves throughout the course of every Bailout Theater evening.

I see this evolution also in our audience, or, as I like to call them, Judson’s “other congregation,” a congregation filled with folks who return week after week just to see what’s cooking on and offstage. One of these “congregants,” upon first entering our space, incredulously asked me, “So…you’re a church? What’s the catch? What do you want from us?” Nothing! We already spend the rest of our lives, even much of the rest of our lives at this very building, worrying about the “catch.” Bailout Theater is about taking a few days out each month and allowing the experience itself to be the “catch.” It’s allowing the experience of art to be a simple act of staying present for an artist, using that artist’s offering as a mirror for ourselves, and finding one another within that interchange, eager for evolution.

Ancient prophets acted as conduits, catalysts for pointing seekers toward an honest encounter with God, as they understood God, and for allowing that encounter to edge themselves and others toward evolution. The artists at Bailout Theater might not be babbling in tongues or walking naked through the streets, although I might not put it past them, but their voices are undeniably filling this space with joyful noise, the resounding echoes of which give us the magic lens through which we see ourselves in them and God in ourselves.

Pillars 3, 4, & 5: Community, Space, Free

So, in the interest of time, and so the actual bulk of this service is devoted to the unique voices of our Bailout prophets, I’ve combined our last three pillars into this final little sermonette. But they belong together anyway. Our third, fourth, and fifth pillars are those of Community, Space, and Free. Both of the nouns, Community and Space, are things that human beings sorely need. And the adjective, Free, describes the way that Bailout Theater gives all of these nouns: Food and Art and Community and Space.

Now, do I have some cock-eyed, optimistic, naive belief that Bailout Theater exists without that oh-so-dreaded, oh-so-desired green stuff we call money? Do I think this program comes totally free? Of course not. This program exists because many of you give green stuff to this church so we have the ability to keep the lights shining, to keep the heat or the air conditioning blowing, and to keep certain universities from pulling our space out from under us before we’re ready to go. But that’s just the thing. Thanks to the amazing people who established this unique community and space more than a century ago, and thanks to the amazing people who have continued to tend and care for this community and space over subsequent decades, we have community and space. It’s as simple as that. We as Judson are a community. We as Judson are a space. And, though it may be hard to believe, there are dozens of hundreds of thousands of people out there who don’t have either one of these things, or at least don’t believe that they have either one of these things.

I’m on a roll today with these author quotations, so let’s lift up one more, this time from a personal hero, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut. On this topic he says, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” [3] There we have it, from one of our most acerbic modern-day prophets, a sincere plea for community, for younger generations to establish space for this community, and for them to do so freely. Because yes, when it comes to things we need, food is going to be the big one, shelter and clothing are going to be up there, too, and you know crazy Micah’s going to put art up there, too, but, in these times of instant Facebook “likes” and careless YouTube “comments,” we’re forgetting how to simply be together, with abandon, and being together with abandon could be the easiest way to make every day of our lives more livable.

I’ve already talked about how we give space to artists and by now you’ve probably figured out my convoluted and manipulative way of showing how all five of these pillars are so permeable as to continuously flow freely into one another. But the other group we give space to is, well, anyone. At Bailout Theater, we open our door each night and, as long as you don’t do or say anything mean, and are respectful of the artists performing, you are welcomed, freely. Now, I realize that there are other places where one could find a free place to sit and be alone, maybe to read a book at the library, or to sit in Washington Square Park, but where else in this city can you walk through the door, not pay a cent, get a free, all-natural meal, see an artist you’ve probably never heard of before, and talk to as few or as many people as you desire? I really don’t know.

This is what I mean theologically when I describe our program as “free.” I know we need money. People who are more in touch with reality remind me of this fact sometimes when they feel like I’m in a particularly receptive mood, which is usually after one of our more successful events, say, when we’ve served around 250 guests. But, even though there’s green stuff working behind the scenes, I believe it is utterly imperative that we not think about money for the two or three hours that we share together at each event. Because money will still be there when we’re done. Loneliness will still be there when we’re done. Hunger will still be there when we’re done. But, if we stay in the practice of gathering together these few times per month and reimagining what food, art, community, and space could be like if we were freely giving it, freely using it, and freely sharing it, our own eager evolution might begin to erode the stagnant regression that seems to be paralyzing that poorly-rich, apathetically-political world around us.

So that’s the equation for each and every Bailout Theater event: The restaurants freely give the food they already possess in exchange for advertisement to a new community. The artists freely give the art they already possess in exchange for an introduction to a new space and community. The community freely gives the attention they already possess to new food and new art in exchange for a space where they can truly feel welcomed when they are there, missed when they are gone, and always, always loved. This is what Bailout Theater is and this is what I believe church, even non-churchy-church-church, must be and become, if it is to survive. I thank God, as I understand God, that this astonishing place we call Judson Memorial Church has never doubted its commitment to revolution or evolution. These are two of the only free things we’ve got left.

—-

Works Cited:

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 290.

[2] Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, 217.

[3] Kurt Vonnegut, commencement address, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, May 26, 1974.

The Q in Question (a sermon presented at Judson Memorial Church, 6/26/11)

(Matthew 10: 40-42)

I must start off by saying how amazingly attractive you all look today. Each and every one of you is positively vibrating with pride. There is no other group with whom I’d rather be celebrating this tremendous, earth-shaking weekend.

There is one person who can’t be with us today, and I will start my message by singing her praises proudly and humbly.

God bless my mother. God bless her for living through the little anecdote I’m about to tell you and God bless her for choosing to tell it herself over and over again. Often. Other mothers with four-year-old sons in 1984 might not have survived the types of questions I dealt, but she did. In fact, she stood strong through all kinds of wacky question-and-answer sessions, but one session stands apart as the pinnacle of our mother-son moments. On that morning, my beautifully normal Midwestern mother stood in our bathroom in Streetsboro, Ohio, applying a daily dose of makeup to her face, while I proudly sat my little four-year-old butt down on the toilet seat and watched her intently. After a few moments, she turned to me, eyeliner pointed at my forehead, and said, “I love my little boy.” I looked at her with the signature razor-sharp stare of a preschooler and queried, “Do you love your little girl, too?”

Now, I’m my mother’s only child. The “little girl” I was referencing was myself. Apparently, I just wanted to make certain that she would love me no matter what I decided to be or what adjectives I used to describe myself in the future. She gave a beautifully normal and tentative, “Yes,” and we started a three decades-long dialogue about sexuality, difference, and adjectives that have shaped me into the man-woman-person that I am today.

Lately, there have been a whole lot of adjectives thrown around Judson. We’ve been using words like open, affirming, gay, transgender, queer, lesbian, bisexual, cisgender, omnisexual, pansexual, homophobic, asexual, heterosexual, transphobic, heterosexist, and many others that I will probably kick myself for leaving out of this sermon once I receive a gentle reminder from one or more of you attractive people later today. To some of us, several of these words are old hat. To others, some of these words are at least odd, if not altogether silly. For example, one of the newer terms, “cisgender,” very simply means “having a gender identity or role that society considers appropriate for one’s sex.” It’s been creeping its way into our walls and receiving anything from vigorous nods of approval to nervous titters. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that there is much disagreement over what words and in what order those words should be placed in our acronym that began life in the 1980s as the relatively simple LGB, was broadened in the 1990s to LGBT, eventually added another letter to make it LGBTQ, and continues to morph today, as we lift up Friday’s vote for marriage equality in New York and as we prepare to celebrate New York City’s 41st annual Pride March.

But before we get out in the sun, before we allow the vision of our shirtless fellow marchers to make us all wish we’d spent a bit more time this past month at the gym, before we join with thousands of others who may or may not have the same reasons as we do for marching today, I want to talk about this little letter “Q” dangling at the end of this acronym. See, we all seem to mostly agree on what the others letters stand for in LGBTQ: the “L” stands for “lesbian,” the “G” stands for “gay,” the “B” stands for “bi,” the “T” stands for “trans.” But this “Q,” which once hung at the end of the five letters and now acts as the bridge to the other, more recently added letters such as “A,” “I,” and “P,” this “Q” is unique. See, some of us say this “Q” stands for “queer,” while others say it stands for “questioning.” You’d think a movement that faced an entire police brigade way back in 1969 and has kept that fight raging now for 42 years would be able to come to a simple consensus on the meaning of one little letter. But that’s never been our forte. We’ve never excelled at accepting definitions, and that’s what’s so darn beautifully abnormal about the LGBTQ, etc. community. Today, I’d like for us, together, to think of this “Q” and its multiple possible definitions as the source of our pride, no matter how you may or may not define yourself. Because I love this “Q.” And I believe that its ambiguity holds so much possibility for all of us today.

I find our Gospel lesson, which Dan read so eloquently, to be particularly appropriate for our celebration and believe it works perfectly for us as we continue to discover what it means to be a truly welcoming community. These verses close out a chapter-long discourse in which Jesus gives his disciples their marching orders, assuring them that, as long as their humble activities mirror those of his own, they will be rewarded. Jesus throws around his own adjectives here. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe that when he uses the terms “prophet” and “righteous,” Jesus means to suggest that the disciples have the knowledge, heart, and power to both proclaim and teach new ideas, question old ideas, and attempt to rebuild while tearing down at the same time. The power to do this comes from a desire to humble oneself with question asking. Now, I know that the Bible and Jesus and Christianity and all kinds of icky religious things stick in the craw of many people who are with us today, let alone words like “prophet” and “righteousness.” But I am here to tell you that I truly believe that these terms have a place within that little “Q” in our acronym.

Because, no matter whether you think the “Q” stands for “queer” or “questioning,” and heck, let’s say it stands for both right now, it’s the queer or questioning people that are truly our modern-day prophets. Now, before all of you cisgendered, heterosexual folks cry out in opposition, rest assured: I am talking about you, too. We’re all queer. We’re all questioning. And I don’t mean we’re all a “little bit” queer. I mean we’re all queer. We’re all questioning. Or, if we’re not, we really should be. In fact, I was delighted a few weeks ago when I offhandedly told our own Reverend Michael Ellick that I think of him as being queer, too. All I received was an enthusiastic nod. The Michael Ellick I know is as queer as they come. And he’s far from alone here at Judson.

Now, I know that there are some folks among us who have a big problem with the word, “queer.” This word “queer” has been used to inflict so much pain since its inception in the 1500s. It’s expanded over centuries to work as a great umbrella term for schoolchildren young and old who wish to torment anyone who might dare to step outside the impossibly strict guidelines we humans create to punish ourselves. But I want to accept that history today and move past it. I want to combine the words “queer” and “questioning” so we can all accept that the word “queer” means to be “one who questions.” All things. If we can accept that today, then I hope we can start to embrace that “Q” and use it for our most righteous, prophetic purposes.

With Friday’s news from the New York Senate, I know we’re all feeling more elevated. We’re all feeling really good about ourselves. We should! We’re all ready to get out there and let our queer, questioning freak flags fly proudly in the summer heat. But we’re not done. If we are going to go out today and be truly proud, we have to question ourselves as well, taking stock of where our “movement” is right now. We have to look back at where we’ve marched and set our sights on where we’re marching to next.

See, Judson isn’t the only place where lately we’ve had to defend how open and affirming we really are. We’re not the only place receiving challenges from folks within our own community who think we might be a smidge less tolerant and mindful than we once thought. No, this is happening everywhere. Communities are having to rethink themselves and their beliefs and the answers that they thought they had so conveniently created. We know that there are people out there who hate us, a lot of them religious, a lot of them not. And we know that these people hate us. Why, just this month, we learned that even funnyman Tracy Morgan hates us. People hate us, even celebrities and normal folks who keep it hidden. Let’s acknowledge it again: People hate us. I’m talking about all of us, because it’s not just the Ls, the Gs, the Bs, and the Ts that they hate. It’s us, the Qs, the ones who are asking questions. They hate questions and they hate us. The only thing we can do to counteract this hate is to create a community that cares enough about itself to not only question the hate aimed at us from those seemingly outside our populace, but also to question, reshape, reform, tear down, build up, and reimagine the possibilities for those within our populace. I’m talking about the forgotten, the invisible, and the untrendy in our community. I’m talking about our transgender population, our aging population, our homeless population, our immigrant population, our I-don’t-even-know-who-I-am-or-who-you-are-so-please-can-we-just-help-one-another population. Yes, we celebrate today an enormous victory in securing a basic human right, but let us remain mindful of the work that still lies ahead.

Just in the past few months, on top of all of the homophobic and transphobic violence that has spread across this city, this country, and this world, infighting within our community has grown. Some examples: A young, queer activist friend of mine posted an open letter to aging activist Larry Kramer blasting him for his condemnation of the seeming “laziness” of the younger gay generation. Elsewhere in the city, beloved transgendered performer Justin Vivian Bond blasted queer-edited New York Magazine for a seemingly dismissive and trans-phobic article. Both of these things convince me that I know nothing concrete about my own community other than the fact that we still and always have a whole lot to learn about one another. I know little to nothing about lesbianism. Really. I know little to nothing about the trans world. Really. I have attempted to educate myself about the AIDS crisis and its continuing legacy, but know that there is no way for me to ever truly understand the danger, the hate, the terror that our people faced during that time.

All I can do to counteract my lack of knowledge is to ask questions. All we can do to counteract any lack of knowledge each of us might have is to ask questions. Not asking those questions leaves us in our own fearful heads, paralyzed into inaction. Conversely, asking questions is taking action. Asking questions is also the best way to remain proud while embodying humility. It’s a truly terrifying thing to ask questions. It’s terrifying to be truly humble, to admit that you do not know the answer.

Luckily, that’s what all of us folks who embrace this little letter “Q” are best at doing. We question the gender binary. We question all binaries, actually. We question the idea of marriage and its so-called tradition and apparent brokenness. We question the idea of family and its countless possible permutations. We question what it means to be who we are, regardless of the hate that might come our way. At our best, we humble ourselves and ask questions before we take pride in answers. That’s scary and that’s why people hate us.

But in my opinion, the opposite of hate isn’t love. The opposite of hate is asking questions. It is only through asking questions that we transform ourselves, which transforms others, which transforms ourselves again. And guess what? If we keep asking questions, we keep transforming. And something else less heady and more fun happens, too: We get to know other people. And that’s something of which we can be truly proud.

There is a disease that has been spreading pretty much since the dawn of time. That disease is our common disinterest in getting to know one another. It starts wars. It kills kids. It spreads throughout even the most well educated, affluent heart.

But we have a cure and this cure might help us to stop dragging our silent feet on finding cures for other, even more deadly diseases like AIDS. That cure is a selflessness, an interest, a welcoming, a righteousness that empowers us to ask questions of everything, of everyone, of others, but most importantly of ourselves. How can hate survive if we keep asking ourselves why? And if we as a queer, questioning community can keep challenging ourselves to tear down definitions and love one another along the way, how in God’s name will those who stand opposed to us now not eventually feel an urgent need to enter our welcoming arms and join in the Pride celebration? The plan is already working. Our very own New York just became the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage and, if we can make it here, we’ll make it anywhere.

It’s a dangerous word, “pride.” Jesus warns against it, it’s true. But I think it’s an addiction to selfish, definitive, prideful answers that he finds distasteful, not the pride of our community rejoicing in its differences and continually and humbly challenging one another to keep our minds open. We’re going to send ourselves out to march today, much like those disciples long ago, knowing that we will face hate, but also knowing that we hold within us the questions of a four-year-old, the questions of a disciple, the questions that might set us free from those hateful things called answers. So, this morning, I welcome you to challenge me. I welcome you to question me. I welcome you to ask me anything you’d like. I will do the same for you. We are humble prophets today and all days. I am so proud of us all.

Amen.